An insider’s view of the media hegemony

Title II And The Return of the “Gore Tax.” Or, The Debate We Should Be Having.

Hal Singer and Robert Litan over at Progressive Policy Institute caused some stir recently with this paper claiming that if the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reclassifies broadband as a Title II telecommunications service, it will tack on over $15 billion in new state taxes, fees and federal universal service charges. As Free Press already pointed out, (a) Congress extending the Internet Tax Freedom Act (ITFA) in the recent “CRomnibus” funding bill” takes the state tax issue off the table; and (b) even without ITFA, the PPI Report made a lot of questionable assumptions to reach their high number.

 

Happily, the ITFA extension lets us blow past the debate about whether states even use the FCC definition of “telecommunications” for revenue services (many don’t, see, e.g., this tax letter from Tennessee as an example). We can cut right to the chase on the big thing ITFA doesn’t cover — Universal Service Fund (USF). Here again, I want to blow past the question of the numbers used by PPI (which rely on a set of assumptions that amount to what we call in the trade a SWAG (“scientific wild ass guess”)) and focus on the debate we should be having — do we still believe in Universal Service or not?

 

If we no longer believe in Universal Service as a fundamental principle, fine. Lets own that and end the program. If we do believe in the principle of universal service, and we agree that broadband is the critical communications medium of the 21st Century, it makes no sense to play tax arbitrage games with definitions. The FCC continues to play silly, complicated games with the Connect America Fund (CAF) because everyone wants to redirect USF support to broadband but nobody wants to include broadband in the contribution base. As a result, an increasingly smaller base of voice services is supporting an increasingly larger set of overall services. This makes no sense and is inherently unsustainable.

 

As I explain below, this isn’t the first time we’ve debated the importance of universal service and whether we care enough about it to pay for it. Nor will reclassification trigger some sort of “sticker shock,” as the PPI paper suggests. Instead, as I explain below, reclassification is the prelude to the real debate we need to have on whether we still believe in the fundamental principle of service to all Americans, or not.

 

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Yoo hoo!! The FCC Is About To Do Major Good Stuff on the Transition Of The Phone System!!

I know Net Neutrality is the defining issue of our times, etc. But given that about 96% of the country use some kind of telephone, I thought it was kind of important to notice that the FCC is finally, after many years of chugging along, getting the ball rolling on the whole “Shutting Off The Phone System” Thing. And — Good News! — The FCC is starting out in a very strong, pro-consumer way that actually asks all the good questions on competition and stuff.

 

So, do I have your attention yet? Good. The short version is that the FCC is holding an open meeting on Friday, November 21 (tomorrow!) On the agenda, we have two related items:

  • Emerging Wireline Networks and Services: The Commission will consider a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, Declaratory Ruling, and Order to facilitate the transition to next generation networks by promoting and preserving the Commission’s public safety, consumer protection, and competition goals.
  • 911 Governance and Accountability: The Commission will consider a Policy Statement and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking regarding its approach to 911 governance and proposing mechanisms to ensure continued accountability for reliable 911 services as technologies evolve.

 

As Chairman Wheeler outlines in this blog post, the goal of these items is to address the big questions that come from the fundamental shift away from traditional telephone technology to our next generation phone system. Wheeler also previewed a bunch of this in speeches last fall, not that anyone paid much attention.

 

More below . . .

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The Last Time The FCC Classified A Service As Title II Was 2007. Here’s How It Worked.

Predictably, as we get closer to actually adopting Title II for broadband, we see much scrambling about by folks who never seriously considered the question of how Title II would actually work because no one in the press or the opposition ever really thought it could get that far. Opponents of Title II, needless to say, describe a blasted bureaucratic Hellscape smothering broadband service with (to quote the latest missive from a bunch of House and Senate Republicans) “1000 active rules that are based on Title II, and 700 pages of the C.F.R.”

 

After 6 solid years of Republicans opting for the partisan politics of obstruction rather than engaging on substance, such ridiculous claims hardly come as a surprise. It’s also a rather silly argument given that the bulk of those rules address things that would not apply to broadband and that everyone — even Republicans — actually like: making sure  9-1-1 works reliably, fixing rural call completion problems, keeping track of phone reliability and phone outages during natural disasters, protecting the privacy of our phone calls and requiring providers to report data breaches, etc.

 

Still, even without deliberate efforts to muck things up and exaggerate things, I recognize that this whole “Title II” thing doesn’t happen every day and lots of folks have questions about what the heck does this all mean. As I (and others) have noted in the past, classification doesn’t have to be a big deal. To illustrate this, I will go back to the last time the FCC classified a service — automatic voice roaming in the wireless world — as a Title II service. As we will see, this took remarkably little effort. The FCC explicitly rejected the requirement to do rate regulation or a requirement to file tariffs with the prices and did not need to engage in any extensive forbearance. They just said “nah, we’re not gonna do that.” The final adopted rules are less than a page and a half.

 

I will also note that despite classifying automatic voice roaming as a Title II service in 2007 (and classifying mobile wireless phone service as a Title II service in 1993), the wireless industry seems to be doing OK, with more than 300 million subscribers and (as CTIA never tires of telling us) several gagillion dollars worth of capital investment.

 

The automatic voice roaming decision also provides a nice comparison with a similar service classified under NOT TITLE II some years later. In 2011, the FCC issued an Order adopting data roaming rules, but couldn’t bring itself to go the Title II route. The result was an insanely complicated “commercial reasonableness” standard which requires wireless carriers to negotiate under a bunch of vague guidelines that still allow carriers to avoid coming to an actual deal. As the D.C. Circuit pointed out in affirming this approach, the FCC needed to leave enough room for carriers to discriminate against each other to avoid triggering the “common carrier prohibition.” Recently, T-Mobile (which opposes using Title II) filed a Petition on data roaming with the FCC alleging that the existing “commercially reasonable” standard is utterly useless unless the FCC adopts a bunch of “benchmarks” and presumptions to put some teeth into the standard. Without getting into the merits of the data roaming petition (which my employer Public Knowledge supports), it is interesting to compare how the Title II automatic voice roaming worked out v. the Title III/Title I data roaming rules.

 

I do not claim that reclassifying broadband as a Title II service (which, as I have noted before, was tariffed back in the day it was Title II) is exactly comparable. Rather, I offer this as an example of the principle of the Black Swan. Just as the appearance of a single black swan falsifies the statement “all swans are white,” the hysterical ravings of the anti-net neutrality crowd that classifying something as Title II would require the FCC to impose price controls, tariffs, and the occasional human sacrifice to avert structural separation is falsified by demonstrating that the FCC has, in the past, classified services as Title II and did not impose any of these things. In fact, the Title II solution worked out much better than the NOT TITLE II alternative.

 

More detail below . . . .

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My Insanely Long Field Guide To The War On CableCARD — Part II: STAVRA Section 203.

When it comes to special interest sleaze, Section 203 of the Satellite Television Access and Viewer Rights Act (STAVRA) is just an absolute brilliant work of art. We like to talk about how much money cable throws around, about Comcast Chief Lobbyist David Cohen golfing with President Obama, yadda yadda yadda. But that is just crude muscle.  Getting a blatantly anti-consumer provision inserted in a pro-consumer bill behind the scenes, and getting it rammed through by a combination of obscurity, chicanery and log-rolling, is where that army of lobbyists earns their 6-and-7 digit salaries.

 

I gave the whole bloody history in The War on CableCARD Part I: More Background Than You Can Possibly Imagine. To review, Section 203 of Stavra (and its matching provision in the House STELLA 2014 bill) cripples CableCARD  by eliminating the “integration ban.” This effectively ends any hope third party devices will compete with the cable industry, and we remain stuck leasing digital video recorders (DVRs) and set-top boxes (STBs) and other equipment and services from cable operators rather than owning our own or using cheaper, better rival services. Consumers pay over $1 billion in rental fees annually to cable operators for equipment they could otherwise own. So eliminating the integration ban (and thus killing CableCARD) pretty much condemns consumers to keep getting gouged for the foreseeable future just when independent equipment like the TiVo Romaio is finally starting to take off.

 

To add to the special interest sleaze factor, Section 203 of STAVRA converts a pro-consumer bill (that was originally a lot more pro-consumer) into a billion dollar rip off of consumers for the profit of one of the most loathed industries in America. And it does so in such a subtle way that it is almost impossible to detect. AND it comes with a fake pro-consumer ‘solution’ so the cable industry (and, more importantly, members of Congress seeking cover) can claim to have the best interests of consumers at heart.

 

Happily, it has an easy fix and a champion to convert this back into an actually good pro-consumer bill and have this blow up all over the cable guys so that they will be hoist by their own petard. Oooh, such justice would be sweet. And eminently achievable.

 

If you want the short version of this, without the appreciation of all amazing special interest sleaziness, you can see these Public Knowledge blog posts: here, here, here and here. But if you want the full TotSF treatment with all the wonk and snark you’ve come to expect from yr hmbl obdn’t blogger, then see more below . . . .

 

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My Insanely Long Field Guide To The War On CableCARD — Part I: More Background Than You Can Possibly Imagine.

We often talk about the power of cable lobbying in the context of big proceedings like network neutrality. But where the real power comes, and where consumers routinely get screwed the most, happens off-screen. Because people hardly ever know what is happening, cable lobbyists play an outsized role in working their magic and making it legal to find new ways to screw over subscribers. Nothing illustrates this better than the fight over the Satellite Television Access and Viewers Rights Act (STAVRA). As my Public Knowledge colleague John Bergmayer explains in this blog post, unless Congress passes STAVRA, a lot of satellite TV subscribers will lose access to some of their broadcast channels. Since Americans totally freak out if they cannot watch their favorite show, and channel this rage to their members of Congress, that makes STAVRA “must pass” legislation.

 

The cable industry lobbyists have managed to append this bill designed to protect consumers a little gift to themselves. Cable operators make over $1 billion a year on equipment rentals to subscribers. Section 203 of STAVRA eliminates the FCC rule (“the integration ban”) that makes it even vaguely possible at the moment for people to avoid these rip off rental fees and actually buy your own cable set top box (STB) or digital video recorder (DVR) using something called CableCARD.

 

From a policy wonk perspective, I have to say that Section 203 of STAVRA is a work of art. Unless you know what to look for, you will never find it by flipping through the bill. And unless you know the whole background on how the cable industry has frustrated the effort to get competition in the STB and cable device attachment business, you would never know how the cable arguments about how CableCARD doesn’t work are self-serving baloney. And, best of all, Section 203 contains a fake solution so members of Congress and the cable lobby can pretend this will make things better, rather than continue to screw consumers out of hundreds of millions of dollars in cable fees annually.

 

Hence the need for two insanely long posts. But since we are talking about consumer rip offs of over $1 billion a year, I kinda hope you will consider it worth reading. Here in Part I, I will give you everything you need to know about the history of how cable has ripped us off on equipment rental fees despite Congress passing two separate laws (here and here) to make it possible to actually own equipment and avoid this nonsense (which worked from 1992 until we went digital), what the heck the “integration ban” is, and why CableCARD — lame as it is — actually does make things mildly better and is picking up steam as a result of stuff the FCC did back in 2010.

 

In Part II, I will cover the current fight over the Section 203 of STAVRA, what makes Section 203 such an amazing work of art and how Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) is standing up for consumers on this. With help, Markey can actually flip this around and convert this from a gift to the cable industry to something that would genuinely help consumers by making the promise of stand alone STBs and other cable equipment real. But, at a minimum, Markey needs help getting the bad provision stripped from the bill so we can at least keep what we have and keep working to make it better.

 

Part I with all the background you need to understand Part II below. You can find Part II by clicking here.

 

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President Obama Says Some Good Things About Net Neutrality and Intellectual Property.

Everyone likes to get mad at President Obama these days. So I figured I would briefly highlight some good things Obama said during this Town Hall Meeting last week while I was off doing the Jewish holiday thing. After the holiday, I saw an email with the subject: “Obama Talks About Net Neutrality & Intellectual Property.”

 

I am sufficiently weird that “Obama Talks About Net Neutrality and Intellectual Property” is probably the most irresistible clickbait headline for me that I can think of, so of course I was hooked.

 

Speaking of clickbait, more below . . . .

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Wheeler: “We Now Return To Our Transition of the Phone System Already In Progress.”

In the last two days, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler has made back-to-back speeches that on their surface appear as dissimilar as could be. First, he gave this speech at the Fall 2014 COMPTEL Show. The next day, he gave this speech at the 32nd Annual Everett Parker Lecture. Dig a little deeper, however (and keep in mind what I have previously said about Tom Wheeler signaling what he wants to do if anyone actually pays attention) you notice some startling commonalities between these two speeches. Notably, this is the first time Wheeler has brought up the transition of the phone network in a serious way in a long time. And, in both speeches he made it very clear that transition of the phone system to an all IP platform does not end the FCC’s role.

ITo summarize my take aways:

1. Wheeler wants to shift the FCC back into working on the IP Transition despite the fact that AT&T is not going to have its pilot project ready until the second half of 2015. It is, after all, the thing he came to the FCC to do in the first place before net neutrality and Comcast/TWC essentially hijacked 2014.

 

2. While the nature and form of regulation will change, the FCC will continue to play a critical role — during the transition and after the transition — both in promoting competition and protecting consumers.

 

3. That Network Compact Wheeler keeps talking about? He really means it. When he leaves the FCC, he wants to leave an agency that still protects network users under this fundamental set of values.

 

A bit more below . . .

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Forbearance Redux — Still Easy Peasy

As the groundswell for reclassifying broadband as a Title II telecommunications service grows, the arguments against reclassification have grown increasingly shrill and desperate. Like Democrats frantically emailing supporters to try to hold the Senate, the National Cable Telecommunications Association (NCTA), has been flooding DC radio stations with advertising denouncing public infrastructure and calling for the privatization of our roadways in an effort to whip up anti-Title II sentiment (I notice their newfound embrace of Ayn Rand does not include repeal of poll attachment subsidies). As I’ve noted previously, only inside-the-beltway does anyone think “death to public roads, death to your right to clean water, and lets deregulate energy so we can have the lights flicker when the wind blows” is a winning argument. But panic does things to people . . .

 

Which brings me back to the arguments about “forbearance.” I blogged last July that the FCC can forbear fairly easily from any provisions of the Communications Act it thinks shouldn’t apply to broadband if it reclassifies broadband as Title II. As my employer Public Knowledge has pointed out at length in our official comments, this is neither necessary or good policy. Most of the provisions the anti-Title II crowd point to as potentially crushing the spirit out of Broadband Equestria (“Broadband Is Magic!”) have been effectively deregulated already for traditional telephone service, and other provisions actually support good stuff like Universal Service Fund or privacy rights for consumers. Nevertheless, if the FCC feels the need to indulge in broad forbearance, it has the authority to do so.

 

Needless to say, those invested in portraying reclassification as The Death Of Freedom As We Know It do not take kindly to having their nonsense called out in plain English, with lots of links to the relevant documents. Some folks have therefore devoted some considerable effort in the last few months to explaining why, all cited evidence to the contrary, forbearing from Title II would be Utterly Impossible.

 

So I find myself once again revisiting this topic. Happily, the arguments break down into 2 basic categories:

 

  1. None of the precedent I cited applies anymore because of the “Qwest Forbearance.”

 

  1. There is something magical and exceptional about broadband that makes it impossible to forbear here where it would be contrary to the interests of the carriers, but forbearance would be easy-peasy in any case where carriers want forbearance.

As I shall explain below, argument #1 relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of how administrative law works (and a failure to read any recent forbearance cases, which address this issue squarely and reject this argument), whereas argument #2 relies on a fundamental (and rather self-serving) misunderstanding of how the forbearance statute works.

 

More below . . .

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Reliability Rather Than Rainbows — Why Title II Remains the Best Option for Net Neutrality.

[Reprinting here a blog post published last week by my employer Public Knowledge.]

Recently, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) published a blog post describing the “rainbow of policy and legal options” available to protect the open Internet, contrasting them to other “monochromatic options.” Reading this blog post reminded me of the quote apocryphally (and incorrectly) attributed to Winston Churchill:   “Americans will always do the right thing – after exhausting all the other alternatives.” While I applaud the FCC moving in the right direction on policy, I hope the FCC does not exhaust itself chasing the policy rainbow when the right thing – drab and monochromatic as it might be – continues to stare them in the face.

On the positive side, the FCC’s blog post reflects an understanding that the FCC’s original proposal from May, permitting paid prioritization (aka “Fast Lanes”) under a ‘commercial reasonableness’ standard will not do the job of protecting the open Internet. The political reality has also shifted, thanks to a tremendous public outcry in favor of recognizing that broadband is the essential service of the 21st Century, a fundamental service that everyone increasingly relies on and therefore – to use the legal expression – is affected with the public interest. Wheeler’s own writing on the network compact likewise recognizes this fundamental principle, which has made his resistance to embracing Title II and insistence on exhausting all other option all the more frustrating.

Judging by the FCC’s blog post, we have made progress since May. Title II has gone from a reluctant inclusion in response to public outcry to something “very much on the table.” But the FCC continues to look for something that will spare it the embarrassment of admitting the agency went down the wrong path ten years ago when it reclassified broadband as a Title I information service, and continues to be distracted by its bright shiny new Section 706 authority.

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I Summarize (Some of) My Net Neutrality Arguments in 15 Minutes

Back in August, I spoke about network neutraliy as part of a panel the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) Consumer Advisory Committee. My opening 15 minutes hit most of what I think are the important (and often overlooked) arguments around network neutrality. Specifically:

1. In terms of real world experiments, the service that has never been Title II is cable television. The service that has always been Title II is wireless voice (or, as we telecom folks call it, “Commercial Mobile Radio Service,” (CMRS)). As we know, consumers loooooove their cable television provider more than any other service, and hate wireless as completely not innovative. Oh wait, other way around.

2. Net neutrality is extremely important for maintaining diversity of voices. Not simply the ability of commercial entities to compete on a level playing field, but the ability of anyone to speak without an intermediary. When we eliminate that, even with the best of intentions, we destroy something that makes the Internet special.

3. Title II is a flexible and well understood tool for protecting consumers, protecting diversity of voices, and protecting competition. Title I and Section 706 are a roll of the dice with our fundamental rights.

This is not a comprehensive list of arguments in favor of net neutrality by any means. I also recognize that “Harold Feld Talks For 15 Minutes About Net Neutrality” is probably the Worst. Clickbait. Headline. EVAR! But I hope some of you will find it useful and entertaining.

 

Stay tuned .  .  . .

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