Rural Carriers File “Skype-Lite,” or “Wireless Carterfone, it's not just for developers and other parasites anymore.”

Today, the FCC will most likely dismiss the the Skype Petition. I’ve already written why I think this is a phenomenally bad idea and, while I continue to respect Kevin Martin and understand why he is doing this, he is totally wrong here. Once again, those worried about “unintended consequences,” “first do no harm,” etc., etc. fail to appreciate that a refusal to take action and granting permission to carriers to control the sorts of devices, applications and therefore what innovation and what free speech, go on over their networks is as much an action as granting the Skype Petition. There is no evading responsibility or avoiding unforseen consequences.

Which brings me to the Petition for Rulemaking filed by the Rural Carriers Association (RCA) to prevent exclusive deals on equipment, aka “Skype Lite.” Mind you, the rural carriers opposed the Skype Petition as much as any other carrier, arguing that it would be awful for their limited capacity rural networks if they could not control what equipment attached to their networks and what applications ran on that equipment. Nevertheless, they too are unsatisified in a world where market size and raw capitalism dominate. So, without ever once raising the same arguments as Skype or referencing the Commission’s information policy statement, the rural carriers argue for what amounts to the same relief as Skype, only tailored differently. Rather than regulate all carriers to require open networks, they ask the Commission to limit the market power of the major carriers by prohibitting exclusives. Otherwise, they argu, rural America will never know the joy of the iPhone or any other significant innovation — since the major carriers will tie up the most valuable applications and equipment in exclusive deals.

Nor are the rural carriers alone in finding the world according to Coase and Friedman less than they desire. The Commission has before it a good handful of petitions from carriers asking for mandatory roaming reform, access charge reform, and other limits on the ability of the dominant, vertically integrated providers from exercising their market power. Of course, all of these carriers asking for regulatory intervention are simultaneously celebrating the dismissal of the Skype Petition, piously telling Skype and the rest of the non-carrier industry that they are a bunch of parasites and that if they want access to a network they need to get their own licenses and build one.

I do not write to underscore the hypocrisy of these contradictory positions. That would be a waste of bits. Companies make whatever arguments they need to make in order to survive and thrive. No, my warning to the rural carriers and the rest of the Skype-lite crowd is simply one of practicality. You cannot win your request for special regulation while simultaneously singing the praises of the fiercely competitive broadband market and arguing that there is no place for regulation in this great free market success story. By contrast, if you simply admit that the industry now suffers from excessive concentration and the cure for this requires a comprehensive approach, you will find yourselves much more likely to prevail.

Martin indicated that he would dismiss the Skype Petition “without prejudice,” meaning that Skype or others will be free to try again — say, in six months or so when the FCC changes hands. In the mean time, I suggest the rural carriers and the other industry players anxious for regulatory relief — whether in the form of spectrum caps in auctions, mandatory roaming, or access charge reform — rethink their strategy.

Or, to put it another way, “regulation, it’s not just for developers and other parasites any more.”

Stay tuned . . . .

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One Comment

  1. Brett Glass says:

    Harold, you appear to be unaware of the technical issues that are involved here. Allowing any equipment onto our rural wireless ISP’s network — which is uniquely designed and architected so as to compete effectively with the larger carriers — would do it real harm and destroy both its competitiveness and its ability to function. Only certain brands and models of equipment, configured certain ways, will work properly with the architecture of the network. We therefore do insist that users employ equipment that we have provided and configured. This has nothing to do with denying consumers “freedom;” the equipment and Internet service the consumers get are already as good and as economical as it’s possible to make them. A requirement that we allow any and all random equipment or software on our network would harm the network and destroy our ability to serve and compete. I do not understand what your motivation, as a lawyer for a supposedly “public interest” organization, would be in trying to monkey-wrench our network. Do you secretly work for Qwest? Sprint/Nextel? Verizon? They’re the ones that would benefit from such crippling regulation.

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