Congratulations to Gene Kimmelman, and to the American People.

I haven’t been posting much and will continue to be busy for the next while, owing to Passover and bunch of other things. But I had to give a brief post of congratulations to Gene Kimmelman on his appointment to the Department of Justice as Chief Counsel for Competition Policy and Intergovernmental Relations. Gene has been a tireless advocate for consumer protection and pro-competitive policies as the head of Consumers Unions Washington office. His addition to the DoJ in this critical office is good news for those who want to see policies that genuinely promote competition rather than deregulation for its own sake.

Stay tuned . . . .

Why Lary Lessig's FCC Reboot Will Crash.

On of my favorite die-hard Libertarian writers these days is David Friedman. Part of that is because we have known each other 20 years or so (albeit in a somewhat different context), and it is in part because if he can teach law and economics without either a law degree or economics degree, I can do law and economic policy without a degree in economics (I do have a law degree). But the real reason is because Friedman actually makes the argument for Libertarianism in his new book Future Imperfect that I think is the strongest argument and that no one in policy land ever has the guts to make. Friedman argues that while you may get utterly wretched results from a deregulated market and no regulatory authority, you have a better chance of getting a good result than if you centralize the decisionmaking in a government agency.

I happen to think David is wrong about which process will make worse decisions, but I think his approach is basically correct. As regular readers know, most free market enthusiasts I encounter in policy land insist that deregulation is the pathway to salvation and that while regulation will always prove disastrous in the end, the true path of deregulation will only bring joy and happiness. Simply let the market be, and the Competition Fairy will bring wonderful low prices and innovative new services to market. Try to regulate, and the Blessed Competition Fairy will turn her face against you and smite you with higher prices, worse service and a plague of villainous bureaucrats. So finding a Libertarian willing to admit that we may actually end up with crappy outcomes in a deregulated world — even if he thinks deregulation improves the odds for a better outcome — is rather refreshing.

I agree with David that we live in a messy world where we will have a lot of problems and crappy outcomes no matter what we try. But for a lot of reasons I have gone on at length about elsewhere, I think we will end up with at least a chance for better outcomes if we have regulatory structures in place that provide needed oversight and protection against the inevitable exercise of disproprtionate power and information asymtery that promotes real bad outcomes (like, say, a total meltdown of the financial markets). Sure, things can go very badly wrong with a regulatory regime. The problems of agency capture by incumbents and the cost of regulation are real. But using real economics to look at how markets behave tells me I’m screwed for sure if I embrace the Libertarian approach, whereas trying to come up with a well constructed regulatory scheme gives me a fighting chance of actually getting good results from time to time.

I indulge in this lengthy preamble to set up my primary argument for Larry Lessig’s piece in Newsweek to abolish the existing FCC an replace it with an innovation environmental protection agency (iEPA). Larry believes the iEPA, free of the 1930s ideology of regulated monopoly that shaped the FCC’s underlying statutes and designed to encourage innovation, would end up producing superior policies that would do things like encourage new uses of spectrum against the wishes of exclusive licensees, protect us from abuse of market power by enforcing network neutrality rules in a fashion similar to the Comcast/BitTorrent complaint, without stifling everything in tariffs and restrictions that incumbents can manipulate as they have throughout the FCC’s 70 year history.

Maybe. But I think it more likely things would turn out like they did with ICANN. Despite moving management of the DNS out of government into a non-profit supposedly managed by engineers and limited to “voluntary coordination” and “bottom up processes,” ICANN has proven as prone to abuse and capture by incumbents as any federal agency — possibly more so because it lacks judicial oversight or mandatory procedural safeguards (it has adopted some, but they are ultimately voluntary). As I observed in my last post, ICANN didn’t end up like it did because it was designed by bad people. It happened because we live in a messy world and expecting that good intentions and trustworthy actors with the best interest of the “Internet community” at heart could magically overcome the realities of stakeholder incentives and econonmic and political realities is as much a fantasy as the Gods of the Marketplace and the Competition Fairy.

I’m also frankly not so convinced that the FCC we have is such an awful thing. Sure, I can think of a lot I would change if I ran the zoo — both in terms of underlying statutes and how the FCC operates. And I get Larry’s point about how the “DNA” of an agency effects what it can and can’t do. But I also think the FCC has become the thing everyone loves to hate in telecom land, with that delightful air of sophistication when everyone important agrees that it is so obvious that things are wrong that no one could seriously defend the FCC and the only real question is how to fix it and whether it is politically possible to fix. But we in policy wonk land tend to focus on a handful of hard issues where anyone of us, given the power of philosopher king, could naturally make a better job of it. We ignore that most of the business of the FCC is pretty prosaic — such as certifying devices under Part 15, processing requests for license modifications, investigating slamming complaints — and that the rank and file employees at the FCC do their jobs with the same reasonable assortment of hard workers, slackers, geniuses, morons and just plain folks as found in any other corporate headquarters. And while few folks these days think much about such archaic things as tariffs and ensuring that rates for basic voice service are just and reasonable, a lot of us would notice if even the minimal levels of regulation left suddenly vanished. Transforming the FCC’s policy functions to be about “promoting innovation” rather than regulating government monopolies might seem real attractive to us in wonkland, but the actual functions of the FCC need to happen somewhere — and I am fairly certain that outsourcing them or eliminating them are not magic tickets to the Land Flowing With Milk and Competition promised by the Holy Prophets from the University of Chicago.

Finally, I grant Lessig’s point that underlying statutes — the regulatory DNA — matter. It made all the world of difference when we changed the Atomic Energy Commission with its role of promoting nuclear power to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission with the job of making sure nuclear power plants were safe. But even in its fundamental statutes, I think the FCC does better than most people credit. For one thing, I think the fact that the FCC is an independent agency with members of both parties making decisions is a criticaly important safety mechanism for the agency that controls how we receive news and communicate with one another. Given how the Bush Administration has used the IRS and the DoJ to intimidate political opponents, the Office of Management and Budget to veto regulations it doesn’t like, and the Government Services Administration to award patronage and further political ends with a blatancy not seen since we abolished the “spoils” system, the fact that the Commissioners are immune to direct political influence by the President is not nearly so trivial a matter as cynics like to presume. I also think the FCC has alot of good, progressive stuff in its DNA that — all too often — gets lost in implementation. Look at Section 1 of the Act, which talks about developing a state of the art communications system by wire and wireless accessible to all people of the United States regardless of race or gender, or Section 257 reaffirming the purpose of the policy of the United States “favoring diversity of media voices, vigorous economic competition, technological advancement, and promotion of the public interest, convenience, and necessity.” Or Section 201 and 202, declaring all unreasonable discrimination or unreasonable practices in deployment of communications services illegal.

Yes, the FCC was born in an era when it seemed communications was about regulating government monopolies. But it was also born in a a progressive era when Congress understood that government had a role in protecting everyday citizens from the abuse possible in an unregulated market, and that government had a role in ensuring that everyone benefited from advances in communications technology and had access to vital services. Those aren’t bad building blocks for creating a telecommunications regulator that will encourage innovation and prevent a few huge companies from exercising market power.

So, contrarian that I am, I think that for our messy complicated world, the FCC muddles through pretty well, all things considered. It gets more right than wrong in its underlying DNA, and many of its problems come from nature, not nurture. We cannot hope to cure the underlying problem that people often make bad decisions when confronted with complex problems, because it derives from the overall messiness of the world. Rather than try to create an iEPA that will have its own problems, why not make the FCC we have work right. Yes, the old philosophy that Congress should delegate to an expert agency that would somehow resist human weakness and make decisions based only on merit — or even that all reasonable people could agree on the “right” expert answer — now seems hopelessly naive. But the notion that we should junk the whole flawed apparatus because “the market always knows better than some elitists in Washington” has proven equally naive.

Rather than try again to create some perfect system that will always produce the right answer, I say stick to the more realistic goal of making the current FCC work better. With the political winds shifting back in line with the FCC’s more progressive DNA, let’s seize the day and make what we have work for us. It’s fun to blame the FCC for all that’s wrong in the world, and imagine that we can set up some kind of philosopher king who will make only good regulations that neither “favor incumbents” nor “impose undue regulatory costs.” But I think that is about as likely as the Competition Fairy.

Stay tuned . . . . .

The Difference Between Free Market Conservatives and Worshippers of the Gods of the Marketplace.

As regular readers know, I frequently deride those who continue to put their faith in a creed of deregulation despite empirical evidence that this is not suitable to all occasions as worshipers of of the “gods of the marketplace,” after the Rudyard Kipling Poem The Gods of the Copybook Heading (with a fine sense of irony that Kipling would be closer ideologically to the folks I criticize). This leads some to imagine that I am “anti-market” or “pro-regulation” or some other ideology that places process over outcome, rather than a pragmatic sort who believes that the job of public policy is to use all available tools to achieve the goals of prmoting the general welfare, securing domestic tranquility, etc., etc.

I recently came across an illustration of the difference in, of all cases, a collection of Darwin Award Winners (Darwin Awards Iv: Intelligent Design for anyone that cares). The book contains the tale of a “winner” who was a passionate anti-government type who refused to wear a seat belt in protest against mandatory seat belt laws. A car he was in in skidded and flipped over. The the driver and one passenger who were wearing seat belts survived. Our protesting friend was thrown from the car and died.

It occurred to me that this story nicely illustrates the difference between those who favor a free market approach and worshipers of the Gods of the Marketplace. A smart Libertarian may believe that the government has no right to order people to wear seat belts. But, evaluating all the evidence of how seat belts save lives, will voluntarily wear a seat belt even if not required. After all, it would be foolish to put one’s life at risk simply because the government wrongly orders people to do what you think makes good sense.

But an ideological driven soul, indifferent to empirical evidence and elevating process over substance, refuses to wear a seat belt because the government says you should, and therefore wearing a seat belt must be the wrong or inefficient result and believes it the positive duty of all anti-government believers to refuse to wear seat belts.

Now go read the dissenting statements of McDowell and Tate in the Comcast decision, the McCain Tech Policy, or any of a dozen or so speeches by elected representatives or pundits who get their economic education from reciting bumper stickers about free market economics they don’t understand. Then ask yourself, are these guys actually evaluating the evidence and accepting the result? Or are they driving with their seat belts off?

Stay tuned . . . .

The McCain Tech Policy Part II: Why McCain Can’t Fix The “Mercedes Divide?”

O.K., jokes aside about the lameness and lateness of McCain’s tech policy and associated privacy policy. How does this all really stack up as a substantive plan?

Two quotes from former FCC Chair and McCain tech adviser Michael Powell nicely illustrate the fundamental thrust of the plan. Not so coincidentally, both come from Powell’s first press conference as Chair of the FCC.

Quote 1.

“I don’t believe deregulation is like the dessert that you serve after people have fed on their vegetables, like a reward for competition,” Powell said. “I believe deregulation is instead a critical ingredient to facilitating competition, not something to be handed out after there is a substantial number of players and competitors in the market.”

Quote 2:

“I think the term [digital divide] sometimes is dangerous in the sense that it suggests that the minute a new and innovative technology is introduced in the market, there is a divide unless it is equitably distributed among every part of the society, and that is just an unreal understanding of an American capitalistic system. I think there is a Mercedes divide. I would like to have one, but I can’t afford one. I’m not meaning to be completely flip about this. I think it’s an important social issue, but it shouldn’t be used to justify the notion of, essentially, the socialization of deployment of the infrastructure.”

Once you accept the “Mercedes Divide” frame, you have run out of tools to deal with the issues because, by definition, whatever the market provides is what result you should get. McCain, obviously, does not wish to accept this rather obvious consequence, and therefore falls back on the usual platitudes and reliance on the gods of the marketplace, the competition fairy, and the delightful myth that — Adam Smith to the contrary — getting a collection of companies with similar interests together to regulate themselves will somehow work.

Surprisingly, as David Isenberg noted on his blog, what is amazing is that the plan leaves out the few bright stars of Michael Powell’s tenure at the FCC — notably Powell’s commitment to spectrum reform. While I certainly opposed Powell’s efforts to make spectrum licenses a species of property I enthusiastically applauded his equal willingness to engage seriously on opening more spectrum for non-exclusive unlicensed use (you can see a very old primer of mine from the dawn of the spectrum reform debates here). Perhaps spectrum reform proved too complicated or controversial an issue for McCain to address, even buried at the bottom of a tech policy.

But having ruled out open spectrum, McCain has left himself very few tools to actually provide all the benefits he promises. Rather like the current administration, which will tell you that Bush achieved his 2004 promise of universal broadband by 2007 so shut the heck up about those stupid international rankings, McCain’s tech platform will work swimmingly for true believers unconcerned with the impact on actual reality. Below, I draw out the substantive problems with the McCain tech & privacy plans in greater detail, and explain why the Obama plan actually looks like it would make real improvements in people’s lives because Obama recognizes that there is a real difference between “the government needs to build roads rather than wait for car companies to build them” and mandating that “everyone must have a Mercedes.”

More below . . . .

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Mr. Moffett, I Thought You Said Cable Was Vibrantly Competitive?

In an interesting turn of events, industry analyst Craig Moffett takes a look at the growth of cable broadband and overall subscriber growth, as compared with that of telcos and satellites, and comes to this interesting conclusion: Cable is a natural monopoly in the making — and has been on course to do so since about 2005.

What is interesting to me is this is the same Craig Moffett who, during the fight last year on whether cable penetration had triggerred the 70/70 rule that would enable the FCC to significantly regulate cable by reaching 70% penetration, rushed to Commissioner Adelstein (the swing vote in last year’s fight) to explain that cable penetration remained stuck at 60% and would never reach 70% because of all the amazing competition.

Mind you, we all make bad predictions (I still remember with considerable heartbreak my Great Google Prophecy). But Mr. Moffett has a habit of telling Wall St. what a great investment cable stocks are while telling Washington how wildly competitive the market is, how cable can’t possibly exercise market power, and how in no way shape or form should anyone even think about regulating this market.

With Kevin Martin repeatedly saying he is unlikely to act on a proposal by small cable operators to unbundle expensive cable programming and retransmission rights for broadcast signals at the wholesale level, the coast no doubt looks clear to start explaining why cable is such a great investment and will crush its competition. But I will be curious to see what happens if, for example, Congress holds hearings on the FCC’s decision in the Comcast complaint and asks whether we need to regulate broadband. Will Mr. Moffett stand by his “natural monopoly” analysis — even if he argues for deregulation for other reasons? Or will he suddenly discover new life in FIOS, WiMax, and other potential broadband competitors?

Stay tuned . . . .

The UK Broadband Infrastructure And the Debate We Should Be Having.

This article from the London Times is useful both for its substance and for what it says about the sorry state of the debate in the U.S. While the U.K. has much higher available penetration and speed than the U.S., it is considered rather pokey and slow for Europe. As the article observes, the problem is that private companies don’t want to invest in upgrades of infrastructure.

More below . . .

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'Scuse Me Whilst I Pause to Savor the Irony — Wall St. J Writer Blames Kevin Martin For Slow Broadband

So Wall St. Journal Technology Review Walt Mossberg blames Kevin Martin for our ridiculous slow broadband speed.

Here’s the dialog:

Mossberg: “You are the head of the FCC. How have you allowed this to happen? I AM DEAD SERIOUS. HOW HAVE YOU ALLOWED THIS TO HAPPEN?

Martin: “I am not sure I am solely responsible. I am also not sure the charts capture the whole story. I think you do have to put in the context some of the demographics of the United States and some of the countries we are competing against.

Mossberg: Does that explain why we pay $12.50 per megabit in the United States as opposed to $3.09 in Japan and $3.70 in France? Why are we paying four times as much?

Martin: Yes it does. Because it costs a lot more to build out in more rural areas and people who live further apart… We have a history of averaging some of the cost to make it affordable for people in Montana.

I find this ironic on two levels. First, I have a memory that goes back far enough to remember the Wall St. Journal editorials absolutely crucifying Kevin Martin when, as a Commissioner, he tried to stop Michael Powell’s full-bore deregulation of broadband and the local telephone loop because only a completely laissez faire non-regulatoy approach could get industry to invest and do its job. Ditto the editorials on why C Block open device conditions because any sort of government mandate is bad bad bad BAD and can never, ever, ever be good.

Yes, I know that the Wall St. J. prides itself on having an ironclad fire wall between the reporting function and that editorial function. So I am not saying that Mossberg is being inconsistent or hypocritical in any way. But it is still ironic that reporters dismayed at the current state of affairs blame Kevin Martin for failure to act, while the folks on the Editorial Page routinely pillory Martin for even thinking the word “regulation” without puting a “de” in front.

Second, it’s ironic because, while I will be the first to say that Martin has not done nearly enough for my money (let’s start with not adopting mandatory wholesale as we at PISC recommended for half the auctioned 700 MHz spectrum last year, and the painfully slow pace of Universal Service Fund Reform), he has done more to foster the development of better broadband at faster speeds than any other member of the Bush Administration. Unlike, say, former NTIA Administrator John Kneuer, who explained last year how everything in American broadband was just ducky and we just need to stay the course, Martin has acknowledged that we need to do better and have higher expectations (although, again, not going nearly far enough IMO). This includes not merely making a show of reforming the FCC’s impossibly lame broadband study and report, but actually making some substantive improvements.

Mind you, I’m not defending Kevin Martin’s record on broadband here. And I will readily acknowledge that he’s been a good soldier for the Bush Administration on a number of key issues (I do not hold my breath to learn if AT&T and Verizon broke the law when they cooperated with NSA on domestic spying). But I cannot let the double irony of a Wall St. J. columnist blaming Kevin Martin for our wretched national broadband situation go unpassed, when the Wall St. J. editorial board has been in the vangaurd of pillorying Kevn Martin any time he actually tries to do something.

Again, I know Wall St. J. takes great pride in keeping its editorial board and reporting functions separate, but it’s still delightful. At least, for those of us in the progressive movement who have always been utterly consistent in blaming Kevin Martin and the rest of the Bush Administration for not nearly going far enough. That’s why next week at National Conference on Media Reform, the Martin-bashing won’t be ironic. It will be heartfelt, sincere, consistent, and deeply passionate Martin bashing. Well, actually it will be ironic then, too; but for entirely different reasons I will post about next week.

But for the Wall St. J. and its fellow worshipers of the Gods of the Marketplace, I can only smile and say “what, you don’t like the world the Gods of the Marketplace have made? Then I guess you better pray harder — or perhaps consider a different faith.”

Stay tuned . . . .

No, I Don't Know Anything About the McCain Story.

I regret to disappoint my fellow Wetmachiner John Sundman and legions of of folks discovering telecom policy is incredibly sexy (a fact I mentioned in my very first Wetmachine post), but I really have nothing to add about the McCain/Iseman story. This is not Wonkette here folks.

Policy, sure. I can tell you what made this transaction so controversial. And it may even have some bearing on the next FCC, given that one of the folks involved was Susan Ness, the former FCC Commissioner whispered about as the most likely nominee to replace Kevin Martin if Clinton wins. It also, of course, involved Bill Kennard who, along with Reed Hundt, is advising Obama. So I suppose the policy might have some relevance here. But as for the “juicy stuff:”

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The Economics of Telco Deregulation: Califronia Dreaming, Economic Realities, and the “Reverse Ramsey” Pricing Model

This article in the LA Times on the impact of telco price deregulation in California is a good illustration of the complex nature of the economics of competition and deregulation, and why it’s so friggin’ important for regulators and the public to understand this stuff. In 2006, the California PUC decided that voice service faced sufficient competition to phase out price regulation. In theory, competition would lead to lower costs and increased services and would remove the invariably stultifying impacts of regulation.

The result has been an increase in the availability of services and an overall decrease in the cost of service, but not in the way that ordinary folks understand or that regulators professed to expect from deregulation. Most customers have, in fact, increased the amount they pay for telecommunications services overall. But because they buy larger bundles of services that profess to discount the price of each element in the bundle, the average cost per service is lower although the amount of money paid has gone up. That might seem a good value trade if it were driven strictly by consumer choice. But consumer choice is driven by the decision of telcos to increase the cost of stand alone services. So people not looking to bundle do so because it is “cheaper” while poor people who cannot afford the higher price for the bundle get a real price hike with no value added.

Example: Feldco the Telco raises the price of basic local voice from $10 to $20, and raises the price of additional services taken a la carte from $5 to $10, but I offer a package of basic voice and five additional services for $30 (which I tell you charging $5 for voice and $ 5 for each additional feature). Any customer that can afford to upgrade to my bundled package will do so, because the “value” of the bundle (at my new prices) is $70 and you are getting it for $30. So even though you upgraded and are paying me more, the cost of basic voice (calculated as part of the package) just dropped by $5. What a savings! of course, the customers who cannot afford the additional $10 a month for the bundle experience a real price increase of $10.

Basically, the problem of wealth inequity that we have seen in every other sector of the economy — where the highest earners have enjoyed the greatest increases — is now mirrored in California’s telecommunication service market. How did this happen? Do we care? And what does this tell us about the future of the metered internet, wireless competition, and the ever popular video competition?

Answers below . . . .

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Why Teens Are Smarter Than Regulators — The Difference between Ubiquity and Substitutibility

Greetings gentle reader! Welcome to another chapter in my occasional series “What All Policy Wonks Need to Understand About Economics So They Can Spot The Industry Baloney” aka “The Econ 101 Gut Check.”

In today’s lesson, we look at two concepts often confused with one another. UBIQUITY, which means how widely available something is; and SUBSTITUTIBALITY, which means whether people regard one thing as a substitute for their first choice. Most arguments for deregulation of the media and the internet rest on confusing these related but very different concepts. For example, the argument that the availability of video clips on YouTube or other types of content creation confuses ubiquity and substitubality, as does the argument that cellphones compete with DSL and cable for broadband access.

But according to this USA Today article (reporting on this study by the PEW Internet and American life project), teenagers who actually use this stuff on a regular basis understand the differences perfectly. And if regulators, policy types, or even just folks who care about getting it right for its own sake want to get our national media and broadband polices right, then we better learn from these teenagers and get the difference between ubiquity and substitutibility straight.

Class begins below . . . .

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