Thursday, December 13, 2018

T-Mobile-Sprint Merger Would Benefit Resellers and Hybrid Services

In the Free State Foundation’s comments submitted to the FCC regarding the proposed merger between T-Mobile and Sprint, FSF rebutted claims that the potential merger would harm resellers, or mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). FSF scholars showed that a combined T-Mobile and Sprint would accelerate 5G deployment, giving MVNOs a third nationwide option for 5G access in addition to Verizon and AT&T. Tracfone, the nation’s largest MVNO, made similar sentiments in its comments, stating that a merged T-Mobile and Sprint would increase mobile broadband access in rural areas, where competition from a third provider is lacking.
In their comments, FSF scholars examined T-Mobile and Sprint’s spectrum holdings, capital investments, and financial obligations and determined that the two companies, alone, would not be able to compete with Verizon and AT&T with regard to timely deployment of 5G networks:  
It appears unlikely that T-Mobile and Sprint separately would have the capital resources necessary to invest in and timely deploy nationwide 5G networks that could compete effectively with AT&T and Verizon. Furthermore, build-out and operation of a next-generation mobile wireless network involves significant costs in migrating subscribers onto the new network and closing down older-generation networks. Such migration would be particularly challenging to T-Mobile and Sprint separately given their relatively smaller pool of financial and spectrum resources.
In other words, the T-Mobile-Sprint merger would accelerate small cell deployment and increase the likelihood of consumer access to three or more nationwide 5G providers. But MVNOs, which purchase network capacity from mobile network operators (MNOs), like Verizon and AT&T, and resell the service rather than building out their own facilities, also would benefit from having access to an additional nationwide 5G network.
FSF’s comments said the following:
Based on observations that T-Mobile and Sprint are the largest wholesalers of mobile wireless network capacity to mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) – or “resellers” – it has been claimed that the reduction of one wholesaler could raise wholesale prices for MVNOs and therefore harm consumers by causing their retail subscribers’ prices to rise. However, given the competitive conditions of the wireless market identified above – including the new T-Mobile’s likely enhanced ability to compete with wireless market leaders AT&T and Verizon – it is quite unlikely that wholesale prices would significantly increase post-merger. A rigorous economic analysis should be required to demonstrate that significant and non-transient price increases are likely to occur before the Commission should credit such an argument as a possible merger related concern. And even assuming such a demonstration were made, it is unlikely that concern would outweigh the 5G and other potential benefits of the proposed merger.
In September 2018, Tracfone, the largest MVNO in the U.S. with 22 million customers, announced that it supports the T-Mobile-Sprint merger for this exact reason. In comments submitted to the FCC, Tracfone said:
While today’s wholesale market for MVNOs is generally competitive, the existing four nationwide MNO’s from which TracFone can purchase network capacity are not equivalent alternatives in all markets. In rural areas, T-Mobile and Sprint historically have not offered sufficient coverage and/or speeds in these geographic pockets of the United States.
With the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint, and the resulting more rapid deployment of a nationwide 5G network with broader coverage, greater capacity, higher throughput and lower latency, the wholesale market place will be more competitive with three full service competitors, rather than two. The increase in competition should have the greatest effect in rural areas. The resulting excess capacity would be available for MVNOs in these areas as a third option that has not been available in the current marketplace.
Moreover, in a recent Perspectives from FSF Scholars, Randolph May and I discussed how cable providers are now offering mobile services as hybrid mobile network operators (HMNOs) that use a combination of their own facilities and leased networks. (Comcast’s “Xfinity Mobile” is one example.) Cable providers, too, would benefit from more options for nationwide 5G networks when offering their hybrid mobile services.
As HMNOs and MVNOs continue to use a facilitates-based MNO to deliver their own mobile services, the T-Mobile-Sprint merger would provide cable providers and MVNOs with a third option for a 5G network in addition to Verizon and AT&T.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Robert Crandall: Legislators and Regulators Must Exercise Humility

In August, Dr. Robert Crandall, a member of the Free State Foundation’s Board of Academic Advisors, authored a report titled “The Effects of Rapid Technological Change on Regulatory Policies in the Communications Sector.” Dr. Crandall discusses how regulation in industries characterized by rapid technological change often leads to counterproductive constraints on firms.

The report examines four cases studies of regulation in the communications sector:
  • The artificial distinction between “local” and “long-distance” calling in telecommunications regulation
  • The 1996 Telecommunications Act’s costly failure with regard to local network unbundling
  • Deregulation, reregulation, and deregulation of cable television rates
  • The AOL-Time Warner Merger

Dr. Crandall uses these examples to explain how well-intentioned regulation can lead to unintended consequences that have detrimental effects on consumers, like foregone investment in broadband infrastructure. He states:

In each of these examples of policymaking in the communications sector, technological change – and the associated market changes – helped to render a policy decision unnecessary or irrelevant. In each case, legislators and regulators could not predict the future changes in market conditions brought about by changing technologies and consumers’ adaptation to these changes, leading to serious policy errors with adverse effects on consumer welfare.

Dr. Crandall concludes that regulators should be careful not to impede investment in new technologies, like 5G, through regulatory interventions. And in the context of mergers, agencies generally should not impose regulatory conditions of approval because oftentimes technological innovation quickly renders the conditions outdated or irrelevant.

As I stated in a blog last week, U.S. mobile data traffic is projected to grow fivefold from 2017 to 2022 and the deployment of 5G technology is expected to create 3 million jobs, $275 billion in investment, and $500 billion in annual economic activity. In order for consumers to enjoy these projected economic benefits, as Dr. Crandall states, legislators and regulators must exercise humility when considering laws and regulations in the dynamic broadband marketplace.

Monday, December 10, 2018

FCC Proposal Keeps Text Messaging Free From Unnecessary Regulation and Spam

At its December 12 meeting, the FCC will vote on a sensible proposal to keep popular wireless messaging services free from public utility regulation. By declaring texting and other wireless messaging services are Title I "information services," the FCC will ensure messaging service providers have flexibility to protect consumers from spam and other unwanted messages. 

For several yearsFree State Foundation President Randolph May and I have urged the Commission, in comments filed with the agency and in publications, to declare text messaging services to be lightly-regulated Title I information services. We applaud the Commission's proposal, finally, to provide deregulatory certainty for messaging services.

In today's competitive communications marketplace, wireless service providers routinely offer consumers messaging services bundled with voice and mobile broadband services. Text messaging or short messaging services (SMS) typically involve person-to-person transmission of texts up to 160 characters long. Multi-media messaging services (MMS) are person-to- person transmission of photos or video clips. The popularity of wireless messaging services is reflected in CTIA's estimate that, in 2017, American consumers sent a combined 1.77 billion SMS and MMS messages. 

As the Commission's draft proposal states: "The Communications Act, as amended, divides communications services into two mutually exclusive types: highly regulated 'telecommunications services' and lightly regulated 'information services.'" The Commission proposes to declare that SMS and MMS wireless messages meet the statutory definition of Title I information services because they involve the offering of a capability for generating, acquiring, storing, transforming, processing, retrieving, utilizing, or making available information via telecommunications. 

For starters, when SMS and MMS messages are sent by users, they are routed through servers on mobile networks, stored on those networks, and forwarded to the recipients when their devices are able to receive them. Thus, the proposal finds: "This storage and retrieval capability is analogous to email service, which has been recognized under Commission precedent as an information service and similarly involves storage and retrieval functionality." 

Additionally, the Commission rightly recognizes adoption of its proposed Title I classification determination "will empower wireless providers to continue their efforts to protect consumers from unwanted text messages." Pointing to an estimated 2.8% spam rate for SMS compared to an over 50% spam rate for email, the Commission draft concludes:

[C]ontinuing to empower wireless providers to protect consumers from spam and other unwanted messages is imperative in light of the fact that the growth and popularity of SMS and MMS wireless messaging services have made them an attractive target for bad actors and spammers.

A Title II declaration would make it more difficult to combat unwanted messages. As the proposal says: "[I]n the context of voice service, under Title II, the Commission has generally found call blocking by providers to be unlawful, and typically permits it only in specific, well-defined circumstances." Under a Title II regime, messaging service providers would be restricted in their ability to stop spam from reaching consumers, thereby flooding consumers with messages they don't want.   

Finally, no good reason exists for increased regulation. SMS and MMS services emerged from and thrive in a competitive, essentially unregulated environment. Consumers have choices among competing wireless providers offering messaging service. Data cited in the draft Communications Market Competition Reportindicates that at the end of 2017, 92% of the population had access to at least four 4G LTE providers. Also, over-the-top applications and email are other popular means of communication, providing further competitive market checks on service provider behavior. Meanwhile, messaging service providers are subject to the Federal Trade Commission's authority to take action against unfair and deceptive trade practices. Antitrust is another available resource for safeguarding competition in the market. 

The Commission should adopt its proposed declaratory ruling on text messaging in order to preserve a light-touch regulatory environment and to allow service providers to continue to prevent consumers from getting spammed. 

Thursday, December 06, 2018

VoIP Services in Minnesota Surmount Another Hurdle

Back in October 2017, my Free State Foundation colleague Seth Cooper published the blog, "The Case for Keeping VoIP Free from Legacy Regulation." Indeed, FSF scholars have argued for a decade  or more that VoIP services are "information services" and should not be subject to common carrier regulation, either at the federal or state level.

After release of the FCC's Restoring Internet Freedom Order, Seth pointed out January 2018 blog that the case for non-regulation of VoIP services was bolstered.

Then, in September 2018, the Eighth Circuit affirmed a lower federal court opinion rejecting the Minnesota Public Utility Commission's claim that Charter Advanced Services' Spectrum Voice VoIP service should be subject to state regulation as a telecom common carrier.  See the opinion here in Charter Advanced Services v. Lange, where the Eighth Circuit holds that, pursuant to federal policy, Charter's VoIP service is an "information service," and that the FCC policy of non-regulation of information services precludes state regulation.

Now comes the news that on December 4th the Eighth Circuit issued an order denying the Minnesota petitions for rehearing and rehearing en banc.

This is good news because, as a matter of law, Charter's VoIP should be classified as an "information service" which, by virtue of such classification, preempts state telecom regulation. And, as a matter of policy, there certainly is sufficient competition in the market in which VoIP services compete to eschew public utility-type telecom regulation, whether by the FCC or states like Minnesota. (There are few other states that have tried to regulate VoIP services. Vermont is one presently asserting jurisdiction over Comcast's VoIP service. Vermont should take the hint and devote its resources, more productively, to other matters.)    

Indeed, more good news would be word that Minnesota and Vermont are abandoning their efforts to subject VoIP services to public utility regulation and, instead, devoting their attention to updating their state telecom laws to account for the technological advances and market-driven changes that have rendered these legacy laws outdated.

Video Data Is the Leading Contributor to Rapid Traffic Growth

On November 26, 2018, Cisco released its Visual Network Index (VNI): Forecast and Trends, 2017-2022. This annual report is useful to policymakers, entrepreneurs, and consumers because it projects growth of broadband devices and network technologies at the national, continental, and global level. Given the projections, the report should be particularly useful in getting policymakers to focus on the need to remove regulatory and other impediments to deploying broadband infrastructure. Cisco deserves credit for producing this valuable resource.
According to Cisco, the significant rise in Internet traffic experienced over the past decade or so is expected to continue for the next five years as connections increase and networks expand. The proliferation of video applications is by far the most significant driving force behind exponentially increasing Internet traffic. On a global level, video traffic comprised 75% of Internet data in 2017 and it will increase to 82% by 2022. In the United States, video traffic comprised 81% of all Internet traffic in 2017 and it will increase to 82% by 2022.
As the graph below shows, global Internet traffic will grow threefold from 2017 to 2022, at the same rate as Internet traffic growth in the United States.
Global Internet Traffic: Cisco Forecasts 396 Exabytes per Month by 2022
Overall, the amount of Internet traffic and the number of users and devices throughout the world is astounding. By 2022, there will be 4.8 billion Internet users (60% of the global population), up from 3.4 billion in 2017. And those users will connect to 28.5 billion networked devices, up from 18 billion in 2017. In the United States by 2022, there will be 317 million Internet users (94% of the population) connecting to 4.6 billion networked devices. That means there will be 13.6 networked devices per capita by 2022, up from 8.1 per capita in 2017.
The graph below shows the extraordinary global growth projected across all Internet-enabled devices.
Global Devices and Connections Growth, 2017 - 2022
While overall Internet traffic and devices are growing at a phenomenal rate, mobile traffic is growing twice as fast as fixed traffic. The United States has been a leader in the growth of mobile traffic, which is expected to increase fivefold from 2017 to 2022. Over that same span, global mobile traffic is expected to grow even faster than the U.S. mobile traffic.
Here are some key findings regarding the growth of mobile broadband throughout the world:
  • Average smartphone usage will grow from 5.1 GB per month in 2017 to 26.1 GB per month in 2022.
  • Global mobile traffic will increase sevenfold between 2017 and 2022.
  • Global mobile traffic will grow nearly twice as fast as fixed Internet traffic from 2017 to 2022.
  • Video will comprise 79% of global mobile traffic by 2022, compared to just 59% in 2017.
  • Global mobile traffic by 2022 will be equivalent to 38x the volume of the entire global Internet in 2005.

Here are some of the key findings regarding the growth of mobile broadband in the United States:
  • The average mobile connection speed will grow threefold from 2017 to 2022, reaching 39 Mbps.
  • U.S. mobile traffic will reach 5.7 exabytes per month by 2022, up from 1.2 exabytes per month in 2017.
  • U.S. mobile traffic will grow fivefold from 2017 to 2022, a compound annual growth rate of 36%.
  • U.S. mobile traffic will grow two times faster than fixed IP traffic from 2017 to 2022.
  • U.S. mobile traffic by 2022 will be equivalent to 12x the volume of the entire U.S. Internet in 2005.

The United States has been a global leader in mobile device innovation and the deployment of mobile broadband networks. Advanced 4G networks offer exponentially superior reliability, capacity, speeds, and security for mobile traffic compared to previous mobile network technologies. Now, we are on the cusp of deploying 5G mobile network technology, which will deliver speeds at least 10 times faster than 4G and enable “smart cities” to more efficiently use local services such as energy, utilities, transportation, and public safety. Deployment of 5G technology is expected to create 3 million jobs and $500 billion in annual economic activity.
Since my February 2017 blog regarding Cisco’s most recent mobile traffic update, the FCC has adopted a number of items that should spur innovation and investment in U.S. broadband networks, both mobile and fixed. Adoption of the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, proposed in May 2017, repealed the public utility-style regulations imposed in the Title II Order. Internet service providers increased broadband investment in 2017 after a two-year decline. Moreover, the FCC has adopted a number of wireless and wireline infrastructure items that remove state and local regulatory barriers. These should accelerate 5G wireless deployment. (See here and here.) Lastly, the Commission has identified a number of spectrum bands for commercial assignment and allocation, which will be tremendously valuable as consumers continue to demand more mobile data. (See here and here.)
Again, Cisco’s report is an important tool. It should help U.S. policymakers understand that mobile and fixed data services require additional spectrum to match the forecasted growth and to make the social and economic benefits of 5G a reality. To promote 5G and the emergence of other broadband technologies, policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels must avoid imposing unnecessary new regulatory burdens and continue to remove existing ones. Also, Congress and the FCC should continue to remove, or at least minimize, impediments to infrastructure investments in order to ensure continued innovation and growth in the dynamically competitive market for broadband services.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Signing of USMCA Spotlights International Copyright Protections

On November 30, President Trump and leaders from Canada and Mexico officially signed the proposed United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USCMA). Completion of the trade agreement's negotiation was announced in October. If approved by Congress, USMCA will replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). 

USMCA contains several provisions to better secure Americans' copyright protections. FSF President Randolph J. May and I address many of those provisions in our Perspectives from FSF Scholars paper, "Modernizing International Copyright Agreements to Combat Copyright Infringement." Among its pro-copyright provisions, USMCA would help American owners of sound recordings the full scope of public performance rights. Additionally, USMCA provides for stepped up enforcement through increased civil and criminal penalties for infringing activities such as "stream-ripping" and "camcording." 

However, USMCA incorporates language similar to the Section 512 "notice-and-takedown" provision contained in current U.S. copyright law. Section 512 is outdated and ineffective in protecting digital music and video content from mass infringement on popular user-upload websites. Future trade agreements and treaties should avoid that language. Congress and the Trump Administration should work to reform and update the notice-and-takedown system. We discuss these aspects of Section 512 in further detail our Perspectives paper, "Modernizing Civil Copyright Enforcement for the Digital Age Economy: The Need for Notice-and-Takedown Reforms and Small Claims Relief."