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Which Way Will Tom Wheeler Take the FCC? Follow the Blog Trail

President Obama Makes Personnel Announcement

President Obama nominated Tom Wheeler to lead the FCC (Getty Images via @daylife)

Last week, President Obama named Tom Wheeler of Core Capital Partners to be Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Interested parties of all types, from hedge fund managers to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, are pondering how Mr. Wheeler will manage the agency and what he’ll focus on.

A look back at his musings on a personal blog (aptly named Mobile Musings) and on his more formal writings as chairman of an advisory committee to the FCC may provide some insights. Out of the gate, Mr. Wheeler will be confronted with several pressing issues, ranging from the FCC’s merger-review authority to the broadcast-spectrum auctions to net neutrality to the IP transition.

When it comes to drawing the limits of the FCC’s authority, I have argued that where the conduct under scrutiny fits squarely within the four corners of antitrust (such as mergers), the FCC should take a backseat to the antitrust agencies; for conduct that is not easily recognized as an antitrust violation (such as discrimination by a vertically integrated network owner), the FCC should take the lead. Does Mr. Wheeler agree?

Merger Reviews

Before the Department of Justice (DOJ) moved to block the AT&T/T-Mobile merger, in April 2011 Mr. Wheeler suggested in his blog that the FCC could regulate the wireless industry via merger-related conditions:

The Communications Act, however, does not prohibit the regulation of the ‘terms and conditions’ of wireless offerings, nor does it prohibit the FCC from imposing merger terms and spectrum auction rules that might seem to be regulation in another guise. It is this authority which offers the Federal government the opportunity to impose on AT&T merger conditions that could define the four corners of wireless regulation going forward; rules that would ultimately impact all wireless carriers.

Shortly after the DOJ filed its complaint in September 2011, Mr. Wheeler opined:

. . . absent a new vehicle the regulation of marketplace behavior that has characterized telecom regulation for almost a century is headed towards the same fate as the dial tone – another fatality of digital zeroes and ones. This trend could have been reversed by the conditions imposed by the government on an AT&T/T-Mobile merger. Skirting the regulatory authority issue in favor of a more flexible public interest standard, AT&T and the FCC/Justice Department would simply agree via a consent decree to pseudo-regulatory behavioral standards.

Keeping the FCC relevant in the evolving telecom landscape is certainly one consideration. But so long as the FCC can impose behavioral remedies on merging parties to promote the public interest, anything goes, including regulation that is wholly disconnected from the merger. Although mergers might generate effects that are not recognized as antitrust harms, there is little chance that a merger would escape antitrust scrutiny. This suggests a more limited role for the FCC when it comes to merger review.

As explained in my new book with Robert Litan, the FCC’s discretion to hold up telecom mergers in return for behavioral remedies invites “rent seeking” activity by competitors, who use the FCC’s merger review as a basis to lobby for welfare-reducing obligations on their rivals. Unless this discretion is removed by Congress, we must hope for a magnanimous regulator at the FCC to waive his discretion—an unlikely outcome given that discretion is a regulator’s currency in Washington. Mr. Litan gently reminded me during a C-SPAN interview that one regulator, Fred Kahn, ceded his discretion while heading the Civil Aeronautics Board. Based on his blog musings, it seems unlikely that Mr. Wheeler will do the same.

Broadcast Spectrum Auction

The first order of business on the auction front is deciding who can participate in the broadcast-spectrum auction and to what extent. In April of this year, the DOJ weighed into this debate by advocating “rules that ensure the smaller nationwide networks, which currently lack substantial low-frequency spectrum, have an opportunity to acquire such spectrum.” It’s not clear whether the DOJ would support barring AT&T and Verizon from the auction entirely, but for those contemplating that idea, consider these consequences: According to a study released last week by Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, auction revenues would decline by as much as 40 percent as the demand for spectrum artificially contracts, and monthly wireless bills would increase by about 9 percent as capacity-constrained carriers are forced to deploy more expensive solutions.

Fortunately, the pure-exclusion option appears to have little support among policymakers. In his departing speech last week, outgoing Chairman Genachowski advocated a balanced approach in which all four major wireless carriers would have a reasonable chance to expand their spectrum holdings, noting that “even the largest cellphone carriers need access to more airwaves to meet their customers’ booming demand for mobile data.” Regulators might look to the recent UK spectrum auction, in which the regulator (Ofcom) imposed modest caps on the amount of additional low-frequency bands that the two largest providers (Vodafone and O2) were allowed to buy—they already owned significant amounts of that spectrum before the auction—rather than bar those firms from bidding entirely.

Should the FCC follow this path, Mr. Wheeler will hopefully recognize the oncoming battle between wireless and wireline Internet providers, which militates toward a slightly more concentrated wireless industry in exchange for more intense inter-modal broadband competition.

Net Neutrality

On the net neutrality front, the FCC is awaiting a decision from a court of appeals on whether the agency overstepped its jurisdiction in its 2010 Open Internet Order. The first order of business is determining whether the FCC has the power to regulate Internet access providers. The second order of business is how best to regulate discrimination on the Internet when it rears its ugly head.

As Federal Trade Commissioner (FTC) commissioner Josh Wright correctly explained in a recent speech at George Mason, the FCC erred in the Open Internet Order by treating discrimination by vertically integrated network owners as a per se violation, in contrast to the “rule of reason” treatment afforded to similar “vertical restraints” under the antitrust laws. Mr. Wright advocates that the FTC (and not the FCC) police such conduct under the antitrust laws, arguing that the FTC is less susceptible to political influence than the FCC, and that the FTC has related experience with case-by-case enforcement of vertical restraints.

This is a debate deserving of more attention: Mr. Litan and I argue that the FCC is the better place to police discrimination on the Internet, noting that the agency currently adjudicates discrimination complaints in the video space, and that discrimination of this sort—for example, favoring an affiliated website or application over an independent one—is not an obvious antitrust violation and may generate a harm (reduced innovation) that is not easily proven under stringent antitrust standards.

While Mr. Wheeler likely would seek to maintain the FCC’s power to regulate Internet providers, it is not clear whether he embraces the per se prohibition of discrimination in the FCC’s Open Internet Order. A blog from November 2009, roughly one year before the Open Internet Order was adopted, suggests some moderation here, as least as to whether net neutrality applies to wireless networks:

Rules that recognize the unique characteristics of a spectrum-based service and allow for reasonable network management would seem to be more important than the philosophical debate over whether there should be rules at all.

IP Transition

A final hot topic in telecom circles is whether to release telcos from so-called “legacy regulations” that require them to maintain two separate networks: a copper network and an IP network. A related issue is whether to extend the FCC’s wholesale-access obligations to newly packetized IP networks.

The telcos argue that they could compete more effectively against cable operators if resources currently tied up in maintaining copper networks could be allocated to IP networks. On the other side, resellers argue that a wind-down of the telcos’ copper networks might strand these entrants’ investments in copper-based equipment, thereby raising the entrants’ costs to keep up with the IP transition. These raising-rival-cost arguments assume that resellers impose significant price-disciplining effects on the telcos’ broadband services, even in a world where cable operators compete with telcos for broadband services aimed at businesses.

On this policy debate, Mr. Wheeler’s findings as chairman of an advisory committee to the FCC provide a strong hint as to where he might land. In a June 2011 presentation of the Technical Advisory Committee, Mr. Wheeler explained that the old Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) would collapse under its own weight:

As the number of subscribers on the PSTN falls, the cost per remaining customer increases and the overall burden of maintaining the PSTN becomes untenable. A fast transition can generate significant economic activity and at the same time lower the total cost.

The Committee recommended that the legacy copper network should be sunset by 2018.

As the fine print in any investment prospectus repeatedly warns us, past performance is no guarantee of future returns. The same lesson is likely true for the Chairman of the FCC: Past writings cannot serve as a perfect predictor for future policies. But they certainly provide a clue.

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It’s Time to Modernize Communications Policy

Before Washingtonians could fully digest the election results in early November, there was a mild tremor in the tele-cosmos that could have a significant impact on broadband deployment and hence the U.S. economy. AT&T announced that it planned to upgrade its copper network to an IP-based technology and replace some rural lines with wireless connections. It also petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to commence a proceeding in which market trials would be conducted to determine the policy implications associated with its IP transition. According to one consumer advocate, the news was the “single most important development in telecom since passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.”

To understand why, one needs a bit of history. A century ago, voice services were provided by a single firm (also named AT&T) based on a social compact struck in 1913 that has lost its relevance due the advance of technology. In exchange for monopoly privileges, AT&T submitted (over the course of the next decade) to rate regulation and a universal service obligation. And the compact delivered on universality: By the early 1980s, over 90 percent of American households had basic telephone service.

But a funny thing happened since the technological era of the Commodore 64 and the Walkman. Our nation was rewired for a second time by cable plant, a third time by wireless networks, and a fourth time by satellite networks. By 2012, high-speed Internet over a cable connection—which supports voice as one of several IP-based applications—was available to 93 percent of U.S. households. By 2010, 99.8 percent of the U.S. population was covered by at least one wireless voice network. And in September 2012, Dish Network launched a nationwide satellite broadband service, targeting customers in rural areas that are underserved with a $40 per month offer that supports, among other IP-based applications, voice services.

Competitive entry puts telecom regulators in a pickle. Anyone following the recent spat between D.C. taxi drivers and Uber services, or the decade-old spat between cable operators and telco-based video providers, understands that when regulators can no longer provider monopoly protection to an incumbent, their basis for imposing monopoly-related fees or obligations washes away. Why should I pay you for the privilege of driving a cab in your city, the taxi driver asks, when my competitor is free from such obligations?

When it comes to voice services, the regulatory obligation that is now under scrutiny is the duty to provide universal telephone service over the old copper network. Based on the original social compact, that duty falls uniquely (and thus perversely) on the telcos. Cable, wireless and satellite providers are free to provide voice service (or not) over the network of their choosing, and they are free to pick and choose which homes to serve. In contrast, telcos must operate two networks at once—an outdated, copper-based legacy network that provides service to a shrinking customer base and a modern, IP-based network that supports data, video, and voice applications.

To understand how onerous these rules are, consider the decision of Google, a recent entrant to the broadband space, not to offer voice service as part of its Google Fiber offering in Kansas City. After studying state and federal regulations for voice services, the vice president of Google Access Services concluded: “We looked at doing that [VoIP]. The cost of actually delivering telephone services is almost nothing. However, in the United States, there are all of these special rules that apply.” It makes little sense to have the telcos abide by those same rules when cable operators and wireless providers (typically five in a city) are direct competitors for voice services.

If supporting two separate networks imposed trivial costs on the telcos, then consumers would be held harmless. Alas, telcos invest a significant amount of resources to maintain the legacy network. One study by the Columbia Institute for Tele-Informations estimated that nearly half of telcos’ capital expenditures are tied up in this rut. Freed from these obligations, telcos could deploy these resources to higher value services, including expanding the reach of their IP-based networks. Broadband consumers, particular those living in areas served by a single wireline provider of broadband services, would benefit from the enhanced competition with cable operators.

There appears to be a growing consensus on the need for reform. Indeed, Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group typically adverse to the telcos, acknowledged that the petition for deregulation “raises a valid point of concern if the rules for the [legacy] to IP [conversion] apply only to it and other Local Exchange Carriers (LECs) upgrading their networks.”

Of course, there are still voices who advocate continued monopoly-era obligations, regardless of how many distinct technologies cover or nearly cover the entire nation for voice service. A recent op-ed in the New York Times fantastically asserted the existence of a telco-cable “cartel.” These incessant calls for a public-utility-style approach are outliers in the policy arena, as rational voices from both the left and right seem to be coalescing around the proper idea for how to transition to the modern telecom era.

Although the elections were polarizing for many policy matters, at least broadband policy seems to be bringing folks to the middle for constructive debate and problem solving. It’s time to bring communications policy into alignment with the modern era.

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Who Competes With Google Search? Just Amazon, Apple And Facebook

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is in the final stages of conducting its Google investigation. As the agency contemplates whether Google is a monopolist in the ill-defined market for 29578v7-max-450x450search, they may find the competitive ground has shifted beneath their feet in just the 15 months since they began investigating. While a year or two ago, Google’s main competition in search might have been Bing and Yahoo, today it’s Apple and Amazon, and tomorrow it may be Facebook. The market is almost certainly broader than general search engines as we normally think of them.

Just last week, the New York Times ran a story explaining that Google and Amazon are “at war to become the pre-eminent online mall.” The story cited survey data from two consultancies that should give the antitrust authority pause:

  • Forrester Research found that a third of online users started their product searches on Amazon compared to 13 percent who started their search from a traditional search site; and
  • comScore found that product searches on Amazon have grown 73 percent over the last year while shopping searches on Google have been flat.

These impressive statistics suggest that Google lacks market power in a critical segment of search—namely, product searches. Even though searches for items such as power tools or designer jeans account for only 10 to 20 percent of all searches, they are clearly some of the most important queries for search engines from a business perspective, as they are far easier to monetize than informational queries like “Kate Middleton.”

One senses that the FTC has not focused much on competition from Amazon in product search, or that they even think of Amazon as a search engine. Instead, antitrust agencies around the globe have fixated on helping middlemen comparison-shopping sites such as Nextag and PriceGrabber, most of whom charge retailers for listings. Google is taking heat from comparison sites for doing the same thing because Google is perceived to be the most important source for online shoppers. That regulators are willing to breathe life into these intermediaries implies they do not recognize the platform-based competition between Google and Amazon for product searches.

Amazon is not the only behemoth that competes with Google for search. Apple’s Siri can do search and whole lot more, from helping Samuel L. Jackson design the perfect dinner to making John Malkovich laugh to helping Martin Scorsese maneuver through New York. As search evolves from links into answers, services like Siri become highly valuable. And the ITunes App Store represents the launching pad for many searches that would otherwise start on Google. A couple in Virginia that enjoys winery tours might begin their search by installing “Virginia Wine in My Pocket” or “Virginia Wineries” on their iPhone rather than search the web. In March of this year, Apple announced that more than 25 billion apps had been downloaded from its App Store by the users of the more than 315 million iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch devices worldwide. One wonders whether any of these downloads are being counted by the FTC in their calculations of Google’s market share.

And now Facebook is getting into search. At a Disrupt conference last week, Mark Zuckerberg explained that search engines are evolving into places where users go for answers, and that Facebook is uniquely positioned to compete in that market: “And when you think about it from that perspective, Facebook is pretty uniquely positioned to answer a lot of the questions that people have. So what sushi restaurants have my friends gone to in New York in the past six months and liked? . . . . These are queries that you could potentially do at Facebook if we build out this system that you just couldn’t do anywhere else.”

It may not be natural to associate Amazon (an online retailer), Apple (a device maker), and Facebook (a social media site) with search, but in the technology industry, your next competitive threat can come from anywhere. Monopoly and the kind of robust platform competition between Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook are mutually exclusive portraits of reality. Will the FTC turn a blind eye toward this advanced form of competition?

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When Is Deception an Antitrust Offense? The FTC’s Unorthodox Case Against Google

Last week, the FTC hired outside litigator Beth Wilkinson to lead an investigation into Google’s conduct, which some in the press have interpreted as a grave sign for the search company. The FTC is reportedly interested in pursuing Google under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits a firm from engaging in “unfair methods of competition.” Along with Bob Litan, who served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Antitrust Division during the Microsoft investigation, I have penned a short paper on the FTC’s seemingly unorthodox Section 5 case against Google. (Disclosure: This paper was commissioned by Google.)

Litan and I explore a few possible theories of harm under a hypothetical Section 5 case and find them wanting, including (1) claims that specialized search results (such as flight, shopping or map results) “unfairly” harm the independent specialized search websites like Kayak (travel) or MapQuest (mapping and directions), or (2) assertions that Google allegedly has “deceived” users or websites by seemingly reneging on pledges not to favor its own sites. For the sake of brevity, I focus on the FTC’s potential deception theory here, and leave it to interested reader to pursue the “unfairness” theory in the paper.

Deception of Users

The alleged bases of Google’s alleged deception are generic statements that Google made, either in its initial public offering (IPO) or on its website, about Google’s attitude toward users leaving the site. The provision of a lawful service, specialized search, launched several years after the IPO statement certainly cannot be deceptive. To conclude that it is, and more importantly, to prevent the company from offering innovations in search would establish a precedent that would surely punish innovation throughout the rest of the economy.

As for the mission statement that the company wants users to get off the site as quickly as possible, it is just that, a mission statement. Users do not go to the mission statement when they search; they go to the Google site itself. Users cannot possibly be harmed even if this particular statement in the company’s mission were untrue. Moreover, if the problem lies in that statement, then any remedy should be directed at amending that statement. There is no justification for the Commission to hamper Google’s specialized search services themselves or to dictate where Google must display them.

Deception of Rivals

An alternative theory suggests that Google deceived its rivals, reducing innovation among independent websites. In a February 2012 paper delivered to the OECD, Tim Wu explained that competition law can be used to “increase the costs of exclusion,” which if successful, would promote innovation among application providers. Wu argued that “oversight of platforms is conceptually similar” to oversight of standard-setting organizations (SSOs). He offers a hypothetical case in which a platform owner “broadly represents to the world that he maintains an open and transparent innovation platform,” gains a monopoly position based on those representations, and then begins to exclude applications “that might themselves serve as platforms.” Once the industry has committed to a private platform, Wu argues, the platform owner “earns oversight of its practices from that point onward.”

So has Google earned itself oversight due to its alleged deception? Google is not perceived by web designers as providing a platform for all companies to have equal footing. Websites’ rankings in Google’s search results vary tremendously over time; no publisher could reasonably rely on any particular ranking on Google. To the contrary, websites want their presence to be known to any and all search engines. That specialized search sites did not base their business plans on Google’s commitment to openness is what distinguishes Google’s platform from Microsoft’s platform in the 1990s. To Wu’s credit, he does not mention Google in this section of the paper; the only platforms mentioned are those of Apple, Android, and Microsoft.

It is even more of a stretch to analogize Google’s conduct to that in the FTC’s Rambus case. Unlike websites that do not depend on a Google “standard”–the website can be accessed by users from any search engine, or through direct navigation–computer memory chips must be compatible with a variety of computers, which requires that chip producers develop a common set of standards for performance and interoperability. According to the FTC, Rambus exploited this reliance by, among other things, not disclosing to chip makers that it had additional divisional patent applications in process. That specialized search sites did not make “irreversible technological” investments based on Google’s commitment to a common standard is what distinguishes Google’s platform from SSOs.

The Freedom to Innovate

A change in a business model cannot be a legitimate basis for a Section 5 case because a firm cannot be expected to know how the world is going to unfold at its inception. A lot can change in a decade. Consumers’ taste for the product can change. Technology can change. Business models are required to adapt to such change; else they die. There should be no requirement that once a firm writes a mission statement, it be held to that statement forever. What if Google failed to anticipate the role of specialized search in 2004? Presumably, Google failed to anticipate a lot of things, but that should not be the basis for denying its entry into ancillary services or expanding its core offerings. As John Maynard Keynes famously replied to a criticism during the Great Depression of having changed his position on monetary policy: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do sir?” If Google exposes itself to increased oversight for merely changing its mind, then other technology firms might think twice before innovating. And that would be a horrible consequence to the FTC’s exploration of alternative antitrust theories.

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