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FCC Votes to Enforce Net Neutrality and Overturns Municipal Broadband Bans in N.C., Tenn.

Phillip Dampier February 26, 2015 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't 5 Comments
Net Neutrality victory. (Mignon Clyburn (L), Thomas Wheeler (C), and Jessica Rosenworcel (R) celebrate their majority vote in favor of Net Neutrality. (Image: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Net Neutrality victory. Democratic FCC commissioners Mignon Clyburn (L), Thomas Wheeler (C), and Jessica Rosenworcel (R) celebrate their majority vote in favor of Net Neutrality. (Image: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The Federal Communications Commission voted today to regulate broadband service as a telecommunications service and public utility, guaranteeing providers will not be allowed to interfere with Internet traffic.

Three of the five commissioners voted in favor of strong Net Neutrality protections, equally applicable to home wired broadband and wireless service, while two Republican commissioners decried the FCC’s move as a regulatory overreach.

“The Internet is too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules,” said FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, who reacted emotionally to opposition charges that Net Neutrality would lead to a government takeover of the Internet. Wheeler called many of the critical statements made by Net Neutrality opponents “nonsense.”

“Today is the proudest day of my public policy life,” Wheeler said.

The FCC also voted 3-2 in favor of sweeping away state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that restrict municipal broadband development. Wheeler called the anti-public broadband initiatives “red tape” and anticompetitive. The change will allow services like Fibrant and Greenlight in North Carolina and EPB in North Carolina to immediately begin planning expansion outside of their current service areas. It could also spark new community network development, if today’s FCC actions survive an anticipated court challenge.

Today’s decision does not overturn community broadband bans in more than a dozen other states, but does open the door for municipal providers to file requests with the FCC to overturn similar laws.

Despite claims by providers the move would saddle providers with 1930s era telephone regulations, the FCC today adopted a broadly whittled down set of principles under Title II of the Communications Act which redefines broadband as a “telecommunications service.” The FCC will not regulate consumer pricing or how services are marketed to the public. It will observe and referee disputes between providers and content creators and guarantee no blocking, no speed throttling, and no paid Internet fast lanes.

Wall Street had little reaction to today’s events with most cable and telco stocks remaining flat or slightly higher this afternoon. Investors appear to be unconcerned by the new broadband regulatory framework.

Cable Industry’s Profitable Money Party Under Threat As Net Neutrality, FCC Oversight Looms

Moffett

Moffett

Nearly 20 years after the 1996 Telecom Act deregulated much of the cable industry, the renewed threat of increased consumer protection and oversight by the Federal Communications Commission and the dwindling chance regulators will approve the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable has increased pessimism about guaranteed high cable industry profits on Wall Street.

Craig Moffett, senior analyst at MoffettNathanson has departed from his usual optimism about the prospects of cable industry stocks and downgraded Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications this morning to “neutral,” suggesting the Title II reclassification of broadband could eventually lead to FCC mandated price cuts on broadband after the agency finalizes Net Neutrality regulations.

The cable industry had maintained high hopes for the Republican majority in Congress to trample Net Neutrality and allow the cable industry to continue boosting rates and introducing other pricing schemes including usage-based billing, but Moffett has grown increasingly convinced Republicans cannot override President Obama’s veto power if Congress attempts to change or end FCC oversight over the broadband business.

The cable industry has grown increasingly panicked over a new spirit of activism inside the FCC, particularly after FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler began asserting their “worst-case scenarios” for broadband speed and Net Neutrality. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association has warned Net Neutrality and Title II would stifle innovation. But Moffett fears it will more likely stifle profits.

money“It would be naïve to suggest that the implication of Title II, particularly when viewed in the context of the FCC’s repeated findings that the broadband market is non-competitive, doesn’t introduce a real risk of price regulation,” Moffett wrote. “Not tomorrow, of course, so yes, near term numbers won’t change. But terminal growth rate assumptions need to be lowered. Multiples will have to come down.”

Moffett, who had been optimistic about the likely approval of the merger deal between Comcast and Time Warner Cable is much less so today.

His earlier 70-30 odds in favor of the merger are now down to 60-40. The headwind of negative press and the reclassification of broadband to a minimum speed of 25Mbps poses considerable risk the deal will be ruled anti-competitive.

Moffett claims the cable industry was also banking on jacking up prices for Internet access, already a very profitable service, to cover reduced profits from cable television. But now the FCC will be watching.

“In the past, changes to broadband pricing would have been the natural remedy,” Moffett said. “That avenue may be no longer open.”

Wall Street Turning Against Comcast-Time Warner Merger: “We Believe It Will Be Blocked”

Greenfield

Greenfield

An important Wall Street analyst has publicly written what many have thought offline for the past six months — the chances of regulators approving a merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable are growing less and less each day that passes.

Rich Greenfield from BTIG Research has grown increasingly pessimistic about the odds of Comcast winning approval of its effort to buy Time Warner Cable.

Despite the unified view from the executive suites of both cable companies that the merger is a done-deal just waiting for pro forma paperwork to get handled by the FCC and Department of Justice, Greenfield has seen enough evidence to declare “the tide has turned against the cable monopoly in the past 12 months,” and now places the odds of a merger approval at 30 percent or less.

“Since we realized the inevitability of Title II regulation of broadband in December 2014, we have grown increasingly concerned that Comcast and Time Warner Cable will not be allowed to merge,” Greenfield wrote.

The claim from both cable companies that since Comcast and Time Warner Cable do not directly compete with each other, there in no basis on which the government could block the transaction, may become a moot point.

There are three factors that Greenfield believes will likely deliver a death-blow to the deal:

  • Monopsony Power
  • Broadband Market Share & Control
  • Aftershocks from the Net Neutrality Debate

btigMonopsony power is wielded when one very large buyer of a product or service becomes so important to the seller, it can dictate its own terms and win deals that no other competitor can secure for itself.

Comcast is already the nation’s largest cable operator. Time Warner Cable is second largest. One would have to combine most of the rest of the nation’s cable companies to create a force equally important to cable programming networks.

As Stop the Cap! testified last summer before the Public Service Commission in New York, allowing a merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable would secure the combined cable company volume discounts on cable programming that no other competitor could negotiate for itself. That would deter competition by preventing start-ups from entering the cable television marketplace because they would be at a severe disadvantage with higher wholesale programming expenses that would probably make their retail prices uncompetitive.

Even worse, large national cable programming distributors could dictate terms on what kinds of programming was available.

comcastbuy_400_241The FCC recognized the danger of monopsony market power and in the 1990s set a 30% maximum market share limit on the number of video customers one company could control nationally. That number was set slightly above the national market share held by the largest cable company at the time — first known as TCI, then AT&T Broadband, and today Comcast. Comcast sued the FCC claiming the cap was unconstitutional and won twice – first in 2001 when a federal court dismissed the rule as arbitrary and again in 2009 when it threw out the FCC’s revised effort.

Comcast itself recognized the 30% cap as an important bellwether for regulators watching the concentration of market power through mergers and acquisitions. When it agreed to buy Time Warner Cable, it volunteered to spin-off enough customers of the combined company to stay under the 30% (now voluntary) cap.

Greenfield argues the importance of concentration in the video programming marketplace has been overtaken by concerns about broadband.

“While Comcast tried to steer the government to evaluate the Time Warner deal on the old paradigm of video subscriber share, it is increasingly clear that DOJ and FCC approval/denial will come down to how they view the competitive landscape of broadband and whether greater broadband market share serves the public interest,” Greenfield wrote.

comcast whoppersIf the Comcast merger deal ultimately fails, the company may have only itself to blame.

Last year Comcast faced intense scrutiny over its interconnection agreements with companies that handle traffic for large content producers like Netflix. Comcast customers faced a deterioration in Netflix streaming quality after Comcast refused to upgrade certain connections to keep up with growing demand. Netflix was eventually forced to establish a direct paid connection agreement with the cable operator, despite the fact Netflix offers cable operators free equipment and connections for just that purpose.

That event poured gasoline on the smoldering debate over Net Neutrality and helped fuel support for a strong Open Internet policy that would give the FCC authority to check connection agreements and ban paid online fast lanes.

Seeing how Comcast affected broadband service for millions of subscribers across dozens of states could shift the debate away from any local impacts of the merger and refocus it on how many broadband customers across the country a single company should manage.

Comcast will control 50% or more of the national broadband market when applying the FCC’s newly defined definition of broadband: 25/3Mbps.

That rings antitrust and anticompetitive alarm bells for any regulator.

Greenfield notes that changing the definition of broadband will dramatically reshape market share. It will nearly eliminate DSL as a suitable competitor and leave Americans with a choice between cable broadband and Verizon FiOS, community owned fiber networks, Google, and a small part of AT&T’s U-verse footprint. If those competitors don’t exist in your community, you will have no choice at all.

cap comcastEven Comcast admits cable broadband enjoys a near-monopoly at 25/3Mbps speeds. controlling 89.7% of the market as of December 2013.

“If regulators take the ‘national’ approach to evaluating broadband competition, the FCC’s redefinition would appear to put the deal in even greater jeopardy,” Greenfield writes. “Beyond the market share of existing subscribers, the larger issue is availability.  Whether or not a current subscriber takes 25/3Mbps or better, the far more relevant question is if a consumer wanted that level of speed do they have a choice beyond their local cable operator?  As of year-end 2013, Comcast’s own filing illustrates that in 63% of their footprint post-Time Warner Cable, they were the only consumer choice for 25 Mbps broadband (we suspect even higher now).”

“With Comcast’s scale both before and especially after the Time Warner Cable transaction, they become ‘the only way’ for a majority of Americans to receive content/programming that requires a robust broadband connection,” Greenfield warned.

Even worse, to protect its video business, a super-sized Comcast will be tempted to introduce usage caps that will deliver a built-in advantage to its own services.

“Over time, the fear is that Comcast will favor its own IP-delivered video services versus third parties, similar to how it is able to offer Comcast IP-based video services as a ‘managed’ service that does not count against bandwidth caps, while third-party video services that look similar count against bandwidth caps,” he wrote. “The natural inclination will be for [Comcast] to protect their business (think usage based caps that only apply to outsiders, peering/interconnection fees, etc.)”

“With the overlay of the populist uprising driving government policy, it is hard to imagine how regulators could approve the Comcast Time Warner Cable transaction at this point,” Greenfield concludes. “Comcast continues to try to get the government to look to the past to get its deal approved.  But the framework is about not only what is current, but what the future will look like – especially in a rapidly changing broadband world.”

FCC Plans to Unveil New Rules to Regulate Broadband Service as a Public Utility; Net Neutrality Included

Phillip Dampier February 3, 2015 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

netneutralityIn a major victory for consumers and public interest groups, the Federal Communications Commission this week will unveil fundamental changes in the oversight of high-speed Internet service, regulating it in the public interest as a public utility.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler plans to include robust Net Neutrality protection in the proposal, insisting the agency has a right to oversee providers’ traffic management practices when they impact customers.

Central to the proposal is redefining broadband away from the current, barely regulated “information service” category that has allowed telecom companies to successfully challenge the FCC in court on almost every attempt to oversee broadband Internet service. Wheeler’s plan is expected to reclassify broadband as a “telecommunications service,” which will subject providers to more regulator scrutiny.

The FCC is expected to specifically prohibit providers from blocking, slowing down, or speeding up individual websites in return for financial compensation. The ban on “Internet fast lanes” and “toll booths” will protect Internet startups that would otherwise face an immediate disadvantage from well-heeled competitors that can afford to pay for enhanced access to customers.

But despite claims from Net Neutrality opponents, Wheeler is not expected to impose a one-size-fits-all regulatory regime over broadband. Instead, he prefers to reserve regulatory powers to police individual disputes such as those between Netflix, Comcast, Verizon and other providers which caused traffic slowdowns for consumers in 2014 until paid peering agreements were finalized, compensating ISPs for handling Netflix streaming video content.

Providers fear that reclassifying broadband under Title II rules could subject them to future oversight of practices like usage-based billing, usage caps, speed throttling, broadband pricing and availability. But the Obama Administration is on record opposing price regulation of broadband, and few expect the FCC will adopt a micromanagement approach to broadband oversight.

Wheeler’s proposal is likely to win a majority vote from the three Democratic commissioners. Opposition is a virtual certainty from the Republican minority.

The telecom industry promises whatever rules are adopted will face an immediate challenge in court.

FCC Now Defines Minimum Broadband Speed at 25Mbps; Everything Less Is Now “Slowband”

speedThe Federal Communications Commission, over loud objections from America’s largest cable and phone companies, has raised the minimum speed necessary to qualify as “broadband” from 4/1Mbps to 25/3Mbps.

Broadband deployment in the United States – especially in rural areas – is failing to keep pace with today’s advanced, high-quality voice, data, graphics and video offerings, according to the 2015 Broadband Progress Report adopted by the Federal Communications Commission.

Reflecting advances in technology, market offerings by broadband providers and consumer demand, the FCC updated its broadband benchmark speeds to 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. The 4 Mbps/1 Mbps standard set in 2010 is dated and inadequate for evaluating whether advanced broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a timely way, the FCC found.

Wheeler

Wheeler

Using this updated service benchmark, the 2015 report finds that 55 million Americans – 17 percent of the population – lack access to advanced broadband. Moreover, a significant digital divide remains between urban and rural America: Over half of all rural Americans lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service.

“The FCC doesn’t just have a statutory obligation to report on the status of broadband deployment; we have a duty to take immediate action if we assess that the goal of deployment to all Americans is not being met,” said FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler. “And act we have.”

The 3-2 party line vote left the FCC’s two Republican commissioners Ajit Pay and Michael O’Rielly siding with the telecom industry.

Commissioner Pai even accused the FCC of aiding and abetting the Obama Administration’s larger plan to regulate the Internet.

“The ultimate goal is to seize new, virtually limitless authority to regulate the broadband marketplace,” Pai wrote in his dissent. “Under its interpretation of section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, the FCC can do that only by determining that broadband is not ‘being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion’ or, more colloquially, by ignoring the consistent progress in Internet connectivity that’s obvious to anyone with a digital connection and an analog pulse.”

Pai

Pai

Pai called the FCC decision “Kafkaesque,” claiming the agency’s recent activist approach on issues like broadband speed, Net Neutrality, and managing wireless spectrum to guarantee robust competition will result in cuts in broadband investment, raise the cost of deployment, and deter competition.

Pai believes the FCC is erecting barriers that will delay or even stop Verizon and AT&T’s plans to ditch rural landline service through a proposed transition to IP-based phone service in urban communities and wireless-only service in rural areas. He also complained about efforts by the FCC to regulate the Internet like a public utility, claiming “that is not what the American consumer wants or deserves.”

But Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel countered maintaining the status quo and allowing the marketplace to set the agenda risks our digital future.

“I, for one, am tired of dreaming small; It’s time to dream big,” Rosenworcel said. “This is the country that put a man on the moon. We invented the Internet. We can do audacious things—if we set big goals. I think our new threshold should be 100Mbps. I think anything short of that shortchanges our children, our future, and our digital economy. I don’t think reaching a benchmark like this is easy—but nothing worthwhile ever is. Still, the history of technological innovation is rife with examples of the great depths of American known-how. It is time to put that know-how to work and use it to bring really big broadband everywhere.”

The FCC’s changed definition of what constitutes broadband could also have an impact on the current merger deal involving Comcast and Time Warner Cable now before the FCC and state regulators.

COMCAST-MILLIONAIREWith the new definition in place, Comcast’s monopoly control of broadband service becomes more clear as fewer phone companies are able to meet the minimum speed standard to qualify as broadband competitors. Comcast will now control about 50% of all broadband homes in the country, a percentage that could reach even higher if Comcast revamps Time Warner Cable’s broadband tiers.

The report also highlights a growing digital divide on Tribal lands, in U.S. territories, and in schools. At least two-thirds of residents lack access to broadband on Native American reservations and in U.S. possessions including Puerto Rico, Guam, the Northern Marianas, U. S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa. More than one-third of all schools in the United States lack access to fiber broadband connections.

Key findings include the following:

  • 17 percent of all Americans (55 million people) lack access to 25/3 Mbps service;
  • 53 percent of rural Americans (22 million people) lack access to 25/3 Mbps;
  • By contrast, only 8 percent of urban Americans lack access to 25/3 Mbps broadband;
  • Rural America continues to be underserved at all speeds: 20 percent lack access even to service at 4/1 Mbps, down only 1 percent from 2011, and 31 percent lack access to 10/1 Mbps, down only 4 percent from 2011;
  • 63 percent of Americans living on Tribal lands (2.5 million people) lack access to 25/3 Mbps broadband;
  • 85 percent living in rural areas of Tribal lands (1.7 million people) lack access;
  • 63 percent of Americans living in U.S. territories (2.6 million people) lack access to 25/3Mbps broadband;
  • 79 percent of those living in rural territorial areas (880,000 people) lack access;
  • Overall, the gap in availability of broadband at 25/3Mbps closed by only 3 percentage points last year, from 20% lacking access in 2012 to 17% in 2013.

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