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To Infinity and Beyond: The New Broadband Map Has Landed!

TOTM Announced with the sort of breathless press release one might expect for the launch of a new product like Waystar Royco’s Living+, the Federal Communications Commission . . .

Announced with the sort of breathless press release one might expect for the launch of a new product like Waystar Royco’s Living+, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has gone into full-blown spin mode over its latest broadband map.

This is, to be clear, the map that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will use to allocate $42.5 billion to states from NTIA’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program. Specific allocations are expected to be announced by June 30.

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities

Regulatory Myopia and the Fair Share of Network Costs: Learning from Net Neutrality’s Mistakes

Written Testimonies & Filings Abstract Seeking to boost funding for the next generation of telecommunications infrastructure, European Union (EU) policymakers have proposed mandating that some large online platforms pay . . .


Seeking to boost funding for the next generation of telecommunications infrastructure, European Union (EU) policymakers have proposed mandating that some large online platforms pay a special usage fee to network operators. Framed as a way to ensure that the largest users of internet infrastructure contribute their “fair share” to telecommunications networks, the proposal would be another unnecessary and harmful regulatory intervention. These comments paper seek to demonstrate that the fair-share debate itself is, in fact, the byproduct of an earlier intrusive government initiative: net-neutrality regulation. Like net neutrality’s anti-discrimination rules, a “fair share” tax would represent a solution that doesn’t work to a problem that doesn’t exist. Moreover, the debate reflects the EU’s fundamentally misguided inclination toward an industrial-policy approach to the digital transformation, built on the unsound belief that innovation can be delivered via regulation and by subsidizing legacy domestic firms with rents transferred from successful global players. Rather than continuing to interfere in market dynamics and private negotiations without any solid evidence of market failure, the EU should instead learn from its past mistakes and acknowledge the limited scope for regulation in these dynamic markets.

I. Introduction

“[W]e have a vision, and we have a goal,”[1] European Commissioner Thierry Breton said in a February 2023 speech in Helsinki announcing the launch of a public consultation on the future of connectivity and infrastructure in the European Union (EU).[2] The consultation’s stated goal is to keep pace with transformative technological developments and to make Europe a digital leader by boosting deployment of forward-looking telecommunications infrastructure. Toward this end, the European Commission argues, it is essential that the regulatory framework is fit for purpose, with adequate funding to support the required investments.[3]

Given that ambitious goal, these comments investigate the likelihood that this vision can become a reality.

As part of the 2030 Digital Decade policy program,[4] European policymakers are seeking a means to equip Europe with the next generation of connectivity infrastructure. The primary solution offered—one that has the backing of incumbent European telecom operators (telcos)—is to make some large online platforms (so-called “Big Tech”) contribute to the cost of telecom networks. The proposal has been justified on grounds that Big Tech firms use a large share of bandwidth, while the telcos have seen a decline in their returns on investment.[5]

Essentially, the proposal would constitute a direct welfare transfer from online content and application providers (CAPs) or over-the-top service providers (OTTs) to benefit telcos and other internet service providers (ISPs). This would be accomplished by setting a data-transmission threshold and charging CAPs a fee when they transmit data exceeding that threshold. Indeed, the questionnaire the Commission released as part of the public consultation does not ask whether such a levy is needed, but merely seeks input on how it should be structured.[6]

Unsurprisingly, telcos have described the fair-share tax as “a once in a lifetime opportunity to recover digital leadership in Europe.”[7] Telco operators argue that a few Big Tech firms generate a significant portion of all internet traffic, but do not adequately contribute to the development of such networks.[8] These concerns find support in the recent European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles for the Digital Decade, which calls for a framework through which “all market actors benefiting from the digital transformation assume their social responsibilities and make a fair and proportionate contribution to the costs of public goods, services and infrastructures, for the benefit of all Europeans.”[9]

EU policymakers have also explored the need to encourage consolidation in the telecom industry in order to sustain investments that will stanch “Europe’s progressive technological decline.”[10] Under this vision, the path to promote investment and spur innovation in Europe’s digital future would be forged not only through rent transfers from CAPs to telcos, but also by defeating “excessive competition” in the telecom section.[11]

We argue here that the current debate stems, instead, from earlier invasive and unnecessary regulatory initiatives. Notably, the “fair share” proposal is the poison fruit of net-neutrality regulation, which has prevented telcos from monetizing their networks. In an alternative framework, the telecom sector could have instead been permitted to manage the transmission of content and services according to their value for end users, anticipated bandwidth use, or a host of other quality requirements upon which various CAPs depend.

Rather than acknowledging the limits of regulation, the fair-share proposal reflects the Commission’s persistent distrust of market forces and private-ordering mechanisms. Further, the debate represents just the latest instance of a more generalized EU industrial-policy approach to the digital transformation. This approach rests on the unsound belief that innovation can be delivered through regulation and by subsidizing legacy domestic EU firms through the transfer of rents from successful global players.

Having in this section provided an overview of the conflict between telecom operators and CAPs, Section II frames the “fair share” debate within the broader EU industrial-policy approach to the digital transformation, noting similarities with earlier efforts to support the EU’s audiovisual and publishing industries. Section III investigates the controversial relationship between “fair share” duties and net-neutrality rules. Section IV points out the limited role for regulation and the principles that should guide government intervention in fast-moving industries. Section V concludes.

II. A Solution in Search of a Problem

The 2030 Digital Decade policy program highlights the need to foster investment in high-speed telecommunications networks if the EU is to meet the connectivity targets established in the path to the digital transformation.[12]

Data traffic represents the critical determinant of telecom networks’ size and capacity. EU telcos claim, however, that exponential growth of internet traffic has left them unable to earn viable returns on network investments.[13] According to the telcos, traffic growth is disproportionately driven by a small number of OTTs, who provide relatively little direct economic contribution to network rollout.

According to a report for the European Telecommunications Network Operators Association (ETNO), just six firms generated roughly 56% of all network traffic, with Google accounting for 21%; Meta accounting for 15.4%; Netflix accounting for 9.4%; Apple accounting for 4.2%; Amazon accounting for 3.7%; and Microsoft accounting for 3.3%.[14] Further, a study conducted by Frontier Economics on behalf of Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefo?nica, and Vodafone estimated that traffic driven by OTTs could generate annual costs for EU telcos of €36 to 40 billion.[15] Such findings are often cited by telcos to make the case that OTTs are free riding on their network investments and need to be made to more equitably share the burden:

Digital platforms are profiting from hyper scaling business models at little cost while network operators shoulder the required investments in connectivity. At the same time our retail markets are in perpetual decline in terms of profitability.[16]

To address the concern of free riding, telcos have proposed a sending-party-network-pays system, which would mandate that the largest online platforms pay usage fees to compensate network operators.[17] In singling out the largest platforms for exceptional treatment, the proposal resembles how EU institutions already approach the regulation of “gatekeepers” under the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and “very large online platforms” under the Digital Services Act (DSA).[18] The proposal would establish a direct compensation mechanism, rather than private negotiations among the relevant parties, because it assumes that network operators are not positioned to negotiate fair terms with leading OTTs due to the latter’s alleged strong market positions, asymmetric bargaining power, and a lack of a level regulatory playing field.

The telcos point to the revenue and market capitalization enjoyed by the largest OTTs as demonstrating that the services Big Tech provides are essential for consumers.[19] But while the growth in traffic volume for the OTTs’ services creates additional costs for network operators, the telcos contend that they cannot respond to that growth in demand with higher retail prices, both because of strong competition in the retail telecommunications market and due to regulatory interventions at the wholesale level.[20] These factors, they contend, have created an uneven regulatory playing field between OTTs and telcos. Moreover, they argue that this uneven playing field has contributed to declining profit margins for telcos’ traditional retail revenue streams and that, consequently, telcos’ costs of capital are now higher than their returns on capital.

For their part, OTTs argue that they contribute to the internet ecosystem with investments in content-delivery networks and infrastructure—such as data centers, undersea cables, and satellites—and by creating content that is attractive to consumers, who in turn buy access from the ISPs to consume that content.[21] Therefore, they argue, it is the end users who generate traffic by consuming content, and they already pay ISPs through their subscriptions.

This debate over how network costs should be allocated is not new, and nor is the idea of a sending-party-network-pays system. The Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) rejected a similar proposal 10 years ago, arguing that requests for dataflows stem not from content providers, but from retail ISPs’ own customers. BEREC further contended that increased demand for broadband access can be attributed to the success of content providers.[22]

Indeed, broadband networks are two-sided markets that bring together CAPs and end users. ISPs derive revenue from end users, who in turn pay for internet service to gain access to OTTs’ content. Since both sides of the market (content providers and end users) contribute to the cost of internet connectivity, BEREC found that “[t]here is no evidence that operators’ network costs are already not fully covered and paid for in the Internet value chain.”[23]

Further, BEREC acknowledged that the current “model has enabled a high level of innovation, growth in Internet connectivity, and the development of a vast array of content and applications, to the ultimate benefit of the end user.”[24] Therefore, “the nature of services to be delivered across the network, and the charging mechanisms applied to them, should continue to be left to commercial negotiations among stakeholders.”[25]

While prevailing internet traffic volumes are notably higher today than those observed a decade ago, it does not appear that BEREC regards the recent changes in traffic patterns as sufficient to modify its underlying assumptions regarding the sending-party-network-pays regime.[26] Indeed, in a recent preliminary assessment of a proposed direct compensation mechanism to benefit telcos, BEREC confirmed that it feels “the 2012 conclusions are still valid” and that the sending-party-network-pays model would provide ISPs “the ability to exploit the termination monopoly” and could be of “significant harm to the internet ecosystem.”[27]

BEREC also questioned the assumption that an increase in traffic directly translates into higher costs, noting that the costs of network upgrades necessary to handle increased traffic volumes are small relative to total network costs, and that upgrades come with significant increases in capacity.[28] In other words, BEREC found that rising traffic volumes do not directly lead to significant incremental costs relative to total network costs.[29]

Finally, BEREC once again found no evidence of free riding along the value chain,[30] finding that the IP-interconnection ecosystem remains largely competitive and that costs for internet connectivity are typically covered by ISPs’ customers.

It would be reasonable to assume that if there had been such a significant free-riding, this would have been reflected in ISPs financial statements and also in loss warnings.[31]

BEREC’s preliminary findings and continued skepticism of replacing freely negotiated internet interconnections with mandated network-usage fees are supported by studies that similarly find a lack of evidence of free riding;[32] report significant investments by CAPs to support network infrastructure;[33] and raise concerns about the potential side effects of a sending-party-network-pays model on the proper functioning of internet connectivity.[34]

A study conducted by WIK-Consult for the Federal Network Agency Germany (Bundesnetzagentur) confirmed that the IP-interconnection ecosystem is largely competitive and warned against the kinds of potential unintended consequences already seen in South Korea, the only country thus far that has mandated sending-party-network-pays billing.[35] South Korea provides a cautionary tale about the adverse effects that stem from interference in voluntary negotiations. Indeed, there is evidence that the competitive distortions between CAPs and ISPs generated by the Korean initiative had negative effects for consumers in terms of costs and the degradation of quality.[36]

Some EU member states have also been skeptical of telcos’ pleas and of the idea more generally that charging a toll on the internet is an appropriate strategy to promote network investments.[37] According to these members, the proposed “fair share” toll would pose considerable risks to the internet ecosystem and is likely to cause considerable harm to businesses and consumers. Indeed, as the envisaged data-transmission tax will affect the most popular services and content, a huge percentage of consumers are expected to bear the relative cost, as targeted OTTs eventually pass the new fees paid to ISPs downstream.[38] These concerns were expressed in a letter from Austria, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands that urged the Commission to publish the Broadband Cost Reduction Directive (BCRD) review without discussion of the “fair share” debate.[39] In their view, while the revised BCRD should aim to accelerate the deployment of very high-capacity networks, the fair-share proposal is a distinct topic that requires a proper evidence-based assessment of its own merits.

A. Blaming and Taxing Digital Platforms

From a broader perspective, the “fair share” debate reflects the EU’s recent industrial-policy approach to the digital transformation.

The internet has deeply transformed traditional industries by favoring the emergence of new business models and creating opportunities for new players to enter those markets. Because of these challenges, some legacy incumbents struggle to keep pace with innovation and new forms of competition, disrupting entire industries. It is no secret that Europe has lagged behind in the digital economy and that established European companies have suffered most from the emergence of digital markets, as they have thus far been unable to develop competitive platform-based ecosystems.

Against this backdrop, European institutions have looked to subsidies as the solution to rescue some legacy players. Such interventions have been justified by policymakers on grounds of alleged market failures or the importance of public interests at stake. Such claims are not new, and public deliberation would ordinarily turn to evaluating whether the claimed market failures are real and whether the measures identified to promote future competition and innovation are effective. But EU policymakers have managed to evade such questions by insisting that the rescues they obviously seek not rely directly on subsidies from the European public.[40] Instead, the proposed subsidies would come from private, largely U.S.-based firms.

In sum, the manifesto for the new protectionist EU industrial policy is to “blame and tax Big Tech.” This narrative holds that the success of a few large online platforms is the cause of the purported market failures, and that it is therefore fair to tax their success and force them to share their profits.[41] The approach is shortsighted but, from the perspective of EU policymakers, certainly convenient.

The internet’s impact on business models is seen as particularly threatening to the media industry. In light of new technologies to transmit audiovisual-media services, European institutions argued for a regulatory framework that would ensure “optimal conditions of competitiveness” for European media and safeguard certain “public interests, such as cultural diversity.”[42]

The policy solutions identified by the revised Audiovisual Media Services (AVMS) Directive are twofold.[43] First, European works are required to represent at least 30% of on-demand audiovisual-media services’ catalogs, and the services are require to ensure the prominence of those works.[44] Second, to ensure adequate levels of investment in European works, EU member states are permitted to impose financial obligations (including requiring direct investments in content and mandated contributions to the national fund) on media-service providers established within their territory, or on the basis of revenues the providers generate from services that are provided in and targeted toward the member state’s territory.[45]

In other words, to counter U.S. platforms’ dominance in the European video-on-demand (VOD) market,[46] the new AVMS Directive targets large foreign companies by imposing content quotas and financial obligations under a regime that has been termed the “Netflix tax.”[47] While this protectionist intervention to rescue the European audiovisual market is ostensibly made in the name of the public interest, both of the envisaged measures more accurately reflect resentment of the global players’ success than they do concern for Europe’s noble cultural diversity.[48]

Shortly after the AVMS Directive’s enactment, taxing Big Tech also became the preferred solution to rescue the European publishing industry.[49] Seeking to address a purported gap in value between digital platforms and news publishers, the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market granted the latter a right to control and receive compensation for the reproduction and availability of online summaries of their news articles.[50] Indeed, publishers claim that the sustainability of their entire industry has been jeopardized by the emergence of digital gatekeepers, which capture most of the advertising revenue without bearing the cost of the investments needed to produce news content. It is alleged that this unfair split of revenues is the result of asymmetric bargaining power, which makes it difficult for press publishers to negotiate with Big Tech on an equal footing.[51]

In sum, the news publishers’ case that free riding and asymmetry of bargaining power justify their request for revenue sharing are the same arguments used by telcos to support their own “fair share” proposal. The publishing industry’s struggles, however, started swell before the emergence of digital platforms. Newspapers’ business models were first hit by the advent of the internet, which changed consumption habits and enabled the growth of new forms of journalism.[52] Moreover, digital platforms arguably play a complementary role to news sites, as legacy publishers benefit from inbound links that drive audience traffic. Indeed, empirical evidence does not support the free-riding narrative.[53] It may be sound policy to support publishers in their digital transformation but, as argued some years ago, “[t]axing new digital players will not save press publishing industry and legacy business models.”[54]

Such findings also apply to the telcos. Indeed, as is evident from this brief analysis, there are strong similarities between the audiovisual market and the publishing industry when it comes to the fair share of network costs. All of these policy initiatives stem from European industries’ inability to keep the pace with the digital transformation that has been enhanced by the spread of high-speed internet. While the internet revolution has enabled the emergence of new global players, legacy European companies are struggling to adapt their business models and strategies in order to compete.

In this context, policymakers frequently invoke the need to protect public interests as justification for regulatory interventions they claim would correct purported market failures, but that instead merely alter the prevailing market dynamics. Indeed, protectionist interventions that impose financial obligations on successful players will not address the problems in question, and will therefore be ineffective at achieving the goal of closing the competition gap between European firms and the global players. Moreover, as discussed in the next section, taxing online providers in the telecommunications sector, specifically, would appear to be clearly at odds with the rationale that underlies European efforts to enforce the net-neutrality regulation.[55]

III. The Net-Neutrality Problem

The European Commission’s “fair share” proposal is of dubious compatibility with net neutrality, which was the flagship initiative delivered by the Commission in the previous political term. Indeed, the Commission has appeared anxious to reassure the public that there is no going back on net neutrality and that it remains “strongly committed” to protecting a neutral and open internet.[56] But there are manifest concerns that direct compensation from large OTTs to ISPs would endanger the principle of net neutrality.[57] Indeed, the fair-share proposal appears at odds with both the legal obligations of net neutrality and its underlying economic rationale.

Net neutrality has always been a particularly contentious topic, as confirmed by the transatlantic divergence on the topic. While the EU regulation remains in force, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 2015 Open Internet Order was repealed in 2018 by the superseding Restoring Internet Freedom Order.[58] The FCC reverted to its pre-2015 position, concluding that the benefits of a market-based, light-touch regime for internet governance outweigh those of utility-style, common-carrier regulation. Quoting then-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, “there was no problem to solve. The Internet was not broken in 2015. We were not living in a digital dystopia.”[59]

Given the assumption that broadband providers enjoy endemic market power, a common feature of net-neutrality regulations is the imposition of non-discrimination rules that ensure all internet traffic is treated equally. As terminating-access monopolists, ISPs are deemed gatekeepers for edge providers that seek to reach their end-user subscribers—hence, they may discriminate against the former and impose restrictions on the latter. Toward this end, the 2015 Open Internet Order imposed three ex ante bright-line rules preventing U.S. ISPs from blocking content, throttling traffic, or discriminating against specific content for a fee (so-called “paid prioritization”).[60] These rules were predicated on the belief that there was a need to protect and promote openness, since “the Internet’s openness promotes innovation, investment, competition, free expression, and other national broadband goals.”[61]

In a similar vein, by establishing common rules to safeguard equal and non-discriminatory treatment of internet traffic, the EU Regulation pointed to the need to protect end-users and guarantee the continued functioning of the internet ecosystem as an engine of innovation:[62]

The internet has developed over the past decades as an open platform for innovation with low access barriers for end-users, providers of content, applications and services and providers of internet access services. … However, a significant number of end-users are affected by traffic management practices which block or slow down specific applications or services.[63]

Indeed, proponents of net neutrality typically claim that allowing ISPs to treat different CAPs differently through, e.g., paid prioritization would stifle innovation by hindering the entrance of new content providers. This, in turn, would negatively affect the welfare of end-users through rising subscription fees, less variety of content, and reduced quality of connections.[64] Opponents, on the other hand, question the very economic logic of net-neutrality regulation, maintaining that it would increase regulatory costs, dampen ISPs’ incentives to invest in broadband capacity, and harm both consumers and content providers.[65]

Moreover, these types of regulations explicitly prevent ISPs from bargaining with CAPs in ways that would allow ISPs to seek payment for excessive network usage. Thus, some substantial portion of the “problem” that “fair share” seeks to correct directly arises from telcos being constrained from arm’s-length negotiations with CAPs.

Net-neutrality opponents also contest the claim that ISPs have and use market power in ways that lead to market foreclosure, arguing that this is not supported by empirical evidence.[66] A related concern is that vertically integrated ISPs with market power could potentially self-preference their own content.[67] But even if a vertically integrated ISP had market power, it is not obvious that compromising the quality of content requested by end users would be profit maximizing.[68] That is, even in this extreme hypothetical, the threat of user defection because of degraded quality mutes or answers the concern.

More generally, the economic literature has stressed that the consequences of net-neutrality regulation depend on precise policy choices, how they are implemented, and how long-run economic trade-offs play out.[69] Strict net neutrality may lead to socially inefficient allocations of traffic, as well as traffic inflation. It would thereby harm efficiency by distorting both ISPs and content providers’ investments and service-quality choices.[70]

Given the ambiguous effects of net neutrality’s anti-discrimination rules, the most controversial issue concerns whether any value is added value by enforcing a net-neutrality regime through an ex ante regulatory ban, rather than traditional ex post case-by-case antitrust enforcement.[71] Indeed, net neutrality introduces a blanket ban of practices that would not be per se antitrust violations.[72] Notably, net neutrality de facto prevents broadband providers from introducing vertical contractual restraints, which have typically proven to be welfare enhancing more often than anticompetitive.[73] Therefore, there is a risk that, in the name of leveling the playing field, net neutrality focuses on competitor welfare rather than consumer welfare.[74] In sum, given the ambiguous welfare effects of discrimination, it is impossible to establish in advance whether the purported exclusionary effects outweigh their potential procompetitive benefits. Hence, there is no economic support for an ex ante absolute prohibition.

The “fair share” solution of taxing Big Tech to fund broadband-network improvements also appears to violate both the economic rationale for and legal obligation of equal treatment under net neutrality. By only imposing fees on OTTs that transmit data exceeding a certain threshold, the “fair share” proposal clearly discriminates against some online services and content—that is, the largest ones. With regard to the economic rationale, net neutrality has been justified on the grounds that broadband providers enjoy endemic market power as terminating-access monopolies. It would therefore be strange to impose an intervention to restore “fairness” in the relationship between network operators and content providers on the premise that the former suffers from an asymmetry of bargaining power. Indeed, under EU net-neutrality rules, ISPs are assumed to have insurmountable bargaining power, even though the “fair share” proposal presumes them to be powerless before Big Tech.

Indeed, as noted above, net neutrality is a primary driver of the current “fair share” debate. Allowing paid prioritization between ISPs and CAPs likely would have prevented the emergence of these claims. Indeed, it could be argued that, on the one hand, net neutrality has tilted the balance in favor of large OTTs[75] and, on the other hand, paid prioritization would be the efficient market answer to different content offerings.

Notably, conventional economic principles justify vertical restraints and discriminatory practice, as online content varies in terms of value for consumers, bandwidth use, and quality requirements.[76] Indeed, as was raised years ago during the U.S. net-neutrality debate, a ban on paid prioritization is inconsistent with a well-developed body of literature showing that it is impossible to determine ex ante whether any specific instance of paid prioritization will have positive or negative effects for consumers.[77] Moreover, restraints on prioritization are likely to thwart a range of welfare-increasing business models on the internet and to chill further pricing innovations.[78]

Therefore, the fair-share proposal struggles to address the same fundamental question already raised in the case of net neutrality: whether a regulatory intervention is justified in the first place.

IV. Regulatory Humility and Lessons Unlearned

According to the economic literature, regulatory intervention is only justified under limited circumstances. The case for regulation is best substantiated where it can correct market failures, such as when free and unrestricted competition is unable to allocate resources efficiently.[79] Even under the romantic assumption that regulation serves consumers’ interests and policymakers have sufficient information and enforcement powers to both promote the public interest and maximize social welfare, the primary focus of regulation will still be to tackle market failures.[80]

Outside those examples of market failure, effective competition is commonly accepted to be the best regulator, as it has been empirically demonstrated to lead to lower prices, better quality, and greater innovation.[81] Without a proper justification, regulation negatively interferes in market dynamics by generating inefficiencies, introducing artificial barriers to entry, and deterring technological innovation.

Calibrating regulation is extremely difficult. Although regulation is expected to be forward-looking, it may lack flexibility, and the imposition of rigid sets of rules can risk enshrining a static view of the market at the expense of its dynamic evolution. Moreover, consistent with both private-interest and public-choice theory, government intervention is often prone to capture by special interests, rather than promoting general social welfare.

Although these are limits of regulation generally, they are particularly critical in fast-moving industries, where it is challenging to design a future-proof framework.[82] Therefore, especially when dealing with digital transformations, it is appropriate to embrace regulatory humility, acknowledge the inherent limits of regulation, and refrain either from picking winners and losers in the marketplace or from preemptively intervening in the absence of solid evidence of market failure and consumer harm.[83] Notably, the market-failure approach assumes that government activity should be limited to the minimal amount of intervention sufficient to correct for specific failures.[84]

Further, interventions to correct market failures should neither require nor assume a particular technology. This would ensure much-needed flexibility to adapt the rules to rapidly changing realities, thus avoiding early obsolescence. It would also avoid the weaponization of regulation to protect incumbents’ market position by freezing investments and hindering the development of new technologies. In sum, the principles of minimal and technologically neutral intervention reflect a light-touch approach of regulatory self-restraint, with awareness that the market is generally better suited to promote innovation and that regulation scores poorly on dealing with the unexpected.

The EU’s net-neutrality rules departed from the principles of self-restraint and technological neutrality.[85] Despite the fact that there was no discernible evidence of a market failure, EU policymakers chose to interfere with the management of internet traffic. Moreover, they did so by imposing an outright ban on common marketplace practices whose effects are at least ambiguous, and hence deserving of case-by-case assessment. As a result, net neutrality picked winners (OTTs) and losers (ISPs). At the time, academics and other experts warned against the adoption of rigid regulation, which by definition cannot aspire to be future-proof and is apt to capture the dynamics of industries characterized by rapid innovation.[86]

Indeed, net neutrality did not anticipate the rise of OTT services. A fascinating slogan has apparently proven to be more influential than economic principles and reality. And now, “fair share” advocates want the EU to step into the breach created by net-neutrality regulation and impose further (likely inefficient) levies on Big Tech. The more rational course would be to reconsider the nature of net neutrality’s non-discrimination principles in the first place. Alas, the “fair share” proposal in fact shares several features with net-neutrality regulation, demonstrating that, rather than learn from previous mistakes, European institutions are ready to repeat them. In particular, the proposal at issue does not square with economics.

Indeed, the economic justification for the regulatory intervention is missing, as there is no evidence of a market failure to address. Quite the opposite, according to BEREC.[87] The current model has fostered innovation, growth in internet connectivity, and the development of a vast array of content and applications. In other words, it has generated significant benefits for end users. The increase in traffic volume has not altered this fundamental reality and the IP-interconnection ecosystem largely remains highly competitive. At the same time, there is no evidence of free riding by CAPs along the value chain. As a result, the adoption of a sending-party-network-pays model would represent an unwarranted threat to the internet ecosystem that would generate costs with little or no countervailing benefits.

It is even questionable whether increases in internet traffic have resulted in higher costs for the telcos, who also benefit from the demand for broadband access that has been driven by the success of OTTs’ content and services.[88] More generally, it is not clear how punishing the success of some OTTs would promote investment and innovation in the broadband market.

Further, rather than abiding by the principle of minimal intervention, the proposal would interfere with market dynamics by substituting a direct-compensation mechanism for private negotiations. The justification advanced for such an invasive intervention is the alleged asymmetry of the telcos’ bargaining position vis-à-vis large OTTs. The assertion is that OTTs enjoy this disproportionate bargaining position because of their market power and an uneven regulatory playing field. Leaving aside the inherent knowledge problem in a central regulator deciding how dynamic data flows should be valued, this explanation is at odds with the primary assumption of net neutrality—that the telcos play a gatekeeper role because of their control of access to the internet. In reality, both Big Tech and the ISPs are sufficiently competent parties that they should be able to negotiate mutually beneficial business terms among themselves.

If telcos face an uneven regulatory playing field, it is precisely because of net neutrality, which limits their ability to monetize their networks by discriminating among content and applications. Rather than acknowledge that interfering with market forces was the original mistake and that it is therefore time to restore private parties’ ability to freely negotiate the terms for content delivery, EU policymakers once again choose to blame the market.

If we acknowledge that internet traffic is generated by consumers (rather than by OTTs), payments into a fund managed by the European Commission would have the same welfare implications as direct payments.[89] Given that everyone benefits from the internet, if there is a policy issue regarding financing the next generation of telecommunications infrastructure, it makes more sense for that to be financed out of a fund born through general taxation.

The proposed tax on Big Tech has been framed as ensuring that they pay their “fair share” of network costs. But fairness is in the eye of the beholder. The term is so vague that it inherently grants policymakers greater discretion and room for intervention, all in the name of a purportedly noble cause.[90] Unfortunately, regulations that aren’t supported by market-failure framework are doomed to be captured by private interests. From this perspective, the “fair share” proposal is, indeed, consistent with public-choice theories of regulation that regard it as a rent-seeking device to benefit a small group of incumbents at the expense of rivals and consumers.

V. Conclusion

According to an old saying, history tends to repeat itself. This result is avoidable only if we learn from our mistakes.[91] Looking at the “fair share” debate, European institutions appear condemned to repeat the past.

When it comes to technology and innovation, Europe systematically lags behind the United States and China. In the best-case scenario, it is catching up, but there is a significant gap to close. This picture is captured by various proxies of technological progress, such as the number of patents, the amount of R&D expenditure, the amount of private investment in artificial intelligence, the location of so-called “unicorn” firms, and the number of leading research institutions in high-tech fields.[92]

There is another digital-economy scoreboard, however, on which Europe is the clear frontrunner. Namely, Europe celebrates its position as the leading regulator of digital markets.[93] Indeed, in less than a decade, Europe has delivered the GDPR, the DMA, the DSA, and countless data-sharing initiatives. Indeed, it would appear that regulation is at least a partial cause of the EU’s poor results in the digital economy. After all, EU policymakers’ primary concern should be to ensure that the regulatory framework is fit for purpose. But over the past decade, when the expected results didn’t arise or when there were unintended consequences, rather than question the treatment, EU policymakers routinely have suggested increasing the dosage.

Against this background, the idea of introducing a tax on CAPs to boost investments in the next generation of telecommunications infrastructure could be just considered another piece of the jigsaw.

However, it is worth remembering that the diminished bargaining position that telcos have vis-à-vis online platforms is the result of another EU regulation. Indeed, without the net-neutrality ban on paid prioritization, telcos would have been free to negotiate differentiated terms for the delivery of OTTs’ content and services. OTTs could have been charged according to bandwidth usage, through side payments for setting up optimized network nodes, or through any number of other mutually beneficial business arrangements.

Further, the proposal contradicts the central premise of net neutrality, which was that broadband providers’ position as internet gatekeepers threatens OTTs and end users. But rather than acknowledge the mistakes of that earlier unnecessary and myopic intervention, the EU is supporting another shortsighted initiative that would be at odds with the economic rationale and the legal provisions of current internet regulation.

Again, as BEREC stated in 2012, the internet “has developed well without regulatory intervention, through stakeholders’ coordination in the free market. Its ability to evolve over time and self-adapt has been key to its growth and success.”[94] More recently, this message has been reiterated, emphasizing that “[t]he internet’s ability to self-adapt has been and still is essential for its success and its innovative capability.”[95]

There was no evidence of market failure to justify net neutrality, and there isn’t a market failure to justify imposing a “fair share” tax for network costs. Therefore, like net-neutrality anti-discrimination rules, mandating some large online platforms to compensate network operators with a usage fee would be a solution that wouldn’t work to a problem that doesn’t exist.[96]

The “fair share” proposal also reflects another pattern of recent EU industrial policy already seen in the audiovisual and publishing industries. As the digital revolution challenges existing business models, thus requiring a radical transformation of entire economic sectors, some incumbents suffer in adapting to the new environment, which requires facing new rivals but also taking advantages of new opportunities. This is part of the natural evolution of the market, where the disruptive force of innovation is generally welcome.

The EU is, instead, apparently concerned about the welfare of some legacy incumbents, especially if they are EU-born companies. As a result, market dynamics are once again threatened by regulatory interventions that impose financial obligations on successful online (and largely foreign) players. Such protectionist initiatives are at odds with the fundamental principle of competitive neutrality, according to which governments actions should ensure that all enterprises face a level playing field, irrespective of factors such as their ownership, location, or legal form.[97] Moreover, they have already proven to be an ineffective means to help companies in reinventing themselves and filling their competitive gap.

In sum, the EU not only assumes that it could lead and deliver innovation through regulation, but also that an industry’s digital transformation could be achieved by subsidizing legacy homegrown companies with welfare transfers from successful foreign players.

Such a vision does not live up to the ambitious goals of the 2030 Digital Decade. Insofar as Europe will be a place where innovation is regulated, rather than invented, there will be no chance to reverse its technological decline and recover digital leadership. Taxing Big Tech will not make Europe great again.

[1] Thierry Breton, Getting Europe Ready for the Next Generation of Connectivity Infrastructure, European Commission (Feb. 6, 2023), https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/SPEECH_23_623.

[2] See Press release, Commission Presents New Initiatives, Laying the Ground for the Transformation of the Connectivity Sector in the EU, European Commission (Feb. 23, 2023), https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_23_985.

[3] Exploratory Consultation – The Future of the Electronic Communications Sector and Its Infrastructure, European Commission (Feb. 23, 2023), https://digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/consultations/future-electronic-communications-sector-and-its-infrastructure (paras. 2.1 and 2.3, quantifying investment needs until 2030 of about 174 billion euros).

[4] Decision (EU) 2022/2481 of the European Parliament and of the Council Establishing the Digital Decade Policy Programme 2030 (Dec. 14, 2022), OJ L 323/4; see also, 2030 Digital Compass: The European Way for the Digital Decade, European Commission (Jan. 26, 2023), COM/2021/118 final.

[5] Breton, supra note 1; see European Commission, supra note 3, para 2.3, reporting that “some European providers of electronic communication networks and services, especially incumbents, claim that they suffer from a decreasing market valuation and lower return on investment, especially when compared to companies in the US.” The European Commission also mentioned that telcos’ claims regarding declining margins and rising costs are stem from current uncertainties (including high inflation, rising interest rates, and geopolitical tensions) that have led capital markets to focus on assets with better short-term returns and profitability and to prefer solutions that protect them from demand risk.

[6] This was also the opinion expressed by the German secretary at the Ministry for Digital Affairs and Transport (BMDV); see Christian Zentner, Kritik an Geplanter „Zwangsabgabe“ für Netflix und Co, Bundestag (March 2, 2023), https://www.bundestag.de/presse/hib/kurzmeldungen-936322 (finding the questionnaire to be “slightly tendentious”).

[7] Carlos Rodri?guez Cocina, You Have Not Seen This Movie Before: Fair Share Is Not a Remake, Telefónica (March 10, 2023), https://www.telefonica.com/en/communication-room/blog/you-have-not-seen-this-movie-before-fair-share-is-not-a-remake.

[8] Europe’s Internet Ecosystem: Socio-Economic Benefits of a Fairer Balance Between Tech Giants and Telecom Operators, Axon Partners Group Consulting (May 11, 2022), https://axonpartnersgroup.com/europes-internet-ecosystem-socio-economic-benefits-of-a-fairer-balance-between-tech-giants-and-telecom-operators (report prepared for the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association); Estimating OTT Traffic-Related Costs on European Telecommunications Networks, Frontier Economics (April 7, 2022), available at https://www.telekom.com/resource/blob/1003588/384180d6e69de08dd368cb0a9febf646/dl-frontier- g4-ott-report-stc-data.pdf (report for Deutsche Telekom, Orange, Telefonica, and Vodafone); see also, European Commission, supra note 3, Section 4 (describing the phenomenon as a “paradox” between increasing volumes of data on the infrastructures and alleged decreasing returns and appetite to invest in network infrastructure).

[9] European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles for the Digital Decade, European Commission (2022), 28 final, 3.

[10] Alan Burkitt-Gray, Vestager Calls for EU to Centralise and Consolidate Telecoms, Capacity (Jan. 31, 2023) https://www.capacitymedia.com/article/2b7xs7payiktkefkh1hj4/news/vestager-calls-for-eu-to-centralise-and-consolidate-telecoms; see also, Breton, supra note 1.

[11] Id.

[12] Supra note 4.

[13] See, CEO Statement on the Role of Connectivity in Addressing Current EU Challenges (Sep. 26, 2022), available at https://etno.eu//downloads/news/ceo%20statement_sept.2022_26.9.pdf; see also, United Appeal of the Four Major European Telecommunications Companies (Feb. 14, 2022),  https://www.telekom.com/en/company/details/united-appeal-of-the-four-major-european-telecommunications-companies-646166.

[14] Axon, supra note 8; see also, 2023 Global Internet Phenomena Report, Sandvine (Jan. 2023) https://www.sandvine.com/global-internet-phenomena-report-2023-download?submissionGuid=7b66978f-d664-4f10-b50b-28a48700788f.

[15] Frontier Economics, supra note 8.

[16] United Appeal, supra note 13.

[17] Axon, supra note 8.

[18] Regulation (EU) 2022/1925 on Contestable and Fair Markets in the Digital Sector and Amending Directives (EU) 2019/1937 and (EU) 2020/1828 (Digital Markets Act), (2022) OJ L 265/1; Regulation (EU) 2022/2065 on a Single Market for Digital Services and Amending Directive 2000/31/EC (Digital Services Act), (2022) OJ L 277/1.

[19] Axon, supra note 8, 18.

[20] Id.

[21] See, e.g., Doing Our Part: How Google’s Network Helps Internet Content Reach Users, Google (Apr. 20, 2022) https://cloud.google.com/blog/products/infrastructure/google-network-infrastructure-investments; Network Fee Proposals Are Based on a False Premise, Meta (Mar. 23, 2023), https://about.fb.com/news/2023/03/network-fee-proposals-are-based-on-a-false-premise.

[22] BEREC’s Comments on the ETNO Proposal For ITU/WCIT Or Similar Initiatives Along These Lines, BoR(12) 120, Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (2012), 3; Report on IP-Interconnection Practices in the Context of Net Neutrality, BoR (17) 184, Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (2017), (finding the internet-protocol-interconnection market to be competitive); Neelie Kroes, Adapt or Die: What I Would Do If I Ran a Telecom Company (Oct. 1, 2014), https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/de/SPEECH_14_647 (arguing that OTTs are driving digital demand: “[EU homes] are demanding greater and greater bandwidth, faster and faster speeds, and are prepared to pay for it. But how many of them would do that if there were no over the top services? If there were no Facebook, no YouTube, no Netflix, no Spotify?”); see also, Proposals for a Levy on Online Content Application Providers to Fund Network Operators. An Economic Assessment Prepared for the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate, Oxera (Feb. 27, 2023), 19, available at https://open.overheid.nl/documenten/ronl-8a56ac18a98a337315377fe38ac0041eb0dbe906/pdf, (noting that the cause of the traffic is the consumer’s initial request rather than the CAP’s fulfilment of that request).

[23] BEREC 2012, supra note 22, 4; see also, Oxera, supra note 22, 14 (arguing that there is no clear evidence that the absence of charging CAPs means that telcos are unable to raise revenues and cover their costs).

[24] BEREC 2012, supra note 22, 4.

[25] Id., 1.

[26] BEREC Preliminary Assessment of the Underlying Assumptions of Payments from Large CAPs to ISPs, BoR (22) 137, Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (2022), 4.

[27] Id., 4-5.

[28] Id., 7-8 (“BEREC considers in this regard the incremental costs necessary for the upgrade in capacity on a given network to handle more incoming traffic. These costs can incorporate to some extent technological upgrades as far as they are relevant for solving capacity issues. These costs have to be differentiated from the total network costs, which are mostly coverage costs.”).

[29] Id., 9

[30] Id., 11-14.

[31] Id., 13; see also, Plans for Charging Internet Toll by Large Telecom Companies Feared to Have Major Impact on European Consumers and Businesses, Government of the Netherlands (Feb. 27, 2023), https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/documenten/publicaties/2023/02/27/plans-for-charging-internet-toll-by-large-telecom-companies-feared-to-have-major-impact-on-european-consumers-and-businesses (arguing that “the large telecom operators seem to forget that consumers already pay for their Internet traffic, through their Internet subscription. The plea for an Internet toll actually implies that large telecom operators want to get paid twice.”).

[32] David Abecassis, Michael Kende, & Guniz Kama, IP Interconnection on the Internet: A European Perspective for 2022, Analysys Mason (Sep. 26, 2022), https://www.analysysmason.com/consulting-redirect/reports/ip-interconnection-european-perspective-2022; Volker Stocker & William Lehr, Regulatory Policy for Broadband: A Response to the “ETNO Report’s” Proposal for Intervention in Europe’s Internet Ecosystem, SSRN (Oct. 16, 2022), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4263096; Brian Williamson, An Internet Traffic Tax Would Harm Europe’s Digital Transformation, Communications Chambers (Jul. 2022), available at https://lisboncouncil.net/wp-content/uploads/2022/07/COMMUNICATIONS-CHAMBERS-Internet-Traffic-Tax-2.pdf.

[33] David Abecassis, Michael Kende, & Shahan Osman, The Impact of Tech Companies’ Network Investment on the Economics of Broadband ISPs, Analysys Mason (Oct. 12, 2022), https://www.analysysmason.com/consulting-redirect/reports/internet-content-application-providers-infrastructure-investment-2022.

[34] See, e.g., Connectivity Infrastructure and the Open Internet, BEUC: The European Consumer Organisation (Sep. 16, 2022), available at https://www.beuc.eu/sites/default/files/2022-09/BEUC-X-2022-096_Connectivity_Infrastructure-and-the_open_internet.pdf; Bijal Sanghani, Fair Share Debate and Potential Impact of SPNP on European IXPs and Internet Ecosystem, European Internet Exchange Association (Jan. 3, 2023), available at https://www.euro-ix.net/media/filer_public/1a/e4/1ae40d86-95ea-460a-920d-3b335c2439d4/spnp_impact_on_ixps_-_final.pdf.

[35] Karl-Heinz Neumann, et al., Competitive Conditions on Transit and Peering Markets, WIK-Consult (Feb. 28, 2022), available at https://www.bundesnetzagentur.de/EN/Areas/Telecommunications/Companies/Digitisation/Peering/download.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=1.

[36] Id., 36-38; see also Oxera, supra note 22, 28—33 (arguing that implementation of such a scheme would entail significant transaction and regulatory costs, as the regulator would be required to fulfil such recurring tasks as traffic analysis and verification, dispute settlement, and coordination with companies and other authorities).

[37] Government of the Netherlands, supra note 31; see also, Zentner, supra note 6 (stating that the telecommunications companies’ argument that such a levy would provide them with more money for network expansion does not hold water).

[38] Government of the Netherlands, supra note 31; Oxera, supra note 22 (predicting that only a limited portion of the additional revenue stream to telecom operators would be passed on to the internet subscribers in the form of slightly lower subscription fees, and that this would be offset by price increases from online services for subscriptions to, e.g., Spotify or Netflix more expensive).

[39] Call for Release of BCRD Revision – Refusal of Merge with Fair Share Debate, Austria, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands (May 12, 2022), available at https://www.permanentrepresentations.nl/binaries/nlatio/documenten/publications/2022/12/05/call-for-release-of-bcrd-revision—refusal-of-merge-with-fair-share-debate/Call+for+release+of+BCRD+revision+-+Refusal+of+merge+with+fair+share+debate_def.pdf.

[40] See Breton, supra note 1 (arguing that the burden of financing connectivity infrastructure should not rest solely on the shoulders of member states or the EU budget).

[41] See Tobias Kretschmer, In Pursuit of Fairness? Infrastructure Investment in Digital Markets, SSRN (Sep. 20, 2022), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4230863 (arguing that a transfer from large OTTs to telcos would be equivalent to a tax on success and that this would appear to arbitrarily target a group of largely U.S.-based firms while letting at least partly European newcomers and/or smaller firms enjoy the same externalities at no cost).

[42] Directive 2010/13/EU on the coordination of certain provisions laid down by law, regulation or administrative action in Member States concerning the provision of audiovisual media services (Audiovisual Media Services Directive), [2010] OJ L 95/1, Recitals 4 and 12.

[43] Directive (EU) 2018/1808 amending Directive 2010/13/EU on the coordination of certain provisions laid down by law, regulation or administrative action in Member States concerning the provision of audiovisual media services (Audiovisual Media Services Directive) in view of changing market realities, [2018] OJ L 303/69.

[44] Id., Recital 35 and Article 13(1).

[45] Id., Recital 36 and Article 13 (2).

[46] For analysis of the EU market, see David Graham, et al., Study on the Promotion of European Works in Audiovisual Media Services, Attentional, KEA European Affairs, and Valdani Vicari & Associati (Aug. 28, 2020), https://digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu/en/library/study-promotion-european-works.

[47] See Sally Broughton Micova, The Audiovisual Media Services Directive: Balancing Liberalisation and Protection, E. Brogi & P.L. Parcu (eds.), Research Handbook on EU Media Law and Policy, Edward Elgar Publishing (2020), 264 (arguing that the AVMS Directive is a unique blend of the liberal-market approach typical of the EU’s single market and classic protectionism, stemming from a history of concern that American content and media services would dominate European screens, threatening its cultures and industries).

[48] Id.; see also Joe?lle Farchy, Gre?goire Bideau, & Steven Tallec, Content Quotas and Prominence on VOD Services: New Challenges for European Audiovisual Regulators, 28 Int. J. Cult. Policy 419 (2022), (noting that the objective of cultural diversity contains a great ambiguity and that “[b]eyond the incantatory discourse on the expected benefits of cultural diversity, the notion is in fact complex, and refers to multiple, sometimes contradictory aspects.”).

[49] On the dispute between news publishers and digital platforms, see Giuseppe Colangelo, Enforcing Copyright Through Antitrust? The Strange Case of News Publishers Against Digital Platforms, 10 J. Antitrust Enforc. 133 (May 10, 2021); Giuseppe Colangelo & Valerio Torti, Copyright, Online News Publishing and Aggregators: A Law and Economics Analysis of the EU Reform, 27 Int. J. Law Inf. Technol. 75 (Jan. 11, 2019).

[50] Directive (EU) 2019/790 of 17 April 2019 on copyright and related rights in the Digital Single Market and amending Directives 96/9/EC and 2001/29/EC, [2019] OJ L 130/92, Article 15.

[51] Id., Recitals 54 and 55.

[52] See, e.g., The Evolution of News and the Internet, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (Jun. 11, 2010), available at https://www.oecd.org/sti/ieconomy/45559596.pdf; Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism, U.S. Federal Trade Commission (Jun. 2010), available at https://www.ftc.gov/sites/default/files/documents/public_events/how-will-journalism-survive-internet-age/new-staff-discussion.pdf; Bertin Martens, et al., The Digital Transformation of News Media and the Rise of Disinformation and Fake News – An Economic Perspective, Joint Research Center (Apr. 25, 2018), available at https://joint-research-centre.ec.europa.eu/system/files/2018-04/jrc111529.pdf; Martin Senftleben, et al., New Rights or New Business Models? An Inquiry into the Future of Publishing in the Digital Era, 48 IIC 538 (2017).

[53] Colangelo-Torti, supra note 49.

[54] Id., 90.

[55] Regulation (EU) 2015/2120 laying down measures concerning open internet access and amending Directive 2002/22/EC on universal service and users’ rights relating to electronic communications networks and services and Regulation (EU) No 531/2012 on roaming on public mobile communications networks within the Union, (2015) OJ L 310/1.

[56] European Commission, supra note 2.

[57] Government of the Netherlands, supra note 31; BEREC, supra note 26, 5.

[58] Restoring Internet Freedom Order, Federal Communications Commission (2018) 33 FCC Rcd 311.

[59] Ajit Pai, FCC Releases Restoring Internet Freedom Order, Federal Communications Commission (Jan. 4, 2018) 1, https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-releases-restoring-internet-freedom-order/pai-statement.

[60] Open Internet Order, Federal Communications Commission (2015), 30 FCC Rcd 5601.

[61] Id., 5625-26.

[62] Regulation (EU) 2015/2120, supra note 55, Recital 1.

[63] Id., Recital 3.

[64] See, e.g., Barbara van Schewick, Towards an Economic Framework for Network Neutrality Regulation, 5 JTHTL 329, (2006)

[65] See, e.g., Michael L. Katz, Wither U.S. Net Neutrality Regulation?, 50 Rev. Ind. Organ. 441 (2017), (finding substantial tension between the regulation and the objective of promoting consumer choice and sovereignty, and noting that the internet has never been, and is not designed to be, neutral); Christopher S. Yoo, Beyond Network Neutrality, 19 JOLT 1 (2005), (considering network neutrality a misnomer that may reinforce sources of market failure in the last mile and dampen incentives to invest in alternative network capacity) Wolfgang Briglauer, et al., Net neutrality and High?Speed Broadband Networks: Evidence from OECD Countries, Eur. J. Law Econ. (forthcoming), (finding empirical evidence that net-neutrality regulations exert a significant and strong negative impact on fiber investments); Marc Bourreau, Frago Kourandi, & Tommaso Valletti, Net Neutrality with Competing Internet Platforms, 63 J Ind Econ 30 (2015), (noting that, in a model with competing ISPs—rather than a monopolistic market structure—a switch from the net-neutrality regime to the alternative discriminatory regime would be bene?cial in terms of investments, innovation, and total welfare).

[66] See, e.g., Katz, supra note 65, 450;

Thomas W. Hazlett & Joshua D. Wright, The Effect of Regulation on Broadband Markets: Evaluating the Empirical Evidence in the FCC’s 2015 “Open Internet” Order, 50 Rev. Ind. Organ. 487 (2017); Maureen K. Ohlhausen, Antitrust Over Net Neutrality: Why We Should Take Competition in Broadband Seriously, 15 Colorado Technology Law Journal 119 (2016); Timothy J. Tardiff, Net Neutrality: Economic Evaluation of Market Developments, 11 J. Competition Law Econ. 701 (2015); Gerald R. Faulhaber, The Economics of Network Neutrality, Regulation 18 (2011-12).

[67] Pietro Crocioni, Net Neutrality in Europe: Desperately Seeking a Market Failure, 35 Telecomm Policy 1, (2011) 6-7; see also, Zero-Rating Practices in Broadband Markets, DotEcon, Aetha Consulting, and Oswell and Vahida, (Feb. 2017), available at https://ec.europa.eu/competition/publications/reports/kd0217687enn.pdf.

[68] See Crocioni, supra note 67 (arguing that even a monopolist ISP may benefit from valuable complements and be better off charging a higher price for internet access, instead of trying to force customers onto its own services); see also Ohlhausen, supra note 66; Faulhaber, supra note 66.

[69] Shane Greenstein, Martin Peitz, & Tommaso Valletti, Net Neutrality: A Fast Lane to Understanding the Trade-offs, 30 JEP 127 (2016); see also Sébastien Broos & Axel Gautier, The Exclusion of Competing One-Way Essential Complements: Implications for Net Neutrality, 52 Int. J. Ind. Organ. 358 (2017), (showing that, even in monopoly and duopoly, imposing net neutrality does not always improve welfare).

[70] Joshua Gans & Michael L. Katz, Weak Versus Strong Net Neutrality: Corrections and Extensions, 50 J. Regul. Econ. 99 (2016); Martin Peitz & F. Schuett, Net Neutrality and Inflation of Traffic, 46 Int. J. Ind. Organ. 16 (2016).

[71] See, e.g., A. Douglas Melamed & Andrew W. Chang, What Thinking About Antitrust Law Can Tell Us About Net Neutrality, 15 Colorado Technology Law Journal 93 (2016); Ohlhausen, supra note 66.

[72] A good example is provided by the treatment of zero-rating offers. For an analysis, see Giuseppe Colangelo & Valerio Torti, Offering Zero-Rated Content in the Shadow of Net Neutrality, 5 Market and Competition Law Review 141 (2021); see also Pablo Iba?n?ez Colomo, Future-Proof Regulation Against the Test of Time: The Evolution of European Telecommunications Regulation, 42 Oxf. J. Leg. Stud. 1170 (2022), 1187-188 (noting that the very practices that are problematic from a net-neutrality perspective are healthy expressions of competitive markets; hence, absent a finding of significant market power, there is no support for a preemptive ban of vertical integration, exclusivity agreements, and other practices that have an equivalent object and/or effect: these practices are routinely examined by competition authorities and careful case-by-case evaluation has long been deemed appropriate for them).

[73] See, e.g., Katz, supra note 65; Ohlhausen, supra note 66; Joshua D. Wright, Net Neutrality: Is Antitrust Law More Effective than Regulation in Protecting Consumers and Innovation?, U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law (Jun. 20, 2014), https://www.ftc.gov/legal-library/browse/prepared-statement-commissioner-joshua-d-wright-net-neutrality-antitrust-law-more-effective; Christopher S. Yoo, What Can Antitrust Contribute to the Network Neutrality Debate?, 1 Int. J. Commun. 493 (2007).

[74] Katz, supra note 65, 454.

[75] Irene Comeig, Klaudijo Klaser, & Luci?a D. Pinar, The Paradox of (Inter)net Neutrality: An Experiment on Ex-Ante Antitrust Regulation, 175 Technol Forecast Soc Change 121405. (2022).

[76] Ohlhausen, supra note 66, 137.

[77] See Justin (Gus) Hurwitz, et al., Amicus Curiae Brief in U.S. Telecom Association et al. v. FTC, International Center for Law & Economics (Aug. 6, 2015), available at  http://laweconcenter.org/images/articles/icle_oio_amicus_filed.pdf.

[78] Geoffrey Manne, et al., Policy Comments in the Matter of Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet, International Center for Law & Economics and TechFreedom (Jul. 17, 2014), available at https://laweconcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/icle-tf_nn_policy_comments.pdf.

[79] Richard Baldwin, Martin Cave, & Martin Lodge, Understanding Regulation, Oxford University Press (2012).

[80] William J. Baumol, Welfare Economics and the Theory of the State, Harvard University Press (1952).

[81] Regulation and Competition. A Review of the Evidence, UK Competition and Markets Authority (2020), https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/regulation-and-competition-a-review-of-the-evidence, paras. 1.3 and 2.4,.

[82] Colomo, supra note 72.

[83] See Ajit Pai, Remarks at the 18th Global Symposium for Regulators, Federal Communications Commission (Jul. 10, 2018), https://www.fcc.gov/document/chairman-pai-remarks-global-symposium-regulators-geneva; Maureen K. Ohlhausen, Regulatory Humility in Practice, Federal Trade Commission (Apr. 1, 2015), available at https://www.ftc.gov/system/files/documents/public_statements/635811/150401aeihumilitypractice.pdf.

[84] Baldwin, Cave, & Lodge, supra note 79.

[85] See also Colomo, supra note 72.

[86] See, e.g., Melamed & Chang, supra note 71; Ohlhausen, supra note 66; Bruce M. Owen, Net Neutrality: Is Antitrust Law More Effective than Regulation in Protecting Consumers and Innovation?, U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Antitrust Law (Jul. 8, 2014), https://ssrn.com/abstract=2463823.

[87] BEREC, supra note 26.

[88] Id.

[89] See also Oxera, supra note 22, 34 (arguing that the fund would still lead to a transfer of money from one group to another and would not lead to substantially lower transaction costs).

[90] Giuseppe Colangelo, In Fairness We (Should Not) Trust. The Duplicity of the EU Competition Policy Mantra in Digital Markets, The Antitrust Bulletin (forthcoming).

[91] Paul Crampton, Striking the Right Balance Between Competition and Regulation: The Key Is Learning from Our Mistakes, APEC-OECD Co-operative Initiative on Regulatory Reform (Oct. 2002), available at https://www.oecd.org/regreform/2503205.pdf.

[92] For useful information about several key innovation indicators, such as the value of venture-capital deals, the number of science and technology clusters, and government budget allocations for research and development, see, Global Innovation Index 2022, World Intellectual Property Organization, https://www.wipo.int/global_innovation_index/en/2022; see also Riccardo Righi, et al., AI Watch Index 2021, Joint Research Centre (Mar. 20, 2022), https://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/handle/JRC128744.

[93] See Margrethe Vestager, Tearing Down Big Tech’s Walls, Project Syndicate (Mar. 9, 2023), https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/eu-big-tech-legislation-digital-services-markets-by-margrethe-vestager-2023-03 (“We are proud that Europe has become the cradle of tech regulation globally.”).

[94] BEREC, supra note 22, 1.

[95] BEREC, supra note 26, 3.

[96] Ajit Pai, The FCC and Internet Regulation: A First-year Report Card, Federal Communications Commission (Feb. 26, 2016) https://www.fcc.gov/document/commissioner-pai-remarks-internet-regulation-first-year-report-card.

[97] See, Recommendation of the Council on Competitive Neutrality, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (May 30, 2021), https://legalinstruments.oecd.org/en/instruments/OECD-LEGAL-0462.

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Regulatory Comments I.        Introduction On behalf of the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE), we thank the Federal Communications Commission (FCC or the Commission) for the . . .

I.        Introduction

On behalf of the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE), we thank the Federal Communications Commission (FCC or the Commission) for the opportunity to comment on this Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Matter of Implementing the Infrastructure, Investment, and Jobs Act: Prevention and Elimination of Digital Discrimination (NPRM).[1]

The Commission is contemplating creating a definition of “digital discrimination of access” under Section 60506 as “(1) policies or practices, not justified by genuine issues of technical or economic feasibility, that differentially impact consumers’ access to broadband internet access service based on their income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin” and/or (2) “policies or practices, not justified by genuine issues of technical or economic feasibility, that are intended to differentially impact consumers’ access to broadband internet access service based on their income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin.”[2]

Finding ways to increase deployment to those Americans who have been persistently difficult to connect is a laudable goal, but there are better and worse ways to proceed. Section 60506 is about making sure that broadband is deployed fairly, given existing technological and economic constraints. It is not a radical prescription from Congress, but a request that the FCC ensure that impermissible discrimination doesn’t affect broadband deployment.

This requires accounting for the current state of deployment, the economic realities that constrain deployment decisions, and the existing legal framework that constrains the manner in which the Commission can interpret Section 60506.

A.     The State of Deployment

As a baseline, it’s important to recognize that broadband providers have, by and large, done an excellent job of deploying to most households, while the data the FCC is currently gathering to assemble new broadband maps will enhance our ability to identify those problem areas that remain. Some of the comments in the record illustrate this baseline well. For example, NCTA observes in its comments that more than 98% of homes across income levels have access to fiber connections with speeds of at least one gigabit per second,[3] and that more than “97% of all homes and businesses in cable provider service areas have gigabit access regardless of race.”[4] As the FCC interprets Section 60506, the goal should be to work with this track record of success and not erect roadblocks that could prevent building on this base.

Moreover, broadband providers have been actively courting low-income consumers, particularly since Congress enacted successful programs such as the $14.2 billion Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). By actively participating in these programs and offering tailored low-cost options, broadband providers are working to bridge the digital divide and reach unserved consumers. For example, Comcast’s “Internet Essentials” and “Internet Essentials Plus” programs offer affordable high-speed Internet service to eligible low-income households,[5] while AT&T’s “Access” program provides low-cost broadband plans to qualifying families.[6] Additionally, providers such as Charter Communications, through their “Spectrum Internet Assist” initiative, extend discounted Internet services to qualifying individuals and families.[7]

B.     The Economic Constraints of Section 60506 and Deployment

Section 60506 directs the FCC to prevent discrimination in broadband access based on income level. It also instructs the Commission to consider issues of technical and economic feasibility. A fundamental challenge presented by the intersection of these two directives is that a prospective broadband territory’s income level is related, albeit indirectly, to the economic feasibility of deployment projects to serve that territory. Economic feasibility is driven largely by population density and anticipated broadband adoption and retention. Broadband adoption and retention are, in turn, driven by income, willingness-to-pay, and many other factors. This present an “income conundrum,” in that it is nearly impossible to completely disentangle a given customer base’s anticipated rates of broadband adoption and retention from their income level.

It is well known and widely accepted that income is correlated with many factors that are not identified in Section 60506, including population density, age, educational attainment, home-ownership status, home-computer ownership and usage, and rates of broadband adoption and un-adoption. Because each of these additional factors is correlated with income level, many effects-based statistical tests of broadband adoption are likely to produce false positives, concluding the presence of digital discrimination even where explicit efforts are made to avoid such discrimination.

This problem is exacerbated if providers are not allowed to point to the relative profitability of prospective deployment investments. Like all firms, broadband providers have limited resources to invest. While profitability is a necessary precondition for investment, not all profitable investments can be undertaken. At any given time, firms must choose from numerous potentially profitable projects, some more apparently profitable than others. Firms must be allowed to choose the mix of profitable investments that they believe will best advance long-term deployment without fear of having to defend claims of income discrimination.

While the NPRM[8] and several commenters[9] suggest the statute can be read to give the FCC broad authority to redress the disparate impact of deployment decisions based on income and race (among other impermissible deployment factors), principles of statutory interpretation preclude that reading. Supreme Court precedent on antidiscrimination statutes makes clear how Congress can write disparate-impact law.[10] It also makes clear that many provisions of antidiscrimination statutes apply only to intentional discrimination.[11] The difference turns on the language of the operative text and the statutory purpose, as illustrated by things like the overall structure of the legislation and the stated policy objective (including legislative intent, if it can be known).[12] Applying this rubric to Section 60506, we find that it lacks requisite “results-oriented language” that would make it into an effects-oriented statute. Thus, the prohibition against digital discrimination “based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin” would apply only in cases of intentional discrimination in deployment decisions. Mere statistical correlation between deployment and protected characteristics is insufficient to support a finding of discrimination.

As to the overall structure of the Act, while the Infrastructure, Investment, and Jobs Act (IIJA) incorporates some of its provisions into the Communications Act, Section 60506 is not among them. The IIJA is concerned chiefly with promoting broadband buildout through the use of subsidies. As to the policy objective, the scant congressional record on Section 60506 fails to illuminate the text, leaving us to consider the plain meaning of the statute. The “statement of policy” in subsection (a) holds that subscribers “should” benefit from equal access to broadband and that the Commission “should” take steps to ensure such equal access.[13] This “precatory”[14] section tells us the goal of the operative text: to make sure the Commission takes steps to promote broadband buildout. The mandate to create rules that facilitate equal access to broadband service—including by “preventing digital discrimination of access based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin”—grants the Commission authority to set up a regulatory structure that would prevent intentional discrimination in deployment decisions, using language akin to those antidiscrimination provisions that speak only to intent.[15] This limited authority doesn’t allow for disparate-impact analysis, nor does it create a private right of action to enforce against any broadband provider. Instead, it empowers the Commission (and the Office of the Attorney General) to ensure federal policies promote equal access by prohibiting such deployment discrimination.[16]

Broadband buildout is big business, in the sense that a lot of money is invested by providers and governments (in the form of subsidies) alike. How these providers are regulated is a “major question” of “vast economic [and] political significance.”[17] To allow the Commission to exercise broad authority to ameliorate disparate impact, as suggested by some commenters, would be to find the proverbial “elephants in mouseholes”[18] in this statute, which the U.S. Supreme Court has not permitted.

In Part II, we review specific questions in the NPRM, the economics underlying deployment decisions, and how these relate to potential digital discrimination.

In Part III, we review some of the legal implications of attempting to regulate “digital discrimination” under both an intent-based and effects-based approach.

In Part IV, we consider the need for safe harbors and other procedural protections.

In Part V, we conclude and offer some thoughts on how to give best effect to Section 60506.

II.      Using Income as a Measure of Digital Discrimination

Section 60506 directs the FCC to prevent discrimination in broadband access based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin, while also directing the Commission to consider issues of technical and economic feasibility.

We assert that the FCC should adopt an intent-based discriminatory-treatment standard, rather than one that opens the doors to disparate-impact claims. The high risk of false positives under a disparate-impact standard would stifle broadband deployment through additional costs, delays, and risk of litigation. Similarly, FCC rules should articulate a presumption of nondiscrimination in which allegations of digital discrimination must be demonstrated, rather than a presumption of discrimination that must be rebutted for each deployment decision.

It is clear that population density and anticipated broadband adoption are the key factors affecting the economic feasibility of broadband-deployment investments. Affordability and willingness to pay are the primary drivers of broadband adoption where it is available. Indeed, Congress has recognized this reality in its recent legislation. The IIJA’s Broadband Equity and Access program provides more than $42 billion in grants to state programs to help them support providers and give assistance directly to users.[19] The Affordable Connectivity Program provided another $14 billion in funding to help users pay for devices and broadband connections.[20]

If the Commission has good evidence of intentional discrimination in the deployment of broadband, it has a role to play in preventing it. But attempts to use the regulatory process to root out digital discrimination will do little to shrink the digital divide without substantial resources to increase adoption and retention of broadband services.

A.      The Indirect Relationship Between Income and Economic Feasibility

The NPRM asks “how does a consumer’s income level, or the average income level of a geographical area, relate to economic feasibility in the deployment and provision of broadband internet access services?”[21]

The short answer is that income level is only indirectly related to economic feasibility. When evaluating the economic feasibility of a potential investment, broadband providers consider that territory’s anticipated adoption rate.[22] There is evidence that income, willingness to pay, and many other factors affect consumers’ adoption and retention decisions. Thus, it can be said that income level is related to deployment decisions only through a daisy chain linking anticipated adoption and retention rates to consumers’ willingness to pay, with willingness to pay loosely correlated with income level.

Population density is widely acknowledged to be the most important factor driving broadband-deployment decisions. For example, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that population density is the “most frequently cited cost factor” and “a critical determinant of companies’ deployment decisions.”[23] Academic research supports the GAO’s conclusions. Brian Whitacre & Roberto Gallardo describe population density as one of “the main determinants of Internet availability.”[24] Similarly, Tonny Oyana, citing earlier research, concluded that “[l]imited broadband access is common in rural communities because of geographic remoteness and low population density.”[25]

Several other factors also affect the profitability of broadband-deployment investments, including:

  • Terrain: The GAO notes that “it is more costly to serve areas with low population density and rugged terrain with terrestrial facilities than it is to serve areas that are densely populated and have flat terrain.”[26]
  • Backhaul: That is, the cost of routing Internet traffic from rural areas to larger cities in order to connect to a major Internet-backbone provider. The GAO also reports that the cost of backhaul can affect broadband deployment to rural areas.[27]
  • State-level broadband-funding programs: Whitacre & Gallardo find such programs are associated with a modest increase (1.2–2.0 percentage points) in broadband availability.[28]

Juan Schneir & Yupeng Xiong note that firms are more likely to deploy broadband in urban and suburban areas, rather than rural areas, due to both cost and demand factors. They conclude this is “because of the high density of users willing to pay for high-speed broadband services and the relatively low network rollout costs in urban and suburban areas.”[29] Consistent with Schneir & Xiong’s conclusion, the GAO also finds that population density is an important factor on the demand side of deployment decisions. In particular, the GAO concludes that it is more difficult to “aggregate sufficient demand” to pay for broadband service in low-density rural areas.[30]

But broadband access alone also may not be sufficient to drive greater rates of broadband adoption. For example, Brian Whitacre and his co-authors found that while the reduced levels of broadband access in rural areas explained 38% of the rural-urban broadband-adoption gap in 2011, differences in other general characteristics—such as income and education—explain “roughly half of the gap.”[31] Another GAO report concluded that “even where broadband service is available … an adoption gap may persist due to the affordability of broadband and lack of digital skills.”[32] The report further notes that nearly one-third of those with access to broadband do not subscribe to it and that “lower-income households have lower rates of home broadband subscriptions.”[33]

The price of broadband services is another significant factor that affects adoption. A National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) survey of Internet use identified “affordability as a driving factor around why some households continue to remain offline, confirming that cost of service is an essential part of increasing Internet adoption.”[34] The survey reported that the average price that offline households wanted to pay for Internet access was approximately $10 per month, and about 75% of households gave $0 or “none” as their answer. Kenneth Flamm & Anindya Chaudhuri’s empirical research finds that broadband price is a “statistically significant driver” of broadband demand.[35] They conclude that broadband-price declines in the early 2000s explain “some portion” of increased broadband adoption.[36] Victor Glass & Stela Stefanova’s empirical study found that higher prices “depress” demand for broadband.[37]

Price sensitivity is linked to income. Christopher Reddick and his co-authors concluded that “[i]ncome is a major factor that is likely to influence broadband adoption especially where technology is available.”[38] Glass & Stefanova find broadband service to be a normal good, which means that increased incomes are associated with increased broadband adoption—a finding consistent with previous research.[39] Similarly, the GAO reports: “A recent nationally representative survey by Consumer Reports reported that nearly a third of respondents who lack a broadband subscription said it was because it costs too much, while about a quarter of respondents who do have broadband said they find it difficult to afford.”[40] Alison Powell and her co-authors report that a significant number of low-income Americans engage in a cycle of broadband adoption and “un-adoption,” in which they adopt broadband and then drop it for financial or other reasons, and then re-adopt when circumstances improve for them.[41]

In addition to price and income guiding a household’s broadband-adoption decisions, other factors are also relevant. Oyana’s empirical research concludes that income, the share of a population who are senior citizens, and the share with some college education are the “three most important demand-side factors” affecting both access and adoption.[42] On the demand side, the GAO reports that “demand will be greater in areas where potential customers are familiar with computers and broadband.”[43] The GAO reports that “[o]ther barriers include lack of digital skills,” citing a 2016 Pew Research Center report finding that “about half of American adults were hesitant when it comes to new technologies and building their digital skills.”[44]

It can be argued that the gap between rates of broadband access and broadband adoption may present the real digital divide. That is, large numbers of American who have access to broadband do not adopt it, and some who do may “un-adopt” it. While income is a key factor in a household’s adoption choice, it is only one of several important factors, which also include age, educational attainment, and home-computer ownership and usage—each of which is, in turn, also correlated with income.

If firms do not expect sufficient levels of adoption, then deployment may be unprofitable. It would be a mistake to infer that income discrimination in deployment causes low rates of broadband adoption in low-income communities when low income itself—and other factors correlated with income—may be a primary cause of low rates of broadband adoption, even where broadband access is available.

B.      Profitability, Return on Investment, and Economic Feasibility

The NPRM asks, “should a provider be permitted to defend a claim of income-based intentional discrimination by offering projections showing that deploying to a particular community would likely produce a lower-than-normal rate of return on investment?”[45]

Section 60506 requires the Commission to take account of “issues of technical and economic feasibility.” There is broad understanding that “economic feasibility” here refers to profitability.[46] More precisely, a project is economically feasible if it provides an adequate return on investment (ROI). Like all firms, broadband providers have limited resources with which to make their investments. While profitability is a necessary precondition for investment, not all profitable investments can be undertaken. Among the universe of potentially profitable projects, firms are likely to give priority to those that promise greater returns on investment relative to those with lower ROI.[47] Thus, any evaluation of potential digital discrimination must examine not only whether a given deployment is likely to be profitable, but also how its expected returns compare to other investment opportunities.

This concept—opportunity cost—is fundamental not just to economics, but to our daily lives. Indeed, we all live in a world of endless wants, but only limited resources (e.g., money, time, natural resources) to satisfy them. As a result, we must make choices about how best to use those resources to satisfy our wants. By choosing to pursue one activity, we must forgo another. The value of what we have foregone is our opportunity cost.[48] A worker contemplating quitting their job to start a business is certain to consider the income they would be giving up as an opportunity cost of entrepreneurship.

Similarly, a broadband provider who invests in region A recognizes that it is giving up the opportunity to invest in region B. But the provider faces another factor the would-be entrepreneur does not. If the provider regularly chooses low-ROI investments over higher ROI investments, then its shareholders may choose to replace management with a team that can provide better returns. The opportunity-cost calculus is unavoidable.

Thus, it is surprising to see comments to this proceeding that suggest the FCC should ignore opportunity cost in evaluating economic feasibility.[49] Section 60506 specifically calls on the FCC to consider economic feasibility—not financial feasibility or accounting feasibility. There is no evidence that this was an accident or mistake. Because opportunity cost is a cornerstone of economic analysis, it would be reasonable to conclude that the law’s mandate to consider economic feasibility was meant to rely on economic analysis and, in turn, to consider the opportunity costs of foregone deployment investments. We strongly encourage the Commission to include opportunity costs that providers face whenever it evaluates alleged digital discrimination in deployment.

C.      Demonstrating Discrimination: The Income Conundrum

The NPRM asks, “[S]hould a provider be permitted to defend a claim of income-based intentional discrimination by offering projections showing that deploying to a particular community would likely produce a lower-than-normal rate of return on investment? How are we to determine whether a proffered economic justification, such as rate of return, is a pretext for income-based discrimination?”[50] The NPRM reports that some have argued a sub-normal profit margin should not be considered sufficient reason to claim economic infeasibility and that the Commission should rarely excuse discrimination on such grounds.[51]

A provider should be permitted to defend a claim of income-based intentional discrimination by demonstrating that deploying to a particular community would likely produce a lower return on investment relative to other likely alternatives investments. Thus, a provider should be able to defend a claim of income-based intentional discrimination even if deploying to a particular community would likely produce a higher than “normal” ROI—so long as other deployment alternatives produce anticipated ROIs that are greater still. As noted above, a positive ROI is a necessary precondition for investment, but not all profitable investments can be undertaken. Evaluations of potential digital discrimination must examine not only whether a given deployment is likely to be profitable, but also how its expected returns compare to other investment opportunities.

It would be near-impossible to evaluate demographic, economic, and financial data to determine whether profitability, ROI, or other economic reasons constitute a pretext for a pattern of so-called income-based discrimination. Our research indicates that such an approach would likely lead to a huge number of “false positives”—finding discrimination where no discrimination is intended or, indeed, where it was explicitly avoided. This presents what we call the “income conundrum,” because it is virtually impossible to disentangle the factors affecting economic feasibility from factors correlated with membership in certain income and other protected classes.[52]As such, alleged patterns of income-based discrimination provide very little (if any) information, and certainly not enough information to sufficiently prove a violation of Section 60506.

Former FCC Chief Economist Glenn Woroch combined recent census-block-level wireline-broadband deployment data from the Commission’s Form 477 reports with demographic and income data published by the U.S. Census Bureau to evaluate broadband availability rates for wireline 100/20 Mbps service (1) between census-based “white” and “non-white” households and (2) between households above and below the Federal Poverty Guidelines.[53] His statistical analysis indicates broadband availability rates are about 5 percentage points higher for non-white households than for white households, and that broadband availability rates are nearly identical for households above and below the Federal Poverty Guidelines.

Woroch’s results are consistent with the statistical analysis published by Randolph Beard & George Ford.[54] Their data indicate that U.S. Census blocks with higher population densities are associated with a higher share of minority residents and lower average incomes. Beard & Ford also report that blocks with a higher share of minority residents have lower fixed-broadband adoption rates and a higher share of mobile-only broadband use. Their empirical model includes four demand factors for each Census block: fixed-broadband adoption rate, mobile-broadband adoption rate, the share of persons with a tertiary education, and the share of homes with a computer. The model also includes five cost factors: population density, the share of rural blocks within the Census-block group, and three cost categories from CostQuest. Using this information, they evaluate: (1) fiber deployment by race, (2) fiber deployment by income level, (3) download speeds by race, and (4) download speeds by income level. Beard & Ford conclude from their statistical analysis that there is “no meaningful evidence of digital discrimination in either race or income for fiber deployments or for download speeds.”

It is well-known and widely accepted that income is correlated with many factors that are not identified in Section 60506, including population density, age, educational attainment, home-ownership status, home-computer ownership and usage, and broadband adoption and un-adoption. But because each of these other factors is, in turn, correlated with income level, applying an effects-based statistical analysis is likely to produce false positives that conclude the presence of digital discrimination, even if there was an explicit effort to avoid such discrimination. This is a version of Nobel laureate Ronald Coase’s well-known quote: “If you torture the data long enough, it will confess.”[55]

Indeed, as the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) notes, even if the Commission were to adopt a disparate-impact standard (discussed infra), it would be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to prove income discrimination through a series of correlated proxies under existing Supreme Court precedent:

Thus, as Hazen demonstrates that as long as the motivating factor for digital discrimination of access is analytically distinct from the protected characteristic (even if one is correlated with the other, like age when set against years of service), the person who is wholly motivated by other factors wouldn’t be discriminating based on protected characteristics. [56]

Thus, even if correlational evidence is introduced, it will be of such little probative value as to contribute very little information to a proceeding. For example, even if statistical analysis indicated a relationship between income and some other non-protected characteristic (e.g., education), under 1993’s Hazen Paper Co. v. Biggins decision, that information could not be used to demonstrate income discrimination. The only way that a prohibition on income-based discrimination would make sense at all would be if Section 60506 were construed as prohibiting intentional discrimination. In this sense, claims would have to be brought on the basis that a provider intentionally discriminated against a low-income household, or against a territory for being low-income, with all else being equal. That is, if a particular opportunity would otherwise have been included in a provider’s deployment plans, discrimination could be found if that provider refrained from deploying based on an intent not to serve low-income households in the area.

III.    Section 60506 Empowers the Commission to Facilitate Equal Access to Broadband by Prohibiting Intentional Discrimination

Congress did not, with Section 60506, turn the FCC into a general-purpose civil-rights agency. It did, however, give the Commission a set of tools to identify and remedy particular acts of discrimination.

In the NPRM, the Commission proposes:

to define “digital discrimination of access,” for purposes of this proceeding, as one or a combination of the following: (1) “policies or practices, not justified by genuine issues of technical or economic feasibility, that differentially impact consumers’ access to broadband internet access service based on their income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin”; and/or (2) “policies or practices, not justified by genuine issues of technical or economic feasibility, that are intended to differentially impact consumers’ access to broadband internet access service based on their income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin.”[57]

Although some commenters have called for the FCC to employ an effects-based “disparate impact” analysis under Section 60506,[58] we continue to believe this would be a mistake under both the structure of Section 60506 and the Supreme Court’s established jurisprudence on disparate-impact analysis. A more reasonable approach for the Commission would be to construe Section 60506 as directing an analysis of intentional discrimination in deployment.

Statutes that define impermissible discrimination, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, can be analyzed legally either as addressed toward explicit discriminatory intent, referred to as “discriminatory treatment,” or toward behavior inferred from discriminatory effects, such as the “disparate impact” that the challenged behavior or policy has on a protected class.[59] A case involving discriminatory treatment is somewhat more straightforward,[60] insofar as it demands evidence demonstrating that decisions adversely affecting some protected class were made based on bias toward members of that class. In this context, where deployment decisions are made on the basis of discriminatory intent, the Commission is on much firmer legal ground to pursue them.

By contrast, were the Commission to adopt a “disparate impact” assessment as part of Section 60506, it would face a steep uphill legal climb. Among the primary justifications for disparate-impact analysis is to remedy those historical patterns of de jure segregation that left an indelible mark on minority communities.[61] While racial discrimination has not been purged from society, broadband only became prominent in the United States well after all forms of de jure segregation were made illegal, and after Congress and the courts had invested decades in rooting out impermissible de facto discrimination. Any policy intended to tackle disparate impact in broadband deployment needs to take this history into account.

Commenters like Public Knowledge point to Section 60506’s stated policy objective to make the case that the statute encompasses disparate-impact analysis.[62] They also situate the IIJA as a part of the universal service regime of the Communications Act.[63] However, Section 60506 was not incorporated into the Communications Act, unlike other parts of the IIJA. In other words, the FCC’s general enforcement authority doesn’t apply to the regulatory scheme of Section 60506. The FCC must rely on the statute alone for that authority. Moreover, the statement of policy in Section 60506(a) is exactly that: a statement of policy. Courts have long held that sections using words like “should”[64] are “precatory.”[65] While this helps to illuminate the goal of the provision at issue, it does not actually expand the remit of FCC authority. The goal of the statute is clear: to make sure the Commission takes steps to promote broadband buildout. It empowers the Commission (and the Office of the U.S. Attorney General) to ensure that federal policies promote equal access by prohibiting such deployment discrimination.[66]

There is little evidence that IIJA’s drafters intended the law to be read so broadly. The legislative record on Section 60506 is exceedingly sparse, containing almost no discussion of the provision beyond assurances that “broadband ought to be available to all Americans,”[67] and also that the provision was not to be used as a basis for the “regulation of internet rates.”[68] Given that sparse textual basis, reading Section 60506 as granting the Commission expansive powers to serve as a broadband civil-rights czar could also run afoul of the “major questions” doctrine.[69] That doctrine requires Congress “to speak clearly if it wishes to assign to an agency decisions of vast ‘economic and political significance.’”[70] To allow the Commission to exercise the type of broad authority to ameliorate disparate impact, as suggested by some commenters, would be to find the proverbial “elephants in mouseholes”[71] in this statute that the Supreme Court has not allowed.

More specifically, it does not appear that Section 60506 can be reasonably construed as authorizing disparate-impact analysis. While the Supreme Court continues to uphold disparate-impact analysis in the context of civil-rights law, it has recently imposed some important limitations. For example, in Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project Inc., the Court upheld the disparate-impact doctrine, but noted that disparate-impact claims arise under statutes explicitly directed “to the consequences of an action rather than the actor’s intent.”[72] For example, in the Fair Housing Act, Congress made it unlawful:

To refuse to sell or rent after the making of a bona fide offer, or to refuse to negotiate for the sale or rental of, or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.[73] [Emphasis added.]

The Court noted that the presence of language like “otherwise make unavailable” is critical to construing a statute as demanding an effects-based analysis.[74] Such phrases, the Court found, “refer[] to the consequences of an action rather than the actor’s intent.”[75] Further, the structure of a statute’s language matters:

The relevant statutory phrases… play an identical role in the structure common to all three statutes: Located at the end of lengthy sentences that begin with prohibitions on disparate treatment, they serve as catchall phrases looking to consequences, not intent. And all [of these] statutes use the word “otherwise” to introduce the results-oriented phrase. “Otherwise” means “in a different way or manner,” thus signaling a shift in emphasis from an actor’s intent to the consequences of his actions.[76]

Previous Court opinions help to parse the distinction between statutes limited to intentional-discrimination claims and those that allow for disparate-impact claims. Particularly relevant here, in Alexander v. Sandoval, the Court emphasized that it was “beyond dispute—and no party disagrees—that § 601 prohibits only intentional discrimination.”[77] The relevant statutory language stated that “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”[78]

Thus, when Public Knowledge argues that “assertion that the phrase ‘based on’ limits the Commission to disparate intent is based on the dissent not the majority opinion of Inclusive Communities. The majority’s opinion states the exact opposite… The phrase at issue in Inclusive Communities was ‘because of,’ which is equivalent to ‘based on’ contained in section 1754…”[79], it gets both Inclusive Communities and previous precedents wrong. First, Inclusive Communities primarily based its opinion on the “otherwise make unavailable” language and not on the “because of” language on its own. Second, the closest analogy for “based on” is the “grounded on” language of Title VI, which does not include the “otherwise” language found to be so important in Inclusive Communities. If the Court has found “grounded on” means only intentional discrimination, then it is hard to see how “based on” wouldn’t lead to the same conclusion.

Further, even where disparate-impact analysis is appropriate, the Court held in Inclusive Communities that it is significantly constrained by the need to ensure that the free-enterprise system continues to function:

[Supreme Court precedent] also teach[es] that disparate-impact liability must be limited so… regulated entities are able to make the practical business choices and profit-related decisions that sustain a vibrant and dynamic free-enterprise system. And before rejecting a business justification…a court must determine that a plaintiff has shown that there is “an available alternative … practice that has less disparate impact and serves the [entity’s] legitimate needs.”[80] [Emphasis added.]

In practice, this means that lower courts are free to probe a disparate-impact claim rigorously in order to avoid such claims becoming a club to wield against regulated entities.[81] It also suggests that, in a context such as Section 60506’s proscriptions against digital discrimination, they may not be so broad as to render it impossible for broadband providers to make effective decisions about which deployment projects are economically feasible.

More to the point, as Section 60506 was drafted without “results-oriented language”[82] and instead frames the prohibition against digital discrimination as “based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin,”[83] this would put the rule squarely within the realm of prohibitions on intentional discrimination.[84] That is, to be discriminatory, the decision to deploy or not to deploy must have been intentionally made based on or grounded on the protected characteristic. Mere statistical correlation between deployment and protected characteristics is insufficient.

In enacting the IIJA, Congress was undoubtedly aware of the Court’s history with disparate-impact analysis. Had it chosen to do so, it could have made the requirements of Section 60506 align with the requirements of that precedent. But it chose not to do so, thereby reinforcing that it intended the FCC to have some discretion, but to err on the side of caution when declaring certain practices an impermissible form of discrimination.

This is not to say that Section 60506 has no effect. As mentioned above, it can be reasonably read to encompass intentional discrimination, given appropriate evidence. Further, the means available to the FCC to remedy undesirable patterns of deployment are manifold. The only options rendered off the table would be requirements that are technologically or economically infeasible, such as an unfunded mandate that providers deploy at maximum speeds to all households simultaneously.

Moreover, as NCTA noted in its comments, the “intentional discrimination” standard provides ample room for the Commission to act upon instances of impermissible discrimination:

[I]t is NCTA’s position that discriminatory intent need not be proven with a “smoking gun,” such as documentary evidence overtly acknowledging or demonstrating discrimination, but can instead be sufficiently pled and shown with evidence including a combination of impact elements and facts such as: statistics demonstrating a pattern of discriminatory intent, the sequence of events leading to the decision, departures from normal procedures, and a consistent pattern of actions imposing much greater harm on the protected class that is unexplainable on grounds other than discriminatory ones.[85]

Indeed, in Vill. of Arlington Heights v. Metro. Hous. Dev. Corp.,[86] the Supreme Court established a legal test for determining intentional discrimination. The test requires a plaintiff to demonstrate that a discriminatory intent was a motivating factor behind the challenged action or decision.[87] To prove intentional discrimination, the Court identified several factors that can serve as evidence.  Under this test, “[d]etermining whether invidious discriminatory purpose was a motivating factor demands a sensitive inquiry into such circumstantial and direct evidence of intent as may be available.”[88] Such an analysis can include circumstantial evidence of:

  • A history of discriminatory practices or a pattern of decisions that have consistently disadvantaged a protected class;[89]
  • Significant departures from standard procedures, substantive norms, or established practices can indicate discriminatory intent, especially if they seem designed to disadvantage a specific group;[90]
  • Statements or actions by decisionmakers during the decision-making process that reveal prejudice or bias against a protected group;[91]
  • Evidence of differential treatment or disparate outcomes for similarly situated individuals from different protected groups; or[92]
  • Unjustified or pretextual explanations that are implausible, inconsistent, or unsupported by facts.[93]

As the DOJ observes, while statistical evidence of patterns of discrimination cannot themselves be used as proof of discriminatory intent, they can be used as supporting evidence in such claims.[94] Critically, as noted in the section above, when dealing with claims of income-based discrimination, this means that challenges to deployment decisions must be made on the basis of bias regarding consumers at a particular income level, and cannot be divined through statistical inferences in the myriad factors that are merely correlated with income (such as education, computer ownership, adoption levels, and willingness to pay).

In sum, Section 60506 is an intentional-discrimination statute and the Commission’s rules should reflect that fact. To create a disparate impact regime would be to invite a drawn-out legal battle that would likely result in the rules being struck down.

IV.    The Commission Should Adopt Sufficient Procedural Protections

The Commission asks whether it should adopt safe harbors, rely on case-by-case inquiry into “technical or economic” feasibility issues, or both.[95] We believe that the FCC needs to establish clear and robust safe harbors and affirmative defenses to discrimination complaints. Without such safe harbors, the administration of Section 60506 would become unwieldy, as the Commission wades through what is likely to be many false positives. There are a few situations that provide prima facie evidence that a broadband provider is not impermissibly discriminating against low-income consumers, or consumers in an otherwise protected class.[96]

For instance, in areas where a provider deploys service that is adhering to obligations under federal or state subsidy programs, a provider is obviously trying to reach underserved communities. Any shortcomings in deployment in such an area are almost certainly going to be the result of technical or economic realities. Similarly, where a provider is constrained by federal or state laws regarding permitting or access to rights of way, it would be fruitless to investigate; only once a provider is actually able to deploy legally should it be subject to scrutiny under Section 60506.

Similarly, there are constrains implicit in particular technologies that would make it difficult to accurately assess discrimination in some cases.[97] For example, when examining deployment of wireless providers, spectrum availability is a major issue that can constrain a provider’s ability to deploy in certain areas. Relatedly, the nature of a particular geographic area may limit how signals propagate. Even if a wireless provider fully deploys in such areas, building density or, inversely, sparsely populated areas might appear to be underperforming. In such cases, the Commission should adopt a technological safe harbor that assumes best efforts in certain cases imply good-faith compliance with Section 60506.

Thus, not only do all providers need some form of safe harbor, given the limitations of technology, but the Commission should also employ tailored safe harbors that incorporate the unique features of both wireless and wired providers.

Moreover, safe harbors do more than merely safeguard against an unfair or inefficient process, but may become a virtual necessity if the Commission attempts to rely on a “disparate impact” standard. As USTelecom noted in its comments, related civil-rights laws invariably include safe harbors in the context of fact-dependent, complicated proceedings.[98] These well-established legal proceedings create a formal burden-shifting framework that attempts to capture the economic and business realities underlying challenged practices.[99]

The Commission has also asked whether it would be appropriate to rely on its informal consumer-complaint process as part of its enforcement of Section 60506.[100] An informal complaint process that invites input from individuals directly affected by deployment decisions can make sense in some cases, while in others, a more formal complaint process will be necessary. Even if the Commission can appropriately delineate these cases, certain procedural protections should be in place to ensure the process is not abused.

First, there should be some form of standing requirement, such that a complainant actually is in a position to obtain broadband service, but is unable to do so (or do so at “comparable speeds, capacities, latency, and other quality of service metrics in a given area, for comparable terms and conditions”[101]). Given how large the national deployment footprint is, without an injury-in-fact requirement, opening the process to third parties who lack direct interest would be unmanageable. It would burden both the Commission and providers, who we otherwise want to spend their scarce resources on further deployment. Moreover, private parties with adequate standing who believe they have valid complaints can file through an informal process that could theoretically be handled much more quickly and efficiently.

The Commission also asks whether it should adopt a private right of action or permit state and local government enforcement against broadband providers.[102] Both options are likely to prove unworkable for a number of reasons. First, states and localities are often in a position of both granting access to necessary facilities as well as granting permission for providers to deploy. A right of action for states and localities—or even a process by which states and localities can source complaints in their jurisdiction and try those complaints—would create an imbalance in the bargaining process between providers and state authorities. Those authorities could use the complaint process as a leverage tool to extract inappropriate concessions from providers as they negotiate franchising agreements and other permissions necessary for deployment in particular jurisdictions.[103] Giving them a dual role in this respect—as both a complainant that can use legal process to intervene in providers’ deployment decisions as well as a party seeking to conduct an arm’s length negotiation with providers—threatens to seriously distort deployment incentives.

Moreover, providers are responsible for managing deployment decisions in a way that inherently crosses jurisdictional barriers, particularly for large providers that cross state lines. A given locality could be in a position to complain about a provider’s deployment decision, even if that decision makes technical and economic sense across jurisdictional boundaries. A state or locality is not well-positioned to adjudicate this problem, while the FCC is extremely well-positioned to do so.

Ostensibly in the interests of completeness, the NPRM asks whether it has authority to retroactively pursue claims for digital discrimination.[104] We believe it should go without saying that this procedure should be forward looking. Nothing in Section 60506 suggests that Congress intended to give the FCC authority to pursue providers for previous deployment decisions.

V.      Conclusion

It is evident that, while the Commission possesses considerable authority to remedy intentional discrimination under Section 60506, its discretion is not without boundaries. Moreover, it should create safeguards to ensure that the complaint process does not excessively burden Commission staff or erect administrative barriers to providers’ efforts to deploy broadband.

Although “income level” is included as a protected category under Section 60506, income can be correlated with such a wide array of variables, which themselves better explain deployment and adoption, that the Commission needs to take care. Trying to construe discrimination on the basis of “income” too broadly will surely generate a large number of false positives, and will lead the Commission astray.

Moreover, Section 60506 employs language directly related to case law centered on “intentional discrimination” and further includes crucial provisions directing the Commission to consider technical and economic feasibility. This legislative framework exists against the backdrop of the Supreme Court’s expanding “major questions” doctrine. With the law and the economics taken together, it is clear that the Commission should not adopt a “disparate impact” test under Section 60506. Moreover, it is crucial to remember that “income” remains a slippery metric to judge, and attempts to use correlational proxies in a discrimination analysis are fraught. As such, claims based on income discrimination should be rooted in bias regarding particular income levels, all else equal. It is critical that Section 60506 not be used as a cudgel against providers as they attempt to balance the opportunity costs of competing deployment opportunities.

The FCC rules should also articulate a presumption of nondiscrimination in which allegations of digital discrimination must be demonstrated, rather than a presumption of discrimination that must be rebutted for each deployment decision. This presumption should furthermore be coupled with adequate safe harbors that allow that Commission to consider defenses based on “technical and economic” feasibility in an expedited manner. Otherwise, given the economic realities discussed above, there is an unacceptably high chance that every one of a provider’s decisions will be subject to challenge, wasting the resources of both the Commission and the providers.

The largest takeaway is that adoption matters quite a bit. Indeed, one of the biggest issues affecting economic feasibility is consumers’ ability and willingness to pay. Moreover, Congress has recognized this reality in its recent legislation. The IIJA’s Broadband Equity and Access program provides more than $42 billion in grants to state programs to help them support providers and give assistance directly to users.[105] The Affordable Connectivity Program provided another $14 billion in funding to help users pay for devices and broadband connections.[106] In our estimation, the Commission stands to do the most good by championing and shepherding programs like these.

If the Commission has good evidence of intentional discrimination in the deployment of broadband, it has a role to play in preventing it. But without strong, compelling evidence of intentional discrimination, the FCC will waste scarce resources chasing bogeymen.


[1] Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, Implementing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: Prevention and Elimination of Digital Discrimination, GN Docket No. 22-69 (Dec. 22, 2022) [hereinafter “NPRM”].

[2] Id. at ¶ 12.

[3] Comments of NCTA, GN Docket No. 22-69 (Feb. 21, 2023), at 4 [hereinafter “NCTA”].

[4] Id. at 6.

[5] Apply for Internet Essentials or Internet Essentials Plus From Comcast, Comcast, https://www.xfinity.com/support/articles/comcast-broadband-opportunity-program (last visited Apr. 19, 2023).

[6] Affordable Connectivity Program, AT&T, https://www.att.com/help/affordable-connectivity-program (last visited Apr. 19, 2023).

[7] Spectrum Internet for Low Income Households, Spectrum, https://www.spectrum.com/internet/spectrum-internet-assist (last visited Apr. 19, 2023).

[8] NPRM, supra note 1 at ¶ 12

[9] See, e.g., Comments of Public Knowledge, Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, and Electronic Privacy Information Center, GN Docket No. 22-69 (Feb. 21, 2023), at 52 (“Congress has again centered the focus of the Commission’s actions on getting all people access, regardless of any discriminatory treatment or intent of the provider.”) [hereinafter “Public Knowledge”]; Letter from David Brody, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, to Marlene H. Dortch, Implementing the Infrastructure and Jobs Act: Prevention and Elimination of Digital Discrimination, WC Docket No. 22-69 (Dec. 12, 2022) [hereinafter “Brody”].

[10] See, e.g., Tex. Dep’t of Hous. & Cmty. Affs. v. Inclusive Cmtys. Project Inc., 576 U.S. 519 (2015) [hereinafter “Inclusive Communities”].

[11] See, e.g., Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U. S. 275, 280 (2001) (“[I]t is… beyond dispute—and no party disagrees—that § 601 prohibits only intentional discrimination.”).

[12] See, e.g., Inclusive Communities, supra note 10 at 533- 34 (“[A]ntidiscrimination laws must be construed to encompass disparate-impact claims when their text refers to the consequences of actions and not just to the mindset of actors, and where that interpretation is consistent with statutory purpose.”); Board of Ed. of City School Dist. of New York v. Harris, 444 U. S. 130 –141 (1979) (considering the context of a statute’s text, history, purpose, and structure in determining whether a statute encompasses disparate impact analysis).

[13] See Section 60506(a)(1), (a)(3).

[14] See, Emergency Coal. to Def. Educ. Travel v. U.S. Dep’t of Treasury, 498 F. Supp. 2d 150, 165 (D.D.C. 2007) (“Courts have repeatedly held that such ‘sense of Congress’ language is merely precatory and non-binding.”), aff’d, 545 F.3d 4 (D.C. Cir. 2008).

[15] Compare 42 U.S. Code § 2000d (“No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”) with Section 60506(b)(1) (empowering the Commission to create rules taking into account “preventing digital discrimination of access based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin”) (emphasis added).

[16] See Section 60506(c) (“The Commission and the Attorney General shall ensure that Federal policies promote equal access to robust broadband internet access service by prohibiting deployment discrimination…”).

[17] West Virginia v. EPA, 142 S. Ct. 2587, 2607–2608 (2022); Util. Air Regul. Grp. (UARG) v. EPA, 573 U.S. 302, 324 (2014).

[18] Whitman v. Am. Trucking Ass’ns, 531 U.S. 457, 468 (2001).

[19] Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program, BroadbandUSA, https://broadbandusa.ntia.doc.gov/resources/grant-programs/broadband-equity-access-and-deployment-bead-program (last visited Oct. 23, 2022).

[20] Affordable Connectivity Program, Federal Communications Commission, https://www.fcc.gov/acp (last visited Oct. 23, 2022).

[21] NPRM, supra note 1 at ¶24.

[22] NOI Reply Comments of AT&T, GN Docket No. 22-69 (Jun. 30, 2022), (“In particular, like all companies operating in a competitive marketplace, broadband providers must and do take expected demand into account, and the ‘economic feasibility’ qualifier protects their right to do so.”)

[23] Telecommunications: Broadband Deployment Is Extensive Throughout the United States, but It Is Difficult to Assess the Extent of Deployment Gaps in Rural Areas, U.S. Gov’t Accountability Off., GAO-06-426 (May 2006), https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-06-426.pdf. [hereinafter “GAO-06-426”].

[24] Brian Whitacre & Roberto Gallardo, State Broadband Policy: Impacts on Availability, 44 Telecomm. Pol’y. 102025 (2020).

[25] Tonny J. Oyana, Exploring Geographic Disparities in Broadband Access and Use in Rural Southern Illinois: Who’s Being Left Behind?, 28 Gov’t. Info. Q. 252 (2011).

[26] GAO-06-426, supra note 23.

[27] Id.

[28] Whitacre & Gallardo, supra note 24.

[29] Juan Rendon Schneir & Yupeng Xiong, A Cost Study of Fixed Broadband Access Networks for Rural Areas, 40 Telecomm. Pol’y. 755 (2016).

[30] GAO-06-426, supra note 23.

[31] Brian Whitacre, Sharon Strover, & Roberto Gallardo, How Much Does Broadband Infrastructure Matter? Decomposing the Metro–Non-Metro Adoption Gap with the Help of the National Broadband Map, 32 Gov’t Info. Q. 261 (2015).

[32] Broadband: National Strategy Needed to Guide Federal Efforts to Reduce Digital Divide, U.S. Gov’t Accountability Off., GAO-22-104611 (May 31, 2022) [hereinafter “GAO-22-104611”].

[33] Id. See also, How Do Speed, Infrastructure, Access, and Adoption Inform Broadband Policy?, Pew Research Center (Jul. 7, 2022), https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/fact-sheets/2022/07/how-do-speed-infrastructure-access-and-adoption-inform-broadband-policy (“nearly 1 in 4 Americans do not subscribe to a home broadband connection, even where one is available”).

[34] Michelle Cao & Rafi Goldberg, New Analysis Shows Offline Households Are Willing to Pay $10-a-Month on Average for Home Internet Service, Though Three in Four Say Any Cost is Too Much, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (Oct. 6, 2022), https://www.ntia.doc.gov/blog/2022/new-analysis-shows-offline-households-are-willing-pay-10-month-average-home-internet.

[35] Kenneth Flamm & Anindya Chaudhuri, An Analysis of the Determinants of Broadband Access, 31 Telecomm. Pol’y. 312 (2007).

[36] Id.

[37] Victor Glass & Stela K. Stefanova, An Empirical Study of Broadband Diffusion in Rural America, 38 J. Reg. Econ. 70 (Jun. 2010).

[38] Christopher G. Reddick, Roger Enriquez, Richard J. Harris, & Bonita Sharma, Determinants of Broadband Access and Affordability: An Analysis of a Community Survey on the Digital Divide, 106 Cities 102904 (2020).

[39] Glass & Stefanova, supra note 37 at 70.

[40] GAO-22-104611, supra note 32.

[41] Alison Powell, Amelia Bryne, & Dharma Dailey, The Essential Internet: Digital Exclusion in Low-Income American Communities, 2 Pol’y & Internet 161 (2010).

[42] Oyana, supra note 25.

[43] GAO-06-426, supra note 23.

[44] GAO-22-104611, supra note 32.

[45] NPRM, supra note 1 at ¶ 66.

[46] See, e.g., Notice of Inquiry, Implementing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: Prevention and Elimination of Digital Discrimination, GN Docket No. 22-69 (2022) (“If underlying cost or geographic hurdles exist in conjunction with demand in an area that makes it unprofitable, how should the Commission address such a situation?”).

[47] Public Knowledge, supra note 9 at 45 (“In many cases, a provider has the choice to build out and provide service in one area, or another. It will likely choose to build out in the more profitable area, even if it could break even or turn a profit serving the other, as well.”)

[48] See, e.g., N. Gregory Mankiw, Principles of Microeconomics, 9th ed. (2021) (“The opportunity cost of an item is what you give up to get that item. When making any decision, decision makers should take into account the opportunity costs of each possible action.”).

[49] Public Knowledge, supra note 9 at 45 (“determinations of economic feasibility also cannot take into account opportunity costs”).

[50] NPRM, supra note 1 at ¶ 66.

[51] Id.

[52] Eric Fruits & Kristian Stout, The Income Conundrum: Intent and Effects Analysis of Digital Discrimination, Int’l Ctr. for L. & Econ. (Nov. 14, 2022), available at https://laweconcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/The-Income-Conundrum-Intent-and-Effects-Analysis-of-Digital-Discrimination.pdf.

[53] Declaration for Glenn Woroch, NOI Reply Comments of AT&T, supra note 22.

[54] T. Randolph Beard & George S. Ford, Digital Discrimination: Fiber Availability and Speeds, by Race and Income, Phoenix Ctr. for Advanced Legal & Econ. Pol’y Stud., Phoenix Ctr. Pol’y Paper No. 58 (Sep. 2022), https://phoenix-center.org/pcpp/PCPP58Final.pdf.

[55] Garson O’Toole, If You Torture the Data Long Enough, It Will Confess, Quote Investigator (Jan. 18, 2021), https://quoteinvestigator.com/2021/01/18/confess.

[56] Comments of CEI, GN Docket No. 22-69 (Feb. 21, 2023), at 8.

[57] NPRM, supra note 1 at ¶ 12.

[58] Public Knowledge, supra note 9 at 52 (“Congress has again centered the focus of the Commission’s actions on getting all people access, regardless of any discriminatory treatment or intent of the provider.”); see also, Brody, supra note 9.

[59] Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 577 (2009) [hereinafter “Ricci”].

[60] Id. (Intentional discrimination cases “present the most easily understood type of discrimination…[that] occur[s] where [a party[ has treated [a] particular person less favorably than others because of a protected trait.”).

[61] Inclusive Communities, supra note 10 at 528–29.

[62] See Public Knowledge, supra note 9 at 50-53.

[63] Id. at 5-40.

[64] See Section 60506(a)(1), (a)(3).

[65] See, Emergency Coal. to Def. Educ. Travel v. U.S. Dep’t of Treasury, 498 F. Supp. 2d 150, 165 (D.D.C. 2007) (“Courts have repeatedly held that such ‘sense of Congress’ language is merely precatory and non-binding.”), aff’d, 545 F.3d 4 (D.C. Cir. 2008).

[66] See Section 60506(c) (“The Commission and the Attorney General shall ensure that Federal policies promote equal access to robust broadband internet access service by prohibiting deployment discrimination…”).

[67] 167 Cong. Rec. 6046 (2021).

[68] 167 Cong. Rec. 6053 (2021).

[69] See, e.g., West Virginia v. EPA, 142 S. Ct. 2587 (2022); Util. Air Regul. Grp. (UARG) v. EPA, 573 U.S. 302 (2014).

[70] West Virginia v. EPA, 142 S. Ct. at 2607–2608; UARG, 573 U.S. at 324.

[71] Whitman v. Am. Trucking Ass’ns, 531 U.S. 457, 468 (2001).

[72] Inclusive Communities, supra note 10 at 534.

[73] 42 U.S.C. § 3604(a) (emphasis added).

[74] Inclusive Communities, supra note 10 at 534.

[75] Id.

[76] Id. at 534-35.

[77] Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275, 280 (2001).

[78] 42 U.S.C. §2000d (emphasis added).

[79] Public Knowledge, supra note 9 at 54.

[80] Inclusive Communities, supra note 10 at 533 (emphasis added).

[81] Id. at 521–22 (“Courts should avoid interpreting disparate-impact liability to be so expansive as to inject racial considerations into every housing decision. These limitations are also necessary to protect defendants against abusive disparate-impact claims.”).

[82] Id.

[83] Section 60506 (emphasis added).

[84] Ricci, supra note 59 at 557.

[85] NCTA, supra note 3 at 21.

[86] 429 U.S. 252, 266-67 (1977).

[87] Id. at 265 (“Proof of racially discriminatory intent or purpose is required to show a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.”).

[88] Id. at 266.

[89] Id. at 266-67.

[90] Id. at 267.

[91] Id. at 268.

[92] See, Texas Dep’t of Cmty. Affs. v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 258–59 (1981). Note that the last two factors listed in this and the subsequent footnote are part of the McDonnell Douglas framework, McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 798, 93 S. Ct. 1817, 1822, 36 L. Ed. 2d 668 (1973). Technically, the Arlington factors are generally used when analyzing group discrimination and the McDonnell Douglas factors are used when analyzing discrimination against individuals. Section 60506 might, however, be plausibly read as permitting either approach to intentional discrimination in deployment decisions.

[93] See, Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prod. Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 143–44 (2000).

[94] US Dep. of Justice, Title VI Legal Manual: Proving Discrimination – Intentional Discrimination, https://www.justice.gov/crt/fcs/T6Manual6 (“While statistical evidence is not required to demonstrate intentional discrimination, plaintiffs often successfully use statistics to support, along with other types of evidence, a claim of intentional discrimination.”).

[95] NPRM, supra note 1 at ¶ 35-36.

[96] Indeed, as NCTA notes in its comments, a safe harbor of this kind would give effect to Congress’ requirement that the FCC acknowledge constraints on deployment relating to “technical or economic feasibility.” NCTA, supra note 3 at 25-30.

[97] See, e.g., Comments of T-Mobile, GN Docket No. 22-69 (Feb. 21, 2023), at 30-31.

[98] Comments of USTelecom, GN Docket No. 22-69, (Feb. 21, 2023), at 33-34.

[99] Id.

[100] NPRM, supra note 1 at ¶ 52.

[101] Section 60506(a)(2).

[102] NPRM, supra note 1 at ¶ 76.

[103] These possibilities open the door for what public-choice economists call “rent extraction,” whereby public officials use the ability to control entry into a market for their own benefit. See Fred McChesney, Money for Nothing: Politicians, Rent Extraction, and Political Extortion (1997). See also, ICLE Ex Parte on Sec. 621, MB Docket No. 05-311 (Jul. 18, 2019), available at https://laweconcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/ICLE-Comments-on-Implementation-of-Section-621a1-of-the-Cable-Communications-Policy-Act-of-1984.pdf (arguing that local and state franchising authorities often abuse their authority to get in-kind contributions from cable providers far beyond the 5% cost limit).

[104] NPRM, supra note 1 at ¶ 92.

[105] Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program, BroadbandUSA, https://broadbandusa.ntia.doc.gov/resources/grant-programs/broadband-equity-access-and-deployment-bead-program (last visited Oct. 23, 2022).

[106] Affordable Connectivity Program, Federal Communications Commission, https://www.fcc.gov/acp (last visited Oct. 23, 2022).

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities

Quack Attack: De Facto Rate Regulation in Telecommunications

ICLE Issue Brief If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it just may be a duck. —Walter Reuther Executive . . .

If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it just may be a duck.
—Walter Reuther

Executive Summary

Rate regulation can take many forms. Rates may be regulated through overt price controls, such as price ceilings or price floors; through less-overt rules governing the pace of price changes; or through quality mandates or restrictions. Some rate regulations can provide short-run benefits to certain groups of consumers or producers, but often result in shortages or surpluses that diminish overall welfare. In the long run, rate regulation often distorts investment incentives, leading to a misallocation of investment (e.g., to under- or over-investment).

For these reasons, since the late 1970s, direct rate regulation generally has fallen out of favor across most sectors of the economy, although there are some—such as insurance and utilities—where it remains commonplace. Nevertheless, elected officials and other policymakers frequently come under pressure from constituents and stakeholders to “do something” about the price of goods and services in the ostensibly “deregulated” sectors of the economy, such as when consumers characterize short-term price disruptions as “price gouging.” In some cases, firms may seek regulations to “stabilize” prices, while in others, rate regulation may be seen as a means to “increase access” to crucial goods and services.

Because the costs of overt rate regulations are so well-known, price controls are often buried under layers of bureaucracy or wrapped in with other policies and programs, such that policymakers can plausibly claim that their proposals do not directly regulate rates. While not explicit price controls, these programs amount to de facto rate regulation. It’s a regulatory version of the Duck Test.

Rate regulation—in any form and whatever the imagined benefits—is not a costless endeavor. Costs and risk do not disappear under rate regulation. Instead, they are shifted in one direction or another—typically with costs borne by consumers through some mix of suppressed or misdirected investment, sluggish improvements in quality, and reduced innovation.

This issue brief gives an overview, with a particular focus on the telecommunications sector, of the consequences of different types of overt rate regulation—price ceilings and prices floors—as well as how quality regulations can amount to rate regulation. Price controls, such as price ceilings and price floors, are government interventions in the market that aim to regulate the prices of goods and services. While they may have some short-term benefits, they can also lead to long-term consequences that are not always positive. We examine, in particular, four telecommunications programs in which de facto rate regulation is a key component.

  • The National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) notice of funding opportunity under the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program (BEAD), which requires each program participant to include a “middle-class affordability plan to ensure that all consumers have access to affordable high-speed internet”;
  • The U.S. Agriculture Department’s (USDA) ReConnect Loan and Grant Program, which gives preference to applicants who agree to abide by “net neutrality” and who provide a “low-cost” option to consumers;
  • New York State’s Affordable Broadband Act, which requires internet service providers (ISPs) to offer all qualifying low-income households at least two internet-access plans: a $15-a-month plan with download speeds of at least 25 megabits-per-second, or a $20-a-month plan with download speeds of at least 200 megabits-per-second; and
  • The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 2015 Open Internet Order’s “net neutrality” and “zero rating” provisions.

In each of these examples, policymakers have gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid characterizing the programs’ pricing provisions as direct rate regulation. No matter how the policies are characterized, however, the consequences remain. When regulation is used to set prices on one side of the multi-sided broadband market at below-market rates, there will be upward pricing pressure on another side of the market. Ultimately, consumers who are not subject to the regulated rates will face higher prices, in turn putting pressure on policymakers to impose yet another layer of imprecise and complex regulation and even deeper constraints on investment.

Government policy may well be able to help accelerate broadband deployment to the unserved portions of the country where it is most needed. This issue brief concludes that the way to achieve that goal is not by imposing price controls on broadband providers. Instead, broadband access can best be expanded by removing costly, government-erected barriers to buildout and/or by subsidizing and educating consumers, where needed.

I.        Introduction

Since the deregulation of railroads, airlines, and trucking in the late 1970s, direct rate regulation has generally, except in a few outlier examples like insurance and utilities, fallen out of favor with elected officials and policymakers. To be sure, there are times when experts and activists have called for price controls in response to short-term price disruptions they characterize as “price gouging.” Because of a widespread skepticism of explicit price controls, rate-regulation efforts are instead often described as efforts to “stabilize” prices or “increase access” to goods and services. In many cases, the price controls are buried under layers of bureaucracy or bundled with other policies and programs, such that policymakers can plausibly claim that their proposals do not amount to regulating rates.

For example, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that 50 members of Congress sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging his administration “to pursue all possible strategies to end corporate price gouging in the real estate sector and ensure that renters and people experiencing homelessness across this country are stably housed this winter.”[1] Proposals include directing the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) to establish “anti-price gouging protections” and “just cause eviction standards” in rental properties with government-backed mortgages. Another proposal would have the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issue new regulations defining “excessive” rent increases as an unfair trade practice. A third proposal would condition grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on localities mitigating housing cost burdens and “adopting anti-rent-gouging measures.” None of these proposals amount to direct rent controls, but they would, in tandem, establish de facto rent regulation.

Efforts by policymakers to control prices, while distancing themselves from explicit rate regulation, have targeted myriad industries, including telecommunications services. For example, under former Chair Tom Wheeler, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to enact the 2015 Open Internet Order (OIO), which categorized internet service providers (ISPs) as “common carriers” under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, thereby subjecting them to, among other things, net-neutrality principles. While rate regulation is among the defining features of most Title II services,[2] Wheeler nonetheless promised at the time to forebear from applying such regulations, stating flatly that “we are not trying to regulate rates.”[3]

But this assurance proved a small consolation. While the agency decided to waive “the vast majority of rules adopted under Title II,” it also made clear that the commission would “retain adequate authority to” rescind such forbearance in the future.[4] In his dissent from the OIO, Commissioner Ajit Pai noted the forbearance merely meant that “the FCC will not impose rules ‘for now.’”[5] Thus, while stopping short of imposing explicit rate regulation immediately, the OIO dangled the threat of rate regulation in the future.

Such threats amount to de facto rate regulation, in which agencies hold out the potential use of onerous rules in the future to shape providers’ pricing policies today. Tim Wu—credited with coining the term “net neutrality” and a recently departed senior advisor to President Joe Biden—has explicitly endorsed the use of threats by regulatory agencies as a means to obtain favored policy outcomes:

The use of threats instead of law can be a useful choice—not simply a procedural end run. My argument is that the merits of any regulative modality cannot be determined without reference to the state of the industry being regulated. Threat regimes, I suggest, are important and are best justified when the industry is undergoing rapid change—under conditions of “high uncertainty.” Highly informal regimes are most useful, that is, when the agency faces a problem in an environment in which facts are highly unclear and evolving. Examples include periods surrounding a newly invented technology or business model, or a practice about which little is known. Conversely, in mature, settled industries, use of informal procedures is much harder to justify.[6]

In 2017, under then-Chairman Pai, the FCC reclassified broadband under Title I of the Communications Act. In a 2018 article referencing the repeal of the 2015 rules, Gigi Sohn lamented that removing ISPs from Title II’s purview meant losing the “power to constrain ‘unjust and unreasonable’ prices, terms, and practices by [broadband] providers.”[7] More recently, standing as a nominee to the FCC, Sohn was asked during a 2021 confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee if she would support the agency’s regulation of broadband rates.[8] She responded: “No. That was an easy one.” Around the same time, FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel said in written comments that she did not plan to regulate broadband rates directly or indirectly.[9] Her comments indicated that the agency’s 2015 net-neutrality rules “expressly eschew future use of prescriptive, industry-wide rate regulation” and that she “supported this approach in the past and would do so again in the future.”

Nonetheless, policymakers’ interest in imposing controls on broadband rates continues unabated. In 2021, for example, President Biden’s American Jobs Plan called on Congress to reduce broadband prices:

President Biden believes that building out broadband infrastructure isn’t enough. We also must ensure that every American who wants to can afford high-quality and reliable broadband internet. While the President recognizes that individual subsidies to cover internet costs may be needed in the short term, he believes continually providing subsidies to cover the cost of overpriced internet service is not the right long-term solution for consumers or taxpayers. Americans pay too much for the internet—much more than people in many other countries—and the President is committed to working with Congress to find a solution to reduce internet prices for all Americans.[10]

But even in those cases in which rate regulation is imposed, proponents are careful to avoid calling it rate regulation. In defending the State of New York’s 2021 Affordable Broadband Act, for example, the state claimed that the law’s pricing provisions did not amount to rate regulation because they specified a price ceiling, rather than a specific price.[11]

This brief first provides an overview of the problems inherent in rate regulation, de facto or otherwise. It then identifies several instances of rate regulation being covertly introduced into broadband policy, and the dangers this poses to deployment.

II.      A Primer on Rate Regulation

In a competitive market, prices allow for the successful coordination of supply and demand, and the market price reflects both consumer demand and the costs of production. Of course, for those on the demand side of the equation, the price of a good or service is a cost to them, and they would prefer falling prices to rising prices. For suppliers, the price represents the revenue from selling the good or service and they would prefer rising prices to falling prices.

Because of this inherent tension, there is a natural inclination on the part of both consumers and producers to seek the government’s intervention in the competitive process to halt or slow price changes. The most obvious way the government can intervene is through rate regulation, such as price controls. Price controls can be divided into two categories: price ceilings that set a maximum price that sellers can charge and price floors that set the minimum price that consumers can pay. It is well-known and widely accepted that price controls can make both consumers and sellers worse off.[12] Consequently, policymakers may pitch policies that control prices under another name (e.g., “second generation rent relief”) or introduce policies that are not explicit price controls, but have substantially the same effects as price controls (e.g., quality-of-service mandates).

A.      Price Ceilings

The most well-known example of a price ceiling is rent control—so well-known, in fact, that just about every introductory microeconomics textbook discusses the topic. Consider the market for apartment rentals shown in Figure I, which is based on an example from Gregory Mankiw’s widely used economics textbook.[13] In a competitive market, the price of apartments would be $1,500 and 2,500 apartments would be rented out.

Figure I: Rent Control in the Short Run and in the Long Run


SOURCE: Mankiw

At the market price, however, tenant advocates would complain of a housing “affordability crisis”—that apartment rents are too high. They argue that if prices were lower, more people could afford apartments. As a result, the government imposes a price ceiling, mandating that apartment rents cannot be any higher than $1,200. But at this price, in the short run, Panel (a) shows the number of apartments demanded (2,500) exceeds the quantity supplied (2,000). Because of this excess demand of 500 apartments, some people who want to rent an apartment would be unable to do so. In other words, there is a shortage of apartments.

In this example, the price ceiling makes the housing “crisis” worse, because fewer people are able to rent apartments than before the rent control was imposed. Some renters are better off because they are paying lower rents, but others are worse off because they cannot rent an apartment—even if they are willing to pay the market price.

Rent-control advocates might argue that there would be no shortage of apartments because apartments don’t just disappear. But they do, just not in the most obvious ways. In the short run, property owners may be more selective regarding to whom they will rent apartments. In the medium term, property owners might convert their apartments to short-term rentals (e.g., listing them on a service like Airbnb). In the somewhat longer term, property owner will reduce their maintenance investments or might convert their apartment buildings to condominiums or sell their rental house to an owner-occupier. Ultimately, developers may decide to invest in an area that is not subject to rent control, thereby reducing the construction of new rental housing. Thus, as shown in Panel (b), in the long run, rent control shifts the supply curve, further reducing the supply of housing and increasing the shortage to 1,000 apartments.

This is not just a theory. There are plenty of real-world examples of this phenomenon playing out. Some nonetheless advocate for a modified version of rent control, sometimes called “second generation” rent control.[14] Rather than regulating the price of apartments, the newer iterations of rent control cap the rate at which prices can rise (e.g., rents can rise no higher than the rate of inflation, plus 3%). Second-generation rent control still results in shortages and all the other consequences, but draws out these effects over a longer time period.

B.      Price Floors

The most well-known form of price-floor regulation is the minimum wage, but there are many industries that are also subject to regulated price floors in the United States. Some states impose floors on the price of milk and alcoholic beverages. For decades, many U.S. agricultural products have been subject to price floors. Until the late 1970s and early 1980s, airline fares and stock-broker charges were subject to price-floor regulation.

Consider the market for wheat shown in Figure II, also adapted from Mankiw’s textbook.[15] In a competitive market, the price of wheat would be $3 and 100 bushels of wheat would be sold. At the market price, however, farmers would complain that the price is “too low.” They argue that, without assistance, their family farms would go under.

Figure II: Rent Market with a Price Floor

SOURCE: Mankiw

As a result, the government imposes a price floor, mandating that wheat cannot be bought for less than $4 per bushel. But at this price, the amount of wheat grown (120) exceeds the quantity demanded (80). Because of this excess supply of 40 bushels, there is a surplus of wheat and some farmers who want to sell wheat at the regulated price would be unable to do so. This introduces another problem for policymakers: price floors do not help suppliers who cannot sell their products at the regulated price.

To solve this problem, policymakers often turn to another set of policies. In some cases, the government promises to purchase any surplus. In one notable example, there is a cave in Missouri that contains 1.4 billion pounds of cheese purchased under such a program.[16] In other cases, the government replaces the price-floor regulation with a subsidy that promises to pay the difference between the market price and a “target price.”[17]

While a price ceiling can lead to “under” investment, a price floor can encourage “over” investment. For example, if a wheat farmer knows the minimum price that a bushel of wheat will fetch and that all the wheat grown will be purchased by someone, then the farmer has incentive to invest in wheat production rather than some other alternative.

Firms often respond to price floors in nonobvious ways. Baby boomers and their parents can tell stories of the luxurious accommodations enjoyed by those who flew coach in the 1960s and 1970s. Planes had spacious seating and some larger planes had a piano lounge onboard—features that were due, in a large part, to rate regulation that set a price floor on airline tickets. Because airlines faced no price competition, they competed for customers by offering superior service. In other words, they responded to price-floor regulations by “over” investing in service and amenities.[18]

In jurisdictions with high minimum wages, firms respond by using less labor. For example, restaurants may switch from table service to counter service, or they may replace some counter service with self-service electronic kiosks. Restaurants that maintain table service may assign more tables to each server. As the perceived level of service declines, consumers may substitute dining at-home for dining out.

C.      Not-Quite Rate Regulations

Because the effects of explicit rate regulation are so well-known and so obvious, policymakers who seek to regulate prices often attempt to do so in less-obvious ways. One already-discussed way is the regulation of price changes, rather than the prices themselves. For example, many rent-control price ceiling programs limit the rate at which rents can increase from year-to-year, a policy described as “rent stabilization.”[19] Many jurisdictions with minimum wage price-floor programs mandate an increase in the minimum wage in-line with the inflation rate.[20]

Another way in which officials can effectively—but not explicitly—regulate rates is through quality mandates. For example, some agricultural products are subject to “marketing orders,” which are legal cartels than can dictate the price and quality of produce.[21] Consider an apple market subject to a marketing order that specifies fresh apples must be of a certain shape and size, such that only large, round apples can be sold as fresh produce.

Presumably, consumers prefer large apples to small apples and prefer round apples to misshapen apples. Thus, as shown in Figure III, the order that only large, round apples can be sold as fresh has the effect of increasing/shifting the demand curve. Consumers would be willing to pay more for the seemingly better fruit, and they’d be willing to buy more. But the order also increases the cost to apple growers. They have to find a way to dispose of their smaller or misshapen apples, perhaps by making apple sauce or juicing the fruit. They also incur higher costs of managing their crop to produce more of the higher-quality fruit. This has the effect of decreasing/shifting the supply curve for fresh fruit. Growers will supply less fruit at a higher cost.

Figure III: Market with a Quality Mandate

Combining the effects from both the shift in supply and the shift in demand shows that the marketing order unambiguously results in a higher price for apples. What is not known, however, is whether more or fewer apples are sold. That will depend on the elasticities of demand and supply. Because the order results in a higher price, however, it has created a de facto price floor without explicitly setting one. Consumers are not aware that they are paying a higher price because they do not know what type of fruit would be available, and at what price, absent the quality restrictions.

III.    Recent Attempts at De Facto Rate Regulation in Broadband

The FCC obviously has a long history of explicit rate regulation since its inception in 1934.[22] Among its founding mandates, the commission was charged with ensuring that rates were fair, that service was reliable and efficient, and that access to telecommunications services was available to all Americans.[23] During this time, the FCC governed telephone-service rates through a system of rate-of-return regulation, in which rates were set based on the cost of providing service and the company’s desired return on investment.[24] In the latter half of the 20th century, and especially since Congress passed a major overhaul of the Communications Act in 1996, a more deregulatory approach to telecommunications has prevailed.

This made sense in the 1990s, and has only made more sense over time, as different communications modalities have been developed, and competition has flourished throughout the market. The reality of the competitive market is acknowledged by regulators across the political spectrum, as we noted above. Both potential and current FCC commissioners note that rate regulation of the broadband industry is undesirable.[25]

At the same time, however, current and potential FCC commissioners—along with other regulators at adjacent agencies—have shaped federal policy in ways that effectively amount to de facto rate regulation. Rate regulation by design and rate regulation in effect arrive at the same damaging economic consequences for consumers and the economy as a whole, however. As such, it is worth reviewing some of the recent efforts to enact de facto rate regulation.

A.      BEAD: Middle-Class Affordability Mandate

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) notice of funding opportunity under the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program requires each participating U.S. state or territory to include a “middle-class affordability plan to ensure that all consumers have access to affordable high-speed internet” (emphasis in original).[26] The notice provides several examples of how this could be achieved, including:

  1. Require providers to offer low-cost, high-speed plans to all middle-class households using the BEAD-funded network; and
  2. Provide consumer subsidies to defray subscription costs for households not eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Benefit or other federal subsidies.

Despite the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s (IIJA) explicit prohibition of price regulation, the NTIA’s approval process appears to envision exactly this. The first example provided above is clear rate regulation. It specifies a price (“low-cost”); a quantity (“all middle-class households”); and imposes a quality mandate (“high-speed”). Toward these ends, the notice provides an example of a “low-cost” plan that would be acceptable to NTIA:

  • Costs $30 per month or less, inclusive of all taxes, fees, and charges, with no additional non-recurring costs or fees to the consumer;
  • Allows the end user to apply the Affordable Connectivity Benefit subsidy to the service price;
  • Provides download speeds of at least 100 Mbps and upload speeds of at least 20 Mbps, or the fastest speeds the infrastructure is capable of if less than 100 Mbps/20 Mbps;
  • Provides typical latency measurements of no more than 100 milliseconds; and
  • Is not subject to data caps, surcharges, or usage-based throttling.[27]

The notice states that the focus of this portion of the program is to foster broadband access, rather than broadband adoption. But broadband access alone may not be sufficient to drive greater rates of broadband adoption. A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that “even where broadband service is available … an adoption gap may persist due to the affordability of broadband and lack of digital skills.”[28] The GAO report notes that nearly one-third of those with access to broadband do not subscribe to it.[29] Brian Whitacre and his co-authors found that, while the reduced levels of broadband access in rural areas explained 38% of the rural-urban broadband-adoption gap in 2011, differences in other general characteristics—such as income and education—explain “roughly half of the gap.”[30]

A policy bulletin published by the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies notes that the NTIA did not conclude that broadband was unaffordable for middle-class households.[31] George Ford, the bulletin’s author, collected data on broadband adoption by income level. The data indicate that, in general, internet-adoption rates increase with higher income levels. Higher-income households have higher adoptions rates (97.3%) than middle-income households (92.9%) which in turn have higher adoption rates than lower-income households (78.1%). For each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, the Phoenix bulletin finds that middle-income internet-adoption rates are, to a statistically significant degree, higher than lower-income adoption rates.

The Phoenix bulletin concludes that broadband currently is “affordable” to middle-class households and that “no direct intervention is required” to ensure affordability to the middle class. These observations, however, invite questions regarding how NTIA intends to administer the BEAD program.

  • How will the agency distinguish broadband access from broadband adoption? A nearly 93% adoption rate among middle-income households suggests that somewhere close to 100% of these households have broadband access.
  • Does “all middle-class households” literally mean all? Even among the highest-income households, broadband adoption is less than 100%. Is NTIA’s objective to reach 100% of middle-income households, or the same level as higher-income households?
  • With such high adoption rates among middle-income households, what would be the cost of providing access and/or encouraging adoption by the remaining 4% to 7% of households?
  • It seems obvious that some households will not adopt broadband at any price. Should some households pay a negative price for broadband under the BEAD program?
  • Does NTIA really intend to encourage states to provide money to households that do not qualify for ACP but already adopt broadband? If so, in what sense does this actually further the goal of spending scarce resources to get the unconnected online?

As John Mayo, Greg Rosston, & Scott Wallsten note:

A substantial portion of the unserved and underserved areas of the country that are the likely targets of the BEAD program, however, are rural, low-population density areas where deployment costs will be high. These high deployment costs may seem to indicate that even “cost-based” rates—normally seen as an attractive competitive benchmark—may be high, violating the IIJA’s “affordability” standard.[32]

The only effective way to reduce broadband price, increase access, and improve quality simultaneously is to increase supply. That would call for prioritizing subsidies to broadband providers before consumers. Although consumer subsidies would increase the demand for broadband, which would have a knock-on effect of potentially attracting long-term investment from providers, it could also increase the price for households who do not receive the subsidy. Direct provider subsidies targeted at hard-to-connect areas could avoid many of the problems that price controls and direct user subsidies can create.[33] Ultimately, however, price controls—even de facto or “backdoor” price controls—would likely slow broadband deployment.

B.      ReConnect Loan and Grant Program

In 2018, Congress provided the secretary of U.S. Department of Agriculture authority to establish a pilot project intended to expand broadband deployment in rural areas, known as the ReConnect Loan and Grant Program. According to the Congressional Research Service, as of December 2022, USDA had awarded more than $3 billion of ReConnect funds through three funding rounds.[34]

With its third round of funding in 2021, USDA announced that, for the first time, applicants would receive a preference, in the form of “points,” for agreeing to abide by so-called “net neutrality” rules similar to those that the FCC had eliminated in 2018’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order. The department simultaneously added affordability—providing a “low-cost option”—as a point criteria. In addition, the third round required that projects must provide broadband access at speeds of at least 100/100 Mbps (i.e., 100 Mbps symmetrical speed). Round 4, announced in August 2022, includes the same criteria.

USDA’s third- and fourth-round requirements under the ReConnect program could be characterized as “back-door” rate regulation. They specify pricing as a point criteria (“low-cost option”) and impose a quality mandate (100/100 Mbps). While it does not mandate a low-cost option, the point weighting indicates that pricing is a priority in awarding funds under the program.

This sort of second-generation price control, while it does not create a centrally directed rate schedule, amounts to the same dynamic. These preferences, while potentially more diffuse in the short term, ultimately create the same medium- and long-term dynamics that drive up prices, and reduce quality and availability.

C.      New York State’s Affordable Broadband Act

In 2021, the State of New York passed the Affordable Broadband Act (ABA).[35] The act requires ISPs to offer all qualifying low-income households at least two internet-access plans: (1) download speeds of at least 25 megabits-per-second for no more than $15-a-month, or (2) download speeds of at least 200 megabits-per-second for no more than $20-a-month. Providers with fewer than 20,000 subscribers may be eligible for exemption from the law. More than one-third of households in the state would be eligible to participate in the program.

Before it went into effect, a group of ISPs obtained an injunction in federal court to block the law.[36] The plaintiffs claimed that the ABA amounted to common-carrier rate regulation, which is preempted by federal law. ISPs are regulated as an “information service” under Title I of the Federal Communications Act of 1934, rather than as Title II common-carrier “telecommunications services.” As such, the plaintiffs claim neither the FCC nor the states can regulate ISPs as common carriers.

New York attempted to dance around this complication by asserting that the ABA merely set a price ceiling.[37] Because ISPs were permitted to charge any price below the ceiling, “the ABA does not ‘rate regulate’ broadband services,” the state argued.[38] The court shut down that line of reasoning, citing several earlier decisions that conclude “‘[p]rice ceilings’ regulate rates.”[39] The matter is currently on appeal before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where oral arguments were heard in January 2023.[40]

D.     Net Neutrality and Zero Rating

The FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order (“OIO”),[41] although explicitly forbearing from rate regulation,[42] was a regulatory scheme that imposed many of the same effects. Further, with prohibitions on practices like “zero rating,” the regulation walks right up to the line of explicit rate regulation, if not over it.

At an abstract level, the OIO was predicated on the idea that it was possible to impose some common-carriage obligations on broadband providers but to leave out rate regulation. Fundamentally, the OIO failed to take account of the economics that drive ISP investment and pricing, for both edge providers and consumers. In short, in a condition of scarcity—such as limited bandwidth and limited infrastructure to increase bandwidth—there will always be some form of rationing; it will be accomplished either through prices or through regulatory intervention. Even if a regulator disavows explicit rate regulation, intervention into providers’ business models and technical decisions will inevitably shape pricing in much the same way as explicit price regulation does, through the “hydraulic effect” of regulation.[43]

Generally speaking, the OIO imposed a form of “negative” rate regulation that short circuited the normal course of rationing among broadband providers and their customers. It prohibited providers from applying anything other than a zero price to edge providers.[44] It outright prohibited “paid prioritization”—that is, seeking payments for network utilization from edge providers like Google, Facebook, and Netflix—while casting suspicion on other pricing schemes under the Internet Conduct Standard.[45] Thus, on one hand, the OIO did explicitly regulate rates by imposing a zero price, and, on the other, implemented a de facto rate-regulation scheme by subjecting providers to regulatory scrutiny if they sought novel business relationships with partners.

The best example of this latter situation was the commission’s attack on “zero rating.” Zero rating is the practice of a broadband provider not counting data from certain sources against a customer’s data allowance within a given period.[46] In truth, this is a business model very familiar to any casual internet user: edge providers like gaming companies, email hosts, and social-media platforms frequently offer free or low-cost versions of their service in order to attract a critical mass of users.[47]

Zero-rated broadband service works identically. A content provider like Netflix or YouTube will partner with an ISP like T-Mobile or Comcast in order to provide broadband customers with access to the provider’s content without that use counting against their data plan. Zero rating does not mean that other services are blocked; just that those other services will count against a periodic data allowance.[48] Generally speaking, this sort of business arrangement is a boon to consumers, particularly low-income consumers who can only afford the most restrictive data plans.[49]

With the OIO, however, the FCC introduced the vague Internet Conduct Standard, which gave it broad latitude to ban practices like zero rating.[50] The standard prohibited providers from “unreasonably interfer[ing] with or unreasonably disadvantage[ing]” consumers’ access to lawful content, applications, or services, as well as edge providers’ ability to distribute lawful content, applications, or services.[51] In 2016, the FCC sent letters to AT&T and Verizon, suggesting that the two companies’ use of zero rating were likely violations of the OIO.[52]

Even this implicit threat of regulatory proceedings to examine the propriety of zero rating likely had a chilling effect. Indeed, in an analogous context, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struck down earlier net-neutrality regulations from the FCC on the grounds that they amounted to the application of de facto common-carriage obligations, even though that commission had refrained from applying Title II.[53]

Regulatory presumptions against zero rating and other forms of paid prioritization similarly amount to de facto rate regulation.[54] As multi-sided platforms, broadband providers seek to balance service and pricing across users and edge providers. As regulation restricts broadband providers’ ability to seek agreements with other large service providers, investment and consumers prices will be forced to shift in order to accommodate. In the long run, this will result in price increases, shortages, declines in quality or, most likely, some mix of the three.

IV.    Conclusion

Both economics and history demonstrate that rate regulations that cap the price of a product below the market price lead to shortages by increasing the quantity demanded without increasing the quantity supplied. Over time, such price caps can reduce the overall supply, as providers curtail or slow output-improving investments.

Broadband rate regulation—whether in the forms of direct and explicit price controls or back-door de facto policies—will result in slowed broadband investment and deployment. Broadband providers have a wide range of investment opportunities, with expected returns as a key consideration in evaluating these opportunities. Policies like price ceilings, which reduce the returns on deployment investments, will in turn reduce the likelihood that such investments will be made, thereby slowing broadband deployment.

As we noted in an earlier issue brief, broadband providers—like all firms—have limited resources with which to make their investments.[55] While profitability is a necessary precondition for investment, not all profitable investments can be undertaken. Among the universe of potentially profitable projects, firms are likely to give priority to those that promise greater returns on investment relative to those with lower ROI. Thus, any evaluation of broadband deployment and access must examine not only whether a given deployment is likely to be profitable, but also how its expected returns compare to other investment opportunities.

In broadband, returns on investment depend on several factors. Population density, terrain, regulations, and taxes are all important cost factors. The consumer population’s willingness to adopt and pay for broadband are key demand-related factors. In addition to these cost and demand factors, timing factors concerning both investment and adoption affect the ROI of any deployment investment. Generally speaking, the longer it takes for a given deployment to recoup its investment and generate a return, the lower the ROI and, in turn, the lower the likelihood that the investment will be made. Similarly, binding rate regulation—whether explicit or de facto—will reduce the ROI of deployments subject to that regulation.

Not only would existing broadband providers make fewer and less-intensive investments to maintain their networks, but they would also invest less in improving quality:

When it faces a binding price ceiling, a regulated monopolist is unable to capture the full incremental surplus generated by an increase in service quality. Consequently, when the firm bears the full cost of the increased quality, it will deliver less than the surplus-maximizing level of quality. As Spence (1975, p. 420, note 5) observes, “where price is fixed … the firm always sets quality too low.”[56]

Quality suffers under price regulation not just because firms can’t capture the full value of their investments, but also because it is often difficult to account for quality improvements in regulatory-pricing schemes:

The design and enforcement of service quality regulations is challenging for at least three reasons. First, it can be difficult to assess the benefits and the costs of improving service quality. Absent accurate knowledge of the value that consumers place on elevated levels of service quality and the associated costs, it is difficult to identify appropriate service quality standards. It can be particularly challenging to assess the benefits and costs of improved service quality in settings where new products and services are introduced frequently.

Second, the level of service quality that is actually delivered sometimes can be difficult to measure. For example, consumers may value courteous service representatives, and yet the courtesy provided by any particular representative may be difficult to measure precisely. When relevant performance dimensions are difficult to monitor, enforcing desired levels of service quality can be problematic.

Third, it can be difficult to identify the party or parties that bear primary responsibility for realized service quality problems. To illustrate, a customer may lose telephone service because an underground cable is accidentally sliced. This loss of service could be the fault of the telephone company if the company fails to bury the cable at an appropriate depth in the ground or fails to notify appropriate entities of the location of the cable. Alternatively, the loss of service might reflect a lack of due diligence by field workers from other companies who slice a telephone cable that is buried at an appropriate depth and whose location has been clearly identified.[57]

None of these concerns dissipate where regulators use indirect, de facto means to cap prices. Broadband is a classic multi-sided market.[58] If the price on one side of the market is set at below-market rates through rate regulation, then there will be upward pricing pressure on the other side of the market. Ultimately, consumers who are not subject to the regulated rates will face higher prices, which puts pressure on policymakers to impose yet another layer of imprecise and complex regulation and even deeper constraints on investment.

It’s important to understand that rate regulation—in any form and whatever the imagined benefits—is not a costless endeavor. Costs and risk do not disappear under rate regulation. Instead, they are shifted in one direction or another—typically with costs borne by consumers through some mix of suppressed investment, sluggish improvements in quality, and reduced innovation.

Government policy may well be able to help accelerate broadband deployment to the unserved portions of the country where it is most needed. But the way to get there is not by imposing price controls on broadband providers. Instead, broadband access can best be expanded by removing costly, government-erected barriers to buildout and/or by subsidizing and educating consumers where necessary.

[1] The Editorial Board, Nationwide Rent Control?, Wall St. J. (Jan. 22, 2023), https://www.wsj.com/articles/nationwide-rent-control-congress-democrats-progressives-housing-president-biden-11674233540.

[2] Lawrence J. Spiwak, USTelecom and Its Aftermath, 71 Fed. Comm. L. J. 39 (2018), available at http://www.fclj.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/71.1-%E2%80%93-Lawrence-J.-Spiwak.pdf.

[3] FCC Reauthorization: Oversight of the Commission, Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives, 114 Cong. 27 (Mar. 19, 2015) (Statement of Tom Wheeler).

[4] Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet, 80 FR 19737 (Apr. 13, 2015) (codified at 47 CFR 1, 47 CFR 8, and 47 CFR 20), https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2015/04/13/2015-07841/protecting-and-promoting-the-open-internet, (“2015 OIO”) at ¶¶ 51 & 538

[5] Id., Dissenting Statement of Ajit Pai, https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/FCC-15-24A5.pdf.

[6] Tim Wu, Agency Threats, 60 Duke L.J. 1841, 1842 (2011).

[7] Gigi B. Sohn, A Policy Framework for an Open Internet Ecosystem, 2 Geo. L. Tech. Rev. 335 (2018) at 345.

[8] David Shepardson, FCC Nominee Does Not Support U.S. Internet Rate Regulation, Reuters (Dec. 1, 2021), https://www.reuters.com/world/us/fcc-nominee-does-not-support-us-internet-rate-regulation-2021-12-01.

[9] Id.

[10] The White House, Fact Sheet: The American Jobs Plan (Mar. 31, 2021), https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/03/31/fact-sheet-the-american-jobs-plan (emphasis added).

[11] NY State Telecom. Assoc. v. James, 2:21-cv-2389 (DRH) (AKT), Memorandum and Order, Document 25 (E.D. N.Y. June 11, 2021), https://ecf.nyed.uscourts.gov/doc1/123117827301 (“Memorandum and Order”).

[12] See, for example, N. Gregory Mankiw, PRINCIPLES OF MICROECONOMICS, 4th ed., Thomson South-Western (2007); Paul Krugman & Robin Wells, Economics, 6th ed., MacMillan (2021); Steven A. Greenlaw & David Shapiro, Principles of Microeconomics 2nd ed., OpenStax (2017).

[13] Id., Mankiw.

[14] See, e.g., David L. Mengle, The Effect of Second Generation Rent Control on the Quality of Rental Housing, Fed. Res. Bank of Rich., Working Paper 85-5 (Nov. 1985), https://www.richmondfed.org/-/media/RichmondFedOrg/publications/research/working_papers/1985/pdf/wp85-5.pdf.

[15] Mankiw, supra note 12.

[16] Gitanjali Poonia, Why Does the U.S. Government Have 1.4 Billion Pounds of Cheese Stored in a Cave Underneath Springfield, Missouri?, Deseret News (Feb. 14, 2022), https://www.deseret.com/2022/2/14/22933326/1-4-billion-pounds-of-cheese-stored-in-a-cave-underneath-springfield-missouri-jimmy-carter-reagan.

[17] For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Price-Loss Coverage program issues payments when the effective price of a covered commodity is less than the respective reference price for that commodity. See, Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) & Price Loss Coverage (PLC), USDA (Oct. 2022), https://www.fsa.usda.gov/Assets/USDA-FSA-Public/usdafiles/FactSheets/2022/fsa_arc_plc_factsheet_101922.pdf.

[18] See, Richard H. K. Vietor, Contrived Competition: Regulation and Deregulation in America (1996) at 45 (“Since capacity could no longer serve as a means of differentiation, the trunk carriers had to devise new means of service competition. ‘Capacity wars’ gave way to ‘lounge wars.’”).

[19] See, e.g., Rent Stabilization, Oregon Dept. of Admin. Serv. (n.d.), https://www.oregon.gov/das/OEA/pages/rent-stabilization.aspx.

[20] Dave Kamper & Sebastian Martinez Hickey, Tying Minimum-Wage Increases to Inflation, as 13 States Do, Will Lift Up Low-Wage Workers and Their Families across the Country, Econ. Pol’y Inst. (Sep. 6, 2022), https://www.epi.org/blog/tying-minimum-wage-increases-to-inflation-as-12-states-do-will-lift-up-low-wage-workers-and-their-families-across-the-country.

[21] See, Darren Filson, Edward Keen, Eric Fruits & Thomas Borcherding, Market Power and Cartel Formation: Theory and an Empirical Test, 44 J. L. & Econ. 465 (2001).

[22] Vietor, supra note 17 at ch. 4.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Supra notes 13-15

[26] Notice of Funding Opportunity, Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program, NTIA-BEAD-2022, NTIA (May 2022), available at https://broadbandusa.ntia.doc.gov/sites/default/files/2022-05/BEAD%20NOFO.pdf (note that the IIJA itself did not include this requirement, and this is an addition by NTIA as part of the NOFO process; thus, it is unclear the extent to which this represents a valid requirement by NTIA under the BEAD program).

[27] Id.

[28] Broadband: National Strategy Needed to Guide Federal Efforts to Reduce Digital Divide, GAO-22-104611, U.S. Gov’t Accountability Off. (May 31, 2022), https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-22-104611.pdf, [hereinafter “GAO-22-104611”].

[29] Id. (“According to FCC data, about 31 percent of people nationwide who have access to broadband at speeds of 25/3 Mbps have not subscribed to it ….); see also, How Do Speed, Infrastructure, Access, and Adoption Inform Broadband Policy?, Pew Research Center (Jul. 7, 2022), https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/fact-sheets/2022/07/how-do-speed-infrastructure-access-and-adoptioninform-broadband-policy (“nearly 1 in 4 Americans do not subscribe to a home broadband connection, even where one is available”).

[30] Brian Whitacre, Sharon Strover, & Roberto Gallardo, How Much Does Broadband Infrastructure Matter? Decomposing the Metro–Non-Metro Adoption Gap with the Help of the National Broadband Map, 32 Gov’t Info. Q. 261 (2015).

[31] George S. Ford, Middle-Class Affordability of Broadband: An Empirical Look at the Threshold Question, Phoenix Ctr. for Adv. Leg. & Econ. Pub. Pol’y Stud., Pol’y Bull. No. 61 (Oct. 2022), https://phoenix-center.org/PolicyBulletin/PCPB61Final.pdf.

[32] John W. Mayo, Gregory L. Rosston & Scott J. Wallsten, From a Silk Purse to a Sow’s Ear? Implementing the Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment Act, Geo. U. McDonough Sch. of Bus. Ctr. for Bus. & Pub. Pol’y (Aug. 2022), https://georgetown.app.box.com/s/yonks8t7eclccb0fybxdpy3eqmw1l2da?mc_cid=95d011c7c1&mc_eid=dc30181b39.

[33] Even as a second-best option, user subsidies remain far preferable to price controls, as they at least directionally work within a market framework and encourage providers to deploy where there is genuine need and demand.

[34] Lisa S. Benson, USDA’s ReConnect Program: Expanding Rural Broadband, Cong. Res. Serv., R47017 (Dec. 14, 2022), https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R47017.

[35] Memorandum and Order, supra note 11.

[36] Id.

[37] Id. (“In Defendant’s words, the ABA concerns ‘Plaintiffs’ pricing practices’ by creating a ‘price regime’ that ‘set[s] a price ceiling,’ which flatly contradicts her simultaneous assertion that ‘the ABA does not “rate regulate” broadband services.’”)

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] Randolph J. May & Seth L. Cooper, Second Circuit Hears Preemption Challenge to New York’s Broadband Rate Regulation Law, FedSoc Blog (Feb. 7, 2023), https://fedsoc.org/commentary/fedsoc-blog/second-circuit-hears-preemption-challenge-to-new-york-s-broadband-rate-regulation-law.

[41] 2015 OIO, supra note 4.

[42] As noted above, however, the FCC still retained the power to impose rate regulation at a future date. This obviously muddies the discussion, as a looming threat of potential rate regulation would likely exert some influence over broadband providers’ decisions.

[43] See Geoffrey A. Manne, The Hydraulic Theory of Disclosure Regulation and Other Costs of Disclosure, 58 Ala. L. Rev. 473 (2007).

[44] The OIO banned paid prioritization outright, but regulated nonlinear pricing mechanisms like sponsored data under the Internet Conduct Standard. See 2015 OIO, supra note 4 at ¶ 151-53. But the order also rejected the “commercially reasonable” standard of the 2010 OIO and replaced it with a more amorphous, and more restrictive, “unreasonable interference or unreasonable disadvantages” standard. Following the commission’s letters expressing its hostility to AT&T’s and Verizon’s zero-rating programs (supra note 52, and accompanying text), it is safe to assume that such pricing schemes stood on extremely thin ice under the 2015 OIO.

[45] See 2015 OIO, supra note 4 at ¶ 151-53.

[46] See 2015 OIO, supra note 4 at ¶ 151; Jeffrey A. Eisenach, The Economics of Zero Rating, NERA (Mar. 2015), available at https://www.nera.com/content/dam/nera/publications/2015/EconomicsofZeroRating.pdf.

[47] See, e.g., Geoffrey A. Manne & Kristian Stout, In the Matter Of: Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s 9/12/15 Consultation Paper On Differential Pricing For Data Services at 4 and accompanying citations, Int’l Ctr. for L & Econ. (Jan. 4, 2015), available at https://laweconcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/icle-india_diff_pricing_comments_2016.pdf.

[48] Id. at 9.

[49] See, Understanding and Appreciating Zero-Rating: The Use and Impact of Free Data in the Mobile Broadband Sector, Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (May 9, 2016), available at http://mmtconline.org/WhitePapers/MMTC_Zero_Rating_Impact_on_Consumers_May2016.pdf.

[50] 2015 OIO, supra note 4 at ¶ 136.

[51] Id.

[52] See Jeff Dunn, The FCC Thinks AT&T’s Policies ‘Harm Consumers’ – And It’s Warning Verizon, Too, Business Insider (Dec. 2, 2016), http://www.businessinsider.com/fcc-verizon-att-zero-rating-net-neutrality-letter-directv-now-2016-12.

[53] Verizon, 740 F.3d at 657 (“The Commission has provided no basis for concluding that in permitting ‘reasonable’ network management, and in prohibiting merely ‘unreasonable’ discrimination, the Order’s standard of ‘reasonableness’ might be more permissive than the quintessential common carrier standard.”).

[54] See, e.g., Kristian Stout, Geoffrey A. Manne, & Allen Gibby, Policy Comments of the International Center for Law & Economics, Restoring Internet Freedom NPRM, WC Docket No. 17-108 at 36 and associated citations, Int’l Ctr. for L. & Econ. (Jul. 17, 2017), available at https://laweconcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/icle-comments_policy_rif_nprm-final.pdf; see also Daniel A. Lyons, Usage-Based Pricing, Zero-Rating, and the Future of Broadband Innovation, 11 Free State Foundation Perspectives 1 (2016), http://works.bepress.com/daniel_lyons/80.

[55] Eric Fruits & Kristian Stout, The Income Conundrum: Intent and Effects Analysis of Digital Discrimination, Int’l Ctr. for L & Econ., Issue Brief 2022-11-14 (Nov. 2022), https://laweconcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/The-Income-Conundrum-Intent-and-Effects-Analysis-of-Digital-Discrimination.pdf.

[56] David E. M. Sappington & Dennis L. Weisman, Price Cap Regulation: What Have We Learned from Twenty-Five Years of Experience in the Telecommunications Industry?, 38 J. Regul. Econ. 227 (Sep. 2010), http://bear.warrington.ufl.edu/centers/purc/docs/papers/1012_Sappington_Price_Cap_Regulation.pdf, at 9.

[57] Id. at 10.

[58] Issue Spotlight: Two-Sided Markets, Int’l Ctr. for L & Econ. (Nov. 8, 2022), https://laweconcenter.org/resources/policy-comments-international-center-law-economics-restoring-internet-freedom-nprm.

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities

Kristian Stout on Rural Broadband

Presentations & Interviews     ICLE Director of Innovation Policy Kristian Stout was interviewed by RFD-TV for a story item about the challenges involved in connecting rural areas . . .



ICLE Director of Innovation Policy Kristian Stout was interviewed by RFD-TV for a story item about the challenges involved in connecting rural areas to broadband internet.



One of the threats that could affect the efficacy of this program could be different state authorities not necessarily focusing on people who have traditionally been very difficult to connect to the internet but looking at lower hanging fruit that it’s easier to connect, like people who

might have slower than extremely fast but are faster than what we consider nonexistent broadband service. There are a number of hurdles that have just traditionally existed everywhere in the United States for broadband deployment. These include things like municipal permitting, getting rights of way, and then one of the largest drivers cost is access to utility poles across the United States. There are some more complicated problems that go into accessing these poles around whether they’re privately-owned or whether they’re owned by municipalities and co-ops, which can easily explode costs for a particular deployment and make it so that the money that the federal government is directing to reach these remote areas is not being fully-used to reach these people but is instead being wasted.

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities

What Transmission Markets Can Learn from the FCC’s Pole-Attachment Problem

TOTM Large portions of the country are expected to face a growing threat of widespread electricity blackouts in the coming years. For example, the Western Electricity . . .

Large portions of the country are expected to face a growing threat of widespread electricity blackouts in the coming years. For example, the Western Electricity Coordinating Council—the regional entity charged with overseeing the Western Interconnection grid that covers most of the Western United States and Canada—estimates that the subregion consisting of Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and portions of southern Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon will, by 2032, see 650 hours (more than 27 days in total) over the course of the year when available enough resources may not be sufficient to accommodate peak demand.

Read the full piece here.

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities

A webinar on digital discrimination

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) directs the Federal Communications Commission to prevent discrimination in broadband access. In addition to preventing racial, ethnic, or . . .

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) directs the Federal Communications Commission to prevent discrimination in broadband access. In addition to preventing racial, ethnic, or religious discrimination, the law seeks to remedy income discrimination. At the same time, the IIJA orders the FCC to take account of economic and technical feasibility of preventing the proscribed discrimination. These provisions of the IIJA raise complex legal and economic questions. Should the FCC focus on discriminatory intent or disparate impacts? How can the FCC prevent income discrimination while simultaneously accounting for economic feasibility?

This webinar discussion on the topic was recorded Feb. 13, 2023 with Rob McDowell (former commissioner of the FCC), Eric Fruits (ICLE), and Jessica Melugin (CEI), and was moderated by Kristian Stout (ICLE).

Due to technical difficulties with the video feed of this event, only the audio has been preserved.

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities