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Issue Brief: Pole Attachments and Broadband Build-out

ICLE Issue Brief President Joe Biden has made broadband build-out part of his Build Back Better plan, arguing that it constitutes essential infrastructure, much like electricity and water. . . .

President Joe Biden has made broadband build-out part of his Build Back Better plan, arguing that it constitutes essential infrastructure, much like electricity and water. The plan calls for $100 billion in subsidies for “future-proof” broadband—that is, connection modes that are expected to meet, or can be readily upgraded to meet, future connectivity needs—with a particular focus on municipal broadband and other nonprofit Internet service providers (ISPs). Congress also has taken up the question of broadband subsidies as part of its ongoing debate over infrastructure spending. But while it is important to get subsidies right, the most expedient public-policy change to ensure greater deployment and adoption of broadband would be to reform policies that needlessly impede the construction and efficient operation of broadband services.

Broadband connectivity continues to be a top priority for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and for state and local governments. But to build out wireline broadband, ISPs need access to poles, many of which are owned by electric cooperatives, utilities, and municipal governments. Unfortunately, these entities can charge exorbitant prices to access the necessary inputs. Moreover, the cost to replace, repair, and improve these poles is frequently offloaded onto ISPs and other attachers. These practices drive up the cost to deploy broadband, leading to slower deployment and higher prices for consumers.

The more expensive deployment becomes, the more difficult it is for providers to realize sustainable profits on those investments. This dynamic invariably leads to more selective use of scarce resources, to the detriment of costlier, less-profitable rural deployment. The challenge confronting policymakers and industry alike is how best to equitably and cost-effectively allocate the expenses associated with pole attachments.

The FCC has authority under Section 224 of the Communications Act to review the rates charged for pole attachments to ensure that they are “just and reasonable.” Pursuant to that authority, the FCC recently found that “utilities throughout the country have disparate and inconsistent practices with regard to cost responsibility for pole replacements.” The FCC also declared it unreasonable for utilities to “impose the entire cost of a pole replacement on a requesting attacher when the attacher is not the sole cause of the pole replacement.”

In order to facilitate greater broadband deployment, the FCC should consider rulemaking governing how to allocate pole-replacement costs more equitably. States should also reform how the costs of upgrades are distributed when municipal governments and electric cooperatives own the poles.

Read the full issue brief here.

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities

Congress May Invest Billions in Broadband. It Should Reform the Universal Service Fund Too

Popular Media With a compromise infrastructure bill now on the table in the Senate, it is more than just merely possible that Congress will invest $65 billion . . .

With a compromise infrastructure bill now on the table in the Senate, it is more than just merely possible that Congress will invest $65 billion in broadband over the next eight years. Despite the size of this potential investment, on an annualized basis it is smaller than the existing Federal Communications Commission Universal Service program. The pending infrastructure bill would invest $8.125 billion per year in an effort to close the digital divide, while the FCC’s Universal Service program has spent just under $8.3 billion per year for each of the past three years.

Read the full piece here.

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities

Build Broadband Better: Focus on Competition, Not Competitors

TOTM President Joe Biden named his post-COVID-19 agenda “Build Back Better,” but his proposals to prioritize support for government-run broadband service “with less pressure to turn . . .

President Joe Biden named his post-COVID-19 agenda “Build Back Better,” but his proposals to prioritize support for government-run broadband service “with less pressure to turn profits” and to “reduce Internet prices for all Americans” will slow broadband deployment and leave taxpayers with an enormous bill.

Read the full piece here.

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities

The Problems with Municipal Broadband

TL;DR President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan calls for “future proof” broadband infrastructure, with priority for broadband networks “owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives―providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities.”

Background…

President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan calls for “future proof” broadband infrastructure, with priority for broadband networks “owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives?providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities.”

But…

Municipal broadband and other options that decouple Internet service from profits and losses do not serve consumers in a cost-effective way. Municipal providers rely heavily on subsidies (including cross-subsidies from electric co-ops) to continue operations, creating an uneven playing field. The presence of a municipal provider also means less incentive for private companies to enter or expand in the market. On the other hand, benefits from municipal broadband are minimal and it represents a risky investment for taxpayers that should only be considered a last resort.

Read the full explainer here.

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities

ITSA Foreshadows Final Act in 5.9GHz Fight

TOTM It’s a telecom tale as old as time: industry gets a prime slice of radio spectrum and falls in love with it, only to take . . .

It’s a telecom tale as old as time: industry gets a prime slice of radio spectrum and falls in love with it, only to take it for granted. Then, faced with the reapportionment of that spectrum, it proceeds to fight tooth and nail (and law firm) to maintain the status quo.

Read the full piece here.

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities

ICLE Amicus Brief in ACA Connects et al v Beccera

Amicus Brief ICLE supports the appeal filed by ACA Connects et al. seeking review of the district court’s denial of a preliminary injunction. As detailed herein, the district court failed to consider economic and empirical realities that militate in favor of finding irreparable harm to the Appellants’ members. Moreover, the same economic and empirical realities tip the balance of equities in favor of the Appellants, and establish that the public interest is in granting a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the California Internet Consumer Protection and Net Neutrality Act of 2018.

SUMMARY OF ARGUMENT

In 2018, the FCC issued its Restoring Internet Freedom Order, 33 FCC Rcd. 311 (2018) [“2018 Order”], which returned broadband Internet access service (“broadband”) to a classification as a Title I information service. The FCC determined that a “light touch” regulatory regime was necessary to promote investment in broadband. Id. ¶¶ 1-2. While removing the “no-blocking” and “no-throttling” rules previously imposed under the 2015 Open Internet Order, Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet, Report and Order on Remand, Declaratory Ruling, and Order, 30 FCC Rcd. 5601 (2015) [“2015 Order”], the FCC also removed the “general conduct” standard—an open-ended regulatory catch-all that would permit the FCC to examine any conduct of broadband providers that it deemed potentially threatening to Internet openness. Cf. 2018 Order ¶¶ 239-245. Yet, notably, the FCC elected to keep a version of the 2015 Order’s transparency rule in place, which requires broadband providers to disclose any blocking, throttling, paid prioritization, or similar conduct. Id.

In retaining the transparency rule, the FCC noted that the FTC and state attorneys general are in a position to prevent anticompetitive consumer harm through the enforcement of consumer protection and antitrust laws. See 2018 Order ¶ 142. Thus, the overarching goal of the 2018 Order was to ensure business conduct which could be beneficial to consumers was not foreclosed by regulatory fiat, as would have been the case under the 2015 Order, while empowering the FCC, FTC, and state attorneys general to identify and address discrete consumer harms.

The Mozilla court noted that the FCC could invoke conflict preemption principles in order to prevent inconsistent state laws from interfering with the 2018 Order. Mozilla Corp. v. FCC, 940 F.3d 1, 85 (D.C. Cir. 2019) (per curiam). Without such preemption, a patchwork of inconsistent state laws would confuse compliance efforts and drive up broadband deployment costs. Cf. Id. Relying as it does on a common carriage approach to regulating the Internet, and fragmenting the regulation of broadband providers between the federal and state levels, SB-822 is at odds with the purpose of the 2018 Order.

The district court found the balance of the equities and the public interest both weighed in favor of California in enforcing SB-822, stating the law “provides crucial protections for California’s economy, democracy, and society as a whole,” Transcript of Proceedings, American Cable Ass’n v. Becerra, No. 2:18 cv-02684 (E.D. Cal. Feb. 23, 2021) (ER-7–78) [“Tr.”], and that a preliminary injunction would “negatively impact the State of California more than [it would benefit] the ISP companies.” Id. at 69. In denying the motion for a preliminary injunction, the court also found the Appellants failed to show a likelihood of success on the merits. Id. at 67.

The district court wrongly concluded the balance of equities tips in favor of Defendant-Appellee, the state of California, and incorrectly assumed that the Appellants’ members would not suffer irreparable harm. The economics underlying broadband deployment, combined with competition and consumer protection law, provide adequate protection to consumers and firms in the marketplace without enforcement of SB-822. And, because of the sovereign immunity provided to California under the Eleventh Amendment, the potential damages suffered by the Appellants’ members are unable to be remedied. On the other hand, the enforcement of this law will significantly harm the Appellants’ members as well as the public by allowing states to create a patchwork of inconsistent laws and bans on consumer welfare-enhancing conduct like zero-rating.

The district court made crucial errors in its analysis when balancing the equities.

First, when evaluating the likelihood of ISPs acting in ways that would reduce Internet openness, it failed to consider the economic incentives that militate against this outcome.

ISPs operate as multi-sided markets—their ability to draw consumers and edge providers on both sides of their platforms depends on behavior that comports with consumer expectations.  Both broadband consumers and edge providers demand openness, and there is no reason to expect ISPs to systematically subvert those desires and risk losing revenue and suffering reputational harm. Contrary to the district court’s characterization, the good behavior of ISPs is not attributable to scrutiny during the pendency of the current litigation: rather, it is a rational response to consumer demand and part of a course of conduct that has existed for decades.

Second, the district court discounted the legal backdrop that both would hold ISPs to their promises, as well as prevent them from committing competitive harms.

All of the major ISPs have made public promises to refrain from blocking, throttling, or engaging in paid prioritization. See infra Part I (A) at 17.  Further, the FCC’s 2018 Order creates a transparency regime that would prevent ISPs from covertly engaging in the practices SB-822 seeks to prevent. The FTC’s Section 5 authority to prevent “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” empowers that agency to pursue ISPs that make such promises and break them while state attorneys general can also bring enforcement actions under state consumer protection laws. 2018 Order ¶¶ 140-41.

In addition to the consumer protection enforcement noted above, antitrust law provides a well-developed set of legal rules that would prevent ISP’s from engaging in anticompetitive conduct. This would include preventing ISPs from entering into anticompetitive agreements with each other, or with edge providers, that harm competition, as well as prevent anticompetitive unilateral conduct.

In summary, the district court failed to properly balance the equities and, in so doing, sanctioned net harm to the public interest. Both the underlying economic incentives and existing laws ensure ISPs will continue to provide broadband service that meets consumer expectations. By contrast, SB-822, in going further than even the 2015 Order, actually permits a great deal of harm against the public interest by presumptively banning practices, like zero-rating, that increase consumer welfare without harming competition.

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities

Re: The Federal Communications Commission’s Bipartisan 5.9 GHz Order

Regulatory Comments Dear Secretary Buttigieg, Secretary Raimondo, and Director Deese: The International Center for Law & Economics, New America’s Open Technology Institute, Public Knowledge and the R . . .

Dear Secretary Buttigieg, Secretary Raimondo, and Director Deese:

The International Center for Law & Economics, New America’s Open Technology Institute, Public Knowledge and the R Street Institute represent organizations that take contrary positions on many policy issues. But we all agree that the Federal Communications Commission’s bipartisan compromise decision to open the 5.9 GHz band to both automotive and  broadband technologies achieved the right balance. We therefore write to respond to a March 11, 2021 letter from the Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America) and  the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).[1] This letter argues that you should intervene in an attempt to overrule the considered decision of an independent regulatory agency, without revealing key facts about the band. The truth is that the automotive industry was granted access to this band more than twenty years ago and has still failed to produce any real-world safety benefits—and that the FCC’s well-supported and bipartisan decision will both support crash-avoidance advances and expand broadband at a time when Americans need it more than ever. We urge you not to undermine the FCC’s important decision as ITS America and AASHTO ask you to do.

On November 18, 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a unanimous and bipartisan 5.9 GHz Order designating (1) 45 megahertz of the 5.9 GHz band for  indoor Wi Fi and other unlicensed broadband technologies and (2) 30 megahertz for automotive safety technologies.[2] Our organizations believe that the FCC’s compromise approach was right for strengthening the Wi-Fi connections Americans rely on and for supporting the innovation in automotive technologies needed to finally address the failure of the FCC’s previous ITS policy.

The FCC’s 5.9 GHz Order recognized the enormous contributions Wi-Fi makes to Americans’ everyday lives and to the Nation’s economy. Demand for Wi-Fi has been increasing rapidly for years, and recent research published by the Wi-Fi Alliance has found that Wi-Fi creates nearly $1 trillion in economic value annually in the United States today.[3] The COVID-19 pandemic has only magnified the importance of Wi-Fi to Americans working, attending school, completing homework assignments, attending telehealth visits, connecting with family and friends, and more via their broadband internet connections. Even before the FCC adopted its final order in November, it granted special temporary access to the lower 45 megahertz of the 5.9 GHz band to 100 wireless internet service providers, who used it to immediately expand capacity for customers in dozens of rural areas across the country using existing devices.

Because of Wi-Fi’s enormous success, however, the spectrum bands commonly used today are overburdened. As Americans continue to rely increasingly on Wi-Fi to connect more and more devices to the internet, the FCC must seize opportunities to make more spectrum available.

The FCC began to study the 5.9 GHz band for Wi-Fi and other unlicensed applications in 2013. In 2019, in a notice of proposed rulemaking, the Commission correctly recognized that even though the FCC had set aside the full 5.9 GHz band over twenty years ago in 1999 for a particular automotive safety technology called Dedicated Short Range Communications (or DSRC), that technology had “not lived up to its promise, … leaving valuable mid-band spectrum largely fallow.”[4] Today, there is no use of the band at all in the vast majority of the country, and there is not even one automobile model currently built with DSRC. In recognition of this failure, the FCC proposed to split the band so that unlicensed technologies like Wi-Fi could operate in the lower 45 megahertz of the band, and a new automotive communications technology called C- V2X could operate in the top 30 megahertz of the band. It noted that the 5.9 GHz band is adjacent to the most widely used Wi-Fi band in the United States and that adding those 45 megahertz would enable the use of wider Wi-Fi channels needed to make more efficient use of the spectrum and to support next-generation broadband applications.

Particularly with the emergence of C-V2X, preferred by many in the automotive industry, the Commission believed that a compromise giving both Wi-Fi and C-V2X the ability to operate would finally make efficient and valuable use of the 5.9 GHz band. The Commission received extensive comments over many years from Wi-Fi advocates and automotive interests, and met repeatedly with interested parties. It also considered multiple rounds of input from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation on behalf of private automotive companies and states, even though this band is not available for Department of Transportation federal use. In 2020, after many years of consideration, the Commission finally released the 5.9 GHz Order adopting the compromise proposal. Commissioners from both sides of the political aisle voted unanimously in favor of the 5.9 GHz Order, following years of bipartisan effort.

Despite this open and fair proceeding by an independent regulatory agency acting within its area of expertise, ITS America and AASHTO now ask you to work to overturn the FCC’s unanimous judgment. They argue, just as they have before the FCC again and again, that automotive communications technologies are poised to revolutionize automotive safety, if only the FCC would get out of the way and leave them the full 75 megahertz of the 5.9 GHz band instead of the top 30 megahertz. ITS America and its members made the same promises over twenty years ago about DSRC’s just-around-the-corner ability to improve vehicle safety when they successfully convinced the FCC to grant them the unusual and ill-fated subsidy of free, exclusive spectrum. They had two decades and billions of dollars in taxpayer-subsidized grants and investments, but failed to deploy DSRC widely in commercial vehicles. As a result, the only current DSRC uses of the band are sparse pilot projects for applications that need far less than the full 75 megahertz—not the ubiquitous deployments along roadways and in vehicles that would be necessary for DSRC to deliver on its promises. The FCC was right to recognize that there is a more efficient way to make use of the 5.9 GHz band for the benefit of Americans, while still leaving more than enough spectrum for the automotive industry to provide the safety applications they promised decades ago.

The FCC gave ITS America and AASHTO a full and fair hearing. These organizations were vocal participants in the FCC’s 5.9 GHz rulemaking process. They filed comments as far back as 2013 and presented their views in meetings with the FCC’s expert engineers many times over the course of the rulemaking. After years of careful consideration, the FCC concluded that there is room enough in the 5.9 GHz band for the future of Wi-Fi and for C-V2X, the future of automotive communications according to many industry stakeholders.

For ITS America and AASHTO now to ask the Administration to intervene with Congress in an effort to overrule the technical analysis and unanimous decision of an independent regulator, after 20 years of illusory promises, is nothing short of breathtaking. The country cannot afford for the Administration or Congress to fall prey to another generation of smoke and mirrors. We urge you to decline their invitation to undermine the FCC’s independence and its careful technical judgment.

Sincerely,

International Center for Law & Economics

New America’s Open Technology Institute

Public Knowledge

R Street Institute

[1] Letter from Shailen Bhatt, President & CEO, ITS America, and Jim Tymon, Executive Director, AASHTO, to the Honorable Pete Buttigieg, Secretary, U.S. Department of Transportation, the Honorable Gina Raimondo, Secretary, U.S. Department of Commerce, and Mr. Brian Deese, Director, National Economic Council (Mar. 11, 2021), available at https://itsa.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/ITSA-AASHTO-V2X-Letter-March-11.pdf.

[2] See Use of the 5.850-5.925 GHz Band, First Report and Order, Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, and Order of Proposed Modification, 35 FCC Rcd. 13440 (2020) (5.9 GHz Order).

[3] See https://www.wi-fi.org/news-events/newsroom/wi-fi-global-economic-value-to-reach-5-trillion-in-2025.

[4] Use of the 5.850-5.925 GHz Band, Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, 34 FCC Rcd. 12603, ¶ 18 (2019).

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities

Chairman Pai Symposium: Wrap-Up and Thoughts for the Future FCC

TOTM The next chair has an awfully big pair of shoes (or one oversized coffee mug) to fill. Chairman Pai established an important legacy of transparency and process improvement, as well as commitment to careful, economic analysis in the business of the agency.

One of the themes that has run throughout this symposium has been that, throughout his tenure as both a commissioner and as chairman, Ajit Pai has brought consistency and careful analysis to the Federal Communications Commission (McDowellWright). The reflections offered by the various authors in this symposium make one thing clear: the next administration would do well to learn from the considered, bipartisan, and transparent approach to policy that characterized Chairman Pai’s tenure at the FCC.

Read the full piece here.

 

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities

The Ajit Pai FCC on Radio Spectrum Allocations

TOTM Disclosure: The one time I met Ajit Pai was when he presented a comment on my book, “The Political Spectrum,” at a Cato Institute forum . . .

Disclosure: The one time I met Ajit Pai was when he presented a comment on my book, “The Political Spectrum,” at a Cato Institute forum in 2018. He was gracious, thorough, and complimentary. He said that while he had enjoyed the volume, he hoped not to appear in upcoming editions. I took that to imply that he read the book as harshly critical of the Federal Communications Commission. Well, when merited, I concede. But it left me to wonder if he had followed my story to its end, as I document the success of reforms launched in recent decades and advocate their extension. Inclusion in a future edition might work out well for a chairman’s legacy. Or…

Read the full piece here.

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Telecommunications & Regulated Utilities