Data roaming mischief . . . Another pebble in the digital river?

Mobile communications is among the healthiest of U.S. industries. Through a time of economic peril and now merely uncertainty, mobile innovation hasn’t wavered. It’s been a too-rare bright spot. Huge amounts of infrastructure investment, wildly proliferating software apps, too many devices to count. If anything, the industry is moving so fast on so many fronts that we risk not keeping up with needed capacity.

Mobile, perhaps not coincidentally, has also been historically a quite lightly regulated industry. But emerging is a sort of slow boil of small but many rules, or proposed rules, that could threaten the sector’s success. I’m thinking of the “bill shock” proceeding, in which the FCC is looking at billing practices and various “remedies.” And the failure to settle the D block public safety spectrum issue in a timely manner. And now we have a group of  rural mobile providers who want the FCC to set prices in the data roaming market.

You remember that “roaming” is when service provider A pays provider B for access to B’s network so that A’s customers can get service when they are outside A’s service area, or where it has capacity constraints, or for redundancy. These roaming agreements are numerous and have always been privately negotiated. The system works fine.

But now a group of provider A’s, who may not want to build large amounts of new network capacity to meet rising demand for mobile data, like video, Facebook, Twitter, and app downloads, etc., want the FCC to mandate access to B’s networks at regulated prices. And in this case, the B’s have spent many tens of billions of dollars in spectrum and network equipment to provide fast data services, though even these investments can barely keep up with blazing demand.

The FCC has never regulated mobile phone rates, let alone data rates, let alone data roaming rates. And of course mobile voice and data rates have been dropping like rocks. These few rural providers are asking the FCC to step in where it hasn’t before. They are asking the FCC to impose old-time common carrier regulation in a modern competitive market – one in which the FCC has no authority to impose common carrier rules and prices.

In the chart above, we see U.S. info-tech investment in 2010 approached $500 billion. Communications equipment and structures (like cell phone towers) surpassed $105 billion. The fourth generation of mobile networks is just in its infancy. We will need to invest many tens of billions of dollars each year for the foreseeable future both to drive and accommodate Internet innovation, which spreads productivity enhancements and wealth across every sector in the economy.

It is perhaps not surprising that a small number of service providers who don’t invest as much in high-capacity networks might wish to gain artificially cheap access to the networks of the companies who invest tens of billions of dollars per year in their mobile networks alone. Who doesn’t like lower input prices? Who doesn’t like his competitors to do the heavy lifting and surf in his wake? But the also not surprising result of such a policy could be to reduce the amount that everyone invests in new networks. And this is simply an outcome the technology industry, and the entire country, cannot afford. The FCC itself has said that “broadband is the great infrastructure challenge of the early 21st century.”

Economist Michael Mandel has offered a useful analogy:

new regulations [are] like  tossing small pebbles into a stream. Each pebble by itself would have very little effect on the flow of the stream. But throw in enough small pebbles and you can make a very effective dam.

Why does this happen? The answer is that each pebble by itself is harmless. But each pebble, by diverting the water into an ever-smaller area,  creates a ‘negative externality’ that creates more turbulence and slows the water flow.

Similarly, apparently harmless regulations can create negative externalities that add up over time, by forcing companies to spending  time and energy meeting the new requirements. That reduces business flexibility and hurts innovation and growth.

It may be true that none of the proposed new rules for wireless could alone bring down the sector. But keep piling them up, and you can dangerously slow an important economic juggernaut. Price controls for data roaming are a terrible idea.

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