Zero-sum thinking on zero-rating threatens 5G success

On Wednesday, the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee will take up AT&T’s pending acquisition of Time Warner (the owner of HBO and TBS, not the cable company). Congress has no direct role in merger approval, but the hearing will no doubt highlight the arguments for and against the merger that the Department of Justice, and possibly the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), will hear next year.

As odd as it may sound, I think the AT&T-TWX alliance is chiefly a 5G wireless infrastructure story. Time Warner, combined with DirecTV, will provide a huge amount of popular video content to act as a killer app for a new nationwide wireless infrastructure, not only delivering video to proliferating mobile devices but also competing with cable for residential TV and broadband subscribers.

While video may be the killer app, this 5G wireless network will also serve as the strategic platform for most of the rest of the economy, from connected and autonomous cars to health care to the retail and industrial Internet of Things (IoT). For an incoming administration focused on infrastructure and reviving the lagging sectors of our economy, 5G is attractive. It offers not only tens of billions of dollars of direct infrastructure investment and jobs (at no cost to taxpayers) but also a means to boost productivity and incomes in industries that so far have been left out of the information revolution.

Much of the opposition to the deal takes the vague and familiar form of big-is-bad. Among specific critiques of the deal, however, the most prominent is opposition to “zero rating.” Zero rating, or free data, is the practice of content firms paying for the data consumption of their viewers or listeners. Free data comes in different forms — some are like 1-800 toll-free numbers, other exempt sponsored content from data limits.

Critics worry that AT&T, like Comcast before it, will use zero rating to favor some content over other content, and the outgoing FCC is trying to pick a fight. Last week, AT&T launched its new DirecTV Now service, which delivers bundles of cable-like video channels over the internet and which won’t count against users’ AT&T data limits. You’d think the FCC would be thrilled with this new, attractively-priced, competitive offering. Yet the FCC promptly hit AT&T (and Verizon, which has a similar service) with letters skeptical of their free data programs.

The FCC’s attack on free data is probably legally indefensible, but it is also economically unsound. Opposition to zero rating is based on zero-sum fallacies, where one party’s gain necessarily means another party’s loss. If HBO or ESPN or Netflix or NBC or Spotify subsidize your consumption of their content, then you or other content firms must somehow lose, or so the theory goes.

But the opposite is true. What if most everyone can get more of what they want? This is the way innovation works. In competitive markets like mobile broadband and digital content, free data is additive. It’s positive-sum. By allowing content firms to contribute to the economic equation where they see a benefit, it promotes the consumption of more total data by consumers, their ability to access more third-party non-zero-rated content, and the ability to build faster networks. It’s a win-win-win for consumers, ISPs, and content providers.

Free data is likely to be a widely used business model for connected cars, health care and educational apps, and the Internet of Things. And so proscribing the use of this commonplace business model would not only hurt digital content but also the emerging apps and services we are planning to build using 5G networks.

There’s lots more to say on these topics, but opposing a merger based on refusing free data for consumers is unlikely to be a winning argument.

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