Posts Tagged ‘data roaming’

Roam, roam on the range. Will Washington’s new intrusions discourage wireless expansion?

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

The U.S. wireless sector has been only mildly regulated over the last decade. We’d argue this is a key reason for its success. But this presumption of mostly unfettered experimentation and dynamism may be changing.

Consider Sprint’s apparent decision to use “roaming” in Oklahoma and Kansas instead of building its own network. Now, roaming is a standard feature of mobile networks worldwide. Company A might not have as much capacity as it would like in some geography, so it pays company B, who does have capacity there, for access. Company A’s customers therefore get wider coverage, and Company B is paid for use of its network.

The problem comes with the FCC’s 2011 “digital roaming” order. Last spring three FCC commissioners decided that private mobile services — which the Communications Act says “shall not . . . be treated as a common carrier” — are a common carrier. Only D.C. lawyers smarter than you and me can figure out how to transfigure “shall not” into “may.” Anyway, the possible effect is to subject mobile data — one of the fastest growing sectors anywhere on earth — to all sorts of forced access mandates and price controls.

We warned here and here that turning competitive broadband infrastructure into a “common carrier” could discourage all players in the market from building more capacity and covering wider geographies. If company A can piggyback on company B’s network at below market rates, why would it build its own expensive network? And if company B’s network capacity is going to company A’s customers, instead of its own customers, do we think company B is likely to build yet more cell sites and purchase more spectrum?

With 37 million iPhones and 15million iPads sold last quarter, we need more spectrum, more cell towers, more capacity. This isn’t the way to get it. And what we are seeing with Sprint’s decision to roam instead of build in Oklahoma and Kansas may be the tip of this anti-investment iceberg.

Last spring when the data roaming order came down we began wondering about a possible “slow walk to a reregulated communications market.” Among other items, we cited net neutrality, possible new price controls for Special Access links to cell sites, and a host of proposed regulations affecting things like behavioral advertising and intellectual property (see, PIPA/SOPA). Since then we’ve seen the government block the AT&T-T-Mobile merger. And the FCC is now holding up its own important push for more wireless spectrum because it wants the right to micromanage who gets what spectrum and how mobile carriers can use it.

Many of these items can be thoughtfully debated. But the number of new encroachments onto the communications sector threatens to slow its growth. Many of these encroachments, moreover, are taking place outside any basic legislative authority. In the digital roaming and net neutrality cases, for example, the FCC appeared clearly to grant itself extra- if not il-legal authority. These new regulations are now being challenged in court.

We need some restraint across the board on these matters. The Internet is too important. We can’t allow a quiet, gradual reregulation of the sector to slow down our chief engine of economic growth.

— Bret Swanson

Up-is-down data roaming vote could mean mobile price controls

Monday, April 11th, 2011

Section 332(c)(2) of the Communications Act says that “a private mobile service shall not . . . be treated as a common carrier for any purpose under this Act.”

So of course the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday declared mobile data roaming (which is a private mobile service) a common carrier. Got it? The law says “shall not.” Three FCC commissioners say, We know better.

This up-is-down determination could allow the FCC to impose price controls on the dynamic broadband mobile Internet industry. Up-is-down legal determinations for the FCC are nothing new. After a decade trying, I’ve still not been able to penetrate the legal realm where “shall not” means “may.” Clearly the FCC operates in some alternate jurisprudential universe.

I do know the decision’s practical effect could be to slow mobile investment and innovation. It takes lots of money and know-how to build the Internet and beam real-time videos from anywhere in the world to an iPad as you sit on your comfy couch or a speeding train. Last year the U.S. invested $489 billion in info-tech, which made up 47% of all non-structure capital expenditures. Two decades ago, info-tech comprised just 33% of U.S. non-structure capital investment. This is a healthy, growing sector.

As I noted a couple weeks ago,

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. . . .

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.”

But if Washington actually wants more infrastructure investment, it has a funny way of showing it. On Sunday at a Boston conference organized by Free Press, former Obama White House technology advisor Susan Crawford talked about America’s major communications companies.  ”[R]egulating these guys into to an inch of their life is exactly what needs to happen,” she said. You’d think the topic was tobacco or human trafficking rather than the companies that have pretty successfully brought us the wonders of the Internet.

It’s the view of an academic lawyer who has never visited that exotic place called the real world. Does she think that the management, boards, and investors of these companies will continue to fund massive  infrastructure projects in the tens of billions of dollars if Washington dangles them within “an inch of their life”? Investment would dry up long before we ever saw the precipice. This is exactly what’s happened economy-wide over the last few years as every company, every investor, in every industry worried about Washington marching them off the cost cliff. The White House supposedly has a newfound appreciation for the harms of over-regulation and has vowed to rein in the regulators. But in case after case, it continues to toss more regulatory pebbles into the economic river.

Perhaps Nick Schulz of the American Enterprise Institute has it right. Take a look. He calls it the Tommy Boy theory of regulation, and just maybe it explains Washington’s obsession — yes, obsession; when you watch the video, you will note that is the correct word — with managing every nook and cranny of the economy.

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

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

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.