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Checks and Balances

The Supreme Court unanimously rejected efficiency as an excuse for industrial dictatorship when it ordered the breakup of Standard Oil despite the fact that the company had lowered the cost of a gallon of kerosene by more than half. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected the efficiency argument again in 1935 when it ruled President Roosevelt's National Industrial Recovery Act unconstitutional. In every case, the American people embraced not efficiency but freedom and moved to protect that freedom through the erection of intricate systems of checks and balances designed to scatter power.

Community Networks: Checks and Balances

As both AT&T and Comcast seek to increase their market power by buying rivals instead of competing, Barry Lynn reminds us of our history of fighting such consolidated power. From Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction.

In the modern era in the United States, efficiency was a favorite defense by industrial autocrats like John D. Rockefeller and financial autocrats like J.P. Morgan of their used of corporate power to arbitrarily determine particularly political economic outcomes. The progressive elite, meanwhile, later turned efficiency into a veritable religion.

That's why the American people learned long ago to reject efficiency as either a goal or a means to public or private governance, and why we consistently rejected it for the first two hundred years of our nation. We understood that efficiency was a code word for top-down autocratic rule by the lords and the private corporate estates or the "public" state. Hence we rejected efficiency in the Declaration of Independence and again in the Constitution. We rejected efficiency when we wrote the Sherman Antitrust Act, then reiterated our rejection time and again in our other antimonopoly laws.

The Supreme Court unanimously rejected efficiency as an excuse for industrial dictatorship when it ordered the breakup of Standard Oil despite the fact that the company had lowered the cost of a gallon of kerosene by more than half. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected the efficiency argument again in 1935 when it ruled President Roosevelt's National Industrial Recovery Act unconstitutional. In every case, the American people embraced not efficiency but freedom and moved to protect that freedom through the erection of intricate systems of checks and balances designed to scatter power.

You Are Cordially Invited: June 17th Discussion on Cable Companies, Monopolies, and Community Networks

On Tuesday June 17th, Chris will be participating in a conversation hosted by the Media Consortium as part of its Media Policy Reporting and Education Program (MPREP). You are invited to sit in on what is sure to be a spirited discussion on community networks and the lack of competition in the cable industry.

What: Community Fiber Networks: A Realistic Solution to Cable Monopoly?

When: Tuesday, June 17, 3pm ET/ 12 PT

Who: Joining Chris will be:

Ryan Radia, Associate Director for Technology Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He is critical of government-run or regulated projects in general, and specifically critical of community networks. 

Wayne Pyle, City Manager and CEO of West Valley City, Utah's second largest municipality, and also  chair of the board of UTOPIA, the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, a community network serving 11 cities.

This is the first of several monthly briefings hosted by MPREP to discuss media policy issues. Everyone is welcome to participate. Register online for this discussion.

Network Neutrality Update

The FCC is hearing the massive public outcry over its plan that would allow the big cable and telephone companies to create fast and slow lanes on the wires most of us depend on to access the Internet. Chairman Wheeler has made some bold claims that he would not allow commercially unreasonable deals but many doubt the FCC has the authority to enforce his tough talk.

Now we see that FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel wants to slow down the rulemaking for "at least a month" given the outcry.

Resistance to the plan does seem to be building with the emergence of over 100 Internet-dependent companies decrying the possibility of fast and slow lanes. Full letter here [pdf].

Mozilla has developed an alternative approach to reclassification that some are saying just might work, but as a naturally conservative person, I will want to see it vetted by trusted experts like Harold Feld. The main problem with reclassification seems to be that Republicans would demagogue it as Obama attempting to take over the Internet - a problem for Democrats already facing an uphill battle in November.

However, Barbara van Schewick - one of the most knowledgeable people on this matter - makes a strong case for the FCC rebooting the whole process, gathering more input, and ultimately reclassifying Internet access as Title II while forebearing many of the Title II powers that would allow the FCC to wield too much control over access to the Internet.

Much like the FCC has long overseen telephone access without censoring the content of our speech, it would be possible for the FCC to reclassify Internet access without getting involved in content.

However, the larger problem remains - the market power of the massive firms like Comcast and AT&T. As long as they continue to wield the power they do (which will grow if consolidation continues), they will buy support in Congress and use the FCC's revolving door to their advantage; no amount of regulation will ultimately contain them.

To preserve the open Internet over the long haul, we have to reduce the overwhelming power of those companies. We can do that with an "all hands on deck" approach to expanding Internet access - ensuring local governments are free to build their own networks as they choose or partner with trusted entities. On this matter, Chairman Wheeler has said he will use FCC power to remove state barriers to communities make those decisions, a tremendous step forward for preserving the open Internet.

This is a very important moment. We need the FCC to preserve the open Internet by continuing to prevent paid prioritization schemes and we need to create alternative networks to end the cable monopoly and reduce their power in DC and state houses.

Below is an excellent video on this subject that explains the problem and what can be done. As we noted in our podcast with Scott Bradner, the way this video presents the key question of who should pay who represents a break with the past traditions, but it may be time to reconsider who should pay when faced with a cable monopoly for Internet access.

Video: 
See video

Seattleites Want More Than Rhetoric in Quest for Better Broadband

In a recent SLOG post from the Stranger, Ansel Herz commented on Mayor Ed Murray's recent statement on broadband in Seattle. Murray's statement included:

Finding a job, getting a competitive education, participating in our democracy, or even going to work for some, requires high speed internet access. I have seen people say online, "I don’t need a road to get to work, I need high speed internet." Seattle would never leave the construction of roads up to a private monopoly, nor should we allow the City’s internet access to be constructed and managed by a private monopoly.

It is incredibly clear to me and residents throughout the City of Seattle, that the City’s current high speed internet options are not dependable enough, are cost prohibitive for many, and have few (if any) competitive options.

The Mayor also hinted that if the City needs a municipal broadband network, he would "help lead the way."

As a Seattleite, Herz knows firsthand about the lack of connectivity options in the area. Herz writes:

This is both encouraging and disappointingly tentative language from the mayor. It seems to cast municipal broadband as a last resort. Municipal broadband is a no-f*cking-brainer. [our *]

Herz turned to Chris for perspective:

"I have seen this from many Mayors who talk about how someone should do something but we don't always see concrete actions because of the difficulty and the immense opposition from some powerful companies like Comcast," Christopher Mitchell, the Director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative, who's worked with cities across the country on this question, tells me.

Seattle doesn't know what to expect from a Mayor that Comcast tried to buy (we suspect they did not succeed but have nonetheless sent a loud message). It is encouraging to see that the issue has not simply disappeared, but Herz and his neighbors want more:

What are you waiting for, Ed? Progressive rhetoric (and retweeting people who want to see municipal broadband happen) is great, but commitment and action are even better.

Long List of Public Interest Groups Sign on to Free Press Letter Opposing Comcast Time Warner Cable Merger

The Free Press announced that more than 50 public interest groups, including the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, signed on to its letter in opposition to the Time Warner/Comcast merger.

The letter, addressed and delivered to Attorney General Eric Holder and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, begins:

The proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger would give one company enormous power over our nation’s media and communications infrastructure. This massive consolidation would position Comcast as our communications gatekeeper, giving it the power to dictate the future of numerous industries across the Internet, television and telecommunications landscape.

In the press release, Craig Aaron, President and CEO of the Free Press, stated:

“The question before the FCC is whether this deal serves the public interest. The answer is clear: A bigger Comcast is bad for America.

“Merging the nation’s two biggest cable-Internet providers would turn Comcast into our communications gatekeeper, able to dictate the cost and content of news, information and entertainment. We need an Internet and video marketplace that offers people high-quality options at prices they can afford — not a near-national monopoly determining what we can watch and download.

“In the past four years, Comcast has raised basic cable rates in some markets by nearly 70 percent. Its top lobbyist has admitted that the price increases will continue to skyrocket if the merger goes through. And that's about the only thing Comcast has said about this deal that you should believe.

“The growing chorus of groups opposing this takeover knows the truth. The only rational choice is for the FCC and Justice Department to reject this merger."

 

American Enterprise Institute Scholar Calls DSL Obsolete

For the second time this year, one of the major defenders of the cable and telephone companies has admitted that DSL cannot provide the Internet access we need as a nation. This admission validates our research as well as that of Susan Crawford and others that show most Americans are effectively stuck with a cable monopoly.

On April 7, 2014, the Diane Rehm show hosted another discussion on telecommunications policy with guests that included Jeffrey Eisenach, the Director of the Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

During that show, Eisenach stated, "The vast majority of Europeans still only have DSL service available, which we in the United States consider really almost an obsolete technology now."

Interestingly, Eisenach and others have repeatedly claimed that there is no market failure in the US - that we have plenty of choices. But most Americans have to choose between what most now admit is an obsolete DSL product and cable. Eisenach would add 4G LTE as another competitor, but as we have noted many times, the average household would have to pay hundreds of dollars per month to use their LTE connection as a replacement for DSL or cable.

The average household uses something like 40-55 GB of data per month. Given the bandwidth caps from LTE providers, the overage charges quickly result in a bill of approximately $500 or more depending on the plan. This is why the overwhelming majority of the market uses mobile wireless as a complement, not substitute to wired networks.

We are left with one conclusion: there is no meaningful competition or choice for most of us in the residential telecommunications market. And no real prospect of a choice either as the cable companies only grow stronger.

This is not the first time Eisenach admitted that DSL is insufficient for our needs. Back in January, on Diane's show, he again used Europe's dependence on DSL as evidence that it was falling behind: "They are reliant on these 20th century copper networks which have real limits on the amount of speed that they can deliver."

Even those who only want the private sector to deliver services are starting to admit that the existing providers are failing us. What more do communities need to take an active role in ensuring their needs are met?

Process Matters: Harold Feld's Guide to the Time Warner Cable/Comcast Merger

The proposed Comcast/Time Warner Cable deal will be on everyone's mind for many months to come. Thanks to Harold Feld, it is now possible to follow the process as it moves forward. Feld began a series of posts earlier this month that map out the review as it moves from the Department of Justice Antitrust Division to the Federal Communications, and finally to Congress. As Feld notes, the entire process will last six months at least and could run for more than a year. 

In addition to drawing a process map, Feld provides insightful subtleties on the purpose behind each step in the review. He also offers political analysis that may influence the outcome. Feld gets into the unique review process, burdens of proof, and relevant definitions at each stop along the way. Highly recommended, especially for law students.

Part I - Introduction

Part II - Antitrust Review at the DOJ

Part III - Federal Communications Commission analyzes public interest

Part IV - The proposal moves through the committee process and the public has a chance to express themselves to their elected officials (including lobbyists)

 

Krugman Calls out the Barons of Broadband

We should probably be thanking Comcast for its attempt to take over Time Warner Cable. It has inspired a shocking amount of vitriol against the cable monopolies, including an entertaining but NSFW video with strong language from Funny or Die.

Whereas people were largely content to mostly silently hate Comcast and Time Warner Cable separately, the idea of them officially tying the knot to screw consumers even more has apparently hit a tipping point. As I noted a few days ago, we are seeing a more communities considering their own networks to avoid being stuck with a Wall Street monopoly forever.

Paul Krugman was inspired to write "Barons of Broadband," which accurately reflects the modern dynamic:

The point is that Comcast perfectly fits the old notion of monopolists as robber barons, so-called by analogy with medieval warlords who perched in their castles overlooking the Rhine, extracting tolls from all who passed. The Time Warner deal would in effect let Comcast strengthen its fortifications, which has to be a bad idea.

Krugman talks about monopoly as well, reminding me of one of our most important podcasts - Barry Lynn, Monopoly Expert.

And the same phenomenon may be playing an important role in holding back the economy as a whole. One puzzle about recent U.S. experience has been the disconnect between profits and investment. Profits are at a record high as a share of G.D.P., yet corporations aren’t reinvesting their returns in their businesses. Instead, they’re buying back shares, or accumulating huge piles of cash. This is exactly what you’d expect to see if a lot of those record profits represent monopoly rents.

It’s time, in other words, to go back to worrying about monopoly power, which we should have been doing all along. And the first step on the road back from our grand detour on this issue is obvious: Say no to Comcast.

There is no public benefit to this merger - none. Meanwhile it will give even more power to a corporation already slowing our economy by refusing to invest in communities that desperately need better connections so businesses can remain competitive. Allowing this merger will be just another step in the direction of powerful corporate lobbyists officially running the country rather than unofficially.

In Fear of Comcast Warner Cable

It is hard to say just how bad of an idea it is for us to allow Comcast to buy Time Warner Cable. This is not just about consumers having to pay more, which they do every time we allow massive consolidation, but about access to information.

I can't help but think back to our conversation with Barry Lynn on monopoly a few weeks ago. People get so focused on consumer prices and a narrow view of competition that they miss important impacts of consolidation.

One impact is moving Comcast from the seventh biggest DC lobbyist to the fourth.

This consolidation is a recognition that the private sector simply will not provide meaningful competition for Internet access. Communities need to recognize what a do-nothing approach means: relying on a distant cable monopoly for the most important services of the 21st century.

If I had to guess what will happen - Comcast will buy Time Warner Cable but have to sell off some pieces to get approval. Comcast will grow larger and more powerful, making future mergers even more difficult to stop despite more and more evidence that these firms are strangling our economy. We can stop it - but will we? Specifically, will we force our representatives in DC to stop it?

Stay tuned to the organizations that are covering it well - Free Press, Karl Bode, Public Knowledge, Common Cause, and many others.