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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.

The Real Threats from Monopoly - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #83

When we think about the threat of monopoly, we almost always focus on how monopolies can raise prices beyond what is reasonable. But there are many threats from monopolies and many are much more dangerous to a free society than higher prices. This week, monopoly expert Barry Lynn joins us for the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Lynn is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of a book that I recommend very highly - Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction. Buy it a local bookstore or from an independent bookstore online.

We discuss whether companies like Comcast are correctly termed "monopoly" when they face some nominal competition and what the threat from monopoly is. Barry explains how both political parties have encouraged centralization even as both parties have had vocal opponents of such policies. And finally, we discuss how policies dealing with monopoly now are fundamentally different than they were for the vast majority of American history.

This is a great discussion - one of the most important we have done.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Free People vs. Private Monopoly

A free people cannot permanently submit to the private monopoly of a necessity of life.

Crap Cable Threatens Cloud Services

For my money, the best headline of last week was "The U.S.'s crap infrastructure threatens the cloud." The rant goes on to explain just how crummy our access to the Internet is.

As a patriotic American, I find the current political atmosphere where telecom lobbyists set the agenda to be a nightmare. All over the world, high-end fiber is being deployed while powerful monopolies in the United States work to prevent it from coming here. Some of those monopolies are even drafting "model legislation" to protect themselves from both community broadband and commercial competition.

He nails a number of important points, including the absurdity of allowing de facto monopolies to write the legislation that governs them. However, Andew Oliver's article is a bit muddled on the issue of "monopoly." I have argued with several people that the term "monopoly" has historically meant firms with large market power, not the more stringent definition of "the only seller" of a good. It is not clear how Oliver is using the term.

Because of this confusion, you can come away from his piece with the firm idea that it is primarily government's fault we have a duopoly of crap DSL and less crappy cable. He repeatedly says "state-sponsored monopolies." However, no local or state government may offer exclusive franchises for cable or telecom services and the federal government hasn't officially backed monopolies for decades.

This is a key point that many still fail to understand - a majority seem to believe that local governments bless monopolies when local governments actually are desperate for more choices. This is why they fall all over themselves to beg Google to invest in their community or they build they own networks (over 400 communities have wired telecom networks that offer services to some local businesses and/or residents).

Poor laws and regulations have helped the massive cable and telephone companies to maintain their status - that is why they spend so much on lobbying and political contributions at all levels of government. They want to and have successfully corrupted the process, neutralizing the power of government to protect consumer interests and prevent a few firms from dominating the market.

wall-street.jpg

What is missing from the conversation is Wall Street's role. Wall Street abhors competition, particularly for something as essential as Internet access because rigorous competition drives down profit margins. Wall Street puts a massive premium on consolidation and preventing competition. It wants a few firms to control this market so they can regularly increase fees and increase shareholder value (at the expense of the rest of our economy).

It isn't JUST federal and state government policy that is rewarding the duopoly, there are a host of reinforcing factors. And while government did indeed establish monopoly for the phone system 100 years ago, it resulted in a fantastic universal service network - so those who might argue a government sanctioned monopoly was never a good idea have a high burden to prove it.

As to how we have moved from a monopoly service model to having choices... well, lobbyists have been paid a lot specifically to mangle that process to benefit a few corporations. Our government has been corrupted and we have to live with the effects every day. But even without government, we would almost certainly we stuck with a monopoly, perhaps even worse as we would lack the few consumer protections we still have.

I was heartened to see the Obama Administration block the AT&T - T-Mobile merger as it suggests that there is a spark of hope for antitrust rules to prevent further consolidation. Stopping consolidation is the first step to having real choices because massive corporations amass not just economy of scale advantages over rivals, but find it much easier to influence the rules in their favor and to disadvantage competitors.

Returning to a fact from Oliver's article, he pays $1500/month for 30 Mbps symmetrical fiber. If he lived in Monticello, he would pay $100/month for that business connection. Community owned fiber is not merely about the technology, it includes numerous other benefits including radically lower prices that help local businesses to succeed.

Photo courtesy of JSquish via Wikipedia Commons

Baltimore Once Again Considering Publicly Owned Options

Back in 2010, we reported on the City of Baltimore and its frustration with Comcast and desire to have a real choice for Internet access. Nothing came of the idea at the time but the Baltimore Business Journal reports that Baltimore is once again considering the possibility of a publicly owned network.

The Board of Estimates recently decided to hire Magellan Advisors to provide a study that will offer several options for the community of 619,000 residents. The study will cost $157,000 and will identify key anchor tenants, cost analysis, and risk assessment related to a municipal broadband network.

Given Baltimore's situation, we doubt very much that they will proceed with a full-on universal FTTH network. Rather, we expect to see Baltimore considering an incremental approach that starts by serving community anchors (schools, libraries, public safety, etc.) and also may make conduit and fiber available for local businesses or other ISPs. 

Comcast has no real competition in Baltimore, not because of the franchise as intimated by numerous factually incorrect articles covering this news, but because private companies are too intimidated by Comcast and its bag of dirty tricks to invest in a competitive system. No local government can establish a cable or Internet monopoly under federal law dating back to 1992.

According to the article, Baltimore already has some fiber assets:

A major part of what Magellan is being hired to study is what’s known as the city’s “fiber ring,” a 30-mile fiber optic cable network that supports the city’s public safety radio system. As the city prepares to make improvements to the system, [CIO Chris] Tonjes said the city also wants to add capacity through a process called “overbuilding” that would allow the city to lease some of the extra bandwidth to the private sector.

“We have a lot of ideas; a lot of people could lease it — a local Internet provider, a local cultural institution,” Tonjes said. “It could even be Comcast.”

Seattle ventured down this road for several years to no avail until Gigabit Squared came along. And Seattle had considerably more miles of fiber available. Even if Baltimore begins leasing its fiber to any entity that wishes to use it, there will still be no business case for expanding that fiber to residents. In the short term especially, the only beneficiaries will be businesses that spend enough on these services to attract interest from new ISPs. This is why Baltimore's plan should ultimately be geared toward the City being able to offer services, even if that is not anticipated for many years. It is the only way to guarantee everyone has access to fast, affordable, and reliable Internet connections.

Jason Hardebeck, the executive director of the Greater Baltimore Technology Council told the Business Journal that city leaders recognize the importance of robust connectivity to economic development.

“The city is woefully underserved with broadband and my opinion is that internet access is becoming a basic public utility or need, just like clean water,” Hardebeck said. “The current administration understands the need. I don’t know what we can do about the franchise agreement, but I think there’s real opportunities from a redevelopment standpoint. If you had access to ultra-high broadband inexpensively, that could generate activity you would not have anticipated.”

Susan Crawford, Captive Audience, and How to Kill the Cable Monopoly

Susan Crawford, author of the just-released Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, is our guest for the 29th episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. A former adviser to President Obama, she has been a leading figure in the struggle to preserve an open Internet.

Susan has long been an advocate of communities deciding for themselves if a community owned network is a wise investment and recognizes the benefits of smart government policies to prevent big companies like Comcast from dominating the telecommunications arena.

We talk about her book and reactions to it -- big cable and telephone companies are attacking her under false pretenses by either putting words in her mouth or misrepresenting her main points. But we also discuss the steps concerned people can take to bring force some accountability on the big monopolies.

We have previously noted Susan's words and presentations here and we noted some Captive Audience reviews here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 17 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here.

Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Antitrust Enforcement Yields Increased Investment in Wireless

We have long argued that smart antitrust policy promotes investment and competition in the market. Allowing a few firms to consolidate too much power allows them to ignore our needs because we lack alternative service providers. In economic terms, they can use their market power to prevent market entry from innovative new firms.

Harold Feld recented provided more empirical evidence for our view by comparing the present cellular wireless market against that of 20 months ago. He notes new investment from abroad in T-Mobile and Sprint and that U.S. Cellular plans to expand its footprint; AT&T is planning upgrades in its spectrum holdings. Bottom line - investment is starting to happen, which was not the case a year ago. 

Feld breaks out details in FCC and DoJ activities to show the relationship. In addition to the DoJ and FCC mutual block of the AT&T/T-Mobile deal, Feld notes the FCC's new attitude regarding regulatory reform. From the Feld blog:

On top of this, the FCC sudden[ly] started getting all serious about regulatory reforms designed to keep carriers other than AT&T and Verizon in the game as serious players. This included not just the long-awaited data roaming order (which now looks like it will probably survive review by the D.C. Circuit after all), but also revisiting special access, 700 MHz Interoperability, and renewed interest in clarifying the spectrum screen/possibly reviving the spectrum cap. While the last three are still in progress, the fact that the FCC is even talking about them in a serious way is so radically different from what folks expected at the beginning of 2011 that it puts heart into investors and competitors who were looking for some sign that anyone in DC gave a crap or if competitive wireless would end up going the way of competitive telecom and competitive ISPs.

Feld acknowledges that there will be those that jump to conclusions and discourages an all-or-nothing viewpoint in favor of a more measured approach. Also from his blog post:

The actual lesson is: “the argument that antitrust enforcement and/or other types of regulation always  discourage investment and cannot possibly create jobs or promote innovation is just as wrong as the argument that all mergers are bad and a regulatory response is always appropriate.” Or, put another way, efforts to apply simplistic approaches to complex issues are usually wrong (and often disastrously so).

When properly applied, antitrust enforcement and light-touch regulation actually encourages investment and thus creates jobs and stuff, whereas an unregulated consolidated free-for-all encourages stagnation and collection of monopoly rents in lieu of investment and innovation.

Markets work best when no single player can dictate terms. While we are so far from that ideal in telecommunications as to wonder if it is even possible, some antitrust is surely better than none. Better to have four national cellular carriers than just three (or two).  

And on the wireline side, limiting the predatory behavior of the Comcast and other cable giants will encourage investment and new competition -- both from the private and public sector. But that is precisely what the big guys are lobbying against -- the opportunity for new competition.