Earlier this week, I had a post explaining just how far afield the Tariff Investigations Order portion of the FCC's special access, now "business data services" ("BDS"), Tariff Investigations Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking ("FNPRM")strayed from rational decision-making. Unfortunately, since Chairman Tom Wheeler has taken the helm of the FCC, irregular departures from reasoned--and, more importantly, fair--decision-making have become the norm for this proceeding.
Yesterday, AT&T posted a statement on its public policy blog once again drawing attention to the lack of procedural due process with which AT&T believes the FCC has conducted its BDS inquiry. AT&T's Senior Vice President--Federal Regulatory, Bob Quinn provided a detailed description of the Commission's latest procedural irregularity: the Commission's introduction into the record of this 228 page filing containing previously-unseen revisions/critiques/analyses of the work of the FCC's 3d party economic expert--on the same day that public comments were due. AT&T concludes that,
the [FCC's] lack of due process only reinforces that this agency is driving to reach a pre-ordained outcome.
See, AT&T Public Policy Blog. AT&T's statement was its second this year (previously here).
AT&T's charges deserve more attention than "ordinary" criticisms of adversely-affected parties, because not only do AT&T's complaints refer to procedural fairness (not whether the FCC agrees with AT&T), and its previous complaint about this issue came 2 months before the company suffered an adverse decision. Finally, AT&T's concerns--that the Commission is driving toward a pre-ordained outcome--seem to be supported by independent events (from those cited by AT&T) taking place in the FNPRM proceeding this week.
The INCOMPAS-Verizon Proposal Advances
As mentioned in a previous post, on April 7th, INCOMPAS (the CLEC trade association) and Verizon started combining their BDS regulatory advocacy. Chairman Wheeler lauded the proposal immediately, as did the most politically influential lobbying/interest group here, and the FCC prominently mentioned the proposal in the first paragraph of its pending FNPRM. See Order/FNPRM at para. 159.
Earlier this week, on June 27th, INCOMPAS and Verizon sent in another joint letter ("INCOMPAS-Verizon June 27th Letter")--elaborating on the parties' previous "compromise" proposal. Chairman Wheeler seems unlikely to share Adam Smith's skepticism that,
[p]eople of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.
Thus, we can expect the Commission to take direction from this second, more specific, appeal for greater regulation.
Despite Contradicting the FCC's Own "Findings"
The INCOMPAS-Verizon proposal clearly has traction with the Chairman's Office, at a minimum. This is in no way more apparent than in the fact that the principle point of the letter would require the Commission to immediately renounce one of the "key findings" in its FNPRM--yet, the parties feel no obligation to address, or explain, this apparent inconsistency with the market realities, as seen by the Commission.
In its FNPRM, the FCC lists as one of its "key geographic market findings" the observation that,
[p]otential competition is important, that is, nearby suppliers can constrain BDS prices. For example, we find that fiber-based competitive supply within at least half a mile generally has a material effect on prices of BDS with bandwidths of 50 Mbps or less, even in the presence of nearby UNE-based and HFC-based competition.
See Order/FNPRM at para 161. In other words, the FCC observes that many areas of the country exhibit competitive characteristics, notwithstanding the number of actual competitors offering service in these census blocks. Instead, the Commission observes, the presence of a potential competitor within a half mile of a building will constrain the prices of every other competitor actually serving the building--even for the smallest capacities of bandwidth (50 Mbps and below).
Compare, however, the "compromise" offered by INCOMPAS and Verizon that,
we agree that all Business Data Services at or below a specified threshold should be deemed non-competitive in all census blocks. We agree that the specified threshold should be no lower than 50 Mbps.
See, INCOMPAS-VZ June 27th Letter at p. 2 (point 2). And, in case you're wondering what a "non-competitive" designation means, the parties "support ex ante price regulation for all Business Data Services deemed non-competitive." Id. (point 6).
Thus, while the FCC makes a "key finding" that prices are constrained--even at the lowest capacity levels--without regulation in many parts of the country (notwithstanding the number of actual competitors selling service in these areas), INCOMPAS and Verizon urge the Commission to adopt a nationwide presumption that the opposite is true. Given the apparent influence of these parties with this Commission (and the undisputed clout of those supporting this compromise), I'd be willing to bet that the Commission ends up believing the advocacy of INCOMPAS and Verizon over "its own lyin' eyes."
It's easy to dismiss the protestations of parties that don't prevail in a Commission matter as "sour grapes." But, it's harder to ignore complaints--before a party has even lost--that they won't get a fair chance to be heard, then the integrity of the system is called into question and we should all be interested. Finally, concerns about the FCC moving toward a pre-ordained outcome are worse still when any casual observer can notice that some parties have a map to that pre-ordained destination--and others, including the public, are just along for the ride.
One of my favorite episodes of the TV comedy series "Seinfeld" is called "The Opposite," in which George Costanza reflects on his life, and realizes it is the opposite of what he hoped it would be. At the diner, George tells his friends "that every decision I've ever made, in my entire life, has been wrong." His best friend, Jerry, suggests "[i]f every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right." (quotes from IMDB, episode 5.21) By the end of the episode, after consistently "doing the opposite" of what he would normally do, George's life has corrected itself: he is dating a beautiful woman, has his dream job with the New York Yankees, and is able to move out of his parents' house.
Verizon Training Video
The episode starts with the universal human emotion of regret, and then humorously illustrates common logical fallacies, which are presented as both problem ("every decision I've ever made has been wrong") and solution ("the opposite would have to be right"). And, even though both problem and solution are products of fallacious reasoning . . . hijinks ensue--and problems resolve. But, certainly, no one would actually take this seriously--especially not one of the largest companies in the country--would they?
If its Public Policy Blog is reflective of its corporate mindset, Verizon--based on a couple of recent posts--appears to be willing to give George's zany solution a try. But, are they really "doing the opposite," or have they just changed--as competition forces all firms to do?
A Net-Neutrality Flip?
First, on March 21st, Verizon in the context of net neutrality decides to "make clear what Verizon stands for and what kind of policies we support, regardless of the outcome of [the pending Open Internet Order appeal]." And, as it turns out, the rules/policies that Verizon thinks "are fair, even-handed, good for consumers and essential for us and others to thrive going forward" . . . are pretty much the same rules the Commission adopted in its first Open Internet Order in 2010. In other words, Verizon now endorses the very rules that were vacated as the result of the D.C. Circuit's decision in . . . Verizon v. FCC.
Clearly, Verizon was seized with regret over an appeal it now realizes it could have lived with, but traded for worse rules, and is now "doing the opposite," right? At first glance, it would seem to be the case, but, the blog is quick to explain that this is not a simple case of human regret (or any other human emotion) finding its way into Verizon's corporate offices.
Rather, according to Verizon, it is not the same company it was five years ago, when it appealed the FCC's 2010 Open Internet Order. In the intervening time period, Verizon notes, it has "invested billions in businesses that depend on the ability to reach customers over the networks and platforms of others." Indeed, since 2013, Verizon has built its Digital Media, content and ad delivery, business through the acquisitions of EdgeCast, upLynk, Intel's OnCue ad delivery platform, and AOL.
Thus, Verizon's net neutrality position is not really an example of it doing "the opposite" (though, of course, it would have saved itself and everyone else a lot of hassle and expense had it just recognized this before it appealed the 2010 Open Internet Order). But this isn't Verizon's only, or even best, example of "doing the opposite" in the last month alone.
Verizon's Special Access "Compromise"
Last week Verizon decided to "up" the "opposite," and suggested--along with Chip Pickering, head of INCOMPAS (the rival carrier association formerly known as CompTel)--that the FCC should probably go ahead and regulate "new networks" along with the old special access circuits still subject to FCC regulation. Verizon has long fought against any regulation of its data transmission services and has already received FCC forbearance and been selling its packet, Ethernet, and SONET optical services without regulation for almost 10 years, so this is a clear Costanza-esque flip-flop, right?
Let's take a closer look at the letter that Verizon and INCOMPAS jointly sent the FCC. The letter asks the FCC to: 1) immediately, make all dedicated services--regardless of technology--"subject to Title II of the Communications Act, including Sections 201 and 202;" 2) seek comment on a permanent regulatory framework, which would include ex ante price regulation in "relevant markets" where competition is "insufficient."
When looking at whether Verizon is really "doing the opposite," it helps to keep in mind the "not the same Verizon" caveat. In addition to Verizon's recent digital media investments, the company has been divesting itself of its wireline (telephone + ISP + TV) properties for years, and at an accelerating pace in the wake of the FCC's reclassification of Internet access services.Similarly, based on Verizon's pending XO Communications acquisition, and its reported interest in Yahoo!, Verizon may well see INCOMPAS as more of a future trade association, and less of a regulatory opponent, these days.
Until the terms "relevant market" and "insufficient competition" are defined, it's difficult to say how much of Verizon's future revenues are likely to be affected. Given the Chairman's immediate endorsement of the "compromise," it's doubtful that Verizon is worried about having too much of its future revenues tied up by the regulation it's endorsing. On the other hand, if you are a cable company--or a telecom carrier with some unique routes--Verizon's "compromise" seems more like the good, old-fashioned, Washington-style compromise . . . of someone else's opportunities.
* * *
In his more lucid, less politically-driven, first days on the job, Chairman Wheeler noted that every previous "network revolution" changed the world dramatically, and counseled that "we should not, therefore, be surprised when today's network revolution hurls new realities at us with an ever-increasing velocity." When the velocity of new realities forces a rational economic actor to change positions as dramatically as a TV sitcom actor, it's safe to assume that the industry forcing those new realities is not subject to anything but competitive market forces. So, why is it so hard for Chairman Wheeler to accept that the last thing a dynamically evolving "revolution" needs is more regulation?