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On Friday, California Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 1161, which prohibits the state’s Public Utilities Commission from any new regulation of Voice over Internet Protocol or other IP-based services without the legislature’s authorization.

California now joins over twenty states that have enacted similar legislation.

The bill, which is only a few pages long, was introduced by State Senator Alex Padilla (D) in February.  It passed both houses of the California legislature with wide bi-partisan majorities.

California lawmakers and the governor are to be praised for quickly enacting this sensible piece of legislation.

Whatever the cost-benefit of continued state regulation of traditional utilities such as water, power, and landline telephone services, it’s clear that the toolkit of state and local PUCs is a terrible fit for Internet services such as Skype, Google Voice or Apple’s FaceTime.

Historically, as I argued in a Forbes piece last month, the imposition of public utility status on a service provider has been an extreme response to an extreme situation—a monopoly provider, unlikely to have competition because of the high cost of building  and operating competing infrastructure (so-called “natural monopoly”), offering a service that is indispensable to everyday life.

Service providers meeting that definition are transformed by PUC oversight into entities that are much closer to government agencies than private companies.  The PUC sets and modifies the utility’s pricing in excruciating detail.  PUC approval is required for each and every change or improvement to the utility’s asset base, or to add new services or retire obsolete offerings.

In exchange for offering service to all residents, utilities in turn are granted eminent domain and rights of way to lay and maintain pipes, wires and other infrastructure.

VoIP services may resemble traditional switched telephone networks, but they have none of the features of a traditional public utility.  Most do not even charge for basic service, nor do they rely on their own dedicated infrastructure.  Indeed, the reason VoIP is so much cheaper to offer than traditional telephony is that it can take advantage of the existing and ever-improving Internet as its delivery mechanism.

Because entry is cheap, VoIP providers have no monopoly, natural or otherwise.  In California, according to the FCC, residents have their choice of over 125 providers—more than enough competition to ensure market discipline.

Nor would residents be in any way helped by interposing a regulator to review and pre-approve each and every change to a VoIP provider’s service offerings.  Rather, the lightning-fast evolution of Internet services provides perhaps the worst mismatch possible for the deliberate and public processes of a local PUC.

Software developers don’t need eminent domain.

But the most serious mismatch between PUCs and VoIP providers is that there is little inherently local about VoIP offerings.  Where a case can be made for local oversight of public utilities operating extensive--even pervasive--local infrastructure, it’s hard to see what expertise a local PUC brings to the table in supervising a national or even international VoIP service.

On the other hand, it’s not hard to imagine the chaos and uncertainty VoIP providers and their customers would face if they had to satisfy fifty different state PUCs, not to mention municipal regulators and regulators in other countries.

In most cases that would mean dealing with regulators on a daily basis, on every minor aspect of a service offering.  In the typical PUC relationship, the regulator becomes the true customer and the residents mere “rate-payers” or even just “meters.”

Public utilities are not known for their constant innovation, and for good reason.

Whatever oversight VoIP providers require, local PUCs are clearly the wrong choice.  It’s no surprise, then, that SB 1161 was endorsed by major Silicon Valley trade groups, including TechNet, TechAmerica, and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.

The law is a win for California residents and California businesses—both high-tech and otherwise.

Links                                                                                                                                         

  1. Government Control of Net is Always a Bad Idea,” CNET News.com, June 4, 2012.
  2. Memo to Jerry Brown:  Sign SB 1161 for all Internet users,” CNET News.com, August 30, 2012.
  3. The Madness of Regulating VoIP as a Public Utility,” Forbes.com, Sept. 10, 2012.
  4. Brown Endorses Hands off Stance on Internet Calls,” The San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 28. 2012.

On Forbes today, I have a long article on the progress being made to build gigabit Internet testbeds in the U.S., particularly by Gig.U.

Gig.U is a consortium of research universities and their surrounding communities created a year ago by Blair Levin, an Aspen Institute Fellow and, recently, the principal architect of the FCC’s National Broadband Plan.  Its goal is to work with private companies to build ultra high-speed broadband networks with sustainable business models .

Gig.U, along with Google Fiber’s Kansas City project and the White House’s recently-announced US Ignite project, spring from similar origins and have similar goals.  Their general belief is that by building ultra high-speed broadband in selected communities, consumers, developers, network operators and investors will get a clear sense of the true value of Internet speeds that are 100 times as fast as those available today through high-speed cable-based networks.  And then go build a lot more of them.

Google Fiber, for example, announced last week that it would be offering fully-symmetrical 1 Gbps connections in Kansas City, perhaps as soon as next year.  (By comparison, my home broadband service from Xfinity is 10 Mbps download and considerably slower going up.)

US Ignite is encouraging public-private partnerships to build demonstration applications that could take advantage of next generation networks and near-universal adoption.  It is also looking at the most obvious regulatory impediments at the federal level that make fiber deployments unnecessarily complicated, painfully slow, and unduly expensive.

I think these projects are encouraging signs of native entrepreneurship focused on solving a worrisome problem:  the U.S. is nearing a dangerous stalemate in its communications infrastructure.  We have the technology and scale necessary to replace much of our legacy wireline phone networks with native IP broadband.  Right now, ultra high-speed broadband is technically possible by running fiber to the home.  Indeed, Verizon’s FiOS network currently delivers 300 Mbps broadband and is available to some 15 million homes.

But the kinds of visionary applications in smart grid, classroom-free education, advanced telemedicine, high-definition video, mobile backhaul and true teleworking that would make full use of a fiber network don’t really exist yet.  Consumers (and many businesses) aren’t demanding these speeds, and Wall Street isn’t especially interested in building ahead of demand.  There’s already plenty of dark fiber deployed, the legacy of earlier speculation that so far hasn’t paid off.

So the hope is that by deploying fiber to showcase communities and encouraging the development of demonstration applications, entrepreneurs and investors will get inspired to build next generation networks.

Let’s hope they’re right.

What interests me personally about the projects, however, is what they expose about regulatory disincentives that unnecessarily and perhaps fatally retard private investment in next-generation infrastructure.  In the Forbes piece, I note almost a dozen examples from the Google Fiber development agreement where Kansas City voluntarily waived permits, fees, and plodding processes that would otherwise delay the project.  As well, in several key areas the city actually commits to cooperate and collaborate with Google Fiber to expedite and promote the project.

As Levin notes, Kansas City isn’t offering any funding or general tax breaks to Google Fiber.  But the regulatory concessions, which implicitly acknowledge the heavy burden imposed on those who want to deploy new privately-funded infrastructure (many of them the legacy of the early days of cable TV deployments), may still be enough to “change the math,” as Levin puts it, making otherwise unprofitable investments justifiable after all.

Just removing some of the regulatory debris, in other words, might itself be enough to break the stalemate that makes building next generation IP networks unprofitable today.

The regulatory cost puts a heavy thumb on the side of the scale that discourages investment.  Indeed, as fellow Forbes contributor Elise Ackerman pointed out last week, Google has explicitly said that part of what made Kansas City attractive was the lack of excessive infrastructure regulation, and the willingness and ability of the city to waive or otherwise expedite the requirements that were on the books.(Despite the city’s promises to bend over backwards for the project, she notes, there have still been expensive regulatory delays that promoted no public values.)

Particularly painful to me was testimony by Google Vice President Milo Medin, who explained why none of the California-based proposals ever had a real chance.  “Many fine California city proposals for the Google Fiber project were ultimately passed over,” he told Congress, “in part because of the regulatory complexity here brought about by [the California Environmental Quality Act] and other rules. Other states have equivalent processes in place to protect the environment without causing such harm to business processes, and therefore create incentives for new services to be deployed there instead.”

Ouch.

This is a crucial insight.  Our next-generation communications infrastructure will surely come, when it does come, from private investment.  The National Broadband Plan estimated it would take $350 billion to get 100 Mbps Internet to 100 million Americans through a combination of fiber, cable, satellite and high-speed mobile networks.  Mindful of reality, however, the plan didn’t even bother to consider the possibility of full or even significant taxpayer funding to reach that goal.

Unlike South Korea, we aren’t geographically-small, with a largely urban population living in just a few cities.  We don’t have a largely- nationalized and taxpayer-subsidized communications infrastructure.   On a per-person basis, deploying broadband in the U.S. is much harder, complicated and more expensive than it is in many competing nations in the global economy.

Of course, nationwide fiber and mobile deployments by network operators including Verizon and AT&T can’t rely on gimmicks like Google Fiber’s hugely successful competition, where 1,100 communities applied to become a test site.  Nor can they, like Gig.U, cherry-pick research university towns, which have the most attractive demographics and density to start with.  Nor can they simply call themselves start-ups and negotiate the kind of freedom from regulation that Google and Gig.U’s membership can.

Large-scale network operators need to build, if not everywhere, than to an awful lot of somewheres.  That’s a political reality of their size and operating model, as well as the multi-layer regulatory environment in which they must operate.  And it’s a necessity of meeting the ambitious goal of near-universal high-speed broadband access, and of many of the applications that would use it.

Under the current regulatory and economic climate, large-scale fiber deployment has all but stopped for now.  Given the long lead-time for new construction, we need to find ways to restart it.

So everyone who agrees that gigabit Internet is a critical element in U.S. competitiveness in the next decade or so ought to look closely at the lessons, intended or otherwise, of the various testbed projects.  They are exposing in stark detail a dangerous and useless legacy of multi-level regulation that makes essential private infrastructure investment economically impossible.

Don’t get me wrong.  The demonstration projects and testbeds are great.  Google Fiber, Gig.U, and US Ignite are all valuable efforts.  But if we want to overcome our “strategic bandwidth deficit,” we’ll need something more fundamental than high-profile projects and demonstration applications.  To start with, we’ll need a serious housecleaning of legacy regulation at the federal, state, and local level.

Regulatory reform might not be as sexy as gigabit Internet demonstrations, but the latter ultimately won’t make much difference without the former.  Time to break out the heavy demolition equipment—for both.

We've added over a dozen new posts to the Media page, covering some of the highlights in articles and press coverage for April and May, 2012.

Topics include privacy, security, copyright, net neutrality, spectrum policy, the continued fall of Best Buy and antitrust.

The new posts include links to Larry's inaugural writing for several publications, including Techdirt, Fierce Mobile IT, and Engine Advocacy.

There are also several new video clips, including Larry's interview of Andrew Keen, author of the provocative new book, "Digital Vertigo," which took place at the Privacy Identity and Innovation conference in Seattle.

June was just as busy as the rest of the year, and we hope to catch up with the links soon.

During the 1970’s, I remember a bumper sticker that summed up the prevailing anti-colonial attitude that had developed during the late 1960’s:  “U.S. Out of North America.”

That sentiment reflects nicely my activities this week, which include three articles decrying efforts by regulators to oversee key aspects of the Internet economy.  Of course their intentions—at least publicly—are always good.  But even with the right idea, the unintended negative consequences always overwhelm the benefits by a wide margin.

Governments are just too slow to respond to the pace of change of innovations in information technology.  Nothing will fix that.  So better just to leave well enough alone and intercede only when genuine consumer harm is occurring.  And provable.

The articles cover the spectrum from state (California), federal (FCC) and international (ITU) regulators and a wide range of  truly bad ideas, from the desire of California’s Public Utilities Commission to “protect” consumers of VoIP services, to the FCC’s latest effort to elbow its way into regulating broadband Internet access at the middle milel, to a proposal from European telcos to have the U.N. implement a tariff system on Internet traffic originating from the U.S.

 Here they are:

  1. “Government Control of the Net is Always a Bad Idea” (CNET) - http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-57446383-38/government-control-of-net-is-always-a-bad-idea/?tag=mncol;cnetRiver
  2. “The FCC Noses Under the Broadband Internet Tent” (Forbes) - http://www.forbes.com/sites/larrydownes/2012/06/06/the-fcc-noses-under-the-broadband-internet-tent/
  3. “U.N. Could Tax U.S.-based Websites, Leaked Docs Show” (CNET) - http://news.cnet.com/8301-1009_3-57449375-83/u.n-could-tax-u.s.-based-web-sites-leaked-docs-show/?tag=mncol;topStories

That third one, by the way, was written with CNET’s Chief Political Correspondent Declan McCullagh.  It represents a genuine scoop, based on leaked documents posted by my Tech Liberation Front colleagues Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado on WCITLeaks.org!

For CNET this morning, I have a long article reviewing the sad recent history of how local governments determine the quality of mobile services.

As it  turns out, the correlation is deeply negative.  In places with the highest level of user complaints (San Francisco, Washington, D.C.), it turns out that endless delays or outright denials for applications to add towers and other sites as well as new and upgraded equipment is also high.  Who'd have thought?

Despite a late 2009 ruling by the FCC that put a modest "shot clock" on local governments to approve or deny applications, data from CTIA and PCIA included in recent comments on the FCC's Broadband Acceleration NOI suggests the clock has had little to no effect.  This is in part because the few courts that have been asked to enforce it have demurred or refused.

Much of the dithering by local zoning boards is unprincipled and pointless, a sign not so much of legitimate concerns over safety and aesthetics but of incompetence, corruption, and the insidious influence of  outside "consultants" whose fees are often levied against the applicant, adding insult to injury.

For example, in El Cerrito, CA, about a mile from my house, officials sat for two years an on application to site a tower disguised as a tree on a Boy Scout camp , then passed a two-year moratorium on any new facilities.  (I know that camp well--it is in the midst of a giant chain of parks that run the ridgeline of the Berkeley Hills, thick with invasive, non-native trees that have an unfortunate tendency to explode during fire season.)   In Berkeley, CA, where I live, even applications to collocate new antennae on existing towers require a full review and hearing.

Other city and county boards simply delay or deny, or introduce bizarre requirements, including that any new equipment must be shown to benefit only residents of the jurisdiction.

The "shot clock" rule also banned a common practice among many communities of denying any application for new equipment if an existing mobile provider already served the area.  Yes, that's right.  With all the hand-wringing and crocodile tears over mobile competition and the danger of the AT&T/T-Mobile merger, many parts of the U.S. prohibit new competitors from entering.

Some communities are still enforcing that rule, and the few court cases that have interpreted the FCC ruling haven't always embraced it.

Why does this matter?  There are two principal inputs to a cellular network that determine quality of service for customers:  spectrum and cell sites.  Both are under the thumb of government control and constraint.  (Geoff Manne's recent rant on spectrum is well worth reviewing.)  Over the last five years, the four major providers have invested billions in new infrastructure, and would have invested more, as the FCC acknowledges, were it not for the interference of local governments.   In 2009 alone, over $20 billion was invested, representing 13% of total industry revenue.

 

Capital Expenditure by Carrier

Source:  Federal Communications Commissison

If service is poor in some parts of the country, we have only ourselves to blame. But as one commentator to my article put it, it's so much more fun to blame the device or the carrier.

Or, not so funny, to take a "principled" stand on behalf of competition to block a merger designed to evade these increasingly dangerous roadblocks,

For CNET this morning, I offer five crucial corrections to the Protect IP Act, which was passed out of committee in the Senate back in May.

Yesterday, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, co-chair of the Congressional Internet Caucus, told a Silicon Valley audience that the House was working on its own version and would introduce it in the next few weeks.

Protect IP would extend efforts to combat copyright infringement and trademark abuse online, especially by websites registered outside the U.S.

Since Goodlatte promised the new bill would be "quite different" from the Senate version, I thought it a good time to get out my red pen and start crossing off the worst mistakes in policy and in drafting in Protect IP.

The full details are in the article, but in brief, here's what I hope the House does in its version:

  1. Drop provisions that tamper with the DNS system in an effort to block U.S. access to banned sites.
  2. Drop provisions that tamper with search engines, indices, and any other linkage to banned sites.
  3. Remove a private right of action that would allow copyright and trademark holders to obtain court orders banning ad networks and financial transaction processors from doing business with banned sites.
  4. Scale back current enforcement abuses by the Department of Homeland Security under the existing PRO-IP Act of 2008.
  5. Focus the vague and overinclusive definition of the kind of websites that can be banned, limiting it to truly criminal enterprises.

As I've written elsewhere, the Senate version was in some ways even worse than last year's COICA bill.  It imposes significant costs on innocent Internet users, and would do so with no corresponding benefits to anyone, including rightsholders.

The best thing the House could do would be to ignore this dud and work instead on reforming the broken copyright system.  That would do the most to correct the imbalance in endless copyrights and a shrinking public domain, eliminating much of the incentive for infringement that exists today.

But short of that, I hope at least that the most dangerous provisions are removed.