from the pay-more-money-for-the-same-product dept
For decades now the FCC has been an expert at imposing utterly meaningless merger conditions. Usually these conditions are proposed by the companies' themselves, knowing full well these "demands" are utterly hollow -- and FCC punishment for ignoring them will be virtually non-existent. The end result has been a rotating tap dance of merger conditions that sound good upon superficial press inspection, but wind up being little more than hot air. It's a symbiotic relationship where as the telecom sector consolidates (often at the cost of less competition) the FCC gets to pretend it's not selling consumer welfare down river.
But last year something weird happened.
When Charter proposed its $79 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, former FCC boss Tom Wheeler brought in net neutrality advocate Marvin Ammori to help hammer out conditions that wound up actually being meaningful. Under the deal, Charter was banned from imposing usage caps, engaging in interconnection shenanigans with content providers like Netflix, or violating net neutrality (even if the rules themselves were killed) for a period of seven years. Charter was also required to expand broadband to 2 million additional locations.
Not too surprisingly, broadband providers and the new incumbent-cozy FCC are getting right to work trying to eliminate those conditions entirely. New FCC boss Ajit Pai is circulating an order that would kill requirements that Charter overbuild into competing ISP territories, something demanded recently in a letter to the FCC by the American Cable Association. As is kind of telecom sector status quo, smaller cable companies say they'll take their investment ball and go home if the threat of additional, regulator-mandated competition isn't eliminated:
"To respond to growing consumer demand for increased bandwidth, all of us have been planning to upgrade the electronics on our networks and to deploy more fiber closer to customer locations over the next five years (the lifespan of the overbuild condition). Many of us have been planning to extend our networks to serve communities adjacent to our current service territories. But we have been forced to reconsider, scale back, or halt these investments in the wake of the Commission’s order."
Of course that's not how competition works, and companies believing they get to choose when you upgrade their networks speaks to the level of competition these companies already see. Elsewhere, broadband industry-funded think tanks like the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) are also pushing Pai to kill off the usage cap ban, trotting out the long-standing industry claim that usage caps are all about fairness:
"...the Order requires New Charter to refrain from imposing “data caps” or setting "usage-based prices" for its residential broadband Internet access services for seven years after the transaction closes. Given that “the record makes clear that online video places enormous demands upon the networks of Charter and Time Warner Cable and increases their capital costs,” Commissioner Pai asked a simple question in his dissent: “Who should bear those costs?" Because the Order concludes that “all customers must do so equally,” New Charter’s natural response to this condition “will be to increase prices on all consumers in order to amortize the cost of serving a bandwidth-hungry few."
Granted if you've been paying attention to the usage cap debate, you realize this is a stale canard. Industry executives have acknowledged that caps have nothing to do with network management, and aren't an effective way to police network congestion anyway. As any earnings report highlights, caps aren't a financial necessity either, since flat-rate broadband has been incredibly profitable for the industry for years.
What usage caps are is a price hike imposed on uncompetitive markets. Granted they also help ISPs protect their TV revenues from the rise of internet video by penalizing competing streaming services, while letting the incumbent's own services sail through without penalty (aka zero rating). Anybody believing that imposing caps and overage fees on all users is really about making sure a few people "pay their fair share" should steer clear of swampland and bridge salesmen.
Granted Charter's latest merger has still proven harmful for consumers, who say the company has frozen broadband upgrades and raised rates dramatically in the wake of the megamerger. If consumer welfare were truly a U.S. telecom regulatory criteria the deal likely would have never been approved at all, but the cap condition specifically at least kept things from being arguably worse in the face of limited competition. If the FCC's looking to give a middle finger to the millions of customers impacted by this deal, killing the conditions -- and requiring these users pay even more money for the same service -- is a fantastic way to do so.