General

“Competition” is one of those words that make policymakers tingle. And yet, time and time again, private industry finds itself wrestling with regulations that not only harm competition but — in the most extreme cases — actively benefit one party over another.

Case in point: wireline broadband competition. Providers have invested billions to expand the reach and speed of their networks, and yet recent actions taken by the FCC are threatening to stifle ongoing investment. But don’t just take my word for it. Check out this latest study from the American Consumer Institute titled “Concentration by Regulation: How the FCC’s Imposition of Asymmetric Regulations Are Hindering Wireline Broadband Competition in America.”

Yes, that title is quite the mouthful (as most study titles are), and to be honest, unless you’re someone who enjoys diving into studies (with charts) on regulations, investment, and the economy, you might find the report’s 18 pages a bit of a slog. But those of us who do read through ACI’s study will find a convincing — and rather damning — case that the FCC is mistepping rather badly as it continues to amass more and more power over broadband. For example, here’s what the report has to say about one of the biggest regulatory marks the Commission made in 2015:

Title II regulations are preserving and maintaining duplicative and costly copper networks. That cost is an impediment to fiber deployment that keeps ILECs more reliant on older copper-based DSL technologies. Instead of the FCC relieving non-dominant ILECs of Title II regulations in more competitive markets, the FCC has recently chosen to make broadband service providers subject to Title II regulations.

Unless there is action soon, the shift in concentration is likely to be permanent. A decade ago, the rollback of asymmetric regulations permitted modest rebound in broadband services for ILECs, because there was brisk growth in subscribers. Today, because the broadband market is so widespread, growing slower and more mature, asymmetric broadband regulation will likely have longer term consequences that could permanently displace and weaken wireline competition. Even if a rebound is possible, ILECs will face a major cost to win back customers. Regulations are costly and delays in lifting these regulations will be even more costly.

Translation: Old regulations that effect some providers and not others are forcing companies like Verizon and AT&T to invest billions in the copper networks of old. Meanwhile, other providers don’t face such regulatory roadblocks, even as they aim to invest in the very same thing legacy providers are investing in — fiber-backed, high-speed broadband networks. Not exactly the spirit of competition, is it?

The ACI study isn’t all doom and gloom for America’s communications infrastructure, though, for the group has thoughtfully included a three bullet points that can help level the playing field:

• Policymakers need to end Title II regulations for all providers.
• There needs to be less emphasis on regulation of wholesale services. Less regulation will encourage more facility-based investments, which will lead to the natural development of a healthy, wholesale market; and
• If regulators truly believe that some regulation of wholesale services is necessary – and that may be the case in some rural markets – then regulators need to apply these regulations on a symmetrical and competitively neutral basis.

In short, get rid of the bad regulations, be careful when imposing new ones, and make sure everyone is playing under the same rules. Wise words, but the question is: Will the FCC listen?