General

Many proponents of “net neutrality” routinely declare the Internet sky is falling. That if the government — specifically, the Federal Communications Commission — doesn’t take far greater control of the Internet, then the very platform itself will all but collapse.

Such scare tactics may rile up Americans, but ironically, it’s the very solution proponents are now pushing that could deal the most devastating blow to the free and open Internet.

Title II reclassification may seem simple — just make the Internet a public utility! — but as a new paper from Anna-Maria Kovacs shows, reclassification would have far greater consequences for the Internet than its supporters let on.

Kovacs’ paper, “Regulations in Financial Translation: Investment Implications of the FCC’s Open Internet Proceeding,” is a dense 27-page read, but don’t let the length — or the dry academic title — deter you from digging in. In the paper, Kovacs takes the temperature of communication investors as the FCC continues to mull over reclassification. And while the majority of investors don’t expect the Commission to use the “nuclear option” of Title II, as it’s commonly known, that doesn’t mean they’re breathing easy. As Kovacs writes (all emphasis mine):

From the perspective of investors, Title II reclassification makes no sense. It does not solve the problem of paid prioritization that the vast majority of net neutrality advocates are demanding the FCC solve, but it carries the risk of enormous collateral damage to both infrastructure and edge providers. It would bring stultifying regulation that would choke the Internet ecosystem that has become on of the primary engines of economic growth for the U.S. and the world. It would encourage other governments to follow suit, endangering the success of American digital service — and application-providers abroad.

This stultifying regulation, Kovacs rightly argues, would be especially brutal to mobile broadband investment, where America leads the rest of the world by leaps and bounds. Kovacs again:

U.S. mobile Internet traffic is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 50% per year between 2013 and 2018. Keeping up with that traffic will require ongoing capital investments as well as additional spectrum. During 2014-2015, mobile broadband Internet access providers (mobile BIAs) are expected to raise about $57 billion for spectrum purchases, as indicated by the FCC’s reserve price for the 2014 AWS-3 auction and the Greenhill report’s valuation of the broadcast spectrum the FCC hopes to sell in early 2016. That $57 billion is, of course, in addition to the $68 billion in capital investments that mobile BIAs will spend over those two years. Thus, for the FCC’s spectrum auctions to be successful, mobile BIAs will need to raise 84% more funding during 2014-2015 that they do in normal years. With increased price competition and a shrinking revenue base — something the wireline industry has endured for years but that is new to wireless — these companies are facing an increasingly skeptical investment community that will have little tolerance for regulatory shock, on either the fixed or mobile side.

That’s a whole lot of numbers (and acronyms) to digest, but boiled down it means a) Providers need more spectrum; b) Billions will need to be raised to purchase that spectrum; c) Investment dollars could easily dry up in the face of regulatory actions like reclassifying under Title II.

Kovacs goes on in the paper to make the case that the FCC has sufficient authority to ensure the Internet remains open under section 706, which makes it possible for the Commission to create rules specifically for this purpose. While those rules would still face judicial review, they would also keep the FCC (which, remember, is made up of appointed officials) from overreach. In contrast, Kovacs points out, Title II…

…automatically invokes price regulation, resale and interconnection obligations, customer privacy rules, and numerous other obligations, which have been implemented via many thousands of regulations at the FCC and various state commissions.

Thousands of government regulations. Does that sound like a free and open Internet?

But what about forbearance, the provision with mythical powers that Title II proponents point to as a counterpoint to the excessive regulations argument? Well, Kovacs makes plain why the idea of the FCC using forbearance powers doesn’t sit well with investors:

While the FCC is allowed to forbear from some of those obligations if it can justify the forbearance to the courts, investors who have watched the attempts of ILECs to obtain forbearance are all too aware of the difficulties of that process. For example, investors have watched ILECs lose most of their market share yet still be treated by the FCC and state commissioners as if they were dominant carriers for PSTN voice service. As a result, they have little faith that the FCC would apply Title II to BIAs but then forbear from all the regulations that come with that.

Look, when it comes down to it, we all want the Internet to remain open. It’s in the best interest of consumers and providers to keep it that way. But we also need to keep investment dollars flowing into our communications infrastructure. As Kovacs’ paper shows, Title II won’t really do either. Instead, it could have the complete opposite effect. Want the Internet sky to fall? Saddle it with regulations created when Franklin D. Roosevelt was in office.