A “Public Infrastructure” Perspective on Special Access

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April 15th, 2016

As I discussed in an earlier post, the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) recently released a paper by its Director of Research, Mark Cooper, which made the case that the FCC’s decision to deregulate special access in 1999 was premature and has resulted in large-scale economic harm, including an estimated $150 billion over the past five years. Cooper’s analysis focused on two elements of harm: 1) the direct cost associated with non-competitive excess-profit-extracting pricing and; 2) the indirect economic costs associated with this pricing regime.

As it turns out, a few days after Cooper presented an overview of his analysis at a New America Foundation event, a paper was published by Economists Inc. Written by EI principal Hal Singer and, according to its cover page, funded at least in part by USTelecom, the nation’s ILEC trade association, the EI paper approached the issue from a different perspective, as explained in its executive summary:

This paper seeks to model the likely impact of the FCC’s recent effort to preserve and extend its special access rules on broadband deployment, as telcos transition from TDM-based copper networks to IP-based fiber networks to serve business broadband customers. The deployment impact of expanded special access rules can be measured as the difference between (1) how many buildings would have been lit with fiber by telcos in the absence of the rules and (2) how many buildings will be lit with fiber by telcos in the presence of the rules. With an estimate of the cost per building, the deployment impact can be converted into an investment impact. And with estimates of broadband-specific multipliers, the fiber-to-the-building network investment impact can be converted into job and output effects.

The executive summary also highlights the study’s key findings:

In the absence of any new regulation (the “Baseline Case”), an ILEC is predicted to increase business-fiber penetration… from 10 to 20 percent over the coming years…Next, we model a scenario where special-access price regulation extends to the ILECs’ fiber networks. Assuming this scenario reduces an ILEC’s expected Ethernet revenue by 30 percent—the typical price effect associated with prior episodes of price-cap regulation and unbundling—the model predicts that ILEC will increase business-fiber penetration from 10 to 14 percent (compared to 20 percent in the Baseline Case)…Thus, the special access obligations under this scenario result in a 55 percent reduction in an ILEC’s CapEx relative to the Baseline Case….Thus, expansion of special access price regulation to Ethernet services is predicted to reduce ILEC fiber-based penetration by 67,300 buildings nationwide—a result that is hard to reconcile with the FCC’s mandate to encourage broadband deployment.

Singer then considers the spillover effects of this reduced ILEC investment in fiber infrastructure. Using “a jobs multiplier of approximately 20 jobs per million dollars of broadband investment” and “a fiber-construction output multiplier of 3.12,” Singer estimates the resulting economic harm of FCC special access rules to be an annual loss of 43,560 jobs and $3.4 billion in economic output over a five-year period.

It’s worth noting that Singer’s estimate of $17 billion in economic losses over a five year period due to imposition of special access rules is considerably lower than Cooper’s estimate of $150 billion in economic harm from the unregulated status quo in today’s special access market. While Singer and others will likely take issue with Cooper’s assumptions and estimates, the latter’s paper seems to, at the very least, make a strong case that the economic benefits and harms associated with different special access regulatory regimes don’t only flow in the direction analyzed by Singer, and that policymakers would be wise to carefully consider a full array of harms and benefits associated with alternative regulatory approaches.

An opportunity to explore new policy, funding, ownership models

My sense is that both of these studies raise valid points about the types of economic harm associated with different approaches to (de)regulating special access (and other telecommunications) markets.

I also believe that valuable perspective on this issue can be gained from a review of of ASR Analytics’ estimates of economic benefits resulting from BTOP investments in fiber infrastructure (some of which I discussed in a recent post).  Not only does the ASR study do a good job of applying prior knowledge and accepted methods in analyzing broadband-related economic impacts, it also suggests to me that, rather than getting caught up in the details of the Cooper/Singer and related debates, a more useful approach is to take a step back from the quantitative details of these dueling studies, and consider broadband public policy from a “public infrastructure” perspective.

In a follow-up post I outline a research project designed to build on the knowledge base developed by ASR’s study of the Comprehensive Community Infrastructure (a.k.a., “middle mile fiber”) component of the BTOP program.

In addition, I’ve prepared several other posts that try to explain some of the threads of scholarship that inform my own view of how—especially in cases lacking sufficient competition—special access and last mile access networks can deliver the most social value if treated as public infrastructure.

An annotated list of links to these posts is provided below.  I’d encourage anyone involved and/or interested in policy debates related to issues such as special access, community broadband, network neutrality and universal service to review these posts and perhaps also explore the sources they refer to:

a)  the relevance of Modern Monetary Theory (a.k.a. Functional Finance) to policymaking related to federal financial support for investments in telecommunications and other infrastructure;

b) the demand-side analysis of infrastructure resources  laid out by Brett Frischmann in his 2012 book, Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources, and the Internet- and telecom-related policies it suggests;

c) the analytical framework developed by author Marjorie Kelly in her book Owning Our Future, which highlights key differences between what Kelly refers to as “generative” vs. “extractive” ownership models. One post reviews Kelly’s key concepts and considers AT&T as an example of extractive ownership of telecommunications infrastructure.  A second post considers how Kelly’s framework applies to the role of community-owned broadband networks in the Internet access sector, and suggests research questions related to this that I believe are worthy of further investigation.

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