2015 Year in Review: Telecom

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This post is one in a series of reports on significant issues for startups in 2015. In the past year, the startup community’s voice helped drive notable debates in tech and entrepreneurship policy, but many of the tech world’s policy goals in 2015, such as immigration and patent reform, remain unfulfilled. Check back for more year-end updates and continue to watch this space in 2016 as we follow policy issues affecting the startup community.

by Emma Peck and Evan Engstrom

The net neutrality debate that dominated the tech policy conversation in 2014 was once again the top telecom issue in 2015, peaking at the end of February with the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) passage of its new Open Internet Order, which contained the strongest non-discrimination rules ever put in place to protect the Internet economy in the U.S. The telecom excitement didn’t end there, as policymakers and courts dealt with a huge number of issues related to promoting telecom competition, limiting ISP discrimination, and building out the next generation of telecommunications services. In short, the momentum in 2014 carried over into 2015 in a big way, and looking ahead, 2016 is poised to be yet another landmark year in telecom policy.

In addition to the FCC’s net neutrality order, the startup community saw big wins with the termination of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger and the FCC’s decision to undo anti-competitive broadband laws in Tennessee and North Carolina. We weighed in on debates around next year’s incentive auction and continued to push for increased unlicensed spectrum allocation. Lastly, we articulated our hope to see legislation move next year that would open up more federal airwaves for commercial use.

Net Neutrality

After more than a year of campaigning, the tech community won one of its biggest policy victories ever with the FCC’s decision to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service in order to pass the strongest net neutrality rules this country has ever seen. Net neutrality advocates had little time to rest, however, as the rules immediately came under fire in Congress and in the courts. Republicans used their control of both houses of Congress to push legislative tricks meant to undermine the FCC’s work, including riders to various unrelated appropriations bills that would have blocked the FCC from using any funding to enforce the new Open Internet Order. While the net neutrality community effectively neutralized those threats, a legal challenge to the net neutrality rules is still playing out in the courts. Filed by a consortium of ISPs immediately after the FCC’s February vote, the lawsuit argues that the FCC overstepped its statutory authority in reclassifying broadband under Title II and that—despite more than 4 million public comments—the FCC did not provide adequate notice of the regulatory changes it made. An appellate court heard oral arguments in the case in December and is expected to issue a ruling early next year. Whatever the outcome, the Supreme Court is likely to weigh in, ensuring that the net neutrality debate will continue in 2016 and beyond.

Municipal Broadband

In another high-profile legal battle, the FCC is fighting to uphold its authority to preempt state laws that inhibit municipal broadband build-out. At the same February meeting where the historic Open Internet vote took place, the FCC acted to improve broadband access and competition by undoing anti-competitive broadband laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that prevented local communities from providing Internet access for their citizens. But those states have pushed back against the FCC’s decision in a lawsuit that will continue to play out into 2016. The outcome may impact the FCC’s broader authority to encourage broadband deployment, and we are tracking.

Telecom Mergers

The startup community won another victory in April when Comcast’s plan to merge with Time Warner Cable (TWC) collapsed under regulatory pressure. The proposed merger would have given Comcast monopoly control over Internet access for a huge swath of the country, effectively removing any incentives to increase speeds, lower costs, or expand coverage. The same enthusiasm that drove the effort to pass strong net neutrality rules helped convince regulators at the FCC and in the states to take a hard look at whether allowing this type of consolidation in the market for Internet access would end up doing irreversible harm to the nation’s high-speed broadband market. Recognizing that promoting competition between ISPs is the only way to help put the U.S. back on par with international peers in terms of broadband affordability and quality, the FCC hinted that it would block the merger, prompting Comcast to walk away from the deal. While the merger’s demise meant that ISP competition didn’t deteriorate further, there is still a long way to go before there is adequate competition in broadband markets.

Spectrum

Incentive Auction

Broadcasters, potential bidders, and regulators spent 2015 gearing up for next year’s spectrum incentive auction. With enormous sums of money at stake (an auction of less valuable spectrum brought in more than $40 billion in 2014), stakeholders have been aggressively lobbying for favorable auction rules over the past few years, and this spring saw a particularly heated debate around the size of the auction’s spectrum reserve. As competition is so important for startup growth, the startup community weighed in on the importance of establishing auction rules that promote competition. While we didn’t win the fight for a larger reserve, next year’s auction still has the potential to re-shape competition in the mobile broadband market. We’ll be watching when March rolls around.

Unlicensed Spectrum

Licensed frequencies weren’t the only airwaves getting attention this year. 2015 saw an explosion in the “Internet of Things” and continued growth in the use of Wi-Fi, attracting the attention of policymakers and underscoring the importance of access to unlicensed spectrum. In November, Engine supported legislation introduced by Sen. Schatz that would ensure that unlicensed spectrum is central to any future spectrum strategy. We hope to see that bill or something similar move next year, possibly with a larger spectrum package (more on that below).

Federal Spectrum

The AWS-3 spectrum auction ended in January, netting almost $45 billion and demonstrating that there is still a critical need (and willingness to pay high dollar) for spectrum. In an effort to free up more of this valuable resource, members in both the House and Senate introduced bills that would incentivize the federal government to give up its inefficiently used spectrum. While neither bill was able to move before year’s end, there is hope that a larger spectrum package that includes these provisions, as well as a number of broadband deployment provisions, will be taken up sometime in the new year.