Wednesday, June 17, 2009 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

The (Un)Free Press Calls for Internet Price Controls: "The Broadband Internet Fairness Act"

You really have to hand it to the folks over at the (Un)Free Press with their endlessly shameful attempts to use doublespeak to remake the entire media, communications, and Internet landscape in their preferred Big Government image. Their latest bit of charlatanism is the so-called "Stop the Internet Rip-Off of 2009" campaign. It's another one of their computerized "stuff-the-FCC-and Congressional-complaint-box-with-electronic-form-letters" efforts that involves getting their merry band of radical reformistas to encourage lawmakers to sign on to Rep. Eric Massa's (D-NY) newly-introduced "Broadband Internet Fairness Act."

Ah yes, "Internet fairness." Who can possibly be against it? Well, before you rush to click send on that UnFree Press form letter, let's be clear what this effort is really all about. Free Press claims that the Massa bill is needed because "phone and cable giants [are] weighing schemes to hike prices, shut down the free-flowing Web and keep user innovation in check." How are those companies doing that? Tiered pricing! Rep. Massa says that, "Time Warner has announced an ill-conceived plan to charge residential and business broadband fees based on the amount of data they download." Oh my God, no... you mean some people might be charged for the costs they impose? What's next? Are we going to force people to pay for their own energy use by metering gasoline, electricity, or water? Think of the horror! (This is sarcasm, folks. All those things are metered currently. And yet, somehow, the Earth hasn't spun off its axis.)

Like all the other propaganda produced at the Free Press techno-spin factory, their latest crusade is based on a combination of outright lies and blatant economic ignorance. Metering broadband access is not an effort "to restrict Internet use," as Free Press claims. Rather, like every other metered system under the sun, it's an effort to price a scarce resource in such a way so as to maximize use. Broadband operators don't sit around all day scheming to find ways to decrease network usage. They wouldn't make any money that way!! They need to find business models that encourage increased uptake while also investing in and growing their networks to meet new demand and competitive challenges.

Moreover, there are other pro-consumer reasons for companies to consider metering options. Unless it is your goal to allow some particularly aggressive users to be subsidized by all other users, it is sometimes sensible to price usage based on demand. If you don't, you potentially create a perverse incentive for a small handful of over-grazers to to be feeding at the trough at everyone else's expense. As economist Russell Roberts aptly noted in the title of a famous 1995 Wall Street Journal editorial, "If You're Paying, I'll Have Top Sirloin." Thus, you would never want to make the "all-you-can-eat" pricing model the only option for the provision of a scarce resource. Even if you choose not to deploy it, it is useful to have the metered pricing model available in case you need to charge the over-grazers at some point.

As I've pointed out before, part of the reason broadband operators have been cautious about metering of the pipe so far is that they knew it would likely encounter a great deal of resistance-from both consumers and potentially even policymakers. (Time Warner found this out the hard way when they began a recent experiment with metering.) I made this point in this older essay on networking pricing:

First, broadband operators are probably concerned that such a move would bring about unwanted regulatory attention. Second, and more importantly, cable and telco firms are keenly aware of the fact that the web-surfing public has come to view "all you can eat" buffet-style, flat-rate pricing as a virtual inalienable right. Internet guru Andrew Odlyzko has correctly argued that "People react extremely negatively to price discrimination. They also dislike the bother of fine-grained pricing, and are willing to pay extra for simple prices, especially flat-rate ones." And George Gilder, another famous Net guru, noted in his book Telecosm that, "Everyone wants to charge different customers differentially for different services. Everyone wants guarantees. Everyone wants to escape simple and flat pricing. Forget it." Gilder basically argues that simple and flat pricing is almost always preferable from a consumer perspective and, therefore, network providers should avoid more complicated pricing schemes.

I understand where Odlyzko and Gilder are coming from, but I do not think that means we need to give up on metered pricing altogether. What I think would be the most efficient and pragmatic solution is what economists call a "Ramsey two-part tariff." A two-part tariff (or price) would involve a flat fee for service up to a certain level and then a per-unit (or metered) fee over a certain level of use. I don't know where the demarcation should be in terms of where the flat rate ends and the metering begins; that's for market experimentation to sort out. But the clear advantage of this solution is that it preserves flat-rate, all-you-can-eat pricing for casual to moderate bandwidth users and only resorts to less popular metering pricing strategies when the usage is "excessive," however that is defined.

Regardless, what we need right now is more experimentation with various business / pricing models. We should not be foreclosing such innovation with misguided bills like the "Broadband Internet Fairness Act," which is tantamount to a price control regime for the Internet. It's not surprising that UnFree Press would favor such a destructive notion, but let's hope Congress doesn't follow their misguided lead.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 8:15 PM | Broadband , Cable , Communications , Economics , Net Neutrality