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Local Broadband Access: Primum Non Nocere or Primum Processi? A Property Rights Approach

Jul 2003
Working Paper
02-037
By  Bruce Owen, Gregory Rosston
High-speed or “broadband” Internet access currently is provided, at the local level, chiefly by cable television and telephone companies, often in competition with each other. Wireless and satellite providers have a small but growing share of this business. An influential coalition of economic interests and academics have proposed that local broadband Internet access providers be prohibited from restricting access to their systems by upstream suppliers of Internet services. A recent term for this proposal is “net neutrality.”

We examine the potential costs and benefits of such a policy from an economic welfare perspective. Using a property rights approach, we ask whether transactions costs in the market for access rights are likely to be significant, and if so, whether owners of physical local broadband platforms are likely to be more or less efficient holders of access rights than Internet content providers. We conclude that transactions costs are likely to be lower if access rights are assigned initially to platform owners rather than content providers. In addition, platform hardware owners are likely to be more efficient holders of these rights because they can internalize demand-side interactions among content products. Further, failure to permit platform owners to control access threatens to result in inadequate incentives to invest in, to maintain, and to upgrade local broadband platforms.

Inefficiently denying platform owners the ability to own access rights implies a need for price regulation; otherwise, there will be incentives to use pricing to circumvent the constraint on rights ownership. Price regulation is itself known to induce welfare losses through adaptive behavior of the constrained firm. The impact on welfare might produce a worse result than the initial problem, assuming one existed.