Archive for October, 2012

Are Wireless Data Prices in the United States Too High?

The New York Times just ran a provocative story titled “Americans Paying More for LTE Service,” suggesting that prices charged by U.S. wireless operators for access to their new 4G networks are triple what they would be were our wireless markets more competitive. In support of this claim, they compare the price per gigabyte charged by Verizon Wireless for its bundled voice-data plan ($7.50) to the “European average” LTE price for data-only plans ($2.50), as calculated by the consultancy Wireless Intelligence. Time to call in the trust busters? Hardly.

As any first-year economic student understands, prices are determined by supply and demand conditions.  When performing international price comparisons, one should account for these differences before proclaiming that U.S. consumers spend “too much” on a particular service. Of course, it is much easier to generate readership (and hence advertising dollars) with fantastic claims that our wireless markets are not competitive.

Let’s start with differences in demand that could affect the value of wireless data services and thus relative prices. While it makes sense for The Economist to compute a Big Mac Index for a product that is basically the same wherever it is sold, price comparisons of services that are highly differentiated across countries are less revealing. And the quality of wireless LTE networks varies significantly. Verizon’s LTE network covered two-thirds of the U.S. population in April 2012. In contrast, the geographic coverage of European carriers’ LTE networks is anemic, prompting the European Commissioner Neelie Kroes to proclaim this month that the absence of LTE across the continent was proving to be a major problem in Europe. No wonder it is hard to get Europeans to pay dearly for LTE services!

Turning to the supply-side of the equation, while the surface area of the U.S. LTE “coverage blanket” is relatively larger, the European coverage blanket is thicker than ours. U.S. wireless carriers don’t have as much spectrum, the key ingredient in delivering wireless service, as their European counterparts. As pointed out by wireless analyst Roger Entner, U.S. carriers have only one-third of the spectrum available in Italy (on a MHz-per-million-subscribers basis), and one-fifth of the spectrum as France, Germany, and the UK. Given this relative scarcity of spectrum, U.S. carriers must prevent overuse of their LTE networks through the price mechanism—else their data networks would be worthless. As more spectrum comes online, basic economic theory predicts that U.S. data prices will fall.

The staggered LTE offerings by U.S. carriers are another factor affecting the supply-side of the equation. As the New York Times article notes, Verizon was the first to market LTE in the United States in December 2010. AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile unveiled LTE offerings at a later date and are playing catch up. To compete for LTE customers, these latecomers are undercutting Verizon, which in turn, will lead to lower prices. By offering unlimited LTE data plans, Sprint charges $0 on a per-gigabyte basis at the margin. T-Mobile also offers an “Unlimited Nationwide 4G” plan at $90 per month (including unlimited voice minutes) that sets the marginal price on a per-gigabyte basis to zero. Although AT&T does not offer unlimited data plans, one can compute the “imputed” price per gigabyte for its bundled voice-data plans by subtracting the price of a comparable unlimited voice plan and then dividing by the gigabytes permitted. The result? A lower price per gigabyte than the European average. (Interested readers can email me for the math.)

Thus, even if you think U.S. wireless data prices are “too high” today, the competitive process should be given more than one year to work its magic. Consider the competition for wireless voice services, which has played out over a decade. According to Merrill Lynch, the United States enjoyed a lower price for voice services on a per-minute-of-use basis ($0.03) than France ($0.10), Germany ($0.08), or the UK ($0.08) in the fourth quarter of 2011. How can the New York Times say, on the one hand, that these European countries serve as a competitive benchmark for wireless data services in the United States, but that the prices for voice services in these same countries should be ignored? Are we to mimic European policies with respect to data services and shun their policies with respect to voice services?

The lesson here is that what’s happening to European prices for wireless voice, wireless data, healthcare, or any differentiated product for that matter depends on several things, none of which is controlled for when making these simplistic international price comparisons. I know, I know. We need to sell Internet advertising. Can you imagine the headline: “Difference-in-difference regression shows that U.S. data prices are just right?”

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Is There Something To Be Done About Broadband Competition?

Two dominant schools of thought have emerged in the broadband policy arena. The first, represented by the views of Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, is that there is not enough competition to cable modem service and thus government must intervene to prevent a likely abuse of market power. A second camp believes that there is no basis for proactive policies designed to increase the number of broadband providers, even in local markets served by a single provider. The high margins enjoyed by the first provider, they claim, rewards risk-taking behavior and will induce further entry.

A third perspective gaining some traction and to which I and hopefully a few others subscribe posits that there is still a limited role for policy so long as improving consumer welfare is the objective. After penning this blog, I might be disinvited to the Christmas parties of camps one and two this year.

How Cell Phone Carriers Stiff Consumers

 'Fixed' Price Contracts

‘Fixed’ Price Contracts

Cell phone companies take advantage of a “hidden clause” allowing them to increase prices on contracts that appeared to be fixed.

Camp three is agnostic as to the “right” number of broadband providers, but believes that “more than one” will likely increase consumer welfare. Although government should not subsidize entry by rivals—this is tantamount to appropriating the returns of first movers, which decreases consumer welfare in the long run—it should remove any barriers that prevent more robust competition. Whereas my camp has a healthy respect for investment incentives on a going-forward basis, camp one sees investments by cable operators as sunk and thus ripe for the taking.

The role of wireless 4G networks likely separates those with at least some faith in market forces and those without any (camp one). Ms. Crawford and her ilk relegate wireless to somewhere less relevant than pink elephants when it comes to broadband competition. At a Brookings event last week, she referred to wireless as a “complementary product” for most Americans, the insinuation being that wireless is not to be taken seriously as a solution to Internet connectivity.

Although wireless might be perceived as a complement to wireline connections today, the new 4G mobile connections will afford consumers roughly seven times more speedy downloads as compared to the experience on prior generations (3G) of smartphones. With sufficient spectrum to provide endurance (another dimension of network quality), 4G operators could offer broadband consumers the full suite of services to which they have become accustomed on wireline connections in the near future.

If you don’t believe in wireless, and if you think that no amount of tinkering with the rules will get fiber deployed in more areas, then you have what Ms. Crawford refers to as a “natural monopoly” in homes served by cable modem providers but not fiber. What to do then?

In these cases, says Ms. Crawford, government “has a very important role to play.” In particular, government should “provide assistance to people who don’t have fiber access;” it should “make sure pricing is fair;” and it should provide “equal facilities to all Americans.” This is scary stuff.  Although I have been critical of certain cable practices, it is a step too far to suggest that cable companies should be subject to price regulation or government-subsidized overbuilding because they invested in neighborhoods where no else has been willing to follow.

So what policies are being peddled by camp three? When it comes to broadband competition, the FCC should remove barriers to entry for wireless broadband operators seeking to deploy 4G wireless technologies, and eliminate the disincentives facing telcos for deploying fiber beyond the 55 million U.S. homes that were served as of March 2012.

Two FCC Commissioners recently sent signals to the marketplace along these lines. In a speech at the Wharton business school, Chairman Genachowski discussed the need for additional spectrum: “In addition to promoting competition, reducing barriers to broadband build-out and driving broadband investment, we of course need to keep clearing inefficiently used spectrum and reallocating it for licensed flexible use.” Can I get an Amen?

On C-SPAN’s The Communicators, Commission Ajit Pai was asked about how to spur additional fiber investment: “For one, we shouldn’t extend legacy regulations of copper wire telephone monopoly era to next generation networks. The Title II docket remains open to this day. To the extent we wanted to send a signal to the private sector that we weren’t going to take a heavy handed approach, we should close that docket.” Translation: The FCC should clarify its rules towards IP networks so that telcos understand the implications of making fiber investments; if those investments are subject to onerous requirements, then telcos will be less inclined to invest.

Dare I count the Chairman of the FCC and FCC Commissioner Pai as honorary members of my third camp? I’ll let you know if I get any Christmas invitations.

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Program Access Reform at the FCC: Are Exclusive Programming Deals a Good Thing?

Last week, the FCC decided not to extend certain provisions of the “program access” protections of the 1992 Cable Act. Reading the popular press gives one the false impression that the entire program-access regime was taken apart. In reality, the ban on exclusive distribution arrangements between cable operators and cable networks will be lifted, while other protections for rival distributors will remain in force.

Although the FCC’s Sunset Order suggests that lifting the ban will mostly affect cable-affiliated networks, those networks are generally distributed by their affiliated cable owner without a contract. There is no reason to add an exclusivity provision to a contract that does not exist.

Accordingly, permitting exclusive contracts likely will have a greater impact on independent networks (such as Disney Channel), which are distributed pursuant to a contract. Under the old rules, a cable operator could not tell an independent network: “I will carry you only if you agree not to deal with DISH Network, DirecTV, Verizon, and AT&T.” With the ban on exclusive agreements lifted, a cable operator may make such a take-it-or-leave-it offer.

To ensure access to newly exclusive programming, the FCC will rely on a case-by-case review of any complaints brought by distribution rivals. This ex post approach to adjudicating access disputes is similar to the one used by the Commission for “program carriage” complaints, in which an independent cable network must persuade the agency to permit a complaint to be heard by an administrative law judge. In contrast, the case-by-case approach embraced in the Sunset Order is not consistent with the ex ante prohibition against discriminatory contracting by broadband network owners in the Commission’s Open Internet Order of 2010. When it comes to handling discrimination, the Commission is anything but consistent.

In the Sunset Order, the FCC gave special treatment to cable-affiliated sports programming, often carried on regional sports networks (RSNs). In particular, the FCC established a “rebuttable presumption” that an exclusive contract involving a cable-affiliated RSN violates the Cable Act. Because sports programming is one of the few types of “must-have” programming, this exemption implies that the competitive balance among cable operators and their competitors may not be altered significantly. This is not to say that non-sports programming is meaningless—as the FCC recognized in its Comcast-NBCU Order, the refusal to supply a collection of non-sports programming could impair a rival distributor. But exempting sports programming takes much of the bite out of the rule change.

In addition to effectively exempting the most likely basis for a program access dispute, the Sunset Order makes clear that a distribution rival still can bring a complaint under other sections of the Cable Act. For example, a rival can allege “undue influence” under Section 628(c)(2)(A); discrimination under Section 628(c)(2)(B); or a “selective refusal to deal” under Section 628(c)(2)(B). In other words, the FCC removed one of several ways a cable operator can violate the Cable Act. The agency is still watching.

The FCC also pointed out that approximately 30 cable-affiliated, national networks and 14 cable-affiliated RSNs are subject to program-access merger conditions adopted in the Comcast-NBCU Order until January 2018. These conditions require Comcast to make these affiliated networks available to competitors, even after the expiration of the exclusive contract prohibition. Because these networks account for a significant share (about one third) of all cable-affiliated programming, the effect of removing the exclusivity ban will be further diminished.

The choice between an ex ante prohibition of certain conduct and an ex post, case-by-case review of complaints turns on the potential for efficiency justifications. In reaching its decision, the Commission noted one potential procompetitive benefit of permitting exclusive deals—ostensibly, to promote investment in new programming. While promoting investment in new programming is important (notwithstanding the fact that there are literally hundreds of cable networks, many of which sprouted up during the exclusivity ban), so too is promoting investment in rival distribution networks. With 55 percent of all U.S. households beholden to a single, fixed-line provider of broadband access (mostly cable modem service), the Commission should consider how each of its rules affects broadband investment. Alas, the agency disposed of this consideration in a single paragraph in the Sunset Order, arguing that the case-by-case approach was sufficient to protect the investment incentives of broadband operators.

It is no accident that the relaxation of the exclusivity ban was opposed by Google, Verizon, and AT&T—each of whom is deploying broadband networks (of both the fixed and mobile variety) in competition with incumbent cable operators.  If these rival networks cannot secure access to cable programming, then convincing a cable customer to “cut the cord” will be that much harder. And if rivals cannot reach a certain level of penetration, then their investments will not generate positive returns; if that happens, we won’t see as much broadband investment as we hoped for.

To the extent that the Sunset Order is a harbinger of the FCC’s newfound embrace of case-by-case adjudication of discriminatory conduct, then it is a good thing. To ensure that 4G network operators or Google do not lose their appetite to invest in broadband networks, however, the FCC must be vigilant in enforcing the new rules.

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Baseball in October Is the Ultimate Productivity Buster

I thought I was going to work this afternoon. But Major League Baseball (MLB) has scheduled a virtual playoff game between the Oakland A’s and the Texas Rangers at 3:35 pm ET. The Rangers have seen their lead over the A’s dwindle from 13 games around the half-way mark of the season to four games last Friday to zero today. (Disclosure: I spent the first 18 years of my life in Ft. Worth, and I haven’t been able to shake my loyalties to Texas-based sports teams.) I plan to record my hours this afternoon as “religious holiday.” Strictly speaking, Sukkot lasts until October 7.

I thought I was going to sleep at a reasonable hour last night. But the Red Sox blew a two-run lead in the ninth inning against the Yankees. Had the Red Sox held on, the Orioles would have been tied for first place with one game left. As it now stands, one game separates the Orioles from the Yankees. Why should I care? Because the Orioles haven’t been to the playoffs since 1997, and because I hate the Yankees with every fiber of my being. (A slight digression: I had my gloves confiscated on a chilly October evening by a thug/fan in Yankee Stadium during the Rangers-Yankees 2010 American League Championship Series. At least I wasn’t spit on, like Cliff Lee’s wife.)

I thought I was never going to fall for the Washington Nationals. But the team holds the best record in baseball (along with the Cincinnati Reds), and it features a 19 year old (Bryce Harper) who, according to Tom Boswell of The Washington Post, was the best offensive player in baseball since August 29, leading the league in runs, extra-base hits, and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (1.106) with 10 homers. The Nationals also feature former A’s starter, Gio Gonzales, who was 5-1 with a 1.34 ERA during that stretch. Imagine how many wins the A’s would have this year with Gonzales, a 21-game winner with the lowest opponents’ batting average (0.206) in the National League!

There is a buzz in D.C. that I haven’t felt since landing here in 1994 for graduate school. The last time a D.C.-based baseball team made the playoffs was 1933, which makes it hard for anyone to boast that they attended both playoff series: A ten year old who attended the ’33 series would now be 89 years old and is deserving of front-row seats. According to my ethical adviser, it is perfectly reasonable to have feelings for two MLB teams so long as they hail from different leagues (American versus National).

As a Ranger fan, I would like nothing more than sweet revenge against the Cardinals (2011) or the Giants (2010). I remember holding the phone in my hand in the bottom of the ninth inning of game six of the World Series last year, eager to call my dad to celebrate the championship. In light of what happened, I postponed the call until the next morning. (Nelson Cruz should not have been playing right field!) But I would happily settle for a series with Washington, the city that lost its franchise (the Senators) to Texas in 1972 (after having lost an earlier franchise to Minnesota in 1961). Of course, the Rangers need to get past those pesky A’s, who boast a 49 and 25 record in the second half.

If baseball in October doesn’t get your heart pounding, visit a cardiologist. You might be dead. Now back to work. You only have a few hours left before that “religious holiday” begins.

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