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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