Archive for category DOJ

Which Way Will Tom Wheeler Take the FCC? Follow the Blog Trail

President Obama Makes Personnel Announcement

President Obama nominated Tom Wheeler to lead the FCC (Getty Images via @daylife)

Last week, President Obama named Tom Wheeler of Core Capital Partners to be Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Interested parties of all types, from hedge fund managers to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, are pondering how Mr. Wheeler will manage the agency and what he’ll focus on.

A look back at his musings on a personal blog (aptly named Mobile Musings) and on his more formal writings as chairman of an advisory committee to the FCC may provide some insights. Out of the gate, Mr. Wheeler will be confronted with several pressing issues, ranging from the FCC’s merger-review authority to the broadcast-spectrum auctions to net neutrality to the IP transition.

When it comes to drawing the limits of the FCC’s authority, I have argued that where the conduct under scrutiny fits squarely within the four corners of antitrust (such as mergers), the FCC should take a backseat to the antitrust agencies; for conduct that is not easily recognized as an antitrust violation (such as discrimination by a vertically integrated network owner), the FCC should take the lead. Does Mr. Wheeler agree?

Merger Reviews

Before the Department of Justice (DOJ) moved to block the AT&T/T-Mobile merger, in April 2011 Mr. Wheeler suggested in his blog that the FCC could regulate the wireless industry via merger-related conditions:

The Communications Act, however, does not prohibit the regulation of the ‘terms and conditions’ of wireless offerings, nor does it prohibit the FCC from imposing merger terms and spectrum auction rules that might seem to be regulation in another guise. It is this authority which offers the Federal government the opportunity to impose on AT&T merger conditions that could define the four corners of wireless regulation going forward; rules that would ultimately impact all wireless carriers.

Shortly after the DOJ filed its complaint in September 2011, Mr. Wheeler opined:

. . . absent a new vehicle the regulation of marketplace behavior that has characterized telecom regulation for almost a century is headed towards the same fate as the dial tone – another fatality of digital zeroes and ones. This trend could have been reversed by the conditions imposed by the government on an AT&T/T-Mobile merger. Skirting the regulatory authority issue in favor of a more flexible public interest standard, AT&T and the FCC/Justice Department would simply agree via a consent decree to pseudo-regulatory behavioral standards.

Keeping the FCC relevant in the evolving telecom landscape is certainly one consideration. But so long as the FCC can impose behavioral remedies on merging parties to promote the public interest, anything goes, including regulation that is wholly disconnected from the merger. Although mergers might generate effects that are not recognized as antitrust harms, there is little chance that a merger would escape antitrust scrutiny. This suggests a more limited role for the FCC when it comes to merger review.

As explained in my new book with Robert Litan, the FCC’s discretion to hold up telecom mergers in return for behavioral remedies invites “rent seeking” activity by competitors, who use the FCC’s merger review as a basis to lobby for welfare-reducing obligations on their rivals. Unless this discretion is removed by Congress, we must hope for a magnanimous regulator at the FCC to waive his discretion—an unlikely outcome given that discretion is a regulator’s currency in Washington. Mr. Litan gently reminded me during a C-SPAN interview that one regulator, Fred Kahn, ceded his discretion while heading the Civil Aeronautics Board. Based on his blog musings, it seems unlikely that Mr. Wheeler will do the same.

Broadcast Spectrum Auction

The first order of business on the auction front is deciding who can participate in the broadcast-spectrum auction and to what extent. In April of this year, the DOJ weighed into this debate by advocating “rules that ensure the smaller nationwide networks, which currently lack substantial low-frequency spectrum, have an opportunity to acquire such spectrum.” It’s not clear whether the DOJ would support barring AT&T and Verizon from the auction entirely, but for those contemplating that idea, consider these consequences: According to a study released last week by Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, auction revenues would decline by as much as 40 percent as the demand for spectrum artificially contracts, and monthly wireless bills would increase by about 9 percent as capacity-constrained carriers are forced to deploy more expensive solutions.

Fortunately, the pure-exclusion option appears to have little support among policymakers. In his departing speech last week, outgoing Chairman Genachowski advocated a balanced approach in which all four major wireless carriers would have a reasonable chance to expand their spectrum holdings, noting that “even the largest cellphone carriers need access to more airwaves to meet their customers’ booming demand for mobile data.” Regulators might look to the recent UK spectrum auction, in which the regulator (Ofcom) imposed modest caps on the amount of additional low-frequency bands that the two largest providers (Vodafone and O2) were allowed to buy—they already owned significant amounts of that spectrum before the auction—rather than bar those firms from bidding entirely.

Should the FCC follow this path, Mr. Wheeler will hopefully recognize the oncoming battle between wireless and wireline Internet providers, which militates toward a slightly more concentrated wireless industry in exchange for more intense inter-modal broadband competition.

Net Neutrality

On the net neutrality front, the FCC is awaiting a decision from a court of appeals on whether the agency overstepped its jurisdiction in its 2010 Open Internet Order. The first order of business is determining whether the FCC has the power to regulate Internet access providers. The second order of business is how best to regulate discrimination on the Internet when it rears its ugly head.

As Federal Trade Commissioner (FTC) commissioner Josh Wright correctly explained in a recent speech at George Mason, the FCC erred in the Open Internet Order by treating discrimination by vertically integrated network owners as a per se violation, in contrast to the “rule of reason” treatment afforded to similar “vertical restraints” under the antitrust laws. Mr. Wright advocates that the FTC (and not the FCC) police such conduct under the antitrust laws, arguing that the FTC is less susceptible to political influence than the FCC, and that the FTC has related experience with case-by-case enforcement of vertical restraints.

This is a debate deserving of more attention: Mr. Litan and I argue that the FCC is the better place to police discrimination on the Internet, noting that the agency currently adjudicates discrimination complaints in the video space, and that discrimination of this sort—for example, favoring an affiliated website or application over an independent one—is not an obvious antitrust violation and may generate a harm (reduced innovation) that is not easily proven under stringent antitrust standards.

While Mr. Wheeler likely would seek to maintain the FCC’s power to regulate Internet providers, it is not clear whether he embraces the per se prohibition of discrimination in the FCC’s Open Internet Order. A blog from November 2009, roughly one year before the Open Internet Order was adopted, suggests some moderation here, as least as to whether net neutrality applies to wireless networks:

Rules that recognize the unique characteristics of a spectrum-based service and allow for reasonable network management would seem to be more important than the philosophical debate over whether there should be rules at all.

IP Transition

A final hot topic in telecom circles is whether to release telcos from so-called “legacy regulations” that require them to maintain two separate networks: a copper network and an IP network. A related issue is whether to extend the FCC’s wholesale-access obligations to newly packetized IP networks.

The telcos argue that they could compete more effectively against cable operators if resources currently tied up in maintaining copper networks could be allocated to IP networks. On the other side, resellers argue that a wind-down of the telcos’ copper networks might strand these entrants’ investments in copper-based equipment, thereby raising the entrants’ costs to keep up with the IP transition. These raising-rival-cost arguments assume that resellers impose significant price-disciplining effects on the telcos’ broadband services, even in a world where cable operators compete with telcos for broadband services aimed at businesses.

On this policy debate, Mr. Wheeler’s findings as chairman of an advisory committee to the FCC provide a strong hint as to where he might land. In a June 2011 presentation of the Technical Advisory Committee, Mr. Wheeler explained that the old Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) would collapse under its own weight:

As the number of subscribers on the PSTN falls, the cost per remaining customer increases and the overall burden of maintaining the PSTN becomes untenable. A fast transition can generate significant economic activity and at the same time lower the total cost.

The Committee recommended that the legacy copper network should be sunset by 2018.

As the fine print in any investment prospectus repeatedly warns us, past performance is no guarantee of future returns. The same lesson is likely true for the Chairman of the FCC: Past writings cannot serve as a perfect predictor for future policies. But they certainly provide a clue.

Advertisements

, , , , , ,

Leave a comment

With InBev Suit, Feds Fight To Keep Beer Cheap For Young Blue-Collar Men. Maybe That’s Not A Good Idea.

Last week, the Department of Justice sued to block the merger of Anheuser Busch InBEV (“ABI”) and Grupo Modelo (“Modelo”). The coming battle between the antitrust agency and the merging parties could raise several important issues for merger review, including the role of entrants (craft beer makers) and negative externalities (associated with consuming beer). 300px-AB_InBev_logo.svg_1

ABI, the maker of Bud, Bud Light, and Busch, already owns 35 percent of Modelo; the DOJ’s lawsuit seeks to keep ABI’s share right there. For those who haven’t carefully studied the back of their Mexican beer bottles, Modelo is the maker of popular Mexican imports such as Corona Extra, Corona Light, and Pacifico.

ABI’s “partial ownership” of Modelo is no small detail; it complicates the DOJ’s analysis relative to a garden-variety merger analysis. Writing in the Antitrust Law Journal, Salop and O’Brien explain that the “competitive effects of partial ownership depend critically on two separate and distinct elements: financial interest and corporate control.” Depending on those variables, partial mergers “can occur in ways that result in greater or lower harm to competition than a complete merger.” The implication of their finding is that a movement from a partial merger to a complete one could raise or lower prices.

The DOJ’s complaint doesn’t tell us much about the nature of ABI’s existing control over Modelo, except for noting that ABI’s annual report claims that ABI does not have “effective control” over Modelo. Despite this disclaimer and despite the “firewalls” designed to prevent ABI members of Modelo’s board learning about pricing information, it is possible that ABI exerts some influence over Modelo’s decision-making. Setting aside the degree of ABI’s control over Modelo’s prices, economic theory predicts that ABI’s financial interest in Modelo could affect ABI’s prices. The question is whether a full transfer of ownership would really make things worse.

The DOJ’s primary theory of harm is that the merger would facilitate coordinated pricing between ABI and MillerCoors, the second largest beer manufacturer in the United States. According to the complaint, ABI and MillerCoors have been forced to discount their prices to discourage consumers from “trading up” to Modelo brands; take away Modelo’s aggressive pricing and the industry leaders could better coordinate their price increases. Secondarily, the DOJ argues that the merger would permit ABI to unilaterally raise its prices without concern about customer defection to Modelo’s brands.

One bone of contention between the dueling antitrust experts will be the likely role of “craft beers” or microbrews in the coming years. To the extent that craft beers play a larger role in the near future—one estimate suggests that craft beers currently account for six percent of all sales but are growing at 13 percent—then a merger of two “low-end” labels is not as important for consumers. According to the Brewers Association, there were 2,000 U.S. breweries in operation by the end of 2012, and there are another 1,000 in the planning stage; the expansion of microbreweries suggests a “shift in the palate” of U.S. beer consumers toward craft beers. With this backdrop, the combination of two low-end brands might not generate much pricing power.

To be fair, ABI has some high-end labels, such as Stella Artois and Beck’s, and craft beers such as Goose Island and Shock Top. But these brands are drowned out in a sea of differentiated flavors, including popular brews such as Abita, Lagunitas, and Shiner. There is an exciting microbrew story in nearly every state—for example, you can’t visit the Blue Ridge region of Virginia without stopping at Devils’ Backbone (Roseland) or Blue Mountain Brewery (Afton).

The DOJ’s discussion of the proposed “relevant product market” is good reading. Apparently, ABI’s Bud Light Lime-a-Rita sits within the “premium plus” category. Where I come from, serving a margarita in an aluminum can is blasphemy. The agency asserts that all segments of the beer industry—from the “sub-premium” segment to “high-end”—compete in the same product market: Query whether sub-premium beers or even the “premium” segment are not constrained by the price of water, the closest available substitute. Craft beers are mentioned in passing only.

The key demographic for low-priced beer drinkers is blue-collar males in their 20s, who might shy away from the premium prices commanded by craft beers. Presumably, the DOJ’s lawsuit aims to protect these drinkers. Given the negative externalities associated with consuming alcohol, however, the movement to higher priced, heavier-tasting, craft beers that are not guzzled like Mad Dog might not be a bad thing. Which leads to one to wonder: Should the supply of beer be competitive or should we tolerate a little market power along with reduced levels of consumption?

If the DOJ has its way and blocks this merger—and if the agency is right about the likely price effects—then we will get more alcohol consumption relative to a world in which ABI owns 100 percent of Modelo. Be careful what you wish for.

, , , , ,

Leave a comment

The FTC’s Decision to Reject the Search Antitrust Case against Google

In light of recent stories hinting that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will not pursue antitrust claims that Google discriminates in its search results, advocates for rival websites are sounding the alarms.  One attorney who represents several websites that have complained about Google’s alleged favoritism in search decried: “If a settlement were to be proposed that didn’t include search, the institutional integrity of the FTC would be at issue.” Ironically, the opposite is true: By reportedly dropping search discrimination from its case, the FTC has bolstered its integrity.

This is not to say that discrimination against rival websites is a good thing. Rather, discrimination of the kind allegedly practiced by Google is generally not recognized as an antitrust violation. With the exception of extreme cases, such as when a monopolist refuses to sell a product or service to a competitor that it makes available to others for discriminatory reasons, a firm does not expose itself to antitrust liability by merely refusing to deal with a competitor. (By contrast, a firm may expose itself to antitrust liability by refusing to deal with customers or suppliers so long as they deal with the firm’s rival.) Because Google is not refusing to sell a product or service to a rival website that it makes available to others, but instead places its specialized search results—such as maps, image, shopping or local results—at the top of the page when it believes they will be useful to consumers, Google arguably has no “duty to deal” under the antitrust laws.

To make a discrimination square peg fit into an antitrust round hole, the FTC would have needed to invoke an unorthodox section of the FTC Act (Section 5), thereby stretching the agency’s authority. By recognizing the incongruence between the conduct that the antitrust laws are meant to stop and the consumer-centric justifications for Google’s behavior, the FTC appears to have spared itself a tough slog. For example, one element of a duty-to-deal claim under the Sherman Act is proving that Google’s treatment of rival websites harms consumers; even the cleverest economist would be stumped with that assignment.

Google’s rivals are now seeking a do-over at the Justice Department (DOJ). They analogize the Google case to the FTC’s Microsoft investigation, where the DOJ picked up that case shortly after the FTC commissioners deadlocked in 1993. But the FTC does not appear to be deadlocked here; the agency is likely rejecting the Google case because the antitrust law does not support the complainants’ arguments.

Although regulatory relief at the FTC appears to be fleeting (and the DOJ is not the proper forum), website rivals could seek protection against search discrimination from Congress. The blueprint is already established: In 1992, Congress amended the Cable Act to protect independent cable networks against discrimination by vertically integrated cable operators. Section 616(a)(3) of the Act directs the Federal Communications Commission to establish rules governing program carriage agreements that “prevent [a cable operator] from engaging in conduct the effect of which is to unreasonably restrain the ability of an unaffiliated video programming vendor to compete fairly by discriminating in video programming distribution on the basis of affiliation or nonaffiliation of vendors in the selection, terms, or conditions for carriage of video programming provided by such vendors.”

This explains why, for example, the NFL Network brought a discrimination cases against Comcast—a vertically integrated cable operator that owns a national sports network—under the Cable Act and not under the Sherman Act. Had the NFL Network pursued its discrimination claims in an antitrust court, it likely would have failed. By styling its case as a program-carriage complaint, however, the NFL Network took advantage of cognizable harms under the Cable Act such as preserving independent voices that, for better or worse, are not appreciated by the antitrust laws.

If independent websites such as Nextag want relief, then they should lobby Congress to write the analogous non-discrimination provisions covering search engines. Once an agency is designated with the authority to police Google and other vertically integrated search engines (Bing included), website rivals could pursue individual discrimination claims just like the NFL. Importantly, website rivals would have to fund these battles, not with taxpayer money (of which millions were likely spent by the FTC in its antitrust investigation of Google), but with their own resources. Self-funding ensures that only the strongest discrimination cases would come forward; when someone else is footing the bill, all bets are off.

Admittedly, the relief contemplated here would not come quickly. It took years for independent cable networks to convince Congress of their plight. But the impatience of Google’s rivals is no reason for the FTC to bend the antitrust laws. Better to keep the powder dry—and the FTC’s integrity intact—and go after a monopolist that is more blatantly violating the antitrust laws on another day.

, , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Divining a Regulator’s Intent

Regulated firms and their Washington lawyers study agency reports and public statements carefully to figure out the rules of the road; the clearer the rules, the easier it is for regulated firms to understand how the rules affect their businesses and to plan accordingly. So long as the regulator and the regulated firm are on the same page, resources will be put to the most valuable use allowed under the regulations.

When a regulator’s signals get blurry, resources may be squandered. For starters, take the FCC’s annual wireless competition report and the Commission’s pronouncements on spectrum policy. For several years, the competition report cited a trend of falling prices and increasing entry as evidence of robust competition while at the same time noting that industry concentration was slowly rising.

In an abrupt turnaround, the FCC’s 2010 competition report cited the slow but steady increase in concentration as evidence of a lack of competition despite the continued decline in prices and increase in new-firm entry. In other words, in the face of the same industry trends, the agency’s conclusion on competition reversed. The increased weight placed on concentration also seemed at odds with the DOJ’s revised Merger Guidelines, which deemphasized concentration in favor of direct evidence of market power.

At last week’s Consumer Electronics tradeshow, the FCC chairman suggested that the competition report’s objective was not to provide guidance on Commission policy but instead “to lay out data around the degrees of competition in the different sectors.” So much for clearing up the ambiguity. Industry participants expect more than a Wikipedia entry on something so weighty as an annual report to Congress regarding one of the economy’s most critical sectors.

The agency’s signals on spectrum policy are even murkier. On one hand, during the last few years, the current FCC has been calling for more frequencies to be made available to support and grow wireless broadband networks. The FCC has also been publicly supporting voluntary incentive auctions—a market-based tool to compensate existing spectrum licensees for returning their licenses—as the best way to reallocate unused broadcast spectrum to wireless broadband. However, in a confusing set of remarks at the same tradeshow, the FCC now seems to be saying that it only wants to see more spectrum made available if the agency can dictate who gets the spectrum and how they can use it. The very discretion that the FCC now seeks will invite rent-seeking behavior among auction contestants, who will lobby the agency to slant the rules in a way that limits competition and advances their narrow interests; better to immunize the FCC from this lobbying barrage by limiting its discretion.

The agency’s inconsistent and confusing analysis and statements in these two critical policy arenas—wireless competition and spectrum policy—created the perfect storm last year when AT&T sought to acquire T-Mobile. AT&T argued that it wanted to purchase T-Mobile and use its spectrum to augment existing spectrum and infrastructure resources, consistent with the agency’s acknowledgement that wireless carriers needed more spectrum to support surging demand for bandwidth-intensive wireless services such as streaming video. Had AT&T understood the FCC’s intentions, it would not have offered a four-billion-dollar breakup fee to T-Mobile’s parent; these resources could have been put to better use.

The singular objective that should drive the Commission in all matters wireless is getting spectrum into the hands of firms that value it the most. The last 20 years of wireless-industry growth has proven that those who value spectrum the most put it to use most quickly. To commit to this course of action, the agency needs to more clearly and consistently signal its regulatory intentions. If the agency wants to spur competition, it should support Congressional efforts to authorize incentive auctions without restrictions. It also needs to let the evidence of lower prices, growing adoption, and increasing innovation inform its understanding of the state of competition.

, , , ,

Leave a comment

AT&T/T-Mobile RIP

Yesterday, AT&T announced it was halting its plan to acquire T-Mobile. Presumably AT&T did not think it could prevail in defending the merger in two places simultaneously—one before a federal district court judge (to defend against the DOJ’s case) and another before an administrative law judge (to defend against the FCC’s case). Staff at both agencies appeared intractable in their opposition. AT&T’s option of defending cases sequentially, first against the DOJ then against the FCC, was removed by the DOJ’s threat to withdraw its complaint unless AT&T re-submit its merger application to the FCC. The FCC rarely makes a major license-transfer decision without the green light from the DOJ on antitrust issues. Instead, the FCC typically piles on conditions to transfer value created by the merger to complaining parties after the DOJ has approved a merger. Prevailing first against the DOJ would have rendered the FCC’s opposition moot.

The FCC’s case against the merger was weak. I have already blogged about the FCC’s Staff Report, but one point is worth revisiting as we digest the fate of T-Mobile’s spectrum: The FCC placed a huge bet on the cable companies’ breathing life into a floundering firm. In particular, the Staff Report cited a prospective wholesale arrangement between Cablevision and T-Mobile as evidence that some alternative suitor—whose name did not rhyme with “Amy and tea” or “her eyes on”—could preserve the number of actual competitors in the marketplace. However, within days of the FCC’s placing its bet on the cable industry, Verizon announced its intention to gobble up the spectrum of Comcast, Time Warner, and Bright House. Over the weekend, Verizon declared its purchase of spectrum from Cox.  To be fair, Verizon’s acquisition does not preclude T-Mobile and Cablevision from entering into some spectrum-sharing arrangement; let’s not hold our breath.

This episode highlights the danger of regulators’ industrial engineering: The wireless marketplace is so dynamic that a seemingly reasonable bet by an agency was revealed to be a stunning loser in just a matter of days. By virtue of AT&T’s “winning the auction” for T-Mobile’s assets—Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile’s parent, is leaving the American wireless industry one way or another—the marketplace selected the most efficient suitor for T-Mobile. If the cable companies or some other suitor were interested in entering the wireless industry, then presumably they would have stepped forward when T-Mobile was still on the open market.

Can you blame the cable companies for their lack of interest in wireless? Who wants to enter an industry with declining prices that requires billions in network investment that cannot be re-deployed elsewhere in the event of a loss? When asked what Deutsche Telekom plans to do with its U.S. assets now that the AT&T deal has unraveled, a company spokesman said: “There’s no Plan B. We’re back at the starting point.” Such gloom is hard to reconcile with the FCC’s belief that a viable suitor is lurking in the background.

Short of Google’s or DISH Network’s or some non-communications giant’s swooping down in the coming days, the net costs of the FCC’s risky intervention will begin to mount. The ostensible benefits of intervention were to prevent a price increase and to preserve the cable companies’ play on T-Mobile’s spectrum. The second benefit has evaporated and the first benefit was never proven in the FCC’s Staff Report. On the cost side of the ledger, AT&T’s customers will soon experience increased congestion as their demand for wireless video and other bandwidth-intensive applications outstrip the capacity of AT&T’s network. And T-Mobile’s customers will never get to experience 4G in all its glory. (Deutsche Telekom has little incentive to upgrade a network it plans to sell.) The FCC has certainly capped AT&T’s spectrum holdings in place, but has the agency advanced the public interest?

, , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment