Posts Tagged T-Mobile

Wireless Competition Under the Senate’s Microscope

The future of wireless connectivity.

Today the Senate will convene a distinguished panel of experts to discuss the state of wireless competition in America. Although it is trendy among the cognoscenti to complain about the wireless industry, the reality is that wireless competition is vibrant here, and U.S. carriers are leaving their European counterparts in the dust.

A common refrain among those calling for regulators to “level the playing field” is that two carriers—AT&T T +1.8% and Verizon—are running away from the pack, due to their allegedly superior spectrum holdings. The resulting imbalance in competition can be remedied, they claim, by capping the spectrum holdings of the larger carriers and steering newly available spectrum to smaller carriers. Any relative improvement in the smaller carriers’ networks would attract more customers, which would reduce wireless concentration.

One problem with this story is that wireless concentration—a very fuzzy indicator of competition when it comes to wireless services—is not climbing as predicted. In fact, U.S. wireless concentration as measured by the FCC has held steady since 2008, indicating that Sprint and T-Mobile are not losing ground. Indeed, 2012 was a particularly good year for these carriers, as both enjoyed significant subscriber gains. T-Mobile recently completed its merger with MetroPCS, giving the combined company access to more subscribers and more spectrum.

Perhaps the best indicator of the smaller carriers’ prospects is the bidding war for Sprint that has erupted between Softbank and Dish Network. If Sprint stood no chance to compete with AT&T and Verizon due to its allegedly inferior spectrum, then these savvy investors would not be so bullish about Sprint’s future. Put differently, Sprint’s spectrum holdings are valued dearly in the marketplace despite their “high-frequency” nature.

The same voices calling for intervention will likely cite lower wireless prices in Europe as proof that reducing concentration will bring lower prices. But a new study by GSMA, a trade association representing 800 of the world’s mobile operators, concludes that “Europe now lags far behind the United States in the deployment of next-generation mobile technologies and the advanced services made possible through mobile,” rendering any straight-up price comparison unreliable. The study found that U.S. mobile customers consume five times more voice minutes and nearly twice as much data as their European counterparts, and average mobile data connection speeds in the United States are now 75 percent faster than those in Europe.

By convening a panel on the state of wireless competition, the Senate must be careful not to miss the forest for the trees. The phrase “wireless competition” implies incorrectly that wireless carriers compete exclusively among themselves. New data suggests that wireless competes increasingly with wireline connections such as cable modem and DSL for broadband customers. According to a consumer survey by Leichtman Research Group, hundreds of thousands of Americans canceled their home Internet service in 2012, taking advantage of the proliferation of Wi-Fi hot spots and fast new wireless networks accessible to smartphones and tablets. Indeed, more U.S. households stopped paying for home Internet subscriptions (and relied on wireless access instead) than cancelled their pay-television subscriptions (and relied on video over Internet services).

How quickly will wireless overtake wireline broadband connections? Dish’s chairman is projecting that as many as a third of all Americans one day could find it more efficient to get their home Internet service wirelessly; Cisco IBSG recently projected that up to 15 percent of U.S. consumers could “cut their cord” in favor of a mobile data connection by 2016; and Samsung recently predicted that mobile networks could supplant wireline broadband by 2020.

The oncoming battle between wireless and wireline Internet providers suggests a more permissive attitude toward wireless concentration. For those who can’t (or won’t) recognize this “inter-modal competition,” any increase in wireless concentration is mistakenly perceived as bad news for consumers. The quest to promote wireless competition via spectrum policy could result in less competition where it matters most.

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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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Sending the Wrong Signals to the Wireless Marketplace: The Return of the Spectrum Cap

Today the commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are meeting to vote on two issues that will be pivotal to the future of the wireless industry: (1) whether to impose a “spectrum cap” on wireless providers, and (2) how to design the “incentive auction” of the broadcasters’ spectrum. There is a lot at stake for the U.S. economy in getting these policies right: A new analysis by Deloitte estimates that mobile broadband network investments over the period 2012–2016 could expand U.S. GDP between $73 and $151 billion, and account for up to 771,000 jobs.

A spectrum cap would prevent a single provider (say, Verizon) from acquiring more than a certain amount of the airwaves or “spectrum rights” in a given geographic area (say, Washington, D.C.). Spectrum is the most important input in the supply of wireless services—without it, a provider literally can’t compete. The objective of a spectrum cap is to prevent any single carrier from monopolizing a key input in the production process; more wireless entry means greater competition, which means lower wireless prices. So why is this idea so controversial?

The reason is that even carriers with significant spectrum holdings need more of it to survive. To make things concrete, compare the spectrum holdings of Verizon with those of Sprint and T-Mobile. According to Deutsche Bank, Verizon has about 18 percent of all available spectrum on a population-weighted basis (including the spectrum recently obtained from SpectrumCo), compared to about nine percent each for Sprint and T-Mobile. Yet Verizon is desperate for more spectrum because its subscriber base is larger than that of its rivals, and because today’s wireless customers are finding cool (and bandwidth-intensive) things to do with their new 4G phones, straining the capacity of its wireless network. According to one noted wireless analyst, the demand for mobile broadband will surpass the spectrum available to meet it in mid-2013. Even the Chairman of the FCC recognizes that “biggest threat to the future of mobile in America is the looming spectrum crisis.”

Reinserting the spectrum cap—it was sent to the regulatory dustbin several years ago—and setting it at say one-fifth of all available spectrum would effectively bar Verizon from acquiring any more spectrum, whether in an auction or through the secondary markets. And that means that Verizon’s customers would suffer a serious degradation in their wireless connections relative to a world in which Verizon could augment its spectrum capacity. As one Nobel laureate economist famously said, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Taking away from Verizon to give to smaller carriers entails serious tradeoffs.

And to understand those tradeoffs, the FCC must think hard about what the ideal market structure of the wireless industry should look like. A spectrum cap equal to one-fifth of all spectrum implies that the ideal market structure is five national carriers. But even five might be too many given the evolving wireless technology: With the enhanced download speeds made available by 4G networks—Verizon’s 4G network is seven times as fast as its 3G network according to PC World—wireless consumers will be streaming high-definition movies and FaceTiming with their friends, placing even greater pressure for more spectrum. The FCC needs to come to grips with the fact that its policies are in conflict with these technological trends and the associated economies of scale in the supply of wireless services.

Five carriers might also be the wrong number when one considers the role of mobile broadband in the larger broadband market. According to the FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau, as of mid-2011, 55 percent of all U.S. households relied on a single wireline broadband provider capable of meeting the FCC’s definition of broadband. This means that wireless 4G connections could serve as the second broadband pipeline in over half of U.S. homes. Given the competitive implications of moving from one to two broadband providers—cable modem prices have been shown to fall significantly in the face of competitive entry—the right number of wireless carriers might be closer to three.

But who really knows? The market should decide whether the optimal number of wireless carriers is three or four or five, not the regulators. If the FCC is worried about a single carrier buying up the entirety of the spectrum in the forthcoming broadcast spectrum auction, then a simple rule forbidding such an outcome in that auction is more efficacious than a clumsy spectrum cap. By micro-managing the structure of the wireless industry, the commission tasked with overseeing the communications industry risks making the wrong call.

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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.

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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?

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