Category Archives: Antitrust

The FCC Enters the Steampunk Era

I’ve written several articles in the last few weeks critical of the dangerously unprincipled turn at the Federal Communications Commission toward a quixotic, political agenda.  But as I reflect more broadly on the agency’s behavior over the last few years, I find something deeper and even more disturbing is at work.  The agency’s unreconstructed view of communications, embedded deep in the Communications Act and codified in every one of hundreds of color changes on the spectrum map, has become dangerously anachronistic.

The FCC is required by law to see separate communications technologies delivering specific kinds of content over incompatible channels requiring distinct bands of protected spectrum.  But that world ceased to exist, and it’s not coming back.  It is as if regulators from the Victorian Age were deciding the future of communications in the 21st century.  The FCC is moving from rogue to steampunk.

With the unprecedented release of the staff’s draft report on the AT&T/T-Mobile merger, a turning point seems to have been reached.  I wrote on CNET  (see “FCC:  Ready for Reform Yet?”) that the clumsy decision to release the draft report without the Commissioners having reviewed or voted on it, for a deal that had been withdrawn, was at the very least ill-timed, coming in the midst of Congressional debate on reforming the agency.  Pending bills in the House and Senate, for example, are especially critical of how the agency has recently handled its reports, records, and merger reviews.  And each new draft of a spectrum auction bill expresses increased concern about giving the agency “flexibility” to define conditions and terms for the auctions.

The release of the draft report, which edges the independent agency that much closer to doing the unconstitutional bidding not of Congress but the White House, won’t help the agency convince anyone that it can be trusted with any new powers.   Let alone the novel authority to hold voluntary incentive auctions to free up underutilized broadcast spectrum.

What is the Spectrum Screen Really Screening, Anyway?

One particularly disturbing feature of the report was what appears to be a calculated jury-rigging of the spectrum screen, as I wrote in an op-ed for The Hill.  (See “FCC Plays Fast and Loose with the Law…Again”)  For the first time since introducing the test as a way to simplify merger review, the draft report lowers the amount of spectrum it believes available for mobile use, even as technology continues to make more spectrum usable.  The lower total added 82 markets in which the screen would have been triggered, though the staff report in any case never actually performs the analysis of any local market.

The rationale for the adjustment is hidden in a non-public draft of an order on the transfer of Qualcomm’s FLO-TV licenses to AT&T, an order that is only now just circulating among the Commissioners.   Indeed, the Qualcomm order was only circulated a day before the T-Mobile report was released to the public and (in unredacted form) to  the DoJ.

(Keeping draft documents private is the normal course of business at the agency—the T-Mobile report being the rare and disturbing exception of releasing a report before even the Commissioners have reviewed or voted on it, here in obvious hopes of influencing the Justice Department’s antitrust litigation).

In the draft Qualcomm order, according to a footnote in the draft T-Mobile report, agency staff propose a first-time-ever reduction in the total amount of usable spectrum that forms the basis of the screen.  (Under the test, if the total spectrum of the combined entity in a market is less than a third of the usable spectrum, the market is presumed competitive and no analysis is required.)

For purposes of the T-Mobile analysis, the unexplained reduction is assumed to be acceptable to the Commission and applied to calculations of spectrum concentration in each of the local Cellular Market Areas.  (The calculation also assumes AT&T has the pending Qualcomm spectrum.)  Notably, without the reduction the number of local markets in which the screen would be triggered goes down by a third.

Asked in a press conference today about the curious manipulation, FCC Chairman Genachowski refused to comment.

The spectrum screen, by the way, never made much sense.  Its gross oversimplification of total usable spectrum, for one thing, hides a ridiculous assumption that all bands of usable spectrum are equally usable, defying the most basic physics of mobile communications.  With a wink to the apples-and-oranges nature of different bands, since 2004 the agency has decided more or less arbitrarily to increase the total amount of “usable” spectrum by including some new bands of usable spectrum and not others, with little rhyme or reason.

The manipulation of the spectrum screen’s coefficients, in fact, have no rationale other than to fast-track some preferred mergers and create regulatory headaches for others.  In truth, a screen that counted all spectrum actually being used for mobile communications, and counted it equally, would suggest that Sprint, in combination with its subsidiary Clearwire, is the only dangerously monopolistic holder of spectrum assets.  As Chart 38 of the FCC’s 15th Annual Mobile Competition Report suggests, Sprint and Clearwire hold more “spectrum” than any other carrier—enough to trigger the screen in most if not all CMAs.  That is, if it was all counted.

 

That isn’t necessarily the right outcome either.  Much of Clearwire’s spectrum is in the >1 GHz. Bands, and, at least for now, those bands are usable but not as attractive for mobile communications as other, lower bands.

As the Mobile Competition Report notes, “these different technical characteristics provide relative advantages for the deployment of spectrum in different frequency bands under certain circumstances. For instance, there is general consensus that the more favorable propagation characteristics of lower frequency spectrum allow for better coverage across larger geographic areas and inside buildings, while higher frequency spectrum may be well suited for adding capacity.”

So not all spectrum is equal after all.  What, then, is the point or usefulness of the screen?  And what of this unmentioned judo move in the staff report, which suddenly changed the point of the screen from one that simplified merger review to a conclusive presumption against a finding of “public interest”?  The original point of the screen was to quickly eliminate competitive markets that don’t require detailed analysis.  In the AT&T/T-Mobile staff report, for the first time, it’s used to reject a proposed transaction if too many market (how many is not indicated) are triggered that would require that analysis.

But why continue to compare apples and oranges for any purpose, when the real data on CMA competition is readily available?  The only answer can be that the analysis wouldn’t yield the result that the agency had in mind when it started its review.  For in painstaking detail, the 15th Mobile Competition report also demonstrates that adoption is up, usage is off the charts, prices for voice, data, and text continue to plummet, investments in infrastructure continue at a dramatic pace despite the economy, and new source of competitive discipline are proliferating, in the form of device manufacturers, mobile O/S providers, app developers, and inter-modal competitors.  For starters.

To conclude that AT&T’s interest in T-Mobile’s spectrum and physical infrastructure—an effort to overcome the failure of the FCC and local regulators to provide alternative spectrum or to allow infrastructure investments to proceed at an even faster pace—isn’t in the public interest requires the staff to ignore every piece of data the same staff, in another part of the space-time contiuum, collected and published.  But so long as HHIs and spectrum concentration are manipulated and relied on to foreclose real analysis, it all makes sense.

 

A Rogue Agency Slips into Steampunk

That is largely the point of Geoff Manne’s detailed critique of the substance of the report posted here at TLF, and of my own ridiculously long post on Forbes.  (See “A Strategic Plan for the FCC.”)

The Forbes piece tries to put the staff report into the context of on-going calls for agency reform that were working their way through Congress even before the release.  In it, I conclude that the real problem for the agency is that even with the significant changes of the 1996 Communications Act, the agency is still operating in a stovepipe model, where different communications technologies (cable, cellular, wire, satellite, “local”) are still regulated separately, with different bureaus and in many cases different regulations.

The model assumes that audio and video programming are different from data communications, offered by different industries using incompatible, single-purpose technologies.  A television is not a phone or a radio or a computer.  Broadcast is only for programming, cellular only for voice, satellites only for industrial use.  Cable is an inconveniently novel form of pay television, and data communications are only for large corporations with mainframe computers.

Those siloed regulations are further fragmented by attaching special regulatory conditions to individual license transfers and individual bands of spectrum as part of auctions. Dozens of unrelated and seemingly random requirements were added to Comcast-NBC Universal, for example.  At the last minute the agency added an eccentric version of the net neutrality rules to the 2008 auction for 700 Mhz. spectrum, but only for the C block.

The agency continues to operate under an anachronistic view that distinct technologies support distinct forms of communications (radio, TV, cable, data).  But the world has shifted dramatically under their feet since 1996.  The convergence of nearly all networks to the Internet’s single, non-proprietary standard of packet-switching, digital networks operating under TCP/IP protocols has been nothing short of a revolution in communications.  But it’s a revolution the agency sat out.  It has no idea what role it ought to play in the post-apocalyptic world; nor has Congress given them one.

As different kinds of communications technologies have all (or nearly all) converged on IP, communications applications have blurred beyond the ability to distinguish them.  Voice communications are now offered over data networks, data is flowing over the wires, TV is everywhere, and mobile devices that were unimaginable in 1996 now do everything.

Quite simply, the mismatch between the agency’s structure and the reality of a single digital, virtual network treating all content as bits regardless of the technology or the source that transports it has left the agency unable to cope or to regulate rationally.  Consider some of the paradoxes the agency has been forced to wrestle with in recent years:

  • Is Voice over IP to be regulated as a traditional voice service, with barnacled requirements for Universal Service contribution and 911 services applied and, if so, applied how?
  • Is TV on the Internet, delivered using any and every possible technology including wireless, fiber, copper, and cable, subject to the same Victorian standards of decency as broadcast TV, itself now entirely digital?
  • Is the public interest served when mobile providers combine spectrum and infrastructure assets, largely to overcome the agency’s own paralysis in moving the deeply fractured spectrum map into even the 20th century and the incompetent and corrupt local zoning agencies that hold up applications for new towers and antennae until the proper tribute is rendered?

In the face of these paradoxes, the FCC has become ungrounded; a victim of its own governing statute, which in many respects requires it to remain anachronistic.  Left without clear guidance from Congress on how or whether to regulate what applications (that’s really all we have now—applications, independent of technology), the agency increasingly improvises.

It’s like the wonderful genre of animation known as “steampunk,” where modern technology is projected anachronistically into the past, exploring what life would have been like if the 19th century had robots, flight, information processing, and modern armaments, all powered by the steam engine.  (The concept of steam punk has now become a popular design genre, including some functioning devices wrapped in steampunk elements, as in the photo below.)

A Steampunk Computer

It’s cute on film, but applied to the real world it’s simply dangerous.  The FCC is required by law to keep its head in the sand with respect both to the realities of digital technology and the economics of the modern communications ecosystem.  Yet its natural desire to regulate something leaves the Commission flailing wildly in the dark for a foothold for its ancient regulatory structure in a world it doesn’t inhabit.

The Open Internet Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, for example, asked helplessly in over 80 separate paragraphs for education and update on the nature of the revolution spurred by the deployment of broadband Internet. (“We seek more detailed comment on the technological capabilities available today, as offered for sale and as actually deployed in providers’ networks.”)  Of course it had to ask these questions – the agency never regulated broadband.  Under the 1996 Act, as the 2005 Brand X case emphasizes, it never could.

Consider just a few of the absurd counterfactuals that the agency’s steampunk policies have led it in just the last few years (more examples greatly appreciated, by the way):

  • Broadband isn’t being deployed  in a “reasonable and timely fashion” (2011 Section 706 Broadband Report)
  • The mobile communications market is not “effectively competitive” (14th and 15th Mobile Competition Report)
  • High concentrations of customers and spectrum, calculated using rigged HHIs and spectrum screens, are sufficient to raise presumptive antitrust concerns regardless of actual competitive and consumer welfare (AT&T/T-Mobile draft memo)
  • Spectrum suitable for mobile use is decreasing (AT&T/Qualcomm memo)
  • Despite a lack of any examples, broadband providers  “potentially face at least three types of incentives to reduce the current openness of the Internet” (Open Internet order)
  • Encouraging competition and protecting consumer choice “cannot be achieved by preventing only those practices that are demonstrably anticompetitive or harmful to consumers.” (Open Internet order)
  • The agency” expect[s] the costs of compliance with our prophylactic rules to be small”  (Open Internet order)
  • Absent a mandatory data roaming regime for mobile broadband, “there will be a significant risk that fewer consumers would have nationwide access to competitive mobile broadband services….”  (Data Roaming order).

Not that there isn’t considerable expertise within the agency, and glimmers of understanding that manage to escape in whiffs from the steam pipes.  The 2010 National Broadband Plan, developed with a great deal of both internal and external agency expertise, does an admirable job of describing the current state of the broadband environment in the U.S.  More impressive, the later chapters predict with considerable vision the application areas that will drive the next decade of broadband deployment and use, including education, employment, health care and the smart grid.

The NBP, unfortunately, is the exception.  More and more of the agency’s reports, orders, and decisions instead bury the expertise, forcing ridiculous conclusions through an implausible lens of nostalgia and distortion.  The agency’s statutorily mandated hold on a never-realistic glorious communications past is increasingly threatening the health of the real communications ecosystem–an even more glorious (largely because unregulated) communications present.

 

I Love it When a Plan Comes Together

The FCC’s steampunk mentality is threatening to wreak havoc on the natural evolution of the Internet revolution.  It’s also turning the FCC from a respected and Constitutionally-required “independent” agency that answers to Congress and not the White House into a partisan monster, pursuing an agenda that’s light on facts and heavy on the politics of the administration and favored participants in the Internet ecosystem.  The agency relies on clichés and unexamined mantras rather than data—even its own data.  Mergers are bad, edge providers are good, and the agency doesn’t acknowledge that many of the genuine market failures that do exist are creatures of its own stovepipes.

As I note in the long Forbes piece, there was a simple, elegant way to avoid the steampunk phenomenon –an alternative that would have saved the FCC from increased obsolescence and the rest of us from its increasingly bizarre and disruptive regulatory behavior.   And in came from within the walls of FCC headquarters.

In 1999, in the midst of the first great Web boom, then-chairman William Kennard (a Democratic appointee) had a vision for the future of communications that has proven to be entirely accurate.  Kennard created a short, straightforward “strategic plan” for the agency that emphasized breaking down the silos.  It also took a realistic view of the agency’s need and ability to regulate an IP world, encouraging future Chairmen to get out of the way of a revolution that would provide far more benefit to consumers if left to police itself than with an FCC trying to play constant catch-up.

Kennard also proposed dramatic reform of spectrum policy, recognizing as is now obvious that imprinting the agency’s stovepiped model for communications like a tattoo on the radio waves was unnecessarily limiting the uses and usefulness of mobile technology, creating artificial scarcity and, eventually, a crisis.

In just a few pages of the report, the strategic plan lays out an alternative, including flexible allocations that wouldn’t require FCC permission to change uses, market-based mechanisms to ensure allocations moved easily to better and higher uses (no lingering conditions), even the creation of a spectrum inventory (still waiting).  The plan called for incentive systems for spectrum reallocation, an interoperable public safety network, and expanded use of unlicensed spectrum.  All reforms that we’re still violently agreeing need to be made.

We’ve arrived, unfortunately, at precisely the future Kennard hoped to avoid.  And we’re still moving, at accelerating speeds, in precisely the wrong direction.  Instead of working to ease spectrum restrictions and leave the “ecosystem” (the FCC’s own term) to otherwise police itself, recent NPRMs and NOIs suggest an agency determined to leverage its limited broadband authority into as many aspects of the converged world as possible.  As the Free State Foundation’s Seth Cooper recently wrote,  today’s FCC has developed a “proclivity to import legacy regulations into today’s IP world when doing so makes little or no sense.”

Fun’s fun.  I like my steampunk as well as anybody.  But I’d prefer to see it on a mobile broadband device, or over Netflix streamed through my IP-enabled television or game console.  Or anywhere else other than at the FCC.

Updates to the Media Page

 

We’ve recently added over two dozen new posts to the Media page. Most have to do with SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, introduced a few weeks ago in Congress to cheers from the entertainment industry and jeers from Silicon Valley. The bill would make it easier–too easy–for copyright and trademark holders to turn on and off Web content they don’t like.

Larry’s early analysis of the bill for CNET, and his on-going work on the poor relations between Hollywood and Palo Alto, led to a great deal of press coverage and speaking engagements. His detailed review of the bill was praised across the political spectrum, including by TechDirt’s Mike Masnick and the National Review’s Reihan Salam.

Larry participated in a Capitol Hill debate on SOPA and other pending piracy legislation sponsored by the Congressional Internet Caucus, debating the bill against industry representatives. He also appeared on CNET’s Reporters’ Roundtable and This Week in Law, as well as podcasts by the Heartland Institute.

Net neutrality also stayed in the news, as did the AT&T/T-Mobile merger, privacy, spectrum reform and online human rights. Larry was quoted in a wide range of publications on these topics, including Politico, Reason, NPR’s Marketplace, the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Caller.  Conference footage from this year’s Compass Summit panels on privacy and tech policy are also available.

Updates to the media page

We’ve added another dozen entries to the Media Page. Throughout the summer, Larry was busy with articles and press interviews on everything from pending copyright legislation, the FCC’s annual wireless competition report, and the merger of AT&T and T-Mobile. The focus, as always, was on the impact of these regulatory proceedings on Silicon Valley and the I.T. community generally. In addition to new articles for CNET and Forbes, Larry appeared in USA Today, the National Journal, and The Hill. Check them out!

iPhone and Android Devices Not Working? It's Your Fault

For CNET this morning, I have a long article reviewing the sad recent history of how local governments determine the quality of mobile services.

As it  turns out, the correlation is deeply negative.  In places with the highest level of user complaints (San Francisco, Washington, D.C.), it turns out that endless delays or outright denials for applications to add towers and other sites as well as new and upgraded equipment is also high.  Who’d have thought?

Despite a late 2009 ruling by the FCC that put a modest “shot clock” on local governments to approve or deny applications, data from CTIA and PCIA included in recent comments on the FCC’s Broadband Acceleration NOI suggests the clock has had little to no effect.  This is in part because the few courts that have been asked to enforce it have demurred or refused.

Much of the dithering by local zoning boards is unprincipled and pointless, a sign not so much of legitimate concerns over safety and aesthetics but of incompetence, corruption, and the insidious influence of  outside “consultants” whose fees are often levied against the applicant, adding insult to injury.

For example, in El Cerrito, CA, about a mile from my house, officials sat for two years an on application to site a tower disguised as a tree on a Boy Scout camp , then passed a two-year moratorium on any new facilities.  (I know that camp well–it is in the midst of a giant chain of parks that run the ridgeline of the Berkeley Hills, thick with invasive, non-native trees that have an unfortunate tendency to explode during fire season.)   In Berkeley, CA, where I live, even applications to collocate new antennae on existing towers require a full review and hearing.

Other city and county boards simply delay or deny, or introduce bizarre requirements, including that any new equipment must be shown to benefit only residents of the jurisdiction.

The “shot clock” rule also banned a common practice among many communities of denying any application for new equipment if an existing mobile provider already served the area.  Yes, that’s right.  With all the hand-wringing and crocodile tears over mobile competition and the danger of the AT&T/T-Mobile merger, many parts of the U.S. prohibit new competitors from entering.

Some communities are still enforcing that rule, and the few court cases that have interpreted the FCC ruling haven’t always embraced it.

Why does this matter?  There are two principal inputs to a cellular network that determine quality of service for customers:  spectrum and cell sites.  Both are under the thumb of government control and constraint.  (Geoff Manne’s recent rant on spectrum is well worth reviewing.)  Over the last five years, the four major providers have invested billions in new infrastructure, and would have invested more, as the FCC acknowledges, were it not for the interference of local governments.   In 2009 alone, over $20 billion was invested, representing 13% of total industry revenue.

 

Capital Expenditure by Carrier

Source:  Federal Communications Commissison

If service is poor in some parts of the country, we have only ourselves to blame. But as one commentator to my article put it, it’s so much more fun to blame the device or the carrier.

Or, not so funny, to take a “principled” stand on behalf of competition to block a merger designed to evade these increasingly dangerous roadblocks,

Why U.S. v AT&T Should Worry Silicon Valley

On Forbes this morning, I argue that the Department of Justice’s effort to block the AT&T/T-Mobile merger signals a dangerous turn in antitrust enforcement.

While President Obama promised during his campaign to “reinvigorate” antitrust, few expected the agency would turn its attention with such laser-like precision on the technology sector, one of the few bright spots in the economy. But as Comcast, Google, Intel, Oracle and now AT&T can testify, the agency seems determined to make its mark on the digital economy. If only it had the slightest idea how that economy actually worked, and why it works so well. Continue reading

FCC Mobile Competition Report Is One Green Light for AT&T/T-Mobile Deal

BY LARRY DOWNES AND GEOFFREY A. MANNE

The FCC published in June its annual report on the state of competition in the mobile services marketplace. Under ordinary circumstances, this 300-plus page tome would sit quietly on the shelf, since, like last year’s report, it ‘‘makes no formal finding as to whether there is, or is not, effective competition in the industry.’’

But these are not ordinary circumstances. Thanks to innovations including new smartphones and tablet computers, application (app) stores and the mania for games such as ‘‘Angry Birds,’’ the mobile industry is perhaps the only sector of the economy where consumer demand is growing explosively.

Meanwhile, the pending merger between AT&T and T-Mobile USA, valued at more than $39 billion, has the potential to accelerate development of the mobile ecosystem. All eyes, including many in Congress, are on the FCC and the Department of Justice.  Their review of the deal could take the rest of the year. So the FCC’s refusal to make a definitive finding on the competitive state of the industry has left analysts poring through the report, reading the tea leaves for clues as to how the FCC will evaluate the proposed merger.

Make no mistake: this is some seriously expensive tea. If the deal is rejected, AT&T is reported to have agreed to pay T-Mobile $3 billion in cash for its troubles. Some competitors, notably Sprint, have declared
full-scale war, marshaling an army of interest groups and friendly journalists.

But the deal makes good economic sense for consumers. Most important, T-Mobile’s spectrum assets will allow AT&T to roll out a second national 4G LTE (longterm evolution) network to compete with Verizon’s, and expand service to rural customers. (Currently, only 38 percent of rural customers have three or more choices for mobile broadband.)

More to the point, the government has no legal basis for turning down the deal based on its antitrust review. Under the law, the FCC must approve AT&T’s bid to buy T-Mobile USA unless the agency can prove the transaction is not ‘‘in the public interest.’’ While the FCC’s public interest standard is famously undefined, the agency typically balances the benefits of the deal against potential harm to consumers. If the benefits outweigh the harms, the Commission must approve.

The benefits are there, and the harms are few. Though the FCC refuses to acknowledge it explicitly, the report’s impressive detail amply supports what everyone already knows: falling prices, improved quality, dynamic competition and unflagging innovation have led to a golden age of mobile services. Indeed, the three main themes of the report all support AT&T’s contention that competition will thrive and the public’s interests will be well served by combining with T-Mobile.

1.  Mobile Service: Rare Bright Spot in Recession

Demand for mobile services is soaring. The FCC reports 274 million mobile subscribers in 2009, up almost 5 percent from the previous year. The number of mobile internet subscribers, the fastest-growing category, doubled between 2008 and 2009. By late 2010, 41 percent of new mobile phone purchases were for smartphones. More than 9 billion apps had been downloaded by the end of 2010.

Despite poor economic conditions elsewhere, new infrastructure investment continues at a frenzied clip. Between 1999 and 2009, industrywide investment exceeded $213 billion. In 2009 alone, investments topped $20 billion—almost 15 percent of total industry revenue. Of the leading providers, only Sprint decreased
its investments in recent years.

Yet unlike virtually every other commodity, prices for mobile services continue to decline across the board, hardly a sign of flagging competition. The price of mobile voice services, the FCC reports, has ‘‘declined dramatically over the past 17 years,’’ falling 9 percent from 2008-2009 alone. (The average price for a voice minute is now 4 cents in the U.S., compared with 16 cents in Western Europe.) Text prices fell 25 percent in 2009. The price per megabyte of data traffic fell sevenfold from 2008-2010, from $1.21 to 17 cents.

2.  Mobile Competition Is Robust and Dynamic

The FCC, recognizing the dynamism of the mobile services industry, is moving away from simplistic tools the agency once used to evaluate industry competitiveness. The report repeatedly de-emphasizes the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index, or HHI concentration index, which tends to understate competition. The report also downplays the value of ‘‘spectrum screens’’ that once limited a single provider to one-third of the total spectrum in a given market.

Now, the commission says, its evaluation is based on real-world conditions, and looks at competition mostly at the local level. That makes sense. ‘‘Consumers generally search for service providers in the local areas where they live, work, and travel,’’ according to the report, ‘‘and are unlikely to search for providers that do not serve their local areas.’’

Looking at all 172 local markets individually, the FCC found ample evidence of vibrant competition. For mobile voice services, for example, nearly 90 percent of consumers have a choice of five or more providers. In 2010, almost 68 percent of U.S. consumers had four or more mobile broadband providers to choose from, a significant increase over 2009.

Competition between different kinds of wireless service (cellular, PCS, WiFi, and WiMax) is also increasing, and a wider range of the radio spectrum is now being included in the FCC’s analysis. Competition between mobile and traditional wireline service is growing in significance. More and more consumers are even ‘‘cutting the cord:’’ By the beginning of 2010, 25 percent of all households had no wireline service, up from 2 percent in 2003.

And competition within the mobile services marketplace, the Commission recognizes, is increasingly being driven not by the carriers but by new devices, applications and services. From 2008-2009, the FCC found that 38 percent of those who had switched carriers did so because it was the only way to obtain the particular handset that they wanted.

There are dozens of handsets to choose from, and no dominant provider among smartphone operating systems or device manufacturers. New entrants can and do thrive: handsets running Google’s Android operating system rose from 5 percent of the total market at the end of 2009 to almost 20 percent by mid-2010.

3.  If There Is a Problem, It Is Government

As consumers continue to embrace new mobile technologies and services, pressure is building on existing networks and the limited radio spectrum available to them. The risk of future network overload is serious—the one dark cloud hanging over the mobile industry’s abundant sunshine. According to the report, ‘‘mobile broadband growth is likely to outpace the ability of technology and network improvements to keep up by an estimated factor of three.’’

The FCC sees a ‘‘spectrum deficit’’ of 300 megahertz within five years. But the FCC and Congress have made little progress over the last two years to free up underutilized spectrum in both public and private hands. Auctions for available spectrum in the valuable 700 Mhz. band are tied up in political fights over a public safety network. Spectrum held by over-the-air television broadcasters is idling as Congress debates ‘‘incentive’’ auctions that would share proceeds between the broadcasters and the government.

Improving coverage by modifying or adding cell towers, the commission finds, is subject to considerable delay at the local level. Of 3,300 zoning applications for wireless facilities pending in 2009, nearly 25 percent had been idling for more than a year. Some had been languishing for more than three years, despite an FCC requirement that applications be decided within 150 days at the most.

Combining the spectrum assets of AT&T and T-Mobile would go a long  way toward limiting the potentially catastrophic effect of ‘‘spectrum deficit.’’ AT&T plans to move T-Mobile 3G customers to its existing network and integrate T-Mobile’s existing physical infrastructure, improving 3G service and freeing up valuable spectrum to launch a new nationwide 4G LTE network. As the report notes, T-Mobile had no plans to ever launch true 4G service and, given its limited spectrum
holdings, probably never could.

As part of its public interest analysis, the FCC will have to take these and other regulatory constraints to heart.

To Reality . . . and Beyond!

Reading the entire report, it’s clear that the FCC recognizes, as it must, that, even with the exit of T-Mobile from the U.S. market, mobile services would be anything but a ‘‘duopoly’’—either at the national level or at the local level, which is where it counts.

Competition is being driven by multiple local competitors, competing technologies, and handset and software providers. Federal, state and local governments all play an active role in overseeing the industry, which even the FCC now sees as the only serious constraint on future growth.

In Silicon Valley, if not inside the Beltway, consumers are understood to be the real drivers of the mobile services ecosystem—the true market-makers. Maybe that’s why the report found that the vast majority of U.S. consumers report being ‘‘very satisfied’’ with their mobile service.

It is a relief to see the FCC looking carefully at real data and coming to realistic conclusions, as it does throughout the report. Let’s hope reality continues its reign during the long AT&T/T-Mobile review and beyond, as this dynamic industry continues to evolve.

Reproduced with permission from Daily Report for Executives, July 11, 2011. Copyright 2011 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. (800-372-1033) www.bna.com.