Thursday, April 25, 2013

Wireless Market Concentration Leads to Lower Prices?

          A recent publication in the Federal Communications Law Journal offers the counterintuitive premise that under conditions where wireless carriers operate under scarce spectrum conditions, market concentration can offer consumers lower prices than when more carriers compete.  See T. Randolph Beard, George S. Ford, Lawrence J. Spiwak, and Michael Stern, Wireless Competition Under Spectrum Exhaust, 65 Federeal Communications Law Journal 80 (Jan. 2013); available at: http://www.phoenix-center.org/FCLJSpectrumExhaust.pdf.

         The authors state that they “demonstrate that under a binding spectrum constraint, a market characterized by few firms (rather than a large number of firms) is more likely to produce lower prices and possibly increase sector investment and employment.”  That conclusion does not seem right to me, particularly in light of my personal—call it empirical—experience.  When I vote with my dollars under conditions of resource scarcity, whether caused by government or marketplace conditions, I have to pay more, not less.

            Consider commercial aviation, a marketplace constrained by airport landing slots, required spacing in the air and now reduced air traffic controllers thanks to sequestration.  Many major airports have allocated all available landing slots, just as wireless carriers may near spectrum exhaustion.  So what happens in a market where one or two carriers dominate?  The Wall Street Journal, of all sources, provides an answer that makes sense to me:
 

Some big-city air routes have been hit with punishing price increases of 40% and 50%, and other well-traveled paths likely face big fare hikes in the future. It's the fallout from airline mergers, and the planned combination of American Airlines and US Airways could bring a new round of hefty fare increases. When two competitors combine to dominate prime routes, those markets tend to bear the brunt of higher prices. (Wall Street Journal, Where Airfares Are Taking Off (April 10, 2013); available at: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324010704578414813368268482.html.

            I’m sure my friends at the Phoenix Center could deftly explain why commercial aviation does not provide an appropriate comparison to wireless carriage.  They’d also refute any premise that the financial sponsors of the Phoenix Center, which may just include certain large wireless carriers, had anything to do with their motivation to come up with their premise and find an academic publisher to document it.  I’ll have to take them at their word, in part because I lack the math skills to understand their Cournot model.   But—and this is a big one—I’m not convinced that AT&T and Verizon would lack the motivation and ability to raise prices should they further bolster their market dominance.

 

 

1 comment:

Steve Crowley said...

The article seems based on one released by the writers about a year ago on their web site. I wasn't convinced by the entirety of the arguments, and offered some comments here:

http://gigaom.com/2012/03/25/wireless-competition-turned-upside-down-in-theory/

They, in turn, responded here:

http://phoenix-center.org/blog/archives/535

They made some good points and helpful clarifications, but again I'm not wholly convinced.

That said, there may well be an optimal number of mobile broadband operators in a market. One is probably too few. Ten is probably too many. I'd like the writers to take the next step, adjust the current "arbitrary" inputs to their model, and tell us what they think the optimum number is, and why.