Thursday, May 14, 2015

Mistakes, Mistruths and Outright Lies in the Assessment of Broadband Competition

           Readers of the May 13, 2015 edition of the Wall Street Journal got a triple dose of snark and questionable journalism.  On back to back pages, this major publication informed us that U.S. “broadband is a competitive market and becoming more so as fixed and wireless converge.”  Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. suggests that we ignore any rebuttal or contarary reports from the “know-nothings in Washington.”  See http://www.wsj.com/articles/why-aol-matters-again-1431471920.

            On the next page, the editorial writers of the Journal contradict Mr. Jenkins on Verizon’s motivation for wanting to acquire AOL.  Instead of pursuing new profit centers through vertical integration, such as advertising platforms, Verizon has to acquire AOL due to competitive necessity: “A company with a stranglehold on the connection to the customer wouldn’t need to buy AOL.”  See http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-aol-telltale-1431472741.  The editors see broadband competition and the Internet as “hypercompetitive.”

            The Wall Street Journal has led a campaign to convince legislators, judges, consumers and others that the broadband Internet access marketplace operates with such robust and  sustainable competition that any government oversight is inappropriate, if not illegal. 

            This conclusion is simply not true unless one intentionally ignores basic economics, antitrust law and common sense.  To conclude that the U.S. broadband marketplace is competitive one must include any source of access to the Internet, regardless of bandwidth, transmission speed (bitrate) and cost.  Instead of many instances where consumers, such as myself, count one and only one available broadband supplier, broadband competition true believers see seven or more suppliers.

            True believers see what economists term cross-elasticity where it surely does not exist.  They treat as “options” Internet access technologies that consumers do not consider equivalents. So for true believers, it is reasonable to include Digital Subscriber Line and perhaps even conventional dial up access, even though 1.5 Megabits per second service and surely 5.6 kilobit per second service does not cut it for the kinds of services broadband subscribers expect to access via their links.  DSL might barely provide a single, tolerable link to Netflix, but not if two members of a single household seek access at the same time.

            True believers in broadband competition readily add four or more terrestrial wireless carriers and at least one satellite option to the invemtory.  Yes 4G wireless can provide broadband access at sufficient high speeds, but a competitive analysis requires consideration of cost.  Many 4G subscribers gladly pay for wireless data plans, but the willingness to pay ends when a free or lower cost option is available. With data plans limiting subscribers to a miserly 1 or 2 Gigabytes per month, subscribers understandably migrate to their wired broadband service accessible with a wireless Wi-Fi router. Wireline broadband offers a monthly data allowance of 250 Gigabytes or more.  

            A back of the envelop calculation shows a wireless broadband rate of approximately $20 a Gigabyte and even more for a satellite option, factoring in equipment costs.  Wireline access costing as low as 12 cents a Gigabyte, based on monthly consumption of the full allotment.  The statistical compilation gets tricky here based on one’s agenda.  Sponsored researchers can show that Americans have the lowest cellphone rates in the world as least for voice and texting, by using 1000s of minutes and 1000s of texts per month.  So in fairness the 12 cent rate for wired broadband access could rise to about a $1 per Gigabyte if a broadband subscriber used far less than the total amount available.

            Wall Street Journal editorial writers and columnists ignore the reality of what consumers consider truly competitive broadband options.  Few consumers think “Two Buck Chuck” wine from Trader Joe’s competes with one hundred dollar Grand Cru even though both are wine products. Some might even consume both on different occasions, but doing so does not make the two product competitive alternatives.

            So at the end of reading the two pages, this loyal subscriber to the Journal wonders did they make a simple mistake or two or three, offer a little misinformation to make a bigger point, or lie through their teeth?

No comments: