The Spectrum Argument Lives, Debunking Letter-Gate, and Why the DOJ Is Still Wrong to Try to Stop the AT&T/T-Mobile Merger

Geoffrey Manne —  2 September 2011

[Cross-posted at Tech Liberation Front]

Milton Mueller responded to my post Wednesday on the DOJ’s decision to halt the AT&T/T-Mobile merger by asserting that there was no evidence the merger would lead to “anything innovative and progressive” and claiming “[t]he spectrum argument fell apart months ago, as factual inquiries revealed that AT&T had more spectrum than Verizon and the mistakenly posted lawyer’s letter revealed that it would be much less expensive to expand its capacity than to acquire T-Mobile.”  With respect to Milton, I think he’s been suckered by the “big is bad” crowd at Public Knowledge and Free Press.  But he’s hardly alone and these claims — claims that may well have under-girded the DOJ’s decision to step in to some extent — merit thorough refutation.

To begin with, LTE is “progress” and “innovation” over 3G and other quasi-4G technologies.  AT&T is attempting to make an enormous (and risky) investment in deploying LTE technology reliably and to almost everyone in the US–something T-Mobile certainly couldn’t do on its own and something AT&T would have been able to do only partially and over a longer time horizon and, presumably, at greater expense.  Such investments are exactly the things that spur innovation across the ecosystem in the first place.  No doubt AT&T’s success here would help drive the next big thing–just as quashing it will make the next big thing merely the next medium-sized thing.

The “Spectrum Argument”

The spectrum argument that Milton claims “fell apart months ago” is the real story here, the real driver of this merger, and the reason why the DOJ’s action yesterday is, indeed, a blow to progress.  That argument, unfortunately, still stands firm.  Even more, the irony is that to a significant extent the spectrum shortfall is a product of the government’s own making–through mismanagement of spectrum by the FCC, political dithering by Congress, and local government intransigence on tower siting and co-location–and the notion of the government now intervening here to “fix” one of the most significant private efforts to make progress despite these government impediments is really troubling.

Anyway, here’s what we know about spectrum:  There isn’t enough of it in large enough blocks and in bands suitable for broadband deployment using available technology to fully satisfy current–let alone future–demand.

Two incredibly detailed government sources for this conclusion are the FCC’s 15th Annual Wireless Competition Report and the National Broadband Plan.  Here’s FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski summarizing the current state of affairs (pdf):

The point deserves emphasis:  the clock is ticking on our mobile future. The FCC is an expert agency staffed with first-rate employees who have been working on spectrum allocation for decades – and let me tell you what the career engineers are telling me. Demand for spectrum is rapidly outstripping supply. The networks we have today won’t be able to handle consumer and business needs.

* * *

To avoid this crisis, the National Broadband Plan recommended reallocating 500 megahertz of spectrum for broadband, nearly double the amount that is currently available.

* * *

First, there are some who say that the spectrum crunch is greatly exaggerated – indeed, that there is no crunch coming. They also suggest that there are large blocks of spectrum just lying around – and that some licensees, such as cable and wireless companies, are just sitting on top of, or “hoarding,” unused spectrum that could readily solve that problem. That’s just not true.

* * *

The looming spectrum shortage is real – and it is the alleged hoarding that is illusory.

It is not hoarding if a company paid millions or billions of dollars for spectrum at auction and is complying with the FCC’s build-out rules. There is no evidence of non-compliance. . . . [T]he spectrum crunch will not be solved by the build-out of already allocated spectrum.

All of the evidence suggests that spectrum suitable for mobile broadband is scarce and growing scarcer.  Full stop.

It is troubling that critics–particularly those with little if any business experience–are so certain that even with no obvious source of additional spectrum suitable for LTE coming from the government any time soon, and even with exponential growth in broadband (including mobile) data use, AT&T’s current spectrum holdings are sufficient to satisfy its business plans (and its investors and stockholders).  You’d think AT&T would be delighted to hear this news–what we really need is a shareholder resolution to put Gigi Sohn on the board!

But seriously, put yourself in AT&T’s shoes for a moment.  Its long-term plans require the company to deploy significantly more spectrum than it currently holds in a reasonable time horizon (evengranting Milton’s dubious premise that the company is squatting on scads of unused spectrum–remember that even if AT&T had all the spectrum sitting in its proverbial bank vault it would still be just about a third of the total amount of spectrum we’re predicted to need in just a few years).  Considering the various impediments of net neutrality regulation, congressional politics, presidential politics (think this had anything to do with claims about job losses from the merger, by chance?), reluctant broadcasters, the FCC, state PUCs, environmental groups and probably 10-12 others . . . the chances of being able to obtain the necessary spectrum and cell tower sitings in any other reasonable fashion were perhaps appropriately deemed . . . slim.

With the T-Mobile deal, on the other hand, “AT&T will gain cell sites equivalent to what would have taken on average five years to build without the transaction, and double that in some markets. AT&T’s network density will increase by approximately 30 percent in some of its most populated areas.” (Source).  I just don’t see how this jibes with the claim that the spectrum argument has fallen apart.

But there is a larger, “meta” point to make here, and it’s one that policy scolds and government regulators too often forget.  Even if none of that were true, as long as we don’t know for sure what is optimal and do know the DOJ is both a political organization made up of human beings operating not only under said ignorance but with incentives that don’t necessarily translate into “maximize social welfare” and also devoid of any actual “skin in the game,” I think the basic, simple, time-tested, logical and self-evident error cost principle counsels pretty firmly against intervention.  Humility, not hubris should rule the roost.

And that’s especially true since you know what will happen if the DOJ (or the FCC) succeeds in preventing AT&T from buying T-Mobile?  T-Mobile will still disappear and we’ll still be left with (according to the DOJ’s analysis) the terrifying prospect of only 3 national wireless telecom providers.  Only, in that case, everyone’s going to think a lot harder about investing in future developments that might warrant integration or cooperation or . . . well, the DOJ will challenge anything, so add to the list patent pools, too much success, not enough sharing, etc., etc.  And you wonder why I think this might constitute an assault on innovation?

Now, as for Milton’s specific claims, reminiscent of Public Knowledge’s and Free Press’ talking points, let me quote AT&T’s Public Interest Statement discussing its own particular spectrum holdings:

Because of the high demand for broadband service, AT&T already has had to deploy four carriers (for a total of 40 MHz of spectrum) for UMTS [3G] in some areas—and it will need to deploy more in the near future, even if doing so squeezes its GSM spectrum allocation and compromises GSM service quality . . . .  AT&T expects that, given the relative infancy of the LTE ecosystem and the time needed to migrate subscribers, it will need to continue to allocate spectrum to UMTS services for a substantial number of years—indeed, even longer than AT&T needs to continue allocating spectrum for GSM services.

* * *

AT&T has begun deployment of LTE services using its AWS and 700 MHz spectrum and currently plans to cover more than 250 million people by the end of 2013

* * *

AT&T projects it will need to use its 850 MHz and 1900 MHz spectrum holdings to support GSM and UMTS services for a number of years and, in the meantime, will not be able to re-deploy them for more spectrally efficient LTE services.

* * *

AT&T’s existing WCS spectrum holdings cannot be used for this purpose either, because the technical rules for the WCS band, such as limits on the power spectral density limits, make it infeasible to use that band for broadband service.

In other words, I don’t think AT&T has been (nor could it be, given the FCC’s detailed knowledge on the subject) hiding its spectrum holdings.  Instead, the company has been making quite clear that the spectrum it has is simply insufficient to meet anticipated demand.  And, well, duh!  Anyone who uses AT&T knows its network is overloaded.  Some of that’s because of tower-siting issues, some because it simply didn’t anticipate the extent of demand it would face.  I heard somewhere that no matter how hard they try to account for their perpetual under-accounting, every estimate by every mobile provider of anticipated spectrum needs in the past two decades or so has fallen short.  I’m quite sure that AT&T didn’t anticipate in 2007 that spectrum usage would increase by 8000% (yes, that’s thousand) by 2010.

Moreover, there will always (in any sensible system) be excess capacity at times–as it happens, at (conveniently) the times when spectrum usage is often counted–in order to deal with peak loads.  It is no more sensible to deploy capacity sufficient to handle the maximum load 100% of the time than it is to deploy capacity to handle only the minimum load 100% of the time.  Does that mean the often-unused spectrum is “excess”?  Clearly not.

Moreover (again), not all spectrum is in contiguous blocks sufficient to deploy LTE.  AT&T (at least) claims that is the case with much of its existing spectrum.  Spectrum isn’t simply fungible, and un-nuanced claims that “AT&T has X megahertz of spectrum and it is plenty” are just meaningless.  Again, just because Free Press says otherwise does not make it so.  You can simply discount AT&T’s claims if you like–I’m sure it’s possible they’re just lying; but you should probably be careful whose “information” you believe instead.

But, no, Milton, the spectrum argument did not “fall apart months ago.”  Gigi Sohn, Harold Feld and Sprint just said it did.  There’s a difference.

“Letter-Gate”

As for the infamous letter alleged to show that AT&T could expand LTE service from its previously-planned 80% of the country to the 97% it promises if the merger goes through for significantly less than it would cost to buy T-Mobile:  I don’t know exactly what its import is—but no one outside AT&T and, maybe, the FCC really does, either.  But I think a little sensible skepticism is in order.

First, for those who haven’t read it, the letter says, in relevant part:

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss AT&T’s current LTE deployment plans to reach 80 percent of the U.S. population by the end of 2013…; the estimated [Begin Confidential Information] $3.8 billion [End Confidential Information] in additional capital expenditures to expand LTE coverage from 80 to 97 percent of the U.S. population; and AT&T’s commitment to expand LTE to over 97 percent of the U.S. population as a result of this transaction.

That part, “$3.8 billion,” between the words “Begin Confidential Information” and “End Confidential Information” was supposed to be redacted, but apparently wasn’t when the letter was first posted to the FCC’s website.

While Public Knowledge and other critics of the deal would have you believe that this proves AT&T could roll-out nationwide LTE service for 1/10 of the cost of the T-Mobile deal, it’s basically impossible to tell what this number really means–except it certainly doesn’t mean that.

Claims about its meaning are actually largely content-less; nothing I’ve seen asks (or can possibly answer) whether the number in the letter was full cost, partial cost, annualized cost, based off of what baseline, etc., etc.  Moreover, unless I’m mistaken, nothing in the letter said anything at all about $3.8 billion being used to relieve congestion, meet future demand, increase speeds, reduce latency, expand coverage in urban areas, etc.  It seems to me that it’s referring to “additional” (additional to what?) capital expense to build infrastructure to make it even possible to offer LTE coverage to 97% of the U.S. population following the merger.  AT&T has from the outset said (bragged, more like it, because it’s supposed to bring lots of jobs and that’s what the politicians care about) that it planned to spend an “additional” $8 billion–additional to the $39 billion required to buy T-Mobile, that is–to build out its infrastructure as part of the deal.  But neither this letter nor any of AT&T’s statements (nor anyone with any familiarity with the relevant facts) has ever said it could or would have full-speed, LTE service available and up and running to 97% of the country for $3.8 billion or even $8 billion–or even merely $39 billion.  In fact, AT&T seemed to be saying that it was going to cost at least $47 billion to make that happen (and I can assure you that doesn’t begin to account for all the costs associated with integrating T-Mobile with AT&T once the $39 billion is out the door).

As I’ve alluded to above, deploying LTE service to rural areas is probably not as important for AT&T as increasing its network’s capacity in urban areas. The T-Mobile deal allows AT&T to alleviate the congestion problems experienced by its existing customers in urban areas more quickly than any other option–and because T-Mobile’s network is already up and running, that’s still true even if the federal government was somehow able to make tons of spectrum immediately available.  Moreover, with respect to the $3.8 billion, as I’ve discussed at length above, without T-Mobile’s–or someone’s!–additional spectrum and the miraculous removal of local government impediments to tower construction, pretty much no amount of money would enable AT&T to actually deliver LTE service to 97% of the country.  Is that what it would cost to build the extra pieces of hardware necessary to support such an offering?  That sounds plausible.  But actually deliver it? Hardly.

And just to play this out, let’s say the letter did mean just that — that AT&T could deliver real, fine LTE service to 97% of the country for a mere $3.8 billion direct, marginal outlay, even without T-Mobile.  It is still the case that none of us outsiders knows what such a claim would assume about where the necessary spectrum would come from and what, absent the merger, the effect would be on existing 3G coverage, congestion, pricing, etc., and what the expected ROI for such a project would be.  Elsewhere in the letter its author states that AT&T considered whether making this investment (without the T-Mobile merger) was prudent, and repeatedly rejected it.  In other words, all those armchair CEOs are organizing AT&T’s business and spending its money without the foggiest clue as to what the real consequences would be of doing so–and then claiming that, although, unlike them, actually in possession of the data relevant to such an assessment, AT&T must be lying, and could only justify spending $39 billion to buy T-Mobile as a means of securing its monopoly power.

And I think it’s important to gut check that claim, as well, as it’s what critics claim to fear (The Ma Bell from the Black Lagoon).  Unpacked, it goes something like this:

Given that:

  1.  AT&T is going to spend $39 billion to buy T-Mobile;
  2. It is going to spend $8 billion to build additional infrastructure;
  3. Having bought T-Mobile, it is going to incur some ungodly amount of expense integrating T-Mobile’s assets and employees with its own;
  4. It is going to incur huge, ongoing additional costs to govern a now-larger, more-complex organization;
  5. It is going to continue to be regulated by the FCC and watched carefully by the DOJ and its unofficial consumer watchdog minions;
  6. It will continue to face competition from its current largest and second-largest competitor;
  7. It will continue to face entry threats from the likes of Dish and Lightsquared;
  8. It will continue to face competition from fixed broadband offered by the likes of Comcast and Time Warner;
  9. It will do all this quite publicly, under the watchful eyes of Congress and its union to whom it has made all manner of politically-expedient promises;

 Then it follows that:

  1. Although it can’t muster the gumption to risk $3.8 billion to legitimately (it is claimed) extend full LTE coverage to 97% of the U.S. population, it nevertheless thinks it’s a sure bet that it will be able to recoup all of these expenditures, in this competitive and regulatory environment, by virtue of having thus taken out not its largest, not even its second-largest, but its smallest “national” competitor, and thereby having converted itself into an unfettered monopolist. QED.

The mind boggles.

So.  Back to Milton and his suggestion that I was wrong to claim that the DOJ’s action here is a threat to innovation and progress and his assertion that AT&T’s claims surrounding the benefits of the transaction fail to stand up to scrutiny:  C’mon, Miltons of the world!  Where’s your normally healthy skepticism?  I know you don’t like big infrastructure providers.  I know you’re angry your iPhone isn’t as functional as it is beautiful.  I know capitalists are only slightly more trustworthy than regulators (or is it the other way around?).  But why give in so credulously to the claims of the professional critics?  Isn’t it more likely that the deal’s critics are just blowing smoke here because they don’t like any consolidation?  It doesn’t take much research to understand (to the extent anyone can understand something so complex) the current state of the U.S. broadband market and its discontents–and why something like this merger is a plausible response.  And you don’t have to like, trust, or even stand the sight of any business executive to know that, however stupid or evil, he is still constrained by powerful market forces beyond his ken.  And “Letter-Gate” is just another pseudo-scandal contrived to suit an agenda of aggressive government meddling.

We all ought to be more wary of such claims, less quick to join anyone in condemning big as bad, and far less quick to, implicitly or explicitly, substitute the known depredations of the government for the possible ones of the market without a hell of a lot better evidence to do so.

Geoffrey Manne

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