A Quick Assessment of the FCC’s Appalling Staff Report on the AT&T Merger

Geoffrey Manne —  2 December 2011

As everyone knows by now, AT&T’s proposed merger with T-Mobile has hit a bureaucratic snag at the FCC.  The remarkable decision to refer the merger to the Commission’s Administrative Law Judge (in an effort to derail the deal) and the public release of the FCC staff’s internal, draft report are problematic and poorly considered.  But far worse is the content of the report on which the decision to attempt to kill the deal was based.

With this report the FCC staff joins the exalted company of AT&T’s complaining competitors (surely the least reliable judges of the desirability of the proposed merger if ever there were any) and the antitrust policy scolds and consumer “advocates” who, quite literally, have never met a merger of which they approved.

In this post I’m going to hit a few of the most glaring problems in the staff’s report, and I hope to return again soon with further analysis.

As it happens, AT&T’s own response to the report is actually very good and it effectively highlights many of the key problems with the staff’s report.  While it might make sense to take AT&T’s own reply with a grain of salt, in this case the reply is, if anything, too tame.  No doubt the company wants to keep in the Commission’s good graces (it is the very definition of a repeat player at the agency, after all).  But I am not so constrained.  Using the company’s reply as a jumping off point, let me discuss a few of the problems with the staff report.

First, as the blog post (written by Jim Cicconi, Senior Vice President of External & Legislative Affairs) notes,

We expected that the AT&T-T-Mobile transaction would receive careful, considered, and fair analysis.   Unfortunately, the preliminary FCC Staff Analysis offers none of that.  The document is so obviously one-sided that any fair-minded person reading it is left with the clear impression that it is an advocacy piece, and not a considered analysis.

In our view, the report raises questions as to whether its authors were predisposed.  The report cherry-picks facts to support its views, and ignores facts that don’t.  Where facts were lacking, the report speculates, with no basis, and then treats its own speculations as if they were fact.  This is clearly not the fair and objective analysis to which any party is entitled, and which we have every right to expect.

OK, maybe they aren’t pulling punches.  The fact that this reply was written with such scathing language despite AT&T’s expectation to have to go right back to the FCC to get approval for this deal in some form or another itself speaks volumes about the undeniable shoddiness of the report.

Cicconi goes on to detail five areas where AT&T thinks the report went seriously awry:  “Expanding LTE to 97% of the U.S. Population,” “Job Gains Versus Losses,” “Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile’s Parent, Has Serious Investment Constraints,” “Spectrum” and “Competition.”  I have dealt with a few of these issues at some length elsewhere, including most notably here (noting how the FCC’s own wireless competition report “supports what everyone already knows: falling prices, improved quality, dynamic competition and unflagging innovation have led to a golden age of mobile services”), and here (“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”).

What is really galling about the staff report—and, frankly, the basic posture of the agency—is that its criticisms really boil down to one thing:  “We believe there is another way to accomplish (something like) what AT&T wants to do here, and we’d just prefer they do it that way.”  This is central planning at its most repugnant.  What is both assumed and what is lacking in this basic posture is beyond the pale for an allegedly independent government agency—and as Larry Downes notes in the linked article, the agency’s hubris and its politics may have real, costly consequences for all of us.

Competition

But procedure must be followed, and the staff thus musters a technical defense to support its basic position, starting with the claim that the merger will result in too much concentration.  Blinded by its new-found love for HHIs, the staff commits a few blunders.  First, it claims that concentration levels like those in this case “trigger a presumption of harm” to competition, citing the DOJ/FTC Merger Guidelines.  Alas, as even the report’s own footnotes reveal, the Merger Guidelines actually say that highly concentrated markets with HHI increases of 200 or more trigger a presumption that the merger will “enhance market power.”  This is not, in fact, the same thing as harm to competition.  Elsewhere the staff calls this—a merger that increases concentration and gives one firm an “undue” share of the market—“presumptively illegal.”  Perhaps the staff could use an antitrust refresher course.  I’d be happy to come teach it.

Not only is there no actual evidence of consumer harm resulting from the sort of increases in concentration that might result from the merger, but the staff seems to derive its negative conclusions despite the damning fact that the data shows that wireless markets have seen considerable increases in concentration along with considerable decreases in prices, rather than harm to competition, over the last decade.  While high and increasing HHIs might indicate a need for further investigation, when actual evidence refutes the connection between concentration and price, they simply lose their relevance.  Someone should tell the FCC staff.

This is a different Wireless Bureau than the one that wrote so much sensible material in the 15th Annual Wireless Competition Report.  That Bureau described a complex, dynamic, robust mobile “ecosystem” driven not by carrier market power and industrial structure, but by rapid evolution and technological disruptors.  The analysis here wishes away every important factor that every consumer knows to be the real drivers of price and innovation in the mobile marketplace, including, among other things:

  1. Local markets, where there are five, six, or more carriers to choose from;
  2. Non-contract/pre-paid providers, whose strength is rapidly growing;
  3. Technology that is making more bands of available spectrum useful for competitive offerings;
  4. The reality that LTE will make inter-modal competition a reality; and
  5. The reality that churn is rampant and consumer decision-making is driven today by devices, operating systems, applications and content – not networks.

The resulting analysis is stilted and stale, and describes a wireless industry that exists only in the agency’s collective imagination.

There is considerably more to say about the report’s tortured unilateral effects analysis, but it will have to wait for my next post.  Here I want to quickly touch on a two of the other issues called out by Cicconi’s blog post.

Jobs

First, although it’s not really in my bailiwick to comment on the job claims that have been such an important aspect of the public conversations surrounding this merger, some things are simple logic, and the staff’s contrary claims here are inscrutable.  As Cicconi suggests, it is hard to understand how the $8 billion investment and build-out required to capitalize on AT&T’s T-Mobile purchase will fail to produce a host of jobs, how the creation of a more-robust, faster broadband network will fail to ignite even further growth in this growing sector of the economy, and, finally, how all this can fail to happen while the FCC’s own (relatively) paltry $4.5 billion broadband fund will somehow nevertheless create approximately 500,000 (!!!) jobs.  Even Paul Krugman knows that private investment is better than government investment in generating stimulus – the claim is that there’s not enough of it, not that it doesn’t work as well.  Here, however, the fiscal experts on the FCC’s staff have determined that massive private funding won’t create even 96,000 jobs, although the same agency claims that government funding only one half as large will create five times that many jobs.  Um, really?

Meanwhile the agency simply dismisses AT&T’s job preservation commitments.  Now, I would also normally disregard such unenforceable pronouncements as cheap talk – except given the frequency and the volume with which AT&T has made them, they would suffer pretty mightily for failing to follow through on them now.  Even more important perhaps, I have to believe (again, given the vehemence with which they have made the statements and the reality of de facto, reputational enforcement) they are willing to agree to whatever is in their control in a consent decree, thus making them, in fact, legally enforceable.  For the staff to so blithely disregard AT&T’s claims on jobs is unintelligible except as farce—or venality.

Spectrum

Although the report rarely misses an opportunity to fail to mention the spectrum crisis that has been at the center of the Administration’s telecom agenda and the focus of the National Broadband Plan, coincidentally authored by the FCC’s staff, the crux of the report seems to come down to a stark denial that such a spectrum crunch even exists.  As I noted, much of the staff report amounts to an extended meditation on why the parties can and should run their businesses as the staff say they can and should.  The report’s section assessing the parties’ claims regarding the transition to LTE (para 210, ff.) is remarkable.  It begins thus:

One of the Applicants’ primary justifications for the necessity of this transaction is that, as standalone firms, AT&T and T-Mobile are, and will continue to be, spectrum and capacity constrained. Due to these constraints, we find it more plausible that a spectrum constrained firm would maximize deployment of more spectrally efficient LTE, rather than limit it. Transitioning to LTE is primarily a function of only two factors: (1) the extent of LTE capable equipment deployed on the network and (2) the penetration of LTE compatible devices in the subscriber base. Although it may make it more economical, the transition does not require “spectrum headroom” as the Applicants claim. Increased deployment could be achieved by both of the Applicants on a standalone basis by adding the more spectrally efficient LTE-capable radios and equipment to the network and then providing customers with dual mode HSPAILTE devices. . . .

Forget the spectrum crunch!  It is the very absence of spectrum that will give firms the incentive and the ability to transition to more-efficient technology.  And all they have to do is run duplicate equipment on their networks and give all their customers new devices overnight.  And, well, the whole business model fits in a few paragraphs, entails no new spectrum, actually creates spectrum, and meets all foreseeable demand (as long as demand never increases which, of course, the report conveniently fails to assess).

Moreover, claims the report, AT&T’s transition to LTE flows inevitably from its competition with Verizon.  But, as Cicconi points out, the staff is unprincipled in its disparate treatment of the industry’s competitive conditions.  Somehow, without T-Mobile in the mix, prices will skyrocket and quality will be degraded—let’s say, just for example, by not upgrading to LTE (my interpretation, not the staff’s).  But 100 pages later, it turns out that AT&T doesn’t need to merge with T-Mobile to expand its LTE network because it will have to do so in response to competition from Verizon anyway.  It would appear, however, that Verizon’s power over AT&T operates only if T-Mobile exists separately and AT&T has a harder time competing.  Remove T-Mobile and expand AT&T’s ability to compete and, apparently, the market collapses.  Such is the logic of the report.

There is much more to criticize in the report, and I hope to have a chance to do so in the next few days.

Geoffrey Manne

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