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Trial begins today in the Southern District of New York in United States v. Apple (the Apple e-books case), which I discussed previously here. Along with co-author Will Rinehart, I also contributed an  essay to a discussion of the case in Concurrences (alongside contributions from Jon Jacobson and Mark Powell, among others).

Much of my writing on the case has essentially addressed it as a rule of reason case, assessing the economic merits of Apple’s contract terms. And as I mention in this Reuters article from yesterday on the case, one of the key issues in this analysis (and one of the government’s key targets in the case) is the use of MFN clauses.

But as Josh pointed out in a blog post last year,

my hunch is that if the case is litigated its legacy will be as an “agreement” case rather than what it contributes to rule of reason analysis.  In other words, if Apple gets to the rule of reason, the DOJ (like most plaintiffs in rule of reason cases) are likely to lose — especially in light of at least preliminary evidence of dramatic increases in output.  The critical question — I suspect — will be about proof of an actual naked price fixing agreement among publishers and Apple, and as a legal matter, what evidence is sufficient to establish that agreement for the purposes of Section 1 of the Sherman Act.

He’s likely correct, of course, that a central question at trial will be whether or not this is a per se or rule of reason case, and that trial will focus in significant part on the sufficiency of the evidence of agreement. But because this determination will turn considerably on the purpose and function of the MFN and price cap terms in Apple’s agreements with the publishers, I don’t think there should (or will) be much difference. Nor do I think the government should (or will) win.

Before the court can apply the per se rule, it must satisfy itself that the conduct at issue “would always or almost always tend to restrict competition and decrease output.” But it is not true as a matter of economics — and certainly not true as a matter of law — that MFNs meet this standard.

After State Oil v. Kahn there can be no question about the rule of reason (if not per se legal) status of price caps. And as the Court noted in Leegin:

Resort to per se rules is confined to restraints, like those mentioned, “that would always or almost always tend to restrict competition and decrease output.” To justify a per se prohibition a restraint must have “manifestly anticompetitive” effects, and “lack any redeeming virtue.

As a consequence, the per se rule is appropriate only after courts have had considerable experience with the type of restraint at issue, and only if courts can predict with confidence that it would be invalidated in all or almost all instances under the rule of reason. It should come as no surprise, then, that “we have expressed reluctance to adopt per se rules with regard to restraints imposed in the context of business relationships where the economic impact of certain practices is not immediately obvious.” And, as we have stated, a “departure from the rule-of-reason standard must be based upon demonstrable economic effect rather than . . . upon formalistic line drawing.”

After Leegin, all vertical non-price restraints, including MFNs, are assessed under the rule of reason.  Courts neither have “considerable experience” with MFNs, nor can they remotely “predict with confidence that they would be invalidated in all or almost all instances under the rule of reason.” As a recent article in Antitrust points out,

The DOJ and FTC have brought approximately ten cases over the last two decades challenging MFNs. Most of these cases involved the health care industry and all were resolved by consent judgments.

Even if the court does take a harder look at whether a per se rule should govern, however, as a practical matter there is not likely to be much difference between a “does this merit per se treatment” analysis and analysis of the facts under the rule of reason. As the Court pointed out in California Dental Association,

The truth is that our categories of analysis of anticompetitive effect are less fixed than terms like “per se,” “quick look,” and “rule of reason” tend to make them appear. We have recognized, for example, that “there is often no bright line separating per se from Rule of Reason analysis,” since “considerable inquiry into market conditions” may be required before the application of any so-called “per se” condemnation is justified. “[W]hether the ultimate finding is the product of a presumption or actual market analysis, the essential inquiry remains the same–whether or not the challenged restraint enhances competition.”

And as my former classmate Tom Nachbar points out in a recent article,

it’s hard to identity much relative simplicity in the per se rule. Indeed, the moniker “per se” has become somewhat misleading, as cases determining whether to apply the per se or rule of reason become as long as ones actually applying the rule of reason itself.

Of course that doesn’t end the analysis, and the government’s filings do all they can to sidestep the direct antitrust treatment of MFNs and instead assert that they (and other evidence alleged) permit the court to infer Apple’s participation as the coordinator of a horizontal price-fixing conspiracy among the publishers.

But as Apple argues in its filings,

The[ relevant] cases mandate an inquiry into the possibility that the challenged contract terms and negotiation approach were in Apple’s independent economic interests. The evidence is overwhelming—not just possible—that Apple acted for its own valid business reasons and not to “raise consumer prices market-wide.”…Plaintiffs ask this Court to infer Apple’s participation in a conspiracy from (1) its MFN and price cap terms and (2) negotiations with publishers.

* * *

What is obvious, however, is that Apple has not fixed prices with its competitors. What is remarkable is that the government seeks to impose grave legal consequences on an inherently pro-competitive act—entry—accomplished via agency, an MFN, and price caps, none of which is per se unlawful.

The government’s strenuous objection to Apple’s interpretation of the controlling Supreme Court authority, Monsanto v. Spray-Rite, notwithstanding, it’s difficult to see the MFN clauses as evidence of Apple’s participation in the publishers’ alleged conspiracy.

An important point supporting Apple’s argument here is that, unlike the “hubs” in the other “hub and spoke” conspiracies on which the DOJ bases its case, Apple has no significant leverage over the alleged co-conspirators, and thus no power to coordinate — let alone enforce — a price-fixing scheme. As Apple argues in its Opposition brief,

The only “power” Apple could wield over the publishers was the attractiveness of a business opportunity—hardly the “make or break” scenarios found in Interstate Circuit and [Toys-R-Us]. Far from capitulating to Apple’s requested core business terms, the publishers fought Apple tooth and nail and negotiated intensely to the very end, and the largest, Random House, declined.

And as Will and I note in our Concurrences article,

MFNs are essentially an important way of…offering some protection against publishers striking a deal with a competitor that leaves Apple forced to price its ebooks out of the market.

There is nothing, that we know of, in the MFNs or elsewhere in the agreements that requires the publishers to impose higher resale prices elsewhere, or prevents the publishers from selling through Apple at a lower price, if necessary. Most important, for Apple’s negotiated prices to dominate in the market it would have to enjoy market power – a condition, currently at least, that is exceedingly unlikely given its 10% share of the ebook market.

The point is that, even if everything the government alleges about the publishers’ price fixing scheme were true, it’s extremely difficult to see Apple as a co-conspirator in such a scheme. The Supreme Court’s holding in Monsanto stands for nothing if not the principle that courts may not infer a vertical party’s participation in a horizontal price-fixing scheme from the existence of otherwise-legal and -defensible interactions between the vertically related parties. Because MFNs have valid purposes outside the realm of price-fixing, they may not be converted into illegal conduct on Apple’s part simply because they might also “sharpen [a publisher's] incentives” to try to raise prices elsewhere.

Remember, we are in a world where the requisite anticompetitive conduct can’t be simply the vertical restraint itself. Rather, we’re evaluating whether the vertical restraint was part of a broader anticompetitive scheme among the publishers. For the MFN clauses to be part of that alleged scheme they must have an identifiable place in the scheme.

First of all, it is unremarkable that Apple might offer terms to any individual publisher (or to all publishers independently) that might be more favorable to the publisher than terms it is getting elsewhere; that’s how a new entrant in Apple’s position attracts suppliers. It is likewise unremarkable that Apple would seek to impose terms (like the MFN) that would preserve its ability to offer a publisher’s books for the same price they are offered elsewhere (which is necessary because the agency agreements negotiated by Apple otherwise remove pricing authority from Apple and confer it on the publishers themselves). And finally it is unremarkable that each publisher would try to negotiate similarly favorable terms with other distributors (or, more accurately, continue to try: bargaining over distribution terms with other distributors hardly started only after the agreements were signed with Apple). What would be notable is if the publishers engaged in concerted action to negotiate these more-favorable terms with other publishers, and what would be problematic for Apple is if its agreement with each publisher facilitated that collusion.

But I don’t see any persuasive evidence that the terms of Apple’s deals with each publisher did any such thing. For MFNs to perform the function alleged by the DOJ it seems to me that the MFNs would have to contribute to the alleged agreement between the publishers, just as the actions of the vertical co-conspirators in Interstate Circuit and Toys-R-Us were alleged to facilitate coordination. But neither the agency agreement itself nor the MFN and price cap terms in the contracts in any way affected the publishers’ incentive to compete with each other. Nor, as noted above, did they require any individual publisher to cause its books to be sold at higher prices through other distributors.

On this latter point, the DOJ alleges that the MFNs “sharpen[ed publishers'] incentives” to raise prices:

If a retailer were allowed to remain on wholesale terms, and that retailer continued to price new release e-books at $9.99, the Publisher Defendant would be forced to lower the iBookstore price to match the $9.99 price

Not only does this say nothing about the incentives of the publishers to compete with each other on price (except that it may have increased that incentive by undermining the prevailing $9.99-for-all-books standard), it seems far-fetched to suggest that fear of having to lower prices for books sold in Apple’s relatively trivial corner of the market would have an apreciable effect on a publisher’s incentives to raise prices elsewhere. For what it’s worth, it also seems far-fetched to suggest that Apple’s motivation was to raise prices given that e-book sales generate only about .0005% of Apple’s total revenues.

Beyond this, the DOJ essentially argues that Apple coordinated agreement among the publishers to accept the terms being offered by Apple, with the intent and effect that this would lead to imposition by the publishers of similar terms (and higher prices) on other distributors. Perhaps, but it’s a stretch. And if it is true, it isn’t because of the MFN clauses. Moreover, it isn’t clear to me (maybe I’m missing some obvious controlling case law?) that agreement over the type of contract used amounts to an illegal horizontal agreement; arguably in this case, at least, it is closer to an ancillary restraint or  justified agreement (as in BMI, e.g.) than, say, a group boycott or bid rigging. In any case, if the DOJ has a case at all turning on this scenario, I think it will have to be based entirely on the alleged evidence of direct coordination (i.e., communications between Apple and publishers during dinners and phone calls) rather than the operation of the contract terms themselves.

In any case, it will be interesting to see how the trial unfolds.

Did Apple conspire with e-book publishers to raise e-book prices?  That’s what DOJ argues in a lawsuit filed yesterday. But does that violate the antitrust laws?  Not necessarily—and even if it does, perhaps it shouldn’t.

Antitrust’s sole goal is maximizing consumer welfare.  While that generally means antitrust regulators should focus on lower prices, the situation is more complicated when we’re talking about markets for new products, where technologies for distribution and consumption are evolving rapidly along with business models.  In short, the so-called Agency pricing model Apple and publishers adopted may mean (and may not mean) higher e-book prices in the short run, but it also means more variability in pricing, and it might well have facilitated Apple’s entry into the market, increasing e-book retail competition and promoting innovation among e-book readers, while increasing funding for e-book content creators.

The procompetitive story goes something like the following.  (As always with antitrust, the question isn’t so much which model is better, but that no one really knows what the right model is—least of all antitrust regulators—and that, the more unclear the consumer welfare effects of a practice are, as in rapidly evolving markets, the more we should err on the side of restraint).

Apple versus Amazon

Apple–decidedly a hardware company–entered the e-book market as a device maker eager to attract consumers to its expensive iPad tablets by offering appealing media content.  In this it is the very opposite of Amazon, a general retailer that naturally moved into retailing digital content, and began selling hardware (Kindle readers) only as a way of getting consumers to embrace e-books.

The Kindle is essentially a one-trick pony (the latest Kindle notwithstanding), and its focus is on e-books.  By contrast, Apple’s platform (the iPad and, to a lesser degree, the iPhone) is a multi-use platform, offering Internet browsing, word processing, music, apps, and other products, of which books probably accounted–and still account–for a relatively small percentage of revenue.  Importantly, unlike Amazon, Apple has many options for promoting adoption of its platform—not least, the “sex appeal” of its famously glam products.  Without denigrating Amazon’s offerings, Amazon, by contrast, competes largely on the basis of its content, and its devices sell only as long as the content is attractive and attractively priced.

In essence, Apple’s iPad is a platform; Amazon’s Kindle is a book merchant wrapped up in a cool device.

What this means is that Apple, unlike Amazon, is far less interested in controlling content prices for books and other content; it hardly needs to control that lever to effectively market its platform, and it can easily rely on content providers’ self interest to ensure that enough content flows through its devices.

In other words, Apple is content to act as a typical platform would, acting as a conduit for others’ content, which the content owner controls.  Amazon surely has “platform” status in its sights, but reliant as it is on e-books, and nascent as that market is, it is not quite ready to act like a “pure” platform.  (For more on this, see my blog post from 2010).

The Agency Model

As it happens, publishers seem to prefer the Agency Model, as well, preferring to keep control over their content in this medium rather than selling it (as in the brick-and-mortar model) to a retailer like Amazon to price, market, promote and re-sell at will.  For the publishers, the Agency Model is essentially a form of resale price maintenance — ensuring that retailers who sell their products do not inefficiently discount prices.  (For a clear exposition of the procompetitive merits of RPM, see this article by Benjamin Klein).

(As a side note, I suspect that they may well be wrong to feel this way.  The inclination seems to stem from a fear of e-books’ threat to their traditional business model — a fear of technological evolution that can have catastrophic consequences (cf. Kodak, about which I wrote a few weeks ago).  But then content providers moving into digital media have been consistently woeful at understanding digital markets).

So the publishers strike a deal with Apple that gives the publishers control over pricing and Apple a cut (30%) of the profits.  Contrary to the DOJ’s claim in its complaint, this model happens to look exactly like Apple’s arrangement for apps and music, as well, right down to the same percentage Apple takes from sales.  This makes things easier for Apple, gives publishers more control over pricing, and offers Apple content and a good return sufficient to induce it to market and sell its platform.

It is worth noting here that there is no reason to think that the wholesale model wouldn’t also have generated enough content and enough return for Apple, so I don’t think the ultimate motivation here for Apple was higher prices (which could well have actually led to lower total return given fewer sales), but rather that it wasn’t interested in paying for control.  So in exchange for a (possibly) larger slice of the pie, as well as consistency with its existing content provider back-end and the avoidance of having to monitor and make pricing decisions,  Apple happily relinquished decision-making over pricing and other aspects of sales.

The Most Favored Nation Clauses

Having given up this price control, Apple has one remaining problem: no guarantee of being able to offer attractive content at an attractive price if it is forced to try to sell e-books at a high price while its competitors can undercut it.  And so, as is common in this sort of distribution agreement, Apple obtains “Most Favored Nation” (MFN) clauses from publishers to ensure that if they are permitting other platforms to sell their books at a lower price, Apple will at least be able to do so, as well.  The contracts at issue in the case specify maximum resale prices for content and ensure Apple that if a publisher permits, say, Amazon to sell the same content at a lower price, it will likewise offer the content via Apple’s iBooks store for the same price.

The DOJ is fighting a war against MFNs, which is a story for another day, and it seems clear from the terms of the settlement with the three setting publishers that indeed MFNs are a big part of the target here.  But there is nothing inherently problematic about MFNs, and there is plenty of scholarship explaining why they are beneficial.  Here, and important among these, they facilitate entry by offering some protection for an entrant’s up-front investment in challenging an incumbent, and prevent subsequent entrants from undercutting this price.  In this sense MFNs are essentially an important way of inducing retailers like Apple to sign on to an RPM (no control) model by offering some protection against publishers striking a deal with a competitor that leaves Apple forced to price its e-books out of the market.

There is nothing, that I know of, in the MFNs or elsewhere in the agreements that requires the publishers to impose higher resale prices elsewhere, or prevents the publishers from selling throughApple at a lower price, if necessary.  That said, it may well have been everyone’s hope that, as the DOJ alleges, the MFNs would operate like price floors instead of price ceilings, ensuring higher prices for publishers.  But hoping for higher prices is not an antitrust offense, and, as I’ve discussed, it’s not even clear that, viewed more broadly in terms of the evolution of the e-book and e-reader markets, higher prices in the short run would be bad for consumers.

The Legal Standard

To the extent that book publishers don’t necessarily know what’s really in their best interest, the DOJ is even more constrained in judging the benefits (or costs) for consumers at large from this scheme.  As I’ve suggested, there is a pretty clear procompetitive story here, and a court may indeed agree that this should not be judged under a per se liability standard (as would apply in the case of naked price-fixing).

Most important, here there is no allegation that the publishers and Apple (or the publishers among themselves) agreed on price.  Rather, the allegation is that they agreed to adopt a particular business model (one that, I would point out, probably resulted in greater variation in price, rather than less, compared to Amazon’s traditional $9.99-for-all pricing scheme).  If the DOJ can convince a court that this nevertheless amounts to a naked price-fixing agreement among publishers, with Apple operating as the hub, then they are probably sunk.  But while antitrust law is suspicious of collective action among rivals in coordinating on prices, this change in business model does not alone coordinate on prices.  Each individual publisher can set its own price, and it’s not clear that the DOJ’s evidence points to any agreement with respect to actual pricing level.

It does seem pretty clear that there is coordination here on the shift in business models.  But sometimes antitrust law condones such collective action to take account of various efficiencies (think standard setting or joint ventures or collective rights groups like BMI).  Here, there is a more than plausible case that coordinated action to move to a plausibly-more-efficient business model was necessary and pro-competitive.  If Apple can convince a court of that, then the DOJ has a rule of reason case on its hands and is facing a very uphill battle.

[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.

As Josh noted, the DOJ filed a complaint today to block the merger.  I’m sure we’ll have much, much more to say on the topic, but here are a few things that jump out at me from perusing the complaint:

  • The DOJ distinguishes between the business (“Enterprise”) market and the consumer market.  This is actually a good play on their part, on the one hand, because it is more sensible to claim a national market for business customers who may be purchasing plans for widely-geographically-dispersed employees.  I would question how common this actually is, however, given that, I’m sure, most businesses that buy group cell plans are not IBM but are instead pretty small and pretty local, but still, it’s a good ploy.
  • But it has one significant problem:  The DOJ also seems to be stressing a coordinated effects story, making T-Mobile out to be a disruptive maverick disciplining the bigger carriers.  But–and this is, of course an empirical matter I will have to look in to–I highly doubt that T-Mobile plays anything like this role in the Enterprise market, at least for those enterprises that fit the DOJ’s overly-broad description.  In fact, the DOJ admits as much in para. 43 of its Complaint.  Of course, the DOJ claims this was all about to change, but that’s not a very convincing story coupled with the fact that DT, T-Mobile’s parent, was reducing its investment in the company anyway.  The reality is that Enterprise was not a key part of T-Mobile’s business model–if it occupied any cognizable part of it at all– and it can hardly be considered a maverick in a market in which it doesn’t actually operate.
  • On coordinated effects, I think the claim that T-Mobile is a maverick is pretty easily refuted, and not only in the Enterprise realm.  As Josh has pointed out in his Congressional testimony, a maverick is a term of art in antitrust, and it’s just not enough that a firm may be offering products at a lower price–there is nothing “maverick-y” about a firm that offers a different, less valuable product at a lower price.  I have seen no evidence to suggest that T-Mobile offered the kind of pricing constraint on AT&T that would be required to make it out to be a maverick.
  • Meanwhile, I know this is just a complaint and even post-Twombly pleading standards are lower than standards of proof, but the DOJ does seem t make a lot out of its HHI numbers.  In part this is a function of its adoption of a national relevant geographic market.  But (as noted above even for most Enterprise customers) this is just absurd.  As the FCC itself has noted, consumers buy cell service where they “live, work and travel.”  For most everyone, this is local.
  • Meanwhile, even on a national level, the blithe dismissal of a whole range of competitors is untenable.  MetroPCS, Cell South and many other companies have broad regional coverage (MetroPCS even has next-gen LTE service in something like 17 cities) and roaming agreements with each other and with the larger carriers that give them national coverage.  Why they should be excluded from consideration is baffling.  Moreover, Dish has just announced plans to build a national 4G network (take that, DOJ claim that entry is just impossible here!).  And perhaps most important the real competition here is not for mobile telephone service.  The merger is about broadband.  Mobile is one way of getting broadband.  So is cable and DSL and WiMax, etc.  That market includes such insignificant competitors as Time Warner, Comcast and Cox.  Calling this a 4 to 3 merger strains credulity, particularly under the new merger guidelines.
  • Moreover, the DOJ already said as much!  In its letter to the FCC on the FCC’s National Broadband Plan the DOJ says:

Ultimately what matters for any given consumer is the set of broadband offerings available to that consumer, including their technical characteristics and the commercial terms and conditions on which they are offered.  Competitive conditions vary considerably for consumers in different geographic locales.

  • The DOJ also said this, in the same letter:

[W]ith differentiated products subject to large economies of scale (relative to the size of the market), the Department does not expect to see a large number of suppliers. . . . [Rather, the DOJ cautions the FCC agains] striving for broadband markets that look like textbook markets of perfect competition, with many price-taking firms.  That market structure is unsuitable for the provision of broadband services.

Quite the different tune, now that it’s the DOJ’s turn to spring into action rather than simply admonish the antitrust activities of a sister agency!

I’m sure there is lots more, but I must say I’m really surprised and disappointed by this filing.  Effective, efficient provision of mobile broadband service is a complicated business.  It is severely hampered by constraints of the government’s own doing — both in terms of the government’s failure to make available spectrum to enable companies to build out large-scale broadband networks, and in local governments’ continued intransigence in permitting new cell towers and even co-location of cell sites on existing towers that would relieve some of the infuriating congestion we now experience.

This decision by the DOJ is an ill-conceived assault on innovation and progress in what may be the one shining segment of our bedraggled economy.

The press release is here. Notably, the settlement obligates Google to continue product development and to license ITA software on commercially-reasonable terms, seemingly for 5 years.  Frankly, I can’t imagine Google wouldn’t have done this anyway, so the settlement is not likely much of a binding constraint.

Also notable is what the settlement doesn’t seem to do: Impose any remedies intended to “correct” (or even acknowledge) so-called search neutrality issues.  This has to be considered a huge victory for Google and for common sense.  I’m sure Josh and I will have more to say once the pleadings and settlement are available.  Later today or tomorrow we will post a paper we have just completed on the issue of search neutrality.

Unfortunately, this settlement doesn’t put the matter to rest, and we still have to see what the FTC has in store now.  But for now, this is, as I said, a huge victory for Google . . . and for all of us who travel!