Critics of big tech companies like Google and Amazon are increasingly focused on the supposed evils of “self-preferencing.” This refers to when digital platforms like Amazon Marketplace or Google Search, which connect competing services with potential customers or users, also offer (and sometimes prioritize) their own in-house products and services. 

The objection, raised by several members and witnesses during a Feb. 25 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, is that it is unfair to third parties that use those sites to allow the site’s owner special competitive advantages. Is it fair, for example, for Amazon to use the data it gathers from its service to design new products if third-party merchants can’t access the same data? This seemingly intuitive complaint was the basis for the European Commission’s landmark case against Google

But we cannot assume that something is bad for competition just because it is bad for certain competitors. A lot of unambiguously procompetitive behavior, like cutting prices, also tends to make life difficult for competitors. The same is true when a digital platform provides a service that is better than alternatives provided by the site’s third-party sellers. 

It’s probably true that Amazon’s access to customer search and purchase data can help it spot products it can undercut with its own versions, driving down prices. But that’s not unusual; most retailers do this, many to a much greater extent than Amazon. For example, you can buy AmazonBasics batteries for less than half the price of branded alternatives, and they’re pretty good.

There’s no doubt this is unpleasant for merchants that have to compete with these offerings. But it is also no different from having to compete with more efficient rivals who have lower costs or better insight into consumer demand. Copying products and seeking ways to offer them with better features or at a lower price, which critics of self-preferencing highlight as a particular concern, has always been a fundamental part of market competition—indeed, it is the primary way competition occurs in most markets. 

Store-branded versions of iPhone cables and Nespresso pods are certainly inconvenient for those companies, but they offer consumers cheaper alternatives. Where such copying may be problematic (say, by deterring investments in product innovations), the law awards and enforces patents and copyrights to reward novel discoveries and creative works, and trademarks to protect brand identity. But in the absence of those cases where a company has intellectual property, this is simply how competition works. 

The fundamental question is “what benefits consumers?” Services like Yelp object that they cannot compete with Google when Google embeds its Google Maps box in Google Search results, while Yelp cannot do the same. But for users, the Maps box adds valuable information to the results page, making it easier to get what they want. Google is not making Yelp worse by making its own product better. Should it have to refrain from offering services that benefit its users because doing so might make competing products comparatively less attractive?

Self-preferencing also enables platforms to promote their offerings in other markets, which is often how large tech companies compete with each other. Amazon has a photo-hosting app that competes with Google Photos and Apple’s iCloud. It recently emailed its customers to promote it. That is undoubtedly self-preferencing, since other services cannot market themselves to Amazon’s customers like this, but if it makes customers aware of an alternative they might not have otherwise considered, that is good for competition. 

This kind of behavior also allows companies to invest in offering services inexpensively, or for free, that they intend to monetize by preferencing their other, more profitable products. For example, Google invests in Android’s operating system and gives much of it away for free precisely because it can encourage Android customers to use the profitable Google Search service. Despite claims to the contrary, it is difficult to see this sort of cross-subsidy as harmful to consumers.

Self-preferencing can even be good for competing services, including third-party merchants. In many cases, it expands the size of their potential customer base. For example, blockbuster video games released by Sony and Microsoft increase demand for games by other publishers because they increase the total number of people who buy Playstations and Xboxes. This effect is clear on Amazon’s Marketplace, which has grown enormously for third-party merchants even as Amazon has increased the number of its own store-brand products on the site. By making the Amazon Marketplace more attractive, third-party sellers also benefit.

All platforms are open or closed to varying degrees. Retail “platforms,” for example, exist on a spectrum on which Craigslist is more open and neutral than eBay, which is more so than Amazon, which is itself relatively more so than, say, Walmart.com. Each position on this spectrum offers its own benefits and trade-offs for consumers. Indeed, some customers’ biggest complaint against Amazon is that it is too open, filled with third parties who leave fake reviews, offer counterfeit products, or have shoddy returns policies. Part of the role of the site is to try to correct those problems by making better rules, excluding certain sellers, or just by offering similar options directly. 

Regulators and legislators often act as if the more open and neutral, the better, but customers have repeatedly shown that they often prefer less open, less neutral options. And critics of self-preferencing frequently find themselves arguing against behavior that improves consumer outcomes, because it hurts competitors. But that is the nature of competition: what’s good for consumers is frequently bad for competitors. If we have to choose, it’s consumers who should always come first.

In current discussions of technology markets, few words are heard more often than “platform.” Initial public offering (IPO) prospectuses use “platform” to describe a service that is bound to dominate a digital market. Antitrust regulators use “platform” to describe a service that dominates a digital market or threatens to do so. In either case, “platform” denotes power over price. For investors, that implies exceptional profits; for regulators, that implies competitive harm.

Conventional wisdom holds that platforms enjoy high market shares, protected by high barriers to entry, which yield high returns. This simple logic drives the market’s attribution of dramatically high valuations to dramatically unprofitable businesses and regulators’ eagerness to intervene in digital platform markets characterized by declining prices, increased convenience, and expanded variety, often at zero out-of-pocket cost. In both cases, “burning cash” today is understood as the path to market dominance and the ability to extract a premium from consumers in the future.

This logic is usually wrong. 

The Overlooked Basics of Platform Economics

To appreciate this perhaps surprising point, it is necessary to go back to the increasingly overlooked basics of platform economics. A platform can refer to any service that matches two complementary populations. A search engine matches advertisers with consumers, an online music service matches performers and labels with listeners, and a food-delivery service matches restaurants with home diners. A platform benefits everyone by facilitating transactions that otherwise might never have occurred.

A platform’s economic value derives from its ability to lower transaction costs by funneling a multitude of individual transactions into a single convenient hub.  In pursuit of minimum costs and maximum gains, users on one side of the platform will tend to favor the most popular platforms that offer the largest number of users on the other side of the platform. (There are partial exceptions to this rule when users value being matched with certain typesof other users, rather than just with more users.) These “network effects” mean that any successful platform market will always converge toward a handful of winners. This positive feedback effect drives investors’ exuberance and regulators’ concerns.

There is a critical point, however, that often seems to be overlooked.

Market share only translates into market power to the extent the incumbent is protected against entry within some reasonable time horizon.  If Warren Buffett’s moat requirement is not met, market share is immaterial. If XYZ.com owns 100% of the online pet food delivery market but entry costs are asymptotic, then market power is negligible. There is another important limiting principle. In platform markets, the depth of the moat depends not only on competitors’ costs to enter the market, but users’ costs in switching from one platform to another or alternating between multiple platforms. If users can easily hop across platforms, then market share cannot confer market power given the continuous threat of user defection. Put differently: churn limits power over price.

Contrary to natural intuitions, this is why a platform market consisting of only a few leaders can still be intensely competitive, keeping prices low (down to and including $0) even if the number of competitors is low. It is often asserted, however, that users are typically locked into the dominant platform and therefore face high switching costs, which therefore implicitly satisfies the moat requirement. If that is true, then the “high churn” scenario is a theoretical curiosity and a leading platform’s high market share would be a reliable signal of market power. In fact, this common assumption likely describes the atypical case. 

AWS and the Cloud Data-Storage Market

This point can be illustrated by considering the cloud data-storage market. This would appear to be an easy case where high switching costs (due to the difficulty in shifting data among storage providers) insulate the market leader against entry threats. Yet the real world does not conform to these expectations. 

While Amazon Web Services pioneered the $100 billion-plus market and is still the clear market leader, it now faces vigorous competition from Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, and other data-storage or other cloud-related services. This may reflect the fact that the data storage market is far from saturated, so new users are up for grabs and existing customers can mitigate lock-in by diversifying across multiple storage providers. Or it may reflect the fact that the market’s structure is fluid as a function of technological changes, enabling entry at formerly bundled portions of the cloud data-services package. While it is not always technologically feasible, the cloud storage market suggests that users’ resistance to platform capture can represent a competitive opportunity for entrants to challenge dominant vendors on price, quality, and innovation parameters.

The Surprising Instability of Platform Dominance

The instability of leadership positions in the cloud storage market is not exceptional. 

Consider a handful of once-powerful platforms that were rapidly dethroned once challenged by a more efficient or innovative rival: Yahoo and Alta Vista in the search-engine market (displaced by Google); Netscape in the browser market (displaced by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, then displaced by Google Chrome); Nokia and then BlackBerry in the mobile wireless-device market (displaced by Apple and Samsung); and Friendster in the social-networking market (displaced by Myspace, then displaced by Facebook). AOL was once thought to be indomitable; now it is mostly referenced as a vintage email address. The list could go on.

Overestimating platform dominance—or more precisely, assuming platform dominance without close factual inquiry—matters because it promotes overestimates of market power. That, in turn, cultivates both market and regulatory bubbles: investors inflate stock valuations while regulators inflate the risk of competitive harm. 

DoorDash and the Food-Delivery Services Market

Consider the DoorDash IPO that launched in early December 2020. The market’s current approximately $50 billion valuation of a business that has been almost consistently unprofitable implicitly assumes that DoorDash will maintain and expand its position as the largest U.S. food-delivery platform, which will then yield power over price and exceptional returns for investors. 

There are reasons to be skeptical. Even where DoorDash captures and holds a dominant market share in certain metropolitan areas, it still faces actual and potential competition from other food-delivery services, in-house delivery services (especially by well-resourced national chains), and grocery and other delivery services already offered by regional and national providers. There is already evidence of these expected responses to DoorDash’s perceived high delivery fees, a classic illustration of the disciplinary effect of competitive forces on the pricing choices of an apparently dominant market leader. These “supply-side” constraints imposed by competitors are compounded by “demand-side” constraints imposed by customers. Home diners incur no more than minimal costs when swiping across food-delivery icons on a smartphone interface, casting doubt that high market share is likely to translate in this context into market power.

Deliveroo and the Costs of Regulatory Autopilot

Just as the stock market can suffer from delusions of platform grandeur, so too some competition regulators appear to have fallen prey to the same malady. 

A vivid illustration is provided by the 2019 decision by the Competition Markets Authority (CMA), the British competition regulator, to challenge Amazon’s purchase of a 16% stake in Deliveroo, one of three major competitors in the British food-delivery services market. This intervention provides perhaps the clearest illustration of policy action based on a reflexive assumption of market power, even in the face of little to no indication that the predicate conditions for that assumption could plausibly be satisfied.

Far from being a dominant platform, Deliveroo was (and is) a money-losing venture lagging behind money-losing Just Eat (now Just Eat Takeaway) and Uber Eats in the U.K. food-delivery services market. Even Amazon had previously closed its own food-delivery service in the U.K. due to lack of profitability. Despite Deliveroo’s distressed economic circumstances and the implausibility of any market power arising from Amazon’s investment, the CMA nonetheless elected to pursue the fullest level of investigation. While the transaction was ultimately approved in August 2020, this intervention imposed a 15-month delay and associated costs in connection with an investment that almost certainly bolstered competition in a concentrated market by funding a firm reportedly at risk of insolvency.  This is the equivalent of a competition regulator driving in reverse.

Concluding Thoughts

There seems to be an increasingly common assumption in commentary by the press, policymakers, and even some scholars that apparently dominant platforms usually face little competition and can set, at will, the terms of exchange. For investors, this is a reason to buy; for regulators, this is a reason to intervene. This assumption is sometimes realized, and, in that case, antitrust intervention is appropriate whenever there is reasonable evidence that market power is being secured through something other than “competition on the merits.” However, several conditions must be met to support the market power assumption without which any such inquiry would be imprudent. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the economics and history of platform markets suggest that those conditions are infrequently satisfied.

Without closer scrutiny, reflexively equating market share with market power is prone to lead both investors and regulators astray.  

Antitrust by Fiat

Jonathan M. Barnett —  23 February 2021 — 1 Comment

The Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act (CALERA), recently introduced in the U.S. Senate, exhibits a remarkable willingness to cast aside decades of evidentiary standards that courts have developed to uphold the rule of law by precluding factually and economically ungrounded applications of antitrust law. Without those safeguards, antitrust enforcement is prone to be driven by a combination of prosecutorial and judicial fiat. That would place at risk the free play of competitive forces that the antitrust laws are designed to protect.

Antitrust law inherently lends itself to the risk of erroneous interpretations of ambiguous evidence. Outside clear cases of interfirm collusion, virtually all conduct that might appear anti-competitive might just as easily be proven, after significant factual inquiry, to be pro-competitive. This fundamental risk of a false diagnosis has guided antitrust case law and regulatory policy since at least the Supreme Court’s landmark Continental Television v. GTE Sylvania decision in 1977 and arguably earlier. Judicial and regulatory efforts to mitigate this ambiguity, while preserving the deterrent power of the antitrust laws, have resulted in the evidentiary requirements that are targeted by the proposed bill.

Proponents of the legislative “reforms” might argue that modern antitrust case law’s careful avoidance of enforcement error yields excessive caution. To relieve regulators and courts from having to do their homework before disrupting a targeted business and its employees, shareholders, customers and suppliers, the proposed bill empowers plaintiffs to allege and courts to “find” anti-competitive conduct without having to be bound to the reasonably objective metrics upon which courts and regulators have relied for decades. That runs the risk of substituting rhetoric and intuition for fact and analysis as the guiding principles of antitrust enforcement and adjudication.

This dismissal of even a rudimentary commitment to rule-of-law principles is illustrated by two dramatic departures from existing case law in the proposed bill. Each constitutes a largely unrestrained “blank check” for regulatory and judicial overreach.

Blank Check #1

The bill includes a broad prohibition on “exclusionary” conduct, which is defined to include any conduct that “materially disadvantages 1 or more actual or potential competitors” and “presents an appreciable risk of harming competition.” That amorphous language arguably enables litigants to target a firm that offers consumers lower prices but “disadvantages” less efficient competitors that cannot match that price.

In fact, the proposed legislation specifically facilitates this litigation strategy by relieving predatory pricing claims from having to show that pricing is below cost or likely to result ultimately in profits for the defendant. While the bill permits a defendant to escape liability by showing sufficiently countervailing “procompetitive benefits,” the onus rests on the defendant to show otherwise. This burden-shifting strategy encourages lagging firms to shift competition from the marketplace to the courthouse.

Blank Check #2

The bill then removes another evidentiary safeguard by relieving plaintiffs from always having to define a relevant market. Rather, it may be sufficient to show that the contested practice gives rise to an “appreciable risk of harming competition … based on the totality of the circumstances.” It is hard to miss the high degree of subjectivity in this standard.

This ambiguous threshold runs counter to antitrust principles that require a credible showing of market power in virtually all cases except horizontal collusion. Those principles make perfect sense. Market power is the gateway concept that enables courts to distinguish between claims that plausibly target alleged harms to competition and those that do not. Without a well-defined market, it is difficult to know whether a particular practice reflects market power or market competition. Removing the market power requirement can remove any meaningful grounds on which a defendant could avoid a nuisance lawsuit or contest or appeal a conclusory allegation or finding of anticompetitive conduct.

Anti-Market Antitrust

The bill’s transparently outcome-driven approach is likely to give rise to a cloud of liability that penalizes businesses that benefit consumers through price and quality combinations that competitors cannot replicate. This obviously runs directly counter to the purpose of the antitrust laws. Certainly, winners can and sometimes do entrench themselves through potentially anticompetitive practices that should be closely scrutinized. However, the proposed legislation seems to reflect a presumption that successful businesses usually win by employing illegitimate tactics, rather than simply being the most efficient firm in the market. Under that assumption, competition law becomes a tool for redoing, rather than enabling, competitive outcomes.

While this populist approach may be popular, it is neither economically sound nor consistent with a market-driven economy in which resources are mostly allocated through pricing mechanisms and government intervention is the exception, not the rule. It would appear that some legislators would like to reverse that presumption. Far from being a victory for consumers, that outcome would constitute a resounding loss.

The slew of recent antitrust cases in the digital, tech, and pharmaceutical industries has brought significant attention to the investments many firms in these industries make in “intangibles,” such as software and research and development (R&D).

Intangibles are recognized to have an important effect on a company’s (and the economy’s) performance. For example, Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake (2017) highlight the increasingly large investments companies have been making in things like programming in-house software, organizational structures, and, yes, a firm’s stock of knowledge obtained through R&D. They also note the considerable difficulties associated with valuing both those investments and the outcomes (such as new operational procedures, a new piece of software, or a new patent) of those investments.

This difficulty in valuing intangibles has gone somewhat under the radar until relatively recently. There has been progress in valuing them at the aggregate level (see Ellen R. McGrattan and Edward C. Prescott (2008)) and in examining their effects at the level of individual sectors (see McGrattan (2020)). It remains difficult, however, to ascertain the value of the entire stock of intangibles held by an individual firm.

There is a method to estimate the value of one component of a firm’s stock of intangibles. Specifically, the “stock of knowledge obtained through research and development” is likely to form a large proportion of most firms’ intangibles. Treating R&D as a “stock” might not be the most common way to frame the subject, but it does have an intuitive appeal.

What a firm knows (i.e., its intellectual property) is an input to its production process, just like physical capital. The most direct way for firms to acquire knowledge is to conduct R&D, which adds to its “stock of knowledge,” as represented by its accumulated stock of R&D. In this way, a firm’s accumulated investment in R&D then becomes a stock of R&D that it can use in production of whatever goods and services it wants. Thankfully, there is a relatively straightforward (albeit imperfect) method to measure a firm’s stock of R&D that relies on information obtained from a company’s accounts, along with a few relatively benign assumptions.

This method (set out by Bronwyn Hall (1990, 1993)) uses a firm’s annual expenditures on R&D (a separate line item in most company accounts) in the “perpetual inventory” method to calculate a firm’s stock of R&D in any particular year. This perpetual inventory method is commonly used to estimate a firm’s stock of physical capital, so applying it to obtain an estimate of a firm’s stock of knowledge—i.e., their stock of R&D—should not be controversial.

All this method requires to obtain a firm’s stock of R&D for this year is knowledge of a firm’s R&D stock and its investment in R&D (i.e., its R&D expenditures) last year. This year’s R&D stock is then the sum of those R&D expenditures and its undepreciated R&D stock that is carried forward into this year.

As some R&D expenditure datasets include, for example, wages paid to scientists and research workers, this is not exactly the same as calculating a firm’s physical capital stock, which would only use a firm’s expenditures on physical capital. But given that paying people to perform R&D also adds to a firm’s stock of R&D through the increased knowledge and expertise of their employees, it seems reasonable to include this in a firm’s stock of R&D.

As mentioned previously, this method requires making certain assumptions. In particular, it is necessary to assume a rate of depreciation of the stock of R&D each period. Hall suggests a depreciation of 15% per year (compared to the roughly 7% per year for physical capital), and estimates presented by Hall, along with Wendy Li (2018), suggest that, in some industries, the figure can be as high as 50%, albeit with a wide range across industries.

The other assumption required for this method is an estimate of the firm’s initial level of stock. To see why such an assumption is necessary, suppose that you have data on a firm’s R&D expenditure running from 1990-2016. This means that you can calculate a firm’s stock of R&D for each year once you have their R&D stock in the previous year via the formula above.

When calculating the firm’s R&D stock for 2016, you need to know what their R&D stock was in 2015, while to calculate their R&D stock for 2015 you need to know their R&D stock in 2014, and so on backward until you reach the first year for which you have data: in this, case 1990.

However, working out the firm’s R&D stock in 1990 requires data on the firm’s R&D stock in 1989. The dataset does not contain any information about 1989, nor the firm’s actual stock of R&D in 1990. Hence, it is necessary to make an assumption regarding the firm’s stock of R&D in 1990.

There are several different assumptions one can make regarding this “starting value.” You could assume it is just a very small number. Or you can assume, as per Hall, that it is the firm’s R&D expenditure in 1990 divided by the sum of the R&D depreciation and average growth rates (the latter being taken as 8% per year by Hall). Note that, given the high depreciation rates for the stock of R&D, it turns out that the exact starting value does not matter significantly (particularly in years toward the end of the dataset) if you have a sufficiently long data series. At a 15% depreciation rate, more than 50% of the initial value disappears after five years.

Although there are other methods to measure a firm’s stock of R&D, these tend to provide less information or rely on stronger assumptions than the approach described above does. For example, sometimes a firm’s stock of R&D is measured using a simple count of the number of patents they hold. However, this approach does not take into account the “value” of a patent. Since, by definition, each patent is unique (with differing number of years to run, levels of quality, ability to be challenged or worked around, and so on), it is unlikely to be appropriate to use an “average value of patents sold recently” to value it. At least with the perpetual inventory method described above, a monetary value for a firm’s stock of R&D can be obtained.

The perpetual inventory method also provides a way to calculate market shares of R&D in R&D-intensive industries, which can be used alongside current measures. This would be akin to looking at capacity shares in some manufacturing industries. Of course, using market shares in R&D industries can be fraught with issues, such as whether it is appropriate to use a backward-looking measure to assess competitive constraints in a forward-looking industry. This is why any investigation into such industries should also look, for example, at a firm’s research pipeline.

Naturally, this only provides for the valuation of the R&D stock and says nothing about valuing other intangibles that are likely to play an important role in a much wider range of industries. Nonetheless, this method could provide another means for competition authorities to assess the current and historical state of R&D stocks in industries in which R&D plays an important part. It would be interesting to see what firms’ shares of R&D stocks look like, for example, in the pharmaceutical and tech industries.

In a constructive development, the Federal Trade Commission has joined its British counterpart in investigating Nvidia’s proposed $40 billion acquisition of chip designer Arm, a subsidiary of Softbank. Arm provides the technological blueprints for wireless communications devices and, subject to a royalty fee, makes those crown-jewel assets available to all interested firms. Notwithstanding Nvidia’s stated commitment to keep the existing policy in place, there is an obvious risk that the new parent, one of the world’s leading chip makers, would at some time modify this policy with adverse competitive effects.

Ironically, the FTC is likely part of the reason that the Nvidia-Arm transaction is taking place.

Since the mid-2000s, the FTC and other leading competition regulators (except for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division under the leadership of former Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim) have intervened extensively in licensing arrangements in wireless device markets, culminating in the FTC’s recent failed suit against Qualcomm. The Nvidia-Arm transaction suggests that these actions may simply lead chip designers to abandon the licensing model and shift toward structures that monetize chip-design R&D through integrated hardware and software ecosystems. Amazon and Apple are already undertaking chip innovation through this model. Antitrust action that accelerates this movement toward in-house chip design is likely to have adverse effects for the competitive health of the wireless ecosystem.

How IP Licensing Promotes Market Access

Since its inception, the wireless communications market has relied on a handful of IP licensors to supply device producers and other intermediate users with a common suite of technology inputs. The result has been an efficient division of labor between firms that specialize in upstream innovation and firms that specialize in production and other downstream functions. Contrary to the standard assumption that IP rights limit access, this licensing-based model ensures technology access to any firm willing to pay the royalty fee.

Efforts by regulators to reengineer existing relationships between innovators and implementers endanger this market structure by inducing innovators to abandon licensing-based business models, which now operate under a cloud of legal insecurity, for integrated business models in which returns on R&D investments are captured internally through hardware and software products. Rather than expanding technology access and intensifying competition, antitrust restraints on licensing freedom are liable to limit technology access and increase market concentration.

Regulatory Intervention and Market Distortion

This interventionist approach has relied on the assertion that innovators can “lock in” producers and extract a disproportionate fee in exchange for access. This prediction has never found support in fact. Contrary to theoretical arguments that patent owners can impose double-digit “royalty stacks” on device producers, empirical researchers have repeatedly found that the estimated range of aggregate rates lies in the single digits. These findings are unsurprising given market performance over more than two decades: adoption has accelerated as quality-adjusted prices have fallen and innovation has never ceased. If rates were exorbitant, market growth would have been slow, and the smartphone would be a luxury for the rich.

Despite these empirical infirmities, the FTC and other competition regulators have persisted in taking action to mitigate “holdup risk” through policy statements and enforcement actions designed to preclude IP licensors from seeking injunctive relief. The result is a one-sided legal environment in which the world’s largest device producers can effectively infringe patents at will, knowing that the worst-case scenario is a “reasonable royalty” award determined by a court, plus attorneys’ fees. Without any credible threat to deny access even after a favorable adjudication on the merits, any IP licensor’s ability to negotiate a royalty rate that reflects the value of its technology contribution is constrained.

Assuming no change in IP licensing policy on the horizon, it is therefore not surprising that an IP licensor would seek to shift toward an integrated business model in which IP is not licensed but embedded within an integrated suite of products and services. Or alternatively, an IP licensor entity might seek to be acquired by a firm that already has such a model in place. Hence, FTC v. Qualcomm leads Arm to Nvidia.

The Error Costs of Non-Evidence-Based Antitrust

These counterproductive effects of antitrust intervention demonstrate the error costs that arise when regulators act based on unverified assertions of impending market failure. Relying on the somewhat improbable assumption that chip suppliers can dictate licensing terms to device producers that are among the world’s largest companies, competition regulators have placed at risk the legal predicates of IP rights and enforceable contracts that have made the wireless-device market an economic success. As antitrust risk intensifies, the return on licensing strategies falls and competitive advantage shifts toward integrated firms that can monetize R&D internally through stand-alone product and service ecosystems.

Far from increasing competitiveness, regulators’ current approach toward IP licensing in wireless markets is likely to reduce it.

I am delighted to announce that Alden Abbott has returned to TOTM as a regular blogger following his recent stint as General Counsel of the FTC. You can find his first post since his return, on the NCAA v. Alston case, here.

Regular readers know Alden well, of course. Not only has he long been one of the most prolific and insightful thinkers on the antitrust scene, but from 2014 until his departure when he (re)joined the FTC in 2018, he had done some of his most prolific and insightful thinking here at TOTM.

As I wrote when Alden joined TOTM in 2014:

Alden has been at the center of the US antitrust universe for most of his career. When he retired from the FTC in 2012, he had served as Deputy Director of the Office of International Affairs for three years. Before that he was Director of Policy and Coordination, FTC Bureau of Competition; Acting General Counsel, Department of Commerce; Chief Counsel, National Telecommunications and Information Administration; Senior Counsel, Office of Legal Counsel, DOJ; and Special Assistant to the Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust, DOJ.

For those who may not know, Alden left the FTC earlier this year and is now a Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center.

Welcome back, Alden!

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a challenge next month to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2020 decision in NCAA v. Alston. Alston affirmed a district court decision that enjoined the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) from enforcing rules that restrict the education-related benefits its member institutions may offer students who play Football Bowl Subdivision football and Division I basketball.

This will be the first Supreme Court review of NCAA practices since NCAA v. Board of Regents in 1984, which applied the antitrust rule of reason in striking down the NCAA’s “artificial limit” on the quantity of televised college football games, but also recognized that “this case involves an industry in which horizontal restraints on competition are essential if the product [intercollegiate athletic contests] is to be available at all.” Significantly, in commenting on the nature of appropriate, competition-enhancing NCAA restrictions, the court in Board of Regents stated that:

[I]n order to preserve the character and quality of the [NCAA] ‘product,’ athletes must not be paid, must be required to attend class, and the like. And the integrity of the ‘product’ cannot be preserved except by mutual agreement; if an institution adopted such restrictions unilaterally, its effectiveness as a competitor on the playing field might soon be destroyed. Thus, the NCAA plays a vital role in enabling college football to preserve its character, and as a result enables a product to be marketed which might otherwise be unavailable. In performing this role, its actions widen consumer choice – not only the choices available to sports fans but also those available to athletes – and hence can be viewed as procompetitive. [footnote citation omitted]

One’s view of the Alston case may be shaped by one’s priors regarding the true nature of the NCAA. Is the NCAA a benevolent Dr. Jekyll, which seeks to promote amateurism and fairness in college sports to the benefit of student athletes and the general public?  Or is its benevolent façade a charade?  Although perhaps a force for good in its early years, has the NCAA transformed itself into an evil Mr. Hyde, using restrictive rules to maintain welfare-inimical monopoly power as a seller cartel of athletic events and a monopsony employer cartel that suppresses athletes’ wages? I will return to this question—and its bearing on the appropriate resolution of this legal dispute—after addressing key contentions by both sides in Alston.

Summarizing the Arguments in NCAA v Alston

The Alston class-action case followed in the wake of the 9th Circuit’s decision in O’Bannon v. NCAA (2015). O’Bannon affirmed in large part a district court’s ruling that the NCAA illegally restrained trade, in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, by preventing football and men’s basketball players from receiving compensation for the use of their names, images, and likenesses. It also affirmed the district court’s injunction insofar as it required the NCAA to implement the less restrictive alternative of permitting athletic scholarships for the full cost of attendance. (I commented approvingly on the 9th Circuit’s decision in a previous TOTM post.) 

Subsequent antitrust actions by student-athletes were consolidated in the district court. After a bench trial, the district court entered judgment for the student-athletes, concluding in part that NCAA limits on education-related benefits were unreasonable restraints of trade. It enjoined those limits but declined to hold that other NCAA limits on compensation unrelated to education likewise violated Section 1.

In May 2020, a 9th Circuit panel held that the district court properly applied the three-step Sherman Act Section 1 rule of reason analysis in determining that the enjoined rules were unlawful restraints of trade.

First, the panel concluded that the student-athletes carried their burden at step one by showing that the restraints produced significant anticompetitive effects within the relevant market for student-athletes’ labor.

At step two, the NCAA was required to come forward with evidence of the restraints’ procompetitive effects. The panel endorsed the district court’s conclusion that only some of the challenged NCAA rules served the procompetitive purpose of preserving amateurism and thus improving consumer choice by maintaining a distinction between college and professional sports. Those rules were limits on above-cost-of-attendance payments unrelated to education, the cost-of-attendance cap on athletic scholarships, and certain restrictions on cash academic or graduation awards and incentives. The panel affirmed the district court’s conclusion that the remaining rules—restricting non-cash education-related benefits—did nothing to foster or preserve consumer demand. The panel held that the record amply supported the findings of the district court, which relied on demand analysis, survey evidence, and NCAA testimony.

The panel also affirmed the district court’s conclusion that, at step three, the student-athletes showed that any legitimate objectives could be achieved in a substantially less restrictive manner. The district court identified a less restrictive alternative of prohibiting the NCAA from capping certain education-related benefits and limiting academic or graduation awards or incentives below the maximum amount that an individual athlete may receive in athletic participation awards, while permitting individual conferences to set limits on education-related benefits. The panel held that the district court did not clearly err in determining that this alternative would be virtually as effective in serving the procompetitive purposes of the NCAA’s current rules and could be implemented without significantly increased cost.

Finally, the panel held that the district court’s injunction was not impermissibly vague and did not usurp the NCAA’s role as the superintendent of college sports. The panel also declined to broaden the injunction to include all NCAA compensation limits, including those on payments untethered to education. The panel concluded that the district court struck the right balance in crafting a remedy that both prevented anticompetitive harm to student-athletes while serving the procompetitive purpose of preserving the popularity of college sports.

The NCAA appealed to the Supreme Court, which granted the NCAA’s petition for certiorari Dec. 16, 2020. The NCAA contends that under Board of Regents, the NCAA rules regarding student-athlete compensation are reasonably related to preserving amateurism in college sports, are procompetitive, and should have been upheld after a short deferential review, rather than the full three-step rule of reason. According to the NCAA’s petition for certiorari, even under the detailed rule of reason, the 9th Circuit’s decision was defective. Specifically:

The Ninth Circuit … relieved plaintiffs of their burden to prove that the challenged rules unreasonably restrain trade, instead placing a “heavy burden” on the NCAA … to prove that each category of its rules is procompetitive and that an alternative compensation regime created by the district court could not preserve the procompetitive distinction between college and professional sports. That alternative regime—under which the NCAA must permit student-athletes to receive unlimited “education-related benefits,” including post-eligibility internships that pay unlimited amounts in cash and can be used for recruiting or retention—will vitiate the distinction between college and professional sports. And via the permanent injunction the Ninth Circuit upheld, the alternative regime will also effectively make a single judge in California the superintendent of a significant component of college sports. The Ninth Circuit’s approval of this judicial micromanagement of the NCAA denies the NCAA the latitude this Court has said it needs, and endorses unduly stringent scrutiny of agreements that define the central features of sports leagues’ and other joint ventures’ products. The decision thus twists the rule of reason into a tool to punish (and thereby deter) procompetitive activity.

Two amicus briefs support the NCAA’s position. One, filed on behalf of “antitrust law and business school professors,” stresses that the 9th Circuit’s decision misapplied the third step of the rule of reason by requiring defendants to show that their conduct was the least restrictive means available (instead of requiring plaintiff to prove the existence of an equally effective but less restrictive rule). More broadly:

[This approach] permits antitrust plaintiffs to commandeer the judiciary and use it to regulate and modify routine business conduct, so long as that conduct is not the least restrictive conduct imaginable by a plaintiff’s attorney or district judge. In turn, the risk that procompetitive ventures may be deemed unlawful and subject to treble damages liability simply because they could have operated in a marginally less restrictive manner is likely to chill beneficial business conduct.

A second brief, filed on behalf of “antitrust economists,” emphasizes that the NCAA has adapted the rules governing design of its product (college amateur sports) over time to meet consumer demand and to prevent colleges from pursuing their own interests (such as “pay to  play”) in ways that would conflict with the overall procompetitive aims of the collaboration. While acknowledging that antitrust courts are free to scrutinize collaborations’ rules that go beyond the design of the product itself (such as the NCAA’s broadcast restrictions), the brief cites key Supreme Court decisions (NCAA v. Board of Regents and Texaco Inc. v. Dagher), for the proposition that courts should stay out of restrictions on the core activity of the joint venture itself. It then summarizes the policy justification for such judicial non-interference:

Permitting judges and juries to apply the Sherman Act to such decisions [regarding core joint venture activity] will inevitably create uncertainty that undermines innovation and investment incentives across any number of industries and collaborative ventures. In these circumstances, antitrust courts would be making public policy regarding the desirability of a product with particular features, as opposed to ferreting out agreements or unilateral conduct that restricts output, raises prices, or reduces innovation to the detriment of consumers.

In their brief opposing certiorari, counsel for Alston take the position that, in reality, the NCAA is seeking a special antitrust exemption for its competitively restrictive conduct—an issue that should be determined by Congress, not courts. Their brief notes that the concept of “amateurism” has changed over the years and that some increases in athletes’ compensation have been allowed over time. Thus, in the context of big-time college football and basketball:

[A]mateurism is little more than a pretext. It is certainly not a Sherman Act concept, much less a get-out-of-jail-free card that insulates any particular set of NCAA restraints from scrutiny.

Who Has the Better Case?

The NCAA’s position is a strong one. Association rules touching on compensation for college athletes are part of the core nature of the NCAA’s “amateur sports” product, as the Supreme Court stated (albeit in dictum) in Board of Regents. Furthermore, subsequent Supreme Court jurisprudence (see 2010’s American Needle Inc. v. NFL) has eschewed second-guessing of joint-venture product design decisions—which, in the case of the NCAA, involve formulating the restrictions (such as whether and how to compensate athletes) that are deemed key to defining amateurism.

The Alston amicus curiae briefs ably set forth the strong policy considerations that support this approach, centered on preserving incentives for the development of efficient welfare-generating joint ventures. Requiring joint venturers to provide “least restrictive means” justifications for design decisions discourages innovative activity and generates costly uncertainty for joint-venture planners, to the detriment of producers and consumers (who benefit from joint-venture innovations) alike. Claims by defendant Alston that the NCAA is in effect seeking to obtain a judicial antitrust exemption miss the mark; rather, the NCAA merely appears to be arguing that antitrust should be limited to evaluating restrictions that fall outside the scope of the association’s core mission. Significantly, as discussed in the NCAA’s brief petitioning for certiorari, other federal courts of appeals decisions in the 3rd, 5th, and 7th Circuits have treated NCAA bylaws going to the definition of amateurism in college sports as presumptively procompetitive and not subject to close scrutiny. Thus, based on the arguments set forth by litigants, a Supreme Court victory for the NCAA in Alston would appear sound as a matter of law and economics.

There may, however, be a catch. Some popular commentary has portrayed the NCAA as a malign organization that benefits affluent universities (and their well-compensated coaches) while allowing member colleges to exploit athletes by denying them fair pay—in effect, an institutional Mr. Hyde.

What’s more, consistent with the Mr. Hyde story, a number of major free-market economists (including, among others, Nobel laureate Gary Becker) have portrayed the NCAA as an anticompetitive monopsony employer cartel that has suppressed the labor market demand for student athletes, thereby limiting their wages, fringe benefits, and employment opportunities. (In a similar vein, the NCAA is seen as a monopolist seller cartel in the market for athletic events.) Consistent with this perspective, promoting the public good of amateurism (the Dr. Jekyll story) is merely a pretextual façade (a cover story, if you will) for welfare-inimical naked cartel conduct. If one buys this alternative story, all core product restrictions adopted by the NCAA should be fair game for close antitrust scrutiny—and thus, the 9th Circuit’s decision in Alston merits affirmation as a matter of antitrust policy.

There is, however, a persuasive response to the cartel story, set forth in Richard McKenzie and Dwight Lee’s essay “The NCAA:  A Case Study of the Misuse of the Monopsony and Monopoly Models” (Chapter 8 of their 2008 book “In Defense of Monopoly:  How Market Power Fosters Creative Production”). McKenzie and Lee examine the evidence bearing on economists’ monopsony cartel assertions (and, in particular, the evidence presented in a 1992 study by Arthur Fleischer, Brian Goff, and Richard Tollison) and find it wanting:

Our analysis leads inexorably to the conclusion that the conventional economic wisdom regarding the intent and consequences of NCAA restrictions is hardly as solid, on conceptual grounds, as the NCAA critics assert, often without citing relevant court cases. We have argued that the conventional wisdom is wrong in suggesting that, as a general proposition,

• college athletes are materially “underpaid” and are “exploited”;

• cheating on NCAA rules is prima facie evidence of a cartel intending to restrict employment and suppress athletes’ wages;

• NCAA rules violate conventional antitrust doctrine;          

• barriers to entry ensure the continuance of the NCAA’s monopsony powers over athletes.

No such entry barriers (other than normal organizational costs, which need to be covered to meet any known efficiency test for new entrants) exist. In addition, the Supreme Court’s decision in NCAA indicates that the NCAA would be unable to prevent through the courts the emergence of competing athletic associations. The actual existence of other athletic associations indicates that entry would be not only possible but also practical if athletes’ wages were materially suppressed.

Conventional economic analysis of NCAA rules that we have challenged also is misleading in suggesting that collegiate sports would necessarily be improved if the NCAA were denied the authority to regulate the payment of athletes. Given the absence of legal barriers to entry into the athletic association market, it appears that if athletes’ wages were materially suppressed (or as grossly suppressed as the critics claim), alternative sports associations would form or expand, and the NCAA would be unable to maintain its presumed monopsony market position. The incentive for colleges and universities to break with the NCAA would be overwhelming.

From our interpretation of NCAA rules, it does not follow necessarily that athletes should not receive any more compensation than they do currently. Clearly, market conditions change, and NCAA rules often must be adjusted to accommodate those changes. In the absence of entry barriers, we can expect the NCAA to adjust, as it has adjusted, in a competitive manner its rules of play, recruitment, and retention of athletes. Our central point is that contrary to the proponents of the monopsony thesis, the collegiate athletic market is subject to the self-correcting mechanism of market pressures. We have reason to believe that the proposed extension of the antitrust enforcement to the NCAA rules or proposed changes in sports law explicitly or implicitly recommended by the proponents of the cartel thesis would be not only unnecessary but also counterproductive.

Although a closer examination of the McKenzie and Lee’s critique of the economists’ cartel story is beyond the scope of this comment, I find it compelling.

Conclusion

In sum, the claim that antitrust may properly be applied to combat the alleged “exploitation” of college athletes by NCAA compensation regulations does not stand up to scrutiny. The NCAA’s rules that define the scope of amateurism may be imperfect, but there is no reason to think that empowering federal judges to second guess and reformulate NCAA athletic compensation rules would yield a more socially beneficial (let alone optimal) outcome. (Believing that the federal judiciary can optimally reengineer core NCAA amateurism rules is a prime example of the Nirvana fallacy at work.)  Furthermore, a Supreme Court decision affirming the 9th Circuit could do broad mischief by undermining case law that has accorded joint venturers substantial latitude to design the core features of their collective enterprise without judicial second-guessing. It is to be hoped that the Supreme Court will do the right thing and strongly reaffirm the NCAA’s authority to design and reformulate its core athletic amateurism product as it sees fit.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the legal and regulatory issues that arose during Ajit Pai’s tenure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The entire series of posts is available here.

Kristian Stout is director of innovation policy for the International Center for Law & Economics.]

One of the themes that has run throughout this symposium has been that, throughout his tenure as both a commissioner and as chairman, Ajit Pai has brought consistency and careful analysis to the Federal Communications Commission (McDowell, Wright). The reflections offered by the various authors in this symposium make one thing clear: the next administration would do well to learn from the considered, bipartisan, and transparent approach to policy that characterized Chairman Pai’s tenure at the FCC.

The following are some of the more specific lessons that can be learned from Chairman Pai. In an important sense, he laid the groundwork for his successful chairmanship when he was still a minority commissioner. His thoughtful dissents were rooted in consistent, clear policy arguments—a practice that both charted how he would look at future issues as chairman and would help the public to understand exactly how he would approach new challenges before the FCC (McDowell, Wright).

One of the most public instances of Chairman Pai’s consistency (and, as it turns out, his bravery) was with respect to net neutrality. From his dissent in the Title II Order, through his commission’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order, Chairman Pai focused on the actual welfare of consumers and the factors that drive network growth and adoption. As Brent Skorup noted, “Chairman Pai and the Republican commissioners recognized the threat that Title II posed, not only to free speech, but to the FCC’s goals of expanding telecommunications services and competition.” The result of giving in to the Title II advocates would have been to draw the FCC into a quagmire of mass-media regulation that would ultimately harm free expression and broadband deployment in the United States.

Chairman Pai’s vision worked out (Skorup, May, Manne, Hazlett). Despite prognostications of the “death of the internet” because of the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, available evidence suggests that industry investment grew over Chairman Pai’s term. More Americans are connected to broadband than ever before.

Relatedly, Chairman Pai was a strong supporter of liberalizing media-ownership rules that long had been rooted in 20th century notions of competition (Manne). Such rules systematically make it harder for smaller media outlets to compete with large news aggregators and social-media platforms. As Geoffrey Manne notes: 

Consistent with his unwavering commitment to promote media competition… Chairman Pai put forward a proposal substantially updating the media-ownership rules to reflect the dramatically changed market realities facing traditional broadcasters and newspapers.

This was a bold move for Chairman Pai—in essence, he permitted more local concentration by, e.g., allowing the purchase of a newspaper by a local television station that previously would have been forbidden. By allowing such combinations, the FCC enabled failing local news outlets to shore up their losses and continue to compete against larger, better-resourced organizations. The rule changes are in a case pending before the Supreme Court; should the court find for the FCC, the competitive outlook for local media looks much better thanks to Chairman Pai’s vision.

Chairman Pai’s record on spectrum is likewise impressive (Cooper, Hazlett). The FCC’s auctions under Chairman Pai raised more money and freed more spectrum for higher value uses than any previous commission (Feld, Hazlett). But there is also a lesson in how subsequent administrations can continue what Chairman Pai started. Unlicensed use, for instance, is not free or costless in its maintenance, and Tom Hazlett believes that there is more work to be done in further liberalizing access to the related spectrum—liberalizing in the sense of allowing property rights and market processes to guide spectrum to its highest use:

The basic theme is that regulators do better when they seek to create new rights that enable social coordination and entrepreneurial innovation, rather than enacting rules that specify what they find to be the “best” technologies or business models.

And to a large extent this is the model that Chairman Pai set down, from the issuance of the 12 GHZ NPRM to consider whether those spectrum bands could be opened up for wireless use, to the L-Band Order, where the commission worked hard to reallocate spectrum rights in ways that would facilitate more productive uses.

The controversial L-Band Order was another example of where Chairman Pai displayed both political acumen as well as an apolitical focus on improving spectrum policy (Cooper). Political opposition was sharp and focused after the commission finalized its order in April 2020. Nonetheless, Chairman Pai was deftly able to shepherd the L-Band Order and guarantee that important spectrum was made available for commercial wireless use.

As a native of Kansas, rural broadband rollout ranked highly in the list of priorities at the Pai FCC, and his work over the last four years is demonstrative of this pride of place (Hurwitz, Wright). As Gus Hurwitz notes, “the commission completed the Connect America Fund Phase II Auction. More importantly, it initiated the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) and the 5G Fund for Rural America, both expressly targeting rural connectivity.”

Further, other work, like the recently completed Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction and the 5G fund provide the necessary policy framework with which to extend greater connectivity to rural America. As Josh Wright notes, “Ajit has also made sure to keep an eye out for the little guy, and communities that have been historically left behind.” This focus on closing the digital divide yielded gains in connectivity in places outside of traditional rural American settings, such as tribal lands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico (Wright).

But perhaps one of Chairman Pai’s best and (hopefully) most lasting contributions will be de-politicizing the FCC and increasing the transparency with which it operated. In contrast to previous administrations, the Pai FCC had an overwhelmingly bipartisan nature, with many bipartisan votes being regularly taken at monthly meetings (Jamison). In important respects, it was this bipartisan (or nonpartisan) nature that was directly implicated by Chairman Pai championing the Office of Economics and Analytics at the commission. As many of the commentators have noted (Jamison, Hazlett, Wright, Ellig) the OEA was a step forward in nonpolitical, careful cost-benefit analysis at the commission. As Wright notes, Chairman Pai was careful to not just hire a bunch of economists, but rather to learn from other agencies that have better integrated economics, and to establish a structure that would enable the commission’s economists to materially contribute to better policy.

We were honored to receive a post from Jerry Ellig just a day before he tragically passed away. As chief economist at the FCC from 2017-2018, he was in a unique position to evaluate past practice and participate in the creation of the OEA. According to Ellig, past practice tended to treat the work of the commission’s economists as a post-hoc gloss on the work of the agency’s attorneys. Once conclusions were reached, economics would often be backfilled in to support those conclusions. With the establishment of the OEA, economics took a front-seat role, with staff of that office becoming a primary source for information and policy analysis before conclusions were reached. As Wright noted, the Federal Trade Commission had adopted this approach. With the FCC moving to do this as well, communications policy in the United States is on much sounder footing thanks to Chairman Pai.

Not only did Chairman Pai push the commission in the direction of nonpolitical, sound economic analysis but, as many commentators note, he significantly improved the process at the commission (Cooper, Jamison, Lyons). Chief among his contributions was making it a practice to publish proposed orders weeks in advance, breaking with past traditions of secrecy around draft orders, and thereby giving the public an opportunity to see what the commission intended to do.

Critics of Chairman Pai’s approach to transparency feared that allowing more public view into the process would chill negotiations between the commissioners behind the scenes. But as Daniel Lyons notes, the chairman’s approach was a smashing success:

The Pai era proved to be the most productive in recent memory, averaging just over six items per month, which is double the average number under Pai’s immediate predecessors. Moreover, deliberations were more bipartisan than in years past: Nathan Leamer notes that 61.4% of the items adopted by the Pai FCC were unanimous and 92.1% were bipartisan compared to 33% and 69.9%, respectively, under Chairman Wheeler.

Other reforms from Chairman Pai helped open the FCC to greater scrutiny and a more transparent process, including limiting editorial privileges on staff on an order’s text, and by introducing the use of a simple “fact sheet” to explain orders (Lyons).

I found one of the most interesting insights into the character of Chairman Pai, was his willingness to reverse course and take risks to ensure that the FCC promoted innovation instead of obstructing it by relying on received wisdom (Nachbar). For instance, although he was initially skeptical of the prospects of Space X to introduce broadband through its low-Earth-orbit satellite systems, under Chairman Pai, the Starlink beta program was included in the RDOF auction. It is not clear whether this was a good bet, Thomas Nachbar notes, but it was a statement both of the chairman’s willingness to change his mind, as well as to not allow policy to remain in a comfortable zone that excludes potential innovation.

The next chair has an awfully big pair of shoes (or one oversized coffee mug) to fill. Chairman Pai established an important legacy of transparency and process improvement, as well as commitment to careful, economic analysis in the business of the agency. We will all be well-served if future commissions follow in his footsteps.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the legal and regulatory issues that arose during Ajit Pai’s tenure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The entire series of posts is available here.

Thomas W. Hazlett is the H.H. Macaulay Endowed Professor of Economics at Clemson University.]

Disclosure: The one time I met Ajit Pai was when he presented a comment on my book, “The Political Spectrum,” at a Cato Institute forum in 2018. He was gracious, thorough, and complimentary. He said that while he had enjoyed the volume, he hoped not to appear in upcoming editions. I took that to imply that he read the book as harshly critical of the Federal Communications Commission. Well, when merited, I concede. But it left me to wonder if he had followed my story to its end, as I document the success of reforms launched in recent decades and advocate their extension. Inclusion in a future edition might work out well for a chairman’s legacy. Or…

While my comment here focuses on radio-spectrum allocation, there was a notable reform achieved during the Pai FCC that touches on the subject, even if far more general in scope. In January 2018, the commission voted to initiate an Office of Economics and Analytics.[1] The organizational change was expeditiously instituted that same year, with the new unit stood up under the leadership of FCC economist Giulia McHenry.[2]  I long proposed an FCC “Office of Economic Analysis” on the grounds that it had a reasonable prospect of improving evidence-based policymaking, allowing cost-benefit calculations to be made in a more professional, independent, and less political context.[3]  I welcome this initiative by the Pai FCC and look forward to the empirical test now underway.[4] 

Big Picture

Spectrum policy had notable triumphs under Chairman Pai but was—as President Carter dubbed the Vietnam War—an “incomplete success.” The main cause for celebration was the campaign to push spectrum-access rights into the marketplace. Pai’s public position was straightforward: “Our spectrum strategy calls for making low-band, mid-band, and high-band airwaves available for flexible use,” he wrote in an FCC blog post on June 19, 2018. But the means used by regulators to pursue that policy agenda repeatedly, historically prove determinative. The Pai FCC traveled pathways both effective and ineffective, and we should learn from either. The basic theme is that regulators do better when they seek to create new rights that enable social coordination and entrepreneurial innovation, rather than enacting rules that specify what they find to be the “best” technologies or business models. The traditional spectrum-allocation approach is to permit exactly what the FCC finds to be the best use of spectrum, but this assumes knowledge about the value of alternatives the regulator does not possess. Moreover, it assumes away the costs of regulators imposing their solutions over and above a competitive process that might have less direction but more freedom. In a 2017 notice, the FCC displayed the progress we have made in departing from administrative control, when it sought guidance from private sector commenters this way:

“Are there opportunities to incentivize relocation or repacking of incumbent licensees to make spectrum available for flexible broadband use?

We seek comment on whether auctions … could be used to increase the availability of flexible use spectrum?”

By focusing on how rights—not markets—should be structured, the FCC may side-step useless food fights and let social progress flow.[5]

Progress

Spectrum-allocation results were realized. Indeed, when one looks at the pattern in licensed and unlicensed allocations for “flexible use” under 10 GHz, the recent four-year interval coincides with generous increases, both absolutely and from trend. See Figure 1. These data feature expansions in bandwidth via liberal licenses that include 70 MHz for CBRS (3.5 GHz band), with rights assigned in Auction 105 (2020), and 280 MHz (3.7 – 3.98 GHz) assigned in Auction 107 (2020-21, soon to conclude). The 70 MHz added via Auction 1002 (600 MHz) in 2017 was accounted for during the previous FCC, but substantial bandwidth in Auctions 101, 102, and 103 was added in the millimeter wave bands (not shown in Figure 1, which focuses on low- and mid-band rights).[6]  Meanwhile, multiple increments of unlicensed spectrum allocations were made in 2020: 30 MHz shifted from the Intelligent Transportation Services set-aside (5.9 GHz) in 2020, 80 MHz of CBRS in 2020, and 1,200 MHz (6 GHz) dedicated to Wi-Fi type services in 2020.[7]  Substantial millimeter wave frequency space was previously set aside for unlicensed operations in 2016.[8]

Source: FCC and author’s calculations.

First, that’s not the elephant in the room. Auction 107 has assigned licenses allocated 280 MHz of flexible-use mid-band spectrum, producing at least $94 billion in gross bids (of which about $13 billion will be paid to incumbent satellite licensees to reconfigure their operations so as to occupy just 200 MHz, rather than 500 MHz, of the 3.7 – 4.2 GHz band).[9]  This crushes previous FCC sales; indeed, it constitutes about 42% of all auction receipts:

  • FCC auction receipts, 1994-2019: $117 billion[10]
  • FCC auction receipts, 2020 (Auctions 103 and 105): $12.1 billion
  • FCC auction winning bids, 2020 (Auction 107): $94 billion (gross bids including relocation costs, incentive payments, and before Assignment Phase payments)

The addition of the 280 MHz to existing flexible-use spectrum suitable for mobile (aka, Commercial Mobile Radio Services – CMRS) is the largest increment ever released. It will compose about one-fourth of the low- and mid-band frequencies available via liberal licenses. This constitutes a huge advance with respect to 5G deployments, but going much further—promoting competition, innovation in apps and devices, the Internet of Things, and pushing the technological envelope toward 6G and beyond. Notably, the U.S. has uniquely led this foray to a new frontier in spectrum allocation.

The FCC deserves praise for pushing this proceeding to fruition. So, here it is. The C-Band is a very big deal and a major policy success. And more: in Auction 107, the commission very wisely sold overlay rights. It did not wait for administrative procedures to reconfigure wireless use, tightly supervising new “sharing” of the band, but (a) accepted the incumbents’ basic strategy for reallocation, (b) sold new prospective rights to high bidders, subject to protection of incumbents, (c) used a fraction of proceeds to fund incumbents cooperating with the reallocation, plussing-up payments when hitting deadlines, and (d) implicitly relied on the new licensees to push the relocation process forward.

Challenges

It is interesting that the FCC sort of articulated this useful model, and sort of did not:

For a successful public auction of overlay licenses in the 3.7-3.98 GHz band, bidders need to know before an auction commences when they will get access to that currently occupied spectrum as well as the costs they will incur as a condition of their overlay license. (FCC C-Band Order [Feb. 7, 2020], par. 110)

A germ of truth, but note: Auction 107 also demonstrated just the reverse. Rights were sold prior to clearing the airwaves and bidders—while liable for “incentive payments”—do not know with certainty when the frequencies will be available for their use. Risk is embedded, as it is widely in financial assets (corporate equity shares are efficiently traded despite wide disagreement on future earnings), and yet markets perform. Indeed, the “certainty” approach touted by the FCC in their language about a “successful public auction” has long deterred efficient reallocations, as the incumbents’ exiting process holds up arrival of the entrants. The central feature of the C-Band reallocation was not to create certainty, but to embed an overlay approach into the process. This draws incumbents and entrants together into positive-sum transactions (mediated by the FCC are party-to-party) where they cooperate to create new productive opportunities, sharing the gains.  

The inspiration for the C-Band reallocation of satellite spectrum was bottom-up. As with so much of the radio spectrum, the band devoted to satellite distribution of video (relays to and from an array of broadcast and cable TV systems and networks) was old and tired. For decades, applications and systems were locked in by law. They consumed lots of bandwidth while ignoring the emergence of newer technologies like fiber optics (emphasis to underscore that products launched in the 1980s are still cutting-edge challenges for 2021 Spectrum Policy). Spying this mismatch, and seeking gains from trade, creative risk-takers petitioned the FCC.

In a mid-2017 request, computer chipmaker Intel and C-Band satellite carrier Intelsat (no corporate relationship) joined forces to ask for permission to expand the scope of satellite licenses. The proffered plan was for license holders to invest in spectrum economies by upgrading satellites and earth stations—magically creating new, unoccupied channels in prime mid-band frequencies perfect for highly valuable 5G services. All existing video transport services would continue, while society would enjoy way more advanced wireless broadband. All regulators had to do was allow “change of use” in existing licenses. Markets would do the rest: satellite operators would make efficient multi-billion-dollar investments, coordinating with each other and their customers, and then take bids from new users itching to access the prime 4 GHz spectrum. The transition to bold, new, more valuable applications would compensate legacy customers and service providers.

This “spectrum sharing” can spin gold – seizing on capitalist discovery and demand revelation in market bargains. Voila, the 21st century, delivered.

Well, yes and no. At first, the FCC filing was a yawner, the standard bureaucratic response. But this one took off took off when Chairman Pai—alertly, and in the public interest—embraced the proposal, putting it on the July 12, 2018 FCC meeting agenda. Intelsat’s market cap jumped from about $500 million to over $4.5 billion—the value of the spectrum it was using was worth far more than the service it was providing, and the prospect that it might realize some substantial fraction of the resource revaluation was visible evidence.[11] 

While the Pai FCC leaned in the proper policy direction, politics soon blew the process down. Congress denounced the “private auction” as a “windfall,” bellowing against the unfairness of allowing corporations (some foreign-owned!) to cash out. The populist message was upside-down. The social damage created by mismanagement of spectrum—millions of Americans paying more and getting less from wireless than otherwise, robbing ordinary citizens of vast consumer surplus—was being fixed by entrepreneurial initiative. Moreover, the public gains (lower prices plus innovation externalities spun off from liberated bandwidth) was undoubtedly far greater than any rents captured by the incumbent licensees. And a great bonus to spur future progress: rewards for those parties initiating and securing efficiency-enhancing rights will unleash vastly more productive activity.

But the populist winds—gale force and bipartisan—spun the FCC.

It was legally correct that Intelsat and its rival satellite carriers did not own the spectrum allocated to the C-Band. Indeed, that was root of the problem. And here’s a fatal catch: in applying for broader spectrum property rights, they revealed a valuable discovery. The FCC, posing as referee, turned competitor and appropriated the proffered business plan on behalf of its client (the U.S. government), and then auctioned it to bidders. Regulators did tip the incumbents, whose help was still needed in reorganizing the C-Band, setting $3.3 billion as a fair price for “moving costs” (changing out technology to reduce their transmission footprints) and dangled another $9.7 billion in “incentive payments” not to dilly dally. In total, carriers have bid some $93.9 billion, or $1.02 per MHz-Pop.[12] This is 4.7 times the price paid for the Priority Access Licenses (PALs) allocated 70 MHz in Auction 105 earlier in 2020.

The TOTM assignment was not to evaluate Ajit Pai but to evaluate the Pai FCC and its spectrum policies. On that scale, great value was delivered by the Intel-Intelsat proposal, and the FCC’s alert endorsement, offset in some measure by the long-term losses that will likely flow from the dirigiste retreat to fossilized spectrum rights controlled by diktat.

Sharing Nicely

And that takes us to 2020’s Auction 105 (Citizens Broadband Radio Services, CBRS). The U.S. has lagged much of the world in allocating flexible-use spectrum rights in the 3.5 GHz band. Ireland auctioned rights to use 350 MHz in May 2017 and many countries did likewise between then and 2020, distributing far more than the 70 MHz allocated to the Priority Access Licenses (PALs); 150 MHz to 390 MHz is the range. The Pai FCC can plausibly assign the lag to “preexisting conditions.” Here, however, I will stress that the Pai FCC did not substantially further our understanding of the costs of “spectrum sharing” under coordinating devices imposed by the FCC.

All commercially valuable spectrum bands are shared. The most intensely shared, in the relevant economic sense, are those bands curated by mobile carriers. These frequencies are complemented by extensive network capital supplied by investors, and permit millions of users—including international roamers—to gain seamless connectivity. Unlicensed bands, alternatively, tend to separate users spatially, powering down devices to localize footprints. These limits work better in situations where users desire short transmissions, like a Bluetooth link from iPhone to headphone or when bits can be handed off to a wide area network by hopping 60 feet to a local “hot spot.” The application of “spectrum sharing” to imply a non-exclusive (or unlicensed) rights regime is, at best, highly misleading. Whenever conditions of scarcity exist, meaning that not all uses can be accommodated without conflict, some rationing follows. It is commonly done by price, behavioral restriction, or both.

In CBRS, the FCC has imposed three layers of “priority” access across the 3550-3700 MHz band. Certain government radars are assumed to be fixed and must be protected. When in use, these systems demand other wireless services stay silent on particular channels. Next in line are PAL owners, parties which have paid for exclusivity, but which are not guaranteed access to a given channel. These rights, which sold for about $4.5 billion, are allocated dynamically by a controller (a Spectrum Access System, or SAS). The radios and networks used automatically and continuously check in to obtain spectrum space permissions. Seven PALs, allocated 10 MHz each, have been assigned, 70 MHz in total. Finally, General Access Authorizations (GAA) are given without limit or exclusivity to radio devices across the 80 MHz remaining in the band plus any PALs not in use. Some 5G phones are already equipped to use such bands on an unlicensed basis.

We shall see how the U.S. system works in comparison to alternatives. What is important to note is that the particular form of “spectrum sharing” is neither necessary nor free. As is standard outside the U.S., exclusive rights analogous to CMRS licenses could have been auctioned here, with U.S. government radars given vested rights.

One point that is routinely missed is that the decision to have the U.S. government partition the rights in three layers immediately conceded that U.S. government priority applications (for radar) would never shift. That is asserted as though it is a proposition that needs no justification, but it is precisely the sort of impediment to efficiency that has plagued spectrum reallocations for decades. It was, for instance, the 2002 assumption behind TV “white spaces”—that 402 MHz of TV Band frequencies was fixed in place, that the unused channels could never be repackaged and sold as exclusive rights and diverted to higher-valued uses. That unexamined assertion was boldly run then, as seen in the reduction of the band from 402 MHz to 235 MHz following Auctions 73 (2008) and 1001/1002 (2016-17), as well as in the clear possibility that remaining TV broadcasts could today be entirely transferred to cable, satellite, and OTT broadband (as they have already, effectively, been). The problem in CBRS is that the rights now distributed for the 80 MHz of unlicensed, with its protections of certain priority services, does not sprinkle the proper rights into the market such that positive-sum transitions can be negotiated. We’re stuck with whatever inefficiencies this “preexisting condition” of the 3.5 GHz might endow, unless another decadelong FCC spectrum allocation can move things forward.[13]

Already visible is that the rights sold as PALs in CBRS are only about 20% of the value of rights sold in the C-Band. This differential reflects the power restrictions and overhead costs embedded in the FCC’s sharing rules for CBRS (involving dynamic allocation of the exclusive access rights conveyed in PALs) but avoided in C-Band. In the latter, the sharing arrangements are delegated to the licensees. Their owners reveal that they see these rights as more productive, with opportunities to host more services.

There should be greater recognition of the relevant trade-offs in imposing coexistence rules. Yet, the Pai FCC succumbed in 5.9 GHz and in the 6 GHz bands to the tried-and-true options of Regulation Past. This was hugely ironic in the former, where the FCC had in 1999 imposed unlicensed access under rules that favored specific automotive informatics—Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC)—that proved a 20-year bust. In diagnosing this policy blunder, the FCC then repeated it, splitting off a 45 MHz band with Wi-Fi-friendly unlicensed rules, and leaving 30 MHz to continue as the 1999 set-aside for DSRC. A liberalization of rights that would have allowed for a “private auction” to change the use of the band would have been the preferred approach. Instead, we are left with a partition of the band into rival rule regimes again established by administrative fiat.

This approach was then again imposed in the large 1.2 GHz unlicensed allocation surrounding 6 GHz, making a big 2020 splash. The FCC here assumed, categorically, that unlicensed rules are the best way to sponsor spectrum coordination. It ignores the costs of that coordination. And the commission appears to forget the progress it has made with innovative policy solutions, pulling in market forces through “overlay” licenses. These useful devices were used, in one form or another, to reallocate spectrum in for 2G in Auction 4, AWS in Auction 66, millimeter bands in Auctions 102 and 103, the “TV Incentive Auction,” the satellite C-Band in Auction 107, and have recently appeared as star players in the January 2021 FCC plan to rationalize the complex mix of rights scattered around the 2.5 GHz band.[14]  Too complicated for administrators to figure out, it could be transactionally more efficient to let market competitors figure this out.

The Future

The re-allocations in 5.9 GHz and the 6 GHz bands may yet host productive services. One can hope. But how will regulators know that the options allowed, and taken, are superior to what alternatives—suppressed by law for the next five, 10, 20 years—might have emerged had competitors had the right to test business models or technologies disfavored by the regulators best laid plans. That is the thinking that locked in the TV band, the C-Band for Satellites, and the ITS Band. It’s what we learned to be problematic throughout the Political Radio Spectrum. We shall see, as Chairman Pai speculated, what future chapters these decisions leave for future editions.


[1]   https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-votes-establish-office-economics-analytics-0

[2]   https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-opens-office-economics-and-analytics

[3]   Thomas Hazlett, Economic Analysis at the Federal Communications Commission: A Simple Proposal to Atone for Past Sins, Resources for the Future Discussion Paper 11-23(May 2011);David Honig, FCC Reorganization: How Replacing Silos with Functional Organization Would Advance Civil Rights, 3 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law and Public Affairs 18 (Aug. 2018). 

[4] It is with great sadness that Jerry Ellig, the 2017-18 FCC Chief Economist who might well offer the most careful analysis of such a structural reform, will not be available for the task – one which he had already begun, writing this recent essay with two other FCC Chief Economists: Babette Boliek, Jerry Ellig and Jeff Prince, Improved economic analysis should be lasting part of Pai’s FCC legacy, The Hill (Dec. 29, 2020).  Jerry’s sudden passing, on January 21, 2021, is a deep tragedy.  Our family weeps for his wonderful wife, Sandy, and his precious daughter, Kat. 

[5]  As argued in: Thomas Hazlett, “The best way for the FCC to enable a 5G future,” Reuters (Jan. 17, 2018).

[6]  In 2018-19, FCC Auctions 101 and 102 offered licenses allocated 1,550 MHz of bandwidth in the 24 GHz and 28 GHz bands, although some of the bandwidth had previously been assigned and post-auction confusion over interference with adjacent frequency uses (in 24 GHz) has impeded some deployments.  In 2020, Auction 103 allowed competitive bidding for licenses to use 37, 39, and 47 GHz frequencies, 3400 MHz in aggregate.  Net proceeds to the FCC in 101, 102 and 103 were:  $700.3 million, $2.02 billion, and $7.56 billion, respectively.

[7]   I estimate that some 70 MHz of unlicensed bandwidth, allocated for television white space devices, was reduced pursuant to the Incentive Auction in 2017.  This, however, was baked into spectrum policy prior to the Pai FCC.

[8]   Notably, 64-71 GHz was allocated for unlicensed radio operations in the Spectrum Frontiers proceeding, adjacent to the 57-64 GHz unlicensed bands.  See Use of Spectrum Bands Above 24 GHz For Mobile Radio Services, et al., Report and Order and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, 31 FCC Rcd 8014 (2016), 8064-65, para. 130.

[9]   The revenues reflect bids made in the Clock phase of Auction 107.  An Assignment Phase has yet to occur as of this writing.

[10]  The 2021 FCC Budget request, p. 34: “As of December 2019, the total amount collected for broader government use and deficit reduction since 1994 exceeds $117 billion.” 

[11]   Kerrisdale Management issued a June 2018 report that tied the proceeding to a dubious source: “to the market-oriented perspective on spectrum regulation – as articulated, for instance, by the recently published book The Political Spectrum by former FCC chief economist Thomas Winslow Hazlett – [that] the original sin of the FCC was attempting to dictate from on high what licensees should or shouldn’t do with their spectrum. By locking certain bands into certain uses, with no simple mechanism for change or renegotiation, the agency guaranteed that, as soon as technological and commercial realities shifted – as they do constantly – spectrum use would become inefficient.” 

[12]   Net proceeds will be reduced to reflect bidding credits extended small businesses, but additional bids will be received in the Assignment Phase of Auction 107, still to be held. Likely totals will remain somewhere around current levels. 

[13]  The CBRS band is composed of frequencies at 3550-3700 MHz.  The top 50 MHz of that band was officially allocated in 2005 in a proceeding that started years earlier.  It was then curious that the adjacent 100 MHz was not included. 

[14] FCC Seeks Comment on Procedures for 2.5 GHz Reallocation (Jan. 13, 2021).

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the legal and regulatory issues that arose during Ajit Pai’s tenure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The entire series of posts is available here.

Geoffrey A. Manne is the president and founder of the International Center for Law and Economics.]

I’m delighted to add my comments to the chorus of voices honoring Ajit Pai’s remarkable tenure at the Federal Communications Commission. I’ve known Ajit longer than most. We were classmates in law school … let’s just say “many” years ago. Among the other symposium contributors I know of only one—fellow classmate, Tom Nachbar—who can make a similar claim. I wish I could say this gives me special insight into his motivations, his actions, and the significance of his accomplishments, but really it means only that I have endured his dad jokes and interminable pop-culture references longer than most. 

But I can say this: Ajit has always stood out as a genuinely humble, unfailingly gregarious, relentlessly curious, and remarkably intelligent human being, and he deployed these characteristics to great success at the FCC.   

Ajit’s tenure at the FCC was marked by an abiding appreciation for the importance of competition, both as a guiding principle for new regulations and as a touchstone to determine when to challenge existing ones. As others have noted (and as we have written elsewhere), that approach was reflected significantly in the commission’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order, which made competition—and competition enforcement by the antitrust agencies—the centerpiece of the agency’s approach to net neutrality. But I would argue that perhaps Chairman Pai’s greatest contribution to bringing competition to the forefront of the FCC’s mandate came in his work on media modernization.

Fairly early in his tenure at the commission, Ajit raised concerns with the FCC’s failure to modernize its media-ownership rules. In response to the FCC’s belated effort to initiate the required 2010 and 2014 Quadrennial Reviews of those rules, then-Commissioner Pai noted that the commission had abdicated its responsibility under the statute to promote competition. Not only was the FCC proposing to maintain a host of outdated existing rules, but it was also moving to impose further constraints (through new limitations on the use of Joint Sales Agreements (JSAs)). As Ajit noted, such an approach was antithetical to competition:

In smaller markets, the choice is not between two stations entering into a JSA and those same two stations flourishing while operating completely independently. Rather, the choice is between two stations entering into a JSA and at least one of those stations’ viability being threatened. If stations in these smaller markets are to survive and provide many of the same services as television stations in larger markets, they must cut costs. And JSAs are a vital mechanism for doing that.

The efficiencies created by JSAs are not a luxury in today’s digital age. They are necessary, as local broadcasters face fierce competition for viewers and advertisers.

Under then-Chairman Tom Wheeler, the commission voted to adopt the Quadrennial Review in 2016, issuing rules that largely maintained the status quo and, at best, paid tepid lip service to the massive changes in the competitive landscape. As Ajit wrote in dissent:

The changes to the media marketplace since the FCC adopted the Newspaper-Broadcast Cross-Ownership Rule in 1975 have been revolutionary…. Yet, instead of repealing the Newspaper-Broadcast Cross-Ownership Rule to account for the massive changes in how Americans receive news and information, we cling to it.

And over the near-decade since the FCC last finished a “quadrennial” review, the video marketplace has transformed dramatically…. Yet, instead of loosening the Local Television Ownership Rule to account for the increasing competition to broadcast television stations, we actually tighten that regulation.

And instead of updating the Local Radio Ownership Rule, the Radio-Television Cross-Ownership Rule, and the Dual Network Rule, we merely rubber-stamp them.

The more the media marketplace changes, the more the FCC’s media regulations stay the same.

As Ajit also accurately noted at the time:

Soon, I expect outside parties to deliver us to the denouement: a decisive round of judicial review. I hope that the court that reviews this sad and total abdication of the administrative function finds, once and for all, that our media ownership rules can no longer stay stuck in the 1970s consistent with the Administrative Procedure Act, the Communications Act, and common sense. The regulations discussed above are as timely as “rabbit ears,” and it’s about time they go the way of those relics of the broadcast world. I am hopeful that the intervention of the judicial branch will bring us into the digital age.

And, indeed, just this week the case was argued before the Supreme Court.

In the interim, however, Ajit became Chairman of the FCC. And in his first year in that capacity, he took up a reconsideration of the 2016 Order. This 2017 Order on Reconsideration is the one that finally came before the Supreme Court. 

Consistent with his unwavering commitment to promote media competition—and no longer a minority commissioner shouting into the wind—Chairman Pai put forward a proposal substantially updating the media-ownership rules to reflect the dramatically changed market realities facing traditional broadcasters and newspapers:

Today we end the 2010/2014 Quadrennial Review proceeding. In doing so, the Commission not only acknowledges the dynamic nature of the media marketplace, but takes concrete steps to update its broadcast ownership rules to reflect reality…. In this Order on Reconsideration, we refuse to ignore the changed landscape and the mandates of Section 202(h), and we deliver on the Commission’s promise to adopt broadcast ownership rules that reflect the present, not the past. Because of our actions today to relax and eliminate outdated rules, broadcasters and local newspapers will at last be given a greater opportunity to compete and thrive in the vibrant and fast-changing media marketplace. And in the end, it is consumers that will benefit, as broadcast stations and newspapers—those media outlets most committed to serving their local communities—will be better able to invest in local news and public interest programming and improve their overall service to those communities.

Ajit’s approach was certainly deregulatory. But more importantly, it was realistic, well-reasoned, and responsive to changing economic circumstances. Unlike most of his predecessors, Ajit was unwilling to accede to the torpor of repeated judicial remands (on dubious legal grounds, as we noted in our amicus brief urging the Court to grant certiorari in the case), permitting facially and wildly outdated rules to persist in the face of massive and obvious economic change. 

Like Ajit, I am not one to advocate regulatory action lightly, especially in the (all-too-rare) face of judicial review that suggests an agency has exceeded its discretion. But in this case, the need for dramatic rule change—here, to deregulate—was undeniable. The only abuse of discretion was on the part of the court, not the agency. As we put it in our amicus brief:

[T]he panel vacated these vital reforms based on mere speculation that they would hinder minority and female ownership, rather than grounding its action on any record evidence of such an effect. In fact, the 2017 Reconsideration Order makes clear that the FCC found no evidence in the record supporting the court’s speculative concern.

…In rejecting the FCC’s stated reasons for repealing or modifying the rules, absent any evidence in the record to the contrary, the panel substituted its own speculative concerns for the judgment of the FCC, notwithstanding the FCC’s decades of experience regulating the broadcast and newspaper industries. By so doing, the panel exceeded the bounds of its judicial review powers under the APA.

Key to Ajit’s conclusion that competition in local media markets could be furthered by permitting more concentration was his awareness that the relevant market for analysis couldn’t be limited to traditional media outlets like broadcasters and newspapers; it must include the likes of cable networks, streaming video providers, and social-media platforms, as well. As Ajit put it in a recent speech:

The problem is a fundamental refusal to grapple with today’s marketplace: what the service market is, who the competitors are, and the like. When assessing competition, some in Washington are so obsessed with the numerator, so to speak—the size of a particular company, for instance—that they’ve completely ignored the explosion of the denominator—the full range of alternatives in media today, many of which didn’t exist a few years ago.

When determining a particular company’s market share, a candid assessment of the denominator should include far more than just broadcast networks or cable channels. From any perspective (economic, legal, or policy), it should include any kinds of media consumption that consumers consider to be substitutes. That could be TV. It could be radio. It could be cable. It could be streaming. It could be social media. It could be gaming. It could be still something else. The touchstone of that denominator should be “what content do people choose today?”, not “what content did people choose in 1975 or 1992, and how can we artificially constrict our inquiry today to match that?”

For some reason, this simple and seemingly undeniable conception of the market escapes virtually all critics of Ajit’s media-modernization agenda. Indeed, even Justice Stephen Breyer in this week’s oral argument seemed baffled by the notion that more concentration could entail more competition:

JUSTICE BREYER: I’m thinking of it solely as a — the anti-merger part, in — in anti-merger law, merger law generally, I think, has a theory, and the theory is, beyond a certain point and other things being equal, you have fewer companies in a market, the harder it is to enter, and it’s particularly harder for smaller firms. And, here, smaller firms are heavily correlated or more likely to be correlated with women and minorities. All right?

The opposite view, which is what the FCC has now chosen, is — is they want to move or allow to be moved towards more concentration. So what’s the theory that that wouldn’t hurt the minorities and women or smaller businesses? What’s the theory the opposite way, in other words? I’m not asking for data. I’m asking for a theory.

Of course, as Justice Breyer should surely know—and as I know Ajit Pai knows—counting the number of firms in a market is a horrible way to determine its competitiveness. In this case, the competition from internet media platforms, particularly for advertising dollars, is immense. A regulatory regime that prohibits traditional local-media outlets from forging efficient joint ventures or from obtaining the scale necessary to compete with those platforms does not further competition. Even if such a rule might temporarily result in more media outlets, eventually it would result in no media outlets, other than the large online platforms. The basic theory behind the Reconsideration Order—to answer Justice Breyer—is that outdated government regulation imposes artificial constraints on the ability of local media to adopt the organizational structures necessary to compete. Removing those constraints may not prove a magic bullet that saves local broadcasters and newspapers, but allowing the rules to remain absolutely ensures their demise. 

Ajit’s commitment to furthering competition in telecommunications markets remained steadfast throughout his tenure at the FCC. From opposing restrictive revisions to the agency’s spectrum screen to dissenting from the effort to impose a poorly conceived and retrograde regulatory regime on set-top boxes, to challenging the agency’s abuse of its merger review authority to impose ultra vires regulations, to, of course, rolling back his predecessor’s unsupportable Title II approach to net neutrality—and on virtually every issue in between—Ajit sought at every turn to create a regulatory backdrop conducive to competition.

Tom Wheeler, Pai’s predecessor at the FCC, claimed that his personal mantra was “competition, competition, competition.” His greatest legacy, in that regard, was in turning over the agency to Ajit.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the legal and regulatory issues that arose during Ajit Pai’s tenure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The entire series of posts is available here.

Thomas B. Nachbar is a professor of law at the University of Virginia School of Law and a senior fellow at the Center for National Security Law.]

It would be impossible to describe Ajit Pai’s tenure as chair of the Federal Communications Commission as ordinary. Whether or not you thought his regulatory style or his policies were innovative, his relationship with the public has been singular for an FCC chair. His Reese’s mug, alone, has occupied more space in the American media landscape than practically any past FCC chair. From his first day, he has attracted consistent, highly visible criticism from a variety of media outlets, although at least John Oliver didn’t describe him as a dingo. Just today, I read that Ajit Pai single handedly ruined the internet, which when I got up this morning seemed to be working pretty much the same way it was four years ago.

I might be biased in my view of Ajit. I’ve known him since we were law school classmates, when he displayed the same zeal and good-humored delight in confronting hard problems that I’ve seen in him at the commission. So I offer my comments not as an academic and student of FCC regulation, but rather as an observer of the communications regulatory ecosystem that Ajit has dominated since his appointment. And while I do not agree with everything he’s done at the commission, I have admired his single-minded determination to pursue policies that he believes will expand access to advanced telecommunications services. One can disagree with how he’s pursued that goal—and many have—but characterizing his time as chair in any other way simply misses the point. Ajit has kept his eye on expanding access, and he has been unwavering in pursuit of that objective, even when doing so has opened him to criticism, which is the definition of taking political risk.

Thus, while I don’t think it’s going to be the most notable policy he’s participated in at the commission, I would like to look at Ajit’s tenure through the lens of one small part of one fairly specific proceeding: the commission’s decision to include SpaceX as a low-latency provider in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Auction.

The decision to include SpaceX is at one level unremarkable. SpaceX proposes to offer broadband internet access through low-Earth-orbit satellites, which is the kind of thing that is completely amazing but is becoming increasingly un-amazing as communications technology advances. SpaceX’s decision to use satellites is particularly valuable for initiatives like the RDOF, which specifically seek to provide services where previous (largely terrestrial) services have not. That is, in fact, the whole point of the RDOF, a point that sparked fiery debate over the FCC’s decision to focus the first phase of the RDOF on areas with no service rather than areas with some service. Indeed, if anything typifies the current tenor of the debate (at the center of which Ajit Pai has resided since his confirmation as chair), it is that a policy decision over which kind of under-served areas should receive more than $16 billion in federal funding should spark such strongly held views. In the end, SpaceX was awarded $885.5 million to participate in the RDOF, almost 10% of the first-round funds awarded.

But on a different level, the decision to include SpaceX is extremely remarkable. Elon Musk, SpaceX’s pot-smoking CEO, does not exactly fit regulatory stereotypes. (Disclaimer: I personally trust Elon Musk enough to drive my children around in one of his cars.) Even more significantly, SpaceX’s Starlink broadband service doesn’t actually exist as a commercial product. If you go to Starlink’s website, you won’t find a set of splashy webpages featuring products, services, testimonials, and a variety of service plans eager for a monthly assignation with your credit card or bank account. You will be greeted with a page asking for your email and service address in case you’d like to participate in Starlink’s beta program. In the case of my address, which is approximately 100 miles from the building where the FCC awarded SpaceX over $885 million to participate in the RDOF, Starlink is not yet available. I will, however, “be notified via email when service becomes available in your area,” which is reassuring but doesn’t get me any closer to watching cat videos.

That is perhaps why Chairman Pai was initially opposed to including SpaceX in the low-latency portion of the RDOF. SpaceX was offering unproven technology and previous satellite offerings had been high-latency, which is good for some uses but not others.

But then, an even more remarkable thing happened, at least in Washington: a regulator at the center of a controversial issue changed his mind and—even more remarkably—admitted his decision might not work out. When the final order was released, SpaceX was allowed to bid for low-latency RDOF funds even though the commission was “skeptical” of SpaceX’s ability to deliver on its low-latency promise. Many doubted that SpaceX would be able to effectively compete for funds, but as we now know, that decision led to SpaceX receiving a large share of the Phase I funds. Of course, that means that if SpaceX doesn’t deliver on its latency promises, a substantial part of the RDOF Phase I funds will fail to achieve their purpose, and the FCC will have backed the wrong horse.

I think we are unlikely to see such regulatory risk-taking, both technically and politically, in what will almost certainly be a more politically attuned commission in the coming years. Even less likely will be acknowledgments of uncertainty in the commission’s policies. Given the political climate and the popular attention policies like network neutrality have attracted, I would expect the next chair’s views about topics like network neutrality to exhibit more unwavering certainty than curiosity and more resolve than risk-taking. The most defining characteristic of modern communications technology and markets is change. We are all better off with a commission in which the other things that can change are minds.

[TOTM: The following is part of a digital symposium by TOTM guests and authors on the legal and regulatory issues that arose during Ajit Pai’s tenure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The entire series of posts is available here.

Jerry Ellig was a research professor at The George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center and served as chief economist at the Federal Communications Commission from 2017 to 2018. Tragically, he passed away Jan. 20, 2021. TOTM is honored to publish his contribution to this symposium.]

One significant aspect of Chairman Ajit Pai’s legacy is not a policy change, but an organizational one: establishment of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) Office of Economics and Analytics (OEA) in 2018.

Prior to OEA, most of the FCC’s economists were assigned to the various policy bureaus, such as Wireless, Wireline Competition, Public Safety, Media, and International. Each of these bureaus had its own chief economist, but the rank-and-file economists reported to the managers who ran the bureaus – usually attorneys who also developed policy and wrote regulations. In the words of former FCC Chief Economist Thomas Hazlett, the FCC had “no location anywhere in the organizational structure devoted primarily to economic analysis.”

Establishment of OEA involved four significant changes. First, most of the FCC’s economists (along with data strategists and auction specialists) are now grouped together into an organization separate from the policy bureaus, and they are managed by other economists. Second, the FCC rules establishing the new office tasked OEA with reviewing every rulemaking, reviewing every other item with economic content that comes before the commission for a vote, and preparing a full benefit-cost analysis for any regulation with $100 million or more in annual economic impact. Third, a joint memo from the FCC’s Office of General Counsel and OEA specifies that economists are to be involved in the early stages of all rulemakings. Fourth, the memo also indicates that FCC regulatory analysis should follow the principles articulated in Executive Order 12866 and Office of Management and Budget Circular A-4 (while specifying that the FCC, as an independent agency, is not bound by the executive order).

While this structure for managing economists was new for the FCC, it is hardly uncommon in federal regulatory agencies. Numerous independent agencies that deal with economic regulation house their economists in a separate bureau or office, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Surface Transportation Board, the Office of Comptroller of the Currency, and the Federal Trade Commission. The SEC displays even more parallels with the FCC. A guidance memo adopted in 2012 by the SEC’s Office of General Counsel and Division of Risk, Strategy and Financial Innovation (the name of the division where economists and other analysts were located) specifies that economists are to be involved in the early stages of all rulemakings and articulates best analytical practices based on Executive Order 12866 and Circular A-4.

A separate economics office offers several advantages over the FCC’s prior approach. It gives the economists greater freedom to offer frank advice, enables them to conduct higher-quality analysis more consistent with the norms of their profession, and may ultimately make it easier to uphold FCC rules that are challenged in court.

Independence.  When I served as chief economist at the FCC in 2017-2018, I gathered from conversations that the most common practice in the past was for attorneys who wrote rules to turn to economists for supporting analysis after key decisions had already been made. This was not always the process, but it often occurred. The internal working group of senior FCC career staff who drafted the plan for OEA reached similar conclusions. After the establishment of OEA, an FCC economist I interviewed noted how his role had changed: “My job used to be to support the policy decisions made in the chairman’s office. Now I’m much freer to speak my own mind.”

Ensuring economists’ independence is not a problem unique to the FCC. In a 2017 study, Stuart Shapiro found that most of the high-level economists he interviewed who worked on regulatory impact analyses in federal agencies perceive that economists can be more objective if they are located outside the program office that develops the regulations they are analyzing. As one put it, “It’s very difficult to conduct a BCA [benefit-cost analysis] if our boss wrote what you are analyzing.” Interviews with senior economists and non-economists who work on regulation that I conducted for an Administrative Conference of the United States project in 2019 revealed similar conclusions across federal agencies. Economists located in organizations separate from the program office said that structure gave them greater independence and ability to develop better analytical methodologies. On the other hand, economists located in program offices said they experienced or knew of instances where they were pressured or told to produce an analysis with the results decision-makers wanted.

The FTC provides an informative case study. From 1955-1961, many of the FTC’s economists reported to the attorneys who conducted antitrust cases; in 1961, they were moved into a separate Bureau of Economics. Fritz Mueller, the FTC chief economist responsible for moving the antitrust economists back into the Bureau of Economics, noted that they were originally placed under the antitrust attorneys because the attorneys wanted more control over the economic analysis. A 2015 evaluation by the FTC’s Inspector General concluded that the Bureau of Economics’ existence as a separate organization improves its ability to offer “unbiased and sound economic analysis to support decision-making.”

Higher-quality analysis. An issue closely related to economists’ independence is the quality of the economic analysis. Executive branch regulatory economists interviewed by Richard Williams expressed concern that the economic analysis was more likely to be changed to support decisions when the economists are located in the program office that writes the regulations. More generally, a study that Catherine Konieczny and I conducted while we were at the FCC found that executive branch agencies are more likely to produce higher-quality regulatory impact analyses if the economists responsible for the analysis are in an independent economics office rather than the program office.

Upholding regulations in court. In Michigan v. EPA, the Supreme Court held that it is unreasonable for agencies to refuse to consider regulatory costs if the authorizing statute does not prohibit them from doing so. This precedent will likely increase judicial expectations that agencies will consider economic issues when they issue regulations. The FCC’s OGC-OEA memo cites examples of cases where the quality of the FCC’s economic analysis either helped or harmed the commission’s ability to survive legal challenge under the Administrative Procedure Act’s “arbitrary and capricious” standard. More systematically, a recent Regulatory Studies Center working paper finds that a higher-quality economic analysis accompanying a regulation reduces the likelihood that courts will strike down the regulation, provided that the agency explains how it used the analysis in decisions.

Two potential disadvantages of a separate economics office are that it may make the economists easier to ignore (what former FCC Chief Economist Tim Brennan calls the “Siberia effect”) and may lead the economists to produce research that is less relevant to the practical policy concerns of the policymaking bureaus. The FCC’s reorganization plan took these disadvantages seriously.

To ensure that the ultimate decision-makers—the commissioners—have access to the economists’ analysis and recommendations, the rules establishing the office give OEA explicit responsibility for reviewing all items with economic content that come before the commission. Each item is accompanied by a cover memo that indicates whether OEA believes there are any significant issues, and whether they have been dealt with adequately. To ensure that economists and policy bureaus work together from the outset of regulatory initiatives, the OGC-OEA memo instructs:

Bureaus and Offices should, to the extent practicable, coordinate with OEA in the early stages of all Commission-level and major Bureau-level proceedings that are likely to draw scrutiny due to their economic impact. Such coordination will help promote productive communication and avoid delays from the need to incorporate additional analysis or other content late in the drafting process. In the earliest stages of the rulemaking process, economists and related staff will work with programmatic staff to help frame key questions, which may include drafting options memos with the lead Bureau or Office.

While presiding over his final commission meeting on Jan. 13, Pai commented, “It’s second nature now for all of us to ask, ‘What do the economists think?’” The real test of this institutional innovation will be whether that practice continues under a new chair in the next administration.