What should a government do when it owns geese that lay golden eggs? Should it sell the geese to fund government programs? Or should it let them run wild so everyone can have a chance at a golden egg?
That’s the question facing Congress as it considers re-authorizing the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) authority to auction and license spectrum. Should the FCC auction spectrum to maximize government revenue? Or, should it allow large portions to remain unlicensed to foster innovation and development?
The complication in this regard is that auction revenues play an outsized role in federal lawmakers’ deliberations about spectrum policy. Indeed, spectrum auctions have been wildly successful in generating revenue for the federal government. But the size of direct federal revenues are not necessarily a perfect gauge of the overall social welfare generated by particular policy choices.
As it considers future spectrum reauthorization, Congress needs to take a balanced approach that includes concern for federal revenues, but also considers the much larger social welfare that is created when diverse users in various situations can access services enabled by both licensed and unlicensed spectrum.
Licenced, Unlicensed, & Shared Spectrum
Most spectrum is licensed by the FCC to certain users. Licensees pay fees to the FCC for the exclusive right to transmit on an assigned frequency within a given geographical area. A license holder has the right to exclude others from accessing the assigned frequency and to be free from harmful interference from other service providers. In the private sector, radio and television broadcasters, as well as mobile-phone services, operate with licensed spectrum. Their right to exclude others and to be free from interference provides improved service and greater reliability in distributing their broadcasts or providing communication services.
Licensing gets spectrum into the hands of those who are well-positioned—both technologically and financially—to deploy spectrum for commercial uses. Because a licensee has the right to exclude other operators from the licensed band, licensing offers the operator flexibility to deploy their network in ways that effectively mitigate potential interference. In addition, the auctioning of licenses provides revenues for the government, reducing pressures to increase taxes or cut spending. Spectrum auctions have reportedly raised more than $230 billion for the U.S. Treasury since their inception.
Unlicensed spectrum can be seen as an open-access resource available to all users without charge. Users are free to use as much of this spectrum as they wish, so long as it’s with FCC-certified equipment operating at authorized power levels. The most well-known example of unlicensed operations is Wi-Fi, a service that operates in the 2.4 GHz, and 5.8 GHz bands and is employed by millions of U.S. users across millions of devices in millions of locations each day. Wi-Fi isn’t the only use for unlicensed spectrum; it covers a range of devices such as those relying on Bluetooth, as well as personal medical devices, appliances, and a wide range of Internet-of-Things devices.
As with any common resource, each user’s service-quality experience depends on how much spectrum is used by all. In particular, if the demand for spectrum at a particular place and point in time exceeds the available supply, then all users will experience diminished service quality. If you’ve been in a crowded coffee shop and complained that “the Internet sucks here,” it’s more than likely that demand for the shop’s Wi-Fi service is greater than the capacity of the Wi-Fi router.
While there can be issues of interference among wireless devices, it’s not the Wild West. Equipment and software manufacturers have invested in developing technologies that work in noisy environments and in proximity to other products. The existence of sufficient unlicensed and shared spectrum allows for innovation with new technologies and services. Firms don’t have to make large upfront investments in licenses to research, develop, and experiment with their innovations. These innovations benefit consumers, businesses, and manufacturers. According to the Wi-Fi Alliance, the success of Wi-Fi has been enormous:
The United States remains one of the countries with the widest Wi-Fi adoption and use. Cisco estimates 33.5 million paid Wi-Fi access points, with estimates for free public Wi-Fi sites at around 18.6 million. Eighty-five percent of United States broadband subscribers have Wi-Fi capability at home, and mobile users connect to the internet through Wi-Fi over cellular networks more than 55 percent of the time. The United States also has a robust manufacturing ecosystem and increasing enterprise use, which have aided the rise in the value of Wi-Fi. The total economic value of Wi-Fi in 2021 is $995 billion.
The Need for Balanced Spectrum Policy
To be sure, both licensed and unlicensed spectrum play crucial roles and serve different purposes, sometimes as substitutes for one another and sometimes as complements. It can’t therefore be said that one approach is “better” than the other, as there is undeniable economic value to both.
That’s why it’s been said that the optimal amount of unlicensed spectrum is somewhere between 0% and 100%. While that’s true, it’s unhelpful as a guide for policymakers, even if it highlights the challenges they face. Not only must they balance the competing interests of consumers, wireless providers, and electronics manufacturers, but they also have to keep their own self-interest in check, insofar as they are forever tempted to use spectrum auctions to raise revenue.
To this last point, it is likely that the “optimum” amount of unlicensed spectrum for society differs significantly from the amount that maximizes government auction revenues.
For simplicity, let’s assume “consumer welfare” is a shorthand for social welfare less government-auction revenues. In the (purely hypothetical) figure below, consumer welfare is maximized when about 56% of the available spectrum is licensed. Government auction revenues, however, are maximized when all available spectrum is licensed.
In this example, politicians have a keen interest in licensing more spectrum than is socially optimal. Doing so provides more revenues to the government without raising taxes. The additional costs passed on to individual consumers (or voters) would be so disperse as to be virtually undetectable. It’s a textbook case of concentrated benefits and diffused costs.
Of course, we can debate about the size, shape, and position of each of the curves, as well as where on the curve the United States currently sits. Nevertheless, available evidence indicates that the consumer welfare generated through use of unlicensed broadband will often exceed the revenue generated by spectrum auctions. For example, if the Wi-Fi Alliance’s estimate of $995 billion in economic value for Wi-Fi is accurate (or even in the ballpark), then the value of Wi-Fi alone is more than three times greater than the auction revenues received by the U.S. Treasury.
Of course, licensed-spectrum technology also provides tremendous benefit to society, but the basic basic point cannot be ignored: a congressional calculation that seeks simply to maximize revenue to the U.S. Treasury will almost certainly rob society of a great deal of benefit.
Licensed spectrum is obviously critical, and not just because it allows politicians to raise revenue for the federal government. Cellular technology and other licensed applications are becoming even more important as a wide variety of users opt for cellular-only Internet connections, or where fixed wireless over licensed spectrum is needed to reach remote users.
At the same time, shared and unlicensed spectrum has been a major success story, and promises to keep delivering innovation and greater connectivity in a wide variety of use cases. As we note above, the federal revenue generated from auctions should not be the only benefit counted. Unlicensed spectrum is responsible for tens of billions of dollars in direct value, and close to $1 trillion when accounting for its indirect benefits.
Ultimately, allocating spectrum needs to be a question of what most enhances consumer welfare. Raising federal revenue is great, but it is only one benefit that must be counted among a number of benefits (and costs). Any simplistic formula that pushes for maximizing a single dimension of welfare is likely to be less than ideal. As Congress considers further spectrum reauthorization, it needs to take seriously the need to encourage both private ownership of licensed spectrum, as well as innovative uses of unlicensed and shared spectrum.
AT&T’s $102 billion acquisition of Time Warner in 2019 will go down in M&A history as an exceptionally ill-advised transaction, resulting in the loss of tens of billions of dollars of shareholder value. It should also go down in history as an exceptional ill-chosen target of antitrust intervention. The U.S. Department of Justice, with support from many academic and policy commentators, asserted with confidence that the vertical combination of these content and distribution powerhouses would result in an entity that could exercise market power to the detriment of competitors and consumers.
The chorus of condemnation continued with vigor even after the DOJ’s loss in court and AT&T’s consummation of the transaction. With AT&T’s May 17 announcement that it will unwind the two-year-old acquisition and therefore abandon its strategy to integrate content and distribution, it is clear these predictions of impending market dominance were unfounded.
This widely shared overstatement of antitrust risk derives from a simple but fundamental error: regulators and commentators were looking at the wrong market.
The DOJ’s Antitrust Case against the Transaction
The business case for the AT&T/Time Warner transaction was straightforward: it promised to generate synergies by combining a leading provider of wireless, broadband, and satellite television services with a leading supplier of video content. The DOJ’s antitrust case against the transaction was similarly straightforward: the combined entity would have the ability to foreclose “must have” content from other “pay TV” (cable and satellite television) distributors, resulting in adverse competitive effects.
This foreclosure strategy was expected to take two principal forms. First, AT&T could temporarily withhold (or threaten to withhold) content from rival distributors absent payment of a higher carriage fee, which would then translate into higher fees for subscribers. Second, AT&T could permanently withhold content from rival distributors, who would then lose subscribers to AT&T’s DirectTV satellite television service, further enhancing AT&T’s market power.
Many commentators, both in the trade press and significant portions of the scholarly community, characterized the transaction as posing a high-risk threat to competitive conditions in the pay TV market. These assertions reflected the view that the new entity would exercise a bottleneck position over video-content distribution in the pay TV market and would exercise that power to impose one-sided terms to the detriment of content distributors and consumers.
Notwithstanding this bevy of endorsements, the DOJ’s case was rejected by the district court and the decision was upheld by the D.C. appellate court. The district judge concluded that the DOJ had failed to show that the combined entity would exercise any credible threat to withhold “must have” content from distributors. A key reason: the lost carriage fees AT&T would incur if it did withhold content were so high, and the migration of subscribers from rival pay TV services so speculative, that it would represent an obviously irrational business strategy. In short: no sophisticated business party would ever take AT&T’s foreclosure threat seriously, in which case the DOJ’s predictions of market power were insufficiently compelling to justify the use of government power to block the transaction.
The Fundamental Flaws in the DOJ’s Antitrust Case
The logical and factual infirmities of the DOJ’s foreclosure hypothesis have been extensively and ably covered elsewhere and I will not repeat that analysis. Following up on my previous TOTM commentary on the transaction, I would like to emphasize the point that the DOJ’s case against the transaction was flawed from the outset for two more fundamental reasons.
False Assumption #1
The assumption that the combined entity could withhold so-called “must have” content to cause significant and lasting competitive injury to rival distributors flies in the face of market realities. Content is an abundant, renewable, and mobile resource. There are few entry barriers to the content industry: a commercially promising idea will likely attract capital, which will in turn secure the necessary equipment and personnel for production purposes. Any rival distributor can access a rich menu of valuable content from a plethora of sources, both domestically and worldwide, each of which can provide new content, as required. Even if the combined entity held a license to distribute purportedly “must have” content, that content would be up for sale (more precisely, re-licensing) to the highest bidder as soon as the applicable contract term expired. This is not mere theorizing: it is a widely recognized feature of the entertainment industry.
False Assumption #2
Even assuming the combined entity could wield a portfolio of “must have” content to secure a dominant position in the pay TV market and raise content acquisition costs for rival pay TV services, it still would lack any meaningful pricing power in the relevant consumer market. The reason: significant portions of the viewing population do not want any pay TV or only want dramatically “slimmed-down” packages. Instead, viewers increasingly consume content primarily through video-streaming services—a market in which platforms such as Amazon and Netflix already enjoyed leading positions at the time of the transaction. Hence, even accepting the DOJ’s theory that the combined entity could somehow monopolize the pay TV market consisting of cable and satellite television services, the theory still fails to show any reasonable expectation of anticompetitive effects in the broader and economically relevant market comprising pay TV and streaming services. Any attempt to exercise pricing power in the pay TV market would be economically self-defeating, since it would likely prompt a significant portion of consumers to switch to (or start to only use) streaming services.
The Antitrust Case for the Transaction
When properly situated within the market that was actually being targeted in the AT&T/Time Warner acquisition, the combined entity posed little credible threat of exercising pricing power. To the contrary, the combined entity was best understood as an entrant that sought to challenge the two pioneer entities—Amazon and Netflix—in the “over the top” content market.
Each of these incumbent platforms individually had (and have) multi-billion-dollar content production budgets that rival or exceed the budgets of major Hollywood studios and enjoy worldwide subscriber bases numbering in the hundreds of millions. If that’s not enough, AT&T was not the only entity that observed the displacement of pay TV by streaming services, as illustrated by the roughly concurrent entry of Disney’s Disney+ service, Apple’s Apple TV+ service, Comcast NBCUniversal’s Peacock service, and others. Both the existing and new competitors are formidable entities operating in a market with formidable capital requirements. In 2019, Netflix, Amazon, and Apple TV expended approximately $15 billion, $6 billion, and again, $6 billion, respectively, on content; by contrast, HBO Max, AT&T’s streaming service, expended approximately $3.5 billion.
In short, the combined entity faced stiff competition from existing and reasonably anticipated competitors, requiring several billions of dollars on “content spend” to even stay in the running. Far from being able to exercise pricing power in an imaginary market defined by DOJ litigators for strategic purposes, the AT&T/Time Warner entity faced the challenge of merely surviving in a real-world market populated by several exceptionally well-financed competitors. At best, the combined entity “threatened” to deliver incremental competitive benefits by adding a robust new platform to the video-streaming market; at worst, it would fail in this objective and cause no incremental competitive harm. As it turns out, the latter appears to be the case.
The Enduring Virtues of Antitrust Prudence
AT&T’s M&A fiasco has important lessons for broader antitrust debates about the evidentiary standards that should be applied by courts and agencies when assessing alleged antitrust violations, in general, and vertical restraints, in particular.
Among some scholars, regulators, and legislators, it has become increasingly received wisdom that prevailing evidentiary standards, as reflected in federal case law and agency guidelines, are excessively demanding, and have purportedly induced chronic underenforcement. It has been widely asserted that the courts’ and regulators’ focus on avoiding “false positives” and the associated costs of disrupting innocuous or beneficial business practices has resulted in an overly cautious enforcement posture, especially with respect to mergers and vertical restraints.
In fact, these views were expressed by some commentators in endorsing the antitrust case against the AT&T/Time-Warner transaction. Some legislators have gone further and argued for substantial amendments to the antitrust law to provide enforcers and courts with greater latitude to block or re-engineer combinations that would not pose sufficiently demonstrated competitive risks under current statutory or case law.
The swift downfall of the AT&T/Time-Warner transaction casts great doubt on this critique and accompanying policy proposals. It was precisely the district court’s rigorous application of those “overly” demanding evidentiary standards that avoided what would have been a clear false-positive error. The failure of the “blockbuster” combination to achieve not only market dominance, but even reasonably successful entry, validates the wisdom of retaining those standards.
The fundamental mismatch between the widely supported antitrust case against the transaction and the widely overlooked business realities of the economically relevant consumer market illustrates the ease with which largely theoretical and decontextualized economic models of competitive harm can lead to enforcement actions that lack any reasonable basis in fact.
[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 Economicsat 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. The organizational change was expeditiously instituted that same year, with the new unit stood up under the leadership of FCC economist Giulia McHenry. 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. I welcome this initiative by the Pai FCC and look forward to the empirical test now underway.
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.
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). 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. Substantial millimeter wave frequency space was previously set aside for unlicensed operations in 2016.
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). This crushes previous FCC sales; indeed, it constitutes about 42% of all auction receipts:
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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. Too complicated for administrators to figure out, it could be transactionally more efficient to let market competitors figure this out.
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.
 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).
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 The revenues reflect bids made in the Clock phase of Auction 107. An Assignment Phase has yet to occur as of this writing.
 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.”
 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.”
 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.
 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.
[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.
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.
The FTC’s recent YouTube settlement and $170 million fine related to charges that YouTube violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) has the issue of targeted advertising back in the news. With an upcoming FTC workshop and COPPA Rule Review looming, it’s worth looking at this case in more detail and reconsidering COPPA’s 2013 amendment to the definition of personal information.
According to the complaint issued by the FTC and the New York Attorney General, YouTube violated COPPA by collecting personal information of children on its platform without obtaining parental consent. While the headlines scream that this is an egregious violation of privacy and parental rights, a closer look suggests that there is actually very little about the case that normal people would find to be all that troubling. Instead, it appears to be another in the current spate of elitist technopanics.
COPPA defines personal information to include persistent identifiers, like cookies, used for targeted advertising. These cookies allow site operators to have some idea of what kinds of websites a user may have visited previously. Having knowledge of users’ browsing history allows companies to advertise more effectively than is possible with contextual advertisements, which guess at users’ interests based upon the type of content being viewed at the time. The age old problem for advertisers is that “half the money spent on advertising is wasted; the trouble is they don’t know which half.” While this isn’t completely solved by the use of targeted advertising based on web browsing and search history, the fact that such advertising is more lucrative compared to contextual advertisements suggests that it works better for companies.
COPPA, since the 2013 update, states that persistent identifiers are personal information by themselves, even if not linked to any other information that could be used to actually identify children (i.e., anyone under 13 years old).
As a consequence of this rule, YouTube doesn’t allow children under 13 to create an account. Instead, YouTube created a separate mobile application called YouTube Kids with curated content targeted at younger users. That application serves only contextual advertisements that do not rely on cookies or other persistent identifiers, but the content available on YouTube Kids also remains available on YouTube.
YouTube’s error, in the eyes of the FTC, was that the site left it to channel owners on YouTube’s general audience site to determine whether to monetize their content through targeted advertising or to opt out and use only contextual advertisements. Turns out, many of those channels — including channels identified by the FTC as “directed to children” — made the more lucrative choice by choosing to have targeted advertisements on their channels.
Whether YouTube’s practices violate the letter of COPPA or not, a more fundamental question remains unanswered: What is the harm, exactly?
COPPA takes for granted that it is harmful for kids to receive targeted advertisements, even where, as here, the targeting is based not on any knowledge about the users as individuals, but upon the browsing and search history of the device they happen to be on. But children under 13 are extremely unlikely to have purchased the devices they use, to pay for the access to the Internet to use the devices, or to have any disposable income or means of paying for goods and services online. Which makes one wonder: To whom are these advertisements served to children actually targeted? The answer is obvious to everyone but the FTC and those who support the COPPA Rule: the children’s parents.
Television programs aimed at children have long been supported by contextual advertisements for cereal and toys. Tony the Tiger and Lucky the Leprechaun were staples of Saturday morning cartoons when I was growing up, along with all kinds of Hot Wheels commercials. As I soon discovered as a kid, I had the ability to ask my parents to buy these things, but ultimately no ability to buy them on my own. In other words: Parental oversight is essentially built-in to any type of advertisement children see, in the sense that few children can realistically make their own purchases or even view those advertisements without their parents giving them a device and internet access to do so.
When broken down like this, it is much harder to see the harm. It’s one thing to create regulatory schemes to prevent stalkers, creepers, and perverts from using online information to interact with children. It’s quite another to greatly reduce the ability of children’s content to generate revenue by use of relatively anonymous persistent identifiers like cookies — and thus, almost certainly, to greatly reduce the amount of content actually made for and offered to children.
On the one hand, COPPA thus disregards the possibility that controls that take advantage of parental oversight may be the most cost-effective form of protection in such circumstances. As Geoffrey Manne noted regarding the FTC’s analogous complaint against Amazon under the FTC Act, which ignored the possibility that Amazon’s in-app purchasing scheme was tailored to take advantage of parental oversight in order to avoid imposing excessive and needless costs:
[For the FTC], the imagined mechanism of “affirmatively seeking a customer’s authorized consent to a charge” is all benefit and no cost. Whatever design decisions may have informed the way Amazon decided to seek consent are either irrelevant, or else the user-experience benefits they confer are negligible….
Amazon is not abdicating its obligation to act fairly under the FTC Act and to ensure that users are protected from unauthorized charges. It’s just doing so in ways that also take account of the costs such protections may impose — particularly, in this case, on the majority of Amazon customers who didn’t and wouldn’t suffer such unauthorized charges….
At the same time, enforcement of COPPA against targeted advertising on kids’ content will have perverse and self-defeating consequences. As Berin Szoka notes:
This settlement will cut advertising revenue for creators of child-directed content by more than half. This will give content creators a perverse incentive to mislabel their content. COPPA was supposed to empower parents, but the FTC’s new approach actually makes life harder for parents and cripples functionality even when they want it. In short, artists, content creators, and parents will all lose, and it is not at all clear that this will do anything to meaningfully protect children.
This war against targeted advertising aimed at children has a cost. While many cheer the fine levied against YouTube (or think it wasn’t high enough) and the promised changes to its platform (though the dissenting Commissioners didn’t think those went far enough, either), the actual result will be less content — and especially less free content — available to children.
Far from being a win for parents and children, the shift in oversight responsibility from parents to the FTC will likely lead to less-effective oversight, more difficult user interfaces, less children’s programming, and higher costs for everyone — all without obviously mitigating any harm in the first place.
[TOTM: The following is the third in a series of posts by TOTM guests and authors on the FTC v. Qualcomm case, currently awaiting decision by Judge Lucy Koh in the Northern District of California. The entire series of posts is available here.
This post is authored by Douglas H. Ginsburg, Professor of Law, Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University; Senior Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; and former Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice; and Joshua D. Wright, University Professor, Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University; Executive Director, Global Antitrust Institute; former U.S. Federal Trade Commissioner from 2013-15; and one of the founding bloggers at Truth on the Market.]
[Ginsburg & Wright: Professor Wright is recused from participation in the FTC litigation against Qualcomm, but has provided counseling advice to Qualcomm concerning other regulatory and competition matters. The views expressed here are our own and neither author received financial support.]
The Department of Justice Antitrust Division (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have spent a significant amount of time in federal court litigating major cases premised upon an anticompetitive foreclosure theory of harm. Bargaining models, a tool used commonly in foreclosure cases, have been essential to the government’s theory of harm in these cases. In vertical merger or conduct cases, the core theory of harm is usually a variant of the claim that the transaction (or conduct) strengthens the firm’s incentives to engage in anticompetitive strategies that depend on negotiations with input suppliers. Bargaining models are a key element of the agency’s attempt to establish those claims and to predict whether and how firm incentives will affect negotiations with input suppliers, and, ultimately, the impact on equilibrium prices and output. Application of bargaining models played a key role in evaluating the anticompetitive foreclosure theories in the DOJ’s litigation to block the proposed merger of AT&T and Time Warner Cable. A similar model is at the center of the FTC’s antitrust claims against Qualcomm and its patent licensing business model.
Modern antitrust analysis does not condemn business practices as anticompetitive without solid economic evidence of an actual or likely harm to competition. This cautious approach was developed in the courts for two reasons. The first is that the difficulty of distinguishing between procompetitive and anticompetitive explanations for the same conduct suggests there is a high risk of error. The second is that those errors are more likely to be false positives than false negatives because empirical evidence and judicial learning have established that unilateral conduct is usually either procompetitive or competitively neutral. In other words, while the risk of anticompetitive foreclosure is real, courts have sensibly responded by requiring plaintiffs to substantiate their claims with more than just theory or scant evidence that rivals have been harmed.
An economic model can help establish the likelihood and/or magnitude of competitive harm when the model carefully captures the key institutional features of the competition it attempts to explain. Naturally, this tends to mean that the economic theories and models proffered by dueling economic experts to predict competitive effects take center stage in antitrust disputes. The persuasiveness of an economic model turns on the robustness of its assumptions about the underlying market. Model predictions that are inconsistent with actual market evidence give one serious pause before accepting the results as reliable.
For example, many industries are characterized by bargaining between providers and distributors. The Nash bargaining framework can be used to predict the outcomes of bilateral negotiations based upon each party’s bargaining leverage. The model assumes that both parties are better off if an agreement is reached, but that as the utility of one party’s outside option increases relative to the bargain, it will capture an increasing share of the surplus. Courts have had to reconcile these seemingly complicated economic models with prior case law and, in some cases, with direct evidence that is apparently inconsistent with the results of the model.
Indeed, Professor Carl Shapiro recently used bargaining models to analyze harm to competition in two prominent cases alleging anticompetitive foreclosure—one initiated by the DOJ and one by the FTC—in which he served as the government’s expert economist. In United States v. AT&T Inc., Dr. Shapiro testified that the proposed transaction between AT&T and Time Warner would give the vertically integrated company leverage to extract higher prices for content from AT&T’s rival, Dish Network. Soon after, Dr. Shapiro presented a similar bargaining model in FTC v. Qualcomm Inc. He testified that Qualcomm leveraged its monopoly power over chipsets to extract higher royalty rates from smartphone OEMs, such as Apple, wishing to license its standard essential patents (SEPs). In each case, Dr. Shapiro’s models were criticized heavily by the defendants’ expert economists for ignoring market realities that play an important role in determining whether the challenged conduct was likely to harm competition.
Judge Leon’s opinion in AT&T/Time Warner—recently upheld on appeal—concluded that Dr. Shapiro’s application of the bargaining model was significantly flawed, based upon unreliable inputs, and undermined by evidence about actual market performance presented by defendant’s expert, Dr. Dennis Carlton. Dr. Shapiro’s theory of harm posited that the combined company would increase its bargaining leverage and extract greater affiliate fees for Turner content from AT&T’s distributor rivals. The increase in bargaining leverage was made possible by the threat of a post-merger blackout of Turner content for AT&T’s rivals. This theory rested on the assumption that the combined firm would have reduced financial exposure from a long-term blackout of Turner content and would therefore have more leverage to threaten a blackout in content negotiations. The purpose of his bargaining model was to quantify how much AT&T could extract from competitors subjected to a long-term blackout of Turner content.
Judge Leon highlighted a number of reasons for rejecting the DOJ’s argument. First, Dr. Shapiro’s model failed to account for existing long-term affiliate contracts, post-litigation offers of arbitration agreements, and the increasing competitiveness of the video programming and distribution industry. Second, Dr. Carlton had demonstrated persuasively that previous vertical integration in the video programming and distribution industry did not have a significant effect on content prices. Finally, Dr. Shapiro’s model primarily relied upon three inputs: (1) the total number of subscribers the unaffiliated distributor would lose in the event of a long-term blackout of Turner content, (2) the percentage of the distributor’s lost subscribers who would switch to AT&T as a result of the blackout, and (3) the profit margin AT&T would derive from the subscribers it gained from the blackout. Many of Dr. Shapiro’s inputs necessarily relied on critical assumptions and/or third-party sources. Judge Leon considered and discredited each input in turn.
The parties in Qualcomm are, as of the time of this posting, still awaiting a ruling. Dr. Shapiro’s model in that case attempts to predict the effect of Qualcomm’s alleged “no license, no chips” policy. He compared the gains from trade OEMs receive when they purchase a chip from Qualcomm and pay Qualcomm a FRAND royalty to license its SEPs with the gains from trade OEMs receive when they purchase a chip from a rival manufacturer and pay a “royalty surcharge” to Qualcomm to license its SEPs. In other words, the FTC’s theory of harm is based upon the premise that Qualcomm is charging a supra-FRAND rate for its SEPs (the“royalty surcharge”) that squeezes the margins of OEMs. That margin squeeze, the FTC alleges, prevents rival chipset suppliers from obtaining a sufficient return when negotiating with OEMs. The FTC predicts the end result is a reduction in competition and an increase in the price of devices to consumers.
Qualcomm, like Judge Leon in AT&T, questioned the robustness of Dr. Shapiro’s model and its predictions in light of conflicting market realities. For example, Dr. Shapiro, argued that the
leverage that Qualcomm brought to bear on the chips shifted the licensing negotiations substantially in Qualcomm’s favor and led to a significantly higher royalty than Qualcomm would otherwise have been able to achieve.
Yet, on cross-examination, Dr. Shapiro declined to move from theory to empirics when asked if he had quantified the effects of Qualcomm’s practice on any other chip makers. Instead, Dr. Shapiro responded that he had not, but he had “reason to believe that the royalty surcharge was substantial” and had “inevitable consequences.” Under Dr. Shapiro’s theory, one would predict that royalty rates were higher after Qualcomm obtained market power.
As with Dr. Carlton’s testimony inviting Judge Leon to square the DOJ’s theory with conflicting historical facts in the industry, Qualcomm’s economic expert, Dr. Aviv Nevo, provided an analysis of Qualcomm’s royalty agreements from 1990-2017, confirming that there was no economic and meaningful difference between the royalty rates during the time frame when Qualcomm was alleged to have market power and the royalty rates outside of that time frame. He also presented evidence that ex ante royalty rates did not increase upon implementation of the CDMA standard or the LTE standard. Moreover, Dr.Nevo testified that the industry itself was characterized by declining prices and increasing output and quality.
Dr. Shapiro’s model in Qualcomm appears to suffer from many of the same flaws that ultimately discredited his model in AT&T/Time Warner: It is based upon assumptions that are contrary to real-world evidence and it does not robustly or persuasively identify anticompetitive effects. Some observers, including our Scalia Law School colleague and former FTC Chairman, Tim Muris, would apparently find it sufficient merely to allege a theoretical “ability to manipulate the marketplace.” But antitrust cases require actual evidence of harm. We think Professor Muris instead captured the appropriate standard in his important article rejecting attempts by the FTC to shortcut its requirement of proof in monopolization cases:
This article does reject, however, the FTC’s attempt to make it easier for the government to prevail in Section 2 litigation. Although the case law is hardly a model of clarity, one point that is settled is that injury to competitors by itself is not a sufficient basis to assume injury to competition …. Inferences of competitive injury are, of course, the heart of per se condemnation under the rule of reason. Although long a staple of Section 1, such truncation has never been a part of Section 2. In an economy as dynamic as ours, now is hardly the time to short-circuit Section 2 cases. The long, and often sorry, history of monopolization in the courts reveals far too many mistakes even without truncation.
Timothy J. Muris, The FTC and the Law of Monopolization, 67 Antitrust L. J. 693 (2000)
We agree. Proof of actual anticompetitive effects rather than speculation derived from models that are not robust to market realities are an important safeguard to ensure that Section 2 protects competition and not merely individual competitors.
The future of bargaining models in antitrust remains to be seen. Judge Leon certainly did not question the proposition that they could play an important role in other cases. Judge Leon closely dissected the testimony and models presented by both experts in AT&T/Time Warner. His opinion serves as an important reminder. As complex economic evidence like bargaining models become more common in antitrust litigation, judges must carefully engage with the experts on both sides to determine whether there is direct evidence on the likely competitive effects of the challenged conduct. Where “real-world evidence,” as Judge Leon called it, contradicts the predictions of a bargaining model, judges should reject the model rather than the reality. Bargaining models have many potentially important antitrust applications including horizontal mergers involving a bargaining component – such as hospital mergers, vertical mergers, and licensing disputes. The analysis of those models by the Ninth and D.C. Circuits will have important implications for how they will be deployed by the agencies and parties moving forward.
In brief, Delrahim spent virtually the entirety of his short remarks making and remaking the fundamental point at the center of my own assessment of the antitrust risk of a possible Comcast/Fox deal: The DOJ’s challenge of the AT&T/Time Warner merger tells you nothing about the likelihood that the agency would challenge a Comcast/Fox merger.
To begin, in my earlier assessment I pointed out that most vertical mergers are approved by antitrust enforcers, and I quoted Bruce Hoffman, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, who noted that:
[V]ertical merger enforcement is still a small part of our merger workload….
* * *
Where horizontal mergers reduce competition on their face — though that reduction could be minimal or more than offset by benefits — vertical mergers do not…. [T]here are plenty of theories of anticompetitive harm from vertical mergers. But the problem is that those theories don’t generally predict harm from vertical mergers; they simply show that harm is possible under certain conditions.
I may not have made it very clear in that post, but, of course, most horizontal mergers are approved by enforcers, as well.
Well, now we have the head of the DOJ Antitrust Division making the same point:
I’d say 95 or 96 percent of mergers — horizontal or vertical — are cleared — routinely…. Most mergers — horizontal or vertical — are procompetitive, or have no adverse effect.
Delrahim reinforced the point in an interview with The Street in advance of his remarks. Asked by a reporter, “what are your concerns with vertical mergers?,” Delrahim quickly corrected the questioner: “Well, I don’t have any concerns with most vertical mergers….”
But Delrahim went even further, noting that nothing about the Division’s approach to vertical mergers has changed since the AT&T/Time Warner case was brought — despite the efforts of some reporters to push a different narrative:
I understand that some journalists and observers have recently expressed concern that the Antitrust Division no longer believes that vertical mergers can be efficient and beneficial to competition and consumers. Some point to our recent decision to challenge some aspects of the AT&T/Time Warner merger as a supposed bellwether for a new vertical approach. Rest assured: These concerns are misplaced…. We have long recognized that vertical integration can and does generate efficiencies that benefit consumers. Indeed, most vertical mergers are procompetitive or competitively neutral. The same is of course true in horizontal transactions. To the extent that any recent action points to a closer review of vertical mergers, it’s not new…. [But,] to reiterate, our approach to vertical mergers has not changed, and our recent enforcement efforts are consistent with the Division’s long-standing, bipartisan approach to analyzing such mergers. We’ll continue to recognize that vertical mergers, in general, can yield significant economic efficiencies and benefit to competition.
Delrahim concluded his remarks by criticizing those who assume that the agency’s future enforcement decisions can be inferred from past cases with different facts, stressing that the agency employs an evidence-based, case-by-case approach to merger review:
Lumping all vertical transactions under the same umbrella, by comparison, obscures the reality that we conduct a vigorous investigation, aided by over 50 PhD economists in these markets, to make sure that we as lawyers don’t steer too far without the benefits of their views in each of these instances.
Arguably this was a rebuke directed at those, like Disney and Fox’s board, who are quick to ascribe increased regulatory risk to a Comcast/Fox tie-up because the DOJ challenged the AT&T/Time Warner merger. Recall that, in its proxy statement, the Fox board explained that it rejected Comcast’s earlier bid in favor of Disney’s in part because of “the regulatory risks presented by the DOJ’s unanticipated opposition to the proposed vertical integration of the AT&T / Time Warner transaction.”
I’ll likely have more to add once the AT&T/Time Warner decision is out. But in the meantime (and with apologies to Mark Twain), the takeaway is clear: Reports of the death of vertical mergers have been greatly exaggerated.
As has been rumored in the press for a few weeks, today Comcast announced it is considering making a renewed bid for a large chunk of Twenty-First Century Fox’s (Fox) assets. Fox is in the process of a significant reorganization, entailing primarily the sale of its international and non-television assets. Fox itself will continue, but with a focus on its US television business.
In December of last year, Fox agreed to sell these assets to Disney, in the process rejecting a bid from Comcast. Comcast’s initial bid was some 16% higher than Disney’s, although there were other differences in the proposed deals, as well.
In April of this year, Disney and Fox filed a proxy statement with the SEC explaining the basis for the board’s decision, including predominantly the assertion that the Comcast bid (NB: Comcast is identified as “Party B” in that document) presented greater regulatory (antitrust) risk.
As noted, today Comcast announced it is in “advanced stages” of preparing another unsolicited bid. This time,
Any offer for Fox would be all-cash and at a premium to the value of the current all-share offer from Disney. The structure and terms of any offer by Comcast, including with respect to both the spin-off of “New Fox” and the regulatory risk provisions and the related termination fee, would be at least as favorable to Fox shareholders as the Disney offer.
Because, as we now know (since the April proxy filing), Fox’s board rejected Comcast’s earlier offer largely on the basis of the board’s assessment of the antitrust risk it presented, and because that risk assessment (and the difference between an all-cash and all-share offer) would now be the primary distinguishing feature between Comcast’s and Disney’s bids, it is worth evaluating that conclusion as Fox and its shareholders consider Comcast’s new bid.
In short: There is no basis for ascribing a greater antitrust risk to Comcast’s purchase of Fox’s assets than to Disney’s.
Summary of the Proposed Deal
Post-merger, Fox will continue to own Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, Fox Broadcasting Company, Fox Sports, Fox Television Stations Group, and sports cable networks FS1, FS2, Fox Deportes, and Big Ten Network.
The deal would transfer to Comcast (or Disney) the following:
Primarily, international assets, including Fox International (cable channels in Latin America, the EU, and Asia), Star India (the largest cable and broadcast network in India), and Fox’s 39% interest in Sky (Europe’s largest pay TV service).
Fox’s film properties, including 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight, and Fox Animation. These would bring along with them studios in Sydney and Los Angeles, but would not include the Fox Los Angeles backlot. Like the rest of the US film industry, the majority of Fox’s film revenue is earned overseas.
FX cable channels, National Geographic cable channels (of which Fox currently owns 75%), and twenty-two regional sports networks (RSNs). In terms of relative demand for the two cable networks, FX is a popular basic cable channel, but fairly far down the list of most-watched channels, while National Geographic doesn’t even crack the top 50. Among the RSNs, only one geographic overlap exists with Comcast’s current RSNs, and most of the Fox RSNs (at least 14 of the 22) are not in areas where Comcast has a substantial service presence.
The deal would also entail a shift in the companies’ ownership interests in Hulu. Hulu is currently owned in equal 30% shares by Disney, Comcast, and Fox, with the remaining, non-voting 10% owned by Time Warner. Either Comcast or Disney would hold a controlling 60% share of Hulu following the deal with Fox.
Analysis of the Antitrust Risk of a Comcast/Fox Merger
According to the joint proxy statement, Fox’s board discounted Comcast’s original $34.36/share offer — but not the $28.00/share offer from Disney — because of “the level of regulatory issues posed and the proposed risk allocation arrangements.” Significantly on this basis, the Fox board determined Disney’s offer to be superior.
The claim that a merger with Comcast poses sufficiently greater antitrust risk than a purchase by Disney to warrant its rejection out of hand is unsupportable, however. From an antitrust perspective, it is even plausible that a Comcast acquisition of the Fox assets would be on more-solid ground than would be a Disney acquisition.
Vertical Mergers Generally Present Less Antitrust Risk
A merger between Comcast and Fox would be predominantly vertical, while a merger between Disney and Fox, in contrast, would be primarily horizontal. Generally speaking, it is easier to get antitrust approval for vertical mergers than it is for horizontal mergers. As Bruce Hoffman, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, noted earlier this year:
[V]ertical merger enforcement is still a small part of our merger workload….
There is a strong theoretical basis for horizontal enforcement because economic models predict at least nominal potential for anticompetitive effects due to elimination of horizontal competition between substitutes.
Where horizontal mergers reduce competition on their face — though that reduction could be minimal or more than offset by benefits — vertical mergers do not…. [T]here are plenty of theories of anticompetitive harm from vertical mergers. But the problem is that those theories don’t generally predict harm from vertical mergers; they simply show that harm is possible under certain conditions.
On its face, and consistent with the last quarter century of merger enforcement by the DOJ and FTC, the Comcast acquisition would be less likely to trigger antitrust scrutiny, and the Disney acquisition raises more straightforward antitrust issues.
This is true even in light of the fact that the DOJ decided to challenge the AT&T-Time Warner (AT&T/TWX) merger.
The AT&T/TWX merger is a single data point in a long history of successful vertical mergers that attracted little scrutiny, and no litigation, by antitrust enforcers (although several have been approved subject to consent orders).
Just because the DOJ challenged that one merger does not mean that antitrust enforcers generally, nor even the DOJ in particular, have suddenly become more hostile to vertical mergers.
Of particular importance to the conclusion that the AT&T/TWX merger challenge is of minimal relevance to predicting the DOJ’s reception in this case, the theory of harm argued by the DOJ in that case is far from well-accepted, while the potential theory that could underpin a challenge to a Disney/Fox merger is. As Bruce Hoffman further remarks:
I am skeptical of arguments that vertical mergers cause harm due to an increased bargaining skill; this is likely not an anticompetitive effect because it does not flow from a reduction in competition. I would contrast that to the elimination of competition in a horizontal merger that leads to an increase in bargaining leverage that could raise price or reduce output.
The Relatively Lower Risk of a Vertical Merger Challenge Hasn’t Changed Following the DOJ’s AT&T/Time Warner Challenge
Judge Leon is expected to rule on the AT&T/TWX merger in a matter of weeks. The theory underpinning the DOJ’s challenge is problematic (to say the least), and the case it presented was decidedly weak. But no litigated legal outcome is ever certain, and the court could, of course, rule against the merger nevertheless.
Yet even if the court does rule against the AT&T/TWX merger, this hardly suggests that a Comcast/Fox deal would create a greater antitrust risk than would a Disney/Fox merger.
A single successful challenge to a vertical merger — what would be, in fact, the first successful vertical merger challenge in four decades — doesn’t mean that the courts are becoming hostile to vertical mergers any more than the DOJ’s challenge means that vertical mergers suddenly entail heightened enforcement risk. Rather, it would simply mean that that, given the specific facts of the case, the DOJ was able to make out its prima facie case, and that the defendants were unable to rebut it.
A ruling for the DOJ in the AT&T/TWX merger challenge would be rooted in a highly fact-specific analysis that could have no direct bearing on future cases.
In the AT&T/TWX case, the court’s decision will turn on its assessment of the DOJ’s argument that the merged firm could raise subscriber prices by a few pennies per subscriber. But as AT&T’s attorney aptly pointed out at trial (echoing the testimony of AT&T’s economist, Dennis Carlton):
The government’s modeled price increase is so negligible that, given the inherent uncertainty in that predictive exercise, it is not meaningfully distinguishable from zero.
Even minor deviations from the facts or the assumptions used in the AT&T/TWX case could completely upend the analysis — and there are important differences between the AT&T/TWX merger and a Comcast/Fox merger. True, both would be largely vertical mergers that would bring together programming and distribution assets in the home video market. But the foreclosure effects touted by the DOJ in the AT&T/TWX merger are seemingly either substantially smaller or entirely non-existent in the proposed Comcast/Fox merger.
Most importantly, the content at issue in AT&T/TWX is at least arguably (and, in fact, argued by the DOJ) “must have” programming — Time Warner’s premium HBO channels and its CNN news programming, in particular, were central to the DOJ’s foreclosure argument. By contrast, the programming that Comcast would pick up as a result of the proposed merger with Fox — FX (a popular, but non-essential, basic cable channel) and National Geographic channels (which attract a tiny fraction of cable viewing) — would be extremely unlikely to merit that designation.
Moreover, the DOJ made much of the fact that AT&T, through DirectTV, has a national distribution footprint. As a result, its analysis was dependent upon the company’s potential ability to attract new subscribers decamping from competing providers from whom it withholds access to Time Warner content in every market in the country. Comcast, on the other hand, provides cable service in only about 35% of the country. This significantly limits its ability to credibly threaten competitors because its ability to recoup lost licensing fees by picking up new subscribers is so much more limited.
And while some RSNs may offer some highly prized live sports programming, the mismatch between Comcast’s footprint and the FOX RSNs (only about 8 of the 22 Fox RSNs are in Comcast service areas) severely limits any ability or incentive the company would have to leverage that content for higher fees. Again, to the extent that RSN programming is not “must-have,” and to the extent there is not overlap between the RSN’s geographic area and Comcast’s service area, the situation is manifestly not the same as the one at issue in the AT&T/TWX merger.
In sum, a ruling in favor of the DOJ in the AT&T/TWX case would be far from decisive in predicting how the agency and the courts would assess any potential concerns arising from Comcast’s ownership of Fox’s assets.
A Comcast/Fox Deal May Entail Lower Antitrust Risk than a Disney/Fox Merger
As discussed below, concerns about antitrust enforcement risk from a Comcast/Fox merger are likely overstated. Perhaps more importantly, however, to the extent these concerns are legitimate, they apply at least as much to a Disney/Fox merger. There is, at minimum, no basis for assuming a Comcast deal would present any greater regulatory risk.
The Antitrust Risk of a Comcast/Fox Merger Is Likely Overstated
The primary theory upon which antitrust enforcers could conceivably base a Comcast/Fox merger challenge would be a vertical foreclosure theory. Importantly, such a challenge would have to be based on the incremental effect of adding the Fox assets to Comcast, and not on the basis of its existing assets. Thus, for example, antitrust enforcers would not be able to base a merger challenge on the possibility that Comcast could leverage NBC content it currently owns to extract higher fees from competitors. Rather, only if the combination of NBC programming with additional content from Fox could create a new antitrust risk would a case be tenable.
Enforcers would be unlikely to view the addition of FX and National Geographic to the portfolio of programming content Comcast currently owns as sufficient to raise concerns that the merger would give Comcast anticompetitive bargaining power or the ability to foreclose access to its content.
Although even less likely, enforcers could be concerned with the (horizontal) addition of 20th Century Fox filmed entertainment to Universal’s existing film production and distribution. But the theatrical film market is undeniably competitive, with the largest studio by revenue (Disney) last year holding only 22% of the market. The combination of 20th Century Fox with Universal would still result in a market share only around 25% based on 2017 revenues (and, depending on the year, not even result in the industry’s largest share).
There is also little reason to think that a Comcast controlling interest in Hulu would attract problematic antitrust attention. Comcast has already demonstrated an interest in diversifying its revenue across cable subscriptions and licensing, broadband subscriptions, and licensing to OVDs, as evidenced by its recent deal to offer Netflix as part of its Xfinity packages. Hulu likely presents just one more avenue for pursuing this same diversification strategy. And Universal has a history (see, e.g., this, this, and this) of very broad licensing across cable providers, cable networks, OVDs, and the like.
In the case of Hulu, moreover, the fact that Comcast is vertically integrated in broadband as well as cable service likely reduces the anticompetitive risk because more-attractive OVD content has the potential to increase demand for Comcast’s broadband service. Broadband offers larger margins (and is growing more rapidly) than cable, and it’s quite possible that any loss in Comcast’s cable subscriber revenue from Hulu’s success would be more than offset by gains in its content licensing and broadband subscription revenue. The same, of course, goes for Comcast’s incentives to license content to OVD competitors like Netflix: Comcast plausibly gains broadband subscription revenue from heightened consumer demand for Netflix, and this at least partially offsets any possible harm to Hulu from Netflix’s success.
At the same time, especially relative to Netflix’s vast library of original programming (an expected $8 billion worth in 2018 alone) and content licensed from other sources, the additional content Comcast would gain from a merger with Fox is not likely to appreciably increase its bargaining leverage or its ability to foreclose Netflix’s access to its content.
Finally, Comcast’s ownership of Fox’s RSNs could, as noted, raise antitrust enforcers’ eyebrows. Enforcers could be concerned that Comcast would condition competitors’ access to RSN programming on higher licensing fees or prioritization of its NBC Sports channels.
While this is indeed a potential risk, it is hardly a foregone conclusion that it would draw an enforcement action. Among other things, NBC is far from the market leader, and improving its competitive position relative to ESPN could be viewed as a benefit of the deal. In any case, potential problems arising from ownership of the RSNs could easily be dealt with through divestiture or behavioral conditions; they are extremely unlikely to lead to an outright merger challenge.
The Antitrust Risk of a Disney Deal May Be Greater than Expected
While a Comcast/Fox deal doesn’t entail no antitrust enforcement risk, it certainly doesn’t entail sufficient risk to deem the deal dead on arrival. Moreover, it may entail less antitrust enforcement risk than would a Disney/Fox tie-up.
Yet, curiously, the joint proxy statement doesn’t mention any antitrust risk from the Disney deal at all and seems to suggest that the Fox board applied no risk discount in evaluating Disney’s bid.
Disney — already the market leader in the filmed entertainment industry — would acquire an even larger share of box office proceeds (and associated licensing revenues) through acquisition of Fox’s film properties. Perhaps even more important, the deal would bring the movie rights to almost all of the Marvel Universe within Disney’s ambit.
While, as suggested above, even that combination probably wouldn’t trigger any sort of market power presumption, it would certainly create an entity with a larger share of the market and stronger control of the industry’s most valuable franchises than would a Comcast/Fox deal.
Another relatively larger complication for a Disney/Fox merger arises from the prospect of combining Fox’s RSNs with ESPN. Whatever ability or incentive either company would have to engage in anticompetitive conduct surrounding sports programming, that risk would seem to be more significant for undisputed market leader, Disney. At the same time, although still powerful, demand for ESPN on cable has been flagging. Disney could well see the ability to bundle ESPN with regional sports content as a way to prop up subscription revenues for ESPN — a practice, in fact, that it has employed successfully in the past.
Disney is the world’s largest licensor, earning almost $57 billion in 2016 from licensing properties like Star Wars and Marvel Comics. Universal is in a distant 7th place, with 2016 licensing revenue of about $6 billion. Adding Fox’s (admittedly relatively small) licensing business would enhance Disney’s substantial lead (even the number two global licensor, Meredith, earned less than half of Disney’s licensing revenue in 2016). Again, this is unlikely to be a significant concern for antitrust enforcers, but it is notable that, to the extent it might be an issue, it is one that applies to Disney and not Comcast.
Although I hope to address these issues in greater detail in the future, for now the preliminary assessment is clear: There is no legitimate basis for ascribing a greater antitrust risk to a Comcast/Fox deal than to a Disney/Fox deal.
On Friday the the International Center for Law & Economics filed comments with the FCC in response to Chairman Wheeler’s NPRM (proposed rules) to “unlock” the MVPD (i.e., cable and satellite subscription video, essentially) set-top box market. Plenty has been written on the proposed rulemaking—for a few quick hits (among many others) see, e.g., Richard Bennett, Glenn Manishin, Larry Downes, Stuart Brotman, Scott Wallsten, and me—so I’ll dispense with the background and focus on the key points we make in our comments.
Our comments explain that the proposal’s assertion that the MVPD set-top box market isn’t competitive is a product of its failure to appreciate the dynamics of the market (and its disregard for economics). Similarly, the proposal fails to acknowledge the complexity of the markets it intends to regulate, and, in particular, it ignores the harmful effects on content production and distribution the rules would likely bring about.
American consumers enjoy unprecedented choice in how they view entertainment, news and sports programming. You can pretty much watch what you want, where you want, when you want.
Of course, much of this competition comes from outside the MVPD market, strictly speaking—most notably from OVDs like Netflix. It’s indisputable that the statute directs the FCC to address the MVPD market and the MVPD set-top box market. But addressing competition in those markets doesn’t mean you simply disregard the world outside those markets.
The competitiveness of a market isn’t solely a function of the number of competitors in the market. Even relatively constrained markets like these can be “fully competitive” with only a few competing firms—as is the case in every market in which MVPDs operate (all of which are presumed by the Commission to be subject to “effective competition”).
The truly troubling thing, however, is that the FCC knows that MVPDs compete with OVDs, and thus that the competitiveness of the “MVPD market” (and the “MVPD set-top box market”) isn’t solely a matter of direct, head-to-head MVPD competition.
How do we know that? As I’ve recounted before, in a recent speech FCC General Counsel Jonathan Sallet approvingly explained that Commission staff recommended rejecting the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger precisely because of the alleged threat it posed to OVD competitors. In essence, Sallet argued that Comcast sought to undertake a $45 billion merger primarily—if not solely—in order to ameliorate the competitive threat to its subscription video services from OVDs:
Simply put, the core concern came down to whether the merged firm would have an increased incentive and ability to safeguard its integrated Pay TV business model and video revenues by limiting the ability of OVDs to compete effectively.…
Thus, at least when it suits it, the Chairman’s office appears not only to believe that this competitive threat is real, but also that Comcast, once the largest MVPD in the country, believes so strongly that the OVD competitive threat is real that it was willing to pay $45 billion for a mere “increased ability” to limit it.
And now the FCC has approved the Charter/Time Warner Cable, imposing conditions that, according to Wheeler,
focus on removing unfair barriers to video competition. First, New Charter will not be permitted to charge usage-based prices or impose data caps. Second, New Charter will be prohibited from charging interconnection fees, including to online video providers, which deliver large volumes of internet traffic to broadband customers. Additionally, the Department of Justice’s settlement with Charter both outlaws video programming terms that could harm OVDs and protects OVDs from retaliation—an outcome fully supported by the order I have circulated today.
If MVPDs and OVDs don’t compete, why would such terms be necessary? And even if the threat is merely potential competition, as we note in our comments (citing to this, among other things),
particularly in markets characterized by the sorts of technological change present in video markets, potential competition can operate as effectively as—or even more effectively than—actual competition to generate competitive market conditions.
Moreover, the proposal asserts that the “market” for MVPD set-top boxes isn’t competitive because “consumers have few alternatives to leasing set-top boxes from their MVPDs, and the vast majority of MVPD subscribers lease boxes from their MVPD.”
But the MVPD set-top box market is an aftermarket—a secondary market; no one buys set-top boxes without first buying MVPD service—and always or almost always the two are purchased at the same time. As Ben Klein and many others have shown, direct competition in the aftermarket need not be plentiful for the market to nevertheless be competitive.
Whether consumers are fully informed or uninformed, consumers will pay a competitive package price as long as sufficient competition exists among sellers in the [primary] market.
The competitiveness of the MVPD market in which the antecedent choice of provider is made incorporates consumers’ preferences regarding set-top boxes, and makes the secondary market competitive.
The proposal’s superficial and erroneous claim that the set-top box market isn’t competitive thus reflects bad economics, not competitive reality.
But it gets worse. The NPRM doesn’t actually deny the importance of OVDs and app-based competitors wholesale — it only does so when convenient. As we note in our Comments:
The irony is that the NPRM seeks to give a leg up to non-MVPD distribution services in order to promote competition with MVPDs, while simultaneously denying that such competition exists… In order to avoid triggering [Section 629’s sunset provision,] the Commission is forced to pretend that we still live in the world of Blockbuster rentals and analog cable. It must ignore the Netflix behind the curtain—ignore the utter wealth of video choices available to consumers—and focus on the fact that a consumer might have a remote for an Apple TV sitting next to her Xfinity remote.
“Yes, but you’re aware that there’s an invention called television, and on that invention they show shows?” — Jules Winnfield
The NPRM proposes to create a world in which all of the content that MVPDs license from programmers, and all of their own additional services, must be provided to third-party device manufacturers under a zero-rate compulsory license. Apart from the complete absence of statutory authority to mandate such a thing (or, I should say, apart from statutory language specifically prohibiting such a thing), the proposed rules run roughshod over the copyrights and negotiated contract rights of content providers:
The current rulemaking represents an overt assault on the web of contracts that makes content generation and distribution possible… The rules would create a new class of intermediaries lacking contractual privity with content providers (or MVPDs), and would therefore force MVPDs to bear the unpredictable consequences of providing licensed content to third-parties without actual contracts to govern those licenses…
Because such nullification of license terms interferes with content owners’ right “to do and to authorize” their distribution and performance rights, the rules may facially violate copyright law… [Moreover,] the web of contracts that support the creation and distribution of content are complicated, extensively negotiated, and subject to destabilization. Abrogating the parties’ use of the various control points that support the financing, creation, and distribution of content would very likely reduce the incentive to invest in new and better content, thereby rolling back the golden age of television that consumers currently enjoy.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find any serious acknowledgement in the NPRM that its rules could have any effect on content providers, apart from this gem:
We do not currently have evidence that regulations are needed to address concerns raised by MVPDs and content providers that competitive navigation solutions will disrupt elements of service presentation (such as agreed-upon channel lineups and neighborhoods), replace or alter advertising, or improperly manipulate content…. We also seek comment on the extent to which copyright law may protect against these concerns, and note that nothing in our proposal will change or affect content creators’ rights or remedies under copyright law.
The Commission can’t rely on copyright to protect against these concerns, at least not without admitting that the rules require MVPDs to violate copyright law and to breach their contracts. And in fact, although it doesn’t acknowledge it, the NPRM does require the abrogation of content owners’ rights embedded in licenses negotiated with MVPD distributors to the extent that they conflict with the terms of the rule (which many of them must).
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” — Inigo Montoya
Finally, the NPRM derives its claimed authority for these rules from an interpretation of the relevant statute (Section 629 of the Communications Act) that is absurdly unreasonable. That provision requires the FCC to enact rules to assure the “commercial availability” of set-top boxes from MVPD-unaffiliated vendors. According to the NPRM,
we cannot assure a commercial market for devices… unless companies unaffiliated with an MVPD are able to offer innovative user interfaces and functionality to consumers wishing to access that multichannel video programming.
This baldly misconstrues a term plainly meant to refer to the manner in which consumers obtain their navigation devices, not how those devices should function. It also contradicts the Commission’s own, prior readings of the statute:
As structured, the rules will place a regulatory thumb on the scale in favor of third-parties and to the detriment of MVPDs and programmers…. [But] Congress explicitly rejected language that would have required unbundling of MVPDs’ content and services in order to promote other distribution services…. Where Congress rejected language that would have favored non-MVPD services, the Commission selectively interprets the language Congress did employ in order to accomplish exactly what Congress rejected.
And despite the above noted problems (and more), the Commission has failed to do even a cursory economic evaluation of the relative costs of the NPRM, instead focusing narrowly on one single benefit it believes might occur (wider distribution of set-top boxes from third-parties) despite the consistent failure of similar FCC efforts in the past.
All of the foregoing leads to a final question: At what point do the costs of these rules finally outweigh the perceived benefits? On the one hand are legal questions of infringement, inducements to violate agreements, and disruptions of complex contractual ecosystems supporting content creation. On the other hand are the presence of more boxes and apps that allow users to choose who gets to draw the UI for their video content…. At some point the Commission needs to take seriously the costs of its actions, and determine whether the public interest is really served by the proposed rules.
Last week, FCC General Counsel Jonathan Sallet pulled back the curtain on the FCC staff’s analysis behind its decision to block Comcast’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable. As the FCC staff sets out on its reported Rainbow Tour to reassure regulated companies that it’s not “hostile to the industries it regulates,” Sallet’s remarks suggest it will have an uphill climb. Unfortunately, the staff’s analysis appears to have been unduly speculative, disconnected from critical market realities, and decidedly biased — not characteristics in a regulator that tend to offer much reassurance.
Merger analysis is inherently speculative, but, as courts have repeatedlyhadoccasion to find, the FCC has a penchant for stretching speculation beyond the breaking point, adopting theories of harm that are vaguely possible, even if unlikely and inconsistent with past practice, and poorly supported by empirical evidence. The FCC’s approach here seems to fit this description.
The FCC’s fundamental theory of anticompetitive harm
To begin with, as he must, Sallet acknowledged that there was no direct competitive overlap in the areas served by Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and no consumer would have seen the number of providers available to her changed by the deal.
But the FCC staff viewed this critical fact as “not outcome determinative.” Instead, Sallet explained that the staff’s opposition was based primarily on a concern that the deal might enable Comcast to harm “nascent” OVD competitors in order to protect its video (MVPD) business:
Simply put, the core concern came down to whether the merged firm would have an increased incentive and ability to safeguard its integrated Pay TV business model and video revenues by limiting the ability of OVDs to compete effectively, especially through the use of new business models.
The justification for the concern boiled down to an assumption that the addition of TWC’s subscriber base would be sufficient to render an otherwise too-costly anticompetitive campaign against OVDs worthwhile:
Without the merger, a company taking action against OVDs for the benefit of the Pay TV system as a whole would incur costs but gain additional sales – or protect existing sales — only within its footprint. But the combined entity, having a larger footprint, would internalize more of the external “benefits” provided to other industry members.
The FCC theorized that, by acquiring a larger footprint, Comcast would gain enough bargaining power and leverage, as well as the means to profit from an exclusionary strategy, leading it to employ a range of harmful tactics — such as impairing the quality/speed of OVD streams, imposing data caps, limiting OVD access to TV-connected devices, imposing higher interconnection fees, and saddling OVDs with higher programming costs. It’s difficult to see how such conduct would be permitted under the FCC’s Open Internet Order/Title II regime, but, nevertheless, the staff apparently believed that Comcast would possess a powerful “toolkit” with which to harm OVDs post-transaction.
Comcast’s share of the MVPD market wouldn’t have changed enough to justify the FCC’s purported fears
First, the analysis turned on what Comcast could and would do if it were larger. But Comcast was already the largest ISP and MVPD (now second largest MVPD, post AT&T/DIRECTV) in the nation, and presumably it has approximately the same incentives and ability to disadvantage OVDs today.
In fact, there’s no reason to believe that the growth of Comcast’s MVPD business would cause any material change in its incentives with respect to OVDs. Whatever nefarious incentives the merger allegedly would have created by increasing Comcast’s share of the MVPD market (which is where the purported benefits in the FCC staff’s anticompetitive story would be realized), those incentives would be proportional to the size of increase in Comcast’s national MVPD market share — which, here, would be about eight percentage points: from 22% to under 30% of the national market.
It’s difficult to believe that Comcast would gain the wherewithal to engage in this costly strategy by adding such a relatively small fraction of the MVPD market (which would still leave other MVPDs serving fully 70% of the market to reap the purported benefits instead of Comcast), but wouldn’t have it at its current size – and there’s no evidence that it has ever employed such strategies with its current market share.
It bears highlighting that the D.C. Circuit has already twicerejected FCC efforts to impose a 30% market cap on MVPDs, based on the Commission’s inability to demonstrate that a greater-than-30% share would create competitive problems, especially given the highly dynamic nature of the MVPD market. In vacating the FCC’s most recent effort to do so in 2009, the D.C. Circuit was resolute in its condemnation of the agency, noting:
In sum, the Commission has failed to demonstrate that allowing a cable operator to serve more than 30% of all [MVPD] subscribers would threaten to reduce either competition or diversity in programming.
The extent of competition and the amount of available programming (including original programming distributed by OVDs themselves) has increased substantially since 2009; this makes the FCC’s competitive claims even less sustainable today.
It’s damning enough to the FCC’s case that there is no marketplace evidence of such conduct or its anticompetitive effects in today’s market. But it’s truly impossible to square the FCC’s assertions about Comcast’s anticompetitive incentives with the fact that, over the past decade, Comcast has made massive investments in broadband, steadily increased broadband speeds, and freely licensed its programming, among other things that have served to enhance OVDs’ long-term viability and growth. Chalk it up to the threat of regulatory intervention or corporate incompetence if you can’t believe that competition alone could be responsible for this largesse, but, whatever the reason, the FCC staff’s fears appear completely unfounded in a marketplace not significantly different than the landscape that would have existed post-merger.
OVDs aren’t vulnerable, and don’t need the FCC’s “help”
After describing the “new entrants” in the market — such unfamiliar and powerless players as Dish, Sony, HBO, and CBS — Sallet claimed that the staff was principally animated by the understanding that
Entrants are particularly vulnerable when competition is nascent. Thus, staff was particularly concerned that this transaction could damage competition in the video distribution industry.
Sallet’s description of OVDs makes them sound like struggling entrepreneurs working in garages. But, in fact, OVDs have radically reshaped the media business and wield enormous clout in the marketplace.
Netflix, for example, describes itself as “the world’s leading Internet television network with over 65 million members in over 50 countries.” New services like Sony Vue and Sling TV are affiliated with giant, well-established media conglomerates. And whatever new offerings emerge from the FCC-approved AT&T/DIRECTV merger will be as well-positioned as any in the market.
In fact, we already know that the concerns of the FCC are off-base because they are of a piece with the misguided assumptions that underlie the Chairman’s recent NPRM to rewrite the MVPD rules to “protect” just these sorts of companies. But the OVDs themselves — the ones with real money and their competitive futures on the line — don’t see the world the way the FCC does, and they’ve resolutely rejected the Chairman’s proposal. Notably, the proposed rules would “protect” these services from exactly the sort of conduct that Sallet claims would have been a consequence of the Comcast-TWC merger.
If they don’t want or need broad protection from such “harms” in the form of revised industry-wide rules, there is surely no justification for the FCC to throttle a merger based on speculation that the same conduct could conceivably arise in the future.
The realities of the broadband market post-merger wouldn’t have supported the FCC’s argument, either
While a larger Comcast might be in a position to realize more of the benefits from the exclusionary strategy Sallet described, it would also incur more of the costs — likely in direct proportion to the increased size of its subscriber base.
Think of it this way: To the extent that an MVPD can possibly constrain an OVD’s scope of distribution for programming, doing so also necessarily makes the MVPD’s own broadband offering less attractive, forcing it to incur a cost that would increase in proportion to the size of the distributor’s broadband market. In this case, as noted, Comcast would have gained MVPD subscribers — but it would have also gained broadband subscribers. In a world where cable is consistently losing video subscribers (as Sallet acknowledged), and where broadband offers higher margins and faster growth, it makes no economic sense that Comcast would have valued the trade-off the way the FCC claims it would have.
Moreover, in light of the existing conditions imposed on Comcast under the Comcast/NBCU merger order from 2011 (which last for a few more years) and the restrictions adopted in the Open Internet Order, Comcast’s ability to engage in the sort of exclusionary conduct described by Sallet would be severely limited, if not non-existent. Nor, of course, is there any guarantee that former or would-be OVD subscribers would choose to subscribe to, or pay more for, any MVPD in lieu of OVDs. Meanwhile, many of the relevant substitutes in the MVPD market (like AT&T and Verizon FiOS) also offer broadband services – thereby increasing the costs that would be incurred in the broadband market even more, as many subscribers would shift not only their MVPD, but also their broadband service, in response to Comcast degrading OVDs.
And speaking of the Open Internet Order — wasn’t that supposed to prevent ISPs like Comcast from acting on their alleged incentives to impede the quality of, or access to, edge providers like OVDs? Why is merger enforcement necessary to accomplish the same thing once Title II and the rest of the Open Internet Order are in place? And if the argument is that the Open Internet Order might be defeated, aside from the completely speculative nature of such a claim, why wouldn’t a merger condition that imposed the same constraints on Comcast – as was done in the Comcast/NBCU merger order by imposing the former net neutrality rules on Comcast – be perfectly sufficient?
While the FCC staff analysis accepted as true (again, contrary to current marketplace evidence) that a bigger Comcast would have more incentive to harm OVDs post-merger, it rejected arguments that there could be countervailing benefits to OVDs and others from this same increase in scale. Thus, things like incremental broadband investments and speed increases, a larger Wi-Fi network, and greater business services market competition – things that Comcast is already doing and would have done on a greater and more-accelerated scale in the acquired territories post-transaction – were deemed insufficient to outweigh the expected costs of the staff’s entirely speculative anticompetitive theory.
In reality, however, not only OVDs, but consumers – and especially TWC subscribers – would have benefitted from the merger by access to Comcast’s faster broadband speeds, its new investments, and its superior video offerings on the X1 platform, among other things. Many low-income families would have benefitted from expansion of Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, and many businesses would have benefited from the addition of a more effective competitor to the incumbent providers that currently dominate the business services market. Yet these and other verifiable benefits were given short shrift in the agency’s analysis because they “were viewed by staff as incapable of outweighing the potential harms.”
The assumptions underlying the FCC staff’s analysis of the broadband market are arbitrary and unsupportable
Sallet’s claim that the combined firm would have 60% of all high-speed broadband subscribers in the U.S. necessarily assumes a national broadband market measured at 25 Mbps or higher, which is a red herring.
The FCC has not explained why 25 Mbps is a meaningful benchmark for antitrust analysis. The FCC itself endorsed a 10 Mbps baseline for its Connect America fund last December, noting that over 70% of current broadband users subscribe to speeds less than 25 Mbps, even in areas where faster speeds are available. And streaming online video, the most oft-cited reason for needing high bandwidth, doesn’t require 25 Mbps: Netflix says that 5 Mbps is the most that’s required for an HD stream, and the same goes for Amazon (3.5 Mbps) and Hulu (1.5 Mbps).
What’s more, by choosing an arbitrary, faster speed to define the scope of the broadband market (in an effort to assert the non-competitiveness of the market, and thereby justify its broadband regulations), the agency has – without proper analysis or grounding, in my view – unjustifiably shrunk the size of the relevant market. But, as it happens, doing so also shrinks the size of the increase in “national market share” that the merger would have brought about.
Recall that the staff’s theory was premised on the idea that the merger would give Comcast control over enough of the broadband market that it could unilaterally impose costs on OVDs sufficient to impair their ability to reach or sustain minimum viable scale. But Comcast would have added only one percent of this invented “market” as a result of the merger. It strains credulity to assert that there could be any transaction-specific harm from an increase in market share equivalent to a rounding error.
In any case, basing its rejection of the merger on a manufactured 25 Mbps relevant market creates perverse incentives and will likely do far more to harm OVDs than realization of even the staff’s worst fears about the merger ever could have.
The FCC says it wants higher speeds, and it wants firms to invest in faster broadband. But here Comcast did just that, and then was punished for it. Rather than acknowledging Comcast’s ongoing broadband investments as strong indication that the FCC staff’s analysis might be on the wrong track, the FCC leadership simply sidestepped that inconvenient truth by redefining the market.
The lesson is that if you make your product too good, you’ll end up with an impermissibly high share of the market you create and be punished for it. This can’t possibly promote the public interest.
Furthermore, the staff’s analysis of competitive effects even in this ersatz market aren’t likely supportable. As noted, most subscribers access OVDs on connections that deliver content at speeds well below the invented 25 Mbps benchmark, and they pay the same prices for OVD subscriptions as subscribers who receive their content at 25 Mbps. Confronted with the choice to consume content at 25 Mbps or 10 Mbps (or less), the majority of consumers voluntarily opt for slower speeds — and they purchase service from Netflix and other OVDs in droves, nonetheless.
The upshot? Contrary to the implications on which the staff’s analysis rests, if Comcast were to somehow “degrade” OVD content on the 25 Mbps networks so that it was delivered with characteristics of video content delivered over a 10-Mbps network, real-world, observed consumer preferences suggest it wouldn’t harm OVDs’ access to consumers at all. This is especially true given that OVDs often have a global focus and reach (again, Netflix has 65 million subscribers in over 50 countries), making any claims that Comcast could successfully foreclose them from the relevant market even more suspect.
At the same time, while the staff apparently viewed the broadband alternatives as “limited,” the reality is that Comcast, as well as other broadband providers, are surrounded by capable competitors, including, among others, AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Google Fiber, many advanced VDSL and fiber-based Internet service providers, and high-speed mobile wireless providers. The FCC understated the complex impact of this robust, dynamic, and ever-increasing competition, and its analysis entirely ignored rapidly growing mobile wireless broadband competition.
Finally, as noted, Sallet claimed that the staff determined that merger conditions would be insufficient to remedy its concerns, without any further explanation. Yet the Commission identified similar concerns about OVDs in both the Comcast/NBCUniversal and AT&T/DIRECTV transactions, and adopted remedies to address those concerns. We know the agency is capable of drafting behavioral conditions, and we know they have teeth, as demonstrated by prior FCC enforcement actions. It’s hard to understand why similar, adequate conditions could not have been fashioned for this transaction.
In the end, while I appreciate Sallet’s attempt to explain the FCC’s decision to reject the Comcast/TWC merger, based on the foregoing I’m not sure that Comcast could have made any argument or showing that would have dissuaded the FCC from challenging the merger. Comcast presented a strong economic analysis answering the staff’s concerns discussed above, all to no avail. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that this was a politically-driven result, and not one rigorously based on the facts or marketplace reality.
A few key points from ICLE’s brief follow, but you can read a longer summary of the brief here.
If the 2010 Order was a limited incursion into neighboring territory, the 2015 Order represents the outright colonization of a foreign land, extending FCC control over the Internet far beyond what the Telecommunications Act authorizes.
The Commission asserts vast powers — powers that Congress never gave it — not just over broadband but also over the very ‘edge’ providers it claims to be protecting. The court should be very skeptical of the FCC’s claims to pervasive powers over the Internet.
In the 2015 Order, the FCC Invoked Title II, admitted that it was unworkable for the Internet, and then tried to ‘tailor’ the statute to avoid its worst excesses.
That the FCC felt the need for such sweeping forbearance should have indicated to it that it had ‘taken an interpretive wrong turn’ in understanding the statute Congress gave it. Last year, the Supreme Court blocked a similar attempt by the EPA to ‘modernize’ old legislation in a way that gave it expansive new powers. In its landmark UARG decision, the Court made clear that it won’t allow regulatory agencies to rewrite legislation in an effort to retrofit their statutes to their preferred regulatory regimes.
Internet regulation is a question of ‘vast economic and political significance,’ yet the FCC didn’t even bother to weigh the costs and benefits of its rule.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler never misses an opportunity to talk about the the Internet as ‘the most important network known to Man.’ So why did he and the previous FCC Chairman ignore requests from other commissioners for serious, independent economic analysis of the supposed problem and the best way to address it? Why did the FCC rush to adopt a plan that had the effect of blocking the Federal Trade Commission from applying its consumer protection laws to the Internet? For all the FCC’s talk about protecting consumers, it appears that its real agenda may be simply expanding its own power.