Been meaning to get to this for awhile now, which is why the links are so old.
It has long been an article of faith among the worshipers of the Gods of the Marketplace that once you achieve “competition” (generally described as at least one more possible new entrant, but certainly where multiple providers exist) you eliminate regulation, because a competitive marketplace gives consumers what they want — like high fuel efficiency standards and a secure financial system. Thus, for the 30 or so years, we have more and more framed the debate in telecom and media policy around whether or not we have “enough” competition rather than about the benefits or drawbacks of any actual policy. Unsurprisingly, you can always argue that we have “enough” competition (or that competition is about to emerge) and thus side step the whole question of the actual state of reality and what reality we might prefer.
Enter the curious case of cellular telephony. I’ll take the case of text messaging, although the same argument applies in varying degrees to other aspects of the wireless market like network attachments and ring tones. As Randall Stross wrote in the NY Times at the end of December, the cost charged to consumers for txt messaging has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the actual cost of the service. Yet — as we are constantly reminded — the cell phone market has four national players and numerous regional players. This makes it squindoodles more competitive than, say, the broadband market in most places in the country where you can generally get two somewhat comparable services (cable and DSL) and a whole bunch of also rans that folks like to claim are competition.
Text messaging is so overpriced compared to cost that last year Senator Herb Kohl, Chair of the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee, has sent a letter to AT&T, VZ, T-Mobile, and Sprint (more details here)asking ‘Ello, ‘ello, ‘ello and what’s all this ‘ere, then? — you’re nicked!’ (no, I have no idea why Kohl sounds like a British Bobby from 50 years ago — ask him). As Kohl noted in his letter, the consistent ridiculously high prices for SMS txt messaging “is hardly consistent with the vigorous price competition we hope to see in a competitive marketplace.”
Short answer: it is utterly consistent with the nature of the wireless market. But — and here’s the shocker — real world markets are often much, much more complicated than the followers of the Gods of the Marketplace like to believe. Cell phone companies charge outrageous prices for text messaging (and other services like ring tones) not because they conspire with one another, or even because they engage in conscious parallelism. Nor do they do so because they must as a result of actual costs. They do so because — to use that classic phrase — it is what the market will bear, and the structure of the market ensures there is no benefit to any cellular carrier to offer text msging plans at anything approaching cost plus reasonable profit.
In economic terms, this is an oligopoly. Washington regulators treat oligopolies as if they were the same as competitive markets, unless one can show evidence of actual collusion — in which case it becomes a question of price fixing. But in reality, it doesn’t always work out that way. Even absent collusion, the ability of players to engage in strategic planing can negate the anticipated benefits of competition. Applying this framework to the CMRS market, and the question of the price of text messaging goes from suspicious riddle to entirely predictable. Whether you regard this as a reasonable outcome or not has nothing to do with “competition” or “market failure” and everything to do with whether we make a policy choice to care about it or not.
(Much) longer answer below . . . .