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How AT&T and Verizon Further Consolidated the Wireless Marketplace While Most Weren’t Looking

Before anyone claims victory for the consumer in AT&T’s abandonment of its “swinging for the fence” gambit to buy T-Mobile’s market share and spectrum, consider what did not make many headlines this week. Both AT&T and Verizon substantially shored up their spectrum stocks with major deals with Qualcomm and several cable companies respectively.

Solid hits for both carriers: not homeruns, but very strategic singles and doubles.

What results from these deals? Well on the positive side the two major carriers have more spectrum to satisfy consumer demand. On the negative side this spectrum initially was acquired by companies that offered the prospect for more competition. The competition will not occur, so the incumbents have even less downward rate pressure and the incentive to innovate.

No one has convinced me that the wireless marketplace in the United States has too many carriers and too much competition. Quite the contrary. But no carrier wants to compete with two “too big to fail” giants who have the customer base and spectrum to make quite costly competitive market entry, or even competition by existing carriers. These barriers to entry solidify incumbent market dominance, something the FCC could have prevented if it had reserved spectrum for new carriers and nondominant existing carriers.

This would not “promote competition for competition’s sake.” Instead it would enable sustainable competition to flourish in much the same way that airport authorities do not allow one or two airlines to capture all the landing slots. Airport authorities have learned the hard way that allowing one carrier to dominate results in higher prices. While price sensitive customers can vote with their dollars and take alternative transport, or drive to another airport, wireless subscribers have limited options.

Might a further consolidation of spectrum—the functional equivalent of landing slots—result in higher prices in the “robustly competitive” U.S. wireless marketplace?

By Rob Frieden, Pioneers Chair and Professor of Telecommunications and Law

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