The Chief Economist of the Federal Communications Commission is a temporary position—with a term of a year or so of late—typically bestowed on economists with impressive credentials and experience related to media or telecommunications. Having worked at the FCC long enough to overlap with several chief economists, I noticed an interesting pattern. Many join the FCC full of hope—capable as they are—that they will reform the agency to better integrate “economic thinking” into regular policy decisions, but to quote a former colleague, “leave the agency with their sense of humor intact.”
I have heard many a former FCC economist rail against the lack of economic thinking at the FCC, with some former chief economists going very much on the record to do so (for instance, see here and here). Others (not necessarily affiliated with the FCC) have gone as far as to point out that much of what the FCC does or attempts to do is duplicative of the competition policies of the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission. These latter points are not a secret. The FCC publicly says so in every major transaction that it approves.
For example, in a transaction that I have had the pleasure to separately write about with one of the FCC’s former chief economists and a number of other colleagues, AT&T’s acquisition of former competitor Leap Wireless (see here and here), the FCC wrote (see ¶ 15):
Our competitive analysis, which forms an important part of the public interest evaluation, is informed by, but not limited to, traditional antitrust principles. The Commission and the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) each have independent authority to examine the competitive impacts of proposed communications mergers and transactions involving transfers of Commission licenses.
This standard language can be found in the “Standard of Review” section in any major FCC transaction order. The difference is that whereas the DOJ reviews telecom mergers pursuant to Section 7 of the Clayton Act, the FCC’s evaluation encompasses the “broad aims of the Communications Act.” From a competition analysis standpoint, a major difference is that if the DOJ wishes to stop a merger, “it must demonstrate to a court that the merger may substantially lessen competition or tend to create a monopoly.” In contrast, parties subject to FCC review have the burden of showing that the transaction, among other things, will enhance existing competition.
Such duplication and the alleged lack of economics at the FCC has led a number of individuals to suggest that the FCC should be restructured and some of its powers curtailed, particularly with respect to matters that are separately within the purview of the antitrust agencies. In particular, recently, a number of individuals in Donald Trump’s FCC transition team have written (read here) that Congress “should consider merging the FCC’s competition and consumer protection functions with those of the Federal Trade Commission, thus combining the FCC’s industry expertise and capabilities with the generic statutory authority of the FTC.”
I do not completely disagree—I would be remiss if I did not admit that the transition team makes a number of highly valid points in its comments on “Modernizing the Communications Act.” However, as Harold Feld, senior VP of Public Knowledge recently pointed out, efforts to restructure the FCC present a relatively “radical” undertaking and my main motivation in writing this post is to highlight Feld’s point by reminding readers of a recent court ruling.
In 2007—well before its acquisition of DIRECTV and its offer of unlimited data to customers who bundle its AT&T and DIRECT services—AT&T offered mobile wireless customers unlimited data plans. AT&T later phased out these plans except for customers who were “grandfathered”—those customers who signed up for an unlimited plan while it was available and never switched to an alternative option. In October 2011, perhaps worried about the implications of unlimited data in a data hungry world, AT&T reduced speeds for grandfathered customers on legacy plans whose monthly data usage surpassed a certain threshold—a practice that the FTC refers to as data throttling.
The FTC filed a complaint against AT&T under Section 5 of the FTC Act, alleging that customers who had been throttled by AT&T experienced drastically reduced service, but were not adequately informed of AT&T’s throttling program. As part of its complaint, the FTC claimed that AT&T’s actions violated the FTC Act and sought a permanent injunction on throttling and other equitable relief as deemed necessary by the Court.
Now here is where things get interesting: AT&T moved to dismiss on the basis that it is exempt as a “common carrier.” That is, AT&T claimed that the appropriate act that sets out jurisdiction over its actions is the Communications Act, and not the FTC Act. Moreover, AT&T’s position was that an entity with common carrier status cannot be regulated under the section that the FTC brought to this case (§ 45(a)), even when it is providing services other than common carriage services. This led one of my former colleagues to joke that this would mean that if AT&T were to buy General Motors, then it could use false advertising to sell cars and be exempt from FTC scrutiny.
The District Court for the Northern District of California happened to consider this matter after the FCC reclassified mobile data from a non-common carriage service to a common carriage service (in its Open Internet Order), but before the reclassification had gone into effect. The Court concluded that contrary to AT&T’s arguments, “the common carrier exception applies only where the entity has the status of common carrier and is actually engaging in common carrier activity.” Moreover, it denied AT&T’s motion because AT&T’s mobile data service was not regulated as common carrier activity by the FCC when the FTC suit was filed. However, in August 2016, this decision was reversed on appeal by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (see here), which ruled that the common carrier exemption was “status based,” not “activity based,” as the lower court had determined.
Unfortunately, this decision leaves quite a regulatory void. To my knowledge, the FCC does not have a division of Common Carrier Consumer Protection (CCCP), and I doubt that any reasonable individual familiar with FCC practice would interpret the Open Internet Order as an attempted FCC power grab to attempt to duplicate or supplant FTC consumer protection authority. Indeed, the FCC articulated quite the reverse position by recently filing an Amicus Curiae Brief in support of the FTC’s October 2016 Petition to the Ninth Circuit to have the case reheard by the full court.
So what’s my point? Well first, the agencies are not intentionally attempting to step on each other’s toes. By and large, the FCC understands the role of the FTC and the DOJ and vice versa. Were AT&T to acquire General Motors, it is highly probable that given the state of regulation as it stands, employees at the FCC would find it preferable if the FTC continued to oversee General Motors’ advertising practices. A related stipulation applies to the FCC’s competition analysis. Whereas the analysis may be similar to that of the antitrust agencies, it is motivated at least in part by the FCC’s unique mission to establish or maintain universal service, which can lead to different decisions being made in the same case (for instance, whereas the DOJ did not challenge AT&T’s acquisition of Leap Wireless, the FCC imposed a number of conditions to safeguard against loss of service).
Of course, one could argue that confusion stemming from the above case might have been avoided had the FCC never had authority over common carriage in the first place. But if making that argument, one must be cognizant of the fact that although the FTC Act predates the Communications Act of 1934, prior to 1934, it was the Interstate Commerce Act, not the FTC Act, that lay out regulations for common carriers. In other words, legislative attempts to rewrite the Communications Act will necessitate changes in various other pieces of legislation in order to assure that there are no voids in crucial protections to competition and consumers. Thus, to bolster Harold Feld’s points: those wishing to restructure the FCC need to do so being fully aware of what the FCC actually does and doesn’t do, they must take heed of all the subtleties underlying the legislation that lays the groundwork for the various agencies, and they should be mindful of potential for interpretation and reinterpretation under the common law aspects of our legal system.
Growing up, my parents, brother, and I usually avoided restaurants. For my parents, this was initially out of necessity; as Soviet refugees, they did not have the financial means to eat out. However, even having achieved a modicum of success, my parents are not generally in the habit of frequenting restaurants, having perhaps out of a lifetime habit, developed a taste for home cooking. Restaurants are exclusively for special occasions.
Thus, having never eaten at a Chipotle Mexican Grill, they were sufficiently impressed by the restaurant’s façade to wish to eat there, but only when the grand occasion merits such an extravagant excursion. Their two sons were informed as such. Naturally, my brother and I (perhaps spoiled as we are) jumped at the chance to poke fun at our parents for placing Chipotle on a pedestal. This is, after all, a restaurant chain that is victim to some serious defecation humor, not Eleven Madison Park.
For a number of months, my parents were subjected to text messages and Facebook or Instagram posts with visuals of me or my brother outside various Chipotle restaurants, posing next to Chipotle ads, and in one instance, wearing a Chipotle t-shirt (I have no idea how that shirt found its way into my wardrobe). My parents responded, saying things like (and I could not make this up), “I wish someone would take us to that dream place.”
However, recently, my mother sent a group text directing the family to a news report about dozens of confirmed E.Coli cases related to Chipotle (even the FDA got involved) and asking for alternative dining suggestions. The text responses, in order, were as follows:
Me: California Tortilla
My Wife: Taco Bell
My Brother: Sushi
My Mother: Eating In (with picture of latest home cooked meal)
My Brother’s Girlfriend: Bacon
How does a reasonable individual interpret this chain of responses? As an economist with some regulatory and antitrust experience, I found the answer obvious. I sent the following group text (modified for concision): “Has anyone noticed that this text conversation has turned into the classic antitrust debate about appropriate market definition, with each subsequent family member suggesting a broader market?”
Surprisingly, no one else had noticed, but I was asked to unpack my statement a little bit (my mom sent a text that read: “English please.”).
The U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission’s Horizontal Merger Guidelines stipulate that market definition serves two roles in identifying potential competitive concerns. First, market definition helps specify the line of commerce (product) and section of the country (geography) in which a competitive concern arises. Second, market definition allows the Agencies to identify market participants and measure market shares and concentration.
As the Agencies point out, market definition focuses solely on demand substitution factors, i.e., on customer’s ability and willingness to substitute away from one product to another in response to a price increase or a corresponding non-price change (in the case of Chipotle, an E.Coli outbreak might qualify as a reduction in quality). Customers generally face a range of potential substitutes, some closer than others. Defining a market broadly to include relatively distant substitutes can lead to misleading market shares. As such, the Agencies may seek to define markets to be sufficiently narrow as to capture the relative competitive significance between substitute products. For some precision with this regard, I refer the reader to Section 4.1.1 of the Guidelines.
As for the group texts above, the reader can now infer how market definition was broadened by each subsequent family member. To reiterate:
Me: California Tortilla (Mexican food in a similar quality dining establishment to Chipotle.)
My Wife: Taco Bell (Mexican . . . inspired . . . dining out, generally.)
My Brother: Sushi (Dining out, generally.)
My Mother: Eating In (Dining, generally.)
My Brother’s Girlfriend: Bacon (Eating.)
Why is market definition relevant to the Quello Center at Michigan State University? As the Center’s website suggests, the Center seeks to stimulate and inform debate on media, communication and information policy for our digital age. One area where market definition plays a role with this regard is within the Quello Center’s broad interest in research about digital inequality.
Digital inequality represents a social inequality with regard to access to or use of the Internet, or more broadly, information and communication technologies (ICTs). Digital inequalities can arise as a result of individualistic factors (income, age and other demographics) or contextual ones (competition where a particular consumer is most likely to rely on ICTs). Market definition is most readily observed in the latter.
For instance, consider the market for fixed broadband Internet. An immediate question that arises is the appropriate geographic market definition. If we rule out individuals’ ability to procure fixed broadband Internet at local hotspots (e.g., libraries, coffee shops) from the relevant market definition, then the relevant geographic market appears to be the home. This is unfortunately a major burden for researchers attempting to assess the state of fixed broadband competition and its potential impact on digital inequality because most market level data in use is at a much more aggregated level than the home. The problem is that when an aggregated market, say a zip code, contains multiple competitors, it is unclear how many of these competitors actually compete in the same home.
Thus far, most studies of fixed broadband competition have been hampered by the issue of geographic market definition. For instance, Xiao and Orazem (2011) extend Bresnahan and Reiss’s (1991, 1994) classic studies of entry and competition in the market for fixed broadband, albeit at the zip code level. Wallsten and Mallahan (2010) use tract level FCC Form 477 data to test the effects of competition on speeds, penetration, and prices. However, whereas there are approximately 42,000 zip codes and 73,000 census tracts in the United States, there are approximately 124 million households, which implies a fairly large amount of aggregation that can lead researchers to conclude that competition is stronger than it actually is.
Another question that arises is whether fixed broadband is too narrow a product market and if the appropriate market definition is simply broadband, which would include fixed as well as mobile broadband. Thus far, because of data limitations, most studies of wireline-wireless substitution have focused mainly on voice rather than on Internet use (e.g. Macher, Mayo, Ukhaneva, and Woroch, 2015; Thacker and Wilson, 2015) and so do not assess whether mobile has become a medium that can mitigate digital inequality. Prieger (2013) has made some headway into this issue by showing evidence that as late as 2010, mobile and fixed broadband were generally not complementary, and that mobile only broadband subscription was slightly more prevalent in rural areas. However, because of data limitations, Prieger does not estimate a demand system to determine whether fixed and mobile broadband are substitutes or complements as the voice substitution papers above do.
Luckily, NTIA’s State Broadband Initiative (SBI) and more recently, the FCC, have enhanced researchers’ ability to assess competition at a fairly granular level by providing fixed broadband coverage and speed data at the level of the census block. Similarly, new data on Internet usage from the U.S. Census should allow researchers to better tackle the wireline-wireless substitution issue as well. The FCC has also hopped on the speed test bandwagon by collaborating with SamKnows to measure both fixed and mobile broadband quality. In the former case, the FCC periodically releases the raw data and I am optimistic that at some point, mobile broadband quality data will be released as well (readers please correct me if I am glossing over some already publically available granular data on mobile broadband speed and other characteristics).
The Quello Center staff seeks to combine such data, along with other sources, to study broadband competition and its impact on digital inequality. We welcome your feedback and are presently on the lookout for potential collaborators interested in these issues.