FCC chair needs to upgrade his competitive thinking

by Steve Blum • , , ,

For a smart guy, Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai can be awfully obtuse at times. Particularly where telecommunications competition is concerned.

On the one hand he extolls its virtues, saying to a Pittsburgh audience last week that “a competitive free market is crucial to unleashing private-sector ingenuity”. Just so. But in that same speech, he endorsed giving government subsidies to incumbent telephone companies, called for less regulation of those monopolies and ripped the idea that spending money on building competitive infrastructure or supporting new competitors has any value.

You can’t have it both ways. To get from the current model of broadband service – monopolies with deteriorating infrastructure in rural areas and equally predatory duopolies in cities and suburbs – to a free market, competitors have to be nurtured. Otherwise, the only way to ensure access to modern service at affordable and economically justifiable rates in a failed market is via the poor substitute of regulation.

Pai is correct in favoring “light-touch” regulation over the heavier kind, and he seems to prefer no regulation at all. That’s fine too. If there’s sufficient competition to make a free market function.

You can find competition in the mobile broadband industry. The recent return of unlimited data plans is a good example of competitive forces at work. But four national mobile carriers compete for your business.

If there was only one mobile carrier with a national footprint plus one with urban/suburban coverage, you’d have a choice between a mid-speed, mid to high cost plan and a fast, expensive one, as you do with wireline telephone and cable company offerings, respectively. Unless you lived in a rural area where you’d either have nothing at all or slow and expensive service, depending on how the monopoly carrier’s profit maximisation calculations came out.

Rural monopolies and urban/suburban duopolies are the product of more than 100 years of public policy that delivered subsidies, including money and privileged access to public right of ways, to select, regulated cable and telephone companies. The regulation largely ended, but the rents – cash and in kind – continue, and U.S. broadband customers continue to pay the price of monopoly.

Pai needs to understand that if you subsidise something, you get more of it. If he continues to subsidise monopolies and dismiss bona fide competition, costs will continue to rise, and the gaps between the have and have not communities, and between the U.S. and other developed nations, will widen.