Don't make U.S. telecoms market failure worse, says The Economist

8 November 2016 by Steve Blum
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Land of the rent-seekers and home of high prices.

AT&T should not be allowed to purchase Time Warner, according to a pointed editorial in The Economist. AT&T’s monopoly power in some market segments and its cozy duopolies in others already gives it too much control over what people in the U.S. can see, how much they have to pay and how much money gets stuffed in the pockets of politicians, says the London-based newspaper and free market advocate

There are two reasons why trustbusters should now take a tougher line. First, the telecoms industry is already a rent-seekers’ paradise. Americans pay at least 50% more for mobile and broadband service than people in other rich countries. For each dollar invested in infrastructure and spectrum, American operators make 28 cents of operating profit a year, compared with 18 cents for European firms. That reflects the lack of competition. AT&T and Verizon control 70% of the mobile market, and are the only firms that reach 90% or more of Americans with high-speed services. Half of the population has no choice of fixed-broadband supplier. The lack of downstream competition in pipes could distort competition in upstream content…

A second concern is that AT&T-Time Warner would have vast political and lobbying power, allowing it to bend rules over time, including any antitrust remedies that it agreed with regulators. It would capture 28% of the media-and-telecoms industry’s pre-tax profits and 2% of all corporate profits, making it America’s third-biggest domestic firm. Media and telecoms regulation is already intensely political, and AT&T today is no shrinking violet, being a vocal opponent of net neutrality, the rules that ensure that all online traffic is treated equally.

I’d argue that CenturyLink’s purchase of Level 3’s fiber network – particularly the extensive overlapping routes the two companies share – is a more direct and immediate threat to what little remains of telecoms competition in the U.S. But from the big picture point of view, The Economist has it right.