Milton Mueller responded to my post Wednesday on the DOJ’s decision to halt the AT&T/T-Mobile merger by asserting that there was no evidence the merger would lead to “anything innovative and progressive” and claiming “[t]he spectrum argument fell apart months ago, as factual inquiries revealed that AT&T had more spectrum than Verizon and the mistakenly posted lawyer’s letter revealed that it would be much less expensive to expand its capacity than to acquire T-Mobile.” With respect to Milton, I think he’s been suckered by the “big is bad” crowd at Public Knowledge and Free Press. But he’s hardly alone and these claims — claims that may well have under-girded the DOJ’s decision to step in to some extent — merit thorough refutation.
To begin with, LTE is “progress” and “innovation” over 3G and other quasi-4G technologies. AT&T is attempting to make an enormous (and risky) investment in deploying LTE technology reliably and to almost everyone in the US–something T-Mobile certainly couldn’t do on its own and something AT&T would have been able to do only partially and over a longer time horizon and, presumably, at greater expense. Such investments are exactly the things that spur innovation across the ecosystem in the first place. No doubt AT&T’s success here would help drive the next big thing–just as quashing it will make the next big thing merely the next medium-sized thing.
The “Spectrum Argument”
The spectrum argument that Milton claims “fell apart months ago” is the real story here, the real driver of this merger, and the reason why the DOJ’s action yesterday is, indeed, a blow to progress. That argument, unfortunately, still stands firm. Even more, the irony is that to a significant extent the spectrum shortfall is a product of the government’s own making–through mismanagement of spectrum by the FCC, political dithering by Congress, and local government intransigence on tower siting and co-location–and the notion of the government now intervening here to “fix” one of the most significant private efforts to make progress despite these government impediments is really troubling.
Anyway, here’s what we know about spectrum: There isn’t enough of it in large enough blocks and in bands suitable for broadband deployment using available technology to fully satisfy current–let alone future–demand.