Regulatory Whack-A-Mole, Part II

by on January 21, 2010 · 0 comments

Congress and the Federal Communications Commission periodically get upset over wireless phone early termination fees. The latest uproar has occurred during the past couple months in response to Verizon’s doubling of the early termination fee on “smart” devices. The fee falls by $10 per month, leaving s $120 early termination fee in the last month of a two-year contract.

Policymakers still have not gotten the message that they cannot really do much about this “problem” unless they comprehensively regulate wireless rates and terms of service. (I would not recommend this, since a competitive wireless market has brought us rate reductions that even perfectly-functioning regulation would be unlikely to achieve. ) Attempts to poke and prod early termination fees are like the carnival game “whack-a-mole.”  As soon as you whack one mole with a stick, another one pops up out of another hole.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) is taking another whack.  In 2007, she introduced legislation requiring wireless companies to prorate early termination fees “in a manner that reasonably links the fee to recovery of the cost of the device or other legitimate business expenses.”  Coincidentally, the major carriers promised to prorate their fees at about the same time her bill got a hearing.  Then last November, up popped a mole from Verizon’s hole. Early termination fees for smart devices are prorated, but doubled. Now the good senator is whacking away at that mole with legislation that requires wireless companies to prorate early termination fees AND mandates that the early termination fee cannot exceed the size of the subsidy the carrier is giving the consumer on the phone.

Smart whack, huh?  Doesn’t cost-based regulation of early termination fees eliminate the loophole (oops, mole-hole)?

Not necessarily. In the first place, the legislation could create an accounting nightmare with plenty of opportunities for companies to game the system, especially if they offer different subsidies on different phones. Recall that the original impetus for breaking up the old AT&T landline monopoly was that AT&T was gouging consumers by charging them inflated prices to lease equipment manufactured by its subsidiary, Western Electric. With the AT&T breakup, the government essentially gave up on managing that problem and completely prohibited the monopoly local phone companies from manufacuring equipment. I think George Santayana just left me a voice mail. Even if the game board is restricted to early termination fees, we’ll soon see uglier, nastier moles emerge from uglier, nastier holes.

But the wireless phone contract is about more than early termination fees. Even if policymakers succeed in imposing effective,  cost-based regualtion on early termination fees, wireless companies can still change other terms of the contract to compensate for any revenue losses. The law must have a truly long arm to reach the diverse array of rodents that will scurry forth from diverse orifices.

Stay tuned for the next whack.

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