August 2011

I can’t help but think that there might be  a big advantage of having the AT&T-T-Mobile merger go to court.  For once, the high-profile action everyone pays attention to will occur in an antitrust forum where the decision criterion is the effects of the merger on consumer welfare, period.   Regardless of what one thinks about the merger, it’s nice to see that we’ll finally have a knock-down, drag-out fight based on whether a big telecommunications merger harms consumers and competition.  That’s the antitrust standard the Department of Justice has to satisfy in order to prevent the merger. 

This will be a refreshing change from the Federal Communications Commission’s “public interest” standard, which allows the commission to object on grounds other than consumer welfare and demand all manner of concessions that have nothing to do with remedying anticompetitive effects of a deal. Case in point: Comcast must now offer broadband service for $9.95 per month to low-income households as a condition for getting approval to buy 51 percent of NBCUniversal. Now, I’m all for seeing low-income households get access to broadband, but subsidizing one subset of customers has little to do with mitigating any possible anticompetitive effects of allowing a cable company to own NBCUniversal. As FCC Commissioners McDowell and Baker said in their statement on that transaction, “Any proposed remedies should be narrow and transaction specific, tailored to address particular anti-competitive harms. License transfer approvals should not serve as vehicles to extract from petitioners far-reaching and non-merger specific policy concessions that are best left to broader rulemaking or legislative processes.” 

In short, if AT&T wins in court, the FCC should approve the merger promptly without additional conditions.

[Cross posted at Truthonthemarket]

As Josh noted, the DOJ filed a complaint today to block the merger. I’m sure we’ll have much, much more to say on the topic, but here are a few things that jump out at me from perusing the complaint:

  • The DOJ distinguishes between the business (“Enterprise”) market and the consumer market. This is actually a good play on their part, on the one hand, because it is more sensible to claim a national market for business customers who may be purchasing plans for widely-geographically-dispersed employees. I would question how common this actually is, however, given that, I’m sure, most businesses that buy group cell plans are not IBM but are instead pretty small and pretty local, but still, it’s a good ploy.
  • But it has one significant problem: The DOJ also seems to be stressing a coordinated effects story, making T-Mobile out to be a disruptive maverick disciplining the bigger carriers. But–and this is, of course an empirical matter I will have to look in to–I highly doubt that T-Mobile plays anything like this role in the Enterprise market, at least for those enterprises that fit the DOJ’s overly-broad description. In fact, the DOJ admits as much in para. 43 of its Complaint. Of course, the DOJ claims this was all about to change, but that’s not a very convincing story coupled with the fact that DT, T-Mobile’s parent, was reducing its investment in the company anyway. The reality is that Enterprise was not a key part of T-Mobile’s business model–if it occupied any cognizable part of it at all– and it can hardly be considered a maverick in a market in which it doesn’t actually operate.
  • On coordinated effects, I think the claim that T-Mobile is a maverick is pretty easily refuted, and not only in the Enterprise realm. As Josh has pointed out in his Congressional testimony, a maverick is a term of art in antitrust, and it’s just not enough that a firm may be offering products at a lower price–there is nothing “maverick-y” about a firm that offers a different, less valuable product at a lower price. I have seen no evidence to suggest that T-Mobile offered the kind of pricing constraint on AT&T that would be required to make it out to be a maverick.

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