Tales of the Sausage Factory

Republican Bill To Reform FCC Not A Bad Place To Start Discussions.

There’s an old saying that goes “when it rains, can’t fix the roof; when it don’t rain, the roof don’t need fixin.’” That rather sums up most efforts at government reform. When you’re out of power, you can’t really do anything about it. When you’re in power, it turns out things don’t really need fixing. So no shocker that Joe Barton (R-TX), ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, joined by Mr. Cliff Stearns (R-FL), ranking member of the Telecom Subcommittee, have decided to introduce an FCC reform bill now that (a) Democrats control Congress, and (b) Democrats control the FCC. You can find the press release here and the full bill text here.

If political expediency were a mortal sin, however, nothing would ever get done. So it is not enough to simply note that politicians of either party are more apt to want reform when they are on the outside. It is important to examine the bill in its own right. Given that a lot of folks in both parties and in the public interest community would like to see some longstanding issues corrected, and I have opined on the matter myself from time to time, it’s important to consider whether the Barton-Stearns bill makes a good start and a basis for going forward. Remember, we want functional government. If out of power Rs are now in the mood to address real issues and get substantive stuff done, the thing to do is make it easy for them to work together with Ds. Perhaps it will become a habit. OTOH, as Ds have learned over the last several month, agreement for the sake of agreement is not worth doing.

My personal feeling after a quick read is that this bill is not a bad place to start on some long-standing procedural gripes, but that there are a couple of things that worry me.

Details below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Why Do Competitive Markets Keep Misbehaving? The Curious Case Of Cellular Txt Msging.

Been meaning to get to this for awhile now, which is why the links are so old.

It has long been an article of faith among the worshipers of the Gods of the Marketplace that once you achieve “competition” (generally described as at least one more possible new entrant, but certainly where multiple providers exist) you eliminate regulation, because a competitive marketplace gives consumers what they want — like high fuel efficiency standards and a secure financial system. Thus, for the 30 or so years, we have more and more framed the debate in telecom and media policy around whether or not we have “enough” competition rather than about the benefits or drawbacks of any actual policy. Unsurprisingly, you can always argue that we have “enough” competition (or that competition is about to emerge) and thus side step the whole question of the actual state of reality and what reality we might prefer.

Enter the curious case of cellular telephony. I’ll take the case of text messaging, although the same argument applies in varying degrees to other aspects of the wireless market like network attachments and ring tones. As Randall Stross wrote in the NY Times at the end of December, the cost charged to consumers for txt messaging has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the actual cost of the service. Yet — as we are constantly reminded — the cell phone market has four national players and numerous regional players. This makes it squindoodles more competitive than, say, the broadband market in most places in the country where you can generally get two somewhat comparable services (cable and DSL) and a whole bunch of also rans that folks like to claim are competition.

Text messaging is so overpriced compared to cost that last year Senator Herb Kohl, Chair of the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee, has sent a letter to AT&T, VZ, T-Mobile, and Sprint (more details here)asking ‘Ello, ‘ello, ‘ello and what’s all this ‘ere, then? — you’re nicked!’ (no, I have no idea why Kohl sounds like a British Bobby from 50 years ago — ask him). As Kohl noted in his letter, the consistent ridiculously high prices for SMS txt messaging “is hardly consistent with the vigorous price competition we hope to see in a competitive marketplace.”

Short answer: it is utterly consistent with the nature of the wireless market. But — and here’s the shocker — real world markets are often much, much more complicated than the followers of the Gods of the Marketplace like to believe. Cell phone companies charge outrageous prices for text messaging (and other services like ring tones) not because they conspire with one another, or even because they engage in conscious parallelism. Nor do they do so because they must as a result of actual costs. They do so because — to use that classic phrase — it is what the market will bear, and the structure of the market ensures there is no benefit to any cellular carrier to offer text msging plans at anything approaching cost plus reasonable profit.

In economic terms, this is an oligopoly. Washington regulators treat oligopolies as if they were the same as competitive markets, unless one can show evidence of actual collusion — in which case it becomes a question of price fixing. But in reality, it doesn’t always work out that way. Even absent collusion, the ability of players to engage in strategic planing can negate the anticipated benefits of competition. Applying this framework to the CMRS market, and the question of the price of text messaging goes from suspicious riddle to entirely predictable. Whether you regard this as a reasonable outcome or not has nothing to do with “competition” or “market failure” and everything to do with whether we make a policy choice to care about it or not.

(Much) longer answer below . . . .

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Posted in Spectrum, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments (Comments closed)

Tales of the Sausage Factory

This Is Ready From Day 1?

In his most recent emphatic response to the financial crisis that cannot in any way be blamed on the former Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee (because really, it was those bozos over at Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs and possibly the folks over at the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Antitrust), former Deregulator turned Regulatory Hawk John McCain told a cheering crowd of supporters that if he were President he would fire SEC Chairman Christopher Cox.

“The chairman of the SEC serves at the appointment of the president and in my view has betrayed the public’s trust,” McCain said. “If I were president today, I would fire him.”

Firey, determined, definitely a stern rebuke to the Bush Administration and its lackeys who — although confirmed by McCain and the rest of the Republican Senate back in 2005 despite nasty bad bad partisan allegations that Cox had been involved in some shady investment schemes — certainly have nothing to do with McCain the Reformer!

Except, of course, that the Chairman of the SEC does not serve at the pleasure of the President and cannot be “fired,” only impeached by Congress. The President can “demote” Cox by redesignating someone else on the Commission as Chairman — which would probably prompt a Chair to resign before letting that happen. But still, saying you would fire someone you have no authority to fire? This is ready from Day 1?

I suppose I could give McCain the benefit of the doubt and assume he knows the actual law, and that he was just shorthanding “I can’t actually fire him, but I would certainly embarrass him and harass him out of a job faster than a Wasilla Librarian who refused to censor books!” To the more dramatic “I would fire him and then be all embarrassed when I was told I can’t actually do that.” But either way, it’s a pretty stupid response when McCain spent all his time as Chair of the Commerce Committee perfectly happy with the way the SEC regulated the financial sector. (I know, I know, wrong committee, not my fault . . . .)

Stay tuned . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

This Week I Get My Wonk On, Next Week I Am A Free Man.

Passover comes late this year. It doesn’t start until Saturday night, April 19. Getting ready for Passover is a phenomenal pain in the rear end, because it involves all sort of complicated cleaning things. So this time of year is really busy for us true believer types.

Which is why the Good Lord has made it such a plentiful season for critical hearings. This week on Tuesday morning, I will testify before the House Telecom Subcommittee at the incredibly crowded second panel on the 700 MHz Auction aftermath. Then it’s out to California to catch the FCC Hearing on Network Management (official witness list still not posted, but my name turned up in Comm Daily on the short list).

Mind you, I am extremely happy to have the opportunity to testify before the House and all that. Indeed, given how much I’ve lived these things (especially the spectrum stuff), I’d be really miffed if I didn’t get a chance to speak my piece. I just wish it could be a little, y’know, less hectic.

At least I will be able to say with conviction at my Passover celebration “Now I am a free man.”

Stay tuned . . .

Posted in Life In The Sausage Factory, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments (Comments closed)

Tales of the Sausage Factory

Markey to Take Telecom Subcommittee

Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) has confirmed he will take the Telecom Subcommittee rather than seek chairmanship of the Resources Committee.

I can’t think of better news to close out 2006. Ed Markey displays that rare, brilliant combination of staying true to his principles at all times while still working well in coalition and with his counterparts accross the aisle. On just about every issue I can think of: net neutrality, media ownership, privacy, fair use, consumer protection, digital inclusion, Ed Markey has been a champion and leader.

Whoooooo Hoooooooooo!!!!!!!!

Stay tuned!

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Muni Momentum Swings Toward the Telcos, But The Game is Far From Over

After a number of victories, the momentum has recently turned to the Telco side of the muni fight.
On the plus side, we have not yet lost anything definitively. There is still time for citizens in these states to make this an issue. But I’m having the feeling I usually reserve for the Boston Red Sox in August.

Well, let’s see if we can’t make this our 2004 World Series. Anybody in these states interested in trying to fight these bills, let me know and I will try to put you in touch with folks on the ground there.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Lose one round in Florida

Florida, which has a number of good muni systems, has passd an anti-muni bill out of subcommittee and out to the FL House of Rep.

If anyone in FL is reading this, get on the horn to your state rep today. Tell them to show the same courage against Bell South that folks in Indiana showed against SBC and that folks in NE and TX are showing.

Posted in General, Tales of the Sausage Factory | Also tagged | 1 Comment (Comments closed)
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