A General Framework for Competitive Analysis in Wireless Telecommunications

J. Gregory Sidak & David J. Teece


The Telecommunications Act of 1996 sets forth extensive provisions to unbundle the local telecommunications network to encourage the development of a competitive market for local telephone. It would seem to have been an unstated premise of those statutory provisions and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules interpreting them that the task of unbundling is one that should take place in a technological vacuum. Although the Telecommunications Act of 1996 ostensibly removed artificial regulatory distinctions based on the particular technology employed to produce a communications service, the administrative rulemakings and federal court litigation that have dominated the first three years of experience under the new statute have focused on the traditional wireline access network and have seemingly ignored the fact that, over the same period, wireless telecommunications has rapidly matured as a substitute for wireline access. If regulators were to acknowledge that development, the entire exercise of wireline unbundling could become irrelevant.

Wireless local telephony already provides a substitute for wireline access. It is therefore highly pertinent for a symposium on interconnection, such as this one, to consider the FCC’s policies that artificially constrain the market structure for wireless telecommunications services. The Supreme Court’s 1999 decision in AT&T Corp. v. Iowa Utilities Board, reversed the FCC’s unbundling rules for incumbent local exchange carriers to the extent that the agency failed to establish a reasonable standard for determining whether it is necessary to unbundle a particular element and whether the failure to unbundle that element would impair and entrant’s ability to compete in the provision of local telecommunications services. In this Article, we propose a general framework for evaluating competition in wireless telecommunications. Although our analysis has immediate ramifications for wireless telecommunications policies—such as spectrum caps and mergers of wireless carriers—the same analysis can shed light on the question of whether, or for how long, it is necessary to mandate the unbundling of even the copper loop, which constitutes the element of the wireline network that is considered the least susceptible to duplication by competitors. If wireless is indeed an access substitute for wireline copper loops, and if wireless thus permits the competitive supply of bundled services that are satisfactory substitutes in consumers’ minds for the typical bundle of services that consumers have until now demanded in conjunction with standard wireline access, then Congress, the FCC, the state public utilities commission, and the courts must ask: Is the great experiment of mandatory unbundling of telecommunications networks worth the candle?

That consequential question emerges from the analysis that we employ to study a seemingly narrower issue of wireless telecommunications policy. By regulation, the FCC has limited to 45MHz the amount of commercial mobile radio services (CMRS) spectrum that may be licensed to a single entity within a particular geographic area. As the Commission stated in its 1998 notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) concerning possible relaxation of the spectrum cap, a single entity may acquire attributable interests in the licenses of broadband Personal Communications Service (PCS), cellular, and Specialized Mobile Radio (SMR) services that cumulatively do not exceed 45 MHz of spectrum within the same geographic area. We formulate, in this Article, a decision rule that would assist the Commission in deciding whether or not to retain the spectrum cap and, thereafter, in evaluating competition in wireless telecommunications generally.

We employ decision-theoretic analysis to determine whether the expected costs of retaining the 45 MHz spectrum cap exceed the expected costs of removing it. The expected costs of removing the spectrum cap are negligible. The probability of either monopolization by a single firm or collusive pricing by a group of nationwide pricing plans and because capacity is a function of both spectrum and equipment. In contrast, the expected costs of retaining the spectrum cap are substantial as wireless services evolve from mobile voice to fixed voice and data applications. The probability that a single carrier would use more than 45MHz is nontrivial, because the growth in demand due to consumers’ desire for bundled service offerings and the invasion of wireless carriers into fixed communications markets will together severely burden existing networks. In short, a cost-benefit analysis demonstrates that the spectrum cap should be abolished because the expected costs of retaining the spectrum cap vastly exceed the expected costs of removing it.

The application of decision-theoretic analysis to the issue of spectrum cap policy can easily be generalized to deal with a broad range of competitive policy issues in the wireless industry. We restate the decision rule in terms that can be applied to numerous wireless policy issues. For example, regulators may have to decide whether newly merged firms should be forced to divest themselves of wireless properties in overlap territories. The issue of divestiture is treated in similar fashion to the spectrum cap analysis. Not surprisingly, many of the same factors that influence the spectrum cap analysis resurface in the merger analysis.

In Part I of this Article, we explain our decision-theoretic rule for determining whether the spectrum cap should be retained. In Part II, we estimate the expected costs of removing the cap and describe the magnitude of those costs in qualitative terms. In Part III, we present the same analysis with respect to the expected costs of retaining the cap. In Part IV, we compare the expected costs of retaining and removing the spectrum cap. In Part V, we demonstrate the general applicability of our decision-theoretic approach to competitive policy in the wireless communications industry. We conclude by noting how the increasing substitutability of wireless and wireline services is blurring the definitions of relevant market in the telecommunications industry—a development that has direct implications for whether, and how much, to mandate unbundling of the incumbent wireline network.

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