The Anti-Competitive US Marketplace

President_sealThe US Council of Economic Advisers released a report on April 15th that cited examples of anticompetitive market power throughout many sectors of the US economy. The report says that in many sectors of the economy that the fifty largest companies control more of the market today than they did in 1997.

The conclusion of the report is that industry concentration has an overall negative impact on the economy. The largest companies in each industry tend to erect barriers that squelch start-ups, thwarts innovation and discourage real competition.

The president used this report to issue an executive order on April 30 that instructs all executive agencies and departments to submit a plan within 30 days of ways that they can promote competition. I don’t hold out a lot of hope of success for this action due to the fact that we are now deep into the last year of this presidency. But it’s still refreshing to see the government acknowledge that competition is better for our economy than having an economy controlled by large companies with huge market power.

There are few industries that demonstrate the negative aspects of anti-competitive behavior than telecom. The cellular part of the industry is probably the worst since four companies have the vast majority of customers in the country. There are not a lot of other cellular companies that own their own spectrum and many competitive alternatives to the big four, like Cricket, actually ride the networks of the bigger companies and buy wholesale minutes from them.

But right behind the concentration of cellular companies are the ISPs. A handful of largest cable companies and telcos have more than 90% of the broadband customers in the country. And even in markets where these providers overlap, the competition between these large companies can best be characterized as duopoly competition where the companies charge roughly the same prices and don’t compete in any meaningful way.

The only broadband markets in the country that have real competition are those where some outside party has entered the market with a competing network. That might be a municipal provider or else one of the handful of commercial providers that are building competitive networks.

Earlier this week I wrote about how the largest ISPs all attack municipal competition and the reason for this is clear. They don’t want there to be success stories where it can be shown that a city was effectively able to take over a market – because such an idea could spread to a whole lot of other cities.

The report goes on to show that government sometimes has been able to curb some of the worst abuses of anti-competitive behavior. There were a few government actions touted in the report as positive steps the government has taken to promote competition. One big action in the telecom space was blocking of the merge between AT&T and T-Mobile. Another was the FCC’s order of net neutrality and of placing broadband under Title II regulation.

But the feds also sometimes get it wrong. Right now the FCC is using the excuse of lack of competition as the motivation for ordering an opening of the settop box market. But I talk to folks in the industry all of the time and nobody I talk to thinks that settop boxes are much of a concern. If anything, the feeling is that new technology will naturally kill settop boxes and eliminate the need for them.

I was relieved to see the merger between Comcast and Time Warner die, but we are still seeing consolidation in the cable industry and the largest companies are getting more powerful. There is very little positive that can be gained from the Time Warner and Charter merger. And it’s always been disturbing to see large ISPs that also own programming content. That alone gives Comcast a huge advantage over anybody that tries to compete against them.

I don’t know how anybody can undo the consolidation in this industry. The big companies have locked up the market and the cost to build new networks to compete against them is a major barrier to entry. But perhaps having new networks built by municipalities and other commercial providers will chip away at enough of the market over time to make a difference.


4 thoughts on “The Anti-Competitive US Marketplace

  1. 100 years ago Teddy Roosevelt was “trust busting”. Breaking monopoly power is neither new nor rocket science.

    • True, but it would be a lot harder to break up the big ISPs. Judge Greene tried that a few decades ago when he broke up the Bell System and all we got was seven little monopolists instead of one big one. And since they didn’t compete with each other each still maintained monopoly power within their footprint.

      And it would be the same thing today if you tried to break up Comcast or a big ISP. These ISPs are locally monopolies. I can’t imagine any way you could break up Comcast that would stop them from being the dominant broadband provider in any given city. Comcast’s dominance in a large city where there is no large fiber provider, or where there is one like Verizon FiOS where we see duopoly coopetition means that they would have the identical market power even if they were split into smaller ISPs.

      About the most that could be done would to separate Comcast from being a cable company and a programmer – a really large advantage over all competitors.

  2. Obama is such a hypocrite. While large companies do make it difficult for competitors, the Obama administration’s actions and policies have been a crushing, devastating barrier to entrepreneurs. And I am not just picking on his administration. Past administrations have done little to invigorate small businesses, but Obama took it to a whole new level.

    Also, I am still trying to figure out how placing broadband service under Title II regulation will result in more competition.

    • This is an industry board and so I won’t comment on your political views.

      But I see Title II as being an important tool to reign in the large ISPs. They were headed down a path to undertake practices that would have given them even more advantages over other competitors. For instance, the big companies are large enough that they could make signficant money selling the big data information they gather from customers – something that smaller ISPs can likely never monetize. And the FCC is using Title II to impose privacy regulations on them.

      The big ISPs were also headed down a path where they were going to give priority to certain kinds of traffic. We were headed toward having big ISPs like Comcast making deals with Facebook or large video content providers to somehow bundle that content into Comcast’s base data package for ‘free’ while charging data caps fees for other content. That kind of practice would have given Comcast a competitive advantage that smaller ISPs couldn’t match. But it also would have given a huge advantage to the few content providers they decided to bundle with, all to the detriment of content providers. Title II kills all of that kind of nonsense that the ISPs had in mind.

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