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Democracy and Technology Blog FCC strikes out on AT&T + T-Mobile opportunity

AT&T and T-Mobile withdrew their merger application from the Federal Communications Commission Nov. 29 after it became clear that rigid ideologues at the FCC with no idea how to promote economic growth were determined to create as much trouble as possible.
The companies will continue to battle the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of their deal. They can contend with the FCC later, perhaps after the next election. The conflict with DOJ will take place in a court of law, where usually there is scrupulous regard for facts, law and procedure. By comparison, the FCC is a playground for politicians, bureaucrats and lobbyists that tends to do whatever it wants.
In an unusual move, the agency released an analysis by the staff that is critical of the merger. Although the analysis has no legal significance whatsoever, publishing it is one way the zealots hope to influence the course of events given that they may no longer be in a position to judge the merger, eventually, as a result of the 2012 election.
This is not about promoting good government; this is about ideological preferences and a determination to obtain results by hook or crook.
The staff analysis makes it painfully clear that the people in charge have learned very little from the failure of government to reboot the nation’s economy. For starters, the analysis notes points out that “there will be fewer total direct jobs across the business,” notwithstanding various commitments the companies have made to protect many existing jobs and add many new ones. The staff should have checked with the chairman of President Obama’s jobs council, for one. CEO Jeff Immelt drives growth at GE through productivity and innovation, not by subsidizing inefficiency (see this). He realizes that when government tries to preserve wasteful methods, firms become uncompetitive and lose market share. That’s a recipe for unemployment. The FCC staff analysis has got it completely backwards. When politicians set out to “create” jobs, it is often at the expense of productivity. We don’t need that kind of “help” from Washington. In a wonderful column I am fond of citing, Russell Roberts recounts a story that bears repeating here.

The story goes that Milton Friedman was once taken to see a massive government project somewhere in Asia. Thousands of workers using shovels were building a canal. Friedman was puzzled. Why weren’t there any excavators or any mechanized earth-moving equipment? A government official explained that using shovels created more jobs. Friedman’s response: “Then why not use spoons instead of shovels?”

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski got it essentially correct when he remarked in a recent speech that, “Our country faces tremendous economic challenges. Millions of Americans are struggling. And new technologies and a hyper-connected, flat world mean unprecedented competition for American businesses and workers.” Sadly, he does not realize that a merger between AT&T and T-Mobile provides a vehicle for that.
The combined company would have the “necessary scale, scope, resources and spectrum” to deploy fourth generation wireless services to more than 97% percent of Americans (instead of 80%), according to a filing they made in April. That would make our nation more productive and improve our competitiveness, which is we want. An analysis by Ethan Pollack at the Economic Policy Institute predicts that every $1 billion invested in wireless infrastructure will create the equivalent of approximately 12,000 jobs held for one year throughout the economy, and that if the combined company’s net investment were to increase by $8 billion, the total impact would be between 55,000 and 96,000 job-years. The FCC staff thinks this is an irrelevant consideration, because it might happen anyway.

Several commenters respond that even absent the proposed transaction, AT&T would likely upgrade its full footprint to LTE in response to competition from Verizon Wireless and other mobile and other mobile wireless providers * * * * Nothing in this record suggests that AT&T is likely to depart from its historical practice of footprint-wide technological upgrades with respect to LTE even absent this transaction.

They may be right, but this is wishful thinking at a time when millions of Americans are struggling. The best course of action at this point is to improve incentives for corporations to increase capital investment, improve productivity, capture market share and create more jobs. The Feds should obviously approve this merger, because the record clearly shows that the companies are willing to undertake a massive net increase in capital investment, now.
What about the counter-argument that if there are fewer wireless providers, that may lead to consumer price increases down the road? We can worry about that later. Right now, we need to worry about the unemployed. Incidentally, increasing supply in wireless is very simple. The FCC can simply award additional spectrum for mobile communications. Almost everyone agrees that this is the best tool the government has to promote competition in wireless.
The FCC committed another unforgivable error when it tried to blow up this merger. This is not the first time the commission has recklessly put entire sectors of our nation’s economy at risk while it conducts idealistic experiments for attaining consumer savings through rate regulation or regulatory mischief in pursuit perfectly competitive markets. The FCC’s cable rate regulation experiment in the early 1990s and its local telephone competition experiment in the late 1990s were both total failures and complete disasters.
This agency could use some humility, or some adult oversight.

Hance Haney

Senior Fellow, Technology & Democracy Project
Hance Haney is Director and Senior Fellow of the Technology & Democracy Project at the Discovery Institute, in Washington, D.C. Haney spent ten years as an aide to former Senator Bob Packwood (OR), and advised him in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Communications Subcommittee during the deliberations leading to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. He subsequently held various positions with the United States Telecom Association and Qwest Communications. He earned a B.A. in history from Willamette University and a J.D. from Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.