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Antitrust

Daniel Hanley: Federal Communications Commission Must Block Verizon’s Acquisition of TracFone

Verizon sees an opportunity to acquire and neutralize an important competitor, but the FCC should stop that.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Daniel Hanley, a policy analyst at the Open Markets Institute

In late July, Democratic senators sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission urging the agency to investigate the acquisition of TracFone, the largest prepaid carrier, by Verizon, the second-largest wireless phone carrier in the U.S. The FCC should use its broad merger review authority to block it outright.

With prepaid service, consumers pay for a set amount of cellular usage upfront rather than receive a bill at the end of the month. While such a service may seem like a relic of the 1990s, more than 74 million Americans rely on the service as a low-cost and accessible alternative to traditional cellular plans provided by Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile.

Verizon is one of the most dominant telecommunications companies in the U.S., occupying 30% of the entire cellular market. Up until now, the company has focused on its traditional postpaid service and almost entirely ignored the prepaid cellular market. Verizon now sees an opportunity to use its financial firepower to acquire an important competitor with its attempted acquisition of TracFone.

A staggering potential windfall for Verizon

The potential windfall for Verizon is staggering. If this deal were to be approved, the FCC would anoint Verizon as the largest wireless prepaid service operator in the United States and the company would obtain an additional 21 million customers. The merger would also allow Verizon to acquire the fourth-largest wireless company by subscribership in the U.S. The acquisition of TracFone by Verizon will also add $8.1 billion in revenue for Verizon and an additional 90,000 retail locations. Such a position will only continue the wave of consolidation in the cellular service sector and fortify Verizon’s market power as one of the largest wireless communications providers in the country.

The Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice review almost all mergers in the United States. However, the communications industry is so important that Congress also gave the FCC the authority to review and deny mergers and acquisitions in the sector. Unlike the legal standard set in the Clayton Act, which structures the merger litigation of the DOJ and the FTC, the FCC reviews mergers in the communications field under a “public interest standard.” The public interest standard is highly deferential to the FCC’s interpretation. As such, the FCC has broad discretion and can consider a range of factors when analyzing a merger under its jurisdiction. The Supreme Court has stated that the standard “no doubt leaves wide discretion and calls for imaginative interpretation” and that the agency has “comprehensive powers to promote and realize the vast potentialities” of communications technologies.

A merger of this magnitude will undoubtedly cause the traditional litany of harms derived from mergers, such as an increase in the barriers to entry for the communications sector and increased potential collusion between firms as a result of increased concentration. However, even a moderate review of the facts would show that Verizon’s acquisition of TracFone is not in the public interest and that the FCC should block the merger.

The FCC should not allow Verizon to acquire a critical competitor

First, as with most mergers by corporate monopolies, Verizon does not need to acquire TracFone to accomplish its operational goals. The FCC should not allow Verizon to use its dominant financial position to acquire (and subsequently neutralize) a critical competitor and market participant and forgo operational investments and other necessary market research to expand its network. Instead, the FCC can force the corporation to use its vast finances to develop its own rival prepaid network by blocking the merger.

Such a circumstance would increase competition in the industry and benefit consumers. Additionally, such a course of action would facilitate the kind of business conduct and investments in internal expansion the antitrust laws and other antimonopoly policies actively encourage, while increasing market competition and firm rivalry. The Supreme Court has consistently praised and encouraged growth from internal operations rather than acquisition. In Philadelphia National Bank, the Supreme Court stated, “[S]urely one premise of an antimerger statute…is that corporate growth by internal expansion is socially preferable to growth by acquisition.”

Second, prepaid providers like TracFone provide critical competitive pressure to larger carriers like Verizon. Prepaid carriers like TracFone often rent the communications infrastructure from postpaid carriers like Verizon to provide their service. Thus, rather than focusing on expanding and maintaining network infrastructure, renting it provides prepaid carriers the ability to provide lower-cost service, more tailored service, and a better customer experience overall.

Third, mergers like Verizon’s acquisition of TracFone are harmful to consumers. In this case, potential price increases are not only likely, but they would also be exceptionally harmful. Concerning TracFone specifically, the company provides a critical service to vulnerable sectors of the population that are extremely sensitive to price increases – particularly low-income consumers and people of color who live within the geographic area which TracFone serves.

Importantly, TracFone participates in the federal Lifeline Program, a crucial government program that provides low-income individuals subsidies to afford phone service. If Verizon were allowed to acquire TracFone, Verizon would obtain full control of TracFone’s 21 million customers consisting of a population it has historically ignored. Moreover, because of the increased market concentration, which would thus deprive customers of one less carrier to switch to, Verizon would face significantly fewer incentives to keep its prices low for such a vulnerable population.

Additionally, cell phones are a critical and vital tool for the public, particularly during the pandemic. Indeed, 37% of Americans use the internet only via a mobile device. Low-income students as well are now heavily reliant on cell phones for online education during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a 2020 survey, between 29 and 43 percent of parents said their children will have to do their schoolwork and engage in online learning from a cell phone. Access to low-cost cell phones is thus imperative for a large fraction of children to remote learning, which some states are considering for the fall 2021 semester.

History does not bode for Verizon’s claims of consumer benefit

Verizon has asserted that “when TracFone’s customers become part of Verizon, they will benefit from the enhanced choices, better services, and new features that follow from Verizon’s investment while still enjoying the flexibility and control that they have come to value with TracFone’s prepaid plans” and that it “will not require any TracFone customers to move to a more expensive plan when the transaction closes.”

However, history does not bode well for Verizon and its claims that its acquisition will benefit consumers. The economist John Kwoka found that 80% of studied mergers led to higher prices and even reduced output. Other comprehensive studies have found that acquisitions cause “significantly increase[d] markups on average” and reveal “no evidence for efficiency gains.” As New York University business professor Melissa Schilling has stated, most mergers “do not create value for anyone, except perhaps the investment bankers that negotiated the deal.”

Concerning the communications industry specifically, when telecommunications giant AT&T was acquiring Time Warner, the corporation stated that “the evidence overwhelmingly showed that this merger is likely to enhance competition substantially, because it will enable the merged company to “reduce prices, offer innovative video products.” Judge Richard Leon, who oversaw the litigation challenging the merger, was ultimately persuaded by AT&T’s statements holding that AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner would “lead to lower prices for consumers.” Despite these claims, subsequent evidence revealed that AT&T did raise prices on consumers.

Although Verizon has committed to supporting TracFone’s presence in the Lifeline program for three years, the company has made no concrete promises to keep their prices at current levels for TracFone customers or to increase customer incentives to move to a higher-cost plan after the transaction closes. Like most mergers, Verizon’s asserted efficiencies and promises to improve competition as a results of the merger are likely theoretical and dubious.

A worrisome wave of acquisitions by telecom giants

Lastly, due to certain aspects of the market, such as the high infrastructure costs of cell towers, prepaid phone carriers tend to reduce to one or two carriers in a geographic area. Even more worrisome is that there has been a wave of acquisitions by the telecommunications giants over the past decade. In the prepaid industry, AT&T acquired Cricket Wireless and T-Mobile acquired MetroPCS in 2013.

Other blockbuster mergers among the group are the acquisition of Sprint by T-Mobile and the acquisition of Time Warner by AT&T. All these mergers went unchallenged by the FCC. Moreover, since AT&T and T-Mobile have already acquired firms to enter the prepaid industry, Verizon is the last remaining national carrier that could enter this market and likely the only wireless carrier with the finances to do so meaningfully.

The FCC has clear discretion to block this merger. Given the harmful effects of similar mergers, the sheer number of acquisitions that have already taken place in the communications industry that the agency has previously failed to stop, and the potential harms that could result directly from this merger, the FCC should review Verizon’s acquisition of TracFone with extreme suspicion and block it outright. The agency has the authority and must use it.

Daniel A. Hanley is a policy analyst at the Open Markets Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @danielahanleyThis piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

BroadbandBreakfast.com accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

Broadband Breakfast is a decade-old news organization based in Washington that is building a community of interest around broadband policy and internet technology, with a particular focus on better broadband infrastructure, the politics of privacy and the regulation of social media. Learn more about Broadband Breakfast.

Antitrust

American Innovation and Choice Online Act Advances to Senate Floor With Bipartisan Alliance

Klobuchar was able to rally Democrats and Republicans to support her bill, but its future depends upon a shaky alliance.

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Sen. Amy Klobuchar

WASHINGTON, January 21, 2022 – Senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee have formed a tenuous, bipartisan alliance to curb allegedly anticompetitive behavior by large tech companies.

During a Thursday markup, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 16-6 to send the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, S. 2992, to the Senate floor. The bill would prohibit certain companies with online platforms from engaging in behavior that discriminates against their competitors.

There is a laundry list of violations and unlawful behaviors enumerated in the bill, including unfairly preferencing products, limiting another business’ ability to operate on a platform, or discriminating against competing products and services.

This bill would only apply to companies with online platforms that meet one of the following criteria:

  • Has at least 50,000,000 United States-based monthly active users on the online platform or 100,000 United States-based monthly active business users on the online platform
  • Is owned or controlled by a person with United States net annual sales or a market capitalization greater than $550,000,000,000, adjusted for inflation on the basis of the Consumer Price Index and is a critical trading partner for the sale or provision of any product or service offered on or directly related to the online platform

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., the sponsor of the bill, referred to the bipartisan effort as “the Ocean’s 11 of co-sponsors,” featuring a diverse line-up of legislators, from Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Miss., and Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., to Sen. Dick Durban, D-Ill., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

Senators embrace specific and direct targeting of Big Tech

Klobuchar spoke directly about the need to target large companies, “We have to look at this differently that just startup in a garage – that is not what they are anymore. They may have started small, but they are [now] dominant platforms,” she said. “For the first time, the monopoly power is going to be challenged in what I consider to be a smart way.”

At the outset of the meeting, there were more than 100 amendments proposed by members of the committee, but by its conclusion, more than 80 of them had been withdrawn.

One of the amendments that worked its way into the bill was a markup that exempted subscription-based services from complying with the legislation, allowing services like Amazon Prime and Netflix to promote their own content above others’.

“The bill strikes the right balance between preventing the conduct that hurts competition, while also ensuring that platforms can continue to provide privacy and data security features to their users, compete against rivals in the United States and abroad, and maintain services that benefit consumers,” Klobuchar said.

A fragile alliance between read-meat Republicans and progressive Democrats

Though there were big names on both sides of the aisle supporting the bill, the alliance seemed fraught. Despite being supportive of the bill, Kennedy made it clear that his support was conditional. “I am a co-sponsor of this bill, but this bill is going to change – it is going to change dramatically,” he said. “I hope to be in the room when those changes are made, otherwise I will be off this bill faster than you can say ‘Big Tech.’”

Some of Kennedy’s criticisms harkened back to Section 230 issues raised by former President Donald Trump – calling some of the targeted companies “killing fields for the truth,” and stating that “their censorship is a threat to the first amendment.”

Despite his criticisms, Kennedy echoed other senators, both Republican and Democrat, who emphasized that they did not want the perfect to become the enemy of the good. “All we have done [for five years] is strut around, issue press releases, hold hearings, and do nothing. So, this is a start.”

Klobuchar also received push-back from members of her own party, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., stating that she was critical of the bill because it is designed to specifically target large tech companies, many of which are based out of California (though she ultimately voted to advance the bill to the Senate floor).

Hawley rebuffed Feinstein in his comments, stating that he supports the bill for the same reason Feinstein refuses to. “[Feinstein] pointed out – I think rightly – that this bill is very specific and does target specific behavior – anti-competitive behavior – in a specific set of markets. I think that that’s a virtue and not a vice.”

The measure must be passed by the full Senate, as well as the House, before it goes to the president for his signature.

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Antitrust

CES 2022: Patreon Policy Director Says Antitrust Regulators Need More Resources

To find the best way to regulate technology, antitrust regulators need more tools to maintain fairness in the digital economy.

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Larent Crenshaw (left), head of Patreon's global policy team

LAS VEGAS, January 7, 2021 – The head of Patreon’s global policy team said federal regulators need more resources to stay informed about technology trends.

Laurent Crenshaw told CES 2022 participants Friday that Congress should provide tools for agencies like the Federal Trade Commission to enforce consumer protection standards.

“I’m not going to say that big tech needs to be broken up, but there should be appropriate resources for federal regulators to understand the digital marketplace,” he said. “We’re are still living in a world that is dominated by big actors, and we’re debating about whether to even give federal regulators the power to understand how the marketplace is moving toward digital.”

Crenshaw of Patreon said that more resources were necessary at the FTC in order to understand the digital marketplace. Patreon is a membership platform that provides a subscription service for creators to offer their followers.

Such resources would empower the agency to place appropriate safeguards for smaller technology innovators. “So in 10 [or] 20 years, it’s not just the replacements of the current Google, Apple, or Facebook, but something entirely new,” he said.

Panelists echoed Crenshaw’s point that consumer welfare should guide competition policy. Tyler Grimm, chief counsel for policy and strategy in the House Judiciary Committee, said that antitrust should bend to the consumer welfare standard. “Antitrust should leave in its wake a better economy,” he said.

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Media Ownership

LeGeyt Appointed President and CEO of National Association of Broadcasters

LeGeyt was the organization’s executive vice president of government relations and COO.

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Curtis LeGeyt

WASHINGTON, January 4, 2022 – The National Association of Broadcasters has appointed Curtis LeGeyt to serve as president and CEO, replacing Gordon Smith.

“It is an honor to lead this great organization and advocate for the local television and radio broadcasters that inform, entertain and serve their communities every day,” said LeGeyt in a statement. “I am grateful to our Board of Directors for placing its trust in me and look forward to working alongside them, the entire NAB team and our members to ensure a vibrant future for broadcasting.”

LeGeyt was previously the executive vice president of government relations and chief operating officer of NAB. He holds a JD from Cornell Law School.

“We are excited to now have Curtis at the helm to guide the organization into its next chapter. He is a proven leader and skilled fighter on behalf of broadcasters, and we are thrilled to have him serve as our voice in Washington and around the world,” said David Santrella, NAB joint board of directors chairman and CEO of Salem Media Group.

The previous president and CEO, Gordon Smith, served in this role for 12 years. Smith will remain with the NAB, albeit in an “advisory and advocacy” capacity. During his tenure, NAB took a hardline on big technology companies, condemning them as a threat to small TV and radio stations that make up local media, and called for citizens to voice their concerns to legislators.

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