Is wireless competitive? AT&T, Verizon say yes—but others disagree

Beating out competition
Some wireless industry players argue that the industry is not competitive. (Paul Bradbury)

“Competition has never been greater than it has been over the past two years, and as a result prices are at all-time lows, output is at all-time highs, and innovation, network quality and consumer satisfaction are at unprecedented levels,” AT&T argued in a new FCC filing (PDF).

“The evidence of a robustly competitive and innovative mobile wireless marketplace remains overwhelming and is only growing stronger,” echoed Verizon in its own filing (PDF).

But not everyone in the wireless industry is seeing the same picture.

“As the mobile industry finds itself in the midst of a major technological transition to 5G, the fact remains that much of the country still lacks access to reliable mobile wireless service including 3G and 4G,” wrote the Competitive Carriers Association in its own filing on the topic (PDF). “In reality, the increasing concentration of the wireless market between the two largest providers—AT&T and Verizon—combined with existing regulatory barriers to wireless market expansion negatively impact competitive entry and competitive expansion, particularly in rural and remote areas.”

As Multichannel News noted, the filings are part of an FCC proceeding to create a new congressionally mandated report on competition in mobile wireless broadband. The effort comes just a year after the FCC’s “Twentieth Mobile Wireless Competition Report” issued to Congress last year concluded that the mobile wireless market is effectively competitive.

Although AT&T, Verizon, CTIA and other major wireless industry players this week argued that the wireless industry remains hotly competitive, the CCA—which represents Sprint, T-Mobile and most of the rest of the industry’s small wireless network operators—argued the opposite.

“CCA represents nearly 100 mobile carriers, yet by the end of 2017, AT&T and Verizon represented 70% of the market share of wireless subscriptions,” CCA wrote. “The increasing market power of the duopoly poses substantial challenges to the viability of smaller carriers and the competitiveness of the mobile ecosystem. Yet these rural and regional carriers are key players in the expansion of mobile wireless service to underserved or unserved areas of the country.”

Not surprisingly, each entity’s argument aligns with their general position in the market and overall legislative strategy. By arguing that the U.S. wireless industry is competitive, AT&T, Verizon and CTIA are likely hoping to avoid stiff federal oversight as well as industry-friendly regulations. Indeed, CTIA used much of its own filing to urge the FCC to release more licensed spectrum and issue guidelines that would smooth the deployment of additional wireless infrastructure like small cells.

On the other hand, CCA’s argument aligns with its position as the trade association for the nation’s small wireless providers; CCA argued that the FCC and other regulators should ensure that smaller carriers can access spectrum at reasonable prices, and that the government should continue to fund the buildout of telecommunications services in rural areas.

“The new statutory requirement for the Marketplace Competition Report directs the Commission to assess the state of mobile wireless competition, the deployment of communications capabilities, and the regulatory and marketplace barriers to competition for mobile wireless service providers,” CCA wrote. “As explained herein, in assessing the mobile wireless market characteristics, the Commission should rely on the experience of competitive carriers, such as CCA members, who work every day to provide service and promote competition in the rural and surban markets alike. A robust economic analysis of the data—combined with firsthand experience from consumers and service providers—will evidence a highly concentrated mobile wireless market with numerous barriers to deployment.”