Does Intense Price Competition Drive U.S. Wireless Industry Concentration?

Can price and other forms of competition beneficial for users still occur when markets are highly concentrated? Yes, say Jerry B. Duvall and George S. Ford of the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies. The question now matters, once again, as the Federal Communications Commission seems to be hinting it thinks the U.S. wireless market is growing unduly concentrated.

The important observation is that, in some markets, even high levels of supplier concentration do not preclude important, even robust levels of competition, on price, quality and other dimensions.

When analyzing levels of competition in a market, economists often, and rationally,  infer it from the level of industry concentration, where higher levels of concentration indicate the presence of market power. But industry concentration is related to the size of a market as well as high sunk costs or intense price competition, or some combination.

High industry concentration can be the result of a limited market or high fixed costs, as for a water, electricity or wastewater system, for example, all cases where fixed costs are so that facilities-based competition is not possible.

In some other markets, high capital investment requirements can create huge barriers to entry. Where that barrier exists, even when competition increases because of new entrants in a market, market concentration could still increase, even in the face of price competition. Market concentration appears to reach a lower bound, despite continuing growth in the size of the market.

It is possible that the apparent lower bound on market concentration could reflect economic and technological constraints that continuing growth in the number of competitors will not, and cannot, affect. In other words, some markets might always feature few competitors, for logical reasons. Few today would agree that telecommunications is a natural monopoly. But neither would many agree that the number of facilities-based contestants can be a large number.

The video entertainment market is less price competitive than the broadband access, fixed voice or wireless markets, but perhaps not because the number of competitors is notably less.

The implication is that telecommunications market structure will always be relatively concentrated compared to industries where entry does not require substantial upfront capital costs.

The relationship between the number of firms and market power, where market power is defined as the ability of firms to price above marginal cost, implies that that some communications firms will now, and in the future, possess some degree of market power, Duvall and Ford say. Competition will not be "perfect," but rather workable.

Still, there is an important observation: tthe more intense is price competition the higher is industry concentration. The typical view of competition has price competition increasing with declines in industry concentration. In other words, the more firms in a market, the more “competitive” that market is.

The implication is that high concentration can be the result of intense price competition, rather than market defects.

In the summer of 2000, the proposed merger of MCI-WorldCom and Sprint was abandoned due to the
challenge of the merger by antitrust authorities. In retrospect, one can note that faulty conclusions were drawn from incomplete analysis. Market power in the long distance industry actually was illusory. Even strong industry concentration did not actually imply serious market power, as price competition, for example, was intense.

The obvious implication is that high levels of wireless industry concentration do not preclude or foreclose robust levels of competition. In fact, robust competition causes industry concentration. See http://www.phoenix-center.org/pcpp/PCPP10Final.pdf, for example.
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