How Should Regulators Measure Big Acqusition Competitive Impact?

The proposed big U.S. communications industry mergers (Comcast-Time Warner Cable, AT&T-DirecTV), and the potential additional mergers (Sprint-T-Mobile US, Dish Network-T-Mobile US, Comcast-T-Mobile US) all will be scrutinized for their expected impact on competition in one or more U.S. markets.

But it is hard to quantify the actual consumer benefits of competition in the U.S. linear video entertainment  business, and perhaps equally hard to quantify the impact of intra-industry consolidation (Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger) and inter-industry moves (AT&T buying DirecTV).

One might argue that Comcast buying Time Warner Cable does not reduce video competition because the firms do not actually overlap in terms of present coverage. The deal only increases Comcast scale. But the deal also would increase Comcast share of high speed access to about 40 percent, some argue.

That is a level of market share that normally would draw antitrust and competitive review or rejection.

The AT&T offer to buy DirecTV, by way of contrast, involves no similar levels of concentration, some would argue, as AT&T, even after a successful acquisition, would have 27 percent share of the linear video entertainment market.

Still, regulators will have to assess the potential impact on competition. And one of the issues is how few contestants are required to provide reasonable levels of sustainable competition.

Even most casual observers might agree that two contestants is a bare minimum, three is better and four is better still. At some point, the issue becomes how many contestants are viable, long term.

Some will argue that a duopoly mobile business was insufficiently competitive, featuring high prices and low innovation. On the other hand, some would argue a duopoly fixed network business (cable TV versus telco) has been reasonably effective at producing competitive benefits.

The issue is the additional role played by mobile and satellite TV providers, across the broader market.

There might be only two fixed network service providers of triple play services, but there are four providers of video and four providers of mobile service in most markets, plus two providers of fixed network voice, plus numerous specialty providers of business voice and data.

It is hard, under those circumstances, to predict the competitive impact of removing one video provider from the ranks of suppliers, or allowing one provider to gain 40 percent share of the high speed access market, or shrinking the total number of national mobile providers.

Also, how suppliers compete could change. Competition might shift in some measure to qualitative elements of the experience, as T-Mobile US has done with contracts, device subsidies, international calling and texting.

Service providers might compete less on subscription prices, and more on equipment rental fees and features (exclusive programming, high definition, digital video recorder features, international calling and texting).

More important are “hidden price breaks” for buyers of bundles (double play, triple play, quadruple play). In such cases, price competition is disguised.

The Federal Communications Commission once estimated consumer price savings as high as 15.7 percent, in 2004, primarily from satellite competition to cable TV providers.

Using a different methodology, the General Accounting Office (GAO) compared the monthly cable television rates in six markets with broadband service providers who offered a full range of services including subscription television with six comparable markets without such competition.

Monthly cable TV subscription prices for expanded basic service in five of the six matched markets ranged from 15 percent to 41 percent lower with competition.

Averaging the results, the average price was 22.2 percent lower when competition was present. (Prices for voice telephone service and high-speed Internet service were either less or the same in the competitive markets), one study suggests.

But prices only reflect part of the comparison. Programming lineups have changed as well, so a given price represents availability of more channels. One might argue about the incremental value of most of those channels, but the number of channels available has grown substantially.

Suppliers also note that new features--high definition quality, DVR, subscription video on demand--have been added as well.

Complicating matters further, most consumers these days are buying services in bundles that effectively blur the actual cost of each constituent service. So posted retail prices for single services do not necessarily reflect the actual prices being paid.

Furthermore, competition can occur on either price and value fronts, and that also is hard to quantify.  
When the U.S. airline industry was highly regulated, for example, competition centered on amenities, not price.

Just how much competition could be affected by any of the big acquisitions is the issue.

Some might argue that high speed access and mobile competition matter more, as video is likely to shift to a new over the top mode relatively soon, in any case.
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