Not Only "3 or 4," but "Which" 3 or 4

In many mobile markets, all fundamental policy choices about the right mix of competition and investment center on the numbers "three" and "four." Those numbers correspond to the number of leading providers in the market.

It might be fair to qualify the notion by adding that "which three" and "which four" also are important. Some firms arguably are better able to compete, either because their cost structures are lower or because they have other key revenue streams to rely upon.

The sheer number of firms in a stable and sustainable market still matters. But so do the business models of those firms matter. How can Google, Facebook and others offer valuable services "for free?"

They have different business models than firms relying on subscriptions or transactions. How can cable TV firms sustainably offer lower prices than telcos? Their cost structures are lower.

Economics, alas, is not a science, any more than any of the “social” sciences. Beyond general principles, it is very difficult (impossible, many would say) to “scientifically” tune whole economies, or even reliably predict the actual impact of most proposed policies.

That always applies to the matter of telecommunications service provider regulation, particularly as it applies to the matter of how to fashion policies that stimulate investment in facilities and promote enough competition to improve consumer welfare.

Obviously, policies can do too little, or too much, in either case leading to sub-optimal levels of competition, investment and consumer welfare.

Generally speaking, the bigger problems are structural: rules that arguably “artificially” restrict the amount of competition, prevent rationalized markets or reduce incentives to invest. But finding the right balance is tricky.

That is precisely at the heart of regulatory thinking in the European Union, for example.

Broadly speaking, the matter of promoting investment and competition takes practical expression in policies related to the “right” number of providers in markets. In the European Union mobile market, the key numbers are “four” and “three,” referring to the minimum number of leading contestants believed to be necessary to support robust competition.

The obverse also holds: four versus three also is believed to shape the profitability of investments. Three, in that sense, is more inviting than four.

Industry and regulators do not agree on the numbers. Telcos argue more scale--and therefore more mergers--are necessary to reduce the number of suppliers. Regulators now argue that no more big mergers are desirable, as that would reduce the level of competition.

The parties are not talking past each other, just focusing on different problems. Policies that promote “more competition” often can create less-inviting prospects for “more investment.”

“Less competition” can create better prospects for “more investment.” That is why the balance matters so much. More of one outcome means less of the other outcome. But there are worse outcomes.

Getting the balance wrong ultimately implies--at least for a time--less competition and less investment, however.

That happens because too much competition inevitably leads to supplier death. That can happen in several ways. Struggling firms typically reduce capital  investment to try and survive. In other cases, firms overinvest in facilities that ultimately do not produce a return. Either way, firms eventually exit the market.

What form the exits take is another matter. Firms can disappear, to be sure. But the more typical exit is absorption of failing firms by stronger firms. In those cases, there is at least a possibility that the level of competition actually is enhanced, not reduced.

That arguably will be the case in the U.S. market, for example, if two of the leading four U.S. mobile firms are acquired by cable TV, app provider or device supplier owners. In principle, that could happen in some EU markets as well.

So the issue is perhaps not only “three or four,” but “which three, and which four.”
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