December 20, 2011
Marketplace Radio had a segment on the proposed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile. It reported that AT&T argued that the acquisition of T-Mobile would allow it to better serve consumers by giving it a large number of cell phone towers in areas where AT&T currently provides inadequate coverage. The segment then said that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) saw things differently. They blocked the merger because they argued it would lead to excessive concentration and higher prices for consumers.
Actually, there is no conflict between these views. AT&T was arguing that there are substantial economies of scale in the industry that can still be gained even for a firm that already has a 25 percent market share. The FCC argued that allowing firms to gain an even larger market share would imply substantial monopoly pricing power.
These are totally consistent positions. This is why phone companies have historically been either publicly owned or subject to government regulation. The argument is that the nature of the technology would lead to natural monopolies (in the old days, no one was going to lay a parallel set of wires to the old AT&T network).
It is desirable to let firms take advantage of all the available economies of scale to reduce their costs. However, if left unregulated they would take advantage of the lack of competition to gouge consumers. The answer is to have regulators set their prices based on an assessment of their actual costs. It is remarkable that this standard economic solution has not been raised in the public debate over the merger.