Comparing The Telecom Industry To OPEC Isn't So Crazy
from the too-much-regulation dept
Tim Wu has an op-ed in the New York Times comparing the American telecommunications market to the OPEC oil cartel. My esteemed co-blogger Adam Thierer calls the comparison — and Wu’s piece — “absurd.” I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with Adam on this one. Wu’s basic point is the same one that Techdirt has been making for years: there’s not enough competition in the broadband marketplace. Adam suggests that OPEC is nothing like the telecommunications industry because “OPEC is a GOVERNMENT-RUN cartel,” implying, I guess, that the telecommunications industry is not a government-run cartel. That’s strange because Adam loves to talk about how excessive FCC regulation is holding back the telecommunications sector. Likewise, Adam has written eloquently about the harms of the FCC’s over-regulation of the spectrum. Government regulations still impose significant barriers to entry in the telecommunications market. That sounds like a “government-run cartel” to me.
It’s true, of course, that the American telecom market is less constrained than the telecom markets in some other countries. And it’s certainly less constrained than it was 30 years ago. But it’s also far from being a free market. Potential entrants to the wired broadband market face hostile local governments who often enjoy cozy relationships with the incumbents and a variety of taxes and regulatory mandates. As for wireless, Wu puts it as well as I could: “The federal government dictates exactly what licensees of the airwaves may do with their part of the spectrum. These Soviet-style rules create waste that is worthy of Brezhnev.” I read Wu as making a point that couldn’t be more libertarian: that bad regulatory decisions have limited competition in the telecom marketplace. He explicitly calls for “relaxing the overregulation of the airwaves and allow use of the wasted spaces.” Amen to that.
Now, Adam and Wu aren’t going to agree on what should be done about these problems. Wu is a fan of municipal broadband, while Adam is not. Wu supports network neutrality regulations that Adam opposes. And Wu wants more spectrum to be made available for use as a commons, while Adam would prefer to see the creation of robust property rights in spectrum. My sympathies are with Adam on all three issues. But in criticizing those specific proposals, I think it’s important not to lose sight of the big picture. The big ideological debate of 20th century telecom policy was over whether market competition or government planning is a better way to promote progress. I think it’s a sign of how completely the pro-market side has won that argument that Wu explicitly clothes his modest regulatory proposals in pro-competitive, deregulatory language. Wu explicitly acknowledges the potential for unintended consequences and the importance of robust market competition. Wu is no libertarian, but it’s silly to paint him as some kind of throwback from the 1930s.