Unleashing Telecommunications: The Case for True Competition

The long-awaited transition to a competitive local telecommunications market is mired in regulatory and court proceedings spawned by the implementation of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and proposed mergers among major players in the industry. In this brief, we argue that to accelerate development of competition in local access, the recently proposed mergers involving three of the remaining five RBOCs (Baby Bells) should be denied; prices for all telecommunications services should be moved toward cost; and requests by RBOCs for authority to offer long-distance service should be denied until there is more progress on making local access more competitive.


Once upon a time, AT&T—Ma Bell—reigned over virtually all telephone service, until, like Humpty Dumpty, an antitrust settlement broke the company into multiple pieces: seven Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs or Baby Bells) that were allowed to offer only basic local monopoly services, and the new AT&T that was given the parts of the business that were expected to be competitive: long-distance service and equipment manufacturing. For a few years, the Baby Bells lived the quiet life of regulated monopolists while AT&T steadily lost market share to companies like MCI and Sprint in long distance, and Mitel and Northern Telecom in communications equipment. But despite their state-regulated monopolies, the RBOCs were unhappy with the line-of-business restrictions, and persistently pushed courts, regulators, and elected officials for authority to enter competitive markets.

In 1996, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act, which seeks to revolutionize telecom markets by: truly opening local telephone markets for the first time in over 80 years; increasing competition in long-distance markets by ending the prohibitions against the RBOCs; and promoting more competition in cable television by letting telephone companies into that industry. Now, almost three years later, these dreams appear to have been far too bold.

Although competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs) have made modest inroads in delivering the data and voice traffic of businesses in large cities, the RBOCs and other independent local exchange carriers (ILECs) still service 99% of the 180 million local lines in the country. Competition has advanced gradually, but much more rapidly in long-distance, but very little, if any, of that progress can be traced to the passage of the 1996 Act. The same is true of cable television, which has been attacked with some success by direct broadcast satellite services, but not by the telephone companies thought to be cable’s main source of future competition.

Given time, technology eventually will bring about the revolution that sponsors of the 1996 Act envisioned. Box 1 illustrates a few of the most promising technologies that should end the RBOCs’ bottleneck control over basic local access, long the major problem in this market which led to the breakup of AT&T in the first place. The key challenge confronting policy makers is to speed up the transition to competition. In this brief, we explain how.

Box 1: Technologies That Should Transform Local Telecommunications

Technology Advantages/Key Features Impediments
Cable television Prematurely promised as the answer to the copper wire, AT&T’s proposed purchase of TCI and possible hook-up with Time/Warner High cost and complication of making cables true two-way means of communication
Wireless (including satellites) Cellular calls becoming steadily cheaper, number of users sky-rocketing Cellular calls still substantially more expensive than landline calls; satellite deployment will take time
Electric companies Electric wires already run into homes and businesses Coupling the electric wires with switching technologies has not yet been demonstrated
Packet-switching The new Internet-protocol technology should transmit both data and voice simultaneously, at far lower costs Takes time for new technology to be implemented

Why Generating Competition Is So Hard

To find the right policies, it is vital to understand why competitors have such a hard time mounting challenges to the RBOCs in local service. In a nutshell, the answer is that the RBOCs have a near-monopoly in most forms of access to the national telecommunications network. With the exception of large businesses and a few other lucky telephone customers in areas with access competition, the vast majority of telephone users must acquire access from an RBOC or other monopoly carrier. As a result, RBOC competitors end up buying key RBOC services:

  • Other local competitors must purchase transport and termination rights from the RBOCs or they cannot complete calls from their customers to RBOC customers.
  • Some local competitors may need to lease pieces of a RBOCs’ network, so-called unbundled network elements (UNEs), to offer competition in other aspects of local service.
  • The long-distance companies must pay access fees to the RBOCs to connect the calls originating or terminating with most of their customers.

As the only game in town, the RBOCs can discriminate in providing access in various and subtle ways that are difficult for state and federal regulators to detect and monitor: by providing poor interconnections, slowly and/or ineffectively repairing and maintaining leased network facilities, and delaying or denying the use of local network innovations to their competitors. The RBOCs have strong incentives to behave this way, leading customers to reject alternative providers and so preserve their local monopolies.

The slow progress by local service competitors is not surprising. Even if the RBOCs were doing everything in their power to assist competitors, the new entrants still would find the going very rough. Replicating even a portion of the existing local telephone network is expensive, and the business risk is high because the incumbent monopolist (unlike new competitors) has a guarantee from state regulators that it can recover the cost of investments plus a healthy allowance for profit.

The 1996 Telecom Act was supposed to facilitate entry by allowing competitors, using some of their own facilities (such as switches) to lease the rest (copper wires leading into homes and residences, the so-called last mile) from the RBOCs’ networks. The Act also enabled competitors to resell local service, much as long-distance resellers have been doing for some time. Finally, the Act envisioned prices for unbundled network elements and interconnection (terminating calls on the RBOC network) that reasonably reflected their cost, rather than inflicted a financial penalty on competitors.

The FCC quickly developed pricing rules to implement the Act, but these rules have been tied up in court for over two years. Several RBOCs and GTE have convinced a federal court of appeals that the FCC unlawfully usurped the states’ regulatory powers when it announced these rules. The industry now awaits a decision by the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Southwestern Bell (SBC) challenged the constitutionality of the entire Telecom Act, which is also pending before the Supreme Court.

Putting Humpty Dumpty Back Together

To the average American, about the only noticeable events since the 1996 Act are the big telecom mergers. In just the past year, two major long-distance marriages have been completed: Worldcom/MCI and Qwest/LCI. AT&T has entered the merger arena with a different aim, gobbling up Teleport and TCI and, just recently, making noises about arranging some kind of deal with Time Warner, all with a view toward cracking the local telecom market.

But the most important mergers have been those among the RBOCs that are threatening to put the old telephone Humpty Dumpty back together. In the last three years, the seven RBOCs shrank to five as Southwest Bell (SBC) swallowed Pacific Bell and Bell Atlantic absorbed Nynex. Now SBC wants to add Ameritech to its empire, while Bell Atlantic seeks to absorb the largest non-RBOC local exchange carrier, GTE. If these mergers are approved by the Department of Justice and the FCC, two companies—SBC and Bell Atlantic—each will control access to about one-third of all telecommunications customers in the United States.

The legal hurdles standing in the way of the mergers are lower at Justice than at the FCC. Justice cannot stop the mergers by itself, but bears the burden of proof in court that the mergers are anti-competitive. In contrast, the FCC can halt the mergers first, shifting the burden of proof in court to the merging parties. At the FCC, the test is whether the mergers are in the public interest.

It will be tough for Justice to establish that the mergers would actually reduce potential competition in local access that otherwise could have been provided by the merging parties in each of the other’s service territory. A more compelling argument against the mergers concerns the magnified incentives the mergers would give to the combined companies to discriminate against other competitors.

Presently, the RBOCs and GTE (which has RBOC-like dominance of its local markets) cannot fully capture the benefits of discrimination against calls that terminate outside their regions. However, the mergers will enable them effectively to double their local market footprints and thus capture more of the benefits of discrimination. This will increase incentives to engage in such practices. Even if this footprint argument does not provoke a challenge to the mergers, it should establish a strong presumption against their approval by the FCC, where the broader public interest test is the legal standard.

SBC and Ameritech argue that after their merger they plan to enter up to 30 new local markets through an ambitious national-local plan, which would make their merger procompetitive. But there is nothing stopping the companies (nor Bell Atlantic and GTE) from doing this now. Indeed, the one certain effect of the merger is to terminate Ameritech’s plan to invade SBC’s territory.

As a last resort, the merging parties probably will argue that their deals should be permitted to go through with appropriate conditions. The FCC adopted this approach with respect to the Bell Atlantic/Nynex merger, but the condition of moving to much lower rates for competitors based on forward-looking, incremental costs, has proven to be a slow process and meanwhile the merger is already a done deal.

Physicians are governed by the principle of first, do no harm. This is a reasonable principle for telecommunications policy makers to follow with respect to the two proposed RBOC mergers. Doing so would mean rejecting both marriages.

Getting Prices Right

The transition to competition requires that prices of local telecommunications services be far more closely aligned with their costs.

First, the access fees that the RBOCs charge long-distance companies must be reduced to cost. The best way to accomplish cost-based pricing is through competition itself, but competition in access termination charges is very unlikely as long as access customers face a local monopoly. In the absence of local competition, the FCC can and should reduce long-distance access charges, especially before permitting the RBOCs into long-distance.

Second, the problem of interconnection pricing among local competitors also must be solved in a reasonable manner. RBOCs (and some state regulators) propose that local access competitors should pay the same excessive terminating charge as long distance carriers, or at least pay termination charges that compensate the RBOCs for the cost of capital investments. In either case, these prices are far above cost, and so retard local competition.

Economics is clear on the efficient price: to encourage only efficient investment in local service competition, interconnection charges should reflect long-run incremental cost. If, for legal reasons, regulators or the courts decide that RBOCs are entitled to recover all of the costs of their inefficient local network investments, the best way to solve this problem is a nondistorting charge that is levied on all telecom customers, such as a uniform tax on all services (or the basic monthly access charge) that is used to subsidize the RBOCs.

Third, the thorny battle over the pricing of unbundled network elements (UNEs) needs to be resolved. The FCC and some state regulators have decided that the RBOCs’ network elements must be made available to new entrants at their incremental forward-looking costs—approximately the long-run marginal cost of the best available technology. The RBOCs respond that state regulation entitles them to recover the average, historical costs of their existing networks, and that it is especially inappropriate to divine the marginal costs of some hypothetical best-practice technology. The outcome of this fight over UNE pricing is critical. If UNEs are priced either too high or too low, competition in local service will suffer.

A sensible compromise can avoid both dangers: establish a presumption that the price of UNEs will be set at the average cost of incremental local access investments during the preceding year. This procedure would avoid looking to hypothetical technologies to assess costs, but would retain the important principle that prices should be set close to marginal cost.

Fourth, state regulators will have to rebalance their entire rate structures. Existing prices provide artificial incentives for CLECs to engage in cream-skimming—competing only for business customers that pay prices that deliberately have been set too high to subsidize rural and small-town customers.

Admittedly, these pricing reforms present perhaps the most difficult set of political challenges facing telecom policy makers. Local service customers in small towns and rural areas may find their basic monthly service price increasing substantially in the short run, with the uncertain prospect that more competition eventually will arrive to bring them down.

Regulators have two answers to this dilemma. One is that the net effect of all pricing reforms will reduce the entire package of service costs, and will accelerate development of competition in local service, thus reducing future prices. The second answer is that the 1996 Act provides a mechanism for cushioning the impacts on residential customers who are expensive to serve or who make insufficient use of long-distance services to benefit from the overall increase in competition. This mechanism, the universal service fund, is paid by a neutral, across-the-board assessment on telecommunications service prices, rather than by distorting rates of certain telecom services away from cost.

When Should The RBOCs Be Allowed To Offer Long-Distance?

A major premise of the 1996 Act is that the RBOCs should not be allowed to offer long-distance services in any state within their service territories until local markets are opened to meaningful competition. The Act left this judgment to the FCC. It must first certify that the relevant state regulator and the RBOC have satisfied fourteen checklist obligations relating to interconnection with competitors, and then must rule whether granting long-distance authority is in the public interest.

Since the Act became law, the FCC has considered and rejected five RBOC long-distance applications. The Commission has not yet defined how an RBOC entry would satisfy the public interest test, since in each case the state regulator found that the RBOC had not complied with the statutory checklist items.

To break the continuing impasse, we believe that the FCC should take two actions: adopt the realistic choice test for the public interest standard, and invite RBOC applications to provide long distance service from areas that are smaller than an entire state.

The FCC could end much of the uncertainty about the meaning of the public interest test by establishing a presumption in favor of RBOC entry into long-distance where at least half the local service consumers have the ability to choose among two other predominantly facilities-based providers (those who do not heavily rely on the RBOCs for unbundled network elements to provide local service) that offer service at prices and quality comparable to the RBOC. We propose our test of three (two plus the RBOC) because unless customers have meaningful choice among providers, an RBOC will have strong incentives to raise costs and lower the service quality of its long-distance rivals. By doing so it can steal away customers and at the same time charge long-distance prices that are well above its own costs.

The 1996 Act threatens the RBOCs with penalties if they misbehave, and ultimately with revocation of their long-distance authority. But the FCC has limited resources to investigate allegations of discrimination, while any threat of revocation undoubtedly would be challenged in lengthy judicial proceedings. Additionally, forcing an RBOC to withdraw from the long-distance market could disrupt the service of all of its customers.

The Telecommunications Act envisions state regulation as the first line of defense in setting interconnection rules and prices. Thus, RBOC applications for long distance service will be for entire states. In reality, a pro-competitive system of state regulation is likely to cause competition to arise at different rates in different places. Rather than waiting until RBOCs can satisfy all state entry requirements, the FCC should invite them to apply on a less-than-statewide basis where they can meet the test of three.

This approach might give Bell Atlantic, for example, an opportunity to enter long-distance in New York, or Ameritech to enter in Chicago, where local competition may be taking root. By not giving an RBOC immediate authority to enter throughout a state, the FCC can hold out the carrot of additional approvals if the RBOC shows that it has not discriminated against long distance competitors. This approach is a far better way to assure compliance with the Act than by threatening to drop the equivalent of a nuclear bomb: revocation of the license of a non-complying RBOC.

A Contrary View

Our Brookings colleague, Robert Crandall, proposes a novel way out of the current telecom mess. His idea is cold turkey deregulation: let the RBOCs into long-distance right away and quit regulating their prices at the local level. The RBOCs probably would increase the price of local service, but high prices would serve as the strongest possible incentive for competitors to rush into the market and thus discipline the price increase. Meanwhile, the RBOCs would bring more competition, and lower prices, to the long-distance market. All this would occur, Crandall argues, without the excessive lawyering that the 1996 Act clearly has unleashed.

The chief problem with this free the RBOC strategy is that even higher prices alone cannot assure or even speed up local service competition, because the RBOCs still control all of the means of access. Indeed, precisely because of such control, the RBOCs would be sorely tempted to have their cake and eat it too—to raise prices and engage in various forms of subtle discrimination to slow down competitors.

Crandall might respond that antitrust laws can handle this kind of abuse, but that would take us full circle back to the AT&T case itself: engaging in time-consuming and expensive litigation to sort out the competing claims.

We believe that the better course is to stick with the 1996 Act, hold the line on recreating Humpty Dumpty, and explore innovative ways to resolve the impasses over pricing and long-distance entry by the RBOCs. This may not be nirvana, but no one ever said moving from monopoly to competition would be easy.