Sometimes it’s not what you say but what you don’t say that matters, and in today’s release of its annual wireless competition report (PDF link), the silence of the Federal Communications Commission speaks volumes. The problem is, no one knows what that silence is saying.
The agency has decided not to say that the U.S. mobile industry is competitive, releasing a report that could possibly cause problems for the $39 billion merger between AT&T and T-Mobile. Last year, when the FCC released its report, analysts paid considerable attention to the fact that the FCC hadn’t declared the industry competitive, but had instead issued an in-depth report looking at the various layers of the mobile ecosystem, and expressed concern about some elements and less about others.
This was seen as a victory for those worried about the influence that operators had on the agency, but this year the pro-consumer lobbying groups are clearly disappointed, having hoped the FCC would come out strongly on the issue. This is a particularly sensitive topic for the current FCC, which has tried to appear consumer friendly while not upsetting incumbents too much. One can still hope that mobile broadband might help rectify the uncompetitive state of wireline broadband in the U.S., but given the difficulties faced by LightSquared and the proposed combination of the nation’s No. 2 and No. 4 mobile operators the FCC could wind up building a wireless duopoly.
But while the FCC didn’t come to a conclusion on competitiveness, it did provide a lot of data. For example, spectrum holdings are a huge issue for the merger, and a chart from the report shows how much of the 700 MHz spectrum both AT&T and Verizon currently have. However, the same chart also shows how complex analyzing spectrum holdings can be, because it’s not an apples to apples comparison. The latest report is incredibly aware of those same problems in comparing different facets of the mobile ecosystem, which may be why the FCC ultimately provided a ton of data that says essentially nothing. I wonder if the regulators deciding on the merger will be able to see past the masses of data to the truth about the consumer wireless experience.