Tiered Pricing in Broadband ≠ Monopoly

May 9, 2013

by Brent Skorup
Technology Liberation Front

I plan to write more about broadband competition and the impact of Google Fiber but in the meantime, there is a New York Times article on the subject that I’ll briefly address.

The author, Eduardo Porter, misdiagnoses why tiered pricing in broadband exists, giving readers the impression that only monopolies price discriminate:

That means that in most American neighborhoods, consumers are stuck with a broadband monopoly. And monopolies don’t strive to offer the best, cheapest service. Rather, they use speed as a tool to discriminate by price — coaxing consumers who are willing to pay for high-speed broadband into more costly and profitable tiers.

Consumer advocacy groups regularly–and wrongly–equate price discrimination with monopoly. Price discrimination–where firms price different customers different prices because of their willingness to pay–tells us nothing about the existence of monopoly (and little about market power). Firms lacking monopoly–in industries like airlines, clothing retail, movie theaters, and restaurants–use price discrimination. No one alleges monopoly in these industries, so I don’t know why the author makes this connection between monopoly and price discrimination. Had Porter thought about it, this paragraph makes little sense since even in the urban areas that have 2 or 3 high-speed broadband providers you still see tiered pricing. This should be a tip-off that tiered pricing does not arise from monopoly.

Porter makes another error, which I think just signals the sloppy reporting in this piece:

The preferred strategy seems to involve more cooperation than competition. In 2011, Verizon tried to cobble together agreements with the nation’s major cable firms to jointly market each others’ services — offering itself as the wireless complement to cable’s wireline plans. It was foiled only because the Justice Department slapped the deals down as anticompetitive.

As Gigi Sohn (who generally agrees with the author) points out on Twitter, this is not right either.

The agreements to jointly market others’ products were not in any meaningful sense “foiled.” Those agreements were approved with conditions, namely, that Verizon couldn’t market a cable company’s service where FiOS is available.

I don’t think these are minor nitpicks. The fact is, journalists and advocates regularly employ loose definitions of “monopoly,” often intentionally in order to increase the urgency to further some political end. And the portion about the Verizon deal gives readers the distinct impression that Verizon was doing something colluding and nefarious that was stopped by the DOJ, and that’s just not true.

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