Thursday, October 15, 2009

Network Freedom, Not Regulation, for Smartphone Apps

Last week, AT&T announced it will allow iPhone users to use Skype and other VoIP applications on AT&T's own 3G wireless network. iPhones users will soon have access to AT&T's competitors' Internet voice applications. What is important to keep in mind about this decision is who made it: the wireless carrier. Decisions about smartphone applications and their wireless network capabilities should be made in the marketplace, not at regulatory agencies.

Some recent studies have highlighted the competitive marketplace for wireless and for wireless smartphones. The FCC itself has recognized the dynamic nature of the wireless marketplace. Since Congress' 1993 deregulatory action, wireless innovation and competition have thrived in a marketplace subjected to only minimal regulatory barriers. There is a ready availability of competing handsets and carriers for consumers to choose from. (Apparently, RIM's BlackBerry Curve has moved past Apple's iPhone as the top-selling consumer smartphone.)

Absent a demonstration of anticompetitive practices by a producer with marker power, marketplace freedom should prevail over new regulatory restraints.

That said, AT&T's decision to allow iPhone users to access VoIP applications using 3G network capabilities hardly "proves" that network neutrality regulation needs to be imposed by the FCC on wireless networks. The competitive state of the wireless marketplace already favors continued marketplace freedom. Strictly speaking then, AT&T's turnabout on iPhone VoIP applications and its 3G network doesn't by itself make the case for marketplace freedom concerning smartphone apps and networks. Rather, AT&T's decision IS the free marketplace.

It was a decision made by a private, competing producer involving trade-off considerations and posing significant economic risks. Misguided calls to impose network neutrality regulations on wireless networks not only ignore the state of competition in wireless, they also ignore the complex technical and financially difficult judgment calls that businesses must routinely make.

A variety of conceivable factors can come into play when a competing marketplace producer makes decisions of this sort. For instance, satisfying iPhone user demand for access to VoIP applications using 3G network capabilities could increase AT&T’s good will, cementing its relationship with existing users and attracting increased numbers of new users. On the other hand, giving iPhone user access to VoIP applications using 3G network capabilities could have the overall effect of subsidizing its VoIP competitors, ultimately resulting in loss of significant business to those competitors. There is the possibility that business lost to VoIP competitors will result in a loss of revenue necessary to cover AT&T's high, up-front sunk costs for both building and maintaining its 3G network, which like all networks, has finite capacity. And loss of revenue makes it less likely that AT&T can subsidize iPhones so that consumers can purchase them for less than $200. Multi-factored business decisions of this kind should not be made by regulatory fiat.

Prior to AT&T's decision to allow iPhone users to access VoIP applications using 3G network capabilities, AT&T already allowed iPhone calls through VoIP applications when users relied on Wi-Fi Internet connections. At some future point, iPhones might also be made capable of tethering with laptops to give the latter devices Internet connectivity. Where the marketplace is as dynamic as the wireless broadband market, these kinds of product and service innovations will work themselves out.

Increased choice is an important element of consumer welfare, but so are incentives for producers to continue making investments to provide increasing choices to consumers in the future. However, the ability of carriers make those kinds of aggressive investments in infrastructure and applications, contingent on revenue recovery through exclusive, innovative new product and service offering arrangements, would be stifled by network neutrality regulations.