The Future of Wireless Communication May Be Decided by Professors Who Are Paid for Their Opinions

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 21 2014 6:00 AM

The Wireless Wars

The future of wireless communication may be decided by a massive influence web of lobbyists, think tanks, and academics who are paid for their opinions. 

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AT&T has assembled the largest team of consultants and economists, most from top universities including Yale, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania. One of the key studies the company has cited during its meetings with the FCC, according to the center’s research, was conducted by Philip Haile, an economics professor at Yale University, with co-authors Maya Meidan, an economist at the consulting firm Compass Lexecon LLC, and Jonathan Orszag, also at Compass Lexecon, a former member of President Bill Clinton’s National Economic Council.

The authors conclude the government would lose up to $13.4 billion if the FCC institutes the mildest limitations and twice that if tougher restrictions are followed. In a footnote on the front page of the study, the authors disclose that the study “was supported by funding from AT&T.”

T-Mobile has the second-largest team, with Greg Rosston, deputy director of Stanford University’s Institute for Economic Policy Research and a former deputy chief economist at the FCC, figuring prominently. Rosston and another Stanford economist proposed a bidding process in which spectrum limits are sequentially eased if not enough revenue is raised under the caps. T-Mobile also paid Jonathan Baker, an economist at American University, who argued spectrum limits can increase auction revenue.

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“We have retained a number of experts … to help us respond and provide expert guidance on complex issues,” said T-Mobile’s O’Regan. He declined to disclose how much T-Mobile paid the economists, saying the compensation was “consistent with what gets charged in the market and the field” for such research.

Enjoying Financial Support

Verizon also has paid a former FCC economist on its team, Leslie Marx, who researches auction theory at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Marx concluded in her research submitted to the FCC that an auction with no limits increases revenue and the amount of spectrum applied for mobile use.

AT&T and Verizon didn’t reply to repeated requests to comment on its spending on spectrum lobbying and support of research and associations.

Sometimes relationships are less obvious. Economists at Georgetown University’s Center for Business and Public Policy Research—including a former undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration and a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, Congress’ economic research arm—published a study in April 2013 that found spectrum limits would result in “a less robust and competitive auction and reduce auction revenues by as much as 40 percent” and slow the transition to faster networks, all arguments that are similar to AT&T’s and Verizon’s.

The center states on its website that it “has enjoyed the financial support” of AT&T and the Verizon Foundation and more than a dozen other organizations. John Mayo, an economics professor and executive director of the center, said the financial support didn’t lead to the study or influence its conclusions. He declined to say how much AT&T and Verizon gave to the center.

Spectrum caps “is an important topic that the Center’s experts in telecommunications policy proposed would be ripe for research, ultimately leading to our study,” Mayo said in an email. “The research methods, analysis, and findings in all Center studies are designed and determined solely by the authors and are released subject to internal quality review with no external input.” The authors state on the front page of the study that their research “is not dependent upon any of the policy positions of current, previous, or prospective Center supporters.”

“You can have a peer-reviewed journal article with good data by distinguished scholars that comes to a conclusion that goes to a corporate point of view, and that’s fine,” American University’s Thurber said. “But we should clearly know that it does [support a corporate view], and then we can make a judgment about whether there is a conflict of interest.”

Sprint has been much less active. The company filed a study by two European economists who found “restrictions on the amount of sub-1 GHz spectrum operators can acquire at auction have not resulted in any reduction in auction revenue in the myriad European nations that have adopted them.”

Sprint and T-Mobile also have funded groups supporting spectrum limits. The two carriers and Dish each gave between $10,000 and $24,999 in 2013 to the New America Foundation, which has met with the FCC to argue for caps on frequencies, according to the New America Foundation website.

“As always we are aligned with the other consumer groups and we are all in a coalition with the smaller carriers,” the foundation’s Calabrese wrote in an email. The financial support from T-Mobile, Sprint, and Dish, however, was “not for any research papers or anything in particular.”

Free Press, a consumer advocacy and journalism organization in Washington that supports restricting spectrum purchases and has testified before Congress, doesn’t accept money from corporations and has funded no independent research, according to the group’s website. Public Knowledge has received donations from all four carriers for an awards program, and Sprint gave money to the group to analyze FCC spectrum data to develop Public Knowledge’s position on limits, according to Feld.

But consumer groups are outgunned by AT&T and Verizon. With their big spending on traditional lobbying and funding of associations, think tanks and universities, the corporations play the influence game better than anyone else, said Kevin Werbach, who studies Internet and communications policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

“This is their core competency, and they have been playing this game for a long time,” Werbach said. “These are companies that support foundations and other groups that do a lot of good work, but in the end are strategically designed to advance [AT&T’s and Verizon’s] interests.”

Two Sides of Wheeler

FCC commissioners are scheduled to vote on proposed auction rules, including whether it will include limits, at its May 15 meeting. That could open another round of public comments, and at that point the lobbying “will hit its peak,” said an executive at one of the wireless carriers.

Two of the Democrats on the commission, Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn, are likely to support limits. The two Republicans, Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, are less likely to.

That leaves the affable FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, whom President Barack Obama appointed last year, to decide. Wheeler knows a lot about lobbying, having headed up the National Cable Television Association, one of the biggest lobbying spenders in Washington, and the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association.

Wheeler, who wields a lot of power as chairman, hasn’t indicated how he would vote. At a speech at his alma mater, Ohio State University, he described himself both as “a rabid believer in the marketplace” and as “an unabashed supporter of competition.”

“A key goal of our spectrum allocation efforts is ensuring that multiple carriers have access to airwaves needed to operate their networks,” he then said.

It remains to be seen which Wheeler will show up to vote—the former lobbyist who fought federal regulations and whom an AT&T lobbyist called “an inspired pick to lead the FCC” or the Obama appointee who believes that the wireless market needs more, not less, competition.

This story was published by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.

Allan Holmes covers broadband and Internet governance for the Center for Public Integrity. He has written and edited on technology policy for 20 years, most recently for Bloomberg News and Atlantic Media.

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