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无线通信行业的颠覆者在哪里?

Harold Feld 2018年05月10日

要理解允许T-Mobile收购斯普林特为什么会给消费者带来大麻烦,我们就需要弄清楚进入无线通信市场为何如此艰难。

小布什执政时期,美国联邦通信委员会(FCC)放宽了规定,允许更多无线通信运营商进行合并。到了2010年底,美国的全国性无线通信服务商数量从七个减少到了四个。进一步整合直到2011年,在司法部和FCC联合出手阻止时才停下脚步。

从那时起,尽管谷歌、Dish Network和康卡斯特等公司都大张旗鼓地采取行动,但美国的全国性无线运营商数量一直是四个。要明白个中原因,要理解允许T-Mobile收购斯普林特为什么会给消费者带来大麻烦,我们就需要弄清楚进入无线通信市场为何如此艰难,就连资金充裕、品牌知名度高的大公司也是如此。

仅参与其中就得花数十亿美元

为防止无线信号相互干扰,FCC针对通信频段(也就是某个电磁波频段)颁发独家使用牌照。要提供无线通信服务,企业就必须获得多个这样的牌照。由于政府限制此类牌照的数量,其价格高达数十亿美元。在2016年进行的最近一次无线牌照拍卖中,整个无线通信行业花费了大约200亿美元。纽约、洛杉矶等主要城市的牌照成本可接近10亿美元。在美国,要在任何一个市场提供有竞争力的智能手机通信服务,都需要多张牌照来满足带宽需求。企业为此要拿出数十亿美元,而此时通信网络建设甚至还没有开始。

组建网络也需要几十亿美元以及大量时间,而且所有这些都发生在企业可以开始寻找用户以便开始偿还债务之前,更不用说开始盈利了。只有花上数十亿美元参与其中,企业才能开始设法吸引消费者。但就算大幅打折并提供优质服务,让一位用户不辞辛苦地从一家手机通信运营商转向另一家仍需要付出巨大努力,特别是转向质量未知而又无历史记录可循的新电信服务商。

以康卡斯特为例,进入无线通信行业前,这家公司已经建立了自己的网络,而且拥有2300万有线电视和宽带用户。2017年5月,康卡斯特开始提供移动通信服务。一年后,其手机用户只有50万多一点儿。这听起来挺多的,但2017年第四季度斯普林特和T-Mobile就发展了约1百万(后付费)用户。更糟糕的是,康卡斯特每争取一位用户就得花大约1260美元。即便是康卡斯特也无法保持这样的支出水平,从而真正跟拥有1.26亿用户的T-Mobile和斯普林特抗衡。

如果谷歌和康卡斯特都不能在无线行业进行竞争,又有谁能呢?

这些门槛的出现源于无线行业的运作方式。这些年来,一系列潜在新生力量反复试图颠覆这个行业的经济,但都无功而返。无论是小而分散的新生创业者、打算将业务扩展至全国的地区性电信公司、还是资金充足的谷歌等科技巨头,它们遇到的都是不留情面的无线通信行业经济,这实际上已经让出现真正的全国性竞争者变成了一件不可能的事。

那么全国性低成本通信服务商以及预付费通信公司怎么样呢?比如Boost Mobile或TracPhone?它们或者为四大电信运营商所拥有(例如,斯普林特拥有Boost Mobile),或者租用四大运营商的带宽,最常见的是租用斯普林特或T-Mobile的带宽。说这些电信公司和那些全国性运营商竞争就像是在说WhatsApp和它的母公司Facebook竞争一样。

让T-Mobile收购斯普林特意味着四位竞争者将变成三位。政府一直表示,这样的集中度对消费者来说是件坏事。基于无线通信行业的现实,情况不会发生改变。(财富中文网)

哈罗德·菲尔德是维权组织Public Knowledge高级副总裁。

译者:Charlie

审校:夏林

Back during the George W. Bush administration, the Federal Communications Commission relaxed its rules to allow more wireless companies to merge. By the end of the 2000s, America had gone from seven national providers down to four. The slide to further consolidation only stopped in 2011, when the Justice Department and FCC put their collective regulatory foot down.

Since then, despite high-profile efforts from companies such as Google, Dish Network, and Comcast, we remain at four national providers. To understand why, and why allowing T-Mobile to acquire Sprint would be a big problem for consumers, we need to understand what makes it so hard to for even giant, well-funded companies with recognized brand names to break into the wireless market.

Paying billions just to enter the game

To prevent wireless signals from interfering with each other, the FCC issues exclusive licenses to use the electromagnetic spectrum (usually just called the “spectrum”). To offer wireless services, a business must acquire a fair number of these spectrum licenses. Because the government limits the number of these, they go for billions of dollars. The last wireless auction back in 2016 cost the wireless industry approximately $20 billion dollars collectively. A single license for a major city such as New York or Los Angeles can cost close to $1 billion. To meet the bandwidth demand for a competitive smartphone service takes multiple licenses in every market in the country. That’s a multibillion-dollar price tag before the company even starts to build its network.

Building a network also takes billions of dollars, and a great deal of time. All this is before a business can even begin to find customers to start paying off all its debt, never mind start making a profit. Only after spending billions of dollars to enter the game can a company begin trying to attract customers. But even with steep discounts and quality service, it takes an awful lot to get a customer to go through the hassle of switching from one cell service to another—especially to a new wireless service of unknown quality and no track record.

Consider Comcast, which developed its own network and had a base of 23 million customers for its cable and broadband services before it even entered the wireless industry. Comcast started offering mobile service in May 2017. A year later, it has just over 500,000 subscribers. That sounds impressive, but combined, Sprint and T-Mobile gained approximately 1 million (post-paid) subscribers in the last quarter of 2017. Worse, Comcast spent an estimated $1,260 per customer acquisition. Not even Comcast can keep up that kind of spending to seriously compete with the 126 million subscribersof a joined T-Mobile/Sprint.

If Google and Comcast can’t compete in wireless, who can?

These barriers to entry are built into the way the wireless industry works. Over the years a list of potential new entrants has repeatedly tried to upend the economics of the industry to no avail. Whether scrappy entrepreneurial new entrants, regional providers trying to grow a national footprint, or even well-funded tech giants like Google, each one has run into the unforgiving economics of the wireless industry that make emergence of a serious national competitor virtually impossible.

But what about the low-cost national providers and pre-paid providers, like Boost Mobile or TracPhone? These are either owned by one of the Big Four (Sprint owns Boost, for example), or lease capacity from one of the Big Four, most often Sprint or T-Mobile. Saying that these carriers compete with the national carriers is like saying that WhatsApp competes with its corporate parent, Facebook.

Letting T-Mobile buy Sprint means going from four competitors to three, a level of concentration the government has consistently said is bad for consumers. Based on the realities of the wireless industry, that isn’t going to change.

Harold Feld is the senior vice president at Public Knowledge.

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