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Policy and Strategy Trends

Issue 4: January - March 2003     English: PDF      FrançaisPDF    Español: PDF  

Previous editions

In this edition
Upcoming events  
Competition Policy in Telecommunications
3.  Competition Policy in the United States - Policy in practice

1. Upcoming events

Workshop on Promoting broadband

As local and national governments prepare for the challenges of the information society, there is increasing interest in broadband deployment statistics showing which countries are leading, and which are falling behind. Although most existing users are residential consumers, broadband access is being touted as a way for governments to attract investment, ensure future economic prosperity and provide enhanced social welfare. But among developing countries, there is a fear that the huge investments necessary to establish wide-scale broadband access will open up a new digital divide. 

An ITU New Initiatives workshop - the eleventh in the series organized by the ITU Strategy and Policy Unit -  will be held in April 2003 on the topic of promoting broadband. This workshop will examine the different strategies that have been followed by ITU Member States, at local and national levels, for promoting the deployment and use of broadband networks. The key research question will be why some economies have been more successful than others and whether this success can be replicated. For further information, visit the website on promoting broadband.

2. Competition policy in Telecommunications

An ITU New Initiatives workshop — the tenth in the series organized by the ITU Strategy and Policy Unit (SPU) — was held at ITU headquarters from 20 to 22 November 2002, on the subject of competition policy in telecommunications. On the basis of country case studies (including Chile, Denmark, India and the United States), an ITU background paper and presentations, participants looked at the relationship between competition law and telecommunication regulation. The workshop sought to highlight general trends and policy options that could be used by countries that have recently introduced, or are planning to introduce, competition into their telecommunication markets. Countries seeking to maintain or increase the level of competition may also find these trends and policy options useful.
More information about the workshop is available at: order the CD-ROM and report produced on the basis of the workshop, please visit:

Why competition policy?

Despite the recent setbacks faced by telecommunication markets, the ongoing trend has been towards greater competition. For the majority of countries, competition has become the regime of choice. The number of countries introducing competition in basic telecommunications and wireless services has increased steadily since the late 1990s (see Figure 1). In 2001 for instance, 79 countries allowed some competition in local services, an increase from 68 in 2000. In long-distance services, 66 allowed some form of competition in 2001 as compared to 53 in 2000, while in international services, 69 allowed competition against 57 in 2000.

Growth in competition — especially in a fast-moving sector like telecommunications — naturally raises a host of complex issues. While competition has proven economic benefits and can help drive down prices and improve service provision, lack of appropriate competition policy can result in abuses of market dominance and anti-competitive practices. The role of policy provisions, including telecommunication regulations and competition law, is therefore paramount in safeguarding meaningful competition.

Anti-competitive behaviour

The costs of anti-competitive behaviour affect the economy as a whole, not just the sector. For instance, the European Commission estimates that barriers and bottlenecks in the ICT market slowed GDP growth by around half a percentage point during the 1990s. Anti-competitive behaviour may include conduct intended to harm competitors or abuse of dominant position. Some competition policy authorities also regulate deceptive or misleading conduct or discrimination among customers. The major difficulty in applying competition law in the fast-changing ICT environment is that it may sometimes take several years to resolve a particular case, during which time the market, the technology and the actors involved can change significantly. For instance, a case brought by MFS (now WorldCom) against KPN in the Netherlands in 1998 is not due for resolution until 2003, possibly too late to assist the complainant.

Areas in telecommunications, especially mobile communications, where accusations of anti-competitive behaviour have been made include:

  • Fixed-to-mobile call termination, especially in Europe, where rates are considered to be well above costs (see for instance research at: Australia decided to regulate this market in 2000 by encouraging operators to mirror reductions in retail tariffs in their termination charges, and by using the threat of ex post action if there was evidence of anti-competitive behaviour. The UK Competition Commission recently conducted an enquiry that supported the UK regulator's view that consumers pay too much for calls to mobile phones and that mobile operators must cut their termination charges for these calls.
  • Mobile roaming, where users typically have little or no information about the rates they will be charged, may not receive the bill until much later, and where no one jurisdiction may be able to handle complaints.
  • Pricing for SMS (short message service), where the trend has been for prices to rise, despite a huge increase in the volume of SMS traffic being generated. As SMS is carried over the signalling channel, the costs should be relatively low, but prices are not. Because of the bundling of SMS with other services though, meaningful price comparisons can be difficult to establish.
  • State aid to former incumbents. Several incumbent operators have debts that run to tens of billions of US dollars. Should such companies, in some cases still partly State-owned, be permitted to receive State aid?

Mergers, acquisitions and alliances

Mergers, acquisitions and other corporate alliances may be subject to review by competition authorities and/or sector-specific regulators on an ex ante or an ex post basis. While ex post merger regulation theoretically involves a lighter regulatory burden on business, it raises problems in undoing anti-competitive aspects of mergers after they have been implemented. Competition authorities typically consider the effects on competition, applying tests such as whether there has been a “substantial lessening of competition”. Sector regulators may apply similar tests, but may also apply broader sector-related policies or “public interest” standards, which can sometimes appear to conflict with competition concerns.

Another potential problem is the risk of conflicting decisions where both agencies oversee mergers. One solution is to have the sector-specific regulator provide recommendations, including sector-specific policy recommendations, for a final decision to be made by a competition authority. This solution can overcome problems of jurisdictional overlaps, the danger of regulatory capture and the relative inexperience of sector-specific regulators in dealing with the analytical techniques of competition law. A more common approach is to promote cooperation and information sharing between the agencies.

Industry consolidation seems set to continue (especially given the dynamics of the market over recent years) and can be seen as a result of a correction in the market structure stemming from over-capacity in the industry. As such, industry consolidation does not necessarily lead to a lessening of competition. Seen in this light, it may be inappropriate to protect certain industry players from financial failure in the name of maintaining competition levels.

Institutional approaches

While international and global arrangements are likely to lead to a greater harmonization of institutional arrangements, the institutional framework must be consistent with the constitutional framework of each country. A wide range of institutional approaches have been adopted to implement competition policy in telecommunication markets. At one end of the range, in some countries, generic competition legislation is simply applied by the judicial system. At the other end of the range, many countries have only telecommunication sector-specific regulators, and no generic competition authorities. In between lie the increasing number of countries with both sorts of agency. For this dual system to function smoothly, cooperative mechanisms can be developed between the agencies to clarify their respective roles, and to share information and analyses to reduce duplication of efforts and inconsistent rulings.

One approach that is consistent with good competition and telecommunication policy involves defining the relevant product and geographical markets and determining if there are dominant firms in relevant markets based on competition policy analyses. Dominant service providers can be regulated by sector-specific regulators on an ex ante basis in the markets where they are dominant. Markets with no clearly dominant service providers can be deregulated or made subject to much lighter regulation. However, in those markets, competition authorities may be able to intervene on an ex post basis, to apply competition law-based remedies, for instance to deal with cross-sectoral market entry by firms that have a dominant position in a different market segment.

Multilateral approaches

The most significant multilateral instrument governing telecommunication sector regulation has been the Reference Paper on Regulation developed by the World Trade Organization (WTO) as part of its 1998 Agreement on Basic Telecommunications. While many countries applied competition policy to the telecommunications sector before the WTO Agreement, the more than 70 countries that have adopted the Reference Paper are now legally required to do so as part of their obligations under WTO’s General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). Depending on the country, some of these competition policies are being applied by both multisectoral competition authorities, but most are applied by sector-specific regulators under sector-specific legislation.

In addition to sector-specific instruments, such as the Reference Paper, an increasing number of countries have adopted competition policies and laws of general application. At the multilateral level, a number of WTO Member governments have proposed the development of a “multilateral framework on competition policy”, which will be discussed as part of the new round of multilateral trade negotiations.

At present, bilateral cooperation agreements on anti-competitive activities represent the most concrete form of international cooperation in this area, but the importance of a multilateral framework to enhance the contribution of competition policy to international trade and development is reflected in the WTO Ministerial Meeting at Doha in 2001, which may help pave the way for greater progress in the development of a multilateral competition policy framework.

 3. Competition in the United States - Policy in practice 

This article is based on a specially-commissioned case study on competition in telecommunications in the United States, prepared by John Alden, Vice President of Freedom Technologies. The entire text of this and other case studies produced within the scope of the recent ITU New Initiatives workshop on competition policy in telecommunications can be found at:  Opinions expressed in this study are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of ITU, its membership, or the US Government.

The United States provides a good example of the application of competition policy concepts in the context of antitrust law enforcement and sector-specific telecommunication regulation. For instance, the regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Department of Justice (DoJ) — and in some cases the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) — present similarities and differences in their approaches to market intervention.

Certain elements of competition policy are identical or similar in analyses carried out by both FCC and DoJ. These include:

  • Defining markets in product and geographic terms.

  • Analysing markets to determine the extent of concentration.

  • Analysing markets to determine whether any single entity or group of entities does or can exercise market power.

  • Examining ease of entry and exit.

  • Identifying whether any market player controls essential facilities that are required by competitors as inputs to their own offerings.

  • There are, however, significant distinctions in how these analytical principles are applied. Perhaps the greatest of them lie in:

  • The purposes for which analyses of market power are carried out.

  • The overall standard of review utilized.

  • The degree to which specific remedies and requirements are spelled out in statutes.

In concrete terms, the FCC generally carries out market analyses either as part of a proceeding to alter sector-specific, ex ante regulations, or as part of its review of
licence transfers required to complete mergers. Antitrust authorities, meanwhile, conduct analyses either as part of investigations to seek ex post enforcement of antitrust laws or through pre-merger reviews.

As Box 1 shows, even in the seemingly similar act of authorizing mergers, there are important differences in the standards the FCC and the Justice Department or FTC apply. The DoJ employs a narrow standard focusing purely on competition—whether or not the proposed business combination will violate the Sherman or Clayton antitrust Acts. The FCC, on the other hand, employs a much broader “public interest” standard.

There is also a distinction between the nature of statutes governing the FCC’s actions and those governing antitrust enforcement. The Communications Act, particularly with its Telecommunications Act amendments, contains more specific, direct mandates and instructions, many of which, when implemented by the FCC, embody proactive, ex ante requirements. The antitrust laws on the other hand, are by necessity more general, and they apply punishment for proscribed behaviour after it has occurred.

Box 1 – The FCC’s public interest standard

In its order approving the 1998 merger of MCI Communications Corp. and WorldCom, Inc., the FCC outlined the differences between its public interest standard and DoJ’s antitrust standard:

  • The FCC examines not only the potential effect of the merger on competition, but also the balance of other potential benefits or harm to the public. While the FCC’s analysis of competitive effects is “informed” by antitrust principles, it is not “governed” by them.

  • The Commission must implement and enforce the Telecommunications Act of 1996, in which Congress established a “clear national policy that competition leading to deregulation, rather than continued regulation of dominant firms” should be paramount.

  • The FCC acknowledged that its competitive analysis was derived not only from its own Competitive Carrier and non-dominance proceedings, but also from the 1992 Horizontal Merger Guidelines employed by DoJ and FTC. In approving the merger, the Commission defined the affected markets as: domestic long-distance services; US international services; Internet backbone services, and local exchange and exchange access services.

  • The Commission found no potential impairment of competition in the long-distance or international service markets. It also accepted commitments from executives of both companies that they would seek to enter additional local service markets, thereby actually increasing competition. During the concurrent DoJ and FCC reviews, however, it became apparent that one or both of those agencies were concerned about Internet infrastructure concentration, particularly in the backbone market. To head off this problem, the merger partners agreed to divest MCI’s Internet assets to Cable & Wireless plc. After that, the merger was allowed to proceed.


For further information on Policy and Strategy Trends, please contact: ITU Strategy and Policy Unit, International Telecommunication Union, Place des Nations, CH-1211 Geneva 20 (Switzerland). Fax: +41 22 730 6453. E-mail: . Website:


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