The Law and Economics of the FCC's Transaction Review Process

54 Pages Posted: 1 Apr 2013 Last revised: 25 Dec 2013

See all articles by Geoffrey A. Manne

Geoffrey A. Manne

International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE)

Will Rinehart

Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University

Ben Sperry

International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE)

Matt Starr


Berin Szóka


Date Written: August 23, 2013


This article assesses the FCC’s current policies and rules regarding transaction reviews, concluding that the Commission’s current spectrum transfer review process harms consumer welfare. In particular, the FCC’s spectrum screen as currently structured, its standard of review for spectrum transfers, its use of conditions, as well as the scope of its transaction reviews exceed legal limits, impede efficient markets for spectrum, and deter welfare-increasing transactions and investment.

First we explain the FCC’s current policies and decisions regarding transaction reviews and assess their appropriateness with respect to the Commission’s authorizing legislation, regulations and case law. With respect to the scope of its transaction reviews and its use of conditions in particular, we find that the FCC’s practices exceed their permissible limits.

Next we address the economics of the FCC’s policies and decisions, explaining and assessing the animating economic logic behind the FCC’s actions. We demonstrate that the FCC’s current spectrum screen and transaction review standards rest on the premise that spectrum concentration in markets inherently leads to anticompetitive behavior. Further, we explain the flaws in this premise.

In demonstrating and assessing the basis of the FCC’s transaction reviews, we discuss the particulars of the FCC’s spectrum screen in detail, focusing on its use of concentration metrics and claims that its full analysis (beyond the initial screen) investigates competitive conditions more broadly. As we discuss, the Commission uses HHIs and spectrum concentration measures improperly as de facto triggers for per se illegality, rather than triggers for further investigation. Further, none of the full analyses described by the Commission investigates an aspect of competition other than market or spectrum concentration; instead, they simply restate in more detail the structural analysis implied by the HHI test and spectrum screen.

Addressing the economics underlying the FCC’s actions, we demonstrate that both economic theory and evidence indicate that the presence of more competitors in telecommunications markets does not necessarily result in lower prices and better service for consumers. Particularly in industries (like wireless) that are characterized by rapid technological change, non-horizontal competitive constraints and shifting consumer demand, the threat of entry and the need for repeated contracts with input providers with market power operate to constrain strategic behavior, even in heavily concentrated markets.

The welfare effects of spectrum concentration are at worst ambiguous, and, as we demonstrate, as the market has grown more concentrated, investment, coverage and product diversity have increased while prices for consumers have decreased. These results are consistent with a more robust model of firm behavior in the industry that takes account of entry threats and technological change.

Next we undertake a detailed critique of the FCC staff's analysis of the AT&T/T-Mobile merger, demonstrating that it exhibits the same flaws as the agency's more cursory transaction reviews.

We conclude with a discussion of the policy implications and suggestions for reform.

Keywords: FCC, transaction review, spectrum screen, antitrust, HHI, entry, spectrum, mergers

Suggested Citation

Manne, Geoffrey and Rinehart, William and Sperry, Raymond and Starr, Matt and Szoka, Berin, The Law and Economics of the FCC's Transaction Review Process (August 23, 2013). TPRC 41: The 41st Research Conference on Communication, Information and Internet Policy, Available at SSRN: or

Geoffrey Manne (Contact Author)

International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) ( email )

1104 NW 15th Ave.
Suite 300
Portland, OR 97209
United States
503-770-0076 (Phone)


William Rinehart

Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University ( email )

3525 Old Main Hill
Logan, UT 84322
United States

Raymond Sperry

International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) ( email )

1104 NW 15th Ave
Suite 300
Portland, OR 97209
United States
8147245659 (Phone)
8147245659 (Fax)

Matt Starr

ICLE ( email )

5005 SW Meadows Rd.
Suite 300
Lake Oswego, OR 97035
United States

Berin Szoka

TechFreedom ( email )

110 Maryland Ave NE, Suite 409
Washington, DC District of Columbia 20002
United States


Do you have negative results from your research you’d like to share?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics