Rep. Markey’s Wireless Investment Prohibition Act

Congressman Ed Markey (D-Mass) has introduced legislation aimed at ridding the cell phone world of the much criticized practicies of phone subsidies, long-term contracts, and termination fees. In the name of contract “consistency” Markey’s bill mandates that cell companies offer alternative plans that contain no subsidy for the handset and plans that offer month-to-month service.

The bill contains a long section of “findings,” which are intended to point out what, from Rep. Markey’s perspective, are the illogical practices of cell phone providers. However, if you look at the issue of termination fees, you’ll find that Rep. Markey’s bill ignores the role of competition in decreasing costs to consumers and fails to take into account long-term investment in increasing nation-wide wireless capacity.

The bill claims that termination fees “Do not reflect the cost of recovering the monetary amount of a bundled mobile device or any other expenditure for customer acquisition.” The most glaring problem with this finding is that it’s already outed. Sprint, which is currently hemorrhaging money, instituted a new policy in November that allows customers to change plans without extending contracts and prorates termination fees. This came on the heels of similar announcements from Verizon and AT&T in October of last year. So, the bill’s $175 average termination fee figure is likely an incorrect one based on old policies.

But termination fees don’t just serve the purpose of cost recovery, they also provide an incentive for customers staying loyal to their wireless provider and giving these providers revenue predictability. With predictable revenues, it’s easier for cell phone network companies to get the financing they need to build the multi-billion dollar networks of tomorrow. Rep. Markey’s bill may save consumers in the short-term, but in the long run adding volatility to the marketplace will stem investment and slow the roll-out of 4G and Wi-Max networks.

We often talk about the unintended consequences of legislation in our work at CEI–this is a prime example of some very significant and costly unintended consequences that will ultimately hurt consumers and threatens to put America behind the curve on cell phone technology.

Rep. Markey’s bill also deals with wireless broadband, coverage maps, and spectrum efficiency. Topics that Ryan Radia and I will be addressing in future posts.