By Carmen Ortiz*
In October of 2015, an incumbent in the Salvadoran telecommunications industry, Telefonica, affirmed that the country is the most underdeveloped in terms of telecommunications in Latin America[i]. The government responded with an effusive denial[ii]. It supports the current framework of allocation of Radio Electric Spectrum (RES) by auctions that reward the highest price. The controversy brings up considerations from a public law and competition policy perspectives regarding the impact that the sector regulation, Ley de Telecomunicaciones (LT), has on the conditions of competition in the market for broadband services.
The regulation’s objectives are the promotion of access to telecommunications for all sectors of the population, the protection of the rights of the users, operators, and service providers, the development of a competitive telecommunications market and the rational and efficient use of RES. RES[iii] is a scarce public resource fundamental for essential sectors such as telecommunications and for services such as mobile and wireless broadband. The reason for the regulation of RES is its scarcity and the fact that competing uses of the same frequencies result in chaos[iv]. Barriers to entry through the hoarding of RES are a type of business strategy[v].
The controversy points out market failures in terms of missing markets for the provision of full national coverage of broadband services. Three operators, Telefonica, Claro, and Tigo, offer 3G and/or 4G only in restricted areas close to the main cities. Digicel does not offer 3G, nevertheless, is the only one with national coverage for 4G services. The fact that the frequencies assigned for mobile telecommunications have all been licensed to incumbents[vi] and that no entry has occurred in the last 10 years indicate that the lack of RES is a barrier to entry.
SIGET, the regulator responsible for the management of RES, orders public auctions upon requests of licenses for its use. Licenses have a 20-year term and are adjudicated to the highest bidder. From a public policy and competition policy point of view, the legal framework is fundamentally flawed: it bans an evaluation for the appropriateness of issuing licenses of RES according to its rational and efficient use.
“Effective policy must recognize competition issues in the downstream market for wireless services”[vii]. Superintendencia de Competencia, the national competition authority, performed a substantial analysis on the topic and issued recommendations to SIGET on how to promote and protect competition through the management of RES[viii], for example, by performing auctions exclusively for entrants. Unfortunately, its recommendations are not binding for the regulator.
An analysis from a public law perspective can identify if the regulation favors certain players at the detriment of others and if competition and consumer welfare are neglected. The question to be answered is how the LT protects or neglects the interests of the players involved.
Starting with incumbents, who in majority have colluded in the past[ix], they would prefer to maintain the status quo and close the market than to confront pressures of an entrant. The price for closing the market can be paid through an auction, even if overbidding is necessary. The LT permits this strategy and facilitates foreclosure. On the contrary, potential entrants are negatively affected. They might not posses at once the economic resources necessary to win an auction against motivated incumbents and to invest on sunk costs to enter the market. Being implicitly excluded from a positive outcome in the auction and from the downstream market means they are losers. Moreover, the LT gives them incentives to abstain from participating in auctions.
The SC is obstructed from protecting and promoting competition to achieve economic efficiency and consumer welfare because its opinions and recommendations on the efficient management of RES are not binding for SIGET. SC could even be demotivated to continue spending resources in performing analysis and recommendations on a topic that has a dead end with the regulator. The SIGET is unable to achieve its own objectives because the LT inhibits it from evaluating the efficiency and rationality in allocating RES. New market failures cannot be prevented or corrected. The central government, receiving millions of dollars to be paid in the auctions, supports emphatically the higher bidder-winner design and fails to acknowledge the new market failures faced in the industry. Favored with additional income, it has no intentions to reform the legal framework. Finally, consumers, the most important of all, are deprived from wider choices and from the benefits of vigorous competition, innovation, lower prices, and ample access to broadband benefits in wider geographical areas. Hence, consumers are losers.
From a competition law and public law perspective, an efficient management of RES and a national broadband planning for the long term should be a priority in developing countries. The state is responsible for these and its responsibility cannot be circumvented by the economic gains resulting from a higher bidder-winner auction design. Auctions for licenses of RES are a way of efficient allocation and encouragement of investment. For this, the regulator should make efforts to remove the legal obstacles that obstruct its responsibilities. Then, evaluate the existence of market failures, the conditions of competition in the market (with the support of the competition authority), the legitimate needs of RES of the incumbents and the asymmetries between incumbents and entrants. The ideal outcome of an auction and its design should be based on a case-specific analysis. The design of auctions of RES must have as objectives attracting entrants, preventing collusion and promoting competition both in the auctions and in the downstream markets[x]. Regulations that inflexibly favor the higher bidder-winner may hinder competition, obstruct economic efficiency, economic growth and neglect consumer welfare. Such design does not guarantee that the winner could give the most efficient use of RES. Aiming for the highest price does not imply success in public policy nor economic efficiency in benefit of consumer’s welfare.
*LLM in International Competition Law and Policy, University of Glasgow, School of Law, Scotland, United Kingdom. Candidate for the LLM in Law and Economics, University of Utrecht, Netherlands. Head of the Mergers Control Unit in Superintendencia de Competencia, El Salvador, from January 2012 to August 2015.
[i] See recent declarations on local newspapers, available at: http://www.laprensagrafica.com/2015/10/15/el-salvador-el-pais-mas-atrasado-en-telecomunicaciones-de-latinoamerica
[ii] See, Government of El Salvador’s official webpage, available at:
[iii] Radio waves or hertzian waves: Electromagnetic waves of frequencies arbitrarily lower than 3 000 GHz, propagated in space without artificial guide. See the Radio Regulations Articles, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Library & Archives, Edition of 2012, pg. 7, available at: http://www.itu.int/dms_pub/itu-s/oth/02/02/S02020000244501PDFE.PDF
[iv] Ozanich G.W., Hsu, C., Park, (2004). H. 3-G wireless auctions as an economic barrier to entry: the western European Experience, Telematics and Informatics 21, pg. 227. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Han_Park/publication/223696166_3-G_wireless_auctions_as_an_economic_barrier_to_entry_the_western_european_experience/links/00463536b910a89e98000000.pdf
[v] Porter, M., (1984). Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors. Free Press, NY., pg. 13-14.
[vi] According to the Cuadro Nacional de Atribucion de Frequencias (Table of national assignation of frequencies), see at: http://www.siget.gob.sv/attachments/2213_CNAF%202004%20y%20modificaciones%20al%202014.pdf
[vii] See, Cramton, P., Kwerel, E., Rosston, G., Skrzypacz, A. (2011). “Using Spectrum Auctions to Enhance Competition in Wireless Services”, The Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 54, pg. 168, available at: https://web.stanford.edu/~skrz/spectrum-auctions-and-competition.pdf
[viii] See the opinion issued by the Competition Authority of El Salvador, 11/10, 2013, pg. 11, available at: http://www.sc.gob.sv/uploads/SC-043-S-LP-R-2013_111013_1340.pdf and the decisions SC-016-S/C/R/2011 and SC-013-S/C/R-2012
[ix] See Superintendencia de Competencia decision on collusion: SC-017-O/PS/R-2010/RES:19-12-2011