The wireless industry invests roughly $30 billions of dollars annually in capital expenditures building out their networks and acquiring spectrum. The major carriers average $5 billion to $10 billion in capital expenditures each. Given that the industry is heavily regulated, it would be irresponsible for them to not protect their investment with appropriate political lobbying efforts. It has been reported that the Big-4 and the CTIA spent over $53 million in lobbying efforts in 2012 (www.opensecrets.org) and occupy three spots of the list of the 30 largest spenders on lobbying. This is disproportionate to the industry’s size in the economy, but perhaps appropriate due to the regulatory intensiveness of the industry. Their lobbying budget allows the wireless industry to maintain constant vigilance on pending legislation and FCC policy changes.
The large wireless service providers complete comments on almost every docket (AT&T filed 11 comments on the broadcast incentive auction process alone), and conduct numerous meeting with members of Congress and their staff. This gives the wireless industry significant access to and likely clout over spectrum policy. For example, when the FCC attempted to prevent AT&T and Verizon’s participation in the broadcast incentive auctions, Congress quickly responded with legislation that instructed the FCC not to prevent any qualified bidder from participating.
The risk of these large lobbying expenditures is that the power of a few strong industry players often sets the narrative of how an issue is explained. It is often difficult for an alternative viewpoint, particularly that of a potential new entrant, to get heard. The major wireless industry players have stressed the “spectrum crunch,” without much supporting information, as the basis for their need for significant amounts of additional spectrum. It is only after a few years, that significant numbers of people are now questioning seriously the data upon which this is based. The opponents of the “spectrum crunch” hypothesis don’t have conclusive information on their side either. But their relative lack of funding put them a few years behind in the public/political debate.
Over the next few years the wireless industry will be facing major decision on many issues such as, spectrum auctions, shared spectrum, spectrum caps, industry consolidation and other issues. It would be a shame if alternative views are drowned out.