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ITS Online Event, 14-17 June 2020
This paper casts the economic and regulatory debate around digital platforms in a broader and more historical context. We emphasise that despite the considerable theoretical and policy-making discussion that focuses on the specific attributes of platforms-the presence of indirect network effects, economies of scale and difficulties of consumer coordination-that the challenge confronting policy-makers is an inherent tension between the desire to see "competitive" markets characterised by entry or by multiple competing firms, and other economic objectives such as efficiency and incentives to innovate. We note that similar challenges have been confronted in areas such as innovation policy and in network industries where sunk set-up costs and the resulting scale economies potentially limit the scope for efficient entry. Recent work by Weyl and White (2014; 2016) in fact emphasises the similarities between digital platforms and natural monopolies, and argues that even though unregulated platforms will not provide the socially optimal level and quality of service, any distortions created by platforms' profit-maximising behaviour are not efficiently corrected by introducing more competition. They argue that such competition is likely to inefficiently fragment platforms and reduce the level of network effects that they deliver to consumers, and propose that a natural monopoly philosophy of regulation may be more appropriate. In this paper, we focus on the historic experience of the telecommunications industry and its regulators in attempting to balance the desire to introduce competition with the natural constraints posed by the production technologies used in the industry. Telecom regulation has, at various times, had a "marketmitigating" character and at other times has had a "market-shaping" character. The former type of regulation is familiar natural monopoly regulation, which attempts to protect consumers against the consequences of a concentrated market structure, while recognising or accepting that the market structure may be difficult to change and may even have efficiency benefits. The latter type of regulation has involved regulatory efforts to affect market structure through tools such as wholesale access regulation justified by reference to "stepping stone" or "ladder of investment" theories, or vertical unbundling of incumbents. Examining the regulatory history of the US and UK we find that marketshaping intervention has had limited success in creating new entry, and that in both countries, the most important long-term driver of competition appears to be competition from new technologies, e.g., cable and mobile networks in the past and new fibre-based entrants in the present. The experience of telecoms regulation-which we plan to expand to include the experience of additional jurisdictions besides the US and the UK-suggests that the production technology of an industry remains a powerful determinant of market structure. In the case of platform industries, network effects and scale economies may limit the extent of competition in the efficient delivery of platform services. If the experience of telecoms is anything to go by, efforts to engineer more competition in the primary platform market may encounter a high chance of failure or irrelevance in the face of underlying economic forces and technological progress. There may be merit in exploring a regulatory approach that attempts to mitigate market failures that result from concentrated market structures, as proposed by Weyl and White, and competition policy may play an important role in preventing the leveraging of market power from primary platform markets to adjacent services markets. However, policies aimed at increasing direct competition to existing digital platforms may encounter difficulties similar to those encountered by market-shaping policies in telecoms regulation.
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