Basically, what this chart shows is that in the 1990s, cell phone companies bought up other cell phone companies, and Congress and the FCC were happy to go along because of the power of industry lobbying. Once these companies had an effective cartel, their amount of investment dropped. If you didn’t like your cell phone company, you couldn’t really switch, because the other big cell phone company was just as bad. In 1997, the industry was putting 50 cents of every dollar of revenue into investing in more cell phone towers. By 2009, that number dropped 12.5 cents of every dollar. CTIA has made it much harder to find this data since 2004, but it is obscure filing comments at the FCC. Pretty soon, we should expect the public not to even be able to track why our cell phone’s usage is so bad.
To reduce prices in such a system, you need either competition in the form of more networks (with the same or different technology) or price regulation. The Federal Communications Commission has neither forced more competition, nor has it restricted price gouging. In fact, by doing things like killing Lightsquared, it has ensured high prices for all of us. Furthermore, the FCC has allowed a small number of big players like AT&T and Verizon to buy up much of the public airwaves (or “spectrum”) available for cell phone use, just to keep out competitors. It tends to allow big mega-mergers to go through (with the exception of the recent T-Mobile and AT&T merger). Meanwhile, Congress is trying to tie the hands of the FCC on making more spectrum available for anyone to use, and broadcasters are also throwing their lobbying into the ring, because they want to be able to control more spectrum to transmit television signals.
In other words, we are stuck with big bad cell phone companies not because those companies are good at providing cell phone service (which anyone with a dropped cell phone call knows), but because they are good at corrupting markets through political donations. AT&T has the single biggest donor group (known as a “Political Action Committee”) in Washington, DC.
Again, that’s on average $500 a year, $40 a month, or $1.50 a day, from you, straight into the pockets of Verizon and AT&T.