Daniel Bonin has written his seventh installment in our Emerging Fellows program. Here, he explores infrastructures in the light of monopolies. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Monopolies have a long and varied history. As regulators start to fear the misuse of market power by monopolistic companies they develop policy tools to regulate and unbundle markets. Still different types of monopolies like natural or geographic monopolies continue to exist. What will their future look like and could it be that new infrastructure monopolies and even outright state monopolies emerge by 2050?
Monopolies are not bad per se, they can help to cope with the problems which a free market economy fails to deliver. Until 2050, more and more governments may decide to tolerate a monopoly to ensure equal access to vital infrastructures in their depopulating rural areas. A monopoly provides also a certain amount of security, an environment in which the issue of costly upfront costs in new infrastructures could be solved. There is another argument for infrastructure monopolies that stems from technological change.
The past showed that monopolies have been responsible for miss-allocation in the economy. But what if new monopolies are the only way to allocate resources amid increasing connectivity and complexity by 2050? Artificial intelligence provides us a tool to handle complex systems like the supply and demand of infrastructures. However, it could work best if the monopolistic infrastructure operator has access, power and authority to change all of the variables that are relevant to the system. Think of an intelligent transport network that balances different modes of transport and movement of freight. With full access to real-time data and relevant infrastructures, such a network could even adjust traffic management systems and even the width of traffic lanes to accommodate the different users like humans, trams, autonomous vehicles and drones alike. Would a country be able to resist the tender of a monopolistic company that promises to provide such a smooth and cheap infrastructure or would it drawback and tolerate or even nurture new monopolies?
Would countries even have an incentive to create state monopolies? Governments are always concerned about the interference of other countries in their domestic affairs. Considering the growing connectivity of infrastructures and the role of data. It seems that concerns over interference of other countries in domestic affairs could provide such a reason. Countries would otherwise risk foreign competitors gaining access to vital information and the ability to manipulate infrastructures.
It is not only about the access to data, but the risk of the manipulation of data and news. Caught in this crossfire of threats, a state controlled telecommunication infrastructure monopoly could be a rational move for a liberal country to clear the situation. One strong state monopoly could also allow a country to strongly influence global infrastructure standards and win the race for new key enabling technologies like 5G. Thinking further ahead until 2050, a state monopoly for satellite operation becomes a first step to monopolise space and exercise geopolitical power. Earlier than one thinks, owning world’s first space debris management infrastructure might become of importance for the balance of power in space.
If countries decide to accept or even promote infrastructure monopolies, they need to develop a toolkit to regulate private infrastructure monopolies before it is too late. Financial institutions became too big to fail and monopoly-like platforms became too big to be regulated. In a similar way, private infrastructure monopolies could become too efficient to be regulated and too security-related to be not nationalised. To prevent some of this risk, state monopolies could be considered. However, as politics becomes more and more involved, it needs to be critically reflected that political interests and cycles are at odds with the life-cycle of infrastructures and the speed of innovation. Could state monopolies become the grit in the gears of future-proof infrastructures?
© Daniel Bonin 2018