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Has net neutrality decision impacted trading in the telecom sector?

Today the United States Court of Appeals-District of Columbia gave the Federal Communications Commission a victory, holding that the agency has the statutory authority to reclassify broadband providers as telecommunications companies as opposed to the industry favored status of information service providers. Broadband providers and their supporters have vowed that the fight is not over, telegraphing the probability of obtaining a ruling from the full bench of the appellate court or, going all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

The telecommunications services sector seemed to have shrugged off the ruling. The Thomson Reuters G7 Telecoms Sector Index registered a .06% decline at the end of the trading day. The sectors biggest players, AT&T and Verizon, saw their stock values increase .47% and .80% respectively. The response is not surprising since broadband operators such as AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast have been providing their high-speed access services pursuant to an open internet philosophy for decades. Their primary argument has been that broadband regulation should be conducted with a light touch and that throttling access speeds or discriminating against certain content or websites would be bad for business given the level of competition that they face.

Wall Street, unlike the Commission, has not been afraid to declare how competitive the telecommunications sector is. Charles Schwab analyst Brad Sorensen had this to say in a recent report about the telecommunications services sector:

“The telecom sector is certainly not what it was a couple of decades ago, although some investors may not realize it yet. The days of near-monopolistic control of landlines are long gone. These days the sector is driven by fierce competition, with new ways of communicating continually entering the market, and consistent—and expensive—upgrade cycles. To us, this reduces the traditional defensive appeal of the telecom sector.”

The court avoided the question of market power and deferred to the Commission’s predictive judgment on telecommunications companies willingness to invest in broadband network deployment. Although the sector has long left the monopoly environment existing prior to the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, should traders consider not only a throwback to the regulatory world of the 1990s that the court’s ruling has cemented but reorganization of the sector that resembles the Ma Bell days?

The 1990s were the pre-convergence days. Carriers followed a silo model separating, in the case of larger local exchange companies, their long distance operations from their local exchange operations. In order to avoid the disruption that may ensure from increased complaints regarding perceived throttling, suspected paid prioritization, and misunderstood network management techniques, what if larger carriers like AT&T and Verizon decided to spin off their newly created “utility” pieces and focused on providing backbone, mid-mile, advertising, content delivery, and special access services? State public utility commissions, long shut out of the broadband regulatory game, may now view the courts ruling as permission to re-enter the regulatory fray.

Spinning off the telecommunications component and leaving them subject to state and federal regulation may allow AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon to focus on the content and data business and go head to head with Google or Facebook, edge providers, who, though subject to the Federal Trade Commission’s privacy regulation, don’t have to suffer the FCC’s Title II regulation.

A spin off may be good for traders especially if the utility components are subject to rate-of-return regulation thus providing the certainty of fixed-income behavior while the unregulated portions, while subject to the volatility of competition, may generate higher rewards that come with the greater risk.

It’s still early and in the immediate term broadband providers will be focused on continued appellate court action. The long term potential restructure stemming from this action is something traders should keep in mind.

 

Will the FCC be naughty or nice when it comes to sponsored data

The Federal Communications Commission wants to determine if broadband access providers such as T-Mobile, AT&T, and Comcast, are complying with the Commission’s net neutrality rules. A report in Reuters stated the following:

“As you may be aware, concerns have been expressed about these programs, for example, some have argued that sponsored data unfairly advantages incumbent content providers,” the letter to AT&T said. “We want to ensure that we have all the facts to understand how these services relate to the commission’s goal of maintaining a free and open Internet while incentivizing innovation and investment from all sources.”

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler hasn’t posted any official statements on the Commission’s request for a January 15, 2016 meeting with AT&T, Comcast, or T-Mobile. Nor are there any docketed items addressing the matter of sponsored programs or other initiatives that allow consumers to use streaming or other data services while avoiding the application of this usage toward their data plans.

The Commission’s net neutrality rules do not speak specifically to a “1-800-number” approach to providing broadband access. The section of the rule that comes closest to addressing the concerns that sponsored data unfairly advantages incumbent broadband access providers is section 47 CFR 8.11.  This section reads:

“Any person engaged in the provision of broadband Internet access service, insofar as such person is so engaged, shall not unreasonably interfere with or unreasonably disadvantage end users’ ability to select, access, and use broadband Internet access service or the lawful Internet content, applications, services, or devices of their choice, or edge providers’ ability to make lawful content, applications, services, or devices available to end users. Reasonable network management shall not be considered a violation of this rule.”

A broadband access provider interfering with an end-user’s ability to select or access a competitor’s broadband access service or lawful content is not at issue here. Edge providers are arguing that they won’t be able to get their content in front of consumer eyeballs if larger content providers can leverage their content by offering it at a discount when they decide not to apply the data used against a data plan cap.

We can’t say whether there is a definitive political risk to the telecommunications sector since the Commission has yet to take any formal action. The “sit down” with broadband access providers is not for another three weeks and speculation at this point would be built on shaky ground.

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Is FCC net neutrality policy forcing investors to play broadband providers off of video streaming services?

Do we regulate vans when used to deliver newspapers to grocery stores or pharmacies?  Do we ask grocery stores or pharmacies to disclose the contracts they enter into for displaying The Wall Street Journal or People Magazine on their shelves?  Renting a van to deliver magazines or striking placement deals with grocery stores and pharmacies is the cost of doing business that magazines and newspapers incur when distributing their product and I don’t see why online content providers like Netflix should avoid the same costs of business under a disingenous practice of open internet or net neutrality.

The Federal Communications Commission so far has successfully skirted this argument, having phrased net neutrality as a consumer’s rights issue versus what it truly is: a cost-of-doing business issue for content providers who would rather not pay Comcast, Verizon, or Time Warner a fee to interconnect opting instead for a “bill and keep” scenario.  But like any other media company, Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon should be responsible for putting together their own content production and distribution network.

On the content side these companies will hire their own staff to create content in-house or hire a production company to provide them a set amount of programming.  They will, in the case of movies or television, pay licensing fees that enable them to re-broadcast a television or theatrical production.

The distribution side is trickier.  Netflix depends on mid-mile providers like Cogent and last mile providers like Comcast to connect their content to final end-users or consumers.  To keep these distribution costs low, Netflix would prefer to interconnect at no costs with last-mile providers. In its latest 10-K report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Netflix describes risks related to its relationship with last-mile providers:

“We rely upon the ability of consumers to access our service through the Internet. To the extent that network operators implement usage based pricing, including meaningful bandwidth caps, or otherwise try to monetize access to their networks by data providers, we could incur greater operating expenses and our member acquisition and retention could be negatively impacted. Furthermore, to the extent network operators create tiers of Internet access service and either charge us for or prohibit us from being available through these tiers, our business could be negatively impacted.
Most network operators that provide consumers with access to the Internet also provide these consumers with multichannel video programming. As such, many network operators have an incentive to use their network infrastructure in a manner adverse to our continued growth and success. For example, Comcast exempted certain of its own Internet video traffic (e.g., Streampix videos to the Xbox 360) from a bandwidth cap that applies to all unaffiliated Internet video traffic (e.g., Netflix videos to the Xbox 360).
While we believe that consumer demand, regulatory oversight and competition will help check these incentives, to the extent that network operators are able to provide preferential treatment to their data as opposed to ours or otherwise implement discriminatory network management practices, our business could be negatively impacted. In some international markets, these same incentives apply however, the consumer demand, regulatory oversight and competition may not be as strong as in our domestic market.”

The irony of Netflix’s statement on the threats broadband operators impose on their streaming business is that a few paragraphs prior to this statement, Netflix describes these providers as partners, specifically when it comes to streaming over devices provided by cable and telecommunications companies:

“We currently offer members the ability to receive streaming content through a host of Internet-connected devices, including TVs, digital video players, television set-top boxes and mobile devices. We have agreements with various cable, satellite and telecommunications operators to make our service available through the television set-top boxes of these service providers. We intend to continue to broaden our capability to instantly stream TV shows and movies to other platforms and partners over time.

If we are not successful in maintaining existing and creating new relationships, or if we encounter technological, content licensing or other impediments to delivering our streaming content to our members via these devices, our ability to grow our business could be adversely impacted. Our agreements with our device partners are typically between one and three years in duration and our business could be adversely affected if, upon expiration, a number of our partners do not continue to provide access to our service or are unwilling to do so on terms acceptable to us, which terms may include the degree of accessibility and prominence of our service.

Furthermore, devices are manufactured and sold by entities other than Netflix and while these entities should be responsible for the devices’ performance, the connection between these devices and Netflix may nonetheless result in consumer dissatisfaction toward Netflix and such dissatisfaction could result in claims against us or otherwise adversely impact our business. In addition, technology changes to our streaming functionality may require that partners update their devices. If partners do not update or otherwise modify their devices, our service and our members’ use and enjoyment could be negatively impacted.”

The consumer-centric statement caters to the public net neutrality argument of supposed threats posed by broadband providers but the statement describing broadband providers as partners, in my opinion, captures the reality of the relationship between content providers like Netflix and broadband providers.  The way to look at how a seamless internet service experience is provided is to look at the components necessary for getting digital product to the consumer.  Netflix has to coordinate via contract the prodiuction of content and its distribution.  It has demonstrated that it can and has entered into the necessary agreements with wireline and wireless providers to get its content distributed to consumers.

As a going concern I expect Netflix to take initiative in reducing its costs of delivery but using government regulation as the method for mitigating costs eventually is not in the consumer’s best interest nor in investor best interests.  Broadband providers will pass on the increased costs of traffic delivery and net neutrality regulatory compliance to consumers.  Increased costs of broadband access will cause consumers to look for other cable or wireless platforms, including different tiers of service which will have a negative impact on broadband operator revenues in the longer run.  Netflix may see a temporary bump in profits but as consumers decide to downgrade service, access to Netflix may be one of those services consumers may end up doing without.

 

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The New York Times needs to stop using the silo view to assess Comcast, Time Warner

The New York Times’ editorial board today opined on the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner.  In the piece, the editorial board argued that the combination could mean that in the future Comcast could keep competitors from accessing its NBC content and that there would be an inordinate amount of control over the consumer’s broadband access to content.  Here was my response:

“The Editorial Board is focusing on a lot of “what ifs” that if the feared scenarios were carried out by Comcast, the result would be a devaluing of their network and the content that they own. Comcast wants its NBC content shown on as many platforms as possible. The more eyeballs for its content means certainty in advertising and license fees generated by viewers.

Also, the Board is still stuck in the 1990s view of regulation. You can’t use the silo view of how to view Comcast or Time Warner. Google and Apple are developing a business model that connects consumers end-to-end to content. Google is also exploring providing broadband in a number of cities. A Comcast-Time Warner combination is merely good planning as the companies try to prepare themselves for a future where companies that have been erroneously described as tech companies are showing their through colors as media companies.

The notion of information portal is being taken to another level by all of these companies and it’s time for the FCC and the U.S. Department of Justice to recognize this.”

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Comcast and Time Warner would like regulators to joint the 21st century

I just finished listening to a hearing in front of the U.S. House Sub-committee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Anti-Trust Law.  Eight panelists tried to persuade the committee that the proposed merger between  Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable was either great for the delivery of innovative products and services to consumers or would harm consumers with higher prices and restriction on the availability of content.  What I barely heard was any analysis regarding what type of companies Comcast and Time Warner actually are today.

Based on most of the questions posed by the sub-committee members, their constituents look at Comcast and Time Warner as either 20th century cable companies, sitting somewhere with a huge dish catching satellite signals from HBO, Cinemax, or Disney and sending their programming down some cable wire into a consumer’s home or the company’s that connect us to the Internet.  And the discussion regarding whether the merger will be harmful to competition seemed to center on competition in broadband access or the last mile.

Comcast and Time Warner don’t appear to look at their relevant market as just last mile or broadband services.  From the near beginning of their joint testimony Comcast and Time Warner describe their proposed combination as creating a “world-class communications, media, and technology company.”  Not only are Comcast and Time Warner responding to and servicing the commercial activity generated by online companies such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Netflix, but they are now competing against these companies as these edge providers enter the world of digital voice and broadband access.

The question the U.S. Department of Justice will have to answer is why should we treat the services of each company as a silo such that we carve out one relevant market by which to analyze two companies that operate in multiple markets based on the multiple services they provide.  If the Justice Department identifies a relevant market, then can they say that there is a monopoly in the relevant market and was that monopoly power abused?

Yes, Comcast is already a monster of a company.  It has two main businesses; Comcast Cable and NBC/Universal. Assuming that the Justice Department finds that the relevant market is a national one, can the DOJ conclude that Comcast would have a monopoly in cable services?  How about in content production?  In theme park ownership?  In broadcast television station ownership?  In broadband?

Speaking of broadband, will the merger mean no more deployment of broadband facilities?  Probably not.  It would be highly irrational for a going concern that invests in a DOCSIS 3.0 digitized platform to not squeeze the last ounce of value out of it by not selling broadband services to more consumers.  For this reason alone I don’t see broadband adoption being harmed by the merger.

Cries of the big bad broadband wolf by the opponents of the merger tells me that they are still living in the late 1980s.  Comcast and Time Warner aren’t cable companies anymore.  Ironically it is because they have grown beyond their original core cable service and gotten larger in the process that they are able to escape antitrust concerns, assuming regulators admit they are in the 21st century.