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I don’t see how the FCC set top box policy adds value to content

On 27 October 2016 the Federal Communications Commission will take up the issue of competition in the navigation device or set top box space. The Commission wants to see the video content distribution industry move from requiring subscribers use of set top boxes to the use of free apps to find content. The main driver of the proposed policy, according to the Commission, is subscriber avoidance of onerous set top box fees that allegedly average $231 a year. With today’s app and internet technology, argues the Commission, subscribers should be able to find content without paying navigation device fees.

The process for getting to a decision is driving some content developers bonkers.  According to a report in Broadcasting & Cable, some content developers are concerned about the proposal’s lack of transparency and whether the Commission will play an intrusive oversight role in contracts between content distributors and content programmers.  Contracts lay out terms for compensation and channel placement, items I would think that the Commission should not really be interested in. Rather, the Commission should be interested in whether the telecommunications sector is bringing value to the overall economy. While content creation is ancillary to the sector, without information, data, or knowledge flowing over networks, the network itself loses value.

From the content programmer’s perspective, while concerned with carving out a niche in a competitive content space, the content developer, where he can seize the opportunity, wants to recover as much of a premium as he can from his product. That means cashing in on as much exclusivity as he can. He will do this in two ways. One, produce content that generates traction. Two, make sure that given the traction, he makes the content as exclusive as possible so that he can extract higher rents. Free apps do not meet either of these conditions. Free apps providing you navigation to licensed and unlicensed content eliminates exclusivity. Content competition is increased which drives down the prices content programmers can charge. This leads to lower returns on capital. If returns on capital are seen as too low, no investment is made, no infrastructure deployed, no workers hired.

All this to save $231 a year.

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FCC does not recognize the value cable creates for content

Recently the Federal Communications Commission released a plan for increasing the number of ways consumers can navigate video content. The Commission wants cable companies to provide pay television subscribers with a free app that allows the subscriber to access their video content. The Commission believes that at an annual amount of approximately $231 for set top boxes, households are getting hosed and that additional choice is needed in order to reduce this financial burden.

The Commission appears to be ignoring the capital side of set top box equation. No where in his plan does Commission chairman acknowledge the billions cable companies spend on obtaining licensing to programming or creating their own content.  To extract value from this content, cable companies charge consumers a positive premium for using platforms necessary for accessing the content including set top boxes. The Commission is blatantly circumventing the ability of cable companies to extract the value of the content by requiring that cable companies provide consumers with apps that allow the consumer to avoid monthly fees altogether.

The Commission believes it is correcting some type of market failure by providing consumers access to content at a reduced cost, but by interfering with a market transaction, the Commission is creating an environment that sends a false signal to content providers and navigation technology providers. Device makers may think twice about investing resources into developing hardware where the use of free apps freezes the hardware provider out of the market. Small, non-cable affiliated app developers may have second thoughts as well, especially going up against deeper pocketed cable companies or internet portal companies such as Google who can leverage its advertising revenue to provide video navigation apps for free.

In addition, with the requirement that cable companies provide free apps and the expectation that established internet portals will enter the video navigation application market, smaller entrepreneurs will have a harder time accessing capital as investors view their business model as a source of lower returns.

Sending skewed market signals and reducing small app developer access to capital doesn’t make for good video marketplace policy.

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One end game for broadband adoption: digital currency

The message for broadband adoption is incomplete because there is nary any mention of how adopting broadband aids capital accumulation or deployment for the consumer. I talked last week about how the only thing that slowed down capital expenditure by broadband providers is an economic slowdown. But what inroads on the consumer side should we see at the intersection of capital and broadband?

One intersection I find appealing is digital currency.  Digital currency allows users to exchange online credits for goods and services. Digital currency exchange may involve the use of a mobile app or can be conducted from a computer. With the use of a digital wallet, digital currency can be sent to or received by a consumer.

Transactions are made with no middlemen. International transactions are cheap and are currently not subject to regulation although governments are concerned about taxation and the lack of control over the currency. These concerns conflict directly with the philosophy underlying the development of digital currency; to take power out of the hands of the government and central bankers, a philosophy I believe that is much in keeping with the freedom and openness of the internet. With talk of central banks considering the issuance of digital currency, I’m concerned that the speed and freedom of transactions stemming from the use of digital currency like Bitcoin would be lost.

Digital or more accurately cryptocurrencies offer an alternative medium of exchange especially for communities underserved by traditional mediums of capital exchange. With a computer a consumer could “mine” her own currency, enter into markets where it is accepted and purchase goods and services in those markets. As more goods and services are purchased in digital exchanges with digital currency, not only will the value of the digital currency increase but so to will the value of the broadband networks that sustain these exchanges. More consumers would have incentive to get on board with broadband as broadband and digital currencies combine to give consumers increased access to local, regional, national, and global markets.

 

 

 

With all the talk of pending recession, why implement net neutrality rules?

So far 2016 has not been the best year for the equity markets. Over the past four weeks the Dow Jones average has fallen almost three percent and year-to-date decline is approximately 8.7%.  The telecommunications, media, and technology sector hasn’t fared much better. The NYSE TMT Index has seen a fall of 13.72% over the last twelve months. In the past four weeks, the index fell 2.38%. Last month the investor adviser firm Charles Schwab rated the telecommunications sector as under-performing due in part to the sectors move away from the steady cash flow of a monopoly land line business to the cut throat competitiveness found in the wireless arena.

Just about the only thing that has slowed down capital expenditures in the digital economy has been recessions. Capital expenditure outlays in the information sector, which includes television, radio, publishing, wireless and wireline telecommunications and internet portals, peaked in 1999 at an annual $120.1 billion. The impact and aftermath of the 2000-2001 and 2007-2009 recessions were the two major economic bumps in the road that caused decreases in capex. After hitting a bottom of $87.7 billion in capital expenditures in 2009, the information sector, of which roughly 74% is made up of wireline and wireless telecommunications, has seen an uptick in investment from $97.4 billion in 2010, to $99.7 billion in 2011, to $105.5 billion in 2012.

This increase in spending has occurred when broadband while broadband has been treated as an information service. But if talk of recession becomes solidified over the next twelve months, a slowdown in spending can be aggravated where a recession is compounded by rules that go back to the depression-era 1930s.

Depression-era rules applied during a pending recession. The irony.

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The FCC should pay attention to the overall economy

Posted January 21st, 2016 in AT&T, Broadband, capital, economy, Verizon, Wall Street and tagged , , , , by Alton Drew

Yesterday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, AT&T chief executive officer Randall Stephenson shared with The Wall Street Journal his opinion on economic growth. Mr. Stephenson shared that he is not optimistic about growth in the economy. Expected growth of two percent is unacceptable, according to Mr. Stephenson. Tax policy changes are needed but there is no expectation that there will be any fiscal action this year.  Without fiscal action there is the potential of more downside than upside.

Mr. Stephenson added that lower oil prices were expected to lead to increased consumer spending but that has not panned out because consumers have been price conscious about mobile services. Discounts as  little as ten dollars could prompt a consumer to change mobile carriers.

There has been little if any evidence that the Federal Communications Commission is taking into account the state of the economy and its impact on consumer demand for broadband services. In comments before the Brookings Institution, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler argued that the success of broadband services leads to increases in demand for broadband which increases the incentive for competitive broadband.

Mr. Wheeler might not buy AT&T’s argument that lack of national economic growth is constraining carriers like AT&T. Mr. Wheeler believes that 75% of AT&T’s network will be controlled software by 2020. The replacement of hard physical switching systems by software is expected to reduce Verizon’s real estate costs by 80%, according to Mr. Wheeler. Powering a few computers can save up to 60% of energy costs versus endless hard switches, according to Mr. Wheeler. As the cost of delivering broadband goes down, says Mr. Wheeler, the opportunities for innovation increase. “This means we’re not going to let imaginary concerns about investment incentives and utility regulation cause us to let up on policies to encourage fast, fair, and open broadband.”

If the concerns are imaginary then maybe equity analysts are sleep deprived. We shared in a 28 December 2015 post that analysts believed that the wireless industry participated in a competitive market. The large wireless service companies are subject to pricing squeezes brought on by smaller entrants, analysts found, and extremely high prices for spectrum were further compounding pricing squeezes.

The reality of market concerns are further highlighted when one considers how much the information sector impacts gross domestic product. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the information services portion of the economy has been playing an increasing role over the last three years. Information represented 9.3% of gross domestic product in 2013. By 2014 this percentage increased to 9.5%. At the end of the third quarter in 2015 the percentage has climbed to 9.6%.

Given Wall Street’s assessment of wireless markets and the impact information services plays on the overall economy, the FCC should look beyond the switch to software-based communications infrastructure when ascertaining the competitiveness.