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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.

 

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Why be afraid of big data?

Posted August 11th, 2015 in big data, Broadband, Federal Trade Commission and tagged , , by Alton Drew

Between April 1982 and November 1984 I worked at a Burger King in Tallahassee, Florida.  I was a student back then at the Florida State University.  The restaurant was located across the street from campus so from time to time I would see some of my friends come into the restaurant to eat.  One would think that putting together a Whopper was no big deal but to some people it is, from getting the condiments right to simply trusting the employee who made the sandwich.

I had two schoolmates that were pretty particular about who made their grub.  One schoolmate, Charlotte Jones, was very particular about me making her food.  One day I was getting off my shift and heading back to Smith Hall. Charlotte was heading to BKs to eat.  She saw me heading to the dorm and asked where I was going.  I said back to my room. At that point she did an about face and headed back to Smith Hall and made sure that she knew my schedule from that day going forward.

Another schoolmate, Candace Pope, liked her fish sandwich done a particular way.  It got to the point that if I saw her coming into the restaurant, I would have her sandwich prepared before she got to the cash register.  All I had to do was say, “It’s up.”  She would then direct the cashier to the sandwich already made.  I was prepared to take care of my friends based on having accumulated data on their buying habits at Burger King. I was able to anticipate their needs.

Fast forward thirty one years and technology is able to do on a massive scale what I was able to do on a micro scale.  Today technology allows business to capture information on their consumers, send that information to data brokers and other information gatherers who categorize and prepare that information for use by advertisers.  It’s an information trade where broadband networks providing the platform upon which information is traded at light-speed.  And part of that information trade takes place in a $120 billion advertising market.

What does this information trade mean for broadband deployment and investment?  The information trade creates the value that signals capital to enter the market.  Capital, seeing high returns from the trade, will move toward entrepreneurs that build digital mousetraps and to broadband facility providers willing to build the infrastructure upon which the digital data trade winds flow.

Data, information, knowledge have been flowing between people, groups and societies from the time man has been on the planet.  My little Burger King example shows how we use business data about consumers every day.  What scares people and in particular regulators, is the abundance of it.  According to Maria Ogneva, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data is created every day.

A forum hosted by the Federal Trade Commission in September 2014 addressed some of these fears, centering on regulator concerns about consumer privacy and the commercial use of data without consumer permission. Panelists were concerned about how data analytic techniques may be either skewing unflattering ads to minority populations, or populating data bases with incorrect or biased information about consumers based on their buying habits or location where they make their purchases.  While only one panelist explicitly mused about regulating data, it was apparent to me that at least some of the panelists were thinking about regulating how data is accumulated, analyzed, and distributed.

The FTC has been recommending that Congress get a bit more aggressive with data brokers, the entities that collect, analyze, and sell consumer data to advertisers.  For example, from a summary of a report the FTC conducted on data brokers in 2014:

“As the Report states, ‘In light of these findings, the Commission unanimously renews its call for Congress to consider enacting legislation that would enable consumers to learn of the existence and activities of these data brokers and provide consumers with reasonable access to information held about them by these entities.’  With respect to brokers that sell marketing products, a majority of the Commission had four specific suggestions for Congress:

  1. Consider giving consumers a way to easily identify which brokers have data about them and where they can go to access it or opt out.  One way to do that:  A central online portal.
  2. Consider whether data brokers should have to clearly disclose that they not only collect raw data, but also combine it with other information to draw inferences about people.  That’s especially important when it comes to sensitive topics like health conditions.
  3. Consider requiring data brokers to reveal more about their sources.  That would make it easier for consumers to track down and correct the source of inaccurate information (for example, a mistake in a public record).
  4. Consider whether consumer-facing businesses should have to clearly disclose that they share information with data brokers and to give consumers choices, including opting out.  For sensitive data – health information is one example – the FTC is asking Congress to consider legislation to require consumer-facing sources to get people’s affirmative express consent before they collect it in the first place.”

Democrats in the U.S. Senate have taken up the FTC’s call for legislative action. Last March S. 668, the Data Broker Accountability and Transparency Act of 2015, was introduced in the Senate, but given the control Republicans have of the Senate and the House, this bill poses little if any political risk to the data broker industry.  The value being brought to the information markets via data brokers continues unhindered by new legislation or regulation.  This is good for broadband deployment as well since, as I stated before, the information trade drives deployment of broadband.

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Verizon to FCC: We are a media company. Leave us alone

Verizon sent another clear signal this morning to regulators and the financial markets.  We are transitioning from a broadband company to a media company.  Suppose Verizon takes it another step and also declares that they, say five years from now, will get out of the broadband access to the internet business and settle for being a channel solely for their own branded content or content that they get a license to retransmit solely on their servers?  Such a move would get them from under the Federal Communications Commission’s Title II/net neutrality rules while opening the door to smaller internet service providers to fill the broadband access to the internet market vacuum.

First, the news.  Today, The Wall Street Journal reported that Verizon Communications Inc., agreed to buy AOL, Inc., for $4.4 billion.  The purchase will be made with cash on hand and the issuance of commercial paper and make Verizon a player in the digital media content market.  According to The Journal:

“The acquisition would give Verizon, which has set its sights on entering the crowded online video marketplace, access to advanced technology AOL has developed for selling ads and delivering high-quality Web video.”

Verizon goes on to say that its principal interest in the purchase is access to AOL’s ad tech platform probably for use with Verizon’s mobile video service scheduled to launch this summer.  The service will offer snippets of video content, live sports, concerts, and on-demand programming.

Verizon and AT&T believe video content will drive demand for their wireless services as consumers, particularly millenials, (who have passed Generation X-ers as America’s largest consumer group), prefer get their content anywhere on the go, unlike their more sendentary Baby Boomer elders.

Verizon can also leverage its relationships with content providers.  For example, according to the article:

“Verizon already has relationships with many media providers because of its FiOS TV service, which is available in 5.6 million U.S. households. And it has shown prowess in mobile video already, including through a partnership with the NFL that allows it to stream some games over phones.”

It sounds like Verizon is ready to step up to being what I consider all broadband providers to be: media companies.  Regulatory wise, I think Verizon and AT&T could circumvent the FCC’s net neutrality rules by making the declaration that not only are they media companies, but they are no longer in the business of providing access to the 67,000 interconnected networks known as the internet.  Verizon instead should declare that it provides IP-access solely to its website of original and licensed content.  If you want to see “Game of Thrones”, you’ll use a broadband access provider that connects you with HBO’s website.

A broadband internet access service, according to Section 8.2(A) of the FCC’s net neutrality rules is “a mass retail service by wire or radio that provides capability to transmit data to and receive data from all or substantially all Internet endpoints, including any capabilities that are incidental to and enable the operation of the communication service, but excluding dial-up Internet access service.  This term also encompasses any service that the Commission finds to be providing a functional equivalent of the service described in the previous sentence, or that is used to evade the protections set forth in this Part.”

If Verizon describes in its service agreement that access to its particular content found on its website does not include access to the other endpoints found on the remaining 67,000 networks, should that take them out of the FCC’s net neutrality stranglehold?  I would hope so.  Yes, the FCC and the grassroots groups will still utter in their last gasps that even if this new media model held that Verizon’s subscribers would still need consumer protections, but in my opinion those protections would come under contract law and a better equipped Federal Trade Commission since Verizon and any other broadband provider opting for a new media model would fall in the category of edge provider.

Let’s shake it up a little, Verizon.  This is the right step toward bringing well needed disruption into the media market.

 

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What regulators say about the internet of things

For the past two or three days the chairmen of the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission have been clarifying their regulatory agendas for and approaches to the Internet.  FCC chairman Tom Wheeler plans to issue net neutrality rules around 5 February with the full FCC voting on those rules on 26 February.  Media reports have Mr. Wheeler outlining what he believes the benefits consumers would enjoy from reclassifying broadband as an old school, run-of-the-mill telephone company.  For example at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas Mr. Wheeler reportedly said the following:

“So, there is a way to do Title II right, that says there are many parts of Title II that are inappropriate, and would thwart investment, but that a model has been set in the wireless business.”

CTIA-The Wireless Association has taken the position that given the level of competition for mobile broadband that net neutrality rules should be “mobile broadband specific” and that mobile broadband has never been regulated under Title II.

Mr. Wheeler, in an attempt to keep net neutrality advocates happy, appears to be willing to use Title II regulation to strike down deals between content providers and broadband operators where content providers pay to have their traffic given higher priority over other providers.  Mr. Wheeler wants the role of determining which transactions and agreements are commercially reasonable and how that traffic should be moved from content provider to broadband provider to ultimate end user.

FTC chairman Edith Ramirez’s approach appears to focus more on transparency of participants in information markets.  Her concern, as shared with CES participants, is about privacy and the Internet of Things. As more devices connect to each other via the internet, more devices become subject to hacking and a wealth of data, thought by consumers to be private, becomes subject to misuse, theft, or fraud.

Ms. Ramirez’s focus on the consumer is not surprising given the nature of her agency’s work, but it also seems the slightly, and I mean slightly, better approach to overseeing market behavior versus individual business behavior.  The internet is a platform for information exchange between information generators and information seekers.  The more information that a provider has on how her information is going to be used in the markets helps her make better decisions not only on whether she should make it available but also on its value and how best to monetize her data. Information gatherers will simply have to provide better incentives to information providers to get them to give up their data.

What kind of growth does the market see for the Internet of Things?  According to Cisco’s Internet Business Solutions Group, some 25 billion devices will be connected to the internet by the end of 2015.  That number will climb to 50 billion connected devices by the end of 2020.  That’s a lot of broadband infrastructure for the FCC to oversee and more hacking access points for the FTC to worry about in five short years.

Investors will see the biggest gains in the infrastructure space of the Internet of Things.  Leading growth in this space will be manufacturers of processor chips, wifi networks, sensors, and software.  Investors should also be concerned with factors that impact demand for devices that talk to each other and I believe the factor that has the heaviest weight is the consumer privacy factor.  Devices aren’t just talking to each other but are gathering information on consumer likes and habits and storing this data for the information gatherer’s future use.  Privacy is an immediate and long term issue because it concerns one half of the parties involved in the information market transaction: the consumer.

As for the FCC’s open access approach it is too short-sighted.  Mr. Wheeler’s focus on competition for broadband service and equal treatment of traffic may have a nice sounding populist ring, but in the internet eco-system what matters is the consumer’s choice of product obtained through broadband.  That product is content and the price the consumer pays in exchange for that content is, ironically, content in the form of personal data.  Consumers already have wireless and wireline choices for broadband access.  The value play for consumers lies in the quality of content available online and consumers are more than capable of deciding that for themselves.

What the government can do is what it does best (albeit it is not the best at it, but work with me); government should adjudicate privacy and other consumer disputes and make available to consumers information that they may not be able to gleen readily from the private sector.  The FTC’s focus on privacy and consumer protection does a better job at this than the FCC.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that the private sector is taking care of the FCC’s mandate of ensuring a nationwide communications network.  The FCC’s focus given the growth in the mobile market and the increasing need for devices to wirelessly connect should remain on allocating spectrum and assuring the reliability and safety of wired and wireless communications infrastructure.  Any other endeavor is waste.

 

 

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The Internet’s growth is reason for regulatory humility

Seeing Mark Zuckerberg in a suit and tie is still something I have to get used to, but it’s a small price a billionaire has to pay in order to bend the President’s ear on issues of privacy and surveillance by the National Security Agency.  Mr. Zuckerberg’s recent visit, along with other Internet company heads, with Mr. Obama is an example of the impact this still growing industry has on the structure of the nation’s economy and its public policy toward the information superhighway.

And the Internet is definitely growing, contributing to the nation’s economy at a greater rate than other traditional industries.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, information-communications-technology producing industries saw an increase of 7.2% in their contribution to gross national product in 2012.  This rate of change reflected a significant increase from the 2011 increase of 4.7% in 2011.  Approximately 5.9% of GDP in 2012 is credited to the ICT industry.  Of the 2.8% increase in GDP in 2012, .41 percentage points was attributed to ICT.

Between 2006 and 2011, the broadband industry has invested $73 billion in broadband infrastructure deployment and AT&T in 2012 committed to $14 billion a year in broadband investment for three years, while Verizon has reported an average of $16 billion over the last three years.

According to a 2011 study by McKinsey & Company, the U.S. is the largest player in the Internet space accounting for 30% of global Internet revenues and 40% of net income.  Citing a study conducted by comScore, The Huffington Post reported that in 2011, Americans spent $256 billion on retail and travel related online purchases.

Last week, Federal Trade Commission chairman Maureen Ohlhausen made the argument for abandoning the silo approach to regulation, an approach that calls for regulators to guess how the future of technology will play out.  The Internet has been dodging the regulatory bullet but network neutrality advocates seem to have the entire Internet eco-system in their cross hairs for additional regulation.  Given the amount of investment that has been made in the Internet eco-system by broadband providers, can a case for more regulation using a regulatory scheme that may slow down innovation be made by the FCC?

Even pursuant to section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, where the Congress has called on the FCC to promote the deployment of advanced services an argument should not be made for heavy handed regulation.  If anything, where section 706 is concerned, deployment without codification of net neutrality principles has been delivering those advanced services because industry has been listening to the consumer.