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The reality for BDS is increased prices

The Federal Communications Commission, based on a review of its April 2016 order on tariffs and pricing methodology for business data services, doesn’t pay attention to pending decisions of its sister agency, the Federal Reserve. This Friday, Federal Reserve chairman, Janet Yellen, is expected to give a speech in Jackson Hole, Wyoming that may provide some signals on what the U.S. central bank may decide to do regarding its federal funds rate. The federal funds rate is the overnight rate banks assess each other when lending their reserves to one another.

The Federal Reserve has set a target federal funds rate between .25% and .50% and if there is to be a rate increase this year, it is expected to occur after the November general elections.  Raising rates, the theory goes, is a part of a central bank’s strategy for moderating the growth of a heated economy. Raising overnight rates incentivizes banks to keep their reserves in the Fed’s vaults thus limiting the supply of money. Following the laws of supply and demand, money gets more expensive because banks are lending less to the public.

What does this have to do with telecommunications services, particularly business data services? As a capital intensive industry, telecommunications providers will depend on the bond markets to finance the construction and deployment of facilities necessary for delivering future services. For example, Verizon, in its February 2016 10-K filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, argues that adverse changes in the credit markets could increase its borrowing costs and access to financing. The company, as of December 2015, has $110 billion in debt. Verizon argues that an inability to retire debt could make it more difficult to access the additional financing necessary for obtaining working capital or making additional capital expenditures.

Placing restrictions on a telecommunications service provider’s ability to raise prices signals the markets that there is increased risk to the rate of return investors expect from selling money to telecommunications providers.  Pricing restrictions by the Commission combined with a Federal Reserve decision to raise the fed funds rate could work to reduce the supply of business data services, an outcome that runs counter to the Commission’s stated public policy of increasing choice for consumers of business data services.

The Commission should take the external economic environment into account, an environment heavily influenced by the Federal Reserve, when it considers going forward on regulating business data services prices.

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My filed comment with the FCC on special access

Posted August 3rd, 2016 in Broadband, capital, special access and tagged , by Alton Drew

In re: Docket No. 16-143, Business Data Services in an Internet Protocol Environment

The Federal Communications Commission should implement a light touch regulatory model for business data services. Where a carrier needs to purchase for resale facilities provided by an incumbent local exchange carrier, a competitive local exchange carrier, or a cable company, prices should be market-based where negotiations are conducted based on an exchange of value determined by the parties. Also, the Commission should re-evaluate what it means by the term “competition.” Competition has been erroneously interchanged with “consumer choice.” I provide my reasoning below.

Special access services have evolved seemingly exponentially since the early 1990s. Prior to the 1996 amendment of the Communications Act of 1934, special access services were indeed dominated by incumbent local exchange carriers. By the middle 1990s cable companies, the only other facilities-based entities that had any chance of competing with incumbent local exchange carriers, had a very small share of the alternative access or by-pass markets. What they did have was vision to develop and use, at that time, what was considered innovative DOCSIS technology, a technology that would help them acquire more of the residential and enterprise markets for internet access.

Resellers, on the other hand, could never, in my opinion, be considered serious providers of telecommunications services. Take residential services. There was nothing more disconcerting to me as a young staffer at the Florida Public Service Commission during the 1990s to see complaint after complaint filed against resellers only for resellers to blame an issue on an underlying carrier. In my opinion, if a carrier wanted to seriously serve the public interest, it should have entered the capital markets and raised the financing to build out its own facilities. Consumers would have been better served under that model.

Fast forward to the 21st century and it cannot be denied that cable companies and other facilities-based competitive local exchange carriers have entered the special access markets offering business and enterprise customers alternatives to incumbent local exchange carriers. Business and enterprise customers can choose between incumbent local exchange carriers, competitive local exchange carriers, and cable companies for special access services.

Regarding the pricing of inputs i.e. lines that one type of carrier may have to purchase from another type of carrier for the purpose of providing special access services, prices should be determined in the market during negotiations between carriers. The Commission is not in a position to determine the value that the parties place on an exchange. That is not the Commission’s expertise. Only the carriers can best determine the value of the consideration being exchanged and the appropriate price. Each construction, deployment, or sale of special access facilities will differ for a number of reasons including location, business climate, capital markets, etc., information that private parties have better access to and more incentive to gather and get right.

The Commission believes it should insert itself heavily into pricing matters based on the premise that by doing so, it will bring about competition and garner better results for the consumer. This premise stems from an incorrect meaning of competition. Consumers have a greater number of carriers to choose from when there are a greater number of carriers that have determined that there are ample resources at a reasonable price to compete for in order to provide a service. Before an entity competes for a single customer, the ultimate resource that allows the entity to pay for all other resources, it has to compete for financial capital, land, labor, and entrepreneurial skillsets necessary for creating and selling its product and services. The Commission, in arguing a lack of “competition” in the business data services market, has not demonstrated that sufficient financial and natural capital exists in order to incentivize a provider to enter a market and meet consumer demand. Even if the Commission could make such an assessment, the Commission would next have to document the level of market failure, an exercise I doubt the Commission would want to endeavor given its knack for avoiding in-depth economic analysis.

Lastly, where a reseller or facilities-based carrier wishes to purchase facilities from another carrier, carriers should not be compelled to maintain legacy analog networks for this purpose. If consumer welfare is the Commission’s concern, then resellers should purchase digital facilities thereby furthering the use of more advanced technologies for the provision of broadband access.

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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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Crude oil is a poor analogy for business data services

Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, in a remarks delivered to INCOMPAS recently likened special access or business data services to crude oil given crude oil’s impact on energy prices. As a barrel of crude grudgingly inches higher (now up almost seven dollars from last week and hovering around $42.), prices at the pump have increased as well (although still $.34 a gallon less than last year).

Mr. Wheeler’s comparison struck me at first as a weak attempt to tie special access prices to the prices consumers pay for broadband. I can see that argument for being made for mobile broadband prices given that the costs for ordering special access services are built into the price consumers pay for accessing broadband services.  For other industries such as banking and large grocery chains, the cost for procuring special access is probably built into bank fees or the price per pound of potatoes.

But the reason crude oil is a poor analogy is because its price is not regulated by a government agency although some of its supply may be controlled by the output decisions of a cartel. The prices for special access services, especially those provided by so called dominant carriers, are regulated by the Commission. Rather than hint at letting regulation go if competition is identified, Mr. Wheeler should just go all out and deregulate the industry, period. Mr. Wheeler’s technology-neutral principle is on point and in line with that of INCOMPAS and Verizon, two entities that, by their own admission, don’t agree on much when it comes to special access. Mr Wheeler, INCOMPAS, and Verizon also see eye-to-eye on promoting the movement from legacy TDM services to IP services, arguing that enterprise clients want digital services versus legacy services.

But saying we’ll promote competition after we see competition doesn’t incentivize more private capital to enter the business data services markets to fund additional deployment. That’s the type of uncertainty that scares capital away. Demand for special access services and the price set when providers and business enterprises decide to enter an agreement for such services should be the framework for regulating the market. Private capital is always prepared for high risk with the flip side providing high reward, but not with a regulator ready to erode those rewards.

 

http://www.verizon.com/about/news/compromise-enables-networks-future

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Regulating special access services means confused market signals

Posted March 21st, 2016 in Federal Communications Commission, special access and tagged by Alton Drew

The Federal Communications Commission is adding to uncertainty in the market for special access services first with its long dragged out special access data process and second with a philosophy that says it needs a triggering mechanism for declaring competition in the first place.

For the past decade and a half the Commission has been having second thoughts about its scheme for regulating special access. It has concluded that it lacks the appropriate amount of data upon which to create an adequate framework for rate regulation. The Commission is using a “consumer harm” argument to justify intrusion into a market that has seen alternative providers competing for market share since the mid to late 1990s. That argument distracts the Commission from where the real focus should be, namely on capital flow, investment, and deployment. Regulation never optimizes the valuation of a company’s investment into providing a service. This failure on the part of regulation makes capital think twice about investing which means reduced special access deployment and ironically the very increases in special access pricing the Commission seeks to avoid.

Parties such as Free Press and Public Knowledge have been making the argument that incumbent local exchange carriers such as AT&T and Verizon have market power as expressed in unreasonable rates and onerous terms and that the current regime limits investment by competitive carriers and wireless companies. They also support the suspension by the Commission of competitive market triggers that would relax price regulation of special access services where market proxies demonstrate that competition exists.

The Phoenix Center, a think tank, counters the Free Press and Public Knowledge arguments by pointing out that forcing special access prices down via regulation would discourage alternative providers from entering the special access market. Monopoly pricing is necessary for the recovery of fixed costs and higher prices attracts competitive providers and their investors.

And it’s not like investors should be concerned about the financial health of alternative providers since, according to the Internet Innovation Alliance, competitive providers based, on their stock valuations, have a positive outlook on their future.

I’ve argued before that competitive local exchange carriers and cable companies started carving out their niches in the telecommunications space by offering special access or “by-pass” services. It is hard to imagine that after over two decades of performance and growth that now these very same competitive providers need help.

What the Commission must do is avoid a “one size fits all” approach to special access. The Commission, to its credit, wanted to avoid a one size fits all with its competition triggers. The Commission should go one step further and presume a special access market that is already competitive; that prices are signaling a market ready for entry by alternative providers. The Commission should put the burden on providers to demonstrate that actions on the part of incumbents are working to keep alternative providers out of the special access market. The criteria upon which a conclusion is based should be developed by the Commission, providers of special access, and their enterprise customers.