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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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Verizon makes it clear. They are a media company

Verizon’s Craig Silliman published a blog post discussing the appropriate regulatory framework for the application of net neutrality principles. He reiterated the broadband provider’s support for no blocking, no throttling, no paid prioritization, and a general conduct standard for protecting consumers and competition. What I found interesting was Mr. Silliman’s description of Verizon’s media efforts. In Mr. Silliman’s words:

“We have invested billions in businesses that depend on the ability to reach customers over the networks and platforms of others. We invested in digital ad technology through our $4.4 billion purchase of AOL and own content through properties like the Huffington Post, MapQuest, and TechCrunch. We have an expanding presence in the digital media and entertainment space; Verizon Digital Media Services helps content companies deliver their services in digital form to any screen or device, anywhere in the world.”

To me, Verizon sounds more like a content delivery network. A content delivery network is a large distributive system of servers deployed in multiple data centers across the internet. The goal of a CDN is to serve content to end users with high availability and high performance.

Akamai, a company that touts itself as the global leader in content delivery services, might vehemently disagree with me about Verizon being a content delivery network given Verizon’s position as a gatekeeper to end-user customers. End-users don’t use Akamai to get on to the internet. Access is that functionality that pulls Verizon into the Federal Communications Commission’s sandbox.

As Verizon continues to evolve in the media space, however, it increasingly distinguishes itself from T-Mobile and Sprint whose claim to broadband fame is strictly as a mobile broadband access platform.

Although Verizon has expressed its willingness and the importance of complying with net neutrality principles, should those principles intrude into its content delivery operations? If yes, then should content delivery services provided by edge providers like Akamai also fall under the Commission’s transparency principles? Why should Verizon’s content delivery components be treated differently from Akamai’s content delivery services? Verizon’s evolution will force the Commission to address these questions.

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Any regulation of zero rating is unnecessary market interference

Members of the wireless industry got together yesterday in Washington, D.C. to debate what the Federal Communications Commission’s next move on zero rating ought not to be. Inside Sources reported that the wireless confab included T-Mobile, Verizon, Facebook, and other parties. Zero rating allows wireless services subscribers to access certain content providers without that access being charged against the consumer’s data plan. T-Mobile’s “Binge-On” service is a recently deployed example of this type of service.

Pro-net neutrality groups like Free Press, Public Knowledge, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation believe that zero rating violates the Commission’s open internet order by throttling data streams while favoring certain content providers over other providers.  For example, under 47 CFR 8.7, a person engaged in the provision of broadband internet access service shall not impair or degrade lawful internet traffic on the basis of internet content, application or service, or use of a non-harmful device, subject to reasonable network management.

One issue will be whether a service like “Binge-On” actually throttles traffic pursuant to this rule. The Commission so far has opted to a light touch approach to zero rating-type services, which wireless carriers have likened to 800-number services where the 800-number customer or its telephone service provider ate the cost of a long distance call from a customer. The Commission should find that there is no throttling because treatment of data traffic will be the same for all content providers, whether access to their content is done via “Binge-On” or not. The Commission’s political constraints go beyond the letter of their rules.

The Commission has been fervent about its clear and fair “rules of the road”; that all traffic be treated equally, that it may not want to rock the boat with the pro-net neutrality posse or their alleged four million post-card writing supporters. There is a chance that the Commission may opt for the safety of saying no to “Binge-On” with the claim that its best to err on the side of caution and avoid having its net neutrality rules go sliding down a slippery slope.

A call against “Binge-On” and other zero rating services is a strike against investor interests especially for investors in smaller carriers like T-Mobile. If T-Mobile is to acquire more market share it will do so with bolder offerings like “Binge-On.” The service appears to be an effective way for promoting the company’s other offerings, so much so that T-Mobile is finding that some customers, having had free access to participating websites are opting for additional and more expensive service. If there is an opportunity for government to show how anti-investor some policies can be, treating zero rating as anti-net neutrality would be one of them.

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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.

 

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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.