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Minorities should seek a bigger slice of new media pie

The digital divide argument, that there is a disparity between non-whites and whites when it comes to broadband access, is losing its mojo for me. While broadband access for minority households via hard line may fall behind that of white households, since the mid 2000s, access via mobile wireless devices by minorities has been on par or exceeded that of whites. Stroll into the Starbucks near I-285 and Cascade Road and see every Black American patron connecting their lap tops to WiFi while checking messages on their smart phones. Even our kids have at least two wireless devices and we parents brace ourselves annually for our teenager’s request for the latest phone even when the one they currently own is still pristine.

Plenty of politicians and civil rights groups have been pushing for greater access to high speed broadband, making the argument that more broadband facilities should be deployed in communities of color especially since Black Americans and Latinos have been spearheading the “cut the cord” movement and going 100% wireless over the past 15 years or so. Minority leadership is demonstrating, however, that it has not been paying attention to changes in business models that would provide entrepreneurs in communities of color exposure to more lucrative opportunities versus following the same consumption of end-use product model that has been plaguing communities of color for decades.

Broadband access providers such as AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon are leveraging their customer data in order to attract advertising dollars. Verizon’s recent disclosure that it lost 307,000 subscribers in the first quarter of 2017 in part due to competition from Sprint and T-Mobile has some analysts on Wall Street wondering if Verizon is up for merger. Bloomberg has reported that the wireless company has considered Comcast, Walt Disney, or CBS for corporate marriage.  Ironically the aforementioned companies are content providers who could probably do well leveraging Verizon’s wireless infrastructure to get content out including use of the company’s spectrum.

While Black Americans and Latinos are, unfortunately, known primarily for providing entertainment content, both communities should consider exploring creating and investing in content storage and content delivery systems. Constructing these facilities in neighborhoods with large numbers of Blacks or Latinos means access to short term and long term employment. High tech labor will be needed to design, construct, and operate server farms and other facilities that result from the decision to do more than buy another cell phone or activate some unlit fiber from the old MCI days.

This is an opportunity for a young Black or Latino entrepreneur or engineer to break from the herd mentality and not wait for permission from the Jesse Jackson posse on whether or not it should be done. One would think that the old heads from the civil rights movement would have the capital or access to capital that would assist outside-the-box minority entrepreneurs in getting capital, but since these leaders have not demonstrated that they even understand the emerging business models in communications, this may be a closed avenue.

In the end, the minority entrepreneur should be prepared to abandon the collective mindset that has communities of color thinking only about the next smartphone and form new, smaller, leaner, profit seeking collectives that generate ideas of value and use these ideas to create their own data and media companies.

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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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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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Capital needs to keep flowing to broadband providers

This morning Georgetown University sponsored a panel on regulation and the transition to Internet Protocol networks. The panel zeroed in on the role an all IP network can play in economic development. What I found of interest was how the capital markets were digesting all the policy talk; the regulatory environment in the broadband space and how it may impact the flow of capital.

There may be an opportunity to educate investors on how the policy initiatives at the Federal Communications Commission may impact their returns to capital. At least that is the impression I got from remarks made by Jennifer Fritzsche, a managing director and top flight telecommunications analyst for Wells Fargo Securities. According to Ms. Fritzsche regulatory changes are restrictive and could result in declines in broadband business. Not a good sign for investors.

Wall Street is bottom line minded, I gathered from Ms. Fritzsche. Traders and investors want to know if AT&T, for example, is going to hit their numbers. Concepts like net neutrality can result in that eyes glazed over look. It would take a real savvy telecommunications investor to be able to digest policy concepts like net neutrality and special access.

The FCC should take note of one thing, especially if they want to be true to their word about fostering economic growth, innovation, and employment: equity investors look at IP investment as a positive and are surprised that AT&T has not invested more especially at the low rates in the market. (And Ben Bernanke and friends at the Federal Reserve are still keeping rates low.)

Again, the take away for the FCC: the greater the level of regulation, the less the incentive to invest.