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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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Universal service doesn’t encourage capital for entrepreneurs

Regulating commerce is one thing. Failing to encourage capital formation and distribution of capital to entrepreneurs cannot be acceptable. Section 214 of the Communications Act demonstrates how out of touch current law is with today’s technology and the entities that deliver that technology. The 115th Congress and the next Administration need to revamp universal service such that funding actually encourages new entrants into the broadband market and the innovations that come along with that entry.

Under section 214 of the Act, common carriers designated as eligible telecommunications carriers (ETC) qualify for receiving universal service funds. A common carrier is engaged in providing foreign or interstate communications by wire or radio.  The Federal Communications Commission revamped its 20th century based support program, originally designed to subsidize voice services, to now support deployment of broadband services in high cost areas, areas where broadband providers argue it is cost prohibitive to provide high-speed access services.

Among the criticisms of the program is its inefficiency. Specific concerns have been raised about funds supporting services in areas where competition already exists. On reflection why is this a problem? If a carrier sees the opportunity to take a single-digit percent of market share where garnering such a share covers her fixed and variables costs while generating a profit, so what if other choices already exists? New entrants enter the fray when they believe that they have an innovative way of providing services and eventually taking market share. This is part of the adventure of applying venture capital; digging in for a period of time a generating returns based on new ideas.

The Commission’s concerns about funding services in areas where there is already competition also stems from locking itself into an approach that results in common carriers being funded as opposed to wireless internet access providers. Again, current law paints a box where only common carriers can play. Wireless internet access providers may not want to build infrastructure for the purpose of being common carriers. It is too expensive and unnecessary to duplicate existing networks where instead their focus is rightfully on bringing value to those networks and consumers alike by providing alternative methods of accessing them. The Commission speaks of innovation too frequently to then turn around and pass up an opportunity to put its money where its mouth is.

Until the Commission decides to recognize the value that non-common carrier innovators bring to broadband deployment, the universal service fund as currently constructed will continue to be a pool of capital unavailable for use by certain new entrants.

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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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Nothing in Wheeler’s Aspen Institute Remarks sparked my investment juices

Posted August 16th, 2016 in Broadband, Federal Communications Commission and tagged , by Alton Drew

Yesterday, Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler made remarks to the Aspen Institute. He focused on the evolution and importance of networks as conduits for social and economic growth. As usual his analysis was more consumer-centered than producer centered with no specific discussion of how the Commission would facilitate signals for domestic or foreign direct investment in the telecommunications sector. There was not much to note here at all other than subtle a couple swipes at the GOP mantra of “making America great again.” Mr. Wheeler reminded the audience that America’s greatness didn’t have to be rebooted but was going through continuous evolution.

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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.