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Internet commerce flourishes because of market demand not regulation

One peeve I have had with the Federal Communications Commission in past and today is its penchant to describe its role in the broadband market as a facilitator of growth and innovation.  It’s like having cousin Louie visit for a weekend, overstay his welcome, and claim that he helped to build your house.  I’ve had to ask myself if I missed something during my two decades in the regulatory game.  Where did the Commission facilitate growth in the online markets?

There are probably a number of different sources to look at.  I try to keep things simple, so I decided to take a look at what professional market watchers have seen over the past four years.  Not a formal analysis that wreaks of regression analysis and all that, but an albeit cursory review of the findings from three Morningstar reports that covered a broadband provider; an online bookseller; a media company; and an over-the-top video distributor.  Since the Commission continuously refers to the entire internet ecosystem as its unit of regulatory analysis, I figured looking at companies that play in different but connected boxes in the internet ecosystem was an allowable approach.  So here goes.

First, lets go back to a Morningstar analysis of Amazon conducted on 6 December 2010.  The analysis discusses the advantages that Amazon has over brick and mortar companies such as Barnes and Nobles and Borders.  Amazon has been able to leverage the internet to deliver books at the lowest cost point, a cost point achievable because of low overhead costs.  Amazon has also been able to leverage the internet to produce and distribute e-books which, according to Morningstar, has a compelling advantage over hardcover books.  The main reason e-books have been successful is that production and distribution costs are near, if not, zero.  This ability to keep production costs near scraping the bottom has translated into lower prices for consumers.

I read through that report looking for some acknowledgment of the Federal Communications Commission.  I saw none.  Based on this report it seems that the idea of storing books in warehouses and shipping them out to consumers as the result of receiving an order online was part of a business model developed by an engineer by the name of Jeff Bezos.  No mention of the Commission or the Communications Act.

In September 2011, Morningstar sounded kind of so-so on Netflix.  Morningstar made it clear that content owners held the upper hand with the ability to enter into shorter licensing agreements for content and repricing at a higher amount.  Morningstar also noted in 2011 that Netflix faced heightened competition from new entrants and the lack of access to higher quality content.

Fast forward three years.  Netflix has built its own house of cards where orange is the new black.  Just like the Amazon analysis, Morningstar makes no mention of how the Commission’s regulation of the internet contributed to Netflix’s business model or its decision to go outside the box and not just deliver DVDs but stream video as well.

Speaking of content, Morningstar’s July 2012 analysis of Time Warner proceeded from the premise that quality content is king and that Time Warner has been able to take a strong competitive position in content.  The quality of Time Warner’s content, according to Morningstar, increases in value because it can be consumed on multiple devices, including laptops, smartphones, and tablets in addition to televisions.

The decision to deliver it via multiple platforms via multiple devices appears to have been made by private actors with no input, appropriately, from the Commission.

And how about the broadband provider portion of the ecosystem.  The Commission, along with net neutrality advocates, has been harping on the need for robust competition in the broadband space, but according to Morningstar’s August 2012 analysis of broadband provider CenturyLink, for the company to stay competitive with cable companies it would have to invest in network enhancements that facilitate faster download and upload speeds.  Not only does CenturyLink have to compete with cable in providing broadband access, they also compete with cable to distribute video.  Their provision of fiber-to-the-tower finds them competing with not just cable companies but with other competitive local exchange carriers.  CenturyLink also competes with Amazon, Salesforce.com, and Verizon in the provision of cloud management services.

Again, nothing in Morningstar’s analysis that speaks to the Commission’s requirement or even suggestion that CenturyLink enter into these markets within the internet ecosystem.

Growth and innovation have been occurring within the internet without the Commission’s persuasion or regulation and so far the Commission has not demonstrated why applying Title II regulation could add any value to the market-driven actions taken by the firms I just discussed.

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Would shifting to an internet-pipe only service get broadband providers out of the FCC’s cross-hairs?

Recently The Wall Street Journal reported on Viacom’s CBS and Time Warner’s HBO’s intent to establish a stand-alone streaming service for their content.  For cord cutters that dream of putting together their own portfolio of video content, this may seem like the a la carte approach that consumers and policymakers have been asking for.  While these moves are not indicative of a tsunami of movement by programmers from traditional cable, I have to wonder what the media world would look like if all content providers took the Netflix, over the top approach to getting programming to the consumer.  What would be the new consumer behavior?  Would net neutrality become a non-issue?

Regarding consumer behavior, consumers may feel emboldened by this increase in consumer choice, especially given the cost of cable service.  According to data from the Federal Communications Commission, as of January 1, 2013, the average price for cable service in all communities is $64.41.  Where there is effective completion, average price for cable service is $63.03, but where effective competition is non-existent, average price is $66.14.

I can see consumers combining Netflix programming at $8 per month with ESPN at $30 per month; CBS at $6 per month; and AMC at $10 per month.  I can’t pass up on “The Walking Dead.”  I agree with The Journal article’s conclusion that cord cutting may become more expensive than traditional bundling packages.  This becomes apparent when you look at the stand alone prices for internet access.

Again, according to data from the FCC, the price for stand-alone, 1-5 Mbps, internet access service is $35.  Consumers that want faster service ranging from 5-15 Mbps pay on average $44, while consumers feeling the need for more speed ranging from 15-25 Mbps pay on average $56.50.

If consumers make the decision solely on price, I don’t see much migration from current bundling options for cable.  According to an article in ArsTechnica.com, American cable subscribers receive an average of 189 cable channels but only watch 17 of them.  Assuming consumers could subscribe to 17 stand alone streaming internet channels at a price of $6 per channel, plus the broadband capacity sufficient for streaming video, consumers would still pay over $100 for service while given up 170 channels.  That may be okay for some subscribers if exercising consumer choice through a la carte service is that important to them.

If I’m paying that much to stream “Game of Thrones” strictly via the internet, I don’t want my service slowed down because my video bits have the same priority as a cat video on YouTube.  I would be willing to designate which content traffic should get higher priority to ensure that I see whether the Lannisters win the Iron Throne.  Netflix, HBO, or Viacom may not want the quality of their services degraded either due to equal treatment of their traffic and the traffic from a website showing the best way to apply lipstick.  This emerging on-demand/streaming model for video may see consumers driving the demand for paid prioritization.

Seeing how the FCC would manage the political fallout from telling consumers that consumer prioritization is a no-no would be very interesting.  Telling Viacom that it cannot meet consumer demand by entering prioritization agreements with backbone or last-mile broadband operators on the premise that such arrangements would put a cat video at a disadvantage would have content providers thinking twice about innovation in online video distribution.

As Hal Singer shared with me in a tweet, net neutrality is a Trojan Horse and Title II regulation is the end game.  I don’t see either approach advancing CBS or HBO’s new services.

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Comcast and Time Warner would like regulators to joint the 21st century

I just finished listening to a hearing in front of the U.S. House Sub-committee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial and Anti-Trust Law.  Eight panelists tried to persuade the committee that the proposed merger between  Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable was either great for the delivery of innovative products and services to consumers or would harm consumers with higher prices and restriction on the availability of content.  What I barely heard was any analysis regarding what type of companies Comcast and Time Warner actually are today.

Based on most of the questions posed by the sub-committee members, their constituents look at Comcast and Time Warner as either 20th century cable companies, sitting somewhere with a huge dish catching satellite signals from HBO, Cinemax, or Disney and sending their programming down some cable wire into a consumer’s home or the company’s that connect us to the Internet.  And the discussion regarding whether the merger will be harmful to competition seemed to center on competition in broadband access or the last mile.

Comcast and Time Warner don’t appear to look at their relevant market as just last mile or broadband services.  From the near beginning of their joint testimony Comcast and Time Warner describe their proposed combination as creating a “world-class communications, media, and technology company.”  Not only are Comcast and Time Warner responding to and servicing the commercial activity generated by online companies such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Netflix, but they are now competing against these companies as these edge providers enter the world of digital voice and broadband access.

The question the U.S. Department of Justice will have to answer is why should we treat the services of each company as a silo such that we carve out one relevant market by which to analyze two companies that operate in multiple markets based on the multiple services they provide.  If the Justice Department identifies a relevant market, then can they say that there is a monopoly in the relevant market and was that monopoly power abused?

Yes, Comcast is already a monster of a company.  It has two main businesses; Comcast Cable and NBC/Universal. Assuming that the Justice Department finds that the relevant market is a national one, can the DOJ conclude that Comcast would have a monopoly in cable services?  How about in content production?  In theme park ownership?  In broadcast television station ownership?  In broadband?

Speaking of broadband, will the merger mean no more deployment of broadband facilities?  Probably not.  It would be highly irrational for a going concern that invests in a DOCSIS 3.0 digitized platform to not squeeze the last ounce of value out of it by not selling broadband services to more consumers.  For this reason alone I don’t see broadband adoption being harmed by the merger.

Cries of the big bad broadband wolf by the opponents of the merger tells me that they are still living in the late 1980s.  Comcast and Time Warner aren’t cable companies anymore.  Ironically it is because they have grown beyond their original core cable service and gotten larger in the process that they are able to escape antitrust concerns, assuming regulators admit they are in the 21st century.

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I don’t see the benefit of denying an AT&T, DirecTV merger

Posted May 1st, 2014 in AT&T, Broadband, DirecTV, spectrum, video and tagged , , , , , by Alton Drew

The Wall Street Journal today reported that AT&T and DirecTV are talking courtship.  This comes on the heels of a proposed marriage of Comcast and Time Warner.  I think the biggest difference between two mergers is that under the Comcast transaction you have  a formidable owner of content that also has distribution pipes seeking to combine with another significant provider of access.  AT&T and DirecTV don’t own any content to speak of and although, according to the article, they would rival a combined Comcast-Time Warner subscriber base with both companies providing broadband access to approximately 40 million plus subscribers, it’s still basically one video distributor getting together with a broadband company.

I don’t see how stopping the merger would improve broadband adoption.  Put another way, a merger would not prevent more people from signing up for broadband and I don’t see a combination as reducing the level of competition among broadband providers.  It should be seen by the FCC as the opposite of dampening competition.  Consumers will see two major brands combining forces to add choice in the broadband arena.

Maybe the companies can come up with some technological innovation that combines DirecTV’s satellite technology with AT&T’s fiber capability.  Dish Network chairman, Charlie Ergen, was quoted last year in Bloomberg Businessweek that a satellite company teaming with a wireless company would help meet consumer demand for seeing more video on wireless devices.  If the two combine, I would guess the next step will be a content play.  It would be the only way to truly keep up with a Comcast-Time Warner combination.

Besides, AT&T won’t hurt by having some of DirecTV’s spectrum.  No social policy violation here, FCC.  Go ahead and let it happen.

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Hang in there, Atlanta. More broadband competition is coming

Posted March 2nd, 2014 in Broadband, cable company, cable television, Google and tagged , , , , by Alton Drew

I had a conversation late last week with Google spokesperson Jenna Wandres who was kind enough to answer a few questions about Google’s planned roll out of broadband services in 34 American cities including my current stomping grounds of Atlanta.  Google is currently working with cities to ascertain the local factors that could impact the construction of fiber facilities such as topography, housing density, and conditions of local infrastructure.

In addition Google expects to be provided by the cities with a checklist of items including identifying existing water, electricity, and gas lines as well as utility poles.

I like the idea of an alternative provider of broadband services possibly coming to Atlanta.  I also like Google’s choice to deliver its services via internet protocol.  Since Google is not providing voice services with its broadband access services, it avoids being regulated as a common carrier under Title II of the Communications Act.

One of Google’s services bundles video distribution with  broadband access.  Google should be able to avoid regulation by local franchise authorities, e.g., cities and states, since it delivers its services via internet protocol. Internet protocol is a language computers and other devices use to communicate over the internet.  Internet protocol television (IPTV) enables two-way interactivity versus a traditional one-way transmission over a cable or satellite network.

A cable operator provides cable service over a cable system.  Section 522(6) of the Communications Act defines cable service as a one-way transmission to subscribers of video programming or other programming services and subscriber interaction, if any, which is required for the selection or use of video or other programming services.

Under section 522(7) of the Act, a cable system is defined as a facility consisting of a set of closed transmission paths designed to provide cable service.

Internet protocol’s flexibility is based in part on the transmission of data packets via various pathways versus the closed transmission characteristics of traditional cable network.  Franchise authorities, upon recognizing this, should be able to forego the otherwise lengthy approval process reserved for traditional cable systems.  Google will have to comply with rights-of-way regulations, but Google should be, for the sake of expediency, be exempt from other requirements such as providing connectivity between government buildings or providing public, educational, or government access channel capacity.

If municipalities really want to see increased broadband competition in their localities, Google is providing an opportunity.