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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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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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How Congress and the FCC can avoid future Section 257 proceedings

On 25 March 2016, the Federal Communications Commission circulated an item regarding a Section 257 market entry barriers proceeding. The purpose of the proceeding is to prepare and distribute a report to Congress detailing regulatory barriers to entry faced by telecommunications and information service providers. The Commission is also expected to promote policies that favor diversity of media voices, vigorous economic competition, and technological advancement.

I think the biggest barrier to information services providers is not a bunch of rules or the Communications Act itself. It is the philosophy behind describing information services; a philosophy that is still silo-based; that separates broadband access providers from websites, information portals, and search engines. All these platforms have the exchange, gathering, repackaging, and sale of data or information in common and it is time that the Commission recognize this basic characteristic of the digital jungle.

The anti-ISP posse will argue that firms like Verizon and AT&T should not be viewed as mere information service providers because they also sell access services; that content providers and consumers rely on these gateways to access information. The anti-ISP posse have a very limited point when they distinguish Verizon or AT&T from other information services based on their access services. The New York Times, an online digital content provider, may be able to hire delivery boys but it won’t shell out billions for deploying networks just to deliver one publication to their subscribers. Paying last mile, mid-mile, or content delivery networks is more economically feasible for them to get their content out. But if we treated the information markets as an exchange, I believe there is an opportunity to create a model that increases opportunities for smaller content providers while getting the Commission and probably Congress out of the business of trying to make the information markets efficient.

Congress and the Commission should explore a blended exchange/independent system operator model for internet service providers. ISPs trade on information. The information markets in this blended model would be coordinated by a “central ISP”, similar to the regional transmission or independent system operators found in the electricity markets. Carriers, such as AT&T or Verizon, would voluntarily turn over functional control of their networks to this central ISP. In order to trade on this central ISP platform, information service providers such as Facebook, Hulu, Amazon, Google, etc., would buy seats on the central ISP’s exchange, similar to a stock market exchange. As a member, the information service provider would have a say in how the exchange is managed. As long as the information service provider has the annual fee to get a seat or membership, they must be allowed to join.

Yes, I hear your next question. “But what about the lone blogger who wants to get his content out there or the start-up information service provider who can’t afford a seat?” My first response would be “value.”  My second response would be, “tough nookies.”

ISPs are looking for content of great value. Smaller content providers will have to step up their game and demonstrate to ISPs that their content should be added to the ISPs portfolio of video and text goodies. And if a content provider cannot demonstrate this value, then tough. The content provider will have to either find another way to distribute content digitally or accept that the digital content world isn’t ready for her…yet.

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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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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.