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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.

 

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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.