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The Great American Telecom Oligopoly Costs You $540/Yr for Their Excess Profits

Like the railroad robber barons of more than a century ago, a handful of phone and cable companies are getting filthy rich from a carefully engineered oligopoly that costs the average American $540 a year more than it should to deliver vital telecommunications services.

That is the conclusion of a new study from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, authored by two men with decades of experience representing the interests of consumers. They recommend stopping reckless deregulation without strong and clear evidence of robust competition and ending rubber stamped merger approvals by regulators.

The trouble started with the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, a bill heavily influenced by telecom industry lobbyists that, at its core, promoted deregulation without assuring adequate evidence of competition. It was that Act, signed into law by President Clinton, that authors Gene Kimmelman and Mark Cooper claim is partly responsible for today’s “highly concentrated oligopolistic markets that result […] in massive overcharges for consumer and business services.”

“Prices for cable, broadband, wired telecommunications, and wireless services have been inflated, on average, by about 25 percent above what competitive markets should deliver, costing the typical U.S. household more than $45 per month, or $540 per year, for these services,” the report states. “This stranglehold over these essential means of communication by a tight oligopoly on steroids—comprised of AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., Comcast Corp., and Charter Communications Inc. and built through mergers and acquisitions, not competition—costs consumers in aggregate almost $60 billion per year, or about 25 percent of the total average consumer’s monthly bill.”

The cost of delivering service is plummeting even as your bill keeps rising.

The authors also claim that these four companies earn astronomical profits — between 50 and 90% — on their services, compared with the national average of just under 15% for all industries.

The only check on these profits came from the 2011 rejection of the merger of AT&T and T-Mobile, which started a small price war in the wireless industry, saving customers an average of $5 a month, or $11 billion a year collectively.

But antitrust enforcement alone is inadequate to check the industry’s anti-competitive behavior. Competition was supposed to provide that check, but policymakers too often kowtowed to the interests of telecom industry lobbyists and prematurely removed regulatory oversight and protections that were supposed to remain in place until real competition made those regulations unnecessary.

Attempts to force open closed networks to competitors were allowed in some instances — particularly with local telephone companies, but only for certain legacy services. Newer products, particularly high-speed broadband, were usually not subject to these open network policies. The companies lobbied heavily against such requirements, claiming it would deter investment.

The framers of the ’96 Act also mandated an end to exclusive franchise agreements that barred phone and cable companies from entering each others’ markets. This was intended to allow phone and cable companies to compete head to head, setting up the prospect of consumers having multiple choices for these providers.

Current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai frequently cites the 1996 Communications Act as being “light touch” regulation that promulgated the broadband revolution. But in reality, the Act sparked a massive wave of corporate consolidation in broadcasting, cable, and phone companies at the behest of Wall Street.

“[Cable companies] refused to enter new markets to compete head to head with their sister companies [and] never entered the wireless market,” the authors note. “Telephone companies never overbuilt other telephone companies and were slow to enter the video market. Each chose to extend their geographic reach by buying out their sister companies rather than competing. This means that the potentially strongest competitors—those with expertise and assets that might be used to enter new markets—are few. This reinforces the market power strategy, since the best competitors have followed a noncompete strategy.”

Wall Street sold consolidation on the theory of increased shareholder value from eliminating duplicative costs and workforces, consolidating services, and growing larger to stay competitive with other companies also growing larger through mergers and acquisitions of their own:

  • The eight regional Baby Bells created after the breakup of AT&T’s national monopoly in the mid-1980s eventually merged into two huge wireline and wireless companies — AT&T and Verizon. The authors note these companies didn’t just acquire those that were part of the Ma Bell empire. They also bought out independent companies like GTE and long distance companies like MCI. Most of the few remaining independents provide service in rural areas of little interest to AT&T or Verizon.
  • The cable industry is still in a consolidation wave combining large players into a handful of giants, including Comcast and Charter Communications, which also have close relationships with content providers. Altice entered the U.S. cable business principally on the prospect of consolidating cable companies under the Altice brand, not overbuilding existing companies with a competing service of its own.

Such consolidation wiped out the very companies the ’96 Act was counting on to disrupt existing markets with new competition. Comcast, Charter, and Verizon even have agreements to cross-market each others’ products or use their infrastructure for emerging “competitive” services like mobile phones and wireless broadband.

“By the standard definitions of antitrust and traditional economic analysis, a tight oligopoly has developed in the digital communications sector,” the report states. “While some markets are slightly more competitive than others, the dominant firms are deeply entrenched and engage in anti-competitive and anti-consumer practices that defend and extend their market power, while allowing them to overcharge consumers and earn excess profits.”

“The impact of this abuse of market power on consumers is clear. According to the most recent Consumer Expenditure Survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the ‘typical’ middle-income household spends about $2,700 per year on a landline telephone service, two cell phone subscriptions, a broadband connection, and a subscription to a multichannel video service,” the report indicates. “Adjusting for the ‘average’ take rate of services in this middle-income group, consumers spend almost twice as much on these services as they spend on electricity. They spend more on these services than they spend on gasoline. Consumer expenditures on communications services equal about four-fifths of their total spending on groceries.”

The authors point out the Obama Administration, unlike the Bush Administration that preceded it, was the first since the 1996 Act’s passage to begin implementing policies to enhance and protect competition, and also check unfettered market power among the largest incumbent providers:

  • It blocked the AT&T/T-Mobile merger, which would have removed an important competitor and affect wireless rates in just about every U.S. city. The Obama Administration’s opposition not only preserved T-Mobile as a competitor, it also made that company review its business plan and rebrand itself as a market disruptor, forcing wireless prices down substantially for the first time and collectively saving all wireless customers in the U.S. billions from rate increases AT&T and Verizon could not carry out.
  • It blocked the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger, which would have given Comcast unprecedented and unequaled control over internet access and content providers in the U.S. It would have immediately made other cable and phone companies potentially untenable because of their lack of market power and ability to achieve similar volume discounts and economy of scale, and would have blocked emerging competitors that could not create credible business plans competing with Comcast.
  • It blocked informal Sprint/T-Mobile merger talks that would have combined the third and fourth largest wireless carriers. Antitrust regulators were concerned this would dramatically reduce the disruptive marketing that we still see today from both of these companies.
  • It placed restrictions on Comcast’s merger with NBC Universal and Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable. Comcast was required to effectively become a silent partner in Hulu, a vital emerging video competitor. Charter cannot impose data caps on its customers for up to seven years, helping to create a clear record that data caps are both unnecessary and unwarranted and have no impact on the cost of delivering internet services or the profits earned from it.
  • Strong support for Net Neutrality, backed with Title II enforcement, has given the content marketplace a sense of certainty and stability, allowing online cable TV competitors to emerge and succeed, giving consumers a chance to save money by cutting the cord on bloated TV packages. If providers were given the authority to discriminate against internet traffic, it would place an unfair burden on competitors and discourage new entrants.

The authors worry the Trump Administration and a FCC led by Chairman Ajit Pai may not be willing to preserve the first gains in broadband and communications competitiveness since mergermania removed a lot of those competitors.

“The key lesson in the communications sector is that vigorous regulation and antitrust enforcement can create the conditions for market success. But balance is the key,” the reports warns. “Technological innovation and convergence are no guarantee against the abuse of market power, but the effort to control the abuse of market power should not stifle innovation. If the Trump administration jettisons the enforcement practices of the past eight years, then the telecommunications sector is likely to see a wave of new consolidation and a dampening of the price cutting and innovative wireless and broadband services that have been slowly emerging.”

Frontier’s March to Oblivion: Bankruptcy In Its Future?

Frontier Communications is quickly becoming the Sears and Kmart of phone companies, on a slow march to bankruptcy or outright oblivion.

What started as a small independent phone company in Connecticut has grown through acquiring overpriced or decrepit landline cast-offs, mostly from Verizon, leaving itself with massive amounts of debt and infrastructure it is not willing to upgrade.

Despite rosy prognostications given to customers and shareholders, few are willing to take Frontier’s word that life is good with a company that still relies heavily on copper wire phone and DSL service.

Don’t take out word for it. Just watch the line of customers heading for the exits, canceling service and never looking back. As Frontier continues to lose customers fed up with its bad DSL service, rated even poorer than satellite-delivered broadband by Consumer Reports, its only chance to grow is to acquire more customers through more acquisitions. Unfortunately, after another disastrous transition for former Verizon customers in Florida, California, and Texas, Frontier’s bad reputation is likely to leave regulators and shareholders concerned about Frontier’s ability to manage yet more acquisitions in the future.

The Wall Street Journal reports Frontier bet on making it big with rural and suburban landlines, and lost.

Frontier’s mess has infuriated shareholders who invest in the stock mostly for its dividend payouts. The Norwalk, Conn. company recently announced it slashed its dividend, causing investors to flee the stock. Shares are down 69% so far this year. In a desperate bid to keep its Nasdaq listing, the company announced an unprecedented 1-for-15 reverse stock split just to prop up its share price.

Frontier’s slow hemorrhage of landline customers turned into a flash flood in the spring of 2016 after botching yet another “flash cutover” of customers acquired from Verizon. Verizon’s decision to sell off its landline networks in Florida, California, and Texas (mostly acquired from GTE by Verizon predecessor Bell Atlantic) was good news for Verizon, bad news for Frontier’s newest customers. Frontier hates to spend money to overhaul its copper-based facilities with fiber. It prefers to buy service areas from companies that undertook fiber upgrades on their own dime. Verizon had already upgraded large sections of those three states with its FiOS fiber to the home network. Frontier’s interest was primarily about acquiring that fiber, Frontier finance chief Perley McBride told the Wall Street Journal. Even McBride admitted Frontier failed to do a good job integrating those customers.

Consumer Reports rates Frontier DSL lower than one satellite broadband provider.

That should not be news to McBride or anyone else. Frontier has repeatedly failed every flash cutover it has attempted. The worst recent examples were Frontier’s botched 2010 transition in West Virginia, where the company inherited copper landlines neglected by Verizon for decades. Customers were infuriated by Frontier’s inability to maintain service and billing, and the company was investigated by state officials after many customers lost service, sometimes for weeks. In Connecticut, Frontier messed up a transition of its acquisition of AT&T’s U-verse system, having learned nothing from its mistakes in West Virginia or elsewhere. The company was forced to pay substantial service credits to residential and business customers that were offline for days. Thus it was no surprise yet another hurried transition would lead to disaster last spring. Regulators received thousands of complaints and a significant percentage of longtime Verizon customers left for good.

Frontier CEO Dan McCarthy appears to be even less credible with investors and customers than his predecessor Maggie Wilderotter, who may have retired with an understanding the long term future of Frontier looks pretty bleak. McCarthy has repeatedly put an optimistic face on Frontier’s increasingly poor performance.

John Jureller, Frontier’s last chief financial officer, routinely joined McCarthy in putting a brave face on Frontier’s stark numbers. He repeatedly tried to fuel optimism by telling investors the Verizon landline acquisition would make revenue trends “very positive.”

Jureller is no longer with Frontier. His replacement is the aforementioned McBride, who has a reputation as a “turnaround” expert, usually at the expense of employees. McBride has already helped oversee the permanent departure of at least 1,000 employees, laid off as part of what Frontier is calling “a customer-focused reorganization.” McCarthy prefers to tell Wall Street the layoffs are about reining in costs, despite the company’s profligate spending on acquisitions.

McBride told the Journal he doesn’t expect much revenue growth at Frontier anytime soon in California, Texas, and Florida. McCarthy’s grand turnaround plan isn’t working either. In fact, customer ratings of Frontier are falling about as fast as a rock thrown off a cliff.

There is little evidence Frontier will improve its dismal American Customer Satisfaction Index score in 2017. It finished dead last among internet service providers last year, falling 8% despite taking on new customers and allegedly upgrading others. Frontier’s overall grade was second to last across all categories in the telecom sector. Frontier managed to achieve bottom of the barrel scores despite broad upticks in customer satisfaction among other similar providers last year. Verizon FiOS achieved a 7% improvement to a best-ever customer satisfaction rating. In areas acquired by Frontier, as soon as the service was renamed Frontier FiOS, ratings plunged.

So has Frontier’s revenue, which continues a downward spiral. The company posted a loss of $373 million last year compared to $196 million in losses a year earlier. It has committed to spending $1 billion on its network this year, but customers uniformly report few substantial service improvements, and many wonder where the money is going.

Frontier is also upset that Verizon, in its zeal to make its landline properties in California, Texas, and Florida look as good as possible, stopped collection activity on overdue accounts just before the sale, saddling Frontier with thousands of deadbeat customers Verizon should have written off as uncollectable long ago, but never did.

Yesterday, the western New York office of the Better Business Bureau reported Frontier had achieved an “F” rating, amassed nearly 9,000 complaints, and out of 718 customer reviews, just six were positive:

We find a high volume and pattern of complaints exists concerning prior Verizon consumers who have not had a smooth transition to Frontier Communication since Frontier Communications took over various Verizon customers on April 1, 2016. Consumers have reported that services did not transition properly: many do not have services or are having spotty service with outages; many internet issues, from slow speeds to complete outages, consumers advise they are paying for certain levels of internet speeds but are not receiving those levels. Cable issues including missing networks, movie on demand concerns, issues with purchased subscriptions not carrying over, titles consumers have paid for (purchased licensed for) not being uploaded to their libraries and no solutions are being offered; and inability to access items like DVR boxes at the same time (multiple boxes in households not functioning); the Frontier App is not functioning for consumers; not fulfilling the rewards advertised with new service signups; charging consumers unauthorized third party charges on their telephone bill and not properly applying credits to consumer’s bills or consumers not being able to login to pay their bills.

When consumers call to receive assistance many report to BBB that they are hung up on or calls are disconnected and [are not followed up] by Frontier representatives. Consumers are transferred from representative to representative without receiving any assistance to their concerns many times resulting in a disconnection.

We have also identified a pattern in [Frontier’s] responses to complaints stating:

  • Per Tariff, in no event shall Frontier be liable in tort, contract, or otherwise for errors, omissions, interruptions, or delays to any person for personal injury, property damage, death, or economic losses. Frontier shall in no event exceed an amount equivalent to the proportionate charge to the customer for the period of service during which such mistake, omission, interruption, delay, error or defect occurs. Frontier will apply a credit based on the customer’s daily service rate.
  • We trust that this information will assist you in closing this complaint.  We regret any inconvenience that ‘consumer name’ may have experienced as a result of the above matter.

The business did not respond to the pattern of complaint correspondence BBB sent.

“Cable companies are beating the pants off Frontier,” Jonathan Chaplin, an analyst for New Street Research, told the newspaper. Heavy targeted marketing of Frontier’s customers, especially those served by Charter Communications in states like New York, Texas, Florida, and California are only accelerating Frontier’s customer cancellations.

Frontier’s cost consciousness and deferred upgrades as a result of its financial condition are only allowing cable companies to steal away more customers than ever, as the value for money gap continues to widen. While Frontier has failed to significantly upgrade many of their DSL customers still stuck with less than 10Mbps service, Charter Communications is gradually boosting their entry-level broadband speed to 100Mbps across its footprint and selling it at an introductory price of $44.99 a month.

Even Verizon sees the writing on the wall for the revenue prospects of landline service, especially in areas where it has not undertaken FiOS upgrades. Verizon DSL is still very common across its northeastern footprint, particularly in states like New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. Upstate New York is almost entirely DSL territory for Verizon, except for a few suburbs in Buffalo, Syracuse, and the state’s Capitol region. Verizon soured on upgrading its copper facilities in these areas years ago, and has contemplated selling them or moving customers to wireless service instead.

Verizon spokesman Bob Varettoni admitted Verizon’s strategy was to “sharpen our strategic focus on wireless,” which makes Verizon considerably more money than its wireline networks.

“If Verizon’s selling assets, they’re selling them for a reason,” Chaplin said. “Verizon had taken those markets [in California, Florida, and Texas] pretty close to saturation before they sold. That’s the point at which they punted the assets to Frontier.”

Frontier cannot continue to do business this way and expect to survive. Investors have circled 2020 on their calendar — the year $2.4 billion in debt payments are due. Another $2.5 billion is due in 2021 and $2.6 billion in 2022, not including interest charges and other obligations. Refinancing is expected to get tougher at struggling companies and interest rates are rising. The pattern is a familiar one in the telecom industry, where acquirers like FairPoint Communications and Hawaiian Telcom spent heavily on acquiring landline cast-offs from Verizon. Customer departures, a financial inability to upgrade facilities quickly enough, and heavy debts forced both companies into bankruptcy, precisely where Frontier Communications will end up if it does not change its management and business practices.

Stop the Cap!’s Net Neutrality Comments to FCC

July 17, 2017

Marlene H. Dortch, Secretary
Federal Communications Commission
Office of the Secretary
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20554

Dear Ms. Dortch,

Stop the Cap! is writing to express our opposition to any modification now under consideration of the 2015 Open Internet Order.

Since 2008, our all-volunteer consumer organization has been fighting against data caps, usage-based billing and for Net Neutrality and better broadband service for consumers and businesses in urban and rural areas across the country.

Providing internet access has become a bigger success story for the providers that earn billions selling the service than it has been for many consumers enduring substandard service at skyrocketing prices.

It is unfortunate that while some have praised Clinton era deregulatory principles governing broadband, they may have forgotten those policies were also supposed to promote true broadband competition, something sorely lacking for many consumers.

As a recent Deloitte study[1] revealed, “only 38 percent of homes have a choice of two providers offering speeds of at least 25Mbps. In rural communities, only 61 percent of people have access to 25Mbps wireline broadband, and when they do, they can pay as much as a 3x premium over suburban customers.”

In upstate New York, most residents have just one significant provider capable of meeting the FCC’s 25Mbps broadband standard – Charter Communications. In the absence of competition, many customers are complaining their cable bills are rising.[2]

Now providers are lobbying to weaken, repeal, or effectively undermine the 2015 Open Internet Order, and we oppose that.

We have heard criticisms that the 2015 Order’s reliance on Title II means it is automatically outdated because it depends on enforcement powers developed in the 1930s for telephone service. Notwithstanding the fact many principles of modern law are based on an even older document – the Bill of Rights, the courts have already informed the FCC that the alternative mechanisms of enforcement authority that some seem motivated to return to are inadequate.

In a 2-1 decision in 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit ruled:

“Given that the Commission has chosen to classify broadband providers in a manner that exempts them from treatment as common carriers, the Communications Act expressly prohibits the Commission from nonetheless regulating them as such. Because the Commission has failed to establish that the anti-discrimination and anti-blocking rules do not impose per se common carrier obligations, we vacate those portions of the Open Internet Order.”[3]

In fact, the only important element of the pre-2015 Open Internet rules that survived that court challenge was a disclosure requirement that insisted providers tell subscribers when their internet service is being throttled or selected websites are intentionally discriminated against.

Unfortunately, mandatory disclosure alone does not incent providers to cease those practices in large sections of the country where consumers have no suitable alternative providers to choose from.

Reclassifying broadband companies as telecommunications services did not and has not required the FCC to engage in rate regulation or other heavy-handed oversight. It did send a clear message to companies about what boundaries were appropriate, and we’ve avoided paid prioritization and other anti-consumer practices that were clearly under consideration at some of the nation’s top internet service providers.

In fact, the evidence the 2015 Open Internet Order is working can be found where providers are attempting to circumvent its objectives. One way still permitted to prioritize or favor selected traffic is zero rating it so use of preferred partner websites does not count against your data allowance.[4] Other providers intentionally throttle some video traffic, offering not to include that traffic in your data allowance or cap.[5] Still others are placing general data caps or allowances on their internet services, while exempting their own content from those caps.[6]

Our organization is especially sensitive to these issues because our members are already paying high internet bills with no evidence of any rate reductions for usage-capped internet service. In fact, many customers pay essentially the same price whether their provider caps their connection or not. It seems unlikely consumers will be the winners in any change of Open Internet policies. Claims that usage caps or paid prioritization policies benefit consumers with lower prices or better service are illusory. One thing is real: the impact of throttled or degraded video content which can be a major deterrent for consumers contemplating disconnecting cable television and relying on cheaper internet-delivered video instead.

Arguments that broadband investment has somehow been harmed as a result of the 2015 Order are suspect, if only because much of this research is done at the behest of the telecom industry who helped underwrite the expense of that research. Remarkably, similar claims have not been made by executives of the companies involved in their reports to investors. Those companies, mostly publicly-traded, have a legal obligation to report materially adverse events to their shareholders, yet there is no evidence the 2015 Order has created a significant or harmful drag on investment.

In a barely regulated broadband duopoly, where no new significant competition is likely to emerge in the next five years (and beyond), FCC oversight and enforcement is often the only thing protecting consumers from the abuses inherent in that non-competitive market. Preserving the existing Open Internet rules without modification is entirely appropriate and warranted, and has not created any significant burdens on providers that continue to make substantial profits selling broadband service to consumers.

Transferring authority to an overburdened Federal Trade Commission, not well versed on telecom issues and with a proven record of taking a substantial amount of time before issuing rulings on its cases, would be completely inappropriate and anti-consumer.

Therefore, Stop the Cap!, on behalf of our members, urges the FCC to retain the 2015 Open Internet Order as-is, leaving intact the Title II enforcement foundation.

Respectfully yours,

Phillip M. Dampier
Founder and Director

Footnotes:

[1] https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/consulting/articles/communications-infrastructure-upgrade-deep-fiber-imperative.html#1

[2] “Thousands of Time Warner Cable Video Customers Flee Spectrum’s Higher Prices.” (http://bit.ly/2tjHJ8f); “Lexington’s Anger at Spectrum Cable Keeps Rising. What Can We Do?” (http://www.kentucky.com/news/local/news-columns-blogs/tom-eblen/article160754069.html)

[3] http://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/internet/opinions.nsf/3AF8B4D938CDEEA685257C6000532062/$file/11-1355-1474943.pdf

[4] https://cdn3.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/7575775/Letter_to_R._Quinn_12.1.16.0.pdf

[5] https://www.t-mobile.com/offer/binge-on-streaming-video.html

[6] http://www.chicagotribune.com/bluesky/technology/ct-data-cap-policies-20151214-story.html

Wall Street Grumbling About Estimated $130 Billion Needed for National 5G Fiber Buildout

Wall Street analysts are warning investors that mobile providers like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint will have to spend $130-150 billion on fiber optic cables alone to make 5G wireless broadband a reality in the next 5-7 years.

A new Deloitte study found providers will have to spend a lot of money to deploy next generation wireless service across the United States, money that many may be unwilling to spend.

“5G relies heavily on fiber and will likely fall far short of its potential unless the United States significantly increases its deep fiber investments,” the study notes. “Increased speed and capacity from 5G will rely on higher radio frequencies and greater network densification (i.e., increasing the number and concentration of cell sites and access points).”

Unlike earlier cellular technology, which worked from centralized cell towers that covered several miles in all directions, 5G technology is expected to be deployed through “small cell” antennas attached to utility and light poles with coverage limited to just 300-500 feet. To reach city residents, providers will need countless thousands of new antenna installations and a massive fiber network to connect each antenna to the provider.

Telecom providers seeking financing for such networks will face the same criticism Verizon Communications took from Wall Street over the expense of its FiOS fiber-to-the-home upgrade as well as doubts about the viability of other fiber projects like Google Fiber.

Goldman Sachs told its investors back in 2012 that throwing money at Google Fiber or Verizon FiOS was not going to give them a good return on their investment. That year, Goldman was “Still Bullish on Cable, But Not Blind to the Risks.” That report, written by analyst Jason Armstrong, noted Google’s fiber upgrades would cost billions and only further dilute industry profits from increasing competition.

Goldman Sachs steered investors back to the cable industry, which gets significant praise from Wall Street for its ability to repurpose 20-year-old wired infrastructure for enhanced broadband without having to spend huge sums on a complete system rebuild.

In 2013, Alliance Bernstein continued to slam Google Fiber’s buildout as an unwise business investment:

We remain skeptical that Google will find a scalable and economically feasible model to extend its build out to a large portion of the US, as costs would be substantial, regulatory and competitive barriers material, and in the end the effort would have limited impact on the global trajectory of the business.

For example, making the far from trivial assumption that Google can identify 20 million homes in relatively contiguous areas with (on average) similar characteristics as Kansas City when it comes to the most important drivers of network deployment cost, homes per mile of plant and the mix of aerial, buried and underground infrastructure, and that Google decides to build out a fiber network to serve them over a period of five years, we estimate the [total capital expenditure] investment required to be in the order of $11 billion to pass the homes, before acquiring or connecting a single customer.

Some analysts are even questioning the relevance of 5G when providers investing in the massive fiber expansion required for 5G wireless could simply extend fiber cables directly into homes, assuring customers of more bandwidth and reliability. In many cases, fiber to the home technology is actually cheaper than 5G deployment will be.

VantagePoint released a report in February that called a lot of the excitement surrounding 5G “hype” and cautioned it will not be the ultimate broadband solution:

Undoubtedly, 5G wireless technologies will result in better broadband performance than 4G wireless technologies and will offer much promise as a mobile complement to fixed services, but they still will not be the right choice for delivering the rapidly increasing broadband demanded by thousands or millions of households and businesses across America.

Previous analysis of 4th generation (4G) wireless networks clearly demonstrated how these networks, even with generous capacity assumptions for the future, will have limited broadband capabilities, and inevitably will fail to carry the fixed broadband experience that has been and will be demanded by subscribers accustomed to their wireline counterparts. Although there is understandably much anticipation today about phenomenal possible speeds for 5G wireless networks tomorrow, they will continue to have technical shortcomings that will, like their predecessor wireless networks, render them very useful complements but poor substitutes for wireline broadband. These technical challenges include:

  • Spectral limitations: 5G networks will require massive amounts of spectrum to accomplish their target speeds. At the lower frequencies traditionally used for wide area coverage, there is not enough spectrum. At the very high frequencies proposed for 5G where there may be enough spectrum, the RF signal does not propagate far enough to be practical for any wide area coverage. This is particularly important in rural areas where customer concentration is far, far less than what can be expected in densely populated urban areas where 5G may offer greater promise.
  • Access Network Sharing: This is not a good solution for continuous-bit-rate traffic such as video, which will make up 82% of Internet traffic by 2020.
  • Economics: When compared to a 5G network that can deliver significant bandwidth using very high, very short-haul frequencies, FTTP is often less expensive and will have lower operational costs. This is particularly true when one consider how much fiber deployment will be needed very close to each user even just to enable 5G.
  • Reliability: Wireless inherently is less reliable than wireline, with significantly increased potential for impairments with the very high frequencies required by 5G.

In 2014, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP released a report urging telecom executives to shift their thinking about telecom capital spending away from one that focuses on upgrades to deal with increasing traffic and demand and move instead to a hardline view of only spending on projects that meet Return On Investment (ROI) objectives for investors.

“The predominant task of management is to take a considered view of the future, allocate capital towards strategies that maximize value for the providers of that capital, and manage the execution of those strategies through to the delivery of returns for those investors,” wrote PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. “For too long, telecoms have been on auto-drive for much of their capex. Departments assume if they had the money last year, they are going to get it again this year, under the premise of increasing traffic. But rarely do telecoms truly analyze that spending for its ROI or ask whether the investment should be made at all.”

In short, if a project is not certain to quickly deliver significant ROI, serious questions should be asked about whether that investment is appropriate to undertake. That reluctance is at the heart of Deloitte’s new study.

Deloitte notes if providers cannot overcome Wall Street’s reluctance to support major spending on fiber infrastructure, lack of investment will be even more costly.

It predicts falling short on fiber deployment will cause a dwindling number of broadband provider choices for consumers. Today, fewer than 33% of U.S. homes have access to fiber broadband and only 39% have the option of choosing more than one provider capable of meeting the FCC’s minimal definition of broadband – 25Mbps. As competition declines, the need to further expand is reduced while prices can freely rise.

PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP also recommends cable and phone companies partner with content providers like Netflix or Google, and let those companies take an ownership interest in return for capital investments for fiber upgrades. Those type of solutions also protect Wall Street from a feared price war should alternative providers launch in markets that are barely competitive, if at all.

Lexington City Council, Public Ready to Roast “Spawn of Satan” Spectrum Over the Coals

Finally, a cable company that can bring everyone together, regardless of gender, age, color, or socio-economic status. Rich or poor, urban or suburban, everybody in Lexington, Ky. agrees on one thing: they hate Charter Spectrum.

Tom Eblen from the Lexington Herald Leader savaged the cable company that has alienated so many locals, the city council is looking for a bigger venue to hold their first ever performance evaluation of a telecommunications company. There are doubts the meeting, scheduled for Aug. 24 at the new senior center in Idle Hour Park (seating for 800+), is big enough to accommodate a crowd bearing pitchforks and lit torches.

Lexington chief administrative officer Sally Hamilton tried to keep things sober at the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council work session held last week.

“We have been receiving numerous complaints,” Hamilton said.

Locals have accused Spectrum of being the “spawn of Satan” and are shocked and surprised by how much they miss Time Warner Cable, something few thought could be possible.

Since the “shameful ones” took over, customers are furious about channels that disappear without notice, failing equipment, and enormous lines at the remaining cable stores still open to accept equipment exchanges. Since Charter Communications took control of Time Warner Cable, internet speeds are reportedly dropping while bills are skyrocketing.

As Eblen notes, “It’s like the old days of Ma Bell, which comedian Lily Tomlin, as Ernestine the telephone operator, famously satirized in the 1970s: ‘We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the phone company.'”

The best word to describe local customers’ feelings for their new cable company: contempt.

Some city officials are getting close to agreeing after learning Spectrum is abruptly and unilaterally moving the community’s local public access channels to TV Siberia, where almost no customer is likely to find them:

  • GTV3, used to broadcast city government meetings, is leaving Channel 3 and moving to Channel 185.
  • Fayette County Public Schools will lose Channel 13 and find themselves on Channel 197.
  • The University of Kentucky’s Channel 16 is relocating to Channel 184.

City officials spent money branding and promoting GTV3, which apparently will soon be GTV185, where only the most dedicated channel surfer will likely find it. The city claims Spectrum is thumbing its nose at its franchise agreement. Charter executives know well cities are practically powerless to intervene or have any significant say about how cable companies operate within their borders. Deregulation gives the city very few options to keep Spectrum in line. Officials also admit there is no chance another cable operator will agree to provide service in the area, effectively trapping the community with Charter indefinitely.

All the city can do about the channel repositioning is ask for money from Charter to help pay for rebranding the channel. Lexington officials are requesting $20,000, as per the terms of the franchise agreement. Charter hasn’t sent the check.

“That performance evaluation will allow the public to air their differences,” Hamilton said. “We do not have a lot of rights under the franchise agreement, but we can demand respect.”

It doesn’t seem likely Charter will be a hurry to provide it.

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