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How a Wall Street Analyst Complicates AT&T and Verizon’s Upgrade and Investment Plans

Moffett

The road to 5G wireless home broadband is paved with good intentions and a lot of hype, but at least one Wall Street analyst hints Verizon’s millimeter wave 5G project may be a bad idea, unable to achieve a proper return on investment and potentially a worse performer than originally thought.

Craig Moffett, a key analyst at MoffettNathanson, has analyzed and commented on the telecommunications industry at least as far back as the 1990s. He slammed cable operators for overpriced upgrades in the 1990s, talked down AT&T’s U-verse project, and spent years telling the media and investors that Verizon FiOS — a fiber to the home project, was an expensive failure.

Moffett’s latest research examines Verizon’s six-month old 5G millimeter wave wireless network in Sacramento, Calif., which relies on a large number of small cells to provide a $50 wireless home broadband replacement. But after taking a closer look at the technology, its performance, and costs, Moffett has warned investors Verizon has a “steep climb” to convince Wall Street it can attract enough revenue from paying customers to justify the tens of billions in new spending required to roll out small cell technology across the country.

How does Moffett know this and can his views derail or alter Verizon’s long-term plans for millimeter wave 5G? The answer is clearly “maybe.”

In this series, we will look at how Wall Street’s view of the telecom industry is often focused on short term profits at the expense of long term growth and customer satisfaction.

The telecom industry analyst presents detailed analyses tracking industry developments, mergers and acquisitions, technology shifts, competition, regulation, expenses, and shifting consumer behavior into reports for investment banks, institutional investors, or in some cases individual investors looking for both hard numbers and perspective on what is going on in the industry.

The metrics analysts use to describe success or failure are typically different from what customers use, and many analysts don’t spend much time focused on technical trivia, public policy goals, and ways of overcoming problems for which there are no obvious market solutions, such as rural community broadband. Some analysts are particularly friendly and non-confrontational with executives, who know and recognize them by their first name, while others are more willing to challenge company press releases and policies and can eventually develop an adversarial relationship with at least some of the companies they cover. The analyst’s reputation for getting the correct analyses to clients means everything. Good research and advice does not come cheap, and subscription fees can be breathtakingly high. Many Wall Street analysts also make frequent appearances in the media, often on business cable news channels and newspapers.

Moffett is one of the most frequently-quoted telecom analysts, known for his favorable coverage of the cable industry and skepticism towards telephone companies attempting to reinvent themselves. He has advocated for the adoption of usage caps and usage-based billing to further monetize broadband, but has not been as aggressive as others, such as Jonathan Chaplin, a Wall Street analyst with New Street Research, who has frequently called on the cable industry to aggressively raise broadband prices to $90 a month or more. Moffett, in contrast, worried last year that Cable One, an operator specializing in serving small and medium sized cities, was pricing its service far too high, driving off potential customers.

Cable’s Hybrid Fiber/Coax vs. Telco’s Copper: Dueling Legacy Technologies Confront a Fiber and Wireless Future

Most of the nation’s cable television systems were built in the 1970s and 1980s and were primarily dependent on copper-based coaxial cable. By the 1990s, many cable operators embarked on system wide “rebuilds” to prepare for the era of digital cable television. It was during this decade that most cable systems moved beyond 50-70 analog TV channels and also began offering new services, including home phone, broadband, home security, and large on-demand video libraries. To support these new services and to increase the reliability of cable systems, operators began replacing some of the coaxial cable in their networks with more reliable fiber optics. Investments in these upgrades were significant, but to the cable industry not extravagant. A loud chorus from Wall Street disagreed, complaining cable systems were overspending on upgrades. Moffett, an analyst for Sanford Bernstein at the time, complained the cable industry collectively wasted $100 billion on network upgrades.

But like many Wall Street analysts who complain about almost any significant investment or spending, once a company has gone ahead and spent the money, analysts start looking at how those companies are monetizing those upgrades to recover the investment, boost revenue, and maximize shareholder value. Moffett flipped on a dime from being a critic of cable’s spending to commenting on how well the cable industry was now positioned to lead the telecom industry.

“Cable built a plant that was more expensive than they ever should have built,” Moffett told the New York Times in 2008. “But now that the cable companies have spent that money, their network is in place to deliver phone service more cheaply than any other alternative.”

The cable industry’s hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) systems upgraded in the 1990s are still partly in wide use today. Cable operators are using incremental technology upgrades to squeeze more performance out of these systems, notably by retiring space-hogging analog cable television in favor of digital. That analog to digital video conversion, along with regular updates to the cable broadband technical standard, known as DOCSIS, has allowed most cable operators to claim they do not need to upgrade to an all fiber network to support the services offered today, which includes hundreds of TV channels and gigabit speed downloads. Altice USA, which operates Cablevision in suburban New York City, is among a few operators claiming it was time to discard HFC technology in favor of fiber to the home (FTTH) service. Altice argues fiber further increases available bandwidth and is much more reliable, reducing costs. So far, other major operators like Comcast, Charter, and Cox are still taking a more incremental approach towards fiber, in part to keep costs down.

The upgrade spending that Wall Street complained about in the 1990s ultimately paid off handsomely for the cable industry. Moffett himself only occasionally criticizes cable operators these days, preferring to target most of his negative coverage on phone companies. In fact, in an interview in 2008, Moffett called effectively called phone companies obsolete.

“In 1996, as soon as you saw that the technology existed for a cable network with vastly higher capacity and vastly lower margin cost to be able to do voice calls over the same network, you would have said the end game is obvious: Cable will win and the telcos will go into bankruptcy. The only question is how long it will take,” Moffett said.

Moffett praised Qwest for doing and spending nothing to confront copper wire obsolescence.

The phone companies, having no interest in voluntarily sacrificing themselves in bankruptcy court, have moved to meet the cable industry’s challenge by upgrading their own networks to compete, something Moffett is not a big fan of either. Back in 2008, he gave top marks to Qwest, the orphaned Baby Bell serving the sparsely populated Pacific Northwest that would later be bought by CenturyLink. Lacking its own mobile business, or a large amount of capital for upgrades, Moffett praised Qwest for making the right decision (according to him) in the cable vs. phone wars of the early 2000s: “do nothing.”

That advice was simply not acceptable to the top executives at two of the biggest phone companies in the country. Both rejected Moffett’s philosophy of living with the technology they had instead of putting investors through the agony of spending money to completely overhaul the existing copper wire phone network. For Moffett, that was throwing good money after bad, and it was too late to try.

“It is an obsolete technology,” Moffett said. “It’s not like horses lost share of the transportation market until they stabilized at 40 percent market share.”

Phone Company Fiber Optic Upgrades = ‘Shareholder Value Destruction’

Large phone companies saw the same writing on the wall about landline telephone service Moffett did back in the 1990s. Their emerging wireless mobile businesses were cannibalizing in-home landlines and the introduction of the cable industry’s “digital phone” Voice over IP product, often bundled with a range of calling features and a nationwide long distance plan, quickly began eroding the revenue phone companies earned from per-call charges, calling features like Caller ID, and long distance revenue.

AT&T repair truck

AT&T and Verizon had a problem. Telephone networks were designed and built to handle voice-grade phone calls, not broadband or television. Repurposing the traditional landline to support a popular package of phone, internet, and television service was complex and costly. DSL had already emerged as the phone company’s best effort to compete with cable broadband over the traditional copper phone wire network. Phone companies experimented with competing television service, sending one channel at a time down a customer’s phone line. When a customer changed channels, one streaming channel stopped and another began. It did not always prove to be very reliable or dependable, because performance degraded significantly the farther the customer lived from the phone company’s switching office. Something better was needed, and it was going to cost billions.

The 1992 Cable Act, which guaranteed competing video providers could offer popular cable networks on fair and competitive terms, was crucial to laying the groundwork for a reimagined local phone company. Telephone company executives began approaching state and local officials with proposals to replace existing phone networks with newer fiber technology that could support voice and video, giving local cable monopolies long-awaited competition. The sticking point was money. Some large phone companies sought regulator approval to raise telephone rates to create a fiber fund that would be used to cover some of the costs of scrapping copper wire networks and replace them with fiber optics. The cable industry understood the threat and immediately launched a fierce lobbying campaign to block attempts to bill captive phone ratepayers for the cost of fiber upgrades. The phone companies were largely unsuccessful winning approval to cross-subsidize their fiber future, but some companies did make deals with state regulators to approve rate increases with the promise the extra revenue would fund future fiber upgrades.

Critics contend AT&T and Verizon’s wireless mobile networks ended up the biggest beneficiaries of the revenue raked in from rate increases, with some accusing companies like Verizon of shifting money away from landline service to help pay for the construction of their growing wireless businesses. With billions spent on cell tower construction and network buildout costs, there was not much money left for fiber to the home upgrades. The cost to wire each home for fiber was also a concern, as were regulatory requirements surrounding universal service, which meant phone companies might have to serve any customer seeking service, while cable companies were allowed to skip serving rural America altogether.

It would take until 2004 for phone companies to begin major upgrades. At the same time, deregulation was once again stirring up the marketplace, triggering a gradual re-consolidation of the old Bell System, coalescing primarily around AT&T (SBC, Ameritech, BellSouth, and Pacific Telesis) and Verizon (Bell Atlantic, NYNEX, independent telephone company GTE, and former long distance carrier MCI). Both AT&T and Verizon were exploring fiber upgrades.

AT&T U-verse vs. Verizon FiOS – Wall Street Not Impressed Either Way

Project Lightspeed was developed by SBC in 2004 and later renamed AT&T U-verse in time for its commercial launch in 2006. AT&T chose a fiber to the neighborhood approach, leaving intact existing copper phone wiring already in place in neighborhoods and homes. U-verse was capable (at the time) of delivering just over 20 Mbps internet service while customers also watched TV,  and/or made a phone call. The advantage of U-verse was that it was cheaper to deploy across AT&T’s more sprawling local telephone territories than fiber all the way to each customer’s home.

Verizon, which serves a number of densely populated cities in the northeast and mid-Atlantic region, believed a fiber to the home upgrade would future proof their network and deliver better, more reliable service than U-verse. Verizon FiOS launched in September 2005 and completely did away with existing copper phone wiring in favor of optical cable. Verizon argued that although it was more expensive, a complete fiber upgrade would cost the company less over time, and was essentially infinitely upgradable as customer needs changed. Verizon also argued that with scale, the cost of wiring each home or business would fall, making the technology more cost-effective. Verizon launched its FiOS business with great fanfare among customers, some who bought homes specifically because they were located in a FiOS service area.

As with the cable industry’s rebuilding (and spending) wave of the 1990s, many on Wall Street were unhappy with both AT&T and Verizon. Moffett’s calculations were based on the premise that projects like this have 15 years not only to pay back investors in full, but also generate shareholder value from increased revenue. If the costs are not covered in full and then some, it is deemed a failure and value destructive. What customers want is only a tiny part of the means test Wall Street analysts use to determine if a project is good news or bad news:

Good News

  • The provider successfully raises prices and accelerates payoff of outstanding debt.
  • A project attracts new customers and prompts current customers to upgrade, generating more revenue.
  • An upgrade can be expensed in a way that results in extra tax savings.
  • Customer churn drops, as a more satisfied customer remains a customer.
  • An upgrade offers new revenue opportunities not available before.

Bad News

  • A project causes a surprise increase in capital expenses, especially if those costs are higher than anticipated.
  • An upgrade results in increased competition, or worse, a price war that forces providers to cut prices.
  • The project cannot be paid off within ~15 years. Short term results matter. Long term results only matter to future investors.
  • An upgrade forces competitors to also undertake upgrades.
  • A provider is forced to choose between share buybacks and dividend payouts and spending money on upgrades and chooses the latter. Shareholders matter more.

Moffett’s 2008 calculations argued that Verizon would lose $769 on each FiOS customer signing up for service. AT&T U-verse would come close to breaking even, but not generate much in the way of profit for AT&T. After determining that, he was a frequent and vocal critic of upgrade efforts, particularly in the case of FiOS. Verizon argued his calculations were wrong and that the company was pleased with the progress of its fiber buildout. But Moffett claimed vindication when Verizon shelved future FiOS expansion in 2010, leaving many cities with only a smattering of fiber service — often in a handful of wealthy suburbs and nowhere else.

Verizon clearly changed direction in 2010, but probably not because of Moffett and other critics. Verizon’s CEO at the time came from Verizon Wireless, and his executive team was focused predominantly on the phone company’s wireless unit, which was earning Verizon plenty of revenue. Verizon so valued its wireless business, in 2014 it bought out its partner Vodafone’s 45% interest in Verizon Wireless in a transaction valued at approximately $130 billion. That kind of money would have wired a considerable amount of the United States with fiber to the home service.

Paradox: 2008 – Don’t you dare spend that kind of money / 2013 – That was money well spent

Wall Street analysts, like many investors, like to focus on the short-term picture of the companies they cover. What appears to be really bad news today may not be so bad tomorrow, and as a result their advice often changes with time.

For example, Mr. Moffett spit nails over the cable industry’s “waste” of $100 billion on system rebuilds in the 1990s, but by the late 2000s he was a veritable cable stock promoter. Moffett told the New York Times it was clear cable was emerging on top in the telecom space and its competitors, including satellite and telephone companies, were dead companies walking. Cable’s success would likely not have come without the investments Moffett and other Wall Street analysts howled about.

Among the phone companies, AT&T initially won more respect from investors for not overspending on its U-verse project, which was less costly than FiOS, but also less capable. U-verse avoided the cost of ripping out copper cable from backyards and the sides of homes, but also had limits on broadband speed and the number of concurrent TV channels a customer could watch. As HDTV took hold, those limits became more clear, especially to customers. As a result, U-verse customer satisfaction was not that high. In contrast, Verizon FiOS consistently achieved top position in customer ratings year after year because it delivered more than customers expected and was ready-made for easy expansion and upgrades.

“There was a raging debate a couple of years ago about who got it right, AT&T or Verizon,” Blair Levin, then an analyst with Stifel, Nicolaus & Company, told the Times in 2008. “Initially the investment community thought it was AT&T, but increasingly Verizon got their begrudging respect.”

Even Moffett’s views on FiOS ‘evolved’ over time. In 2013, he sent a research note to his clients admitting his views were more positive about FiOS than before.

“FiOS will sustain subscriber growth longer than either we or Verizon had projected, and that FiOS will ultimately achieve higher penetration rates than either we or Verizon had originally targeted,” Moffett’s team wrote. “Verizon’s FiOS is overwhelmingly the largest and most important FTTH network in the U.S. For comparison, Verizon’s FiOS covers 14% of American homes; Google’s fledgling fiber network, at least based on the three markets that have been disclosed up to now . . . will cover less than ½% to 1% when it is eventually completed.”

Moffett himself predicted in 2008 his views would evolve over time, as would his clients. Those invested in Verizon during FiOS’ buildout years would suffer somewhat from the costs to deploy the fiber optic network. But those who bought shares around 2010 or after consider those expenses “sunk costs” at this point — already spent and dealt with on the balance sheet. The economics change from ‘who is going to pay for all this’ to ‘how is the company going to use this new asset to best monetize its business.’

To be sure, Moffett still frequently recoils when a company reports it is planning on significant and costly upgrades, like Verizon’s millimeter wave 5G network. He is more tolerant of gradual upgrades, like those undertaken by Charter Spectrum to retire analog cable television and upgrade its systems to DOCSIS 3.1 technology, allowing it to sell faster internet speeds.

Moffett and other analysts can present a problem for for-profit, investor-owned companies that are about to launch a disruptive product or service. Verizon’s 5G project is now facing new scrutiny, perhaps as a backlash against the excessive hype these wireless networks are enjoying in the media. The costs to deploy small cell wireless technology across the country will be staggering, and it is not a stretch to suggest some on Wall Street will champion efforts to consolidate costs by building a shared network, recommending a tough return on investment formula to determine where small cell technology will be deployed, or calling for higher prices on services. Companies like Verizon will have to be prepared to defend their business case for 5G, perhaps stronger than they did defending FiOS more than a decade ago.

We’ll explore Moffett’s latest findings about the performance of Verizon’s millimeter wave 5G wireless home broadband replacement in part two.

Craig Moffett was a featured guest on C-SPAN’s ‘The Communicators’ at the 2013 Cable Show, discussing cable’s inherent advantages over telephone companies and the emergence of video cord-cutting as a result of too many rate hikes on customers. (24:39)

North Carolina’s Goal to be the First Giga State is Improbable With Current State Legislature

Solving America’s rural broadband crisis will take a lot more than demonstration projects, token grants, and press releases.

Since 2008, Stop the Cap! has witnessed media coverage that breathlessly promises rural broadband is right around the corner, evidenced by a new state or federal grant to build what later turns out to be a middle mile or institutional fiber optic network that is strictly off-limits to homes and businesses. Politicians who participate in these press events tend to favor publicity over performance, often misleading reporters and constituents about just how significant a particular project will be towards resolving a community’s broadband challenges. Much of the time, these projects turn out to serve a very limited number of people or only fund part of a broadband initiative.

Officials last week said they are hoping to make North Carolina “the first ‘giga-state,’ with broadband access for all its residents.” But to realistically achieve that goal, nothing short of an expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars will be required to realistically achieve that goal statewide.

A decade ago, rural broadband progressed in North Carolina, as communities transitioned away from traditional tobacco and textile businesses to the information and technology economy. To assure a foundation for that economic shift, several communities identified their local substandard (or lacking) broadband as a major problem. The state’s phone and cable companies at the time — notably Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink, often proved to be obstacles by refusing to upgrade networks in the state’s smaller communities. Some cities decided to stop relying on what the broadband companies were willing to offer and chose to construct their own modern, publicly owned broadband network alternatives, open to residents and businesses. A handful of cities in North Carolina went a different direction and acquired a dilapidated and bankrupt cable system and invested in upgrades, hoping cable broadband improvements would help protect their communities’ competitiveness to attract digital economy jobs.

That progress largely stalled after Republicans took control of the state legislature in 2011 and passed a draconian municipal broadband law that effectively banned public broadband expansion. Most of those backing the measure took lucrative campaign contributions from the state’s dominant phone and cable companies. One, Sen. Marilyn Avila, worked so closely with Time Warner Cable’s lobbyists, the resulting bill was effectively drafted by the state’s largest cable company. For that effort, she was later wined and dined by cable lobbyists at a celebration dinner in Asheville.

To be fair, some North Carolina cities are experiencing a broadband renaissance. Charlotte, Raleigh, Greensboro, Cary, Durham, Winston-Salem, and Chapel Hill will have a choice of providers for gigabit service. Google has installed fiber in some of these cities while AT&T and Charter lay down more fiber optics and introduce upgrades to support gigabit speeds.

Things are considerably worse outside of large cities.

In North Carolina, 585,000 people live in areas where their wired connections cannot reach the FCC’s speed definition of broadband — 25 Mbps, and another 145,000 live without any notion of broadband at all.

Bringing all of North Carolina up to at least the nation’s minimum standard for broadband will not be cheap, and politicians and public policy groups must be realistic about the real cost to once and for all resolve North Carolina’s rural broadband challenges. Where the money comes from is a question that will be left to state and local officials and their constituents. Some advocate only tax credit-inspired private funding, others support a public-private partnership to share costs, while still others believe public money should be only spent on publicly owned, locally developed broadband networks. Regardless of which model is proposed, without a specific and realistic budget proposal to move forward, the public will likely be disappointed with the results.

The Facts of Broadband Life

There is a reason rural areas are underserved or unserved. America’s broadband providers are primarily for-profit, investor-owned companies. They are not public servants and they respond first to the interests of their shareholders. Customers might come in second. When a publicly owned utility or co-op is created, in most cases it is the result of years of frustration trying to get a commercial provider to serve a rural or high cost area. Public projects are usually designed to serve almost everyone, even though it will likely take years for construction costs to be recovered. Investor-owned companies are not nearly as patient, and usually demand a Return On Investment formula that offers a much shorter window to recover costs. For broadband, adequately populated areas that can be reached affordably and attract enough new customers to recover the initial investment will get service, while those areas that cannot are left behind. The two populations most likely to fail the ROI test are the urban poor that may not be able to afford to subscribe and rural residents a company claims it cannot afford to serve. Many early cable TV franchise agreements insisted on ROI formulas that allowed companies only to skip areas with inadequate population density, not inadequate income, which explains why cable service is available in even the poorest city neighborhoods, while a wealthy resident in a rural area goes unserved.

Today, most cable and phone companies install fiber optic infrastructure most commonly in new housing developments or previously unwired business parks, while allowing existing copper wire infrastructure already in place elsewhere to remain in service. Some companies, including AT&T and Verizon, have made an effort in some areas to replace copper infrastructure with fiber optics, but in most cases, their rural service areas remain served by copper wiring installed decades ago. As a result, most rural residents end up with DSL internet from the phone company, often at speeds of 5 Mbps or less, or no internet service at all. Neither of these phone companies, much less independent telcos like CenturyLink and Frontier, have shown much interest in scrapping copper wiring for fiber optics in rural service areas. There is simply no economic case that shareholders will accept for costly upgrades that will deliver little, if any, short-term benefits to a company’s bottom line. That reality has led some communities to try incentivizing commercial providers to make an investment anyway, usually with a package of tax breaks and cost sharing. But many communities have achieved better results even faster by launching their own fiber broadband services that the public can access.

Some states with large rural areas have recognized that solving the rural broadband problem will be costly — almost always more costly than first thought. Such projects often take longer than one hoped, and will require some form of taxpayer matching funds, municipal bonds, public buy-in, or a miraculous sudden investment from a generous cable or phone company. In states with municipal broadband bans, like North Carolina, politicians who support such restrictions believe the cable and phone companies will spontaneously solve the rural internet problem on their own. Such beliefs have stalled rural broadband improvements in many of the states ensnared by such laws, usually tailored to protect a duopoly of the same phone and cable companies that have historically refused to offer adequate broadband service to their rural customers.

Challenges for North Carolina

(Courtesy: North Carolina League of Municipalities – Click image for more information)

North Carolina is a growing state, so a small part of the rural broadband problem may work itself out as population densities increase to a level that crosses that critical ROI threshold. But most rural communities will be waiting years for that to happen. Intransigent phone and cable companies are unlikely to respond positively to local officials seeking better service if it requires a substantial investment. As industry lobbyists will tell you, it is not the job of government to dictate the services of privately owned companies. The Republican majority in North Carolina’s legislature underlines that principle regularly in the form of legislation that reduces regulation and oversight. Many, but not all of those Republicans have also taken a strong strand against the idea of municipalities stepping up to resolve their local broadband challenges by working around problematic cable and phone companies. The ideology that government should never be in the business of competing against private businesses usually takes precedence.

Almost a decade ago, the cable and phone companies of North Carolina made three failed attempts to enshrine this principle in a new statewide law that would limit municipal broadband encroachment to such an extent it made future projects unviable. They succeeded in passing a law on their fourth attempt in 2011, the same year Republicans took control in the state legislature.

Today, Republicans still control the legislature with a Democratic governor providing some checks and balances. Why is this important? Because for North Carolina to achieve its goal, it will realistically need a combination of bipartisan support for rural broadband funding and an end to the municipal broadband ban.

Where is the money?

Although North Carolina wants to be America’s first “gigabit” state, New York is the first to at least claim full broadband coverage across the entire state. That did not and could not happen without a multi-year spending program. Recently, North Carolina’s Department of Information Technology launched a $10 million GREAT Grant program to provide last-mile connectivity to the most economically distressed counties in the state. While a noble effort, and one no doubt limited by the availability of funds to spend on broadband expansion, it is a drop in a bucket of water thrown into a barely filled pool.

To put this problem in better context, New York’s goal of full broadband coverage (which in our view remains incomplete) required not only $500 million acquired from settlement proceeds won by the state after suing Wall Street banks for causing the Great Recession, but another $170 million in federal broadband expansion funds that were expected to be forfeited because Verizon — the state’s largest phone company — was not interested in the money or upgrading their DSL service upstate.

Big Money: New York’s rural broadband funding initiative spent hundreds of millions to attack the rural broadband problem. Gov. Andrew Cuomo outlines funding for just one of several rounds of broadband funding.

Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo detailed success for his Broadband for All program by pointing out the state spent $670 million to upgrade or introduce broadband service to 2.42 million locations in rural New York, giving the state 99.9% coverage. That amounts to an average grant of $277 per household or business. In turn, award recipients — largely incumbent phone and cable companies, had to commit to matching private investments. For that state money, the provider had to typically offer at least 100 Mbps service, except in the most rural parts of the state, where a lower speed was acceptable.

North Carolina has 585,000 underserved or unserved locations. Just by using New York’s average $277 grant, North Carolina will have to spend approximately $202 million with similar matching funds from private companies to reach those locations. In fact, it is assuredly more than that because North Carolina’s goal is gigabit speed, not 100 Mbps. Also, New York declared ‘mission accomplished’ while stranding tens of thousands of expensive or difficult to reach residents with subsidized satellite internet access. That offers nothing close to gigabit speed. A more realistic figure for North Carolina in 2019 could be as high as $250-300 million in taxpayer dollars — combined with similar private matching funds to convince AT&T, Charter, CenturyLink and others that the time is right to expand into more rural areas. But as New York discovered, there will be areas in the state no company will bid to serve because the money provided is inadequate.

If the thought of handing over tax dollars to big phone and cable companies bothers you, the alternative is helping communities start and run their own networks in the public interest. Except private providers routinely retaliate with well-funded campaigns of fear, uncertainty and doubt over those projects, and they become political footballs to everyone except their customers, who generally appreciate the service and local accountability.

If North Carolina’s state government relies on a series of $10 million appropriations for grants, it will likely take at least 20 years to wire the state. Stop the Cap! agrees with the goals North Carolina has set to deliver ubiquitous, gigabit-fast broadband. But those goals will be difficult to reach in the present political climate. Republicans in the state legislature approved reductions in the corporate income tax rate to 2.5 percent, down from 3 percent last year, and the personal income tax rate drops to 5.25 percent from 5.499 percent. North Carolina’s latest budget sets aside $13.8 billion for education, $3.8 billion for Medicaid, $3 billion in new debt for road maintenance, and $31 million in grants to attract the film industry to shoot their projects in the state.

It is likely any appropriation significant enough to actually deliver on the commitment to provide total broadband coverage will have to be spread out over several years, unless another funding mechanism can be identified. That assumes the Republicans in the state legislature will be receptive to the idea, which remains an open question.

Windstream Dumps Its EarthLink ISP Business

Windstream announced this week it was ditching EarthLink, the internet service provider it acquired in 2017 that has been around since the days of dial-up, in a $330 million cash deal.

Trive Capital of Dallas, Tex., is the new owner of the consumer-facing ISP, which today primarily serves customers over some cable broadband and DSL providers.

EarthLink launched in 1994, when almost everyone accessed online services over dial-up telephone modem connections using providers like AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy, and MSN. EarthLink rode the Dot.Com boom and secured funding to build its own multi-city, dial-in access network, allowing customers to reach the service over local, toll-free access numbers. This allowed EarthLink to be among the first ISPs in the country to offer unlimited, flat rate access for $19.95 a month at a time when some other providers charged in excess of $12 an hour during the business day to use their services.

EarthLink grew to become America’s second largest ISP, reaching 4.4 million subscribers in mid-2001 — still dwarfed by 25 million AOL customers, but well-respected for its wide-reaching availability over more than 1,700 local dial-in numbers around the country. But 2001 was as good as it would get at EarthLink.

The newly inaugurated administration of George W. Bush and its deregulatory-minded FCC Chairman Michael Powell quickly threatened to derail EarthLink’s success.

As EarthLink’s balance sheet increasingly exposed the high wholesale cost of the company’s growing number of DSL and cable internet customers, executives calmed Wall Street with predictions that EarthLink’s wholesale costs would drop as networks matured and the costs to deploy DSL and cable internet declined. The phone and cable industry had other ideas.

Under intense lobbying by the Baby Bell phone companies, the FCC voted in 2003 to eliminate a requirement that forced phone companies to allow competitors fair and reasonable access to dial-up infrastructure and networks. The cable industry had never lived under similar guaranteed access rules, a point frequently made by telephone company lobbyists seeking to repeal the guaranteed “unbundled” access requirements. Lobbyists (and industry funded researchers) also claimed that by allowing competitors open access to their networks, it created a hostile climate for investors, deterring phone companies from moving forward on plans to scrap existing copper wire networks and invest in nationwide fiber to the home service instead.

Both the FCC (and later the courts) found the industry’s argument compelling. EarthLink protested the move was anti-competitive and could give the phone and cable company an effective duopoly in the business of selling internet access. Others argued the industry’s commitments to build out fiber networks came with no guarantees. FCC Commissioner Michael Copps warned that Americans would pay the price for the FCC’s unbundling decision:

I am troubled that we are undermining competition, particularly in the broadband market, by limiting — on a nationwide basis in all markets for all customers – competitors’ access to broadband loop facilities whenever an incumbent deploys a mixed fiber/copper loop. That means that as incumbents deploy fiber anywhere in their loop plant — a step carriers have been taking in any event over the past years to reduce operating expenses — they are relieved of the unbundling obligations that Congress imposed to ensure adequate competition in the local market.

[…] I fear that this decision may well result in higher prices for consumers and put us on the road to re-monopolization of the local broadband market.

Blinky, EarthLink’s mascot, was featured in instructional videos introducing customers to “the World Wide Web” and how to buy books on Amazon.com

In the end, the industry got what it wanted during the Bush Administration, and was also able to effectively wiggle out of its prior commitments to scrap copper networks in favor of fiber optics. Phone companies were also able to raise wholesale prices on providers like EarthLink. In 2002, EarthLink paid about $35 per month to phone companies for each subscriber’s DSL connection, for which the ISP charged customers $49 a month. Financial reports quickly showed EarthLink started losing money on each DSL customer, because it could keep only about $14 a month for itself. The cable industry was slightly more forgiving, if companies voluntarily allowed EarthLink on their emerging cable broadband networks. In general, cable operators charged EarthLink $30 a month for each connection, which gave EarthLink about the same revenue it earned from its dial-up business.

An even bigger threat to EarthLink’s future came when phone and cable companies got into the business of selling internet access as well, usually undercutting the prices of competitors like EarthLink with promotional rates and bundled service discounts.

EarthLink’s subscriber numbers dropped quickly as DSL and cable internet became more prevalent, and customers defected to their providers’ own internet access plans. Attempts by EarthLink to diversify its business by offering security software, web hosting, email, and other services had limited success in the residential marketplace.

By the mid-2010s, EarthLink primarily existed as a little-known alternative for some cable broadband customers and DSL users. But beyond initial promotional pricing, there was no compelling reason for a customer to sign up, given there was usually little or no difference between the prices charged by EarthLink and those charged by the phone or cable company for its own service. EarthLink’s competitors, including AOL and MSN, also saw subscriber numbers start to drop for similar reasons, especially when their customers dropped dial-up access in favor of broadband connections. This was strong evidence that companies that do not own their own networks were now at a strong competitive disadvantage, held captive by unregulated wholesale pricing and no incentive for phone or cable companies to treat them fairly.

In 2017, Windstream paid $1.1 billion for EarthLink, primarily to consolidate fiber-optic network assets and improve its business services segment. After more than a year, Windstream realized EarthLink’s residential ISP service had little relevance to them.

“People paid $5 to $10 a month for email,” Windstream spokesman Chris King told Bloomberg News. “It was not a strategic asset for us.”

With subscriber numbers still dropping to around 600,000 today, Windstream decided the time was right to sell.

“This transaction enables us to divest a non-core segment and focus exclusively on our two largest business units. In addition, it improves our credit profile and metrics in 2019 and beyond,” said Tony Thomas, president and CEO of Windstream.

An EarthLink television ad from 2004. (1:00)

Sinclair’s Lawyer Says Ajit Pai Froze Sinclair Out in All-But-Dead Sinclair-Tribune Merger

After the inspector general of the Federal Communications Commission opened an investigation into FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s close relationship with executives at Sinclair Broadcasting, Pai stopped returning Sinclair’s phone calls and refused any further meetings with America’s largest local TV station owner, at least until last Tuesday when Pai called Sinclair’s general counsel to say its multi-billion dollar merger with Tribune Media was in trouble.

The revelation Pai effectively froze out Sinclair while under investigation came in an ex parte communication disclosed by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel’s office late last week.

“I realize that you appear to have been unwilling to discuss this matter for the past several months (and for that reason our counsel and Tribune’s have been reaching out everyone at the FCC but you),” Sinclair general counsel Barry Faber wrote in an email to Ajit Pai the morning after the phone call.

Based on the email, it is clear Mr. Pai personally called Mr. Faber on Tuesday evening to report the FCC planned to refer Sinclair’s buyout of multiple Tribune Media TV stations, including WGN in Chicago, to an independent administrative law judge who would pursue a hearing — a procedure that usually signals the death of a proposed merger or acquisition. The courtesy call was one last consideration to Sinclair by Mr. Pai, giving executives an early warning that would allow them to quietly withdraw the deal as a face-saving measure before the FCC publicly pulled the rug out the next day. The call came as an apparent shock to executives at Sinclair and Tribune, who had repeatedly expressed confidence the transaction would meet approval from the Republican majority at the FCC — one led by Pai, who personally proposed several rule changes that made the Sinclair transaction possible.

Faber told Pai in response the two companies could not agree to withdraw the deal “in the brief period of time provided to us.” Instead, Faber begged Pai to give the companies more time to reassure the FCC and then offered to withdraw the controversial sweetheart sales of TV stations in Chicago, Dallas, and Houston a short time later. The buyers all had long-standing, close ties to the family that founded Sinclair and were suspected of buying the stations to become Sinclair’s silent partners. Pai refused Faber’s request and went public the next morning with the proposal to refer the matter to an administrative hearing. As of today, the deal is still headed for a hearing, but few expect it will survive long enough to begin the process. But the repercussions are likely to last far longer than that.

Faber

While talking to Faber, it is clear Pai also raised the issue of Sinclair’s possible deception in its merger application and its lack of candor about its plan to divest stations in those three cities.

“I understand that if Sinclair has not been completely truthful and forthcoming with regard to these proposed sales, abandoning them would not eliminate such unacceptable behavior. I point out, however, that as we discussed yesterday no evidence exists that Sinclair has mislead the FCC or been anything other than completely candid with respect to our relationships with the proposed buyers and the terms of the transaction,” Faber wrote. “To designate our transaction for hearing based on the possibility that there may be more to the deals than meets the eyes based on the pricing and other terms that have been disclosed, would be extraordinary and unprecedented.”

Deal critics claim Sinclair’s bold effort to barely disguise the sweetheart deals with well-known business associates of Sinclair’s chairman David Smith was extraordinary and unprecedented as well. Several Wall Street and K Street analysts have expressed concern Sinclair was being exceptionally brazen with the FCC, proposing to spin-off stations to known Sinclair associates at fire sale prices, with contract clauses allowing Sinclair to program the stations ‘for the owner’ and also have the right to buy the stations back at their original fire sale price, assuming deregulation of station ownership caps continued moving forward. Sinclair is no stranger to political controversy, generating a full-scale advertiser boycott and Wall Street blowback over mandatory political programming aired on its stations during the 2004 U.S. presidential election. Recently Sinclair’s mandatory editorials and news stories have received even more scrutiny in the media, and have generated a lot of negative press for the Baltimore-based TV station owner.

Pai

Some on Wall Street are reportedly growing tired of Sinclair management’s political agendas getting in the way of potential profits, and this latest high-profile incident is likely to further strengthen that perception. Pai’s announcement that the merger deal smacked of a “lack of candor” and “misrepresentation,” raise questions about the Sinclair’s honesty and character, something that could threaten its ability to keep or renew its stations’ licenses. Long standing FCC rules state a license can be revoked if an owner lies to the Commission or engages in unethical or criminal behavior.

The FCC rarely forgets about egregious bad conduct. In the 1960s, RKO General, a division of General Tire and Rubber Company, falsely testified to the FCC that its television stations, including KHJ Los Angeles, WNAC Boston, and WOR New York did not engage in “reciprocal trade practices” — forcing General Tire’s vendors to buy advertising time on RKO stations if they wanted their contracts with the tire company renewed. In 1969, the FCC had enough evidence to prove RKO officials had lied to the Commission and were brazenly violating FCC rules. In 1975, RKO was once again hauled before the FCC and questioned about allegations General Tire was bribing foreign officials, had a secret slush fund to finance campaign contributions, and misappropriated revenue from overseas operations to cook its books.

Five years later in 1980, the FCC stunned the broadcasting industry by canceling the license of RKO’s Boston station — WNAC, declaring RKO “lacked the requisite character” to hold a FCC license because it openly deceived the FCC by withholding evidence, covered up improper dealings, and maintained a “persistent lack of candor” about its business practices and behavior. The FCC also moved to cancel licenses for KHJ in Los Angeles and WOR in New York. RKO held on for a few more years by appealing the FCC’s decision in various courts. It eventually sold most of its TV stations by the mid-1980s. But by then, FCC administrative law judge Ed Kuhlmann documented even more corruption by RKO, calling the company’s conduct the worst case of dishonesty in FCC history. RKO systematically misled advertisers about station ratings, fraudulently billed clients, destroyed audit reports demanded by the FCC, and filed several false financial statements with the FCC. Kuhlmann wanted RKO out of the broadcasting business for good, ordering RKO to surrender licenses for the two remaining TV stations it still owned in 1987, as well as 12 radio stations.

Sinclair’s critics are likely to invoke RKO General in challenging Sinclair license renewals in the future, noting a similar lack of candor and misrepresentation.

With the Sinclair-Tribune merger deal now swirling in the bowl, shareholders may be the ultimate judge, jury, and executioner, at least at Tribune Media. Sports Fan Coalition and Public Knowledge took the opportunity to remind Tribune’s board of directors it just blew a $3.9 billion deal by allowing Sinclair to manage the transaction with apparent dishonesty and chutzpah:

The FCC has unanimously determined that Sinclair may have “engaged in misrepresentation and/or lack of candor in its applications with the Commission,” in possible violation of the Communications Act and FCC rules. Thus, because Sinclair failed to satisfy its commitments under the merger agreement, Tribune can and should invoke its termination right under the merger agreement. Such termination would not trigger the liquidated damages provisions of the merger agreement.

[…] “Either take immediate action to terminate your agreements for the sale of your company to Sinclair Broadcast Group, or resign as directors of Tribune Media.”

Historical Truths: The Telecom Act of 1996 Sowed the Seeds of a Telecom Oligopoly

How exactly did America get stuck with a broadband monopoly in many areas, a duopoly in most others? It did not happen by accident. In this occasional series, “Historical Truths,” we will take you back to important moments in telecom public and regulatory policy that would later prove to be essential for the creation of today’s anti-competitive, overpriced marketplace for broadband internet service. By understanding the trickery and legislative shell games practiced by lobbyists and their elected partners in Congress, you will learn to recognize when the telecom industry and their friends are preparing to sell you another bill of goods. 

Vice President Al Gore watches President Bill Clinton digitally sign the 1996 Telecom Act into law on February 8, 1996.

By the end of the first term of the Clinton Administration, the president faced a major backlash from Republicans two years into the Gingrich Revolution. A well-funded chorus of voices in the business community, the Democratic Leadership Council — a business-friendly group of moderate Democrats, as well as commentators and pundits had the attention of the Beltway media, complaining in unison that the Democrats shifted too far to the left during the first term of the Clinton Administration, leaving it exposed in the forthcoming presidential election to another voter backlash like the one that installed the Gingrich revolutionaries in the House of Representatives and delivered a Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate in 1994.

With pressure over the growing lack of bipartisanship, and a presidential election ahead in the fall, the Clinton Administration was looking for ideas to prove it could work across the aisle and pass new laws that would deliver for ordinary Americans.

Revamping telecommunications policies would definitely touch every American with a phone line, computer, modem, and a television. Before 1996, America’s telecommunications regulation largely emanated from the Communications Act of 1934, which empowered the Federal Communications Commission to establish good order for the growing number of radio stations, telephone, and wire lines crisscrossing the country.

The 1934 Act’s legacy remains today, at least in part. It created the FCC, firmly established the concept of content regulation on the public airwaves, and established a single body to conduct federal oversight of the nation’s telephone monopoly controlled by AT&T.

Efforts to replace the 1934 Act began well before the Clinton Administration. In the early 1980s, Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) attempted to push for a legislative breakup of AT&T and a significant reduction in the oversight powers of the FCC. The bill met considerable opposition from AT&T, spending $2 million lobbying against the bill in 1981 and 1982. Alarm companies also heavily opposed the measure, terrified AT&T would enter their market and put them out of business. AT&T preferred a more orderly plan of divestiture being carefully negotiated in a settlement of a 1974 antitrust lawsuit by the Justice Department. A 1982 consent decree broke off AT&T’s control of local telephone lines by establishing seven Regional Bell Operating Companies independent of AT&T (NYNEX, Pacific Telesis, Ameritech, Bell Atlantic, Southwestern Bell Corporation, BellSouth, and US West). AT&T (technically an eighth Baby Bell) kept control of its nationwide long distance network.

Also in the 1980s, the cable television industry gained a much firmer foothold across the country, quickly gaining political power through well-financed lobbyists and close political ties to selected members of Congress (particularly Democrat Tim Wirth, who served in the House and later Senate representing the state of Colorado) that allowed them to push through a major amendment to the 1934 Act in 1984 deregulating the cable industry. The result was an early wave of industry consolidation as family owned cable companies were snapped up by a dozen or so growing operators. These buyouts were largely financed by dramatic rate increases passed on to consumers, resulting in cable bills tripling (or more) in some areas almost immediately. By the end of the 1980s, a major consumer backlash began, creating enormous energy for the eventual passage of the 1992 Cable Act, which re-regulated the industry and allowed the FCC to order immediate rate reductions.

The Progress and Freedom Foundation, with close ties to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, closed its doors in 2010.

The biggest push for a near-complete revision of the 1934 Act came during the Gingrich Revolution. In 1995, the conservative Progress & Freedom Foundation — a group closely tied to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) floated a trial balloon calling for the elimination of an independent Federal Communications Commission, replaced by a stripped-down Office of Communications that would be run out of the White House and be controlled by the president. A small army of telecom industry-backed scholars also began proposing privatizing the public airwaves by selling off spectrum to companies to be owned as private property. The intense interest in the FCC by the group may have been the result of its veritable “who’s who” of telecom industry backers, including AT&T, BellSouth, Verizon, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, cable companies like Comcast and Time Warner; cell phone companies like T-Mobile and Sprint; and broadcasters like Clear Channel Communications and Viacom.

The proposal outraged Democrats and liberal groups who called it a corporate-friendly sell-off and giveaway of the public airwaves. Then FCC Chairman Reed Hundt took the proposal very seriously, because at the time Gingrich lieutenant Tom DeLay’s (R-Tex.) secretive Project Relief group had 350 industry lobbyists, including some from BellSouth and Southwestern Bell literally drafting deregulation bills and a regulatory moratorium on behalf of the new Republican majority, coordinating campaign contributions for would-be supporters along the way. The proposal ultimately went nowhere, lost in a sea of the House Republicans’ constantly changing agendas, but did draw attention to the fact a wholesale revision of telecommunications policy would attract healthy campaign contributions from all corners of the industry — broadcasters, cable companies, phone companies, and the emerging wireless industry.

When it became known Congress was once again going to tackle telecommunications regulation, lobbyists immediately descended from their K Street perches in relentless waves, with checks in hand. There were two very important agendas in mind – deregulation, which would remove FCC rate regulation, service oversight, cross-competition prohibitions, and ownership caps, and ironically, protectionism. The cable and satellite companies had become increasingly fearful of the regional Baby Bells, which arrived in Congress in the early 1990s promoting the idea of entering the cable TV business. The cable industry feared phone companies would cross-subsidize the development of Telco TV by charging telephone ratepayers new fees to finance that entry. The cable industry had carefully developed a de facto monopoly over the prior decade of consolidation. Companies learned quickly direct head-to-head competition between two cable operators in the same market was bad for business.

The original premise of the 1996 Telecom Act was that it would eliminate regulations that discouraged competition. Promoters of the legislation asked why there should only be one phone or cable company in each city and why maintain regulations that kept cable and phone companies out of each others’ markets. Fears about market power and allowing domineering cable and phone companies to grow even larger were dismissed on the premise that a wide open marketplace, with regulations in place to protect consumers and competition would avoid creating telecom robber barons.

The checks handed out by industry lobbyists were bi-partisan. Democrats could crow the new rules would finally give consumers a new choice for cable TV or phone service, and help bring the “information superhighway” of the internet to schools, libraries, and other public institutions. Republicans proclaimed it a model example of free market deregulation, promoting competition, consumer choice, and lower prices.

At a high-brow bill signing ceremony held at the Library of Congress, both President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were on hand to “electronically sign” the bill into law. Both the president and vice-president emphasized the historical significance of the emerging internet, and its ability to connect information-have’s and have-not’s in an emerging digital divide. Missing from the discussion was an exploration of what industry lobbyists and their congressional allies were doing inserting specific language into the 1996 Telecom Act that would later haunt the bill’s legacy.

On hand to celebrate the bi-partisan bill’s signing were Speaker Gingrich, Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.); Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.); Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.); Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.); and Ron Brown, the Secretary of Commerce. Pressler was among the soon-to-be-endangered moderate Republicans, Hollings was a holdout against the gradual wave of Republican takeovers in southern “red states,” and Dingell was a veteran lawmaker with close ties to the broadcasting industry.

Some of the bill’s industry backers were also there, some who would ironically see its signing as directly responsible for the eventual demise of their independent companies. John Hendricks of the Discovery Channel, Glenn Jones of Jones Intercable (acquired by Comcast in 1999), Jean Monty of Northern Telecom (later Nortel), Donald Newhouse of Advance Publications (eventual part owner of Bright House Networks and later Charter Communications), William O’Shea of Reuters Ltd. and Ray Smith of Bell Atlantic (today part of Verizon) were on hand. Also in the audience was Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America, representing Hollywood Studios.

Among the fatal flaws in the Telecom Act of 1996 were its various ‘competition tests,’ which were open to considerable interpretation and latitude at the FCC. The Republican supporters of the bill argued that the presence of an open and free marketplace would, by itself, induce competition among various entrants. They were generally unconcerned with the question of whether new competition would actually arrive. Their priority was lifting the protective levers of legacy regulation as soon as possible. Many Democrats assumed what appeared to be carefully drafted regulatory language would protect consumers by preventing the FCC from lifting protections too early in the competitive process. But lobbyists consistently outmaneuvered lawmakers, finding ways to insert loopholes and compromise language that introduced inconsistencies that could be dealt with and eliminated either by the FCC or the courts later.

For example, lawmakers insisted on unbundling telecommunications network elements, an arcane way of saying new competitors must be granted access to existing networks to be shared at wholesale rates. In practice, this meant if a phone company entered the internet service provider business, it must also make its network available for other ISPs as well. In some areas, competing local telephone companies also offered landline service over existing telephone lines, paying wholesale connection fees to the incumbent local phone company. As competition emerged, the incumbent company usually petitioned for a lifting of the regulations governing their business, claiming competition had arrived.

The first warning the 1996 Act was going awry came a year after the bill was signed into law. Phone companies started raising rates from $1.50-6 a month on average. AT&T was petitioning to hike rates $7 a month. Someone would have to pay to replace the scrapped subsidy system in a competitive market — subsidies that had been in place at the nation’s phone companies for decades. By charging higher rates for phone service in cities and for pricier long distance calls before the arrival of companies like MCI and Sprint, the phone companies used this revenue to subsidize their Universal Service obligations, keeping rural phone bills low and often below the real cost of providing service. To establish a truly competitive phone business, the subsidies had to be reformed or go, and that meant someone had to cover the difference.

“This game is called ‘shift and shaft,'” Sharon L. Nelson, the chairwoman of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, said in 1997. “You shift the costs to the states and shaft the consumer.”

Sam Brownback (R-Kansas)

Gradually, consumers suddenly discovered their phone bill littered with a host of new charges, including the Subscriber Line Charge and various regulatory recovery fees and universal service cost recovery schemes. Phone companies also boosted rates on their unregulated Class phone features, like call waiting, caller ID, and three-way calling. The proceeds helped make up for the tens of billions in lost subsidies, but the end effect was that phone bills were still rising, despite promises of competitive, cheap phone service.

At a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee later that year, several angry senators said they would never have voted in favor of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 if they had thought it would lead to higher rates. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, was in the line of fire because of his rural constituents. Rates for those customers are subsidized more heavily than elsewhere because of the cost of extending service to them. Rates were threatening to skyrocket.

“We would be foolish to build up all these expectations about competition without saying to the American people, ‘We’re going to have to raise your phone bill,'” Brownback said.

But the rate hikes were just beginning. By the beginning of the George W. Bush administration, telecom lobbyists brought a thick agenda of action items to Michael Powell’s FCC. Despite promises of competition breaking out everywhere, that simply was not the case. Republicans quickly blamed the remaining regulatory protections still in place in noncompetitive markets for ‘deterring competition.’ But the companies knew the only thing better than deregulation was deregulation without competition.

Consolidation wave

The Republican-dominated FCC quickly began removing many of those protective regulations, claiming they were outdated and unnecessary. The very definition of competition was broadened, allowing the presence of virtually any company offering almost any service good enough to trip the deregulation levers. Later, even open access to networks by competitors was often limited to pre-existing networks, not the future next generation networks. Republicans argued those networks should be managed by their owners and not subject to “unbundling” requirements.

The weakened rules also sparked one of the country’s largest consolidation waves in history. Cable companies bought other cable companies and the Baby Bells gradually started putting themselves back together into what would eventually be AT&T, Verizon, and Qwest/CenturyLink. For good measure, phone companies even snapped up a handful of independent phone companies, most notably General Telephone and Electronics, better known as GTE by Verizon and Southern New England Telephone (SNET) by AT&T.

Prices rising as costs dropping.

The cable industry, under the premise it needed territories of scale to maximize potential ad insertion revenue from selling commercials on cable networks, gradually shrunk from at least a dozen well-known companies to two very large ones – Comcast and Charter, along with a few middle-sized powerhouses like Cox and Altice. Merger and acquisition deals faced little scrutiny during the Bush years of 2002-2009, usually approved with few conditions.

The result has been a rate-raising oligopoly for telecom services. In broadcasting, the consolidation wave started in radio, with entities like Clear Channel buying up hundreds of radio stations (and eventually putting the resulting giant iHeartMedia into bankruptcy) and Sinclair and similar companies acquiring masses of local television outlets. On many, local news and original programming was sacrificed, along with a significant number of employees at each station, in favor of inexpensive music, network or syndicated programming. Some stations that aired local news for 50 years ended that tradition or turned newsgathering over to a co-owned station in the same city.

Although telephone service eventually dropped in price with the advent of Voice over IP service, consumers’ cable TV and internet bills are skyrocketing at levels well in excess of inflation. Last year, the Washington Center for Equitable Growth demonstrated that the current consolidated, anti-competitive telecom marketplace results in rising prices for buyers and falling costs for providers.

Your oligopoly tax.

“In truly competitive markets, a significant part of cost reductions would be passed through to consumers,” the group wrote. “Based on a detailed analysis of profits—primarily EBITDA—we estimate that the resulting overcharges amount to more than $45 per month, or $540 per year, an aggregate of almost $60 billion, or about 25 percent of the total average consumer’s monthly bill.”

That is one expensive bill, paid by subscribers year after year with no relief in sight. Several Republicans are proposing to double down on deregulation even more after eliminating net neutrality, which could cause your internet bill to rise further. Several Republicans want to rewrite the 1996 Telecom Act once again, and lobbyists are already sharing their ideas to further curtail consumer protections, lift ownership caps, and promote additional consolidation.

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