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Alexander Goldman: Broadband Expert Andrew Odlyzko Warns Telecom Investors That Industry Has Its Math Wrong, Again

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November 4, 2014 – Nearly a year-and-a-half ago, Verizon Communications CEO Lowell McAdam claimed in an editorial in The New York Times, “The United States built its lead because companies invested nearly $1.2 trillion, over 17 years, to deploy next-generation broadband networks.”

That number is meaningless: over a period of 17 years, much of the infrastructure would have to be replaced at least once. Internet progressed from dialup to digital subscriber line (DSL) to cable and fiber today. Cell phones went through at least two generations of change in this time. McAdam may be quoting meaningless numbers because meaningful numbers don’t make Verizon look too good.

You can find meaningful numbers for investment and profitability in the latest paper by Professor Andrew Odlyzkoandrew-o, a mathematics professor at the University of Minnesota who has a history of getting internet statistics right when the rest of the world gets the numbers wrong. In 1998, when telecommunications industry boosters were claiming that traffic was doubling every 100 days, Odlyzko said it was growing by 75 percent to 150 percent each year. The difference between 1000 percent each year and 100 percent each year turned out to be the difference between telecom boom and telecom bust. He gets his numbers from authoritative sources such as the OECD and CTIA.

Today, when the cellular telephone industry claims that it is burning cash, Odlyzko says it’s not true. When the cellular telephone industry says its business is driven by demand for high bandwidth video, Odlyzko says that industry growth is driven by demand for communications, and that the interesting trend is that texts are replacing voice calls.

In his new paper, Will smart pricing finally take off? (available here), Odlyzko prints the following table:

Table 2: Voice to text substitution (US)

year voice minutes billions texts billions
2005 1,495 81
2006 1,798 159
2007 2,119 363
2008 2,203 1,005
2009 2,275 1,563
2010 2,241 2,052
2011 2,296 2,304
2012 2,300 2,190

 

The cell phone companies are pleased because texts are where the profits are, as explained by table 1, price per megabyte (the table shows approximate numbers, but those approximate numbers show where the profits are):

SMS $1,000.00
cellular voice 1.00
wireline voice 0.10
residential Internet 0.01
backbone Internet 0.0001

 

The reality is that cellular networks don’t need to invest in platinum-plated networks. Their customers merely require a network that can deliver text messages. Cell phone network companies (if you can believe their SEC filings) are incredibly profitable, and are spending relatively little on infrastructure:

year revenues in $ billions capex in $ billions capex/revenues
2004 102.1 27.9 27.3%
2005 113.5 25.2 22.2
2006 125.5 24.4 19.4
2007 138.9 21.1 15.2
2008 148.1 20.2 13.6
2009 152.6 20.4 13.3
2010 159.9 24.9 15.6
2011 169.8 25.3 14.9
2012 185.0 30.1 16.3

 

Odlyzko estimates that it would cost only $240 billion to replace the equipment in every cell phone network in the U.S. He reasons:

In wireless, industry statistics show that cumulative capital investment, from the start of service three decades ago, came to $365 billion by the end of 2012. Much of that investment has of course been written off, as old equipment gets replaced. So to replace everything (and it is far easier to replace telecom installations, even cell towers, than it is to replace electric power plants), would probably not cost more than half of the cumulative total, or about $180 billion. But just to be safe, let’s assume it would take $240 billion.

He thinks it is shocking that Verizon had to pay $130 billion to buy out Vodafone’s 45% share of Verizon Wireless. It makes sense only because “modern telecom is less about high capital investments and far more a game of territorial control, strategic alliances, services, and marketing, than of building a fixed infrastructure.” Verizon must be assuming that Vodafone’s high profit margins will continue but that is only possible if the cellular telephone market in the U.S. has already succumbed to the market failure known as monopoly.

This blog post does not describe the focus of the paper, which argues against an assumption by many industry analysts that telecommunications companies should charge based on usage instead of charging a flat fee. The numbers, which are a mere excerpt, are useful because once again, Odlyzko is warning the industry that it has its numbers wrong, and the last time Odlyzko had the numbers right and the telecommunications industry got its numbers wrong, telecommunications investors lost $1 trillion.

Alexander Goldman is a recent graduate of Brooklyn Law School, and recently passed the New York Bar Examination. He worked at ISP-Planet and ISPCON, was Chief Analyst for CTI’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants, and had internships at the Federal Communications Commission and the Internet Division of the NY State Attorney General. At Brooklyn Law School, he was a Trade Secrets Fellow and won CALI awards in Contracts and Antitrust.

BroadbandBreakfast.com accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@broadbandcensus.com. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of BroadbandBreakfast.com and Broadband Census LLC.

Alexander Goldman is a recent graduate of Brooklyn Law School, and recently passed the New York Bar Examination. He worked at ISP-Planet and ISPCON, was Chief Analyst for CTI's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants, and had internships at the Federal Communications Commission and the Internet Division of the NY State Attorney General. At Brooklyn Law School, he was a Trade Secrets Fellow and won CALI awards in Contracts and Antitrust.

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Sen. Michael Bennet: Broadband Infrastructure Legislation Follows Colorado Model

Senate-passed legislation for broadband investment inspired by Colorado’s experience, says senator.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Michael Bennet, U.S. Senator from Colorado

Washington may soon make the biggest broadband investment in U.S. history, and the first draft was written in Colorado.

Last month, the Senate passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes a historic $65 billion for broadband. This section draws directly from the BRIDGE Act, the bill I wrote with Coloradans to reflect our state’s struggles and successes against the digital divide.

Long before the pandemic, broadband was a consistent source of frustration for people across our state. Parents on the Front Range, farmers on the Eastern Plains, and nurses on the Western Slope all told me the same thing: broadband was too slow or expensive to be of any practical use.

Too often, Washington’s answer was to shower the biggest telecom companies with billions in subsidies to build networks, usually in rural areas, that were outdated almost as soon as they were finished. At the same time, Washington had no good answer for working families, many in cities, who couldn’t afford existing broadband options.

As usual, Colorado didn’t wait on Washington to act. Cities created their own municipal networks, like Longmont’s NextLight, which PC Magazine named one of the fastest broadband providers in America. Electric coops like the Delta-Montrose and Yampa Valley Electric Associations deployed fiber-optic networks in rural communities at world-class speeds and prices. Through it all, the Colorado government demonstrated that it could get money out the door for broadband faster and more effectively than Washington.

With these lessons in mind, I wrote the BRIDGE Act with Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman from Ohio and Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King from Maine. Our bill became the model for the broadband provisions in the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which is now on the cusp of becoming law.

Based on the BRIDGE Act, the infrastructure bill gives the lion’s share of the broadband funding to states, not Washington. This is a sea change in policy, because it puts states and local leaders — not federal bureaucrats — in the driver’s seat. After all, they have the best understanding of needs on the ground and the greatest incentive to spend limited funds wisely.

Second, the bill more than quadruples the minimum speeds for new broadband networks, while prioritizing even faster networks. For a typical family, this means kids could download homework (or stream Netflix) even as parents work remotely — all without their connection slowing to a crawl.

Third, the bill includes $2 billion for broadband on tribal lands, including the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Ute here in Colorado. According to the FCC, one in three homes on tribal lands lack access to high-speed broadband — a significantly higher rate than the rest of the country. Closing this gap is an economic and moral imperative.

Finally, the infrastructure bill prioritizes affordability by requiring new broadband networks to provide at least one low-cost option. Inexplicably, Washington has never insisted on this before. And it can’t come soon enough.

All of these ideas came directly from the BRIDGE Act and what I’ve learned from Colorado. Now we have to pass them into law.

If we do, it would represent the biggest broadband investment in our history, but also one of the most transformative investments in our future. It will mean every worker in our mountain communities can connect remotely for their jobs. It will mean every farmer and rancher can deploy the latest technologies for precision agriculture. It will mean every family can connect with their doctors online, instead of traveling hours to the local clinic. And it will mean no student will be left without broadband, which today is no different than leaving them without textbooks.

We are on the verge of connecting every American to affordable, high-speed broadband. And if we succeed, we can take satisfaction in knowing that Colorado led the way.

Michael Bennet is U.S. Senator from Colorado. This piece was originally published in the Grand Junction (Colo.) Daily Sentinel, and is reprinted with permission.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Shrihari Pandit: States Can Enable Broadband Infrastructure Through Open Access Conduits

By creating open infrastructure systems, states can reduce the barriers to entry and foster increased broadband competition.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Shrihari Pandit, CEO of Stealth Communications

Now that the infrastructure bill has passed the Senate, we see key provisions included for broadband in America. In fact, a whopping $65B will go toward broadband funding — provided it passes the House this month. But, will throwing more money at broadband help to solve key issues like closing the digital divide and making broadband access more affordable for millions?

The short answer is: not necessarily. For years the federal government has provided subsidies to incumbent ISPs hoping they will solve key issues with broadband in America and still access to the internet continues to be a challenge. What we need is a radical broadband overhaul where we can level the playing field for smaller ISPs to compete in the marketplace and fill the gaps incumbent ISPs have neglected for years.

As the broadband infrastructure funding provisions emerge, it appears that states will have a major role in determining how to allocate these resources. And, they must make careful considerations to help connect the unconnected and meet the needs of their residents. As access to a robust digital communications network is so critical now – in an ongoing pandemic era – states also have to look ahead and ensure they are creating sustainable and long-term infrastructure in the public interest.

Creating open-access conduit systems

State governments should focus on enabling key infrastructure, namely conduits, rights of way and utility poles – as these are the biggest hurdles for ISPs looking to extend fiber. Sometimes referred to among pros as “layer zero”, the telecom market can be transformed with open-access conduit systems running across the country and extended locally. A conduit highway would be akin to the interstate in which fiber could be easily run between cities and towns across multiple states.

An open-access conduit system can help create a more approachable marketplace for new ISPs to enter and help to fill coverage gaps left un-served by incumbent ISPs. Easier and cheaper access to neutral utility poles would help to reduce the cost of broadband access and allow providers to easily pull their fiber optic infrastructure to homes, businesses, and wireless towers, especially vital for longer-distances in rural areas. In NYC, for example, there is a robust competitive marketplace enabled by a shared conduit system managed by Empire City Subway.

Although currently limited to boroughs of Manhattan and The Bronx, this carrier-neutral system allows multiple ISPs to run cables up and down streets with ease and provides a pathway to extend fiber access to additional NYC neighborhoods. Across the country, open-access models are proliferating, including Ammon, Idaho, as summarized in a recent report by Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

Leveling the ISP marketplace

By creating open infrastructure systems, more providers can enter the marketplace and create increased competition as the barriers to entry are reduced. Previously, incumbent ISPs have received billions of dollars to close the digital divide, – the divide, as well as their market power, persist.

By creating infrastructure that brings additional private ISPs into the marketplace, states can give residents and businesses  more choices to meet their internet needs which is in the best interest of everyone. More competition also means that incumbent ISPs need to step up their game and offer the services they boast about – or they risk losing market share to private competition. In other words, a long-term, sustainable solution.

Embracing the public infrastructure/private service model

When considering a new infrastructure project, oftentimes, the burden of proof lies with the state. However, with the public infrastructure/private service model, the risk is shared between the state and the ISP. This model enables cities and counties to finance and maintain infrastructure while also managing rights-of-way. And, private or incumbent ISPs can ensure broadband access including cable, fiber optic, or wireless. This is a scalable option for communities that are unaware of how to operate communications networks but want to own and control core communications assets.

States have a major undertaking ahead as they consider how to utilize their infrastructure funding to boost public works projects. As broadband infrastructure development has been so crucial in the last year, creating an improved marketplace for ISPs through open-access infrastructure should be their priority in their long-term public interest.  And with a public infrastructure/private service model, the risk will be shared with providers.

Shrihari Pandit is CEO and co-founder of the New York City-area fiber provider Stealth Communications. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Ben Bawtree-Jobson: Internet Service Providers Benefit From a Shared Fiber Network Infrastructure

Both emerging and established internet service providers will stand to gain from SiFi Networks’ shared broadband model.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Ben Bawtree-Jobson, CEO of fiber infrastructure developer SiFi Networks

“Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism, it’s exploitation.” These were words spoken by President Joe Biden in July 2021, minutes before he signed an executive order to promote competition in the U.S. economy. This is poignantly relevant to telecom companies in the United States. In the U.S., an industry that limits consumer choice makes it hard for small Internet Service Providers to break through.

As the CEO of fiber infrastructure developer SiFi Networks, I can attest that both emerging and established ISPs stand to gain from a shared broadband model.

Indeed, without healthy competition in the economy, big players could potentially change and charge whatever they want for services that don’t suit the needs of the consumer. For many Americans, this means limited options in terms of providers and services. So, how have we got here?

Monopolies: A competitive advantage?

ISPs have always seen it as a competitive advantage to own and operate their own broadband infrastructure. This makes it difficult for smaller companies to break through, stifling competition and maximizing profits for established corporations. However, heavy investments in network infrastructure can be a double-edged sword — companies have so far disregarded the costs of tying themselves up in long-term infrastructure projects and are now struggling to divest and adapt to a rapidly changing market.

This is why many U.S. towns are still served by slow, outdated cable and the national fiber coverage sits at a meager 32 per cent. But, in an age where the internet is critical for education, healthcare and business growth, consumer demands for high-speed connectivity make fiber optic the only viable option.

As it stands, only the big telecoms players can feasibly upgrade their cable networks. However, this is costly, disruptive, and takes years to complete, meaning ISPs cannot expect a quick return on investment.

A new broadband ecosystem is needed to give ISPs of all sizes the chance to respond to consumer demands without necessarily overhauling their existing network infrastructure, a costly and time-consuming option. It is here that embracing open access broadband models may prove effective and helpful.

Don’t miss Broadband Breakfast’s annual Digital Infrastructure Investment mini-conference, which is sponsored by entities including SiFi Networks. The event unites infrastructure investment fund managers, institutional investors, private equity and venture capitalists with senior broadband leaders and brings clarity to the next business model for advanced digital infrastructure. 

Fostering competition with open access

Open access infrastructure essentially means sharing a fiber optic network. Many companies are reluctant to use this model because they believe that increased competition could negatively affect their profits. In reality, there are many benefits to be gained from using a shared network infrastructure. The first is that open access broadband gives ISPs access to a larger pool of potential customers. Giving consumers more choice over their broadband packages and providers will attract a more diverse demographic of customers and thus, promote overall revenue.

At a time when customer demand dictates the need to upgrade services and improve connectivity speed and quality, open access can also help ISPs of all sizes minimize costs. Construction and maintenance of a network is carried out by the infrastructure developer, freeing up budget for ISPs, who can redirect it into areas of the business that need extra attention, such as boosting customer relationships. Larger ISPs, who spend millions of dollars per year maintaining their network infrastructure, could pull their savings into improving and diversifying their product offerings.

Sharing an infrastructure will mean more ISPs can operate in the market, fostering competition, lowering prices and offering better consumer choice. Citizens who previously felt cut-off from basic educational and healthcare services because they couldn’t afford their only broadband option, should then be able to pursue more affordable packages. This will naturally encourage more residents and businesses to subscribe, creating a larger pool of potential customers and ultimately improving economic growth and social mobility.

Open access is attractive to larger ISPs too. As it stands, the telecoms sector ranks at the bottom of 46 industries for customer satisfaction according to the American Consumer Satisfaction Index. Therefore, if they didn’t need to budget for the operation and maintenance of their fiber, and to upgrade outdated copper-based networks that no longer satisfy consumers’ demands, more money could be invested in bettering customer communication and service. If customers are happy with their ISP, and a good brand reputation can be established, this will be a huge competitive advantage.

“Fair competition is what made America the wealthiest, most innovative nation in history,” said Biden during his White House press conference. If smaller ISPs had a fair chance to enter the market, the well-established big players could stay competitive by improving their customer experience and tailoring their services to satisfy the needs of their customers. Ownership of the network infrastructure is no longer the only or even the best way to compete in the high-speed internet space. An open-access model will diversify the market and allow a variety of ISPs to thrive.

Ben Bawtree-Jobson is CEO of SiFi Networks, which funds, builds and owns FiberCity networks. Internet Service Providers, 4G/5G carriers and other service providers wishing to deliver ubiquitous high-speed broadband services to business and residential properties in cities make use of FiberCity networks, which also offer connectivity for city-wide Internet of Things applications. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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