Disruption of Access Pricing Will Be Necessary

In a competitive market, the lowest-cost competitor tends to win, all other things being equal. Nobody would question the notion that tier-one telcos tend to be the highest-cost providers in any market.

In the U.S. market, cable operators operate at lower costs than their telco foes can. Many ISPs operate at lower costs than cable operators.

All of that should have some drop dead simple implications. Tier one telcos will have to keep cutting costs. So it is no surprise that the UNI Europa ICTS union now estimates that European carriers will probably cut their workforce by 30 percent by about 2018.

Within a decade, industry employment will be cut in half, the group also says. In large part, that is only an effort to benchmark against more efficient North American carriers.

But that isn’t good enough. That only makes a very-high-cost European carrier as efficient as the high-cost providers in the North American market.

To be sure, access networks always have been expensive. But as cable and mobile networks now have demonstrated, there are ways to significantly trim access network costs. The big challenge now is whether it is possible to disruptively lower access costs.

Google Fiber, it might be argued, is not so much disrupting network cost as it is disrupting user expectations about the value-price relationship for Internet access. But Google Fiber does not appear to have massively disrupted the actual cost of building an access network.

Recent experience with municipal Wi-Fi has been disappointing, but perhaps more for revenue than cost of network reasons. In other cases, as for rural wireless ISPs, middle mile backhaul can be a bigger business model input than the cost of access networks.

But the economics of WISP networks have gotten better in recent years. Improvements in the price-performance of radio gear are largely the reason.

So the issue is whether disruption of high-quality access markets is possible. Right now, it isn’t clear whether it can be done, or how it might be done. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

And the fixed network is the key problem for other reasons, not least of the problems being that mobile networks generate about two thirds of global industry revenue.

So no matter what is spent on the fixed networks, they only generate a third of total revenue. And that assumes the revenue ratios do not tilt in the direction of mobile even more than at present.

U.S wireless revenue in 2012 of about $335 billion represents about 66 percent of communications revenues.  Fixed network voice revenue was about $132 billion, with an additional $38 billion in broadband access revenue and $6 billion in television revenue, for a total of about $176 billion in fixed network revenue.

U.S. mobile revenues as a percentage of total revenues have been climbing for a decade. The only issue has been the precise year of crossover, when wireless surpasses fixed network revenue. That will happen in 2013, some believe.

As those trends continue, it is going to be harder than ever to create a good business case for fixed network access. And yet it must be done. For that reasons, some of us think disruption is going to be necessary.
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