Is Common Carrier Regulation of High Speed Access Now Possible?

Though it recently had seemed that common carrier regulation of high speed access was not within the realm of possibility, Federal Communication Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler now says he will ask for public comment on whether that should be an option for promoting "Internet openness."

That request for input, and any possible FCC proposals related to the input, are part of the FCC's on-going effort to create viable network neutrality rules.

Though proponents want such reclassification in the belief that such rules will prohibit content delivery services all the way to the end user, or raise costs for providers of streaming services. that probably is not the case.

Opponents of such reclassification might argue that high rates of network investment will suffer, making an already-difficult business case even worse.

Verizon, for example,  has capped its FiOS deployments to about 19 million homes passed, enough network to reach about 70 percent of locations served by Verizon’s fixed network. Obviously, that means 30 percent of the network never will be upgraded for FiOS.

Is that a gamble? Certainly. It means Verizon will continue to lose market share to cable TV and possibly other ISPs over time, as Verizon is unable to offer equivalent speeds as its key competitors, and also is unable to compete fully in the video subscription business, at least using its fixed network.

But some would argue it is likely Verizon might not even recover its cost of capital by extending FiOS to reach another 20 percent to 30 percent of its fixed network customers.

The reason is simply that FiOS is unlikely to attain long-term penetration rates in excess of much more than 40 percent, either for Internet access or video services, where it operates.

FiOS Internet penetration was 39.5 percent at the end of fourth-quarter 2013, meaning that Verizon was able to sell a high speed connection to about four homes out of 10 it passes.

FiOS video penetration was 35 percent. In other words, Verizon also could sell a subscription video service to 3.5 out of every 10 homes it passes. For the most part, FiOS customers buy two or three services, with triple-play packages seemingly most popular.

The FiOS network passed 18.6 million premises by year-end 2013. Perhaps 68 percent of FiOS customers buy a triple-play service. Most of the rest likely buy a two-product bundle of Internet access and video.

That might imply FiOS overall penetration of about 50 percent (assuming 90 percent of FiOS customers buy a dual-play or triple-play service) while about 10 percent of households only buy a single service.

For the sake of argument, assume Verizon gets a long-term, sustainable penetration rate of 50 percent. On any new FiOS builds, that implies, at a network cost of $750 per home, a network cost of $1,500 per customer, plus about $600 to install a drop.

In a typical 100-home neighborhood, that suggests network investment of about $75,000 and drop install costs of about $30,000, for a combined per-customer cost of about $105,000.

Assume that 70 percent of the FiOS customer homes generate about $150 a month in revenue, some 20 percent generate $100 a month and about 10 percent generate $50 a month worth of revenue.

That works out to about $63,000 in annual triple-play revenue; $12,000 in dual-play revenue and about $3,000 in annual single-play revenue, for total gross revenue of $78,000.

Assume operating cost of about $46,800 (assuming gross margin is about 40 percent). That would suggest net revenues (before dividends) of about $31,200.

Assuming half of net revenues has to be reserved for dividend payments, That might imply just $15,600 in profits from that 100-home neighborhood. Even if Verizon had no interest payments, it might take nearly seven years to reach breakeven.

Over a 10-year period, that further implies profits of about $4,680 or perhaps four percent annually. The issue is whether that actually covers Verizon’s cost of capital. If actual 10-year profits are anywhere close to this simple analysis, it isn’t clear the investment makes sense.

Analysts at the Yankee Group suggest that it is difficult to create a fiber-to-home business plan with a payback in five years or less, unless penetration is at least 30 percent. Average revenue per user matters, but less so than adoption, Yankee Group analysts suggest.

So the issue is that the financial return is less than what might be expected from investing elsewhere, at best.

If penetration does not hit 50 percent, Verizon might earn less than the cost of capital borrowed to build the networks. In other words, Verizon could actually lose money on big new FiOS builds.

And this simple analysis assumes a 50-percent take rate. Others believe FiOS take rates are in the 40-percent range today.

That 19 million homes "passed" doesn't necessarily mean served. Four years ago, about the time it was deciding to put the brakes on its FiOS expansion, Verizon sold service to nearly 60 percent of the households in its service territory. Now, Verizon gets as customers fewer than 40 percent of homes passed by the network, according to Michael Hodel, a Morningstar Inc. analyst.

And Google Fiber shows the danger.

Google Fiber has captured 75 percent share of high speed access homes it passes in certain medium-to-high income Kansas City neighborhoods, according to Bernstein Research. But even in the lower-income neighborhood surveyed, adoption of Google Fiber’s paid service seems to have reached 27 percent.

Should results such as those persist, Bernstein Research predicts that Google Fiber could attain and hold market share of perhaps 50 percent for its paid service, and about 10 percent penetration of its free service, within three to four years.

That would prove a difficult challenge for cable and telco Internet access and video service providers competing with Google Fiber, as it would imply that cable and telco ISPs collectively would have less than 50 percent share of high speed access market share.

In many markets, cable providers have 58 percent share, while telcos have 42 percent share. The Bernstein research also suggests Google Fiber quickly has grabbed seven percent to 15 percent video entertainment market share as well.

That implies cable could dip as low as 29 percent high speed access share in Google Fiber markets, while telcos could drop to 21 percent share. In addition, it is conceivable that cable TV and telco providers also could face a loss of perhaps 20 percent video entertainment market share as well.

In Wornall Homestead, the highest household median income neighborhood ($116,000 average household income) 83 percent of respondents were buying Google Fiber service.

Of those customers, 15 percent of homes were buying the $120 a month high speed access plus video subscription package.

About 53 percent opted for the $70 a month gigabit access service.

Also, some 15 percent had chosen to use the free 5 Mbps Internet access service.

In Community College, the neighborhood with the lowest household median income neighborhood ($24,000), 27 percent of homes were buying Google Fiber service.

About seven percent were buying the video-plus-Internet access package.

Some 19 percent have bought the 1 Gbps access service. Also, about seven percent of homes opted for the free access service.

In other potentially bad news for cable and telco competitors, all of the Google Fiber users indicated they would not buy a rival gigabit access service, presumably even when the rival service was offered at the same price as Google Fiber.

For some years, suppliers of high speed access service at 50 Mbps or 100 Mbps have encountered some resistance to such offers.

Google Fiber shows that the issue is the perception of value, compared to price. Google Fiber has not had similar resistance to a 1-Gbps service offered at $70 a month, less than most other ISPs had charged for the 50-Mbps services.

Should Google Fiber or other fixed network suppliers decide to build in a wider range of U.S. markets, both telcos and cable TV companies would face new pressures, including higher capital expense to match Google Fiber speeds, plus a new pricing umbrella that could drive prices of all slower speed offers downward.

That would create new pressures to reduce operating costs, as the option of raising prices to recover the bandwidth upgrades would be limited to impossible.

But Title II regulation could create a situation even worse, as raising prices might prove difficult.



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