Is Internet Access Business Sustainable?

Is the Internet access business sustainable--able to earn a return exceeding its capital investment--at the moment, or over the longer term? It’s a key question, and at least some analysts think the answer is “no.” 
Others disagree.

“We haven’t actually got a sustainable system at the moment,” Dr. Neil Davies, Predictable Network Solutions principal, says.

It’s a “crisis for the world’s telecom industry, in that they are not being able to construct the returns on investment they need for the capital,” he notes. That’s one view.

Others suggest the access business is stable and profitable, at least relatively recently,

Comcast, supposedly the greatest cable monopolist, averaged just a 4.5 percent return on invested capital for the five-year period from 2007 to 2012. The Time Warner Cable five-year average is -1.3 percent, some would note.

The problem, in essence, is that the switched telephone network, because of its design, actually enabled control of quality in ways that Internet Protocol architectures actually prevent.

For those of us who are more “business types,” the reasons for those conclusions are the domain of “bit doctors” who understand statistical multiplexing and its implications for large networks. But if I understand the argument correctly, the problem is that the IP architecture effectively removes the ability to control quality, on the part of any single domain within the broader network of networks.

Simply, no single domain owns or controls all the other elements that affect quality. So quality itself cannot actually be guaranteed. And if capital investment to protect or enable quality becomes nonlinear, with unknown results, then costs cannot be determined, for quality of service of any expected level.

It then becomes difficult to set retail prices at levels that recover, with certainty, the cost of investments. As the protocols are statistical, so profit and loss become statistical.

One salient implication might therefore be that no single domain actually can be certain that its own investments in network quality actually will have the desired results.

In the switched telephone network, there was a clear cost identifiable for every connection because all the resources along that path were now associated and reserved for that data stream. That is not actually possible with an IP network.

In the past, bits flowed along a fixed circuit, with one key advantage. A service provider could derive the actual cost of doing so, and price accordingly.

Packet networks are based on virtual and statistical processes at every turn, essentially. That means there are contention and congestion mechanisms happening “all over the place.”

In practice, this means no broadband provider can ever guarantee the quality and performance of the end-to-end transmission chain.

The corollary is that access providers might not be able to determine the cost of doing so, either, at least when levels of quality are part of the offer, and when there are performance guarantees, with financial penalties.
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