Tuesday, December 12, 2017

More Fixed Network ISP Competition Seems to be Coming

The fixed network internet access duopoly possibly is going to be challenged in new ways over the coming decade. New forms of mobile competition are going to develop, including both direct mobile substitution and mobile-enabled fixed wireless. Also, some new fixed network competitors are likely to enter the markets as well.

At least in principle, more than 100 Colorado communities could see some form of
municipal broadband network created, as voters in those communities have approved such moves. That clears a legal hurdle, but now means each community will grapple with the business model.

Longmont, Colo. already has built out a portion of its planned gigabit internet access network, aided by that city’s ownership of a municipal power utility, meaning Longmont owns rights of way, distribution facilities, rolling stock and other assets helpful to creating a city-wide internet access network.

In Centennial, Colo., private internet service provider Ting Internet will piggyback on a new government network to be built by the city of Centennial itself.    

In a few cases, state funds could play a role, as subsidies for middle-mile trunking can change the business model. Magellan Advisors, for example, identifies several roles cities can take, including streamlining of processing necessary for private ISPs to build or upgrade infrastructure; providing access to city-owned dark fiber; city-owned wholesale capacity services or actual provisioning of municipal services for businesses or consumers.

Risk and capital investment grows assume more active roles, including that of actual service  provider. One point worth making is that adoption rates vary based on the number of services offered, and by the ways adoption is measured.

These days, in competitive consumer markets, penetration is measured in terms of revenue-generating units, not “locations” or “households.” Each unit sold (voice, video or internet access) is counted against the base of locations. So a single location buying three services results counts as much as three other homes buying just one service.

So it is that a number of retail service providers such as Morristown, Tenn.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Bristol, Va. or Cedar Falls, Iowa seem to have far higher penetration rates than Longmont, Colo.

That is partly because the Longmont network still is being built out, but also reflects the fact that Longmont’s network sells only internet access and voice, but not video entertainment services. The other networks have been in operation and marketing for three times as many years as Longmont.

Customer “penetration” by household therefore is different from penetration measured as a function of units sold. The difference is that determining the magnitude of stranded assets hinges on how many locations passed generate revenue.

Assume that, on average, a typical household buys 66 percent of the total suite of services (two of three triple play services or  three of five services, for example).

The difference is significant. Measuring “penetration” by units sold, penetration appears to be as high as 76 percent to 87 percent. Measured as a function of homes generating revenue, penetration could be as low as nine percent, or as high as 44 percent, with a “typical” value being something between 20 percent to 25 percent of homes passed.

Penetration: Units Sold or Homes Buying Service?

Cedar Falls
homes passed
units sold
services sold
HH buys .66 =
Homes served

It might be worth pointing out that all these communities (Morristown, Chattanooga, Bristol, Cedar Falls and Longmont) have municipally-owned utility companies, and might therefore represent a sort of best case for retail operations serving consumers.

That seems consistent with other evidence. In markets where a telco and a cable operator are competent, as is the attacking ISP (municipal or private), market share might take a structure of 40-40-20 or so, possibly 50-30-20 in areas where the telco does not have the ability to invest in faster broadband and the cable operator has the largest share.

Beyond the actual cost of the network, and the business role chosen by the municipality, details of revenue generation (homes that generate revenue as a percentage of total; number of services offered) are fundamental.

Beyond that are the other operating and marketing costs, overhead and need for repaying borrowed funds and making interest payments, on the part of the retail service provider.

One might argue that most other communities, without the advantages ownership of an electric utility provides, will often find the lower risk of a shared public-private approach more appealing.

Also, some ISPs might find the availability of some amount of wholesale or shared infrastructure makes a meaningful difference in a business model.

One might suggest there are a couple of potential practical implications. Efforts by incumbent ISPs to raise retail prices in the same way that video entertainment prices have grown (far higher than the rate of overall inflation) will increase the odds new competitors enter a market.

Higher prices, in fact, will increase the likelihood of new entrants entering a market, as the higher prices increase the attractiveness of doing so.

In at least some cases, the new competitors will be firms such as Verizon, which now has announced it will essentially overbuild an AT&T and Comcast markets in Sacramento, Calif.

Though it is not easy, more competitive ISPs are likely to enter more markets, as lower-cost access platforms evolve, helped in some cases by municipal facilities support.

Where that happens, it is conceivable that the incumbents will see a new limitation on their market share, dipping from possibly 50-percent share to a maximum of perhaps 40 percent each, on a long-term basis, assuming the new competitor is not eventually bought out by one of the incumbents.

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