Sonic – the Transition from UNEs to Fiber

In my continuing series of writing about interesting competitors, today’s blog is about Sonic, a CLEC and fiber overbuilder working in the San Francisco Bay area and other communities in California. It’s an interesting company because they are the poster child for building a competitive telecom company based upon the rules established by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That Act required that the large telephone companies unbundle their networks to allow competitors to use their copper lines.

Sonic got started in 1994 as an ISP, then became a CLEC in 2006 and followed the path envisioned by the 1996 Act. This meant collocating electronics in AT&T central offices to provide DSL to customers over unbundled copper loops (UNEs). The company found a receptive customer base since they offered faster broadband than AT&T’s at an affordable price. They grew to be collocated in 200 AT&T central offices around the Bay Area, Sacramento and greater Los Angeles. These offices are tied together by the use of unbundled interoffice transport – also created by the 1996 Act. They originally deployed DSL that used one copper pair but have migrated to VDSL2 and other faster versions of DSL that use two copper pairs and delivers significant bandwidth. They still have almost 50,000 customers in the region using this technology.

What’s interesting is that Sonic did this starting in 2006 – a time by which much of the rest of the industry had written off the use of telco copper. The UNE business plan got a sour reputation with many in the industry when the CLEC industry using UNEs spectacularly imploded in 2001-2002. This collapse of the CLEC industry was due to a perfect storm of economic events and had little to do with the benefits of using telco copper.

If anything, it’s easier to use telco copper today because today’s DSL technology is far better than the DSL in 2000. Sonic and other CLECs are able to provide fast and reliable broadband using ADSL2+ and VDSL2, bonded over multiple copper pairs. Most people in the industry are probably surprised to hear that Sonic can use bonded copper UNEs to provide speeds as fast as 400Mbps to serve businesses. The usefulness of unbundled UNEs is far from dead.

Sonic also reaches roughly 25,000 customers using resale. This allows them to sell the same DSL products sold by AT&T in locations where they don’t have collocations. All of the Sonic products offer a bundle with a voice product that includes all of the expected features plus unlimited calling to the US and to landlines in 66 other countries. They are still finding strong demand for the voice product – something that also might surprise many in the industry.

Five years ago the company decided to use the cash flow from the UNE business to build fiber. Their fiber network now covers roughly 1/3 of the City of San Francisco, plus Brentwood, Sebastopol, Albany, Kensington and Berkeley in the East Bay. They are eying other markets around the region, the state, and beyond. They are an aggressive competitor and their fiber product line starts with a symmetrical gigabit for $40 per month, bundled with the unlimited voice product. They won’t publicly disclose the number of fiber customers, but their goal is to soon have more customers on fiber than on DSL. In my opinion, this is the essence of the vision of the 1996 Act – a transition from UNEs to facility-based networks.

The company’s biggest worry right now is that the FCC recently got a petition from the large telcos asking to end the use of unbundled network elements (UNEs). The big telcos argue that the UNE business plan is obsolete and that there is sufficient competition in the marketplace without unbundling their copper – while also claiming that “In the residential marketplace, competition will not be materially affected by forbearance from Section 251 ( c )(3) because there is effectively no remaining UNE-based competition in that marketplace.” and that “To the extent CLECs serve residential customers using ILEC facilities, they do so on commercial platforms.

But Sonic and a number of other CLECs using UNEs show this to be untrue. Given that just Sonic alone serves nearly 50,000 California households with UNEs these claims are incorrect and misleading. Sonic is using the unbundled copper in exactly the manner envisioned by Congress when they wrote the 1996 Act – to allow competitors to place the best technology possible on the telco copper networks. The Congress at the time reasoned that telephone ratepayers had paid for the copper networks and that the public ought to derive any benefits possible from the networks they had paid for.

The big telcos have always hated the idea of unbundling their networks. They have slowly chipped away at some of the products envisioned by the 1996 Act such as access to telco dark fiber. They would love to kick CLECs like Sonic off their networks – and in Sonic’s case that would deprive 50,000 customers of fast DSL and telephone service at prices they can afford.

Almost every major market in the country, and many smaller ones have CLECs that use unbundled network elements to provide DSL – usually the newer and faster DSL that the telcos won’t invest in. The telcos are slowly walking away from DSL which can be seen by the huge numbers of customers switching to the cable companies.

But CLECs like Sonic have used the copper to bring products that people want – and, unlike the telcos they are pouring those profits back into building fiber to these same communities. That’s exactly what Congress had in mind in 1996 and it would be a shame to see the FCC choke off some of the companies who are offering a competitive alternative to the big cable companies.

Buying a Home with No Broadband

A few weeks ago attended a public meeting at one of my clients and I met a guy there who recently purchased a house in the area that has no broadband. He was told by both customer service at bth the cable company and the local telco that broadband was available – but when he showed up they would not serve him.

It seems like everywhere I travel today I hear this or similar stories and it makes me realize the gigantic value difference between homes with and without broadband. This particular guy works from home and is now scratching his head looking for a solution. He’s not unique and most families with school kids and even most families without look at broadband today as a necessity. Buying a house without broadband is starting to feel a lot like buying a house without electricity or running water – it’s not a home that most people would willingly buy.

Unfortunately, people like this guy, who are not familiar with rural broadband are often told there is broadband when there isn’t. People who move from urban areas often have no clue about the atrocious state of broadband in rural America. They can’t imagine a world where there isn’t even DSL and where folks have to somehow get by on cellular data or satellite data to have connection to the outside world.

I purchased several homes over the last few decades and I’ve always made proof of broadband a contingency in my purchase offer. I then contacted the ISPs and placed an order to be sure that the broadband was real. Sadly, like the guy in this story, one often gets the wrong answer from a call to customer service and I’ve always gone a step further and placed an order. Even that is not always a great solution – when I moved to Florida I was in the house for over a month before Comcast finally connected my home – even though there was a Comcast pedestal at the end of my driveway!

I’ve spoken to a number of rural real estate agents over the last few years and they say almost universally that home broadband is now at or near to the top of homebuyer’s wish these days. They are often surprised by homebuyers who don’t understand the lack of rural broadband. They all have stories about buyers who quickly abandon searches in all parts of a county that don’t have broadband.

There have been numerous studies done that show that a home with broadband is worth more than one without. But I don’t buy the results of those studies any more. We are now at an overall 84% national penetration for broadband and a huge majority of people don’t want a home without broadband. Those studies show an increase of a few thousand dollars in value for home without broadband – but what is value of broadband if you are unable to find a buyer for a home that doesn’t have it? That’s the story that real estate agents tell me today – the inability to sell rural homes without broadband.

One of the interesting things about rural broadband is that the people in rural areas know exactly where the broadband line stops. They know the home closest to them with cable service, they know where DSL becomes too slow to be relevant, and they know where cell phones lose their bars for broadband connectivity. Many rural customers are irate because many of them live just past the broadband dividing line. I hear it all of the time, “The home two houses away has cable TV”, “I’m within a quarter of a mile of good DSL”, “The people on the other side of that hill have a good WISP”, “I can walk to the fiber”.

I remember when I was house-hunting here in Asheville. I live a mile from center city and I can look out my window and see homes with no broadband. My wife had assembled a list of homes to check out and I recall saying a lot, “This area has no broadband, turn the car around”. It is often surprising how close you can be to a town and have no broadband. I think this area is not untypical of a rural county seat where broadband extends only sporadically past the city limits. Folks who don’t know how to look at the wires on poles often don’t realize how broadband often ends at, or just past the city boundary.

This issue is going to get more severe over the next decade and I predict that we’ll start seeing people walk away from rural homes due to lack of willing buyers. I keep expecting to see a lawsuit from a homebuyer who sues a realtor for not telling them the truth about lack of broadband. Such a suit will inevitably bring another piece of paper into home disclosures – a broadband disclosure – which most people care more about than termites and the dozen other things we check off before buying a home.

Working From Home

Governments are starting to catch onto to the idea that one of the most dynamic parts of the new economy is people working from home. Governor Phil Scott of Vermont just signed legislation that provides an incentive for people who want to move to Vermont and work from their homes.

The program consists of grants of up to $5,000 per year, not to exceed $10,000 to help cover the cost of relocating to the state. To qualify for the grants a worker must already be employed by an out-of-state company, work primarily from home and move to the state after January 1, 2019.

The overall program isn’t large, set at $125,000 for 2019, $250,000 for 2020 and back to $125,000 in 2022. If awards are made at the $5,000 level this would cover moving 100 new workers to the state.

In economic development terms, landing 100 new full-time families using a $500,000 tax subsidy is a bargain. Governments regularly provide tax incentives of this size to attract factories or other large employers. The impact on the economy from 100 new high-income families is gigantic and over time time the taxes and other local benefits from these new workers will greatly exceed the cost of the program.

Vermont is like many states and finds itself with an aging population while also seeing an outflow of young people seeking work in New York, Boston and other nearly cities. These grants create an opportunity for young families to move back to the state.

One key aspect of the work-at-home economy is good broadband. Many companies are now insisting that employees have an adequate broadband connection at a home before agreeing to allow a worker to work remotely. I’ve talked to a few people who recently made the transition to home work and they had to certify the speed and latency of their broadband connection.

One reason that this program can work in Vermont is there are areas of the state with fiber broadband. The City of Burlington built a citywide fiber network and local telcos and other cities in the state have built fiber in more rural parts of the state. But like most of America, Vermont still has many rural areas where broadband is poor or non-existent.

What surprises me is that many communities with fiber networks don’t take advantage of this same opportunity. It’s easy for a community with good broadband to not recognize that much of America today has lousy broadband. Communities with fiber networks should consider following Vermont’s example.

I know of one community that is doing something similar to the Vermont initiative. The City of Independence, Oregon has benefitted from a municipal fiber network since 2007, operating under the name of MINET and built jointly with the neighboring city of Monmouth. The city has a new economic development initiative that is touting their fiber network. Nearby Portland is now a hotbed for technology companies including a lot of agricultural technology research.

Independence has one major benefit over Portland and the other cities in the state – gigabit broadband. The new economic development initiative involves getting the word out directly to workers in the agricultural research sector and letting them know that those that can work at home can find a simpler and less expensive lifestyle by moving to a small town. They hope that young families will find lower housing prices and gigabit fiber to be an attractive package that will lure work-at-home families. Independence is still close enough to Portland to allow for convenient visits to the main office while offering faster broadband than can be purchased in the bigger city.

The Big Telco Problem

A few weeks ago I made the observation in a blog that we don’t really have a rural broadband problem – we instead have a rural big telco problem. As I work around the country helping communities that are looking for broadband solutions it finally struck me that the telcos in almost all of these areas are the big companies – AT&T, CenturyLink, Verizon, Frontier, Windstream, etc.

I don’t see these same problems in areas served by smaller telephone companies. These smaller telcos have either upgraded networks to deliver faster broadband or have plans to do so over the next few years. I know of numerous rural telcos that are currently building fiber to rural areas, and those networks are going to serve those areas for many decades to come. There are undoubtably a few small telcos that are not making the needed upgrades, but for the most part the smaller telcos are doing the right thing – they are reinvesting into the rural areas and making the upgrades needed for the future.

The large telcos have done just the opposite. Most of them have been ignoring rural America for decades. They yanked customer service centers from smaller communities many years ago. They drastically cut back on rural technical staffs and it often takes weeks for customers to get repairs. They stopped investing in rural networks and have not upgraded electronics or networks for decades.

There is currently a burst of activity in these rural areas for those big telcos that accepted the billions of dollars of CAF II funding. This funding requires them to upgrade rural broadband to a measly and inadequate broadband speed of at least 10/1 Mbps. However, the rules in the CAF program are weak and there are no repercussions for not meeting the goals and I’ve always expected they will spend the FCC’s money until it’s gone, and then stop the upgrades. This means while some rural customers will get speeds even a little faster than 10 Mbps that there are likely to be many customers who will so no upgrades. I don’t expect the big telcos to spend a dime of their own in rural America once the CAF II upgrades are finished.

While I call this a big telco problem I might just as easily have called it a regulator problem. The FCC and the various state commissions largely deregulated telephone service, and the FCC recently washed their hands of broadband regulation. The big telcos have been milking big profits out of the rural copper networks for decades and have not reinvested any of those profits back into the networks. That’s how big companies act if regulators don’t require them to spend some of their profits on service and upgrades.

By contrast the smaller telcos were not required to upgrade networks, but they have done so anyway. The small companies got a big boost recently from the ACAM program – a different FCC plan that encourages building forward-looking broadband networks. Many of these companies had already upgraded to fiber before the FCC money was available. These smaller telcos are part of the rural community and feel an obligation to do the right thing – and the right thing is to find a way to bring broadband that rural customers need.

Regulators have let us down by not forcing the big telcos to act responsibly. The big telcos now want to walk away from rural copper that they claim is obsolete and in bad shape. But that copper would be in much better shape had these telcos done routine maintenance for the last thirty years. We built a great nationwide copper network due to the simple regulatory principle of universal service. Regulators at both the state and local level believed that the role of government was to ensure that everybody got access to the communications networks that ties us together as a nation. They know that universal service was good for people, but also good for the economy and good for the country as a whole. It’s something that very few other countries did and set America apart from the rest of the world.

I worked at Southwestern Bell pre-divestiture and it was a source of company pride that the company served every customer to the best of our ability. But along came competition and any sense of obligation to the public went out the door and the big telcos instead concentrated on satisfying Wall Street’s demand for ever-higher profits. There have been big benefits from this competition that are hard to deny, but what was missed in the transition to a competitive telecom world was that competition was never going to benefit rural America in the same way it benefits urban areas. We should have foreseen this and kept the universal service policy in place for rural America.

I get angry when I hear politicians and regulators say that municipalities shouldn’t be in the broadband business because the commercial sector will take care of our broadband needs. That is obviously not true and one only has to look at the big telco networks ten miles outside any urban area to see how the big telcos have abandoned customers in higher cost areas.

The big telcos are still milking big profits out of rural America and are still not reinvesting any of their own capital there. I don’t know if there is a way to put the genie back into the bottle and reintroduce regulation for rural America. If we don’t then we are only a few years away from having third-world telecom networks in rural America that will be a major drag on our society and economy.

How to Talk to Bankers

I spend a lot of time assisting clients in finding financing and in doing do I’ve learned a lot about what bankers are looking for from any prospective borrower. Here are some of the key takeaways I’ve learned over the years from talking to bankers:

Be Ready with a Worst Case Scenario. Borrowers invariably create a rosy best-look business plan to demonstrate how well they will perform with the borrowed money. But bankers have learned from hard experience that things often don’t go as well as planned. While bankers certainly want to see the optimistic business projection they are more interested in your worst case scenario, so a smart borrowers will prepare a worst case scenario along with the best case one.

The bankers wants to hear about everything that might go wrong with your plan – project delays, slow sales, higher than expected cost of construction – and then to understand how the borrower plans to cope with each potential snag. They want to be shown that the borrower will be able to repay the loan even if things go wrong. A banker is going to be far more impressed to see ta plan that considers the challenges and has a solution for every contingency. I’ve seen bank loan applications fail when the borrower was unable to answer simple questions about how their plan might fail.

Don’t Talk in Acronyms. Telecom borrowers are invariably highly technical people who understand the nuances of building and operating complex networks. The banker can understand this by looking at your credentials, experience and references. Most bankers don’t want to hear about the detailed nuts and bolts about how the technology works, and they are going to care a lot more about the products to be sold on the network and the plan to effectuate those sales.

I’ve sat on meetings and calls between borrowers and bankers where the response to a simple technical question elicits a fifteen minute spiel on the nuances of the technology. Bankers are not impressed with this, and in fact it can be worrisome if it they perceive the borrower as somebody who can’t explain their business in plain English – because the banker will know that’s what customers are going to want to hear. My advice is to tone down the technology unless the banker specifically wants to hear the details.

Understand the Market. I’ve had numerous clients over the years who have had the philosophy of “build it and they will come,” meaning that they were so positive of the superiority of their proposed network that they just assumed that people will buy their products. The vast majority of the business failures I’ve seen over the years were due to this blindness of the market.

Bankers are going to want to see evidence that people are ready to buy from the new network. In larger markets that might mean a statistically valid survey. In smaller ventures that is going to mean pre-sales and having a list of customers who are ready to buy service. Bankers also want to see a comparison of proposed prices and the prices of the competition  – I am often surprised by proposed new ventures that haven’t taken the time to look at actual customer bills in their proposed market. Do the homework and make the effort to understand the market before asking for funding.

Understand What Bankers are Looking For. Every lender is different and early in the process you need to ask them how they will judge your loan application. I recommend a two-stage process for getting a loan. The first meeting should be to understand what the bank is looking for. Have the banker describe the borrowing process and then use a second meeting to make a formal presentation of the business plan in a way that meets their requirements.

If the bank is interested primarily in collateral, then walk into the presentation ready to talk about that. If they are more focused in seeing a business plan that meets some set of financial metrics like debt service coverage ratio, then walk into the presentation ready to answer those questions.

Bankers talk in lingo just like our industry, and it’s vital to make sure that you understand what they want from you. I’ve seen many borrowers who don’t understand a bank’s requirements and who then never answer the basic questions the bank asks of them. It’s not uncommon for a borrower to be intimidated by the banking process and to be afraid to show that they don’t understand the banking lingo. In the end, if you don’t understand what your banker wants, then it’s likely you won’t be making the right proposal and the chance of getting a loan are greatly diminished.

Another New Broadband Technology

There is another new broadband technology on the horizon. It involves lighter-than-air blimps operating at about 65,000 feet. A recent filing at the FCC by the Elefante Group, in conjunction with Lockheed Martin describes the technology, referred to as Stratospheric-Based Communications Service (SBCS).

Interestingly, the company’s filings at the FCC seem to go out of their way to avoid calling these blimps or airships – but that’s what they are. Each floating platform would have the capacity for a terabyte in capacity, both upload and download. At a 65,000 altitude the blimps would avoid weather issues and airplanes and one platform would be able to cover a 6,000 square mile area. That sounds like a large area, but the US has just less than 3.8 million square miles. Since these are circular coverage areas, total coverage means areas will overlap and my math says it might take nearly 1,000 blimps to cover the whole country – but there is a lot of empty space in the western states so some lower number would practically cover most of the country.

The company proposes a range of products including cellular backhaul, corporate WAN, residential broadband and monitoring IoT sensors. There is no mention of the possible speeds that might be offered with home broadband and I have to wonder if that’s been thrown into the filing to gain favor at the FCC. While a terabyte of broadband sounds like a lot, it could quickly get gobbled up on a given platform delivering gigabit pipes to cell towers. Top that off with creating private corporate networks and I have to wonder what might be left over for the residential market. It’s a lot easier building a business selling to cellular carriers and large businesses than building the backoffice to support the sale and support of residential broadband.

The company plans to launch the first test blimp in 2020 and a following one in 2021. By using airships and solar power the blimps can carry more electronics than the proposed low-orbit satellite networks that several companies are planning. It’s probably far cheaper to replace the units and one can imagine plans for bringing the blimps back to earth for periodic upgrades

The project faces one major hurdle. They have tested various frequencies and found the sweet-spot for this particular application to be at 26 GHz. The company is asking the FCC to set aside that bandwidth for SBCS. That request will be challenged by terrestrial broadband providers. It’s a really interesting tug-of-war with higher frequencies since frequencies above 20 GHz have been used only sporadically in the past. However, now that this spectrum is being opened for 5G there are numerous technologies and companies vying to carve out chunks of millimeter wave spectrum.

The company probably has an uphill climb to grab such a significant swath of spectrum. I would think that using it in the fashion contemplated from the blimps would make the spectrum unavailable for other uses. The FCC has hard decisions to make when looking at spectrum use. For example, similar ventures – blimps from Google and large gliders from Facebook – have been quietly discontinued and there is no guarantee that this technology or the companies behind it will prosper. A nightmare scenario for the FCC would be a weak deployment of the technology with only a few platforms deployed over major cities – effectively ruining the spectrum for other uses.

If the technology works as Elefante promises, it would be a major competitor to rural long-haul fiber providers. This technology would allow placement of small cell sites anywhere and would compete with the expensive fiber already built to provide service to rural cell sites. The satellite technologies would give me pause if I was building a new rural fiber long-haul network – but then again, these may never materialize or work as touted.

It’s certainly possible that one or more of the new promised technologies like this or like the low-orbit satellites could provide a viable broadband alternative for rural America. But just having the technologies able to serve that market doesn’t mean these companies will chase the market hard – there is a lot more money to be made in serving cell sites and creating private corporate networks. Chasing millions of rural homes is a much more complicated business and I’ll believe it when I see somebody doing it.

Will 5G Phones Need WiFi?

Our cellular networks have become heavily reliant on customers using WiFi. According to Cisco’s latest Virtual Network Index about 60% of the data generated from cellphones is carried over WiFi and landline broadband connections. Most of us have our cellphones set to grab WiFi networks that we are comfortable with, particularly in the home and office.

The move to use WiFi for data was pushed by the cellular companies. As recently as just a few years ago they were experiencing major congestion at cell sites. This congestion was due to a combination of cell sites using older versions of 4G technology and of inadequate backhaul data pipes feeding many cell sites. The cellular carriers and manufacturers made it easy to switch back and forth between cellular and WiFi and most people quickly got adept at minimizing data usage on the cellular network.

Many people have also started using WiFi calling. This is particularly valuable to those who live or work in a building with poor indoor cellular coverage, and WiFi calling allows a phone to process voice through the WiFi connection. But this has always been a sketchy technology and WiFi calling is often susceptible to poor voice quality and unexpected call droppage due to WiFi fluctuations. WiFi calling also doesn’t roam, so anybody walking out of the range of their WiFi router automatically drops the call.

However, recently we’ve seen possibly the start of a trend of more broadband traffic staying on the cellular network. In a recent blog I cited evidence that unlimited cellular customers are using less WiFi and are instead staying on their cellular data network even when WiFi is available. Since most people use WiFi to preserve usage on their cellular data plans, as more people feel comfortable about not hitting a data caps we ought to see many people sticking more to cellular.

5G ought to make it even easier to keep traffic on the cellular network. The new standard will make it easier to make and hold a connection to a cell site due to a big increase in the number of possible simultaneous connections available at each cell site. This should finally eliminate not being able to make a cellular connection in crowded locations.

The 5G improvements are also going to increase the available bandwidth to cellphones through the use of multiple antennas and frequencies. The expectations are that cellphone download speeds will creep up with each incremental improvement in the coming 5G networks and that speeds will slowly improve over the next decade.

Unfortunately this improved performance might not make that big of a difference within buildings with poor cellular coverage today, because for the most part the frequencies used for 5G cellular will be the same ones used today. We keep reading about the coming use of millimeter waves, but the characteristics of those frequencies, such as the short distances covered are going to best fit urban areas and it’s likely to be a long while until we see these frequencies being used everywhere in the cellular networks. Even where used, those higher frequencies will have an even harder time penetrating buildings than today’s lower frequencies.

Overall, the improvements of 5G ought to mean that cellular customers ought to be able to stay more easily with cellular networks and not need WiFi to the same extent as today. A transition to less use of WiFi will be accelerated if the cellular marketing plans continue to push unlimited or large data-cap plans.

This all has big implications on network planning. Today’s cellular networks would be instantly swamped if people stopped using WiFi. The use of cellular data is also growing at a much faster pace than the use of landline data. Those two factors together portends a blazingly fast growth in the backhaul needed for cell sites. We are likely to see geometric rates of growth, making it expensive and difficult for the cellular carriers to keep up with data demand. It’s sounding to me like being a cellular network planner might be one of the hardest jobs in the industry right now.

Building Fiber a Mile at a Time

Today I want to highlight another fiber business plan. The company is Hagerstown Fiber, operating out of Hagerstown, Maryland. I have an automatic soft spot for this company because that’s the town where I went to high school. Hagerstown is one of the many rust-belt cities that run the length of Appalachia and which have lost the majority of their former manufacturing base over the last fifty years.

Hagerstown Fiber is owned and operated by Clint Wiley. He’s been in business in Hagerstown since launching a dial-up ISP in 1996. Since then the business has reinvented itself several times – first by collocating and selling DSL over Verizon copper and then migrating to faster DSL that bonds two copper pairs. As I travel across the country I’m surprised by the number of former dial-up companies who are still quietly pushing ISP products in single markets.

Like anybody who uses telco copper, Clint sees the writing on the wall and can foresee the end of copper. He’s already seen his customer base dwindle as customers have been moving to the faster speeds offered by the cable company – in this case Antietam Cable, a small regional cable operator. He’s also seeing a shrinking copper inventory as Verizon is quietly phasing out older copper.

So he decided a few years ago to tackle fiber-to-the home and become a facility-based ISP for the first time. That’s a big change for his business because he used to be able to advertise and sell to the whole market and he’s had to shift to advertising only where he has fiber. The shift in marketing focus was probably the hardest part of the transition because it means selling and developing relationships with homes near to his fiber – his focus is now truly local, block-by-block.

Like most small regional ISPs, he’s made a decent living over the years and built up a loyal customer base. But the UNE business plan does not create a strong balance sheet, and so the transition to building fiber immediately meant creating a banking relationship. Building fiber is expensive and small ISPs can’t build fiber without loans.

Clint was successful in establishing a line of credit, This allows him to borrow money to build a new stretch of fiber. He then adds new customers to pay down the line of credit until there is enough borrowing capacity to borrow and build again. This business plan is familiar to any small ISP who has tackled the fiber business. With each new fiber build the fiber company grows their balance sheet and customer base and over time increases the value of the business. By the end of this summer the company will have built 16 miles of last-mile-fiber in the city. Clint’s original vision was to grow to 100 miles of fiber, but like everybody who gets into this business he now hopes for something bigger.

From a technology perspective the transition was easy since the company had been using Zhone access concentrators for voice and DSL, and the vendor has an add-on migration path to use the same chassis to handle FTTH. Small telcos are all familiar with this mixed-technology and there are several equipment vendors with platforms to allow a smooth transition from DSL to FTTH.

His new fiber venture has stiff competition since the local cable company has decided to build FTTH rather than take the DOCSIS 3.1 upgrade path. Over time, Hagerstown and the surrounding markets might enjoy that rare circumstance – competition between two fiber network operators. While most of America is now hoping for one fiber network, Hagerstown will have competing fiber providers.

Clint believes that his personalized customer service will always give him an edge over his bigger competitor, but he obviously has a harder path to success than somebody competing with a more traditional cable company. His marketing effort is centered on the slogan “Now you have a choice”. He still has a way to go before becoming fully self-sufficient with his fiber network, but every day the business gets a little stronger as he adds customers. He’s showing that there is a path forward for the small company willing to build fiber a mile at a time.

The Growing Dislike of Big ISPs

The annual ratings from the American Consumer Satisfaction Index came out recently, and they show that consumer dislike for the big ISPs is increasing. This survey looks at how consumers feel about a wide range of businesses, and the ISPs have been ranked as some of the most disliked corporations for a number of years.

The survey asks numerous questions and creates a satisfaction scale from 1 to 100. The survey looks at several different categories of telecom companies and has separate rankings for for cable TV providers, broadband providers and a new category for streaming video providers.

Among the big ISPs that offer cable TV service, the rank of every provider except AT&T U-Verse sank compared to last year. AT&T was the highest rated company in this group with a rating of 70. At the bottom was Mediacom with a rating of 55, down from 56 a year ago. The two giant cable companies both saw a drop in consumer satisfaction: Charter had a huge drop from 63 down to 58, Comcast dropped from 58 to 57.

The rankings for how consumers feel about their broadband provider were similar. The only big ISP that didn’t drop was Comcast that stayed at a ranking of 60 for two years running. Everybody other big ISP dropped. At the top of the list was Verizon FiOS which dropped from 71 to 70. At the bottom was Mediacom again which had a big drop from 58 to 53. Charter also had a big drop from 63 to 58. Rounding out the bottom rankings were Frontier (54), Windstream (56) and CenturyLink (58)

Streaming services got significantly higher rankings. Topping this first time list were Netflix, Playstation Vue and Twitch with a ranking of 78. At the bottom were Sony Crackle (68), Showtime Anywhere (70) and DirecTV Now (70), all still significantly better than traditional cable companies.

It must be frustrating for the big ISPs to see their customer satisfaction drop year after year. The rankings of the ISPs are lower than other unpopular industries like airlines, banks, insurance companies and even the Internal Revenue Service.

If there is any upside to the low customer satisfaction rankings it’s that it creates opportunities for competitors. It’s been conventional wisdom for years that a new competitor will get up to 30% of a market just for showing up with an alternative network – assuming they know how to sell and have decent customer service.

They survey doesn’t dig into the reasons for the sinking dissatisfaction, but it’s easy to speculate on some of the reasons. People are certainly unhappy with traditional cable TV due to the ever-rising prices. High prices are the number one factor cited for consumers who are cutting the cord, and the dropping satisfaction shows there is likely another growing pile of future cord cutters.

It’s a little harder to understand the dissatisfaction with broadband. At least in major metropolitan areas the ISPs have continued to unilaterally increase download speeds with only modest rate hikes. One would expect satisfaction with the the broadband product to be higher and my guess is that the low ranking deal more with the pain involved in having to ever call these big companies. Compared to other businesses we all deal with, the interaction with the cable company / ISP is often the one we dread the most. The other likely cause for dissatisfaction is that ISPs often don’t deliver the speeds they promise. This varies by market, but we’ve seen cities where consumers only get a fraction of the speed they are paying for.

It’s much easier to understand unhappiness with ISPs immediately outside of big cities. Broadband is smaller towns is often still generations behind and is inadequate for what households expect today in terms of download speeds and latency. Anybody who reads this blog will understand the near-hatred for the ISPs in rural areas. The cable companies don’t come to rural America and the big telcos have abandoned maintenance of the copper networks for decades. Rural broadband is either poor or nonexistent with practically everybody hating the companies that won’t bring them broadband.

 

Banking Challenges for Fiber Builders

I’ve often mentioned in this blog that it’s gotten harder to finance fiber infrastructure. Today I want to discuss a few of the specific issues that fiber builders face when trying to find bank financing. There are two traditional sources of funding for the industry – the Rural Utility Service (RUS) and CoBank.  However, many fiber builders don’t qualify for this funding since both institutions favor established mature companies. Any company that doesn’t fit the profile of these two lenders must turn to the only other source of funding – local and regional banks. Following are some of the issues I see when trying to borrow from banks.

Familiarity with the Industry. Local banks often are leery about lending to telecom companies because they are not familiar with the business and they fear lending into an unknown industry. Local banks are much more comfortable lending to businesses they understand and make loans to car dealers, retail stores and the other kinds of local businesses that have been their long-term core borrowers.

Amount of Borrowing. Every bank has some pre-determined maximum amount they are willing to lend to any one borrower and it’s easy for a fiber overbuilder to quickly hit this limit. I’ve rarely met a fiber overbuilder who doesn’t see endless opportunities for expansion and it’s not hard to hit a bank’s maximum lending limit.

Loan Terms. Local banks are often uncomfortable with the longer-term loans needed to finance fiber.  Banks prefer to make loans for relatively short periods of time, with their preference being short loans of 2 – 5 years. Fiber builders are often forced to only chase projects that fit the short loan terms – which means cherry picking only the best opportunities. In doing so they will be passing up opportunities that would thrive and produce good returns with a longer loan terms of 5 – 15 years.

Collateral. Banks are often uncomfortable with a fiber network as collateral. It’s not hard to blame them for this. A fiber network, once in the ground or on the pole does not automatically have a liquidation valley equal to the cost of the construction. The real value of a fiber network is the revenues from customers who are added to the network – and banks have a hard time accepting this concept. A little research will show bankers that failed fiber ventures have often liquidated the physical fiber network for pennies on the dollar, and that rightfully frightens them.

Quantifying Risk. It can be difficult for a bank to understand the downside risks of building a fiber project. One of the key steps to making a loan is to understand the likelihood of the borrower not meeting the proposed business plan, and bankers have a hard time quantifying and getting comfortable with the potential downsides of the proposed business.

Meeting Metrics. Many banks are driven by metrics – meaning that they look for key financial performance metrics from a borrower. It’s hard to meet the typical metrics for a new fiber network. When a network is first built it boosts the balance sheet – but revenues then lag a few years behind until the new network has enough customers to meet expected metrics. This cycle of early losses followed by eventual gains does not fit easily into the expectations of a metric-driven bank.

Unfortunately, any one of these issues can convince a bank that the fiber loan is too risky or doesn’t fit their comfort zone. Many banks are comfortable with infrastructure loans, but there are infrastructure loans that better meet their expectations. Consider a loan to build an apartment complex. There is the same period of zero revenues while the buildings are constructed, but the expectation is that the borrower will then quickly reach full revenues within a relatively short period after the end of construction. An apartment building also provides comfortable collateral because there is an established market for selling repossessed buildings. Bankers in general understand the apartment complex operating model and are comfortable with the variables of operating an apartment building.

Fiber overbuilders need to be prepared to tell a story that can get a banker comfortable with each one of these concerns. I always advise fiber builders that they must put themselves into the banker’s shoes and look at their own business plan as a skeptic. I’ve often seen fiber builders who point to a business plan that eventually makes a lot of money and who can’t understand why a banker doesn’t see their plan the same way they do. Many of the misgivings that a banker might have about funding a fiber project are legitimate and the borrower must convince the banker that the overall level of risk is small – a tall task.