What’s Your Brand?

advertiseherebillboardmedA recent blog I wrote reminded me of this basic question that I have always asked clients, “What’s your brand?” Every business has a brand whether it’s explicit or implicit. People living in your service areas either knew you by what others say about you or by what you tell them about yourself.

So what does it mean to have a brand? It means that when people think of your company that they think about you in a certain way. – it’s the images, emotions, and decisions they associate with you in their mind. If you don’t work to create your own brand then you might just be ‘that telephone company’ or ‘those wireless guys.’ I guess there is nothing wrong with that, but it might mean that a new person to the area has to make a bunch of phone calls to figure out who you are, or that existing customers are more easily swayed by competitors with a better brand.

Having a brand is a lot more important if you are competing for customers, which most small carriers do these days. It’s important to have a brand when you are trying to sell to people who don’t know you, or to keep customers you already have.

So what do I mean by a brand? A brand can be almost anything that you want to have customers remember about you. I’ve seen hundreds of different types of brands in telecom. Some are very simple, such as ‘your local telecommunications company’. Others tell more what it’s like working with a company such as ‘making broadband easy,’ or ‘total business broadband solutions.’

But I am still surprised about how many small carriers don’t have a brand. I can understand this for a carrier who is a monopoly telephone company where customers have no other options. But it mystifies me why somebody who is not a monopoly doesn’t want an easy way for customers to understand who you are.

Some kinds of branding are obvious. For example, cooperatives and municipal broadband companies often remind customers that the business belongs to them. That can be an effective brand if done well. But I see a surprising number of these entities that don’t do a very good job at reminding people of this.

Probably the most common branding I see is companies claiming to be the ‘local telecom provider’ or ‘your local ISP.’ But unless there is something more to the story behind that claim to tell people why this is a good thing, then it can be somewhat shallow. After all, any company that will send a technician to somebody’s door is also local.

The one thing I know about branding is that whatever you tell the public had better be true. You don’t want to tout yourself as the ‘broadband company’ if you are still delivering slow DSL to a lot of your customers. That kind of branding can work against you and will remind your customers every day about how bad their broadband is. And such customers will leap to another carrier with better broadband if they ever have the chance.

If you don’t have a brand, it can be surprisingly challenging to pick one. But if you put a bunch of your employees in a room they can probably come up with a few good ideas. Here are some of the more common ones I see that I think are effective: ‘bringing gigabit broadband to X’; ‘telecom solutions since 1915’; ‘making broadband easy’; ‘21st century solutions for rural America.’

The chances are that you already have a brand but that you haven’t thought about it for a long time. If that’s the case then ask yourself. “Does my brand still tell the public what I want them to know about me?” Also ask, “Is this brand really who we are?” You might be surprised by the answer to those two questions, and if so, it’s time to update your brand.

Productizing Safety

padlockThe Internet is becoming a scarier place by the day to the average user. It seems like a week doesn’t go by when there isn’t news of some new and huge data breach or other nefarious use of the web. But as much as those big events might create a general industry sense of unease, these announcements also make people worried about their own individual Internet security.

The big ISPs like AT&T crow about recording and monetizing everything that their customers do on the web. And with a likely weakening or elimination of Title II regulation by the FCC this is likely to intensify. Every web site parks cookies on the computers of their visitors, and the bigger sites like Facebook and Google gather every fact fed to them and peddle it to the advertising machine. There are hackers that lock down PCs and hold them hostage until the owner pays a ransom. There are smart TVs that listen to us and IoT devices that track our movements inside our homes. There was news this week that smartphones with a certain Chinese chip have been sending every keystroke back to somebody in China.

All of this has to be making the average Internet user uneasy. And that makes me wonder if there is not a product of some sort that smaller ISPs can offer to customers that can make them feel safer on the web.

Savvy Internet users already take steps to protect themselves. They use ad blockers to reduce cookies. They use browsers like DuckDuckGo that don’t track them. They use encryption and visit sites using HTTPS. They scrub their machine regularly of cookies and extra and unidentified files. In the extreme some use a VPN to keep their ISP from spying on them.

Small ISPs are generally the good guys in the industry and don’t engage in the practices used by AT&T, Comcast and Verizon. I know some small ISPs that try to communicate to their customers about safety. But I think safety is now one of the biggest worries for people and I think small ISPs can do more.

Customers can really use the help. It’s easy to assume that customers ought to understand basic safety procedures, but the vast majority of them load some sort of virus protection on their PC the day they buy it and never think of safety again. They repeatedly do all of the bad things that lead to trouble. They open attachments on emails. They don’t update their software to have the latest security patches. They use social media and other sites without setting basic privacy filters.

I think there is an opportunity for small ISPs to be proactive in helping to make their customers feel safer, and in the process can create more loyal customers. I think there are two possible ways to undertake this. One is an intensive education campaign to inform customers about better web practices. I’m not talking about the occasional safety reminder, but instead a steady and concentrated effort to tell your customers ways to be safer on the web. Brand yourself as being a provider that is looking out for their safety. But don’t pay it lip service – do it in a proactive and concentrated way.

I also think there is a space for a ‘safety’ product line. For example, I have clients who run a local version of the Geek Squad and who repair and maintain people’s computers. It would not be hard to expand on that idea and to put together a ‘safety’ package to sell to customers.

Customers could have a service tech come to their home for a day each year and you could ‘fix’ all of their safety weaknesses. That might mean installing ad blockers and a spyware scrubber. It would mean updating their browsers and other software to the latest version. It could mean helping them to safely remove software they don’t use including the junkware that comes with new computers. It might include making sure they are using HTTPS everywhere. It also might mean selling a VPN for those who want the highest level of security.

I have clients who have been selling this kind of service to businesses for years, but I can’t think of anybody who does this in any meaningful way for residential customers. But since the web is getting less safe by the day there has to be an opportunity for small ISPs to distinguish themselves from larger competitors and to also provide a needed service – for pay of course.

Unlimited Cellular Data

SONY DSCAll four major wireless carriers have been in the news recently concerning unlimited wireless data plans. The unlimited plans get even more intriguing when you consider that the upcoming FCC is likely to be hands off and may allow the carriers to have zero-rating plans. With zero-rating the carriers will give customers unlimited data for the carrier’s own content, but put limits on all other data.

There has also been a lot of talk this year in the industry that people are dropping landline data plans and migrating back to cellphone data. But when you look at the plans available to customers it’s hard to see any of these plans being competitive with good landline data (emphasis on good). Here are the unlimited data plan options of the four big wireless carriers:

Verizon is the easiest to understand and they hate unlimited data plans. They had unlimited plans years ago and worked hard to migrate customers off unlimited data. But about 1% of Verizon customers are still on these plans. The company recently notified customers who actually use their unlimited data that they are going to be disconnected unless they migrate to a suitable plan. And by suitable, the company offers a plan with 100 GB of download for $450 per month. This means that only a customer who doesn’t use their unlimited plan will be allowed to keep it.

AT&T introduced a new unlimited data plan this year, but it has a lot of strings attached. For example, customers of this plan are not allowed to create mobile hotspots for their laptop or tablets. For anybody that travels a lot like me, this is my primary use of mobile data and there are still many hotels around where the bandwidth is barely adequate to read emails. The AT&T unlimited plan also allows the company to throttle customers in two instances – if they are in a congested area or if they exceed 22 GB per month of download. To put that into perspective, my family of three cord-cutters used 660 GB of data last month – so it’s hard to think of 22 GB as ‘unlimited.’ AT&T’s plan is not cheap and costs $60 for the data plus $40 per phone, meaning it costs $100 per month for a single user.

Sprint and T-Mobile both came out with unlimited plans at the end of the summer. Sprint’s ‘Unlimited Freedom’ plan costs $60 for the first line, $40 for the second and $30 per additional line up to ten lines. Sprint’s unlimited plan doesn’t allow HD video and streams all video in standard definition. They also restrict music steaming to 500 kbps and gaming to 2 Mbps.

T-Mobile’s unlimited plan costs $70 for the first user, $50 for the second and $20 after that up for to eight users. T-Mobile is probably the least restrictive of the four companies. Their only restriction on the unlimited data is that they stream video in standard definition. But for $25 more per month customers can get HD video.

The big caveat on all of these plans is that LET data speeds in the US are among the slowest among developed countries. The OpenSignal report this year ranked the US at 55th in the world, placed between Russia and Argentina, at an average speed just under 10 Mbps.

I read a lot of news articles on my phone when traveling using Flipboard – a news site that lets me customize my news feed. Reading articles on my smartphone is the one part of my digital world that is still agonizingly slow. I often have to wait for 30 seconds or more for a news article to open – and it reminds me of the days when trying to open files back in the dial-up days.

The restrictions on these plans really highlight the hypocrisy of zero-rating. These carriers don’t want you to use their cellular data because they say it harms their network. And yet they are perfectly okay with letting customers view company-supplied content all day without restriction. This, more than anything, tells us that cellular data caps and other restrictions are all about making money and not about the network.

It’s still hard to think of any of these plans as a substitute for a landline connection. A cellular data plan like T-Mobile’s might make sense for somebody who is always on the go and not physically in one place very often. These plans are not cheap and I can certainly see households having to make a choice between a landline connection and a cellular plan. My gut tells me that any migration of landline customers to mobile-only data is probably a lot more about family economics than it is about being happy with one of these cellular data plan.

AT&T and Time Warner

ATTI have been thinking about the AT&T and Time Warner merger since it was first announced. Generally the reasons for megamergers are apparent – there is generally some big efficiency or cross benefit to both companies that makes sense. But I had a very hard time seeing very much benefit to either company with this merger.

The obvious intersection between the two companies is programming. Time Warner produces a lot of content – networks including HBO, TNT, TBS, CNN and a host of smaller networks.  And AT&T has a lot of cable customers through DirecTV and U-verse.

But as I think through the programming advantage it’s not as big as you might think. AT&T is not likely to buy any more cable content from Time Warner after a merger than it does today. It’s likely that all of Time Warner’s content is already delivered to AT&T’s video customers. In fact, once the two companies combine, any transactions between the two of them disappear upon consolidation when creating the financial statements for the combined companies.

The non-accountant will say, “Wait, doesn’t that mean that AT&T gets the content for free”? And the answer is no, because it also means that the revenue that AT&T pays to Time Warner today in real cash also disappears. On the consolidated books both sides of the transaction disappear, as if they never happened.

And it’s hard to see any of the typical merger savings from consolidating management. The two businesses have almost nothing in common and it would make no sense for program executives to run a giant ISP or for AT&T executives to make programming decisions.

The only other obvious benefit is for AT&T to somehow leverage the Time Warner content to grow the wireless business. When the merger announcement was first announced the FCC sent a letter to AT&T and told them they would be investigating their zero-ratings practices. Zero-rating is when an ISP provides content to customers without counting the usage against any data caps. AT&T already does this today with a limited amount of content, but if they owned Time Warner they would have far more content they could send over cellphones that wouldn’t count against data caps. An AT&T customer could watch Game of Thrones, for instance, on their AT&T cellular plan without worrying about their monthly data cap. But if they watch non-AT&T video they would be penalized.

With the new administration it looks like zero-rating (and net neutrality in general) is likely dead. But how much of a benefit is zero-rating to a wireless company? Certainly this could drive more advertising revenue to the combined company, but that doesn’t seem like a big enough motivation for the mega-merger. And unless one cellular companies gets killer content that everybody wants to watch on a cellphone, it’s hard to think that zero-rating is going to be a big game changer in terms of shifting wireless customers between providers. I have a hard time seeing AT&T zero-rating as a Verizon Wireless killer.

The only real benefit I can foresee is a bit of a scary one. With each of these mergers between ISPs and programmers the industry collapses to fewer and fewer major players. This merger would put AT&T on the same footing as Comcast in terms of programming content. And maybe that is the major reason for the merger – just keeping up.

But what is to stop the biggest companies from selling content to each other in bulk? I could foresee AT&T and Comcast agreeing to sell content to each other at a reduced price based upon some volume discount. This would end up giving both companies an edge over every other ISP. These two mega-companies (and probably a few others) would then be able to leverage that advantage to crush their other competitors – leaving the nation with even fewer competitors than today.

I don’t know that this scenario could be sustained. It seems like the public is migrating away from a lot of traditional content towards programming produced independently by companies like Netflix. But if the AT&T / Time Warner merger is allowed to happen, what will stop one of these big companies from buying Netflix and every other independent content provider that pops up?

An Effective Federal Broadband Program, Part 4

outdoor-indoor-cable-161This is the final in a series of ideas on establishing a federal broadband construction program. It is assumed in these comments that such a program would include some form of federal financial assistance to build fiber networks such as grants, loans or loan guarantees.

Fix the Pole Problem. One of the biggest impediments I see for building fiber is getting reasonable access to poles. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 established the right to get on commercially-owned utility poles. But that new set of rules excluded poles owned by municipalities and rural electric cooperatives. Those exclusions need to be ended.

But the biggest problem with pole access is that there is no remedy for dealing with pole owners that are uncooperative or that fight the connections. Recalcitrant pole owners can easily destroy a business plan through delays. There are states that have solved this issue by allowing a new connector to build without permission if a pole owner takes too long to respond to a request for connection – and the FCC should adopt something similar. In areas where it’s too expensive to bury fiber, access to poles is the only way to bring real broadband.

The Financing Dilemma. The stimulus grants and other grant and loan programs have generally required that an applicant has already lined up the rest of the financing required to complete the project. This is a great example of the chicken and the egg dilemma in that most financial institutions are not going to expend their resources to thoroughly review a loan applications until the applicant cam prove the remainder of the funding (the grant). This one requirement stopped a lot of good projects from asking for stimulus funding because they were stuck in financial limbo between bankers and the federal government that each wanted the other side to commit first. Obviously a grant can be paid until all of the funding is in place, but there must be a reasonable time allowed to secure financing after a grant award.

Don’t be Afraid to Impose Policy Objectives. The stimulus grants imposed a handful of rules that were meant to benefit the public good. For instance, they made middle-mile fiber builders serve ‘anchor institutions’ such as schools, city halls and other government institutions.

But if large amounts of federal monies are given for building last mile fiber then there should be some requirements imposed on funding recipients to meet important broadband social goals. This might include a few things like:

  • A Robust Low-Income Broadband Product. Anybody taking federal funding for fiber should be mandated to participate in the federal broadband Lifeline program to provide affordable broadband to low-income homes. Today carriers participating in the Lifeline program are allowed to offer horrendously slow speeds to customers – 10/1 Mbps for wireline connections. If somebody is taking federal money to build fiber, then Lifeline speeds ought to always at least be at whatever is determined by the FCC to be broadband, which is currently 25/3 Mbps.  Further, the current Lifeline products have FCC sanctioned small data caps that punish customers for using the Lifeline broadband. The monthly cap is 150 gigabits for landline, and an unbelievably small ½ gigabit for cellular. These stingy data caps invalidate the stated purpose of the Lifeline program which is to enable low-income households to benefit from a broadband connection. These caps ignore the basic cost drivers of the industry and there is virtually no cost difference between a household using 150 GB per month and one using 500 GB per month. These caps are social policy decisions, not ones based upon the economics of the industry.
  • No Data Caps. Again, if the federal government pays a significant portion of the cost to build a fiber network, then that network should impose no data caps on any customers at any speeds. Data caps are a way to say to customers – here is broadband, just don’t use it. Data caps are clearly a way to extract more money out of customers over and above the base broadband rates.

I Cut the Other Cord

facebookIt’s the day before Thanksgiving and rather than talk about anything too serious I’m going to talk about my experience in cutting the other cord – the social media cord. I recently left Facebook – and it feels great.

I’ve been on Facebook for years. I had over 200 friends that were a mix of family, people I went to schools with and various other people I’ve met over time. When I first got on Facebook many years ago it was a fun experience. I was able to catch up with old high school friends and was able to see what my family was up to. It really was a social site in the true spirit of that phrase, and my memory is that my Facebook feed in those days were mostly personal postings from my friends and very little else.

But over the years a lot new things crept into the Facebook feed and it became far less personal. I would bet that not more than 10% of my recent feeds were things directly posted by my friends. Instead my feed became a long stream of ‘news’ articles and a ton of other impersonal content.

Facebook is currently under fire for allowing too much ‘fake’ news on the platforms that critics say influenced the election. Companies like the New York Times or the Huffington Post pay to suggest content on Facebook in the hope of driving people to their own content. These sponsored posts apparently drive several billion dollars a year to Facebook. But not everybody is the New York Times and there are lots of other websites paying to post much more questionable content. Facebook says they are going to figure out how to ban the worst of these sites from adding fake news or misleading content.

But I don’t think that will put a dent in the problem. The fact is that any one of Facebook’s 1.65 billion members can link to any web site that doesn’t violate things like Facebook’s ban on nudity. And since personal posts can go viral and I can’t imagine the amount of untrue content will decrease a whit.

The fake content is not all political. A huge percentage of the things I see on almost any topic have the same problem. I would venture to say that most of the posts I see talking about nutrition, global warming, vaccinations, or almost any other current topic are also untrue or misleading. I would estimate that as much as half of the ‘content’ I saw on my feed was of questionable veracity.

I’m one of those people that hates obvious untruths and I would routinely tell my friends when they had posted something untrue. I’m guessing they will be glad to see me gone, because nobody ever thanked me for this! I’m afraid Facebook was turning me into the cranky neighbor sitting on the porch and trying to fix the world by pointing out untruths. But it is clear that I’ve been trying to swim against the tide.

My wife, as usual, gets things a little faster than me and she dropped Facebook a while back because the tone was growing so mean. Regardless of the topic the whole site now invites trolling and argumentation.

The other thing that has been bothering me about Facebook is that the company has been getting really sophisticated in collecting information about us and is either using it for advertising or selling it to others. I’ve grown more uncomfortable over time that everything I do on the site has been helping Facebook create a detailed profile on me. I sit and watch my friends take ‘quizzes’ that ask them a bunch of personal questions that they would never answer for a stranger. But companies have become good at disguising this data gathering as something fun.

I haven’t dropped some other social media sites because they serve purposes that benefit me. For example, I only use Twitter to follow people in the telecom industry or to follow my favorite sports teams. I post these blogs on Twitter but I rarely comment or read comments there. And I use LinkedIn as my online rolodex since it gives me a quick way to contact colleagues that I may have lost track of otherwise. The way I use these sites doesn’t have any negative aspects for me.

I can tell you that dropping Facebook has been a positive experience and I’m never going back. It was a time eater that could nibble away from a few minutes to hours on some days. The obviously fake, false and untrue content that has overtaken the platform was driving me crazy. And I feel glad to no longer be feeding my likes, preferences and opinions into the advertising grist mill. I heartily recommend leaving Facebook to anybody that is bothered by these same things. Facebook started as something fun, but I recommend anybody who is not having that original fun any longer to drop the site and spend your time elsewhere. I can tell you that it feels really great to let go of something so negative.

Some OTT Statistics

sling-tvAs usual the quarterly Digitalsmiths and TiVo recent Video Trends Report contains a ton of interesting statistics about the industry. The following table shows the number of households that subscribed to the various OTT services during the third quarter of each of the last four years.

 

‘                                              Q3 2013          Q3 2014          Q3 2015          Q3 2016

Netflix                                     41.7%              46.4%              49.9%              51.8%

Amazon Prime                        12.9%              17.9%              19.9%              24.8%

Hulu                                          9.4%                9.6%              12.1%                9.9%

HBO Now                                                                                  4.3%                5.2%

YouTube Red                                                                                                      3.1%

Shomi                                                                                                                2.7%

CBS All Access                                                                           2.1%                2.1%

Sling TV                                                                                      1.0%                1.7%

Play Station Vue                                                                         1.3%                1.6%

Blockbuster                               1.8%                1.2%                 1.0%                1.0%

Other                                         1.5%                1.4%                 1.7%                1.8%

Nothing                                    51.8%              47.3%               43.7%              38.1%

Netflix has continued to dominate the industry and has grown to cover an additional 10% of all homes nationwide since 2013. Hulu increased market share in 2015 but is back down again. But expect Hulu to grow again since they are picking up a lot of new content from its owner programmers. In four years Amazon Prime has doubled, although there is a lot of debate about how many people actually watch the video service since it comes free with the Prime shipping program.

What springs out most from the chart is how the industry is diversifying. In just the last year YouTube Red and Shomi sprang to fifth and sixth place in the industry. And 2014 saw the introduction of Play Station Vue, SlingTV, CBS All Access, and HBO Now. It’s also striking to see the number of homes that don’t watch OTT content drop from 52% in 2013 to only 38% today.

You may be surprised to see Blockbuster still active on the list. While all their stores have closed, the Blockbuster brand is still being used to market OTT movies and is now integrated into SlingTV.

The ‘Other’ category is interesting. On last count there were over 100 different video pay services on the web, yet outside the major OTT players these services together are only seen in 1.8% of households.

This next chart shows what people pay for OTT content, comparing 2014 and today

Monthly Expense                  Q3 2014                      Q3 2016

$1 – $2                                     2.0%                            3.6%

$3 – $5                                     2.3%                            3.2%

$6 – $8                                    33.4%                          16.5%

$9 – $11                                  21.7%                          30.1%

$12 – $14                                  8.1%                           10.0%

$15 – $20                                 14.0%                          15.8%

$21+                                           6.8%                          10.7%

Use But Don’t Pay                    11.1%                          10.1%

In just two years the average bills have crept significantly upward. Currently over 2/3 of homes report paying more than $9 per month for OTT service, while in 2014 that was only 51%. Probably more interesting is that 26% of homes pay more than $15 per month for OTT content. My household is in this category and we have subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime (including Starz), and SlingTV.

The percentage of households who told an interviewer that they watch but don’t pay for OTT content dropped slightly, but represents about the same number of people from 2014 to 2016.

 

An Effective Federal Broadband Program, Part 3

outdoor-indoor-cable-161This is the third in my series of blogs looking at the best way to administer a federal broadband construction program. Since there is talk of having an infrastructure program that might include money for broadband, I hope that the folks at places like the NTIA are giving these issues some thought. The last time around the stimulus grants caught them and the whole industry by surprise. But this time, with some advanced thought and planning we can do better and get more bang from any federal dollars. After all, if there is a broadband program, it ought to have the number one goal of bringing broadband to as many people as possible. Following are some additional thoughts on structuring a federal program:

Consider Local Conditions More. The stimulus grants included a simplistic formula that offered different levels of grant funding to served and underserved communities. We need to get more sophisticated this time around and realize that the cost of broadband networks has a lot more to do with terrain and density than it does with whether customers are served or unserved. There is a huge difference in the cost to reach an unserved customer in the open plains of the Midwest compared to Appalachia. And other local conditions like the state of poles can make a big difference in cost. The CAF II funding took a stab at the differences by using proxy cost models to try to reflect the relative cost to construct in different parts of the country. But even those models are too simplistic and we can do better.

This also means that there should be no predetermined formula that determines of the amount of matching funds that are available for any project. Sparsely populated areas might require more than 50% federal matching to make the numbers work. I know it’s difficult to not be formulaic, but ideally each proposal for funding should be analyzed on its own and the appropriate funding award made according to the circumstance.

Be Open to Funding All Qualified Providers. The stimulus grants (particularly the ones awarded by the RUS) had a built in bias to give the money to existing RUS borrowers. For broadband that means basically small telcos and some electric coops. If we want to get broadband to the most rural places, then anybody willing to step to the plate with a good business plan and some experience needs to have an equal chance. This might mean ISPs, municipalities, cooperatives, cable companies or fiber overbuilders. There is angst among smaller carriers that any federal funding will go to the largest telcos and that smaller providers won’t get an opportunity to try for the money, as was done with CAF II.

Takes Time to have Shovel Ready Projects. At any given point in time there are not many shovel ready projects that are positioned to take funding immediately. My fear is that any federal program is going to come with a built-in clock ticking and will try to give out the money in a relatively short amount of time like was done with the stimulus grants. It can easily take a year to create a shovel ready project even for a community that is highly motivated. There are a lot of steps that must be undertaken before completing a grant application. And if there is a requirement that the matching funding must be in place in order to participate then that time frame can easily be a lot longer. So my hope is that any program gives the industry enough time to get ready. If the funds are going to be awarded within a year then it’s going to be a disaster and a lot of bad projects will get funded just because they were able to scratch together the funding request quickly. This can be successful if broadband money can be awarded over a two to four-year period rather than all at once. The longer the time frame, the better the proposed projects will be.

Don’t Break the System. There are a limited number of firms available to help put together business plans and to make engineering estimates. If a federal program tries to give out a lot of money too quickly there are not enough qualified engineers and financial consultants available to get the work done – and it’s not easy for these firms to staff up with people that have the necessary existing knowledge. We also saw shortages with fiber cable and electronics right after the stimulus plan. All segments of the industry are staffed and geared to an anticipated level of demand and it’s hard for the whole industry to pivot and react quickly to a massive new demand for services and components.

Make the Grant Forms Understandable. I have been doing telecom accounting since the 1970s and there were things on the stimulus grants forms that I didn’t understand. Bring in a panel of industry experts early to make sure that the forms used to ask for money are done in a way that the industry understands. A format that asks for financial input in the manner that the industry keeps their books will provide a lot more consistency between grants requests.

Economic Lives of Fiber Assets

outdoor-indoor-cable-161One thing that anybody who builds a fiber network needs to deal with at some point is depreciation expense. Fiber networks are expensive and depreciation expense is a key component for measuring profitability and success. This is even true for non-taxable entities if you still create financial reports that include depreciation.

Companies differ in their approach to depreciating their assets. If the owner is a taxable corporation or cooperative they may prefer higher depreciation expense in the early years to shield the business from income taxes. But other owners care a lot about what their financial reports say and I know some fiber network owners that like lower depreciation. Accountants all understand that depreciation is a non-cash expense, but this is a nuance that is often lost on the public or the non-sophisticated reader of financial statements.

My job allows me see the books of a lot of different kinds of telecom entities and I see that depreciation rates used for telecom assets vary widely. There was a time when the FCC and state commissions set depreciation rates for big companies, and the rest of industry usually followed. But today a fiber provider is free to set depreciation lives within a surprisingly wide range.

There is only one authoritative source for depreciation lives which is from a bulletin published by the IRS in 2015.  That bulletin establishes a baseline for depreciation for tax purposes for fiber networks that assumes a conservative and short life for fiber assets. For example, the IRS life for fiber cable is 24 years. At the other end of the scale, I have clients who are using a 40-year life on fiber. From an accounting perspective this wide range is like night and day.

In my experience the economic lives suggested by the IRS are ridiculously short. There was a time in the 1980s when a 20 to 25-year life for fiber was probably reasonable. The early generations of fiber cable had manufacturing flaws that allowed small cracks to develop over time that eventually cause the fiber to become opaque and lose usefulness. Most of the fiber built in those days has deteriorated over the years and has been retired or is of limited use today.

But the manufacturing process for fiber cables has improved drastically in each succeeding decade. I’ve talked to engineers at the fiber manufacturers who estimate that today’s fiber cables might easily last for 50 to 75 years as long as it’s installed properly and not unduly stressed. And there is speculation that fiber might last even longer – we’ll just have to wait and see.

The same thing is true for fiber electronics. Thirty years ago electronics in general were not as well made or as robust as today. There were large clunky circuit cards that expanded and shrunk in outside use and then eventually went bad. And these cards were full of individual components that could fail. But today a lot of the brains of electronics is embedded in chips that can last for a long time.

I can remember back in the 1990s when the engineering mantra was that you designed electronics to last from 7 to 10 years. Within that time frame the equipment would either start having operational issues or else the manufacturer would stop supporting it. But today’s electronics are much hardier and more reliable. I have several clients that still operate the first generation BPON fiber network networks. The electronics on these networks were made 12 – 15 years ago and are still going strong, and during that time they have had almost no failures. But most companies used depreciation lives for the BPON electronics of between 7 to 10 years. The same thing is true with the electronics used to power backbone networks. I have clients still operating networks built 15 years ago at twice the expected economic life.

So my advice to clients is that if they they are not stuck with whatever deprecation rates they are using. If they have reasons to might want shorter or longer depreciation lives there might be a justification for changing the depreciation rates. When I first got into the industry everybody used rates within a narrow range, but today there is a huge amount of flexibility in settling depreciation rates.

If your financial statements are audited then your auditor might want a professional opion of why it’s okay to change rates. But there is a huge amount of empirical data to support using longer lives for both fiber and electronics. And if you want to shorten lives it’s fairly easy to point to the IRS rules.

Accounting is not supposed to be this flexible and one would expect the industry to have a more consistent range of depreciation practices. But once the regulators stepped out of the business of regulating depreciation lives it’s been the wild west from an accounting perspective. So if you don’t like what depreciation expense is doing for you, contact me and I can help you find a better answer.

What the New Administration Means for Small ISPs

white-houseI’ve seen a dozen articles in the last week speculating what the change in administration means to the telecom industry. The articles range from predictions of doom and gloom (mostly from a consumer perspective) to near glee (from the giant telcos). But my audience and clients are primarily small telcos, ISPs, cable companies and municipalities, so I’ve been thinking about what this change means for small carriers.

There has been a lot of speculation about a big spending program to build infrastructure. But nobody has any idea if this might include money for broadband infrastructure. And even if it does, might that money go to a wide number of broadband providers or just to the big companies like the CAF II funds? So until we find out more details, any talk about infrastructure is pure speculation. I’m sure details will start solidifying in the first quarter after the new administration is in place.

One thing that every prediction I have seen agrees on is that we are going to see reduced regulation. This might come about due to having a republican majority at the FCC. Every major decision during the Wheeler regime has been passed with a 3-2 democratic vote. So it would be easy to see a new FCC reverse everything that Wheeler got passed. There is also speculation that Congress might pass a new Telecom Act which would direct the FCCC to cut regulations.

So what does less regulation mean for smaller ISPs? When looking at every regulation that has passed over the last decade I come to the conclusion that, from a regulatory perspective, this will have very little effect on smaller service providers. Almost everything that has been passed has been aimed at curbing the practices of the giant telcos and cable companies.

Smaller carriers would see some benefit due to reduced paperwork. For instance, competitive voice providers have had to provide an option to customers for battery backup. That sort of requirement might disappear. There was undoubtably going to be some new paperwork involved with the new privacy rules that will likely be canceled. My clients all find some of the federal paperwork to be annoying and unneeded and perhaps some of that will go away.

But the big changes over the last decade didn’t really impact small companies at all. I have to laugh to think of one of my clients somehow creating a product package that violates net neutrality. It’s silly to think that small ISPs might might somehow profit from using their customers’ data. If those big initiatives get reversed it will mean almost nothing to small companies since none were engaging in the activities that these new regulations are trying to fix.

There is one downside for small ISPs to reduced regulation. A lot of small carriers compete against the giant telcos and cable companies. Anything that takes away restrictions on the giant companies probably gives them even more of a competitive edge than they have today. So I guess my biggest concern is what an unfettered Comcast or AT&T will be able to do to crush smaller competition.

There are aspects of Title II regulation that help the small carriers compete against the big ones. My favorite, which is due to be implemented soon, is the requirement that ISPs tell their customers the truth about their broadband products. This will be done in the format similar to the label on foods where the ISPs have to disclose actual speeds, latency, prices, etc. about their products. I think that will give small carriers a way to show that they are better than the big companies. If Title II regulation goes away then the good parts go away along with the bad parts.

I’ve always thought that net neutrality was focused on reining in the big companies from developing products that nobody else can compete with. The big carriers have wanted to make exclusive deals with content providers and social media networks that would give them a leg up over anybody they compete against.

So my message to small ISPs is not to worry too much. If the FCC reverses everything done in the last ten years you are not going to see much practical change in your regulatory processes or costs. The only real worry is what an unregulated Comcast or AT&T might look like. And who knows? Maybe you’ll get some federal dollars to expand your broadband network – we’ll just to wait and see about that one.