I bet that the average person thinks that telecom competition is increasing in the country. There are so many news releases talking about new and faster broadband that people probably thinks broadband is getting better everywhere. The news releases might mention Google Fiber or talk about 4G or 5G data and infer that competition is increasing in most places across the country. But I travel a lot and I am pretty certain that in most markets broadband competition is shrinking.
There are a few places getting new fiber. Google has built a few cities. CenturyLink has woken up from the long sleep of Quest and is building some fiber in some markets. And there are a handful of municipalities and other companies building fiber in some markets. This is bringing faster broadband to some cities, or more accurately to some neighborhoods in some cities since almost nobody is building fiber to an entire metro market. But it’s hard to say that this fiber is bringing price competition. Google has priced their gigabit fiber at $70 per month and everybody else is charging the same or more. And these big bandwidth products are only intended for the top third of the market – they are cherry picking products. Cities that are getting fiber are mostly not seeing price competition, particularly for the bottom 2/3 of the market.
But in most markets in the US the cable companies have won the broadband battle. I’ve seen a surveys from a few markets that show that DSL penetration is as low as 10% – and even then at the lower speeds and prices in most markets – and the cable companies serve everybody else.
It seems the two biggest telcos are headed down the path to eventually get out of the landline business. Verizon stopped building new FiOS and has now sold off some significant chunks of FiOS customers. It’s not hard to imagine that the day will come over the next decade when they will just quietly bow out of the landline business. It’s clear when reading their annual report that the landline business is nothing more than an afterthought for them. I’ve read rumors that AT&T is considering getting out of the U-Verse business. And they’ve made it clear that they want completely out of the copper business in most markets. And so you are also likely to see them start slipping out of the wireline business over time.
I can’t tell you how many people I meet who are convinced that wireless cellular data is already a competitor of landline data. It is not a competitor for many reasons. One primary reason is physics; for a wireless network in a metropolitan area to be able to deliver the kind of bandwidth that can be delivered on landlines would require fiber up and down every street to feed the many required cell sites. But it’s also never going to be a competitor due to the draconian pricing structure of cellular data. It’s not hard to find families who download more than a 100 gigabits during a month and with Verizon or AT&T wireless that much usage would probably cost $1,000 per month. Those two GIANT companies are counting on landline-based WiFi everywhere to give their products a free ride and they do not envision cellular data supplanting landlines.
Broadband customer service from the large companies has gone to hell. The large cable companies and telcos are among the worst at customer service when measured against all industries. This might be the best evidence of the lack of competition – because the big carriers don’t feel like they have to spend the money to be good. Most customers have very few options but to buy from one of the behemoths.
We were supposed to heading towards a world where the big telcos built fiber and got into the cable business to provide a true competitor to the cable companies. A decade ago the common consensus was that the competition between AT&T and Time Warner and between Verizon and Comcast was going to keep prices low, improve customer service, and offer real choices for people. But that has never materialized.
Instead what we have are the cable companies dominating landline broadband and the two largest telcos controlling the wireless business. Other competition at this point is not much more than a nuisance to both sets of companies. We see prices on broadband rising while broadband speeds in non-competitive markets are stagnating. And, most unbelievable to me, we’ve seen the US population replace a $25/month landline that sufficed for the family with cellphones that cost $50 or more for each family member. I can’t recall anybody predicting that years ago. It kind of makes a shambles of fifty years worth of severe telephone regulation that used to fight against telcos raising rates a dollar or two.
So I contend that overall competition in the country is shrinking, and if Verizon and AT&T get out of the landline business it will almost disappear in most markets. Even where we are seeing gigabit networks, the competition is with speed and not with price. People are paying more for telecom products than we did years ago, and price increases are outstripping inflation. Make no mistake – if I could get a gigabit connection I would buy it – but giving the upper end of the market the ability to spend more without giving the whole market the option to spend less is not competition – it’s cherry picking.