Forcing Competition

charter-spectrum-logoThere was an FCC requirement in the Charter acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks that wasn’t much mentioned in the press. As a requirement to gain approval for the merger the FCC is requiring that Charter must build new networks to pass one million potential customer passings outside of its existing footprint. Charter must do this where there is already another ISP offering at least 25 Mbps, and Charter is required to offer at least 60 Mbps speeds.

The two main lobbying groups which together represent small cable companies and telcos for smaller ISPs  (the American Cable Association and the Rural Broadband Association) are suing the FCC to stop this.

This seems like a very odd requirement. Charter is being directed to build in markets that already qualify as having broadband under the FCC’s definition, so this won’t bring broadband to anybody new. But I guess the FCC hopes it will create networks that will compete against each other with price and service.

But if Charter expands using coaxial networks, then this ruling will force Charter to build a second coax network in markets, often in places where poles are already getting very full of wires. Charter could instead build with all-fiber, but then they would be creating a pocket of customers using a different technology, and big companies have shown they are not very good at handling one-off situations. For example, Verizon had such a hard time integrating fiber processes into their existing company that they literally created FiOS as a whole new internal organization separate from copper. What I find even more troubling is that any market where Charter builds is not likely to then ever attract another fiber overbuilder.

I know that the FCC is very bothered by the fact that cable companies don’t compete against each other. The FCC reports every year that the majority of residents in the country only have one choice for decent broadband speeds, and I am sure that is what prompted this requirement. But I think there is a reason for that – cable companies are largely a natural monopoly. A cable company has no technological advantage by building alongside of another existing coaxial network. I am sure that cable companies have done the math over the years and if, for example, Charter was to build to compete against Comcast, then in the end both companies will under-earn in the market with dual competition.

I love real competition and it’s always interesting to watch how a cable company reacts when somebody builds a new fiber network to compete with them. But I don’t think that a regulator can force competition. They can require Charter to build new network, but they can’t really make them act competitively in the same manner that some smaller fiber provider would act. A competitor has to be hungry to be competitive and it’s hard thinking that this requirement is going to make Charter show up in new markets and act like a competitive overbuilder.

The smaller ISPs are worried because they suspect that Charter will pick their markets to meet their requirement rather than going up against Comcast or Mediacom. And there is certainly a good chance they are right. I am sure that Charter really does not want to create bad blood between them and the other large cable companies. Together these companies own Cable Labs. Comcast and Charter both own a piece of Hulu. They do not want to be out marketing against each other if that can be avoided. And so Charter is likely to select smaller markets where either small cable companies or telcos are the primary ISP.

I really have to ask what good this requirement does in the long run. If Charter’s heart is not in this they will muddle through competing in the new markets and they won’t do well. Some customers in those markets may benefit by the newly created competition, but then again Charter may decide to not compete on price. One might suspect that in the sixth year of the new venture that Charter might be selling off these new networks to somebody else.

My gut tells me that you can’t force a company to be competitive when it’s against their nature. I am sure there is a lot of groaning in the departments of Charter that are being tasked with completing this requirement. But the company will choose some markets, probably close to where they already have headends, and they will build new networks until they pass a million and one potential customers. They may or may not make enough money to pay for these new networks, and at some point they will walk away from the venture if it’s a financial failure. I may be wrong, but this doesn’t feel like an idea aimed towards success.

3 thoughts on “Forcing Competition

  1. “I know that the FCC is very bothered by the fact that cable companies don’t compete against each other. The FCC reports every year that the majority of residents in the country only have one choice for decent broadband speeds, and I am sure that is what prompted this requirement. But I think there is a reason for that – cable companies are largely a natural monopoly.”

    It’s astounding the FCC doesn’t grasp this basic microeconomic fact about telecom infrastructure. It’s not a commodity and has high cost barriers to entry that discourage competition. Or even more disturbing, that the FCC does get it but is pretending otherwise.

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    • This is one of the seemingly dumbest things I’ve seen the FCC order. It would have made a lot more sense to require Charter to expand the networks some around existing markets to cover new homes. That would have brought broadband for the first time to new people rather than forcing the company to somehow compete with other ISPs against their will.

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  2. You are right about the lack of natural competition among cable and telecom residential Internet access providers. The thing is, they keep insisting to Congress and the FCC that the market is very competitive, so regulators keep trying to make it so.

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