Amazon as an ISP?

amazon_logo_rgbThere is an article on The Information that says that Amazon is considering becoming an ISP. They cite an unattributed insider at Amazon who says that the company has been discussing this. Officially the company denies the rumor, which is consistent with the way that Amazon has always operated.

It’s an interesting concept, but I honestly have a hard time seeing it. Amazon has been growing in Europe and it could make a little sense there. There are a number of cities on the continent as well as a few national ISP networks that allow open access to any ISP. On those networks Amazon could easily develop an ISP product. They already have massive data centers and it wouldn’t cost all that much to add the ISP functions.

But I just don’t see any big benefits to Amazon for doing this in the open access model. Due to price competition there are not a lot of profit for ISPs on the open access networks. But maybe Amazon can have some edge from somehow bundling ISP access with its Amazon Prime video and music. But every ISP already carries Amazon’s content today and unless bundling somehow sells a lot more Prime subscriptions it’s hard to see this as a big win.

I also can’t see any sense of Amazon being an ISP in the US. There are no open access networks to speak of outside a tiny handful of small municipal networks. One only has to look at Google’s foray into broadband in the US to see that it’s really hard to make money by building broadband infrastructure – at least the kind of money that excites stockholders. There are decent long-term infrastructure returns from building and operating a fiber network well, but those returns are miniscule compared to the returns on tech ventures.

I still don’t fully understand why Google got into the broadband business. In the fiber business they are investing a lot of money that is going to make relatively small returns compared to the rest of their core business. Google’s stock value comes from the company making high technology returns and infrastructure returns can’t do anything better than pull down their overall return. I can’t imagine how it will be any less so for Amazon.

Perhaps Amazon is intrigued by the idea of gigabit wireless connections.  But I think everybody looking at this new technology is going to figure out that millimeter wave spectrum technology is still going to require a lot of fiber in the urban network.

And even if Amazon is comfortable with the lower returns, they still have to deal with network neutrality. It would seem that the best advantage to Amazon from being an ISP would be to somehow bundle their content and broadband connections together – something that is not allowed in the US, and only barely allowed in Europe.

The biggest problem we have with getting real broadband in the country is that big money is chasing big returns. There was a time in our past where there were a lot of conservative investors who were very happy having part of their portfolio invested in safe and steady telephone, electric and water companies because they knew that they would receive secure dividends forever in these safe investments.

But it seems today that investors look at all of the instant tech billionaires and they don’t want to pour money into the basics any more. To compound the problem the big telcos and cable companies invest no more than absolutely necessary in capital to meet basic customer expectations. But big company networks are not nearly as good as they should be. You can’t watch a quarterly presentation of one of these big companies without hearing them talk about how they have plans to curtail capital spending.

So is Amazon really going to become an ISP? They certainly have access to the cash if they really want to. But it’s just hard to believe that they want to shift the company to be more brick and mortar company since they have fought hard to not be that. I just can’t see enough benefits to a publicly traded tech company to be an ISP.

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