Are Broadband Investments Increasing?

The largest ISPs and their lobbying arm USTelecom are still claiming that the level of industry capital spending has improved as a direct result of the end of Title II regulation. In a recent blog they argue that capital spending was up in 2018 due to the end of regulation – something they describe as a “forward-looking regulatory framework”. In reality, the new regulatory regime is now zero regulation since the FCC stripped themselves of the ability to change ISP behavior for broadband products and practices.

The big ISPs used this same argument for years leading up to deregulation. They claimed that ISPs held back on investments since they were hesitant to invest in a regulatory-heavy environment. This argument never held water for a few reasons. First, the FCC barely ever regulated broadband companies. Since the advent of DSL and cable modems in the late 1990s, each subsequent FCC has largely been hands-off with the ISP industry.

The one area where the last FCC added some regulations was with net neutrality. According to USTelecom that was crippling regulation. In reality, the CEO of every big telco and cable company has publicly stated that they could live with the basic principles of net neutrality. The one area of regulation that has always worried the big ISPs is some kind of price regulation. That’s really not been needed in the past, but all of the big companies look into the future and realize that the time will come when they will probably raise broadband rates every year. We are now seeing the beginnings of that trend, which is probably why USTelecom keeps beating this particular dead horse to death – the ISPs are petrified of rate regulation of any kind.

The argument that the big ISPs held back on investment due to heavy regulation has never had any semblance to reality. The fact is that the big ISPs make investments for the same reasons as any large corporation – to increase revenues, to reduce operating costs, or to protect markets.

As an example, AT&T has been required to build fiber past 12.5 million passings as part of the settlement reached that allowed them to buy DirecTV. AT&T grabbed that mandate with gusto and has been aggressively building fiber for the past several years and selling fiber broadband. Both AT&T and Verizon have also been building fiber to cut transport expense to cell sites – they are building where that transport is too costly, or where they know they want to install small cell sites. The large cable companies all spent capital on DOCSIS 3.1 for the last few years to boost broadband speeds to protect and nurture their growing monopoly of urban broadband. All of these investment decisions were made for strategic business reasons that didn’t consider the difference between light regulation and no regulation. Any big ISP that says they will forego a strategic investment due to regulation would probably see their stock price tumble.

As a numbers guy, I always become instantly suspicious of deceptive graphs. Consider the graph included in the latest USTelecom blog. It shows the levels of industry capital investments made between 2014 and 2018. The graph makes the swings of investment by year look big due to the graphing trick of starting the bottom of the graph at $66 billion instead of at zero. The fact is that 2018 capital investments are less than 3% higher than the investments made in 2014. This is an industry where the aggregate level of annual investment varies by only a few percent per year – the argument that the ISPs have been unleashed due to the end of Title II regulation is laughable and the numbers don’t show it.

There are always stories every year that can explain the annual fluctuation in industry spending. Here are just a few things that made an significant impact on the aggregate spending in the past few years:

  • Sprint had a cash crunch a few years ago and drastically cut capital spending. One of the primary reasons for the higher 2018 spending is that Sprint spent almost $2 billion more in 2018 than the year before as they try to catch up on neglected projects.
  • AT&T spent $2 billion in 2018 for FirstNet, the nationwide public safety network. But AT&T is not spending their own money – that project is being funded by the federal government and ought to be removed from these charts.
  • Another $3 billion of AT&T’s spending in 2018 was to beef up the 4G network in Mexico. I’m not sure how including that spending in the numbers has any relevance to US regulation.
  • AT&T has been on a tear building fiber for the past four years – but they announced last month that the big construction push is over, and they will see lower capital spending in future years. AT&T has the largest capital budget in the industry and spent 30% of the industry wide $75 billion in 2018 – how will USTelecom paint the picture next year after a sizable decrease in AT&T spending?

The fact that USTelecom keeps harping on this talking point means they must fear some return to regulation. We are seeing Congress seriously considering new consumer privacy rules that would restrict the ability of ISPs to monetize customer data. We know it’s likely that if the Democrats take back the White House and the Senate that net neutrality and the regulation of broadband will be reinstated. For now, the big ISPs have clearly and completely won the regulatory battle and broadband is as close to deregulated as any industry can be. Sticking with this false narrative can only mean that the big ISPs think their win is temporary.

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