I’ve worked with a number of small communities that want to explore the idea of having a community-owned ISP. My advice to small communities is the same as with all clients – economy-of-scale really matters for ISPs.
Economy-of-scale is the economic term for describing how businesses get more efficient as they get larger. It’s fairly easy to understand, and the classic example is to look at the impact of the salary and costs of the general manager of an ISP. Consider the example where the all-in cost of salary and benefits of the general manager is $200,000 per year. If the ISP has 200 customers, that cost works out to $82 per month per customer – obviously impossible to cover. At 2,000 customers, that’s a cost of $8.33 per month per customer – probably doable, but a big strain on being profitable. At 20,000 customers, the cost is reduced to $0.83 per month – a cost that is easy to absorb. With a customer base of 200,000, this cost is only 8 cents per customer per month.
A large percentage of the costs of operating an ISP are fixed or nearly fixed. Any fixed cost acts in the same manner as the general manager’s salary. The larger the size of the ISP, the easier it is to cover fixed costs and the better the chance of being profitable.
It’s possible for a small ISP to break even, but doing so requires the operator to be extremely frugal – any unexpected expense can throw a tiny ISP into a loss. Operating a small ISP of a few hundred customers is best described as a labor of love – because it is not going to be profitable for the owner.
For many years I’ve said that the bare minimum number of customers to enable an ISP to be full-function was around 2,000. That’s enough revenue to cover the labor for a few employees, along with other operating expenses. An ISP with 2,000 customers still needs to keep an eye on expenses because it doesn’t take much to tip the business into losing money. However, with current inflation, I think the minimum size to be effective has probably grown closer to 3,000 customers.
In building business plans, I’ve always seen the real benefits of economy-of-scale kick in around 20,000 customers. That’s enough customers to be able to operate a full-function ISP that can deliver superior customer service. There is enough revenue to hire all of the needed staff and pay them well, including good benefits. ISPs smaller than 20,000 have to forego some of the benefits that come with size.
Interestingly, economy-of-scale doesn’t scale forever. In my experience in the industry, I see that ISPs of a certain size start getting less efficient. It’s going to be unique to the specific company, but ISPs larger than 200,000 or 250,000 start being less efficient.
I’ve always credited this with the phenomenon where the span of management control gets too broad. At some size, the core management team doesn’t know what is going on at the street level. When that happens, it’s inevitable to start seeing bureaucracy creep in, which is the curse of the giant ISPs. Local or regional management starts determining policies, often to the detriment of the overall business. The largest companies manage through a process of pitting regions against each other to earn bonuses. That’s far different than running an ISP with 20,000 customers. Almost all of the horror stories we’ve heard over the years about the poor treatment of Comcast customers can be attributed to regional managers who made cuts or implemented policies that benefitted their bonuses rather than benefitting the customers.
Try as they might, the giant ISPs are never going to have the same level of customer service as the smaller ISPs they compete against. Witness the many decades of duopoly competition between Comcast and Verizon FiOS. They are both big companies, and customers don’t love either of them in the way that I see customers being loyal to smaller ISPs.
Of course, size isn’t everything, and there are small ISPs who are terrible at the day-to-day operations of the business. Economy-of-scale refers to the scaling of costs and has nothing to do with the philosophy of how an ISP treats employees or customers.
My advice to any ISP with under 5,000 customers is to consider how much easier it would be to operate the company if it grew to 10,000 or 20,000 customers.