Fiber Networks as Collateral

One of the challenges of getting a new fiber network funded is to satisfy all of the requirements of bankers in order to make them comfortable to make a loan. In my experience one of the hardest hurdles for traditional bankers to overcome is their desire to have safe collateral for every loan. Collateral is typically a hard asset that can be liquidated to pay off the loan should the borrower be unable to do so. Bankers are used to lending into businesses where there are hard assets they know are good collateral. Loans for assets like buildings or large construction equipment are considered safe since the assets can be easily resold. Unfortunately, fiber networks don’t make for good collateral.

I’ve worked with half a dozen different clients recently where the bank asked this question. The bankers want to understand the ‘value’ of an installed fiber network should the loan go into default. It doesn’t take much web research for them to find failed fiber projects where the fiber was sold for pennies on the dollar. The truthful answer to the question is that once installed, fiber has little intrinsic value as an asset.

Companies without good collateral assets have a much harder time borrowing money and this issue is not unique to fiber network. For example, firms that sell labor hours like engineers, CPAs and lawyers often encounter the same resistance with banks when trying to buy money to grow.

The right response to the collateral question is to convince the bank that they are asking the wrong question. The value in a fiber network is not in the fiber, it’s in the revenues that are generated from that fiber. Some bankers understand this and I know several fiber overbuilders who have convinced a bank to provide a cash-based line of credit. These lines of credit are typically short-term loans that can be used perpetually to build fiber. The borrower draws the funds to build fiber and repays the loan as quickly as possible as revenues are generated. Lines of credit keep renewing as the borrower pays down the balance. Over time, as the cash flows of the business grows, banks are generally willing to expand the borrowing limit, enabling the fiber builder to build faster. Eventually the loans get too large to qualify for a line of credit, but by this time the business has grown to the point where they can qualify for more traditional loans based upon their balance sheet.

I always try to look at a loan from the banker’s perspective. Building fiber sounds risky. It’s not hard for a banker to go to Google and find numerous fiber projects that didn’t pan out as promised (starting with Google Fiber!). The are no immediate revenues from that fiber until it’s completed and even after that there is no guarantee that any given fiber build will generate enough revenue to cover the debt payments. A banker has little choice but to consider building fiber to be a high-risk undertaking.

The way to overcome the perceived risk of fiber is to package the loan request in a form that bankers will understand. Bankers understand cash more than anything else, and so the best way I’ve found to avoid the collateral discussion is to focus the whole loan discussion on cash flows. The best way to make a banker feel safe about revenues is to pre-sell to customers. It’s a lot easier to ask for money for a specific fiber project if the bank can see a guaranteed revenue stream.

It’s important to remember that bankers don’t understand the fiber business. During the course of a given month they might consider loans from a dozen different industries and they can’t possibly understand the nuances of each one. I have clients who can’t understand why bankers aren’t wowed by their business plan projections – the simple reason is that they have no basis for knowing if the assumptions made in the projections are good or bad. When companies borrow from an industry-friendly place like CoBank their loan application is reviewed by somebody who understands our industry – but a local bank can’t be expected to ever understand enough about the broadband business to trust a projection.

This means that a borrower needs to package a loan request in terms that a banker will understand. All banks understand cash flows and they will be most impressed by a demonstration of sufficient revenues to make loan payments. A loan application that is boiled down to such simple terms has a much higher likelihood of being considered. If you instead let the loan discussion go down the rabbit hole and concentrate on collateral than you are likely not going to get the loan – because fiber networks make lousy collateral. You’ll be more successful by concentrating on things bankers understand, like cash flow, than you will be in trying to convince them to agree with your awesome business plan. Bankers hear all day about can’t-fail opportunities and they know many of them fail.

How Safe is Your Network?

Last week Comcast suffered a major broadband outage. The worst imaginable set of events occurred when there two simultaneous fiber cuts on major legs of their backbone – one between Chicago and New York and one between Ashburn, Virginia and South Carolina. In case you don’t know, Ashburn is the home of the major Internet POP serving Washington DC and surrounding cities.

This is a network planner’s worth nightmare. Planners always try to build redundancy into fiber routes so that the network won’t crash from a single fiber cut. Modern backbone electronics can be set to automatically forward traffic in both directions around a ring so that service isn’t interrupted in the case of a fiber cut or failure of ring electronics somewhere along the ring. But rings using this technology can’t withstand two simultaneous cuts.

What was a bit surprising to me was the failure of a large part of the Comcast network with fiber cuts that were so far apart. It seems unlikely that the company has a fiber ring that sends all Internet traffic in such a large circle. It’s more likely that the company has centralized one or more of their routing functions, such as DNS routing in one place on the network and the fiber cuts might have isolated that key function, which would shut down their Internet product.

Redundancy is a big concern for most smaller network owners. Lack of redundancy was one of the major issues that drove Cook County, Minnesota to build their own fiber network. There is no cable provider in the county and their entire telecom network was provided by CenturyLink. Tourism is the major driver of the economy and a decade ago there was a cut in the CenturyLink fiber from Duluth that isolated the county during peak tourist season. That meant that the Internet, telephones, and cell phones didn’t work. Businesses couldn’t take credit cards, restaurants and hotels couldn’t take reservations, and family members on vacation couldn’t communicate with each other. This prompted the County to pursue a fiber network that included creating redundancy traffic in and out of the county. The network was ultimately built and operated by the local power cooperative, and today there is greatly reduced chance of a major telecom outage.

Even where there is redundancy there can be outages. One of my clients operates a large statewide fiber network that stretches for hundreds of miles. They followed good engineering practice and scheduled an upgrade of the ring electronics after midnight. While one of the nodes was being upgraded the fiber was cut on a different part of the network when a truck knocked down a telephone pole, and the whole network went dark. Fiber cuts in the middle of the night are somewhat rare, but they happen.

Whenever possible fiber engineers also build redundancy into a local fiber network. They might build a ring connecting the fiber huts serving neighborhoods so that the network keeps functioning with a cut along the ring. It’s nearly impossible to design such redundancy in the last-mile loop, but fiber cuts in the last mile only isolate homes associated with the specific fiber.

But just like with Comcast and Cook County, many local networks have a hard time creating redundancy outside of their immediate network. In geographically remote areas it’s often impossible to find a second secure route to the Internet, leaving a network, or whole communities vulnerable to a fiber cut somewhere outside their area.

Unfortunately, it’s getting easier for fiber providers to run into the same kind of issue that hit Comcast. We are migrating numerous functions to the cloud and having redundant fiber routing does not always mean that there is an automatic redundant connection made to a key cloud server. I have clients that are now relying on the cloud for all sorts of services such as VoIP, cable TV programming, DNS routing for the Internet, the use of cloud-based operational software, etc. These ISPs may have a redundant path to the Internet, but still have only one path to get to the company providing their cable TV signal or DNS routing.

The Comcast outage should prompt companies to look again at redundancy. Don’t assume that every function in the cloud is redundant even if you have a redundant connection to the Internet.

The Value of Persistence

One of the most common questions I am asked by those getting ready to build a fiber network is “How can we know that we will get enough customers to make this work?”. They are always hoping there is some magic pill that will let them gain a huge market share to assure their success. Over the years of watching clients launch fiber into hundreds of markets I can assure you there are no magic pills. I’ve come to the conclusion that the two biggest hurdles in the business are first, getting the new network financed, and second, selling to customers.

But there are traits of successful fiber overbuilders that can be duplicated.

Pre-sales campaign. Fiber overbuilders need to take advantage of the one-time buzz that happens when you first bring fiber to a neighborhood. Somewhere between 3 and 6 months before network launch you need to blitz neighborhoods to let them know fiber is on the way. Ideally you will touch every potential customer, and this means a personalized sales approach. This means throwing neighborhood events like ice cream socials or cook-outs. It means distributing door-hangers followed by knocking on every door to let customers know that fiber is on the way.

There is a well-understood maxim that any fiber overbuilder can get 30% of a market just by showing up. There are always customers that either are hungry for better broadband or who simply hate the incumbent providers. An aggressive pre-sales campaign will attract these customers by letting them know you are coming. But pre-sales will also attract another 10% or more of the market, meaning an initial penetration on day-one of 40% or even much higher.

It’s easy to forget that the easiest thing for any potential customer is to do is nothing. If your sales approach is passive – mailers and newspaper ads, you won’t overcome customer inertia that will make it easy for many potential customers to do nothing and to keep the ISP they are already using.

Knowledge Sells. The most successful fiber overbuilders send out knowledgeable salespeople to knock on doors and talk to potential customers. The key word there is knowledgeable. I’ve seen numerous companies hire temporary salespeople, give them a few hours of training and then wonder why they aren’t selling. Successful companies retain permanent salespeople or even send out their own staff to sell door-to-door. When you engage a customer in person it’s essential that the salesperson can comfortably answer all questions about products, prices, the technology and can clearly talk about why a potential customer should switch service.

So don’t take the cheap and easy path of sending out college kids in the summer to sell your network. A knowledgeable sales team will be two or three times more effective at closing sales -so if you are going to make the effort to send out salespeople, send out the right ones.

Persistence. The number one key to long-term success is persistence. Too many fiber builders will blitz a neighborhood one time when it’s first built. They move on to blitz the next new neighborhood and revert to using passive sales techniques in the older market. Such neighborhoods might slowly gain customers over time, though growth often comes as much from word-of-mouth from existing customers as it does from passive sales techniques.

Smart ISPs are persistent. I have clients who knock on doors every year. They have realistic expectation of adding perhaps 2% or 3% per year from a door-knocking campaign in a mature market – but over a decade that translates into a 20% to 30% higher market penetration than they might have had using passive sales techniques. Persistence can pay off for any kind of ISP – I know both commercial and municipal ISPs who have grown to customer penetration rates north of 75% by plugging away at sales year after year.

I know many fiber overbuilders languishing with 40% to 50% penetration rates while having a superior network, better prices and better customer service. They are suffering from what I’ve always called the ‘build-it-and-they-will-come’ mentality and they think their obvious advantages will somehow draw customers to them. What they haven’t done is make the effort to look each potential customer in the eye and explain those advantages. I highly recommend that the general manager and top executives of every ISP take a few days every year to knock on doors. They will quickly learn that a lot of households never heard of their company even though they have had fiber in a neighborhood for years. It’s a humbling experience that quickly demonstrates the value of talking to prospective customers in person.

How to Talk to Bankers

I spend a lot of time assisting clients in finding financing and in doing do I’ve learned a lot about what bankers are looking for from any prospective borrower. Here are some of the key takeaways I’ve learned over the years from talking to bankers:

Be Ready with a Worst Case Scenario. Borrowers invariably create a rosy best-look business plan to demonstrate how well they will perform with the borrowed money. But bankers have learned from hard experience that things often don’t go as well as planned. While bankers certainly want to see the optimistic business projection they are more interested in your worst case scenario, so a smart borrowers will prepare a worst case scenario along with the best case one.

The bankers wants to hear about everything that might go wrong with your plan – project delays, slow sales, higher than expected cost of construction – and then to understand how the borrower plans to cope with each potential snag. They want to be shown that the borrower will be able to repay the loan even if things go wrong. A banker is going to be far more impressed to see ta plan that considers the challenges and has a solution for every contingency. I’ve seen bank loan applications fail when the borrower was unable to answer simple questions about how their plan might fail.

Don’t Talk in Acronyms. Telecom borrowers are invariably highly technical people who understand the nuances of building and operating complex networks. The banker can understand this by looking at your credentials, experience and references. Most bankers don’t want to hear about the detailed nuts and bolts about how the technology works, and they are going to care a lot more about the products to be sold on the network and the plan to effectuate those sales.

I’ve sat on meetings and calls between borrowers and bankers where the response to a simple technical question elicits a fifteen minute spiel on the nuances of the technology. Bankers are not impressed with this, and in fact it can be worrisome if it they perceive the borrower as somebody who can’t explain their business in plain English – because the banker will know that’s what customers are going to want to hear. My advice is to tone down the technology unless the banker specifically wants to hear the details.

Understand the Market. I’ve had numerous clients over the years who have had the philosophy of “build it and they will come,” meaning that they were so positive of the superiority of their proposed network that they just assumed that people will buy their products. The vast majority of the business failures I’ve seen over the years were due to this blindness of the market.

Bankers are going to want to see evidence that people are ready to buy from the new network. In larger markets that might mean a statistically valid survey. In smaller ventures that is going to mean pre-sales and having a list of customers who are ready to buy service. Bankers also want to see a comparison of proposed prices and the prices of the competition  – I am often surprised by proposed new ventures that haven’t taken the time to look at actual customer bills in their proposed market. Do the homework and make the effort to understand the market before asking for funding.

Understand What Bankers are Looking For. Every lender is different and early in the process you need to ask them how they will judge your loan application. I recommend a two-stage process for getting a loan. The first meeting should be to understand what the bank is looking for. Have the banker describe the borrowing process and then use a second meeting to make a formal presentation of the business plan in a way that meets their requirements.

If the bank is interested primarily in collateral, then walk into the presentation ready to talk about that. If they are more focused in seeing a business plan that meets some set of financial metrics like debt service coverage ratio, then walk into the presentation ready to answer those questions.

Bankers talk in lingo just like our industry, and it’s vital to make sure that you understand what they want from you. I’ve seen many borrowers who don’t understand a bank’s requirements and who then never answer the basic questions the bank asks of them. It’s not uncommon for a borrower to be intimidated by the banking process and to be afraid to show that they don’t understand the banking lingo. In the end, if you don’t understand what your banker wants, then it’s likely you won’t be making the right proposal and the chance of getting a loan are greatly diminished.

Banking Challenges for Fiber Builders

I’ve often mentioned in this blog that it’s gotten harder to finance fiber infrastructure. Today I want to discuss a few of the specific issues that fiber builders face when trying to find bank financing. There are two traditional sources of funding for the industry – the Rural Utility Service (RUS) and CoBank.  However, many fiber builders don’t qualify for this funding since both institutions favor established mature companies. Any company that doesn’t fit the profile of these two lenders must turn to the only other source of funding – local and regional banks. Following are some of the issues I see when trying to borrow from banks.

Familiarity with the Industry. Local banks often are leery about lending to telecom companies because they are not familiar with the business and they fear lending into an unknown industry. Local banks are much more comfortable lending to businesses they understand and make loans to car dealers, retail stores and the other kinds of local businesses that have been their long-term core borrowers.

Amount of Borrowing. Every bank has some pre-determined maximum amount they are willing to lend to any one borrower and it’s easy for a fiber overbuilder to quickly hit this limit. I’ve rarely met a fiber overbuilder who doesn’t see endless opportunities for expansion and it’s not hard to hit a bank’s maximum lending limit.

Loan Terms. Local banks are often uncomfortable with the longer-term loans needed to finance fiber.  Banks prefer to make loans for relatively short periods of time, with their preference being short loans of 2 – 5 years. Fiber builders are often forced to only chase projects that fit the short loan terms – which means cherry picking only the best opportunities. In doing so they will be passing up opportunities that would thrive and produce good returns with a longer loan terms of 5 – 15 years.

Collateral. Banks are often uncomfortable with a fiber network as collateral. It’s not hard to blame them for this. A fiber network, once in the ground or on the pole does not automatically have a liquidation valley equal to the cost of the construction. The real value of a fiber network is the revenues from customers who are added to the network – and banks have a hard time accepting this concept. A little research will show bankers that failed fiber ventures have often liquidated the physical fiber network for pennies on the dollar, and that rightfully frightens them.

Quantifying Risk. It can be difficult for a bank to understand the downside risks of building a fiber project. One of the key steps to making a loan is to understand the likelihood of the borrower not meeting the proposed business plan, and bankers have a hard time quantifying and getting comfortable with the potential downsides of the proposed business.

Meeting Metrics. Many banks are driven by metrics – meaning that they look for key financial performance metrics from a borrower. It’s hard to meet the typical metrics for a new fiber network. When a network is first built it boosts the balance sheet – but revenues then lag a few years behind until the new network has enough customers to meet expected metrics. This cycle of early losses followed by eventual gains does not fit easily into the expectations of a metric-driven bank.

Unfortunately, any one of these issues can convince a bank that the fiber loan is too risky or doesn’t fit their comfort zone. Many banks are comfortable with infrastructure loans, but there are infrastructure loans that better meet their expectations. Consider a loan to build an apartment complex. There is the same period of zero revenues while the buildings are constructed, but the expectation is that the borrower will then quickly reach full revenues within a relatively short period after the end of construction. An apartment building also provides comfortable collateral because there is an established market for selling repossessed buildings. Bankers in general understand the apartment complex operating model and are comfortable with the variables of operating an apartment building.

Fiber overbuilders need to be prepared to tell a story that can get a banker comfortable with each one of these concerns. I always advise fiber builders that they must put themselves into the banker’s shoes and look at their own business plan as a skeptic. I’ve often seen fiber builders who point to a business plan that eventually makes a lot of money and who can’t understand why a banker doesn’t see their plan the same way they do. Many of the misgivings that a banker might have about funding a fiber project are legitimate and the borrower must convince the banker that the overall level of risk is small – a tall task.

Migrating the Voice Switch

We’re seeing switch vendors ending support for the first generation of soft switches and this is forcing a lot of companies to consider how to continue safely operate their telephone products. Almost all of my clients are seeing an erosion of their voice customer base which makes it hard to justify investments in new switch hardware.

There are alternatives to buying new hardware that should be considered before ponying up for a new switch. Some of the options include:

Migrating to the Cloud. There are numerous options for migrating some or all of your voice services to the cloud.

The simplest migration path is to use a call feature server in the cloud. This is the device that supplies all of the voice features and is the core of a soft switch. A migration to the cloud will eliminate the call feature server hardware and software at the carrier end and replace it with a lease for the capability from a cloud-based vendor like Alianza / Level 3.

At the other extreme you can abandon the whole voice switch and move everything to a cloud-based VoIP service. This eliminates the switching hardware and software, and also eliminates the cost of interconnection and the purchase of things like SS7. There are options between the two extremes and it’s possible to outsource only some switch functions.

Sharing with a Neighbor. I’ve been preaching for years that neighboring carriers ought to partner for voice services. The typical voice switch is capable of processing huge volumes of calls and there can be significant savings when companies share the cost of the core hardware, software, interconnection costs and technician labor associated with a softswitch.

What to Watch Out For. There are possible gotchas to look out for in any switch migration. For example, a carrier that still relies on access charge revenues needs to be careful that a transition doesn’t drastically change access billing. Obviously losing access revenue is a negative, but a migration that drives access charges higher can also be negative and can draw challenges and possibly even bypass by long distance carriers.

Another wrinkle to be aware of is the ability to maintain special switching arrangements like EAS or regional long distance plans that are mandated by regulatory bodies. With good planning such arrangements can be accommodated – but address them up front.

Traditional ILECs also need to be aware of changes in settlements. Switching subsidies and related access charges have largely been phased out, but any change to rate base and access billing is something that should always be run past settlement consultants.

If planned properly and with a little creativity a carrier can save money by outsourcing switching while still meeting all regulatory requirements including network structures like host/remote complexes and even the tandem function. But if done poorly a carrier can put related revenues at risk while possibly messing up the ability of customers to make calls.

I don’t normally use this blog to directly market CCG Consulting services – I know I rarely read marketing blogs from others. But this kind of migration has hidden perils to those who aren’t careful – if you are going to do it, then make sure it’s done perfectly. There are so many moving parts in a switch migration, and often a lot of dollars at stake that you must get it right the first time. The CCG staff has migrating and upgrading switches for decades and we can help you to save money on your switching function while maintaining cash flows and meeting regulatory requirements.


Selling Wholesale 5G

Frontier announced the other day that it was interested in selling off much of the Verizon FiOS networks it had recently acquired in 2016. Apparently, the company is over-leveraged and needs the cash to make a healthier balance sheet. But regardless of the reason, that puts a sizable pile of last mile fiber networks onto the market.

I read a summary of a report by Cowan Equity Research that suggests that there is increasing value for fiber networks now based upon the potential for selling wholesale connections to 5G providers. As I think about this, though, I’m betting that a lot of fiber network owners will be extremely leery about allowing 5G providers onto their networks.

Without looking at the Frontier specifics, consider an existing last mile fiber network that already passes all, or nearly all of the homes and businesses in a community. Every fiber business plan I’ve ever created shows that any last mile fiber network requires a substantial customer penetration in order to be financially viable. The smaller the footprint of the network, the higher the needed customer penetration rate.

Consider how a 5G provider would gain access to an existing fiber network. They’d want to gain access for each 5G transmitter and would pay some fee per unit, or else a fee to lease the whole network. That fee would have to be low enough for the 5G provider to make a profit when selling broadband. I’m guessing that the Cowan group assumes this will provide an attractive second revenue stream for an existing fiber network.

That assumption ignores the fact that the 5G company will be competing directly against the fiber owner for retail broadband customers. It’s not hard for me to envision a scenario where the fiber network owner will lose margin by this transaction. They will be trading high margin retail customers for low-margin 5G wholesale connections.

I saw one market analyst that guessed that a Verizon 5G gigabit offering would capture 30% of the customers in a market. The only way for that to happen would be for the 5G provider to take a big chunk out of the customer base of both the incumbents in the market as well as the fiber owner.

There are markets where selling wholesale 5G might be a good business plan. For example, I’ve seen speculation that Google Fiber and other large overbuilders hope to achieve a 30% market share in large NFL-sized cities. I could foresee a scenario where Google Fiber might increase profits by offering both retail broadband and wholesale 5G connections.

But in smaller markets this could be a disaster. If the fiber network is in a smaller town of 50,000 people, the existing fiber network might need a 45% or 50% customer penetration to be profitable. It’s not hard imagining a 5G scenario that could drive the network owner out of business through loss of higher-margin retail customers. I can’t see why owners of fiber networks in smaller markets would allow a direct competitor onto their network. While the new source of 5G revenue sounds enticing, the losses from retail margins could more than offset any possible gains from the wholesale 5G revenues.

The Frontier example offers yet another possibility. Verizon is famous for cherry-picking with its fiber networks. They will build to one street and not to the one next door. They will build to one apartment or subdivision but not the one next door. Verizon seems to have stayed very disciplined and built only to those places where the cost of construction met their construction cost criterion. I could foresee somebody owning a cherry-picking network to leverage it to get to the homes that are not directly on the fiber routes. We still don’t yet understand the factors that will determine who can or cannot be served from a 5G network, but assuming that such a network will extend the effective reach of fiber this seems like a possible business plan.

But there are fiber networks owned by telcos, municipalities and fiber overbuilders that might look at the math and decide that having a 5G provider on their network is a bad financial idea. I have a difficult time thinking that cable companies will allow 5G competitors access to fiber that’s deep in residential neighborhoods. My gut tells me that while Wall Street foresees an opportunity, this is going to be a lot harder sell to fiber owners than they imagine.

The Community Reinvestment Act and Broadband

The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) is a federal law that’s been on the books since 1977. The law encourages banks to reinvest some portion of their portfolio in their local communities. The law specifically wants banks to make loans that benefit low and moderate-income neighborhoods. Over the years banks have met the CRA thresholds by investing in assets like low-income housing.

Recently the Federal Reserve, which monitors CRA lending at member banks has suggested that improving local broadband would qualify as CRA investment as long as the projects benefit the target parts of the community. This decision will make it easier for banks to make loans to local broadband providers in their community.

It’s worth looking at the history of bank lending for infrastructure to put this announcement into perspective. There was a time when banks were a major lender for infrastructure projects. If you look  more than 50 years local banks lent to projects to build community infrastructure like cable TV networks, water systems, electric power grids, city halls, etc. These are considered as infrastructure loans if they have long loan terms of 20 to 30 years, much like home mortgages. Even then banks didn’t loan much for really long-life assets like roads, bridges and dams – but they were still a major lender to things we would consider as basic infrastructure.

But for various reasons banks stopped lending for infrastructure. Part of this was due to the turbulence in interest rates in the early 70s. All interest rates bounced around for a while and at one short period of time home mortgage rates were four times higher than today. While interest rates eventually settled back down, the swings in interest rates scared many banks from tying up high dollar loans for 25 or 30 years.

This same time period also saw requirements from the federal government for banks to hold more cash in reserve. Many local banks before then would loan out most of their cash, with the hope that most of the loans were solid. But there were enough loan failures in the 70s to shake the confidence of the banking system and to dissuade banks from lending most of their cash.

What really put the cap on this kind of lending was the massive bank consolidation that saw a significant portion of local banks get gobbled up by larger banks. Before all of the consolidation there was hardly a town or county in the country that didn’t have a local bank that was interested in making local loans. But as those banks disappeared, borrowing for local businesses of all types became harder.

What might this change by the Federal Reserve mean for broadband projects? At a minimum it means that local banks are a lot likelier to listen to the story of somebody that wants to borrow. Now that loans for broadband infrastructure will meet banks CRA obligations they are going to pay particular attention to such loans.

But this is unlikely to open up the floodgates of bank investment in broadband infrastructure. Even if it’s easier to talk about loans borrowers still need to deal with the fact that most banks have a lending limit for an individual loan, particularly for somebody who hasn’t borrowed from them before. Building fiber is expensive and if the bank’s maximum loan size is something under $1 M (could be a lot less), then such loans won’t go very far if trying to expand a fiber network. This is not to say it’s impossible. I know small ISPs that have a revolving line of credit that they can borrow for expansion as they pay off existing loan amounts. But this is almost the opposite of infrastructure financing since such loans generally are paid off in a few years, at most.

It’s probably going to become a lot easier, though for borrowing for smaller broadband projects. This might be building wireless networks to serve parts of a town. These loans might support public hot spots or broadband to low-income housing, as long as there is a revenue stream sufficient to repay the loans. Such loans might also fund small fiber builds needed to connect to a business park, to cellular towers or to a small segment of the community.

There is another avenue that borrowers ought to consider, which is a bank consortium. This is where a group of banks go together to make a loan that is larger than what any of them would tackle alone. This generally requires a bank that is local to the borrower to act as the broker and leader of the deal. This is a lot of work for the primary local bank, and so it takes a sympathetic and willing local bank partner. But the changes in the CRA rules means that it might now be easier to talk banks into joining a consortium. It’s worth a try for somebody that don’t have another path for borrowing.

Be a little bit leery of anybody that tells you that this a world changing decision. Banks are still incredibly conservative and this won’t change their expectation for the metrics they will want a borrower to meet or the collateral they will expect to support a loan. But it ought to open the doors to have conversations with bankers that might not have been possible a few years ago.

Net Neutrality – Time to Reassure Your Customers

The recent net neutrality decision by the FCC has created an amazing amount of fear for broadband subscribers who are worried that they will be losing access to popular aspects of the Internet. There is also general confusion in the public from numerous rumors circulating on social media – some potentially true and many others false.

And I think this worry and confusion creates a good opportunity for smaller ISPs to let customers know that you will continue to uphold net neutrality, even if it is no longer required. This is an easy pledge for small ISPs to make because it’s difficult for small ISPs to violate net neutrality rules even if they want to. The net neutrality rules were aimed at the largest ISPs, the ones that have enough market power to put pressure on web content providers, or ones that might implement intrusive requirements on customers.

It’s also a good time to tell customers of plans to continue to protect their privacy – something that the public probably associates with the net neutrality headlines. While the two topics are not the same, I am sure that many people equate net neutrality and privacy.

In the short run I recommend contacting customers and making a big splash about the topic. Perhaps send a heartfelt email or even mail a paper letter to customers that pledges a continuation of net neutrality and respect for customer privacy.

Small ISPs that are competing directly with the big ISPs also ought to consider making this one of the highlights of any sales or marketing campaign. This is a differentiation from the big ISPs that customers will value that really doesn’t cost a small ISP anything. It should be easy to promise not to block Internet traffic, throttle customer broadband speeds or force paid prioritization of Internet traffic. It also should be easy to pledge to not share customer data.

If the current reversal of the net neutrality rules lasts for a while (something I am doubtful about) this could get a little more complicated. I am positive, for example, that at some point over the next few years that bigger ISPs or data brokers are going to offer to pay small ISPs for access to customer data. Small ISPs ought to reject such offers because the benefit of maintaining customer privacy is worth more than payments from selling customer data.

I also suspect that small ISPs will eventually get offers to take part in programs or products that would violate net neutrality rules. You might be offered software that will create bundles of Internet products, like the ones likely offered by the big ISPs. You might be offered cheaper backhaul bandwidth that includes some blocking and prioritization of traffic. Again, my guess is that maintaining a totally open Internet product is worth more than can be gained by implementing such future products.

The big ISPs are unwittingly handing their competitors a chance to take the high road and it would be silly not to take advantage of this opportunity. I know that if I had an option to buy broadband from a small ISP I would jump at the opportunity as long as they were making this pledge. I currently have broadband from Charter. They haven’t said what they might have in mind due to the end of net neutrality, but I find it impossible to believe that they won’t copy things done by the other big ISPs that prove to be profitable. As a consumer my real fear about the end of net neutrality is that the public won’t be told what their ISP is doing. For example, you might experience slowdowns of some kinds of web traffic and not know that you were being throttled. The big ISPs are already quietly monetizing customer data.

Even if some of the net neutrality rules should be put back in place I think any marketing advantage from the topic will still favor small ISPs. Small ISPs will be able to claim for many years that you never lobbied to end net neutrality and you never violated customer trust, even after the net neutrality rules were killed.

Why Not More Collaboration?

I recently was working with some electric cooperatives that collaborate to perform many of the routine functions for operating their companies. This is a fairly common business model for small electric companies, and many cooperatives and municipal electric companies collaborate together.

I’ve always wondered why smaller telcos and ISPs don’t work together more with their neighbors. I know of a few telco cooperatives that work together. There are also small holding companies around that own multiple small telcos that effectively force this structure on their companies. There is some small degree of collaboration for companies that belong to statewide fiber network groups, but this is usually fairly limited in scope.

What do I mean by collaboration? It means sharing the cost of performing the routine functions of operating an ISP to achieve efficiencies and savings. When I look at the companies that collaborate I see some of the following functions being done together:

  • Accounting. Collaboration means hiring fewer accountants and also saving money on accounting software.
  • Benefits Administration. Assuming that benefits can be aligned it’s far more efficient to share the cost of acquiring, monitoring and administering benefits.
  • ISP Functions. For companies that do ISP functions in house there are significant savings from sharing email platforms, security monitoring, spam filters, etc.
  • Legal. Some of the routine legal costs such as negotiating interconnection agreements, pole agreements, vendor contracts, etc. can be less costly when done for several companies at the same time.
  • Software Sharing. There can be significant savings on software licensing fees for companies acting as one entity.

There are also possible economy of scale savings from collaboration, where looking like a larger company can save money. Almost everything larger ISPs do is cheaper per customer than for smaller ISPs, so collaboration can let a group of companies look like one larger entity. Possible collaborative functions include:

  • Billing. Larger ISPs are able to perform billing functions in house at a lower cost than outsourced services.
  • Engineering. Smaller companies working together can probably hire an engineer or two for a lower cost than each of them outsourcing the function.
  • NOC Monitoring. Companies working together might be able to afford 24/7 NOC coverage for less than what they are paying today for partial coverage.
  • Help Desk. Collaborating on a shared help desk can also mean better coverage hours for a lower cost per customer.
  • Purchasing. Collaborating can mean using a full-time buyer, which is more efficient that using mainline employees to do the purchasing function. There are also economy of scale savings from buying some network components and other supplies together.
  • Dispatch / Fleet Management. Again, looking like a larger company should equate to savings on vehicle maintenance and insurance. There is also the opportunity to afford a better fleet management tool to reduce windshield time for technicians.
  • Customer Service. I don’t know many telcos that share the customer service function, but I see electric companies with significant savings from operating one group for multiple companies.

Finally, there are significant savings of the collaborating companies that have physically interconnected networks:

  • Voice Switch. The savings per customer are significant for sharing one voice switch for multiple companies. There is also a significant potential savings for switch functions like SS7, database management, interconnection trunks, wholesale long distance, etc.
  • Cable TV Headend. There is also significant savings from sharing one cable headend.
  • Major Network Routers. The major core electronics used to power FTTP or other kinds of networks can be used to support multiple companies if all are on the same network using the same technology.
  • Internet Backbone. Companies acting as one can buy a larger broadband data pipe for a lower cost per gigabyte and well as more easily establishing redundant routes to the Internet.

Neighboring ISPs can gain some of these savings by simply working together. But many of the savings (such as the economy of scale savings) probably require a more formal corporate structure. A common structure in the electric world is to create a service corporation that is owned by, and works for all of the owner / partners. With margins tightening across the small ISP industry this is something that any small ISP ought to think about.  Even if you don’t jump in and share everything, starting with a few functions can make a significant difference to bottom line.