When Big ISPs Fail

It’s obvious from reading the press that Frontier Communications is in trouble. The company visibly bungled the integration of the properties most recently purchased from Verizon, including some FiOS properties. The company was already experiencing customer losses, which have accelerated in the last year. Frontier is already looking to raise cash by finding a buyer for some of the properties they just purchased from Verizon.

I have no idea if Frontier is going to declare bankruptcy or fail. Watching them struggle, though, brings back memories of other big telcos that have struggled badly in the past. We’ve seen this scenario enough times to understand what poor performance will mean.

Not every telco that has struggled has gone through bankruptcy. Probably the best example of a company that almost went under, but which instead struggled for years was Qwest, which is now owned by CenturyLink. Within a few years after Qwest took over U.S. West the company fell on hard times. The company carried too much debt, and they didn’t do as well as expected in the long-line transport business that Qwest brought into the newly formed venture. The company was even fined $250 million by the Security and Exchange Commission for shady deals made with Enron’s broadband business.

We saw the consequences of Qwest’s financial struggles. They company had little money for capital and let the copper plant deteriorate a lot faster than would be expected. There were widespread reports of rural outages that were repeatedly patched rather than fixed while the company focused its limited resources on the major urban markets. Qwest lost huge numbers of broadband customers to the cable companies and also got clobbered in enterprise sales.

We saw something similar with Charter Communications. The company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009. They pared back on capital spending and went for a number of years without making the upgrades we saw from Comcast, Cox and Mediacom. Much of the company’s footprint was stuck with first generation cable modems with slow broadband speeds.

Frontier looks to on a similar path to Fairpoint Communications after they purchased Verizon properties. Fairpoint took on massive debt to buy the New England properties from Verizon and struggled after adding 1.4 million customers to a relatively small company. Within two years after the purchase Fairpoint went through bankruptcy reorganization and continued to struggle since then due to lack of cash. They were recently purchased by Consolidated Communications.

What we’ve most learned from big ISPs that struggle is that the customers pay the price. All of these companies dealt with cash shortages by reducing staff and slashing capital expenditures. I remember Qwest staffing being reduced so much that there were entire rural counties that had only one Qwest technician. Qwest shuttered local business offices and lost the local touch in communities. Customers reported major delays in getting installations and repairs, with many reports of problems that were never solved.

We saw from Qwest and Charter that the first thing that goes in tight times is upgrades of technology. When those companies got into trouble they froze technology investment and innovation during a time when broadband speeds were climbing everywhere else.

The struggles of the big ISP invited in competition and many communities served by Qwest and Charter saw competitors build new networks. I know of some towns where the new competitors got practically every customer, showing how fed up customers were with being neglected by their big ISP. Unfortunately, the majority of communities served by such ISPs saw no competition and suffered with poor service.

Sometimes companies that struggle eventually right the ship. We see Charter now making upgrades that are a decade or more late. CenturyLink is under new management and is trying hard to make things better, but still doesn’t have enough capital to fix decades of neglect to the network. CenturyLink even got more than a billion dollar subsidy through the CAF II program to try to revitalize old rural copper. We’re going to have to wait to see if these big ISPs can make enough amends for communities to forgive them for decades of neglect.

My guess is that Frontier is not going to get the chance to reinvent themselves. They are struggling at a time when most of their rural communities are screaming for better broadband. It’s hard to imagine them somehow fixing their many problems.

Bad Telecom Deals

FierceWireless recently published a short article listing the 10 worst telecom business moves of the last 10 years. And there are some clunkers on the list like Google’s purchase of Motorola, AT&T’s effort to buy T-Mobile and Time Warner Cable’s agreement to pay over $8 billion for the rights to broadcast the LA Dodgers.

One of the bad moves listed was Fairpoint’s purchase of Verizon’s customers and networks in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Everything imaginable went wrong with that purchase that closed in 2007. The transition to Fairpoint was dreadful. There were numerous network outages as the cords were cut to the Verizon network. Customers lost email access. They couldn’t place long distance calls out of state and many couldn’t even call customer service. Customers abandoned the company in droves and in 2009 Fairpoint declared bankruptcy and recently sold the company to Consolidated.

There are other similar stories about companies that have bought large number of customers from the large telcos. Earlier this year there was reports of widespread customer dissatisfaction after Frontier bought a large swath of Verizon lines.

There are a number of lessons to be learned from the Fairpoint and similar transactions. First, it is exceedingly difficult to buy customers from the large telcos. The processes at the big companies are mind-numbingly complicated. I remember talking to a guy at AT&T years ago about the process of provisioning a new T1 to a customer. As we walked through the internal processes at the company I realized that nearly a dozen different departments at AT&T scattered across the country were involved in selling and connecting a single T1. It’s impossible for a new buyer to step into the middle of such complication – no matter what employees might come with the purchase of a property there will be numerous functions that the acquired folks don’t know how to do.

I recall helping a client buy a few exchanges from Verizon back in the 1990s. The buyer got literally zero records telling them the services that business customers were using. The buyer had to visit every business customer in the hopes of getting copies of bills, which were often undecipherable. I remember even years later that there were business customers that had working data circuits that the buyer didn’t entirely understand – they worked and their philosophy was to just never touch them.

The point of all of this is that the transition of a property from a big company always has major problems. No matter how long the transition process before conveying everything to the buyer, on the day the switch is thrown there are big holes. And this quickly leads to customer dissatisfaction.

The other issue highlighted by these transitions is that a buyer rarely has enough human resources ready to deal with the onslaught of problems that start immediately with the cutover. It can be massively time consuming to help even a single customer if you don’t have good enough records to know what services they have. Multiplying that times many customers spells disaster.

Not all sales of big telco properties are in massive piles and I’ve helped clients over the years to purchase smaller numbers of exchanges from the big telcos. I have several clients looking at potential purchases today, which highlights the other big problems with buying telco properties.

Today, any small buyer of a copper network probably only does so with a plan to convert the new acquisition to fiber-to-the-home. The condition of acquired copper plant is generally scarily bad. I can remember that Verizon let it be known for at least fifteen years that the whole state of West Virginia was for sale before Frontier finally bought it. Industry folks all knew that during that whole time that Verizon had largely walked away from making any investments in the state or even doing anything beyond putting band-aids on maintenance problems. Frontier ended up with a network that barely limped along.

So a buyer has to ask how much value there really is in a dilapidated copper network. If a buyer spends ‘market’ rates to buy a telco property and then spends again to upgrade the acquisition they are effectively paying for the property twice. I’ve crunched the numbers and I’ve never been able to find a way to justify this.

I think we may have reached the point where existing copper networks have almost zero market value. Even with paying customers, the revenues generated from older copper networks are not high enough to support buying the exchange and then spending again to upgrade it. This is something that prospective buyers often don’t want to hear. But as I always advise, numbers don’t lie, and it’s become obvious to me that it’s not a good economic deal to invest in old copper networks. It usually makes more sense to instead overbuild the property and take the customers.

The Connect America Fund Dilemma

USACI doubt that this is what the FCC had in mind, but they are creating an impediment to building new rural networks with the Connect America Fund. I know that sounds exactly the opposite of what they are intending, but consider the following.

The large telcos get first crack at taking the Connect America Funding in their service territories. Frontier and Fairpoint, for example, have already claimed this money for a lot of their rural service territory. The other large companies must elect this by the end of this month. In the places where they take the funding a large telco will get support for seven years to help pay for broadband upgrades in those areas.

Most of the places that are covered by the Connect America Fund have either abysmal broadband, or no broadband at all. Where they have any semblance of broadband there will be customers on very slow rural DSL, generally 1 Mbps or much slower down to speeds close to dial-up. Customers can also get satellite data or, which surprises me, many rural households are making do with their cellphone data and the associated tiny data caps.

The large telcos are almost universally going to use the Connect America Fund money to upgrade DSL. In order to do that they will have to extend fiber further into the rural areas and then place rural DSLAMs in cabinets that are closer to customers.

That sounds good on the surface and a lot of rural people are going to get faster Internet service. So where is the dilemma? The dilemma is two-fold. First, the incumbents have up to seven years to build all of the new infrastructure. Households at the far end of that timeline are going to view seven years as an interminable future date.

But the real dilemma comes in how this affects rural communities that are looking at their own broadband solutions. Most of the DSL built under the Connect America Fund is going to 10 Mbps or less download speeds, something that is not even broadband by the FCC’s definition. And not every customer in these areas will get that much speed – many of them are going to live at the ends of the new DSL routes and will still get very slow speeds.

The dilemma is that for areas without any broadband today, customers are going to find 10 Mbps to be wonderful. If your house has been living with dial-up or cellular data, then this is going to feel great, particularly since the usage will not be capped. You’ll be able to watch Netflix for the first time and partake in a lot of things you couldn’t do before on the Internet.

But it is not going to take too many years until those speeds feel as slow as dial-up feels today. And this is going to be the last upgrade these areas are ever going to get from the big telcos. And the copper is going to keep aging and the DSL will get worse and worse over time. So while most urban areas today already have download speeds far faster than 10 Mbps, these rural areas are going to be stuck at 10 Mbps while the rest of the world gets faster and faster every year. When other homes in the US have 100 Mbps or a gigabit connection, these rural areas are going to be stuck with something far slower. There will be many future applications that need the higher bandwidth, and so the rural areas will again be shut out from what everyone else has.

But the real killer is that when any area getting these funds is going to have a much harder justifying building a fiber network that is faster than the DSL. I’ve helped rural areas get fiber networks and those business plans often need 60% or more of the homes in an area to take service to work. By creating this bandaid approach the FCC’s program means that there will be be just enough people who are happy with this faster DSL that these areas will probably not be able to get the support needed for a community-based solution. While the FCC has good intentions, they are going to be damning a lot of US counties to having crappy DSL for decades to come using copper wires that are already ancient today. The Connect America Fund money should have been used only for building real broadband rather than letting the big telcos put a bandaid on an aging copper network. The FCC is going to feel good about bringing broadband to rural America, when in fact they will have damned large chunks of the country from getting real broadband.