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.

AT&T and Verizon Fiber

If you look at the annual reports or listen to the quarterly investor calls, you’d think that AT&T and Verizon’s entire future depends upon 5G. As I’ve written in several blogs, there doesn’t seem to be an immediate financial business case for 5G and the big carriers are going to have to figure out how to monetize 5G – something that’s going to take years. Meanwhile, both companies have been expanding their fiber footprints and aggressively adding fiber-based broadband customers.

According to the Leichtman Research Group, AT&T added only 34,000 net broadband customers in the first quarter of this year – not an impressive number when considering that they have 15.7 million broadband numbers. But the underlying story is more compelling. One the 1Q investor call, the company says they added 297,000 fiber customers during the first quarter, and the smaller net number recognizes the decline of DSL customers. The overall financial impact was a net gain of 8% for broadband revenues.

AT&T is starting to understand the dynamics of being a multimedia company in addition to being a wireless carrier and an ISP. According to John Stephens, the AT&T CFO, the company experiences little churn when they are able to sell fiber-based Internet, a video product and cellular service to a customer.

The company views its fiber business as a key part of its growth strategy. AT&T now passes over 20 million homes and businesses with fiber and is aggressively pushing fiber broadband. The company has also undergone an internal consolidation so that all fiber assets are available to every business unit. The company has been expanding its fiber footprint significantly for the last few years, but recently announced they are at the end of major fiber expansion. However, the company will continue to take advantage of the new fiber being built for the nationwide FirstNet network for first responders. In past years the company would have kept FirstNet fiber in its own silo and not gotten the full value out of the investment.

Verizon has a similar story. The company undertook an internal project they call One Fiber where every fiber asset of the company is made available to all Verizon business units. There were over a dozen Verizon business units with separate fiber networks in silos.

Verizon is currently taking advantage of the One Fiber plan for expanding its small cell site strategy. The company knows that small cell sites are vital for maintaining a quality cellular network and they are also still weighing how heavily to invest in 5G wireless loops that deliver wireless broadband in residential neighborhoods.

Verizon has also been quietly expanding its FiOS fiber footprint. The company has gotten regulatory approval to abandon the copper business in over 100 exchanges in the northeast where it operates FiOS. In those exchanges, the company will no longer connect customers to copper service and says they will eventually tear down the copper and become fully fiber-based. That strategy means filling in neighborhoods that were bypassed by FiOS when the network was first built 20 years ago.

Verizon is leading the pack in terms of new fiber construction. They say that are building over 1,000 route miles of fiber every month. This alone is having a big impact on the industry as everybody else is having a harder time locating fiber construction crews.

Verizon’s wireline revenues were down 4% in the first quarter of this year compared to 2018. The company expects to start benefitting from the aggressive fiber construction program and turn that trend around over the next few years. One of the most promising opportunities for the company is to start driving revenues in markets where it’s owned fiber but had never fully monetized the opportunity.

The main competitor for all of the fiber construction by both companies are the big cable companies. The big telcos have been losing broadband customers for years as the cable company broadband has been clobbering DSL. The two telcos are counting on their fiber products to be a fierce competitor to cable company broadband and the companies hope to start recapturing their lost market share. As an outsider I’ve wondered for years why they didn’t do this, and the easy answer was that both companies sunk most of their capital investments into wireless. Now they are seeing that 5G wireless needs fiber, and both companies have decided to capitalize on the new fiber by also selling landline broadband. It’s going to be an interesting battle to watch since both telcos still face the loss of huge numbers of DSL customers – but they are counting on fiber to position them well for the decades to come.

FirstNet – A Boon or Boondoggle?

The federal program FirstNet was born out of the tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. At the time there was a lot of negative press when it was realized that first responders from New Jersey were unable to communicate with those from New York. And the idea was born to create a nationwide platform so that all first responders could easily communicate with each other.

The FirstNet concept first tackled the concept of interoperability. There were a number of jurisdictions where interoperability was an issue then. But since 9/11 most metropolitan areas have solved the interoperability issue on their own. The fire and police departments in regions got together in the years after 9/11 and made sure they could communicate with each other. One of the easiest fixes was for first responders to add cellphones to complement the first responder radios that were the major method of communications in 2001. So the concept morphed into a discussion of finding cellular bandwidth for first responders. We’ve seen repeatedly that local cellular networks instantly get clogged during any kind of major emergency, and this means that first responders have trouble making cellphone connections just like everybody else.

Congress stepped into the discussion in 2012 and created FirstNet (First Responder Network Authority). As part of that action Congress set aside Band 14 of the 700 MHz spectrum for the exclusive use of first responders nationwide. After several reboots of the RFP process the new agency finally chose AT&T to provide a nationwide LTE network for first responders. The company was given $7 billion as the first payment towards creating the nationwide cellular network. The GAO had estimated that the final network could cost as much as $47 billion.

States were given the right to opt-in to FirstNet with zero cost to the states. In the last month or so thirteen states have chosen to be part of the effort. That means that AT&T will provide the network in those states using federal dollars.

But there is a huge question, mostly technical, of whether this network makes any sense. A lot of engineers say that FirstNet is overkill and that there are now other ways to solve the same problem. A hint of how easily this can be done came from a press release from Kansas, which just bought into FirstNet. In that release AT&T said that until FirstNet is built in the state that first responders would immediately get priority access to cell towers and by the end of this year would have preemptive access – meaning that a call attempt made by a first responder would shove somebody else off the cellular network. Providing preemptive access is a far less costly way of solving the problem. If first responders can be given preemptive access that easily, then there really is no longer a need for FirstNet.

To add fuel to the fire, Verizon just announced at the end of the next week that they would offer these same services to first responders everywhere – and with zero federal dollars. Verizon will immediately offer preemptive access to cell towers to all first responders.

Any topic having to do with first responders is always an emotional one and much of the first responder community has bought into the concept of having interference-free spectrum. But the Verizon announcement shows that the FirstNet solution is obsolete before the first piece of network is constructed.

And the FirstNet implementation comes with a big national cost. It’s clear that we need a huge amount of bandwidth to satisfy customer demands for cellular data. It seems wasteful to use a slice of prime spectrum in Band 14 of 700 MHz when it’s not needed. That spectrum is worth more to the country for providing cellular data than for handling calls from first responders. This would not be true if first responders really needed this spectrum to communicate – but the cellular companies can give them preemptive access using existing cellular spectrum. For the vast majority of time the FirstNet spectrum will sit virtually unused – at any given time in a city it might be handling hundreds of transmissions from first responders when it could instead be handling hundreds of thousands of transmissions for everybody.

There is also the rural issue to deal with. FirstNet is supposed to provide nationwide first responder access. But as somebody who travels widely in rural America, I can tell you that a lot of the AT&T LTE coverage map is bosh. There is a whole lot of rural America where cell coverage is either spotty or non-existent. When you get to a rural place you quickly come to understand the short distance that a cell signal travels from any given cellular tower. There are gaps everywhere in rural America between widely-spaced cell towers.

First responders in rural America are not going to rely on the FirstNet spectrum even if it’s freely available to them. They are more likely going to keep their current radio networks that work today, using spectrum that travels farther than the 700 MHz spectrum. I can’t help but picture a rural tragedy, such as a downed-plane, where first responders from outside the area will have no communication ability if the FirstNet signal to the needed area is weak or nonexistent.

I see this as another giant government handout to the huge carriers. You can be assured that a lot of the money going to AT&T will go to their bottom line. I hope, at least, that some of the money they are getting for FirstNet will at least improve normal cellular coverage in rural America – but I’m not holding my breath. To me this seems like another big federal program that is being spent to fix a problem that no longer exists. Local jurisdictions solved the interoperability problem in the first few years after 9/11. And the ability of cellular companies to give preemptive access to first responders means there is no reason to set aside a huge valuable slice of spectrum.

CHECK Comments for correction and update.