Recognizing the Cable Company Monopolies

In most cities in the US the cable company is now a broadband monopoly. They have won the competition battle and have largely taken customers formerly served by telco DSL. The cable companies have grown into monopolies due to being better competitors and by offering superior broadband products. There are still some markets where the cable companies are not monopolies – they may be competing with a fiber overbuilder or an aggressive CLEC using DSL, or the cable company has not made the upgrades in a given market to the fastest broadband products. But for most towns in the US the cable companies now fit the definition of a classic monopoly.

What I find alarming as a consumer is that there is no talk at the national or even the state level of reacting to the monopoly status of the big cable companies. I know that this conversation will eventually arise as has happened in the past with other monopolies. Monopolies naturally abuse their monopoly power more and more over time until the government is forced to react to regulate them.

The nature of monopolies is well understood and there are well-stablished reasons why governments eventually step in to regulate monopolies:

  • Price Gouging. Monopolies always raise prices over time when there are no competitors to keep them in check. We know that Wall Street is currently urging the big cable companies to aggressively raise broadband prices.
  • Poor Service. Monopolies tend toward providing poor customer service because they have no incentive to do better. The big ISPs are already today are rated by consumers as their least favorite corporations.
  • Monopsony Power. This economics term refers to the tendency for monopolies to exploit their purchasing power by forcing low prices on their supply chain. Perhaps the best example of this is Comcast swallowing up the programmers that supply the content for their cable product.

We know from a few centuries of experience how to deal with monopolies. Governments have numerous options:

Promote Competition. Governments sometimes try to curb monopolies by promoting competition. In the broadband world this could involve the government providing funding to build urban fiber or supporting alternate technologies like 5G to directly compete with the cable monopolies.

Price Regulation. Many natural monopolies are regulated through price caps where regulators must approve rate increases. This remedy is most effective with natural monopolies like electricity or water systems which serve everybody in a community.

Quality of Service Regulation. Regulators have often intervened and forced customer service standards on monopolies. The best example is the old Ma Bell and regulators over the years defined much of the interface between AT&T and customers. They regulated many aspects of that interface such as the rules governing disconnecting customers for non-payment or be defining acceptable time period to make repairs.

Divestiture. An extreme remedy is divestiture, or breaking up a monopoly into different components. We’ve seen this in our industry when the government forced the divestiture of AT&T into local telephone companies and a nationwide long-distance network. It’s harder to see such a clean split for cable companies, but the government could make them divest of programming assets or other ventures that enable them to inflict monopoly abuses.

Rate of Return Regulation. Another effective form of regulation is rate of return regulation. This is still done today for large power companies who must defend their expenditures and rates to regulators. Earnings for the core business are strictly regulated and excess profits returned to customers.

Penalties for Monopoly Abuse. Finally, the government can impose penalties for monopoly abuses. The FCC has always had this authority and issues fines against bad actors in the industry. The Federal Trade Commission also can fine cable companies for operating practices that harm customers.

We are in an environment today where big ISPs and many other large corporations have gained the upper hand in the market through the lobbying of legislators and regulators. However, historically the treatment of monopolies has always been cyclical, and eventually the monopoly abuses become unbearable and the public demands regulation. I would think that if the cable companies follow Wall Street’s advice and raise base broadband rates to $90 per month that we’ll see the government be forced to react.

It’s also possible that some alternate technology like 5G might eventually create competitive pressure for the cable companies. But it’s just as likely that in most places that wireless carriers will be other large companies and we’ll see duopoly competition like we’ve seen for years between Verizon FiOS and the cable companies in the Northeast, where both charge similar prices and don’t really compete.

An Idea for Funding Rural Fiber

eyeballI’ve been working for a long time with rural broadband and it has become clear to me that there is no way on our current path that we can build fiber everywhere in the US. The borrowing capacity of all of the small telcos and coops is not nearly large enough to fund fiber everywhere. It’s often difficult to have a business case for rural fiber that you can get funded at a bank. It certainly doesn’t look like the federal government has any plans to fund fiber, and even if they did they would probably spend too much by imposing unreasonable rules that would drive up construction costs.

But there are other ways that we could fund fiber everywhere. For example, consider the utility model. Utilities are generally able to get funded because they are guaranteed a rate of return of perhaps something like 10% on their investment. It has been the guaranteed returns that have allowed rural telephone to borrow the money needed to operate.

If fiber networks had a guaranteed return there would be many commercial lenders and other investors willing to provide the money to build rural fiber networks. There is a huge amount of money available from pension funds, insurance companies, and other large pots of money that would be attracted to a steady 10% return.

There is no reason the utility model can’t be applied to rural fiber. The primary characteristic of a regulated utility is that it is a monopoly, or nearly a monopoly. In rural America today there is no real broadband competition. Rural areas are served by a combination of dial-up, satellite, cell phone data, very poor DSL or fixed wireless systems. There are many millions of households with no other options other than dial-up or satellite.

There are two keys to making this idea work – how to pay for it and how to monitor and regulate the earnings of these new broadband fiber monopolies. We already have a historical model of how to pay for this. Rural telephone companies for years were regulated in this manner and there was a combination of funding mechanisms used to fund rural telephony. Most obvious was local revenues collected from customers. I know of rural fiber networks today with 70% to 80% broadband penetration rates, so these networks would get a significant number of customers and local revenue.

Telephone companies have also pooled some of their revenues nationally in process called cost separations. Phone companies throw all of their interstate revenues into a pot and divvy up the money according to need. There is no reason that some of the broadband revenues couldn’t be pooled.

Finally, the telcos had direct subsidies from the Universal Service Fund to make up any shortfall. The biggest complaint about the Universal Service Fund is that it isn’t paid to companies on the same basis as other revenues, and thus it enriches some companies unfairly and doesn’t give enough to others. But if USF revenues were put into the same pool as other revenues then it would be allocated each year where the financial need warrants it.

The process of pooling revenues has always been a bit complicated in practice, but simple in concept. Each company in a pool calculates their costs according to a specific formula – in the case of telcos, using rules proscribed by the FCC. Then, some external pooling body examines those calculations and administers the collection and distribution of pooled monies. This whole process of administering a pool adds only a tiny fractional additional cost onto the process – and is necessary to make sure everybody plays fair and that there is no fraud.

The basic concept of pooled revenues and some kind of broadband USF could provide the economic basis for obtaining the funding needed to build rural broadband. I would expect that rural telcos and cooperatives would jump onto this idea immediately and build more rural fiber. And there is no reason that the large telcos wouldn’t at least consider this. But since they are driven by Wall Street earnings they might pass on regulated returns.

We know this process can work because it has been in place for decades for rural telephony. The only alternative to this that I can think of is for the federal government to hand out grants to build rural broadband. But I just don’t see that happening in today’s political environment. So rather than wait for the federal government to finally decide to hand out huge grants we ought to take the model we know and get going with it.

This concept would need a boost from the federal government to get going. It would probably require an act of Congress, but this is something that is probably easier to get enacted than a huge grant program. And it is a lot more attractive politically since it provides a way for private investment to fund rural broadband rather than the government. We have too try something because the rural areas are falling quickly onto the wrong sie of the digital divide, and that is not good for any of us.