Streamlining Regulations

Jonathan Spalter of USTelecom wrote a recent blog calling on Congress to update regulations for the telecom industry. USTelecom is a lobbying arm representing the largest telcos, but which also still surprisingly has a few small telco members. I found the tone of the blog interesting, in that somebody who didn’t know our industry would read the blog and think that the big telcos are suffering under crushing regulation.

Nothing could be further from the truth. We currently have an FCC that seems to be completely in the pocket of the big ISPs. The current FCC walked in the door with the immediate goal to kill net neutrality, and in the process decided to completely deregulate the broadband industry. The American public hasn’t really grasped yet that ISPs are now unfettered to endlessly raise broadband prices and to engage in network practices that benefit the carriers instead of customers. Deregulation of broadband has to be the biggest regulatory giveaway in the history of the country.

Spalter goes on to praise the FCC for its recent order on poles that set extremely low rates for wireless pole connections and which lets wireless carriers place devices anywhere in the public rights-of-way. He says that order brought “fairness’ to the pole attachment process when in fact the order was massively unbalanced in favor of cellular companies and squashes any local input or authority over rights-of-ways – something that has always been a local prerogative. It’s ironic to see USTelecom praising fairness for pole attachments when their members have been vehemently trying to stop Google Fiber and others from gaining access to utility poles.

To be fair, Spalter isn’t completely wrong and there are regulations that are out of date. Our last major telecom legislation was in 1996, at a time when dial-up Internet access was spreading across the country. The FCC regulatory process relies on rules set by Congress, and since the FCC hasn’t acted since 1996, Spalter accuses Congress of having “a reckless abdication of government responsibility”.

I find it amusing that the number one regulation that USTelecom most dislikes is the requirement for the big telcos make their copper wires available to other carriers. That requirement of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was probably the most important factor in encouraging other companies to compete against the monopoly telephone companies. In the years immediately after the 1996 Act, competitors ordered millions of wholesale unbundled network elements on the telco copper networks.

There are still competitors that using the telco copper to provide far better broadband than the telcos are willing to do, so we need to keep these regulations as long as copper remains hanging on poles. I would also venture a guess that the telcos are making more money selling this copper to the competitors than they would make if the competitors went away – the public is walking away from telco DSL in droves.

I find it curious that the telcos keep harping on this issue. In terms of the total telco market the sale of unbundled elements is a mere blip on the telco books. This is the equivalent to a whale complaining about a single barnacle on his belly. But the big telcos never miss an opportunty to harp about the issue and have been working hard to eliminate sale of copper to competitors since the passage of the 1996 Act. This is not a real issue for the telcos – they just have never gotten over the fact that they lost a regulatory battle in 1996 and they are still throwing a hissy fit over that loss.

The reality is that big telcos are less regulated than ever before. Most states have largely deregulated telephone service. The FCC completely obliterated broadband regulation. While there are still cable TV regulations, the big telcos like AT&T are bypassing those regulations by moving video online. The big telcos have already won the regulatory war.

There are always threats of new regulation – but the big telcos always lobby against new rules far in advance to weaken any new regulations. For example, they are currently supporting a watered-down set of privacy rules that won’t afford much protection of customer data. They have voiced support for a watered-down set of net neutrality rules that doesn’t obligate them to change their network practices.

It’s unseemly to see USTelecom railing against regulation after the telcos have already been so successful in shedding most regulations. I guess they want to strike while the iron is hot and are hoping to goad Congress and the FCC into finishing the job by killing all remaining regulation. The USTelcom blog is a repeat of the same song and dance they’ve been repeating since I’ve been in the industry – which boils down to, “regulation is bad”. I didn’t buy this story forty years ago and I still don’t buy it today.

Socket

Today I’m discussing another ISP I’ve found interesting. The company is Socket from Columbia, Missouri. The company has a long competitive history and began in 1994 as a dial-up ISP. They were successful in the local market and by 1999 had grown to 30,000 dial-up customers.

Like other dial-up ISPs that are still around the company became a CLEC in 2002 and began using unbundled network elements to reach customers. This allowed Socket to expand their focus to provide their customers with high-speed internet and voice services. Over time the company expanded its sales network to serve hundreds of towns in the state from Kansas City to St. Louis and can connect businesses with multiple branch locations throughout the state.

Socket was able to serve a large geographic area by the wide use of EELs (combining an unbundled loop and interoffice transport), allowing them to serve customers in almost any large ILEC exchange in the state. They used other unbundled network elements as appropriate but became perhaps one of the largest users in the country of the EELs product.

The use of unbundled network elements allowed Socket to be a direct competitor to Southwestern Bell (which became AT&T), CenturyTel and Embarq (which became CenturyLink) and in many towns they were the first competitor. Socket had a huge impact on the cost of business telecom services in Missouri. For example, when they entered a new market the price for PRIs (T1s with multiple channels used mostly to feed business phone systems) plunged from $1,180 per month from the telco down to $400.

In many places Socket is still the only competitive alternative. The FCC is considering ending the requirement for the big telcos to unbundle their copper – and if that happens prices in many of these markets will climb back to monopoly levels. This demonstrates the true value to a community of having a competitive provider. Having at least one competitor in a market improves pricing for most businesses since the telco is forced to lower their prices or lose most of their customers.

Socket also thrived by being the only provider to offer naked DSL (DSL that doesn’t required a telephone line). The company purchased their own telephone soft-switch to be able to provide the full range of telephone products, but they didn’t force the customer to pay for a voice line as required by the telephone company.

In recent years the company has turned their focus to building fiber. Customers are demanding faster broadband speeds than are available through UNEs and the company can see the writing on the wall hinting at the slowly dying telco copper network. They can see that their long-term survival depends upon having customers on their own network.

The company has now built over 500 miles of fiber. They typically build fiber when they can find an anchor tenant that can justify the cost of construction, or a large group of residential customers who sign up through their “fiberhood” pages, showing where speeds are lacking. The company has done well over the years in serving the health care and banking industries and much of their network expansion is to reach customers in these industries. They will also build to reach a cellular tower or large business that requires significant broadband. They then sell to customers living near the anchor routes in order to maximize the revenue stream generated by an individual fiber build.

Like many competitors, Socket provides the kind of customer service that businesses and residents have never had in the past. For example, they recently talked to a new potential business customer who would only consider using them if they promised to resolve billing disputes quickly. Apparently, this customer had numerous billing disputes with the telco that took many months to resolve. Socket surprised them by promising that they could normally resolve billing disputes on the first phone call, and certainly within a day.

As part of my consulting practice I’ve interviewed hundreds of rural businesses and I’m always amazed at how poorly they are treated by the incumbent providers. They are still charged high monopoly prices from decades ago, they often wait too long for repairs and they have to fight to fix problems like billing errors. Companies like Socket reset customer expectations and in doing so rarely lose a customer.

Sonic – the Transition from UNEs to Fiber

In my continuing series of writing about interesting competitors, today’s blog is about Sonic, a CLEC and fiber overbuilder working in the San Francisco Bay area and other communities in California. It’s an interesting company because they are the poster child for building a competitive telecom company based upon the rules established by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That Act required that the large telephone companies unbundle their networks to allow competitors to use their copper lines.

Sonic got started in 1994 as an ISP, then became a CLEC in 2006 and followed the path envisioned by the 1996 Act. This meant collocating electronics in AT&T central offices to provide DSL to customers over unbundled copper loops (UNEs). The company found a receptive customer base since they offered faster broadband than AT&T’s at an affordable price. They grew to be collocated in 200 AT&T central offices around the Bay Area, Sacramento and greater Los Angeles. These offices are tied together by the use of unbundled interoffice transport – also created by the 1996 Act. They originally deployed DSL that used one copper pair but have migrated to VDSL2 and other faster versions of DSL that use two copper pairs and delivers significant bandwidth. They still have almost 50,000 customers in the region using this technology.

What’s interesting is that Sonic did this starting in 2006 – a time by which much of the rest of the industry had written off the use of telco copper. The UNE business plan got a sour reputation with many in the industry when the CLEC industry using UNEs spectacularly imploded in 2001-2002. This collapse of the CLEC industry was due to a perfect storm of economic events and had little to do with the benefits of using telco copper.

If anything, it’s easier to use telco copper today because today’s DSL technology is far better than the DSL in 2000. Sonic and other CLECs are able to provide fast and reliable broadband using ADSL2+ and VDSL2, bonded over multiple copper pairs. Most people in the industry are probably surprised to hear that Sonic can use bonded copper UNEs to provide speeds as fast as 400Mbps to serve businesses. The usefulness of unbundled UNEs is far from dead.

Sonic also reaches roughly 25,000 customers using resale. This allows them to sell the same DSL products sold by AT&T in locations where they don’t have collocations. All of the Sonic products offer a bundle with a voice product that includes all of the expected features plus unlimited calling to the US and to landlines in 66 other countries. They are still finding strong demand for the voice product – something that also might surprise many in the industry.

Five years ago the company decided to use the cash flow from the UNE business to build fiber. Their fiber network now covers roughly 1/3 of the City of San Francisco, plus Brentwood, Sebastopol, Albany, Kensington and Berkeley in the East Bay. They are eying other markets around the region, the state, and beyond. They are an aggressive competitor and their fiber product line starts with a symmetrical gigabit for $40 per month, bundled with the unlimited voice product. They won’t publicly disclose the number of fiber customers, but their goal is to soon have more customers on fiber than on DSL. In my opinion, this is the essence of the vision of the 1996 Act – a transition from UNEs to facility-based networks.

The company’s biggest worry right now is that the FCC recently got a petition from the large telcos asking to end the use of unbundled network elements (UNEs). The big telcos argue that the UNE business plan is obsolete and that there is sufficient competition in the marketplace without unbundling their copper – while also claiming that “In the residential marketplace, competition will not be materially affected by forbearance from Section 251 ( c )(3) because there is effectively no remaining UNE-based competition in that marketplace.” and that “To the extent CLECs serve residential customers using ILEC facilities, they do so on commercial platforms.

But Sonic and a number of other CLECs using UNEs show this to be untrue. Given that just Sonic alone serves nearly 50,000 California households with UNEs these claims are incorrect and misleading. Sonic is using the unbundled copper in exactly the manner envisioned by Congress when they wrote the 1996 Act – to allow competitors to place the best technology possible on the telco copper networks. The Congress at the time reasoned that telephone ratepayers had paid for the copper networks and that the public ought to derive any benefits possible from the networks they had paid for.

The big telcos have always hated the idea of unbundling their networks. They have slowly chipped away at some of the products envisioned by the 1996 Act such as access to telco dark fiber. They would love to kick CLECs like Sonic off their networks – and in Sonic’s case that would deprive 50,000 customers of fast DSL and telephone service at prices they can afford.

Almost every major market in the country, and many smaller ones have CLECs that use unbundled network elements to provide DSL – usually the newer and faster DSL that the telcos won’t invest in. The telcos are slowly walking away from DSL which can be seen by the huge numbers of customers switching to the cable companies.

But CLECs like Sonic have used the copper to bring products that people want – and, unlike the telcos they are pouring those profits back into building fiber to these same communities. That’s exactly what Congress had in mind in 1996 and it would be a shame to see the FCC choke off some of the companies who are offering a competitive alternative to the big cable companies.

Eliminating Unbundled Network Elements (UNEs)

At the urging of USTelecom, the lobbying arm for the big telcos, the FCC has opened WC Docket No. 18-141 that is seeking to eliminate the requirement for the big telcos to offer unbundled network elements (UNEs) or resale for their products. Comments are due in this docket by June 7, with reply comments due June 22.

The requirement for the big telcos to unbundle their networks was one of the primary features of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The Congress at that time recognized that there was little competition in the telecom market and decided that allowing competitors to resell or use components of the big telco networks would help to jump-start competition. The idea worked and within just a few years there were giant CLECs created that used resale and UNEs to create large competitive telecoms. I recall that at least six different CLECs salespeople visiting the CCG offices located just inside the Washington DC Beltway. Most of those big competitive companies imploded spectacularly in the big telecom collapse in 2000, but there are still numerous companies utilizing the unbundled elements of the big telco networks.

The docket talks about forbearance, which in this case means ceasing a regulatory requirement, and specifically this docket asks the FCC to forbear:

  • Section 251 and 252 of the FCC rules that require the big telcos to resale or offer unbundled network elements to competitors;
  • Section 272 of the FCC’s rules that specify timelines for the telcos to negotiate or respond to requests for service from competitors;
  • Section 271 of the FCC’s rules that lay out the rights for competitors to gain access to poles, ducts, conduits and rights-of-way.

This forbearance would be devastating to a number of competitive carriers. Consider just a few examples of how the industry still uses these sections of the FCC’s rules:

  • There is still a lot of resale of telco products. I know one Northwest rural area where a competitor resells nearly 90% of the rural DSL provided by CenturyLink. This reseller gained the business by knocking on doors and selling DSL to homes that didn’t even know it was available from the telco. In much of rural America the big telcos have almost no employees, no marketing and no customer service and resellers are making big telco products work even where the telcos don’t make any effort.
  • There are still numerous DSL providers that collocate their own DSL electronics in telco central offices and then use the unbundled telco loops to provide decent DSL to customers. These competitors offer newer generation and faster DSL where the telcos are often still only offering slow first generation DSL from twenty years ago.
  • Facility-based fiber overbuilders regularly use unbundled network elements to operate in areas where they have not yet built fiber. Or they use UNEs to serve distant branches of a fiber customer – for instance they might use UNEs to create a private network between locations of a bank with branches in several communities.
  • Any competitor that wants to offer facility-based long distance in a metropolitan market must have a physical connection to the primary big telco switching locations (tandems) in that market. These connections are needed due to requirements that the telcos have forced upon competitors since the 1996 Act to try to make it more expensive to compete. Nobody would build the massive network needed to connect these office just to provide voice and so competitors satisfy this requirement using UNEs.
  • Competitors routinely want to make connections between carriers located at the big telco hubs. They make this happen by buying UNEs that reach between carrier A and B within these hubs (might only require a few feet of fiber).

All of these situation, and the many other uses of the resale and UNEs would disappear if the FCC sides with the big telcos. The big telcos set to work to neuter the requirements of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 right after it passed. Over the years they have eliminated many forms of resale. They have made it virtually impossible for a competitor to gain access to their dark fiber. They have routinely made it harder and harder each year for competitors by introducing changes in their contracts with competitors.

This forbearance would be a huge victory for the telcos. This would have a huge chilling impact on competition and customer choice. This would mean that the only way to compete with the telcos would be by overbuilding 100% to reach customers and to interconnect networks. Numerous competitive providers would be quickly bankrupted and disappear. Huge numbers of customers, primarily businesses, would lose their vendor of choice as competitive carriers would no longer be able to serve them. This could even kill wholesale VoIP since the underlying carriers providing that service rely heavily within their networks on interconnection UNEs.

The big telcos argue that they shouldn’t have to continue to unbundle their networks because these requirements deal mostly with legacy TDM technology. But this is not only copper technology and many of the UNEs used for interconnection are on fiber. And even where this is being done on copper, it makes sense for the FCC to allow competitors to use that copper for as long as it exists. Copper UNEs will die a natural death as the copper disappears, but until then, if a competitor can use that copper better than the telco they should be allowed to do so. Competitors have used UNEs and resale to build thriving businesses that benefit consumers by providing choice and lower prices. Forbearing on resale and UNEs would be another giveaway by the FCC to the big telcos at the expense of competition and customer choice.

If you are a small carrier that relies on resale or UNEs you need to file comments in this docket by June 7. They need to hear real life stories of small carriers and the customers you serve, and hear why they should not kill UNEs. You don’t need to be a lawyer to tell the FCC your story, especially not if you have a good story to tell.

Time for a New Telecom Act, Part 1

capitalNothing is ever certain in the regulatory world, but it looks like there is a good chance that we will see a new telecom act this year. There are certainly parts of the old Telecommunications Act of 1996 that need to be refreshed and there are a lot of new topics like broadband, OTT and the IoT that need to be addressed by Congress. Today’s blog is going to review the old telecom act and tomorrow I will address the changes that I hope are included in any new act.

It’s hard to believe but the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was enacted 21 years ago. From a technological perspective that was almost the dark ages. 1996 was the year that AOL launched its unlimited dial-up product for $19.95 per month (before then subscribers paid by the minute). This drew millions of people to the Internet and convinced them to pay a monthly fee for access. DSL and cable modems were still in the lab and dial-up access ruled the world.

The main thrust of the 1996 Act was to create more competition with telephone service. Ma Bell had been broken up in 1984 which had resulted in long distance competition. Long distance rates dropped steadily over the years after divestiture. Congress decided that it was time to also create competition for dial tone. They recognized that the roadblock to competition was that the big telcos owned the vast majority of the copper lines going to homes and businesses and that nobody was likely to build a second telecom network.

So the Act implemented new rules to promote competition. Some of the changed mandated by the new Act were:

  • Creating a new regulatory category for telephone competitors that was labeled CLEC (Competitive Local Exchange Carrier).
  • Requiring the big telcos to ‘unbundle’ their copper network. This meant that they had to provide access to their copper plant to CLECs. To accomplish this the FCC mandated that CLECs had the right to interconnect to the big telco networks and to collocate in their central offices when necessary.
  • Mandating that the big telcos offer up telecom services for resale. They basically had to sell bulk services to competitors who could then sell them to customers.
  • Requiring that anybody that wanted to build new network be given access to poles and conduits and be allowed to connect to telco network at any reasonable place of their choosing.

The Act was immediately successful and unleashed a flurry of competitive activity. Giant new CLECs were formed that collocated in telco offices gained access to copper loops. The most popular product was the unbundled T1 that allowed new competitors to sell data and telephone services to businesses over one connection. There were also giant companies formed to tackle resale. I recall that one of my clients in those days, Talk America, got over one million residential customers by reselling local phone service along with cheap long distance. Many consultants were formed to help the new competitive companies including my company, CCG Consulting.

The Act also brought about many other changes, some of the most significant being:

  • The regional Bell companies were allowed to get into the long distance business and compete against AT&T.
  • The Act granted the FCC the right of preemption to allow it to override conflicting state rules.
  • The Act created intercarrier compensation for paying for the exchange of traffic between telcos and CLECs.
  • The Act also shook up the Universal Service Fund and made compensation more directly cost-based.
  • The Act also tackled a number of other regulatory issues such as preempting telecom services from franchise fees, establishing rules to define obscene programming, and enabling the over-the-air transmission of digital TV signals.

In many ways the 1996 Act was a big success. Prices for telecom services plummeted in subsequent years. But over time the effective lobbying of the large telcos reversed some of the aspects of the Act, like resale and the unbundling of dark fiber. The Act also did not foresee the explosion of cellphones and of landline broadband and those industries have never gotten the same level of regulatory scrutiny that applies to telephone service. There are still CLECs today making a living by providing DSL over telephone copper. But the increasing needs for faster broadband speeds is starting to make that technology irrelevant and it’s definitely time to consider a new Act to deal with today’s issues.