The Coming Year of Confusion

July 2020 Calendar

I’ve had a number of people ask me about how I think COVID-19 will impact the ISP industry over the next six months. It’s an interesting question to consider because there are both positive and negative trends that ISPs need to be concerned about. The chances are that these various trends will affect markets and ISPs differently – making it that much harder for an individual ISP to understand what they are going to see over the next six months. Following are some of the trends I think ISPs will need to deal with:

People Want Faster Broadband.  Many households came to the realization that their home broadband is inadequate when parents and students tried to work from home simultaneously. OpenVault reported that the number of households subscribing to gigabit service nearly doubled in the first quarter of this year. Clients are reporting an increased demand from first-time customers as well as customers wanting to upgrade to faster speeds.

Downturn in Small Businesses. Everything seems to indicate that a lot of small and medium businesses are not going to survive the pandemic. There have already been a number of businesses like restaurants and small retail stores that have gone under. The anchor stores at malls are failing right and left. There seems to be an expectation that travel-related businesses are going to take a long time to come back. Everything I read says that there is a coming crisis in the fall for business landlords when the finally digest that business tenants are either disappearing or will want to negotiate cheaper rent. That’s likely to have a secondary ripple effect as strip malls and other business landlords start declaring bankruptcy. Over time, new businesses will grow to fill many of the voids, but there has been a huge shift to shopping online that will likely not retreat to pre-COVID levels.

People Will Continue to Work from Home. Every day I read about businesses that say that working from home, at least part time, will become the new normal in many industries. The latest was a survey of law firms that said that a lot of lawyers are not going to return to the office full time when the pandemic is over. This is good news for ISPs that provide residential broadband, because people working from home are going to demand speeds and latency that will support their work. OpenVault just reported that as of the end of the first quarter of 2020 that the percentage of homes subscribing to gigabit broadband doubled over the last year and is now at 3.75% of all homes and growing rapidly. This is not such great news for ISPs that serve law offices.

The Big Unknown is the Impact of Unemployment. As businesses fail or downsize a lot of people are not going to be returning to their original job. ISPs are already reporting that people are ditching telecom products like landlines. The cord cutting in the last month of the first quarter of this year was record-setting. The big unknown will be the number of households that can no longer afford to buy landline broadband. Obviously, unemployment isn’t going to stay at the current 40 million people, but it’s not quickly going to return to pre-COVID levels. A secondary impact of a degraded economy will be a surge in bad debt as customers hang onto to home broadband as long as they can. We’re likely to see a big impact when the Keep America Connected pledge ends. If ISPs present a bill for multiple back months of billing we ought to see a lot of customers forced to default and cancel broadband.

The Pandemic is the Dagger That Will Finally Kill DSL. Homes that have an option of using DSL or something faster like cable broadband or fiber are going to be bailing on DSL in big numbers. Many people in towns have stuck with DSL because it is priced cheaper than cable broadband. However, for a lot of homes, the most important factor in broadband has become speed and performance.

The Rural Broadband Gap Will Keep Getting Headlines. COVID-19 made it clear to elected officials at all levels of government that the rural broadband gap is badly hurting the economy. Even if schools return to normal, businesses in rural areas are not going to have the same flexibility to send employees home, and unemployed people in rural area are not going to easily be able to accept at-home jobs. That’s going to keep a sizable slice of the economy from fully participating in any recovery. Almost everybody I talk to is hopeful that this might translate to increased grant money for rural broadband – but that’s no guarantee.

We’re Going to Have Unexpected Shortages in the Supply Chain. The best way to describe the supply chain right now is spotty. Manufacturers of telecom electronics are going to suddenly find they can’t buy one or two components, and manufacturing will come to unexpected halts. Anybody building a broadband network needs to expect delays, and if history is a good teacher, the delays will last longer than expected. This is going to play havoc with anybody that has financed a new network and needs to install customers to meet debt payments.

Banks Are Going to Tighten Lending. It’s inevitable that as banks digest bad loans from failing businesses that they are going to get more cautious about making new loans. Even if interest rates don’t rise, banks will do what they always do under stress and get more conservative. Some local banks are likely to get into real trouble and will fail if their portfolio was heavily invested  into businesses that are failing.

This all makes for an interesting short-term future. There will be more people yelling for faster broadband at the same time there will be more customers unable to afford broadband. There will be grants awarded for rural markets at a time when banks might not provide the matching funds. All in all, it’s going to be a mess for most ISPs who will see both good and bad things affecting them at the same time.