Current News Regulation - What is it Good For?

Is Wireless Really Better than Wires?

An rural area west of Route 41 and Lowell, Ind...
An rural area west of Route 41 and Lowell, Indiana. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is clear that the FCC prefers wireless as the broadband solution for rural areas. It seems like they badly want every rural household in the country to get some kind of broadband just so they can take this issue off their plate. Just about every bit of policy decided in the last few years has a bias towards wireless bias.

For instance, the historic Universal Service Fund which was used to promote rural telephony over copper has been transitioned into a new CAF fund that will instead promote high-speed data in rural areas. There are several aspects of the CAF that clearly will ensure that the funds will go mostly to wireless carriers. The bulk of the funding will eventually be distributed by a reverse auction. This is an auction where the broadband providers in a given area will be able to compete for the funding, and the one who bids for the lowest amount of subsidy per customer will receive the funds.

The first time I read the reverse auction rules my first thought was that this money is all going to wireless companies. The reverse auction rules strongly favor companies who can provide data over large areas. Any smaller company who wants to get CAF funds to help pay for a rural wired network can be undercut by the largest wireless companies. AT&T Wireless and Verizon Wireless are the two richest and most successful companies in the country. They pay many billions of dollars of dividends annually and they can afford to underbid any rural landline company for subsidy, simply because they do not need it. But of course, they will bid in the reverse auctions and take the subsidies because the rules allow them to.

There are also parts of the CAF that can be used to build new broadband infrastructure and these funds also favor wireless companies. The funds get distributed by complicated rules that have a bias to get broadband to customers at the lowest cost per subscriber. And of course, there is no cheaper way to cover a large rural footprint than with wireless. Wireless companies are also going to get a lot of this infrastructure funding.

Meanwhile, AT&T recently told the FCC that they were going to introduce a plan to drop the copper for ‘millions’ of rural subscribers. And if they are successful then their rural subscribers can expect to be told to get cell phones rather than landlines. And for voice telephony this might not be such a bad thing. But do we really want to relegate a large bunch of the US geography to only having cellular data?

Today there is clearly a broadband gap with some rural areas still stuck with dial-up Internet access. And so getting them some kind of faster data seems like a reasonable plan. The FCC has set the definition of broadband to be the capability of receiving 4 Mbps download. And it’s obvious that they set that limit with rural areas in mind.

And so over the next decade more and more of rural America will be getting cellular data that will meet, or come close to meeting the FCC’s definition of broadband. But meanwhile, the cities have already far surpassed those speeds. There are very few cities left where the average home can’t get speeds of between 10 Mbps and 20 Mbps. There are usually cheaper alternatives in the range of 5 Mbps to 7 Mbps, but the faster speeds are widely available. And many places have much faster speeds available.

The FCC itself has promoted the availability of gigabit bandwidth and companies are responding. Google is bringing this speed to Kansas City, Austin and Provo and AT&T has promised to match them in Austin. CenturyLink is bringing a gigabit to Omaha. And a number of smaller municipal and commercial providers have brought gigabit speeds to other towns and cities scattered across the country. And one can expect the gigabit movement to grow rapidly.

It’s universal knowledge that the household use of bandwidth has continued to grow and there is no end in sight for that growth. As networks can provide more data households find ways to use it. Video has been the recent reason for the explosion in data usage, and now we can see that the Internet of Things will probably be the next big bandwidth driver.

Have we really solved the rural bandwidth gap if people in those areas are going to have 4 Mbps data speeds while urban areas have a gigabit? Obviously the rural areas will continue to be left behind and they will fall further behind than today. Just a few years ago the rural areas had dial-up and the cities had maybe 5 Mbps. But a gap between a rural world at single digit megabit speeds with the cities at gigabit speeds is a much larger gap and the rural areas will not be able to share in the benefits that bandwidth will bring.

The only long-term solution is to build fiber to rural America. Obviously nobody is going to build fiber to single homes at the top of mountains or at the end of ten-mile dirt roads, but I have been working on business plans that show that fiber can make sense in the average rural county. But it is really hard to get rural fiber funding since such projects tend to jut pay for themselves and are not wildly profitable.

It’s possible that the FCC’s universal service plans will work and that a lot of the 19 million rural people without broadband will get some sort of rudimentary broadband. But meanwhile, the rest of the country will be getting faster and faster bandwidth. And so, before the FCC declares ‘mission accomplished’ I think we need to have more of a debate about the definition of broadband and what is acceptable. I hate to tell the FCC, but the rural broadband issue is not going to go away even after rural areas all have cellular data.

Current News The Industry

The Last Telephone Monopoly

English: Concertina razor wire at a prison (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is still one last monopoly in the telephone world and that is for rates charged in many of the prisons and jails in the US. Some of the rates charged to prisoners for making a call are extremely high as will be shown below.

The prison calling industry has changed a lot over the last thirty years. Thirty years ago most of the calling from prisons was handled by the telephone companies, and for the most part inmates had to go through live operators and make collect calls. But over the years the prisons and jails have required a number of special features, referred to as penological features, that allow them to monitor and control inmate calling. These various penological features have forced the industry to shift to specialty providers who have developed solutions that deliver the needed penological features. So today there are a handful of prison telephone providers who each serve large numbers of facilities – companies like Securus, Global Tel-Link, ICS and FSH Communications.

I call this a monopoly market because at each jail or prison there is only one service provider. Generally the service providers compete to serve a facility through an RFP process, so one would assume that the calling rates would be competitively set. But just the opposite occurs. In most states the telephone service providers are required to pay a commission back to the prisons for each call billed. Over the years these commissions have increased and there are some commissions as high as 60%, although most are more in the range of 30% to 40% of the billings. The RFP generally seems to get awarded to the carrier that will offer the highest kickback to the prisons.

This Table of Prison Rates is a summary from a magazine called Prison Legal Review from 2011 that summarizes the rates in each state. The rates don’t change much over time so this ought to still be fairly accurate. As you can see, rates vary widely by state and also by jurisdiction. The lowest rates are in New York where rates for all jurisdictions are a flat 4.8¢ per minute and the highest rate is in Washington state where an interstate call has a $4.95 setup fee plus 89¢ per minute.

You can see from this table that the intrastate rates in most states are lower than the interstate rates because the state commissions in most states have set a cap on the prices that can be charged for prison calling. But most of those rates were set in a different time in the past where a lot of the calls from the prisons required a live operator. Today very few calls require an operator and most prisons offer both collect and pre-paid calling to prisons which are both totally automated. Other states have set prison calling rates to be the same as payphone rates since the phones in a prison resemble a payphone in technology (although none of them allow for coins to be used to pay for calling).

The prison service providers are obviously making a lot of money on the calls with high rates. If there are service providers willing to bid on the business in a state like New York or other states where the calling rates are relatively low, then these same providers are obviously making a huge margin per call in states where the rates are high, even after paying commissions.

One might ask why it matters what the rates are in prisons and I think there are several reasons:

  • Studies have shown that allowing prisoners to keep in contact with family is an important aspect to rehabilitation and of them not returning to prison. The high rates make it very difficult for most prisoners to keep in regular contact with the outside world. The real victims of high calling rates are the families of inmates. It only takes a few short calls at the rates shown in the table to hit a $100 monthly bill for calling. Many families are forced to severely limit calling due to the cost.
  • The high rates make it very hard for prisoners to stay in contact with their lawyers, for the same reason of cost.
  • It just feels wrong to have a niche of the market where a carrier can land a deal that allows it to charge a huge set-up fee and 89¢ per minute. And the whole system of commission kickbacks feels wrong. This is not analogous to having high rates for public payphones because the public can choose to avoid payphones. But if an inmate wants to call they have no option but to go through the monopoly provider at their prison.

There does not seem to be much momentum to change things. Prisons are very happy with the commission kickbacks. It’s a source of revenue outside of what they are funded by the states or federal government. Very few state commissions seem to be concerned enough about the issue to accept dockets that examine the issue. There has been an open docket at the FCC for many years that has never been decided.

But I think everybody in the industry understands that cost of long distance calling has fallen through the basement. Wholesale long distance can be purchased for a penny or two at most per minute, and it’s obvious by the prison rates in New York that the penological requirements can be met for a relatively low amount per minute. And so anything over the New York rates are simply the last abuse of a monopoly power that has been broken for every other kind of calling.

The Industry

Open Access: Europe versus the US

When cities build fiber networks in the US, one question they always ask is if they can make their system open access. By this, they mean that they want to build a fiber network, but they prefer not to be in the telecom business and instead would prefer to attract multiple providers to the network to use the fiber and compete for customers. The cities just want big bandwidth for their citizens and most cities would prefer to not compete in the telecom business.

Open Access works well in Europe but has been a failure in the US. Why does it work there and not work here? The main reason it works in Europe is that a number of high-quality service providers are willing to use somebody else’s network, especially a fiber network, to provide service. In Europe ISPs are willing to compete side-by-side with other ISPs even though there is no inherent advantage of one service provider versus another when they are all on the same network.

A perfect example of a European open access network that attracted competition is the one built in Amsterdam. Much of the basic infrastructure has been built by the City, although there have been some private partners recently building some additions to the network. But all parts of the network are fully open access. There are thirteen major service providers offering services on the Amsterdam fiber network – Canal Digitaal, Concepts, KPN, Fype, Online NL, Ligbrandt, Scarlet, Tele2, Telfort, UPC, Vodafone, XS4ALL, and Ziggo. In addition there are around 25 other ISPs who serve smaller niches of customers, often with specialty products such as medical monitoring or small business service.

A few of these service providers are large incumbent providers that had monopolies in their own countries before the formation of the European Union. For example, KPN is the incumbent provider for the Netherlands. Vodafone was an incumbent provider in Germany.

It’s easy to contrast this with the US. There have been a number of cities that have built open access networks in the US and who then tried to lure ISPs to serve in the networks. Some of the open access networks include Tacoma, Provo, Utopia (small towns in Utah), Chelan PUD and a number of other smaller PUDs in Washington state. In none of these cases did a large or incumbent cable provider or telephone company agree to bring service to these fiber networks. In every case the cities that built the networks had to scramble to find local ISPs who were willing to tackle the business. And in almost all cases the Cities had to give a lot of help to these local ISPs in the early days to help them succeed. The ISPs that have operated on US open access networks are generally small, local and under-capitalized. None of the US competitors are of the size or strength of the competitors in Europe.

Why do the big telcos and cable companies in Europe step up and compete against each other while the ones in the US do not? On the European side of the equation, the competitive attitude goes back to the beginning of the European Union. The European Union built slowly since the early 1970’s, but it took on most of its current membership by the early 1990’s. In the mid-90’s there were various treaties signed which opened the borders between European nations, both physically and in terms of commerce. Before that time almost every European country had a monopoly telecom provider. But when the gates were opened to competition, a few of them crossed borders to compete and soon everybody jumped into the competitive fray.

But in the US I can’t find one example of an incumbent cable company competing against another incumbent cable provider. And the large telephone companies barely compete against each other. They fight hard for things like the contract to serve the US government, but overall they barely compete in each other’s territory. And even in most of the US where there are two providers, a telco and cable company, for the most part both parties charge high prices and do not compete heavily with each other. The system in the US is referred to in economic terms as an oligopoly, where a few large providers have divvied up the market to mutual benefit. While there is competition, it is nothing like the real competition seen in Europe.

But I must grant that it probably would be difficult for a large US telephone or cable company to provide service on somebody else’s network. These companies are highly decentralized and it often requires groups from many states to come together to provide service to a new customer. The processes used by the large incumbents are so specific to the way they do things on their network that it might just be too costly for them to modify those processes to serve on a different network.

But whatever the reasons, Europe enjoys tremendous competition for customers, particularly where somebody has built a fiber network. But in the US no such competition exists, other than in metro areas where CLECs still vigorously compete for large business customers in highrises.

Improving Your Business What Customers Want

Know Your Fifty Biggest Business Customers

This is an idea that is so simple that I almost didn’t make a blog entry out of it. But every service provider should personally know their largest business customers. I arbitrarily set the number to fifty customers, but fifty is not a magic number and there is some number that is right for every carrier.

When I say that you should know them personally I mean just that. These customers should get a visit from you every year. You should do your best to get to know each of these customers well and understand their needs. Talk to them about their business and understand how they use your existing products. If this blog has highlighted anything, it is that the needs of business customers are evolving and changing quickly, so you should also be talking with these customers about how you help them to meet their needs in the future.

Starting this process is easy. Generate a report each month that lists the highest billing customers. As you compare these results month over month you will begin to see the top customers in terms of billing.

As you find out what your largest customers want, you are going to find out that you have holes in your product offerings. You might find that these customers are buying some things elsewhere or else are going without features and products they would like. It would not be surprising to find that some of them are thinking of changing service provider. Often you will find out that they don’t know what they need in terms of product, and part of the reasons for these visits is for you to educate them on the wide range of business products that are available to them today.

The businesses should welcome your visits if you come by to get to know them and advise them. You are not be building loyalty if you only visit your customers when they have a contract expiring or some similar event. Loyalty instead comes when they know you care about them and their success.

Most service providers I know can name their top few customers, but it’s rare to find somebody who can name their top fifty. And it is far fewer who have made it a priority to visit their largest customers every year. Visiting fifty customers is one visit per week. Find a way to work that into your schedule. You will love the results.

Improving Your Business What Customers Want

Customers – Make Them Part of Your ‘Club’

Today’s guest blogger is Mike Fox. He was one of the founders of CCG and we still work together on a number of projects. He is working today for Fox Management Advisors. Mike can be reached at (307) 431-6543.

For the past decade or so, the telecom industry has made great strides to become more competitive and focused on evolving customer needs and desires. However, we still have a long way to go. Our industry is changing and many products and services that were once ‘cash cows’ are now becoming almost ‘commodity’ services (although, in reality, treating any of your services like commodities is both dangerous and fundamentally wrong – I’ll address this in more detail in a future entry).

For example, long distance used to be a huge money-maker for telephone companies. Today, with unlimited (although, not ‘free’) calling throughout the US as part of most calling plans (landline or wireless), the world has changed. For those of us old enough to remember, it wasn’t that long ago that every long distance call was carefully scrutinized by our parents! Today, we don’t care who or where our kids call, just so long as they don’t go over the minutes in their plan.

So, how do we structure our sales culture to attract and keep more customers? What makes them sticky? Is it price? No, that’s commodity sales think. There will always be someone willing to offer lower prices. Sure, you have to be price competitive, but you should never sell on price.  Rather, sell on value and work to generate loyal customers. Many of the most loyal customer bases in the world are very willing to pay above market prices for the stuff they want. Think of Harley Davidson, Apple Computers and Starbucks. All provide products and services at prices above their competitors, but their customer base is extremely loyal and willing to pay such prices. And, it’s not just about quality. Sure their quality is good, but it’s more the subjective aspects that make these customers loyal – e.g., it’s fun to be part of the Harley club! Simply put, passionate, loyal and, ergo, sticky customers have an emotional attachment to the brand.

Do your customers feel passionate about your products and services? If not, that can be changed.  Find a way to make help your customers connect with your products and services in a personal way. While there are many ways to accomplish this, one important aspect is to nurture your personal relationships with your customers. Make them feel like they are part of your community and an important part of your community. When I lived back east, I became friends with a manager at an Acura car dealership. Over a period of 9 years, I bought several cars from him, even two used vehicles that were not Acuras. I love the Acura brand, but that isn’t what brought me back since there were several other Acura dealers in the area. Rather, every time I walked in that dealership (and I did many times when I wasn’t buying), they made me feel welcome and ‘part of the club’.  It was fun and whenever I was in the market for a new car, that’s who I went to first. Let’s figure out a way to make your customers think of you first when they think of ANYTHING related to telecommunications. Even if you don’t sell what they need at the time, encourage them to come in to the office and just talk. Who knows, it might result in a sale and it certainly will encourage them to come back the next time when you do have something they want.

Current News The Industry

Two Fiber Networks?

Image of Austin, Texas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The conventional wisdom in the industry is that two companies would never invest in side-by-side fiber networks to serve residential customers. I have had this conversation many times with clients who were planning to build a fiber network and who were worried about the response of the incumbent providers. Everyone has always believed that the first fiber builder wins because there is not enough margin in the residential market to support two fiber networks. AT&T has shown that conventional wisdom to be wrong by announcing that they will build a second fiber network in Austin as a counter to Google’s announcement to do the same.

This is not without precedent, although on a much smaller scale. The City of Monticello, Minnesota built a fiber network to pass every home and business in the City. The municipal fiber build was prompted by the fact that the City had some of the highest telecom rates in the country. Soon after the City built their network, TDS Telecom, the incumbent telephone company built a competing fiber network.

And as expected, both fiber providers are not faring well. After building fiber TDS decided to win back customers with an aggressive price war. Charter, the incumbent cable company also got into the price war fray. And so customers in Monticello are benefitting from a price war while all of the companies are underperforming.

It is fairly easy to understand TDS’s motivation for building the fiber network and for the price war. The company serves numerous other towns like Monticello and I see their response there as a clear warning to anybody else who is planning on overbuilding their serving territory. It is also clear that they are hoping that the City will give up and leave the fiber business.

And now we are going to see this scenario play out in the much bigger market of Austin. Google already overbuilt one AT&T market in Kansas City and one can easily envision Google overbuilding many other large cities. AT&T’s response in Austin is the same as TDS’s response in Monticello. AT&T has made it clear to Google and others that they are not going to side idly by and watch their major markets go to somebody else.

So it will be interesting to see the impact of AT&T’s announcement. It’s possible that the announcement will cause Google to pause and not build in Austin. Certainly they will not do as well as expected if there are two fiber networks. It’s also possible that both companies will build fiber and we will see side-by-side competition with two fiber networks and the cable company – the kind of competition we have never seen in a major city in the US.

But the real impact of AT&T’s announcement is going to be felt everywhere else. One has to wonder what kind of impact AT&T’s announcement will have on any company, Google included, who is contemplating building a fiber network in a large city. Google has very deep pockets and might proceed anyway, but almost any other company would not be able to afford the much lower returns that come with hard competition.

While this announcement might result in real competition for the citizens of Austin, it also might have the effect of stifling anybody else from trying to build fiber in a large City. This announcement could result in killing anybody from building fiber in large cities due to the fear of a similar reaction. While hearing about two companies wanting to provide gigabit fiber sounds like a good thing, the long-term consequence of this might mean less overbuilding, less fiber and less competition.

And I don’t know that AT&T had any choice. Their only other option was to watch their large markets go to an aggressive competitor. Nobody knows what Google plans to do, but some have speculated that they might build in most of the major cities. Now we’ll just have to watch this one play out, so pull up a chair. This should be interesting.