Regulation and Capital Spending

At the recent Mobile World Congress, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said that one of his reasons he wants to reverse Title II regulation is that it has had a drastic impact on capital spending by ISPs. He says that the new regulations have been a disincentive for the ISPs to invest in broadband.

The Chairman bases that position on statistics provided by USTelecom which are based upon work done by Hal Singer, a Senior Fellow at GW Institute for Public Policy. Mr. Singer created the following table that shows the domestic capital spending for the big ISPs for 2014 through 2016. And indeed, this table shows a 5.6% drop, or $3.6 billion a year from 2014 to 2016 – which Mr. Singer attributes to Title II regulation.

2014

2015

2016

AT&T $21.1 $17.3 $17.8
Verizon $17.2 $17.8 $17.1
Comcast $6.4 $7.1 $7.7
Sprint $3.8 $3.9 $1.4
Time Warner Cable $4.1 $4.4 $3.8
T-Mobile $4.3 $4.7 $4.7
CenturyLink $3.0 $2.9 $3.0
Charter $2.2 $1.9 $3.1
Cablevision $0.9 $0.8 $0.6
Frontier $0.6 $0.7 $1.3
US Cellular $0.6 $0.5 $0.5
Suddenlink $0.3 $0.4 $0.3
   Total $64.6 $62.4 $61.0

But like with all statistics, it’s not hard to draw different conclusions from the same set of numbers. For example, all of the drop in capital spending can be attributed to AT&T and Sprint. Taking those companies out of the table shows that capital spending for the other big ISPs is up $2.1 billion or 5% from 2014 to 2016.

So what’s going on with AT&T? There are a number of reasons for their change in capital spending:

·         During these same years the company made massive capital investments in DirecTV ($3 billion over the last few years) and also on the company’s purchase and expansion of its cellular network into Mexico ($3 billion over 4 years). Those numbers are not included in the above table and it’s easy to argue that the company just set different priorities and diverted normal domestic capital to these two giant ventures. If you add those capital expenditures into the table then AT&T’s capital spending has grown – just not their ‘domestic’ spending on traditional broadband.

·         AT&T has been making a huge effort to update its cellular network using software defined networking (SDN) as described at this AT&T website. They have been decommissioning traditional hardware at cell sites and installing much less expensive, off-the-shelf routers that can now control the cell sites from centralized data centers. They have already converted over half of their cell sites and this upgrade means vastly reduced spending on traditional cell site electronics. The company has been bragging about this shift to investors for several years.

·         AT&T has also retracted from expanding traditional big tower cell sites. For a number of years AT&T has been spending money to get fiber to its more remote cell sites, and that upgrade is largely done.

Sprint can also be easily explained. This is a company in trouble and that has been well documented over the last few years. A number of attempts to find a buyer has fallen through. What’s not shown on this table is that in 2013 (the year before the table begins) Sprint spent $6.4 billion on capital in a massive system-wide upgrade to LTE. Since then the company has very publicly stated that they are cutting capital spending to conserve cash. The company is only expanding now with carefully selected small cell deployments. But the company is clearly in network maintenance mode and is spending only what is needed to keep the cell sites functioning. Also included in the drop in spending is a change in the way that Sprint treats leased cellphones – they used to capitalize the phones and they now expense them.

There are going to be further decreases in future telecom capital spending across the industry. I expect capital spending for all four big wireless companies to keep decreasing due to efficiencies from SDN. We are now seeing a burst of spending from cable companies due to upgrades to DOCSIS 3.1, but when that’s done I would expect a significant decline in their capital spending as well. We are entering a time when improvements in software will lower the need for new hardware – not just in telecom, but in many other sectors as well.

I have always been annoyed when statistics are used to falsely justify public policy. There is no evidence that the big ISPS have changed their spending habits in any drastic way due to Title II regulations. The argument that Title II has affected capital spending comes directly from constant press releases from USTelecom, and the FCC Chairman should be above repeating arguments from lobbyists. If the FCC wants to undo Title II then it should just do it – there are a number of valid reasons why this might be good policy. But it’s disingenuous to cook up false reasons for why the change is needed.

The Ongoing Fight Against Network Neutrality

Network_neutrality_poster_symbolThere was such a big ruckus over the net neutrality battle that it’s easy to think that the fight against it is over and that net neutrality is now the rule of the land. But I see news on a regular basis that indicates that the fight is not over.

First, the lawsuit filed by USTelecom is still being fought in court. A few months ago there were comments filed in that case by USTelecom, AT&T, CenturyLink, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the Wireless Association (CTIA), the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA), and the American Cable Association (ACA), all of which argued that the FCC had exceeded its authority when it adopted the net neutrality rules. AT&T subsequently dropped this suit as part of the agreement to buy DirecTV,

This is quite a diverse group and they don’t all share identical concerns about the net neutrality rules, but together these trade groups represent both the smallest and the largest telcos, cable companies, cellular providers, and ISPs in the country, all of whom would like to see net neutrality overturned.

And there is no surety that the court will uphold the net neutrality order. I’ve read legal opinions on both sides of the issue that paint a pretty good story about why the FCC ought to be upheld or overturned. Most of these arguments revolve around whether the FCC had the authority to act as they did – with obviously very different opinions on the issue.

And then there are the politicians. The politicians have gotten somewhat quiet on the issue since it has been in the court. But overturning net neutrality is still part of the Republican Party platform and one would expect this issue to come up every time Congress looks at funding the FCC. The House Energy and Commerce Committee will be ” taking a closer look at how the Commission’s net neutrality rules impact our fragile economy, as well as what can be done to foster continued deployment of broadband networks,” in the words of its chairman Rep Greg Walden (R-Ore).  And very recently, Jeb Bush came out against neutrality in one of his stump speeches.

I can understand why carriers would be against some aspects of net neutrality since it puts limitations on the things they can do to make money. But I’ve never understood why any politician would take a strong stance against it. When this is explained to people in the simplest terms – that net neutrality basically says that your ISP can’t make deals that would impede your ability to use the Internet freely – then most people think this is a good idea. I certainly understand that politicians are often beholden to the large corporations that fund them. But one would think that on a topic that is this popular with the general public that politicians would find backdoor ways to fight against something like net neutrality rather than being staunchly and publicly against it.

I’m even a little surprised that the industry is still fighting this battle as hard as they are. The one thing Wall Street hates is uncertainty, and if net neutrality is overturned we would return to a period of major regulatory uncertainty. Wall Street seems to have favored the industry since net neutrality was passed. For example, until the recent market correction the large cable companies had seen a major surge in stock prices, due at least in part to the fact that net neutrality has brought regulatory stability to the market.

There were dire predictions before net neutrality was passed that it would kill capital investments in the industry. And yet we see companies like CenturyLink pouring billions into expanding their fiber networks. And AT&T didn’t massively cut back on capital spending as they had threatened during the net neutrality debate.

As someone who partially makes my living on helping companies keep up with regulations, it seems that net neutrality hasn’t made any drastic changes so far in the way that companies do business. I find it interesting that the WISPA group is so against net neutrality, because I see their member companies expanding like crazy in rural areas and I can’t imagine that any of them have seen and drastic changes due to regulation due to net neutrality.