Where are the Verizon Profits?

Verizon Wireless "Rule the Air" Ad C...

Verizon Wireless “Rule the Air” Ad Campaign (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been reading over the last few weeks about the controversy surrounding Verizon’s profitability in its wireless versus wireline business. Verizon has been claiming that it is not making very much money from its landline business while critics are charging that Verizon is cooking the books to make the wireline business look bad.

This link is a report on Verizon’s 3rd quarter earnings. In the third quarter Verizon had total revenues of $30.3 billion. This was comprised of $20.4 billion for the wireless segment and $9.7 billion for the wireline businesses. The profit story is quite skewed and they show profits of $6.9 billion for the wireless business but only $155 million for the total wireline business. If you take out depreciation to get operating margins, the wireless business made $8.9 billion for the quarter while the landline business made $2.2 billion.

In looking at these numbers as an outsider I ask myself if they make sense. I probably have more ability to judge these numbers than most people because I am privy to the books of hundreds of telecom companies that are in the same business lines as Verizon.

Verizon claims their losses for landline are so big because of all of their continuing losses of landlines. But all of my clients have been losing landlines and yet many of them are still quite profitable. Let’s look at some of the piece parts of the company to kick the tires on Verizon’s claim of low profitability:

  • Verizon has 5.2 million video subscribers. It’s a pretty well-known industry fact that these are low margin customers.
  • Verizon has 5.9 million FiOS data customers and another 3.0 million DSL customers. And 40% of the FiOS customers were buying the faster speeds of between 50 Mbps and 500 Mbps. Universally, data is a high margin business.
  • Verizon had 4.1 million voice customers on FiOS and 6.8 million voice customers on copper. While voice lines are dropping, and Verizon lost a net 432,000 customers over the last year, the margins on voice should be high.
  • Landline revenues include $3.6 billion in core and strategic services and another $1.7 billion in global wholesale. These product lines include what are the most profitable business lines for most telcos – such things as selling special access circuits, internet backbone connections and fiber connections to cell towers. Most of my clients report these business lines to be very highly profitable.

The overall operating margin for the landline business, at 23% ($2.2 billion of margin compared to $9.7 billion of costs) is very low compared to almost all of my customers. Much smaller telephone companies than Verizon have margins that are somewhere in the 30% – 40% range.

So, is Verizon just very inefficiently operated or are they cooking their books? I consider the following:

  • There is a lot of corporate leeway in assigning costs between operating divisions. I help my clients make these kinds of cost allocations all of the time and there is a wide variety of ways that you can allocate costs that will still fly with an external auditor. So Verizon has a lot of leeway to change the relative profits between the two operating divisions.
  • Verizon publicly has been trying to convince the FCC that they ought to be able to transition customers from copper to wireless. The most visible controversy has been about Fire Island off New York City that got devastated by hurricane Sandy. But Both Verizon and AT&T have made it clear that they would like to find a way to walk away from maintaining older copper.
  • On the surface the profits look too small. This either has to be the result of very inefficient operations or of allocating costs to slew profits. If the wireline business really only has a 20% margin then Verizon would be far better off to spin those businesses off to standalone regional companies who could probably double the margins within a few years.

It’s obviously very hard to know all of the facts within the books of a company as big as Verizon. But my gut tells me that they ought to be making more money on the wireline business. While Verizon claims the poor profitability is due to loss of landlines, that only comprises a small percentage of the landline business. A lot of that business comes from the very profitable business lines of supplying transport for the Internet and for cell sites.

So are they cooking the books? Probably.

At Least We are Not Europe

Europe Simulator

Europe Simulator (Photo credit: wigu)

In this country the FCC has undertaken various policy initiatives to promote broadband. However, except for some universal service funding that will bring broadband for the first time to tribal areas and very rural places, these initiatives come with no federal money. And so the real broadband policy in the country is to wait for the private sector to build the infrastructure. The FCC may make proclamations about creating gigabit cities, but it’s completely up to the private sector to make it happen.

And we all know how that is working out. We have a checkerboard of broadband coverage. At one end of the spectrum are the fiber networks – Google and a few others bringing gigabit fiber, Verizon with FiOS, and many smaller communities with fiber built by municipalities or independent telephone companies. In the middle most metropolitan areas are served by decently fast cable modem service and ADSL2 DSL. And then there are a lot of smaller cities and rural communities where the DSL and the cable modems are a generation or more old and which deliver far less bandwidth than advertised. And we have many rural areas still with no broadband.

But what we have, by and large, is still better than what has been happening in Europe. And this is because our regulatory policy for last-mile connectivity is mostly hands-off while the European markets are heavily regulated. After the European Union was formed the European regulators went for a solution that promoted low prices. They have required that all large networks be unbundled for the benefit of multiple service providers. This has turned out to be a short-term boon for consumers because it has brought down prices in every market where multiple providers are competing.

But there is a big catch and the European policy is not going to work out well in the long-run. Over the last five years the per capita spending on new telecom infrastructure in Europe is less than half of what it is in the US, and this is directly due to the unbundling policy. Network owners have no particular incentive to build new networks or upgrade existing ones because it brings their competitors the same advantages they get.

In the long-run, Europe is going to fall far behind everybody else in fiber deployment because nobody wants to invest in fiber to connect to homes and businesses. There have been several major fiber initiatives in recent years in Europe, but these have largely been driven by large cities who are spending the money on the fiber infrastructure, much as is happening with some cities here. But the normal kinds of companies that ought to be investing in last-mile fiber in Europe, the cable companies and the telcos, are not doing so.

We tried something similar here for a few years. When the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was enacted, one of the major provisions was that the RBOCs (Bell companies) had to unbundle their networks, much as is being done in Europe. This was to spur competition by allowing new competitors to get a start in the business without having to invest in a new network. And this brought short-term benefits to consumers for a while. Companies were leasing RBOC unbundled loops and providing voice and data (DSL at the time) to businesses and residences all over the country.

But the FCC didn’t go the whole way like they did in Europe or else they would have also unbundled the large cable networks in this country. The unbundled telecom network business plans broke apart after cable modem service began winning the bandwidth war. And of course, there was the telecom crash that killed the larger new competitors. There are still a few companies out there pursuing this unbundled business model, but for the most part it didn’t work. And the reason it didn’t work is that it is a form of arbitrage. The business plan only worked because federal regulators made the RBOCs unbundle their networks and then state regulators set the prices for the network elements low to spur competition. But the services the competitors were able to offer were no better than what the RBOCs could offer on the same networks.

It’s always been clear to me that you can’t build a solid business on arbitrage. A smart provider can take advantage of temporarily low prices to make a quick profit when they find arbitrage, but they must be ready to ditch the business and run when the regulatory rules that created the opportunity change.

And Europe is currently engaged in one gigantic arbitrage situation. There are multiple service providers who are benefitting by low network costs, but with no burden to make capital investments. Customers there are winning today due to the lower prices due to competition. But in the long run nobody wins. The same rules that are making prices low today are ensuring that nobody makes any serious investment in building new fiber networks. So the competitors will fight it out on older networks until one day when the arbitrage opportunity dies, the competitors will all vanish like the wind. We know it will happen because it happened here. The CLECs in this country had tens of millions of customers, and they disappeared from the market and stranded those customers in a very short period of time.

The only policy that is really going to benefit consumers here, or in Europe, is one that fosters the building of state-of-the-art networks. The commercial providers have not stepped up nearly enough in this country and there is still not a lot of fiber built to residences. But in Europe it’s even worse. So, as much as I read about people criticizing the broadband policies in the US, I have to remind myself – at least we are not Europe.

Doing Away With Regulations

Seal of the United States Federal Communicatio...

Seal of the United States Federal Communications Commission. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a process that most carriers probably don’t know about, any carrier can petition the FCC to get rid of or modify any regulation that it no longer thinks is necessary. This is an ongoing process and so the FCC issues a biennial report and every two years produces a summary of the requests that have been made as well as the FCC response to those requests. The latest biennial report DA-13-1708A1 was issued yesterday.

For the most part this is pretty dry regulatory stuff, but some of the changes that carriers request are significant and affects a lot of carriers. While many of the requests are to eliminate reports to the FCC, many requests are more substantial. In reading through this year’s report one will notice that Verizon appears more than any other carrier and one must imagine that they have somebody on staff dedicated to removing regulation.

Here are some of the issues investigated by the FCC in this latest report:

  • CenturyLink and Verizon advocate eliminating continuing property records (CPRs) contained in Part 32. These are detailed asset logs showing the cost, age and type of each asset in a company and must be updated each year for both additions and retirements. For even small LECs the cost of producing CPRs can be expensive.  The FCC has now eliminated the requirement for CPRs for price cap carriers but still require them for rate-of-return carriers.
  • Verizon asked that the Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) rules in Part 54 b modified so that an ETC is no longer required to serve customers in areas where the carrier gets no USF support, and also in areas where it is unprofitable to serve with landline but where customers have a competitive alternative. Verizon asks to get rid of its lifeline responsibilities in such areas, and effectively be able to walk away from serving customers. The FCC did not agree to removing these rules but instead wrapped the request into the Connect America Fund and the Lifeline and Link-up Reform and Modernization proceedings.
  • USTelecom asked the FCC to remove the requirement to notify the FCC when a carrier wants to replace legacy technology with an IP broadband technology covered by Part 63. For example, this would allow a carrier to stop offering copper services if they offer something else, such as what Verizon wants to do on Fire Island sue to hurricane damage. The FCC declined to accept this request.
  • USTelecom asked that ILECs not be required to have separate subsidiaries for offering in-region long distance as required by Part 64. The FCC concluded that this requirement no longer applied to ILECs subject to price caps. But the rules remain in effect for rate-of-return carriers.
  • Verizon asked the FCC to complete access reform by eliminating originating access charges as required by Part 69. The FCC noted that this was more properly addressed in the ongoing USF/ICC Transformation FNPRM.
  • NTCH asked that the FCC eliminate requirements to notify the FCC of temporary cell phone towers as required by Part 17. Temporary towers are often used during the process of relocating existing towers or when repairing towers after a disaster. The FCC responded by forebearing the existing rules for towers that would be in place for less than 60 days and that which met other conditions.
  • Verizon asked the FCC to eliminate the requirement that it notify the FCC within 120 minutes for major network outages per Part 4. Verizon noted that they have as many as 1,000 such outages every year. The FCC did not agree to the request.
  • The Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) asked that some of the rules concerning standards for hearing aids and volume controls for hard-of-hearing sets in Part 68 be eliminated due to new TIA standards. The FCC responded by issuing a Public Notice and asking if there should be a rulemaking for the issue.

As you can see by just this sample of the issues that were covered in this docket that the FCC is always being challenged by carriers to eliminate regulations. Any carrier can make such a request and there were dozens of such requests considered in this latest two-year cycle. Sort of like sausage-making, regulation is not always a pretty picture, but the FCC does eliminate regulatory requirements every year that it deems are no longer in the public benefit.

Is There any Life Left in Copper?

RG-59 coaxial cable A: Plastic outer insulatio...

RG-59 coaxial cable A: Plastic outer insulation B: Copper-clad aluminium braid shield conductor C: Dielectric D: Central conductor (copper-clad steel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Copper is still a very relevant technology today, and when looked at on a global scale nearly 2/3 of all broadband subscribers are still served by copper. That percentage is smaller in the US, but this country has a far more widely deployed cable TV system than most of the rest of the world.

The most widely deployed DSL technologies today are ADSL2 and VDSL. In theory these technologies can get speeds up to about 40 Mbps. But depending upon the gauge, the age and the condition of the copper many actual deployments are closer to 20 Mbps than the theoretical 40 Mbps.

ADSL2 and VDSL technology has been widely deployed by AT&T in its U-verse product which serves over 7 million data customers and over 4.5 million cable customers. AT&T has made the product available to over 24 million homes. AT&T can support the product up to about 3,500 feet on good single copper pair and up to 5,500 feet using a two bonded copper pairs.

And ADSL2 is a pretty decent product. It can deliver IPTV and still support an okay data pipe. However, as the cable companies are finding ways to get more bandwidth out of their coaxial cable and as new companies are deploying fiber, these DSL technologies are going to again fall behind the competition.

So what is out there that might resurrect copper and make speeds faster than ADSL2? Not too long ago I wrote a blog about G.Fast, which is Alcatel-Lucent’s attempt to find a way to get more speeds out of legacy copper networks. In recent field tests ALU achieved a maximum speed of 1.1 Gbps over 70 meters and 800 Mbps over 100 meters for brand new copper. On older copper the speed dropped to 500 Mbps for 100 meters.

However, the G.Fast distance limitations are far shorter than ADSL2 and G.Fast is really more of a drop technology than a last mile technology and it would require a telco like AT&T to build a lot more fiber to get even closer to houses. You have to wonder of it makes any sense to rebuild the copper network to be able to get up to 500 Mbps out of copper when fiber could deliver many gigabits.

There are other technologies that have been announced for copper. Late last year Genesis Technical Systems announced a scheme to get 400 Mbps out of copper using a technology they are calling DSL Rings. This technology would somehow tie 2 to 15 homes into a ring and bridge them with copper. Details of how the technology works are still a little sketchy.

In 2011 the Chinese vendor Huawei announced a new technology that will push up to 1 gigabit for 100 meters. This sounds very similar to G.Fast and sounds like a way to use existing copper within a home rather than rewiring.

There is one new technology that is finally getting wider use which is bonded VDSL pairs that use vectoring. Vectoring is a noise cancellation technology that works in a way similar to how noise-cancelling headphones work to eliminate sound interference. Vectoring eliminates most of the noise between bonded pairs of copper. Alcatel-Lucent hit the market with bonded pair VDSL2 in late 2011 that can deliver up to 100 Mbps. However, in real deployment speeds are reported to be 50 Mbps to 60 Mbps on older copper. That is enough speed to probably give another decade to DSL, although to do so requires a full replacement of old technology DSL technology with VDSL2. One has to wonder how many times the telcos will keep upgrading their copper electronics to get a little more speed rather than taking the leap to fiber like Verizon did.

One only has to take a look at the growth rate of the data used at homes and ask how long copper can remain relevant. Within a few short decades we have moved from where homes could get by on dial-up and now find a 20 Mbps connection too slow. Looking just a few years forward we see the continued growth of video sharing and a lot of new traffic from cellular femtocells and the Internet of Things. It’s hard to think that it won’t be long until people are bemoaning the inadequacy of their 50 Mbps connections. But that day is coming and probably is not more than a decade away.

What’s Up With Verizon?

1980s Dodge Ram Van Verizon

1980s Dodge Ram Van Verizon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have another story to tell about my friend Danny. He runs an accounting firm in northern Virginia and he looks a lot like a ton of other small businesses. He has half a dozen phone lines and he wants a fast Internet connection. He called me the other day and told me that he had been approached in just the course of one week by three different salespeople who represented Verizon.

His first contact still has me shaking my head. A salesman stopped by and offered to sell him an all-in-one T1. Danny already has FiOS and a symmetrical 35 Mbps Internet connection. This salesperson wanted to sell Danny a T1 from Verizon or from half a dozen other CLECs and resellers. And he could do this for only $1,400 per month, which is 3.5 times what Danny is paying for vastly better service.

I was really surprised by this sales call. This is a flashback to the late 90’s when there were salespeople everywhere selling the all-inclusive T1 that had some channels for voice and the rest of the T1 for data. And in those days since we had all just migrated from the dial-up world, this seemed like fast Internet access. But then DSL and cable modems, and now fiber and 4G have all left T1s far behind and I was surprised that there was a company who would spend the money on a salesperson to go door-to-door with last century’s product. That seems like the telecom’s version of a buggy-whip salesman.

But Danny says that in his CPA practice that he has at least 50 clients who still use T1s. He advises them every year to move to something better, but I guess there are a lot of people in the world who stick with what is comfortable and working. Such customers could save a lot of money moving to something else and would get far faster Internet access to boot. But I guess the fact that these kinds of customers are still out in the market explains the T1 salesman. There is so much profit in a T1 at his prices that one sale per month probably keeps him happy and very profitable.

Next Danny got a visit from Verizon Wireless. They wanted him to ditch his FiOS and go completely wireless with 4G. Danny has had his FiOS for four years and has never had a single problem. During that time Verizon has increased his bandwidth without changing the price. He is completely happy with fiber and he knows that fiber is the ultimate pipe if he wants bigger bandwidth in the future.

4G is an interesting product, but nobody thinks that a wireless network is as reliable as the FiOS fiber. Cell towers sometimes go down or get overwhelmed with service requests. And the 4G speeds vary by how many customers are using it at any given time. 4G is nice, but it is not fiber.

Danny says that the 4G salesperson could not answer some basic questions. For instance, they could not tell him the speeds he could expect at his location but only could talk about a possible range of speeds. And they never asked him any questions about his business. There certainly are going to be businesses where 4G might be the right solution, but Danny is not one of them. His accountants work in the office and clients come to see him. His major concern is reliability and he loves that FiOS stays up and running. Before FiOS he had a Comcast cable modem and had to send employees home several days when the Internet was not working. Danny is a happy Verizon customer and is sold on their fiber. Danny was somewhat amazed that the 4G salesperson did not know that he already had FiOS and it seems like the different parts of Verizon don’t talk to each other.

Finally last week Danny got a call from a FiOS rep. He had not gotten a call about his FiOS since he first bought it, but I guess that the Verizon FiOS group knew that Verizon Wireless was out trying to poach their customers and they called to check on him. So within the span of one week Danny was contacted by three different salespeople, two from Verizon and one who was a Verizon reseller.

This surprised me for a number of reasons. First, I honestly would have thought the day of selling T1s was dead and that visit just has me shaking my head. But the idea that two different parts of Verizon would spend for sales resources to compete for the same customer has me flummoxed. I understand that the Verizon fiber and wireless businesses are separate business units. But at the end of the day their profits all roll up to the same bottom line.

It appears to me that Verizon has missed one of the basic principles of selling – putting the customer first. A lot of my clients are CLECs and they learned a long time ago that the way to get loyal customers is to get to know them and find them a solution that fits what they need. This approach is called consultative sales and involves taking the time to get to know the customers’ needs. In the early days of CLECs they all sold on price and they quickly learned that a customer who changed to them for a lower price would also drop them for the next lowest offer. The CLECs who are still around today are for the most part doing it right and selling in a way to earn trust and loyalty from customers.

It honestly surprises me that Verizon has not learned this simple lesson. Danny says that the wireless salesperson never asked him about his business and only spouted that 4G was the latest and greatest product. It further surprises me that Verizon would put a live sales staff on the street to compete against themselves. Sales teams are expensive and it’s hard to fathom why Verizon would send a wireless salesperson to a place that already has Verizon FiOS. You would think at a minimum they would send salespeople only to those places that don’t already use Verizon. But once they heard he had FiOS they still tried to convert him to wireless.

Why would Verizon compete against itself like this? I know that there are different business units at Verizon and that each group will earn bonuses based upon their own performance, but at the end of the day it is more profitable as a corporation to do this the right way. Verizon ought to be sending out one sales team that can sell their whole product line and who will help the customer find the best solution for their business. In the long run it can’t do Verizon any good having salespeople bashing their own product lines. As a corporation do they really want wireless salespeople telling the public not to use their fiber? That is going to lead customers to pick somebody other than Verizon.

I think Danny has it right. When his receptionist hears the word Verizon now she just tells them, “He doesn’t want to talk to you.” And she is right.

Will Poor People Get Google Fiber?

FiOS installed in Montclair, New Jersey

FiOS installed in Montclair, New Jersey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This was a great question that was posed by a recent article in Forbes Magazine. In this country we have a long history of having telecom provided by monopoly telephone companies and more recently by cable companies. Both incumbent providers have been mandated to serve almost everybody in their footprint. In the case of telephone companies this has been done by regulatory fiat by the various state Commissions that regulate telephone service in each state. Every state has rules for incumbent telephone companies that include a requirement for universal service using a concept known as carrier-of-last-resort. When a telephone company got the right to serve an area they were expected to provide service to everybody in that area, within reason, and then the costs of the more expensive-to-reach customers was averaged with everybody else. I say within reason, because even the telephone companies were allowed an out for really expensive-to-reach customers. For instance, if a farmer lived back a seven-mile long lane, the phone company might only provide a mile or two of the service line and expect the customer to pay for the rest.

And cable companies had similar requirement that came through the franchise agreements that they signed with local governments. If a cable company wanted to serve a town, then they were required to serve everybody in town in order to get the franchise.

Today fiber is being built by both regulated monopoly carriers like Verizon, but also by competitive providers like Google. But none of the fiber builders has the same carrier-of-last-resort or cable-like franchises requirements that the incumbents faced when they built their copper networks.

So to answer the opening question, will everybody get Google fiber?  The answer is no, for the following reasons:

  • Copper is still in place.  As long as the copper is still in place for the telephone and cable company, they can satisfy their service obligations by connecting customers on copper. They are thus relieved of building fiber everywhere as long as copper still exists.
  • Exclusive contracts with MDUs.  Anybody that builds with fiber needs to get the approval of the owner of multi-tenant buildings, be that apartments or multi-tenant business buildings. And some of those building owners are not going to give permission. Some building owners will have signed exclusive access contracts with the incumbent cable company. The FCC invalidated some types of exclusivity a few years ago, but there are still contractual ways for the cable company to keep out competition. Further, some building owners just don’t want to let a provider into their complex.
  • Places too expensive to serve.  Fiber overbuilders can pick and choose where to serve. It is often very expensive to bring fiber into apartment buildings, particularly older apartments, and many fiber builders choose to not build or selectively build to apartments. Verizon is famous for avoiding high-cost places. If you look at a suburban map of Verizon FiOS you would find a real patchwork of served areas. They will build to one pocket of houses but then skip over ones right next door, certainly due to cost. For the most part Verizon has elected to not dig up streets to build fiber, and so FiOS is more commonly placed in neighborhoods with existing Verizon aerial wires, or in neighborhoods where there is existing conduit in the ground. Verizon also often skips past apartment complexes. But I don’t want to single out Verizon since this is true of just about every fiber overbuilder.
  • Redlining, or the nearest thing to it.  As the article suggests, the build-out patterns of Verizon, Google and just about any other fiber overbuilder have a significant taste of redlining about them. It is easy for the fiber builders to say they are building where the cost is the lowest and the returns are expected to be the highest, but this means that they generally end up avoiding large apartment complexes and poorer neighborhoods. If they had set out to deliberately redline they would end up with basically the same networks that actually get built.

And so we are entering a future where there will be definite fiber haves and have-nots. There has been a lot of this for the last few decades since the introduction of DSL and cable modems. Rural areas for the large part have received very little broadband compared to urban and suburban areas. But the future digital divide is going to be starker, with the divide being everywhere, including the cities and suburbs, with some homes having fiber and others not.

For the last decade there has been conventional wisdom that having fiber connected to your home will add to the value of your house. I guess we are going to get to see this tested on a very large-scale.