Shrinking Competition for Transport

Bloomberg reported that CenturyLink and Alphabet are interested in buying Zayo. It’s been anticipated that Zayo would be the next fiber acquisition target since the Level 3 merger with CenturyLink since they are the largest remaining independent owner of fiber.

As you might expect, the biggest owners of fiber are the big telcos and cable companies. Consider the miles of fiber owned by the ten biggest fiber owners – I note these miles of fiber are from the end of 2017 and a few of these companies like Verizon have been building a lot of fiber since then.

AT&T 1,100 K
Verizon 520 K
CenturyLink / Level 3 450 K
Charter 233 K
Windstream 147 K
Comcast 145 K
Frontier 140 K
Zayo 113 K
Cogent 57 K
Consolidated 36 K

You might wonder why this matters? First, Zayo is the largest company on the list who’s only business is to sell transport. All of Zayo’s fiber is revenue producing. While the companies above it on the list have a lot more fiber, a lot of that fiber is in the last mile in neighborhoods where there is not a lot of opportunity to sell access to others. The biggest independent fiber owner used to be Level 3, with 200,000 miles of revenue-producing fiber before they merged with CenturyLink.

The numbers on this chart don’t tell the whole story. Companies like Zayo also swap fiber with other networks. They may trade a pair of fibers on a route they own for a route elsewhere that they want to reach. These swapping arrangements mean the transport providers like Zayo, Cogent and Level 3 control a lot more fiber than is indicated by these numbers.

It matters because as soon as you get outside of the metropolitan areas there are not many options for fiber transport. A few years ago I helped a City look for fiber transport and the three options they found that were reasonably priced were CenturyLink, Level 3 and Zayo. If CenturyLink buys Zayo they will have purchased both competitors in this region and will effectively eliminated fiber transport competition for this community. Without that competition it’s inevitable that transport prices will rise.

I think back to the early days of competition after the Telecommunications Act of 1996. I remember working with clients in the 1990s looking for fiber transport, and there were many cases where there was only one provider willing to sell transport to a community. If the sole provider was the local telco or cable company it was likely that the cost of transport was four or five times more expensive than prices in nearby communities with more choices. When I worked with rural providers in the early 2000s, one of the first question I always asked was about the availability of  transport – because lack of transport sometimes killed business plans.

Since then there has been a lot of rural fiber built by companies like statewide fiber networks and others who saw a market for rural transport. Much of the rural construction was egged on by the need to get to cellular towers.

My fear is that we’ll slide back to the bad-old-days when rural fiber was a roadblock for providing broadband. I don’t so much fear for the most rural places because those fiber networks are owned by smaller companies and they aren’t going away. I fear more for places like county seats. I worked with a city in Pennsylvania a few years ago where there was a decent number of competitors for transport – Verizon, Zayo, Level 3 and XO. Since then Verizon bought XO and CenturyLink might own the other two. That city is not going to lose transport options, but the reduction from four providers to two giant ones almost surely means higher transport costs over time.

I am intrigued that Alphabet (the parent of Google Fiber) would look at buying an extensive fiber network like Zayo. Google is one of the biggest users of bandwidth in the country due to the web traffic to Google and YouTube. Their desire for fiber might be as simple as wanting to control the fiber supply chain they use. If so, that’s almost as disconcerting as CenturyLink buying Zayo if Google wouldn’t remain as a fierce transport competitor.

Metropolitan ISPs

Seattle-SkylineI spend most of my time working with rural ISPs. Even my clients that work in larger cities tend to provide service to residential customers and to small and medium businesses. But there is a very competitive market for larger businesses and for businesses that operate in multiple markets.

My clients often run into this when they realize that they are unable to sell broadband to a local chain restaurant, convenience store, bank or other large nationwide or regional business. I recently poked around to see who the carriers are that are selling to metropolitan or nationwide businesses. Some of those on the list will surprise you with their success and there are carriers on the list that you’ve probably not heard of.

Since most of the ISPs in this category don’t report business revenues separate from other revenues it’s difficult to rank these companies by revenue.  Further, some of the companies on this list are almost entirely retail ISPs while others offer wholesale connections to other carriers. Probably the easiest way to compare these carriers is by looking at the number of buildings they claim to have lit with fiber. Of course, even that is not a very reliable way to compare them since there is no standard definition of what constitutes a lit building. But generally these counts are supposed to represent locations with either one very large customer, like a hospital, or else buildings with multiple business tenants. Some of these companies are also count locations like data centers or large metropolitan cell towers.

Here are the carriers that claim to provide fiber to more than 5,000 business buildings:

  • Time Warner 75,000
  • Level3 30,000
  • Cox 28,000
  • AT&T 20,000
  • Zayo 16,700
  • Charter 13,800
  • Fibertech 10,400
  • Verizon 10,000
  • Lightower   8,500
  • Sunesys   7,200
  • Cablevision   7,000
  • Frontier   6,300

Missing from this list is Comcast. I can’t find any references to the number of lit buildings they are in. They are a major provider of business broadband and reported just over 1 million business customers along with $1.3 billion in revenue for their Business Services division. Also missing from the list is CenturyLink who doesn’t seem to claim lit buildings anywhere that I could find. CenturyLink claims to be selling to more than 100,000 businesses on fiber at the end of 2015.

On the list though are both Charter and Time Warner Cable that just merged, which would put them in 88,800 buildings. Fibertech and Lightower merged in 2015 giving them a total of 18,900 lit buildings.

Level3 and Zayo provide both retail and wholesale fiber products, meaning that they will sell connections into the lit buildings directly to businesses or else to other carriers, and they derive a large portion of their revenues from wholesale sales.

The first thing that surprised me about this list is that the cable companies appear to be in a lot more buildings than AT&T and Verizon. There are two possible explanations for this. One is that each group of companies is counting lit buildings in a different way. For example, the cable companies might be counting buildings like schools while the telcos might only be counting larger multi-tenant buildings. But it’s also possible that the telcos have a strategy of only building fiber to the largest buildings in each market while the cable companies will build routinely to smaller buildings. It does raise the question if this is a reasonable side-by-side comparison.

I would also note that some of these companies are growing rapidly and that most of these counts came from 2014 or 2015. Vertical Systems Group (a research and consulting firm that tracks the metro Ethernet market) says that the percentage of the metropolitan businesses connected to fiber grew from 42% in 2014 to 46% in 2015.

The Ongoing Special Access Battle

eyeballThere is a big battle going on at the FCC over special access rates and the FCC has promised to finally weigh in later this month. Special access in the industry refers to the sale of dedicated TDM circuits like T1s and DS3s. To some extent this is a fight between the big RBOCs and all of the CLECs and other carriers that need special access circuits to reach customers. But this battle actually affects all of us because the businesses you deal with such as banks or other entities (like your local government) are big users of these products.

There are several different issues being contested in the special access investigation currently underway at the FCC. But most of the battle is about the price of special access as well as the unfair practices of the big special access providers like Verizon and AT&T. This whole fight comes down to money and special access is still a major source of revenue for the big telcos. To show you how big, USTelecom, the lobbying arm for the big telcos sponsored a study that said that regulating special access rates could cost 43,560 jobs and $3.4 billion in economic growth over five years.

Special access rates are very high. They were set in the days when TDM circuits were the state of the art technology. We all remember when it could easily cost you $700 per month or more to get a T1 to a business – a lot of money to pay for a symmetrical 1.5 Mbps connection. Last year I looked at the data bill for an urban county and they were still buying millions of dollars of these special access circuits – at nearly full cost. I estimated they could cut their bills by 50% to 60% by shifting to an alternate provider.

But therein lies the big rub with special access. Once you get outside of the main business district in most cities the RBOCs are still the only ones that have wires connected to most buildings. And so as absurd as it sounds, for a huge percentage of geography in the US special access is still the only way to provide dedicated transport to a business (meaning their data doesn’t get commingled with some other business). And this means that special access is what CLECs and other carriers must buy from the telcos if they need access to a given business.

The RBOCs make deals with the largest carriers – Level3, XO Communications and Sprint. These carriers can get a substantial discount on buying special access due to the volumes they purchase. That doesn’t sound unfair until you look into all of the strings that come attached with the volume discounts. For example, Level3 has complained in the FCC docket that there are markets where Verizon requires them to buy 90% of their connections from Verizon – or else not get the discounts. All of the carriers complain about termination charges. Should a customer of one of these carriers move or go out of business the RBOCs still demand that the carriers pay the cost of the circuit for the length of the involved contracts – lengths upon which the RBOCs largely dictate.

And of course, if you are not a huge carrier you don’t get the bulk discount. A business who wants to buy special access on their own (such a bank that wants to connect to multiple ATMs must pay the full tariff rates.

Another part of the battle at the FCC is that the carriers want more access to the fiber and Ethernet services owned by the RBOCs. But the telcos are very judicious about deciding which of their facilities are open to competitors and which aren’t.

Of real concern in the carrier world is the announcement that Verizon wants to buy the fiber assets of XO Communications. Today most businesses and smaller carriers will buy from the big carriers like XO, Level3 or Zayo because it’s cheaper, there’s less paperwork and these companies are far easier to work with than the telcos.

By buying XO, Verizon will be eliminating one of their largest and more vocal opponents. They also will be folding a lot more fiber into the Verizon networks. The fear is that Verizon will either convert the XO network to special access, meaning the price will go up, or they will consider it as fiber needed for Verizon’s own needs only and withdraw the networks from the open market.

In any market where there is a limited amount of fiber built to businesses, removing one of the biggest fiber owners like XO is going to be a big blow to many of those who use it. Many of them are either going to see rate increases or else have to find alternate transport elsewhere.

There is no telling what the FCC will order in this docket. But the position taken by the telcos is typical and a bit scary. They claim that there is vibrant competition available in the marketplace and they accuse the CLECs and carriers of whining to get cheaper prices. They love their monopoly power in most markets and aren’t going to give it up easily.