Friday, January 24, 2014

Net neutrality debate underlies strategic tensions between legacy telcos, cablecos and content providers

Underlying the public policy issue of whether the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has legal authority to bar Internet service providers from treating the Internet as a private toll road and charging higher fees for digital express lanes – a policy known as “net neutrality” – are deep tensions between legacy telephone and cable companies and content providers. The courts are now addressing the legality of this policy, with the question to potentially come before the U.S. Supreme Court. But how the tensions between big telephone and cable companies and Internet content and social media services are resolved in the marketplace could ultimately have a much bigger impact than the courts.

The telephone and cable companies maintain they need revenue from content providers to offset CAPex and OPex costs of the infrastructure to deliver the services and as such are entitled to payment for access to their networks. In short, their position is they can charge for access on both ends of the Internet: where services like Netflix enter their “pipes” as then-AT&T Chairman Ed Whitacre famously described them in 2007 and also at consumer premises where they are delivered. From the perspective of the content and service providers, given end users pay for access, they too shouldn’t have to pay to get content on network. And to boot, a network they view as technologically deficient and unable to provide sufficient current and future bandwidth as evidenced by Google’s limited venture into fiber the premise (FTTP) infrastructure via its Google Fiber unit. The incumbent inferiority gap has been recognized by former FCC official Blair Levin, who observes that big telco and cable companies have no plans to meaningfully upgrade and build out their networks.

While the courts will ultimately provide a tactical win to one side or the other on the issue of net neutrality, the strategic market tension between the sides over who owns and operates Internet infrastructure and who pays for it will nevertheless remain. How might it be resolved?

A possible scenario is the formation of an alliance among the big content providers and the Internet backbone transport players with the mission of dislodging the telco/cable cartel and its moribund, slow-moving pre-Internet business model. Call it the nuclear FTTP overbuild option. Given the hundreds of billions of dollars required to build out FTTP in the United States, a strategic initiative on such a massive scale would likely have to be a public-private partnership with private members such as like Level 3, Cogent Communications, Google, Amazon, Netflix, Ebay,Yahoo!, LinkedIn, Twitter as well as entities involved in the telehealth, distance education and the emerging markets of smart homes and the device-driven “Internet of things.” The federal government would be the public partner, providing capital through long term bonds to finance a strategic national Internet initiative to replace lethargic, highly contentious subsidy efforts such as the Connect America Fund that could take decades –if ever – to construct adequate Internet infrastructure serving all Americans.

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