Thursday, October 30, 2014

Despite more favorable market conditions, incumbent telephone and cable companies unlikely to expand limited Internet infrastructure footprints

Over the past 15 years, the market dynamics for incumbent legacy telephone and cable Internet service providers have improved from a risk standpoint. Early on, there was substantial uncertainty as to how many customers would subscribe to premise Internet connections. Telcos marketed advanced “broadband” services as an add on to their voice telephone service as did cable companies as an adjunct to their pay TV offerings.

They calculated only a fraction of customers would choose to receive these services -- and pay extra for them. Hence, they deployed the infrastructure to deliver them to a select set of homes and small businesses -- favoring higher density and income levels -- to reduce the risk that there would not be sufficient revenues to cover the cost of deployment and ongoing maintenance.
Some developed formulaic approaches to utilize large numbers to spread their risk. For example, Comcast adopted a hard rule that it would build infrastructure only in areas where there were 16 occupied premises per linear road or street mile. That mitigated risk because it could be reasonably predicted that with that many premises, enough would take Internet services to help defray the cost of building out and upgrading the network in order to serve them.

Now with premise Internet service increasingly regarded as essential as landline telephone service was before it was succeeded by the Internet, the risk picture has changed. The likelihood of residential and small business customers subscribing to the incumbents’ Internet service is significantly higher, even than it was just five years ago.

One might think given the improved commercial risk picture, the legacy incumbent telephone and cable companies would be undertaking an aggressive effort to construct infrastructure to serve nearly all and not limited “footprints” within their service territories. Not likely. The reason is the large, shareholder- owned incumbents that dominate in much of the United States lack business models that allow them to make the significant capital expenditures that would be required. That would divert dollars that could boost earnings, pay generous shareholder dividends and fund stock repurchases.

Consequently, the nation continues to need alternative approaches to ensure all premises have Internet service to meet their current and future telecommunications needs such as community operated networks or public-private partnerships that tap into sources of patient investment capital such as Utah’s UTOPIA.

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