You won’t have broadband competition without regulation

By Felix Salmon
February 21, 2014
Tyler Cowen isn’t worried about the cable companies’ broadband monopoly.

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Tyler Cowen isn’t worried about the cable companies’ broadband monopoly. His argument, in a nutshell: if you can’t afford broadband, that’s not the end of the world: you can always go to the public library, or order DVDs by mail from Netflix. And if the cable companies’ broadband price is very high, then that just increases the amount of money that alternative broadband providers can potentially make in this “extremely dynamic market sector”. Indeed, he says, if regulators were to force cable companies to decrease their prices, then that would only serve to decrease the amount of money that a competitor could make, and thereby lengthen the amount of time it will take “to reach a more competitive equilibrium”.

The first big thing that Cowen misses here is television. Cowen knows that there’s more to broadband than watching movies on Netflix, but what he doesn’t really grok is that there’s more to Netflix than watching movies on Netflix. Netflix has moved away from the movies model (which was a constraint of the DVDs-by-mail model) to a TV model. And that makes sense, because Americans really love their TV. They love it so much that cable-TV penetration is still substantially higher than broadband penetration. As a result, any new broadband company will not be competing against the standalone cost of broadband from the cable operators: instead, they will be competing against the marginal extra cost of broadband from the cable company, for people who already have — and won’t give up — their cable TV.

If you’re a cable-TV subscriber, the cost of upgrading to a double-play package of cable TV and broadband is actually very low; what’s more, there’s a certain amount of convenience involved in just dealing with one company for both services. The result is the barriers to entry, in the broadband market, are incredibly high. Cowen talks about pCells and Google Fiber, but really they prove my point: pCells are untested technology which would surely cost a mind-boggling amount of money to roll out nationally, while it’s taking even the mighty Google a huge amount of time and money to bring its own broadband service to a relatively small number of mid-size cities.

What’s more, all of that effort is redundant and duplicative: we already have perfectly adequate pipes running into our homes, capable of delivering enough broadband for nearly everybody’s purposes. Creating a massive parallel national network of new pipes (or pCells, or whatever) is, frankly, a waste of money. The economics of wholesale bandwidth are little-understood, but they’re also incredibly effective, and have created a system whereby the amount of bandwidth in the US is more than enough to meet the needs of all its inhabitants. What’s more, as demand increases, the supply of bandwidth quite naturally increases to meet it. What we don’t need is anybody spending hundreds of billions of dollars to build out a brand-new nationwide broadband network.

What we do need, on the other hand, is the ability of different companies to provide broadband services to America’s households. And here’s where the real problem lies: the cable companies own the cable pipes, and the regulators refuse to force them to allow anybody else to provide services over those pipes. This is called local loop unbundling, it’s the main reason for low broadband prices in Europe, and of course it’s vehemently opposed by the cable companies.

Local loop unbundling, in the broadband space, would be vastly more effective than waiting for some hugely expensive new technology to be built, nationally, in parallel to the existing internet infrastructure. The problem with Cowen’s dream is precisely the monopoly rents that the cable companies are currently extracting. If and when any new competitor arrives, the local monopolist has more room to cut prices and drive the competitor out of business than the newcomer has.

In other words, the market in delivering broadband to the home is pretty much the opposite of the international text-messaging market which was disrupted so effectively (and so profitably) by WhatsApp. The initial impetus for WhatsApp came in Europe, where lots of people want to communicate with their friends across borders: from Germany to Austria, say, or from the Netherlands to Belgium. Text messaging across borders is expensive, both to send and to receive, and WhatsApp used those phones’ existing internet connectivity to be able to provide a better service at a price of zero. Since the mobile operators weren’t willing to bring their international text-messaging prices down to zero, they simply lost tens of billions of dollars’ worth of text messages to WhatsApp and other internet-based messaging services.

In broadband, by contrast, it’s the cable operators who could, if they wanted to, bring the marginal cost of broadband down to zero. (There’s no reason, in principle, why they can’t provide broadband for free to anybody with a cable-TV subscription.) Meanwhile, any would-be disruptor, needing to repay a massive capital investment, is going to have less ability to slash prices than the incumbents do.

So don’t count on competition to bring down prices in the broadband space. This is an area where the regulators — and only the regulators — can really be effective.

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