Metro broadband: without the political cards, you’re not playing with a full deck

Political value: the need for speed at the San Leandro public library.

There’s an argument to the effect that the prices charged for broadband service by telcos and cable companies in urban areas are higher than necessary to provide that service and make a reasonable profit.

It’s not crazy talk. You can make a case that more densely populated areas have lower per household costs – opex and capex – and that more affluent areas have higher profit margins. There are counter arguments too, not least of which is that telecoms network costs should be spread across all users. Personally, I favor the whole system approach – the more people reached, the more valuable the network – but the marginal cost approach has valid uses.

However, it doesn’t follow that an independent competitor in a metropolitan area will be able to charge less for equivalent service or the same for better service. The telecoms business has huge economies of scale: fixed operating costs are high relative to variable costs and large purchases by big companies bring hefty discounts. Particularly for television programming. A local competitor operates at a significant cost disadvantage.

A significant fraction (30%? 40%?) of households passed have to be willing to pay more ($50 per month more is a good placeholder) to either incentivize an incumbent to bring in fiber or support the operating cost and capital requirements of an independent system. The market research I’ve seen says that’s not happening.

People may value significantly better broadband services highly in many senses of the word, but not economically. At least not to the extent that an independent, privately financed metro scale FTTH overbuild in a competitive market is economically sustainable. Not yet.

Something else has to be on the table for an independent FTTH overbuild to work. Construction and operating subsidies, (significantly) below market rate financing, publicly owned assets are examples. In other words, you’re adding political value to whatever economic value is present in order to make a business case.

Whether the political value exists is a legitimate topic for debate, and some communities or state and federal policy makers might conclude that it is. The California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) is one example of policy-driven broadband investment. Leveraging a public owned electric utility, such as in Chattanooga (FTTH) or Palo Alto (dark fiber), is another. So is partnering up public assets and private investment, as in San Leandro. And there are more. And there are counter-examples too.

Claims made by some that ordinary metro FTTH overbuilds are self sustaining investments with no risk to taxpayers are at best distractions. For now, it is as much a political question as an economic one. Debate should be encouraged.