Muni FTTH study estimates the cost of local subsidies

by Steve Blum • , ,

Municipal fiber to the home systems are not money makers, according to a study done by the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Innovation, Technology and Competition. It started by identifying 88 muni systems in the U.S., and then dove into a top-line financial analysis of the 20 that publish separate separate operating statements – the rest consolidate their FTTH reporting with the results from their muni electric utilities.

According to the authors, less than half are showing positive cash flow and most of the rest aren’t making enough to pay back basic construction costs…

The data contained in this study are sobering. Municipal fiber is not an option for the 86 percent of the country that is not served by a municipal power utility. Of the 20 municipal fiber projects that reported the results of their municipal fiber operations separately, eleven generated negative cash flow. Unless operations improve substantially, these projects cannot continue to operate over the long haul, let alone cover the capital costs needed to establish operations. Of the others, five are projected to take more than 100 years to recover their costs, and two others are projected to take over 60 years. Only two are on track to break even, and one of those is based on a highly urban, business-oriented model that few other cities are likely to be able to replicate, and the other includes data from two years of stronger performance when it offered only DSL service.

The study does a reasonable job of looking at the available data, albeit from the limited perspective of five years of results. The real problem is the lack of detailed financial reporting by muni FTTH systems. Although operating efficiency is identified as an important factor in whether or not the systems with positive cash flow, there’s no easy way to gauge success on the traditional metrics for subscriber-based businesses, such as market share, churn rate, subscriber growth and average revenue per customer. Given the public sector’s typically long term view and investment time frames measured in decades, it would be helpful to be able to get some idea of what operating results might look like another five, ten or more years in the future. The CTIC study takes a snapshot based on five particular years – 2010 through 2014 – which is fine as far as it goes, but it really doesn’t go far enough.

State and federal subsidies were excluded from the analyses, except for a couple of side calculations. The operating losses, in some cases, and the lack of ability to fully repay initial capital costs are, in effect, the local subsidy. The fact that local taxpayers (or utility ratepayers, where the distinction is meaningful) have to support muni FTTH doesn’t necessarily mean those systems are failures. The answer to that questions depends on how long those subsidies will last and whether the local electorate considers them to be acceptable and appropriate, assuming that they were able to make an informed choice, directly or indirectly.