When Californians are trapped in monopoly telecom markets, AT&T and Frontier take the money and run

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Leaning pole

Competition matters. When telephone or cable companies face a competitive threat – either from each other or from an independent Internet service provider, they respond by upgrading infrastructure and service, and by cranking up the volume on promotional discounts. The converse is true: no competition means no infrastructure investment or service upgrades or marketing love.

That’s a lesson I’ve learned time and again with municipal and independent broadband projects. When a city or an independent credibly threatens to enter the market, incumbents respond. Santa Cruz is a good example. When the City of Santa Cruz partnered with Cruzio, a local ISP, to build a muni fiber-to-the-premise system, Comcast upgraded its infrastructure. The deal didn’t come to fruition, but Cruzio’s subsequent solo fiber build out gave AT&T an incentive to upgrade neighborhoods with sufficient revenue potential to FTTP status.

It’s also a major conclusion of a report just released by the California Public Utilities Commission. It shows competition determines to a large degree where AT&T and Frontier Communications invest what money they’re willing or able to spend in California. According to the study, Frontier allows its facilities to decay in communities where it has monopoly control…

Wire centers with the smallest decrease in POTS lines fared far worse in terms of most service quality metrics. The deterioration in service quality in these small wire centers, generally serving communities with the fewest number of competitive providers, suggests that the company has been devoting more of its resources and efforts to those communities most impacted by competition for traditional POTS services.

The study found the same pattern in AT&T’s territory, concluding that it’s pursuing a “harvesting strategy” – a polite way of saying milking the cash cow by relying “upon successive price increases and customer inertia to maintain its declining [legacy telephone] revenue stream”, despite continually worsening service quality.

The study recommends increasing the amount of fines imposed by the CPUC on AT&T and Frontier for substandard service, as a substitute for competition – make the fines match the losses that the two companies would otherwise suffer if competitors were present. That’s difficult because 1. figuring out the proper amount is a fraught exercise, and 2. thanks to cynical maneuvering by outgoing president Michael Picker, the CPUC doesn’t actually fine telcos. It lets them keep the money so long as they claim they’re spending it on “incremental” service improvements.