Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Impact of Regulation on Broadband Investment

           Several sponsored researchers have floated the notion that network neutrality and Title II common carrier regulation constitute the major reason why U.S. broadband carriers apparently have reduced capital expenditure in new and replacement physical plant.  Does this pass the smell test?  Is there any empirical data proving causality?  Would these allegation pass muster under appropriate peer review?

           Let’s get one principle straight: capex in most industries primarily correlates with competitive necessity and the life cycle of sunk investments.  In the U.S., wireless cellular radio companies bear the burden of streamlined Title II common carrier regulation.  Such regulation has not dissuaded these carriers from sinking billion in spectrum auctions and in plant investment.  The FCC swears that broadband access providers will encounter even less regulatory oversight than wireless carriers.

           Similarly, a year over year analysis of capex might have little to do by way of regulation impact on the incentive to invest and much more on whether and when a carrier needs to invest in new, or replacement infrastructure. Ventures with very high plant investments typically also have capacity that comes online or offline in very large increments.  For example, a satellite company like Intelsat, Dish, Sirius-XM and DirecTV will show a significantly higher plant investment in years when it has to replace an in-orbit and soon to be deactivated satellite.  Variability in capex has nothing to do with whether regulation ebbs and flows in terms of severity, or burden.

          I will concede that telecommunications management may tinker with capex as political leverage for less regulation.  AT&T CEO Randall L. Stephenson has said as much, but do you really think he would ration capex if it would render his company and its services comparatively inferior to what other wireless carriers offer?

          Telecommunications carriers and their sponsored researchers also like to trot out “regulatory uncertainty” as a capex disincentive.  In the same breath, they also like to claim regulation operates as an unconstitutional “taking” of their property and the capex they previously made.  Newsflash: regulation in telecommunications constitutes a cost of business that incumbents and prospective market entrants alike have to take into consideration.

          Bottom line: regulation and uncertainty about the future of regulation has limited impact on capex decision making.  If a carrier can make do with less investment it will do so.  Right now most airlines are replacing kerosene guzzlers with more efficient and cheaper models.  They might also “right size” inventory with smaller aircraft.  Such a reduction in overall passenger capacity and in investment responds to marketplace conditions not whether aviation regulators have become more aggressive.  The same concept applies to telecommunications.

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