What’s the difference between Ma Bell and Comcast?

If you were born in the 80’s or before you know that Ma Bell was the only phone company in town. Born any later than that you were born into a world without a single monopoly for telecommunication. That’s right, we’ve had a point in our collective history where there was only a single phone company. There are rules in place that prevent something similar from happening with Comcast, but we’ve been there before. However, I believe there are critical differences. AT&T knew they were a monopoly and they were a state sanctioned monopoly. They did everything in their power to keep prices down to prevent being broken up. AT&T actually had a broader monopoly than what Comcast could ever hope to have. They made the phones that worked on the line, they made all the telecom technology that made it work, and they designed the services that made it work. This is something called a natural monopoly, which I’ve written about before. A former founder of Comcast has declared Comcast a natural monopoly.

The biggest difference between Comcast and AT&T, back in the day, was that they did everything they could to keep the government happy. Was it perfect, no clearly not, there were shady business practices, but we as a society benefited greatly from Bell Labs. To this stay is still one of the greatest research facilities that ever existed. If it wasn’t for Bell Labs our current way of life would be very different. I highly suggest checking out the book on it.

Comcast claims to be pushing innovation with their X1 Xfinity platform, but that’s not really true, it’s simply a new operating system pushing content. Voice activation isn’t innovation and if that’s your main selling point then you’re in serious trouble. As I mentioned yesterday, the Netflix deal is a major concern, the Verge is saying the Internet is fucked and that we need to be contacting the FCC daily to un-fuck it.

I’m not entirely sure that the FCC can fix it. Congress has greatly hamstrung the FCC in dealing with internet companies, furthermore, their solution of calling the internet a Utility won’t work. If you aren’t aware we’ve had big pushes to deregulate the utility industry which unfortunately hasn’t really made rates better in many cases or in the long run. I think that it’s fair to say that in the telecom industry this is true as well. The impact of the AT&T break up has been this long term collection of conglomerates that continually increase price as well as “Fees” which similar to baggage fees are hidden from the “price” of the service. So, treating the internet like a utility isn’t going to work. What we need to do is treat it like a road.

Everyone that uses a car on the road is taxed based on use (Gasoline taxes) everyone pays for a portion of the maintenance based on other local taxes too. No, these aren’t perfect and are going to be under pressure based on hybrid and electric cars – and new models are being proposed. Of course one way to do this is through toll roads (which really never work) or through some sort of black box in the car to measure mileage (which no one wants).

Essentially it’s a pay for bandwidth consumed, so if you’re a high consumer of bandwidth you’d pay more, but the rates need to be realistic and the goal would be to cover expenses and continually improve service while making it cheaper. Which brings me back to AT&T – the president of Bell Labs had one mantra anything could be tested but only if it could lead to a “Better, cheaper or both” network. A public internet similar to a road that was paid to continually get cheaper, better, more secure, and faster is the only way to truly un-fuck the internet. It’s not likely to happen because it’s not a capitalist response. However, the internet these days is similar to public transpiration – it’s goal isn’t to make money, it’s goal is to enable economic activity. If think of it that way, then we can see the long term benefit of the whole economy rather than singular actors.

Data, Monopolies, and the Comcast/Netflix Deal

So, apparently, there are these groups that sell bandwidth for data transit to companies like Netflix. These companies interface with the major ISPs like Verizon and Comcast and connect the broader backbone of the internet to specific ISPs. These interfaces, like any interface can become over burdened – similarly to a congested intersection on the road. The problem is that with data information can be lost or transmitted extremely late, the lost data is called a “dropped packet.” These packets are like little packages of data that will likely provide some desired bit of image, article, or video.

These companies have typically provided “peer connections” that are free to transmit data because, well you’re paying to access the data and Netflix is paying to allow you to send the data. Win-win for both user, ISP, transit company (Cogent), and Netflix. Pretty good system right? Well it was until Verizon and other ISPs went and decided that they wanted to charge Cogent to for access to their networks so their users can access the data that Cogent is transmitting for Netflix.

Why can the ISPs do this? They are acting like monopolies in many ways. These companies are essentially islands of monopolies that do not compete with each other. With little incentive from the market to change behavior they are able to seek additional monies from their customers and providers without much risk of member defection. Furthermore, as Verizon is continually posting higher and higher Average Revenue Per User (ARPU), they are making more from the same number of people. When you have no where to go, that means raters are going up, and if they aren’t investing that additional money, that means profits are going up.

What does this all mean? It means that Netflix is getting the squeeze in a way that they weren’t expecting and with the proposed merger between Time Warner and Comcast things are only getting worse. The ISPs are able to say that they aren’t negatively hurting Netflix alone, because everyone that uses Cogent is getting hit the same way. It’s intentional according to the Cogent CEO. To get around the Cogent bottleneck, Netflix has decided to have a direct connection between Comcast and Netflix. This means that Netflix services will have less of a bottleneck to compete with other bits of data. This is a big deal for Netflix as lost data packets likely mean blocky video or video that is unwatchable.

Netflix decided to push for their members by paying for higher speed access directly to Comcast. This is great, but on the other hand terrible. It’s terrible because one of the greatest champions of Net Neutrality has bowed out of the fight giving in and paying to provide higher speed video quality to their members. It’s good because they are doing what’s right for their members, even though Comcast is at fault here by making cynical business choices to negatively impact the quality of the services provided over their pipes.

This could have interesting implications if a company decides to use this clear agreement as an obvious breach in the NBC/Comcast Net Neutral agreement. This could, if pushed correctly, have serious far reach implications for the company. However, I’m not sure who would push for this law suit. Hulu won’t, as it’s partially owned by Comcast, maybe Google will as they are looking to compete head on with Comcast as an ISP, video content provider, and in other realms. Another potential is Aereo that has already won a few major victories over NBC/CBS in copyright (The company streams over the air HDTV as a DVR service). So if they don’t have equal access as Comcast or Netflix, they could certainly sue over this – as it would hurt their business growth possibilities.

Update: Apparently Netflix is in negotiations with both AT&T and Verizon as well. Furthermore, Verizon believes that these agreements are clear that we don’t need more “regulation”in the form of net neutrality. Clearly, if a monopoly can extract as much money from both their members and the content that brings value to their networks, there’s no need for regulation!

I think that these practices are going to seriously impact the ability of smaller firms to compete. I also would fully expect a company like Twitch to start feeling the pressure next.

Is Net Neutrality regulation commie nonsense?

Network Economy

Regulation’s a bad thing, right? Personally, I think there are instances where regulation is an amazingly good thing that drives innovation. We also need to be cautious about who is saying regulation is good or bad. Back in the 90’s we’d hear that regulating in anyway to prevent acid rain would cripple business and kill our economy. This clearly didn’t happen, we have acid free rain for the most part, we have more productive manufacturing than ever. We also hear that regulating CEO pay by median rather than average is significantly more complicated to the point that a place stacked full of MBA’s can’t figure it out. Then there are regulations that pick winners like Solyndra and turns out to be a disaster. These cause higher taxes and are actual drains on the economy (personally I’m on the fence about experimenting with new technologies and having the government support them, but that’s me).

What about the FCC “regulating” net neutrality? I think that it’s important to look at how this all started. First, I’ll start with a bit of a history with the telecoms, then move to how the internet was developed, and move to comparisons between other monopolies.

AT&T has been described as a natural monopoly. This was partially helped by the US government because the government wanted coast to coast telephony and selected AT&T as the standard for that activity. This gave AT&T incredible market strength, but was also extremely fragile as it was continually under threat of being broken up for being a monopoly (which is was). To do everything they could to avoid this, the geniuses at Bell Labs continually designed ways to keep their costs down, improve quality, and make very thing better. They also had some government deals that helped them a lot (military contracts for telecom stuff, like the first satellite). The value of AT&T’s network grew every time a person joined the network.

The fact that one person joined Network A over Network B could further impact the growth of that network. Let’s say Person A is friends with 5 people and is already on Network A, it’s likely, if they are really good friends and A is known for making good decisions, that those five people will join A on Network A. The value increases by more than simply 5, because all five of those people can talk to each other as well as every other person they know on Network A. Now if Person A has more friends, but not as good of friends and they actually are better friends with Person A’s friends they will also likely join Network A. This sort of cascade effect will continue to happen. This is also known as Metcalfe’s law.

When AT&T was force to break up, all of that interoperability remained. Instead of one big monopoly there were regional ones instead. As we’ve seen over time, these same regional operators have slowly re-joined back into 2 Bells versus the non-Bells. AT&T being split is a type of regulation for sure, but it did spur some interesting competition for a time.

How the Internet was designed:

The internet was originally designed to operate in many different application layers. Essentially the bottom of the stack was Internet Protocol which was agnostic to the type of information being sent across it. At the time, the most efficient method was over Ethernet so there was not any requirement to be concerned over the application medium. Over time there would be some concern, but that was really addressed by the protocol.

What would happen is that the applications that required information to be sent on either end would translate the information to be used by the layer below it to send out, such as a web browser to the OS, to the network driver to IP, across the internet to the network driver to the OS to the web server application. Across this entire process the actual data being sent was unknown to any of the nodes in between the application layers. (If you’re interested in this check out Internet Architecture and Innovation).

Of course the companies providing the bandwidth for that did not want to find itself in a similar role as they had after the break up of AT&T where they were forced to become “dumb pipes” for whatever people wanted to send across their network. To prevent this they created capabilities like deep package inspection and other tools to identify what content was being shipped across their lines. This also was the beginning of violating “True” net neutrality.

Why were they dumb pipes? Because they were defined as a common carrier to increase competition across the land line providers and ISPs the telephone companies had no choice. This lead to the explosion of ISPs like AOL, Century Link, and so on. What has happened since? The broadband lines have been ruled that they are not “Common Carriers“. Meaning that the data across the line can be treated however the companies that own the lines want.

Why is this bad in a network economy?

In a network economy, being able to fully control anything and everything can be very bad for the consumer if there is no other option. Now, you could argue that there are options, but in most cases because of other monopoly rules there are few options for allowing a new ISP.

A perfect example where a network monopoly isn’t a big deal is in Smart Phones. The iOS App Store is a natural monopoly in a network. The more people using the iPhone the more valuable it became and more app developers developed apps. It never became a problem that Apple regulates the entire experience BECAUSE there were other networks you could shift to, such as Blackberry, webOS, Windows (whatever mobile version you want to include), and, of course, Android. All of these ecosystems offer very different options for devs. Additionally, within Android there are competing App stores which further benefits the consumer. If there were no other competitors to iOS and it’s App Store the constraints that Apple puts on their product would likely be viewed as very anti-competitive and a type of “foreclosure.”

Market foreclosure is using one monopoly to enable another monopoly. Now, regardless of if you think that this should have happened or not, it did. Microsoft was hit for using it’s Window’s OS to foreclose on the internet browser market and was looking to do the same with their music player. What resulted was that MS was required to offer other browsers when a new Windows OS was launched and helped to reduce the market share of IE.

How does this apply here? Comcast is already trying to do the same with Netflix in the streaming video business. Comcast owns the content (Universal, NBC, etc), the connection (Comcast Cable ISP), the rules (data caps), and if they want to charge to access their network or not. Eliminating the rules of net neutrality tilt the table in the direction of Comcast to a degree that Netflix may never recover. If Netflix, at one point 2/3 of all internet traffic, had to pay for every bit they streamed to allow for an enjoyable streaming experience they would be bankrupt in very short order.

I get that Comcast’s of the world don’t want to be dumb pipes, they own the content and that’s king. However, not every ISP owns content (Verizon/AT&T) so they aren’t at such an advantage to companies like Netflix. However that’s where AT&T’s data plan comes in. Which would essentially level the table compared to Comcast. We, as end users, wouldn’t see any benefit out of this. It’s not that our subscription fees would lower or we’ll magically get faster internet. This is simply rent seeking behavior and bad for the economy overall. Only true new competition can lead to that. Changing these rules have zero impact on that competition.

What it does do though is negatively impact the creation of new businesses that want to stream video or provide a novel product that requires high bandwidth and equal rights to streaming. Removing the protections on net neutrality dramatically increases the cost of streaming that otherwise could go into building that startup’s infrastructure. Think of the problems at Twitch.TV with their growth. My subscription fees pay for the growth of the network that I subscribe to regardless if it’s something like Twitch or Comcast. Anything else will go to shareholders and CEOs.

Could we develop other options like a Mesh network? It’s possible, but for that to work the option would have to be a public/private venture. Most citizens aren’t going to help create that and likely don’t have the technology savvy to do so. To further complicate this issue many ISPs are actually pushing to make it illegal for cities to create their own ISP.

In many cases regulation is bad for business. However, in cases like net neutrality it’s returning the net to it’s roots and enabling much stronger competition based on the merits of the company providing the service, not the arbitrary whim of network owner.

AT&T deal is most likely dead

We all should be extremely happy that this deal failed. Even those that don’t live in the US. Two major US agencies were investigating the eventual impact of a merger between AT&T and T-Mobile. From a consumer point of view what would have been the impact of the merger?

Well, there could be benefits, for instance T-Mobile users will get access to a much larger network. They will have higher quality signal connection in more cities and in more areas through out the US. T-mobile has one of the smaller network area coverage of the 4 remaining cellphone providers in the US. (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile). AT&T users may get some relief in large cities like San Francisco and New York. It is likely that the combination of the two companies’ networks will increase the total capacity in a given city.

AT&T and T-Mobile claim that not only will these things be better for the customers of both providers but there will also be an increase in investment in the network. However it really doesn’t seem to be the case. Based on their own documents they show that it would actually reduce the yearly investment in the cell networks for the new network overall, reduce the number of employees and likely increase the prices of cell service.

Why is this expected? Well, if the networks are combined there will likely be a reduced need for RF Engineers. These guys are effectively the “Can you hear me know guy” from Verizon commercials. They both design the interaction between the cell sites and look into where the coverage, how much capacity there is for calls/text/data in a given area and if there will be dead spots within their expected coverage area. If a group of engineers for both T-Mobile can cover all of NYC and there’s a group at AT&T to cover the same area, well some of them will have to go.

What about the investment though? Well, if capacity suddenly increases in areas that are cramped for capacity, then there will be less investment. Additionally, if there is excess capacity in areas that don’t have the growth potential for fully meeting that capacity the new merged company would be stupid not to redeploy those areas that have less capacity. This means that AT&T could potentially go a few years without actually buying new equipment to meet capacity demands.

Why would prices go up? I wrote an article about how monopolies at the Urban Times. Effectively, when there are not pressures driving a company to lower prices to attract more customers prices will rise or stay the same. Which will be significantly higher than the costs of the company. With only two other competitors, which most people assume Verizon would buy Sprint, there is little pressure to innovate and keep prices low. Additional the cost of switching keep prices higher too.

Because of these reasons it’s a very good thing that the US government stepped in to prevent this merger. It also indicates that the government is still willing to step in and act in the best interest of the people. In fact, the collapse of this merger could be a good thing for T-Mobile users as the company will get a settlement of $4 Billion. This should be invested in their network and will increase their ability to compete. Another reason we should be happy for this collapse, is that T-Mobile is a very innovative company in terms of adoption of new types of cell phones. T-Mobile has also had excellent customer service compared to the other cell phone providers.

Enabling Technological Convergences

In my last post I discussed technological convergences. I didn’t really discuss anything ground breaking or earth shattering. We all know these things happen. Even if we never really make a note of it. What’s a more interesting question though is why do some companies, like Apple and Blackberry, succeed and others like Microsoft and Rio (early MP3 maker) fail, either in creating technologies that converge or create technologies that then fail.

One of the first reasons is the culture of the company. To create a totally different product that will shake the core business firms may have to do something called “corporate venturing.” This is where a company decides they are going to take people that normally work on the major product and put them into a different area and seclude them and allow them to create a new product. Whatever sort of leadership structure develops, develops. It really doesn’t matter if this matches the rest of the firm. Essentially, these people are put into a position where they are starting a new company. Apple famously did this with the original Macintosh program. It was called a skunk works area. Of course recombining the two portions of a company creates huge problems, but good management can figure out how to deal with this.

Another piece required for a firm to successfully move into a new product space is the ability to identify the market need. This one is pretty obvious, but it still needs mentioning. In many cases it’s really obvious that there’s a product space and that some one should fill it. When companies don’t move into it there must be some sort of reason.

One of those reasons comes down to firm capabilities. Every firm has something at its core that it’s best at. I would argue that Microsoft is best at taking advantage of a virtual monopoly of a platform and moving into new directions within that platform. Internet Explorer and the Office Suite are the best example of this. Microsoft has also tried to do this with servers and other peripheries. Which is why Microsoft has had difficulty moving into other platform positions. They have failed (or mixed results at best) over and over again with phone OSes because it doesn’t rely on their dominate platform.

Another company that is an R&D powerhouse in energy but has failed at anything outside of their major focus is Shell. As a major energy company you’d expect Shell to be moving into other types of energy production to make massive amounts of money in the transition from fossil fuels to renewables. You’d actually be right. They have tired and failed. Aside from having a failed solar industry Shell has a moderately successful Wind program. Between the two it actually makes sense why solar failed and wind is doing well.

First, wind is closer to extracting material from the ground than making energy from the sun is. Now hang on, I know, but Shell has to maintain offshore oil rigs in tough conditions. Understanding how to build a wind farm out in the ocean has some similarities. Shell doesn’t actually make the windmills themselves, they buy the windmills and put them together to harvest energy. Shell was trying to make solar panels. Intel would be a significantly better solar panel producer than Shell. Why? Because solar panels are semiconductors. You make them with similar machines the technologies are adjacent to each other.

What’s technological adjacency? It’s whenever you are able to use your current skills and apply them with some research to a related technological field. I’ll discuss this more in my next blog.

Technological Layers and Layer Ownership

This ars technica article outlines in extraordinary detail what is at risk in the smart phone wars. It discusses the various different layers involved with the smart phone industry. These layers are extremely important. Control of a layer allows you to move into another layer and can help you extract monopoly rents* from those layers as well. My friend Sean was complaining about bloatware** earlier today that comes a computer supplier. They are actually attempting to get into a different layer. If a PC company is able to provide support which can allow them to get money from a customer on a returning basis, monthly or yearly, they can help ensure return purchases on more expensive purchases as well as getting a lot more money out of first sale. Additionally, the manufacturer may also be using the bloat ware they install to subsidize the cost of the product you bought. If a third party asks to have software pre-installed the manufacturer could ask for money to put it on, which may be passed to you as a consumer, so you could get a computer at a slightly lower price.

Ars Technica, isn’t the only group of people that views this phenomenon as a stack with different layers in it. This is actually an economic model as well. Which was used in the original Microsoft EU case explaining how these different layers can be leveraged to foreclose on a new market.

Another way of looking at this is in a traditional manufacturing sense. When you are making a car you have many different suppliers. You have paint, tires, batteries, steel, etc… There are several different ways to make it cheaper for you to produce a car. You can become vertically integrated, with a very high production level, where you make the steel, tires, paint and the full car. If you were extremely good at producing steel you would be able to get the steel at cost whereas traditionally you would have to pay a higher cost so the producer could earn a profit.

We can see this same sort of thing happen within IT. There is serious concern with corruption of content and content providers, like Comcast, purchasing a wide range of companies. If they control the material and access to the material they could control what people can access and impact society in a serious manner.

I don’t think that Comcast is going to be able to significantly impact the smart phone layers as they have with TV. However, a company like Google or Apple definitely could. Google is actually attempting to get into every single layer in this market. They tried to purchase wireless spectrum (they are also installing a super fast network in Kansas City), they are going to purchase Motorola, they have an OS and they are an app provider.

I think that other technology companies are aware of this. This is part of the reason why Google is being attacked on all sides. While until Google gets a hold of Motorola, they will be mostly in the top most two layers, OS and Applications. Google is clearly trying to move into every layer possible. This will allow them to have the greatest likelihood of a customer going onto a website and click an ad to give them money.

To prevent this, almost everyone is suing Google or some aspect of their technologies. Google is trying to get around this. They want the control.

I’m going to be gone for a little while. My brother is coming into town and I’ll be in Amsterdam for the next few days and then Munich this weekend. Hopefully I’ll have a post up Thursday or early next week.

Further Reading: The New ICT Ecosystem by Martin Fransman

*monopoly rents means higher prices from controlling the market. It allows a manufacturer to sell a product for a higher price than they would be able to do under a competitive market. Microsoft is able to do this with Windows. However to protect themselves from other OS providers undercutting their prices, MS sells the same OS at lower price points. They give discounts to students and charge a lower price in poor countries. This allows them to increase their monopoly to new markets.

**excess software which slows down a computer or smart phone.

Google’s Anti-Trust problems III

In my last two posts (one and two), I’ve been discussing the current problems as well as potential problems that will be facing Google in the antitrust arena. Yesterday I mentioned I was going to discuss Windows Media Player (WMP) and how this pertains to Google. However, I realized I need to go one step back first. First, we need to look at what happened with Netscape and Internet Explorer (IE). Initially Netscape was THE internet browser. It was the browser to program websites to be displayed on, IE wasn’t even really on the radar. Also, at this time with the web, these programs were being sent out by CD, it would take an extremely long time to down load this application. Why? because it was over a telephone line. A modem that was getting about a tenth or less of the download speed you have now with whatever your broadband connection is. That and your mom would probably pick up the phone to call some one while you were trying to download the software, or while playing War Craft 2 against a friend.

Since the medium of delivery for the browser was over CD it was a level playing field for both browsers to compete. You’d get one in the mail for whatever browser, Netscape, IE, AOL, etc. However, Microsoft realized the importance of this market. They figured out a way to leverage their desktop monopoly to foreclose on the browser market. They started installing IE onto all of their operating systems. Then went as far to integrate everything together to ensure market dominance. It worked because of slow connections and the fact that people are lazy. If something already works they will use it.

Flash forward about 5 years. MP3s have gotten popular through Napster and other digital Peer 2 Peer file transfer systems and the next big market is music players. Winamp was a major player at this time and WMP was not really any sort of competition for it either. In Windows XP WMP got a major over haul and was at least able to compete with Winamp. Microsoft decided to bundle the software in the same manner they had done with IE.

This is where the story changes though. The EU filed suite against this claiming this was anticompetitive. At this time the iPod had just come out and there was no reason to expect the product to come to the PC. It seemed like it was a long way from happening. Plus, even if the iPod was going to PC it was still going to be a niche market. So, the law suit. We all know now that because of the pace of technology and the fact that there were other factors involved with the selection of the music player it prevented market dominance of Microsoft. Without the requirement for iTunes with the iPod who knows what player would have won the market.

How does this relate to Google though? Well, looking at the search engine suit from Korea I mentioned yesterday, I think this has some pretty significant implications. Using a platform to control the method in which you use other functions can be shown to be anticompetitive. Google search engine is the first for mobile phones, however, I see no reason why it will be the last.

More on this topic in my next blog.