Bit-Business Crackup

I have been getting broadband Internet access from the same service provider for a long time. Earlier this year, my particular cable MSO got increasingly aggressive about a “usage-based billing” model that capped bandwidth use and incorporated additional charges for “overage,” otherwise known as exceeding one’s bandwidth cap.  If one exceeds one’s bandwidth cap, one is charged extra — potentially a lot extra.

On the surface, one might suppose the service provider’s intention is to bump subscribers up to the highest bandwidth tiers. That’s definitely part of the intent, but there’s something else afoot, too.

Changed Picture

I believe my experience illustrates a broader trend, so allow me elaborate. My family and I reached the highest tier under the service provider’s usage-based-billing model. Even at the highest tier, though, we found the bandwidth cap abstemious and restrictive. Consequently, rather pay exorbitant overages or be forced to ration bandwidth as if it were water during a drought, we decided to look for another service provider.

Having made our decision, I expected my current service provider to attempt to keep our business. That didn’t happen. We told the service provider why we were leaving — the caps and surcharges were functioning as inhibitors to Internet use — and then set a date when service would be officially discontinued. That was it.  There was no resistance, no counteroffers or proposed discounts, no meaningful attempt to keep us as subscribers.

That sequence of events, and particularly that final uneventful interaction with the service provider, made me think about the bigger picture in the service-provider world. For years, the assumption of telecommunications-equipment vendors has been that rising bandwidth tides would lift all boats.  According to this line of reasoning, as long as consumers and businesses devoured more Internet bandwidth, network-equipment vendors would benefit from steadily increasing service-provider demand. That was true in the past, but the picture has changed.

Paradoxical Service

It’s easy to understand why the shift has occurred. Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corp., has explained the phenomenon cogently and repeatedly over at his blog. Basically, it all comes down to service-provider monetization, which results from revenue generation.

Service providers can boost revenue in two basic ways: They can charge more for existing services, or they can develop and introduce new services. In most of the developed world, broadband Internet access is a saturated market. There’s negligible growth to be had. To make matters worse, at least from the service-provider perspective, broadband subscribers are resistant to paying higher prices, especially as punishing macroeconomic conditions put the squeeze on budgets.

Service providers have resorted to usage-based billing, with its associated tiers and caps, but there’s a limit to how much additional revenue they can squeeze from hard-pressed subscribers, many of whom will leave (as I did) when they get fed up with metering, overage charges, and with the paradoxical concept of service providers that discourage their subscribers from actually using the Internet as a service.

The Problem with Bandwidth

The twist to this story — and one that tells you quite a bit about the state of the industry — is that service providers are content to let disaffected subscribers take their business elsewhere. For service providers, the narrowing profit margins related to providing increasing amounts of Internet bandwidth are not worth the increasing capital expenditures and, to a lesser extent, growing operating costs associated with scaling network infrastructure to meet demand.

So, as Nolle points out, the assumption that increasing bandwidth consumption will necessarily drive network-infrastructure spending at service providers is no longer tenable. Quoting Nolle:

 “We’re seeing a fundamental problem with bandwidth economics.  Bits are less profitable every year, and people want more of them.  There’s no way that’s a temporary problem; something has to give, and it’s capex.  In wireline, where margins have been thinning for a longer period and where pricing issues are most profound, operators have already lowered capex year over year.  In mobile, where profits can still be had, they’re investing.  But smartphones and tablets are converting mobile services into wireline, from a bandwidth-economics perspective.  There is no question that over time mobile will go the same way.  In fact, it’s already doing that.

To halt the slide in revenue per bit, operators would have to impose usage pricing tiers that would radically reduce incentive to consume content.  If push comes to shove, that’s what they’ll do.  To compensate for the slide, they can take steps to manage costs but most of all they can create new sources of revenue.  That’s what all this service-layer stuff is about, of course.”

Significant Implications

We’re already seeing usage-pricing tiers here in Canada, and I have a feeling they’ll be coming to a service provider near you.

Yes, alternative service providers will take up (and are taking up) the slack. They’ll be content, for now, with bandwidth-related profit margins less than those the big players would find attractive. But they’ll also be looking to buy and run infrastructure at lower prices and costs than did incumbent service providers, who, as Nolle says, are increasingly turning their attention to new revenue-generating services and away from “less profitable bits.”

This phenomenon has significant implications for consumers of bandwidth, for service providers who purvey that bandwidth, for network-equipment vendors that provide gear to help service providers deliver bandwidth, and for market analysts and investors trying to understand a world they thought they knew.

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