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Telecom’s continuing death spiral

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OPINION: Telecommunications, the sixth largest industry in the United States has been in a death spiral for the past three years. More than a million jobs lost, nearly a trillion dollars in wealth gone. Since last summer, the telecom stocks have appreciated considerably, with investors betting on better times ahead for the telecom business in recent months, but this is just a pause before the industry continues its meltdown. Those who disagree, should look at the price war that has broken out in the VoIP space. Primus, Vonage, and everyone else is cutting prices, perhaps waiting for Verizon to make its move.

The first phase of the telecom meltdown began in the Fall of 2000 with the failure of wholesale bandwidth providers. Overcapacity and competition mostly because of indiscriminate funding and the stock market bubble led to price wars and the collapse of newer telecom operators. This was the first phase of the telecom meltdown that started in the Fall of 2000. The descendants of AT&T, the regional Bell operating companies and most wireless carriers escaped the carnage because they had a monopoly on the connections to and from our homes, that aging piece of copper wire called the “last mile connection.”

Over the past two years, a new alternative to this last mile connection has emerged. This is the cable television network. The cable networks had long been dismissed as a clunky patchwork of disparate networks, of not much value except for beaming channels selling baubles and trinkets. In past five years cable companies have spent billions of dollars upgrading their networks for two-way communications, and thus becoming a viable option to phone companies’ copper connections.

This new last mile connection comes with high-speed Internet, which makes it possible to make phone calls over the Internet, cheaply. This is a marked shift from the traditional way of making phone calls. For nearly a century, when a phone call was made, a virtual circuit was created between the caller and the recipient. Expensive switches and other gear that cost tens of millions of dollars helped create these virtual circuits. Technologists have figured out a way to send the same voice traffic over the open Internet.

Powerful computers running a specialized piece of software that can do precisely the same thing for a few thousand dollars have replaced the old multi-million dollar switches. (This has already devastated two major switch makers, Lucent Technologies and Nortel Networks, which have seen a sharp decline in revenues and have let go thousands of employees.)

With a few thousand dollars, any one can set up a phone company, and go into the business of offering phone service. This has created a situation not so different from the early days of commercial Internet, when mom-and-pop service providers sprouted up all over the United States. There are dozens of these voice service providers, who are offering unlimited phone calls for as little as $20 a month. With nearly 33 million high-speed connections in America, it certainly is a big enough market.

The telecom industry has thrived in the past because phone companies could charge a few pennies per minute for the local call. Theses flat rate unlimited phone call services are changing the rules of the game to a “fixed price” model. When such a shift happens in any industry, there is a major upheaval and often chaos.

For evidence just look at what happened to the brokerage industry, where high-priced brokers were replaced by flat-rate service providers such as E-Trade and Ameritrade. Established brokerage houses, such as Merrill Lynch and PaineWebber saw a sharp decline in their retail business. The telecom industry now faces the same quandary and is likely to go through an even more cataclysmic change.

The flat rate pricing model comes at an inopportune time. The regional phone companies are locked in mortal combat with the wireless and cable providers in this battle to sell voice services. More and more people are looking to forego their landline phone connections in favor of wireless phone connections. That is one of the main reasons why the local phone revenues fell 2.9% to $118 billion in 2003 following a 3.3% decrease in 2002.

The revenue declines will accelerate with an all-out subscriber war in 2004. Cable companies are basing their strategies on the assumption that they can increase their per-subscriber value by offering a diverse set of services to existing customers. In an effort to gain more customers, cable companies now have the technologies to sell unlimited phone service for as little as $9.95 a month and make a profit. This is going to force phone companies to match those prices. This could lead to a very intense and destructive battle for both sets of service providers.

All this costs money. In the past, any growth into new markets has been paid for by voice services. But that gravy train is now coming to an end as a price war looms. Everyone from phone companies like SBC Communications to wireless carriers such as Sprint, to long distance providers such as AT&T to cable operators like Cox Communications and a slew of wireless companies have been nibbling away at each other’s voice market share, mostly through indiscriminate price cutting.

What we are witnessing is commoditization of the only communications service that makes money: voice calls. As a result you have lots of large companies (and some small companies) with mostly unsustainable financial structure of the incumbents in a declining business, with massive and overwhelming fixed costs on their balance sheets. This is putting pressure on the ability of these companies to raise money from the debt markets, and is forcing them to cut costs mainly through continued lay-offs.

The next five years are going to be even more painful for the telecom industry, which will see its revenues shrink, and its suppliers vanish. This painful restructuring will eventually end with fewer and mostly likely with new players. Telecommunications adds up to a substantial portion of the US economy, and its continued troubles don’t bode too well for the future.

18 Responses to “Telecom’s continuing death spiral”

  1. TestMan

    Comparing telco with microsoft is non sense !
    There are millions of people that got windows running without any licenses, but there are almost nobody that phone for free (i mean piracy).

    The telco landscape is about to blast. Here for instance in France, for than Ä29.99 i can get a DSL line “all include” ADSL settopbox : 5Mb/s internet access, wifi enabled, unlimited phone call to any landline in France, TV (more than 80 channels) ! Such offers are just amazing if you compare to what we just had 2 years back. I wish that GSM here could be the same but the oligocracy (3 operator are locking the market) goes on.

  2. I find it difficult to completely agree with the concept that the telecoms industry is in a death spiral. Rather I would look at what exactly a telecoms is and realize that there is much more to a telecoms than what Skype currently offers in its proprietary community. If you really look at the over cost of delivering quality voice across multiple lines or countries, the cost isn’t in the usage of copper per se. Rather, in addition to customer acquisition costs the bulk of a telcos cost is managing and maintaining an overall peering infrastructure so that I (on Verizon) can call my relatives (on France Telecom) across the ocean (on Global Crossing). So, ultimately, someone has to support & pay for those evolving relationships, intercarrier payments, switches, and directory services. Do you actually think that delivering and managing a phone call can ever be pervasively free? Doubtful, someone has to cover all these things and our government is going to make sure that it’s not them.

    Read this insightful commentary by Kevin Werbach in VON Magazine.

    Second, when speaking in prophetic sundries about telecoms, it is rather important to differentiate between local toll providers, business service providers, long haul carriers, and long-distance billing companies. I would venture to say that each of these is faced with different levels of competition and different levels of security in their business.

    Do you remember what a call from CA to NY cost in 1985? Do you recall what that same call cost in 2000? Have these companies not increased in value while their prices plummeted?

    Has Microsoft disappeared now that you have your pick of free operating systems anywhere or a plethora of (virtually) free competitors to Microsoft Office? Skype is fun toy, as is Hotmail – but people still spend quite a bit on Outlook and Notes.

    Mountains don’t get moved that easily.

    The commoditization of voice services is only a good thing for our economy… Such changes are catalysts for innovation… and, generally speaking, innovation is a significant driver of our economy.

  3. mobile carriers are a bit different beast i agree. the problem is that they are all talking abouot 3G and how they can use that to roll out additional services. my suspicion is that they are going to be facing capacity constraints in the future and will have to constantly add new infrastructure to keep pace with the demand for high-end applications.

  4. Douglass Turner


    Are you lumping together mobile wireless carriers (Vodafone, T-Mobile) with landline carriers in this meltdown? If so, please explain to me what infrastucture will replace (as in disrupt) the current cellular infrastucture.

  5. Douglass, spending money on customer acquisition only makes sense if those customers will generate reasonable cash flow later. Roping in Molly and Herb makes sense only if they will be profitable over the life of their subscription. Skype and its ilk (EsmeV and I talk for free between San Francisco and Amsterdam using iChat Audio every few weeks) are getting early adopters used to having overseas and other formerly expensive calls be free. That expectation will carry over into Molly and Herb’s attitudes — there are very few cases where the masses pay more than the early adopters before them — and create a market situation where customer acquisition dollars are very hard to spend.

    A few of us touched on this debate a bit while dissecting Clearwire’s opportunity or lack thereof on AO. The companies who can profit from offering global VOIP as a $10 a month flat-fee service are Yahoo, MSN, and the like. Odds are, one of them acquires or re-markets Skype.

    [Esme- Skype’s homepage currently claims 14M downloads]

  6. sanj arora

    will there ever be a time where these phone companies ever offer unlimited long distance anywhere worldwide …for 1 low rate ?
    unlimited local is already here…

    there’s about 100 countries where long distance costs more than 10 cents a minute on most plans…. perhaps its local taxes that drive the prices up but overall – all those countries need to make it cheaper to
    call too…….

  7. Douglass Turner


    Those are early adopters. To acquire, retain, care for, and up sell vast numbers of customers you need to spend $$$ to rope in Aunt Molly and Uncle Herb. Any large US telco could hoover up Skype in a heartbeat keep/discard their technology to acquire their CUSTOMERS.

  8. Skype has had over a million downloads and hundreds of thousands of people use it everyday. They did not spend any money at all acquiring customers. I use it everyday to talk to people in the US, India, New Zealand and Finland.

  9. Bryan Pilsworth

    Om, On a different note… I’ve noticed that you’ve been picking up feeds about Nortel and Canadian Co’s in the Ottawa Business Journal, Globe and Mail, etc. It’s quite rare to come across a US-based tech writer that is current on the CDN telco landscape. Kudos.