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July 24, 2012

Are Telcos Deliberately Losing Share in High-Speed Access?

By Gary Kim, Contributing Editor

An argument can be made that telcos are losing market share in the high-speed access or broadband access market. Cable share of broadband access customers is about 60 percent, and cable arguably is adding new customers at a higher rate than telcos are doing.

But the analysis might be much more complicated. For starters, that argument looks only at share of fixed network broadband, and only at the use of the network for the Internet access application.

Since revenue units these days commonly includes video entertainment, broadband access and voice, there is some justification for looking at a unit of entertainment video as an equally-important revenue generating unit, compared to a “high speed Internet connection.

In that domain, telcos are taking market share from cable operators. Beyond that, there is the matter of a growing mobile broadband importance.

According to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development statistics, there were 314.9 million fixed network broadband connections in use in the OECD countries in December 2011, for example.

There also were 667.4  million wireless broadband connections in use at the same time, for a total of 982.3 million broadband connections. That means 68 percent of all broadband connections in the OECD region are wireless.

That has obvious implications for service providers, investors, end users and regulators alike, as it means any effort to measure broadband subscribers, access speeds and prices is much more complicated than it once was.

Though the trend is most clear in developing regions, where a mobile device is the primary way people use Internet apps, it increasingly is the case that a “small screen” smart phone or feature phone is the way many people are choosing to use the Internet.

In China, for example, there now are fewer fixed broadband subscribers, compared to last year. Internet users reached 530 million over the past six months, but the broadband subscriber base actually shrank as mobile became the most popular way for users to get online for the first time, a report by the Chinese government suggests.

Of those Internet users, some 380 million were fixed broadband users, down from 396 million in December 2011, and 388 million were mobile internet users, up from 356 million.

Instead of growing, as you might expect, fixed broadband accounts actually declined, as users apparently decided to spend their money on mobile broadband, rather than fixed broadband.

The point is that, though it is useful to measure how fixed network access bandwidth, usage or prices are developing, that does not offer a full picture of how people are using broadband, since two thirds of broadband connections in the OECD are of the mobile variety.

Telcos might not prefer to lose high-speed access customers to cable operators. On the other hand, neither do telcos seem willing to spend “any amount of money” to compete more aggressively in the fixed network high-speed access business, when growth is so prominent in the mobile domain.

In other words, telcos might simply conclude they just need to be “good enough” in high-speed access, as revenue growth prospects are much higher in the mobile domain. So telcos might be willing to intentionally cede share in fixed network broadband, as they have been willing to cede or abandon share in long distance, voice, pay phones and other products, historically.

AT&T (News - Alert), for example, also decided to slow its sales of Apple iPhones recently, to preserve profit margins. Verizon decided to prune some lines of business that in turn caused lower revenue. The point is that sometimes it is rational not to compete head on in every single product category.

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Edited by Braden Becker
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