Economics of unbundling the local loop through provision of DSL. Ashish Kelkar. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge MA, USA.

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1 Economics of unbundling the local loop through provision of DSL Ashish Kelkar Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge MA, USA Abstract The paper discusses the policy dilemma that telecom regulators in every industrialized nation are faced with today. The tremendous growth in the Internet, voracious demand for higher speeds by users and development of new technologies has spurred this policy debate. Typically the incumbent telecom operators have enjoyed a monopoly over the local loop (the twisted copper pair running from the users home to the concentrator). With the advent of DSL 1 technology, it is now possible to deliver higher bandwidth services over the local loop, making it a valuable commodity. The regulator is thus faced with a dilemma of breaking up the monopoly of the incumbents over the local loop and encouraging free competition in the provision of high bandwidth services versus intense lobbying and pressure from the incumbents, who have their own DSL offerings and are willing to face limited competition without losing their monopoly on the local loop. These incumbents, who in many European nations are the country s biggest employers and constitute a significant portion of the stock market capitalization, are capable of exerting tremendous political pressure on the regulator to maintain their monopoly over the local loop. There have been intense regulatory battles between the regulators and incumbents, few if any have led to innovative solutions. In most cases the regulators have backed out of the full unbundling option or postponed the inevitable till a later date. The paper looks at the economics of the dispute from a game theory perspective and how the dispute has played out in four countries-france, Germany, UK and the US. It evaluates the strategic options for the stakeholders and concludes with what the most economically and politically viable solution may be. 1 Digital Subscriber Loop

2 1.0 Introduction The rapid takeup and increased demand for high speed Internet services generally known as DSL, more particularly its asymmetric variant ADSL, has resulted in several suppliers clamoring to secure a piece of this pie. The key requirement for ADSL is a continuous pair of copper wires from the subscriber location to the central office or exchange. This is the local loop. This twisted copper pair has been traditionally installed, owned and operated by the incumbent telecom provider. In order to provide ADSL service the control over this loop is key. It is prohibitively expensive to lay a new pair of copper wire to every new subscriber. Thus every new telecom/internet provider wants some form of control over this local loop. They approach the national regulator to regulate the local loop and break the monopoly of the incumbent operator. This is known as unbundling. Naturally the incumbents are willing to fight it out and would like to retain some form of control if not complete monopoly. The incumbents are primarily pushing for the options where they would be the wholesale ADSL providers and other ISP s could be retailers of their offering. Every developed country has charted a regulatory framework to deal with this issue, some have implemented full unbundling others are still grappling with some of the issues. The paper looks at some of the issues that the regulators have to deal with. It analyzes the economics of unbundling from the incumbent s and the regulator s point of view and looks at some of the existing frameworks and their effects on the telecom markets in those countries. 2.0 Players and Issues The key players in this dispute are the Regulator, the Incumbent Operators and the New Entrants. Each of the players have a major stake in the debate, some of the issues raised by them are as follows: Regulator : The regulator has a mandate of reducing prices for the consumer by encouraging competition at the same time ensuring an early nationwide rollout of DSL. These are opposing mandates as every provider will try to maximize its profits by first targeting the dense urban centers and business customers at the expense of the rural and semi-urban users. European regulators have been looking at two key options the first being complete unbundling and free competition, the second is allowing the incumbent to upgrade the local loop and then wholesale the service to retailers, one of whom can be the incumbent s own subsidiary. Thus the regulator in either case has to deal with the following issues: To what extent should the local loop be unbundled? If there is complete unbundling, how should the incumbent be compensated for the cost of the copper loop, which in many cases has already been recovered? How should the maintenance and technology upgrade costs be split between the many players? If the incumbent is allowed to wholesale out the service and have its own DSL offering, this will in effect lead to the incumbent cross-subsidizing its DSL provision, since the incumbent operators in most cases also own the Internet backbone. Should the new entrants be restricted to providing data traffic or be also allowed to carry voice traffic? 2

3 The Incumbent : Every incumbent has already started offerings its own DSL provision starting with the urban regions and have been championing the wholesale service option which will in effect allow them to retain some control over the local loop. The issues rai sed to by them are: Complete unbundling will lead to them losing the high value customers due to cherry picking by the aggressive new entrants and undermine its business case for rollout, resulting in a overall delay in the nationwide provisioning of DSL Complete unbundling will also lead to serious technical and operational difficulties. These although not insurmountable will lead to significant investment of the incumbent s resources and time. Thus further contributing to the delay. Although there may be some truth in the above issues, this reasoning has been used as threat by the incumbents against the regulator, and in some cases even suggesting that a forced unbundling may lead to a complete halt to their DSL rollout process. New Entrants: They have been calling for complete unbundling claiming that: Without unbundling they would be at the mercy of the incumbent s deployment schedule, thus deny them the first mover advantage in the niche markets. They would like to take on the incumbent not only through data provisioning but also voice provisioning (Voice over DSL option). Unbundling is the only way to level the playing field between the incumbent and their offering. 3.0 Economics and Game Theory perspective It is clear that a loss of monopoly by the incumbents will lead to a reduction in their profits but open competition will not entirely kill their profits. Indeed knowing that their complete monopoly has to end sometime if the venture had been unprofitable the incumbents would not have gone ahead aggressively as they have with their DSL provisioning. Also with the growth of packet switching it is inevitable that voice service will disappear in its existing form as we move to Voice over IP provisioning, leaving the incumbent no choice but to have a DSL service. From a game theory analogy the payoff matrix between the incumbent and the regulator may be shown as follows. 3

4 Incumbent Rollout as planned Slow Rollout No Unbundling Low, Very high Low, Medium Regulator Unbundling High, Medium Medium, Low Figure 1: The payoff matrix of the game played between the Incumbent and the Regulator The regulator s payoffs reflect the idea of social welfare and that, in general consumers become better off in scenarios that promote competition. Hence, the payoff for the regulator is low under the no unbundling scenario and it is high and medium in the unbundling case depending on how the incumbent complies with this situation. As for the incumbent the payoffs in the case of rollout as planned are very clear, they stand to make enormous profits in case of status quo and possibly lose some of those to competition if there is unbundling. Quadrant IV, is the scenario of slow rollout that the incumbent claims may/will occur if there is unbundling. The payoff to the incumbent is low here because the incumbent is risking losing its first mover advantage in the DSL deployment, moreover it could even lose its voice revenues to a new aggressive DSL competitor. Note the outcome in Quadrant I will never really occur, as the incumbent s strategy is dependent on the regulator s decision. The payoff matrix obtained shows that the incumbent has a dominant strategy 2. This is to keep its ADSL rollout as planned, regardless of the regulator s decision. Hence, the regulator must implement the unbundling option to maximize its payoff. Thus in this game the outcome in Quadrant III would be the Nash Equilibrium 3. However political realities have forced regulators to choose a middle ground of allowing the monopoly of the incumbent to continue for a few years and then allow free competition. As will be seen in the following case studies the British and the French regulators have followed this policy. By choosing a middle ground, they have only postponed the inevitable. Previous experiences have shown that breaking a monopoly is painful in the short run but in the long run has benefited the economy and the consumer enormously. This is demonstrated amply in the case of the US market and more recently in Germany. As was the case with Deutsche Telekom (the incumbent in Germany) full unbundling will force the incumbents to come up with new innovative service offerings and possibly an unusual bundling of wireless, landline voice and DSL services. 2 The player does the best no matter what the other player does. 3 Each player does the best given what the other player does. 4

5 4.0 Cases The following cases involve a regulatory and market overview of DSL services in four countries to evaluate if there any optimal or best case solutions that could be universally applied. 4.1 France No firm decision has been taken in France so far though there are plans to open the local access market there. The two main options being considered by the French regulator-art are as follows: Access to the copper pair. The incumbent France Telecom, would offer access to its local infrastructure by providing leased copper pair links to new entrant operators, who would be permitted to install their own equipment at the local exchange. Operators would be permi tted to use this local network to supply both broadband and narrow band services. Access to permanent virtual circuits. France Telecom would be required to provide alternative operators with a virtual circuit, thereby transporting traffic from subscribers to the nearest POP (point-of-presence) on the alternative operator s own infrastructure. This would permit customers to subscribe to alternative telecom operators for broadband services, whilst remaining with France Telecom for basic voice telephony. ART believes that it should be possible to open the local loop by mid France Telecom has pledged to open the local loop, however insists it would not be technically feasible in that time frame. Meanwhile France Telecom launched two ADSL services in November 1999, one providing ADSL to subscribers directly (Netissimo) and the other providing a service to other ISP s (Turbo IP). ART is also engaged with a dispute with France Telecom over its rollout of ADSL services claiming that France Telecom went ahead with rollout in several areas of the country without prior permission. There have been several other disputes with the introduction of ADSL access in France. In June 1999, Club Internet one of the main ISP s appealed to the regulator to force France Telecom to delay the ADSL launch, in order to allow competitors to develop rival ADSL offers to be launched simultaneously, reselling France Telecom s Netissimo service. In January 2000, Cegetel and AOL France alleged that the prices charged by France Telecom for access to its ADSL lines were too high and thus prevented competitors from offering their subscribers ADSL at competitive prices. The lack of a definite timetable for unbundling has allowed France Telecom to benefit from its position as virtually the only provider of ADSL-enabled infrastructure. This represents a major competitive threat. Needless to say competition has been slow to develop, and only a small number of France Telecom s competitors are offering rival ADSL services. Potential competitors have been reluctant to enter the market till unbundling is initiated. For example, in November 1999, First Telecom announced that it did not intend to launch its own ADSL services in France until unbundling becomes a reality. 5

6 4.2 Germany Germany s local loop was officially unbundled when the country s telecom markets were opened to competition in January However prices were set only in February New entrants are permitted to lease local loop infrastructure from Deutsche Telekom and to offer both voice and data services. The decision on the lease price was based on a cost model taking into account nominal capital cost and the depreciation period for copper cable (fixed at 20 years). The price is also independent of the geographical location and is based on the countrywide average. Many ISP s have complained that the lease price for Deutsche Telekom s local access network is too high. It is about 20% more than the line rental charge that would have to be paid to Deutsche Telekom by the end user. The high prices make alternative operator s DSL services less competitive than existing options such as Deutsche Telekom s ISDN. Deutsche Telekom launched business-focused ADSL in April 1999 and residential ADSL in August A rapid rollout is planned to cover 44% of the households by the year end. The early unbundling of the local loop has allowed competition to develop in this market considerably earlier than has occurred elsewhere. By mid 1999 the German regulator RegTP reported that 51 providers had signed contracts with the incumbent for local loop access. Major pan-european operators are also launching DSL services in Germany earlier than in other countries. KPNQwest has announced Germany would be the first country for launch of its retail business focused DSL services. 4.3 UK The British regulator OFTEL has been involved in an acrimonious debate with the incumbent British Telecom over regulating the local loop. The regulator favors the introduction of full unbundling with the incumbent making the local loop available to new entrants as leased circuits. BT prefers wholesaling of the service to other ISP s including one of its own subsidiary and retain control over the local loop. Oftel suggested that British Telecom unbundle the local access by July The pricing of the loop will be based on the long run incremental cost, plus an allowance for the costs common to the line and other BT services. Unlike Germany there will not be a single price for the entire country but rather BT will be allowed to establish different prices for different regions, so that individual prices will more closely reflect costs. OFTEL is concerned that the provision of Permanent Virtual Circuit alone to the local loop (as is currently being trailed by BT) is not suffice to foster competition, given that only BT is able to rollout DSL and that this gives BT an advantage in planning its DSL offering strategy. New entrants have expressed general dissatisfaction with the July 2001 timetable and insist that BT has been ignoring them and the regulator. BT has started commercial trials of the DSL service. It is however uncertain what retail prices will be charged for the service to the end -user. Overall the UK has lagged in the DSL provisioning as compared to France and Germany. There is evidence that BT and its wholesale customers will see competition from other channels. For example NTL the largest cable operator in the UK announced it would run trials of ADSL over its cable infrastructure soon. 6

7 4.3 U.S.A The 1996 Telecommunications Act required the incumbents to provide unbundled network elements to competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs). In the ensuing years there were numerous complaints from the CLECs, who claimed the incumbents were not fulfilling their requirements. This lead to several rulings from the regulator (FCC). In November 1999 the FCC ruled that the incumbents would have to share their lines with the CLECs. As a result CLECs were permitted to offer high-speed services over a line while the incumbent could continue to offer voice service on the same line. Prior to this the CLEC customers were forced to lay a second line if they wished to buy voice and data services from two different providers. There are considerable incentives for the incumbents to abide by the FCC rulings and establish unbundled access for CLECs and apply it without delay. This is because the incumbents are judged on their success in implementing local loop unbundling legislation when they themselves apply for permission to increase their own product portfolio. This carrot and stick approached has worked very well. For example SBC an incumbent was denied permission to offer long distance services because SBC had missed a significant proportion of due dates on orders for DSL loops from CLECs. The effect of the rulings on line sharing has been a boost to providing competition in the DSL service provision. For example in Utah, US West began offering DSL services in May 1998 and was the only provider for 18 months. However by the end of 1999 five more companies had announced launch of new DSL services. There are a large number of commercial DSL offers available in major urban areas across the USA. A large number of ISP s are now offering DSL services by partnering with network providers. Competition has not only developed in the services sold to the end user but also in the wholesale DSL provision. 5.0 Comparison of Regulatory frameworks and Market Conditions The following table summarizes the regulatory frameworks and the market conditions in the four countries: France Germany UK USA Local loop unbundling No Yes No Yes regulation planned in 2001 since 1999 planned in 2001 since 1996 Type of Unbundling full and PVC under full unbundling full and PVC under full unbundling consideration consideration Line Sharing allowed Yes Yes Number of new entrants 1* approx 4-5 none 7 nationwide offering wholesale services several local players Number of new entrants 3** 51*** trials by few**** several ISP's and offering retail services independent providers * ISDnet ** Club Internet, Easynet, World-NET *** as reported by RegTP in autum

8 Table 1: Summary of Regulatory and Market conditions in the four countries In order to compare the effect of the regulatory framework on the competition and benefit to the end-user we have to look at the DSL services being offered or proposed to the customers in these markets. This would involve a complete benchmarking study of the numerous offerings, comparing them based on their speeds, quality of service. However as a base case following is a comparison of the most basic residential ADSL service offering in the four markets, that an end user can expect to install at home today. The costs are all compared in US dollars using PPP(purchasing power parity) conversion ratios. France Germany UK USA Basic Residential 500 kbit/s 768 kbit/s 500 kbit/s 384 kbit/s Service downstream downstream downstream downstream Installation Charges $50.00 $0.00 $90.00 $0.00 Average Costs/month* $65.60 $52.50 $56.00 $49.99 *US $ using purchasing power parity conversion ratio Table 2: Comparison of basic residential ADSL service 6.0 Conclusions We can draw some conclusions from the above comparisons Countries with clear unbundling laws have by far the better services (in terms of costs and speeds) and large number of new entrants. Germany is an ideal example where there are 51 new entrants despite the fact that the leased line costs are 20% more than what the end-user would pay the incumbent Deutsche Telekom. The presence of large number of providers will induce competitive pressures and result in consumer benefit. In fact Deutsche Telekom recently announced a bundled package to include cheap international rates to its ADSL customers in an effort to prevent customers from migrating to new providers. This is representative of the Quadrant III in the payoff matrix. Even partial unbundling as initiated in 1996 in the US induced competition although in a limited way. Unlike France where the unclear and non-transparent process has dissuaded new entrants from committing to the market and has given rise to disputes between the incumbent and the regulator. The result being there is only one competitor in the wholesale provisioning of ADSL against the incumbent France Telecom and an overall reduction in the speed of rollout. Postponement of the unbundling in UK has again prevented rapid rollout of ADSL by BT as they have no incentive to move beyond the dense urban and the business markets. In fact as shown in the payoff matrix BT in an effort to delay the unbundling by deliberately slowing down the rollout risks ending up in the Quadrant IV i.e. Unbundling will eventually occur and BT will end up with smaller profits than what it can make by rapid rollout. 8

9 This is because customers will migrate to other channels like ADSL over the cable infrastructure since the UK has a very high cable penetration in the res idential market. The comparison of European and US incumbents shows that although they are aware that unbundling will eventually be a reality, they are still trying to fight this hoping to retain some level of control on the local loop. The US Regulator s carrot and stick approach of passing rulings to force the incumbent to unbundle coupled with the threat of not allowing them to enter new services has produced good results. However this is not very feasible in European nations, as the incumbents unlike the US are dominant players in all services like long distance and even wireless. In conclusion the incumbents must start thinking of creative and innovative solutions to retain their customer base since full unbundling is inevitable. This will most likely include bundled services like combinations of wireless and landline(voice and high speed data) services. Regulators must on the other hand move fast and unambiguously towards opening up the local loop in the interests of the consumer and overall benefit of the nation's economy. Although the US model cannot be applied to the European markets, the partially successful German deregulation is an example that other nations can follow especially since the markets and the existing conditions in many European nation s are similar to those in Germany. 7.0 References 1. OFTEL, Access to bandwidth: bringing higher bandwidth services to the consumer, December 1998 (http://www.oftel.gov.uk/competition/llu1298.htm) 2. OFTEL, Access to bandwidth: proposals for action, July 1999 (http://www.oftel.gov.uk/competition/llu0799.htm) 3. Reister, J., DSL Architecture and business case, Copper mountain networks Inc., September 1999 (http://www.coppermountain.com/library/pdf/whitepapers/80030-dslabc-wp.pdf) 4. Telechoice, Understanding the DSL market (http://www.coppermountain.com/library/pdf/whitepapers/80010-usdslm-wp.pdf) 5. BT, Official publication of ADSL trial runs and proposals, July 1999 (http://www.bt.com/adsl) 6. Dodd, A., The essential guide to telecommunications, Prentice Hall, OFTEL, Analysys final report for OFTEL:International Benchmarking of DSL Services, January 2000 (http://www.oftel.gov.uk/competition/dsl0400.htm) 9

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