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Hang up on Phony Phone Competition Schemes


Vonage In Print News

Advice to the CRTC: The U.S. has Proven that Regulators and Subsidy Schemes do not Lead to Competition in the Local Telephone Market
September 23, 2003
By Robert W. Crandall

In recent months, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has been under pressure to create more local telephone competition in Canada. The Industry Minister has asked the CRTC to consider additional measures to promote competition outside the major urban centres, and Call-Net -- one of the entrants -- has petitioned the commission to provide new subsidies for local entrants. In addition, AllStream -- the other large Canadian entrant -- is asking the CRTC for access to the established telephone companies' facilities at low, regulated rates so that it can expand into new data services without building its own facilities.

Before reacting to these suggestions, however, the CRTC should take a close look at the United States, where regulators have used similar subsidy schemes to encourage competition. These policies have failed to develop meaningful competition.

The 1996 Telecom Act that opened U.S. local telecom markets to competition launched an experiment in regulated competition that has been unravelling for some time. The Act's rather vague language instructed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to force the established Bell telephone companies to share their facilities with entrants on an "unbundled" basis. The FCC was to determine which facilities were to be made available by the incumbent Bell companies and on what terms.

The FCC decided to let the entrants lease virtually everything at subsidized rates based on the hypothetical costs of building new facilities under idealized conditions. In the first four years of this policy, the entrants attracted only about 5% of U.S. access lines and none appeared to have found a successful strategy to lure subscribers away from the old-line telephone companies.

After losing 95% of their market capitalization following the technology bust, many of the entrants limped ahead, attracting more than 13% of U.S. telephone lines by the end of 2002. How did they achieve this seemingly impossible feat? The simple answer is: Through aggressive lobbying for even more favourable regulation.

When it became clear that their entry strategies were not working, the U.S. local entrants persuaded regulators to provide them with unrestricted access to the Bells' entire network at a 50% to 60% discount from retail rates. They argued that they needed to get everything from the Bell companies at these low rates because they could not -- or would not -- invest in network assets of their own. By the end of 2002, about 75% of the entrants' services were delivered over Bell company lines or over the entire facilities of the Bells. Ironically, the two largest long-distance carriers, AT&T and WorldCom, who had made enormous strategic errors in their investment planning, are now the two largest users of the Bell networks, accounting for nearly 60% of the leases. Thus, U.S. regulators are now forcing the Bell companies to subsidize the large, national carriers who have over-invested in long-distance assets and under-invested in local facilities.

The CRTC took a very different approach towards opening local markets in Canada. First, it limited the facilities that the established Canadian companies -- such as Bell Canada and TELUS -- must lease to the entrants to those that the entrants are not able to build economically.

Second, the CRTC required the entrants to pay wholesale prices for leased facilities based on accounting costs. As a result, in contrast to the United States, no Canadian entrants rely entirely on leasing the established telephone companies' facilities at rates that are dramatically below cost. True, the Canadian entrants lag somewhat behind their U.S. counterparts, having attracted about 5% of local residential lines and perhaps 10% of local business lines, but they are doing so in an unsubsidized manner, largely over their own facilities. It is this sensible, more-limited policy that some would like to change.

The U.S. experiment in forcing local competition is now imploding. Despite regulatory favouritism, most of the U.S. entrants have declared bankruptcy, and many have disappeared. Much of the US$50-billion or more they invested in start-up costs and equipment is simply wasted.

This U.S. regulatory charade only creates the illusion of local telephone competition, for it does not provide consumers with innovative new services. Most entrants simply repackage the Bell-company service and give it a new name. Nevertheless, real competition for the traditional telephone companies is developing in the United States and in Canada. It is coming from the wireless ("cellular") carriers and from the cable television companies, and from carriers, such as Vonage, which offers voice telephony over the Internet (VOIP). The wireless and cable companies can offer innovative new services because they own their networks. More important, they are here to stay. The government will not have to rescue them when they cannot pay their debts.

The United States will eventually have local telephone competition despite its regulators. The same is true for Canada -- it does not need to alter course to get there.



 
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†AK and HI residents pay $29.95 shipping. ††Limited time offer. Valid for residents of the United States (&DC), 18 years or older, who open new accounts. Offer good while supplies last and only on new account activations. One kit per account/household. Offer cannot be combined with any other discounts, promotions or plans and is not applicable to past purchases. Good while supplies last. Allow up to 2 weeks for shipping. Other restrictions may apply.

1Unlimited calling and other services for all residential plans are based on normal residential, personal, non-commercial use. A combination of factors is used to determine abnormal use, including but not limited to: the number of unique numbers called, calls forwarded, minutes used and other factors. Subject to our Reasonable Use Policy and Terms of Service.

2Shipping and activation fees waived with 1-year agreement. An Early Termination Fee (with periodic pro-rated reductions) applies if service is terminated before the end of the first 12 months. Additional restrictions may apply. See Terms of Service for details.

HIGH SPEED INTERNET REQUIRED. †VALID FOR NEW LINES ONLY. RATES EXCLUDE INTERNET SERVICE, SURCHARGES, FEES AND TAXES. DEVICE MAY BE REFURBISHED. If you subscribe to plans with monthly minutes allotments, all call minutes placed from both from your home and registered ExtensionsTM phones will count toward your monthly minutes allotment. ExtensionsTM calls made from mobiles use airtime and may incur surcharges, depending on your mobile plan. Alarms, TTY and other systems may not be compatible. Vonage 911 service operates differently than traditional 911. See www.vonage.com/911 for details.

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