What is a folly?
A folly is the ruins of a great accomplishment that never gets finished. The English landscape is dotted with disused and crumbling monuments. Many of the follies were made by industrialists who spent the wealth generated by textiles mills, shipyards and heavy industries. A more modern day version of this would be the expensive shower curtains purchased by L. Dennis Kozlowski during the recent Tyco scandal in the U.S.
Who is Ivan Seidenberg?
Ivan Seidenberg is head of Verizon, a U.S. telecoms company based in New Jersey, they jointly own one of the U.S.'s largest mobile phone operators with Vodafone and are provide landlines to Americans living on the eastern seaboard. They are a direct descendant of the Bell Telephone Co. a former telecoms monopoly rather like BT prior to privatisation. Verizon was one of the baby Bells made by the break-up of the previous company. It was originally called Bell Atlantic but has grown beyond its roots by acquisition and joint venture.
What's the SP?
In January, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Seidenberg laid out a plan to spend two billion dollars digging up and replacing the copper cables that lie between the customers house and the telephone exchange, replacing it with strands of glass called optical fibre.
This is interesting because:
- Verizon until now has been very focused on creating shareholder value, broadly that means working the business in such a way that they keep paying a dividend and the share price keeps going up. In order to do that you need to avoid 'bet the farm' type moves, or anything that may unsettle institutional shareholders. One of my frustrations working as a PR consultant agency-side with Bell Atlantic mobile was trying to get my spokespeople to say anything daring, visionary or forward-thinking. We struggled to send out news,even issuing press releases about mobile phones donated to battered wives shelters in New Jersey
- Verizon, historically has made more of a mess in providing value-added services over broadband and wireless services than other carriers like Deutsche Telekom or BT, there is no indication of how Verizon is likely to be able to make additional value out of the investment. Capgemini did a survey of 100 CEOs in the telecoms, media and technology sectors in 2000, which I helped to promote. One of the summary conclusions that came out of it was that everybody knew they wanted broadband, but they did not know what it would be used for, or how they were going to make money out of value-added services. I still believe that to be the case, I have seen nothing that has convinced me otherwise
- Online and digital entertainment is very much up in the air, no one is sure how the market is going to pan out
- Content providers will rob you blind, Apple recently said all the 99 cents a track from iTunes Music Service went on credit card transaction costs and record company royalty payments, How will there be room for someone like Verizon at the table?
- Selling fibre to consumers would disrupt the market for business data communications, driving prices down and causing a corporate bloodbath unlike anything we have seen in modern times. It could annihilate companies like WorldCom who are in the final stages of bankruptcy protection and Comcast who sell broadband DSL services. This very disruptive process while in theory of some benefit to consumers, could still be loaded with many anti-trust issues
- The economics of putting fibre into the ground are very complex. Putting fibre in the ground is no more difficult than putting in cable. Optical fibre has its own challenges, water must not be allowed anywhere near the fibre, otherwise it will get between its plastic skin and the glass causing a kink that greatly reduces its ability to carry a signal, Despite the best efforts of the likes of Corning this process happens by osmosis, because of this optical fibre is very likely to decay to uselessness in less than ten years; potentially a much shorter lifespan than the copper cable it replaces
- Generally the denser the population the cheaper it is to wire them up, you don't have to go miles from one house to another. Verizon covers some of the densest population on the planet and the high rise living of Manhattanites presents its own engineering problems with added expense
- The biggest barrier to putting fibre into the home has been the cost of the electronics at either end of the cable, these have come down in cost, but not as fast as the cost of computing power or electronic storage. This would still be substantially dearer than a cable box, broadband satellite receiver or DSL router
- Providing consumers access to huge amounts of bandwidth means that you need to ensure that there are no bottlenecks in the core of the network. Verizon like most carriers are still carrying the billions of dollars already spent in the core of their network as high value assets. Will this have to be scrapped and made over to allow for the new fibre world? How would this affect their balance sheet?
- Verizon like many carriers relies on declining numbers of traditional voice calls to finance new services including this ambitious plan, how would it finance it and how would this affect shareholders?
- In order for Verizon to even make their money back on the fibre installation they need the regulators cut them some slack on forcing them to rent the lines to alternative carriers at cost. A practice currently in place to encourage competition in telephone and broadband services
If Verizon are successful, it may encourage other telcos to do the same thing, they may not be so lucky....
Seidenberg and the False Prophet
Seidenberg's bet reminds me of George Gilder a strange mix of techno sage and right-wing evangelist that America is good at putting out. He foresaw a golden age for the information economy brought about by photonics and charged many business executives a whole pile of money for a newsletter about companies that he felt was at the vanguard of the revolution.
George's vision hasn't come to pass, yet Seidenberg's plan sounds like something straight from the Gilder playbook including the lack of profit imperative.