Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Investment Incentive Problem

Do monopolies lack an incentive to invest? I suppose they did in the ‘old world’, where business was guaranteed and a government-based owner didn’t care much about maximizing value.

However, things are different in today’s telco marketplace. Governments have largely backed out and the market has taken over. Monopolies are on the brink of extinction. Add to that the natural monopoly of fiber (which gets to be pushed deeper into networks everyday, until we will finally end up at homes (FTTH) and businesses (FTTB) networks) and the rise of IP (which is indifferent to whatever is inside a packet, be it voice, video or data), and what do we get?

Exactly, new monopolies of all-IP, all-fiber networks – whoever may own them.

Now, does the investment incentive problem still exist? I believe not, as long as owners are sensible and try to maximize the value.

Maximizing value in the first place means, quite simply, maximizing sales and thus the number of clients. This entails the end of the retail/wholesale dichotomy and an appreciation of doing business on the wholesale level, as I have stressed before. Competitors should now be looked upon as partners and clients too.

Of course, investing can also have a different purpose: cutting costs in the long run. This is why investing in NGNs and NGAs makes perfect sense.

Attracting wholesale clients entails expanding your portfolio of services, which implies investing in every aspect of your business. Different wholesale clients will focus on different market segments (which at the same time relieves your retail division of marketing to all those different niches), each demanding a different portfolio of services.

It also entails entering adjacent markets. Take a look at utility companies building BPL networks (run by third party service providers) to capture a piece of the broadband market, but also to cut costs (using the network for monitoring services).

In a word, ‘sweat your assets’, as Telefonica’s Santiago Fernández so eloquently put it.

This reasoning is why I keep being surprised when I read about incumbents claiming that (structural) separation would take away the incentive to invest. Which by the way seems to be the conventional wisdom. In the wake of the new EC regulations, telcos like France Telecom (c. 30% state-owned) and Belgacom (53% state-owned) have been making such statements. No Telco 2.0 points for them, I presume.

(PS: BT is quite explicit over their separation costs. Would it be a weird idea to allow incumbents to pass on any separation cost to the government?)

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