Verizon Forbearance - More Bad News for Telecom Competition?

Tomorrow - Dec. 5 - the FCC will announce its decision on Verizon's forbearance petition. I'm not a regulatory expert, but have learned enough that this could have serious implications for the state of telecom competition in the U.S.

Blog posts from Om Malik and Alec Saunders from earlier this week tell the story quite well, and those are good reads to get the basic storyline. If you're a supporter of free markets and open competition, you may want to explore things a bit further. A good starting point is Comptel's Free to Compete website, which states their position pretty clearly.

To really get into detail, you can review the report prepared by QSI Consulting that attempts to quantify the economic impact if Verizon got all of its petitions upheld. They make the case that this would lead to a $2.4 billion increase in subscriber costs across the 6 markets covered by Verizon's petitions. This translates to an annual increase of $114 per household.

There are several competitive operators who stand to lose from this petition, and you can view their submissions as well - Covad and XO, Earthlink,and PAETEC.

All told, there's a lot at stake here, and Verizon has been getting its way lately, most recently with their patent litigation against Vonage. If all or part of their petitions are granted tomorrow, life simply gets harder for any CLEC or over-the-top operator who relies on Verizon's last mile copper to access subscribers. If they really want to drive out competition, they'll simply raise wholesale prices to the point where others cannot make money and will need to find other routes to market.

I've always contended that whoever owns the last mile wins, but in today's market, it's not realistic to expect non-facilities based operators to build their own networks. That may have been the spirit of the 1996 deregulation, but it's a different world now. Actually, this may just drive competitors to jump on the WiFi bandwagon and create an end-to-end alternative that bypasses Verizon altogether. Wouldn't that be interesting?

Anyhow, it's the precedent that would be of most concern. If Verizon is even partially successful, it will embolden the other incumbents to follow suit. It's my understanding that Qwest wants to follow suit, but lacks Verizon's clout. And the other major - AT&T - has to sit on the sidelines until 2010, which was a provision for getting the SBC merger done late last year. That's only a few years away, and you can be sure they'll be doing as much groundwork as possible now should Verizon come out on top tomorrow.

It all adds up to an environment that is rapidly reversing the course of telecom deregulation. With the pureplay VoIP providers pretty much out of the way now, the telcos can now move on to the CLECs, and this petition could lay the foundation for raising the barriers to entry so high that only the incumbents can stay in the game.

If this is the world you want to see, then you'll be rooting for Verizon and a friendly FCC tomorrow. I'm in the other camp, however, and feel that this is another example of anti-competitive behavior that is ultimately not serving the best interests of consumers. For anyone else who feels the same, please have a look at these links, and pass them along.

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