The debate over net neutrality is often portrayed in terms akin to white hats against black hats in an old Western. The alleged black hats are Internet service providers (ISPs) with Sauron-like market power; the white hats are the “edge providers,” or market-disrupting content and Web companies, conceived by young visionaries in garages and dorms, that must constantly innovate and compete to survive.
But if this story were true, one would expect the black-hatted ISPs to show all the signs of monopoly: high profit margins, lackluster investment rates and no pressing effort to improve service to entice customers and content to their networks. Conversely, one would expect edge providers to operate on slim margins while trying to survive an endless competitive death march.
But the data tell a dramatically different story. ISP profits are, in fact, considerably lower than many of the companies that reside on or use the Web. Whether based on sales or assets, the profit margins of companies such as Verizon (with which my company has a consulting contract), Comcast, Level3, Pioneer or Cablevision are between one-sixth and one-eighth of those of such companies as Apple, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Viacom or other device and content producers.
The white hat-black hat narrative is also undercut by ISPs being among the biggest investors in the U.S. economy. Broadband providers held four of the top 10 slots in the most recent investment rankings; in 2012 alone, they plowed $40 billion into their networks. And the United States is seventh in the world in share of broadband connections at 10 megabits per second or above. That’s not an industry coasting on monopoly laurels.
One reason for the black-white hat parable may lie in the industry’s legacy. In the Ma Bell phone system, the connection was the end product, and no value was created on top of it. But modern broadband is much more than a “dumb signal;” it’s the platform for applications, devices, the cloud and other services that all contribute to and compete for the Internet’s value to the user.
And the ISPs have not done well in that competitive cage match. As ISPs have improved speeds and service, edge companies have improved their ability to extract the value these improvements create. ISPs spend billions to blanket the nation with high-speed connections, but Netflix benefits by shedding its distribution costs.
Watch what happens when 4K TV – the next step beyond HD – enters the market. The set manufacturers will do great business, but the ISPs’ investment allowed it to happen.
When I was the strategic planner of Unisys 25 years ago, we glumly reminded ourselves that two companies made money every time we sold a computer. Unfortunately, they were Intel and Microsoft, not us. Today’s ISPs must shudder to think that their innovations are making Apple, Google and Facebook, but not them, very profitable.
And that dynamic is reflected in market performance, as the leading edge providers have achieved true market power and, in many cases, monopoly or near-monopoly status. According to statista.com, Google has a search-engine market share of 88 percent around the world and 67 percent in the United States. Facebook and YouTube combine to control 75 percent of all social media. Netmarketshare.com reports that iOS and Android control 90 percent of mobile operating systems by units and minutes. Amazon controls almost two-thirds of e-books. If “black hat” broadband providers had anything like these market shares, the outcry would be deafening.
Such dynamics give the device, application and content companies substantial leverage over the ISPs. They trumpet their innovative prowess while turning the underlying connection into a fungible, replaceable commodity.
Google started in a garage, to be sure, but today it is seven times larger by market value than General Motors. Its burgeoning growth alone should lead to us to question the idea that ISPs are the ones extracting monopoly rent while edge providers are fresh-faced upstarts.
The industry’s critics need to rethink the white vs. black hat sophistry. Or, even better - let’s make Internet policy without any hats at all.
Ev Ehrlich is president of ESC Company, an economics consulting firm, and was undersecretary of commerce from 1993 to 1997.