I’m going to open a big can of worms here, and I’ll admit up front that I haven’t fully thought it through. This more of a US-centric stream-of-consciousness kind of mind-dump.
I’ve lately come to hate the US telco industry with the angry passion of a thousand fiery suns. They enjoy a monopoly or near-monopoly in most areas of the United States. They also have a legal responsibility to maximize value to their shareholders. In the absence of competition, maximizing service and quality to their customers runs counter to maximizing that shareholder value. Our natural instinct is to shout the mantra of “increase competition!”, but even in the areas where there is competition, we see very little competitive behavior.
Why is that? Collusion? Well...maybe it’s because the Comcast CEO doesn’t have to pick up the phone and discretely call the AT&T CEO to find out what he’ll do if Comcast decides to lower rates and provide better service. He already knows it will start a price and service war that while benefiting the consumer, will hurt corporate profits. Nobody at this echelon wants to race to the bottom. All the big players have to do is find a happy medium of market share and slowly increase profits. The barriers to entry to be competitive/disruptive are enormous. It takes a Google to do it. Even if you could do it, you’d be forced to join the club and be a part of the same problem for the same reason the incumbant companies do.
But telecom isn’t the only industry that operates in this manner, even when competitors are present. The average prices in automobiles, new homes, health care, etc. have all outpaced increases in wage at a rate of roughly 2-to-1 over the last 45 years. The increases should be in line with wage increases to guarantee sustainability. These are competitive markets, so why the disparity? The reasons are many and varied. There are some easily justified increases like safety, R&D, and environmental concerns; but there are also offsets like increases in efficiency, automation, logistics and transport, overseas labor, etc. More often than not, these companies report quarterly and annual profits that measure in the billions and frankly defy belief. Which brings me to that can of worms.
There was a time when companies were reluctant to sell stock. They were literally selling a piece of their company to the public, and only did it because they needed the capital to bring new products and technologies to market. People bought stocks because they believed in that company, product, or technology; and handed over their money to help bring it to market and maybe make a little money in the process. Now, stocks are strictly investment vehicles for the buyer, and the seller often uses the capital to force stagnation instead of innovation. Look at Facebook. They are a titan in the tech industry, lighting cigars with $100 bills. Why the IPO? What new major advances in social media did the IPO make possible that they couldn’t make happen themselves? Likely none. But what it did do is allow Facebook to make some acquisitions. They are staying on top by removing the competition not rising to meet it.
Maximize shareholder value. That phrase is used to justify: higher prices, lower service, lower quality parts, environmental damage, damage to the long-term future of our nation, and general unethical corporate behavior (skimming, fleecing, shell corporations, tax loophole exploits). I’m not opposed to making money as a shareholder. But that money isn’t made out of thin air, and it doesn’t come from the seller. It comes from the American public. We pay that. When you get your dividend check or sell your stocks for a fat profit, that money came from me, from your neighbors, from your family and friends, from anyone that ever bought a product or service from that company. You paid for it too.
Similar to the underlying storyline in the movie The Matrix, I’m of the ever-increasing opinion that the US public is viewed as (literally) a cash crop by people who trade in tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. Top 1% income type of people. If we’re over-farmed, we’ll rebel. But if we’re fed and nurtured, told it’s for our own good, even made to believe that if we buy stocks we can come along for the ride; the money will slowly move from our pockets to that top 1%. We think because we made 8-18% on our investment portfolio we’re doing ok, being good citizens, and saving for our retirement. But we don’t realize we overpaid by 20-60% for the goods and services to make that happen*.
I think common carrier status is the only way to remove the need to maximize shareholder value in this segment of the telco industry. Or maybe, conversely, the only way to maximize shareholder value in a common carrier scenario is to increase market share by once again competing on speed and quality. I don’t want innovation from my ISP...I want a dumb pipe, and the ISP that can provide the fastest rates and highest quality of service at the lowest price will get my business.
*percentages pulled directly from my backside