Extractive vs. Generative Ownership of Telecom Infrastructure


April 16th, 2016

In her 2012 book Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution, Marjorie Kelly, Executive Vice President and a Senior Fellow with The Democracy Collaborative, provides a framework for understanding and distinguishing what she describes as “generative” vs. “extractive” ownership designs.  In key respects, the book builds on Kelly’s first book, The Divine Right of Capital: Dethroning the Corporate Aristocracy, published more than a decade ago (you can read the latter’s introduction here).

Drawing an apt and powerful parallel to the divine right of kings, Kelly’s first book does a masterful job of opening readers’ minds to the arbitrary and distorting nature of the ownership and control model embodied in today’s publicly-traded corporations. In Owning our Future, she does an equally impressive job helping readers understand and appreciate the significance of the range of alternative ownership structures emerging across the economy.  A clear, succinct and enjoyable read, Owning Our Future clarifies:

In a May 17, 2012 talk entitled From the Fringe to the Leading Edge: Generative Design Goes to Scale, at the annual conference of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), Kelly highlighted the fundamental importance of ownership in our economy and our world, and the problems caused by today’s dominant form of ownership:

Every economy is built on the foundation of ownership… Questions about who owns the wealth-producing infrastructure of an economy, whose interests it serves, these are among the largest issues any society can face…The crises we face today, ecologically and financially, are tangled at their root with the particular form of ownership that dominates our world – the publicly traded corporation, where ownership shares trade in public stock markets. The revenues of the 1,000 largest of these corporations represents roughly 80% of global GDP.

Kelly then briefly reviewed what her years of research have led her to understand about “generative” alternatives to the dominant “extractive” form of ownership. “The first and most important difference” she says is a “Living Purpose.”

…the many ownership alternatives – from community land trusts and cooperatives to social enterprises and community ownership of the commons – these alternatives represent a single, coherent school of design. It’s a family of generative ownership designs. Together, they form the foundation of a generative economy.

 Generative means the carrying on of life, and generative design is about the institutional framework for doing so. In their basic purpose, and in their living impact, these designs have an aim of generating the conditions where all life can thrive. They are built around a Living Purpose.

This is in contrast to the dominant ownership designs of today, which we might call extractive. Their aim is maximum extraction of financial wealth. They are built around a single-minded Financial Purpose.

But, according to Kelly, “purpose alone isn’t enough.”  Also needed, she says, is “the presence of at least one other structural element that holds that purpose in place.”  These additional elements of generative design are:

Membership. Who’s part of the enterprise? Who has a right to a say in profits, and who takes the risk of ownership? Corporations today have Absentee Ownership. Generative ownership has Rooted Membership, with ownership held in human hands.

Governance. Extractive ownership involves Governance by Markets, where control is linked to share price. Generative ownership involves Mission-Controlled Governance, with control held in mission-oriented hands.

Finance. Instead of the Casino Finance of traditional stock market ownership, generative approaches involve Stakeholder Finance, where capital becomes a long-term friend.

Networks…If traditional approaches use Commodity Networks, where goods trade based solely on price, generative economies use Ethical Networks, which offer collective support for social and ecological norms.

Kelly then notes that, while “[n]ot every ownership model has every one of these design elements…the more elements that are used, the more effective the design.”

How does this apply to the telecom sector?

Having listened to many an earnings call and followed the telecom industry for nearly three decades, it seems pretty clear to me that the dominant publicly-traded cable and telephone companies have an overriding Financial Purpose, as expressed by management’s intense focus on cash flow, stock price, profits, market share, average revenue per unit, pricing power, and other financial metrics.

Related to these metrics is an intense focus (in statements made to Wall Street analysts as well as actual financial decision-making) on “return of capital to shareholders,” largely in the form of dividends and stock buybacks.

While this is perfectly legal and very understandable from the perspective of corporate management (whose compensation is often based on stock price), the fact is that these returns to shareholders are allocations of cash flow that might otherwise be used to deliver more value to customers. For example, this cash flow could be invested in network upgrades and/or improved customer service. The latter is particularly notable, since both the cable and telephone industries have longstanding and well-earned reputations for poor customer service, as reflected in virtually all national surveys (and plenty of anecdotes shared among friends and posted on the web). This, I believe, is largely because, as monopolists or duopolists with substantial market power and extractive ownership designs, these companies tend to be more focused on satisfying the desires of shareholders and Wall Street analysts than those of largely-captive customers with limited options for taking their business elsewhere.

These same industry dynamics are also clear evidence that, in addition to Financial Purpose, the nation’s large publicly-traded cable and telecom giants are also characterized by what Kelly refers to as Absentee Ownership, Governance by Markets, Casino Finance and Commodity Networks, and that their managements are heavily influenced by pressure from Wall Street analysts and traders, whose work takes place even more deeply at the core of our economy’s financial extraction machinery.

AT&T as an example of extractive ownership

In my view, AT&T, the nation’s largest ILEC, is a good example of the kind of financially extractive ownership model that currently dominates the top tier of telecom companies, virtually all of which have their historic roots in a monopoly or near-monopoly market environments. Below is a brief review of key elements of the company’s history over the past decade or so, to illustrate what I mean.

In 2004 AT&T (then SBC Communications) announced that its next-generation network upgrade strategy would rely mainly on fiber-to-the-node (FTTN) technology, which uses a form of DSL technology to deliver both Internet and TV services over the final stretch of copper wires that connect customer locations. The initial budget allocated $6 billion to deploy a FTTN network (dubbed U-verse) that passed 18 million premises.

By late 2012, AT&T’s U-verse footprint had expanded to 24.5 million premises, which suggests a total U-verse investment up to that point of about $8 billion. At that time, AT&T announced Project Velocity IP (VIP), which was to invest another $6 billion over three years to expand U-verse availability to 33 million premises (roughly 43% of its total footprint), while deploying next-generation DSL technology to boost Internet speeds for another 24 million premises, suggesting a total next-generation wireline investment of roughly $14 billion over the course of a decade.

It’s important to note that, based on AT&T’s announced plan, when this second major upgrade program was to be completed, roughly 19 million premises (one of every four passed by its networks) would not have access to ANY wireline broadband service from AT&T.

To put AT&T’s network upgrade strategy in a financial and corporate strategy context, consider that, between 2006 and 2015, AT&T returned an average of nearly $14 billion per year to its shareholders in the form of dividends and stock buybacks. This means the company has returned roughly as much money to shareholders in an average year as it has allocated over a decade to its next-generation wireline network upgrade. In total, between 2000 and 2015 the company returned nearly $172 billion to shareholders in the form of dividends and stock buybacks. That’s equal to 73% of its total capital spending during this period, with two years, 2012 and 2013, seeing shareholder returns exceed CapEx (117% of CapEx in 2012 and 107% in 2013).  By my estimation, if AT&T had reallocated just half of these shareholder returns to full “fiber-to-the-premise” network upgrades, it could have extended state-of-the-art all-fiber networks to nearly 90% of the roughly 76 million premises passed by its network, assuming construction costs comparable to those budgeted by Verizon, the nation’s second largest telco, nearly a decade ago.  Boost that CapEx reallocation percentage a bit more, and virtually all of AT&T’s customers and the communities in which they live and work would by now be enjoying the direct and spillover benefits enabled by fiber’s symmetrical gigabit-level speeds and superior reliability.

A related indicator of AT&T’s priorities is its 2015 acquisition of DirecTV for $67 billion, about $48.5 billion of which was financed by equity and the remainder by debt. While this may prove to be a smart move for AT&T from a competitive and financial perspective, given the competitive weakness of its underfunded but once much-touted U-verse upgrade strategy, it’s worth noting that this massive M&A investment: 1) generated virtually no new infrastructure or competitive entry; 2) involved an additional debt burden greater than the total amount AT&T had invested in the initial U-verse and follow-on Project VIP phases of its wireline network upgrade, and a total acquisition-related investment nearly five times the financial magnitude of these wireline upgrade investments.

One need not be a technology or financial expert to get a sense from the above that the strategic priorities driving AT&T’s investment decisions focus more on share price and profits than on maximizing the social value of the Internet’s “spillover rich” infrastructure within the service territory originally granted to Ma Bell as a protected monopoly, and later inherited (and largely reconsolidated) by the corporate entity we now know as AT&T. While this strategy may make very good sense from the perspective of AT&T’s management and shareholders, my point here is that, given the company’s (and its peer group’s) dominant role in the communication sector and our national political economy, “what’s good for AT&T,” may not be so good for the nation as a whole.  And, if that’s the case, perhaps there’s more that we, as a society, can and should do to shift the focus of public policy toward an approach to the Internet that does, in fact, focus on maximizing its positive (yet difficult to quantify and even more difficult to internally monetize) direct and indirect spillover effects.

In the next post in this series I consider Kelly’s framework in the context of the local broadband access market.


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