The Over-the-top Genie is out of the bottle. Now what?

Capt. Video and I had a discussion a few weeks ago about how service providers handle over-the-top providers such as Vonage. Service providers are in a sticky situation as many of these services may compete with their existing products. Vonage and Skype take away phone customers. Hulu and iTunes take away video customers. So what should a service provider do about it? I see only three options open to them.

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Broadband Bytes: March 7-13, 2009

A new study shows that broadband growth is starting to level off while a separate study claims we’re paying as much as $3 per minute for our cell phones. We’re also getting more details of the broadband stimulus package (sparse as they may be), Comcast claims to have more phone customers than Qwest (seriously!), and Google finally takes the wraps off of Grandcentral to rebrand it as Google Voice (phone operators, go ahead and wet yourselves). All that and more in this week’s Broadband Bytes!

  • Broadband is still growing, just not like it used to. With 59% of American households now on better-than-dial-up connections and a sagging economy, the broadband market is looking a lot like the cellphone market in that almost everyone who wants it has it. And how do you get the last little bits of the market? I’ll give you a hint: follow the wireless industry’s lead. They swooped in with cheap plans, pre-paid phones, and multi-line service to make sure that everyone became their customer. ISPs can do wild things like, say, offer WiFi service with fixed broadband plans.
  • How much do you pay per minute for your cellular phone? A recent survey in California says you’re paying an average of $3 per minute for your peak minutes. Even lopping off the top users takes the cost down to anywhere from $0.50 to $1.00 per minute. Granted, this study doesn’t factor in your “free” night, weekend, or in-network minutes, so take it with a grain of salt.
  • The NTIA held a kick-off meeting to discuss the upcoming broadband stimulus package, but they apparently came to the meeting without much in the way of answers. All the same, attendees were reportedly generally pleased with the kick-off and the NTIA would really like to know your opinion. The House is even thinking about rewriting USF rules to allow for the money to be spent on broadband. It’s not all sunshine, though. IPI, a “stink tank” much like The “Reason” Foundation, is trying to block any efforts to fund muni efforts. Because, you know, incumbents did such a bang-up job deploying affordable and widely available broadband.
  • Comcast says that it’s picked up enough phone customers to be the third largest phone company in the country right behind AT&T and Verizon. (Sorry Qwest, but we knew this day would come.) They’ve been very aggressive at marketing phone service (unlike Qwest), offering competitive pricing on triple-play packages (unlike Qwest), and doing a lot of work to improve their company image (three strikes; guess who’s out). Not satisfied with their current numbers, Comcast is suing the feds so they can get bigger. The FCC currently prohibits any cable operator from owning more than 30% of the national market.
  • Remember Grandcentral? You know… phone number for life, rings all of your lines, intelligent forwarding, hasn’t done anything for the last two years as Google sat on their purchase. Sound familiar? Well, Google finally unveiled Google Voice, the successor to Grandcentral. In addition to all of the other great calling features of Grandcentral, they also tossed in SMS forwarding and automatic voicemail transcription, both searchable with Google’s own search technology. They aren’t open to any new users just yet, but the feature-rich services they offer are something worth copycating. Oh yeah, and they’re going to do super-cheap international calls. Think that phone companies may be a bit edgy?
  • Sprint is moving one step closer to dumb pipe operator by hinting that despite betting the farm on WiMax via Clearwire, they haven’t ruled out using LTE in the future. Despite the impression that WiMax and LTE are day and night, the difference is more in the software than the hardware. I think Sprint is getting ahead of the curve and realizing that operating the wholesale pipe is a lot more stable than trying to please end users, a task it has proven ill-suited at handling. Given the massive vertical integration of landlines, video, fixed data, wireless, and mobile broadband from giants AT&T and Verizon, Sprint’s exit from the telco business by spinning off local operations as Embarq, and further pressure from Cox Communications, Time Warner, and Comcast as they ramp up wireless products, Sprint may have seen the writing on the wall.
  • Verizon’s big FIOS builds aren’t just benefiting dense East-coast towns. Their insatiable demand for fiber has dropped equipment prices substantively allowing smaller telcos to go fiber-to-the-home. Even Utah’s own Manti Telecommunications Company is reported to be getting in on the action. With equipment costs dropping like a rock, now you just have to worry about the high cost of trenching and being obstructed by your “friendly” local incumbent.

Broadband Bytes: February 7-13, 2009

Congress passed the broadband portions of the stimulus package and just barely dodged some really nasty provisions while the DTV delay looks less than crystal clear. We’ve also seen Qwest’s abuse of monopoly power to shut down a rival ISP, both good and bad economic news (including Charter’s bankruptcy) and Fairpoint’s big bucket of fail in taking over Verizon assets in rural New England. All this and more in this week’s Broadband Bytes!

Broadband Bytes: January 10-16, 2009

Holy moly has the country gone crazy about the impending DTV transition deadline. There’s also more talk about the broadband spending in the upcoming stimulus package (where the money will come from is still a mystery), Charter’s impending implosion, the new FCC Chair, and continuing tech layoffs. We also know who’s going to replace Kevin “Ma Bell is my Homeboy” Martin on January 20.

  • The DTV transition is getting much, much uglier as Congress prepares an Obama-backed proposal to delay the switch from analog signals until June 12. Verizon isn’t very happy about it since it would delay their planned deployment of LTE, a move that also hurts Qualcomm, the company who makes the equipment. Ars Technica unveiled that an Obama cabinet member proposing the delay may have a conflict of interest as the delay would benefit Clearwire. It’s also not surprising that AT&T is in favor of the delay since it would hurt one of their largest competitors. Public safety groups also don’t want to delay their use of the freed-up 700MHz spectrum for a new public safety radio network. House Republicans have also voiced opposition to the delay citing the increased confusion of moving the date. Dish Network is already trying to capitalizing on it with misleading sales pitches. Wilmington, NC carried out a DTV test with few problems and Hawaii has already gone all digital.Add this blogger to the list of people who thinks that delaying the inevitable is a really bad idea. It’s been in the works for 10 years, we’re been talking about it publicly for at least three and stations have been bombarding consumers with warnings for at least the last 6 months. If you aren’t ready by now, then you just don’t want to watch TV. And if you do, there’s plenty of options available, including calling up local video providers for service.
  • Six billion dollars. That’s the figure being put out there for broadband spending in the new stimulus package and it may not be the final spending total. Of course, nobody knows what funding mechanisms will be used (grants vs. loans), what speeds we should expect (Skype says 50Mbps or bust) or even which technologies to support. A lot of broadband advocates (including yours truly) are concerned that the funding could become just another USF-style grab-bag for incumbents that gets used to shore up their antiquated networks and further entrench them in their marketplaces. Telecom experts are wise enough to see that writing on the wall and have proposed splitting out the USF and any broadband initiatives. Incumbents like Qwest already lobbying quite loudly for as much of the pie as they can get.
  • Maybe we should have a Charter Death Watch. The company recently missed a scheduled interest payment and filed suit against Verizon in an escalating series of patent and legal disputes. For months analysts have been predicting the bankruptcy of this debt-heavy MSO, though given their abysmal ratings in the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, this shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Companies that rank highly on the ACSI end up having a better financial picture and healthier stock price. (Hey Comcast? You’re tied with Charter on the ACSI. For last place. Just saying.)Charter isn’t the only one facing some tough times. Motorola laid off 4,000 employees and Nortel networks had to file for bankruptcy protection. Qwest is also looking at closing down a Seattle call center. Commerical account losses are the steepest, so don’t expect telecom as a whole to be very rosy this year unless you figure out way to sell other services to make up the difference. Even in all of the doom-and-gloom, however, online advertising is expected to grow. With targeting ad campaigns based on better subscriber data, there’s a much better bang for the buck. Comcast is trying to extend that intelligence to video advertising with a massive 500TB database of user behavior. Providers are also trying to shoot down privacy laws that could compromise such data-collection behaviors.
  • Speaking of selling additional services, you might want to reconsider coming up with an in-house solution. Telephony Online proposes you start partnering up with companies that already do a really good job at providing services outside of the triple-play such as telemedicine and home security. There’s a lot of wisdom to this embrace of wholesale models since you can focus on your core business instead of being distracted by expensive (and often faulty) products with a high liklihood of being discontinued in a few years. The report focuses on FTTH operators (and part 2 discusses some of the regulatory hurdles that prevent more FTTH systems), but there’s a lot of wisdom in this for HFC, FTTN and POTS systems as well.There’s also looking at The Dark Side to make more money. The RIAA is offering up a portion of settlements with pirates if ISPs will turn them in (most of them aren’t biting) and most of the proposals to cap users are focused on squeezing out additional revenue.
  • As Kevin Martin prepares to ride off into the sunset for a new think tank position, Obama has named Julius Genachowski as his pick to head the FCC, a move that was applauded by a lot of media reform and broadband advocates. Tops on the agenda? Net neutrality, fighting media consolidation (see above about partering instead of building a vertical monopoly) and managing the DTV transition. You can kiss a la carte video proposals goodbye and not expect as much focus on video pricing. White spaces may also take a back burner. Cable companies have probably already started the party to celebrate Martin’s departure. If you feel a small tear of sadness over Kevin leaving the FCC, why not relive some of his greatest hits?
  • Get ready for more pricing wars. MVNO Boost Mobile dropped a bombshell with a $50 unlimited wireless plan that includes voice, text and walkie-talkie services. That goes head-to-head with offerings from all of the major cell providers (most priced at $100 per month or greater) and even takes on brands like Cricket. The New York Times reports that Sprint did this with their pre-paid value brand to try and utilize more of their Nextel network. Embarq also dropped prices on it’s top-tier DSL product by $10/mo.One area that isn’t falling, however, is pay video services. While promotional rates are very attractive, rates have been rising quickly (no doubt because of higher retransmission fees). Oddly, churn hasn’t yet been affected, but that might be because a lot of customers are trapped in contracts with early termination fees. Many customers have also wised up; they know that calling to cancel can land them the promo rate for a few more months. Despite service complaints, price is the main factor driving subscribers to seek alternatives. Verizon seems to have taken the lead on this in at least one case, something that no doubt improved customer loyalty.
  • Despite what AT&T and Verizon are doing, Qwest is still going to stay out of the video market. Their rationale? Consumers will end up watching all of their video on the Internet soon anyway. That’s true in a lot of cases (especially for network television content), but there is still a lot of paid content that consumers want, especially as cable networks continue to make big investments in original programming. In the end, Qwest is going to have to come up with something more compelling than upload-crippled FTTN and reselling DirecTV.
  • As proof that Qwest might be onto something is CastTV, a relatively new site that aggregates content from various other video portals like Hulu, YouTube and others into a clean interface. If that got paired up with an Internet-connected TV, you might be able to ditch (or complement, your pick) your paid programming package. Demand for such a set is very high, over 71%. Microsoft has spent a long time working on an IPTV product for the XBox360 and its Netflix integration is supposed to be top-notch. Blockbuster also realizes the power of streaming video and is trying to push a new streaming product even though they totally flubbed their first attempt. The moral of the story is that providing gobs of bandwidth and not much else seems to be where telecom is heading.
  • Is Verizon planning to kill off POTS lines in favor of VoIP? It depends on which day you ask. Initial reports said they were going to within 7 years, then they came back and said they had no timeline. On the plus side, VoIP is inexpensive and has made a lot of quality and reliability improvements. On the downside, it’s still not as reliable as a POTS line and, as we learned from the Qwest-SkyWi dust-up, it may fall outside of the purview of your state PUC.
  • In gadget news, the Supreme Court has asked the DoJ to give them some input on the Cablevision DVR case. Pretty much every content producer in the country has come out against the proposal which would offer up 160GB worth of DVR for an inexpensive $10 per month.

    Clearwire is showing off a portable WiMax “hotspot” that acts as a WiFi-WiMax bridge. Any WiFi device could be surfing over the speedy new network (if/when it becomes available in your area) with minimum fuss. Somewhat related to this is the emergence of subsidized netbooks from Dell and Acer for a cool $99 if you pair it up with a $60/mo or greater data plan from AT&T. It’s not a bad deal, but it does inspire memories of the ISP-subsidized PCs of a decade ago that ended up flopping. AT&T is also getting ready to push an in-car satellite TV and radio service – at $1300 for equipment and $22/mo for service. I somehow don’t see that catching on anytime soon.

Broadband Bytes: January 1-9, 2008

Heartburn over the pending DTV switch, CES 2009 and a local retransmission battle are the main headlines of the last week. There’s also plenty of sour economic news and a few rays of hope for providers willing to grab onto innovative ways to deliver content. And, as expected, incumbents are trying to get in on the broadband spending bonanza.

  • Now that nobody can afford to buy an HDTV and the money for DTV converter boxes is completely gone (not to mention all of the nasty digital signal gaps), politicos and lobbyist are trying to push back the digital conversion date from February 17. So far, president-elect Obama is on-board as are several former chairmen of the FCC and Consumer’s Union. Draft legislation, however, does not move the date, instead choosing to assume a DTV coupon redeption rate of 70% instead of 100%. With anywhere from 2 million to 11 million people unprepared for the digital switch in just 5 short weeks, this could end up being a big issue in the 2010 mid-term election; some folks are rightfully pointing out that with the 10-year lead on this transition, the unprepared should suck it up. A delay in switching could spell problems rolling out services on the freed-up 700MHz spectrums, including delays in LTE deployment. If you still need a DTV converter box, sign up even though the money is gone; the feds will put you on a waiting list until they have more money.
  • Ah, CES. A time of releasing all kinds of gizmos you didn’t even know you needed until you knew they existed. For instance, LG is rolling out a TV with Netflix integrated into the set. That could set a trend of more set-topless boxes that can stream video from online providers. If the sets support flash-upgradability, they could even add more providers after you’ve already purchased the set. Sony already provides a module for many of its Bravia line that add sources such as YouTube and Sports Illustrated to the set and Samsung is working on it. This will fuel the projected growth in Internet viewers who use their TV.

    Another device worth mentioning is the Pogoplug, a network device that can turn any USB hard drive into an uber-NAS. In addition to the traditional NAS functions, it will also share your files over the Internet and includes both a iPhone app and a robust API. Transferring gigs of stored data means even more demand for bandwidth.

  • Are you a DirecTV subscriber? You may have noticed that you no longer have access to KJZZ, the primary source of Jazz games and an exclusive source for USU and WSU games. Despite getting retransmission fees from Comcast and Dish for the previously free channel, DirecTV said the cost was too high and has been attempting to negotiate a lower rate since March. When that failed, DirecTV dropped the station. The messy fight is drawing ire from viewers and causing black eyes for both DirecTV and Larry Miller, owner of KJZZ. With ad revenues sagging, it’s no surprise that broadcasters have turned to retransmission fees as a source of additional revenue. Retransmission revenues climbing at a precipitous rate: 32% in the first 9 months of 2008 with a projected tripling by 2012. With those kinds of rate increases, more subscribers will be driving into the arms of free Internet video.
  • Broadband subscriber growth is projected to drop about 12% this year with cable gobbling up about 75% of the growth. Why, you may ask? Because DSL is much slower and next-generation broadband options are few and far between. Verizon is already unsure that it will expand past the initial 18M-home footprint for FIOS, especially since it ends up being Verizon’s biggest competitor to its shrinking DSL subscriber base. Time Warner also dropped a bombshell when it wrote off $25B worth of AOL, an asset that continues to drag the company down. Both AT&T and Verizon at looking at some poor revenue forecasts with global telecom spending to inch forward a meager 1%. Don’t cry too hard for them, however. US companies topped worldwide broadband revenues with a nearly $9B lead over second-place Japan, a country that enjoys wide-spread 100Mbps service. US companies still charge a lot more per megabit than any other first-world country.

    Clearwire can’t get away from the bad news either. Despite launching service in Portland, Chicago has been delayed until the second half of this year. Comcast had to write off a significant chunk of its investment in Clearwire and Intel is hurting from the slow adoption of WiMax as handset vendors sit this one out.

  • Qwest is already trying to get in on the broadband spending bonanza. Their proposal is to give the money to the states and let them administer it, just like they did with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that screwed over Americans to the tune of over $200B. Unsurprisingly, they also want broadband defined as 7Mbps downloads, about what their current FTTN system can support. It’s not just the obvious industry shills we have to worry about either; sock puppets and astroturfing are going to be as rampant as they’ve ever been. Given how pooly these companies have done with broadband already, some are rightfully asking if we should give money to the same folks who created the problem in the first place, especially since we so often see rising rates. While the details of the upcoming broadband spending are up in the air, it will include spending for smart electrical grids and improvements in medical IT systems, both of which should result in big job gains. A competing idea that should be thown into the mix is using loan guarantees instead of just giving the money away. At least then we could be guaranteed some some return on investment.
  • Remember how Qwest is using FTTN upgrades to degrade ADSL service and poach customers from other ISPs? Apparently other providers think it’s a pretty good idea. AT&T decided to downgrade 2G EDGE service to make way for faster 3G service, a move that forces many to seek a new handset. That spells a lot of angry 1st gen iPhone users who paid big bucks for a device that’s already woefully outdated. AT&T and Verizon have both used delays in moving phone and DSL service as an opportunity to upsell to U-Verse or FIOS. Customers increasingly fed up with incumbents are ready to bolt and Consumer Reports recommends going with a fiber provider. Will you be there to pick them up?
  • Speaking of dirty tricks, the fallout from the dispute between Qwest and SkyWi has the latter claiming that Qwest cost the company a bunch of customers that switched to other providers. State regulators in New Mexico slammed both companies for putting their differences before the best interests of customers. New Mexico’s AG also lambasted Qwest for “unfair billing and business practices” when dealing with CLECs. (He’d better watch their northern neighbor; Qwest decided to sue Colorado when it didn’t get the rate increases it wanted.) Idaho’s PUC didn’t get involved in the matter on behalf of that state’s affected customers since SkyWi is a VoIP provider and the PUC doesn’t believe it had authority to act. Small providers would likely be eager to jump to another transport given the opportunity, especially as Qwest flexes its muscle.
  • IPv4 is rapidly running out of addresses with another 200M snapped up in 2008. Developing countries such as China, Russia and Brazil had the biggest percentage spikes with most of the new addresses being used in North America and Asia. Google had already started a migration to IPv6; you should too.
  • Comcast has flipped the switch on its new throttling system and it appears to be solid engineering as opposed to a cheap grab for more subscriber dollars. (I’m looking at you, Time Warner.) If a particular network segment is congested and you’re part of the problem, your traffic bumps to a lower priority regardless of what protocols or programs you’re using. This is much better than using forged TCP reset packets or cutting off customers for using too much of an undisclosed amount of bandwidth. They still aren’t disclosing what happens when you hit the magic 250GB cap or how exactly we’re supposed to keep track of it, but this is a step in the right direction.
  • Broadcom is now offering up 8-channel DOCSIS 3.0 bonding which should be able to support up to 320Mbps downloads. That’s all fine and dandy, though cable operators have been slowing their DOCSIS 3.0 single-channel deployments, not to mention that most of them can’t spare 8 channels as they beef up HD offerings.

Broadband Bytes: December 13-19, 2008

I think 2009 is going to end up being the year of broadband. Advocates are very well-organized and the new administration is putting a lot of post-election emphasis on telecom policy, an issue that’s typicaly given only election-cycle lip service.

Broadband Bytes: December 6-12, 2008

This week was kind of a slow news week. Most of the telecom world has been focused on President-Elect Obama’s plans for broadband stimulus and the continuing bad economic news from providers, programmers and manufacturers.

  • Yes, there’ still even more layoffs and bad economic news. Level 3 is planning to cut about 8% of its workforce and Brightcove is looking at a 15% reduction in headcount. DirecTV has also implemented a hiring freeze, usually a first step before issuing pink slips. Multichannel has a good roundup of layoffs throughout the industry totalling over 15,000 employees. With the tough times, providers are looking at cutting perks for subscribers, raising rates or agressively pushing bundles. While ad spending is going to worsen overall, cable may already be over the hump. There’s still good opportunities for small and growing companies to pick up top talent on the cheap and move quickly to outmaneuver larger rivals by taking advantage of their sagging bottom lines.
  • Qwest is planning to keep spending flat in 2009 which could mean a halt to construction of its FTTN network. There’s a lot of concern that Qwest won’t be able to meet its 2010 debt obligations which has investors seriously spooked. If Qwest does halt or slow FTTN deployments, it could mean that Comcast will make similar cuts to DOCSIS 3.0 rollouts in shared markets as they get bloodied in FIOS territories. Fiber projects like UTOPIA can capitalize on these stalled rollouts to snap up more customers. Part of Qwest’s problems could be related to its tendency to litigate and legislate its way to success rather than offering compelling products. Its shenanigans have recently gotten it sued by a CLEC in New Mexico.
  • There’s still ways to survive the tough times by focusing on business services and localizing your product offerings. Also be aware that customers are looking for a good deal and have no problem asking you to cut their bill. It’s often worth it to take a hit on your profit margin in order to keep the customer. Comcast regularly offers a 6-month promo rate to retain customers.
  • Speed matters. Comcast has rolled out DOCSIS 3.0 in a handful of markets, CableVision is getting ready to do the same and across the pond, Virgin is getting 50Mbps into the hot little hands of subscribers tomorrow. Good thing, too: subscribers have a need for speed. It’s not just the last mile either. Satellite is getting a big bump with a 100Gbps satellite to be launched in 2-3 years and Ciena has shown off a 100Gbps fiber connection on a single wavelength.
  • Wireless also matters… kinda. Verizon is going to make a push to have the first LTE markets ready for service by next year, no doubt spurred on by the Clearwire WiMax juggernaut. It’s mostly a marketing ploy, though it could end up being a very effective one. Clearwire is already facing substantial hurdles and it’s probably safe to assume that even cash-rich Verizon won’t have a solid product for several more years. There’s also the problem of transport from the towers, an area where UTOPIA can shine. In other wireless news, AT&T is planning to stream satellite TV to cars and trucks, yet another move beyond the triple play. Augmenting a wired infrastructure with wireless offerings such as this is going to be critical in the future to increase revenue streams and keep bundled customers, especially if they don’t blend in.
  • Obama’s plans to allocate a substantive chunk of any stimulus package for broadband is being called a “Broadband New Deal”. The real question is how much of any package will be allocated to broadband and how it will be administered. Obama’s plan is to give states “use it or lose it” grants and let them best figure out how to spend the money. If additional conditions aren’t attached to the grants and vigorously enforced, we could just get a repeat of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It will be very important that providers start now to get their political ducks in a row and line up for some of the cash.
  • Add Congress to the list of people who are miffed at the FCC under Kevin Martin. The House released a 110-page report slamming his management of the agency and calling for substantive change. With the White House changing hands in 6 weeks, I don’t think that’s going to be much of a problem. Given Obama’s legit technology chops, I’m optimistic that the new FCC head will do a better job.
  • Even though households with HD sets have doubled since 2007, only a quarter of homes are using the latest technology. With converter boxes and subscription services that don’t require a new set, plenty of consumers are content to keep using what they have, especially during a pinch. Your standard-definition packages will still be relevant for some time to come.
  • Speaking of content, you’d better learn how to play nice with local broadcasters. There’s a lot of instances of over-the-air stations flexing their muscle against cable over retransmission issues. CableOne and Dish have both ended up dropping local channels when they couldn’t reach agreements on fees and Lafayette’s fiber networkfound itself in the same kind of squabbles.
  • Online video is still booming. Netflix is now streaming to TiVo, AppleTV and Linux PCs while YouTube has added a Watch in HD option to all of its videos. Hulu also managed to explode to 24 million viewers in October though Google properties still own the online video market. Even the NFL is starting to get a clue with a $20 season pass to watch games in HD after they air. Smart providers will want to focus on delivering products to their customers that bridge the gap between PC and TV since there’s no content provider to pay and the possibility of a strike from the actors guild could put new shows on ice. ZvBox already does it, though you’ll need to find something that lacks its hefty $500 price tag.

Clearwire Promises Open Network; Is This the Mythical Third Pipe?

Everyone was buzzing about the prospect of a wide-open network during the 700MHz auction (don't hold your breath on Verizon making good on it), but Clearwire is giving it to us now. The company, a joint venture with Sprint, Comcast, Time Warner and others, is promising open everything on its new WiMax network. Bring your own device? Check. Use any application? Check. Pick your own retailer? Check, and that's the real measure of the open network.

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