Broadband Bytes: February 14-20, 2009

Headlines this last week have been dominated by the DTV switch, The Pirate Bay’s trial, and a finalization of the broadband stimulus amount. There were also announcements on 4G wireless from AT&T and Verizon as well as more movement towards online video (and a big step back for Hulu). All this and more in this week’s Broadband Bytes!

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 31-February 6, 2009

It feels like the summer TV season as most of the news this week is reruns from last week. The DTV delay and broadband stimulus continue to dominate the news headlines. We also saw the launch of Lafayette’s fiber project, some new gadget news and more bad news from device manufacturers and SPs. All this and more in this week’s Broadband Bytes!

Broadband Bytes: January 24-30, 2009

This week saw the DTV transition delay get, uh, delayed (though not for long), Cox’s new traffic management plan, and a competing version of the broadband stimulus package that offers 50% more cash for 90% fewer conditions. Qwest also renewed its fight with SkyWi, Charter dropped a 60Mbps gauntlet, and Google launched tools to find out if you’re being throttled by your ISP. All that and more in this week’s Broadband Bytes!

  • The DTV delay got stalled up as the House failed to consider the bill for a fast-track passage despite unanimous support from the Senate. The Senate later passed a second DTV delay bill that the House should vote on next week; it’s widely expected that it will pass and President Obama has already said he will sign the bill as soon as it hits his desk. Now Congress just needs to figure out if/how to fund the 3.2 million (and growing) backlogged requests for DTV converter box coupons. I think the whole thing is kind of silly since Hawaii made the switch and there was no TV armageddon. Besides, interim FCC Chairman Copps says that a seamless transition is impossible.
  • Cox Communications is the latest large ISP to implement some kind of network management, opting for a system that’s a lot like what Comcast did. Unlike Comcast, however, they plan to throttle specific “low-priority” traffic types once the congestion gets too high including FTP file transfers, torrents and newsgroups. Predictably, there are a lot of people calling bunk on the plan, but I don’t think it’s so bad. Comcast is getting ripped by the FCC since their protocol-agnostic version would degrade competitor’s VoIP traffic if you end up being one of the hogs, so it makes sense to try and only smack around the data types that generate a lot of packets and a lot of transfer. Most users are fine with network management schemes so long as they are transparent and generous; the complaining just happens to be very, vey loud.
  • The US Senate has put together a competing version of the House’s broadband stimulus plan. The good? It ups the funds by 50% to $9B. The bad? It strips out all of the open access language and allows anyone to get in on the action. DSLReports rightly calls it a giveaway to Verizon since they can become eligible for money at the flick of a switch without having to really do much of anything differently and, as expected, Qwest doesn’t like how the plan is shaping up either. The House has already passed the $6B version and kept open access provisions intact. It also keeps the money restricted to rural and underserved areas and will only be available via loans and grants, not tax breaks as incumbents had hoped for. GigaOm has a great breakdown of who wins or loses in the various proposals.Telco lobbyists are already launching a multi-pronged attack. They want to scrap special access rates for competitors, up the spending, drop the speed requirements, get more tax breaks… pretty much anything they think might stick. Incumbents, though, seem to have missed the memo that the goals of this plan are to increase availability of braodband AND increase competition, not entrench the incumbents. I suppose they’re too used to abusing the USF and getting their way.
  • Qwest decided to ignore an order from New Mexico’s PRC and disconnect some of SkyWi’s customers without the required 10-day warning. Qwest has likely figured that whatever the penalty is, it’s worth it to kill off a competitor and SkyWi might not be around to finish its lawsuit. The company tried to pass it off as a clerical error. Expect New Mexico’s PRC to give Qwest a serious smackdown (provided it can survive Qwest’s army of robot lawyers) and keep an eye open for possible FCC involvement. Spurned CLECs like SkyWi are prime companies to recuit onto open networks like UTOPIA.
  • Charter, despite its severe financial problems, stole the St. Louis speed crown from AT&T by launching a 60Mbps DOCSIS 3.0 service at a wallet-busting $140/mo. This bests Comcast and Verizon by about 10Mbps, but it far faster than anything AT&T can do with ADSL2+. Verizon took the opportunity to make fun of DOCSIS 3.0 and its limits as compared to fiber. Users on UTOPIA are likely very “ho-hum” about the announcement since 50Mbps service has been available for quite some time.
  • Speaking of Verizon and AT&T, they announced earnings this week that reveal that DSL and landline users are being cannibalized by their FIOS and U-Verse systems, respectively. Both systems are picking up a lot of video users, but the margins on most television packages are very slim. Wireless revenues were the real shining spot, but it didn’t stop AT&T from posting a large drop in revenues and announcing a sharp decrease in spending for system upgrades. Guess the iPhone wasn’t enough to save them as AT&T also froze executive compensation (including bonuses) and brought a lot of jobs back to the US from India. Verizon is also rumored to be contemplating layoffs despite a good quarter.
  • Google fired a shot at ISPs who employ any kind of throttling or traffic management by offering up free tools to test for it. Even if your ISP isn’t engaging in these kinds of practices, the presence of these tools will help keep them honest. In the debate over network management, it’s very important to be clear and upfront about any caps or network management policies you plan to employ. Comcast got a PR black eye by hiding its policies for months as angry users took to the Internet and flooded forums with complaints. They get kind of stabby when you mention it after the fact (and for good reason).
  • I imagine users on Comcast and AT&T will appreciate these new tools. All three ISPs have signed on with the RIAA to disconnect users who are sharing copyrighted files. It’s part of the RIAA’s broad approach to turn ISPs into their copyright cops in exchange for a cut of the action, something they have successfully pulled off in Ireland. Given the lack of an appeals process and frequent ISP mistakes, you can bet that this opens the market for competing providers to snap up those customers.In the UK, they’re debating a different approach: a £20/mo “piracy tax”. Such a tax has already been implemented in Isle of Man which allows residents there to pirate as much as they want for under $1.50/mo. The RIAA would probably do better to offer an “all you can download” music service or some kind of “piracy license” that gives you the right to download whatever you want.
  • Comcast is thinking about offering WiFi to subscribers, but no word yet on if they plan to charge for it or use it as a perk to lure in customers. They’re currenting testing it out in New Jersey in a partnership with Cablevision. Cox Communications really took the lead on this by snapping up a lot of regional 700MHz licenses so that they can start offering wireless services as well, including leasing tower space to cell phone carriers. Thinking beyond the triple play to include these kinds of services is a smart move for any service provider.
  • Smart companies also focus on customer service. Charter has taken up permanent residence on the DSLReports forum and, like Comcast, has a customer service team assigned to Twitter. And while Sprint has announced that they will layoff 8,000, they plan to avoid sacking anyone in a customer service position even as subscribers decline sharply. High customer satisfaction leads to low churn and lots of free word-of-mouth advertising. I recently got support from Sprint’s Twitter team and got my issue resolved in record time.
  • Guess who’s making money hand over fist? If you guessed Netflix, give yourself a red envelope. Or don’t, since most of the company’s revenue has come from users switching from mailed DVDs to streaming on their PC or TV. Even with the switch to streaming, Netflix is going to start shipping DVDs on Saturdays to help speed up processing and delivery times. (No word on how the post office’s plans to drop Tuesday service will affect this.) I wouldn’t be surprised if the secret sauce in Netflix’s bottom line is customer satisfaction. The few times I’ve had an issue, I had a short hold time to talk to a live person who was empowered to make me happy.

Broadband Bytes: 2008 Wrap-up Edition

Happy New Year! This Broadband Bytes covers from December 20 through the end of the year. The end of 2008 saw even more retransmission battles (in particular the 11th-hour showdown between Time Warner and Viacom), Qwest trying to unplug a rival that’s suing it for racketeering, and the pending launch of FTTH services in Lafayette, LA. I predict that 2009 will offer up explosive growth in broadband speeds and availability fueled by federal dollars, an increased flight of users from cable to online video streaming and continued greater-than-inflation rises in programming costs.

Broadband Bytes Doubleheader Edition: November 22-December 5, 2008

Between visiting family in Sacramento for Thanksgiving and a business trip to Montreal (where the hotel apparently didn’t believe in reliable Internet service), I got a bit behind on the Broadband Bytes feature. Never fear: I’ll make it up to you with a special double feature to get caught up on the previous two weeks.

There’s still a lot more going on in the industry, but that covers the big highlights.

FCC to Investigate Skyrocketing Cable TV Rates, Ignores Telcos

Have you noticed that video rates have been going up at a painful rate? FCC Chair Kevin “I love Ma Bell” Martin did and he wants answers. Despite also naming Verizon in the inquiry, it’s pretty obvious that cable is the real target. The focus is on the move of more and more channels out of analog tiers and onto more expensive digital tiers, a practice he believes is compelling consumers to pay bigger prices for the same set of channels. We’ve already seen a bunch of cable providers up their rates with Cablevision and Time Warner both getting in on the hikes.

Unfortunately, Martin is not investigating how wholesale rates from programmers have gone through the roof and has more-or-less abandoned “a la carte” programming options. He’s also ignoring caps from both Frontier (5-20GB) and AT&T (20GB) that are designed to boost revenues. Telcom in general is hurting right now and companies may see rate increases as a way to soften the dropping subscriber numbers. Both Qwest and Cox are planning lay off workers and Comcast had disappointing earnings results.

We may, however, see some big changes in store once the new president takes office. Word on the street is that Martin will voluntarily resign to pursue political ambitions in North Carolina. It’s anyone’s guess as to who would take over his spot and what they would do about these out-of-control telcom prices.

Sticker Shock: Telecom Service Prices Rising All Over

Cox is doing it. So is Comcast. In fact, prices are rising all over the telecom industry as stock prices plummet and subscribers prove fickle (as AT&T found out with a loss of 3.9M landline customers so far this year). Many of them are also ramping up higher-speed tiers and premium services to pad the bottom line.

Unfortunately, prices are likely to continue to rise in our current anti-competitive telecommunications market. Byzantine phone regulations are used to block new voice carriers, the programming cartel consistently flexes its muscle to increase wholesale television rates and data providers continue to increase markup even as the wholesale rate of bandwidth drops to new lows. DSLReports lambasts the lack of competition in a scatching editorial that details why telecom has the lowest consumer satisfaction ratings of any industry in the nation. As we continue to support duopolies and exclusive providers via HOAs, the problem is only going to get worse.

Broadband Bytes: Monday Edition

There hasn’t been any news in the broadband world the last few weeks. Just kidding. Here are some “morsels” for you to chew on:

  • A local telco in Monticello, Minnesota (Bridgewater Telephone, child company of TDS Telecom) lost a suit against a city-built Fiber-to-the-Home network. (A project very similar to UTOPIA). The judge dismissed Bridgewater’s complaint of competition by a governmental organization. Apparently, the incumbent telco, Bridgewater, wouldn’t build a fiber network so the city had decided to bond and build their own. I thought this network was interesting because the goals of the network read a lot like the goals of UTOPIA:
    • choice of service provider
    • competitive rates
    • local service
    • local ownership
    • economic development
    • economic returns to the community

    There is a site like FreeUtopia that is covering this network:

  • Some universities seem to be cutting back on POTS (plain old telephone) offerings to dorms because of lack of use.
  • Cox and Time Warner were fined for implementing SDV and knocking CableCARD customers offline without proper notification.
  • It also looks like BPL (Broadband over Power Lines) is dead. Manassas, Virginia where the flagship BPL network was deployed has been turned over to the city who will keep it around until about 2010. For all you amateur radio (PDF) operators out there this is good news.
  • Apple is rumored to be working on a networked TV. That’s going to require a lot of bandwidth. In addition to normal TV functions, you could stream any content from iTunes like downloaded movie rentals, TV episodes on demand, etc.
  • Business Week recently did an excellent piece called “The Digital Divide” that talks about just how important broadband is becoming in spurring business in areas that have it, and leaving those that don’t in the dust.
  • President Bush signed the Broadband Data Improvement Act into law on Oct. 10. The bill will provide for improved data on the status of broadband deployment in the United States by forcing the FCC to make a couple of major changes to the way it puts together broadband information. This includes yearly metrics for “second-generation” broadband that can support full motion HD video and more granularity to for reporting of broadband broken down by ZIP+4 instead of just ZIP (as it is now). The bill also authorizes a program of grants to support public/private public partnerships to stimulate broadband deployment and adoption at the state level. I’m interested to know what this would mean for projects like UTOPIA. Thoughts?

Comcast Makes Final Four in Comsumerist's Worst Company in America 2008

Most companies would normally be excited to be a semi-finalist for an award, but not this time. Comcast has managed to bump off Menu Foods, The American Arbitration Association, Ticketmaster and even Exxon in its quest to become Worst Company in America 2008. It now faces off against Diebold, stealer of elections and maker of faulty voting systems, for the, er, "privilege" of going head-to-head with the "winner" of the Walmart vs. Countrywide faceoff.

Overall, telecom was heavily represented in Comsumerist's annual choosing of a winner/loser. Charter, Time Warner, Sprint, Dish Network, AT&T, Cox, DirecTV and Verizon each grabbed one of the initial 32 spots, giving cable, television and phone companies more than a quarter of the roster. Is it any wonder that these companies also consistently place near the bottom of the American Consumer Satisfaction Index?