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 17-23, 2009

Just because Kevin Martin was on his way out the door doesn’t mean he couldn’t make noise on the way. The FCC started checking into Comcast’s network management practices yet again and slammed cable pricing. There’s also more talk about the broadband stimulus that just passed the house and it looks like a 4-month delay of the DTV transition is going to pass. All this and more in this week’s Broadband Bytes.

  • Just when Comcast thought it was going to catch a break on its network management processes (which, I must say, seem pretty clear and concise to me), FCC Chairman Kevin “Ma Bell fo’ Life” Martin decided to see if they were using the new system to purposefully degrade competing VoIP offerings. The allegations are that phone calls could get choppy during peak times when bandwidth demands are highest. (For what it’s worth, I haven’t noticed any problems with my Vonage phone on Comcast.) The FCC is also looking at regulating Comcast’s VoIP product like a traditional phone line since Comcast Digital Voice is being given preferrential routing treatment. Comcast has previously worked with Vonage to ensure smooth operation of the competitor’s VoIP service, I think this is a lot of smoke and not much fire, even if consumer advocates are happy to use Comcast and thier lousy customer satisfaction as a big punching bag.
  • Not to be content with just getting in another dig at Comcast, Martin gave all cable companies a special parting gift: an inquiry into video pricing and a big bag of fines. Given that prices have jumped an astronomical 122% since 1995, he might be onto something here, though I hope that satelite and IPTV competitors are included in the inquiry. (I’m looking at you, Dish, DirecTV, AT&T U-Verse and Verizon FIOS.) The complaint also cites moving channels to premium tiers and a lack of data being provided to the FCC. While cable operators are certainly complicit in rising rates because they don’t act as advocates for their subscribers (who have little to no voice in the matter), the real investigation should be into programmers who drop double-digit rate increases for channels that cable operators consider their foundation (ESPN, Disney, MTV, etc). All of this might just be Martin trying to strike back at cable operators who he believes were behind the unflattering report from Congress last month.
  • Microsoft also got into a tiff with Comcast, this time over a soured deal to use MS cable boxes. Comcast bought 500,000 boxes from MS that largely collected dust and only saw usage in Seattle, Microsoft’s backyard. Once Comcast dumped the boxes, Microsoft picked up its toys and went home. It could have had better timing; cable stocks took a real beating over the last year.
  • A House committee passed one half of the $6B broadband spending package and more details as to what to expect are starting to shape up. Network neutrality is in and so is “open access”, though what the latter means is up to the FCC. It could just be a euphamism for net neutrality, it could also include Carterphone-like “bring your own device” provisions or require an open service provider model like UTOPIA. I’m pretty sure that Michael Copps would take the more all-inclusive approach given his past positions, but Genachowski is a wildcard. The bill also strongly favors a grant and loan structure at the exclusion of tax credits, something that is upsetting both Republicans and incumbents. (Republican leadership is basically looking to gut the bill of all speed requirements, build-out requirements, net neutrality language and pretty much every other kind of accountability control.) Even advocates aren’t entirely in agreement over what provisions are the most important.

    You can read some in-depth analysis of the package from AppRising and Blandin on Broadband. And don’t forget that this is just a down payment, not a fix-all.

  • The NY Times, meanwhile, published an op-ed that a stimulus wasn’t needed. The entire thing read like pro-incumbent sock puppetry and the backlash was swift and furious. It’s one thing to be pro-incumbent, but that doesn’t mean you have to be anti-reality. That’s one of my main beefs with the Utah Taxpayers Association.
  • The delay of the DTV transition is all but assured as the Senate and House get ready to vote on a final compromise bill. The transition would be pushed back to June 12 allowing Comcast (among others) to continue to confuse TV watchers about what this means for them. The bill would still need more money for the digital converter box program for all of the procrastinators who haven’t yet picked one up. Stations still have the right to make the switch early, but I doubt many of them will take that plunge and risk losing viewers. Nielson projects that as much as 5.7% of viewers would lose access to TV signals, but that number is a sharp decline from just a month ago. (See: procrastinators.)

    Meanwhile, more voices keep wieghing in on the delay. Verizon changed its tune and now supports the delay, Qualcomm says no way, the TV tower industry isn’t in favor and Ars thinks the government should keep the original date despite botching the transition. One of the biggest concerns is rural access. While analog signals get fuzzy with interference, digital signal experience a cliff effect where the signal is either there or isn’t. Up to 20,000 residents of Hawaii may not be getting signals after that state’s switch and many in rural areas could lose signals while the FCC figures out how to extend their range.

  • Rural residents are getting shafted from another direction as big cablecos and telcos dump their less-desireable rural networks. Hawaii Telecom was one of those experiments and ended up filing for bankruptcy not that long ago. Fairpoint Communications faces the same challenges with the New England networks they have acquired from Verizon. Many of the rural networks are in desparate need of upgrades and the small companies assuming them don’t have the capital to upgrade broadband speeds or, in the case of cable operators, deploy VoIP. Powell, WY is one of those cities that got fed up with the crappy options and built their own FTTH network; it should be operating Real Soon Now(TM).
  • There’s still a lot of hold-outs who want to hang on to their dial-up or not have Internet access at all. A third of non-Internet users just aren’t interested and 19% of dial-up users wouldn’t ever switch to broadband. Price and availability, however, remain the main barrier to about half of dial-up users and about 20% of non-users. So what do we do to drop prices? That depends. A recent study suggests that wholesale rates charges by incumbents are way too high and a lack of competition often reduces your bargaining power.
  • There’s still plenty of throttling and capping news this past week. The CRTC, Canada’s equivalent of the FCC, composed a pretty comprehensive report listing who engages in throttling. Some of the companies never responded, but the largest ones are definitely doing it. Vodafone is trying a different kind of soft cap in Hungary that scales back available bandwidth to heavy users during peak times, a method similar to what Comcast does. Wave Broadband, however, is doing a really good job at illustrating how not to roll out caps. They used to do a 3GB/day limit, and now they publish a different limitation on the top-tier account with an unpublished limit on lower-lever accounts. Moral of the story? Users don’t hate caps or throttling nearly as much as they do a lack of transparency.
  • In gadget news, Verizon is rollout out a device they call Verizon Hub. It incorporates a 7-inch LCD touchscreen to sync calendars, contacts, maps and traffic directions with a wireless phone. The Hub also lets you send text messages or pop directions to your cell phone. It does not, however, integrate a femtocell. At $200 for the device and $35 per month for service, it’s hard to see how such a gadgety phone will end up catching on, especially since many consumers already can’t figure out the features on their wireless phones. Verizon is separately launching a $250 femtocell to support up to 3 CDMA calls at a time over a 5,000 square foot area. If the femtocell were integrated into the Verizon Hub, it might be a better deal.

    Separately, check out Engadget’s Netflix player shoot-out. With video streaming options becoming more of a standard feature than an exotic add-on, ISPs need to be ready to embrace and support users who choose to go Internet-only for video.

More Local Retransmission Fights: ABC 4 and CW 30 Picking Fights with Broadweave, Union Cable

If you’re already sick of the fight between DirecTV and KJZZ 14, you won’t much care for this. The station owners of ABC 4 and CW 30 have announced that their retransmission agreements with both Broadweave and Union Cable, a Wyoming cable company, will expire on January 31 and that no new agreement has been negotiated. Odds are that the stations, like so many others, are probably asking for a hefty increase in retransmission fees to make up for sagging ad revenue, a cost that either the service provider has to eat or pass on to you. The broadcaster is urging viewers to call both companies to “encourage” them to sign new agreements.

Personally, I think it’s kind of silly for stations to be picking these fights. Viewers still signed up for satellite before they carried local channels and just used an over-the-air antenna to pick them up. Most viewers now also have the option of using their high-speed Internet connection to catch up on their favorite shows, usually with fewer (or no) commercials. Most of these fights, however, end up in service provider capitulation and higher bills for all of us. I hope Broadweave and Union Cable have their best negotiators on this one.

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.

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.

Broadband Bytes: November 8-14, 2008

Here’s a quick list of what’s going on in the telecommuncations market for the week of November 8-14:

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?