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!
The Qwest vs. SkyWi fight got even uglier as the CLEC sold off its VoIP business citing the problems it has had with Qwest. The incumbent’s willingness to throw around its weight was no doubt designed to put other CLECs on notice as to who exactly is in charge. This certainly highlights a stronger need for competing transport options like UTOPIA.
Fairpoint has managed to make a fine mess of their takeover of Verizon’s rural New England network assets. Not only did they manage to screw up a bunch of e-mail accounts, they also seem to not be paying employees for overtime owed as a part of the transition. Not exactly a good first impression, is it? Unfortunately for them, Verizon’s last network spin-off in Hawaii ended in bankruptcy. Hopefully Fairpoint can avoid a similar fate.
As The Pirate Bay prepares to go on trial for copyright infringement and faces the possibility of shutting down, some have started wondering if it could lead to a collapse of bitTorrent as a whole. The website currently indexes over 50% of all torrents and the remaining torrent sites would probably be unable to handle the load created by the resulting vacuum. I’m sure that would make Cox’s planned network management a bit easier.
Good idea: trying to retain customers. Bad idea: using LNP requests to do it. The US Court of Appeals told Verizon that using LNP requests to convince customers to not switch their phone service is a big no-no. That means that the time for retention is before you get the Dear John letter.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
FCC Chairman Kevin Martin decided to up and cancel a vote on what to do about a free nationwide wireless network rather than stare down the angry lobbyists on both sides of the issue. Industry execs want the spectrum free and clear whereas privacy advocates are in a tizzy about the mandatory filtering requirements. Some members of Congress are pretty ticked off and claim that it wasn’t legal to delay or cancel voting on the issue. I’m sure that most of them will be happy to have someone else in charge, whoever he or she may be.
Spending $44B or more on broadband? That’s what Free Press would like to see over the next three years to bring 5MBps+ connections to every home in America with a goal of hitting 100Mbps in the future. The Fiber to the Home Council thinks that we should drop closer to the tune of $100B to get fiber to 90% of American homes. Naturally there’s some distrust; these are the same guys who botched the USF to the tune of billions.
Charter Communications is headlining this week’s bad economic news. The debt-laden cable company hasn’t managed to turn a profit since going public in 1999 and repeatedly gets low customer satisfaction ratings. (On a personal note, I know a lot of disgruntled Charter subscribers who would happily jump ship if something better came along.) Odds are that they’ll sell off chunks of the network to get investors and analysts of their back and stop the talk of bankruptcy. I guess the 8.4% jump in cable ad revenues haven’t helped the company’s bottom line. TV Week has a pretty good round-up of questions about how the industry is going to weather the tough times.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A recent study shows that 18% of HDTV owners can’t tell the difference between standard and HD programming. This may be why DirecTV can get away with claiming over 150 HD channels when they include 480p digital broadcasts. Also of interest is that 38% of all HDTV buyers are motivated by a broken/old TV set or are buying an additional set. A scant 22% bought their set for the better picture quality. There’s also a significant number of people who won’t upgrade to an HD set until well after the digital cut-off in February. Standard-definition video will be a significant player for some time to come.
It’s no wonder subscribers are shedding video packages. Price increases have been as regular as Yellowstone’s Old Faithful with Comcast, Time Warner and Bell Canada continuing to jack up the rate you pay. Qwest has decided to go in the other direction and extend their $15/mo offering (1.5Mbps/YourGuessIsAsGoodAsMineKbps). Comcast also upped the speeds on their value tier (from 768K/128K to 1M/384K), but it’s not as competitive as Qwest’s offering and was a direct response to Verizon making the same speed changes. Consumers are taking it into their own hands and finding ways to negotiate lower rates with thier providers. The French, however, are laughing all the way to the bank. Fierce competition has resulted in a triple-play package with 100Mbps data, VoIP and 120 channels of video for $38/mo.
Verizon continues to draw blood by not-quite-overbuilding AT&T U-Verse service areas. If the incumbents get into a full-scale war for customers down in Texas, you can bet consumers will be the winners. In other overbuilding news, it seems that BPL isn’t quite dead yet. While it’s a poor choice for end-to-end connectivity, it shows promise as the last mile of a FTTN system. With speeds of up to 400Mbps, it could very well spur even fiercer competiion.
The FCC is still trying to push a nationwide porn-free wireless network. The latest incarnation allows adults to opt out of the filtering, but, as usual, pretty much everybody is going home unhappy and nobody knows how the carrier that will eventually operate the network can end up turning a profit.
On the DVR front, AT&T has finished deploying whole-home DVR in 69 markets. This will allow customers to watch recorded programs on any TV in the house and is a smart move on AT&T’s part to drive DVR adoption. While there’s no fee for this service, AT&T does charge for the STBs for each set. Dish Network, meanwhile, will be deploying a new kind of DVR next week that can record from satellite broadcasts, analog over-the-air and HD over-the-air and function as a digital-to-analog converter box. Not all is good in DVR news, however. The Supreme Court is going to hear appeals in the Cablevision networked DVR case and the content cartel is aggressively lobbying to make sure it gets outlawed. This will be an important case to watch as it will have a lasting effect on video innovation.
Forget triple-play: welcome to the quad. Cox Communications plans to use recently-purchased spectrum to deploy cell-phone serivce in its markets. Since Cox can leverage its existing infrastructure to keep transport costs low, the profit margins should be substantial. They will also deliver video services to handsets for existing video customers as they had tried to do with Pivot. AT&T and Verizon have been using wireless revenues to help subsidize the construction of their next-generation networks for quite some time with a lot of success. Qwest, meanwhile, has had poor financial performance as it does not offer its own video or wireless products.
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?