Comcast has been holding out on us, but it’s out of tricks up its sleeve

Comcast-LogoWhen Google Fiber announced in Provo, it didn’t take long for Comcast to immediately whip out a new 250Mbps/50Mbps tier and match the announced price. The reaction isn’t all that surprising. They needed to look like they’re doing something to try and retain customers, and current modems meeting the DOCSIS 3.0 standard can max out at 343Mbps/122Mbps. Unfortunately, Comcast, in one move, almost entirely exhausted the available juice in its system without a massive overhaul of their operations. Could it be that they’re not going to be able to upgrade any further without a huge cash infusion?

Looking at the DOCSIS 3.0 standard, it allows for bonding up to 24 downstream and 8 upstream channels. This provides a peak theoretical bandwidth of 1029Mbps/245Mbps. Unfortunately, cable providers like Comcast have had trouble enough meeting the demand for 8 downstream and 4 upstream channels. With hundreds of channels (many now in HD), reclaiming spectrum has been very tricky. Despite tricks such as headend upgrades to H.264 (and, soon, H.265), using digital-to-analog adapters for customers who won’t upgrade to a digital package, and exploring IPTV, the system remains tapped out. The systems usually only support 6MHz channels across about 1GHz of total space or about 165 total channels. With nodes containing as many as 200 users, even a high 14:1 oversubscription ratio would mean dedicating at least 60% of the available channels just to broadband users, something that would crowd out their core TV product.

This is why Comcast has had to resort to very expensive FTTP upgrades to push their 505Mbps/65Mbps service in markets where Verizon’s FiOS has been chipping away at their market share. Even then, they want $500 to get service and charge a $1,000 ETF if you don’t stick with them for long enough. The hardware has also lagged behind with a limited number of modems that can push that kind of speed. Comcast also charges over $400/mo for the product, well out of reach of your typical user.

So where would Comcast do these kinds of upgrades? So far, it’s primarily in areas with only one wireline competitor that offers somewhat comparable speeds. To date, that means areas with Verizon FiOS. Tiers beyond 105Mbps haven’t shown up anywhere in Utah outside of Provo. Even there, Comcast won’t go beyond what their current 8-channel DOCSIS 3.0 deployment is capable of. Areas with CenturyLink DSL? No need to surpass 50Mbps at most. ADSL2+? 105Mbps is faster enough to keep their heads above water. Areas with gigabit fiber? Invest the bare minimum needed to get low-end users on the cheap because they know they can’t match the speeds.

What we’re seeing in Provo is all Comcast has got: pushing the system to and sometimes past its reasonable limits, and yet still falling woefully short. With a poor reputation for customer service and CenturyLink ceding markets, it seems obvious that Comcast is about to enter a slow bleed phase with very limited upgrades targeted at areas without gigabit fiber. Funny, that sounds a lot like what CenturyLink is now.

After much searching, Qwest finds the right shade of lipstick for the pig

In quite the surprise announcement today, Qwest announced that its efforts to dress the company up for sale over the last decade have finally paid off. CenturyLink, the result of a merger between ILECs CenturyTel and Embarq, is buying the company in an all-stock transaction. This comes not even a year after the merger that created CenturyLink, one in which CenturyTel purchased Embarq.

What remains to be seen is if this will improve Qwest’s long-ailing fortunes and legendary reputation for horrible customer service. I used to be a customer of Sprint Local in Las Vegas before it was spun off into Embarq and was always impressed with the service quality. The only reason I discontinued service was because Vonage was offering a very compelling feature set at a  more attractive price. I don’t know how much of Embarq has rubbed off on CenturyTel (or even what CenturyTel’s reputation is), but any amount of it would help.

That said, I wonder if the new company will have the billions of dollars required to update badly-neglected infrastructure. It’s no secret that Qwest carries a very heavy debt load and hasn’t exactly been speedy with the rollout of ADSL2+ services. They also have no wireless or video revenues to cross-subsidize construction… and neither does CenturyLink. As land lines continue to death spiral and cable turns up the DOCSIS 3.0 heat, I’m left wondering how the new company will fare too much better than the old one.

Good luck, guys. You need as much of it as you can get.

Qwest Thinking VDSL2, Could Be Too Little, Too Late

The biggest black eye in Qwest’s attempt to bring their broadband offerings into the 21st century has been the abysmal 896Kbps upload speeds, even when using ADSL2+ and FTTN. According to some insider posts at DSLReports, that may change. According to the tipster, Qwest is looking at VDSL2 with plans to bump the upload speeds to 5Mbps with a new top tier pushing 40Mbps/20Mbps. Even so, it’s not enough to catch up to UTOPIA or even Comcast.

The real question is if Qwest can afford any kind of widespread deployment. Since the company couldn’t unload its long-haul operations for anywhere near the asking price, Qwest is where it always has been: too deep in debt, too cash poor, and hemmoraging landline customers to VoIP, cable, and wireless carriers. They halted the current ADSL2+ installs citing that the winter weather was preventing them from continuing the build, but we all know it’s cash flow issues. Like a lot of analysts, I think Qwest is going to continue to wither until they find a cash-rich investor looking for a fixer-upper.

And if Qwest is more-or-less at a standstill, what are the odds of Comcast dropping DOCSIS 3.0 tiers in Utah? Pretty slim unless you live in Provo or a UTOPIA city where fiber is prodding them forward. It’s no secret that Comcast has, to date, focused network upgrades most heavily on areas where Verizon’s FIOS is the king of speed. As half of the duopoly crumbles, you can expect more of the same from Comcast: ho-hum speeds, mediocre pricing, and lackluster customer service (their Twitter damage control unit customer service team notwithstanding).

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: 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!

Comcast Launches DOCSIS 3.0 in Utah with Sneaky Higher Prices

The Salt Lake Tribune reports that Comcast has launched DOCSIS 3.0 service in their Utah markets with speeds up to 16M/2M. (Media-whoring alert: I got quoted in the article.) The speeds are about on-par with entry-level UTOPIA connections, but the upstream can’t do any higher. Comcast has no doubt chosen Utah as one of its first DOCSIS 3.0 markets because of systems like UTOPIA.

Commenter xxzone pointed out that the 16M/2M tier is an automatic upgrade for users on the old 8M/1M tier… at a price increase of $10/mo. As Consumerist has previously noted, smart users will likely downgrade to the 12M/2M tier to save some money. After all, is 4Mbps of extra downstream really worth another $10?

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.