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.
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).
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!
The broadband stimulus number has firmed up at $7.2B in total spending and BPL looks like an unexpected back-from-the-dead winner. IBM plans to apply for stimulus funds to roll out BPL service to over 200k rural customers. The challenge is determining just which areas are considered underserved or unserved. Public Knowledge slammed Connected Nation, a broadband mapping group, as nothing more than a front for big ISPs and accused them of making up bogus broadband maps to serve their interests. It’s entirely possible that Connected Nation could score the lion’s share of the $350M in funds for mapping, a scary proposition if the accusations are true. After all, this isn’t the end of federal broadband efforts.
There’s a new attempt in Congress to force ISPs and hotspot owners to keep 2 years worth of access and subscriber logs to assist law enforcement. The justification, as usual, is that retaining the data will help catch people dealing in child porn. Unfortunately, keeping and managing two years worth of access logs is a huge undertaking, especially for wifi hotspots and home owners who choose to share their connection. Such efforts have typically died in committee despite previous pushes from both sides of the aisle.
In what I can only hope is the start of a trend, Linksys will be selling a router with integrated Internet security software. It’s only going to block malicious or suspicious websites for the time being, but future models could integrate anti-spyware and anti-virus. If someone offered such a device, I would definitely buy one. It beats installing resource-hogging security software on every PC.
Recession-influenced special pricing continues as operators struggle to hold on to cash-strapped customers. Sprint rolled out a new “Simply Everything” plan that adds laptop data (but not phone-as-modem) for another $50 a month. T-Mobile is also rumored to be looking at unlimited options of it’s own including a $50/mo unlimited voice plan as well as a $85/mo unlimited mobile voice and data plan. Verizon, though, takes the cake for considering a $5/mo inbound-only landline. Utah, though, is taking a step back. The legislature approved a move to upcap phone service rates for incumbents like Qwest and it is largely expected to be signed off on by the governor.
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!
After years of lawsuits, construction and industry sock puppetry, Lafayette finally has a fiber network open for business with highly competitive pricing. The utility system owns and operates the network as the sole service provider, offering both triple-play packages and 100Mbit connections on-network. The network should be fully deployed by 2011. Prices are averaging a good 20% below what Cox Communications and AT&T, the local incumbents, currently offer. I’m sure you can expect both of them to go on a price-slashing frenzy, much like local incumbents have done ahead of UTOPIA and iProvo. Of course, you could be a smart incumbent like Dutch provider KPN. They partnered with municipal efforts to deploy FTTP and have reaped big rewards, even with a bunch of competing service providers.
Caps and throttling refuse to get out of the news. Cox Communications is busy trying to defend its network management plan to the FCC as video provider Vuze keeps on sniping at them in the news. Comcast also had to explain how its VoIP system works in relation to its network management policies, claiming that because it is a managed service it shouldn’t be treated the same as other traffic types. Time Warner, meanwhile, is rolling out caps to more markets, albeit with higher caps that what they’ve been playing with in Beaumont, TX. Charter is going whole-hog with a system-wide cap policy that’s about as generous as Comcast’s. The best way to make sure you don’t get on the bad side of customers, the FCC or some of the “net neutrality” zealots is to make a clear and concise policy, publish the full details and make sure that any management scheme is generous, fair and only active when absolutely necessary. Software companies are already putting out packages to make management easier and less likely to alienate your customers.
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?
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.