Salt Lake City Weekly just ran a story on Qwest’s attempts to limit competition and it looks like XMission isn’t alone. The CFO of Fibernet, Lee Livingston, says they have also experienced getting cut off from newer infrastructure and getting their customers poached. Tellingly, the Qwest PR flack tasked with responding refused to dispute the accuracy of the recorded phone call with their rep, instead trying a weak sauce accusation that it had been fabricated or altered. (Hey Qwest? That’s pretty much an admission of guilt and makes you look petty.) Fibernet used to complain to the FCC about these problems and gave up after they got no results.
The short of it is that the new era of competition that was supposed to be ushered in by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 flamed out almost as fast as it arrived. Incumbents have been actively thwarting wholesale customers to lock the market back up while claiming that they still have sufficient competition. Open networks like UTOPIA are the last chance to correct this market imbalance. And yes, it will be expensive and painful. Most mistakes are.
Incumbent telcos haven’t exactly been thrilled at having to offer their lines at wholesale rates to competing ISPs, especially since landline revenues have been sliding into a ditch. While AT&T and Verizon can keep most of that revenue with a wireless division, Qwest has no such option and has struggled with making enough money to either reduce its staggering debt load or upgrade its network. Instead of offering, say, good service or a product that people want to buy, they instead figured out that rolling out FTTN would let them claim to no longer have a copper plant to share. Of course, they don’t admit so much in public, instead insisting that other ISPs are just too incompetent (heh) to handle their shiny new pipes.
Well, Xmission has called them on it with a recording of a Qwest agent saying flat-out that the point of FTTN has been to eliminate competition and bring all of those customers in-house. It’s pretty damning evidence that Qwest doesn’t want to compete based on the products and services they offer, but rather on locking out competition. Is it any wonder that we have fewer ISPs today than we did in 1997 and that the few remaining ones are on UTOPIA as a means of survival?
Comcast has gotten a lot of praise for their Twitter customer service team and I don’t doubt it’s been responsible for their sharply increased rating on the American Consumer Satisfation Index (ACSI). I’ve used their team myself to resolve problems that support doesn’t or get quick answers to service questions. While I think they’re doing a valuable job, their function has been misidentified as customer service.
In my mind, customer service starts the minute you initiate contact to resolve an issue. You have an expectation that when you call in, you’re going to walk away with some kind of resolution. When you get conflicting answers from a CSR or don’t get your problem resolved by tech support, you’re not getting good customer service. By the time you’re venting on your blog, on a forum, or on your Twitter account, the damage is done: you got poor service.
When the Twitter-based customer service ninjas swoop in to try and get the problem fixed, they’re in full-on damage control mode. This isn’t to say they aren’t doing a great job of cleaning up messes; they are. But the core problem, that the customer service team failed to deliver, still hasn’t been fixed. I often don’t bother calling in with problems because I know I’m going to spend half an hour rebooting everything to have them blame my router, demand escalation, sit on hold another 15 minutes, and then face getting disconnected. It’s a lot easier to either complain online or seek out the Twitter folks to get things done.
This lesson is an important one for other service providers as a lot of former Comcast customers I’ve spoken with have sworn off ever going back because of customer service issues. Many Mstar customers have been in the same boat. Even though XMission’s DSL service is slower than Comcast and sometimes a bit more expensive, customers are fiercely loyal because the service is, by all accounts, awesome. It’s not because they’re using Twitter, it’s because they don’t have to in order to resolve customer issues.
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.
Comcast is looking at sneaking in data rate increases after all. Their plan is to upgrade various tiers of service to higher speeds with accompanying higher rates. If you want to downgrade to a lower-priced package, tough noogies: speeds under 12Mbps will be gone except for a 768Kbps “value” tier. Competing providers should be able to snap up a lot of customers by offering a slower and cheaper tier between the two. T-Mobile is also raising rates on data packages, but with a 10GB monthly cap and terrible ping times, few are likely to use it for primary access.
Telcos are hurting but cable could stick around for a while as coax offers a good chunk of bandwidth. They do, however, feel the pinch from the massive amount of bandwidth eaten up by video services. Even as SDV and DTA boxes ease some of that up, the demand for higher-quality signals to all of these shiny new HDTV sets will eat up a lot of the gains as cable operators are forced to move from 480p to 720p and 1080p signals. Competing providers will need to move quickly to offer true HD signals with low compression and superior data rates while the cable companies perform system-wide upgrades over the next 18-24 months. There’s something said for being first to market.
It also appears that DTA boxes could be a sticky subject. CableONE asked the FCC for a waiver for a HD-capable DTA box with integrated security. This could shut out CableCARD (and possibly Tru2way) as well as a number of third-party devices like TiVo DVRs. Manufacturers are already pushing these boxes which could very well kill the Carterphone of video before it gets off the ground. Competitive operators will see the opportunity to be fully interoperable with CableCARD and Tru2way and ensure that customer DVRs will work on their systems.
Local programming is in high demand, but there are some chinks in the incumbents’ armor. Since local programming options like high school sports, General Conference and rebroadcasts of local news are so popular, competing operators should mimic what Comcast is doing and look into an old-school public access channel.
Meanwhile, details of Comcast’s new DOCSIS 3.0 deployments is coming to light and, while good news for current subscribers or those switching from DSL, it’s hardly competitive with offerings from UTOPIA. In addition to a 50Mbps/5Mbps tier at $150/mo, Comcast plans to upgrade current subscribers to 12Mbps/2Mbps at $42.95/mo and offer a 22Mbps/5Mbps tier at $62.95/mo to compete with a similar offering from Verizon. Compare that to a 15Mbps/15Mbps plan at $40/mo or 50Mbps/50Mbps for $55/mo from either MSTAR or XMission. Just be thankful you aren’t a SureWest customer. They charge around $192/mo for a 50Mbps connection.
With all the talk about city wifi networks becoming ubiquitous there are some downsides…scalability. Networkworld has an interesting article about the the technical problems with scaling WiFi to meet today’s bandwidth hungry users. As a side note, some users ask the network engineers at my place of employment (higher ed) when wifi will become our primary means of connecting desktops to the network. The answer is always the same: never. They say: “What do you mean I can’t use this new 2.4Ghz phone I just purchased?” Some departments decide to go wireless anyway (usually to avoid the cost of wiring) but later end up having to convert to physical connections anyway.
It looks like Comcast’s new caps are around thanks to Florida consumer protection laws. It seems that prior to the 250Gig caps there was no cap. They just cut off the top 1000 users every month. Because consumers were unable to find out how to avoid this in the future the Florida AG became involved.
Along those lines I dug up these oldarticles about Utah getting a jump start on converting the state-wide network of TV translators to digital signals. One interesting tidbit from the article: “It is widely believed that Utah has the largest terrestrial-analog translator network in the world. The system provides rural viewers with over-the-air television in approximately 80 percent of the state.”
Frontier Communications, the incumbent phone carrier in Tremonton, has decided to give UTOPIA a helping hand by implementing a 5GB monthly cap on all of their DSL customers to drive them into the arms of a competitor. By comparison, the lowest cap available from a UTOPIA provider is 20 times that at 100GB per month. When the service starts rolling out in September and October, I’m sure that UTOPIA will see a good number of signups from angry customers who don’t appreciate per-byte billing.
One of two possibilities exists: they arrogantly think they’re so much better that nobody will switch or don’t see how boneheaded a move this is. Either way, it highlights the need for a bit of competition in the marketplace.
The race for the speed crown continues as Verizon rolls out 50Mbps/20Mbps service to all of its current FIOS customers. The super-fast tier of service comes at a price of around $150/month, not far off from what Qwest is charging for inferior 20Mbps/896Kbps DSL service. This also prepares Verizon for a fight to the death in the Lone Star State with AT&T's inferior U-Verse service where it plans to overbuild to 600,000 homes in the GTE territories it purchased. I'm sure Qwest is sweating as well; it also borders several Verizon markets and can't compete on speed either.
Comcast also made some speed announcements, bumping upload speeds on the 6Mbps and 8Mbps tiers to 1Mbps and 2Mbps respectively. I've independently speedtested this claim and found that I'm getting a solid 1.3Mbps of upload on my 6Mbps plan. While the plan is to roll out 50Mbps service in multiple markets after testing in the Minneapolis area, that will also come with all kinds of protocol-agnostic throttling and potentially a 250GB monthly transfer cap.