Providers: Your Pipe is Dumb, and So Are You

For several years now, service providers have been terrified of the so-called “dumb pipe” and its potential to remove them as the gatekeepers to various services. Many of them use protectionism as a way to lock customers in. CenturyLink denies CLECs access to any node upgraded to FTTN, Comcast requires bundling to get their fastest service, and Verizon even goes so far as to snip out the old copper lines when you jump to FIOS. The reality, though, is that the dumb pipe is already here and they are ill-prepared for it.

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Why Cable Fears The Internet

If you’re a content distributor, odds are that you and the Internet aren’t really on speaking terms these days. The recording, movie, and publishing industries all blame it for sagging sales, declining revenues, and shuttering up operations, even in cases where it just isn’t so. (I’m looking at you, Hollywood.) The problem is that most of them fear what they don’t understand. For cable, though, they understand perfectly what the Internet is. That’s why they’re so terrified of it.

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Broadband Bytes: February 28-March 6, 2009

This week’s top stories include a white spaces fight, a clearing backlog of DTV converter coupons, and the wrapping up the The Pirate Bay’s copyright infringement trial. There’s also cool gadgetry (including some that should give studio execs heartburn) and a little bit of kissing and making up between Boxee and Hulu. All that and more in this week’s Broadband Bytes!

  • Broadcast stations aren’t very happy with the decision to open up the space between stations, “white spaces”, to allow access by unlicensed devices. In fact, they’re unhapy enough to sue the FCC over the decision claiming that such devices will interfere with their signals despite extensive testing to prevent it. It could be a while before white space devices are offering up Internet access, but, like others, I doubt the blockade will last.
  • Weeks after Congress approved more money for DTV converter box coupons, the backlog is finally starting to clear up. Everyone who was on the waiting list should get their coupon within 3 weeks. Good news for the procrastinators, presuming that boxes can still be found.
  • The defense and prosecution in The Pirate Bay’s trial have made their closing statements and wrapped up what could change the face of filesharing (and bandwidth consumption) forever. The short of it is that the prosecution says that TPB got filthy rich from pirating works and the defense says they’re in the same category as Google and didn’t even cover operating expenses. Now we have to wait until April 17 to find out what the judge thinks.
  • News sites jumped all over the announcement of a new streaming STB, then yawned and said, “oh, another ‘me too’ effort“. ZillionTV hopes to sell a dirt-cheap box with no subscription fees to stream online content and do paid VOD. Their angle? Get ISPs to give their traffic priority over competitors. Given how touchy users are over net neutrality issues, I’m betting they don’t go far with that last bit. But hey, more STB choice is a good thing for consumers, right?
  • Roku isn’t standing still either. Their $99 Netflix box now has Amazon VOD support. It’s been long-rumored that Roku is also working on adding options like Hulu to their menu of options. Cord-cutting may be a myth right now, but at $99 + $10/mo, those boxes are looking really attractive to early adopters.
  • If you’re looking for the top-end of third-party STBs, go check out the Tesly BLOBbox. It combines a OTA HD tuner with a 160GB DVR, then tosses in a bitTorrent client, RSS feeds, Last.FM support, an open SDK… basically an entire HTPC in an easy-to-use interface. The Linux-based box carries a relatively steep $490 price tag and is currently only available through an Italian reseller, but it shows how cheap technologies can help viewers watch TV on their own terms without monthly fees or a lack of extensibility.
  • Boxee and Hulu are on the mend. Kind of. Boxee released a new alpha that allows pulling in Hulu video from RSS feeds, but it’s not as slick as the old menu system that allowed you to browse all of the available content. The content providers want to get Hulu out as much as they can, but they’re also terrified of canibalizing more lucrative broadcast revenue. The disconnect between financial incentives and user desires has driven XMBC hackers to piece together new plugins to allow Hulu access without the ads and many users to go back to downloading torrents of their favorite shows.
  • President Obama picked Julius Genachowski as the new head of the FCC weeks ago, but the nominations is just now official. Genachowski is a net neutrality supporter, but that doesn’t stop the praise from both sides of that issue from flowing in. I imagine it’s because anything is an upgrade over Kevin Martin.

Broadband Bytes: February 21-27, 2009

Sorry about the late post, folks. I had family in town over the weekend and, well, you know how that goes.

Cable’s been trying to make some waves with online video announcements as The Pirate Bay continues to dominate the prosecution in their trial. There’s also allegations that the US might be #1 in broadband, but it depends on which metrics you use or give weight to. I’ve also got a bunch of stories on online services and home media extenders. All that and more in this week’s Broadband Bytes!

  • Comcast and Time Warner are still beating the drum to put together their own Internet video offering to get more of the channels they offer onto the web, possible as early as this summer. It could, however, be too little, too late. As content producers and service providers continue arguing over how to make money doing it, consumers aren’t wasting a lot of time turning to iTunes, Hulu or even bitTorrent to get their video fix. Viewers are now watching record amounts of video thanks to new online outlets available on PCs and mobile phones. Maybe it’s time to follow the lead of Europe and Latin America with hybrid STBs that combine online video with a traditional product. That way you can keep cord-cutting as myth instead of a somber reality and maybe make some extra money off of it.
  • The Pirate Bay continues to embarass the prosecution and wipe the floor with them. In fact, the defendants were confident enough that they threw a big party after the first week was over. The prosecution’s investigators admitted that they downloaded torrents from TPB and the only evidence they could show were screenshots. The IFPI was apparently so clueless that they almost sued Google for facilitating piracy and had to alter the charges a second time to try and make conviction more likely. ISPs are getting bold enough to tell the music industry to come back with a court order if they want them to block P2P sites. Given how easy it is to keep on circumventing tracking and blocking systems, P2P whack-a-mole is a losing bet for ISPs.
  • We’re… #1 in broadband? Not exactly. Broadband availability and speeds still suck, but Americans are pretty darn good at squeezing productivity out of IT assets including broadband. The survey also includes data of dubious relevance such as SMS, so take the entire thing with a grain of salt. Besides, does it really matter how we compare or how we’re really doing?
  • Verizon will allow you to stream music, pictures, and (soon) video from your PC to any FIOS STB in your house. FIOS MediaManager is available to all double-play video/Internet customers for free and while the initial interface is a bit on the clunky side, it’s that kind of innovative product that keeps customers. Providers can also extend this to offer media streaming outside of the home. If you don’t have to mess around with a HTPC or setup your own streaming solution, why would you? Verizon is also letting subscribers remotely schedule DVR recordings.
  • What’s 400MB, written by John Carmack, and totally changes online gaming? Quake III in a browser, that’s what. Quake Live launched to queues of over 55,000 players waiting to get their hands on what is likely to be the most popular free-to-play non-casual browser game. This isn’t your typical small casual flash game and it’s likely to draw a big crowd. With a success like this, will you be ready for browser-based games pushing gigabytes of data?
  • The first Blu-Ray quality movies for purchase on an STB come from VUDU, not a big-name MSO or media store like iTunes. At between $14 and $24 per title, that’s a considerable discount over Blu-Ray discs, though you do sacrifice some portability.
  • Netflix plans to launch a streaming-only plan this year or next. The powerhouse in mail-order DVDs has seen most of its subscriber growth centered around the 12,000-title strong Watch It Now feature and its availability on everything from PCs to XBox360s to TV sets. The company has proved itself savvy enough to be ahead of what consumers want, a lesson that others could learn from.
  • T-Mobile is rolling out unlimited voice plans for long-time customers at a mere $50 per month. Customers will also be able to tack on data and SMS/MMS for just $35 per month more. With competitive pricing like this, you have to give customers a reason to keep a landline around.
  • If you’re being hit by black hat hackers, it could be personal, not business. About a quarter of malicious activity in 2008 was aimed at making a statement rather than the traditional ID theft or malware planting. I’m sure that’s not much comfort to Time Warner as they ride out a DDoS attack on their DNS servers.

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: 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 10-16, 2009

Holy moly has the country gone crazy about the impending DTV transition deadline. There’s also more talk about the broadband spending in the upcoming stimulus package (where the money will come from is still a mystery), Charter’s impending implosion, the new FCC Chair, and continuing tech layoffs. We also know who’s going to replace Kevin “Ma Bell is my Homeboy” Martin on January 20.

  • The DTV transition is getting much, much uglier as Congress prepares an Obama-backed proposal to delay the switch from analog signals until June 12. Verizon isn’t very happy about it since it would delay their planned deployment of LTE, a move that also hurts Qualcomm, the company who makes the equipment. Ars Technica unveiled that an Obama cabinet member proposing the delay may have a conflict of interest as the delay would benefit Clearwire. It’s also not surprising that AT&T is in favor of the delay since it would hurt one of their largest competitors. Public safety groups also don’t want to delay their use of the freed-up 700MHz spectrum for a new public safety radio network. House Republicans have also voiced opposition to the delay citing the increased confusion of moving the date. Dish Network is already trying to capitalizing on it with misleading sales pitches. Wilmington, NC carried out a DTV test with few problems and Hawaii has already gone all digital.Add this blogger to the list of people who thinks that delaying the inevitable is a really bad idea. It’s been in the works for 10 years, we’re been talking about it publicly for at least three and stations have been bombarding consumers with warnings for at least the last 6 months. If you aren’t ready by now, then you just don’t want to watch TV. And if you do, there’s plenty of options available, including calling up local video providers for service.
  • Six billion dollars. That’s the figure being put out there for broadband spending in the new stimulus package and it may not be the final spending total. Of course, nobody knows what funding mechanisms will be used (grants vs. loans), what speeds we should expect (Skype says 50Mbps or bust) or even which technologies to support. A lot of broadband advocates (including yours truly) are concerned that the funding could become just another USF-style grab-bag for incumbents that gets used to shore up their antiquated networks and further entrench them in their marketplaces. Telecom experts are wise enough to see that writing on the wall and have proposed splitting out the USF and any broadband initiatives. Incumbents like Qwest already lobbying quite loudly for as much of the pie as they can get.
  • Maybe we should have a Charter Death Watch. The company recently missed a scheduled interest payment and filed suit against Verizon in an escalating series of patent and legal disputes. For months analysts have been predicting the bankruptcy of this debt-heavy MSO, though given their abysmal ratings in the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, this shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Companies that rank highly on the ACSI end up having a better financial picture and healthier stock price. (Hey Comcast? You’re tied with Charter on the ACSI. For last place. Just saying.)Charter isn’t the only one facing some tough times. Motorola laid off 4,000 employees and Nortel networks had to file for bankruptcy protection. Qwest is also looking at closing down a Seattle call center. Commerical account losses are the steepest, so don’t expect telecom as a whole to be very rosy this year unless you figure out way to sell other services to make up the difference. Even in all of the doom-and-gloom, however, online advertising is expected to grow. With targeting ad campaigns based on better subscriber data, there’s a much better bang for the buck. Comcast is trying to extend that intelligence to video advertising with a massive 500TB database of user behavior. Providers are also trying to shoot down privacy laws that could compromise such data-collection behaviors.
  • Speaking of selling additional services, you might want to reconsider coming up with an in-house solution. Telephony Online proposes you start partnering up with companies that already do a really good job at providing services outside of the triple-play such as telemedicine and home security. There’s a lot of wisdom to this embrace of wholesale models since you can focus on your core business instead of being distracted by expensive (and often faulty) products with a high liklihood of being discontinued in a few years. The report focuses on FTTH operators (and part 2 discusses some of the regulatory hurdles that prevent more FTTH systems), but there’s a lot of wisdom in this for HFC, FTTN and POTS systems as well.There’s also looking at The Dark Side to make more money. The RIAA is offering up a portion of settlements with pirates if ISPs will turn them in (most of them aren’t biting) and most of the proposals to cap users are focused on squeezing out additional revenue.
  • As Kevin Martin prepares to ride off into the sunset for a new think tank position, Obama has named Julius Genachowski as his pick to head the FCC, a move that was applauded by a lot of media reform and broadband advocates. Tops on the agenda? Net neutrality, fighting media consolidation (see above about partering instead of building a vertical monopoly) and managing the DTV transition. You can kiss a la carte video proposals goodbye and not expect as much focus on video pricing. White spaces may also take a back burner. Cable companies have probably already started the party to celebrate Martin’s departure. If you feel a small tear of sadness over Kevin leaving the FCC, why not relive some of his greatest hits?
  • Get ready for more pricing wars. MVNO Boost Mobile dropped a bombshell with a $50 unlimited wireless plan that includes voice, text and walkie-talkie services. That goes head-to-head with offerings from all of the major cell providers (most priced at $100 per month or greater) and even takes on brands like Cricket. The New York Times reports that Sprint did this with their pre-paid value brand to try and utilize more of their Nextel network. Embarq also dropped prices on it’s top-tier DSL product by $10/mo.One area that isn’t falling, however, is pay video services. While promotional rates are very attractive, rates have been rising quickly (no doubt because of higher retransmission fees). Oddly, churn hasn’t yet been affected, but that might be because a lot of customers are trapped in contracts with early termination fees. Many customers have also wised up; they know that calling to cancel can land them the promo rate for a few more months. Despite service complaints, price is the main factor driving subscribers to seek alternatives. Verizon seems to have taken the lead on this in at least one case, something that no doubt improved customer loyalty.
  • Despite what AT&T and Verizon are doing, Qwest is still going to stay out of the video market. Their rationale? Consumers will end up watching all of their video on the Internet soon anyway. That’s true in a lot of cases (especially for network television content), but there is still a lot of paid content that consumers want, especially as cable networks continue to make big investments in original programming. In the end, Qwest is going to have to come up with something more compelling than upload-crippled FTTN and reselling DirecTV.
  • As proof that Qwest might be onto something is CastTV, a relatively new site that aggregates content from various other video portals like Hulu, YouTube and others into a clean interface. If that got paired up with an Internet-connected TV, you might be able to ditch (or complement, your pick) your paid programming package. Demand for such a set is very high, over 71%. Microsoft has spent a long time working on an IPTV product for the XBox360 and its Netflix integration is supposed to be top-notch. Blockbuster also realizes the power of streaming video and is trying to push a new streaming product even though they totally flubbed their first attempt. The moral of the story is that providing gobs of bandwidth and not much else seems to be where telecom is heading.
  • Is Verizon planning to kill off POTS lines in favor of VoIP? It depends on which day you ask. Initial reports said they were going to within 7 years, then they came back and said they had no timeline. On the plus side, VoIP is inexpensive and has made a lot of quality and reliability improvements. On the downside, it’s still not as reliable as a POTS line and, as we learned from the Qwest-SkyWi dust-up, it may fall outside of the purview of your state PUC.
  • In gadget news, the Supreme Court has asked the DoJ to give them some input on the Cablevision DVR case. Pretty much every content producer in the country has come out against the proposal which would offer up 160GB worth of DVR for an inexpensive $10 per month.

    Clearwire is showing off a portable WiMax “hotspot” that acts as a WiFi-WiMax bridge. Any WiFi device could be surfing over the speedy new network (if/when it becomes available in your area) with minimum fuss. Somewhat related to this is the emergence of subsidized netbooks from Dell and Acer for a cool $99 if you pair it up with a $60/mo or greater data plan from AT&T. It’s not a bad deal, but it does inspire memories of the ISP-subsidized PCs of a decade ago that ended up flopping. AT&T is also getting ready to push an in-car satellite TV and radio service – at $1300 for equipment and $22/mo for service. I somehow don’t see that catching on anytime soon.

Broadband Bytes: 2008 Wrap-up Edition

Happy New Year! This Broadband Bytes covers from December 20 through the end of the year. The end of 2008 saw even more retransmission battles (in particular the 11th-hour showdown between Time Warner and Viacom), Qwest trying to unplug a rival that’s suing it for racketeering, and the pending launch of FTTH services in Lafayette, LA. I predict that 2009 will offer up explosive growth in broadband speeds and availability fueled by federal dollars, an increased flight of users from cable to online video streaming and continued greater-than-inflation rises in programming costs.

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.