The Coming of a New Duopoly

For a very long time, detractors of UTOPIA have pointed to the wireless market as a shining example of how the private sector provides superior competitive choice and great consumer benefit. Now we’re watching as that example starts to look a whole lot like the wireline business, locked up in relatively few choices with little product differentiation between them. Once AT&T completes its purchase of T-Mobile (and nobody seriously expects the deal to fall through), two companies will control over 65% of wireless lines in the United States, both of which are nasty players in the wireline duopoly business. This is just the beginning.

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The Wireless Carrier of the Future Looks a Lot Like Sprint

Sprint has been down on its luck for quite some time. The company suffered through a long period of wandering in the wilderness with poor customer service and defecting subscribers to the tune of over a million per quarter for years. This wasn’t helped by its merger with Nextel, a partnership that made little sense considering that both companies use different signal standards. It looked for some time that Sprint would simply collapse on itself. Lately, though, I’m beginning to think that this brush with death has made the company smarter than any other wireless company in the country.

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The Over-the-top Genie is out of the bottle. Now what?

Capt. Video and I had a discussion a few weeks ago about how service providers handle over-the-top providers such as Vonage. Service providers are in a sticky situation as many of these services may compete with their existing products. Vonage and Skype take away phone customers. Hulu and iTunes take away video customers. So what should a service provider do about it? I see only three options open to them.

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Unlimited Calling, Limited Price: Google Voice Unlocks the Gates of Cheap Unlimited

I’m telecommuting this week and next and forced to use my own phone line for all of my business-related calls. My cell phone plan includes only 550 minutes of airtime per month. My Vonage line, which I took with me, includes just 500. So why aren’t I sweating about using up all of my minutes?

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Broadband Bytes: March 7-13, 2009

A new study shows that broadband growth is starting to level off while a separate study claims we’re paying as much as $3 per minute for our cell phones. We’re also getting more details of the broadband stimulus package (sparse as they may be), Comcast claims to have more phone customers than Qwest (seriously!), and Google finally takes the wraps off of Grandcentral to rebrand it as Google Voice (phone operators, go ahead and wet yourselves). All that and more in this week’s Broadband Bytes!

  • Broadband is still growing, just not like it used to. With 59% of American households now on better-than-dial-up connections and a sagging economy, the broadband market is looking a lot like the cellphone market in that almost everyone who wants it has it. And how do you get the last little bits of the market? I’ll give you a hint: follow the wireless industry’s lead. They swooped in with cheap plans, pre-paid phones, and multi-line service to make sure that everyone became their customer. ISPs can do wild things like, say, offer WiFi service with fixed broadband plans.
  • How much do you pay per minute for your cellular phone? A recent survey in California says you’re paying an average of $3 per minute for your peak minutes. Even lopping off the top users takes the cost down to anywhere from $0.50 to $1.00 per minute. Granted, this study doesn’t factor in your “free” night, weekend, or in-network minutes, so take it with a grain of salt.
  • The NTIA held a kick-off meeting to discuss the upcoming broadband stimulus package, but they apparently came to the meeting without much in the way of answers. All the same, attendees were reportedly generally pleased with the kick-off and the NTIA would really like to know your opinion. The House is even thinking about rewriting USF rules to allow for the money to be spent on broadband. It’s not all sunshine, though. IPI, a “stink tank” much like The “Reason” Foundation, is trying to block any efforts to fund muni efforts. Because, you know, incumbents did such a bang-up job deploying affordable and widely available broadband.
  • Comcast says that it’s picked up enough phone customers to be the third largest phone company in the country right behind AT&T and Verizon. (Sorry Qwest, but we knew this day would come.) They’ve been very aggressive at marketing phone service (unlike Qwest), offering competitive pricing on triple-play packages (unlike Qwest), and doing a lot of work to improve their company image (three strikes; guess who’s out). Not satisfied with their current numbers, Comcast is suing the feds so they can get bigger. The FCC currently prohibits any cable operator from owning more than 30% of the national market.
  • Remember Grandcentral? You know… phone number for life, rings all of your lines, intelligent forwarding, hasn’t done anything for the last two years as Google sat on their purchase. Sound familiar? Well, Google finally unveiled Google Voice, the successor to Grandcentral. In addition to all of the other great calling features of Grandcentral, they also tossed in SMS forwarding and automatic voicemail transcription, both searchable with Google’s own search technology. They aren’t open to any new users just yet, but the feature-rich services they offer are something worth copycating. Oh yeah, and they’re going to do super-cheap international calls. Think that phone companies may be a bit edgy?
  • Sprint is moving one step closer to dumb pipe operator by hinting that despite betting the farm on WiMax via Clearwire, they haven’t ruled out using LTE in the future. Despite the impression that WiMax and LTE are day and night, the difference is more in the software than the hardware. I think Sprint is getting ahead of the curve and realizing that operating the wholesale pipe is a lot more stable than trying to please end users, a task it has proven ill-suited at handling. Given the massive vertical integration of landlines, video, fixed data, wireless, and mobile broadband from giants AT&T and Verizon, Sprint’s exit from the telco business by spinning off local operations as Embarq, and further pressure from Cox Communications, Time Warner, and Comcast as they ramp up wireless products, Sprint may have seen the writing on the wall.
  • Verizon’s big FIOS builds aren’t just benefiting dense East-coast towns. Their insatiable demand for fiber has dropped equipment prices substantively allowing smaller telcos to go fiber-to-the-home. Even Utah’s own Manti Telecommunications Company is reported to be getting in on the action. With equipment costs dropping like a rock, now you just have to worry about the high cost of trenching and being obstructed by your “friendly” local incumbent.

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 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: 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.

Comcast Makes Final Four in Comsumerist's Worst Company in America 2008

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?

Caps Without Meaning: Japanese Telco NTT Caps Uploads at 30GB… Per Day

It seems like caps are popping up all over. Comcast, Time Warner, Sprint and Verizon Wireless all have talked about or instituted caps that make users weep, wail and gnash teeth. Now that Japanese telco NTT is getting into the business of caps, we have to wonder if it's just trying to make American ISPs look silly. Their plan? Cut you off after 30GB per dayof upload with unlimited downloads.

What the deuce? That's nearly a terabyte of uploaded data each month, more than even a heavy BitTorrent user is likely to stack up. The implication is that some users, who are shelling out a cool $42/month for a 100Mbps line, are exceeding it by enough to be causing a problem. Meanwhile, US ISPs keep on boosting speeds to make you reach the caps even faster than before.

Apparently the secret sauce in avoiding really small caps is to invest in infrastructure. Verizon's FIOS has no caps and neither do French FTTH providers. XMission offers a generous 500GB soft cap per month on UTOPIA. It's time to get on the fiber bandwagon, guys, instead of pretending that you are.