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 AT&T/T-Mobile Merger and Competitive Markets

Today, it was announced that AT&T plans to buy up T-Mobile for a cool $39B. This would combine both nationwide GSM providers into the single largest wireless company in the country and bump us down to three such companies. A lot of fiber naysayers like to point to wireless as an example of robust telecommunications competition in the country, but, ignoring the wide gulf of differences between wireless and wireline telecommunications, how can we have a competitive market with just three nationwide carriers?

I’d argue that we can’t. Sprint will continue to be a bit player in the space since they don’t have much in the way of wireline assets and Clear is a boat anchor around their neck. Smaller and largely regional cell providers like Cricket and US Cellular don’t get the hot devices people want and often get chained down in pre-paid pricing plans. The MVNOs live and die by the terms set by larger carriers. The big companies sit on a mountain of unused spectrum which prevents new entrants to the market from even taking hold.

In short, we’re witnessing the wireless space do the exact same things that make us hate the wireline space. This merger will mean higher prices, less consumer choice, and more regulatory capture than ever. Sadly, I expect the same thing to happen that always does when a bad deal is put before the regulators: the state PUCs and PSCs will hand-wring and sign off on what they know is a bad deal using conditions that they know either won’t be met or would have been anyway, and the FCC will just rubber-stamp the decision with minimal oversight or review. And the whole time, we’ll be told that it’s a good deal for consumers.

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: November 15-21, 2008

Mike just posted a Broadband Bytes, but there’s a few other things that are worth mentioning in the world of telecommunications.

  • Remember how pinched consumers are more likely to drop video service than data service? A recent survey shows that unhappy people watch a lot more television than happy people do. With economic times getting tough, it may be a smart move to come up with innovative low-cost video packages to snag/retain these customers. Comcast is already trying out a $50/mo data/voice combo and is offering free basic cable for a year for anyone who subscribes to either voice or data services.
  • 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.
  • Copper is dead? Multichannel is pretty sure that DSL is DOA and the subscriber numbers back that up as cable dominates. (Ars Technica offers some excellent commentary on the Multichannel article.) AT&T, while still clinging to FTTN with U-Verse, is already using WiMax as a DSL replacement in rural areas and could very well push voice over WiMax. Businesses are also seeing the light (bad pun, I know) and choosing Ethernet and big-pipe services (think OC-3/OC-12+) over T1 and T3. The price of T1 lines is also leading many small businesses to look at business-class DSL and cable options. Some are going so far as to say that copper landlines could be dead by the end of Obama’s first term as customers flock to VoIP and cell phones.
  • 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.
  • Speaking of HD, incumbents are still making agressive inroads with their HD channel counts. Comcast and Time Warner announced more HD channels this week and Dish Network is agressively adding OTA HD to many of their markets. HD isn’t the only content being expanded; both Verizon and Dish are adding more international programming as well.
  • Video isn’t just for your TV. Netflix is rolling out HD streaming with coincides with Watch It Now movies on the XBox360. YouTube is also doing a trial of high-quality video. Of course, streaming isn’t everything. Bright House is also pushing customers towards online video, just of the pay variety. They’ve inked a deal with RoadRunner to sell via their online store. All of these things is going to increase demand for greater bandwidth. And speaking of “content” delivery, you can now use your TiVo to order a pizza from Dominoes.
  • Comcast apparently feels bold enough these days to blow off the FCC. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin asked for data on the operator’s policy of moving channels out of analog tiers and into more expensive digital ones, but Comcast was bold enough to give him only partial data even as threats of fines loom.
  • 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.
  • Online college classes are starting to show serious promise. Minnesota is pushing to get a quarter of college credits completed online by 2015. A collection of Utah colleges and universities headed by USU is pushing OpenCourseWare, entire courses in digital format that are free to reuse and distribute. These kinds of initiatives could drive demand for metro area networks between the universities and students.