Is CenturyLink About to Ditch Copper?

CenturyLinkIt’s no small secret that Verizon has been working really, really hard to ditch copper access lines. In areas where they haven’t rolled out FIOS, they’re letting older copper plants rot on the vine, ceding the wired space in those communities to the local cable companies. In areas of New York where Hurricane Sandy wiped out the copper plant, they’re flat-out refusing to rebuild any landlines, instead offering a high-margin fixed wireless service.

AT&T hasn’t been too much better. Their anemic speeds on FTTN constantly lag behind their cable counterparts. Like Verizon, most of their money comes from wireless operations, so that’s where their efforts have been focused. In fact, when was the last time you heard anything about U-Verse in the news?

It seems to me that CenturyLink is ready to follow suit. They recently announced that they would be building fiber to 19-20K cell towers in their service areas. I can’t say I blame them. This is a highly profitable business, one that I wish UTOPIA or its providers could crack. Given the slow and steady loss of both landlines and broadband customers (the latter due to a lack of network upgrades), I’m sure they’re looking at whatever boosts the bottom line.

You’ll note, however, that upgrading DSL users to ADSL2+, their FTTN solution, is a footnote. Their CFO and SVP more-or-less states it outright:

“We try to design the routes to bring fiber to the towers to where they can serve other needs that we have to in terms of providing fiber closer to business customers and closer to residential customers to provide some of the higher bandwidth services,” Ewing said.

That’s right: CenturyLink is stating rather plainly that their main concern is to get fiber to those cell towers, then, if it’s “feasible” (read: dirt cheap), you can have the leftover table scraps. Cable companies (and most other phone companies) have posted subscriber gains in broadband, yet CenturyLink, who hasn’t upgraded speeds past 40Mbps since 2009, is losing thousands of customers per quarter. Odds are good that any areas getting this fiber will just now be moving off of vanilla DSL to the same 40Mbps speed (or lower) that they’ve been pushing for the last four years. When Comcast is pushing 105Mbps and UTOPIA and Google Fiber are doing gigabit, how is it anything but a giant middle finger to current and potential customers?

CenturyLink is choosing to let copper customers loose for the same reasons that Verizon and AT&T are: it’s expensive to provide service, and they can make the same or more money from wireless (albeit on different ends) with lower costs and a lot less competition. The copper network has paid for itself many times over, so writing it off as it continues to degrade is no big deal. The money they invest in cell towers has a much better ROI than investing in wireline services, so what limited funds they have will be going there.

This isn’t just a problem for CenturyLink customers. As they slowly back away from consumers and shift their core business to wholesale transport for other businesses, most users in Utah will be left with just the cable company, Comcast, to fill the void. With only a single wireline provider in most of the state, speeds will stagnate, prices will rise, and service will worsen. When there’s no incentive to compete, why would you?

Broadband Bytes: January 31-February 6, 2009

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!

Broadband Bytes: January 17-23, 2009

Just because Kevin Martin was on his way out the door doesn’t mean he couldn’t make noise on the way. The FCC started checking into Comcast’s network management practices yet again and slammed cable pricing. There’s also more talk about the broadband stimulus that just passed the house and it looks like a 4-month delay of the DTV transition is going to pass. All this and more in this week’s Broadband Bytes.

  • Just when Comcast thought it was going to catch a break on its network management processes (which, I must say, seem pretty clear and concise to me), FCC Chairman Kevin “Ma Bell fo’ Life” Martin decided to see if they were using the new system to purposefully degrade competing VoIP offerings. The allegations are that phone calls could get choppy during peak times when bandwidth demands are highest. (For what it’s worth, I haven’t noticed any problems with my Vonage phone on Comcast.) The FCC is also looking at regulating Comcast’s VoIP product like a traditional phone line since Comcast Digital Voice is being given preferrential routing treatment. Comcast has previously worked with Vonage to ensure smooth operation of the competitor’s VoIP service, I think this is a lot of smoke and not much fire, even if consumer advocates are happy to use Comcast and thier lousy customer satisfaction as a big punching bag.
  • Not to be content with just getting in another dig at Comcast, Martin gave all cable companies a special parting gift: an inquiry into video pricing and a big bag of fines. Given that prices have jumped an astronomical 122% since 1995, he might be onto something here, though I hope that satelite and IPTV competitors are included in the inquiry. (I’m looking at you, Dish, DirecTV, AT&T U-Verse and Verizon FIOS.) The complaint also cites moving channels to premium tiers and a lack of data being provided to the FCC. While cable operators are certainly complicit in rising rates because they don’t act as advocates for their subscribers (who have little to no voice in the matter), the real investigation should be into programmers who drop double-digit rate increases for channels that cable operators consider their foundation (ESPN, Disney, MTV, etc). All of this might just be Martin trying to strike back at cable operators who he believes were behind the unflattering report from Congress last month.
  • Microsoft also got into a tiff with Comcast, this time over a soured deal to use MS cable boxes. Comcast bought 500,000 boxes from MS that largely collected dust and only saw usage in Seattle, Microsoft’s backyard. Once Comcast dumped the boxes, Microsoft picked up its toys and went home. It could have had better timing; cable stocks took a real beating over the last year.
  • A House committee passed one half of the $6B broadband spending package and more details as to what to expect are starting to shape up. Network neutrality is in and so is “open access”, though what the latter means is up to the FCC. It could just be a euphamism for net neutrality, it could also include Carterphone-like “bring your own device” provisions or require an open service provider model like UTOPIA. I’m pretty sure that Michael Copps would take the more all-inclusive approach given his past positions, but Genachowski is a wildcard. The bill also strongly favors a grant and loan structure at the exclusion of tax credits, something that is upsetting both Republicans and incumbents. (Republican leadership is basically looking to gut the bill of all speed requirements, build-out requirements, net neutrality language and pretty much every other kind of accountability control.) Even advocates aren’t entirely in agreement over what provisions are the most important.

    You can read some in-depth analysis of the package from AppRising and Blandin on Broadband. And don’t forget that this is just a down payment, not a fix-all.

  • The NY Times, meanwhile, published an op-ed that a stimulus wasn’t needed. The entire thing read like pro-incumbent sock puppetry and the backlash was swift and furious. It’s one thing to be pro-incumbent, but that doesn’t mean you have to be anti-reality. That’s one of my main beefs with the Utah Taxpayers Association.
  • The delay of the DTV transition is all but assured as the Senate and House get ready to vote on a final compromise bill. The transition would be pushed back to June 12 allowing Comcast (among others) to continue to confuse TV watchers about what this means for them. The bill would still need more money for the digital converter box program for all of the procrastinators who haven’t yet picked one up. Stations still have the right to make the switch early, but I doubt many of them will take that plunge and risk losing viewers. Nielson projects that as much as 5.7% of viewers would lose access to TV signals, but that number is a sharp decline from just a month ago. (See: procrastinators.)

    Meanwhile, more voices keep wieghing in on the delay. Verizon changed its tune and now supports the delay, Qualcomm says no way, the TV tower industry isn’t in favor and Ars thinks the government should keep the original date despite botching the transition. One of the biggest concerns is rural access. While analog signals get fuzzy with interference, digital signal experience a cliff effect where the signal is either there or isn’t. Up to 20,000 residents of Hawaii may not be getting signals after that state’s switch and many in rural areas could lose signals while the FCC figures out how to extend their range.

  • Rural residents are getting shafted from another direction as big cablecos and telcos dump their less-desireable rural networks. Hawaii Telecom was one of those experiments and ended up filing for bankruptcy not that long ago. Fairpoint Communications faces the same challenges with the New England networks they have acquired from Verizon. Many of the rural networks are in desparate need of upgrades and the small companies assuming them don’t have the capital to upgrade broadband speeds or, in the case of cable operators, deploy VoIP. Powell, WY is one of those cities that got fed up with the crappy options and built their own FTTH network; it should be operating Real Soon Now(TM).
  • There’s still a lot of hold-outs who want to hang on to their dial-up or not have Internet access at all. A third of non-Internet users just aren’t interested and 19% of dial-up users wouldn’t ever switch to broadband. Price and availability, however, remain the main barrier to about half of dial-up users and about 20% of non-users. So what do we do to drop prices? That depends. A recent study suggests that wholesale rates charges by incumbents are way too high and a lack of competition often reduces your bargaining power.
  • There’s still plenty of throttling and capping news this past week. The CRTC, Canada’s equivalent of the FCC, composed a pretty comprehensive report listing who engages in throttling. Some of the companies never responded, but the largest ones are definitely doing it. Vodafone is trying a different kind of soft cap in Hungary that scales back available bandwidth to heavy users during peak times, a method similar to what Comcast does. Wave Broadband, however, is doing a really good job at illustrating how not to roll out caps. They used to do a 3GB/day limit, and now they publish a different limitation on the top-tier account with an unpublished limit on lower-lever accounts. Moral of the story? Users don’t hate caps or throttling nearly as much as they do a lack of transparency.
  • In gadget news, Verizon is rollout out a device they call Verizon Hub. It incorporates a 7-inch LCD touchscreen to sync calendars, contacts, maps and traffic directions with a wireless phone. The Hub also lets you send text messages or pop directions to your cell phone. It does not, however, integrate a femtocell. At $200 for the device and $35 per month for service, it’s hard to see how such a gadgety phone will end up catching on, especially since many consumers already can’t figure out the features on their wireless phones. Verizon is separately launching a $250 femtocell to support up to 3 CDMA calls at a time over a 5,000 square foot area. If the femtocell were integrated into the Verizon Hub, it might be a better deal.

    Separately, check out Engadget’s Netflix player shoot-out. With video streaming options becoming more of a standard feature than an exotic add-on, ISPs need to be ready to embrace and support users who choose to go Internet-only for video.

Broadband Bytes: January 1-9, 2008

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.

  • Now that nobody can afford to buy an HDTV and the money for DTV converter boxes is completely gone (not to mention all of the nasty digital signal gaps), politicos and lobbyist are trying to push back the digital conversion date from February 17. So far, president-elect Obama is on-board as are several former chairmen of the FCC and Consumer’s Union. Draft legislation, however, does not move the date, instead choosing to assume a DTV coupon redeption rate of 70% instead of 100%. With anywhere from 2 million to 11 million people unprepared for the digital switch in just 5 short weeks, this could end up being a big issue in the 2010 mid-term election; some folks are rightfully pointing out that with the 10-year lead on this transition, the unprepared should suck it up. A delay in switching could spell problems rolling out services on the freed-up 700MHz spectrums, including delays in LTE deployment. If you still need a DTV converter box, sign up even though the money is gone; the feds will put you on a waiting list until they have more money.
  • Ah, CES. A time of releasing all kinds of gizmos you didn’t even know you needed until you knew they existed. For instance, LG is rolling out a TV with Netflix integrated into the set. That could set a trend of more set-topless boxes that can stream video from online providers. If the sets support flash-upgradability, they could even add more providers after you’ve already purchased the set. Sony already provides a module for many of its Bravia line that add sources such as YouTube and Sports Illustrated to the set and Samsung is working on it. This will fuel the projected growth in Internet viewers who use their TV.

    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.
  • Broadband subscriber growth is projected to drop about 12% this year with cable gobbling up about 75% of the growth. Why, you may ask? Because DSL is much slower and next-generation broadband options are few and far between. Verizon is already unsure that it will expand past the initial 18M-home footprint for FIOS, especially since it ends up being Verizon’s biggest competitor to its shrinking DSL subscriber base. Time Warner also dropped a bombshell when it wrote off $25B worth of AOL, an asset that continues to drag the company down. Both AT&T and Verizon at looking at some poor revenue forecasts with global telecom spending to inch forward a meager 1%. Don’t cry too hard for them, however. US companies topped worldwide broadband revenues with a nearly $9B lead over second-place Japan, a country that enjoys wide-spread 100Mbps service. US companies still charge a lot more per megabit than any other first-world country.

    Clearwire can’t get away from the bad news either. Despite launching service in Portland, Chicago has been delayed until the second half of this year. Comcast had to write off a significant chunk of its investment in Clearwire and Intel is hurting from the slow adoption of WiMax as handset vendors sit this one out.

  • Qwest is already trying to get in on the broadband spending bonanza. Their proposal is to give the money to the states and let them administer it, just like they did with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that screwed over Americans to the tune of over $200B. Unsurprisingly, they also want broadband defined as 7Mbps downloads, about what their current FTTN system can support. It’s not just the obvious industry shills we have to worry about either; sock puppets and astroturfing are going to be as rampant as they’ve ever been. Given how pooly these companies have done with broadband already, some are rightfully asking if we should give money to the same folks who created the problem in the first place, especially since we so often see rising rates. While the details of the upcoming broadband spending are up in the air, it will include spending for smart electrical grids and improvements in medical IT systems, both of which should result in big job gains. A competing idea that should be thown into the mix is using loan guarantees instead of just giving the money away. At least then we could be guaranteed some some return on investment.
  • 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.

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.

Broadband Bytes: November 8-14, 2008

Here’s a quick list of what’s going on in the telecommuncations market for the week of November 8-14:

Qwest and Verizon Sittin' in a Tree… M-E-R-G-I-N-G?

For several months now, rumors have been swirling about that Verizon may attempt to purchase Qwest, a move that would put us one step closer to a reversal of the 1984 breakup of Ma Bell. Most cite Qwest’s switch to selling re-branded Verizon Wireless service as testing the waters. Qwest is also in a weak financial position with dropping profits and subscriber losses. It’s no secret that the company has spent years trying to find a buyer after the company suffered precipitous drops in customer satisfaction and service quality from 2001 onward. Could cash-rich Verizon be the white knight they’ve been waiting for?

Maybe. Continue reading

The Need for Speed: Comcast, Verizon Start Boosting Bandwidth

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.

Despite all this increased speed, we're still doing terribly in broadband availability and adoption. OECD numbers show us slipping to 15th out of 30 with China stealing the crown from us for most fixed broadband connections. Caps and throttling are also going to prove highly unpopular as we approach a new variant of Moore's Law that shows IP traffic doubling every two years through at least 2012. Maybe its time for companies to respond to consumer demand for more bandwidth instead of trying to smother it with a pillow, you know?