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!
After years of lawsuits, construction and industry sock puppetry, Lafayette finally has a fiber network open for business with highly competitive pricing. The utility system owns and operates the network as the sole service provider, offering both triple-play packages and 100Mbit connections on-network. The network should be fully deployed by 2011. Prices are averaging a good 20% below what Cox Communications and AT&T, the local incumbents, currently offer. I’m sure you can expect both of them to go on a price-slashing frenzy, much like local incumbents have done ahead of UTOPIA and iProvo. Of course, you could be a smart incumbent like Dutch provider KPN. They partnered with municipal efforts to deploy FTTP and have reaped big rewards, even with a bunch of competing service providers.
Caps and throttling refuse to get out of the news. Cox Communications is busy trying to defend its network management plan to the FCC as video provider Vuze keeps on sniping at them in the news. Comcast also had to explain how its VoIP system works in relation to its network management policies, claiming that because it is a managed service it shouldn’t be treated the same as other traffic types. Time Warner, meanwhile, is rolling out caps to more markets, albeit with higher caps that what they’ve been playing with in Beaumont, TX. Charter is going whole-hog with a system-wide cap policy that’s about as generous as Comcast’s. The best way to make sure you don’t get on the bad side of customers, the FCC or some of the “net neutrality” zealots is to make a clear and concise policy, publish the full details and make sure that any management scheme is generous, fair and only active when absolutely necessary. Software companies are already putting out packages to make management easier and less likely to alienate your customers.
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.
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.
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.
On the DVR front, AT&T has finished deploying whole-home DVR in 69 markets. This will allow customers to watch recorded programs on any TV in the house and is a smart move on AT&T’s part to drive DVR adoption. While there’s no fee for this service, AT&T does charge for the STBs for each set. Dish Network, meanwhile, will be deploying a new kind of DVR next week that can record from satellite broadcasts, analog over-the-air and HD over-the-air and function as a digital-to-analog converter box. Not all is good in DVR news, however. The Supreme Court is going to hear appeals in the Cablevision networked DVR case and the content cartel is aggressively lobbying to make sure it gets outlawed. This will be an important case to watch as it will have a lasting effect on video innovation.
Forget triple-play: welcome to the quad. Cox Communications plans to use recently-purchased spectrum to deploy cell-phone serivce in its markets. Since Cox can leverage its existing infrastructure to keep transport costs low, the profit margins should be substantial. They will also deliver video services to handsets for existing video customers as they had tried to do with Pivot. AT&T and Verizon have been using wireless revenues to help subsidize the construction of their next-generation networks for quite some time with a lot of success. Qwest, meanwhile, has had poor financial performance as it does not offer its own video or wireless products.
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?
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.