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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UTOPIA Backhaul Brings FuzeCore Wireless to Garland

Several months ago, FuzeCore said it was looking into using UTOPIA lines in Tremonton to serve the neighboring town of Garfield Garland. Looks like as of 6 weeks ago, they started doing it over a 6-mile radius that includes the neighboring towns of Elwood, Collingston, Fielding, Bothwell, and Deweyville. (Seriously, I don’t know how I missed the press release and Google Alerts only just now picked it up.)

Per the conversation we had at that time, FuzeCore was planning on connection speeds upwards of 10Mbps up and down with VoIP service. The website shows that they’re advertising 8Mbps+, so this is in about the right range. The best competitor Frontier can do is 3Mbps DSL with no mention of their upstream speeds or if their onerous caps will be making a comeback.

Wireless backhaul is one of the markets that I’ve been hoping UTOPIA would chase since it can greatly extend the reach and revenues of the network. Hats off to FuzeCore for using their wireless expertise from Idaho to make it happen!

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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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 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: 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.

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: 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.

U-CAN Report: July 26 2008, Orem

Today’s meeting of U-CAN in Orem went really well with some good attendance. Residents are largely frustrated at the delays and lack of information as to when UTOPIA would be deployed in their area and are very interested in having the network succeed. We had one of the UTOPIA NOC employees on-hand today (he moved from the iProvo NOC) as well as a consultant who’s been working with some of the new prospective service providers and a lot of good information came forth.

  • An established triple-play provider is really close to joining the network once they negotiate transport fees and they plan to market primarily to residences. This should be announced within a few weeks. Those of you looking for an Mstar alternative, look no more!
  • It’s possible to order different services from different providers, but the providers don’t really know how to do it. One example of this is a subscriber who has data from XMission, voice from Nuvont and video from Mstar. If you have trouble getting the provider to offer you an unbundled service, contact your rep on the UTOPIA board to get it moving.
  • UTOPIA isn’t currently equipped to handle adding new pledging cities. If you’ve been trying to get your city council on board, you need to step back and wait for a bit. Most city councils want to see how things function with the new financing and leadership before committing anyway.
  • Paul Recanzone was kind enough to show us some footprint maps of where service can be found in Orem. Stick to central parts of the city to ensure that service is available and always do a check for it before moving.
  • One interesting possibility was to market UTOPIA to cell phone providers to offer backhaul for their towers. The decreased transport fees make sense for Cricket, Sprint, AT&T, etc. and UTOPIA could bag a lot of revenue in the process.
  • UTOPIA may look at adding wireless to the fiber backbone, either via 802.11g/n or 802.16 (WiMax). This would allow voice providers to do cellular service. In the case of WiMax, it would also allow roaming on Clearwire and allow for service outside of the Wasatch Front. That’s just in the idea stage, so don’t count on seeing anything soon.
  • One meeting attendee said that he was aware of Qwest and Comcast purposefully planting moles in UTOPIA providers to try and sabotage the companies from within and that this was a primary cause of Mstar’s near-collapse. I know they’re underhanded, but I’m not sure to what extent they’d try and do something quite this dirty.