Some of you have probably noticed that the Broadband Bytes feature hasn’t been appearing on the website since March 17. There’s two reasons for this: it takes a large chunk of my Saturday to put it together (thus why it was frequently published late) and I haven’t been getting paid for it. My personal financial situation now demands that more of my time be spent earning a living, so free time is at a premium. All the same, I run into stories worth sharing on a regular basis. So do Mike and Jonathan.
To that end, I setup a Twitter account, @FreeUTOPIA, to publish those articles as we find them. It’s going to be powered by Phil Windley’s code used by the most excellent @utahpolitics. If you’re not using Twitter, that’s okay; I’m going to setup the Twitter Tools plugin to publish those tweets on a daily basis. It should be ready to go by tomorrow.
If you have any questions, comments, or rude noises, sound off in the comments.
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.
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.
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. This FIOS upgrade comes Highly recommended for Verizon offers and users. 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.
This week’s top stories include a white spaces fight, a clearing backlog of DTV converter coupons, and the wrapping up the The Pirate Bay’s copyright infringement trial. There’s also cool gadgetry (including some that should give studio execs heartburn) and a little bit of kissing and making up between Boxee and Hulu. All that and more in this week’s Broadband Bytes!
Broadcast stations aren’t very happy with the decision to open up the space between stations, “white spaces”, to allow access by unlicensed devices. In fact, they’re unhapy enough to sue the FCC over the decision claiming that such devices will interfere with their signals despite extensive testing to prevent it. It could be a while before white space devices are offering up Internet access, but, like others, I doubt the blockade will last.
Weeks after Congress approved more money for DTV converter box coupons, the backlog is finally starting to clear up. Everyone who was on the waiting list should get their coupon within 3 weeks. Good news for the procrastinators, presuming that boxes can still be found.
The defense and prosecution in The Pirate Bay’s trial have made their closing statements and wrapped up what could change the face of filesharing (and bandwidth consumption) forever. The short of it is that the prosecution says that TPB got filthy rich from pirating works and the defense says they’re in the same category as Google and didn’t even cover operating expenses. Now we have to wait until April 17 to find out what the judge thinks.
News sites jumped all over the announcement of a new streaming STB, then yawned and said, “oh, another ‘me too’ effort“. ZillionTV hopes to sell a dirt-cheap box with no subscription fees to stream online content and do paid VOD. Their angle? Get ISPs to give their traffic priority over competitors. Given how touchy users are over net neutrality issues, I’m betting they don’t go far with that last bit. But hey, more STB choice is a good thing for consumers, right?
Roku isn’t standing still either. Their $99 Netflix box now has Amazon VOD support. It’s been long-rumored that Roku is also working on adding options like Hulu to their menu of options. Cord-cutting may be a myth right now, but at $99 + $10/mo, those boxes are looking really attractive to early adopters.
If you’re looking for the top-end of third-party STBs, go check out the Tesly BLOBbox. It combines a OTA HD tuner with a 160GB DVR, then tosses in a bitTorrent client, RSS feeds, Last.FM support, an open SDK… basically an entire HTPC in an easy-to-use interface. The Linux-based box carries a relatively steep $490 price tag and is currently only available through an Italian reseller, but it shows how cheap technologies can help viewers watch TV on their own terms without monthly fees or a lack of extensibility.
Boxee and Hulu are on the mend. Kind of. Boxee released a new alpha that allows pulling in Hulu video from RSS feeds, but it’s not as slick as the old menu system that allowed you to browse all of the available content. The content providers want to get Hulu out as much as they can, but they’re also terrified of canibalizing more lucrative broadcast revenue. The disconnect between financial incentives and user desires has driven XMBC hackers to piece together new plugins to allow Hulu access without the ads and many users to go back to downloading torrents of their favorite shows.
President Obama picked Julius Genachowski as the new head of the FCC weeks ago, but the nominations is just now official. Genachowski is a net neutrality supporter, but that doesn’t stop the praise from both sides of that issue from flowing in. I imagine it’s because anything is an upgrade over Kevin Martin.
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!
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? If you need an upgrade in a screen, there are tons of the best gaming monitor reviews to read on the internet, it’s good to spend sometime knowing what will be the most bang for your buck.
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.
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!
The broadband stimulus number has firmed up at $7.2B in total spending and BPL looks like an unexpected back-from-the-dead winner. IBM plans to apply for stimulus funds to roll out BPL service to over 200k rural customers. The challenge is determining just which areas are considered underserved or unserved. Public Knowledge slammed Connected Nation, a broadband mapping group, as nothing more than a front for big ISPs and accused them of making up bogus broadband maps to serve their interests. It’s entirely possible that Connected Nation could score the lion’s share of the $350M in funds for mapping, a scary proposition if the accusations are true. After all, this isn’t the end of federal broadband efforts.
There’s a new attempt in Congress to force ISPs and hotspot owners to keep 2 years worth of access and subscriber logs to assist law enforcement. The justification, as usual, is that retaining the data will help catch people dealing in child porn. Unfortunately, keeping and managing two years worth of access logs is a huge undertaking, especially for wifi hotspots and home owners who choose to share their connection. Such efforts have typically died in committee despite previous pushes from both sides of the aisle.
In what I can only hope is the start of a trend, Linksys will be selling a router with integrated Internet security software. It’s only going to block malicious or suspicious websites for the time being, but future models could integrate anti-spyware and anti-virus. If someone offered such a device, I would definitely buy one. It beats installing resource-hogging security software on every PC.
Recession-influenced special pricing continues as operators struggle to hold on to cash-strapped customers. Sprint rolled out a new “Simply Everything” plan that adds laptop data (but not phone-as-modem) for another $50 a month. T-Mobile is also rumored to be looking at unlimited options of it’s own including a $50/mo unlimited voice plan as well as a $85/mo unlimited mobile voice and data plan. Verizon, though, takes the cake for considering a $5/mo inbound-only landline. Utah, though, is taking a step back. The legislature approved a move to upcap phone service rates for incumbents like Qwest and it is largely expected to be signed off on by the governor.
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.
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.
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.
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.