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.
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.
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.
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.
Have you noticed that video rates have been going up at a painful rate? FCC Chair Kevin “I love Ma Bell” Martin did and he wants answers. Despite also naming Verizon in the inquiry, it’s pretty obvious that cable is the real target. The focus is on the move of more and more channels out of analog tiers and onto more expensive digital tiers, a practice he believes is compelling consumers to pay bigger prices for the same set of channels. We’ve already seen a bunch of cable providers up their rates with Cablevision and Time Warner both getting in on the hikes.
Unfortunately, Martin is not investigating how wholesale rates from programmers have gone through the roof and has more-or-less abandoned “a la carte” programming options. He’s also ignoring caps from both Frontier (5-20GB) and AT&T (20GB) that are designed to boost revenues. Telcom in general is hurting right now and companies may see rate increases as a way to soften the dropping subscriber numbers. Both Qwest and Cox are planning lay off workers and Comcast had disappointing earnings results.
We may, however, see some big changes in store once the new president takes office. Word on the street is that Martin will voluntarily resign to pursue political ambitions in North Carolina. It’s anyone’s guess as to who would take over his spot and what they would do about these out-of-control telcom prices.
Qwest announced key leadership changes in Sales and IT. The link includes some background about each of the new executives that have been chosen. I’m hoping the new leaders will realize the importance of bringing telecommunications into the 21st century by investing in infrastructure like Verizon has been doing and understand the increasing importance of upload speeds.
Recently, it has come to light that Comcast has been throttling bandwidth for various applications with little or no disclosure. In a 67 page order, the FCC has said that “Comcast has 30 days to fess up about P2P throttling”. On Wednesday, there were also reports that Comcast would slow traffic for heavy users, but today in the NYTimes Comcast claims that no final decisions have been made about managing network traffic.
There is a looming problem on the Internet, IP addresses are running out. There is a finite number of addresses and experts keep telling us we are close to exhaustion. The solution is IPV6, but according to reports, it is failing to gain traction.
Internet traffic is on the rise and consumers are using more and more bandwidth:
“As cable and phone companies race to upgrade services or offer video for the first time, they’re doing it by installing equipment in boxes on lawns, easements and curbs all over American neighborhoods. Telecommunications rollouts have always been messy, but several towns and residents are fighting back…”
Some ISP’s have responded to increased bandwidth usage by some of their customers with announcements of new bandwidth caps.
P2P data is a big bandwidth user, apparently accounting for 40%-60% of all the traffic used on the Internet. Some researchers have a novel idea for cutting bandwidth usage. In a paper to be released next week, researchers found a way to lessen the load of P2P with an algorithm they dub “P4P”. Though the P4P article is scant on technical details, it involves finding shorter routes between users thereby making the traffic traverse fewer networks.
An analyst at a major investment firm says that broadband competition is today as good as it is going to get and that there aren’t going to be any major disruptive technologies in broadband in the future. All the more reason UTOPIA is so important: it provides an open infrastructure that fosters provider competition.
Speaking of politics, this article has an interesting look at the Internet policy in the 2008 Democratic platform. I couldn’t find any info yet about the 2008 Republican platform (it hasn’t been released yet). In 2004, the Republican platform stated: “Broadband provides Americans with high-speed Internet access connections that improve the nation’s economic productivity and offer life-enhancing applications, such as distance learning, remote medical diagnostics, and the ability to work from home more effectively…Broadband technology will enhance our nation’s economic competitiveness and will improve education and health care for all Americans.” It’s nice to see that both major parties acknowledge the importance of broadband for the future of this country.
We’ll see you at the Layton U-CAN meeting on Saturday at Noon at the Davis Library.
While Wednesdays edition news related. Today’s links would be about broadband policy. Where should we be going where are we going and how do we get there.
A Blueprint for Big Broadband – This is a document that has been mentioned here before by me (Jonathan). I quite like it because its very comprehensive about why broadband matters and an action plan on how to get there. Written by EDUCAUSE which is a higher education community. Their stated mission is to “promote the intelligent use of information technology.”
Speed Matters – This site is run by the Communications Workers of America. With similar goals to promote broadband expansion.
In the quest to prepare for DOCSIS 3.0 without undertaking the necessary step of replacing aging coax with fiber, Comcast has been playing around with several solutions designed to postpone the inevitable and squeeze more bandwidth from their copper turnip. The end result? Freeing up anywhere from 25% to 50% of their available bandwidth on the coax last mile.
Bring up the term "regulation" and you're often going to think of heavy-handed mandates, byzantine rules and unresponsive bureaucracies. Despite this popular image of regulation, it sometimes works.
Ars Technica reminds us of the 40-year-old Carterphone decision that the FCC handed down 40 years ago yesterday. The landmark decision allowed third parties to start attaching any device they wanted to the public phone network so long as it did not cause interference. Not only did it let us pick and choose our handsets, it also gave birth to devices as varied as the answering machine and modem.
Even so, regulation sometimes fails us. Some small ISPs are having their day before the Supreme Court to nail AT&T to the wall on wholesale line-sharing rates. Their argument is that the fees were designed to give the incumbent carrier a significant advantage over competitors. Many CLECs and competing ISPs brought up the same allegations throughout the 90s, and with fewer ISPs today than in 1997, the accusation has legs.
There's also the issue of network neutrality hanging up in the air. Big companies like AT&T and Verizon are scared to death of mandates from Congress, especially with how badly Comcast has been skewered over their secretive throttling and booting users who use too much of their "unlimited" Internet. Their angle is to try and get the FCC to approve a plan favorable to their interests before a less-friendly White House takes over. The good news is that the mere threat of regulation has forced them to move pretty far from their original positions, a move that's good for consumers.
When you have a network with competing service providers, interchangable equipment and freely-moving applications, consumers and innovation win. Open platforms like the kind that Carterphone created should be encouraged instead of hampered.