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.
Between visiting family in Sacramento for Thanksgiving and a business trip to Montreal (where the hotel apparently didn’t believe in reliable Internet service), I got a bit behind on the Broadband Bytes feature. Never fear: I’ll make it up to you with a special double feature to get caught up on the previous two weeks.
A recent study shows that 18% of HDTV owners can’t tell the difference between standard and HD programming. This may be why DirecTV can get away with claiming over 150 HD channels when they include 480p digital broadcasts. Also of interest is that 38% of all HDTV buyers are motivated by a broken/old TV set or are buying an additional set. A scant 22% bought their set for the better picture quality. There’s also a significant number of people who won’t upgrade to an HD set until well after the digital cut-off in February. Standard-definition video will be a significant player for some time to come.
It’s no wonder subscribers are shedding video packages. Price increases have been as regular as Yellowstone’s Old Faithful with Comcast, Time Warner and Bell Canada continuing to jack up the rate you pay. Qwest has decided to go in the other direction and extend their $15/mo offering (1.5Mbps/YourGuessIsAsGoodAsMineKbps). Comcast also upped the speeds on their value tier (from 768K/128K to 1M/384K), but it’s not as competitive as Qwest’s offering and was a direct response to Verizon making the same speed changes. Consumers are taking it into their own hands and finding ways to negotiate lower rates with thier providers. The French, however, are laughing all the way to the bank. Fierce competition has resulted in a triple-play package with 100Mbps data, VoIP and 120 channels of video for $38/mo.
Verizon continues to draw blood by not-quite-overbuilding AT&T U-Verse service areas. If the incumbents get into a full-scale war for customers down in Texas, you can bet consumers will be the winners. In other overbuilding news, it seems that BPL isn’t quite dead yet. While it’s a poor choice for end-to-end connectivity, it shows promise as the last mile of a FTTN system. With speeds of up to 400Mbps, it could very well spur even fiercer competiion.
The FCC is still trying to push a nationwide porn-free wireless network. The latest incarnation allows adults to opt out of the filtering, but, as usual, pretty much everybody is going home unhappy and nobody knows how the carrier that will eventually operate the network can end up turning a profit.