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.
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.