Yesterday morning, the Internet went into a total tizzy when Comcast users found themselves unable to access the infamous torrent site ThePirateBay. Almost immediately, the accusations of intentional blocking spread like wildfire despite Comcast’s insistence that they aren’t doing anything. This reveals a pretty telling truth: Comcast’s foray into filtering traffic has done permanent and incalculable damage to the brand, even years after admitting to the blocking and putting an end to it.
Is Comcast blocking anything? I doubt it. They took such a big PR black eye the first time that they’re unlikely to be dumb enough to try it again. That the stain persists years later, however, shows what a bad move it is to manipulate user traffic. Let that be a warning to all service providers of the lasting consequences of abusing users.
Comcast is apparently a bit of a slow learner. After getting publicly smacked about for tinkering with bitTorrent, they’ve really stepped in it now by messing with Netflix. The audience is much bigger than the guys running protocol analyzers on their connections; you’ve gone and upset regular folks too. (How do you see that one working out?) Unfortunately, this is playing out as badly as anyone can hope.
Comcast is unfortunately trying to realize the dream of Ed Whitacre by essentially double-dipping for data at a time when bandwidth is so cheap you can almost afford to give it away. Imagine if the phone company tried to charge you for making a call and the recipient on another phone network for receiving it. Can you imagine the uproar and outrage at attempting to bill someone that’s not even their customer? That’s what Comcast is essentially doing, trying to charge both sides of the transaction instead of providing you the service you already paid for.
If regulators sign off on it, the nation’s largest cable company will end up with a significant foothold in both the broadcast media and movie industries. Overnight, a content distributor becomes a content producer. Pre-merger, Comcast had little incentive to play along with the copyright cop ambitions of the RIAA and MPAA. This merger could change everything, driving Comcast into policing not just the distribution of its own wares but those of fellow studios.
Given how Time Warner Cable would regularly roll over for MPAA requests to disconnect service, both before and after being spun off from parent company Time Warner, this is a legitimate and pressing concern. The MPAA spends a lot of time trying to track down pirates and they often get the wrong person. The MPAA has also pushed hard for restricting what DVRs can record, locking down digital media to the point of near-uselessness, and wiping out net neutrality so that peer-to-peer programs can be blocked on a whim. None of these proposals are good for Comcast data or video customers and I do not think Comcast wants to unnecessarily restrict what customers can and cannot do with their connection.
That said, what will they do when Universal Pictures, a division of the merged company, has a competing interest? Which part of the company has their interests heard first? Will Comcast give Universal special access to routers and logs to track down pirates? Will they start using deep packet inspection? What can the falsely accused do about it?
This is why we should be very, very scared of the continued integration of media and telecommunications companies. The verticial monopoly of wholesale and retail telecom is bad enough, but when they control the content going over the pipe as well, it can get really ugly really fast.
Net neutrality is a real hot-button issue for a large swath of Internet users and for good reason. The happy accident of interconnected networks and free flow of information has lead to a lot of useful and creative uses of the world’s largest network. That said, it seems that far too many proponents have added a whole host of other issues under the banner of net neutrality, diluting its value and entangling what should rightfully be separate issues. In the words of Inigo Montoya, “you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
This week saw the DTV transition delay get, uh, delayed (though not for long), Cox’s new traffic management plan, and a competing version of the broadband stimulus package that offers 50% more cash for 90% fewer conditions. Qwest also renewed its fight with SkyWi, Charter dropped a 60Mbps gauntlet, and Google launched tools to find out if you’re being throttled by your ISP. All that and more in this week’s Broadband Bytes!
Cox Communications is the latest large ISP to implement some kind of network management, opting for a system that’s a lot like what Comcast did. Unlike Comcast, however, they plan to throttle specific “low-priority” traffic types once the congestion gets too high including FTP file transfers, torrents and newsgroups. Predictably, there are a lotof peoplecalling bunk on the plan, but I don’t think it’s so bad. Comcast is getting ripped by the FCC since their protocol-agnostic version would degrade competitor’s VoIP traffic if you end up being one of the hogs, so it makes sense to try and only smack around the data types that generate a lot of packets and a lot of transfer. Most users are fine with network management schemes so long as they are transparent and generous; the complaining just happens to be very, vey loud.
Qwest decided to ignore an order from New Mexico’s PRC and disconnect some of SkyWi’s customers without the required 10-day warning. Qwest has likely figured that whatever the penalty is, it’s worth it to kill off a competitor and SkyWi might not be around to finish its lawsuit. The company tried to pass it off as a clerical error. Expect New Mexico’s PRC to give Qwest a serious smackdown (provided it can survive Qwest’s army of robot lawyers) and keep an eye open for possible FCC involvement. Spurned CLECs like SkyWi are prime companies to recuit onto open networks like UTOPIA.
Charter, despite its severe financial problems, stole the St. Louis speed crown from AT&T by launching a 60Mbps DOCSIS 3.0 service at a wallet-busting $140/mo. This bests Comcast and Verizon by about 10Mbps, but it far faster than anything AT&T can do with ADSL2+. Verizon took the opportunity to make fun of DOCSIS 3.0 and its limits as compared to fiber. Users on UTOPIA are likely very “ho-hum” about the announcement since 50Mbps service has been available for quite some time.
Google fired a shot at ISPs who employ any kind of throttling or traffic management by offering up free tools to test for it. Even if your ISP isn’t engaging in these kinds of practices, the presence of these tools will help keep them honest. In the debate over network management, it’s very important to be clear and upfront about any caps or network management policies you plan to employ. Comcast got a PR black eye by hiding its policies for months as angry users took to the Internet and flooded forums with complaints. They get kind of stabby when you mention it after the fact (and for good reason).
I imagine users on Comcast and AT&T will appreciate these new tools. All three ISPs have signed on with the RIAA to disconnect users who are sharing copyrighted files. It’s part of the RIAA’s broad approach to turn ISPs into their copyright cops in exchange for a cut of the action, something they have successfully pulled off in Ireland. Given the lack of an appeals process and frequent ISP mistakes, you can bet that this opens the market for competing providers to snap up those customers.In the UK, they’re debating a different approach: a £20/mo “piracy tax”. Such a tax has already been implemented in Isle of Man which allows residents there to pirate as much as they want for under $1.50/mo. The RIAA would probably do better to offer an “all you can download” music service or some kind of “piracy license” that gives you the right to download whatever you want.
Comcast is thinking about offering WiFi to subscribers, but no word yet on if they plan to charge for it or use it as a perk to lure in customers. They’re currenting testing it out in New Jersey in a partnership with Cablevision. Cox Communications really took the lead on this by snapping up a lot of regional 700MHz licenses so that they can start offering wireless services as well, including leasing tower space to cell phone carriers. Thinking beyond the triple play to include these kinds of services is a smart move for any service provider.
Smart companies also focus on customer service. Charter has taken up permanent residence on the DSLReports forum and, like Comcast, has a customer service team assigned to Twitter. And while Sprint has announced that they will layoff 8,000, they plan to avoid sacking anyone in a customer service position even as subscribers decline sharply. High customer satisfaction leads to low churn and lots of free word-of-mouth advertising. I recently got support from Sprint’s Twitter team and got my issue resolved in record time.
Guess who’s making money hand over fist? If you guessed Netflix, give yourself a red envelope. Or don’t, since most of the company’s revenue has come from users switching from mailed DVDs to streaming on their PC or TV. Even with the switch to streaming, Netflix is going to start shipping DVDs on Saturdays to help speed up processing and delivery times. (No word on how the post office’s plans to drop Tuesday service will affect this.) I wouldn’t be surprised if the secret sauce in Netflix’s bottom line is customer satisfaction. The few times I’ve had an issue, I had a short hold time to talk to a live person who was empowered to make me happy.
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.
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.
Could things get ugly at Qwest? They still have not reached a labor agreement with the Communications Workers of America. Those 20,000 workers could begin a strike as early as Sunday (tomorrow), the day their existing contract expires.
“The U.S. may be winning world speed records in swimming at the Olympics, but not in average Internet speeds. According to a new report, the country that invented the Internet has now sunk to 15th worldwide in the percentage of the population subscribing to broadband.” This is a great AP News article that summarizes the state of broadband today in America and compares it with other countries. In other parts of the country, like Oklahoma, they are significantly behind. According to this article, Oklahoma ranks below most other states in broadband, which is a worry for officials. “Infrastructure and connection is so important to economic development…Many future industries will be knowledge-based.”
The FCC has a proposal to build a national, free, wireless broadband network that nearly everyone could access. It is inching forward despite controversy and worries by T-Mobile and others about interference. They are seeking feedback on this plan. I would like to point out though that this will never replace the interference-free, low-latency, high-bandwidth connections that are possible with fiber optic networks.
In the presidential race, net neutrality and other broadband issues have become points of contrast:
John McCain’s position: “John McCain does not believe in prescriptive regulation like “net-neutrality,” but rather he believes that an open marketplace with a variety of consumer choices is the best deterrent against unfair practices. John McCain has always believed the government’s role must be rooted in protecting consumers.”
Barack Obama’s position: “So here’s my view. We can’t have a situation in which the corporate duopoly dictates the future of the internet and that’s why I’m supporting what is called net neutrality.”
John McCain has put forward an excellent bill in the Senate called the Community Broadband Act of 2005, which Barack Obama has not yet signed on to. Interestingly, this bill is supported by EDUCAUSE and more than 40 education and trade associations, public interest groups, etc. This bill would protect the ability of local governments to provide Internet services
to their communities. Jonathan Karras and I have talked about EDUCAUSE before. Though Obama hasn’t signed on to this bill, he has stated that “Every American should have the highest speed broadband access—no matter where you live, or how much money you have. We’ll connect schools, libraries, and hospitals. And we’ll take on special interests to unleash the power of wireless spectrum for our safety and connectivity.”
Many cities haven’t been as successful as they hoped in building various municipal broadband network, primary wireless networks. The first of these was Philidelphia. “Philadelphia’s goal to cover 135 square miles with a cloud of Internet connectivity was ambitious. But the need was undeniable. High-speed Internet access was fast becoming an economic, educational, and social necessity.” This article has an in-depth look at a lot of municipal networks around the country, but no mention of UTOPIA or IProvo.
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.