Comcast is still trying desperately to stay in the high-speed game, but they just can’t quite seem to pull it off. Their fastest tiers are now 105M/10M and 50M/10M, but with more than a few caveats. Both are $100/mo, but the faster tier requires that you subscribe to at least one other service, and the price is only for 12 months. After that, it skyrockets to $130/mo for the next year and an unspecified price thereafter. So how do UTOPIA providers compare?
Rep. Eric Massa of New York today introduced a bill designed to put a stop to metered billing plans at large ISPs. The gist of it is that any ISP with more than 2 million customers must get FTC approval before doing any kind of consumption-based billing. Certainly companies like Time Warner and AT&T have gotten out of control with their miserly caps, but this is putting effort into the wrong end of the problem.
This proposal is just more of the same: highly restrictive regulation for the incumbents that gets constantly gamed and does nothing to promote better service provider choices. Given that the status quo of telecommunications regulation hasn’t ended up working so well, why on earth would we even entertain this idea? Lunacy is doing the same thing and expecting different results.
We should instead be focusing on how to increase competitive choices in the marketplace so that consumers have the option to pick their service provider. I’m confident that the only reason any service provider can get away with ridiculously low caps is because consumers can’t flee to another service. Once there’s some more competitive pressure, we’ll see those prices drop like a rock. In fact, markets with 4 service providers have prices that average about 25% less than markets with just two providers.
Let’s make sure our Congresscritters start focusing on the right part of the story. Competition is good. Regulation? Not so much.
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.
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.
BroadbandReports broke it and Comcast confirmed it: starting on October 1, Comcast will institute caps of 250GB per month. It’s beleived that overage fees are off the table for now, a welcome change from the initial plan to charge $1.50 per GB, a markup of around 100 times cost. There’s also a concrete DMCA policy. Anyone getting 4 or more DMCA warning notices in a 12-month period could have their connection terminated (but you were smart enough to use PeerGuardian, right?), but there’s nothing to hint at any kind of stepped-up enforcement.
The upside is that Comcast’s “you’re using too much Internet” policy is now clearly spelled out, though there’s no mention as to what counts or how to see your current usage. A cap of 250GB, while still a cap, isn’t all that bad considering that amounts to downloading about 125 standard-def movies.
The real lesson is that with all of the caps and “network management”, the age of all-you-can-eat Internet is over. It’s not fair to low-use customers to raise prices across the board to subsidize the top end of users and customers aren’t willing to accept vague limits on their previously unlimited Internet access. As long as the policies are clear and there’s a way to verify your own usage, I’m perfectly happy with the Age of Caps.
It seems like caps are popping up all over. Comcast, Time Warner, Sprint and Verizon Wireless all have talked about or instituted caps that make users weep, wail and gnash teeth. Now that Japanese telco NTT is getting into the business of caps, we have to wonder if it's just trying to make American ISPs look silly. Their plan? Cut you off after 30GB per dayof upload with unlimited downloads.
What the deuce? That's nearly a terabyte of uploaded data each month, more than even a heavy BitTorrent user is likely to stack up. The implication is that some users, who are shelling out a cool $42/month for a 100Mbps line, are exceeding it by enough to be causing a problem. Meanwhile, US ISPs keep on boostingspeeds to make you reach the caps even faster than before.
Apparently the secret sauce in avoiding really small caps is to invest in infrastructure. Verizon's FIOS has no caps and neither do French FTTH providers. XMission offers a generous 500GB soft cap per month on UTOPIA. It's time to get on the fiber bandwagon, guys, instead of pretending that you are.
The race for the speed crown continues as Verizon rolls out 50Mbps/20Mbps service to all of its current FIOS customers. The super-fast tier of service comes at a price of around $150/month, not far off from what Qwest is charging for inferior 20Mbps/896Kbps DSL service. This also prepares Verizon for a fight to the death in the Lone Star State with AT&T's inferior U-Verse service where it plans to overbuild to 600,000 homes in the GTE territories it purchased. I'm sure Qwest is sweating as well; it also borders several Verizon markets and can't compete on speed either.
Comcast also made some speed announcements, bumping upload speeds on the 6Mbps and 8Mbps tiers to 1Mbps and 2Mbps respectively. I've independently speedtested this claim and found that I'm getting a solid 1.3Mbps of upload on my 6Mbps plan. While the plan is to roll out 50Mbps service in multiple markets after testing in the Minneapolis area, that will also come with all kinds of protocol-agnostic throttling and potentially a 250GB monthly transfer cap.