Are Cable Companies Winning the Speed War?

Polk County SignThe latest news about Google Fiber slowing on their metropolitan fiber builds got me to wondering if perhaps the cable companies are starting to win the speed wars. Are we getting to a time when a fiber overbuilder is going to have trouble competing with them?

After many years of being stingy with bandwidth the cable companies have now largely adopted the opposite strategy and increase household speeds over time without raising prices. I can remember quotes from several big cable companies a few years ago where the cable companies claimed they were giving households all the speed that they need. And this was back at a time when they were experiencing a significant amount of network congestion during the peak evening hours. But my reading of many different customer reviews tells me that the cable companies have largely solved the congestion issue.

This is not to say that there are not places where the cable networks are still not up to snuff, but compared to ten years ago, a lot more cable networks seem to be delivering the speeds that customers want. Of course, there are still plenty of small town where the rural cable networks are not up to snuff, but metropolitan areas seem to have improved a lot.

The FCC reported in their 2015 Measuring Broadband America Fixed Report that Comcast customers got between 109% and 119% of the speeds that they paid for. I know personally that my speed tests often shows at least 5 Mbps better performance than what I am paying for with Comcast.

But the question that has been nagging me is if a new fiber provider can really thrive in a metropolitan area? Can they get enough customers to be profitable? It’s been widely reported that Google and other fiber overbuilders need at least a 30% market share to succeed, and that’s a tall order in a city where everybody already has broadband.

People need a compelling reason to change providers, because it’s a process that nobody enjoys. It means staying at home to meet an installer, returning settop boxes and modems, and worrying about the billing transition.

I have some anecdotal evidence about the way at least one group of people buy broadband. I’ve been a member of several active Maryland sports message boards for over two decades and broadband is a periodic topic of conversation since sports fans these days care about watching sports on the Internet. The majority of the people on these boards happen to live in neighborhoods that have both Verizon FiOS and a cable company – mostly Comcast, but sometimes somebody else. These are folks who have had the choice between fiber and coaxial cable networks for a long time.

What I’ve seen over the years is that there are a few people that are big fans of either the cable company or Verizon. But the vast majority don’t seem to really care as long as the broadband works well enough to watch their sports and the other things their families do on the Internet. Probably half of the people on these boards have moved back and forth between the providers during the last decade. I’ve seen evidence that content matters more than speeds when over the years there were occasions when one provider or the other did not broadcast a Maryland football or basketball game. At least among this one large group of I don’t see any major affinity for fiber over coaxial cable networks. These folks just want something that will work.

A new fiber provider has to provide a compelling reason for people to change. Certainly having lower prices could be a compelling reason, but most metropolitan fiber providers are not much cheaper than the cable company (and sometimes they are more expensive). And while a fiber provider might offer gigabit speeds, I wonder if that is enough to get people to change if they are happy with the speeds they have had for the last few years?

I’ve always said that there is some percentage of any community that will change to a new provider because they dislike the current provider for some reason. But those are rarely enough customers to justify a business plan, and so being successful with fiber also means persuading customers that are not unhappy to change. And perhaps, as Google has found out, that is not as easy as fiber proponents have assumed. Certainly, the cable company tactic of greatly improving the performance of their data products is making it harder and harder for a new overbuilder to thrive.

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