Cellular Networks and Fiber

We’ve known for a while that the future 5G that the cellular companies are promising is going to need a lot of fiber. Recently Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam verified this when he said that the company will be building dense fiber networks for this purpose. The company has ordered fiber cables as large as 1,700 strands for their upcoming build in Boston in order to support the future fiber and wireless network there. That’s a huge contrast from Verizon’s initial FiOS builds that largely built a network using mostly 6-strand fibers in a lot of the Northeast.

McAdams believes that the future of urban broadband will be wireless and that Verizon intends to build the fiber infrastructure needed to support that future. Of course, with that much fiber in the environment the company will also be able to supply fiber-to-the-premise to those that need the largest amounts of bandwidth.

Boston is an interesting test case for Verizon. They announced in 2015 that they would be expanding their FiOS network to bring fiber to the city – one of many urban areas that they skipped during their first deployment of fiber-to-the-premise. The company also has engaged with the City government in Boston to develop a smart city – meaning using broadband to enhance the livability of the city and to improve the way the government delivers services to constituents. That effort means building fiber to control traffic systems, police surveillance systems and other similar uses.

And now it’s obvious that the company has decided that building for wireless deployment in Boston is part of that vision. It’s clear that Verizon and AT&T are both hoping for a world where most devices are wireless and that the wireless connections use their networks. They both picture a world where their wireless is not just used for cellphones like today, but will also be used to act as the last mile broadband connection for homes, for connected cars, and for the billions of devices used for the Internet of Things.

With the kind of money Verizon is talking about spending in Boston this might just become the test case for a connected urban area that is both fiber rich and wireless rich. To the extent that they can do it with today’s technology it sounds like Verizon is hoping to serve homes in the City with wireless connections of some sort.

I’ve discussed several times how millimeter wave radios have become cheap enough to be a viable alternative for bringing broadband to urban apartment buildings. That’s a business plan that is also being pursued by companies like Google. But I still am not aware of hardware that can reasonably be used with this same technology to serve large numbers of single family homes. At this point the electronics are still too expensive and there are other technological issues to overcome (such as having fiber deep in neighborhoods for backhaul).

So it will be interesting to watch how Verizon handles their promise to bring fiber to the homes in Boston. Will they continue with the promised FTTP deployment or will they wait to see if there is a wireless alternative on the horizon?

It’s also worth noting that Verizon is tackling this because of the density of Boston. The city has over 3,000 housing units per square mile, making it, and many other urban centers, a great place to consider wireless alternatives instead of fiber. But I have to contrast this with rural America. I’m working with several rural counties right now in Minnesota that have housing densities of between 10 and 15 homes per square mile.

This contrast alone shows why I don’t think rural areas are ever going to see much of the advantages of 5G. Even though it’s expensive to build fiber in a place like Boston, the potential payback is commensurate with the cost of the construction. I’ve always thought that Verizon made a bad strategic decision years ago when they halted their FiOS  construction before finishing building in the metropolitan areas on the east coast. Verizon has fared well in its competition with Comcast and others.

But there is no compelling argument for the wireless companies or anybody else to build fiber in the rural areas. The cost per subscriber is high and the paybacks on investment are painfully long. If somebody is going to invest in rural fiber they might as well use it to connect directly to customers rather than to spend the money in fiber plus adding a wireless network on top of it.

We are going to continue to see headlines about how wireless is the future, and for some places like Boston it might be. Past experience has shown us that wireless technology often works a lot different in the field compared to the lab, so we need to see if the wireless technologies being considered really work as promised. But even if they do, those same technologies are going to have no relevance to rural America. If anything the explosion of urban wireless might further highlight the stark differences between urban and rural America.

Can a Small Cable Company Succeed?

Today I ask the question of whether anybody small can really succeed with a cable TV product. This was prompted by the news that Cable One, one of the mid-sized cable companies, is bleeding cable customers. For those not familiar with the company they are headquartered in Phoenix, AZ and operate cable systems in 19 states with the biggest pockets of customers in Idaho, Mississippi and Texas.

The company just reported that for the 12 months ending on March 31 that they had lost 12.7% of their cable customers and dropped below 300,000 total cable customers. Most of my clients would consider anybody of this size to be a large cable company. But their struggles beg the question of anybody smaller than the really giant cable companies can seriously maintain a profitable and viable cable product in today’s environment.

The drop in their cable customers was precipitated by a number of factors. One that is very familiar to small cable operators is that Cable One decided in 2015 to drop the Viacom suite of channels from their system. We all remember that in that year Viacom announced huge and unprecedented rate increases of over 60% for the suite of channels that include MTV, Comedy Central, BET and a number of other channels. A number of my clients also decided to drop Viacom rather than pay for the huge increases in programming.

Cable One also shares another characteristic with smaller companies in that they are too small to unilaterally negotiate alternate piles of programming to sell as skinny bundles. So they and other small companies are likely to see customers abandoning them for smaller line-ups from Sling TV and other purveyors of smaller on-line line-ups – including Hulu which just announced entry into this quickly growing market.

And finally, Cable One and most other cable companies are now starting to feel the impact of cord cutting. While only a fraction of their customer losses can be blamed on cord cutting, it is now a real phenomenon and all cable companies can expect to lose a few percent of customers every year to Netflix and others.

The really large cable companies are not immune to these same market influences. The giants like Comcast and Charter / Spectrum are going to continue to see big increases in programming costs. Recent Comcast financials show that the company saw a 13% increase in programming cost over the last year (although some of that increase was paid to their own subsidiaries of programmers).

But the handful of giant cable companies are so big that they look like they are going to be able to offset losses in cable revenues in margins with new sources of revenues. For example, Comcast and Charter announced recently that they will be launching a jointly-provisioned cellular business that will help them grow revenues significantly instead of just treading water like smaller cable revenues. And I’ve recently written in here of all of the other ways that Comcast is still growing their business, which smaller companies are unable to duplicate.

The biggest dilemma for small cable companies is that the TV product still drives positive margin for them. While every small cable provider I know moans that they lose money on the cable product, the revenues generated from cable TV are still in excess of programming costs and almost every company I know would suffer at the bottom line if they kill the TV product line.

It has to be troubling for programmers to see cable companies struggling this hard. If somebody the size of Cable One is in crisis then the market for the programmers is quickly shrinking to only serving the handful of giant cable companies. The consolidation of cable providers might mean that the huge cable companies might finally be able to band together to fight back against the big rate increases. Just last week Charter announced that they were demoting a number of Viacom channels to higher tiers (meaning that the channels would not automatically be included in the packages that all customers get).

It’s hard to think of another industry that is trying so hard to collectively drive away their customer base. But all of the big companies – cable providers and programmers – are all publicly traded companies that have huge pressure to keep increasing earnings. As customers continue to drop the programmers raise rates higher, which then further drives more customers to drop out of the cable market. It doesn’t take sophisticated trending to foresee a day within the next decade where cable products could become too expensive for most homes. We are all watching a slow train wreck which the industry seems to have no will or ability to stop.

Ownership of Software Rights

There is an interesting fight currently at the US Patent Office that involves all of us in the telecom industry. The argument is over the right of ownership of the software that comes along these days with almost any type of electronics. The particular fight is between John Deere and tractor owners, but the fight is a precedent for similar software anywhere.

John Deere is arguing that, while a farmer may buy one of their expensive tractors, John Deere still owns the software that operates the tractor. When a farmer buys a tractor they must agree to the terms of the software license, just like we all agree with similar licenses and terms of service all of the time. The John Deere software license isn’t unusual, but what irks farmers is that it requires them to use John Deere authorized maintenance and parts for the term of the software license (which is seemingly forever).

The fight came to a head when some farmers experienced problems with tractors during harvest season and were unable to get authorized repair in a timely manner. Being resourceful they found alternatives and there is now a small black market for software that can replace or patch the John Deere software. But John Deere is attacking farmers that use alternate software saying they are violating the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) which prohibits the bypassing of copyrighted locks on content. They argue that farmers have no right to open or modify the software on the tractors which remains the property of John Deere. The Patent Office is siding with John Deere.

This is not a unique fight for farmers and the owners of many electronics companies are taking the same approach. For example all of the major car manufacturers except Tesla have taken the same position. Apple has long taken this position with its iPhone.

So how does this impact the telecom industry? First, it seems like most sophisticated electronics we buy these days come with a separate software license agreement that must be executed as part of a purchase. So manufacturers of most of the gear you buy still think they own the proprietary software that runs your equipment. And many of them charge you yearly after buying electronics to ‘maintain’ that software. In our industry this is a huge high margin business for the manufacturers because telcos and ISPs get almost nothing in return for these annual software license fees.

I don’t think I have a client who isn’t still operating some older electronics. This may be older Cisco routers that keep chugging along, an old voice switch, or even something major like the electronics operating an entire FTTH network. It’s normal in the telecom industry for manufacturers to stop supporting most electronics within 7 to 10 years of its initial release. But unlike twenty years ago when a lot of electronics didn’t last more then the same 7 – 10 years, the use of integrated chips means that electronics are working a lot longer.

And therein lies the dilemma. Once a vendor stops supporting a technology they literally wash their hands of it – they no longer issue software updates, they stop stocking spare parts. They do everything in their power to get you to upgrade to something newer, even though the older gear might still be working reliably.

But if a telco or ISP makes any tweaks to this older equipment to keep it working – something many ISPs are notorious for – then theoretically anybody doing that has broken the law under the DMCA and could be subject to a fine up to $500,000 and a year in jail, for a first offense.

Of course, we all face this same dilemma at home. Almost everything electronic these days comes with proprietary software and the manufacturers of your PCs, tablets, smartphones, personal assistants, security systems, IoT gear and almost all new appliances probably think that they own the software in your device. And that raises the huge question of what it means these days to buy something, if you don’t really fully own it.

I know many farmers and I think John Deere is making a huge mistake. If another tractor company like Kubota or Massey Ferguson declares that they don’t maintain rights to the software then John Deere could see its market dry up quickly. There is also now a booming market in refurbished farm equipment that pre-dates proprietary software. But this might be a losing battle when almost everything we buy includes software. It’s going to be interesting to see how both the courts and the court of public opinion handle this.

Trends in Traditional TV

Nielsen has now been publishing quarterly reports on TV viewing habits since 2011. Comparing the latest report for the 4th quarter of 2016 to the original 2011 report shows a major decrease in the hours spent by younger Americans in watching traditional television – which is defined as the combination of both live viewing and time-delayed viewing of network television content.

The changes differ by age group and don’t paint a pretty picture for the traditional TV market:

  • Teens (12-17) watched almost 14 hours per week of television, but that’s down almost 11% from 2015 and down 38% from five years.
  • Younger Millennials (18-24) watched 15.5 hours per week of TV, and that’s down 39%, or 1.5 hours per day over 5 years.
  • Older Millennials (25-34) watched 22 hours per week, and which is down 26.5% over five years.
  • Gen-Xers (35-49) watched almost 40 hours per week and have seen a 10% drop over five years.
  • Baby Boomers (50-64) watched 43 hours per week and have had a slight increase over five years of 1.6% in viewing time.
  • 65+ viewers watched 52 hours per week which is up 0.6% over 2015 and is up 8.4% over five years.

So what are the younger people doing other than watching traditional TV?  The numbers for 19-24 year old users is interesting.

  • They spend 15.5 hours per week watching traditional television (including time-shifting).
  • They spend 20.8 hours watching subscription-based OTT content like Netflix or Amazon.
  • They spend another 17 hours watching something else, which includes things like DVRs, video on social media, or free web content like YouTube.
  • That’s an average of 53 hours per week, about the same amount of screen time as those over 65 watching traditional TV.

This same group also uses a variety of different screens. That includes an average of 9.2 hours per week watching video on a PC or laptop, 1.5 hours per week watching on a tablet and 1 hour per week watching on a smartphone. The rest still use a television screen, even if the content is not a traditional TV feed.

The good news for the whole industry is that young people are not tuning out from watching video content – they are just watching a lot less traditional television. And that means less of the major networks, less sports, and less of all of the various networks found on cable systems. They have decided, as a group that other content is of more interest.

It’s soon going to be harder for Nielsen and others to quantify the specific types of content viewing because the lines are starting to blur between the various categories. If somebody watches a live feed of a basketball game or a traditional network show on Sling TV that is basically the same as watching traditional TV. But on that same platform you can also watch streaming movies in the same manner as Netflix. And traditional broadcasters are doing something similar. For example, CBS All-access not only includes traditional CBS programming, but there is new content like the new Star Trek series that is only going to be available on-line.

We’ve known for a long time that younger viewers are not watching television in the same way as older generations, but these numbers really highlight the differences. Those over 65 years old are watching four times more traditional television than teens. And viewing hours for younger viewers are steadily dropping while older viewers are watching as much or more TV than five years ago. You only have to trend this forward for a decade to foresee continued dramatic drops in total TV viewership.

For years there has been hope in the industry that as kids age and get families and buy homes that they will return to the traditional pay-TV packages. But numerous surveys have shown that this is not happening. It seems that the viewing habits of youth influences viewing habits for life. And that creates a real challenge for the advertising-supported pay TV model. TV advertisers are only reliably reaching older viewers, and yet most advertisers still believe that TV advertising is one of their most effective tools. But each year TV advertising is going to reach fewer and fewer younger viewers, and at some point the advertisers are going to be forced to look elsewhere.

Is Internet Access a Right?

I just saw the results of an interesting survey conducted by AnchorFree, a digital privacy company. They asked 2,000 people a number of questions about Internet privacy and related issues.

The most interesting finding to me was that 32% of Americans now believe that access to broadband is a fundamental right. I’m sure you wouldn’t have to go back as recently as five years ago to find a time when nobody held that belief. I think this speaks loudly to the importance of broadband in people’s lives.

I also know a lot of people at the other end of the spectrum for that belief. Many people think that the primary purpose of the Internet is now to watch video. It’s not hard to understand this viewpoint since video traffic, due to the size of video files, dwarfs other internet traffic. But the Internet has continued to increase in importance in the average person’s life in ways that might not be catching the big headlines. One example is the way that the Internet has changed how many of us work. Just in my family of siblings I and a sister along now work at home. On the block where I live there are half a dozen people that work from home. While that phenomenon has been around for a while, the number of people working at home some or all of the time continues to climb rapidly- something that would not be possible without reliable broadband.

The Internet also has changed our lives in smaller, but important ways. I recently moved to Asheville, NC and live close to downtown. It turns out here that most of the households in my new neighborhood subscribe to a platform called Nextdoor. This delivers hyper-local news, something that was talked about a lot in the early days of the Internet, but which never quite materialized. This is a platform where you report a lost cat, warn about a tree branch that has fallen in the road or look for somebody local to mow your lawn. The platform can be set to just cover your immediate neighbors or for a wider area. At least in my new neighborhood this Internet platform has created a sense of connectivity and community, something that has disappeared in a lot of the country.

Most of us also use the cloud today, and I think many people don’t even realize the extent of the cloud in their lives. I use a back-up service to automatically store copies of every file on my computer. We use several software packages such as Microsoft Office365, Adobe PDF services and QuickBooks that are in the cloud. And like almost everybody our email is all done in the cloud. It seems like my broadband connection is always updating some app on my cellphone or computer.

The Internet has also become the tool for training and education. This school year my daughter was unable to take the math class she wanted due to a scheduling conflict but was able to take it instead online – something that benefited her, but which I also suspect saved money for the school system since one online teacher could handle more students than in a classroom. I know a lot of people who have completed online masters degrees that have led to better-paying jobs. What is probably most extraordinary about this is how ordinary online training has become compared to just a few years ago. It’s hard to pictures students without Internet access, which is one of the biggest sore spots in rural America that doesn’t have good broadband.

But back to the rest of the survey. Not surprisingly, 80% of respondents said that they are more concerned today about online privacy and security than they were a year ago. This high percentage is probably due to a few factors such as the recent news that the FCC ended privacy regulations for the big ISPs. There has also been a lot of headlines in the last year about security problems and I rarely go a day any more without hearing about some new virus, some new weakness in a software platform, or some new major hacking.

Just over 70% of respondents said that they are doing more today to protect themselves online. For most this meant changing their passwords more often and being more careful about opening emails. But there has also been an explosion in new subscribers to VPN services since the FCC ended ISP privacy protections. I also anecdotally have talked to quite a few people who have either pared back or stepped away from social media like Facebook.

Interestingly, 42% of all respondents thought that it is the responsibility of their ISP or somebody other than the government to make the web as safe as possible. That has me scratching my head, but that’s probably because I know a lot more about the big ISPs than most people. The good news is that subscribers to smaller ISPs operated by telcos, cooperatives and municipalities have an ISP who is looking out for them. But anybody trusting the big ISPs might be putting their faith in the very company that is the primary culprit in violating their privacy.

Just When You Thought It Was Safe . . .

Yet one more of our older technologies is now a big target for hackers. Recently hackers have been able to use the SS7 (Signaling System 7) network to intercept text messages from banks using two-factor authentication and then cleaning out bank accounts.

This is not the first time that SS7 has been used for nefarious purposes. Industry experts started to warn about the dangers of SS7 back in 2008. In more recent years there have been numerous reports that the SS7 network has been used by governments and others to keep tabs on the locations of some cellphones. But the use of the SS7 network to intercept text messages creates a big danger for anybody using online banking that requires text-massage authentication. Once a hacker intercepts a text verification code they can be inside your bank account.

Once a hacker is inside the SS7 network they can use the protocol to redirect traffic. This was recently demonstrated on 60 Minutes when German hackers intercepted phone calls made to congressman Ted Lieu, with his permission. SS7 can be used to direct, block or perform numerous functions on any telephone number, making it a great tool for spying.

Telephone techs are familiar with SS7 and it’s been with us since 1975. It was developed by Bell Labs and was the technology that allowed the creation of what we’ve come to call telephone features. SS7 technology allowed for the telephone system to snag pieces of called or calling numbers and other network information and led to the creation of such features as caller ID, call blocking, call forwarding and numerous other features.

In the telecom world SS7 is carried on a separate network from the paths used to route telephone calls. Every telephone carrier on the network has separate SS7 trunks that all connect regionally to SS7 hubs, known as STPs. It is the ubiquitous nature of SS7 that makes it vulnerable. There is an SS7 connection to every telephone switch, but also to private switches like PBXs. If the SS7 network was a private network that only connected telco central offices it would be relatively safe. But the proliferation of other SS7 nodes makes it relatively easy for a hacker to gain access to the SS7 network, or even to buy a connection into the SS7 network.

It has now become dangerous to use two-factor authentication for anything. While access to bank accounts is an obvious target, this kind of hacking could also gain access to social networks, entry into corporate WANs or any software platform using two-factor authentication. Some banks have already announced that they are going to abandon this kind of customer authentication, but many of the larger ones have yet to act. You have to think most of them are looking into alternatives, but it’s not particularly easy for a giant bank to change their customer interfaces.

There is a replacement for SS7 on the way. It’s an IP-based protocol called Diameter. This protocol can replace SS7 but also has a much wider goal of being the protocol to authenticate connections to the Internet of Things as well as VoIP communications from cell phones using WiFi.

Banks and others could change to the Diameter protocol and send encrypted authentication messages through email or a messaging system. But this would not be an easy change for the telephone industry to implement. The SS7 network is used today to support major switching functions like the routing of 800 calls and the many telephone features like caller ID. Changing the way those functions are done would be a major change for the industry. It’s one of the many items being looked at by the industry as part of the digital transition of the telephone network. But if it was decided tomorrow to start implementing this change it would require years to make sure that all existing switches keep working and that all of the SS7-enabled functions keep working as they should.

SS7 was implemented long before there was anything resembling a hacker. For the most part the SS7 network has been working quietly behind the scenes to do routing and other functions that have increased the efficiency of the telephone network. But like with most older electronic technologies the SS7 network has numerous flaws that can be exploited by malicious hacking. So it probably won’t be too many years until the SS7 networks are turned off.

The Future of OTT

Level3 Just released their third annual report titled OTT Video Services, where they asked a wide array of industry experts about the future of OTT. The report posed a variety of questions about the OTT industry to 486 ‘media industry professionals,’ who were 70% from the US with the rest scattered in the rest of the world. These kind of exercises are not surveys and you can’t attach any statistical significance to the results. But since the respondents are in the industry I don’t know if there is any better way to understand where the industry thinks OTT is headed.

The most interesting finding (and the one that spawned a few headlines) is that 70% of the respondents think that OTT viewership will bypass traditional television viewership no later than 2022. That is an amazing prediction considering the huge difference today between TV and OTT viewing. While this year it’s expected that about two-thirds of US homes will watch at least one OTT broadcast per month, total OTT usage this year is expected to deliver only about 20% of the total hours spent by adults watching video content.

I can understand why Level3 would sponsor this report each year. The bandwidth required to support an OTT industry that grows from 20% of all of the hours spent watching video up to 50% is going to stress networks everywhere. About a quarter of respondents thought that OTT content would grow year-over-year as much as 25%, with almost half of the respondents thinking that growth rate would be between 30% and 50% per year.

This growth represents huge bandwidth growth on the backbone networks that Level3 operates as well as on all of the local networks that ISPs use to support residential customers. If you think your broadband slows down now in the evening, wait just a few years where there will be a lot more video on your local network.

The experts did foresee some major challenges for the OTT industry. Their biggest concern was the ability of local ISP networks to deliver a high-quality signal to customers. This concern was partially due to a concern that customers would not have enough bandwidth, but also represented concerns about the backbone networks and the interface between OTT providers and ISPs. It was disagreements between OTT players and the ISPs that prompted the last FCC to get serious about network neutrality. And since it looks like network neutrality will be scrapped that concern is back on the burner.

They are also concerned that the OTT industry might try to follow the path of traditional TV and begin inserting too many ads. The experts see ads as one of the major factors today driving people from traditional programming to OTT programming.

Another concern of the OTT industry is the ability of OTT companies to acquire desired programming. There are still some popular cable networks that none of the OTT providers have been able to purchase. There is particular concern about the ability to acquire regional sports networks, something that is a major draw for a significant proportion of customers. And there is concern about acquiring local network feeds and today the few OTT providers largely show content from a few major urban markets.

In looking towards the future, there are a number of OTT providers keeping an eye on acquiring virtual reality content, although none of the OTT services carries such content yet today. Of a higher priority to most OTT providers was the ability to beef up their networks in order to support both higher frame rates (HFR) and high-dynamic ranges (HDR) and most providers are working towards supporting both options. These technologies can improve delivery of sports content today and will situate OTT providers to offer VR content in the future.

There is also a lot of interest in OTT providers to be able to carry more live events other than sports content. They know that there is high customer demand for watching live events like the Emmys and other award shows, live concerts and other live content.

There is also a lot of interest from OTT providers that carry live network feeds (traditional cable channels shown linearly) to also be able to offer a library of video-on-demand content, in the same manner as Netflix. I’ve been a subscriber to Sling TV for a while and some of their network now offers a lot of VOD content on the service.

It’s going to be an interesting industry to watch. There are around 100 OTT services available in the US today, but only about half a dozen of them have any significant number of customers. I note that even though industry insiders foresee huge growth for the sector, that’s only going to happen if the OTT providers can find a way to offer what people want to watch.

Why Isn’t Cord Cutting Going Faster?

If cord cutting is such a big deal, then why aren’t more people leaving traditional television? That’s a question I’ve been asked several times lately and it’s a good one.

Cord cutting is definitely real. Numerous articles make cord cutting seem like an imminent disaster for the cable industry. But industry estimates are that between 1.7 million and 2.5 million people walked away from traditional cable TV in 2016. The lower number is the net drop in national cable subscribers while the higher number takes into account the fact that there were over a million new housing units built in the country – and I think the higher number is closer to correct.

And while losses of that many customers hurts the cable industry, it’s hard to yet call it a flood. If annual losses stay at this level the cable industry will still have over 50 million customers twenty years from now. The real story might be that most people aren’t yet cutting the cord. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I think the most important ones are:

People Still Like Cable. Total pay television subscribers just fell to under 100 million sometime last year. There are a lot of households that still like the variety of channels that come with the big packages. While a lot customers are now time shifting by the use of DVRs and TV everywhere, they still like what they are buying.

Bundling Discount. It’s really easy to forget that the big cable companies have priced their bundles in such a way as to penalize customers for leaving just one service. Cord cutters generally want to retain their broadband while dropping cable – and when they go to do this they find that the savings is not as large as they thought. Interestingly, if you want to keep cable and drop broadband the same thing is true. The big cable companies apply the ‘bundling’ discount to whatever product you want to drop – meaning that you then revert to paying full market price for whatever product is kept. People that want to save $20 per month by switching to an OTT service like Sling TV quickly find out that they actually won’t save much.

Cord Shaving Instead. There is a whole lot of cord shaving going on – that is, people migrating to smaller cable packages. Cord shaving lets people who mostly like Netflix to keep local network stations and a few other things they like about traditional TV, without fully cutting the cord. This is best evidenced by looking at the subscriber numbers to the various cable networks, which are losing subscriptions at a much faster pace than total pay TV subscribership. For example, ESPN has lost around 12 million subscribers since their peak in 2013, and the majority of other cable networks are also seeing large subscriber losses. Since the total net subscribers to pay television are dropping more slowly, the only explanation is that customers are opting out of the big cable packages for smaller ones. The cable companies don’t release statistics on cord shaving, and so we can only guess at the magnitude of the changes by seeing what is happening to ESPN and other networks.

The Alternatives are not that Different. Over half of the homes in the country now subscribe to at least one of the OTT services like Netflix. But it appears that most homes are viewing this content as alternate content and not a straight replacement for traditional cable.

There are a lot of new alternatives to traditional cable such as Sling TV or Playstation Vue – but I don’t think most customers are seeing them as significantly different than traditional cable content. I’ve been trying some of these services and they honestly still feel like cable. The content is mostly streamed at fixed times and even with smaller line-ups I find I’m not interested in most of the channels they carry. While these alternatives can save money, they often don’t have the same reliability or quality of picture as a cable system. The bottom line, at least to me, is that services like Sling TV still feel like cable offerings to me.

It’s Not Easy for Some. It’s not easy for the technically unsophisticated to totally cut the cord. Unless you live in a major metropolitan market you’re going to want to somehow tie in your local network stations with other online programming, and that is still not that easy. You can get an antenna to pick up off-the-air content, but that is not easily integrated into any easy-to-use program guide or search engine.

It’s also not always easy to drop the cable company. People get tied up in contracts that are expensive to break. There is a whole gauntlet of steps needed to get away from the cable company from listening to retention specialists to returning settop boxes that make leaving a hassle – and the cable companies know that these tactics work.

We may get to a time when cord cutting accelerates more quickly, as happened with landline telephones. But before that happens there needs to be easier to use and more satisfying alternatives to draw most people away from traditional cable altogether. If there is any one issue that might push more households over the edge it’s the price of cable packages – but the big cable providers are now introducing skinny bundles to try to retain the budget minded customers. I’m looking at the numbers and thinking we are going to have traditional cable around a lot longer than many people predict.

Broadband and Apartments

Comcast just released the results of a survey they completed that talked to apartment building managers around the country. The published results of this survey can be found here. No doubt the survey was conducted and published as a way for Comcast to convince apartment owners and managers that Comcast can provide them with a broadband solution. But the findings are interesting in that I’ve seen few such surveys that concentrate on the MDU demographic. I’m sure the big ISPs do this kind of market research all of the time, but have rarely disclosed their findings.

While there are some apartment buildings in most communities, this is particularly of interest for urban areas where there are significant numbers of people living in apartments. There are a number of big cities in the country where half or more of residents live in apartments and condominiums. As I’ve discussed in a number of blogs, many cities have spotty broadband coverage that ranges from buildings with fiber for tenants down to buildings with no broadband connectivity. Here are the most interesting results of the survey:

Renter’s Expectations. 87% of apartment managers thought that technology played a vital role in keeping tenants satisfied. 75% of managers said that a majority of prospective tenants ask about communications services. 46% of managers said that having fast broadband connections was their most important amenity for residents with another 36% ranking WiFi as the most important. A distant third was in-apartment laundry.

Property Values. Property managers were asked how technology improves the value of their properties. 30% of managers said that providing good communications services boosted the value of their property by at least 20%. Over 90% of building managers said that good infrastructure increased their value to some degree.

Competition. 67% of the buildings involved in the survey have only one or two telecom service providers – meaning generally the incumbents.

Desire to Modernize. A lot of building managers have plans to improve technology for tenants. 47% have plans to improve infrastructure capable of delivering gigabit speeds. 48% have plans to introduce some smart home technologies (which also require good communications infrastructure).

Challenges Faced. While apartment managers almost universally want to improve their communications infrastructure, they face several roadblocks. 67% are worried about the cost of upgrades. 40% worry about having a quality ISP available even should they make the upgrades. 82% said that they would be quick to adapt upgrades that reduce their operating costs.

Plans for Future Technology Improvements. 89% of managers said that technology plays an important role in the decision of tenants to renew leases. The same percentage said that they wanted to improve WiFi performance in their buildings; 60% want to add energy-efficiency improvements; 49% want to add better security; 43% want to add smart home technology and 43% also want to bolster the underlying communications infrastructure.

Demographics. Looking at the trends with apartments provides one of the few glimpses into how younger households are shaping broadband demand. The managers surveyed said that 36% of their tenants were between 18 and 34, a much higher percentage than seen in single family homes. 90% of building managers said that younger renters were driving the demand for faster broadband speeds and better WiFi.

Municipal Broadband

One of the fights that I expect to see resurface this year is on the topic of whether local governments should be allowed to build fiber networks and become ISPs. The last FCC tackled this issue in a small way when they granted petitions by Chattanooga, TN and Wilson, NC to expand their broadband networks beyond their electric service territories and municipal boundaries. That ruling got reversed by a US district court and was not appealed by the FCC. But the ruling was of limited scope anyway and only addressed those two cities and didn’t set any precedent for other communities.

There are a lot of moving parts on this topic and it’s hard to know where this might go with the current FCC. This FCC is obviously pro-big ISP and companies like Comcast and AT&T have been staunch opponents of municipal broadband. But by the same token, this administration seems to lean towards states’ rights – and up until now municipal broadband has been regulated on a state-by-state basis.

Interestingly, at the local level municipal broadband has broad bipartisan support. In most communities almost all local politicians of both major parties support local broadband efforts. In my experience in working around the country, the only local political opponents of municipal broadband I have seen are those who are strong opponents of government spending money for anything but essential services. Generally local, state and even federal politicians support local broadband efforts in the communities they serve. I think the broad bipartisan appeal is due to politicians recognizing the strong public support for broadband and that almost every household wants broadband these days.

But there are 22 states with some restrictions on municipal broadband. These range from hurdles that can be overcome, like a referendum, up through states that have a total prohibition on municipal broadband. There has been a continual effort by ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) – funded by large corporations – to pass new state restrictions on broadband. But most recent efforts to increase prohibition of local broadband have been rebuffed, because few politicians want to go on the record against broadband. But I would not be surprised to see the big ISPs try to press their current advantage at the FCC and try to pass new national restrictions.

Today I see the municipal world dividing into two separate constituencies – urban and rural. Very few big cities have any desire to become an ISP. But they have legitimate concerns that urban broadband isn’t benefiting everybody. For example, San Francisco and some other cities are unhappy that apartment residents don’t have the same broadband opportunities and options as single family homes. And a lot of cities are still unhappy that after all of these years there is no solution for the digital divide. The FCC said last year that there are still around six million people in pockets of urban areas that don’t have access to broadband that meets the 25 Mbps download standard. But while these issues are viewed as a major problem in urban areas, I don’t see much appetite for big city governments tackling the cost of building broadband networks, which is particularly expensive in cities.

Rural America is a totally different story. We have come to the point where communities without good broadband really suffer. Broadband is not just about Netflix but is necessary to take part in the modern world. Local governments are finding that nobody wants to buy homes without broadband if there is a nearby community with broadband. Worse, communities are seeing businesses move away or bypass them when considering new locations. Lack of broadband puts school kids at a definite disadvantage and there are still a lot of households that drive kids daily to public hotspots just to do homework. And lack of broadband takes away all the opportunities for working at home – probably the biggest area of job growth in rural America.

I see small communities – even down to really small sizes like townships with 700 residents – trying to find ways to build a broadband network. I’ve read a few hundred RFPs from rural communities over the last few years, and probably not more than 5% want to become an ISP. But they will do so if they can’t find a commercial company willing to do it. Rural communities largely favor of public-private partnerships. More and more of them are willing to kick money into a building a network if an ISP will invest in their community and operate a broadband network.

I believe that within a decade we are going to start seeing broadband ‘deserts’ where communities without broadband start withering – just as happened in the past to communities that didn’t get electricity, or that were bypassed by railroads or interstate highways. It’s hard to think that a community today can keep their kids at home without broadband – and this is starting to scare local governments.

I just hope that the FCC doesn’t wade into this battle on the side of the big ISPs. Those big companies are not spending money in rural America – or if they are, it’s only when handed to them by the federal government. And even then they are just putting band-aids on rural broadband rather than building fast new networks. I have a feeling that many of the states that have restrictions on rural broadband are going to start having second thoughts about those restrictions when they realize that broadband is at or near the top of concerns of most of rural America.

There are companies building great rural broadband networks. The small telcos are almost all expanding their service areas to build broadband networks. And many of them are working with or partnering with local governments. But all of these small companies collectively can only solve a relatively small percentage of the rural broadband gap – together they do not have the capacity to borrow anything close to the billions needed to build broadband everywhere. Many rural electric cooperatives are now looking hard at the issue, and they could satisfy another slice of the rural market. But that’s still going to leave millions of rural residents with no broadband on their horizon. And I predict these folks are going to become a vocal constituency that politicians will be unable to ignore.