“But I Live Close to Fiber”

I often hear from people who are excited that fiber is coming to their neighborhood. They see work crews installing fiber and they hope this means that they are finally getting fiber to their homes. But unless folks are in one of the lucky neighborhoods where some ISP is making the big investment in last mile fiber-to-the-home, the chances are good that the new fiber that is tantalizingly close is not going to reach them.

There are a lot of fiber networks in the country that are being used for purposes other than serving homes. Consider some of the following reasons why fiber might be close to you, but unavailable:

  • Electric companies have private fiber networks to connect substations and other electric company facilities. In the last few years we’ve seen some of the biggest electric companies pull back from sharing fiber with others because of security concerns for the electric grid. It’s not uncommon for the electric company to be the only tenant on such fibers.
  • Telcos have fiber networks that connect their central offices in various towns. They have more extensive local fiber networks that are built to supply neighborhood DSL cabinets. If your neighborhood has DSL speeds greater than 15 Mbps, the chances are good that there is telco fiber close to you.
  • Cable companies have fiber for similar reasons. Cable networks are subdivided into neighborhood nodes. These nodes used to be large and served upwards of a thousand homes, but cable companies have reduced node sized to eliminate the problem of their broadband slowing down in the evenings. Nodes might now be as small as a hundred homes – and since each node is fiber fed there is cable company fiber somewhere near to every cluster of homes.
  • A large number of cities have built fiber networks to connect city hall, libraries, firehouses, water utility facilities and other city locations. This has largely been done to reduce the high payments to ISPs to connect these locations with broadband. While many municipal FTTH projects got started by expanding these networks, the vast majority of the municipal fiber networks serve only the city. There’s a decent chance that there is fiber at the library, firehouse or other city facility near your neighborhood.
  • Similarly there are a number of states that have built state-wide fiber networks to connect their own facilities. These networks are often shared with anchor institutions like city halls and other local and state government buildings. Most of these networks are prohibited by state law from sharing the fiber with last-mile fiber builds, even municipal ones.
  • Many school districts have fiber networks to connect schools to provide gigabit speeds. While some of these networks can be shared with other providers, the majority of these networks are used only for the school district.
  • Various companies including telcos, cable companies, and big ISPs build fiber to reach large businesses or industrial parks. The larger downtown buildings in most cities now also have fiber.
  • There is now a major push for building fiber to large apartment complexes. For example, a lot of the push by AT&T to pass millions of locations with fiber is mostly being done by reaching apartment complexes.
  • Today every cell tower is fed with fiber. There will be a lot of new fiber built to reach the smaller cell sites we’ll see on utility and light poles.
  • There are long-haul fiber networks that only function to connect cities and major markets. These networks rarely allow any connections to the network other than at major network nodes.
  • Many cities now have fiber networks that feed traffic signals and traffic cameras. Because of the way that these networks are funded with highway money, these fiber networks are often inexplicably separate from other municipal fiber networks.
  • State highway departments also now operate a lot of fiber networks for their own use to feed the signs that provide traffic information and to feed cameras that are used to monitor traffic.

The chances are that if you live in any kind of populated area, even in rural counties, that there are several of these fiber networks close to you. If you live in a city it’s likely that you can easily walk to half a dozen different fiber networks – none which are being used to bring fiber to your home.  The chances are high that the new fiber you see being built is not being built for you.

Finally a la carte TV?

Charter just sent me an advertisement that got my attention. They are offering a TV package for $21.99 per month that includes my local network affiliates plus ten other channels that I get to select. This is the first TV service I’ve seen that provides a la carte choice. The statistics from Nielsen show that the average family watches around a dozen channels and this service could give people exactly that.

The local networks included are ABC, CBS. FOX, NBC and PBS. The offer I got then allows me to pick 10 out of 65 of the most popular cable networks. This includes a wide range of options like AMC, Bravo, CNN, the Disney Channel, the Food Network, HGTV, MTV, MSNBC, TBS, and USA. I was surprised to see the offer includes the option to pick the pricier sports networks like ESPN, ESPN2 and FS1. This price includes access to the apps of your selected channels. Charter also offers around 6,000 on-demand titles, although it’s hard to know how worthwhile this might be without signing up for the package.

The offer made it sound like this was an online OTT offering, but when I went to the web site I found that I can choose between delivery through a Charter settop box or delivery through a Charter broadband connection.

My first reaction to the offer is ask how Charter is able to offer this. There are specific FCC rules that define cable tiers and I’m not sure how Charter gets away with this as a traditional cable product. This doesn’t fit the FCC definition of a basic tier and certainly is not even close to an expanded basic tier. We’ve been told for years that cable companies cannot offer a la carte pricing for channels, and yet Charter is doing just that. I’m guessing that Charter does not consider this to be a true OTT offering since it’s only available to Charter broadband customers and never touches the open web.

I also wonder about the $21.99 price. I have a hard time thinking that Charter talked the local network affiliates across their huge footprint to agree to put their content onto the web, and so Charter is going to charge local franchise fees on the product with or without having the settop box. I also wonder if Charter will charge ancillary fees like a local broadcast fee or other bogus fees they charge to their normal cable customers. Anybody getting this through a settop box is clearly going to pay for the box. A customer buying this through a settop box might end up paying $35 to $40.

I also wonder if I can watch this programming when I’m traveling, which is a major consideration for me. If they can make that work then I again wonder how Charter can ship local affiliate programming over the web.

Regardless of how they are getting past all of the regulatory rules this has the potential to be a great product. Assuming it doesn’t really cost too much more than $21.99 it blows away the base prices for other OTT options like Sling TV, Playstation Vue and DirecTV Now. Those packages have an affordable basic option, but it always costs more when you add enough tiers to get the dozen channels you really want. As a traditional cable service it’s massively better than Charter’s basic offering for around the same price that doesn’t include any popular network. Any Charter basic customer ought to upgrade to this package. Interestingly Charter is charging a $20 install fee whether this is done using a cable box or over broadband, which further confirms that this is probably not considered as an OTT product.

Surveys have always shown a huge public desire for a la carte programming. People don’t like paying for the hundred channels they don’t watch. I have to think that this is going to put the pressure on the other cable companies to offer something similar.

This product seems to be aimed at cannibalizing Charter’s other TV offerings. This offer, perhaps more than anything else I’ve seen from a cable company shows that they recognize that a huge number of their customers are thinking of bailing on traditional cable TV. This offer offers a lower price option for customers to not completely cut the cord. Unless they pad this with ancillary fees it’s hard to see much margin in this package.

This package makes a lot of sense in places like the research triangle of North Carolina where Charter is competing against Google Fiber and AT&T fiber. It’s harder to understand why they are offering a low-margin cable option where they are competing only against DSL. Perhaps the reasoning is as simple as wanting to keep a few dollars margin rather than losing customers as cord cutters.

I thought about buying this, but I don’t really trust Charter and wonder what the real price tag is – it’s almost certainly not $21.99. I would also be unhappy if this only worked when I was at home on my Charter broadband connection. I am an unabashed Maryland Terrapins fan and I also wouldn’t buy this package since it doesn’t include the Big10 Network. Perhaps my own pickiness about channels shows the real challenge of offering a la carte programming. We each have our list of favorite channels and are likely to reject any OTT offer that excludes a network we insist on buying.

 

Broadband Advocates

I’m writing this blog while sitting in a meeting of NCHeartsGigabit, a non-profit started in North Carolina to promote the expansion of broadband. The group started five or six years ago as an informal group of folks who were interested in expanding broadband coverage around North Carolina. A few years ago they realized that they needed to move from talking to action and created a non-profit organization that now brings together the various broadband stakeholders to look for broadband solutions.

Today’s meeting is a great example of the progress they’ve made. There is a wide range of attendees representing state and local government, telco cooperatives and ISPs, bankers, foundations, equipment vendors, consultants and engineers. Most impressive is that they attracted both current Governor Roy Cooper and former Governor James B. Hunt to speak to the group. I think their presence highlights the importance that broadband coverage is now getting in this and other states. North Carolina is like the majority of states where there are some pockets of fiber-to-the-home, cities served by the big cable company networks, a smattering of rural areas served well by small telcos and cooperatives, and much of the rural parts of the state with poor or nonexistent broadband.

Sitting in this meeting reminds me how important it is to have what I call broadband advocates – folks like NCHeartsGigabit who have taken it as a mission to promote broadband. I’ve written many blogs about why broadband is vital for rural America and these are folks who get it.

I work around the country in communities of all sizes and I regularly interface with broadband advocates. Sometimes these groups are formal like a broadband committee that is empowered by the local government. I recently worked with such a group in Davis, California and it is one of the most knowledgeable and engaged advocacy groups I have ever worked with. I can tell that this group, which is also backed by widespread citizen support is going to hold the city’s feet to the fire on broadband issues.

Sometimes there is no formal group, but instead the public acts in mass to make their voices heard on the issue. As an example, I was at a public meeting in Pope County, Minnesota last year to give the findings from a broadband feasibility study. This is the most sparsely populated county in the state and there was little broadband outside of the county seat. The public meeting was standing-room only and the county officials heard story after story about how lack of broadband was affecting people’s lives. The County officials heard this message and have since provided funding in a public private partnership with a telco cooperative to bring broadband to the County.

The more common situation is that there only a few broadband advocates in a community who push for broadband. If these few broadband champions are persistence enough they can sometimes finally pull the rest of the community along. The best example of this I can think of is my friend Mark Ericsson who was the one-man force behind bringing broadband to Renville and Sibley Counties in Minnesota. He went to hundreds of local meetings and eventually got a lot of other volunteer help, but without his early persistence this project would have died in the early days.

His success is memorable because it is rare. Bringing fiber to a rural area requires a huge amount of effort. It means convincing politicians to support the idea. It means raising the money needed for doing the feasibility analysis. It means raising even more money for customer education and marketing and in many places a referendum. It takes yet more money to raise the funding. And unless a community wants to be an ISP it means finding an ISP partner to operate the business. More often than not, a community with only a few advocates can’t make it through this daunting gauntlet of tasks.

This is why I always recommend that communities with poor broadband make a push early to involve as much of the community as possible finding a solution. I don’t understand the sociology of why it works, but I know from practical experience that unleashing a group of broadband advocates often creates momentum that is hard to stop. Households in rural counties generally want broadband badly enough that many of them will agree to play some role in getting a broadband network. If a community really wants broadband, my first advice is to create the advocacy group first and then get out of their way.

The Price for Triple Play?

I was recently working on a project for client who is thinking about competing in a new city and wants to understand the real market rates customers are paying. We solicited copies of bills from existing subscribers to the incumbent telco and cable company to find out.

I doubt that anybody would be surprised from what we found, but it was good to be reminded of the billing practices of the big ISPs. Here are a few of the things we found:

  • Both incumbents use promotional rates to provide lower prices to new customers or to existing customers who are willing to negotiate and to sign up for a term contract. Promotional discounts were all over the board and seems to mostly range between a $5 and a $25 discount per month. But there was one customers who was getting a $60 discount on a $180 monthly bill.
  • Both incumbents also offer bundling discounts, but they were applied erratically. Our sample of bills was not a statistically valid sample, but roughly half of the bills we saw had a bundled discount while other customers buying the same products were not getting a discount.
  • The cable incumbent offers the typical three tiers of service offered by most cable companies. While every cable customer had one of these three packages, we surprisingly didn’t see any two customers paying the same price.
  • The cable company had programming fees that were separate from the base programming charges – one fee to cover local programming costs and another labeled as a sport fee. These were not always billed at the same rate and there were not being billed to all customers with the same packages.
  • There was also a varying range of fees for settop boxes and cable modems by the cable company and WiFi modems from the telco.
  • What surprised me most was how widely the taxes varied from bill to bill. Customers with the same products often had tax charges several dollars apart. This makes me wonder why more taxing authorities aren’t auditing bills from time to time to see if all of the tax due to them is even being billed.
  • Nowhere on the bills was any customer told the speed of their broadband products.
  • There were obvious billing errors. For example, I saw a bill charging the subscriber line charge to somebody who doesn’t have a telephone line. They probably had one in the past and are still paying $6.50 per month long after they dropped their landline.

I hadn’t looked at that many customer bills from a single market for a while. I’ve always known that prices vary by customers, but I didn’t expect them to vary this much. My primary take-away from this analysis is that there is no one price for telecom products. I hear clients all of the time saying things like “My primary competition comes from a $49 broadband connection from the cable company”. But that’s not really true if most people are paying something different than $49. Some customers have discounts to lower that price while others may be paying more after considering ancillary fees.

The bills were confusing, even to me who knows what to look for. It would be easy, for example, for a customer to think that a local programming fee or an FCC line charge are taxes rather than revenue that is kept by the service provider. Both ISPs mixed these fees on the bill with actual taxes to make it impossible for the average customer to distinguish between a tax and a fee that is just a piece of a product billed under a different name.

These bills also made me wonder if the corporate staff of these big ISPs realize the wide range that customers are paying. In many cases there were fees that could have been billed that weren’t. And there was a a wide variance tax billing that would make a corporate CFO cringe.

These bills reinforce the advice I always give to clients. I think customers like transparency and I think the best bill is one that informs customers about what they are buying. In this market most customers could not tell you what they are paying for the various products. Bills can be simple, yet informative and some of my clients have wonderful bills. After seeing the billing mess from these two big ISPs, I think honest straightforward billing is another advantage for a competitor.

The Demand for Upload Speeds

I was recently at a public meeting about broadband in Davis, California and got a good reminder of why upload speeds are as important to a community as download speeds. One of the people making public comments talked about how uploading was essential to his household and how the current broadband products on the market were not sufficient for his family.

This man needed good upload speeds for several reasons. First, he works as a photographer and takes pictures and shoots videos. He says that it takes hours to upload and send raw, uncompressed video to one of his customers and says the experience still feels like the dial-up days. His full-time job is working as a network security consultant for a company that specializes in big data. As such he needs to send and receive large files, and his home upload bandwidth is also inadequate for that – forcing him to go to an office for work that could otherwise be done from his home. Finally, his daughter creates YouTube content and has the same problem uploading content – which is particularly a problem when her content deals with time-sensitive current events and waiting four hours to get the content to YouTube kills the timeliness of her content.

This family is not unusual any more. A decade ago, a photographer led the community effort to get faster broadband in a city I was working with. But he was the only one asking for faster upload speeds and most homes didn’t care about it.

Today a lot of homes need faster upload speeds. This particular family had numerous reasons including working from home, sending large data files and posting original content to the web. But these aren’t the only uses for faster upload speeds. Gamers now need faster upload speeds. Anybody who wants to remotely check their home security cameras cares about upload speeds. And more and more people are migrating to 2-way video communications, which requires those at both ends to have decent uploading. We are just now seeing the early trials of virtual presence where communications will be by big-bandwidth virtual holograms at each end of the communications.

Davis is like many urban areas in that the broadband products available have slow upload speeds. Comcast is the cable incumbent, and while they recently introduced a gigabit download product, their upload speeds are still paltry. DSL is offered by AT&T which has even slower upload speeds.

Technologies differ in their ability to offer upload speeds. For instance, DSL is technically capable of sending the data at the same speeds for upload or download. But DSL providers have elected to stress the download speed, which is what most people value. So DSL products are set with small upload and a lot of download. It would be possible to give a customer the choice to vary the mix between upload and download speeds, but I’ve never heard of an ISP who tried to provide this as an option to customers.

Cable modems are a different story. Historically the small upload speeds were baked directly into the DOCSIS standard. When Cable Labs created DOCSIS they made upload speeds small in response to what cable companies asked from them. Until recently, cable companies have had no option to increase upload speeds beyond the DOCSIS constraints. But Cable Labs recently amended the new DOCSIS 3.1 standard to allow for much upload speeds of nearly a gigabit. The first release of the new DOCSIS 3.1 standard didn’t include this, but it’s now available.

However, a cable company has to make sacrifices in their network if they want to offer faster uploads. It takes about 24 empty channels (meaning no TV signal) on a cable system to provide gigabit download speeds. A cable company would need to vacate many more channels of programming to also offer faster uploads and I don’t think many of them will elect to do so. Programming is still king and cable owners need to balance the demand for more channels compared to demand for faster uploads.

Fiber has no real constraints on upload speeds up to the capability of the lasers. The common technologies being used for residential fiber all allow for gigabit upload speeds. Many fiber providers set speeds to symmetrical, but others have elected to limit upload speeds. The reason I’ve heard for that is to limit the attractiveness of their network for spammers and others who would steal the use of fast uploading. But even these networks offer upload speeds that are far faster than the cable company products.

As more households want to use uploading we are going to hear more demands for a faster upload option. But for now, if you want super-fast upload speeds you have to be lucky enough to live in a neighborhood with fiber-to-the-home.

Technical Support as a Product

Verizon announced a new line of products this week that provide three different tiers of technical support to help customers better handle the wide array of devices and issues they face in the ever-more-confusing digital world.

The first product is the most intriguing. For $10 per month a customer gets technical support for virtually any device connected to their home network such as printers, smart locks, smart lighting, security systems and smart thermostats. Unlike the Comcast smart home product where customers only get Comcast-approved IoT devices, a Verizon customers can buy devices anywhere and still get support from Verizon in connecting or troubleshooting connections to such devices.

The technical support also comes with other useful features. Verizon will help you isolate and remove computer viruses and malware. They’ll help you with complicated tasks such as transferring photos, files or personal settings between computers. They also will provide up to 5 PC tune-ups per year that will run diagnostic tests and maximize computer performance. Maybe most important of all, joining the service puts customers at the top of the queue for call to technical support (which I guess means longer wait times for customers who don’t buy the service).

A second tier at $15 per month adds LifeLock Select, the identity protection service as well as McAfee Security and Safe Family – a suite of virus protection and parental control software. The last tier, priced at $30 per month adds an insurance plan for smart devices in the home other than smartphones or computers. It will cover smart TVs, tablets, smart thermostats and other IoT devices, and Verizon will repair or replace broken devices. This top plan also adds LastPass, a password management tool. The product doesn’t include any in-home assistance, although that is available through Verizon partners.

This is not a new product and there are numerous companies offering online technical support such as 24/7 Techies, AskPCExperts, Bask and Best Buy’s Geek Squad. Several of these services also offer a first-tier plan for $9.99 per month.

I also know a number of smaller US telcos and ISPs that offer something similar. Many of these companies operate in geographically isolated areas where there is no Best Buy or other outlet for technical services and support. Some of my clients sell monthly subscriptions similar to Verizon’s base fee. Others operate a physical store location where customers can get computer repair services.

I think every small company I’ve talked to who offers something like this tells me that they are lucky if the operation breaks even. But they all maintain the service because it distinguishes them from competitors and builds tremendous customer loyalty. Most are happy if their technical support effort breaks even.

I’m sure Verizon has done the math and believes they can make money at this – and they probably can. A company of their size can keep call queues full so that technicians have little or no down time. I’m sure Verizon is also counting on the fact that most customers will buy this service and only use it sporadically. A customer who really uses the service will cost Verizon more than the $10 fee.

The biggest issue that anybody who offers this kind of service faces is keeping a competent technical staff to support customer calls. Many employees who take this kind of job view it as a stepping stone to a better paying technical career, so there is usually high turnover of staff.

It’s an intriguing business line for ISPs to consider, particularly those in more remote markets. Our home networks are getting increasingly confusing. Sometimes just getting a printer to work right can eat up hours of time and figuring out more complicated devices can be maddening. As long as you recognize that you won’t get rich doing this it’s an interesting way to create personal relationships with customers while providing an invaluable service to customers that will differentiate you from the competition – unless your competition is Verizon.

When Marketing Plans Fail

It’s really easy for ISPs to assume that customers want what we are selling. I have clients that march into a market and assume that the majority of customers in the market will gladly change to a fiber network if they are using an older technology today. But sometimes we find that customers don’t want our products.

I have a number of examples of this. Many years ago I helped a client who was building traditional HFC cable TV networks and one of the markets had a substantially lower customer penetration rate than he expected. It didn’t take much digging to find out that a substantial portion of the community were conservative Mennonites who just weren’t interested in cable. He might still have built the town anyway, but he had to pare back his earnings expectations for that particular portion of his buildout.

I have another client who was building fiber in small towns and also experienced low take rates. He had guessed on his likely take rate by counting the homes with a satellite dish and he assumed that a reasonable percentage of these would want fiber broadband since the town had almost non-functional DSL. But it turns out that this particular little town was full of folks who considered themselves as political outsiders and they didn’t trust any ISP in their homes.

Those two examples are the extremes, but I see this phenomenon even more when clients introduce new products. New Product launches often are not the success that an ISP is hoping for. Consider some of the following examples:

  • I had a rural client who got almost no takers for a new burglar alarm and security product. Turns out most of the people in this market didn’t even lock their doors and weren’t worried about security.
  • I had a new client roll-out the triple play in a college town. He expected a lower-than-average take rate of telephone and cable TV because of the students, but was shocked when he sold less than half of those products compared to his expectations.
  • I have a number of clients who are getting almost no takers for smart home products, while they know neighboring ISPs who are doing well with the products.

All of these situations could have been made better with some market research. We’ve always found that a survey, if done correctly is an accurate predictor of residential penetration rates. A valid survey must be administered randomly and also given to enough people to be valid. I’ve seen many clients rely on non-random surveys, such as sending out post cards – and then being surprised by the results of their new roll-out.

So asking customers is always a good idea. But sometimes it’s not particularly cost effective. It can easily cost $7,000 – $10,000 to do a proper survey and that might not make sense when just introducing a new product line into a small market.

But there are other techniques. One is to pre-sell with a campaign that says you’ll roll out a product if enough people in the market show interest. If the new product is something that people want badly enough you’ll find neighbors talking to neighbors about the campaign.

One interesting marketing I saw recently involved giving temporary upgrades for free to customers. I had a client who improved the network and could now offer faster broadband speeds. But after a round of marketing, nobody was upgrading so the ISP started offering a free upgrade for three months, with the provision that customers could go back to the slower speeds if they didn’t want the new product. Virtually every customer kept the faster product and paid the higher price after the trial.

Finally, you can never discount customer education. For example, I have a client selling smart home product that gives folks a free assessment of the ways it can help their home. They walk through the home and talk about all of the ways that it might make the customer’s life easier. They don’t use any hard sell techniques – it’s done by technicians and is strictly a factual listing of what might or might not work for each customer depending upon their home. Price is only brought up if the customer shows interest. This has resulted in significant sales of the new product line, which the client believes is because the customer has gained an understanding of the real-life benefits of the product.

All too many times I’ve seen traditional marketing programs fail. Many customers have grown immune to mailers and don’t even open mail. And people generally will not call for a new product when they don’t understand the immediate relevancy to them. When you find yourself running into ineffective marketing it’s time to get create and try something new and different.

Gigabit LTE

Samsung just introduced Gigabit LTE into the newest Galaxy S8 phone. This is a technology with the capability to significantly increase cellular speeds, and which make me wonder if the cellular carriers will really be rushing to implement 5G for cellphones.

Gigabit LTE still operates under the 4G standards and is not an early version of 5G. There are three components of the technology:

  • Each phone has as 4X4 MIMO antenna, which is an array of four tiny antennae. Each antenna can make a separate connection to the cell tower.
  • The network must implement frequency aggregation. Both the phone and the cell tower must be able to combine the signals from the various antennas into one coherent data path.
  • Finally, the new technology utilizes the 256 QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation) protocol which can cram more data into the cellular data path.

The amount of data speeds that can be delivered to a given cellphone under this technology is going to rely on a number of different factors:

  • The nearest cell site to a customer needs to be upgraded to the technology. I would speculate that this new technology will be phased in at the busiest urban cell sites first, then to busy suburban sites and then perhaps to less busy sites. It’s possible that a cellphone could make connections to multiple towers to make this work, but that’s a challenge with 4G technology and is one of the improvements promised with 5G.
  • The amount of data speed that can be delivered is going to vary widely depending upon the frequencies being used by the cellular carrier. If this uses existing cellular data frequencies, then the speed increase will be a combination of the impact of adding four data streams together, plus whatever boost comes from using 256 QAM, less the new overheads introduced during the process of merging the data streams. There is no reason that this technology could not use the higher millimeter wave spectrum, but that spectrum will use different antennae than lower frequencies.
  • The traffic volume at a given cell site is always an issue. Cell sites that are already busy with single antennae connections won’t have the spare connections available to give a cellphone more than one channel. Thus, a given connection could consist of one to four channels at any given time.
  • Until the technology gets polished, I’d have to bet that this will work a lot better with a stationary cellphone rather than one moving in a car. So expect this to work better in downtowns, convention centers, etc.
  • And as always, the strength of a connection to a given customer will vary according to how far a customer is from the cell site, the amount of local interference, the weather and all of those factors that affect radio transmissions.

I talked to a few wireless engineers and they guessed that this technology using existing cellular frequencies might create connections as fast as a few hundred Mbps in ideal conditions. But they could only speculate on the new overheads created by adding together multiple channels of cellular signal. There is no doubt that this will speed up cellular data for a customer in the right conditions, with the right phone near the right cell site. But adding four existing cellular signals together will not get close to a gigabit of speed.

It will be interesting to see how the cellular companies market this upgrade. They could call this gigabit LTE, although the speeds are likely to fall far short of a gigabit. They could also market this as 5G, and my bet is that at least a few of them will. I recall back at the introduction of 4G LTE that some carriers started marketing 3.5G as 4G, well before there were any actual 4G deployments. There has been so much buzz about 5G now for a year that the marketing departments at the cellular companies are going to want to tout that their networks are the fastest.

It’s always an open question about when we are going to hear about this. Cellular companies run a risk in touting a new technology if most bandwidth hungry users can’t yet utilize it. One would think they will want to upgrade some critical mass of cell sites before really pushing this.

It’s also going to be interesting to see how faster cellphone speeds affect the way people use broadband. Today it’s miserable to surf the web on a cellphone. In a city environment most connections are more than 10 Mbps today, but it doesn’t feel that fast because of shortfalls in the cellphone operating systems. Unless those operating systems get faster, there might not be that much noticeable different with a faster connection.

Cellphones today are already capable of streaming a single video stream, although with more bandwidth the streaming will get more reliable and will work under more adverse conditions.

The main impediment to faster cellphones really changing user habits is the data plans of the cellular carriers. Most ‘unlimited’ plans have major restrictions on using a cellphone to tether data for other devices. It’s that tethering that could make cellular data a realistic substitute for a home landline connection. My guess is until we reach a time when there are ubiquitous mini-cell sites spread everywhere that the cellular carriers are not going to let users treat cellular data the same as landline data. Until cellphones are allowed to utilize the broadband available to them, faster cellular data speeds might not have much impact on the way we use our cellphones.

Walking Away from Cable

Several different events in the last week got me thinking about an interesting trend in the cable industry. First, in my community there is a Redbox outlet in a neighborhood grocery store. My wife and I were discussing how busy they seem to be in renting out movie DVDs. All of the Blockbuster and other movie rental outlets have closed. Until I moved to this neighborhood recently I hadn’t notice any video stores or related outlets in a long time. But this Redbox seemed to have a lot of business.

I also saw an article in FierceCable that noted that only 5% of US households have subscribed to a vMVPD – an online cable provider like Sling TV, DirecTV Now or Playstation Vue. My first thought is that a 5% market penetration seems pretty phenomenal for an industry that is barely two years old. But the article notes that while 5% of households are current subscribers to online programming, another 8% of the market has tried and dropped one of the services. Since only about 20% of the total households don’t have traditional cable service it makes you wonder what the real upper potential for this market might be – it might be a lot smaller than the vMVPDs are hoping for.

I also went to a Superbowl party. The half dozen families attending are from my neighborhood and it turns out all of the households are cord cutters and don’t subscribe to traditional cable service. I was the only one that used a vMVPD and I currently have a subscription to Playstation Vue. None of them had tried a vMVPD and they seemed to have no interest in doing so. (I only use Playstation Vue because it’s the cheapest way to get Big10 sports and Fox Sportsnet so I can watch Maryland sports teams – I rarely watch the other linear programming).

National broadband penetration rates are now at 84% of all households. I’ve seen many of the opponents of spending money to build rural broadband say that households just want broadband to watch video. Netflix has made a huge dent in the market and served nearly 55 million US homes at the end of 2017. Add to that some percentage of the 90 million homes that subscribe to Amazon Prime, and it seems like there might be some truth in that.

But if households are cutting the cord, why aren’t more of them buying one of the on-line cable alternatives? Those services have packages that carry only the most popular cable channels at half the price of buying traditional cable.

I think the answer is a combination of two factors. One of the predominant factors is price. Every family at the neighborhood party has kids and they dropped traditional cable because it was too expensive. That has to be the factor that explains why the Redbox outlet is doing so well. Most of the movies available from Redbox are also available online. But getting online means also having an Internet-enabled TV or else buying a Roku or other web interface. And even then, watching many of these newer movies means subscribing to yet a different online service. I think there is a cost barrier, or perhaps a technology barrier that is keeping households using a traditional DVD player and Redbox.

Two different households at the party told me that they were satisfied with just watching Netflix and the free programming available on YouTube. And that is the second important trend. Households are getting used to watching just a subset of the programming that is available to them. When somebody drops cable TV and doesn’t buy a vMVPD service it means they have walked away from all of the content that is available only in those two media.

Most of my neighbors still watch the major networks using rabbit ears (something I don’t do). So they are still watching whatever is available on local CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX. But the families on my street are learning to live without the Game of Thrones, or the Walking Dead. They are no longer watching ESPN, Discovery, Comedy Central, the Food Network and the hundreds of channels that make up traditional cable TV.

This means their kids are not growing up watching traditional cable networks, and thus are not developing any brand loyalty to those networks or their programming. If you don’t learn to love a network when you are a teenager, will you decide to watch it when you are older?

I don’t have any answers to these questions, and obviously I can’t define a trend just from talking with some of my neighbors. But I found it intriguing that they all had dropped traditional cable and had not replaced that programming with something online. This tells me that there must be a lot of people who are not enamored with linear programming whether it’s on cable or online. And a lot of people are convincing themselves that it’s okay to walk completely away from the big pile of programming that is offered by the cable TV networks.

This is potentially a watershed phenomenon, because somebody that walks away from traditional programming is probably not coming back. These folks are cord cutters who are literally walking away from most of the programming available on traditional cable. Those networks and their programming are going to become irrelevant to them. But interestingly they are still going to consume a lot of video content – just not that created by the traditional cable networks. In my mind these households are looking a lot like Generation Z in that they are foregoing traditional programming and watching something else.

The vMVPDs are banking that people will transition down to their smaller packages when they leave a cable TV provider. But will they? This is a phenomenon that you can’t determine from industry-wide statistics, other than perhaps by seeing the dropping number of paid subscriptions to the various cable networks. People like my neighbors are dropping cable due to the expense, but they are quickly learning to live without traditional cable programming and aren’t chasing the online alternatives.

Millennials and Media

I’ve read a lot recently in various trade articles talking about the percentage of Millennials that are watching (or not watching) traditional TV content. The various polls and studies show that Millennials are far less interested in watching linear TV than older generations. They are far less likely to buy a traditional cable TV subscription.

Millennials are starting to have a huge impact on our society. They now make up 32% of all adults in the US. They are more educated than earlier generations and 40% of Millennials between the ages of 25 and 29 have completed a bachelor’s degree compared to 32% for Generation X and smaller numbers for Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation.

But I have rarely read anything that describes what Millennials are doing in place of watching traditional TV. We now know from a study by Nielsen that part of the answer lies in the fact that Millennials read a lot more digital content than older generations. Digital content is content generated by online sites. Nielsen says digital content is now the primary source of news, sport, fashion trends and general knowledge for this generation – to a far greater extent than older generations.

Nielsen has begun tracking digital content and has begun to rate it much like they do for television viewing. Since advertising is shifting towards the web this tracking is of great value to potential advertisers. Historically we’ve been ranking websites by the number of ‘hits’ on their website. But the Nielsen digital tracking goes much deeper and measures time spent at each web site – which is what advertisers want to know. Advertisers have been able to get this kind of information from huge sites like Facebook, but never for everything else on the web.

Here are just a few of the things that Nielsen found about Millennials and digital media:

  • In terms of volume, the leading website used by Millennials is BuzzFeed. This site reaches 83% of US Millennials each month. The content on BuzzFeed is aimed at Millennials and the average BuzzFeed viewer sees an astronomical 38 videos on the site per month. Users don’t have to go to BuzzFeed to see the content, which is widely distributed through the various social media platforms. The platform carries news, the many videos, quizzes and the popular Millennial food site Tasty.
  • Just behind BuzzFeed is Group Nine Media. This company has four web brands including NowThis, The Dodo, Seeker and Thrillist. The companies content is aimed at younger audiences and now reaches 81% of Americans in their 20s. The platform has grown quickly to 1 million minutes per month of streamed content.

Another popular digital content site is MIC. This site offers news aimed at younger viewers and reaches over 25% of people between 21 and 34 years old each month. They are now attracting over 40 million unique viewers per month. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the site to advertisers is that 56% of their viewers are female.

Refinery29 is a site aimed at young women. It’s a mix of fashion, beauty, entertainment and money news. The platform is a mix of text articles and videos and reaches 62% of women between 18 and 34 each month, but a huge 88% of women between 21 and 24. In 2017 Adweek reported that the site reached 500 million viewers worldwide.

Another web site that caters to Millennials has an interesting distribution network. Rather than maintain a web site, VIX distributes content on social medial sites like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. The site carries video content on lifestyle tips, entertainment, food and life hacks. 62% of VIX viewers are female and VIX reaches 40% of US women between 18 and 49 each month.

All of this is bad news for companies that advertise on TV. Statistics show that linear TV audiences are aging quickly as younger viewers abandon watching real-time TV and its associated ads. Anything that is bad for TV advertisers is ultimately bad for the TV product and anybody that sells it. But the reality is that younger generations are abandoning the programming made for and watched by older generations. This is almost inevitable and is a market reality that the whole industry needs to come to grips with.