Being Stingy with Broadband Speeds

I’ve never understood ISPs that build fiber networks and then sell small-bandwidth products. The fiber technologies in place today can easily provide gigabit speeds to every customer without straining the network. The cost of providing 10-gigabit electronics keeps dropping and is now only a few hundred dollars extra per customer. Why would a fiber-based ISP have speed tiers that provide 50 Mbps?

I’ve found that it’s not unusual for an ISP with a low-bandwidth product on fiber to also charge a lot for gigabit bandwidth. There are a number of ISPs that charge $150 to $200 for a residential gigabit bandwidth product.

Bandwidth pricing philosophies differ around the industry. There are ISPs like Google Fiber, and Ting that only offer gigabit broadband. These ISPs are declaring that their fiber is a faster technology and they are marketing based upon that technology advantage.

The big ISPs in the country have trained the public that extra bandwidth is expensive. The cellular companies are the king at this game and will sell an extra gigabyte of usage for as much as $10. The big ISPs like Comcast and AT&T charge a lot for any customer that exceeds an arbitrary data cap. These pricing philosophies make a lot of money for the big ISPs, but this pricing conveys the false message that extra customer usage drives up costs for an ISP, and that customers that use more data ought to pay more.

Anybody who understands how ISPs operate realizes that there is little or no incremental cost for a given customer to use more bandwidth. It seems counterintuitive, but a household that uses a terabyte of download for a month doesn’t cost the ISP any more than the customer that uses 200 gigabytes per month – all due to the way that ISPs pay for wholesale broadband. ISPs buy enough bandwidth to satisfy the busiest hour of the day – and the rest of the day a lot of the bandwidth sits unused. There was zero incremental cost to ISPs for wholesale broadband when their customers started downloading and uploading a lot more data during the daytime due to COVID-19 – because the daytime usage still didn’t exceed the evening busy hour.

An argument can be made that faster speeds are more efficient for an ISP.  Consider the difference between two customers that each download a 1-gigabyte data file. A customer with a 50 Mbps product is using the network, and potentially interfering with other traffic for twenty times longer than the customer with a gigabit bandwidth product. Faster speeds reduce collisions between data streams, and a fiber network with fast customer speeds is significantly more efficient than one with slower speeds.

This is not to say that I’m advocating that ISPs should sell only the gigabit product since that is the most efficient use of a network. I think ISPs with only a gigabit product are leaving revenues on the table – unless the product is priced low enough to be affordable for everybody. I think companies that only a gigabit product at $70 or $80 are pricing out of the financial reach of many homes.

I get to peek behind the curtain of a lot of ISPs, and I know that an ISP with a smart tier of products can have more customers and more revenues than the ISP with only one product. I’m positive that an ISP with a $60, a $70, and an $80 product will do better than an ISP with only a $70 gigabit product.

The COVID-19 pandemic has finally forced the industry to confront broadband affordability. Even in markets where there is fast broadband available, we found out during the pandemic that there are a lot of homes without broadband for students because their parents can’t afford it. ISPs have not cared much about the homes that can’t afford broadband – and in most markets, that’s anywhere from 10% to 40% of the market. ISPs have been happy selling expensive broadband to those that can afford their prices and have given little thought to those that can’t.

I am truly puzzled why ISPs with fiber networks have broadband products between 25 Mbps and 75 Mbps. That’s like buying a race car and driving it on the freeway at 25 miles per hour. A cable company is not afraid of a competitor that wants to fight the market battle at speeds the cable company can match. The cable companies are afraid of ISPs of affordable symmetrical data products they can’t match.

Customers Still Flock to Promotional Rates

FierceVideo and others recently reported on a survey done in June by the research firm Cowen that looked at consumer use of promotional rates.

Cowen found that 20% of big ISP subscribers are on Internet plans that have promotional rates that will expire within the next 12 months. Another 13% of subscribers are on promotional plans that will expire in a time frame longer than 12 months. Surprisingly, 10% of subscribers have price-for-life guarantees. This leaves just 57% of subscribers paying full price for ISP services.

Promotional pricing is a sensitive topic for the industry and none of the big cable companies or telcos disclose the volume or amounts of discounts they give to customers. The big ISPs are all under a lot of pressure from Wall Street, and one of the key metrics used by analysts to track the big companies is ARPU – average revenue per user. ISPs have hard decisions to make. Giving too many discounts can kill ARPU, but not offering discounts can lose customers and revenues.

Some big ISPs have been working to curtail promotional pricing. AT&T has lost nearly three million video customers in the last year and claims that the losses mostly are due to tightening the promotional pricing that was given in the past by DirecTV. It’s also been reported that Charter has been tightening its policies on promotional prices, and in particular was ending a huge volume of promotional pricing they inherited through the acquisition of Time Warner Cable.

The Cowen report highlighted the difference in discount philosophy varies by ISP. For example, the report said that 45% of Altice customers have a promotional package, Comcast has 42%, and Charter is at 32%.

The big ISPs dole out promotional discounts in a few different ways. All of the incumbent ISPs offer low prices on the web to attract new customers. These new customer discounts generally last for 12 to 24 months before customers are moved to normal pricing. The other big category of promotional discounts is discounts that are negotiated with customers, often when customers threaten to leave an ISP.

The Cowen study confirmed something that we’ve always seen in the market. The promotional prices tend to go to younger subscribers, and older customers tend to pay full price for services. It takes real effort to either change ISPs or to renegotiate pricing every year or two, and only consumers willing to go through that hassle end up with a repetitive series of promotional deals.

The statistic that surprised me was that 10% of respondents in the survey said they had lifetime rates. ISPs have been somewhat leery of using the ‘lifetime rate’ words, but over the years as ISPs increased speeds and prices on their networks they have often allowed customers to stick with slower and less expensive broadband – generally with the caveat that a customer with a grandfathered plan can make no changes without being moved to newer pricing. In my mind, there is a significant difference between grandfathering an existing plan that offers slower speeds than other customers compared to new lifetime sales promotions that offer such deals to new customers. One of the biggest advantages to the ISPs of grandfathered plans is that customers keep these plans for years, meaning no churn.

Small ISPs struggle with promotional rates. Some small ISPs that still offer video offer guaranteed bundled rates for customers who buy cable TV. But I know a number of small ISPs that have ceased offering bundled discounts since the margins on cable TV are too small to afford them.

Small ISPs also generally don’t like the hassle of always having to negotiate rates with customers seeking a discount. Negotiating with customers changes the culture in a call center and adds a lot of pressure to customer service reps – and is probably the number one reason why the public dislikes big ISP customer service.

Many small ISPs have also given up on the idea of having residential service contracts. It’s a major pain to collect from somebody who breaks a contract and drops service. Most of the small ISPs I know feel that their quality of service is superior to the competition and they don’t want to fight to keep unhappy customers.

Say No to Data Caps

Last week I had a blog that asked why the FCC is seemingly supporting data caps by allowing caps on broadband built with federal grant money. The FCC has established grants that place premium value on fast broadband speeds and low latency but that ignores one of the most important aspects of broadband today – usability.

A broadband connection that doesn’t let homes partake in the same online world as the rest of America is inferior broadband – and there is no better example of an unusable data plan than one a low data cap. The FCC’s RDOF rules support monthly data caps of 250 gigabytes for plans offering 25/3 or 50/5 Mbps. The FCC is clearly saying to rural America – we’ll give grant money to ISPs to bring you better broadband, but we’re going to let the ISPs cripple that broadband so that they can bill you an extra $50 or $100 per month if you want to use that broadband like everybody else in the country.

Recall that ISPs that win the RDOF grants have six years to build the new networks. How will a 250 GB data caps look by the time these networks are built? OpenVault says that the average home used 274 GB per month in 2018 – already higher than the FCC’s proposed data cap. By the end of 2019 average usage had grown to 344 GB for the average home and exploded to 402 GB by March due to people and students working from home during the pandemic. Trending household usage forward until 2026 would suggest that the average home will be using more than a terabyte of data each month by then. That’s not a big stretch since more than 10% of homes are already using a terabyte or more of data today.

The FCC is not the only one to point a finger at. There are plenty of state broadband programs that have awarded grants to ISPs that have data caps. This has happened because policymakers have not viewed data caps as providing inferior broadband. This is easy to understand since just a few years the vast majority of homes used a lot less broadband than the data caps. You might recall in 2015 when there was big public pushback when Comcast tried to introduce a 300 GB data cap. At that time, Comcast said that only a tiny number of customers used more data than 300 GB per month – but in five short years, the national average data usage is significantly higher than the cap Comcast wanted to impose in 2019.

We need a new policy at the state and federal level that says that ISPs with data caps are not welcome to broadband grant funding. Not only should they not be able to impose data caps on grant-funded networks – an ISP that has routine data caps for others should be prohibited from participating in any grant funding anywhere.

There are still ISPs that say that data caps help to protect the integrity of their network. This argument went out the door when most ISPs stopped billing for data caps during the pandemic – the one time when protecting the network would have been important.

What hasn’t been said enough is that a broadband connection with a data cap is an inferior broadband connection. A home with data caps faces the monthly choice of either curtailing broadband usage or else spending a lot more for broadband. Are we going to fix the rural broadband gap by transitioning rural homes with slow broadband connections to ones with tiny data caps that cost a lot more than everybody else in the country?

It’s always been clear that data caps are mostly about greed. There is no better example of this than the AT&T rural hotspot that has a data cap that allows for as much as an extra $200 in monthly fees to a subscriber. It’s outrageous that the FCC gave grant money last year to Viasat which has tiny monthly data caps. The whole proposed 5G Fund is outrageous if billions of federal money will allow the cellular carriers to sell more rural hotspots with tiny data caps and huge monthly fees.

It’s time for broadband policymakers at all levels to categorically say no to data caps. Shame on the FCC for allowing data caps into the discussion of the RDOF grant. But also shame on Congress for not issuing a new telecom bill to stop all of this nonsense. And shame on any state policymaker or regulator who has allowed state resources to be used to support broadband with data caps. It’s time to say no.

Why Homes Don’t Have Broadband

I write all of the time about the rural digital divide – about homes that have no broadband options or that have terrible options such as extremely slow DSL or wireless service. The COVID-19 crisis has reminded us that there are also a lot of homes in cities and towns that don’t have broadband.

John B. Horrigan published a paper earlier this year titled Measuring the Gap that makes the point that the reasons that homes don’t have broadband are complicated. There have been studies over the years that have tried to pin down the primary reason that homes don’t have broadband, but by doing so the studies have glossed over the fact that most homes have multiple reasons for not having broadband.

A good example of this is a Pew Research Center survey in 2019 that explored the issue. In that survey:

  • 50% of respondents said that high prices is a reason for not having broadband, but only 21% said price is the primary reason.
  • 45% of respondents said they relied on smartphones that could do everything they need, but only 23% said that was the primary reason for not buying broadband.
  • 43% said they were able to get access to the Internet from a source outside the home, but only 11% gave that as the primary reason.
  • 45% said that the cost of a computer is too expensive, but only 10% gave that as the primary reason.

As Horrigan points out, sometimes there is bias in the questions being asked in a survey. If the surveyor has pre-conceived ideas about why folks don’t have broadband they will miss some of the reasons. Consider a 2017 survey from the California Emerging Technology Fund. This survey showed different reasons than Pew for why homes don’t have broadband because the survey asked different questions. The survey showed:

  • 69% said the cost of monthly access and of affording a computer or smartphone was too high. 34% listed this as the primary reason for not having broadband.
  • 44% said it was too difficult to set up a computer and to learn how to use broadband, which 12% gave this as the primary reason.
  • 42% said they were concerned about privacy and computer viruses, while 21% gave this as the primary reason for not having broadband.
  • 41% said they had a lack of interest in being online, with 22% giving this as the primary reason for not having broadband.

The results of those two surveys are drastically different because the surveys asked different questions. If a survey doesn’t provide the option to say that privacy is a reason for not having broadband, then that gets missed. People can only respond to the questions asked in a survey as presented to them. For example, there were 12% of respondents in the second survey above that worried about privacy as their primary reason for not having broadband. There had to be people that felt the same way in the Pew survey, but since that question was never asked, respondents were forced to pick from among the choices they were given.

This highlights one of the issues of using surveys to find out why people do certain things. Surveys are best used when measuring what people do. For example, a well-designed survey can make a great and reliable estimate of the number of homes in a community that don’t have a home computer. But it’s a lot tougher to use a survey to find out why homes don’t have computers since there might be dozens of reasons for not having one.

Another issue to consider is that people might not tell a surveyor the truthful answer to a question if they think the response is personal. For example, people don’t like to admit that using a computer is too hard for them or that they are intimidated by technology. Many people are not going to tell a stranger that they can’t figure out how to use a computer. However, those same people might willingly share that they would be more likely to use a computer if they had better training. The manner of asking this sort of question can change the response.

This blog is not meant to bash surveys, because a survey is one of the best tools available for understanding broadband in a market. A survey can quantify how many people use different ISPs and can measure their happiness with the various ISPs already in the market. A survey can provide a decently reliable estimate of the percentage of the community that will consider switching to a new ISP. But surveys are a lot less reliable when they ask people to reveal personal reasons why they do or don’t do something – for the simple reason that people are often unwilling to share their shortcomings and fears with a stranger.

This is something to keep in mind if you want to use a survey to understand broadband in your community. Asking questions about sensitive subjects produce unreliable results. As an example, surveys do a lousy job of predicting what people are willing to pay for broadband. A survey can quantify what somebody would like to pay for broadband, but that is not the same question of what they will pay. I’ve seen surveys convince ISPs to set low broadband rates due to faulty survey questions. It’s somewhat meaningless when somebody who is already paying $75 per month for broadband tells you they would only change to a new ISP that charges $45. Such a respondent is likely somewhat embarrassed to admit they are paying too much for broadband today, and that bias makes their answer unreliable.

Writing good survey questions is an art. I’ve been doing that for twenty years and I still find situations where it’s nearly impossible to get the answers that clients are hoping for when the survey probes into questions that customers don’t necessarily want to answer.

Bad Customer Service as a Profit Center

There was a December article in Fast Company that spelled out what I’ve long suspected – that many big companies have lousy customer service on purpose – they want to make it hard for customers to get refunds or to drop service. The article was written by Anthony Dukes of USC and Yi Zhu of the University of Minnesota. The article is worth reading if you have the time to click through all of the links, which elaborate numerous ways that big companies abuse their customers.

This certainly rings true for the big ISPs. I harken back to the days of AOL, which was famous for making it a challenge to drop their service. Comcast has always had a reputation of making it hard for customers to break a bundle or leave the company for another ISP.

The article cites some interesting statistics. They claim that in 2013 that a study showed that the average home spent 13 hours per year disputing charges with customer service. That’s nearly two workdays of time, and it’s little wonder that people hate to call customer service.

Customer service at the big telcos and cable companies was never great, but in my time in the industry it’s gotten worse – the big ISPs are now rated at the bottom for customer satisfaction among all corporations. I think the big change in the industry came in the last few decades when the big ISPs got enamored with win-back programs – offering customers incentives to stop them from dropping service. Unfortunately, the ISPs tied employee compensation to the percentage of win-backs and there have been numerous articles published of ISP employees who would not let somebody drop service and who would keep a customer on the phone for an hour to convince them not to leave.

ISP customer service also took a downward spin when every call with a customer turned into a sales call trying to sell more services. Unfortunately, these sales efforts seem to result in new revenues, but it’s irksome to customers to have to listen to several sales pitches to accomplish some simple customer service task.

Dukes and Zhu claim that a lot of customer service centers are structured to dissuade customers from dropping service. They say that long hold times are on purpose to get customers to give up. They cite some customer service centers where the people answering the first call from customers have no authority to change a customer’s billing – only customers willing to fight through to talk to a supervisor have a chance at fixing a billing problem. They claim that chatbots are often set up in the same way – they can sound helpful, but they often can’t make any changes.

They also believe that companies are getting sophisticated and use different tactics for different customers. Studies have shown that women get annoyed faster than men in dealing with poor customer service. Research has shown that some demographics, like the elderly, are easier to dissuade from getting a refund.

Smaller ISPs understand the poor customer service from the big ISPs and most of them strive to do better. However, I know of smaller ISPs with aggressive win-back programs or who use every call as a marketing opportunity, and such ISPs have to be careful to not fall into the same bad habits as the big ISPs.

I find it amusing that one of the many reasons cited for breaking up the Bell System was to improve customer service. Regulators thought that smaller regional companies would be nimbler and do a better job of interacting with customers. This turned out not to be true. In fact, I consider my interactions with monopolies to be the easiest. I can’t recall a call I’ve ever had with an electric or water utility that wasn’t completed quickly and efficiently. Perhaps ISPs ought to strive to be more like them.

Our Digital Illiteracy

Pew Research Center recently surveyed 4,272 adults and tested their knowledge of basic computer topics. The results showed that there was a lack of general knowledge about a few of the terms that are important for how people use the Internet.

For example, the survey showed that only 30% of survey takers knew that website starting with https:// means that the information provided over that site is encrypted.

Only 28% of respondents understood the concept of two-factor authentication – something that Google and Microsoft say can eliminate nearly 100% of hacking of a connection.

Only 24% understood the purpose of private browsing.

The respondents fared better on a few topics. For example, two-thirds of respondents understood the danger of phishing, but it’s a bit scary that one out of three users didn’t. 63% understand that cookies allow websites to track user visits and other activities on web sites.

48% of respondents understood the concept of net neutrality – the technology topic that has gotten the most press over the last four years.

A few of the questions were a bit smug. Only 15% of people could identify a picture of Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter. I have to admit that this is a question I would also have failed because I don’t much care about the personalities of the people behind web companies – even though I follow the issues involving these companies closely.

It’s probably not surprising that younger users did better on the survey question than older users. It’s still a bit shocking, though that only 1% of survey takers got every question right.

The bottom line of this survey is that the general public probably has a much lower knowledge of the Internet that many web companies and ISPs assume. I think this survey highlights an opportunity for small ISPs to educate customers by passing on safety tips or important knowledge about the web.

ISPs communicate with users on log-in pages, when billing and on their web site. It wouldn’t be hard to add some recurring messages such as. “Did you know that web sites that start with https use an encrypted connection with users and provide for a safer connection?” Experienced web users will blow past such messages, but we know that repeating messages eventually make an impression on most people.

It’s easy for technical folks to assume that the public understands basic concepts about the web – but surveys like this one remind us that’s necessarily true.

The Onslaught of New Content

As if cord cutting isn’t bad enough, online OTT programming is exploding with numerous new options. One has to think that these many options will lure a lot more homes to ditch traditional cable TV.

Disney+. This service is hitting the streets with huge fanfare. It’s priced at $6.99 per month or $5.83 per month with an annual subscription. Disney+ will contain the content provided by Disney, Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar, and National Geographic. Disney owns the Star Wars franchise and is planning a lot of new Star Wars content. There will be new content created only for the Disney+ service like a series produced by the Jim Henson Company. Disney also owns most of Hulu and will be offering a bundled package of Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ for $12.99 per month.

Apple TV+. The service launched November 1 with a monthly fee of $4.99. It’s being offered for free to customers that buy an expensive Apple product like an iPhone, iPad, Mac, or Apple TV.  The company has set a goal of having 100 million customers within 3-4 years and will launch in over 100 countries. Apple is also offering new content created just for the service. They have announced partnerships for content from Oprah Winfrey, from Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine production company, and from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin TV. While not yet announced, Wall Street expects Apple to accumulate a library of older content. For now, the service doesn’t work on Amazon Fire and Roku devices, but should in the future.

HBO Max.  This is being offered by AT&T and slated for launch sometime in the spring of 2020. The company is offering this at $14.99 per month, the same price as HBO Now – which is the current online HBO offering that only carries the library of HBO content. Customers subscribing to HBO on a cable system might get the new service for free. The company will likely migrate HBO Plus customers to the new service. HBO Max brings in the vast library of content owned by Warner Media. There will be a curated revolving list of classic movies. They’ve also bought the rights to shows like Friends. The company hopes to have 50 million paying customers by 2025. This is the only online service that doesn’t care if customers buy their prime HBO content online or from a cable company.

Peacock. This is owned by Comcast and is scheduled to launch in April 2020. The service is named for the NBC peacock logo. The service will provide new content including shows from Alec Baldwin and Demi Moore. It will carry the vast library of NBC’s programming. The new offering will also tie into Olympic coverage. For now, Comcast is thinking of giving this free to every Comcast customer and may make it free to everybody.

Quibi. This is a new service created by Jeffery Katzenberg of DreamWorks. It will launch in early 2020 and contains a lot of new content. The unique thing about the service is that it will consist of short-duration content and will only be available on smartphones. The company is working with over 30 partners to create content that is aimed at younger views. The typical content will be 7-10 minutes in length. It’s attracted big names like Steven Spielberg, Kevin Hart, Tyra Banks, and Jennifer Lopez. There are plans for vignettes from traditional series like Punk’d, Varsity Blues, Vikings, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.

Bloomberg. Just to show that all new content isn’t entertainment related, Bloomberg is also planning a new online offering. It will be subscription-based and will offer all of Bloomberg’s current business content plus new content. For example, there are plans for a series, Moon Shot that looks at major scientific breakthroughs. Accelerate will look at test-driving cars of the future. Prognosis will look at cutting edge medicine.

The question faced by customers of traditional cable TV is if they want to continue to pay the big monthly bills for traditional TV and also subscribe to some of this new content. There are a lot of households that are going to want to watch the Disney catalog of programming or see the new content on Apple TV+ or HBO Max. It seems likely that this flood of new content is going to convince more homes to cut the cord.

Linear TV Nostalgia

The other day I saw a fun video where a few teenagers were trying to figure out how to use a rotary dial telephone. They never did quite figure it out, but there’s no reason they should. It’s just another piece of old technology that has faded into history.

I recently wrote a blog about cord cutting and that got me to thinking that there is soon going to be a generation of kids who grow up without routinely experiencing linear TV. Linear TV has been part of most of my life. I remember when my family got our first black and white TV in 1957. It was a huge heavy console with a rounded screen that hummed from the many tubes that made it work.

We could only get three stations – WTOP which was CBS out of Washington DC, WBAL which was NBC out of Baltimore, and WTTG which was an independent station from Washington DC. WTTG was an interesting station – it’s the second oldest station in the country. They ran a lot of older programming and aired a steady diet of old stuff like the Three Stooges, Shirley Temple movies, and the Little Rascals. I didn’t realize until much later in life that other people my age didn’t see nearly as much of this older programming as we did. We were only able to watch ABC by climbing on the roof and fiddling with the antenna – doing so meant we lost the other stations. However, there would occasionally be a World Series game or other important sports event on ABC that would entice my father to climb onto the roof, quietly mumbling expletives.

It’s probably hard for kids today to understand how TV brought families together. There was no other source of live entertainment other than going to the movies, since even by the 50s most of the interesting programming was gone from radio. In our house there were a few evenings where we all watched TV together. With only two network stations available we watched the same shows every week. Sunday was the almost mandatory TV day. In the 1950s Sunday nights brought Lassie, The Jack Benny Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and then GE Theatre and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. By the 60s this became Lassie, Walt Disney, The Ed Sullivan Show, and Bonanza – a lineup that held in our house for many years.

We had a few other TV nights, except in the summertime when kids played outside until dark. I remember in the 50s we regularly watched shows like I Love Lucy, The Danny Thomas Show, The Red Skelton Show (my father’s favorite after Bonanza), and I’ve Got Secret. By the 60s this changed to new shows like The Dick Van Dyke Show, Perry Mason, Mr. Ed, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Rawhide. As you can see by the lineup, there was family compromise, and everybody got to watch their favorite show.

In 1964 we got our first color TV to watch the seventh game of the World Series when Bob Gibson pitched against and beat the Yankees. It took my mother a few years to forgive my father for that impulse purchase. But this sure made a difference for watching shows like Walt Disney and sports. Before then we would occasionally watch football games at my Aunt Helen’s house since she had bought one of the first color TVs in the area (and she always had red velvet cake for halftime).

In 1968 we got a second TV, which went into a basement TV room, mostly to move some of the kid’s programming out of the living room. This new TV also let me watch things the rest of the family wasn’t interested in like the original Star Trek, ACC sports, and NBA basketball.

Somewhere during the 60s the ABC signal got stronger and we could routinely watch three networks. Around 1970 we added the little hoop antenna because two UHF stations became available to us. They mostly reran older series and movies, but it felt liberating to have a few more choices. We still only watched the major networks as a family in the evenings.

Keeping a TV operating was an artform. There was a pile of different-sized tubes in the back of the TV. It was fairly obvious when a tube failed, but a lot harder to spot one that had intermittent problems. The normal way to solve intermittent problems was to yank out all of the tubes and take them to a TV repair shop to be tested. The last resort was to take the whole TV to the shop where it might sit for several long weeks where there’d be no TV in the house.

It’s probably hard for kids today to believe that there was no remote control. Somebody had to get up and manually change the channel. However, with so few available channels we rarely changed the channel since we already knew what we were going to watch. Kids would also be surprised to learn that the networks went off the air after the late news – everybody from the station went home. Like most households, we got the TV Guide in the mail every week that told us what was upcoming. The main advantage of the TV Guide was to make sure not to miss specials – because networks didn’t cross-advertise and it was easy to miss a special TV event without the TV Guide.

Like the rest of America, the TV brought the world into our living room. One of the first big news events I recall clearly was watching Alaska join the US. We watched Walter Cronkite cover big events like the the Cuban misslile crisis, the Kenneday assassination, and the Vietnam War (where we had uncles and cousins fighting). We watched everything about the space race. I was a big fan of the political conventions which were raucous events in those days.

I’ve been a cord cutter now for a decade and I can no longer tolerate linear TV. I love the ability to pause and rewind with delayed TV and I’ve learned to love binge watching. But there was something special about the way that the TV influenced our lives when it was a new medium – something that is gone into history like the rotary dial phone.

Surveys for Grants and Loans

Many of the federal and state grant programs and many broadband lenders want applicants to undertake a survey to quantify the likely success of a new broadband venture. Unfortunately, there are far too many broadband projects being launched that are unable to answer the basic question, “How many customers are likely to buy service from the new network?” There are only two ways to get a reliable answer to that question – a canvass or a statistically valid survey.

A canvass is the easiest to understand and it involves knocking on the doors or calling every potential customer in a market. I’ve seen many clients have good luck with this when overbuilding a small town or a subdivision. A canvass will be most successful when an ISP has all of the facts needed by potential customers such as specific products and prices. Many companies would label the canvass process as pre-selling – getting potential customers to tentatively commit before construction.

The alternative is a canvass is a ‘statistically valid’ survey. Any survey that doesn’t meet the statistically valid test isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. There are a few key aspects of doing a statistically valid survey:

Must be Random. This is the most important aspect of a valid survey and is where many surveys fail. Random means that you are sampling the whole community, not just a subset of respondents. A survey that is mailed to people or put online for anybody to take is not random.

The problem with a non-random survey is that the respondents self-select. For example, if you mail a survey to potential customers, then people who are interested in broadband are the most likely to respond and to return the completed survey. It can feel good to get back a lot of positive responses, but it’s far more important to hear from those who don’t support fiber.

The whole purpose of doing a broadband survey is to quantify the amount of support – and that also means quantifying those who won’t buy fiber. I’ve seen results from mailed surveys where almost every response was pro-broadband, and of course, that is unlikely. That result just means that the people who aren’t interested in broadband didn’t bother to complete or return the survey. The only way you can put any faith in a mailed survey is if you get so many responses that it approaches being a canvass. A good analogy of the problems with a mail survey would be to stand in front of a grocery store and ask customers if they like to shop there. While there may be a few customers with complaints, such a survey would not tell you anything about how the community feels about that store since the question was not asked to those who don’t shop at the store.

This blog is too short to describe survey methods – but there are specific acceptable techniques for conducting a random survey either by telephone or by knocking on doors. It’s possible to do those tasks non-randomly, so you should seek advice before conducting a phone or door-knocking survey.

Non-biased Questions. Survey questions must be non-biased, meaning that they can’t lead a respondent towards a certain answer. A question like, “Do you want to save money on broadband?” is worthless because it’s hard to imagine anybody answering no to that question. It’s a lot harder to write non-based questions than you might think, and bias can be a lot more subtle than that question.

Respondent Bias. People who conduct surveys know that there are some kinds of questions that many respondents won’t answer truthfully. For example, I’ve read that nearly half of applicants lie about their annual income when applying for a credit card. For various reasons people want others to think they earn more than they actually do.

Respondent bias can apply to a broadband survey as well. I’ve learned that you can’t rely on responses having to do with spending. For example, many respondents will under-report what they pay each month for broadband. Perhaps people don’t want the survey taker to think they spend too much.

Respondent bias is one of the reasons that political surveys are less reliable than surveys on more factual topics – respondents may not tell the truth about who they will vote for or how they feel about political issues. Luckily, most people are truthful when asked about non-emotional topics and factual questions, and we’ve found residential broadband surveys to be a great predictor of market interest in broadband.

Survey Fatigue. Respondents have a natural tendency to give up if a survey takes too long. They will hang-up on a phone survey or start giving quick and inaccurate answers to get rid of somebody at their door. A survey ought to last no longer than 10 minutes, and the ideal length should be closer to five minutes.

The big takeaway from this discussion is that doing a survey the wrong way will likely give you the wrong answer to the basic question of likely market penetration. You’re better off to not do a survey than to do one that is not statistically valid. I don’t know if there is anything more deadly in launching a new broadband market than having a false expectations of the number of customers that will buy broadband.

Why Offer Fast Data Speeds?

A commentor on an earlier blog asked a great question. They observed that most ISPs say that customer usage doesn’t climb when customers are upgraded to speeds faster than 50 Mbps – so why does the industry push for faster speeds? The question was prompted by the observation that the big cable companies have unilaterally increased speeds in most markets to between 100 Mbps to 200 Mbps. There are a lot of different answers to that question.

First, I agree with that observation and I’ve heard the same thing. The majority of households today are happy with a speed of 50 Mbps, and when a customer that already has enough bandwidth is upgraded they don’t immediately increase their downloading habits.

I’ve lately been thinking that 50 Mbps ought to become the new FCC definition of broadband, for exactly the reasons included in the question. This seems to be the speed today where most households can use the Internet in the way they want. I would bet that many households that are happy at 50 Mbps would no longer be happy with 25 Mbps broadband. It’s important to remember that just three or four years ago the same thing could have been said about 25 Mbps, and three or four years before that the same was true of 10 Mbps. One reason to offer faster speeds is to stay ahead of that growth curve. Household bandwidth and speed demand has been doubling every three years or so since 1980. While 50 Mbps is a comfortable level of home bandwidth for many today, in just a few years it won’t be.

It’s also worth noting that there are some households who need more than the 50 Mbps speeds because of the way they use the Internet. Households with multiple family members that all want to stream at the same time are the first to bump against the limitations of a data product. If ISPs never increase speeds above 50 Mbps, then every year more customers will bump against that ceiling and begin feeling frustrated with that speed. We have good evidence this is true by seeing customers leave AT&T U-verse, at 50 Mbps, for faster cable modem broadband.

Another reason that cable companies have unilaterally increased speeds is to help overcome customer WiFi issues. Customers often don’t care about the speed in the room with the WiFi modem, but care about what they can receive in the living room or a bedroom that is several rooms away from the modem. Faster download speeds can provide the boost needed to get a stronger WiFi signal through internal walls. The big cable companies know that increasing speeds cuts down on customer calls complaining about speed issues. I’m pretty sure that the cable companies will say that increasing speeds saves them money due to fewer customer complaints.

Another important factor is customer perception. I always tell people that if they have the opportunity, they should try a computer connected to gigabit speeds. A gigabit product ‘feels’ faster, particularly if the gigabit connection is on fiber with low latency. Many of us are old enough to remember that day when we got our first 1 Mbps DSL or cable modem and got off dial-up. The increase in speed felt liberating, which makes sense because a 1 Mbps DSL line is twenty times faster than dial-up, and also has a lower latency. A gigabit connection is twenty times faster than a 50 Mbps connection and seeing it for the first time has that same wow factor – things appear on the screen almost instantaneously as you hit enter. The human eye is really discerning, and it can see a big difference between loading the same web site at 25 Mbps and at 1 Gbps. The actual time difference isn’t very much, but the eye tells the brain that it is.  I think the cable companies have figured this out – why not give faster speeds if it doesn’t cost anything and makes customers happy?

While customers might not immediately use more broadband, I think increasing the speed invites them to do so over time. I’ve talked to a lot of people who have lived with inadequate broadband connections and they become adept at limiting their usage, just like we’ve all done for many years with cellular data usage. Rural families all know exactly what they can and can’t do on their broadband connection. For example, if they can’t stream video and do schoolwork at the same time, they change their behavior to fit what’s available to them. Even non-rural homes learn to do this to a degree. If trying to stream multiple video streams causes problems, customers quickly learn not to do it.

Households with fast and reliable broadband don’t give a second thought about adding an additional broadband application. It’s not a problem to add a new broadband device or to install a video camera at the front door. It’s a bit of the chicken and egg question – does fast broadband speeds promote greater broadband usage or does the desire to use more applications drive the desire to get faster speeds? It’s hard to know any more since so many homes have broadband speeds from cable companies or fiber providers that are set faster than what they need today.