Regulating Broadband

I’ve often hear it suggested that we ought to regulate broadband like a utility. The proponents of this idea say that this is the only way to make sure that everybody gets broadband and to make sure, over the long haul, that broadband stays affordable. But it’s never been entirely clear in hearing these arguments if people mean we should regulate the physical networks that carry broadband or the broadband products that ride on any network (or both).

Obviously in the current environment where the big ISPs have gained the favor of both the FCC and Congress regulation of this sort is not going to happen. But governments change, and so the time could come when such regulation is possible. But even if we had a pro-regulation government, I see all sorts of issues that would make such regulation hard to implement and still remain fair. Consider the following issues:

Size of ISP. Any regulation might only need to be applied to the biggest ISPs. A few companies like Comcast, AT&T, Charter (Spectrum), Verizon and CenturyLink together sell over 80% of the broadband connections in the country (and more if you count cellular data as broadband). Smaller ISPs have little market power, and some of them, like the smaller independent telephone companies, would tell you that they are already regulated to a large degree.

Incentive to Deploy New Technology. One of the reasons that historic telephone regulation worked so well was that the technology used to deliver traditional telephone service was expected to live out its full economic life, meaning that telcos could make an investment and know that they would recover the cost of doing so. But that is no longer the case. We now live in a world where there are dizzying new technologies developed all of the time that are faster, cheaper and better at delivering broadband. The large ISPs are not keeping up with technology improvements today in a fully deregulated environment where they can charge enough to recover their costs – it’s hard to imagine that regulations would do anything but slow down the rate of technology upgrades.

What gets Regulated? Today’s fiber networks are not as simple as older TDM networks. A lot of new fiber construction is being done for purposes other than serving residential customers. For example, Verizon just announced that they were ordering over $1 billion of fiber cable – but I think most of this fiber is going to be used to replace leased transport to cellular towners and is not going to be used to bring broadband to customers. It’s going to be hard in a complex network to define regulated and non-regulated assets.

What About Competition? Regulation works best with monopolies, which is why there is still regulation for electric and water companies. But the ISP world is a maze of differing levels of competition. There are cities – or neighborhoods of cities – that are competitive and areas where there are virtual monopolies – and this can differ block by block in larger cities. It’s hard to think of a regulatory scheme that somehow accounts for such differences.

Regulating Parts of Businesses. The big ISPs are no longer just ISPs, and in fact most of them make a most of their profits elsewhere. I just wrote a blog a week ago discussing how complex Comcast has become with their mix of cable networks and other businesses like television networks, sports teams, and soon cellular wireless. It’s incredibly challenging to regulate companies of this complexity because they have the ability to manipulate the books of the regulated entity to show any level of earnings they want. They could shift costs to make a regulated entity perform as well or as poorly as needed to satisfy regulators.

Realities of Wall Street. Rate regulation has always meant setting a reasonable return on investments for the regulated entity. The return for telephone companies that are still under rate regulation is being phased-down to just over 9%. To those of us who wish we had a bank account that could earn that much it might sound like a high rate of return. But the realities of Wall Street are that capital investments must earn more than that. If we put that kind of cap on new fiber investment for the big ISPS, I think the result would be a massive cut back in building new fiber. Wall Street would punish ISPs for investing capital at returns that low. And if the big companies stop building the rest of the industry including equipment vendors come to a screeching halt.

Challenges of Re-regulation. I’ve tried to work through the idea of how to take companies like Comcast and somehow regulating them. Putting the politics and the chances of this happening aside, I’m not sure how you can take assets that were built during a time of no regulation and somehow start regulating them. The court cases against that effort would probably stretch for a decade.

My conclusion from all of this is that it’s an interesting idea and thinking about it is a great mental exercise. But I can’t envision how you could somehow shove today’s unregulated companies back into a regulated environment. Even was the government determined to do so it might be too hard to do without causing more harm than good.

Why Isn’t Cord Cutting Going Faster?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broadband and Apartments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Municipal Broadband

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is our Future Mobile Wireless?

I had a conversation last week with somebody who firmly believes that our broadband future is going to be 100% mobile wireless. He works for a big national software company that you would recognize and he says the company believes that the future of broadband will be wireless and they are migrating all of their software applications to work on cellphones. If you have been reading my blog you know I take almost the opposite view, but there are strong proponents of a wireless future, and it’s a topic worth continually revisiting.

Certainly we are doing more and more things by cellphone. But I think those that view future broadband as mobile are concentrating on faster mobile data speeds but are ignoring the underlying overall data capacity of cellular networks. I still think that our future is going to become even more reliant on fiber in order to handle the big volumes of bandwidth we will all need. This doesn’t mean that I don’t love cellphone data – but I think it’s a complement for landline broadband and not an equivalent substitute. Cellphone networks have major limitations and they are not going to be able to keep up with our need for bandwidth capacity. Even today the vast majority of cellphone data is handed off to landline networks through WiFi. And in my mind that just makes a cellphone into another terminal on your landline network.

Almost everybody understands the difference in quality between using your cellphone in your home using WiFi versus doing the same tasks using only the cellular network. I largely use my cellphone for reading news articles. And while this is a lot lighter application than watching video, I find that I usually have problems opening articles on the web when I’m out of the house. Today’s 4G speeds are still pretty poor and the national average download speed is reported to be just over 7 Mbps.

I think all of the folks who think cellphones are the future are counting on 5G to make a huge difference. But as I’ve written many times, it will be at least a decade before we see a mature 5G cellular network – and even then the speeds are not likely to be hugely faster than the 4G specification today. 5G is really intended to increase the stability of broadband connections (less dropped calls) and the number of connections (able to connect to a lot of IoT devices). The 5G specifications are not even shooting for at a huge speed increase, with the specification calling for 100 Mbps download cellular speeds, which translates into an average of perhaps 50 Mbps connections for all of the customers within a cell site. Interestingly, that’s the same target speed of the 4G specification.

And those greater future speeds sounds great. Since a cellphone connection by definition is for one user, a faster speed means that a cellular connection will support a 4K video stream eventually. But what this argument ignores is that a home a decade from now is going to be packed with devices wanting to make simultaneous connections to the Internet. It is the accumulated volume of usage from all of those devices that is going to add up to huge broadband demand for homes.

Already today homes are packed with broadband hungry devices. We have smart TVs, cellphones, laptops, desktops and tablets all wanting to connect to the network. We have other bandwidth hungry applications like gaming boxes and surveillance cameras. More and more of us are cutting the cord and watching video online. And then there are going to piles of new devices with smaller broadband demands, but which in total will add up to significant bandwidth. Further, a lot of applications we use are now in the cloud. My home uses a lot of bandwidth every day just backing up my data files, connecting to software in the cloud, making VoIP calls, and automatically updating software and apps.

I’ve touted a statistic many times that you might be tired of hearing, but I think it’s at the heart of the matter. The amount of bandwidth used by homes has been doubling every three years since 1980, and there is no end in sight to that trend. Already today a 4G connection is inadequate to support the average home. If you don’t think that’s true, talk to the homes now using AT&T’s fixed LTE connections that deliver 10 Mbps. That kind of speed is not adequate today to provide enough bandwidth to use the many broadband services I discussed above. Cellular connections are already too slow today to provide a reasonable home broadband, even as AT&T is planning to foist these connections on millions of rural homes.

There is no reason to think that 5G will be able top satisfy the total broadband needs of a home. The only way it might do that is if we end up in a world where we have to buy a small cellular subscription for every device in our home – I know I would prefer to instead connect all of my devices to WiFi to avoid such fees. Yes, 5G will be faster, but a dozen years from now when 5G is finally a mature cellular technology, homes will need a lot more bandwidth and a 5G connections then will feel just as inadequate then as 4G feels today.

Unless we get to a future point where the electronics get so cheap that there will be a ‘cell site’ for every few homes, then it’s hard to figure that cellular can ever be a true substitute for landline broadband. And even if such a technology develops you still have to ask if it would make any sense to deploy. Those small cell sites are largely going to have to be fiber fed to deliver the needed bandwidth and backhaul. And in that case small cell sites might not be any cheaper than fiber directly to the premise, especially when considering the lifecycle costs of the cell site electronics. Even if we end up with that kind of network – it’s would not really be a cellular network as much as it would be using wireless loops as the last few feet of a landline network – something that for years we have called fiber-to-the-curb. Such a network would still require us to build fiber almost everywhere.

How Much Does Title II Regulation Matter?

We’ve known since January that new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has intended to somehow roll back net neutrality. And now he’s started the process and says that he wants the Commission to undo regulation of broadband using Title II rules. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and today I ask the question if this rollback means the end of the open Internet as a lot of press would have you believe.

It’s not an easy answer. Let me start with a quick review of the history of Title II regulation. The FCC has wanted to somehow regulate some aspects of broadband for a long time. They took a stab at this back in 2010 that established six principles that became known as net neutrality. But the courts eventually said that the FCC didn’t have the authority to enforce these rules. The court order that reversed the FCC interestingly suggested that they only path they saw to accomplish the FCC’s goals was to invoke Title II regulation.

Title II regulation derives from various acts of Congress that were developed in the last century to regulate telephone companies. When these regulations started back in the 1930s, the primary nationwide telephone provider was Ma Bell (AT&T) and the FCC used the new rules to heavily regulate the company. But those old rules don’t really fit broadband and so in the net neutrality order the FCC chose to invoke only the parts of the old rules that applied to broadband – and that is what made the big ISPs the most nervous. This feared that a future FCC could unilaterally elect to invoke other of the old title II rules, including the ability to regulate rates.

So, in a second try at net neutrality the FCC elected Title II regulation and then layered on some new concepts that are referred as bright line rules, which includes no blocking of broadband traffic, no throttling of content and no paid prioritization of traffic. These are the rules that proponents of net neutrality care about, and so the key question going forward is if the FCC can find some way to enforce the bright line rules if they get rid of Title II authority.

Frankly, it will be hard. If net neutrality is reversed we’ll be back to the regulatory regime that was in place before 2015. The FCC largely regulated broadband for a number of years by pressuring ISPs to be good citizens – but the FCC didn’t have the legal authority to make most things stick. Any time a big ISP didn’t like an FCC directive they knew they could take it to court and win due to lack of FCC authority. Everything I have read suggests that without Title II regulation that we’d back to that same place – where the FCC would have no real authority over most issues affecting broadband.

There is only one path that would codify the bright line rules, and that is if Congress would pass legislation requiring the bright line rules. The whole reason that the FCC has no clear authority over broadband is that numerous Congresses have refused to grant it to them. I can remember at least half a dozen attempts by earlier Congresses to create the needed new rules, but there has never been enough support to pass the laws and to overcome any potential vetoes by presidents.

I certainly don’t have any political crystal ball and I have no idea if this Congress or some future one might tackle this issue with legislation. A faction of the current Congress has been making noise about having a new telecom act, and this could be done as part of that effort. But that doesn’t seem likely from the current Congress. Here at the beginning of their new session they appear to favor big corporations like Comcast and AT&T over the public on these issues. It’s probably worth noting that most smaller ISPs already follow the bright line rules and it’s only a handful of the largest companies that create all of the problems.

The biggest fear of ISPs of all size is that telecom issues have become a political ping-pong ball that will bounce back and forth as we change future administrations or future Congresses. That kind of uncertainly plays havoc with creating new products and policies. I think even the largest ISPs would rather keep net neutrality regulated if the alternative was to see the rules radically changed every few years.

There are market forces that could have some impact on net neutrality. One is competition. For example, if one of the large wireless carriers adopts practices that violate net neutrality and that customers don’t like, then one or more of the other carriers will likely compete by promising products that the public wants.

And the public is likely to to have a big influence on combatting bad ISP behavior. Recall that the FCC received far more comments from the public on the net neutrality docket than anything else they had ever considered. And also remember that it was public outcry that stopped companies like Comcast from imposing draconian data caps. There is not a ton of competition in many broadband markets – but there usually is some. As new wireless products eventually come onto the market there will be even more competition. In this new day of social media we’ve started to see that the public can be stirred up to react in strong ways against big companies that have practices they don’t like. So perhaps an engaged customer base and growing competition will work over time to somewhat keep the big ISPs in line. As an ISP customer I’d much rather have firm regulations in place that prohibit bad ISP behavior – but I guess we’ll have to take whatever we can get.

AT&T’s CAF II Solution

We now know the details of AT&T’s fixed broadband solution being installed to satisfy the FCC’s CAF II plan.

Let me start with some numbers to explain the FCC funding from the FCC. In the second round of the CAF II proceeding AT&T accepted a payment from the Universal Service Fund of about $428 million per year for six years, or over $2.5 billion dollars. That money is to be used to bring broadband to about 1.1 million homes. That works out to $2,300 per home.

I saw news last week about an AT&T CAF II ‘trial’ in Georgia. AT&T plans on using existing cellular spectrum to deliver a fixed broadband product. This will require the installation of a small exterior antenna at a customer site as well as the use of an AT&T modem inside of the home.

We’ve known for a while that AT&T planned to utilize their cellular spectrum rather than build or try to upgrade any copper plant, so this is no surprise. What is a bit of a surprise to me is the speeds being offered in the trial. AT&T will be providing a 10 Mbps download speed, which is the bare minimum required by the FCC’s CAF II program. We know from other trials AT&T has had around the country that this technology is capable of delivering at least twice that much bandwidth.

And the service won’t be cheap. The product is priced at $60 per month if a customer will sign a contract, and $70 per month with no contract. It’s a pretty interesting comparison between this and Verizon’s announcement of now offering gigabit speeds throughout its fiber footprint for $70 per month. I didn’t see any mention of a fee for use of the AT&T modem, but most ISPs charge for such devices, so that is probably going to be added to the price.

The AT&T product also comes with severe data caps. It comes with a monthly data cap of 160 gigabytes of total download. Overages will cost $10 for each additional 50 gigabytes, up to a maximum of $200 per month. I suspect a lot of rural homes that buy this as their first broadband product are going to be shocked at their first bill when they splurge on watching Netflix for the first time. My 3-person household uses about 700 gigabytes per month, which under this plan would cost $170 per month for somebody with a contract.

Like with all ISPs, I’m sure that the 10 Mbps data speed is undoubtedly best effort, meaning that at peak times (or if customers are too far away from a cellular tower) the speeds will be slower. That slow speed is going to severely hamper the ability for customers to use huge amounts of data since they aren’t easily going to be able to watch many simultaneous video streams.

I can’t be entirely negative, because for many households this will be their first broadband product, other than perhaps satellite data, which is largely unusable. And so to these homes it’s going to feel great to finally be able to stream data or have their kids able to do on-line homework from their homes.

But what is irksome about this product is that the federal government handed AT&T the money to do this. Certainly they will use some of the $2,300 per customer to build some new towers or to build a little fiber to towers. But the equipment to serve a customer is going to cost a lot less than this. I would bet that most customers will be served from existing towers using existing spectrum. This means that the federal government is paying for the full cost of implementing this product, but for which AT&T will reap all of the revenues and profits. That’s a pretty handsome return on investment for AT&T and amounts to an unneeded handout to one of the richest companies in the country.

Customers are going to quickly understand that, while they now have a minimal broadband capability, they don’t have anything close to the same broadband that much of the rest of the country has. Almost all of the big cable companies now sell broadband with minimum speeds of at least 50 Mbps download, often more. As households keep needing more data capacity over time – with the average household use of data doubling every three years – this AT&T product will become the broadband equivalent of dial-up within a decade.

The worst thing about this whole fiasco from my perspective is that the FCC is take big credit for bringing broadband to the parts of the country who get this kind of CAF II product, and they will probably count this as a job well done. Instead the FCC will have spent many billions on foisting broadband into rural America that is obsolete before it’s even launched. The shame is that this same money could have been used to seed matching grants in rural America that would have built fiber to a lot of these same homes. Small ISPs and telcos got excited when they first heard of the reverse auctions for the CAF II funding. But then, rather than holding those auctions, the FCC just handed this money to the big telcos with no competition for the funding – and this AT&T product is the end result of that bad decision.

Rural America is not going to be long fooled and will quickly recognize this as inferior broadband, but they are going to have no real alternatives. There is the small hope that there might be an infrastructure program from the current administration and Congress, but there is no assurance that such money might not also go to the big ISPs to do more of the same.

FCC Loosens Regulation of Special Access

The FCC voted last week to eliminate any price controls on special access in about 90% of the markets in the US. The vote to implement this was 2-1 with Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat, issuing a detailed dissent that is worth the read. I can’t lay out the arguments against this deregulation in a short blog as well as she has done.

The order largely refers to what has been historically been called special access as BDS – Business Data Service. This refers to broadband connections sold by incumbent telephone companies using TDM (time division multiplexing) technology. This is technology that is based upon T1s (1.54 Mbps) or multiples of T1s. Techies I know that live in urban areas are surprised to find out how much of this TDM technology is still left in the world.

But a lot of businesses in the country still rely on this technology. There are still a surprising number of businesses that are not connected to fiber. And away from urban areas there are still a lot of business districts that have never been connected to a cable company network. And this means there are a lot of businesses that have special access as their only real broadband option. Further, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 forces special access interconnection onto competitors of the big telcos unless they own fiber directly into the large tandem hubs of the telcos.

The deregulation rules largely look at competition by county and are as follows:

  • Price caps will be eliminated in a county if 50% of the potential customers are within a half mile of a location served by a competitive provider.
  • A county would be considered as competitive if 75% of Census blocks have a cable provider.

That’s one of the more bizarre definitions of competition I can recall. Consider the typical county seat in most rural counties in the US. That is typically the town where most of the businesses for the county are located. If a handful of the businesses in the town get broadband from the cable company then the whole county is likely to be considered as competitive, removing any price caps on BDS services.

But I know from working in rural America that many of these county seat towns are anything but competitive. Often the cable companies in these towns are older and outdated systems that don’t offer fast cable modem service. And it’s not untypical for the cable networks to have been built years ago to only residential neighborhoods before cable systems were capable of delivering data – and since then the cable companies likely have not invested in expanding the network to business parks.

The prices charged by the telcos in these situations is already gigantic. I was working with a rural county in Minnesota last year where a company that makes upscale kitchen cabinets was paying well over $150,000 per year to get a less-than-adequate broadband connection. Had that town had real competition it’s likely that they could buy the speeds they need for a tiny fraction of that price. This business is considering relocating just to avoid the draconian broadband costs – and that would pull good-paying jobs out of a rural county.

The half-mile rule is also an odd measure of competitiveness. I have heard from hundreds of businesses over the years that have been quoted astronomical prices from the incumbent telco if they wanted to get a fiber connection. I’ve seen price quotes as high as almost $100,000 for a mile of fiber construction. A business that is a half-mile, or even a quarter mile from fiber might as well be 100 miles away.

The opponents of this FCC order all believe that AT&T, Verizon and CenturyLink will use this as an excuse to raise rates on special access. And that is the heart of this order. There is no way that this can be justified. The old incumbent telco networks are old and their costs have been recovered many times over. But as these big telcos have lost residential DSL customers to competition they have leaned more heavily on businesses buying special access. This is still a gigantic money-maker for the telcos.

I think Commissioner Clyburn summarized this order well. She said that she was not surprised by the order because this is industry consolidation month at the FCC. By that she means that recent FCC actions have all been aimed at helping the biggest companies in the industry rather than consumers. In this case it’s the schools, libraries, small businesses and governments in rural America that will pay the price so that the large incumbent telcos can maintain their high profits.

Keeping Up with Programming Costs

I saw a presentation recently that compared skinny bundles with traditional cable TV. One of the things mentioned in the presentation was how much the the cost of programming and the average cable rates have increased over time. I was asked recently if a cable provider should always pass on the increases in programming costs into rate increases. I know my clients have different views on the issue.

First a few numbers. The presenter said that programming costs have grown on average from $26.65 per customer per month in 2010 to $43.20 in 2016. That’s around a $16 increase and a growth rate of more than 9% per year, and that comports with what I’ve seen at my clients. But the overall numbers seem low and I’m guessing these numbers represent just the typical expanded basic package. Cable companies in general have three tiers – basic, expanded basic and premium. A lot of my clients today have programming costs that are well over $50 rather than $42.

This same presentation also showed that the average cable revenue per customer climbed from $65.90 in 2009 to $83.60 in 2016. That’s an annual 3.5% increase in rates, but it also generates a $16 increase in revenues from 2010 to 2016. I know most of my clients have had larger rate increases than this. I’m guessing the cited figures don’t reflect that the larger cable companies have significantly increased other rates such as settop box fees during this same time period. But generally the numbers cited show an industry that on average has raised rates to match the increases in programming costs. But if rates are only increased to match programming then they don’t cover any increases in the other costs of operating a cable business, such as keeping a headend up to date as well as the general inflation from operating a company.

This is an issue that my smaller clients wrestle with every year. Just two years ago I had a number of clients that saw an overall programming cost increase of more than 15% in a single year. A lot of them have seen costs go up even more than the 9% shown in the above numbers. Programming costs are driving cable rate increases that are far in excess of inflation over while average household wages over this same time frame have stagnated and grown only a tiny amount.

Small cable operators now face the dilemma that if they pass on a large programming cost they know they will lose customers. A lot of my clients operate robust broadband networks, making it a lot easier for households to elect to cut the cord. If they raise rates they are guaranteed to lose customers, and if they don’t raise rates then they directly eat into operating margins.

A company can get into real trouble by not raising rates. I had one client that had only small rate increases over a number of years and even skipped a few years without a rate increase. They compared their rates to surrounding communities and were surprised to find that their rates were nearly 40% lower than in nearby towns. I’ve seen a lot of similar situations and there are a number of small cable providers with rates that are 20% and 30% lower than surrounding communities.

Municipal operators and cooperatives have a particularly hard time with this issue because decisions are not made strictly based on the numbers. Many municipal cable companies require City Council approval of rate increases – and it’s not hard to picture politicians that want to vote against rate increases. But cooperative boards can act similarly if they think there are enough profits from other parts of the company to cover the cable rate increases. This is never an easy decision and I know a number of commercial cable providers that sometimes decide to eat some of the programming cost increases.

There is no easy answer to this question these days because nobody knows the elasticity of cable demand – meaning the degree to which customers will react negatively to a rate increase. For many years demand elasticity was low and a company could raise rates with a pretty good assurance that they would lose only a few customers. They’d suffer a spate of complaint calls when they raised rates, but almost everybody paid the increases.

But that’s no longer true. I think most small cable companies are afraid of that day when a rate increase drives a lot of their customers to find alternatives. There is a general wisdom in the industry that nobody makes money at cable, and on a fully-allocated cost basis that is almost always the case. But almost every small cable operator still has a positive margin on cable. And that means that a company suffers a real loss every time they lose a customer. The bottom line is that it’s a crap shoot these days. We all know that the day is going to come when most customers will refuse to pay the higher cable rates. But it’s anybody’s guess when that day will come.

Comcast as a Competitor

Somebody recently asked me about Comcast as a competitor. They have been a formidable competitor for many years, but I think they are pulling ahead of other cable companies in many ways. I’m sure that over time some of the other cable companies will try to emulate them. Consider the following:

  • They’ve created Comcast Labs (similar to Bell Lab). This group of scientists and engineers are concentrated largely on developing products that improve the customer experience. Nobody else has a research arm of this size and focus.
  • One of the first things out of Comcast Labs has been the proprietary X1 settop box, which has rave reviews and is heads above any other box. It has easy-to-use menus and is voice activated. It integrates the Internet into every TV. And it includes a growing list of unique features that customers really like.
  • Comcast has also now integrated Netflix and Sling TV into their settop box to keep customers on their box and platform. I suspect that Comcast takes a little slice of revenue for this integration. And it looks like they have a goal of becoming what the industry is starting to call a superbundler. There are around 100 OTT offerings on the market today and my guess is that over time they are going to integrate more of them into their ecosystem.
  • Comcast is working on skinny bundle packages that will let people buy smaller and more focused TV packages to keep them from leaving. Comcast is highly motivated to keep customers on the system since they own a lot of programming.
  • Comcast has found great success with their smart home product. This is probably the most robust such product on the market and includes such things as security and burglar alarms, smart thermostat, watering systems, smart blinds for energy control, security cameras, smart lights, smart door locks, etc. And this can all be easily monitored from the settop box or from a smartphone app. They don’t report numbers, but I’ve seen estimates that they now have a 7% to 8% customer penetration. Those customers are totally sticky and won’t easily drop Comcast.
  • Comcast has been an industry leader in in the race to unilaterally increase customer data speeds. They moved my 50 Mbps product to 75 Mbps with plans to raise it again to 100 Mbps after the DOCSIS 3.1 upgrade. I think they have figured out that faster speeds means a lot fewer customer complaints.
  • They are going to soon be offering cellphone services and will integrate them into the bundle. They just announced tentative pricing that looks to be lower than Verizon and AT&T in two-thirds of the markets in the US. Analysts say that over five years they could capture as much as 30% of the cellphone business in their markets. We’ll have to wait and see if that happens – because the cellular companies have better customer service than Comcast. But there is no doubt that they will get a lot of customers, and that those customers will also be sticky. They just bought a pile of spectrum that will help them offer some service directly to improve their margins.
  • One big advantage Comcast has over wireless competitors is that they own a lot of programming content. The industry expects them to use zero-rating, meaning that they will give their cellular customer access to all of their programming without having it count against cellular data caps.
  • As the biggest ISP Comcast probably has the most to gain from the reversal of customer privacy rules and net neutrality. Comcast already does well selling advertising but could become one of the major players online using customer data to target marketing.
  • Comcast is putting a lot of money into making their customer service better. They are quickly moving away from making everybody call their customer service centers. They also now have a decent customer service by text process. And they now allow people to ask and resolve questions by chat from their web site. Each of these improvements satisfies a niche of their customers and relieves the long wait times for a customer service rep.

They are also moving a lot of customer service back to the US, finally understanding that the cost savings of using foreign reps is not worth the customer dissatisfaction. But what they (and all of the other big companies) are banking on is the general belief that within five years there will be a decent artificial intelligence system for handling customer service. This will not be like the dreadful systems used today by airlines and banks. The expectation is that an AI will be able to satisfactorily handle the majority of customer service calls satisfactorily without needing a human service rep. Comcast will have these systems long before smaller competitors, giving them a big cost advantage.

I probably have a dozen blogs over the last few years blasting Comcast for their various practices and policies. But it’s not hard to see that they are possibly the most formidable competitor in the country. When you consider all of these positives and also understand that on a local basis that Comcast will match competitor’s prices – they are hard to beat. Like with any large ISP there are probably 20% of their customers that will choose somebody else out of reflex. But after that it’s a real challenge prying and keeping customers away from them.