Are Broadband Investments Increasing?

The largest ISPs and their lobbying arm USTelecom are still claiming that the level of industry capital spending has improved as a direct result of the end of Title II regulation. In a recent blog they argue that capital spending was up in 2018 due to the end of regulation – something they describe as a “forward-looking regulatory framework”. In reality, the new regulatory regime is now zero regulation since the FCC stripped themselves of the ability to change ISP behavior for broadband products and practices.

The big ISPs used this same argument for years leading up to deregulation. They claimed that ISPs held back on investments since they were hesitant to invest in a regulatory-heavy environment. This argument never held water for a few reasons. First, the FCC barely ever regulated broadband companies. Since the advent of DSL and cable modems in the late 1990s, each subsequent FCC has largely been hands-off with the ISP industry.

The one area where the last FCC added some regulations was with net neutrality. According to USTelecom that was crippling regulation. In reality, the CEO of every big telco and cable company has publicly stated that they could live with the basic principles of net neutrality. The one area of regulation that has always worried the big ISPs is some kind of price regulation. That’s really not been needed in the past, but all of the big companies look into the future and realize that the time will come when they will probably raise broadband rates every year. We are now seeing the beginnings of that trend, which is probably why USTelecom keeps beating this particular dead horse to death – the ISPs are petrified of rate regulation of any kind.

The argument that the big ISPs held back on investment due to heavy regulation has never had any semblance to reality. The fact is that the big ISPs make investments for the same reasons as any large corporation – to increase revenues, to reduce operating costs, or to protect markets.

As an example, AT&T has been required to build fiber past 12.5 million passings as part of the settlement reached that allowed them to buy DirecTV. AT&T grabbed that mandate with gusto and has been aggressively building fiber for the past several years and selling fiber broadband. Both AT&T and Verizon have also been building fiber to cut transport expense to cell sites – they are building where that transport is too costly, or where they know they want to install small cell sites. The large cable companies all spent capital on DOCSIS 3.1 for the last few years to boost broadband speeds to protect and nurture their growing monopoly of urban broadband. All of these investment decisions were made for strategic business reasons that didn’t consider the difference between light regulation and no regulation. Any big ISP that says they will forego a strategic investment due to regulation would probably see their stock price tumble.

As a numbers guy, I always become instantly suspicious of deceptive graphs. Consider the graph included in the latest USTelecom blog. It shows the levels of industry capital investments made between 2014 and 2018. The graph makes the swings of investment by year look big due to the graphing trick of starting the bottom of the graph at $66 billion instead of at zero. The fact is that 2018 capital investments are less than 3% higher than the investments made in 2014. This is an industry where the aggregate level of annual investment varies by only a few percent per year – the argument that the ISPs have been unleashed due to the end of Title II regulation is laughable and the numbers don’t show it.

There are always stories every year that can explain the annual fluctuation in industry spending. Here are just a few things that made an significant impact on the aggregate spending in the past few years:

  • Sprint had a cash crunch a few years ago and drastically cut capital spending. One of the primary reasons for the higher 2018 spending is that Sprint spent almost $2 billion more in 2018 than the year before as they try to catch up on neglected projects.
  • AT&T spent $2 billion in 2018 for FirstNet, the nationwide public safety network. But AT&T is not spending their own money – that project is being funded by the federal government and ought to be removed from these charts.
  • Another $3 billion of AT&T’s spending in 2018 was to beef up the 4G network in Mexico. I’m not sure how including that spending in the numbers has any relevance to US regulation.
  • AT&T has been on a tear building fiber for the past four years – but they announced last month that the big construction push is over, and they will see lower capital spending in future years. AT&T has the largest capital budget in the industry and spent 30% of the industry wide $75 billion in 2018 – how will USTelecom paint the picture next year after a sizable decrease in AT&T spending?

The fact that USTelecom keeps harping on this talking point means they must fear some return to regulation. We are seeing Congress seriously considering new consumer privacy rules that would restrict the ability of ISPs to monetize customer data. We know it’s likely that if the Democrats take back the White House and the Senate that net neutrality and the regulation of broadband will be reinstated. For now, the big ISPs have clearly and completely won the regulatory battle and broadband is as close to deregulated as any industry can be. Sticking with this false narrative can only mean that the big ISPs think their win is temporary.

AT&T and Verizon Fiber

If you look at the annual reports or listen to the quarterly investor calls, you’d think that AT&T and Verizon’s entire future depends upon 5G. As I’ve written in several blogs, there doesn’t seem to be an immediate financial business case for 5G and the big carriers are going to have to figure out how to monetize 5G – something that’s going to take years. Meanwhile, both companies have been expanding their fiber footprints and aggressively adding fiber-based broadband customers.

According to the Leichtman Research Group, AT&T added only 34,000 net broadband customers in the first quarter of this year – not an impressive number when considering that they have 15.7 million broadband numbers. But the underlying story is more compelling. One the 1Q investor call, the company says they added 297,000 fiber customers during the first quarter, and the smaller net number recognizes the decline of DSL customers. The overall financial impact was a net gain of 8% for broadband revenues.

AT&T is starting to understand the dynamics of being a multimedia company in addition to being a wireless carrier and an ISP. According to John Stephens, the AT&T CFO, the company experiences little churn when they are able to sell fiber-based Internet, a video product and cellular service to a customer.

The company views its fiber business as a key part of its growth strategy. AT&T now passes over 20 million homes and businesses with fiber and is aggressively pushing fiber broadband. The company has also undergone an internal consolidation so that all fiber assets are available to every business unit. The company has been expanding its fiber footprint significantly for the last few years, but recently announced they are at the end of major fiber expansion. However, the company will continue to take advantage of the new fiber being built for the nationwide FirstNet network for first responders. In past years the company would have kept FirstNet fiber in its own silo and not gotten the full value out of the investment.

Verizon has a similar story. The company undertook an internal project they call One Fiber where every fiber asset of the company is made available to all Verizon business units. There were over a dozen Verizon business units with separate fiber networks in silos.

Verizon is currently taking advantage of the One Fiber plan for expanding its small cell site strategy. The company knows that small cell sites are vital for maintaining a quality cellular network and they are also still weighing how heavily to invest in 5G wireless loops that deliver wireless broadband in residential neighborhoods.

Verizon has also been quietly expanding its FiOS fiber footprint. The company has gotten regulatory approval to abandon the copper business in over 100 exchanges in the northeast where it operates FiOS. In those exchanges, the company will no longer connect customers to copper service and says they will eventually tear down the copper and become fully fiber-based. That strategy means filling in neighborhoods that were bypassed by FiOS when the network was first built 20 years ago.

Verizon is leading the pack in terms of new fiber construction. They say that are building over 1,000 route miles of fiber every month. This alone is having a big impact on the industry as everybody else is having a harder time locating fiber construction crews.

Verizon’s wireline revenues were down 4% in the first quarter of this year compared to 2018. The company expects to start benefitting from the aggressive fiber construction program and turn that trend around over the next few years. One of the most promising opportunities for the company is to start driving revenues in markets where it’s owned fiber but had never fully monetized the opportunity.

The main competitor for all of the fiber construction by both companies are the big cable companies. The big telcos have been losing broadband customers for years as the cable company broadband has been clobbering DSL. The two telcos are counting on their fiber products to be a fierce competitor to cable company broadband and the companies hope to start recapturing their lost market share. As an outsider I’ve wondered for years why they didn’t do this, and the easy answer was that both companies sunk most of their capital investments into wireless. Now they are seeing that 5G wireless needs fiber, and both companies have decided to capitalize on the new fiber by also selling landline broadband. It’s going to be an interesting battle to watch since both telcos still face the loss of huge numbers of DSL customers – but they are counting on fiber to position them well for the decades to come.

Cord Cutting Picking Up Pace

Leichtman Research Group has published the cable TV customer counts for the first quarter of 2019 and it’s apparent that the rate of cord cutting is accelerating. These large companies represent roughly 95% of the traditional cable market.

1Q 2019 2,018
Customers Change % Change Losses
DirecTV / AT&T 22,383,000 (543,000) -2.4% (1,189,000)
Comcast 21,866,000 (120,000) -0.5% (371,000)
Charter 16,431,000 (145,000) -0.9% (244,000)
Dish TV 9,639,000 (266,000) -2.7% (1,125,000)
Verizon 4,398,000 (53,000) -1.2% (168,000)
Cox 3,980,000 (35,000) -0.9% (115,000)
Altice 3,297,300 (10,200) -0.3% (98,000)
Frontier 784,000 (54,000) -6.4% (123,000)
Mediacom 764,000 (12,000) -1.5% (45,000)
Cable One 320,611 (11,500) -3.5% (37,465)
83,862,911 (1,249,700) -1.5% (3,515,465)

A few things strike me about this table. First, the annual rate of loss is now 6%. That’s faster than we ever saw for telephone landlines which lost 5% annually at the peak of the market losses. We are only into the third real year of cord cutting and already the rate of customer growth has leaped to a 6% annual loss.

The other big striking number is that the overall traditional cable penetration rate has now dropped to 70%. According to the Census, there are 127.59 million households and adding in the customers of smaller providers shows a 70% market penetration. That’s still a lot of homes with traditional cable TV, but obviously the conversation about cutting the cord is happening in huge numbers of homes.

Another interesting observation is that AT&T is now at the top of the list. They’ve stopped reporting customers separately for DirecTV and for AT&T U-verse, which combined makes them the large cable provider in the country. However, at the rate the company is bleeding traditional cable customers, Comcast is likely to be number one again by the end of this year. AT&T has been encouraging customers to shift to DirecTV Now, delivered only online. However, that service also lost 83,000 customers in the first quarter, so the overall AT&T losses are staggering, at an annual rate of loss of over 8%.

The big losers in total customers are still the satellite companies. As those companies have gotten more realistic about pricing they’ve seen customer flee. There have been numerous articles in the press in publications like Forbes wondering if Dish Networks is even a viable company after these kinds of losses. There is also recent speculation that AT&T might spin off DirecTV and perhaps even merge it with Dish Networks.

The biggest percentage loser is Frontier, losing 6.4% of their customers in just the first quarter. It’s been obvious that the wheels are coming off of Frontier and the company just sold off properties in western states last month in order to raise cash.

For the last few years, Comcast and Charter were still holding on to overall cable customers. This was mostly buoyed by new cable customers that came from big increases in broadband customers – these two companies have added the bulk of new nationwide broadband customers over the last two years. But even with continued broadband growth, these companies are now seeing cable counts drop, and it’s likely that their rate of cord cutting among customers they’ve had for many years is probably as high as the rest of the industry.

It’s still hard to predict the trajectory of cable TV. In just two years the industry as a whole has gone from minor customer losses to losing customers at a rate of 6% per year. I don’t see any analysts predicting where this will bottom out – will it level off or will losses continue to accelerate? In any event, any industry losing 6% of customers annually is in trouble. It’s not going to take many years of losses at this rate for the industry to become irrelevant.

Selling Transport to Small Cell Sites

A lot of my clients make money by selling transport to the big traditional cell sites. Except for a few of them that operate middle-mile networks, the extra money from cell site transport adds a relatively high-margin product into the last-mile network.

Companies are now wondering how hard they should pursue small cell sites. They keep reading about the real-estate grab in the major cities where a number of companies are competing to build small cell enclosures, hoping to attract multiple carriers. They want to understand the size of the potential market for small cells outside of the major metropolitan areas. It’s not an easy question to answer.

The cellular carriers are building small cell sites in larger markets because they have exhausted the capabilities of the traditional large cell sites. The cellular companies have pushed bigger data plans and convinced customers that it’s okay to watch video on cellphones, and now they find that they are running out of bandwidth capacity. The only two immediate fixes are to build additional cell sites (thus, the small cells) or else add more spectrum. They eventually will layer on full 5G capability that will stretch spectrum a lot farther.

There are varying estimates for the eventual market for small cell sites. For example, the CTIA, the lobbying group for the wireless industry, estimates that small cells will grow from 86,000 in 2018 to 800,000 by 2026. The Wall Street analyst firm Cowan estimates 275,000 small cells by the end of 2023.

The big companies that are in the cellular backhaul business are asking the same questions as my clients. Crown Castle is embracing the small cell opportunity and sees it as a big area of future growth. Its competitor American Tower is more cautious and only chases small cell opportunities that have high margins. They caution that the profit opportunity for small cells is a lot less than at big towers. Other companies like Zayo and CenturyLink are pursuing small cells where it makes sense, but neither has yet made this a major part of their growth strategy – they are instead hoping to monetize the opportunity by adding small cells where they already own fiber.

The question that most of my clients want to understand is if the small cell building craze that has hit major metropolitan areas will ever make it out to smaller cities. In general, the big cellular carriers report that the amount of data used on their cell sites is doubling every two years. That’s a huge growth rate that can’t be sustained for very long on any network. But it’s likely that this rate of growth is not the same everywhere, and there are likely many smaller markets where cell sites are still underutilized.

Metropolitan cell sites were already using a lot of broadband even before customers started using more data. We know this because the cellular carriers have been buying and using robust data backhaul to urban sites of a gigabit or more in capacity. One good way to judge the potential for small cell sites is to look at the broadband used on existing tall tower sites. If a big tower site is using only a few hundred Mbps of bandwidth, then the cell site is not overloaded and still has room to accommodate broadband growth.

Everybody also wants to understand the revenue potential. The analyst firm Cowan estimates that the revenue opportunity per small cell site will average between $500 and $1,000 per site per month. That seems like a high price outside of metropolitan areas, where fiber is really expensive. I’ve already been seeing the big cellular carriers pushing for much lower transport rates for the big cell sites and in smaller markets carriers want to pay less than $1,000 per big tower. It probably takes 5 – 7 small cells to fully replace a large tower and it’s hard to envision the cellular carriers greatly expanding their backhaul bill unless they have no option.

It’s also becoming clear that both Verizon and AT&T have a strategy of building their own fiber anyplace where the backhaul costs are too high. We’ve already seen each carrier build some fiber in smaller markets in the last few years to avoid high transport cost situations. If both companies continue to be willing to overbuild to avoid transport costs, they have great leverage for negotiating reasonable, and lower transport costs.

As usual, I always put pen to paper. If the CTIA is right and there will be 800,000 small cell sites within six years that would mean a new annual backhaul cost of almost $5 billion annually for the cellular companies at a cost of $500 per site. While this is a profitable industry, the carriers are not going to absorb that kind of cost increase unless they have no option. If the 800,000 figure is a good estimate, I predict that within that same 6-year period that the cellular carriers will build fiber to a significant percentage of the new sites.

Perhaps the most important factor about the small cell business is that it’s local. I have one client in a town of 7,000 that recently saw several small cell sites added. I have clients in much larger communities where the carriers are not currently looking at small cell sites.

The bottom line for me is that anybody that owns fiber ought to probably provide backhaul for small cells on existing fiber routes. I’d be a lot more cautious about building new fiber for small cell sites. If that new fiber doesn’t drive other good revenue opportunities then it’s probably a much riskier investment than building fiber for the big tower cell sites. It’s also worth understanding the kind of small cell site being constructed. Many small cells sites will continue to be strictly used for cellular service while others might also support 5G local loops. Every last mile fiber provider should be leery about providing access to a broadband competitor.

Protesting 5G

There were over 90 protests nationwide recently against the coming 5G technology, mostly related to health concerns. The protesters have some of the facts wrong about 5G and that makes it easier for policymakers to ignore them. It’s hard to fault anybody about getting the facts wrong about 5G since the carriers have purposefully filled the press with misleading 5G rhetoric. I would venture to say a lot of people in our industry have the same misunderstandings.

I watched a few news reports of the various protests, and protesters cited the following concerns about 5G. They say that it’s already being installed and will be active in most cities by next year. They say that in the near future that cellular speeds will be 100 times faster than today. They say that the FCC has blessed 5G as safe when it’s not. Let me address each of these issues:

What is 5G? Many of the protestors don’t realize that 5G is the marketing name of several different technologies. 5G can mean improved cellular service. 5G can mean high-speed wireless broadband loops like is being tested by Verizon in Sacramento. And 5G can mean gigabit radio connections made between two points, similar to traditional microwave backhaul. Protestors have conflated the claims for each technology and assume they apply to 5G cellular service.

Is 5G Being Installed Today? Cities everywhere are seeing permit requests for small cell sites and often believe these are requests to install 5G – I just talked to a fairly large city the other day who made this assumption. For now, the requests for small cell sites are to bolster the 4G cellular network. The cellular companies aren’t talking about it, but their 4G data networks are in trouble. People are using so much data on their phones that cell sites are getting overwhelmed. The amount of data being used by cellphones users is currently doubling every two years – and no data network can handle that kind of growth for very long. The cellular carriers are quietly beefing up the 4G networks in order to avoid the embarrassment of major network crashes in a few years. They are hoping that within 3 -5 years that 5G can relieve some of the pressure from cellular networks.

Will 5G Be Here Next Year? It might be a decade until we see a full 5G cellular installation. There are 13 major specifications for improvements between 4G and 5G and those will get implemented over the next decade. This won’t stop the marketing departments of the cellular carriers to loudly claim 5G networks after one or two of these improvements have been partially implemented.  What the cellular companies never bothered to tell the public is that the first fully-compliant 4G cell site was just implemented last year – 5G is going to require the same slow steady introduction of changes until full 5G gets here. Starting a year or two from now we might see some 5G improvements, with more 5G upgrades introduced each year thereafter. The carriers will loudly announce every time they make a 5G trial and will make the world think they are the improvements will be immediately installed everywhere.

Will Cellular Speeds be 100 Times Faster? The 5G specification calls for cellular speeds to be improved over time to 100 Mbps, about 6 times faster than 4G cellular speeds today. Speeds won’t improve overnight and this certainly isn’t going to be here in a year or two.

The public thinks that we’ll see gigabit cellular speeds for several reasons. First, Verizon recently introduced a trial for fast cellular using millimeter wave spectrum in small portions of a few downtown areas. Millimeter wave cellular is not going to make sense for wide deployment because the fast data speeds only carry perhaps 200 feet from the transmitter. Millimeter wave spectrum in this application is blocked by almost everything in the environment. This trial was mostly to grab headlines, not to portend a real product. Confusion also came when AT&T recently announced a 2 Gbps connection made to an outdoor hot spot. This is using point-to-point technology that can never apply to cellphones – but the AT&T announcement made this fuzzy on purpose.

What About the Health Impacts? Most 5G cellular service will use the same spectrum, or some new bands that are similar to today’s cellular spectrum. The primary concern for 5G cellular (and 4G) is the introduction of small cell sites into neighborhoods. It’s concerning to citizens when a cell site is on a pole at their curb instead of at the top of a tall tower outside the neighborhood. The neighborhood cell sites are going to be broadcast at a lower power level than the current big cell sites, so theoretically the amount of cellular radiation ought to be similar to today. But to give credit to the protesters, we’ll only know that’s really true after small cell sites have been installed.

The real health concern that is troublesome is not related to 5G cellular using the same frequencies as today, but rather about the use of  millimeter wave spectrum. A significant percentage of the world’s scientists that work in this area recently warned the United Nations that some past research of millimeter wave spectrum shows negative impacts for plant and animal life. The scientists admit that much more research is needed and they pleaded with the UN to not use the general public as guinea pigs. Belgium recently banned millimeter wave spectrum deployment until the health risks are understood. The FCC joins with almost every other country in allowing the deployment of millimeter wave spectrum and is in the process of licensing more of the spectrum.

As mentioned earlier, Verizon recently did a few trials of sending millimeter wave spectrum to cellphones. This was viewed mostly as a gimmick because this doesn’t seem to have real-life market potential due to the limitations for the spectrum and cellphones. I just saw an estimate that it would take over 300,000 small cell sites to blanket Los Angeles with small cells that are close enough to deploy millimeter wave spectrum – that doesn’t sound like a plausable or profitable business plan.

The technology where the protesters should be focused is millimeter wave spectrum wireless loops. Verizon deployed this to a few hundred homes in Sacramento and a few other cities, delivering about 300 Mbps broadband to homes. Verizon says they have plans to deploy this widely. This is the spectrum use that the scientists warned about. A deployment of millimeter wave loops means constantly bombarding residential neighborhoods with millimeter wave spectrum from poles on the curb. The other planned use of millimeter wave spectrum is for indoor routers that will transmit gigabit bandwidth inside of a room. People can clearly decide to not use millimeter wave routers, but have no say about a carrier introducing it into the neighborhood. Protesters have a valid concern for this technology.

What’s the Future for CenturyLink?

I don’t know how many of you watch industry stock prices. I’m certainly not a stock analyst, but I’ve always tracked the stock prices of the big ISPs as another way to try to understand the industry. The stock prices for big ISPs are hard to compare because every big ISP operates multiple lines of business these days. AT&T and Verizon are judged more as cellular companies than as ISPs. AT&T and Comcast stock prices reflect that both are major media companies.

With that said, the stock price for CenturyLink has performed far worse than other big ISPs over the last year. A year ago a share of CenturyLink stock was at $19.24. By the end of the year the stock price was down to $15.44. As I wrote this blog the price was down to $10.89. That’s a 43% drop in share price over the last year and a 30% drop since the first of the year. For comparison, following are the stock prices of the other big ISPs and also trends in broadband customers:

Stock Price 1 Year Ago Stock Price Now % Change 2018 Change in Broadband Customers
CenturyLink $19.24 $10.89 -43.4% -262,000
Comcast $32.14 $43.15 34.3% 1,353,000
Charter $272.84 $377.89 38.5% 1,271,000
AT&T $32.19 $30.62 -4.9% -18,000
Verizon $48.49 $56.91 17.4% 2,000

As a point of comparison to the overall market, the Dow Jones Industrial average was up 4% over this same 1-year period. The above chart is not trying to make a correlation between stock prices and broadband customers since that is just one of dozens of factors that affect the performance of these companies.

Again, I’ve never fully understood how Wall Street values any given company. In reading analyst reports on CenturyLink it seems that the primary reason for the drop in stock price is that all of the company’s business units are trending downward. In the recently released 1Q 2019 results the company showed a year-over-year drop in results for the international, enterprise, small and medium business, wholesale, and consumer business units. It seems that analysts had hoped that the merger with Level 3 would reverse some of the downward trends. Stock prices also dropped when the company surprised the market by cutting its dividend payment in half in February.

CenturyLink faces the same trends as all big ISPs – traditional business lines like landline telephone and cable TV are in decline. Perhaps the most important trend affecting the company is the continued migration of broadband customers from copper-based DSL to cable company broadband. CenturyLink is not replacing the DSL broadband customers it’s losing. In 2018 CenturyLink lost a lot of broadband customers with speeds under 20 Mbps, but had a net gain of customers using more than 20 Mbps. CenturyLink undertook a big fiber-to-the-home expansion in 2017 and built fiber to pass 900,000 homes and businesses – but currently almost all expansion of last-mile networks is on hold.

It’s interesting to compare CenturyLink as an ISP with the big cable companies. The obvious big difference is the trend in broadband customers and revenues. Where CenturyLink lost 262,000 broadband customers in 2018, the two biggest cable companies each added more than a million new broadband customers for the year. CenturyLink and other telcos are losing the battle of DSL versus cable modems with customers migrating to cable companies as they seek faster speeds.

It’s also interesting to compare CenturyLink to the other big telcos. From the perspective of being an ISP, AT&T and Verizon are hanging on to total broadband customers. Both companies are also losing the DSL battle with the cable companies, but each is adding fiber customers to compensate for those losses. Both big telcos are building a lot of new fiber, mostly to provide direct connectivity to their own cell sites, but secondarily to then take advantage of other fiber opportunities around each fiber node.

Verizon has converted over a hundred telephone exchanges in the northeast to fiber-only and is getting out of the copper business in urban areas. Verizon has been quietly filling in its FiOS fiber network to cover the copper it’s abandoning. While nobody knows yet if it’s real, Verizon also has been declaring big plans to to expand into new broadband markets markets using 5G wireless loops.

AT&T was late to the fiber game but has been quietly yet steadily adding residential and business fiber customers over the last few years. They have adopted a strategy of chasing pockets of customers anywhere they own fiber.

CenturyLink had started down the path to replace DSL customers when they built a lot of fiber-to-the-home in 2017. Continuing with fiber construction would have positioned the company to take back a lot of the broadband market in the many large cities it serves. It’s clear that the new CenturyLink CEO doesn’t like the slow returns from investing in last-mile infrastructure and it appears that any hopes to grow the telco part of the business are off the table.

Everything I read says that CenturyLink is facing a corporate crisis. Diving stock prices always put strain on a company. CenturyLink faces more pressure since the activist investors group Southeastern Asset Management holds more than a 6% stake in CenturyLink and made an SEC filing that that the company’s fiber assets are undervalued.

The company has underperformed compared to its peers ever since it was spun off from AT&T as US West. The company then had what turned out to be a disastrous merger with Qwest. There was hope a few years back that the merger with CenturyLink would help to right the company. Most recently has been the merger with Level 3, and at least for now that’s not made a big difference. It’s been reported that CenturyLink has hired advisors to consider if they should sell or spin off the telco business unit. That analysis has just begun, but it won’t be surprising to hear about a major restructuring of the company.

AT&T and Augmented Reality

Lately it seems like I find a news article almost every week talking about new ways that people are using broadband. The latest news is an announcement that AT&T is selling Magic Leap augmented reality headsets in six cities plus online.

The AT&T launch is being coordinated with the release of an augmented reality immersive experience that will bring The Game of Thrones into people’s homes with a themed gaming experience called The Dead Must Die, with a teaser in this trailer.

Augmented reality differs from virtual reality in that augmented reality overlays images into the local environment. A user will see characters in their living room as opposed to being immersed in a total imaginary environment with virtual reality.

Magic Leap is one of the most interesting tech start-ups. They started in 2014 with a $542 million investment, and since then have raised over $2.3 billion dollars. The company’s investors and advisors include people like Alibaba executive vice chair Joe Tsai and director Steven Spielberg. There have been rumors over the years of an impending product, but until now they’ve never brought a product to market. AT&T will be selling Magic Leap’s first headset, called the Magic Leap One Creator Edition for a price of $2,295. The mass-market headset will surely cost a lot less.

AT&T’s interest in the technology extends past selling the headsets. Magic Leap recently signed a deal with the NBA and its broadcast partner Turner which is now owned by AT&T and will obviously be looking at augmented reality broadcasts of basketball games.

AT&T’s interest goes even far beyond that and they are looking at the Magic Leap technology as the entry into the spatial Internet – moving today’s web experience to three dimensions. AT&T sees the Magic Leap headset as the entry into bringing virtual reality to industries like healthcare, retail and manufacturing. They envision people shopping in 3D, doctors getting 3D computer assistance for visualizing a patient during an operating, and manufacturer workers aided by overlaid 3D blueprints on the manufacturing floor.

While the Magic Leap headset will work on WiFi today, AT&T is promoting Magic Leap as part of their 5G Innovation Program. AT&T is touting this as a technology that will benefit greatly from 5G, which will allow users to go mobile and use the augmented reality technology anywhere.

I couldn’t find any references to the amount of bandwidth used by this first-generation headset, but it has to be significant. Looking at the Game of Thrones application, a user is immersed in a 3D environment and can move and interact with elements in the augmented reality. That means a constant transmission of the elements in the 3D environment. I have to think that is at least equivalent to several simultaneous video transmissions. Regardless of the bandwidth used today, you can bet that as augmented reality becomes mainstream that content makers will find ways to use greater bandwidth.

We are already facing a big increase in bandwidth that is needed to support gaming from the cloud – as is now being pushed by the major game vendors. Layering augmented reality on top of that big data stream will increase bandwidth needs by another major increment.

AT&T Withdraws from Lifeline Program

In March the Public Utility Commission of Ohio allowed AT&T to withdraw from the federal Lifeline program. This is a program that let’s qualified low-income homes get a monthly discount of $9.25 from either their landline telephone or their broadband connection – only one discount per home. AT&T successfully withdrew from Lifeline in Illinois in 2018 and in twelve other states in 2017.

AT&T apparently hasn’t been advertising or pushing the potential discount since they only had 7,300 homes in the state on the Lifeline program. The Communications Workers of America say there are almost 1.6 million households in Ohio that qualify for the discount – although not all of them are served by AT&T.

You might think that AT&T supports Lifeline by looking at their web site. However, clicking through to Ohio notifies customers that the discount will end in June and provides customers a list of other companies that might offer them the discount.

The Lifeline program started in 1985, and at the time the amount of discount was a significant savings for customers. Because of inflation the $9.25 discount represents a far smaller portion of a today’s monthly telecommunications bill.

Participation in the Lifeline program has dropped significantly in the past few years, as has the way the fund is being used. The following revenue numbers come from the 2018 annual report from USAC – the entity that operates the Lifeline Fund. I extraopolated out the number of participants at $9.25 per month.

2016 2018
Telephone $1,477,548,000 $312,300,000
Bundle $25,554,000 $293,707,000
Broadband $18,610,000 $536,424,000
Total $1,521,712,000 $1,142,431,000
Participants        13,700,000        10,250,000

Since 2016 there are 2.5 million fewer participants in the plan – many certainly due to carriers like AT&T withdrawing from the plan. The USAC numbers show a big shift since 2016 of participants applying the discount to their broadband bill rather than to landline telephone or cellphone bill.

The Lifeline Program was in the news recently when the FCC Inspector General issued a fraud advisory that says there are a lot of duplicate names requesting Lifeline and a number of deceased people still getting the discount. Chairman Ajit Pai immediately issued a statement saying that the program needs to be cleaned up.

Fraud has always been a concern in the program. However, it’s a little odd for the FCC to be complaining about fraud today since they are in the process of taking over validation of Lifeline subscribers. Eligibility to participate in Lifeline was previously the responsibility of the states, but in June, 2018 USAC launched the National Verifier, a database that lists everybody eligible to receive a Lifeline credit. As of the end of last year, the federal verifier was active in 18 states, with the remaining states and territories joining the program this year. It seems odd to be yelling about problems of the older state programs when the FCC has already implemented a solution that they believe will solve most of the fraud issues.

I published a blog several days ago saying how regulators are letting the public down. It’s mystifying to me why the Ohio PUC and so many other states are letting AT&T out of the Lifeline program. The Lifeline Fund reimburses AT&T for every discount given to customers, so there is zero net cost to AT&T to participate in the plan. With the new National Verifier, AT&T takes no role in enrolling customers, who must enter through the national Verifier portal. I don’t know why regulators don’t insist that AT&T and every other company that sells residential telephone and broadband be required to participate in the program.

Another Rural Wireless Provider?

T-Mobile announced the start of a trial for a fixed wireless broadband product using LTE. The product is being marketed as “T-Mobile Home Internet”. The company will offer the product by invitation only to some existing T-Mobile cellular customers in “rural and underserved areas”. The company says they might connect as many as 50,000 customers this year. The company is marketing the product as 50 Mbps broadband, with a monthly price of $50 and no data cap. The company warns that speeds may be curtailed during times of network congestion.

The company further says that their ultimate goal is to offer speeds of up to 100 Mbps, but only if they are allowed to merge with Sprint and gain access to Sprint’s huge inventory of mid-range spectrum. They said the combination of the two companies would enable them to cover as many as 9.5 million homes with 100 Mbps broadband in about half of US zip codes.

There are positive aspects the planned deployment, but also a number of issues that make me skeptical. One positive aspect is that some of the spectrum used for LTE can better pass through trees compared to the spectrum used for the fixed wireless technology that is being widely deployed in the open plains and prairies of the Midwest and West. This opens up the possibility of bringing some wireless broadband to places like Appalachia – with the caveat that heavy woods are still going to slow down data speeds. It’s worth noting that this is still a line-of-sight technology and fixed LTE will be blocked by hills or other physical impediments.

The other positive aspect of the announced product is the price and lack of a data cap. Contrast this to the AT&T fixed LTE product that has a price as high as $70 along with a stingy 160 GB monthly cap, and with overage charges that can bring the AT&T price up to $200 per month.

I am skeptical of a number of the claims made or implied by the announcement. The primary concern is download speeds. Fixed LTE will be the same as any other fixed wireless product and speeds will decrease with the distance of a customer from the serving tower. In rural America distances can mount up quickly. LTE broadband is similar to rural cellular voice and works best where customers can get 4 or 5 bars. Anybody living in rural America understands that there are a lot more places with 1 or 2 bars of signal strength than of 4 or 5 bars.

The 50 Mbps advertised speed is clearly an ‘up-to’ speed and in rural America it’s doubtful that anybody other than those who live under a tower could actually get that much speed. This is one of the few times when I’ve seen AT&T advertise truthfully and they market their LTE product as delivering at least 10 Mbps speed. I’ve read numerous online reviews of the AT&T product and the typical speeds reported by customers range between 10 Mbps and 25 Mbps, with only a few lucky customers claiming speeds faster than that.

The online reviews of the AT&T LTE product also indicate that signal strength is heavily influenced by rain and can completely disappear during a downpour. Perhaps even more concerning are reports that in some cases speeds remain slow after a rain due to wet leaves on trees that must be scattering the signal.

Another concern is that T-Mobile is touting this as a solution for underserved rural America.  T-Mobile has far less presence in rural America than AT&T and Verizon and is on fewer rural cellular towers. This is evidenced by their claim that even after a merger with Sprint they’d only be seeing 9.5 million passings – that’s really small coverage for a nationwide cellular network. I’m a bit skeptical that T-Mobile will invest in connecting to more rural towers just to offer this product – the cost of backhaul to rural towers often makes for a lousy business case.

The claim also says that the product will have some aspects of both 4G and 5G. I’ve talked to several wireless engineers who have told me that they can’t see any particular advantage for 5G over 4G when deploying as fixed wireless. A carrier already opens up the available data path fully with 4G to reach a customer and 5G can’t make the spectrum perform any better. I’d love to hear from anybody who can tell me how 5G would enhance this particular application. This might be a case where the 5G term is tossed in for the benefit of politicians and marketing.

Finally, this is clearly a ploy to keep pushing for the merger with Sprint. The claim of the combined companies being able to offer 100 Mbps rural broadband has even more holes than the arguments for achieving 50 Mbps. However, Sprint does have a larger rural presence on rural towers today than T-Mobile, although I think the Sprint towers are already counted in the 9.5 million passings claim.

But putting aside all my skepticism, it would be great if T-Mobile can bring broadband to any rural customers that otherwise wouldn’t have it. Even should they not achieve the full 50 Mbps claim, many rural homes would be thrilled to get speeds at half that level. A wireless product with no data caps would also be a welcomed product. The timing of the announcement is clearly aimed at promoting the merger process with Sprint and I hope the company’s deployment plans don’t evaporate if the merger doesn’t happen.

Reality Pricing Coming for Online Video

I’ve been a cord cutter for many years and over the last few years, I’ve tried the various vMVPDs that offer channel line-ups that somewhat mimic traditional cable TV. I’ve tried Sling TV, DirecTV Now and Playstation Vue. In every case I’ve always scratched my head wondering how these products could offer prices that are lower than the wholesale price of the content from programmers. There are only two possibilities – either these companies have been setting low prices to gain market share or they had been able to negotiate far better deals for content than the rest of the industry.

Of course, the answer is that they’ve been subsidizing these products. And Wall Street is now pressuring these companies to end the subsidies and become profitable. There is probably no better example of this than AT&T’s DirecTV Now service. When DirecTV Now launched it carried a price tag of $35 per month for about a hundred channels of programming. The low price was clearly set as a reaction to a similarly low price from Sling TV which was the first big successful vMVPD.

Both companies offered line-ups including the channels that most households watch. This included the high-price programming from ESPN and numerous other quality networks. The initial pricing was crazy – a similar package on traditional cable was priced at $60 – $70.

The low pricing has worked for DirectTV Now. They are getting close to surpassing the Sling TV in subscribers. AT&T has featured DirecTV Now in its advertising and has been shuttling customers from the satellite-based DirecTV to the online product.

But AT&T company just got realistic with the product. They have collapsed from four options down to two options now priced at $50 and $70 per month. The company got ready for this shift by eliminating special promotional prices in the fourth quarter of last year. They had roughly half a million customers who were paying even less than their published low prices. When AT&T raised the rates they immediately lost over half of those promotional customers.

Not only are prices rising, but the company has significantly trimmed the channel counts. The new $50 package will have only about 40 channels while the $70 package will have 50 channels. It’s worth noting that both packages now include HBO, which is the flagship AT&T product. HBO is by far the most expensive programming in the industry and AT&T has now reconfigured DirecTV Now to be HBO plus other premium channels.

The new prices are realistic and also include a profit margin. It will be interesting to see how the DirecTV Now customer base reacts to such a drastic change. I’m sure many of them will flee to cheaper alternatives. But the company may also attract customers that subscribe directly to HBO to upgrade.

The big question is if there will be cheaper alternatives? The online industry has been around long enough that it is now out of its infancy and investors are starting to expect profits from any company in this space. The new realistic pricing by AT&T is likely to drive the other online programmers to also get more realistic.

These price increases have ramifications for cord-cutting. It’s been easy to justify cutting the cord when you could ditch a $70 per month traditional cable product for a $35 online one that has the channels you most watch. But there is less allure from going online when the alternative choice is just as expensive as the traditional one. There is always going to be some savings from jumping online – if nothing else customers can escape the exorbitant fees for renting a settop box.

It’s clear that AT&T is counting on HBO as the allure for its online offering. That product is available in a number of places on the web for a monthly rate of $15, so including that in the $50 and $70 product still distinguishes DirecTV Now from the other vMVPD providers.

What is clear by this move is that we are approaching the time when companies are willing to eat huge losses to gain online market share. That market share is worthless if customers leave in droves when there is a rate increase. These big companies don’t seem to have fully grasped that there is zero customer loyalty online. Viewers don’t really care who the underlying company is that is carrying their favorite programming – it’s the content they care about. The big cable companies have to break their long history of making decisions like near-monopolies.