The Digital Redlining of Dallas

In 2018 Dr Brian Whitacre, an economist from Oklahoma State University looked in detail at the broadband offered by AT&T in Dallas County, Texas. It’s an interesting county in that it includes all of the City of Dallas as well as wealthy suburban areas. Dr. Whitaker concluded that AT&T has engaged for years in digital redlining – in providing faster broadband only in the more affluent parts of the area.

Dr. Whitaker looked in detail at AT&T’s 477 data at the end of 2017 provided to the FCC. AT&T reports the technology used in each census blocks as well as the ‘up-to’ maximum speed offered in each census block.

AT&T offers three technologies in Dallas county:

  • Fiber-to-the-home with markets speeds up to 1 Gbps download. AT&T offers fiber in 6,287 out of 23,463 census blocks (26.8% of the county). The average maximum speed offered in these census blocks in late 2017 according to the 477 data was 300 Mbps.
  • VDSL, which brings fiber deep into neighborhoods, and which in Dallas offers speeds as fast as 75 Mbps download. AT&T offers this in 10,399 census blocks in Dallas (44.3% of the county). AT&T list census blocks with maximum speeds of 18, 24, 45, and 75 Mbps. The average maximum speed listed in the 477 data is 56 Mbps.
  • ADSL2 or ADSL2+, which is one of the earliest forms of DSL and is mostly deployed from central offices. The technology theoretically delivers speeds up to 24 Mbps but decreases rapidly for customers more than a mile from a central office. AT&T still uses ADSL2 in 6,777 census blocks (28.9% of the county). They list the maximum speeds of various census blocks at 3, 6, 12, and 18 Mbps. The average speed of all ADSL2 census blocks is 7.26 Mbps.

It’s worth noting before going further that the above speed differences, while dramatic, doesn’t tell the whole story. The older ADSL technology has a dramatic drop in customer speeds with distances and speeds are also influenced by the quality of the copper wires. Dr. Whitaker noted that he had anecdotal evidence that some of the homes that were listed as having 3 Mbps of 6 Mbps might have speeds under 1 Mbps.

Dr. Whitaker then overlaid the broadband availability against poverty levels in the county. His analysis started by looking at Census blocks have at least 35% of households below the poverty level. In Dallas County, 6,777 census blocks have poverty rates of 35% or higher.

The findings were as follows:

  • Areas with high poverty were twice as likely to be served by ADSL – 56% of high-poverty areas versus 24% of other parts of the city.
  • VDSL coverage was also roughly 2:1 with 25% of areas with high poverty served by VDSL while 48% of the rest of the city had VDSL.
  • Surprisingly, 19% of census blocks with high poverty were served with fiber. I’m going to conjecture that this might include large apartment complexes where AT&T delivers one fiber to the whole complex – which is not the same product as fiber-to-the-home.

It’s worth noting that the findings are somewhat dated and rely upon 477 data from November 2017. AT&T has not likely upgraded any DSL since then, but they have been installing fiber in more neighborhoods over the last two years in a construction effort that recently concluded. It would be interesting to see if the newer fiber also went to more affluent neighborhoods.

I don’t know that I can write a better conclusion of the findings than the one written by Dr. Whitacre: “The analysis for Dallas demonstrates that AT&T has withheld fiber-enhanced broadband improvements from most Dallas neighborhoods with high poverty rates, relegating them to Internet access services which are vastly inferior to the services enjoyed by their counterparts nearby in the higher-income Dallas suburbs…”

This study was done as a follow-up to work done earlier in Cleveland, Ohio and this same situation can likely be found in almost every large city in the country. It’s not hard to understand why ISPs like AT&T do this – they want to maximize the return on their investment. But this kind of redlining is not in the public interest and is possibly the best argument that can be made for regulating broadband networks. We regulated telephone companies since 1932, and that regulation resulted in the US having the best telephone networks in the world. But we’ve decided to not regulate broadband in the same way, and until we change that decision we’re going to have patchwork networks that create side-by-side haves and have-nots.

Are You Paying to Spy on Yourself?

Geoffrey A. Fowler of the Washington Post recently engaged a data expert to track everything going on behind the scenes with his iPhone. What he found was surprising since Apple touts itself as a company that doesn’t invade user privacy. The various apps on his phone were routinely handing out his personal data on a scale that shocked him.

Fowler’s information was being gathered by trackers. This is software built directly into apps and is different than ad tracking cookies that we pick up from web sites. App makers deliberately build trackers into apps and a user can’t get rid of them without getting rid of the app.

Most apps on his phone had these trackers. That included sites like Microsoft OneDrive, Intuit’s Mint, Nike, Spotify, The Washington Post, and the Weather Channel. Some apps came with numerous trackers. He had a food delivery service called DashDoor that included nine separate trackers. Third parties must be paying to share app space because the DashDoor app included trackers for Facebook and Google – those two companies know every time that app is used to order food.

Almost none of these apps disclosed the nature of what they were tracking. When first loaded, most apps ask for somewhat generic permission to track user certain data but don’t disclose the frequency and the extent to which they will gather data from a user.

This issue has relevance beyond privacy concerns because the apps on Fowler’s phone could collectively use as much as 1.5 gigabytes of data per month on his phone. Industry statistics show that the fastest-growing segment of Internet traffic is machine-to-machine communication, and these app trackers make a significant contribution to that traffic. Put bluntly, a lot of machine-to-machine traffic is either being used to back up files or to spy on us.

This has to be concerning to people who are still on measured cellular data plans. This unintended usage can cost real money and a user can end up paying to have trackers spy on them. Our cellphones are generating broadband usage without our knowledge, and mostly without our explicit permission. I’ve had months where I’ve barely roamed with my cellphone and still have seen more than a gigabyte of usage – I now understand where it’s probably coming from.

PCs and tablets have the same problems, with the data tracking coming more from marketing cookies that are loaded when we visit web sites. I scrub these cookies from my computer routinely. My desktop is only used for work and I still find 40 – 100 cookies every week. One of my blogs last year mentioned a guy who had gone on vacation for a month and was shocked when he returned and discovered that his home network had used several gigabytes of data in his absence.

There are ways to block the trackers on your phone, but this mostly involves deleting apps or turning off permission in your privacy setting, and that largely means the apps won’t work. You can also take steps to disguise your data by passing everything through a VPN, but that doesn’t stop the data from being transmitted.

The phone manufacturers are complicit in this tracking. I just got a new Samsung Galaxy and my new phone came with over 300 apps – most for services I don’t use like Facebook, Spotify, and ton of others. These various companies must have paid Samsung (or perhaps AT&T) to include their apps and their trackers. I’ll be spending a few days deleting or disabling most of these apps. I find it creepy that Facebook follows me even though I stopped using the site several years ago. And unlike when I download a new app, I didn’t have the opportunity to allow or deny permission to the many apps on my new phone – I assume AT&T gave that permission.

It might be a generational thing, but it bothers me to have companies reaping my personal data without my permission, without disclosing what they are gathering, and how they are using it. I know young people who are not bothered by tracking and assume that this is just a part of being connected.

The other big concern is that the tracking apps are contributing to the capacity problems on cellular network. I just saw last week that the average US cellphone now uses about 6 GB of data per month. If trackers are pushing out even half a gigabyte per month in usage that is a significant contributor to swamped cellular networks. Cellphone companies are working furiously to keep ahead of the demand and it must be maddening to cellular network engineers to know that 15% – 20% of network usage is being created behind the scenes with app trackers and not from actions taken by users.

In an ideal world, this is something regulators would be investigating to establish rules. Apps like DashDoor shouldn’t be allowed to install a Facebook tracker on your phone without asking for specific and explicit permission. All trackers should have to disclose the exact information they gather about a user and the frequency of that tracking. Unfortunately, this FCC has walked away from any regulatory role in this area. Congress could address the issue – something that European regulators are considering – but this doesn’t seem to be high on anybody’s radar.

How Smart are Promotional Rates?

I think the big ISPs are recognizing the impact that special promotion rates have on their bottom line. Promotional pricing is the low rates that cable companies offer to new customers to pry them away from the competition. Over the years promotional rates have also become the tool that cable companies use to retain customers. Most customers understand that they have to call the cable company periodically to renegotiate rates – and the big ISPs have routinely given customers a discount to keep them happy.

We’re finally seeing some changes with this practice. When Charter bought Time Warner Cable they found that Time Warner had over 90,000 ‘special’ pricing plans – they routinely negotiated separately with customers when they bought new service or renegotiated prices. Charter decided to end the practice and told most former Time Warner customers that they had to pay the full price at the end of their current contract period.

We’ve seen the same thing with AT&T and DirecTV. The company decided last year to eliminate the special discount on DirecTV and DirecTV Now. When the discount period ends for those products the company moves rates to the full list price and refuses to renegotiate. The practice cost AT&T almost a million customers just in the first quarter of this year. But AT&T says that they are glad to be rid of customers that are not contributing to the bottom line of the company. I’ve seen where the CEOs or other big ISPs like Comcast have said that they are considering changes in these practices.

At CCG we routinely examine customer bills from incumbent ISPs as part of the market research of helping ISPs entering new markets. While our examination of customer bills has never reached the level of equating to a statistically valid sample, I can report that the vast majority of bills we see have at least some level of discount. In some markets it’s rare to find a customer bill with no discount.

The discounts must accumulate to a huge loss of revenue for the big ISPs. The big ISPs all know that one of the only ways they are going to be profitable in the future is to raise broadband rates every year. The growth of broadband customers overall is slowing nationwide since most homes have broadband, although Charter and Comcast are still enjoying the migration of customers off DSL. The ISPs are continuing to lose revenues and margins as they lose cable and landline voice customers. Most US markets are seeing increased competition in broadband services for businesses and large MDUs. There’s not much left other than to raise residential broadband rates if the big ISPs want to satisfy the revenue growth expected by Wall Street.

If the big ISPs phased out promotional discounts it would probably equate to a 5% to 10% revenue increase. This is something that is becoming easier for a cable company to do. Many of them have already come to grips with cord cutting, and many are no longer fighting to keep cable customers. Cable companies are also less worried over time about customers leaving them to go back to DSL – a choice that is harder for consumers to make as the household need for broadband continues to climb.

Most ISPs won’t make a loud splash about killing discounts but will just quietly change policies. After a few years, I would expect customer expectations will reset after they realize that they can no longer extract discounts by threatening to drop service.

I’ve always advised my fiber overbuilder customers to not play this game. I ask clients if they really want to fight hard to win that slice of the market of customers that will change ISPs for a discount. Such customers flop back and forth between ISPs every two years, and in my opinion, companies are better off without such customers. Churn is expensive, and it’s even more expensive if an ISP provides a substantial discount to stop a customer from churning. Not all of my client agree with this philosophy, but if the big ISPs stop providing promotional discounts, then over time the need to do this for competitors will lessen.

This is certainly a practice I’d love to see slip into history. I’ve never liked it as a customer because I despise the idea of having to play the game of renegotiating with an ISP every few years. I’ve also hated this as a consultant. Too many times I’ve seen clients give away a huge amount of margin through these practices, giving away revenue that is needed to meet their forecasts and budgets. It’s dangerous to let marketing folks determine the bottom line because they’ve never met a discount they don’t like – particularly if they can make a bonus for selling or retaining customers.

Is AT&T the 800-pound Gorilla?

For years it’s been understood in the industry that Comcast is the hardest incumbent to compete against. However, they are still a cable company and many people dislike cable companies – but Comcast has been the most formidable competitor. The company is reported to have the highest gross margins on cable TV and might be one of the few companies still making a significant profit on cable. Much of that is due to their extensive programming holdings – it’s easier to make money on cable when you buy your own programming. Comcast has also been the best in the industry in creating bundles to lock in customers – bundling things like smart home and more recently cellular service.

But the new 800-pound Gorilla in the industry might be AT&T. The company seems to be finally shaking out of the transition period from integrating their purchase of Time Warner. It can be argued that the programming that came from that merger – things like HBO, CNN, and blockbuster movies – will make AT&T a more formidable competitor than Comcast.

AT&T will be launching its new streaming service, AT&T TV, next month. The company already has one of the largest streaming services with DirecTV Now. It’s been rumored that the streaming service will start at a price around $18 per month – an amazingly low price considering that HBO retails for $15 online today. The company is trying to coax more money out of the millions of current HBO subscribers. This pricing also will lure customers to drop HBO bought from cable companies and instead purchase it online.

AT&T has also been building fiber for the last four years and says that they now pass 20 million homes and businesses. They recently announced the end of the big fiber push and will likely now concentrate on selling to customers in that big footprint. The company is one of the more aggressive marketers and has sent somebody to my door several times in the last year. That’s a sign of a company that is working hard to gain broadband subscribers.

The one area where AT&T is still missing the boat is in not bundling broadband and cellular service. AT&T is still number one in the country with cellular customers, with almost 160 million customers at the end of the recently ended second quarter. For some reason, they have never tried to create bundles into that large customer base.

AT&T has most recently been having a customer purge at DirecTV. For years that business bought market share by offering low-prices significantly below landline cable TV. Over the last, year the company has been refusing to renew promotional pricing deals and is willing to let customers walk. In the first quarter of this year alone the company lost nearly one million customers. The company says they are not unhappy to see these customers leave since they weren’t contributing to the bottom line. This is a sign of a company that is strengthening its position by stripping away the cost of dealing with unprofitable customers.

AT&T has also pushed a few net neutrality issues further than other incumbents. As a whole, the industry seems to be keeping a low profile with issues that are identified as net neutrality violations. There is speculation that the industry doesn’t want to stir up public ire on the topic and invite a regulatory backlash if there is a change in administration.

AT&T widely advertised to its cellular customers earlier this year that the company would not count DirecTV Now usage against cellular or landline data caps. The same will likely be true for AT&T TV. Favoring one’s own service over the competition is clearly one of the things that net neutrality was intended to stop. Since there are data caps on both cellular and AT&T landline products, the move puts Netflix and other streaming services at a competitive disadvantage. That disadvantage will grow over time as more landline customers hit the AT&T data caps.

AT&T has made big mistakes in the past. For instance, they poured a fortune into promoting 50 Gbps DSL instead of pushing for fiber a decade sooner. They launched their cable TV product just as that market peaked. The company seemed to lose sight of all landline and fiber-based products for a decade when everything the company did was for cellular – I remember a decade ago having trouble even finding mention of the broadband business in the AT&T annual report.

We’ll have to wait a few years to see if a company like AT&T can reinvent itself as a media giant. For now, it looks like they are making all of the right moves to take advantage of their huge resources. But the company is still managed by the same folks who were managing it a decade ago, so we’ll have to see if they can change enough to make a difference.

Cellular Broadband Speeds – 2019

Opensignal recently released their latest report on worldwide cellular data speeds. The company examined over 139 billion cellphone connections in 87 countries in creating this latest report.

South Korea continues to have the fastest cellular coverage in the world with an average download speed of 52.4 Mbps. Norway is second at 48.2 Mbps and Canada third at 42.5 Mbps. The US was far down the list in 30th place with an average download speed of 21.3 Mbps. Our other neighbor Mexico had an average download speed of 14.9 Mbps. At the bottom of the list are Iraq (1.6 Mbps), Algeria (2.1 Mbps) and Nepal (4.4 Mbps). Note that these average speeds represent all types of cellular data connections including 2G and 3G.

Cellular broadband speeds have been improving raoidly in most countries. For instance, in the 2017 report, Opensignal showed South Korea at 37.5 Mbps and Norway at 34.8 Mbps. The US in 2017 was in 36th place at only 12.5 Mbps.

Earlier this year Opensignal released their detailed report about the state of mobile broadband in the United States. This report looks at speeds by carrier and also by major metropolitan area. The US cellular carriers have made big strides just since 2017. The following table compares download speeds for 4G LTE by US carrier for 2017 and 2019.

2019 2017
Download Latency Download Latency
AT&T 17.8 Mbps 57.8 ms 12.9 Mbps 63.8 ms
Sprint 13.9 Mbps 70.0 ms 9.8 Mbps 70.1 ms
T-Mobile 21.1 Mbps 60.6 ms 17.5 Mbps 62.8 ms
Verizon 20.9 Mbps 62.6 ms 14.9 Mbps 67.3 ms

Speeds are up across the board. Sprint increased speeds over the two years by 40%. Latency for 4G is still relatively high. For comparison, fiber-to-the-home networks have latency in the range of 10 ms and coaxial cable networks have latency between 25 – 40 ms. The poor latency in cellular networks is one of the reasons why browsing the web on a cellphone seems so slow. (the other reason is that cellphone browsers focus on graphics rather than speed).

Cellular upload speeds are still slow. In the 2019 tests, the average upload speeds were AT&T (4.6 Mbps), Sprint (2.4 Mbps), T-Mobile (6.7 Mbps) and Verizon (7.0 Mbps).

Speeds vary widely by carrier and city. The fastest cellular broadband market identified in the 2019 tests was T-Mobile in Grand Rapids, Michigan with an average 4G speed of 38.3 Mbps. The fastest upload speed was provided by Verizon in New York City at 12.5 Mbps. Speeds vary by market for several reasons. First, the carriers don’t deploy the same spectrum everywhere in the US, so some markets have less spectrum than others. Markets vary in speed due to the state of upgrades – at any given time cell sites are at different levels of software and hardware upgrades. Finally, markets also vary by cell tower density and markets that serve more customers for each tower are likely to be slower.

Many people routinely take speed tests for their home landline broadband connection. If you’ve not taken a cellular speed test it’s an interesting experience. I’ve always found that speeds vary significantly with each speed test, even when run back-to-back As I was writing this blog I took several speed tests that varied in download speeds between 12 Mbps and 23 Mbps (I use AT&T). My upload speeds also varied with a top speed of 3 Mbps, and one test that couldn’t maintain the upload connection and measured 0.1 Mbps on the test. While landlines broadband connections maintain a steady connection to an ISP, a cellphone establishes a new connection every time you try to download and speeds can vary depending upon the cell site and the channel your phone connects to and the overall traffic at the cell site at the time of connection. Cellular speeds can also be affected by temperature, precipitation and all of those factors that make wireless coverage a bit squirrelly.

It’s going to be a few years until we see any impact on the speed test results from 5G. As you can see by comparing to other countries, the US still has a long way to go to bring 4G networks up to snuff. One of the most interesting aspects of 5G is that speed tests might lose some of their importance. With frequency slicing, a cell site will size a data channel to meet a specific customer need. Somebody downloading a large software update should be assigned a bigger data channel with 5G than somebody who’s just keeping up with sports scores. It will be interesting to see how Opensignal accounts for data slicing.

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.