G.Fast over Coax

There is yet another new technology available to carriers – G.Fast over coaxial cable. Early trials of the technology show it works better than G.Fast over telephone copper.

Calix recently did a test of the new coaxial technology and was able to deliver 500+ Mbps for up to 2,000 feet. This is far better than current G.Fast technology over copper which can handle similar data speeds up to about 800 feet. But telephone G.Fast is improving and Calix just demonstrated a telephone copper G.Fast that can deliver 1 Gbps for about 750 feet.

But achieving the kinds of speeds demonstrated by Calix requires a high-quality telephone copper network. We all know that the existing telephone and coaxial networks in existing buildings are usually anything but pristine. Many existing coaxial cables in places like apartment buildings have been cut and re-spliced numerous times over the years, which will significantly degrade G.Fast performance.

This new technology is definitely going to work best in niche applications – and there may be situations where it’s the clearly best technology for the price. There are a surprising number of coaxial networks in place in homes, apartment buildings, schools, factories and older office buildings that might be good candidates for the technology.

A number of telcos like CenturyLink and AT&T are starting to use G.Fast over telephone copper to distribute broadband to apartment buildings. Since as the incumbent telephone company they can make sure that these networks are available to them. But there might be many apartment buildings where the existing coaxial network could be used instead. The ability to go up to 2,000 feet could make a big difference in larger apartment buildings.

Another potential use would be in schools. However, with the expanding demand for broadband in classrooms one has to wonder if 500 Mbps is enough bandwidth to serve and share among a typical string of classrooms – each with their own heavy broadband demand.

There are also a lot of places that have coaxial networks that you might not think about. For example, coaxial wiring was the historic wiring of choice for the early versions of video surveillance cameras in factories and other large businesses. It would not be hard to add WiFi modems to this kind of network. There are tons of older hotels with end-to-end coaxial networks. Any older office buildings is likely to have coaxial wiring throughout.

But there is one drawback for the technology in that the coaxial network can’t be carrying a cable TV signal at the same time. The coaxial G.Fast operates at the same frequencies as a significant chunk of a traditional DOCSIS cable network. To use the technology in a place like an apartment would mean that the coaxial wiring can no longer be used for cable TV delivery. Or it means converting the cable TV signal to IPTV to travel over the G.Fast. (but that wouldn’t leave much bandwidth for broadband.) But still, there are probably many unused coaxial wiring networks and the technology could use them with very little required rewiring.

It’s more likely that the coaxial G.Fast could coexist with existing applications in places like factories. Those networks typically use MoCA to feed the video cameras, at frequencies that are higher than DOCSIS cable networks.

But my guess is that the interference issue will be a big one for many potential applications. Most apartments and schools are going to still be using their networks to deliver traditional video. And many other coaxial networks will have been so chopped up and re-spliced over time to present a real challenge for the technology.

But this is one more technology to put into the toolbox, particularly for companies that bring broadband to a lot of older buildings. There are probably many cases where this could be the most cost effective solution.

Our Aging Fiber Infrastructure

One thing that I rarely hear talked about is how many of our long-haul fiber networks are aging. The fiber routes that connect our largest cities were mostly built in the 1990s in a very different bandwidth environment. I have a number of clients that rely on long-haul fiber routes and the stories they tell me scare me about our future ability to move bandwidth where it’s needed.

In order to understand the problems of the long-haul networks it’s important to look back at how these fiber routes were built. Many were built by the big telcos. I can remember the ads from AT&T thirty years ago bragging how they had built the first coast-to-coast fiber network. A lot of other fiber networks were built by competitive fiber providers like MCI and Qwest, which saw an opportunity for competing against the pricing of the big telco monopolies.

A lot of the original fibers built on intercity routes were small by today’s standards. The original networks were built to carry voice and much smaller volumes of data than today and many of the fibers contain only 48 pairs of fiber.

To a large degree the big intercity fiber routes follow the same physical paths, either following interstate highways, but to an even greater extent following the railroad tracks that go between markets. Most companies that move big amounts of data want route diversity to protect against fiber cuts or disasters, yet a significant percentage of the routes between many cities are located next to fibers of rival carriers.

It’s also important to understand how the money works in these routes. The owners of the large fibers have found it to be lucrative to lease pairs of fiber to other carriers on long-term leases called IRUs (indefeasible rights to use). It’s not unusual to be able to shop for a broadband connection between primary and secondary markets, say Philadelphia and Harrisburg, and find a half-dozen different carriers. But deeper examination often shows they all share leased pairs in the same fiber sheath.

Our long-haul fiber network infrastructure is physically aging and I’ve seen a lot of evidence of network failures. There are a number of reasons for these failures. First, the quality of fiber glass today has improved by several magnitudes over glass that was made in the 1980s and 1990s. Some fiber routes are starting to show signs of cloudiness from age which kills a given fiber pair. Probably even more significant is the fact that fiber installation techniques have improved over the years. We’ve learned that if a fiber cable is stretched or stressed during installation that microscopic cracks can be formed that slowly spread over time until a fiber becomes unusable. And finally, we are seeing the expected wear and tear on networks. Poles get knocked down by weather or accidents. Contractors occasionally cut buried fibers. Every time a long-haul fiber is cut it loses a little efficiency, and over time splices can add up to become problems.

Probably the parts of the network that are in the worst shape are the electronics. It’s an expensive proposition to upgrade the bandwidth on a long-haul fiber network because that means not only changing lasers at the end points of a fiber, but at all of the repeater huts along a fiber route. Unless a fiber route is completely utilized the companies operating these routes don’t want to spend the capital dollars needed to improve bandwidth. And so they keep operating old electronics that are often many years past their expected functional lives.

Construction of new long-haul fiber networks is incredibly expensive and it’s rare to hear of any major initiative to build fiber on the big established intercity routes. Interestingly, the fiber to smaller markets is in much better shape than the fiber between NFL cities. These secondary fiber routes were often built by groups like consortiums of independent telephone companies. There were also some significant new fiber routes built using the stimulus funding in 2008.

Today a big percentage of the old intercity fiber network is owned by AT&T, Verizon and CenturyLink. They built a lot of the original network but over the years have also gobbled up many of the other companies that built fiber – and are still doing so, like with Verizon’s purchase last year of XO and CenturyLink’s purchase of Level3. I know a lot of my clients worry every time one of these mergers happens because it removes another of a small handful of actual fiber owners from the market. They are fearful that we are going to go back to the old days of monopoly pricing and poor response to service issues – the two issues that prompted most of the construction of competitive fiber routes in the first place.

A lot of the infrastructure of all types in this country is aging. Sadly, I think we need to put a lot of our long-haul fiber backbone network into the aging category.

A Year of Mergers

Bell_logo_1969Our industry has seen many mergers over the years between the biggest companies in the sector. But for the most part big mergers that change the face of the industry have been sporadic. We had AOL buying Time Warner in 2000, Alcatel buying Lucent in 2006 and CenturyLink buying Qwest in 2011.

But now it seems like I can’t read industry news without seeing discussions of a new merger. During the last year or so we saw AT&T gobble up DirecTV, saw Alcatel-Lucent grabbed by Nokia and saw Charter buy Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. And we are now watching the regulators sorting out mergers with Verizon trying to buy both XO Communications and Yahoo, with CenturyLink wanting to buy Level 3 Communications and AT&T wanting to acquire Time Warner.

From reading Wall Street speculation it seems like the current merger mania in our industry is not over. The rumors are strong that CBS and Viacom will soon announce a merger. There is rampant speculation that several companies might try to outbid CenturyLink for Level 3. There are rumors that Comcast, Charter and Altice are interested in buying T-Mobile or Sprint. There are continuing rumors that Verizon wants to buy Dish Networks to get permanent access to the huge swatch of spectrum they own. And there have been rumors for the last year that somebody ought to buy Netflix.

And these giant mergers aren’t just happening in telecom. We see Bayer buying Monsanto, Microsoft buying Linked-In, Marriott buying Starwood, Tyco buying Johnson Control, Protection 1 buying ADT, Sherwin-Williams buying Valspar and Fortis buying ITC Holdings.

It’s really hard in the telecom world to know if mergers are good or bad for the industry. Some mergers are clearly bad because they eliminate competition and create oligopolies at the top of the market. The rumored merger between CBS and Viacom is one such merger. Today there are only five major programmers in the country and this reduces that to four. A lot of the woes in the industry today are due to the greed of programmers and consolidation at the top of the industry can’t mean anything good.

But other mergers might be beneficial. Consider the impact of Comcast or Charter buying T-Mobile or Sprint. I just saw an article this week that showed that the wireless operations of AT&T and Verizon are still showing a gross margin of over 50%. It’s been clear to every consumer that cellular service is overpriced due to lack of meaningful competition. Perhaps one of the big cable companies could drive down cellular prices in an attempt to grab market share.

But on the flip side, letting these huge cable companies develop a quad play product is bad for anybody else that tries to compete with them for broadband. A new fiber overbuilder in a city would have an even bigger challenge if they try to displace a cable competitor that offers cellphone service bundled with their broadband. It’s been clear for a long time that lack of broadband competition is bad for consumers.

The underlying theme driving all of these mergers is that Wall Street has a never-ending appetite for increased earnings. That alone is often a good thing. Many times the companies being acquired are underperforming for some reason and mergers sometimes wake them up to do better. Many mergers promise improvement earnings due to the effects of consolidation and a reduction in the management and overhead drags.

But consider what mega-mergers in the telecom space more often mean. They mean that fewer and fewer companies control the vast majority of the market. And those giant companies are driven by Wall Street to increase earnings quarter after quarter forever – and at a pace and level that exceeds general inflation. You only have to do the math on that basic concept to realize that this means price increases for residential and business customers year after year to keep meeting higher earnings targets.

Years ago we had Ma Bell that controlled 95% of the phone business in the country. AT&T would have acted like any other commercial company except for the fact that their prices were heavily restricted by regulators. But stockholders of these big companies today do just the opposite and they pressure management to increase profits no matter the consequences. It is the chase for bigger earnings that has seen programming costs and cable TV rates climb much faster than inflation for the last decade to the point where the cable TV product costs more than many households are willing to pay.

I doubt we will see the end to these mergers, but if we don’t find a way to curb them the inevitable results will be a tiny number of companies controlling the whole sector, but with none of the restrictions in the past that were put on companies like Ma Bell. It scares me sometimes to think that broadband rates are going to increase in the same manner that cable rates increased in the past. But when you look at what the big ISPs have to sell it’s hard to not picture a scenario where earnings pressures are going to do the same thing to broadband that has been done to cable rates. That is going to do great harm the country to the benefit of the stockholders of a few big companies.

The CenturyLink – Level 3 Merger

CenturyLinkCenturyLink just confirmed their bid to buy Level 3 Communications for $34 billion in the latest round of what looks like major industry consolidation. After Verizon’s purchase of XO Communications it looks like large nationwide fiber networks are going to be gobbled by larger players.

But we can’t quite put this merger in the books yet. There have been rumors floating for the last year of others interested in the company. Just this summer there were strong rumors that Comcast wanted to buy Level 3. And now there is a lot of speculation that the big wireless companies are also interested in the company. So don’t be surprised by one or more counterbids.

Why is Level 3 wanted by so many large players? The easy answer is that they have a huge fiber network, but it’s more because they have a fiber network that goes to all of the right places. Big companies like Verizon and AT&T are already connected into all of the major fiber hubs around the country. But Level 3 is connected nearly everywhere else. Their network extends out to a huge number of tier two and three cities.

And more than that, Level 3 has a lot connections to the big fiber users in local markets – the ISPs, large businesses, governments, school systems and cellular sites. The company has been busy for many years building fiber to places asking for big broadband.

This makes Level 3 a huge player in the Internet backhaul business. They are the ones that carry a lot of the Internet backbone to the smaller competitors of the giant incumbents. Level 3 also serves the supply side of the Internet and is a prime supplier of bandwidth to companies like Netflix, as well as the many large data centers for the other big web companies. Level 3’s revenues have been booming with the explosion of video traffic on the web.

CenturyLink is already a significant player nationwide for large businesses and governments. Before Qwest bought the old US West company they had built a significant nationwide fiber network and had vigorously pursued nationwide customers. That business has been extended and grown under CenturyLink and this acquisition would push the company to the top of the heap in the fiber business. There are so many benefits of the acquisition that nobody is questioning the sense of the merger (unlike the AT&T and Time Warner merger that has analysts scratching their heads).

I have a lot of clients that are going to be concerned about this acquisition (and others who will be once they understand the implications). Level 3 is one of the primary providers of fiber backhaul to reach the Internet for a huge number of small communities, and in many cases they are the only alternative to buying overinflated backhaul directly from the incumbents.

There are a lot of small ISPs and other users of broadband that are going to be worried about losing affordable backhaul – particularly those that compete with CenturyLink. It’s unlikely that these places will be denied connectivity by the combined company, but rather that over time the fear is that if you compete directly with CenturyLink that prices for backhaul will be increased. It wouldn’t take long for smaller competitors to CenturyLink to be put at a competitive disadvantage.

There is another class of carriers that might not even know that the merger could harm them. It turns out Level 3 is the primary underlying carrier for most wholesale VoIP products sold to carriers. Level 3 has developed a product called local access that gives carriers connections into all of the right places to deliver VoIP traffic to the PSTN. When somebody today pays $6.50 to buy a wholesale VoIP line it’s likely that half of that money goes to Level 3. CenturyLink could gut the VoIP world and a lot of competitors by discontinuing or restricting that product.

So the concern with any merger like this is what it’s going to do to limit competition. Every big merger decreases competition significantly in some markets. This merger holds out the possibility of harming competition over the very large geographic footprint covered by CenturyLink. Big mergers like this almost always come with restrictions against bad behavior from the FCC or the Justice Department. But we’ve seen big telcos often ignore such restrictions within a few years after a big merger.

CenturyLink is not making this purchase to eliminate competition. There are numerous benefits directly to the company that are drivers of the transaction. But we know that over time companies act to limit competition when they have the ability to do so. We’ve seen this happen in huge ways with Comcast, Verizon and AT&T. We’ve not seen nearly as much anti-competitive behavior in the past from CenturyLink (and their predecessor Qwest) – but this merger puts them into the position to act like the other large companies if they so wish. And my cynical side says that the bigger a company gets, the more it benefits them to be anti-competitive.

What’s the Right Price for a Gigabit?

Speed_Street_SignI often get asked how to price gigabit service by clients that are rolling it out for the first time. For an ISP already in the broadband business, layering in a super-fast Internet product on top of an existing product line can be a real challenge.

Google certainly lowered the bar for the whole industry when they priced a gigabit at $70. And that is the real price since Google doesn’t charge extra for the modem. I think the Google announcement recalibrated the public’s expectations and anybody else that offers a gigabit product is going to be compared to that price.

There are a few other large companies marketing a gigabit product in multiple markets. CenturyLink has a gigabit connection for $79.95 per month. But it’s hard to know if that is really the price since it is bundled with CenturyLink’s Prism TV. The cheapest Prism TV product offered on the web costs $39.99 per month and includes 150 channels of programming and also comes with an additional settop box fee of $9.99 per month – the highest box fee I’ve seen. I don’t know exactly what kind of bundle discount is available, but on the web I’ve seen customers claiming that the cheapest price for the gigabit bundle is around $125 per month. That’s a far cry from Google’s straight $70. And for customers who want to use a gigabit to cut the cord a forced bundles feel a bit like blackmail.

Verizon FiOS has not yet given in to the pressure to offer a gigabit product. In looking at their web site their fastest product is still a symmetrical 500 Mbps connection at $270 per month plus an added fee for a modem, and with a required 2-year commitment. A 1-year commitment is $280 per month.

Comcast will soon offer a gigabit in more markets than anybody else. In Atlanta where Comcast is competing against Google Fiber a gigabit is $70 per month with a 3-year contract, including an early termination fee (meaning that if you leave you pay for the remaining months). This package also requires an additional modem charge. Without a contract the price for the gigabit is $140. It’s unclear if Comcast is offering the same lower-price deal in other markets with newly upgraded DOCSIS 3.1 like Chicago. The word on the Internet is that customers are unable to sign-up for the lower-price option in these markets, but the company says it’s available. I’m sure the availability  will soon become clear.

One thing that happens to any company that offers a gigabit is that the prices for slower speeds are slashed. If a gigabit is $70 – $80 then slower products must become correspondingly less expensive. Google offers a 100 Mbps product for $50 and each of the other companies listed above has a range of slower bandwidth products.

The first question I always ask an ISP is if they are offering gigabit speed for the public relations value or they really want to sell a lot of it. There are plenty of ISPs that have gone for the first option and have priced a gigabit north of $100 per month.  But for somebody that hopes to sell the product, the dilemma is that they know that the majority of their customers will buy the least expensive product that provides a comfortable speed. The rule of thumb in the industry is that, in most markets, at least 80% of customers will buy the low or moderate priced options. But if the choice is between a gigabit product and a 100 Mbps product, the percentage buying the slower product is likely to be a lot higher.

The issue that small ISPs face when recalibrating their speeds is that they end up increasing speeds for most existing customers. If they migrate from a scale today where 50 Mbps or 100 Mbps is the fastest product up to a new scale topped by a gigabit, then they have to increase speeds across the board to accommodate the new gigabit product.

This is a hard mental block to get over for many small ISPs. If a company offers a range today of products from 6 Mbps to 75 Mbps it’s mentally a challenge to reset their slowest speed to 50 Mbps or faster. They often tell me that in doing so they feels like they are giving away something for free. If a company has been an ISP since the dial-up days they often have a number of customers that have been grandfathered with slow, but inexpensive broadband. It’s a real dilemma when rebalancing speeds and rates to know what to do with households that are happy with a very cheap connection at 1 Mbps or 2 Mbps product.

For the last ten years I have advised clients to raise speeds. ISPs that have raised speeds tell me that they generally only see a tiny bump in extra traffic volume after doing so. And I’ve always seen that customers appreciate getting faster speeds for the same price. Since it doesn’t cost much to raise speeds it’s one of the cheapest forms of marketing you can do, and it’s something positive that customers will remember.

I think most ISPs realize that the kick-up to gigabit speeds is going to be a change that lasts for a long time. There are not many customers in a residential market that need or can use gigabit speeds. What Google did was to leap many times over the natural evolution of speeds in the market, and I think this is what makes my clients uneasy. They were on a path to have a structure more like Verizon with a dozen products between slow and fast. But the market push for gigabit speeds has reduced the number of options they are able to offer.

Again, Where is the AT&T Fiber?

u_verse_truckAT&T recently announced that they are expanding service of their GigaPower fiber to 35 more communities, bringing the total up to 56 communities. They say that they have plans to pass 14 million homes with fiber by the end of 2019, exceeding the commitment of 12.5 million homes that they promised to the FCC with the purchase of DirecTV.

AT&T says that they were serving 1.6 million homes and businesses with fiber at the end of 2015. The FCC agreement requires them to be offering fiber to 2.6 million customers by the end of this year. AT&T press releases and quotes made to the press claim that the company is already out building fiber like crazy. But are they?

I spent some time on the web looking for evidence that AT&T is building fiber. I started by seeing what I could find about CenturyLink’s fiber build since I know that they are building to pass about 900,000 new homes by the end of this year – about the same goal as AT&T. I skipped over corporate press releases and instead searched for local evidence that CenturyLink is building fiber. And I found plenty of evidence. There are postings by cities warning of coming traffic delays due to construction. There are people posting in local chat groups about CenturyLink fiber. There are newspaper articles taking about the fiber construction.

There was evidence of CenturyLink fiber construction in a lot of markets including: Mesa, Chandler, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Gilbert, Peoria and Anthem in Arizona; Portland in Oregon; Seattle, Tacoma, Vancouver and Spokane in Washington; Salt Lake City in Utah, and St. Paul and St. Louis Park in Minnesota. That’s the kind of aggressive fiber construction needed to pass 900,000 homes in a year.

I found a much smaller list of cities where AT&T seems to be building fiber that includes: Raleigh, Cary and Charlotte in North Carolina; Austin in Texas and Overland Park, Lenexa and Prairie Village in Kansas. These are all markets where Google is also building and where it’s been reported for a few years that AT&T is building fiber. I couldn’t find any evidence for new AT&T fiber construction of any magnitude outside of these Google markets. To give AT&T some benefit of the doubt, perhaps they will be able to meet their 2016 goal to add 1 million passings just in these markets.

I also investigated AT&T’s plans for capital spending. I looked at what AT&T told Wall Street about their capital budget. The company has a $22 billion capital budget for this year. $10 billion of that is aimed at overseas spending including $3 billion to build out from their new acquisition in Mexico. The rest of that spending is aimed expanding its Network on Demand and dedicated Internet of Things (IoT) networks in Europe and to roll out new features for its AT&T NetBond offering in Asia-Pacific, EMEA, and Canada.

Most of the rest of AT&T’s capital budget is aimed at improvements in its wireless networks. The company did tell investors in November 2015 that they planned to spend $2 billion per year for the next three years (2016 – 2018) on wireline networks. Further, AT&T told its investors that it expected overall capital spending to start dropping in future years.

But it’s the wireline capital budget that has me scratching my head. Certainly spending $2 billion in 2016 is enough to add the 1 million new passings they are claiming for this year. But AT&T’s overall goal by 2019 is to go from 1.6 million to 14 million passings. Conservatively that is going to cost at least $12.4 billion over four years just for the fiber. And assuming even a modest take rate for getting 20% of those passings as customers would add at least another $2 billion. Looking back at when Verizon was building FiOS we saw the same sort of big numbers for fiber construction.

It’s just hard to see that AT&T is serious about actually meeting the fiber targets it promised to the FCC. To meet their goals will cost something in the range of $14 billion, and yet they have told Wall Street they will only be spending $2 billion per year on wireline capital. Something isn’t adding up.

CenturyLink Announces Data Cap Trials

centuryLinkIn a move that probably surprises nobody, CenturyLink said that they are going to start trials of data caps later this year. This was mentioned by Stewart Ewing, the company’s chief financial officer, during the last quarterly investor call.

I have to say that I am disappointed by the announcement because I guess part of me hoped that CenturyLink was somehow different than the rest of the giant ISPs. After all, they started out as a regional independent telephone company that did the right thing for customers far more often than not.

But this announcement clearly shows that they now think like a duopolist, and that they really won’t fully compete against the big cable companies. CenturyLink is in the process of building a significant amount of last mile fiber and they say they will pass over 700,000 homes by the end of this year. I was just in Tacoma where CenturyLink has already overbuilt fiber to a large portion of the city and it looks like they are doing just what they promised.

CenturyLink (and formerly Qwest) has fared extremely poorly with their DSL product in major markets. The cable companies have largely won the broadband battles in the cities and have the lion’s share of broadband customers. And now that the cable companies like Comcast are really stepping up the speeds they offer, one has to think that urban DSL has to be in its dying days. It’s hard to imagine customers that will pay for a DSL connection that can get 15 Mbps or a lot less when for the same price they can get something far faster from the cable company.

So now CenturyLink is building fiber and this puts them back in the game and ahead of the cable companies again. One would think that CenturyLink would take advantage of Comcast’s data caps and advertise against them as a way to win quick market share. After all, once they have sunk money into a new fiber network, profitability becomes all about gaining as many customers as possible.

But instead CenturyLink is acting like a duopolist and will probably match Comcast’s data caps. I know that they will claim that this is only a trial of data caps, which is the same thing that Comcast is saying. But the lure of the extra revenues from data caps is just too attractive to all the big carriers.

Unfortunately, the big telcos and cable companies are almost all publicly traded companies. As such they are under tremendous pressure from Wall Street to show increased revenues and increased earnings year after year and quarter after quarter. This is getting harder and harder for these companies to do. For the last decade the big carriers have thrived from the ever-growing number of broadband customers. But it appears that overall growth of broadband customers is nearing an end. Several recent polls suggest that everybody that can afford broadband now has it. There is only a small percentage of households that don’t want broadband, but everybody else either has it or can’t afford it at the big company prices.

And so if broadband customers aren’t going to keep growing, and if cable TV and telephone customers are falling, then a big ISP only has a few places to go for revenue to continue to please Wall Street. Comcast is exploring a few new areas such as selling security, home automation and even cellular service. But it’s hard to think that those revenues will be enough to replace the torrid historical pace of broadband revenues and margins gained over the last decade. This means that the only realistic place for future revenue growth has to be from broadband.

That means raising the broadband rates every year, but it also means implementing tight data caps to be able to penalize people who actually use the broadband they buy. It’s clear that this is where Comcast is headed. A part of me hoped that companies like CenturyLink would not drink the same kool-aid and that they might just be happy taking the many disgruntled customers from the cable companies. But I guess that any duopolist has a hard time not doing what comes naturally. I fear we will have cities that finally have what everybody has always hoped for – a fast cable network competing against a fiber network – and yet there still will not be any real price competition.

What Happens to Unused CAF II Funds?

Fiber CableI look around rural America and I see fiber projects being proposed or built in a lot of places by small companies. Some of these are new initiatives like the new RS Fiber Cooperative that is underway in Sibley and Renville counties in Minnesota. And a lot of these new projects are being built by rural telcos and telephone cooperatives into areas adjacent to where they have always served.

While these small companies are building fiber the FCC is giving nearly $9 billion to the largest telephone companies to expand rural broadband. This was done under a program called CAF II that is part of the Universal Service Fund. The largest recipients of the funding are CenturyLink, Frontier and AT&T.

The CAF II funding has embarrassingly modest goals and only requires that the money be used to bring rural broadband speeds up to 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. The big telcos have a very relaxed six years to get this done. The telcos are mostly going to accomplish this by extending fiber from rural towns, into the country to support rural DSL.

I’m sure since most of my readers are knowledgeable about broadband that they realize how pathetically slow the 10 Mbps goal is. Already today 10 Mbps is not really broadband, even by the FCC’s own definition. A household that gets upgraded to 10 Mbps is probably going to be happy to get off dial-up, but they will soon realize that they are still far worse off than most of the rest of the country.

And while 10 Mbps is slow at today’s demand it’s been clear for decades that household demand for broadband has been doubling about every three years, back to the earliest days of the slowest dial-up. The folks at the tail-end of the six-year upgrades are going to be two more doublings of demand behind, meaning that in six years that 10 Mbps will feel basically four times worse than it does today.

In looking around at rural fiber projects I see fiber being built in areas where the telcos are going to get the CAF II subsidies. I wonder what will happen to the CAF II funding being used for those areas? Will the large telcos build DSL anyway even though nobody is going to buy it? Or will they just pocket the federal money and do nothing in those areas?

I don’t see anything in the CAF II rules that makes the large telcos give back any of the money, and so I suppose they will just keep it. This whole program is one of the worst uses of public funding I have ever seen. It’s easy to imagine the hundreds of rural fiber projects this money could have seeded. But instead the big telcos will be building DSL and will likely be loading up the claimed costs of the upgrades so they can get by with the least amount of actual upgrades possible.

Since the telcos already own wires in the places that will get upgraded they will be able to build fiber by overlashing. That is a process of tying fiber to existing copper lines and was the primary technique used by Verizon to build their FiOS fiber network. Overlashing is the lowest cost method of fiber construction and shouldn’t cost more than $15,000 to $20,000 per mile. If the whole $9 billion was used to build fiber that would mean building between 450,000 and 600,000 road miles of fiber. Wikipedia says that the US has less than 3 million miles of roads in the US including city streets, so this money could bring fiber to a significant percentage of rural areas. Of course, probably half of the money needs to be used for electronics, but that still means that the telcos ought to be using the CAF II money to build more than 200,000 miles of rural fiber.

If this money had instead been used to seed fiber innovators it could have brought fiber to millions of rural customers. If used as matching grants the $9 billion could have been leveraged to build $40 billion or $50 billion of rural fiber. Instead, every place that gets upgraded to the slow DSL is still going to need fiber and, for all practical purposes will be no closer to a true broadband solution than they are today.

New Skinny Bundles on the Horizon

television-sony-en-casa-de-mis-padresAll of a sudden I am seeing the term skinny bundle all over industry press. The term refers to web video programming offered by a company that is already somehow in the telecom business, with the inference that it’s probably only available to their own customers. The line between skinny bundles and OTT programming like Netflix is likely to get blurred over the next year as a few of the skinny bundle providers make their packages available to everybody.

It seems like all of the largest cable companies and telcos either have skinny bundles or are working on them. In a recent blog I talked about the Comcast skinny bundle they are calling Stream TV. It’s a lineup containing mostly major network channels plus HBO. It’s likely to be controversial because Comcast wants to exclude usage on the bundle from any data caps while counting data usage for watching Netflix and other OTT offerings.

As has been anticipated since they bought DirecTV, AT&T plans to launch their skinny bundle in January. The company hasn’t released the details yet but recently gave some hints about what might be in it. For one thing, through DirecTV the company has the ability to air current season shows, including the latest episodes. AT&T may be offering different options to wireless and wireline customers. CEO Randall Stephenson was quoted recently saying that the bundle will “turn some heads”, but I guess we’ll have to wait until January to see what that means.

Their chief rival Verizon Wireless launched Go90 earlier this year. The package is an interesting mix that Verizon says is aimed at Millennials. Verizon describes the package as halfway between YouTube and Netflix. It has a lot of unique content produced by YouTube stars but also carries some traditional programming content. The service is currently free to Verizon wireless subscribers but is expected to soon have a premium tier.

On the landline side, Verizon offers a package called Custom TV. That bundle is sold in combination with 25 Mbps Internet service for $65 a month, and includes a lineup of about 35 channels plus a few additional add-ons options available. The package has been so popular that Verizon reports that one third of their new customers in the second quarter of this year opted for the skinny bundle. While Verizon says that might hurt revenue targets, they affirmed what many have thought in that they expect sales of skinny bundles to increase the bottom line. It makes sense that the skinny bundles, while smaller, are more profitable than the giant bundles of hundreds of channels.

CenturyLink has also announced that they will launch a skinny bundle in early 2016. They say that their main motivation is to sign up new customers without the need for a truck roll, and so they might offer both a skinny bundle as well as the full TV line-up over the web. This will save them on settop boxes and other costs associated with being a full-service video provider.

There are other companies also considering skinny bundles. For instance, Frontier has reported that they are talking to programmers about skinny bundle options. There was an announcement in October that Tim Warner Cable was trialing a skinny bundle but I haven’t seen any press on that since then. CEO Rob Marcus has been quoted several times in the last six months saying that he doesn’t think his customers are looking for a cheaper alternative.

We’ll have to wait a while to see what kind of interest the public has in the skinny bundles. The companies like Verizon that have already launched skinny bundles are not reporting customers counts for the new products, making it hard for the rest of the industry to understand the customer demand.

The skinny bundles are clearly an attempt to try to keep cord cutters on the big company networks. But just about all of these big companies publicly say that cord cutting is not a concern for them. There has to be some concern that offering smaller bundles will invite customers to downsize, but if what Verizon admits is true, it might be that there is more profit in skinny bundles than in the giant cable packages – in which case you can expect to see more skinny bundle options.

Cable Companies Try Skinny Bundles

Comcast truckWhile all of the cable companies and their trade organizations publicly deny that cord cutting is a real phenomenon, in this most recent quarter most of the large cable companies have announced a skinny bundle package delivered over the web. It’s hard to think that these packages are aimed at anybody but cord cutters and in fact, one has to wonder if they might lure more people away from the big packages.

CEO Rob Marcus of Time Warner Cable says that their skinny bundle is an attempt to get rid of settop boxes. TWC just announced in New York and New Jersey that all cable customers can now use Roku instead of settop boxes. He said that TWC has a long-term strategy to get out of the settop box business, which is a big expense for the company and something that customers really don’t like paying for. I know that for most of my clients the monthly settop box rentals are one of the most profitable parts about selling cable TV and so his statement puzzles me a bit. But my clients are not working in major metropolitan markets and perhaps the total cost of tracking and swapping boxes is different for a large company.

But since TWC offers Roku for everybody I’m not sure that settop boxes are a very good explanation for their skinny bundle. TWC is now trialing a skinny bundle in New York City, available only to its data customers. It starts at $10 per month for 20 channels with options to add movie channels and other networks running up to $50 per month. That sure looks to be aimed at cord cutters.

And most of the other cable companies are also limiting their offerings to their own data customers. For instance, Comcast has launched a trial in the Boston area of a skinny bundle they are branding as Stream for their own data customers at $15 per month, including all taxes and fees. The package includes local networks, HBO, and some streaming movies. They plan to take this nationwide in 2016. The unique feature of the Comcast product is that it is not truly an OTT product since it doesn’t use the shared data stream but is delivered with separate bandwidth on the cable network.

Charter has launched what they are calling Spectrum TV. It starts at $12.99 per month and comes with a free Roku 3 player. This bundle contains 19 channels including the four major off-air networks. For an additional $7 per month customers can add more channels including ESPN, and for even more money customers can add HBO or Showtime. .

CableVision launched packages back in April of this year that includes a digital antenna for receiving local channels. They are offering a 50 Mbps data product plus the antenna plus HBO for $44.90 per month.

This isn’t limited to just the cable companies. CenturyLink is supposedly getting ready to trial a skinny bundle for its data customers. There are no details yet of pricing or line-up.

This all got started with Dish networks and their Sling TV product. Unlike these other products that, for now, are only available to the data customers of each ISP, Sling is available to anybody with a fast enough connection. I previously reviewed Sling TV and it had a lot of problems. I tried it during the first football game of the season and it was so bad that I abandoned it. I just watched Maryland beat Georgetown in basketball last night and the video was still out of sync with the audio. It’s getting better, but is still not as good as cable TV.

It’s interesting that most of the companies like CenturyLink say their skinny bundles are aimed at cord cutters, but even more specifically are aimed at millennials. I look at the channels offered and my bet is that baby boomers like me are going to more interested in this than millennials. I guess we’ll have to wait and see who subscribes to the skinny bundles.