Verizon’s Residential 5G Broadband

We finally got a look at the detail of Verizon’s 5G residential wireless product. They’ve announced that it will be available to some customers in Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Sacramento starting on October 1.

Verizon promises average download data speeds of around 300 Mbps. Verizon has been touting a gigabit wireless product for the last year, but the realities of wireless in the wild seems to have made that unrealistic. However, 300 Mbps is a competitive broadband product and in many markets Verizon will become the fastest alternative competitor to the cable companies. As we’ve seen everywhere across the country, a decent competitor to the big cable companies is almost assured of a 20% or higher market penetration just for showing up.

The product will be $50 per month for customers who use Verizon wireless and $70 for those that don’t. These prices will supposedly include all taxes, fees and equipment – although it’s possible that there are add-ons like using a Verizon WiFi router. That pricing is going to be attractive to anybody that already has Verizon cellular – and I’m sure the company is hoping to use this to attract more cellular customers. This is the kind of bundle that can make cellular stickier and is exactly what the Comcast and Charter have in mind as they are also offering cellular. Verizon is offering marketing inducements for the roll-out and are offering 3 months free of YouTube TV or else a free Apple TV 4K or a Google Chromecast Ultra.

Theoretically this should set off a bit of a price war in cities where Comcast and Charter are the incumbent cable providers. It wouldn’t be hard for those companies to meet or beat the Verizon offer since they are already selling cellular at a discount. We’re going to get a fresh look at oligopoly competition – will the cable companies really battle it out? The cable companies have to be worried about losing significant market share in major urban markets.

We’re also going to have to wait a while to see the extent of the Verizon coverage areas. I’ve been speculating about this for a while and I suspect that Verizon is going to continue with their history of being conservative and disciplined. They will deploy 5G where there is fiber that can affordably support it – but they are unlikely to undertake any expensive fiber builds just for this product. Their recently announced ‘One Fiber’ policy says just that – the company wants to capitalize on the huge amount of network that they have already constructed for other purposes. This means it’s likely in any given market that coverage will depend upon a customer’s closeness to Verizon fiber.

There is one twist to this deployment that means Verizon might not be in a hurry to deploy this too quickly. The company has been working with Ericsson, Qualcomm, Intel and Samsung to create proprietary equipment based upon the 5GTF standard. But the rest of the industry has adopted the 3GPP standard for 5G and Verizon admits it will have to replace any equipment installed with their current standard.

Verizon also said over the last year that they wanted this to be self-installed by customers. At least for now the installations are going to require a truck roll, which will add to the cost and the rate of deployment of the new technology.

Interestingly, these first markets are outside of Verizon’s telco footprint. This means that Verizon will not only be taking on cable companies, but that they might be putting the final nail in the coffin of DSL offered by AT&T and other telcos in the new markets. Verizon is unlikely to roll this out to compete with their own FiOS product unless deployments are incredibly inexpensive. But this might finally bring a Verizon broadband product to neighborhoods in the northeast that never got FiOS.

It’s going to be a while under we understand the costs of this deployment. Verizon has been mum about the specific network elements and reliance on fiber needed to support the product. And they have been even quieter about the all-in cost of deployment.

Cities all over the country are going to get excited about this deployment in the hope of getting a second competitor to their cable company which are often a near-monopoly. It appears that the product is going to work best where there is already a fiber-rich environment. Most urban areas, while having little last mile-fiber, are crisscrossed with fiber used to get to large businesses, governments, schools, etc.

The same is not necessarily the same in suburbs and definitely not true of smaller communities and rural America. The technology depends upon local last-mile fiber backhaul. Verizon says that they believe their potential market will be to eventually pass 30 million households, or a little less than 25% of the US market. I’d have to think that the map for others, except perhaps for AT&T largely coincide with the Verizon map. It seems that Verizon wants to be the first to market to potentially dissuade other entrants. We’ll have to wait and see if a market can reasonably support more than one last-mile 5G provider – because companies like T-Mobile also have plans for wide deployment.

Upgrading Broadband Speeds

A few weeks ago Charter increased my home broadband speeds from 60 Mbps to 130 Mbps with no change in price. My upload speed seems to be unchanged at 10 Mbps. Comcast is in the process of speed upgrades and is increasing base speeds to between 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps download speeds in various markets.

I find it interesting that while the FCC is having discussions about keeping the definition of broadband at 25 Mbps that the big cable companies – these two alone have over 55 million broadband customers – are unilaterally increasing broadband speeds.

These companies aren’t doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, but for business reasons. First, I imagine that this is a push to sharpen the contrast with DSL. There are a number of urban markets where customers can buy 50 Mbps DSL from AT&T and others and this upgrade opens up a clear speed difference between cable broadband and DSL.

However, I think the main reason they are increasing speeds is to keep customers happy. This change was done quietly, so I suspect that most people had no idea that the change was coming. I also suspect that most people don’t regularly do speed tests and won’t know about the speed increase – but many of them will notice better performance.

One of the biggest home broadband issues is inadequate WiFi, with out-of-date routers or poor router placement degrading broadband performance. Pushing faster speeds into the house can overcome some of these WiFi issues.

This should be a wake-up call to everybody else in the industry to raise their speeds. There are ISPs and overbuilders all across the country competing against the giant cable companies and they need to immediately upgrade speeds or lose the public relations battle in the market place. Even those who are not competing against these companies need to take heed, because any web search is going to show consumers that 100 Mbps broadband or greater is now the new standard.

These unilateral changes make a mockery of the FCC. It’s ridiculous to be having discussions about setting the definition of broadband at 25 Mbps when the two biggest ISPs in the country have base product speeds 5 to 8 times faster than that. States with broadband grant programs also have the speed conversation and this will hopefully alert them that the new goal for broadband needs to be at least 100 Mbps.

These speed increases were inevitable. We’ve known for decades that the home demand for broadband has been doubling every three years. When the FCC first started talking about 25 Mbps as the definition of acceptable broadband, the math said that within six years we’d be having the same discussion about 100 Mbps broadband – and here we are having that discussion.

The FCC doesn’t want to recognize the speed realities in the world because they are required by law to try to bring rural speeds to be par with urban speeds. But this can’t be ignored because these speed increases are not just for bragging rights. We know that consumers find ways to fill faster data pipes. Just two years ago I saw articles wondering if there was going to be any market for 4K video. Today, that’s the first thing offered to me on both Amazon Prime and Netflix. They shoot all new programming in 4K and offer it at the top of their menus. It’s been reported that at the next CES electronics shows there will be several companies pushing commercially available 8K televisions. This technology is going to require a broadband connection between 60 Mbps and 100 Mbps depending upon the level of screen action. People are going to buy these sets and then demand programming to use them – and somebody will create the programming.

8K video is not the end game. Numerous companies are working on virtual presence where we will finally be able to converse with a hologram of somebody as if they were in the same room. Early versions of this technology, which ought to be available soon will probably use the same range of bandwidth as 8K video, but I’ve been reading about near-future technologies that will produce realistic holograms and that might require as much as a 700 Mbps connection – perhaps the first real need for gigabit broadband.

While improving urban data speeds is great, every increase in urban broadband speeds highlights the poor condition of rural broadband. While urban homes are getting 130 – 200 Mbps for decent prices there are still millions of homes with either no broadband or with broadband at speeds of 10 Mbps or less. The gap between urban and rural broadband is growing wider every year.

If you’ve been reading this blog you know I don’t say a lot of good things about the big cable companies. But kudos to Comcast and Charter for unilaterally increasing broadband speeds. Their actions speak louder than anything that we can expect out of the FCC.

Who WIll the Big ISPs Blame Now?

For the last few years the biggest ISPs have blamed regulations for reducing the amount of capital they are willing to invest. They specifically blamed Title II regulation of broadband and net neutrality rules as being a disincentive for them to invest in broadband infrastructure.

The FCC Chairman Ajit Pai adopted this same narrative and used it for justification to repeal net neutrality. He is still sticking to this story now that Title II regulation has been repealed and this week will be telling this story to the House Communications Subcommittee. In a prepared statement he claims that the repeal of the net neutrality rules is now paving the way for increased capital investment and better broadband service.

However, the whole narrative is false. There is no evidence that big ISPs held back on broadband investments before Title II authority was repealed and there is no evidence that the repeal has somehow unleashed a wave of new broadband investment. I’m not going to track the numbers in this blog, but the capital budgets of all of the big ISPs have been relatively steady for a number of years.

This particular narrative is just the latest iteration on a theme that the big ISPs have used for decades. The big ISPs have always publicly claimed that regulations were killing them, while privately admitting that they were able to successfully work around most regulations. It’s the nature of regulated industries to push back against regulation and ISPs don’t differ from the many other regulated industries in this regard.

A quick look at each of the major ISPs shows a different story than is being pushed by Chairman Pai. AT&T is a good example. They were required by an agreement from the purchase of DirecTV to pass 12 million homes and businesses with fiber. For a while it looks like they were shirking that requirement, but somewhere along the line they seem to have embraced it. They have been quietly extending fiber to apartment complexes and also to any homes or business that are located close to any of their many fiber nodes around the country. This expansion started well before the net neutrality repeal. AT&T for now has no plans to deploy 5G and says they don’t see a business case for it yet. The company is quietly walking away from rural copper and only beefing up rural cellular broadband where the FCC funded it with CAF II money.

Comcast doesn’t seem to have changed strategies for a number of years. They build fiber to shrink node sizes to relieve local network congestion. They made a decision well before the net neutrality appeal to embrace upgrades to DOCSIS 3.1. The company has entered the cellphone business, but for now resells minutes from the other cellular company networks, and only in their operating footprint. They say they plan to eventually build cellular networks to increase the profitability of the business.

Verizon has been shrinking their landline broadband networks and sold a pile of customers, including many on FiOS fiber to Frontier. The company made an announcement several years ago, and before the repeal of net neutrality that they were going to build new FiOS fiber in Boston – but it appears that project has largely been put on hold. Verizon might be the only big ISP who claims to have plans to expand residential broadband and says it will build 5G in a number of markets outside of its traditional footprint. But there is a lot of industry skepticism that this will be much larger trials of new technology and not a major capital outlay.

CenturyLink recently made it clear that they are walking away from making new broadband investments. They new CEO made it clear that the company will not be making any new capital expenditures that will earn infrastructure levels of returns. That is a 180-degree turnaround from a company that built fiber in 2017 to pass 900,000 premises and is the opposite of what Chairman Pai is claiming.

All of the big telcos have largely abandoned DSL and haven’t made new investments for years, even though there are faster DSL technologies available. To make matters worse the telcos are trying to kill the regulations from the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that allows competitors to offer faster DSL using telco copper – a move that would kick hundreds of thousands of customers nationwide off of decent broadband and force the back to the more expensive cable monopolies.

I can’t see any evidence from the big ISPs that the repeal of net neutrality made any difference in their capital spending plans. When you look at what these ISPs tell their investors the topic of regulation never arises – which it shouldn’t. The big ISPs have always invested in areas where they could foresee returns and regulation had no real negative impact on those returns. The whole false narrative has been a lobbying effort to get out from under regulation – and with this FCC the lobbying worked.

Now that Title II regulation is dead I wonder what the ISPs will blame for not investing in residential and rural broadband? They can’t point the finger any longer at regulations and I’m sure they will find a new story that sounds good. The only ISP that seems to be telling the truth is CenturyLink, and I suspect that they will soften that narrative since they are telling existing residential customers that they no longer care about them.

The Pent-up Demand for Cord Cutting

I just saw an eye-opening statistic. Deloitte’s latest Digital Media Trends Survey reports that 56% of current pay-TV subscribers are keeping TV because they feel trapped by the bundle. Deloitte concludes that there is huge pent-up demand for cord cutting.

This number is not entirely surprising to me because in the last few years I’ve seen new fiber networks get a much smaller percentage of cable customers than would be expected by the subscribership on the incumbents. New fiber providers do surveys showing incumbent cable TV rates between 65% to 75%, and yet they far lower percentages of new customers buying cable TV on their new fiber network.

I always interpreted this to mean that the new fiber competitor attract customers who want faster broadband. I’ve assumed that these were natural cord cutters. But if the Deloitte statistic is to be believed, a large percentage of new customers on fiber networks are using the opportunity of changing providers as a chance to drop the traditional cable that they no longer want.

We know that there is a financial penalty for breaking a bundle, which must be a strong incentive for people to stay with their current provider. The amount of this penalty differs by customer and often has to do with how willing a customer is to fight to keep a cheap price while dropping cable. I’ve always thought the penalty for dropping cable is between $10 and $20 per month.

But sometimes the bundle is more and is forced. I moved and left Comcast less than two years ago. They would not let me buy faster broadband speeds without subscribing to basic cable TV. I tried every year to try to drop the cable – something that I never used and for which I stashed the settop box in the closet. But I was told each year that dropping the cable meant dropping back to a slower broadband speed. In my case I would have saved at least $40 per month from dropping basic cable, but I felt blackmailed into keeping it to keep an acceptable broadband speed.

This statistic has a lot of industry implications. First, builders of new networks can’t count on a big cable penetration. Obviously the Deloitte 56% finding is going to vary from market to market – but it’s such a large number that in almost any market a new network is going to get far lower cable penetration rates than what the incumbent has today. We know nationwide that the overall cable penetration rate last year was 69%, which is now probably closer to 67%. New networks are going to see significantly lower cable penetration rates – if Deloitte is right, perhaps in the mid-30% range.

If this statistic holds true everywhere it is probably one of the main reasons why customer dislike of cable companies is growing. Cable companies have been among the lowest rated companies in terms of customer satisfaction – and in recent years their already low ratings are continuing to drop. Many consumers must feel the way that I felt about Comcast – that they are being ripped-off and held captive by the bundled pricing. The same bundle that they liked when it first saved money is being used against them if they want to drop cable TV.

This statistic also makes new technologies and new ISPs more attractive. People will likely flock to 5G if the speeds are decent and they aren’t forced to take cable TV. This might also be one of the reasons that many are choosing cellular broadband – to get away from over-expensive cable TV.

Finally, this means that the cable companies are sitting on an albatross of a product. There are many millions of homes paying for a product that they no longer want. Last year there were still more homes that dropped telephone landlines than cut the cable cord. But if the Deloitte statistic holds true, it might not take much for many homes to make the cord cutting decision and cord cutting could quickly change to a deluge. The industry-wide implications of that are huge – it would quickly cripple programmers. It would put a huge dent in the retransmission fees that are currently fueling the profits of the major over-the-air networks. A huge drop in traditional cable customers would quickly be felt in the sports world – which is largely financed with TV revenues. It means a drastic drop in the incentive to advertise on TV – the other major revenue that fuels the industry.

I believe that the cable companies have been counting on cord cutting to increase slowly over time, similar to the way that the landline telephone business has slowly ebbed away. But if there is this much pent-up demand to drop cable, it’s not inconceivable that the number of cable customers could drop explosively if there is a consensus that it’s worth it to break the bundle. The whole cable industry is not ready for an explosive drop in customers and it would get ugly quickly.

Tackling Hidden Fees

The topic of hidden fees on telecom bills was in the news recently when AT&T tripled their administrative charge on cellular bills – a change that nets then $800 million annually in new bottom line. Consumer Reports recently launched a campaign they are calling “What’s The Fee?” that is identifying and tackling hidden fees from big corporations like ISPs, airlines and banks. Their advocacy branch, Consumers Union launched a web site to identify hidden fees and started a petition drive to notify the big companies that many of their customers are unhappy with these fees. Consumers Union says they get more complaints on the issue for Comcast compared to any other corporation.

I’ve written in the past about the hidden fees that ISPs put onto their bills. I think they use these fees for a number of reasons:

  • The hidden fees disguise the true price of their products. The big cable companies widely advertise the price of cable that doesn’t include the fees without telling the public that the fees can’t be avoided. They night advertise a $69 cable package that might actually cost over $90.
  • The big cable companies have increased the rates for the hidden fees at a much faster pace than the increases in the ‘basic’ published rates for cable TV. This disguises rate increases by holding down the published rates for cable TV.
  • The hidden fees put pressure on competitors. Any competitor to the big ISPs that wants to publish true rates is at a disadvantage when customers compare their true rate to the deceptive basic rates of the cable companies that don’t include the hidden fees. My clients wrestle with this issue all of the time – should they be honest with customers and look to be more expensive or should they follow the same practice of mimicking the hidden fee structure so that their pricing is more easily compared?

What are the hidden fees? Let’s look at Comcast:

  • Broadcast TV Fees. This fee supposedly covers the cost of the retransmission fees paid to the over-the-air networks like ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC. Comcast charged $1.50 for this fee in 2015 and it’s now up to $7.75. Comcast doesn’t mention on bills that they own NBC. Comcast already charges all customers a substantial fee for basic TV that far exceed the cost of buying this programming.
  • Regional Sports Fee. This fee is now up to $6.75 per month in many markets (varies somewhat around the country). This fee supposedly compensates for the various regional sports networks. What Comcast fails to mention is that they now own the majority of regional sports networks, including a big pile they are getting due to the AT&T / Time Warner merger. This fee was $1 in 2015.
  • Settop Box and Cable Modems. While these are not hidden fees, these charges are supposedly set to recover the cost of the hardware. But in recent years Comcast has jacked up these fees significantly, to the point that I would consider a big portion of these to also be hidden fees. The charge for a cable modem is now $11. The company charges $9.95 for the first settop box and $7.75 for additional ones. Just a few years ago these fees were around $5. In both cases it’s likely that the settop box and cable modem costs Comcast $100 or less.
  • HD Fee. Comcast no longer charges separately for this, but I still see this on the bills from some of the other cable companies. This fee was established years ago when HD was a new technology, but today practically every channel is HD.

The Comcast fees have gotten so large that they could add $25 per month to the advertised price of a cable / broadband package. There is an open class-action lawsuit against Comcast that is seeking damages for customers who were charged these fees when they purchased advertised products that didn’t mention the fees.

What is most perplexing is that regulators have been quiet on the topic, even though just about everything to do with these fees is deceptive. Comcast swears that it provide full disclosure about these fees and that customers are not deceived, but one has to read some truly fine print on their web site when ordering a cable product to understand that these fees will be added to the advertised price.

How Safe is Your Network?

Last week Comcast suffered a major broadband outage. The worst imaginable set of events occurred when there two simultaneous fiber cuts on major legs of their backbone – one between Chicago and New York and one between Ashburn, Virginia and South Carolina. In case you don’t know, Ashburn is the home of the major Internet POP serving Washington DC and surrounding cities.

This is a network planner’s worth nightmare. Planners always try to build redundancy into fiber routes so that the network won’t crash from a single fiber cut. Modern backbone electronics can be set to automatically forward traffic in both directions around a ring so that service isn’t interrupted in the case of a fiber cut or failure of ring electronics somewhere along the ring. But rings using this technology can’t withstand two simultaneous cuts.

What was a bit surprising to me was the failure of a large part of the Comcast network with fiber cuts that were so far apart. It seems unlikely that the company has a fiber ring that sends all Internet traffic in such a large circle. It’s more likely that the company has centralized one or more of their routing functions, such as DNS routing in one place on the network and the fiber cuts might have isolated that key function, which would shut down their Internet product.

Redundancy is a big concern for most smaller network owners. Lack of redundancy was one of the major issues that drove Cook County, Minnesota to build their own fiber network. There is no cable provider in the county and their entire telecom network was provided by CenturyLink. Tourism is the major driver of the economy and a decade ago there was a cut in the CenturyLink fiber from Duluth that isolated the county during peak tourist season. That meant that the Internet, telephones, and cell phones didn’t work. Businesses couldn’t take credit cards, restaurants and hotels couldn’t take reservations, and family members on vacation couldn’t communicate with each other. This prompted the County to pursue a fiber network that included creating redundancy traffic in and out of the county. The network was ultimately built and operated by the local power cooperative, and today there is greatly reduced chance of a major telecom outage.

Even where there is redundancy there can be outages. One of my clients operates a large statewide fiber network that stretches for hundreds of miles. They followed good engineering practice and scheduled an upgrade of the ring electronics after midnight. While one of the nodes was being upgraded the fiber was cut on a different part of the network when a truck knocked down a telephone pole, and the whole network went dark. Fiber cuts in the middle of the night are somewhat rare, but they happen.

Whenever possible fiber engineers also build redundancy into a local fiber network. They might build a ring connecting the fiber huts serving neighborhoods so that the network keeps functioning with a cut along the ring. It’s nearly impossible to design such redundancy in the last-mile loop, but fiber cuts in the last mile only isolate homes associated with the specific fiber.

But just like with Comcast and Cook County, many local networks have a hard time creating redundancy outside of their immediate network. In geographically remote areas it’s often impossible to find a second secure route to the Internet, leaving a network, or whole communities vulnerable to a fiber cut somewhere outside their area.

Unfortunately, it’s getting easier for fiber providers to run into the same kind of issue that hit Comcast. We are migrating numerous functions to the cloud and having redundant fiber routing does not always mean that there is an automatic redundant connection made to a key cloud server. I have clients that are now relying on the cloud for all sorts of services such as VoIP, cable TV programming, DNS routing for the Internet, the use of cloud-based operational software, etc. These ISPs may have a redundant path to the Internet, but still have only one path to get to the company providing their cable TV signal or DNS routing.

The Comcast outage should prompt companies to look again at redundancy. Don’t assume that every function in the cloud is redundant even if you have a redundant connection to the Internet.

Regulating Over-the-Top Video

I know several cable head-end owners that are developing over-the-top video products to deliver over traditional cable networks. I define that to be a video product that is streamed to customers over a broadband connection and not delivered to customers through a settop box or equivalent. The industry now has plenty of examples of OTT services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Sling TV, Hulu and a hundred others.

While the FCC has walked almost totally away from broadband regulation there are still a lot of regulations affecting cable TV, so today I am looking at the ramifications of streaming programming to customers instead of delivering the signal in a more traditional way. Why would a company choose to stream content? The most obvious benefit is the elimination of settop boxes. OTT services only require an app on the receiving device, which can be a smart TV, desktop, laptop, tablet or cellphone. Customers largely dislike settop boxes and seem to love the ability to receive content on any device in their home. A provider that pairs OTT video delivery with a cloud DVR has replaced all of the functions of the settop box.

There are a few cable companies that have been doing this. Comcast today offers a streaming service they label as Xfinity Instant TV. This package starts with a package of ten channels including local broadcast networks. They then offer 3 add-on options: a kids and family package for $10, an entertainment package for $15 and a sports and news package for $35. Comcast also touts that a customer can choose to stream the content to any of the millions of Comcast WiFi hotspots, not only at their homes.

It’s an interesting tactic for Comcast to undertake, because they have invested huge R&D dollars into developing their own X1 settop box that is the best in the industry. The company is clearly using this product to satisfy a specific market segment which is likely those considering cutting the cord or those that want to be able to easily download to any device.

A second big benefit to Comcast is that they save a lot of money on programming by offering smaller channel line-ups. Traditional cable packages generally include a lot of channels that customers don’t watch but which still must be paid for. Comcast would much prefer to sell a customer a smaller channel line-up than to have them walk away from all Comcast programming.

The third reason why a cable provider might want to stream content is that it lets them argue that they can selectively walk away from cable regulations. The only real difference between Comcast’s OTT and their traditional cable products is the technology used to get a channel to a customer. From a regulatory perspective this looks a lot like the regulatory discussions we had for years about VoIP – does changing the technology somehow create a different product and different regulations. Before VoIP there were numerous technology changes in the way calls were delivered – open wire, party-lines, digitized voice on T-carrier, etc. – but none of the technology upgrades every changed the way that voice was regulated.

I can’t see any reason why Comcast is allowed, from a regulatory perspective, to stream their ITT content over their cable network. The company is clearly violating the rules that require the creation of specific tiers such as basic, expanded basic and premium. What seems to be happening is that regulators are deciding not to regulate. You might recall that three or four years ago the FCC opened investigation this and other video issue – for example, they wanted to explore if video delivered on the web needs to be regulated. That docket also asked about IP video being delivered over a cable system. The FCC never acted on that docket, and I chalk that up to the explosion of online video content. The public voted with their pocketbooks to support streaming video and the FCC let the topic die.  There are arguments that can be made for regulating streaming video, particularly when it’s delivered over the same physical network as traditional cable TV, like in the case with Comcast.

Clearly the FCC is not going to address the issue, and so the technology an lack of regulation ought to be made available to many other cable providers. But that doesn’t mean that the controversy will be over. I predict that the next battleground will be the taxation of streaming video. Comcast would gain a competitive advantage over competitors if they don’t have to pay franchise fees for streaming content. In fact, a cable company can argue they don’t need a franchise if they choose to stream all of their content.

It’s somewhat ironic that we are likely to have these regulatory fights with the cable product – a product that is clearly dying. Customers are demanding alternatives to traditional cable TV, yet the FCC is still saddled with the cable regulations handed to them by Congress. One nightmare scenario for Comcast and the industry would be if some competitor sues a cable company to stop the streaming product – because that would require the regulators, and ultimately the courts to address the issue. It’s not inconceivable that a court could decide that the Comcast streaming service is in violation of the FCC rules that define channel line-ups. Congress could fix this issue easily, but unless they do away with the current laws there will always be a background regulatory threat hanging over anybody that elect to use the product.

Comcast Dismantles Data Throttling

On June 11 Comcast announced they had dismantled a congestion management system that had been in place since 2008. This system was used to throttle data speeds for large users of residential data. The company says that their networks are now robust enough that they no longer need to throttle users and that they system wasn’t used for the last year.

Comcast implemented the congestion management system in 2008 after it had been caught throttling traffic to and from Bit Torrent. The FCC said the throttling was discriminator and ordered Comcast to cease the practice. Comcast responded to the FCC with the introduction of the congestion management system that cut back usage for all large residential data users, with what Comcast said was a non-discriminatory basis.

At the time Comcast claimed that large data users, who at that time were exchanging video files, were slowing down their network – and they were probably right. The ISP industry has been blindsided twice in my memory by huge increases in demand for bandwidth. The first time was in the 1990s when Napster and many others promoted the exchange of music MP3 files. The same thing happened a decade ago when people started sharing video files – often pirated copy of the latest movies.

To be fair to Comcast, a decade ago the number one complaint about cable company broadband was that speeds bogged down during the evening prime time hours – the time when most customers wanted to use the network. The Comcast throttling was an attempt to lower the network congestion during the busiest evening hours. Comcast says the throttling system is no longer needed since the widespread implementation of DOCSIS and improvements in backhaul have eliminated many of the network bottlenecks.

Comcast now offers gigabit download speeds in many markets. I suspect that they are relying that only a small percentage of their customers will buy and use this big bandwidth in a given neighborhood, because a significant number of gigabit users could still swamp an individual neighborhood node. I wonder if the company would reinstitute the throttling system again should their network become stressed with some future unexpected surge in broadband traffic. It’s possible that some big bandwidth application such as telepresence could go viral and could swamp their data networks like happened in the past with music files and then video.

Interestingly, the company still maintains customer data caps. Any customer that uses more than 1 terabyte in a month must pay $10 for each extra 50 gigabytes or pay $50 extra to get unlimited data. Comcast never directly said that the data caps were for congestion management, although they often hinted that was the reason for the caps.

The official explanation of the data caps has been that heavy users need to pay more since they use the network more. Comcast has always said that they use the revenues from data caps to pay for the needed upgrades for the network. But this seems a little ingenuous from a company that generated $21.4 billion in free cash in 2017 – nearly $1.8 billion per month.

Comcast is not the only ISP that has been throttling Internet traffic. All four major wireless carriers throttle big data users at some point. T-Mobile is the most generous and starts throttling after 50 GB of month usage while the other three big wireless carriers throttle after 20 – 25 GB per month.

A more insidious form of data throttling is the use of bursting technology that provides faster broadband speeds for the first minute or two of any given broadband session. During this first minute customers will get relatively fast speeds – often set at the level of their subscription – but if the session is prolonged past that short time limit then speeds drop significantly. This practice fools customers into thinking that they get the speeds they have subscribed to – which is true for the short duration of the burst – but is not true when downloading a large file or streaming data for more than a minute or two. The carriers boast about the benefits of data bursts by saying they give extra broadband for each request – but they are really using the technology to throttle data for any prolonged data demands.

The Growing Dislike of Big ISPs

The annual ratings from the American Consumer Satisfaction Index came out recently, and they show that consumer dislike for the big ISPs is increasing. This survey looks at how consumers feel about a wide range of businesses, and the ISPs have been ranked as some of the most disliked corporations for a number of years.

The survey asks numerous questions and creates a satisfaction scale from 1 to 100. The survey looks at several different categories of telecom companies and has separate rankings for for cable TV providers, broadband providers and a new category for streaming video providers.

Among the big ISPs that offer cable TV service, the rank of every provider except AT&T U-Verse sank compared to last year. AT&T was the highest rated company in this group with a rating of 70. At the bottom was Mediacom with a rating of 55, down from 56 a year ago. The two giant cable companies both saw a drop in consumer satisfaction: Charter had a huge drop from 63 down to 58, Comcast dropped from 58 to 57.

The rankings for how consumers feel about their broadband provider were similar. The only big ISP that didn’t drop was Comcast that stayed at a ranking of 60 for two years running. Everybody other big ISP dropped. At the top of the list was Verizon FiOS which dropped from 71 to 70. At the bottom was Mediacom again which had a big drop from 58 to 53. Charter also had a big drop from 63 to 58. Rounding out the bottom rankings were Frontier (54), Windstream (56) and CenturyLink (58)

Streaming services got significantly higher rankings. Topping this first time list were Netflix, Playstation Vue and Twitch with a ranking of 78. At the bottom were Sony Crackle (68), Showtime Anywhere (70) and DirecTV Now (70), all still significantly better than traditional cable companies.

It must be frustrating for the big ISPs to see their customer satisfaction drop year after year. The rankings of the ISPs are lower than other unpopular industries like airlines, banks, insurance companies and even the Internal Revenue Service.

If there is any upside to the low customer satisfaction rankings it’s that it creates opportunities for competitors. It’s been conventional wisdom for years that a new competitor will get up to 30% of a market just for showing up with an alternative network – assuming they know how to sell and have decent customer service.

They survey doesn’t dig into the reasons for the sinking dissatisfaction, but it’s easy to speculate on some of the reasons. People are certainly unhappy with traditional cable TV due to the ever-rising prices. High prices are the number one factor cited for consumers who are cutting the cord, and the dropping satisfaction shows there is likely another growing pile of future cord cutters.

It’s a little harder to understand the dissatisfaction with broadband. At least in major metropolitan areas the ISPs have continued to unilaterally increase download speeds with only modest rate hikes. One would expect satisfaction with the the broadband product to be higher and my guess is that the low ranking deal more with the pain involved in having to ever call these big companies. Compared to other businesses we all deal with, the interaction with the cable company / ISP is often the one we dread the most. The other likely cause for dissatisfaction is that ISPs often don’t deliver the speeds they promise. This varies by market, but we’ve seen cities where consumers only get a fraction of the speed they are paying for.

It’s much easier to understand unhappiness with ISPs immediately outside of big cities. Broadband is smaller towns is often still generations behind and is inadequate for what households expect today in terms of download speeds and latency. Anybody who reads this blog will understand the near-hatred for the ISPs in rural areas. The cable companies don’t come to rural America and the big telcos have abandoned maintenance of the copper networks for decades. Rural broadband is either poor or nonexistent with practically everybody hating the companies that won’t bring them broadband.

 

Can Small Cable Companies Survive?

Today I ask if a small provider can be profitable and succeed with a cable TV product. This was prompted by the news that Cable One, one of the traditional mid-sized cable companies, is bleeding cable customers. For those not familiar with the company they are headquartered in Phoenix, AZ and operate cable systems in 19 states with the biggest pockets of customers in Idaho, Mississippi and Texas.

The company just reported that for the 12 months ending on March 31 that they had lost 12.7% of their cable customers and dropped below 300,000 total cable customers. Just a few years ago the company would not have cracked the top ten cable companies in the country in size, but with all of the consolidation in the industry they are now at the bottom of that list.

While most of my clients would consider anybody on the list of top ten cable companies to be large, I wonder if anybody smaller than the few really giant cable companies can maintain a profitable and viable cable product in today’s environment?

Cable One’s drop in cable customers was precipitated by several factors. One that is very familiar to small cable operators is that Cable One decided in 2015 to drop the Viacom suite of channels from their system. Small cable operators all remember when Viacom announced huge and unprecedented rate increases of over 60% for the suite of channels that include MTV, Comedy Central, BET and a number of other channels. A number of my clients also decided to drop Viacom rather than pay for the huge increases in programming.

Cable One also shares another characteristic with smaller companies in that they are too small to unilaterally negotiate alternate piles of programming to sell as skinny bundles. So they and other small companies are likely to see customers abandoning them for smaller line-ups from Sling TV and other purveyors of smaller on-line line-ups.

Finally, Cable One is seeing the same cord cutting as everybody else. While only a fraction of their customer losses can be blamed on cord cutting, it is now a real phenomenon and all cable companies can expect to routinely lose a larger number of customer every year to Netflix and others.

The giant cable companies are not immune from these same market influences. The giants like Comcast and Charter are also seeing big increases in programming costs. Recent Comcast financials show that the company saw a 13% increase in programming cost over the prior year (although some of that increase was paid to their own programming subsidiaries).

It looks like the giant cable companies will be able to offset losses in cable margins with new sources of revenues. Comcast has launched a cellular product and Charter recently announced becoming a partner in that business. I’ve written several blogs of all of the ways that Comcast is still growing their business – almost all which smaller companies are unable to duplicate.

A big dilemma for small cable companies is that the TV product still drives positive margins. While every small cable provider I know moans that they lose money on the cable product, the revenues generated from cable TV still exceed the cost of programming and almost every company I know would suffer at the bottom line if they killed the TV product line.

It has to be troubling for programmers to see cable companies struggling this hard. If somebody the size of Cable One is in crisis then the market for the programmers is quickly shrinking to only serving the handful of giant cable companies. The consolidation of cable providers might give enough market power to the huge cable companies to fight back against big rate increases. For instance, Charter recently announced that they were demoting a number of Viacom channels to higher tiers, meaning that the channels would not automatically be included in the packages that all customers get and that payments to Viacom will decrease.

It’s hard to think of another industry that is trying so hard collectively to drive away their customer base. But all of the big companies in the sector – the cable providers and programmers – are publicly traded companies that face huge pressure to keep increasing earnings. As customers disappear the programmers raise rates higher to make up for the losses, which then drives more customers out of the cable market. It doesn’t take sophisticated trending to foresee a day coming in the next decade where cable products will become too expensive for most homes. We are watching a slow train wreck which the industry seems to have no will or ability to stop.

It also doesn’t take a crystal ball to foresee when cable will turn into a true loser for small cable operators. I already know of a dozen telcos that have backed out of the cable business and over the next decade this is likely to turn into a flood as companies back away from a dying product line.