Categories
The Industry

U.S. Broadband Prices – High or Low?

Over the years, I’ve seen a number of studies that ask how U.S. broadband prices stack up against the rest of the world. Interestingly, in 2021 I saw reports at both ends of the spectrum. One report says that U.S. broadband prices are among the most expensive in the world. At the other extreme is a report that claims that U.S. broadband prices are low and that prices are falling.

Let’s start with the high price claim. The most recent look comes from CompareTheMarket that claims that the average U.S. residential price for broadband is $66.13 and is the ninth most expensive in the world. The study compares a broadband product in each country that offers unlimited bandwidth and that delivers speeds of at least 60 Mbps download. According to this report, the only places with higher prices than the U.S. are Ethiopia, UAE, Qatar, Zimbabwe, Oman, Honduras, Saudi Arabia, and Iceland.

The calculated $66.13 price seems realistic to me and is similar to numbers I’ve been gathering all year through surveys. The CompareTheMarket price is only for broadband and doesn’t include a WiFi modem. I’ve been seeing average prices that include the WiFi modem generally range between $70 and $75 per month. It’s worth noting that the big ISPs have been quietly burying the cost of broadband in the modem fee, with one of the highest fees being the $14 monthly fee from Comcast.

There is another report that claims that U.S. Broadband prices are not only affordable but are falling from year to year. This comes from the 2021 Broadband Pricing Index Report published by USTelecom, the lobbying arm of the biggest ISPs in the country. That report makes some outrageous claims. For example, it claims that the price of the most popular tier of broadband declined by 7.5% between 2020 and 2021 – something that’s impossible to believe when Comcast and Charter, which together are half of the broadband industry, each had a significant rate increase during that period.

It’s impossible to understand what USTelecom is comparing since there are zero statistics cited to back up its numbers. It seems to be relying on the fact that the price per megabit has been decreasing – which I don’t think anybody disputes.  It’s clear that consumer broadband speeds have risen at a faster pace than prices. But that’s not what the report is implying – a casual reader would have to assume the report means that out-of-pocket prices to customers are dropping.

USTelecom puts out this report every year, and I always find it rankling. There is no consumer in the U.S. who thinks their ISP is cutting broadband prices. Some ISPs still negotiate with customers that ask for lower rates, but overall, broadband prices from the big cable companies that control most of the market keep rising year after year.

Comcast just announced an overall 3% price increase across the board for January 2022, but I haven’t yet seen this expressed in specific product prices. This comes on top of the basic broadband at Comcast that I calculate to cost $90. That’s $76 for the basic standalone broadband package (100 Mbps or 200 Mbps in most markets), plus $14 for the WiFi modem. The rate increase would put the new price at around $93.

I have to think that the USTelecom report is aimed at providing cover for politicians that support the big ISPs. There are no consumers who feel like broadband prices are dropping – unless perhaps they are in a market where a new competitor showed up during the last year. But USTelecom and the big ISPs want politicians to think the ISPs are looking out for the public during the pandemic.

I know I shouldn’t get worked up over these kinds of shenanigans from the big ISPs. But it’s aggravating to see them peddle such blather since the purpose behind these untruths is to lobby policymakers. This is a story the ISPs want legislators to hear to tell at a time when the big ISPs know that the FCC is likely to reintroduce broadband regulation. The message from the big ISPs is clear, “Why regulate us? Look how well we’re taking care of the public without regulation”. Tell that to the families paying $90 per month for Comcast broadband – assuming they don’t exceed Comcast’s data cap and pay even more.

Categories
Regulation - What is it Good For?

The FCC and Broadband Outages

Comcast had a widespread network outage in early November. The problems started in San Francisco and spread the next day to Chicago, Philadelphia, parts of New Jersey, and three other states. The outage knocked out broadband customers along with Comcast cellular customers. Comcast has never disclosed the reason for the outage and announced only that it was due to a ‘network issue’.

In 2020 CenturyLink suffered an even larger outage that not only knocked out CenturyLink customers but spread into other networks, including Amazon, Cloudflare, and Hulu. The problem was blamed on a software update that blocked the establishment of Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) sessions and impeded broadband traffic routing.

T-Mobile also had a major network outage in 2020 that knocked out broadband customers and also cut off some voice calls and most texting for nearly a whole day. T-Mobile blamed the issue on problems with a leased circuit that was compounded by two previously undetected flaws in third-party software. Reports at the time said that the electronics failed on a leased circuit, and then the backup circuit also failed. This then caused a cascade that brought down a large part of the T-Mobile network.

In 2019 CenturyLink had perhaps the largest outage that knocked out much of its network and customers that relied on the Level 3 network for transport. The company blamed the outage on a bad circuit card in Denver that somehow cascaded to bring down a large swath of fiber networks in the West, including numerous 911 centers.

The FCC investigates big outages from time to time and opened an inquiry in October 2020 in a few of the outages listed above. The FCC also recently adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to investigate the disaster resiliency plans of major telecom providers to take a harder look at how cellular and broadband carriers make repairs after big storms.

Interestingly, the FCC recently fined T-Mobile $19.5 million for the 2020 outage, but not the other carriers. This is not because T-Mobile’s outage was worse than the others. T-Mobile was fined because they are a cellular carrier and still fully regulated by the FCC. But Comcast and CenturyLink are ISPs and under different regulatory rules.

Oddly, the FCC has very little power to do anything about ISP network outages because the FCC has very little regulatory authority over ISPs in general. The FCC abrogated its authority to regulate ISPs when it killed Title II regulation and handed a few vestiges of regulation to the Federal Trade Commission. The FCC only regulates ISPs tangentially through the specific authority given directly by Congress. Any authority the FCC once had as a result of claiming Title II regulatory authority is gone.

The process has finally started to seat a fifth FCC Commissioner, and the industry speculates that one of the early acts with five Commissioners will be to reinstate Title II authority. This effort might be a little more streamlined in the past because federal courts have already ruled that the FCC can choose to regulate or not regulate broadband.

Unfortunately, any move to regulate ISPs and broadband will only last until we have another shift in administration that wants to kill regulation again. We have ended up in an absurd regulatory merry-go-round where regulating or not regulating ISPs depends on the party that controls the White House. It makes no sense to not regulate ISPs at a time when cable companies have nearly total monopoly power in some markets. Overall, broadband might be the most important industry in the country because it powers just about everything else. Local jurisdictions around the country regulate occupations like nail salon technicians, plumbers, and masseuses, and yet we can’t get our act together as a country to regulate an industry where a handful of giant ISPs openly manifest monopoly behavior.

There is a really simple fix for this. Congress could give authority to the FCC to regulate broadband so that future FCCs or administrations could not undo it. It would only take a simple law that says something like, “The FCC shall regulate the broadband industry for the benefit of the citizens of the United States.” Obviously, lawyers could word this to be more ironclad – but giving the FCC the authority to regulate broadband doesn’t have to be complicated.

Categories
The Industry

Comcast Offers New Work-from-home Product

The pandemic has forced millions of people to work from home. This instantly caused heartburn for the IT departments of large corporations because remote workers create new security vulnerabilities and open companies to cyberattacks and hacking. Big companies have spent the last decade moving data behind firewalls and suddenly are being asked to let thousands of employees pierce the many layers of protection against outside threats.

Comcast announced a new product that will alleviate many of the corporate IT concerns. Comcast, along with Aruba has created the Comcast Business Teleworker VPN product. This product creates a secure VPN at an employee’s home and transports the VPNs for all remote workers to a remote datacenter where corporate IT can then deal with all remote workers in one place.  This isolates the worker connections from the corporate firewalls and employees instead deal with copies of corporate software that sit in a datacenter.

There is a perceived long-term need for the product since as many as 70% of companies say that they are likely to continue with the work-from-home model after the end of the pandemic. Working from home is now going to be a routine component of corporate life.

At the home end, the Comcast product promises to not interfere with existing home broadband. The only way for Comcast to do this is to establish a second data stream from a house using a separate cable modem (or utilizing modems that can establish more than one simultaneous connection). This is an important aspect of the product because one of the biggest complaints about working from home is that many homes have problems accommodating more than one or two workers or students at the same time. This new product would be ill-received by workers if implementing it means less bandwidth for everybody else in the home.

By routing all remote employees to a common hub, Comcast will enable corporate IT staff to mimic the work computing environment for remote workers. Many companies are currently giving remote employees limited access to core software systems and data, but this arrangement effectively establishes the Comcast hub as a secure node on the office network.

This is something that any ISP with a fiber network should consider mimicking. An open-access network on fiber already does this same thing today. An open-access network creates a VPN at each customer of a given ISP and then aggregates the signals, untouched, to deliver to the ISP. On a fiber network, this function can be done by fairly simple routing.  Fiber ISPs can also provide the home working path separate from the consumer path by either carving out a VPN or else providing a second data path – something most fiber ONTs already allow.

Comcast has taken the extra step of partnering with Aruba to enable a corporation to establish a virtual corporate data center at a remote site. But fiber ISPs don’t have to be that complicated and rather than offering this to only large corporate clients, a fiber network could deliver a secure path between home and office for a business with only a few remote employees.

This could even be provided to sole proprietors and could safely link home and office on a VPN.  That allows for the marketing of a ‘safe office’ connection for businesses of any size and would provide the average small business a much more secure connection between home and office than they have today.

Every fiber provider that serves both residential communities and business districts ought to develop some version of this product by year-end. If working from home is a new reality, then fiber-based ISPs ought to be catering to that market using the inherent robustness and safety of a fiber network to create and route VPNs over the local fiber network.

Categories
Technology

Network Function Virtualization

Comcast recently did a trial of DOCSIS 4.0 at a home in Jacksonville, Florida, and was able to combine various new techniques and technologies to achieve a symmetrical 1.25 Gbps connection. Comcast says this was achieved using DOCSIS 4.0 technology coupled with network function virtualization (NFV), and distributed access architecture (DAA). Today I’m going to talk about the NFV concept.

The simplest way to explain network function virtualization is that it brings the lessons learned in creating efficient data centers to the edge of the network. Consider a typical data center application that is to provide computing to a large business customer. Before the conversion to the cloud, the large business network likely contained a host of different devices such as firewalls, routers, load balancers, VPN servers, and WAN accelerators. In a fully realized cloud application, all of these devices would be replaced with software that would mimic the functions of each device, all operated remotely in a data center consisting of banks of super-fast computer chips.

There are big benefits from a conversion to the cloud. Each of the various devices used in the business IT environment  is expensive and proprietary. The host of expensive devices, likely from different vendors are replaced with lower-cost generic servers that run on fast chips. A host of expensive electronics sitting at each large business is replaced by much cheaper servers sitting in a data center in the cloud.

There is also a big efficiency gain from the conversion because inevitably the existing devices in the historic network operated with different software systems that were never 100% compatible. Everything was cobbled together and made to work, but the average IT department at a large corporation never fully understood everything going on inside the network. There were always unexplained glitches when software systems of different devices interacted in the work network.

In this trial, Comcast used this same concept in the cable TV broadband network. Network function virtualization was used to replace the various electronic devices in the Comcast traditional network including the CMTS (cable modem termination system), various network routers, transport electronics for sending a broadband signal to neighborhood nodes, and likely the whole way down to the settop box. All of these electronic components were virtualized and performed in the data center or nearer to the edge in devices using the same generic chips that are used in the data center.

There are some major repercussions for the industry if the future is network function virtualization. First, all of the historic telecom vendors in the industry disappear. Comcast would operate a big data center composed of generic servers, as is done today in other data centers all over the country. Gone would be different brands of servers, transport electronics, and CMTS servers – all replaced by sophisticated software that will mimic the performance of each function performed by the former network gear. The current electronics vendors are replaced by one software vendor and cheap generic servers that can be custom built by Comcast without the need for an external vendor.

This also means a drastically reduced need for electronics technicians at Comcast, replaced by a handful of folks operating the data center. We’ve seen this same transition roll through the IT world as IT staffs have been downsized due to the conversion to the cloud. There is no longer a need for technicians that understand proprietary hardware such as Cisco servers, because those devices no longer exist in the virtualized network.

NFV should mean that a cable company becomes more nimble in that it can introduce a new feature for a settop box or a new efficiency into data traffic routing instantly by upgrading the software system that now operates the cable network.

But there are also two downsides for a cable company. First, conversion to a cloud-based network means an expensive rip and replacement of every electronics component in the network. There is no slow migration into DOCSIS 4.0 if it means a drastic redo of the underlying way the network functions.

There is also the new danger that comes from reliance on one set of software to do everything in the network. Inevitably there are going to be software problems that arise – and a software glitch in an NFV network could mean a crash of the entire Comcast network everywhere. That may sound extreme, and companies operating in the cloud will work hard to minimize such risks – but we’ve already seen a foreshadowing of what this might look like in recent years. The big fiber providers have centralized network functions across their national fiber networks, and we’ve seen network outages in recent years that have knocked out broadband networks in half of the US. When a cloud-based network crashes, it’s likely to crash dramatically.

Categories
The Industry

A Comcast Product for Cord-cutters

It’s been interesting to watch how the big cable companies have been trying to battle cord-cutting. Comcast has had a product for a while that is aimed directly at cord-cutters.  It’s labeled as Flex and is a video streaming service that is only available to Comcast broadband customers who are not buying a Comcast TV product.

Comcast hoped that Flex would be a direct competitor to Roku, Amazon Firestick, and Google Chrome. The Flex product clearly wants to keep customers who cut the cord inside the Comcast umbrella.

The product delivers 10,000 programs including Comcast content and content from other free online services like Pluto, Xumo, and Tubi. Content comes with commercials. For now, Comcast is also throwing in Comcast’s paid service Peacock for free. The Flex platform also gives customers an easy portal to watch Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO, and Hulu.

Flex is certainly price right and currently is free for Xfinity broadband customers. When first introduced, Comcast was charging $4.95. Flex still requires the Comcast settop box and remote. I’m guessing the price came down when Comcast found few buyers willing to rent a box to get free content.

There is a big difference between Flex and competitors like Firestick or Roku in that customers can only use the apps on the platform that Comcast has installed. No additional apps for video or music services can be added to the app. This is probably the biggest disadvantage of Flex in that people are using a lot of different video apps online. I have an Amazon Firestick and it will let me add any online video app regardless of whether the app provider has a deal with Amazon.

When Comcast first introduced the Flex product, I thought the company wanted to become another superbundler like Amazon. Amazon allows customers to buy a subscription to a huge array of different online apps, and I assume Amazon gets a slice of revenue for delivering customers to partner video platforms. There are many video services for which Amazon has become the primary marketing channel. Amazon even suggests content that requires a subscription to the partner apps. The superbundler concept is likely profitable. Amazon has to be doing well taking a small slice of the revenue stream from nearly one hundred other platforms.

Amazon’s made it clear a few years ago that it wanted to become the one-stop shop for online video content, and Amazon has bundled together far more content than anybody else. But in the last year, we’ve seen the rise of proprietary platforms from CBS, Apple, Disney, and others including Comcast’s Peacock that won’t cross-market with Amazon and others. It’s not looking like any one bundler is going to be able to pull together a giant percentage of online video content.

It’s less clear how Comcast intends to benefit from Flex. I assume Comcast gets a share of ad revenues generated on platforms like Pluto. But there doesn’t seem to any other major benefit to the company for operating the Flex program, particularly since they are providing the settop box to Flex customers for free. The plan probably made financial sense at a monthly $4.95 rate, but it’s hard to see the long-term benefit to Comcast of offering a free service. Perhaps the one big benefit to Comcast is that the settop box used for Flex can also be used to control smart home and other Comcast products. Perhaps the company is using Flex to draw in customers for these other products.

Comcast has one big advantage over anybody else in the industry in that every Flex customer is already a Comcast broadband customer. That should mean that Comcast has little incremental cost for delivering the free content offered by Flex. It’s easy to forget that Netflix and all of the other online providers must maintain an expensive network to enable them to disseminate video content.

The Flex product is somewhat symbolic of the attempt for industry players to somehow be relevant in the online video market. The product doesn’t drive direct revenue for Comcast even though the company must provide a settop box. The platform is proprietary, which seems to be the new norm for video platforms. It’s one more of the many confusing choices faced by cord-cutters.

Categories
Current News The Industry

CBRS Auction Winners

The FCC held a recent auction for the  3.5GHz Citizens Band Radio Spectrum (CBRS). The auction went for 76 rounds and raised over $4.5 billion for the FCC. This auction was unique in that spectrum was licensed at the county-level awarding up to seven licensed 10 MHz channels in each county. Each PAL (Priority Access License) is good for 10 years.

CBRS spectrum can be used in several applications. The spectrum has good field operating parameters and falls in the middle between the two existing blocks of spectrum used for WiFi. This makes the spectrum ideal for rural point-to-multipoint fixed wireless broadband since it can carry a decent amount of bandwidth for a decent distance. The best aspect of this spectrum is that it’s licensed and will largely be free from interference. For the same reasons, this is also a good spectrum for cellular data.

The biggest winner in the auction was Verizon which spent $1.89 billion on the spectrum. The company landed 557 PALs licenses in 57 counties. The company needed this spectrum to fill-in mid-range spectrum for 5G. Verizon has also recently announced a fixed cellular broadband product for rural homes and this spectrum could provide an interference-free way to deliver that product from rural cell sites.

As expected, Dish networks was also a big winner and will be paying $913 million for CBRS spectrum. As the newest nationwide cellular carrier, the company needed this spectrum to fill in the holes in the cellular spectrum it already controls. The other traditional cellular companies were a no-show. AT&T didn’t buy any of the CBRS spectrum. T-Mobile only purchased 8 PALs licenses in six counties.

The largest cable companies scored big in the auction. Charter bought $464 million of spectrum, Comcast is paying $458 million for spectrum, and Cox purchased $212 million of spectrum. As the newest entrants in the cellular business, Comcast and Charter have been buying wholesale cellular broadband from Verizon – this spectrum will let them shift to their own cell sites for a lot of cellular traffic. There is also speculation that cable companies might be planning on using the new spectrum to launch a fixed-wireless product in the rural areas surrounding their cable properties. Both Charter and Cox have entered the upcoming RDOF auction that is awarding $16.4 billion for rural broadband and the companies might be planning on using this spectrum to cover any areas they can win in that reverse auction.

One of the smaller cable companies, Midcontinent Communications, spent over $8.8 million for PALs licenses. Midco already won sizable rural grants to deploy 100 Mbps broadband in Minnesota and the Dakotas. This spectrum will help the company meet those grant pledges and perhaps allow it to pursue RDOF grants.

There were a few other large bidders. One was Nextlink which provides fixed wireless broadband today in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois. Windstream purchased over 1,000 PALs and the traditional telco is likely going to replace aging rural copper with wireless service, while also possibly be expanding into new service territories with fixed wireless. SAL Spectrum LLC won 1,569 PALs. This company owns numerous other blocks of spectrum and it’s not clear who the user of this new spectrum might be.

The biggest news is that the auction allowed smaller bidders to win licensed spectrum. There were 228 different winners in the auction, most of which are small WISPs, telcos, and electric cooperatives. These entities benefited by the FCC’s willingness to auction the spectrum at the county level. Most previous wireless spectrum was allocated using much larger footprints, which kept small bidders from acquiring spectrum.

Categories
Regulation - What is it Good For? What Customers Want

Say No to Data Caps

Last week I had a blog that asked why the FCC is seemingly supporting data caps by allowing caps on broadband built with federal grant money. The FCC has established grants that place premium value on fast broadband speeds and low latency but that ignores one of the most important aspects of broadband today – usability.

A broadband connection that doesn’t let homes partake in the same online world as the rest of America is inferior broadband – and there is no better example of an unusable data plan than one a low data cap. The FCC’s RDOF rules support monthly data caps of 250 gigabytes for plans offering 25/3 or 50/5 Mbps. The FCC is clearly saying to rural America – we’ll give grant money to ISPs to bring you better broadband, but we’re going to let the ISPs cripple that broadband so that they can bill you an extra $50 or $100 per month if you want to use that broadband like everybody else in the country.

Recall that ISPs that win the RDOF grants have six years to build the new networks. How will a 250 GB data caps look by the time these networks are built? OpenVault says that the average home used 274 GB per month in 2018 – already higher than the FCC’s proposed data cap. By the end of 2019 average usage had grown to 344 GB for the average home and exploded to 402 GB by March due to people and students working from home during the pandemic. Trending household usage forward until 2026 would suggest that the average home will be using more than a terabyte of data each month by then. That’s not a big stretch since more than 10% of homes are already using a terabyte or more of data today.

The FCC is not the only one to point a finger at. There are plenty of state broadband programs that have awarded grants to ISPs that have data caps. This has happened because policymakers have not viewed data caps as providing inferior broadband. This is easy to understand since just a few years the vast majority of homes used a lot less broadband than the data caps. You might recall in 2015 when there was big public pushback when Comcast tried to introduce a 300 GB data cap. At that time, Comcast said that only a tiny number of customers used more data than 300 GB per month – but in five short years, the national average data usage is significantly higher than the cap Comcast wanted to impose in 2019.

We need a new policy at the state and federal level that says that ISPs with data caps are not welcome to broadband grant funding. Not only should they not be able to impose data caps on grant-funded networks – an ISP that has routine data caps for others should be prohibited from participating in any grant funding anywhere.

There are still ISPs that say that data caps help to protect the integrity of their network. This argument went out the door when most ISPs stopped billing for data caps during the pandemic – the one time when protecting the network would have been important.

What hasn’t been said enough is that a broadband connection with a data cap is an inferior broadband connection. A home with data caps faces the monthly choice of either curtailing broadband usage or else spending a lot more for broadband. Are we going to fix the rural broadband gap by transitioning rural homes with slow broadband connections to ones with tiny data caps that cost a lot more than everybody else in the country?

It’s always been clear that data caps are mostly about greed. There is no better example of this than the AT&T rural hotspot that has a data cap that allows for as much as an extra $200 in monthly fees to a subscriber. It’s outrageous that the FCC gave grant money last year to Viasat which has tiny monthly data caps. The whole proposed 5G Fund is outrageous if billions of federal money will allow the cellular carriers to sell more rural hotspots with tiny data caps and huge monthly fees.

It’s time for broadband policymakers at all levels to categorically say no to data caps. Shame on the FCC for allowing data caps into the discussion of the RDOF grant. But also shame on Congress for not issuing a new telecom bill to stop all of this nonsense. And shame on any state policymaker or regulator who has allowed state resources to be used to support broadband with data caps. It’s time to say no.

Categories
Regulation - What is it Good For?

Why Does the FCC Support Data Caps?

Most people may not have noticed that the upcoming RDOF grants allow, and even encourage ISPs to enforce data caps on customers. I have a hard time thinking of even one reason why the FCC would suggest that ISPs use data caps.

The RDOF grants have four performance tiers for ISPs, with the auction rules weighted to give preference to faster data speeds. Each of these performance tiers comes with a suggested monthly usage allotment – which means a data cap. ISPs that will deliver speeds of either 25/3 Mbps or 50/5 Mbps can introduce a data cap of 250 gigabytes or the U.S. average, whichever is higher. ISPs offering speeds of 100/20 Mbps or 1 Gbps/500 Mbps can set a data cap at 2 terabytes.

The natural question is to ask why the FCC is setting any data cap at all? Remember, this is an FCC that no longer regulates broadband, and yet they are suggesting rules that encourage ISPs that win the grant funding to introduce data caps. Past experience says that if the rules allow for data caps, the ISPs that win the money are likely to implement them.

I find the data caps for the 25/3 Mbps and 50/5 Mbps to be intriguing since ISPs can’t set the data caps at less than the US average. Who is going to measure that? The FCC doesn’t gather the kind of data needed to measure data caps around the country. Further, there are companies like CenturyLink that have data caps but that often don’t enforce them. I haven’t the foggiest idea how anybody would measure the national average data cap.

It’s important to put these data caps into perspective. The data caps on the slower products are incredibly stingy at 250 gigabytes per month.  OpenVault reported earlier this year that the average US home used 344 gigabytes of data per month in December 2019, up from 274 gigabytes a year earlier. Due to the impact of COVID-19, that number exploded to 402.5 gigabytes by the end of March. Homes being limited to using 250 gigabytes of data are being told not to use their broadband like everybody else. It’s nearly impossible for a home that has people working from home or students doing schoolwork at home to limit themselves to only 250 gigabytes of data per month.

Even the 2 terabyte data caps for faster broadband will become problematic is a few years. OpenVault says that over 10% of homes were already using more than 1 terabyte of data as of the end of the first quarter of 2020 and 1.2% were using over 2 terabytes. By the time these networks are built with RDOF money it wouldn’t be surprising for 10% of homes to be using more than the 2-terabyte cap.

With these grant rules the FCC is actively supporting ISP to introducing data caps that are smaller than the national average broadband usage at the end of 2018 and that will easily be less than half of the national average usage by the time the networks funded by the RDOF grants are constructed.

It seems like the FCC never learns any lessons. Every grant program they have administered has some major flaws. The FCC is handing out billions of dollars to provide broadband to home that don’t have it today. This program is a major boon for the rural communities that get broadband because of the grants. But with these rules, the RDOF money will be used to bring broadband to homes for the first time and immediately cripple homes from using that broadband due to data caps. For the federal government to support a 250-gigabyte data cap is an incredibly bad policy. They are saying to folks – here, we funded broadband, but don’t use it. I can’t conceive of any reason why data caps are even mentioned in the grant rules unless this is another case of bowing to the lobbyists from the big ISPs or the satellite broadband providers.

Looking at the bigger picture, it’s somewhat surprising that the FCC would take any position on things like data caps since they have given away their authority to regulate broadband. What these grant rules tells us is that this FCC would heartily support data caps if they still had that authority. This provision in this grant program provides tacit support to Comcast and AT&T to bill customers huge amounts of extra money for exceeding arbitrary and stingy data caps.

Categories
The Industry

The Quiet Growth of the Quad Play

A few years ago, some of the largest cable companies announced they were getting into the cellular business. At the time, this got a tiny amount of press but overall the press didn’t take these companies seriously or consider them to be potential major players in the cellular business.

Comcast Charter and Altice have quietly been adding cellular customers over the last three years.

  • Comcast recently reported that the company added 216,000 cellular lines during the first quarter of 2020, bringing their total lines to 2.3 million.
  • Charter added 290,000 customers in the first quarter, bringing the company to 1.4 million mobile lines.
  • Altice added 41,000 customers in the first quarter, bringing them to 110,000 mobile lines.

These growth and total customer numbers may not sound spectacular but consider that in the first quarter saw AT&T add a small number of net customers and Verizon lose a small number of net customers. These three cable companies are definitely eating into the market growth of the big carriers. Craig Moffett, the leading analyst for the communications sector declared last December that the cable companies must be considered as serious players in the cellular space.

For now, all three companies are acting as MVNOs and are purchasing wholesale cellular minutes and data from the big cellular carriers. But that won’t last forever. Comcast has made it clear that the company is in the wireless game for the long-haul. The company purchased $1.7 billion in white space spectrum in the Philadelphia market in 2017 and said that it will be bidding in the upcoming CMRS auction.

A company like Comcast doesn’t need to worry about rolling out a big national network like Dish Networks is tackling. Comcast can improve margins on the cellular business by selectively deploying cell sites in parts of markets where they have the highest traffic volumes. Comcast should be able to deploy small cells selectively in their major urban markets and be able to peel a lot of minutes off the MVNO arrangements where it makes sense. That would significantly increase their margins.

The cable companies have something in their favor that the cellular companies can’t match – the ability to bundle inexpensive cellular service in with products that customers value like home broadband. Each of the three cable companies is only offering cellular to existing customers.

Consider the Comcast plan. It’s only available to Comcast broadband customers. Customers have a choice of four data plans 1 GB for $15 per month, 3 GB for $30 per month, $10 GB for $60 per month, or unlimited data for $45 per phone. All of these plans include unlimited calling and texting. A customer can add up to 5 devices for a plan, and that can include phones for multiple family members, tablets, etc.

I have a friend who bought the Comcast plan when it first came out and it cut her family’s cellphone bills in half. The quality is as good as when they were AT&T subscribers, and their usage is likely still riding the AT&T network.

The big cellular companies have stopped growing. They’ve seen cellular prices drop over the last two years and their revenue per customer is dropping. AT&T and Verizon will start feeling real pain if the cellular companies continue to take more than half a million customers per quarter. The two companies are faced with T-Mobile greatly expanding its number of cell sites to meet the terms of the merger with Sprint. And both companies have to worried about seeing Dish Networks hit the market in two years or so with the most modern 5G network that will be software-driven.

Americans love bundles and it’s likely that the word will continue to spread that cable companies can save them money on their cellular plan. As word of mouth continues to spread that the cable companies are in the business to stay, these companies are likely to accelerate customer acquisition. The FCC was worried about losing Sprint from the market and made the T-Mobile merger contingent upon having Dish enter the cellular business. I’m guessing they didn’t take the competition from the cable companies seriously – but over time we are likely to see real competition for our cellular business.

Categories
Current News

Cord Cutting Accelerates in 1Q 2020

The largest traditional cable providers collectively lost over 1.7 million customers in the first quarter of 2020 – an overall loss of 2.2% in customers. This is the biggest overall drop in customers ever in a quarter. To put this loss into perspective, the big cable providers lost 18,800 customers every day.

The numbers below come from Leichtman Research Group which compiles these numbers from reports made to investors, except for Cox which is estimated. The numbers reported are for the largest cable providers, and Leichtman estimates that these companies represent 95% of all cable customers in the country.

Following is a comparison of the first quarter subscriber numbers compared to the end of 2019:

1Q 2020 4Q 2019 Change % Change
Comcast 20,845,000 21,254,000 (409,000) -1.9%
Charter 16,074,000 16,144,000 (70,000) -0.4%
DirecTV 15,136,000 16,033,000 (897,000) -5.6%
Dish Networks 9,012,000 9,144,000 (132,000) -1.4%
Verizon 4,145,000 4,229,000 (84,000) -2.0%
Cox 3,820,000 3,865,000 (45,000) -1.2%
AT&T U-verse 3,440,000 3,440,000 0 0.0%
Altice 3,137,500 3,179,200 (41,700) -1.3%
Mediacom 693,000 710,000 (17,000) -2.4%
Frontier 621,000 660,000 (39,000) -5.9%
Atlantic Broadband 306,252 308,638 (2,386) -0.8%
Cable One 303,000 314,000 (11,000) -3.5%
Total 77,532,752 79,280,838 (1,748,086) -2.2%
Total Cable 45,178,752 45,774,838 (596,086) -1.3%
Total Satellite 24,148,000 25,427,000 (1,029,000 -4.1%
Total Telco 8,206,000 8,639,000 (123,000) -1.5%

Some observations of the numbers:

  • Note that AT&T no longer reports customers by division, so Leichtman has reflected all of their losses as DirecTV and shown no losses for AT&T U-verse.
  • The big loser is AT&T, which lost nearly 897,000 traditional video customers between DirecTV and AT&T U-verse.
  • The big percentage loser is Frontier that lost almost 6% of its cable customers in the quarter.
  • The big cable companies fared the best, but still lost 1.3% of their customer base in the quarter.
  • Satellite TV continues to dive and lost more than 4% of customers in the quarter.

Leitchman speculated that the magnitude of the losses could be due to the impact of COVID-19. However, the story seems to be a bit more complex than that. Several of the big companies reported about the same level of disconnects as in recent quarters but saw a big drop-off in new customers buying service. It’s worth noting that the above losses were experienced even while these same companies saw an increase of over 1 million new broadband customers in the same quarter- the best growth in broadband since 2015.

The full impact of COVID-19 will likely be seen in the next quarter. There has to be an impact from over 23 million newly unemployed people this year, as of mid-May. Cutting cable is one of the most obvious ways for a household to save money.

There may be evidence that COVID-19 had an impact by the end of March. Leichtman also tracks the subscribers of the online TV services that are owned by the above companies. Collectively, there was a loss of 319,000 customers by Hulu Live, Sling TV, and DirecTV Now. Additionally, Paystation Vue exited the market in the first quarter. However, YouTube TV is reported to be growing and had over 2 million customers by the end of February.

Losses of this magnitude have to be rolling downhill in the industry. These losses mean a lot lower revenues for cable TV networks. It means a lot less franchise revenues for local governments. It means lower advertising revenues from loss of eyeballs.

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