AT&T’s CAF II Data Caps

AT&T recently launched its CAF II cellular data plan in a number of rural areas. This is being launched from the federal program that is giving AT&T $2.5 billion dollars spread over 6 years to bring broadband to about 1.1 million homes. That works out to $2,300 per home.

Customers are guaranteed speeds of at least 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up. The broadband product is priced at $60 per month with a contract or $70 per month with no contract. Installation is $99. The product comes with a WiFi router that also includes 4 Ethernet ports for wired connections.

For a rural household that has never had broadband this is finally going to get them connected to the web like everybody else. But the 10 Mbps speed of the product is already obsolete and in the footnotes to the product AT&T warns that a customer may not be able to watch two HD video streams at the same time.

But the real killer is the data cap which is set at 160 gigabytes per month. Extra data above this limit will cost a household $10 for each 50 gigabytes (or fraction thereof). AT&T has obviously set the data cap this low because that was the cap suggested by the FCC in the CAF II order.

Let me throw out some statistics that shed some light on how puny the 160 GB month cap is. Following are some statistics about data usage for common functions in the home:

  • The average desktop or laptop uses about 3 GB per month for basic functions like email, upgrading software, etc.
  • Cisco says that the average smartphone uses about 8 GB per month on WiFi.
  • Web browsing uses about 150 MB per hour.
  • Streaming music uses 1 GB for 24 hours of streaming
  • Facebook estimates that it’s average user uses the service for 20 hours per month, which consumes 2.5 GB.
  • Video is the real bandwidth eater. Netflix says that an SD video uses 0.7 GB per hour or 1.4 GB for a movie. They say HD video uses 3 GB per hour or 6 GB per movie.
  • The average online gamer uses at least 5 GB per month, and for some games much more than this.

So how does all of this stack up for an average family of three? It might look something like this:

3 computers / laptops                      9 GB

3 Smartphones                                24 GB

60 hours of web browsing               9 GB

3 social networks                              8 GB

60 hours of streaming music          3 GB

1 Gamer                                             5 GB

Schoolwork                                      10 GB

Subtotal                                            68 GB

This leaves 92 GB for watching video for a month. That will allow a home to watch 15 HD movies a month or 30 1-hour shows. That means one TV show per day for the whole household. Any more than that and you’d go over the data cap. The majority of video content on the web is now only available in HD and much of the content on Netflix and Amazon no longer come in SD. To make matters worse, these services are now starting to offer 4k video which is 4 times more data intensive than HD video.

Also note that this subtotal doesn’t include other normal functions. Working from home can use a lot of bandwidth. Taking online courses is data intensive. IoT devices like home security cameras can use a lot of bandwidth. And we are starting to see smart home devices add up to a pile of data that goes on behind the scenes without our knowledge.

The fact is that within a few years the average home is going to likely exceed the AT&T data cap without watching any video. The bandwidth used for everything we do on the web keeps increasing over time.

To show how ridiculously low this cap is, compare it to AT&T’s ‘access’ program which supplies broadband to low-income homes for speeds up to the same 10 Mbps and prices up to $10 per month. That low-income plan has a 1 terabyte data cap – over six times higher than the CAF II data cap. Since the company offers both products from the cellular network it’s impossible for the company to claim that the data caps are due to network constraints or any other technical issues. AT&T set the data cap at the low 160 GB because the FCC stupidly suggested that low amount in the CAF II order. The low data cap is clearly about money.

The last time we measured our home with 3 users we used over 700 GB per month. We are cord cutters and watch all video on the web. We work from home. And our daughter was taking on-line classes. Under the AT&T CAF II product our monthly bill would be $170 per month. And even then we would have a data product that would not allow us to do the things we want to do, because the 10 Mbps download speed would not allow all three of us to use the web at the same time. If you’ve been reading my blog you’ve heard me say often what a colossal waste of money the CAF II program is. The FCC gave AT&T $2.5 billion to foist this dreadful bandwidth product on rural America.

Who Wins with Cable Deregulation?

There has been a lot of press lately discussing what might happen if the FCC does away with Title II regulation of broadband. But broadband isn’t the only battle to be fought and we are also in for big changes in the cable industry. Since our new FCC is clearly anti-regulation I think the future of cable TV is largely going to be won by whoever best copes with a deregulated cable world.

Cable companies today are governed by arcane rules that rigidly define how to provide terrestrial cable TV. These rules, for example, define the three tiers of cable service – basic, expanded basic and premium – and it is these rules that have led us to the big channel line-ups that are quickly falling out of favor. Most households watch a dozen or so different channels regularly and even big cable users rarely watch more than 30 channels – but yet we have all been sucked into paying for 150 – 300 channel line-ups.

It’s likely that the existing rules governing cable will either be relaxed or ignored by the FCC. A lot of the cable rules were defined by Congress in bills like the Telecommunications Act of 1996, so only Congress can change those rules. But the FCC can achieve deregulation by inaction. Already today we see some of the big cable providers violating the letter of those rules. For example, Verizon has a ‘skinny’ package that does not fit into the defined FCC definition of the structure of cable tiers. The FCC has turned a blind eye to these kinds of changes, and if they are more overt about this then we can expect cable providers everywhere to start offering line-ups people want to watch – and at more affordable prices if the cable companies can avoid paying for networks they don’t want to carry.

The cable companies are now in a battle with the OTT providers like Netflix, Sling TV and others. It’s clear to the cable companies that if they don’t fight back that they are going to bleed customers faster and faster, similar to what happened to landline voice.

One way cable companies can fight back is to introduce programming packages that are similar to what the OTT providers are offering. This is going to require a change in philosophy at cable companies because the larger companies have taken to nickel and diming customer to death in the last few years. They sell a package at a low advertised price and then load on a $10 settop box fee, a number of other fees that are made to look like taxes, and the actual price ends up $20 higher than advertised. That’s not going to work when competing head-to-head with an OTT competitor that doesn’t add any fees.

The cable companies are also going to have to get nimble. I can currently connect and disconnect from a web service like Sling TV at will. Two or three clicks and I can disconnect. And if I come back they make it easy to reconnect. The cable companies have a long way to go to get to this level of customer ease.

Of course, the big ISPs can fight back in other ways. For example, I’ve seen speculation that they will try to get taxes levied on OTT services to become more price competitive. Certainly the big ISPs have a powerful lobbying influence in Washington and might be able to pull that off.

There is also speculation that the big ISPs might try to charge ‘access fees’ to OTT providers. They might try to charge somebody like Netflix to get to their customers, much in the same manner that the big telcos charge long distance carriers for using their networks. That might not be possible without Congressional action, but in today’s political world something like this is conceivable.

Another tactic the cable companies could take would be to reintroduce low data caps. If the FCC eliminates Title II regulation that is a possibility. The cable companies could make it costly for homes that want to watch a lot of OTT content.

And perhaps the best way for the cable companies to fight back against OTT is to join them. Just last week Comcast announced that it will be introducing its own OTT product. The cable companies already have the programming relationships – this is what made it relatively easy for Dish Network to launch Sling TV.

It’s impossible to predict where this might all go. But it seems likely that we are headed towards a time of more competition – which is good for consumers. But some of these tactics could harm competition and make it hard for OTT providers to be profitable. Whichever way it goes it’s going to be an interesting battle to watch.

An Argument for Data Caps

slow-downA few weeks ago Mediacom sent a letter to the FCC as part of Docket 16-245 that defended data rate caps. The letter was signed by Joseph E. Young, the Senior Vice President, General Counsel, and Secretary of the company.

Mr. Young lays forth probably the best argument for data caps I have seen. This is from his letter:

Imagine you are out for a walk and experience a sudden, irresistible craving for Oreo® cookies.  You only want to spend two dollars, which means that you will be able to buy a two-pack or maybe even a four-pack but for sure you cannot get the family size of over 40 cookies.  For that many, you have to spend more. Of course, it would be nice if your two dollars bought you the right to eat an unlimited number of cookies, but you know that is not the way our economy works. It is the same for the Starbucks latte you might want to drink with your cookies and for socks, gasoline and just about every single one of the thousands of other products and services that are for sale in the United States, including essentials like water and electricity. 

In the case of virtually everything you buy, the fact that your cost goes up as you consume more will neither surprise you nor set you off on a passionate crusade to get the government to force producers to sell an unlimited quantity at a fixed price. We all know this to be the way things work in our economy and understand at some level that there are valid reasons for why that is so. . . . Remarkably, the only exception to this truism we can think of is bandwidth.

He goes on to say that what ISPs are doing is not greed, but just trying to put broadband on the same basis as other products. He laments that ISPs are thought of as greedy when trying to price their product like everything else in the economy. You have to admit that at least on the surface this sounds reasonable.

However his argument lost a little steam when he went on to say that, “A fair number of otherwise intelligent people vociferously complain about ISPs imposing a “cap” on bandwidth usage.” He basically called everyone who is against data caps stupid, and this probably won’t go well at the FCC, where a lot of staff are against data caps.

But to counter the Mediacom argument you only have to look back to see how Comcast implemented their data caps earlier this year to see how data caps are really just all about greed and greater revenues. Comcast had a data cap of 250 GB for many years, although it was rarely enforced. The company raised the cap to 300 GB and then starting enforcing it in various trials around the country. They offered two options to customers that exceeded the cap: either pay $30 more per month to get unlimited data or else pay $10 for every 50 GB over the cap.

Both of those options increased revenues for Comcast significantly. And that’s where the greed came to bear. If this was not about making more money Comcast could have implemented data caps with a rate rebalancing. As an example, they could have lowered all data plan rates by $10, so that people who don’t use a lot of data would save money. Only customers who exceeded the caps would pay more. If the rate rebalancing was done right, then Comcast would keep the same revenues as before and customers would be paying more in line with their usage. To use Mr. Young’s analogy, if Comcast wanted to get prices right they should have started out by first right-pricing the small pack of Oreos. Instead Comcast was satisfied that the small pack of Oreos cost as much as the large pack, and they then jacked up the price of the large pack.

This was clearly a money-making scheme for Comcast, and the public outcry was so big that it got a lot of attention from the FCC. Comcast backed down and unilaterally raised the data cap on most plans to one terabyte. But new last week show that they want to impose the same pricing scheme on the 1 terabyte limit. This won’t affect many users today, but within a decade it will affect a significant percentage of Comcast’s users.

If Comcast had rebalanced rates they would have been lauded instead of vilified. While those that paid more might be yelling, the millions who paying less would largely offset that. But instead Comcast went straight for the money grab and to their chagrin, everybody was watching.

The other thing that Comcast missed is that, for most products we buy, the prices charged have some semblance to their costs. It certainly costs more to make a big pack of Oreos than a small one. But the public gets upset when prices greatly exceed costs – just look at the recent outcry about the EpiPen. Comcast’s big problem is that the public understands that there is very little difference in cost between most Internet users. Yes, those who use huge amounts of data cost an ISP more money, but there is very little difference in cost to Comcast between a household using 200 GB and one using 500 GB in a month. There is no gigabyte spigot at Comcast that is equivalent to a gas pump that would justify a big price differential between these two households. There would have been a lot less public outrage had the overage charges been $5 rather than $30.

As a big user I am obviously not nuts about the idea of paying more for broadband. But I wouldn’t have great qualms if a rate rebalancing brought very cheap prices to my mother (who barely uses any bandwidth) while I am charged more. But that’s not what we are seeing with price caps in the market. Instead we have low bandwidth products that are overpriced and the ISPs wanting to charge even more to somebody who actually uses what they have purchased.

The FCC and Data Caps

FCC_New_LogoI’ve railed against low data caps in this blog a number of times over the last few years. Low data caps stop some households from partaking in the basic web services that most of us take for granted. The FCC is now being prodded to confront this issue since earlier this month Netflix filed at the FCC asking to eliminate data caps.

In that filing Netflix argued that web-based video is now an expected service for households. They threw out a new statistic I’ve never seen before and they say that the average household now uses 300 gigabits per month in download capacity just to satisfy their TV viewing habits. And they warn that that level of bandwidth demand is growing rapidly, particularly with the growing popularity of 4K video.

They argue quite correctly that households with low data caps can’t afford to watch video like everybody else. Our firm works a lot in rural America and I have talked to numerous households who tell me the same thing. Households with low data caps (like those found with satellite broadband) closely monitor and ration broadband usage and they say that lack of availability to the web is one of the major points of contention in their household. There are many horror stories where kids will watch a lot of video or do online gaming and the parents then get a gigantic monthly bill for the usage.

It’s hard to know where the FCC stands on data caps. Last year when they were getting flooded with complaints about Comcast’s data cap trials, the staff there made numerous statements that made you believe that data caps were under investigation. But then Comcast raised the data caps to a terabit and the issue faded away. More recently it seems that the FCC sees data caps as a pricing issue – something they told ISPs they would never get involved with.

But there are still numerous ISPs that enforce data caps and the issue is still very much alive. Certainly the most abusive form of data caps is with cellphone data, and our wireless data prices in this country are nearly the most expensive broadband in the world.

The data cap issue is going to get new legs as the big telcos build rural broadband using CAF II funds. The FCC in that docket said that networks built with CAF II funding could not have data caps any smaller than 150 GB. And so we expect most of the CAF companies to use the 150 GB cap. There are going to be millions of rural homes that get their first broadband only to find out that they can’t use it like they expected to watch video. I am sure a lot of them are going to get a shock when they see their first bill with huge data overages higher than the 150 GB cap.

The FCC is under no obligation to respond to the Netflix complaint. The FCC has always had the freedom to choose the issues it wants to investigate, and so they could file this complaint away and do nothing. They also have the ability to open a rulemaking to gather more facts on the issue, but would still have no obligation to act. There are numerous rulemakings and dockets at the agency that have been open for years and that may never be resolved.

But data caps are discriminatory to rural and poor customers. The big ISPs have placed severe data caps on Lifeline data connections, and through CAF II rules will do the same for rural customers. Since most of the country still has no choice among ISPs it can be devastating if the only ISP available imposes draconian data caps.

I certainly hope the FCC takes up the issue. They now have the authority to do so under Title II regulation. We’ve known for years that this is not a network issue for most ISPs. And that means that ISPs with data caps view them as a backdoor way to increase rates. They want to advertise cheap starter rates but then use data caps to get a lot of money out of customers at the end of the month. I think the FCC needs to talk to rural families that spend over $500 per month on cellular data just so that their kids can do homework.

Can Big ISPs Resist Data Caps?

MagneticMapI think we can expect data caps to continue to be in the news. Comcast was getting a lot of negative press on data caps at the beginning of the year and had generated tens of thousands of complaints at the FCC from their 300 GB (gigabit) monthly data cap. They relieved that pressure by unilaterally raising all of the data caps to 1 TB (terabit) per month. But Comcast has now been quietly implementing the terabit cap across the country and recently activated it in the Chicago region.

In May of this year, AT&T U-verse revised a few of their data caps upward, but at the same time began seriously enforcing them for the first time. Until recently, most AT&T data customers that exceeded the caps paid no extra fees. The AT&T U-verse data caps are much smaller than the new Comcast cap. For traditional single-copper DSL customers the data caps is 150 GB per month. For U-verse speeds up to 6 Mbps the cap is now 300 GB per month. For speeds between 12 Mbps and 75 Mbps the cap is 600 GB, while customers with speeds at 100 Mbps or faster now have the same 1 TB monthly cap as Comcast. AT&T has a kicker, though, and any customer can buy unlimited usage for an additional $30 per month.

The large ISPs, in general, are under a lot of pressure to maintain earnings. They have all profited greatly by almost two decades of continuous rapid growth in broadband customers. But that growth is largely coming to an end. A few of the cable companies are still seeing significant broadband growth, but this is coming mostly from capturing the remaining customers from big telco DSL.

At the beginning of this year, the Leichtman Research Group reported that 81% of all American homes now have a broadband connection. When you add up rural homes that can’t get broadband and those elsewhere that can’t afford full-price broadband, there are not room for much more growth. Even if a lot of low-income households get broadband through the Lifeline Fund subsidies, those customers will be at low rates and won’t do a lot to the bottom line at the big ISPs.

Meanwhile, the large ISPs are seeing an erosion of cable revenues. While cord cutting is small, it is real and the cable industry as a whole is now slowly losing customers. Probably more significant to their profits is cord-shaving; customers cut back on the cable packages to save money (and because they have alternatives to the big cable packages). Even if cable wasn’t starting to bleed customers, the margins continue to shrink due to the huge increases in programming costs. Even high margin revenue streams like settop boxes are under fire at the FCC.

When I look out five years from now it’s obvious that the ISPs will somehow have to milk more profit out of broadband. There are only two ways to do that – increase rates or find backdoor ways like data caps to get more money from broadband customers.

It’s not hard to understand why the large ISPs fought net neutrality so hard. By putting broadband under Title II regulation the ruling has already started to impact their bottom line. I think Comcast raised their data cap to stop the FCC from investigating data caps. The proposed FCC rules on privacy will largely strip the ISPs of the ever-growing revenues from advertising and big data sales. And it’s certainly possible in the future that the FCC could use the Title II rules to hold down residential data rates if they climb too high.

It’s got to be a bit hard to be a big ISP right now. They look at envy at the big revenues that others are making. The cellular companies are making a killing with their stingy data caps. Companies like Google and Facebook are making huge amounts of money by using customer data for personalized advertising. Meanwhile, the ISPs live in a world where, if they aren’t careful, they will eventually become nothing more than the big dumb pipe provider – the one future they fear the most.

Comcast, and perhaps the new Charter, are large enough to find other sources of revenue. Comcast is now pursuing a cellular product and has done fairly well selling security and smart home products. Comcast also makes a lot of money as a content provider, boosted now by buying DreamWorks. But any ISP smaller than these two companies is going to have a nearly impossible time if they want to continue to match the growth in bottom line they have enjoyed for the last decade.

What’s Next After the Net Neutrality Ruling?

Network_neutrality_poster_symbolNow that the US District Court has affirmed the net neutrality ruling in its entirety it’s worth considering where the FCC will go next. Up until now it’s been clear that they have been somewhat tentative about strongly enforcing net neutrality issues since they didn’t want to have to reverse a year of regulatory work with a negative court opinion. But there are a number of issues that the FCC is now likely to tackle.

Zero-Rating. I would think that zero-rating must be high on their list. This is the practice of offering content that doesn’t count against monthly data caps. This probably most affects the customers in the cellular world where both AT&T and T-Mobile have their own video offerings that don’t count against data caps. With the tiny data caps on wireless broadband there is no doubt that it is a major incentive for customers to watch that free content, and consequently drive ad revenues to their own carrier.

But zero-rating exists in the landline world as well. Comcast has been offering some of its content on the web to its own customers. They claim this is not zero-rating, but from a technical perspective it is. However, now that Comcast has raised the monthly data cap to 1 terabit then this might not be of much concern to the FCC right now.

Privacy. The FCC has already proposed controversial rules that apply to the ISPs and consumer privacy. In those rules the FCC proposes to give customers the option to opt-out of getting advertisement from ISPs, but more importantly consumers can opt-out of being tracked. This would put the ISPs at a distinct disadvantage compared to edge providers like Facebook or Google who are still free to track online usage.

Last year the FCC also started to look at the ‘super-cookies’ that Verizon was using to track customers across the web. This privacy ruling (which is now on a lot more secure footing based upon the net neutrality order) could end the supercookies and many other ways that ISPs might track customer web behavior. Interestingly, both Verizon and AT&T have been bidding on buying Yahoo and this potential privacy ruling puts a big question mark on how valuable that acquisition might be if customers can all opt out from being tracked. I think Verizon and AT&T (and Comcast) all are eyeing the gigantic ad revenues being gained by web companies and this ruling is going to make it a challenge for them to make big headway in that arena.

Lifeline. I think that the net neutrality ruling also makes it easier for the FCC to defend their new plans to provide a subsidy to low-income data customers in the same manner they have always done for voice customers. Now that data is also regulated under Title II it fits right in to the existing Lifeline framework.

Data Caps. At some point I expect the FCC to tackle data caps. It’s been made clear by many in the industry that there are no network reasons for these caps, even in the cellular world. The cellular data plans in most of the rest of the world are either unlimited or have extremely high data caps.

The FCC said in establishing net neutrality that they would not regulate broadband rates. And in the strictest sense if they tackle data caps they would not be. The regulatory rate process is one where carriers must justify that rates aren’t too high or too low and has always been used, as much as anything, to avoid obvious subsidies.

But data caps – while they can drive a lot of revenues for ISPs – are not strictly a rate issue, and in facts, the ISPs hop through a lot of verbal hoops to say that data caps are not about driving revenues. And so I think the FCC can regulate data caps as an unnecessary network practice. It’s been said recently that AT&T is again selectively enforcing its 150 monthly gigabit cap, and so expect the public outcry to soon reach the FCC again, like happened last year with Comcast.

The Real Impact of Network Neutrality

Network_neutrality_poster_symbolThe federal appeals court for Washington DC just upheld the FCC’s net neutrality order in its entirety. There was a lot of speculation that the court might pick and choose among the order’s many different sections or that they might like the order but dislike some of the procedural aspects of reaching the order. And while there was one dissenting option, the court accepted the whole FCC order, without change.

There will be a lot of articles telling you in detail what the court said. But I thought this might be a good time to pause and look to see what net neutrality has meant so far and how it has impacted customers and ISPs.

ISP Investments. Probably the biggest threat we heard from the ISPs is that the net neutrality order would squelch investment in broadband. But it’s hard to see that it’s done so. It’s been clear for years that AT&T and Verizon are looking for ways to walk away from the more costly parts of their copper networks. But Verizon is now building FiOS in Boston after many years of no new fiber construction. And while few believe that AT&T is spending as much money on fiber as they are claiming, they are telling the world that they will be building a lot more fiber. And other large ISPs like CenturyLink are building new fiber at a breakneck pace.

We also see all of the big cable companies talking about their upgrades to DOCSIS 3.1. Earlier this year the CEO of Comcast was asked at the INTX show in Boston where the company had curtailed capital spending and he couldn’t cite an example. Finally, I see small telcos and coops building as much fiber as they can get funded all over the country. So it doesn’t seem like net neutrality has had any negative impact on fiber investments.

Privacy. The FCC has started to pull the ISPs under the same privacy rules for broadband that have been in place for telephone for years. The ISPs obviously don’t like this, but consumers seem to be largely in favor of requiring an ISP to ask for permission before marketing to you or selling your information to others.

The FCC is also now looking at restricting the ways that ISPs can use the data gathered from customers from web activity for marketing purposes.

Data Caps. The FCC has not explicitly made any rulings against data caps, but they’ve made it clear that they don’t like them. This threat (along with a flood of consumer complaints at the FCC) seems to have been enough to get Comcast to raise its data caps from 300 GB per month to 1 TB. It appears that AT&T is now enforcing its data caps and we’ll have to see if the FCC is going to use Title II authority to control the practice. It will be really interesting if the FCC tackles wireless data caps. It has to an embarrassment for them that the wireless carriers have been able to sell some of the most expensive broadband in the world under their watch.

Content Bundling and Restrictions. Just as the net neutrality rules were passed there were all sorts of rumors of ISPs making deals with companies like Facebook to bundle their content with broadband in ways that would have given those companies priority access to customers. That practice quickly disappeared from the landline broadband business, but there are still several cases of providers using zero-rating to give their own content priority over other content. My guess is that this court ruling is going to give the FCC the justification to go after such practices.

It’s almost certain that the big ISPs will appeal this ruling to the Supreme Court. But an appeal of a positive appeal ruling is a hard thing to win and the Supreme Court would have to decide that the appeals court of Washington DC made a major error in its findings before they would even accept the case, let alone overturn the ruling. I think the court victory gives the FCC the go-ahead to fully implement the net neutrality order.

 

Raising Data Caps

comcast-truck-cmcsa-cmcsk_largeBrace yourself, because I am about to say nice things about Comcast. Last week Comcast announced that it was raising its month data caps countrywide to 1 TB (terabyte). This is an increase from the current caps of 300 GB that the company has implemented in a number of markets starting last year. This is good news for me. My household easily exceeds the 300 GB data caps. It’s a relief to know that I am not going to be seeing the small data cap.

There are probably a few reasons why Comcast decided to raise the cap. First, the FCC just required that one of the conditions for Charter’s purchase of Time Warner is that they impose no data caps on customers for seven years. In making that statement the FCC said that they had serious concerns about ISP data caps if those same ISPs also owned video programming, like Time Warner. In such cases, the ISP imposing data caps is favoring their own content over Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu delivered over the Internet.

And of course, the ISP that owns the most content is Comcast. They not only own NBC and other TV networks, but they just announced last week that they are going to buy DreamWorks. And so the company probably raised the data caps voluntarily rather than have it imposed on them during any investigation of the DreamWorks purchase.

Comcast was also taking a lot of bashing about the data caps. Data cap complaints have soared to become the most common consumer issue at the FCC. People complained that Comcast wasn’t measuring their usage correctly and that the caps were penalizing them for watching online video rather than buying Comcast video.

I always found the numbers that Comcast quoted about data caps to be suspicious. When they imposed the 300 GB data caps they said that only 8% of their customers exceeded that cap each month. They said last week that 1% of their customers exceed the 1 TB limit. I always thought the 8% number sounded too small, and if the TB number is correct it probably is. It’s hard to think that any household that watches a significant amount of online video doesn’t hit the 300 GB cap.

In addition to video, anybody who downloads games and 4K movies are surely exceeding that cap. It’s not unusual for a game or 4K movie file to be between 40 GB and 60 GB, and it wouldn’t take long for files that large to blow the 300 GB data cap.

But what perplexes me is that if the FCC is generically against data caps, why did they just impose a cap on the new Lifeline data programs? They imposed a cap on any customer getting a landline data subsidy to a 150 GB monthly cap and imposed an unbelievably paltry cap on mobile data of ½ GB per month. I’ve been scratching my head since I read the order trying to figure out why there are any data caps at all on the Lifeline plan.

This is particularly perplexing since one of the major stated purposes of the Lifeline plan is to close the “homework gap.” From everything I read, a large part of homework these days is assigning videos for homework. Students watch schoolwork videos at home, saving valuable class time to then discuss the video. But having data caps on homework plans – or allowing mobile data to be used for this purpose – is puzzling.

There are still a few big players in the industry with data caps that the FCC is surely watching. Both Verizon and AT&T now have video products as part of their monthly service that don’t count against their mobile data caps. It’s hard to think that this is going to be allowed to stand. Mobile data in the USA is close to the most expensive data in the world and hopefully the FCC can find a way to get the wireless carriers to raise data caps in the same way that they are getting the big landline companies to do so. I think the FCC just missed a big chance by not requiring removal of data caps as a requirement to buy new spectrum.

People in the rest of the world are amazed at our data caps. For most of the world, if you have a mobile data plan you can use it pretty much as much as you want. Foreign cellular providers don’t make any promises that mobile data will always be available, but they expect customers to actually use it.  The fact that US cellular carriers impose incredibly stingy data caps is frustrating and I hope the FCC has the wireless carriers in their crosshairs.

The High Cost of Using Your Data

eyeballAT&T just announced that they will be introducing an option for U-verse broadband customers to get unlimited broadband from any of their plans for an additional $30 per month. Along with this announcement AT&T is also increasing the data caps on existing products. For example, some plans will be increased from 250 Gb per month in total download to either 400 Gb or 600 Gb. And the current 500 Gb cap will be raised to 1 Tb.

This is very similar to the Comcast data cap plan where customers can pay $30 or $35 to get unlimited data usage for customers that exceed their 300 Gb cap. Comcast also lets customers buy additional 50 Gb blocks for $10.

What I find amazing about both of these concepts is that both companies are marketing this as if they are giving people something. What they are really doing, especially for Comcast, is punishing people who dare to drop their cable TV product and instead get video over the Internet.

For anybody who actually uses the data that they pay for each month both of these plans are nothing more than a $30 rate increase. There is no cost justification for such a gigantic overage charge. Most of my clients (who are very tiny companies compared to Comcast and AT&T) only pay a few bucks per month average for the raw bandwidth to the Internet for their broadband customers. It’s hard to think that the cost for these giant companies isn’t under $1 per month on average. Customers that exceed these caps might, at most, cost these companies an extra dollar – and that is probably too high of an estimate.

I’ve been predicting for several years that data caps were coming and that caps already in place were going to start getting enforced. While the cable companies added 3.3 million new broadband customers for 2015, they don’t have to look at too far into the future to see a time when everybody that can afford broadband will have it. The market is starting to approach the saturation equilibrium point. And they are also seeing a nibbling away of customers by fiber providers like Google, CenturyLink and municipalities.

Meanwhile, just about everybody in the cable business is seeing a drop in revenues as people either cut the cord or else downsize their packages. And that trend is only going to accelerate with skinny bundles from the cable providers and a host of OTT option as an alternative to traditional cable.

If you are a publicly traded company like AT&T or Comcast there is tremendous pressure to always grow revenues quarter over quarter and year over year. But at a time when the broadband customers are going to top out and when cable and telephone are in a decline, these companies have few options for new revenues other than from broadband rates. That is the main function of the data caps – the big ISPs are gouging their biggest data users first, with the full knowledge that every year more and more people are going to creep over the data cap threshold.

The AT&T announcement also speaks to duopoly competition. Any community that thought they might see some renewed competition between Comcast and AT&T now knows for sure that that isn’t going to happen. These companies are not competing with prices against each other – they are doing the opposite and matching each other in the ways they will increase prices and revenues. That can only happen in a monopoly or duopoly.

This is only the first step in data price increases and I think we are now going to soon start seeing all broadband prices increase every year from these providers, in the same manner that we are used to cable rate increases. It’s their only real option to keep making the money that Wall Street expects from them.

Regulating Broadband Rates

FCC_New_LogoFCC Chairman Wheeler testified in front of the House Communications Subcommittee recently about the FCC’s authority to set broadband rates. He was testifying about a bill passed out of subcommittee a few weeks ago, introduced by Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) that would prohibit the FCC from regulating broadband rates.

Wheeler cautioned that he was concerned that any law that curtailed the FCC’s right to regulate rates might also inhibit the FCC’s ability to regulate the three basic tenets of network neutrality – preventing blocking, throttling, or paid prioritization of data.

Unless you are an FCC rule junkie it’s probably hard to understand why rates and net neutrality might be tied together. But the Chairman’s concern comes from the reliance of the FCC on using Title II as the basis for regulating net neutrality. Part and parcel with the Title II rules also comes the ability to regulate rates.

Back when the Chairman was talking about using Title II rules he said publicly that the FCC wasn’t intending to get into the rate regulation business for broadband. In these hearings the Chairman repeated this and said that the FCC would be glad to help craft language that limit the FCC’s ability to do traditional rate regulation while making sure not to undo the other aspects of Title II regulations.

As a consumer and one who tracks industry trends I’m not so sure that the FCC should be so quick to give up rate regulation of broadband. I believe that we are at the beginning of the time when we will see continuous annual price increases for broadband. The large cable companies and telcos are under huge pressure from Wall Street to increase earnings every quarter and a lot of their traditional revenue streams like cable TV and telephone service are in a decline. This is going to leave no alternative to the big ISPs but to raise broadband rates.

We’ve already seen the beginning of this. The recent Comcast data caps trials and the recent announcement from AT&T that customers could buy unlimited data for only $30 more than what they are already paying for broadband are both nothing more than big rate increases on the biggest data users of broadband. All of these companies understand how fast consumer use of broadband is growing. We have been a curve since the 1980s where home use of broadband has doubled about every three years and there is no sign of a slowdown. So the big ISPs set data caps knowing that they will get extra revenue today from perhaps 10% to 20% of their customers, but also knowing that each year it’s going to affect more and more people.

And rate caps are only the first place ISPs will raise rates. We’ve seen a number of the large ISPs raise rates a few bucks in the last few years, and as earnings pressure increases one can expect that we are not many years away from a time when data rates are going to be increased each year in the same manner that cable rates have increased. But there is a huge difference. Cable rate increases have been driven in large part by increases in programming costs (although cable companies usually tacked on a little extra to boost bottom line). But it’s already clear today that broadband has a huge margin and that, if anything, the cost of underlying Internet connectivity keeps dropping each year. If ISPs raise data rates it’s due to nothing more than wanting to make more money.

And there is fundamentally nothing wrong with any business wanting to make more money. Except that for most markets in the US there is only one dominant broadband provider in the form of a cable company. And even where there is a second provider, like Verizon FiOS, they will undoubtedly be raising rates in lockstep with the cable companies in a pure demonstration of duopoly competition.

So I hope that the FCC doesn’t give up rate setting abilities because the day is coming within a decade when it’s going to be badly needed. You can be sure that the ISPs understand this completely and that they are the authors of the bill that would stop the FCC from looking at rates. They know that the FCC isn’t likely to do this today, but they know that there is going to be a huge public outcry for the FCC to do this in the future and they are launching a preemptive strike now to win this battle before it starts.