Charter Asks the FCC to Allow Data Caps

In a move that was probably inevitable, Charter has petitioned the FCC to allow the company to begin implementing broadband data caps. Charter has been prohibited from charging data caps as part of an agreement with the FCC when the agency approved the merger with Time Warner Cable in 2016. Charter is also asking the FCC to lift another provision of the merger agreement that prohibits the company from imposing interconnection fees on Netflix and other companies that generate large amounts of web data.

There was one other requirement of the original merger agreement that the FCC already modified in 2017. Charter had voluntarily agreed to pass 2 million new homes within five years of the merger agreement. The original agreement with the FCC required Charter to compete against other cable companies, but in 2017 that was changed to require Charter to instead pass 2 million new homes.

The merger agreement between the FCC and Charter is in effect until May 2023, but the original deal allowed Charter to ask to be relieved of the obligations after four years, which is the genesis of this request. If granted, the two changes would occur in May 2021.

Charter is asking to lift these restrictions now because the original order allowed them to do so this year. There seems a decent likelihood that the FCC will grant the requests since both Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Michael O’Rielly voted against these merger conditions in 2016 and said the restrictions were too harsh.

What I find interesting is that Charter has been bragging to customers for the last four years about how they are the large ISP that doesn’t impose burdensome data caps on customers. This has likely given them a marketing edge in markets where the company competes against AT&T, which aggressively bills data caps.

Charter has to be jealous of the huge dollars that Comcast and AT&T are receiving from data caps. Back in 2016, there were not many homes that used more data than the 1 terabyte cap that AT&T and Comcast place on customers. However, home broadband usage has exploded, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

OpenVault reported in early 2018 that the average home used 215 gigabytes of data per month. By the end of 2019, the average home usage had grown to 344 GB monthly. During the pandemic, by the end of March 2020, the average home used 402 GB.

What’s more telling is the percentage of homes that now use a terabyte of data per month. According to OpenVault, that’s now more than 10% of homes – including nearly 2% of homes that use more than 2 terabytes. Just a few years ago only a tiny percentage of homes used a terabyte per month of data. Charter has undoubtedly been measuring customer usage and knows the revenue potential from imposing data caps similar to Comcast or AT&T. If Charter can charge $25 for exceeding the data caps, with their 27 million customers the data caps would increase revenues by over $800 million annually – for usage they are already carrying on their network. Charter, like all of the big ISPs, crowed loudly that their networks were able to easily handle the increase in traffic due to the pandemic. But that’s not going to stop them from milking more money out of their biggest data users.

The US already has some of the most expensive broadband in the world. The US landline broadband rates are twice the rates in Europe and the Far East. The US cellular data rates rival the rates in the most expensive remote countries in the world. Data caps imposed by landline and cellular ISPs add huge amounts of margin straight to the bottom lines of the big ISPs and wireless carriers.

What saddest about all of this is that there is no regulation of ISPs and they free to charge whatever they want for broadband. Even in markets where we see a cable company facing competition with fiber from one of the telcos, there is seemingly no competition on price. Verizon, AT&T, and CenturyLink fiber cost roughly the same in most markets as broadband from cable companies, and the duopoly players in such markets gladly split the customers and the profits for the benefit of both companies.

I’ve written several blogs arguing against data caps and I won’t repeat the whole argument. The bottom line is that it doesn’t cost a big ISP more than a few pennies extra to provide service to a customer that uses a terabyte per month at home compared to a home that uses half that. Data cap revenue goes straight to the bottom line of the big ISPs. For anybody that doesn’t believe that, watch the profits at Charter before and after the day when they introduce data caps.

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.

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.

Home Broadband Usage Explodes

ISPs have all been reporting increased bandwidth usage due to employees and students being asked to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps the best proof we’ve seen yet of the huge increase in home broadband usage comes from OpenVault, which has been tracking home broadband usage for several years.

The company reported that as of the end of March that the average US home used 402.5 gigabytes of usage, up 17% from the 344.0 gigabytes reported just 3 months earlier at the end of 2019, and up 47% from the 273.5 gigabytes measured a year earlier. OpenVault says that most of the growth was realized in the last two weeks of March as employees and students started working from home in earnest.

The OpenVault numbers represent total bandwidth used by a home, meaning the numbers are a combination of download and upload usage. OpenVault validated the widely reported phenomenon that the demand for upload bandwidth is increasing far more than the need for downloading.

Another interesting way to look at broadband usage is by considering the median usage – which is the speed at which half of homes use more and half less broadband. The median broadband usage is the US has always been lower than average usage because of the large number of rural homes that are stuck using slow broadband connections. A home with a 1 Mbps download speed cannot easily use the same amount of bandwidth as a home with a 100 Mbps connection. Median usage for the first quarter was at 233.6 gigabytes, up 60% from 146.0 gigabytes from a year earlier, and up 22% from the 190.7 gigabytes used at the end of 2019. The big news in the growth of median speeds is that even homes with slower broadband connections are burning through more broadband.

One of the most startling numbers to come from OpenVault is what they call power users – homes that are using more than 1 terabyte of data per month. At the end of March, 10% of all US homes were using a terabyte of data, an increase of 138% over the 4.2% of homes that used a terabyte of data just three months earlier at the end of 2019. Even more interesting, 1.2% of homes used 2 terabytes of data at the end up march, up 215% from the end of December. The big ISPs like Comcast are supposedly not billing for data caps during the pandemic – but they must be licking their chops at the flood of new revenues this is going to create if broadband usage doesn’t return to pre-COVID levels.

We saw the demand for faster broadband products also leap upward. At the end of March the percentage of homes subscribing to gigabit data products jumped to 3.75% of homes, up from 2.8% at the end of 2019 and up from 1.9% a year earlier. Amazingly, more than 1% of all homes in the US upgraded to a gigabit data plan in just the last three months – that’s something that’s been predicted for years. Those homes are not likely going to downgrade to slower speeds – so gigabit broadband is now becoming a significant segment of the market. OpenVault says that 12% of US homes now subscribe to speeds of 200 Mbps or faster.

The OpenVault data also validates what’s been reported widely by ISPs – that the patten of broadband usage is changing by time of day. In the recent past the peak period for broadband usage – the busy hour – was always in the evenings. In the first quarter the amount of usage in the evenings was flat and all of the increased usage came during the daytime as employees and students used broadband and video conferences to function.

OpenVault says that usage peaked in the third week of March. It will be interesting going forward to see the how home usage changes. OpenVault doesn’t have any better crystal ball than the rest of us, but they are predicting that broadband usage will never return to the historic patters. They predict that a lot of people will continue to work from home, meaning increased broadband demand during the day. They believe there will be continued pressure on the upload data paths. People who have learned to videoconference during the recent months are likely to continue that practice in the future. Companies and employees that realize they can be productive at home are likely to work more from home, even if only on a part-time basis.

It’s Hard to Like AT&T

Over the last year, I’ve said some nice things about AT&T. It was nice to see AT&T wholeheartedly embrace their commitment to build fiber past 12 million homes as they had promised as part of the conditions of buying DirecTV. In the past, they might have shrugged that obligation off and faked it, but they’ve brought fiber to pockets of residential neighborhoods all over the country. It seemed that they were unenthusiastic about this requirement at first, but eventually embraced when somebody at the company realized that new fiber could be profitable.

I also thought that AT&T was by far the most responsible wireless carrier in terms of not ridiculously exaggerating the supposed coming of 5G, although they finally gave in to their marketing arm and started labeling the latest version of 4G LTE as if it is 5G.

But overall, AT&T is hard to like as a company. AT&T puts stock prices and Wall Street above everything else and is probably as good of an example as any of large corporations gone amuck. AT&T clearly values the bottom line over employees, customers, and the public good.

If you look back a few years, you can find numerous times where AT&T lobbied against net neutrality and broadband regulation. The company repeatedly said that unfair regulation was stopping them from making capital investments and promised that if the government would lift regulations that they would invest more. The FCC handed them even more than they had publicly asked for when the agency eliminated Title II regulation along with net neutrality.

AT&T didn’t react to the end of regulation by increasing capital investment as promised. They instead laid off a lot of employees and in the year after net neutrality was eliminated spent about the same for capital – only due to big spending on their sole-source First Net contract. Then in 2019, capital spending dropped by $1.9 billion and they are planning to cut an additional $3 billion this year. The drop in capital spending is hard to reconcile with the supposed 5G race that we are supposedly waging against China.

AT&T also joined with other large corporations and publicly pledged that if the government would lower the corporate tax rate that they’d hire thousands of new high-paying tech jobs and again promised to increase capital spending.  The unions that work for AT&T claim that since the enactment of the 2017 tax act that AT&T has laid off nearly 38,000 employees and are down to under 248,000 employees. Rather than investing in new capital and people, AT&T has been spending billions to buy back their stock to help keep stock prices high. The company used excess cash to buy back almost $2 billion of its stock in the fourth quarter of 2019 and had announced $4 billion of additional buybacks this year that was just recently put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile the company significantly raised consumer prices. There were moderate rate increases for broadband and cellular customers, and larger ones for video customers. But the biggest increases came when AT&T ended promotional pricing on video and expected customers to pay full price at the end of contracts. This move raised video rates significantly and led 4.1 million customers to drop DirecTV, U-verse TV, and the online AT&T TV in 2019. The company has said they were glad to be rid of low-margin customers.

In the summer of 2019, AT&T was sued in a class-action suit alleging that the company was selling real-time customer location data for cellular customers, even though the company had repeatedly told customers that they were not doing so. A series of reports by Motherboard showed that AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile had continued selling customer data even after promising to stop the practice.

AT&T recently made headlines by dropping data caps during the COVID-19 crisis. What’s worth noting is that the company has perhaps the most restrictive data caps in the country, particularly on DSL and fixed-wireless. The data caps at AT&T are clearly in place to make money over and above any rates promised to subscribers. Hopefully, there will be a huge public outcry when the company quiets puts the data caps back in place.

During all of the above, the company has significantly increased compensation for its CEO Randall Stephenson. His salary in 2019 was more than $32 million, up from $29 million the year before. However, much of that number is based upon stock bonuses, and shares of AT&T closed under $29 last week, down from over $39 at the start of this year. The company announced a new CEO last week and we’ll have to wait to see how he is compensated.

It’s honestly hard to say much nice about AT&T these days. I think back to when I worked at the company pre-divestiture, when the company made a steady, but unspectacular monopoly profit. The company and employees in those days were proud of the US communications network which was second to none in the world. It’s been clear for a long time that none of that old Ma Bell thinking is left in the company that now is driven to maximize stock price over everything else.

The Consequences of No Broadband Regulation

A few weeks ago when the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent we saw the ridiculous spectacle of an FCC chairman begging ISPs to not disconnect customers during a pandemic that would likely throw tens of millions of people out of work. Chairman Pai was reduced to begging because a few years earlier he had voted to strip the FCC if its power to regulate broadband. Before that decision, Chairman Pai could simply have ordered ISPs to be on their best behavior during the pandemic.

This is the most recent demonstrations of the negative impact of deregulating an industry that is controlled by a tiny handful of carriers. In most urban markets the big cable companies have become de facto monopolies – and even most markets that haven’t quite reached monopoly status are, at best, duopolies. There is little broadband competition in most major metropolitan areas, and even in many rural county seats.

It’s not hard to see that the ISP industry thinks it’s bullet-proof against regulation. Consider what’s happened with prices in just the past few years:

  • When comparing data prices around the world, the US has the highest data rates among industrialized countries. Our cellular data prices are nearly the highest anywhere in the world other than a few remote places like Antarctica and war zones.
  • All the major ISPs have raised broadband rates in the last year – when everybody in the industry knows that broadband is already a product with huge margins. These rate increases serve no other purpose other than padding the bottom line. What’s worse is that Wall Street analysts are pushing the ISPs to raise rates much higher.
    • ISP bills are now full of hidden fees. Consumer Reports said last year that the average monthly company-imposed fees for the bills they analyzed averaged to $22.96 for AT&T U-verse, $31.28 for Charter, $39.59 for Comcast, $40.16 for Cox, and $43.79 for Verizon FiOS. They estimate that these fees could total to at least $28 billion per year nationwide.
  • Some ISPs like AT&T, Comcast, Cox, and Mediacom are making big money on data caps. It’s clear that the argument of having data caps to protect networks against overuse has zero basis in fact. Data caps are just a quiet way to raise rates and billings. We now know that over 8% of homes now use over a terabyte of data per month – and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • ISPs feel brave to openly gouge customers, like Frontier that is billing a monthly fee for WiFi modems that the customers purchased. Even when challenged publicly, the company won’t remove the charges because they don’t fear regulatory retribution.

One of the worst things about the deregulation of broadband is that the average consumer has no idea this happened. The FCC was slick enough to bury the deregulation of broadband in the net neutrality topic. Most people don’t realize that when the FCC killed net neutrality that they also gave away their authority to regulate broadband. People still look to the FCC to correct broadband injustices, without realizing that when they file an FCC complaint against a broadband provider that the agency is powerless to intercede on their behalf.

The FCC will argue that they didn’t kill broadband regulation, but they instead handed the responsibility to the Federal Trade Commission. That claim falls apart quickly once you realize that the FTC has zero authority to regulate industries – they can’t write a rule that applies to all ISPs. The FTC’s power is limited to fining ISPs that have blatantly injured the public – and this must be done by an agency that is also overlooking all other US corporations.

Other than to dole out spectrum for 5G, it’s hard to even justify the FCC any longer. If the US isn’t going to regulate one of the most important industries in the country – many would say during the current pandemic the most important – then perhaps we ought to stop pretending to do so.

Only Congress can fix the problem and they’ve shown no inclination to do so. Congress hasn’t done anything meaningful concerning broadband since the 1996 Telecommunications Act that was signed just as people were subscribing to AOL and Compuserve.

The FCC should be taking drastic action during this pandemic. The agency could have been leading the charge looking for ways to get broadband to kids stuck at home. They could have been taking actions to make it easier for telemedicine in the last few months. They could have reacted to the pandemic with plans to finally solve the broadband gap. Instead, all we got was a powerless FCC Chairman politely asking ISPs to not harm people during a national emergency.

Is AT&T the 800-pound Gorilla?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should Satellite Broadband be Subsidized?

I don’t get surprised very often in this industry, but I must admit that I was surprised by the amount of money awarded for satellite broadband in the reverse auction for CAF II earlier this year. Viasat, Inc., which markets as Exede, was the fourth largest winner, collecting $122.5 million in the auction.

I understand how Viasat won – it’s largely a function of the way that reverse auctions work. In a reverse auction, each bidder lowers the amount of their bid in successive rounds until only one bidder is left in any competitive situation. The whole pool of bids is then adjusted to meet the available funds, which could mean an additional reduction of what winning bidders finally receive.

Satellite providers, by definition, have a huge unfair advantage over every other broadband technology. Viasat was already in the process of launching new satellites – and they would have launched them with or without the FCC grant money. Because of that, there is no grant level too low for them to accept out of the grant process – they would gladly accept getting only 1% of what they initially requested. A satellite company can simply outlast any other bidder in the auction.

This is particularly galling since Viasat delivers what the market has already deemed to be inferior broadband. The download speeds are fast enough to satisfy the reverse auction at speeds of at least 12 Mbps. The other current satellite provider HughesNet offer speeds of at least 25 Mbps. The two issues that customers have with satellite broadband is the latency and the data caps.

By definition, the latency for a satellite at a 23,000 orbit is at least 476 ms (milliseconds) just to account for the distance traveled to and from the earth. Actual latency is often above 600 ms. The rule of thumb is that real-time applications like VoIP, gaming, or holding a connection at a corporate LAN start having problems when latency is greater than 100-150 ms.

Exede no longer cuts customers dead for the month once they reach the data cap, but they instead reduce speeds when the network is busy for any customer over the cap. Customer reviews say this can be extremely slow during prime times. The monthly data caps are small and range from $49.99 monthly for a 10 GB data cap to $99.95 per month for a 150 GB data cap. To put those caps into perspective, OpenVault recently reported that the average landline broadband household used 273.5 GB per month of data in the first quarter of 2019.

Viasat has to be thrilled with the result of the reverse auction. They got $122.5 million for something they were already doing. The grant money isn’t bringing any new option to customers who were already free to buy these products before the auction. There is no better way to say it other than Viasat got free money due to a loophole in the grant process. I don’t think they should have been allowed into the auction since they aren’t bringing any broadband that is not already available.

The bigger future issue is if the new low-earth orbit satellite companies will qualify for the future FCC grants, such as the $20.4 billion grant program starting in 2021. The new grant programs are also likely to be reverse auctions. There is no doubt that Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk will gladly take government grant money, and there is no doubt that they can underbid any landline ISP in a reverse auction.

For now, we don’t know anything about the speeds that will be offered by the new satellites. We know that they claim that latency will be about the same as cable TV networks at about 25 ms. We don’t know about data plans and data caps, although Elon Musk has hinted at having unlimited data plans – we’ll have to wait to see what is actually offered.

It would be a tragedy for rural broadband if the new (and old) satellite companies were to win any substantial amount of the new grant money. To be fair, the new low-orbit satellite networks are expensive to launch, with price tags for each of the three providers estimated to be in the range of $10 billion. But these companies are using these satellites worldwide and will be launching them with or without help from an FCC subsidy. Rural customers are going to best be served in the long run by having somebody build a network in their neighborhood. It’s the icing on the cake if they are also able to buy satellite broadband.

Gaming Migrates to the Cloud

We are about to see a new surge in demand for broadband as major players in the game industry have decided to move gaming to the cloud. At the recent Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco both Google and Microsoft announce major new cloud-based gaming initiatives.

Google announced Stadia, a platform that they tout as being able to play games from anywhere with a broadband connection on any device. During the announcement they showed transferring a live streaming game from desktop to laptop to cellphone. Microsoft announced the new xCloud platform that let’s Xbox gamers play a game from any connected device. Sony Playstation has been promoting online play between gamers from many years and now also offers some cloud gaming on the Playstation Now platform.

OnLive tried this in 2011, offering a platform that was played in the cloud using OnLive controllers, but without needing a computer. The company failed due to the quality of broadband connections in 2011, but also due to limitations at the gaming data centers. Both Google and Microsoft now operate regional data centers around the country that house state-of-the-art whitebox routers and switches that are capable of handling large volumes of simultaneous gaming sessions. As those companies have moved large commercial users to the cloud they created the capability to also handle gaming.

The gaming world was ripe for this innovation. Current gaming ties gamers to gaming consoles or expensive gaming computers. Cloud gaming brings mobility to gamers, but also eliminates need to buy expensive gaming consoles. This move to the cloud probably signals the beginning of the end for the Xbox, Playstation, and Nintendo consoles.

Google says it will support some games at the equivalent of an HD video stream, at 1080p and 60 frames per second. That equates to about 3GB of downloaded per hour. But most of the Google platform is going to operate at 4K video speeds, requiring download speeds of at least 25 Mbps per gaming stream and using 7.2 GB of data per hour. Nvidia has been telling gamers that they need 50 Mbps per 4K gaming connection.

This shift has huge implications for broadband networks. First, streaming causes the most stress on local broadband networks since the usage is continuous over long periods of times. A lot of ISP networks are going to start showing data bottlenecks when significant numbers of additional users stream 4K connections for hours on end. Until ISPs react to this shift, we might return to those times when broadband networks bogged down in prime time.

This is also going to increase the need for download and upload speeds. Households won’t be happy with a connection that can’t stream 4K, so they aren’t going to be satisfied with a 25 Mbps connection that the FCC says is broadband. I have a friend with two teenage sons that both run two simultaneous game streams while watching a steaming gaming TV site. It’s good that he is able to buy a gigabit connection on Verizon FiOS, because his sons alone are using a continuous broadband connection of at least 110 Mbps, and probably more

We are also going to see more people looking at the latency on networks. The conventional wisdom is that a gamer with the fastest connection has an edge. Gamers value fiber over cable modems and value cable modems over DSL.

This also is going to bring new discussion to the topic of data caps. Gaming industry statistics say that the average serious gamer averages 16 hours per week of gaming. Obviously, many play longer than the average. My friend with the two teenagers is probably looking at least at 30 GB per hour of broadband download usage plus a decent chunk of upload usage. Luckily for my friend, Verizon FiOS has no data cap. Many other big ISPs like Comcast start charging for data usage over one terabyte per month – a number that won’t be hard to reach for a household with gamers.

I think this also opens up the possibility for ISPs to sell gamer-only connections. These connections could be routed straight to peering arrangements with the Google or Microsoft to guarantee the fastest connection through their network and wouldn’t mix gaming streams with other household broadband streams. Many gamers will pay extra to have a speed edge.

This is just another example of how the world find ways to use broadband when it’s available. We’ve obviously reached a time when online gaming can be supported. When OnLive tried is there were not enough households with fast enough connections, there weren’t fast enough regional data centers, and there wasn’t a peering network in place where ISPs connect directly to big data companies like Google and bypass the open Internet.

The gaming industry is going to keep demanding faster broadband and I doubt they’ll be satisfied until we have a holodeck in every gamer’s home. But numerous other industries are finding ways to use our increasing household broadband capcity and the overall demand keeps growing at a torrid pace.

 

Another Rural Wireless Provider?

T-Mobile announced the start of a trial for a fixed wireless broadband product using LTE. The product is being marketed as “T-Mobile Home Internet”. The company will offer the product by invitation only to some existing T-Mobile cellular customers in “rural and underserved areas”. The company says they might connect as many as 50,000 customers this year. The company is marketing the product as 50 Mbps broadband, with a monthly price of $50 and no data cap. The company warns that speeds may be curtailed during times of network congestion.

The company further says that their ultimate goal is to offer speeds of up to 100 Mbps, but only if they are allowed to merge with Sprint and gain access to Sprint’s huge inventory of mid-range spectrum. They said the combination of the two companies would enable them to cover as many as 9.5 million homes with 100 Mbps broadband in about half of US zip codes.

There are positive aspects the planned deployment, but also a number of issues that make me skeptical. One positive aspect is that some of the spectrum used for LTE can better pass through trees compared to the spectrum used for the fixed wireless technology that is being widely deployed in the open plains and prairies of the Midwest and West. This opens up the possibility of bringing some wireless broadband to places like Appalachia – with the caveat that heavy woods are still going to slow down data speeds. It’s worth noting that this is still a line-of-sight technology and fixed LTE will be blocked by hills or other physical impediments.

The other positive aspect of the announced product is the price and lack of a data cap. Contrast this to the AT&T fixed LTE product that has a price as high as $70 along with a stingy 160 GB monthly cap, and with overage charges that can bring the AT&T price up to $200 per month.

I am skeptical of a number of the claims made or implied by the announcement. The primary concern is download speeds. Fixed LTE will be the same as any other fixed wireless product and speeds will decrease with the distance of a customer from the serving tower. In rural America distances can mount up quickly. LTE broadband is similar to rural cellular voice and works best where customers can get 4 or 5 bars. Anybody living in rural America understands that there are a lot more places with 1 or 2 bars of signal strength than of 4 or 5 bars.

The 50 Mbps advertised speed is clearly an ‘up-to’ speed and in rural America it’s doubtful that anybody other than those who live under a tower could actually get that much speed. This is one of the few times when I’ve seen AT&T advertise truthfully and they market their LTE product as delivering at least 10 Mbps speed. I’ve read numerous online reviews of the AT&T product and the typical speeds reported by customers range between 10 Mbps and 25 Mbps, with only a few lucky customers claiming speeds faster than that.

The online reviews of the AT&T LTE product also indicate that signal strength is heavily influenced by rain and can completely disappear during a downpour. Perhaps even more concerning are reports that in some cases speeds remain slow after a rain due to wet leaves on trees that must be scattering the signal.

Another concern is that T-Mobile is touting this as a solution for underserved rural America.  T-Mobile has far less presence in rural America than AT&T and Verizon and is on fewer rural cellular towers. This is evidenced by their claim that even after a merger with Sprint they’d only be seeing 9.5 million passings – that’s really small coverage for a nationwide cellular network. I’m a bit skeptical that T-Mobile will invest in connecting to more rural towers just to offer this product – the cost of backhaul to rural towers often makes for a lousy business case.

The claim also says that the product will have some aspects of both 4G and 5G. I’ve talked to several wireless engineers who have told me that they can’t see any particular advantage for 5G over 4G when deploying as fixed wireless. A carrier already opens up the available data path fully with 4G to reach a customer and 5G can’t make the spectrum perform any better. I’d love to hear from anybody who can tell me how 5G would enhance this particular application. This might be a case where the 5G term is tossed in for the benefit of politicians and marketing.

Finally, this is clearly a ploy to keep pushing for the merger with Sprint. The claim of the combined companies being able to offer 100 Mbps rural broadband has even more holes than the arguments for achieving 50 Mbps. However, Sprint does have a larger rural presence on rural towers today than T-Mobile, although I think the Sprint towers are already counted in the 9.5 million passings claim.

But putting aside all my skepticism, it would be great if T-Mobile can bring broadband to any rural customers that otherwise wouldn’t have it. Even should they not achieve the full 50 Mbps claim, many rural homes would be thrilled to get speeds at half that level. A wireless product with no data caps would also be a welcomed product. The timing of the announcement is clearly aimed at promoting the merger process with Sprint and I hope the company’s deployment plans don’t evaporate if the merger doesn’t happen.