3Q 2017 Broadband Growth

Last Friday’s blog asked if we are nearing the top of the market in terms of broadband penetration. Overall households with some sort of Internet connection have only grown from 83% in 2012 to 84% today, with most of the customers now served with a broadband connection instead of using slower dial-up or satellite. Following are the numbers showing the new broadband connections of the major ISPs during the recent third quarter of this year:

 2Q 2017 3Q 2017 Change
Comcast 25,306,000 25,519,000 213,000 0.8%
Charter 23,318,000 23,603,000 285,000 1.2%
AT&T 15,686,000 15,715,000 29,000 0.2%
Verizon 6,988,000 6,978,000 (10,000) -0.1%
CenturyLink 5,868,000 5,767,000 (101,000) -1.7%
Cox 4,845,000 4,860,000 15,000 0.3%
Frontier 4,063,000 4,000,000 (63,000) -1.6%
Altice 4,004,000 4,020,900 16,500 0.4%
Mediacom 1,185,000 1,194,000 9,000 0.8%
Windstream 1,025,800 1,017,400 (8,400) -0.8%
WOW 727,600 730,000 2,400 0.3%
Cable ONE 521,724 519,062 (2,662) -0.5%
Fairpoint 307,100 301,000 (6,100) -2.0%
Cincinnati Bell 304,193 307,900 3,707 1.2%
94,149,417 94,532,262 382,845 0.4%

These figures come from reports published each quarter by Leichtman Research Group. These large ISPs control over 95% of the broadband market in the country – so looking at them provides a good picture of the industry. Not included in these numbers are the broadband customers of the smaller ISPs, the subscribers of WISPs (wireless ISPs) and customers of the various satellite services. Cable companies still dominate the broadband market and have 60.4 million customers compared to 34.1 million customers for the big telcos.

What do these numbers tell us about broadband growth? If you take the numbers at face value, a growth of 0.4% for the quarter would extrapolate to an annual growth rate over 1.5%, and would suggest that the market is still growing. But is it?

Within these numbers are broadband customers from new housing units. The country is expected to add at least 1 million new homes and apartment units this year, and if the ISPs sell to 84% of them, then 210,000 of the new broadband customers are due to the new housing units and don’t represent an increase in overall market penetration rate for the sector.

Further, we are now in the second year of the FCC’s CAF II program. The telcos in the above list are being given over $8 billion over six years (and 2017 is the second year) to bring broadband to over 5 million rural households. By now these funds should be adding new broadband customers for CenturyLink, AT&T, Frontier, etc. I haven’t seen any reports yet from the FCC quantifying the customer added as a result of CAF II, but it’s not hard to think this won’t mean something like 175,000 new broadband customers per quarter over the last five years of the program.

Assuming that CAF II customers are now coming on board, then the whole industry growth can be attributed to either broadband for new housing units or new rural households getting broadband for the first time. And that would validate that the broadband industry is not growing much otherwise.

The numbers also tell us a few more things. For example, in urban areas the cable companies are still wooing away DSL customers. But even that is slowing down. Cable company customer additions for the 3Q are 540,000, down from 780,000 a year ago. For the first three quarters of 2017 combined the cable companies have added about 2 million customers while the telcos have lost 430,000 broadband customers.

Are We at the End of Broadband Growth?

A recent report by the Leichtman Research Group looks at overall historic broadband penetration rates. In looking at the results I immediately asked the question if we have topped out with US broadband penetration rates.

The study shows that 82% of homes now have a home broadband connection. Another 2% of homes get an Internet connection from other source like dial-up or satellite, meaning that the overall number of households with some kind of home broadband connection is 84%.

But compare that to 2012. In that year 76% of homes had a home broadband connection while 7% got broadband in some other matter – a total market penetration in 2012 of 83%. This means that the composite growth of homes that have added broadband from 2012 until now is only 1% (84% compared to 83%)

During that time the big ISPs have all continued to show broadband growth. But these numbers show that the growth of broadband came from customers dropping dial-up or other slower forms of broadband.  But the big question that is raised is if the 84% overall Internet connectivity is close to a full penetration rate. If so this raises significant questions about the future of the ISP industry.

The report does suggest that there is possibly more room for industry growth – but only if we can find a way to solve the digital divide. The report shows that 91% of homes with household income above $50,000 have landline broadband compared to only 72% for homes making less than $50,000. That would suggest that the overall demand for broadband is probably closer to the 91% experienced by higher-income homes.

Numerous surveys have shown that low income homes without broadband have always cited high prices as the reason they don’t have broadband. It possible that the broadband penetration for lower-income homes might drop as the telcos begin the promised phase-out of DSL, which generally has been the low-cost broadband alternative in most markets. But these numbers also suggest that an ISP that can profitably offer a low-cost broadband alternative might have a sizable potential market.

Finally, the study looks at cellular broadband. It shows that the percentage of households that sometimes use cellular data to connect to the Internet has grown from 44% in 2012 to 75% today. 68% of households today use both cellular and landline Internet connections.

Other studies have shown that there is a small, but growing segment of the population that only uses cellular data. This tends to be younger people who value mobility over broadband speeds, or low-income households that can’t afford a landline alternative. To some extent the growth in the use of cellular broadband is probably at least partially responsible for holding down the overall growth of landline broadband connections. In economics terms there is some segment of customers that view cellular data as a reasonable substitute for landline broadband, and who are happy with only the cellular connection.

None of these numbers are a surprise to the big ISPs which track these statistics closely in each market. But the numbers are cause for alarm. Once the broadband market reaches full market penetration then there will be no overall growth in the industry in terms of adding net new broadband customers, at least beyond the rate of overall household growth.

The cable companies are still enjoying a boom related to their ability to convert customers from DSL. But the telcos have begun to fight back by building fiber-to-the-home. They are also planning to start deploying more fixed wireless connections using 5G. In at least some markets broadband is going to get a lot more competitive.

The overall broadband market is going to change and become more like any mature market when overall growth stops. This is pure economics. The market changes drastically if an ISP can only grow by taking customers away from other ISPs. We already know what that looks like by observing the marketing wars between the cellular carriers.

The Beginning of the End for Copper

The FCC voted last Thursday to relax the rules for retiring copper wiring. This change was specifically aimed at Verizon and AT&T and is going to make it a lot easier for them to tear down old copper wiring.

The change eliminates some of the notification process to customers and also allows the telcos to eliminate old copper wholesale services like resale. But the big consequence of this change is that many customers will lose voice services. This change reverses rules put in place in 2014 that required that the telcos replace copper with service that is functionally as good as the copper facilities that are being removed.

Consider what this change will mean. If the telcos tear down copper in towns then customers will lose the option to buy DSL. While cable modems have clobbered DSL in the market there are still between 15% and 25% of broadband customers on DSL in most markets. DSL, while slower, also offers lower cost broadband options which many customers find attractive.

I don’t envision AT&T and Verizon tearing down huge amounts of copper in towns immediately. But there are plenty of neighborhoods where the copper is dreadful and the telcos can now walk away from that copper without offering an alternative to customers. This will give the cable companies a true monopoly in towns or neighborhoods where the copper is removed. Customers losing low-cost DSL will face a price increase if they want to keep broadband.

The rural areas are a different story. In most of rural America the copper network is used to deliver telephone service and there are still a lot of rural customers buying telephone service. You might think that people can just change to cellular service if they lose their landlines, but it’s not that simple. There are still plenty of rural places that have copper telephone service where there is no good cellular service. And there are a lot more places where the cellular service is too weak to work indoors and customers need to go outside to find the cellular sweet spots (something we all remember doing in airports a decade ago).

Of a bigger concern in rural areas will be losing access to 911. A lot of homes still keep landlines just for the 911 capabilities. Under the old rules the carriers had to demonstrate that customers would still have access to reliable 911, but it seems the carriers can now walk away without worrying about this.

The FCC seems to have accepted the big telcos arguments completely. For instance, Chairman Pai cited a big telco argument that carriers could save $40 to $50 per home per year by eliminating copper. That may be a real number, but the revenue from somebody buying voice service on copper is far greater than the savings. It seems clear that the big telcos want to eliminate what’s left of their rural work force and get out of the residential business.

This is a change that has been inevitable for years. The copper networks are deteriorating due to age and due even more to neglect. But the last FCC rules forced the telcos to work to find an alternative to copper for customers. Since AT&T and Verizon are cellular companies this largely meant guaranteeing adequate access to cellular service – and that meant beefing up the rural cellular networks where there aren’t a lot of customers. But without the functional equivalency requirement it’s unlikely that the carriers will beef up cellular service in the most remote rural places. And that means that many homes will go dark for voice.

This same ruling applies to other telcos, but I don’t think there will be any rush to tear down copper in the same manner as AT&T and Verizon. Telcos like Frontier and Windstream still rely heavily on their copper networks and don’t have a cellular product to replace landlines. And I don’t know any smaller telcos that would walk away from customers without first providing an alternative service.

It’s hard to think that the FCC is embracing a policy that will leave some households with no voice option. The FCC is purposefully turning a blind eye to the issue, but anybody who knows rural America knows this will happen. There are still a lot of rural places where copper is the only communications option today. Our regulators once prided themselves on the fact that we brought telephone service to every place that had electricity. We had a communications network that was the envy of the world, and connecting everybody was a huge boon to the economy. We could still keep those same universal service policies for cellular service if we had the will to do so. But this FCC clearly sides with the big carriers over the public and they are not going to impose any rules that the big telcos and cable companies don’t want.

A Doubling of Broadband Prices?

In what is bad news for consumers but good news for ISPs, a report by analyst Jonathan Chaplin of New Street Research predicts big increases in broadband prices. He argues that broadband is underpriced. Prices haven’t increased much for a decade and he sees the value of broadband greatly increased since it is now vital in people’s lives.

The report is bullish on cable company stock prices because they will be the immediate beneficiary of higher broadband prices. The business world has not really acknowledged the fact that in most US markets the cable companies are becoming a near-monopoly. Big telcos like AT&T have cut back on promoting DSL products and are largely ceding the broadband market to the big cable companies. We see hordes of customers dropping DSL each quarter and all of the growth in the broadband industry is happening in the biggest cable companies like Comcast and Charter.

I’ve been predicting for years that the cable companies will have to start raising broadband prices. The companies have been seeing cable revenues drop and voice revenues continuing to drop and they will have to make up for these losses. But I never expected the rapid and drastic increases predicted by this report. Chaplin sets the value of basic broadband at $90, which is close to a doubling of today’s prices.

The cable industry is experiencing a significant and accelerating decline in cable customers. And they are also facing significant declines in revenues from cord-shaving as customers elect smaller cable packages. But the cable products have been squeezed on margin because of programming price increases and one has to wonder how much the declining cable revenue really hurts their bottom line.

Chaplin reports that the price of unbundled basic broadband at Comcast is now $90 including what they charge for a modem. It’s even higher than that for some customers. Before I left Comcast last year I was paying over $120 per month for broadband since the company forced me to buy a bundle that included basic cable if I wanted a broadband connection faster than 30 Mbps.

Chaplin believes that broadband prices at Comcast will be pushed up to the $90 level within a relatively short period of time. And he expects Charter to follow.

If Chaplin is right one has to wonder what price increases of this magnitude will mean for the public. Today almost 20% of households still don’t have broadband, and nearly two-thirds of those say it’s because if the cost. It’s not hard to imagine that a drastic increase in broadband rates will drive a lot of people to use broadband alternatives like cellular data, even though it’s a far inferior substitute.

I also have to wonder what price increases of this magnitude might mean for competitors. I’ve created hundreds of business plans for markets of all sizes, and not all of them look promising. But the opportunities for a competitor improve dramatically if broadband is priced a lot higher. I would expect that higher prices are going to invite in more fiber overbuilders. And higher prices might finally drive cities to get into the broadband business just to fix what will be a widening digital divide as more homes won’t be able to afford the higher prices.

Comcast today matches the prices of any significant cable competitor. For instance, they match Google Fiber’s prices where the companies compete head-to-head. It’s not hard to foresee a market where competitive markets stay close to today’s prices while the rest have big rate increases. That also would invite in municipal overbuilders in places with the highest prices.

Broadband is already a high-margin product and any price increases will go straight to the bottom line. It’s impossible for any ISP to say that a broadband price increase is attributable to higher costs – as this report describes it, any price increases can only be justified by setting prices to ‘market’.

All of this is driven, of course, by the insatiable urge of Wall Street to see companies make more money every quarter. Companies like Comcast already make huge profits and in an ideal world would be happy with those profits. Comcast does have other ways to make money since they are also pursuing cellular service, smart home products and even now bundling solar panels. And while most of the other cable companies don’t have as many options as Comcast, they will gladly follow the trend of higher broadband prices.

Decommissioning Rural Copper, Part 2

In the last blog I wrote about my belief that AT&T and Verizon want out of the rural wireline business. They both have plans to largely walk away from their rural copper networks and replace landline copper services with cellular service. Today I want to talk about what regulators ought to do with those networks.

When these two giant telcos walk away from rural copper they will inevitably harm rural America. While many homes will get the ‘privilege’ of now buying highly-priced cellular-based broadband, other homes are going to find themselves without telephone service if they happen to live in one of the many cellular dead zones. Such homes will not only be unable to benefit from cellular broadband, but if they have poor cell service they will find themselves cut off from voice communications as well.

As somebody who has traveled extensively in rural America I can tell you that there are a lot more cellular dead zones than people realize. And it’s not only farms, and there are county seats in rural America where it’s difficult to get a working cellphone signal inside of buildings.

As part of this transition both companies are going to walk away from a huge amount of existing copper cable. I think this copper cable is an incredibly valuable asset and that regulators ought not to allow them to tear it down.

The copper wire network today goes almost everywhere in rural America. Congressional laws and FCC policies led to most homes in the country getting access the the copper network. These copper wires occupy a valuable space on existing telephone poles – on the majority of rural poles the only two wires are the power lines at the top and the telephone wires at the bottom.

If these copper wires are kept in place they could greatly reduce the cost of building rural fiber. It is far cheaper when building fiber to ‘lash’ the fiber onto an existing set of cables than to hang fiber from scratch. It was this construction technique that allowed Verizon to build a lot of its FiOS fiber network – they lashed fiber onto existing telephone wires. And my guess is that when Verizon decommissions urban copper they are still going to leave a lot of the copper wires in place as a guidewire for their fiber.

If these telcos are going to walk away from these copper wires, then they ought to be required to keep them in place for use by somebody else to hang fiber. Many states might force the big telcos to tear down the copper wires since they will eventually create safety hazards as they break away from poles if they aren’t maintained. But if somebody else is willing to take over that maintenance then it shouldn’t be an issue.

I can picture a regulatory process whereby some other carrier is allowed to come in and ‘claim’ the abandoned wires once they are empty of customers. That would provide fiber overbuilders or rural communities to claim this copper as an asset.

There is some salvage value to copper wires and and it’s possible, but not probable that the value of the copper could exceed the cost to tear it down. So I can see the telcos fighting such an idea as a confiscation of their assets. But these rural wires have been fully depreciated for decades and the telcos have earned back the cost of these copper lines many times over. I believe that by the act of abandoning the wires and depriving some homes of wireline service that the big telcos will have forfeited any rights they might have to the remaining assets.

Anybody claiming the abandoned copper could use it in two ways. First, in many cases there is still existing life left in the copper, as witnessed by Frontier and CenturyLink rehabbing old rural copper with upgraded DSL. Local communities or small carriers could use the copper to bring the better services that the big telcos have refused to do over the last few decades.

But more importantly these wires represent the cheapest path forward for building rural fiber. Anybody taking over the old copper can save a lot of fiber construction costs by lashing fiber onto the existing copper. If our nationwide goal is really to get better broadband to rural America, then offering abandoned copper to fiber builders might be one of the easiest tools available to help the process along.

The big telcos abandoned rural America dacades ago. They stopped doing routine maintenance on rural copper and slashed the number of rural technicians. They now want to walk away from that copper and instead force rural America to buy cellular services at inflated prices. We owe it to the folks who paid for this copper many times over to get some benefit from it and to offer an alternative to the new rural cellular monopolies.

Finally, Unlimited Cellular Data

SONY DSCIn a virtual blink of an eye all of the cellular companies are now offering unlimited data. This probably represents a watershed event for the cellular industry and probably marks the start of the slide of cellular data into a commodity, much as has happened in the past with cellular voice and texting.

Up until now, US cellular data has been the most expensive broadband in the world. They have been selling a gigabyte of download for $10. There are numerous ISPs that will let people download a terabyte of data for between $60 and $120 per month, and that makes cellular data between 80 and 160 times more expensive than landline data.

It’s really impossible to blame this gigantic pricing difference on anything other than greed. Looking back five years ago the cellular companies claimed the high prices were due mostly to a desire to protect their cell sites from being swamped with data usage. Perhaps back when cell sites used traditional TDS backhaul (DS3s mostly), there might have been some truth to this. But today most cell sites have fiber Ethernet backhaul of gigabit or greater capacity.

This change seemed inevitable. The cellular companies have all started offering zero-rated plans where they offer some content (often their own) on an unlimited basis while still counting other content against their stingy data caps. That stark contrast pointed out the hypocrisy of their pricing. And while the current FCC is backing away from enforcing these kinds of net neutrality issues – the price contrast is so large that it might have brought eventual scrutiny from Congress during any Telecom Act re-write.

Possibly the biggest impact of this change is that it’s going to change how people use cellphones and other mobile devices like tablets and laptops. Cellphone data speeds in the US are not the best in the world, but they are good enough in most places to be able to watch a single video stream. It’s not much of a stretch of the imagination to foresee wide usage of apps that will use cellphones to capture and transfer video images to televisions. And that could make cellular data an economic substitute for landline broadband.

There is already a lot of talk about younger people preferring cellular data to landline data – mostly due to the mobility aspect. But this has largely meant that cell phone users had to stay close to WiFi most of the time in order to avoid large cellular bills. But unlimited data plans will free users to go anywhere there is a strong enough cell signal to get the connection speeds they need. Over time this could lead to an erosion of landline broadband connections, where households that have unlimited cellular data will find that to be good enough.

The upside to this, though, might be that poorer households might finally get better access to the Internet. Until now, unless a user was able to sit at home behind a landline WiFi signal, cellular data has been too expensive to use in urban areas for things like homework. Since most people now see a cellphone as mandatory to daily life, poorer households will probably be able to get by with only a cellular data plan. This might be the last nail in the coffin for urban DSL.

This change will really make a difference in rural America. I have heard from many rural households that use their cellphone data plan for their household broadband and it’s not unusual to hear of families with schoolkids spending $500 or more per month for totally inadequate cellular broadband. These households are going to be relieved to be able to buy a $100 unlimited plan instead.

Of course, in a lot of rural America there is not the same kind of cellular service that those in cities take for granted. There are very few rural places that have more than one major cellphone carrier with decent signal. And there are a lot of rural households that live too far from a cell tower to get decent cellular speeds. But unlimited plans will probably be a good band-aid to cover for the lack of affordable broadband for millions of rural homes. It won’t be too many years when this won’t be enough speed, but for today cellular broadband is a whole lot better than no broadband.

We’ll have to wait a bit to see if these plans really are unlimited, and what it means if they aren’t. Obviously the plans will be a lot less useful if they somehow preclude tethering. But however they are priced, we are probably not going backwards to the day when your $60 cell plan includes 2 gigabytes of download with every additional gigabyte costing an additional $10. Teens ten years from now will think anybody who remembers being careful how we used our cellphones is an ancient dinosaur!

The FCC’s Latest Statistics on Internet Speeds

FCC_New_LogoThe FCC recently released their annual report that looks at the number of nationwide broadband customers and data speeds. As always, this is an interesting snapshot in time of where broadband is at in the US. The data is gathered from carriers on FCC Form 477 and captures connections that are at least 200 kbps in one direction, meaning it is leaving out dial-up and other extremely slow connections to the web. I would note that these numbers are self-reported by the carriers, meaning it represents the speeds that ISPs say they are delivering, which is not the same as what customers are actually receiving.

The statistics show that overall broadband connections continue to grow. Total landline connections grew from 97.8 M in 2014 to 102.2 M in 2015. Cellular data connection grew from 223.5 M to 253.0 M. Together that’s an annual growth rate of 11%, with cellular continuing to grow faster that landlines. The 102 M landline connections in 2015 includes 84 M residential and 18 M business connections.

The latest breakdown of download speeds delivered to households show that 4.9% have less than 3 Mbps, 15.4% have between 3-10 Mbps, 23.9% have between 10–25 Mbps, 39.9% have between 25-200 Mbps and 15.9% have over 100 Mbps. Again, these are carrier reported numbers which is most important at the lower end of the scale. My work in rural areas, for example, shows that a lot of households that are being sold 3 Mbps or 6 Mbps connections are often actually only getting slower speeds like 1 Mbps.

But the statistics show an increase of speeds over time. For example, the number of connections sold that are 100 Mbps or faster rose from 9.5 M in 2014 to 15.4 M. The number of connections between 25 Mbps and 100 Mbps grew from 34.0 M in 2014 to 39.3 M. And the slowest connections under 3 Mbps shrank from 8.1 M in 2014 to 5.8 M. The FCC bases nationwide performance on these numbers and they put out a proud press release when they estimated that more than 50% of households in the country had speeds greater than 25 Mbps, their definition of broadband.

The report also looks annually at the state of competition, which might be the most important statistic for households since we know that competition generally means lower prices. One interesting statistic is the number of census blocks that have 3 or more providers competing at various speeds. The statistics count all satellite providers as if they were one provider. The FCC shows that 78% of census blocks nationwide have at least three ISPs offering 3 Mbps. 66% of census blocks have 3 providers offering at least 10 Mbps. But the numbers drop drastically when looking at higher speeds and only 4% of census blocks have 3 or more providers offering 25 Mbps  or faster. Less than 1% of census blocks have three providers offering 100 Mbps or higher – and that has to be a handful of places like Kansas City or Austin TX.

At the other end of the scale, 29% of all census blocks don’t have any ISPs offering 25 Mbps or faster. And a gigantic 53% of all census blocks have no ISP offering 100 Mbps or faster.

The report also looks at landline broadband by technology. The number of households by technology are: 59.7 M on cable modem, 28.2 M on DSL, 10.5 M on fiber, 2.1 M on satellite and 1.0 M on fixed wireless. The fiber number is up 1.3 M since 2014. I was surprised by the DSL number since the FCC shows DSL connections dropping only 400,000 since 2014. Other industry sources show DSL is bleeding customers.

The final FCC statistic tracked is the number of ISPs offering the various technologies. There are 958 providers of DSL, 390 cable companies, 984 FTTP providers, 969 fixed wireless providers, 11 satellite providers, and 97 cellular companies. It should be noted that some companies operate more than one kind of network.

A Last Gasp Technology for Copper?

Copper wireGenesis Technical Systems of Canada has announced an improvement to an existing technology that might breathe some life into rural copper networks. The technology is called DSL rings. The technology is not entirely new and I can recall seeing it being discussed fifteen years ago, but the company has added a twist that improves on the concept.

DSL rings are essentially shared DSL. Currently deployed DSL technology can bond together two pairs of copper and in real-life networks can get as much as 50 Mbps speeds.  Under current DSL architecture, the bonded pairs are dedicated to a single home/business. DSL rings instead allows for the bonding of multiple pairs of copper that are then shared among multiple homes. In that bonding process there is a little less new bandwidth available from each pair added, so there is a natural limit on the number of copper pairs that can be bonded.

From the neighborhood device in a pedestal, the “ring” is created by using one copper pair “into” each home and one copper pair “out”. This architecture is looped repetitively through all of the homes in the ‘ring’ so that they are on one continuous copper ‘ring’. For example, in a neighborhood where there are ten homes that can currently each get 10 Mbps using standard DSL,  this technology might create a 80 Mbps pipe that would be shared by all ten homes. But at peak times when all of the homes are using a lot of bandwidth this might not be much faster than today. But by sharing all of the bandwidth with everybody, customers would have access to more bandwidth when the network isn’t busy. A single customer would have access to the whole 80 Mbps pipe. The technology is an improvement on traditional DSL – it uses the same bandwidth-sharing concept as fiber and cable TV nodes where customers in neighborhoods share bandwidth rather than each getting a separate bandwidth pipe.

The current DSL ring technology wouldn’t do anything useful for today’s rural DSL, since there is not a lot of benefit in bonding together slow connections that are only at 1 or 2 Mbps. But as CAF II is implemented by the big telcos and as faster DSL is built into the rural areas, this idea might make sense.

Genesis Technical Systems’ new twist is that they can use the DSL ring base units as a DSL regeneration site, meaning it can not only serve the nearby homes, but the unit can send out bandwidth to the next DSL ring and start a new 2 – 3 mile delivery circle around the next ring in the chain.

The big drawback to that idea is that the second chain is going to be limited to the amount of bandwidth that can be sent to it up the copper, and so it won’t have nearly as much available bandwidth as a DSL ring that is fed by fiber. I see that as the big limiting factor. But this might allow for a network with one or two DSL ring ‘hops’ that can reach further out into the rural area with faster DSL, with each subsequent ring getting significantly smaller bandwidth.

The ideal configuration would be to feed each DSL ring with fiber. But even without considering the cost of building new fiber the technology is not cheap, in the range of $600 to $800 per home added.

There will be other issues to deal with in the rural areas. Most copper networks are ‘loaded’ meaning that there are equalizers to maximize voice quality and this loading would have to be deactivated to use the DSL technology. In some areas, there might not be enough spare copper pairs to make the ring. These days we all assume that most homes have abandoned landlines for cellphones, but in rural areas where the cellular coverage is bad there are still pockets of homes where most have landlines. But copper pairs could be freed by converting analog voice to VoIP.

In looking at the technology, I see the most promising use of it in rural towns, like county seats. Neighborhood rings could be created that would upgrade DSL to compete with most current small town cable modem systems. Where customers might today be buying DSL that has speeds up to 6 Mbps or 12 Mbps they might be able to get speeds up to 50 Mbps or 100 Mbps. But the big caveat on this would be that these rings would slow down during the busiest evening hours similar to older cable TV networks. Still, it would be a major DSL upgrade.

It’s an interesting technology, but at best it’s the last gasp for an old copper network. If this technology is used to move DSLAMs closer to rural homes they are going to get a lot more bandwidth than they get today. It looks like in the ideal situation the technology would let customers burst faster than the FCC’s broadband definition of 25 Mbps. But to some degree this extra speed is illusory – during peak times the DSL would probably be significantly slower. My guess is that if one of the big telcos adopt the technology they will claim the burst speeds in reporting to the FCC and not the achieved speeds at the busy hours of the day. But customers would quickly figure out the difference.

CAF II Technology Options

Copper CableThere has been a lot of speculation on what technologies the big telcos are going to use to meet their CAF II obligations. They have a tall task in front of them trying to bring a least 10 Mbps broadband to large swaths of rural America.

I know a lot of the areas they are being asked to serve. The typical rural county has some broadband in the county seat – often from both a cable company and from the telco. Businesses in county seats can usually get as much broadband as they want if they can afford the high prices offered in these communities for real broadband.

But the cable TV networks’ service areas usually stop near the city boundaries. And DSL that originates within the county seat doesn’t carry very far into the rural areas. To make matters worse, much of rural America still has older DSL technologies that can deliver only 6 Mbps or 12 Mbps for short distances. It’s not unusual to have a few other pockets of broadband in the typical rural county – there will often be a few subdivisions or other small towns that have DSL and perhaps even cable TV.

However, the vast majority of the physical area in most rural counties is served only by long copper telephone lines, which are usually too far from a DSL hub to get any meaningful DSL. Other than those few subdivisions that have DSL hubs, there is probably little if any fiber running to rural areas. There might be long-haul fiber running through the county, but this fiber was not built to serve local customers.

The CAF II companies are facing the goal of bringing broadband to large copper-only areas that have no existing fiber. The options for technologies that can affordably bring broadband to such areas are limited.

One solution is to build a lot of DSL hubs in the rural areas to bring DSL closer to homes. One advantage of a DSL upgrade is that it uses the existing copper wires to deliver the bandwidth. But DSL on copper won’t carry the 10 Mbps speeds required by CAF II, particularly on the older and smaller gauge copper that is found in rural networks. So the DSL option requires building a lot of fiber and a whole lot of DSL cabinets. That is expensive, particularly since in many rural areas there might only be a few potential subscribers within reach of a given DSL cabinet.

The DSL solution also assumes that the telco has maintained the copper network, and we know from experience that there are many rural areas where maintenance has been neglected for decades. Making DSL work on a degraded and compromised network can be a major challenge. We also know from experience that when you try to cram too many DSL signals in small-gauge copper cables that you get cross-wire interference that degrades the speeds.

One alternative to building fiber to DSL huts would be to instead deliver the bandwidth using point-to-point microwave radios. Microwave radios have been around a long time and are reliable. But the technology requires the use of towers of some sort – something that the telcos don’t own today and that is often not very common in rural areas. Still, there are certainly many places where a microwave radio shot is going to be cheaper than building new fiber, even considering the cost of building some towers.

I have talked to a number of engineers on the topic and they think that the telcos are going to have to introduce some point-to-multipoint wireless radios into the network to reach the most remote customers. I’ve looked at maps of many of the CAF II areas and in most of these areas there are numerous pockets of the network where there might only be a half dozen farms or homes in a large service area – and there is no cheap wireline option to upgrade such sparsely populated areas.

There is one other option that I know of – the telcos might just ignore the most remote customers. Once the networks have been built and the CAF II money spent, I’m not sure what recourse the FCC has to make the telcos finish the job. We certainly have a long history of telcos that have skirted regulatory requirements or that have reneged on promises made to regulators. So I suspect that if the telcos reach some ‘reasonable’ percentage of the people that are supposed to get the CAF upgrade that the FCC will put on its blinders and call it a job well done.

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.