Shame on the Regulators

It’s clear that even before the turn of this century that the big telcos largely walked away from maintaining and improving residential service. The evidence for this is the huge numbers of neighborhoods that are stuck with older copper technologies that haven’t been upgraded.  The telcos made huge profits over the decades in these neighborhoods and ideally should not have been allowed to walk away from their customers.

In the Cities. Many neighborhoods in urban areas still have first or second-generation DSL over copper with fastest speeds of 3 Mbps or 6 Mbps. That technology had a shelf-life of perhaps seven years and is now at least fifteen years old.

The companies that deployed the most DSL are AT&T and CenturyLink (formerly Quest). The DSL technology should have been upgraded over time by plowing profits back into the networks. This happened in some neighborhoods, but as has been shown in several detailed studies in cities like Cleveland and Dallas, the faster DSL was brought to more affluent neighborhoods, leaving poorer neighborhoods, even today, with the oldest DSL technology.

The neighborhoods that saw upgrades saw DSL speeds between 15 Mbps and 25 Mbps. Many of these neighborhoods eventually saw speeds as fast as 50 Mbps using a technology that bonded two 25 Mbps DSLs circuits. There are numerous examples of neighborhoods with 50 Mbps DSL sitting next to ones with 3 Mbps DSL.

Verizon used a different tactic and upgraded neighborhoods to FiOS fiber. But this was also done selectively although Verizon doesn’t seem to have redlined as much as AT&T, but instead built FiOS only where the construction cost was the lowest.

In Europe, the telcos decided to complete with the cable companies and have upgraded DSL over time, with the fastest DSL today offering speeds as fast as 300 Mbps. There is talk coming out of DSL vendors talking about ways to goose DSL up to gigabit speeds (but only for short distances). The telcos here basically stopped looking at better DSL technology after the introduction of VDSL2 at least fifteen years ago.

By now the telcos should have been using profits to build fiber. AT&T has done this using the strategy of building little pockets of fiber in every community near to existing fiber splice points. However, the vast majority of rural households served by AT&T are not being offered fiber, and AT&T said recently that they have no plans to build more fiber. CenturyLink built fiber to past nearly 1 million homes a few years ago, but that also seems like a dead venture going forward. But now, in 2019, each of these telcos should have been deep into urban neighborhoods in their whole service area with fiber. Had they done so they would not be getting clobbered so badly by the cable companies that are taking away millions of DSL customers every year.

Rural America. The big telcos started abandoning rural America as much as thirty years ago. They’ve stopped maintaining copper and have not voluntarily made any investments in rural America for a long time. There was a burst of rural construction recently when the FCC gave them $11 billion to improve rural broadband to 10/1 Mbps – but that doesn’t seem to be drawing many rural subscribers.

It’s always been a massive challenge to bring the same speeds to rural America that can be provided in urban America. This is particularly so with DSL since the speeds drop drastically with distance. DSL upgrades that could benefit urban neighborhoods don’t work well in farmland. But the telcos should have been expanding fiber deeper into the network over time to shorten loop lengths. Many independent telephone companies did this the right way and they were able over time to goose rural DSL speeds up to 25 Mbps.

The big telcos should have been engaging in a long-term plan to continually shorten rural copper loop lengths. That meant building fiber, and while shortening loop lengths they should have served households close to fiber routes with fiber. By now all of the small towns in rural America should have gotten fiber.

This is what regulated telcos are supposed to do. The big telcos made vast fortunes in serving residential customers for many decades. Regulated entities are supposed to roll profits back into improving the networks as technology improves – that’s the whole point of regulating the carrier of last resort.

Unfortunately, the industry got sidetracked by competition from CLECS. This competition first manifested in competition for large business customers. The big telcos used that competition to convince regulators they should be deregulated. Over time the cable companies provided real residential competition in cities, which led to the de facto total deregulation of telcos.

In Europe, the telcos never stopped competing in cities because regulators didn’t let them quit. The telcos have upgraded to copper speeds that customers still find attractive, but the telcos all admit that the next upgrade needs to be fiber. In the US, the big telcos exerted political pressure to gain deregulation at the first hint of competition. US telcos folded and walked away from their customers rather than fighting to maintain revenues.

Rural America should never have been deregulated. Shame on every regulator in every state that voted to deregulate the big telcos in rural America. Shame on every regulator that allowed companies like Verizon palm off their rural copper to companies like Frontier – a company that cannot succeed, almost by definition.

In rural America the telcos have a physical network monopoly and the regulators should have found ways to support rural copper rather than letting the telcos walk away from it. We know this can be done by looking at the different approaches taken by the smaller independent telephone companies. These small companies took care of their copper and most have now taken the next step to upgrade to fiber to be ready for the next century.

Cord Cutting Picking Up Steam

Cord cutting continued to pick up speed in the second quarter of this year. The numbers below come from Leichtman Research Group which compiles these numbers from reports made to investors.

The numbers reported are for the largest cable providers and Leichtman estimates that these companies represent 93% of all cable customers in the country.

The overall penetration rate of households buying traditional cable has dropped to 67.4% at the end of the second quarter of the year. The penetration rate had dropped just under 70% at the end of 2018.

For the quarter the cable companies lost 1.7% of subscribers which would equate to a trend of losing 6.7% for the year. However, that number needs to be put into context. The biggest drop of customers came from AT&T / DirectTV which lost over 1.3 million customers so far this year. The company decided to end discount plans to customers and has been letting customers go who won’t agree to pay full price after the end of discount plans. The company says they are glad to be rid of customers who are not contributing to the bottom line of the company. At some point soon that purge should end, and the company should return to a more normal trajectory. Normalizing for AT&T, the whole industry is probably still losing customer currently at a rate between 4% and 5% of total market share annually.

4Q 2018 2Q 2019 1Q Change 2Q Change 2Q
Comcast 21,986,000 21,641,000 (121,000) (224,000) -1.0%
AT&T / DirecTV 22,926,000 21,605,000 (543,000) (778,000) -3.5%
Charter 16,606,000 16,320,000 (145,000) (141,000) -0.9%
Dish TV 9,905,000 9,560,000 (266,000) (79,000) -0.8%
Verizon 4,451,000 4,346,000 (53,000) (52,000) -1.2%
Cox 4,015,000 3,940,000 (35,000) (40,000) -1.0%
Altice 3,307,500 3,276,500 (10,200) (20,800) -0.6%
Mediacom 776,000 747,000 (12,000) (17,000) -2.2%
Frontier 838,000 738,000 (54,000) (46,000) -5.9%
Cable ONE 326,423 308,493 (5,812) (12,118) -3.8%
Total 85,136,923 82,481,993 (1,245,012) (1,409,918) -1.7%

These same companies have lost over 5 million traditional cable subscribers since the end of the second quarter in 2018.

Some other observations:

  • This is the first time that Comcast has lost 1% of cable customers in a quarter. Until recently the company was holding steady with cable customer counts due to the fact that the company has continued to add new broadband customers, many who bought cable TV.
  • Frontier is bleeding both cable customers and broadband customers, and the company lost 71,000 broadband customers in the second quarter to go with the loss of 46,000 cable customers.
  • The only other companies that lost more than 2% of their cable customer base in the quarter are Mediacom and Cable ONE.
  • The loss of 79,000 customers is the smallest quarterly loss for Dish Networks since 2014.

The biggest losers in the industry are likely the programmers. They are losing millions of monthly subscriptions that were paying for their programming. A few networks are recovering some of these losses by selling programming to providers like SlingTV or PlayStation Now – but overall the programmers are losing a mountain of paying households.

The big question for the industry is if there is some predictable path for cord cutting. Will it continue to accelerate and kill the industry in a few years or will losses be slow and steady like happened with landline telephones?

Cord Cutting Picking Up Pace

Leichtman Research Group has published the cable TV customer counts for the first quarter of 2019 and it’s apparent that the rate of cord cutting is accelerating. These large companies represent roughly 95% of the traditional cable market.

1Q 2019 2,018
Customers Change % Change Losses
DirecTV / AT&T 22,383,000 (543,000) -2.4% (1,189,000)
Comcast 21,866,000 (120,000) -0.5% (371,000)
Charter 16,431,000 (145,000) -0.9% (244,000)
Dish TV 9,639,000 (266,000) -2.7% (1,125,000)
Verizon 4,398,000 (53,000) -1.2% (168,000)
Cox 3,980,000 (35,000) -0.9% (115,000)
Altice 3,297,300 (10,200) -0.3% (98,000)
Frontier 784,000 (54,000) -6.4% (123,000)
Mediacom 764,000 (12,000) -1.5% (45,000)
Cable One 320,611 (11,500) -3.5% (37,465)
83,862,911 (1,249,700) -1.5% (3,515,465)

A few things strike me about this table. First, the annual rate of loss is now 6%. That’s faster than we ever saw for telephone landlines which lost 5% annually at the peak of the market losses. We are only into the third real year of cord cutting and already the rate of customer growth has leaped to a 6% annual loss.

The other big striking number is that the overall traditional cable penetration rate has now dropped to 70%. According to the Census, there are 127.59 million households and adding in the customers of smaller providers shows a 70% market penetration. That’s still a lot of homes with traditional cable TV, but obviously the conversation about cutting the cord is happening in huge numbers of homes.

Another interesting observation is that AT&T is now at the top of the list. They’ve stopped reporting customers separately for DirecTV and for AT&T U-verse, which combined makes them the large cable provider in the country. However, at the rate the company is bleeding traditional cable customers, Comcast is likely to be number one again by the end of this year. AT&T has been encouraging customers to shift to DirecTV Now, delivered only online. However, that service also lost 83,000 customers in the first quarter, so the overall AT&T losses are staggering, at an annual rate of loss of over 8%.

The big losers in total customers are still the satellite companies. As those companies have gotten more realistic about pricing they’ve seen customer flee. There have been numerous articles in the press in publications like Forbes wondering if Dish Networks is even a viable company after these kinds of losses. There is also recent speculation that AT&T might spin off DirecTV and perhaps even merge it with Dish Networks.

The biggest percentage loser is Frontier, losing 6.4% of their customers in just the first quarter. It’s been obvious that the wheels are coming off of Frontier and the company just sold off properties in western states last month in order to raise cash.

For the last few years, Comcast and Charter were still holding on to overall cable customers. This was mostly buoyed by new cable customers that came from big increases in broadband customers – these two companies have added the bulk of new nationwide broadband customers over the last two years. But even with continued broadband growth, these companies are now seeing cable counts drop, and it’s likely that their rate of cord cutting among customers they’ve had for many years is probably as high as the rest of the industry.

It’s still hard to predict the trajectory of cable TV. In just two years the industry as a whole has gone from minor customer losses to losing customers at a rate of 6% per year. I don’t see any analysts predicting where this will bottom out – will it level off or will losses continue to accelerate? In any event, any industry losing 6% of customers annually is in trouble. It’s not going to take many years of losses at this rate for the industry to become irrelevant.

Broadband Statistics 4Q 2018

The Leichtman Research Group has published the statistics of broadband subscribers for the largest ISPs for the year ending December 31, 2018. Following compares the end of 2018 to the end of 2017.

 4Q 2018 4Q 2017 Change
Comcast 27,222,000 25,869,000 1,353,000 5.2%
Charter 25,259,000 23,988,000 1,271,000 5.3%
AT&T 15,701,000 15,719,000 (18,000) -0.1%
Verizon 6,961,000 6,959,000  2,000 0.0%
CenturyLink 5,400,000 5,662,000 (262,000) -4.6%
Cox 5,060,000 4,960,000 100,000 2.0%
Altice 4,118,100 4,046,000 71,900 1.8%
Frontier 3,735,000 3,938,000 (203,000) -5.2%
Mediacom 1,260,000 1,209,000 55,000 4.5%
Windstream 1,015,000 1,006,600 8,400 0.8%
Consolidated 778,970 780,794 (1,824) -0.2%
WOW! 759,600 732,700 26,900 3.7%
Cable ONE 663,074 643,153 19,921 3.1%
Cincinnati Bell 311,000 308,700 2,300 0.7%
98,247,744 95,822,147 2,425,597 2.5%

The large ISPs in the table control over 95% of the broadband market in the country. Not included in these numbers are the broadband customers served by the smaller ISPs – the telcos, WISPs, fiber overbuilders and municipalities.

The biggest cable companies continue to dominate the broadband market and now have 64.3 million customers compared to 33.9 million customers for the big telcos. During 2018 the big cable companies collectively added 2.9 million customers while the big telcos collectively lost 472,000 customers.

What is perhaps most astounding is that Comcast and Charter added 2.6 million customers for the year while the total broadband market for the biggest ISPs grew by only 2.5 million. For years it’s been obvious that the big cable companies are approaching monopoly status in metropolitan areas and these statistics demonstrate how Comcast and Charter, in particular, have a stranglehold over competition in their markets.

CenturyLink and Frontier are continuing to bleed DSL customers. Together the two companies lost 465,000 broadband customers in 2018, up from a loss for the two of 343,000 in 2017.

It’s always hard to understand all of the market forces behind these changes. For example, all of the big cable companies are seeing at least some competition from fiber overbuilders in some of their markets. It would be interesting to know how many customers each is losing to fiber competition.

I’d also love to know more about how the big companies are faring in different markets. I suspect that the trends for urban areas are significantly different than in smaller markets. I know that deep data analysis of the FCC’s 477 data might tell that story. (hint, hint in case anybody out there wants to do that analysis!)

I’m also curious if the cable companies are seeing enough bottom-line improvement to justify the expensive upgrades to DOCSIS 3.1. Aside from Comcast and Charter I wonder how companies like Cox, Mediacom and Cable ONE justify the upgrade costs. While those companies are seeing modest growth in broadband customers, each is also losing cable customers, and I’d love to understand if the upgrades are cost-justified.

If there is any one takeaway from these statistics it’s that we still haven’t reached the top of the broadband market. I see articles from time to time that predict that younger households are going to bail on landline broadband in favor of cellular broadband. But seeing that over 2.4 million households added broadband in the last year seems to be telling a different story.

Where’s the CAF II Success?

If you’ve read this blog you know I’ve been a big critic of the FCC’s CAF II program that gave over $10 billion in federal subsidies to the biggest telcos to improve rural broadband. My complaint is that the program set the embarrassingly low goal of improving rural broadband to speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps. My complaint is that this money could have done a huge amount of good had it been put up to reverse auction as was done with the leftover customers from this program last year – many ISPs would have used this funding to help to build rural fiber. Instead, the telcos are using the money mostly to upgrade DSL.

While I think the program was ill-conceived and was a giveaway to the big telco lobbyists, I am at least glad that it is improving rural broadband. For a household with no broadband, a 10 Mbps product might provide basic access to broadband services for the first time. We are now into the fifth year of the six-year program, so we ought to be seeing the results of these upgrades. USTelecom just published a blog saying that deployments are ahead of schedule and that CAF II is a quiet success.

The telcos have told the FCC they are largely on track – by the end of 2018 they should have upgraded broadband for at least 60% of the required households. AT&T and Windstream report that they have made at least 60% of the needed upgrades everywhere. Frontier says they are on track in 27 of the 29 states needing upgrades. CenturyLink says they are on track in only 23 of 33 states that are getting CAF II upgrades. According to USTelecom, over 2.1 million households should now be seeing faster speeds.

It’s also worth noting that the CAF II program should improve broadband for many more households that are not covered directly by the program. For example, when upgrading DSL for a CAF II area that surrounds a town, those living in the town should also see better broadband. The secondary benefit of the CAF program is that rural towns should be seeing speeds increasing from 6 Mbps or slower to as fast as 25 Mbps. By now many more millions of households should be seeing faster broadband due to CAF II.

What I find puzzling is that I would expect to see an upward burst of broadband customers for the big telcos because of CAF II. But the numbers aren’t showing that. There were four telcos that accepted more than $1 billion from the program, as follows, and three of them lost broadband customers in 2018:

Funding Households Per Household 2018 Broadband Customers
CenturyLink $3.09 B 1,190,016 $2,593 (262,000)
AT&T $2.96 B 1,265,036 $2,342 (18,000)
Frontier $1.7 B 659,587 $2,578 (203,000)
Windstream $1.07 B 413,345 $2,595 8,400
Total CAF II $10.05 B 4,075,840 $2,467

Windstream is the only telco of the four that gained customers last year. Windstream’s footprint is probably the most rural of the four telcos. We know that every telco is losing the battle for customers in towns where cable companies are increasing speeds on coaxial networks. Windstream seems to be offsetting those losses, and I can conjecture it’s because they have been selling more rural broadband.

AT&T is in a category all by itself. It’s impossible to know how AT&T is faring with CAF II. They are largely implementing CAF II using their cellular network (with the goal of tearing down rural copper). The company has also been deploying fiber past millions of homes and business in urban areas. They are clearly losing the residential broadband battle in urban markets to companies like Comcast and Charter. However, I can tell you anecdotally that AT&T hasn’t given up on urban copper. They have knocked on my door in Asheville, NC at least three times in the last year trying to sell DSL. I have to assume that they are also marketing broadband improvements in rural areas.

CenturyLink and Frontier are clearly bleeding broadband customers and each lost over 200,000 customers just in the last year. I have to wonder how hard these companies are marketing improved rural broadband. Both companies work in urban and suburban markets but also in numerous county seats situated in rural counties. Like every telco they are losing DSL customers in these markets to the cable company competitors.

Just like I have anecdotal evidence that AT&T is still pushing copper I hear stories that say the opposite for CenturyLink and Frontier. I worked in a few rural counties last year where the CAF II upgrades were reported as complete. And yet the communities seemed unaware of the improvements. Local politicians who bear the brunt of complaints from households that want better broadband weren’t aware of any upgrades – which tells me their rural constituents weren’t aware of upgrades.

I honestly don’t know what this all means. I really expected to find more positive evidence of the impact of CAF II. From what I know of rural America, households ought to leap at the opportunity to buy 10/1 Mbps DSL if they’ve had no broadband in the past. Are the upgrades being done but not being followed up with a marketing and public awareness campaign? Are actual upgraded speed not meeting the 10/1 Mbps goal? Are the upgrades really being made as reported to the FCC? We’re perhaps a year and a half away from the completion of CAF II, so I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

Windstream Turns Focus to Wireless

Windstream CEO Tony Thomas recently told investors that the company plans to stress wireless technology over copper going into the future. The company has been using point-to-point wireless to serve large businesses for several years. The company has more recently been using fixed point-to-multipoint wireless technology to satisfy some of it’s CAF II build-out requirements.

Thomas says that the fixed wireless technology blows away what could be provided over the old copper plant with DSL. In places with flat and open terrain like Iowa and Nebraska the company is seeing rural residential broadband speeds as fast as 100 Mbps with wireless – far faster than can be obtained with DSL.

Thomas also said that the company is also interested in fixed 5G deployments, similar to what Verizon is now starting to deploy – putting 5G transmitters on poles to serve nearby homes. He says the company is interested in the technology in places where they are ‘fiber rich’. While Windstream serves a lot of extremely rural locations, there also serve a significant number of towns and small cities in their incumbent service areas that might be good candidates for 5G.

The emphasis on wireless deployments puts Windstream on the same trajectory as AT&T. AT&T has made it clear numerous times to the FCC that they company would like to tear down rural copper wherever it can to serve customers with wireless. AT&T’s approach differs in that AT&T will be using its licensed cellular spectrum and 4G LTE in rural markets while Windstream would use unlicensed spectrum like various WISPs.

This leads me to wonder if Windstream will join the list of big telcos that will largely ignore its existing copper plant moving into the future. Verizon has done it’s best to sell rural copper to Frontier and seems to be largely ignoring its remaining copper plant – it’s the only big telcos that didn’t even bother to chase the CAF II money that could have been used to upgrade rural copper.

The new CenturyLink CEO made it clear that the company has no desire to make any additional investments that will earn ‘infrastructure returns’, meaning investing in last mile networks, both copper and fiber. You can’t say that Frontier doesn’t want to continue to support copper, but the company is clearly cash-stressed and is widely reported to be ignoring needed upgrades and repairs to rural copper networks.

The transition from copper to wireless is always scary for a rural area. It’s great that Windstream can now deliver speeds up to 100 Mbps to some customers. However, the reality of wireless networks are that there are always some customers who are out of reach of the transmitters. These customers may have physical impediments such as being in a valley or behind a hill and out of line-of-sight from towers. Or customers might just live to far away from a tower since all of the wireless technologies only work for some fixed distance from a tower, depending upon the specific spectrum being used.

It makes no sense for a rural telco to operate two networks, and one has to wonder what happens to the customers that can’t get the wireless service when the day comes when the copper network gets torn down. This has certainly been one of the concerns at the FCC when considering AT&T’s requests to tear down copper. The current FCC has relaxed the hurdles needed to tear down copper and so this situation is bound to arise. In the past the telcos had carrier of last-resort obligations for anybody living in the service area. Will they be required to somehow get wireless signal to those customers that fall between the cracks? I doubt that anybody will force them to do so. It’s not far-fetched to imagine customers living within a regulated telcos service area who can’t get telephone or broadband service from the telco.

Customers in these areas also have to be concerned with the future. We have wide experience that the current wireless technologies don’t last very long. We’ve seen electronics wear out and become functionally obsolete within seven years. Will Windstream and the other telcos chasing the wireless technology path dedicate enough capital to constantly replace electronics? We’ll have to wait for that answer – but experience says that they will cut corners to save money.

I also have to wonder what happens to the many parts of the Windstream service areas that are too hilly or too wooded for the wireless technology. As the company becomes wireless-oriented will they ignore the parts of the company stuck with copper? I just recently visited some rural counties that are heavily wooded, and which were told by local Windstream staff that the upgrades they’ve already seen on copper (which did not seem to make much difference) were the last upgrades they might ever see. If Windstream joins the other list of big telcos that will ignore rural copper, then these networks will die a natural death from neglect. The copper networks of all of the big telcos are already old and it won’t take much neglect to push these networks into the final death spiral.

Broadband Statistics – 3Q 2018

As a nation we are approaching an 85% overall penetration of residential broadband. The following statistics come from the latest report from the Leichtman Group and compares broadband customers at the end of the recent 3Q of 2018 to the end of 2017.

 3Q 2018 4Q 2017 Change
Comcast 26,872,000 25,869,000 1,003,000 3.9%
Charter 24,930,000 23,903,000 1,027,000 4.3%
AT&T 15,746,000 15,719,000 27,000 0.2%
Verizon 6,958,000 6,959,000 (1,000) 0.0%
CenturyLink 5,435,000 5,662,000 (227,000) -4.0%
Cox 5,040,000 4,880,000 160,000 3.3%
Altice 4,096,300 4,046,200 50,100 1.2%
Frontier 3,802,000 3,938,000 (136,000) -3.5%
Mediacom 1,260,000 1,209,000 51,000 4.2%
Windstream 1,015,000 1,006,600 8,400 0.8%
Consolidated 781,912 783,682 (1,770) -0.2%
WOW! 755,100 730,000 25,100 3.4%
Cable ONE 660,799 524,935 135,864 25.9%
Cincinnati Bell 310,700 308,700 2,000 0.6%
97,662,811 95,056,435 2,123,694 2.2%

The large ISPs in the table control over 95% of the broadband market in the country. Not included in these numbers are the broadband customers served by the smaller ISPs – the telcos, WISPs, fiber overbuilders and municipalities. Cable companies continue to dominate the broadband market and now have 63.6 million customers compared to 34.0 million customers for the big telcos.

The 2.2% overall growth during the year is impressive since many have assumed that we are nearing the top of the market for broadband penetration. It’s worth noting that the US has had a housing construction boom and has added 1.6 million new housing units so far in 2018. If you assume those new homes share the same overall 85% market penetration as the rest of the country, the new homes would account for 1.36 million of the broadband gain. That means the rest of the market saw nearly a 1% overall increase in broadband penetration – a definite slowdown over prior years.

Much of the growth at the big cable companies continues to come at the expense of telco DSL. Overall, the big telcos lost a net of 328,370 customers for the year. This is mostly due to CenturyLink and Frontier, who are clearly bleeding DSL customers. The customer losses for these two companies is a bit surprising since by now each company should have activated big numbers of faster rural DSL customers, funded by the CAF II program. Companies are not required to report their performance for CAF II separately, and I have to wonder if many rural households are actually buying the improved rural broadband.

One thing that is clear about these numbers if that every company on the list ought to be considered now as an ISP, rather than as a telco or cable company. For this same 9-month period these same companies lost nearly 2.7 million cable customers while adding 2.1 million broadband customers. It’s clear that broadband is now the biggest and most important product for each of these companies.

Progress of the CAF II Program

If readers recall, the CAF II program is providing funds to the largest telcos to upgrade rural facilities in their incumbent operating territories to broadband speeds of at least 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up. The CAF II deployment began in the fall of 2015 and lasts for 6 years, so we are now almost 2.5 years into the deployment period. I was curious about how the bigger telcos are doing in meeting their CAF II build-out requirements. The FCC hasn’t published any progress reports on CAF II deployments, so I found the following from web searches:

AT&T. The company took $427 million annually for the six years ($2.56 billion) to bring broadband to 2.2 million rural customers. The company has said they are going to use a combination of improved DSL and fixed wireless broadband using their cellular frequencies to meet their build-out requirements. From their various press releases it seems like they are planning on more wireless than wireline connections (and they have plans in many rural places of tearing down the copper).

The only big public announcement of a wireless buildout for AT&T is a test in Georgia initiated last year. On their website the company says their goal at the end of 2018 is to offer improved broadband to 440,000 homes, which would mean a 17% CAF II coverage at just over the mid-point of their 6-year build-out commitment.

On a side note, AT&T had also promised the FCC, as a condition of the DirecTV merger that they would be pass 12.5 million homes and business with fiber by mid-2019. They report reaching only 4 million by the end of 2017.

CenturyLink. CenturyLink accepted $500 million annually ($3 billion) in CAF II funding to reach 1.2 million rural homes. In case you’re wondering why CenturyLink is covering only half of the homes as AT&T for roughly the same funding – the funding for CAF II varies by Census block according to density. The CenturyLink coverage area is obviously less densely populated than the areas being covered by AT&T.

FierceTelecom reported in January that CenturyLink has now upgraded 600,000 CAF II homes by the end of last year, or 37% of their CAF II commitment. The company says that their goal is to have 60% coverage by the end of this year. CenturyLink is primarily upgrading rural DSL, although they’ve said that they are considering using point-to-multipoint wireless for the most rural parts of the coverage areas. The company reports that in the upgrades so far that 70% of the homes passed so far can get 20 Mbps download or faster.

Frontier. The last major recipient of CAF II funding is Frontier. The company originally accepted $283 million per year to upgrade 650,000 passings. They subsequently acquired some Verizon properties that had accepted $49 million per year to upgrade 37,000 passings. That’s just under $2 billion in total funding.

FierceTelecom reported in January that Frontier reached 45% of the CAF II area with broadband speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps by the end of 2017. The company also notes that in making the upgrades for rural customers that they’ve also upgraded the broadband in the towns near the CAF II areas and have increased the broadband speeds of over 900,000 passings nationwide.

Frontier is also largely upgrading DSL, although they are also considering point-to-multipoint wireless for the more rural customers.

Other telcos also took major CAF II funding, but I couldn’t find any reliable progress reports on their deployments. This includes Windstream ($175 million per year), Verizon ($83 million per year), Consolidated ($51 million per year), and Hawaiian Telcom ($26 million per year).

The upcoming reverse auction this summer will provide up to another $2 billion in funding to reach nearly 1 million additional rural homes. In many cases these are the most remote customers, and many are found in many of the same areas where the CAF II upgrades are being made. It will be interesting to see if the same telcos will take the funding to finish the upgrades. There is a lot of speculation that the cellular carriers will pursue a lot of the reverse auction upgrades.

But the real question to be asked for these properties is what comes next. The CAF II funding lasts until 2021. The speeds being deployed with these upgrades are already significantly lower than the speeds available in urban America. A household today with a 10 Mbps download speed cannot use broadband in the ways that are enjoyed by urban homes. My guess is that there will be continued political pressure to continue to upgrade rural speeds and that we haven’t seen the end of the use of the Universal Service Fund to upgrade rural broadband.

Selling Wholesale 5G

Frontier announced the other day that it was interested in selling off much of the Verizon FiOS networks it had recently acquired in 2016. Apparently, the company is over-leveraged and needs the cash to make a healthier balance sheet. But regardless of the reason, that puts a sizable pile of last mile fiber networks onto the market.

I read a summary of a report by Cowan Equity Research that suggests that there is increasing value for fiber networks now based upon the potential for selling wholesale connections to 5G providers. As I think about this, though, I’m betting that a lot of fiber network owners will be extremely leery about allowing 5G providers onto their networks.

Without looking at the Frontier specifics, consider an existing last mile fiber network that already passes all, or nearly all of the homes and businesses in a community. Every fiber business plan I’ve ever created shows that any last mile fiber network requires a substantial customer penetration in order to be financially viable. The smaller the footprint of the network, the higher the needed customer penetration rate.

Consider how a 5G provider would gain access to an existing fiber network. They’d want to gain access for each 5G transmitter and would pay some fee per unit, or else a fee to lease the whole network. That fee would have to be low enough for the 5G provider to make a profit when selling broadband. I’m guessing that the Cowan group assumes this will provide an attractive second revenue stream for an existing fiber network.

That assumption ignores the fact that the 5G company will be competing directly against the fiber owner for retail broadband customers. It’s not hard for me to envision a scenario where the fiber network owner will lose margin by this transaction. They will be trading high margin retail customers for low-margin 5G wholesale connections.

I saw one market analyst that guessed that a Verizon 5G gigabit offering would capture 30% of the customers in a market. The only way for that to happen would be for the 5G provider to take a big chunk out of the customer base of both the incumbents in the market as well as the fiber owner.

There are markets where selling wholesale 5G might be a good business plan. For example, I’ve seen speculation that Google Fiber and other large overbuilders hope to achieve a 30% market share in large NFL-sized cities. I could foresee a scenario where Google Fiber might increase profits by offering both retail broadband and wholesale 5G connections.

But in smaller markets this could be a disaster. If the fiber network is in a smaller town of 50,000 people, the existing fiber network might need a 45% or 50% customer penetration to be profitable. It’s not hard imagining a 5G scenario that could drive the network owner out of business through loss of higher-margin retail customers. I can’t see why owners of fiber networks in smaller markets would allow a direct competitor onto their network. While the new source of 5G revenue sounds enticing, the losses from retail margins could more than offset any possible gains from the wholesale 5G revenues.

The Frontier example offers yet another possibility. Verizon is famous for cherry-picking with its fiber networks. They will build to one street and not to the one next door. They will build to one apartment or subdivision but not the one next door. Verizon seems to have stayed very disciplined and built only to those places where the cost of construction met their construction cost criterion. I could foresee somebody owning a cherry-picking network to leverage it to get to the homes that are not directly on the fiber routes. We still don’t yet understand the factors that will determine who can or cannot be served from a 5G network, but assuming that such a network will extend the effective reach of fiber this seems like a possible business plan.

But there are fiber networks owned by telcos, municipalities and fiber overbuilders that might look at the math and decide that having a 5G provider on their network is a bad financial idea. I have a difficult time thinking that cable companies will allow 5G competitors access to fiber that’s deep in residential neighborhoods. My gut tells me that while Wall Street foresees an opportunity, this is going to be a lot harder sell to fiber owners than they imagine.

Big ISPs Raise Broadband Prices

As the new year dawns we are starting to see big ISPs raise broadband prices. One of the more interesting increases is by Comcast. They increased two rates – the rate of standalone broadband and the price of renting a cable modem.

The company now charges $75 per month for a standalone broadband connection that meets the FCC’s definition of broadband of being at least 25/3 Mbps. In many of their markets the minimum speed offered to new customers is faster than this, making the $75 entry price for standalone broadband.

For now it doesn’t look like Comcast increased the cost of bundled broadband, although they just announced that all bundled packages are increasing by $5 per month. But that increase can largely be attributed to increased programming costs. The price for standalone broadband was $65 a year ago, was raised by $5 during 2017 and just went up by $5 again.

The standalone price increase is aimed squarely at cord cutters. This price punishes customers who don’t want to pay for the other services in the various Comcast bundles. This is their way to still extract a lot of margin from somebody who elects to watch video online. I wrote a blog a few months ago that cited a Wall Street analyst that suggested that the company ought to charge $90 for standalone broadband, and it looks like the company is heeding that advice.

To put that price into perspective, Google Fiber and a few others are charging $70 for a standalone symmetrical gigabit connection – 20 times the speed for a lower price. But to really make a fair comparison you also have to consider the Comcast cable modem. They just raised that rate from $10 to $11 per month. The company makes it a challenger for customers who won’t use the Comcast modem, and so the real standalone price for the minimal Comcast broadband product is $86 per month.  It’s not hard to understand why households are beginning to find broadband unaffordable.

The $11 fee for a cable modem is outrageous. Comcast gets these directly manufactured and I am doubtful that they are spending more than $100 per device, and probably less. The $1 price increase adds roughly $300 million to Comcast’s bottom line. In total, the company is billing roughly $3.3 billion per year for all customers for an inventory of modems that probably costed them less than $2.5 billion. And since people tend to keep the modems for a number of years, this rate is mostly margin. Even for a new customer Comcast recovers the cost of the modem within 9 months.

Frontier also has introduced a troubling new price increase for broadband. Rather than increase the advertised price of the product they are adding a $1.99 per month ‘Internet Infrastructure Surcharge.’ This is strictly an increase in broadband rates, and the company is clearly hoping that most people don’t notice or don’t understand this new charge on their bill. For the last few years we have seen cable companies sneak in rates that look like taxes or external fees but which are just a piece of the cable TV bill. It’s disturbing to see this happening with broadband and I suspect other ISPs will begin copying this concept over the next few years.

Cox has also increased data prices, and unlike the above two companies which are trying to mask the broadband price increases, Cox raised all packages that include broadband from $2 to $4 per month.

Broadband prices have never been regulated. There was a minimal threat of price regulation under Title II authority at the FCC, but that’s now gone. I’ve seen a few articles blaming these latest price increases on the end of Title II regulation, but there has never been anything stopping an ISP from raising rates other than market forces. In fact, the FCC has never threatened to regulate broadband rates.

There are two real drivers of these and future broadband price increases. First, broadband is no longer growing explosively since most homes now have a broadband connection. And the publicly traded ISPs are feeling earnings pressure while the loss of cable TV and telephone customers leaves broadband as the only place to increase bottom line margins.

The second major factor is the absence of real broadband competition. In markets where a real competitor like Google shows up the big ISPs come close to matching the lower prices of the competitor. But as houses need faster broadband, the residual competitive pressure from DSL is waning, meaning that in most cities the cable companies are becoming a virtual monopoly. Big ISPs like Comcast will lower rates where they have a good competitor, but they are more than making up for it in markets where they have the only fast broadband.

One consequence of the kind of prices that Comcast is now charging is that, over time, they will induce more competitors to enter the market. But the only real threat on the horizon for the big cable companies is point-to-multipoint 5G. It will be interesting to see if that technology can really work as touted. If 5G is successful it will be interesting to see the pricing philosophy of the ISPs offering the service. They could price low like Google Fiber or else ride the coat strings of the cable companies with higher prices.