ISPs Are Violating the Old Net Neutrality Rules

It’s been just over a year since the FCC repealed net neutrality. The FCC’s case is being appealed and oral arguments are underway in the appeal as I write this blog. One would have to assume that until that appeal is finished that the big ISPs will be on their best behavior. Even so, the press has covered a number of ISP actions during the last year that would have violated net neutrality if the old rules were still in place.

It’s not surprising that the cellular carriers were the first ones to violate the old net neutrality rules. This is the most competitive part of the industry and the cellular carriers are not going to miss any opportunity to gain a marketing edge.

AT&T is openly advertising that cellular customers can stream the company’s DirecTV Now product without it counting against monthly data caps. Meanwhile, all of the competing video services like Sling TV, Paystation Vue, YouTube TV, Netflix or Amazon Prime count against AT&T data caps – and video can quickly kill a monthly data plan download allotment. AT&T’s behavior is almost a pure textbook example of why net neutrality rules were put into place – to stop ISPs from putting competitor’s products at an automatic disadvantage. AT&T is the biggest cellular provider in the country and this creates a huge advantage for DirecTV Now. All of the major cellular carriers are doing something similar in allowing some video to not count against the monthly data cap, but AT&T is the only one pushing their own video product.

In November a large study of 100,000 cellphone users by Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts showed that Sprint was throttling Skype. This is not something that the carrier announced, but it’s a clear case of pushing web traffic to the ‘Internet slow lane’. We can only speculate why Sprint would do this, but regardless of their motivation this is clearly a violation of net neutrality.

This same study showed numerous incidents where all of the major cellular carriers throttled video services at times. YouTube was the number one target of throttling, followed by Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the NBC Sports app. This throttling wasn’t as widespread as Sprint’s throttling of Skype, but the carriers must have algorithms in their network that throttles specific video traffic when cell sites get busy. In contrast to the big carriers, the smaller independent cellular carrier C.Spire had almost no instances of differentiation among video streams.

Practices that might violate net neutrality were not limited to cellular carriers. For example, Verizon FiOS recently began giving free Netflix for a year to new broadband customers. AT&T also started giving out free HBO to new customers last year. This practice is more subtle than the cellular carrier practice of blocking or throttling content. One of the purposes of net neutrality was for ISPs to not discriminate against web traffic. By giving away free video services the landline broadband companies are promoting specific web services over competitors.

This doesn’t sound harmful, but the discussions in the net neutrality order warned about a future where the biggest ISPs would partner with a handful of big web services like Facebook or Netflix to the detriment of all smaller and start-up web services. A new video service will have a much harder time gaining customers if the biggest ISPs are giving away their competitors for free.

There are probably more bad practices going on that we don’t know about. We wouldn’t have known about the cellular throttling of services without the big study. A lot of discrimination can be done through the network routing practices of the ISPs, which are hard to prove. For example, I’ve been seeing a growing number of complaints from consumers recently who are having trouble with streaming video services. If you recall, net neutrality first gained traction when it became known that the big ISPs like Comcast were blatantly interfering with Netflix streaming. There is nothing today to stop the big ISPs from implementing network practices that degrade certain kinds of traffic. There is also nothing stopping them from demanding payments from web services like Netflix so that their product is delivered cleanly.

Interestingly, most of the big ISPs made a public pledge to not violate the spirit of net neutrality even if the rules were abolished. That seems to be a hollow promise that was to soothe the public that worried about the end if net neutrality. The FCC implemented net neutrality to protect the open Internet. The biggest ISPs have virtual monopolies in most markets and public opinion is rarely going to change an ISP behavior if the ISP decides that the monetary gain is worth the public unhappiness. Broadband customers don’t have a lot of options to change providers and Cable broadband is becoming a near-monopoly in urban areas. There is no way for a consumer to avoid the bad practices of the cellular companies if they all engage in the same bad practices.

There is at least some chance that the courts will overturn the FCC repeal of net neutrality, but that seems unlikely to me. If the ISPs win in court and start blocking traffic and discriminating against web traffic it does seem likely that some future FCC or Congress will reinstitute net neutrality and starts the fight all over again. Regardless of the court’s decision, I think we are a long way from hearing the last about net neutrality.

The Future of Video Streaming

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I predict that we are going to see a huge shake-out in the online video market over the next few years. The field of OTT providers is already crowded. There are providers that offer some version of the programming offered on traditional cable TV like Sling TV, DirecTV Now, Playstation Vue, Hulu Plus, YouTube TV, fuboTV and Layer3 TV. There are also numerous providers with unique content like Netflix, Amazon Prime, CBS All Access, HBO Go, and more than 100 others.

The field is going to get more crowded this year. Disney is planning a Netflix competitor later this year that will include Disney’s vast library of content including unique content from Marvel, Lucasfilm, 21st Century Fox and Pixar.

AT&T also plans to offer a unique-content platform that includes the vast library of content it acquired through the merger with Time-Warner along with the content from HBO.

Apple has finally been creating unique content that it will start showing some time this year. Amazon has stepped up the creation of unique content. Comcast is planning a launch with the unique content it owns through NBC Universal and Illumination Studios.

But the biggest news is not that there will be more competitors – it’s that each of the creators of unique content is intending to only offer their content on their own platform. This is going to transform the current online landscape.

The big loser might be Netflix. While the company creates more unique content than anybody else in the industry they have benefited tremendously from outside content. I happen to watch a lot of the Marvel content and my wife sometimes refers to Netflix as the Marvel network – but that content will soon disappear from Netflix. Disney owns the Star Wars franchise. NBC Universal (Comcast) recently purchased the rights to Harry Potter. CBS owns the Star Trek franchise. AT&T owns the Game of Thrones. Amazon bought the rights to develop more Middle Earth (Lord of the Rings) content. Is Netflix going to be as attractive if they are unable to carry attractive external content in addition to their own unique content?

Each of the major content owners is aiming to capitalize on their most valuable content. For example, the industry buzz is that there are numerous new Star Trek efforts underway and that CBS All Access will become all Star Trek, all of the time. Each of these content owners is making similar plans to best monetize their content.

This looks it is going to turn into a content arms race. That means more content than ever for the viewing public. But it also means that a household that wants to watch a range of the most popular content is going to need numerous monthly subscriptions. I think 2019 is going to become the year when the monthly cost of online content starts climbing to rival the cost of traditional cable.

My family is probably fairly typical for cord cutters. We watch local channels, traditional cable networks and sports through Playstation Vue. We have subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu. During the year we add and subtract networks like ESPN Plus, CBS All Access, HBO NOW and several others. And we also buy individual TV shows and movies that aren’t included in these various platforms.

I’m not unhappy with our array of content. Each of our three family members gets to watch the content they want. We’re each free to use the devices we like and watch at times that are convenient.

The number one reason cited for cord cutting is to save money. I’m pretty certain that as a family that we already aren’t saving anything compared to what content cost us before we went online. However, saving money was not our primary reason for going online. I look forward and I suspect that we’ll probably add some of the new content this year such as Disney, so our costs are likely to keep climbing.

A few years ago there was a lot of speculation about where the industry is headed. A lot of people thought that the Amazon super-aggregator model was the future, and Amazon is doing well by reselling dozens of unique content platforms under its name brand. However, it looks like the industry is now headed in the opposite direction where each big corporate owner of unique content is going to want to extract the maximum value by selling directly to the public.

I have to wonder what this all means for the public. Will the high cost of buying numerous online packages dissuade many from cutting the cord? It’s also confusing trying to find what you want to watch with so many different sources of content that are in separate silos. It’s going to be interesting to see these industry giants battling each other for eyeballs.

Why Households Keep Cable TV

The results of a new survey were recently released by Telaria and Adobe Advertising Cloud that looked in detail at both cord cutters and those who still use traditional cable TV packages. The survey asked questions to groups of cord-cutters, those with traditional TV and also consumers who only watch video on demand and don’t pay for a service. A summary of the survey can be found at this link.

The survey asked why households keep traditional cable TV and got the following responses:

  • 42% said the primary reason for keeping traditional cable TV is to watch live programming such as sports or local news.
  • 55% said that the options for cord-cutting are confusing.
  • 34% said they liked having a lot of channels available.
  • 21% said they didn’t know where to look for alternative options to traditional cable TV.
  • 55% with traditional cable TV are still satisfied with the value they get for the price they pay.
  • 48% said they have considered cancelling traditional cable TV.
  • 30% said they would cut the cord if they were sure they could watch all of their favorite content

Cord-cutters were asked why they had left traditional TV:

  • 73% said it was due to the high cost of cable TV. 74% of cord-cutters say they are now happy with what they are paying for content.
  • 30% described themselves as low users of watching content and left because they didn’t use traditional TV very much.
  • 36% said they were still able to get the content they want.

There were some other interesting responses in the survey:

  • 16% of respondents say they have used somebody else’s password to watch streaming content.
  • 27% of homes now use a digital antenna to watch over-the-air TV, with sports being the primary reason for using the antenna.

These results are further validated by a survey released earlier this year by Deloitte who surveyed 2,088 households asking why they are keeping traditional cable TV:

  • The primary reason for keeping TV, cited by 71% of households is the ability to watch live broadcasts – be that sports, local news or events like the Emmys or Oscars.
  • Another primary reason is that households perceive that they are saving money due to a bundle. 56% of respondents said the bundle made them feel like they are getting a good deal.
  • The third reason cited for keeping traditional cable is that households said they’ve had the service for a long time and don’t want to change.
  • However, Deloitte found concern about price with 70% of respondents said they are paying too much for their cable subscriptions.

As somebody who cut the cord a number of years ago I echo some of the concerns voiced in these surveys. It can be confusing understanding the differences between the online programming options. I applaud anybody who can decipher the differences between packages offered by Sling TV, DirecTV Now and Playstation Vue. I’ve not yet found an online service that is easy to surf if you don’t have specific programming in mind. The proliferation of platforms with unique programming such as CBS All Access, Disney and others will likely make it even harder to find or afford all of the content you might want to watch. We are definitely not yet to a point where cord-cutting is as easy as keeping the traditional cable package.

Is Cord Cutting Accelerating?

The research firm eMarketer is predicting that cord cutting is accelerating this year at a pace faster than predicted by the industry. They’ve done surveys and studies and conclude that 187 million people will watch Pay TV this year (satellite or cable TV), a drop of 3.8% in viewership.

The drop in 2017 was 3.4%, but the big cable companies like Comcast and Charter hoped they could slow cord cutting this year by offering Netflix and other alternative programmers on their platforms. Perhaps that is working to a degree since cable companies are losing customers at a slower pace than satellite cable or the big telcos delivering cable on DSL, like AT&T.

eMarketer looks at the statistics in a different way than most others and predicts the people who will watch the various services – which is different than counting households. I suppose that some members of a household could stop watching traditional Pay TV while the home continues to pay for a subscription. They are predicting that the total number of people who will stop watching Pay TV will rise to 33 million by the end of 2018, up from 25 million just a year ago.

As you would expect, if Pay TV viewers are dropping, then viewers of online services ought to be increasing. They are predicting the number of viewers of the major OTT services as follows for 2018:  YouTube – 192 M; Netflix – 147.5 M; Amazon – 88.7 M; Hulu – 55 M; HBO Now – 17.1 M and Sling TV – 6.8 M. eMarketer says that in 2018 that 52% of homes now watch both Pay TV and an online service.

We know that Netflix’s growth has slowed and they added only 670,000 net customers in the US in the second quarter of this year and only 4.5 million worldwide. It appears, however, that the other online services are all growing at a faster pace as people are diversifying to watch more than just Netflix.

eMarketer credits a lot of the exodus of Pay TV subscribers to the proliferation of original content available. In 2010 there were 216 original TV series produced. That was 113 from the broadcast networks, 74 from cable-only networks, 25 from premium movie channels and 4 from online providers like Netflix. In 2017 that number has grown to an astonishing 487 original series. That’s 153 from the broadcast networks, 175 from cable-only networks, 42 from premium movie channels and 117 from online providers. A large percentage of the 487 series are now available online to somebody willing to track them down. These figures also ignore the proliferation of other content available online such as movies, documentaries, comedy specials, etc.

The proliferation of content from multiple sources is making it harder to rely on just one source of content these days. Somebody with a basic cable subscription is missing out on the 159 series produced by the premium movie channels and the online providers. Somebody cutting the cord and only using Netflix would be missing out on even more content. Some of the content generated by the broadcast and cable networks is available for free online, with commercials from places like Hulu. If a cord cutter wants to have access to a lot of the available content they’ll have to subscribe to multiple services – perhaps Netflix plus something like Hulu or Sling TV.

The eMarketer survey didn’t ask about the affordability of traditional cable – a factor that is at the top of the list in other surveys that have studied cord cutting. This particular survey concentrated on what people are watching without delving into the issues that drive somebody to cut the cord.

I don’t know about my readers, but I’m a cord cutter and I’ve already reached the point of content saturation. I probably have fifty items on my Netflix watchlist, and it would take more than a year to watch it all, even if I never add anything new. I have a similar list on Amazon Prime and a smaller list on Hulu. I never sit down to watch content without more options than I know what to do with. I have the luxury these days of watching content that fits my mood and available time – a real luxury compared to even a decade ago.

Plummeting Franchise Fees

The City of Creve Coeur, Missouri recently filed a suit against Netflix and Hulu claiming that the companies should be paying the same local franchise fees as Charter Communication, which is the incumbent video provider in the community. The City claims that it is losing franchise tax revenues as people cut the cord and they want to tax the companies that are taking that business away from Charter. They argue that Netflix and Charter ride the same wires and rights-of-way to deliver content and both should be taxed the same.

My quick reaction is that the lawsuit will get little traction due to the numerous differences between Charter and Netflix. However, I’ve learned over the years that it’s hard to predict tax disputes and it’s certainly possible that a judge might agree that Netflix can be taxed. If the courts see this as a regulatory battle the case will likely get referred to the FCC, but there’s no telling what happens if it’s instead considered as a tax dispute.

Most cable franchise taxes around the country are levied against the amount of cable TV revenues sold in a community. The nature of franchise agreements varies across the country and there are some jurisdictions that also tax telephone and broadband services.

There some interesting differences between a cable provider like Charter and Netflix.

  • I’ve read a lot of franchise agreements and one of the most common characteristics of these agreements is that, while the assess the tax levy on cable revenues, the basis of the agreement is to grant access to public rights-of-way to allow a cable provider to hang wires or bury cable in the community. Charter owns a wired network in the City while a company like Netflix does not.
  • Franchise agreements almost always create an obligation for a cable provider to serve everywhere in the community, or at least to the parts of the community that have a certain level of home density. For instance, cable companies are often required to build wires to any parts of town that have at least 15 or 20 homes per linear mile. The same obligation can’t really be applied to Netflix – they can only sell to homes that have sufficient broadband to use their service.
  • There are often other requirements that come with a franchise. For instance, the franchise holder might be required to dedicate a channel for local government programming. Franchise holders are often required to provide fiber or bandwidth to the City. Netflix wouldn’t be able to meet any of these obligations.

I don’t know if the City ultimately wants Netflix and Hulu to sign a franchise agreement, but if they do the City might not like the result. Current regulations require that a City can’t demand concessions from one franchise holder that doesn’t apply to all franchise holders. I can picture a stripped-down franchise agreement for Netflix for which Charter would immediately demand to use if Netflix was excused from any obligations required of Charter.

The FCC does not want this issue handed to them because it opens the door to defining who is a cable company. The agency opened an investigation into this issue a few years ago and quietly let it drop, because it’s not a decision they want to make. The FCC is constrained on many issues related to cable by laws passed by Congress. I think the FCC decided early in the investigation that they did not want to tackle the sticky issues of declaring online programmers to be cable companies. Had the FCC done so then this suit might have good traction.

Even a few years ago at the early start of online content the FCC could see that the online content world would become messy. There are now companies like Sling TV and DirecTV Now which look a lot like a cable company in terms of programming. But there are far more online providers that don’t fit the mold. Is a company that only streams British comedy, or soccer, or mystery movies really a cable company? Is a web service that streams blogs a content provider? I think the FCC was right to let this issue quietly die. I’m sure the day will come when the FCC finally acts on the issue, but when they do it’s more likely that traditional cable companies will be freed from regulation instead of dragging OTT providers into regulation.

It’s hard to think any city can justify the legal expense of pursuing this to the end – even winning might not give them the results they want. Without congressional action the City would have to tackle each of the hundreds of online video content providers to somehow get them to also pay a tax. This feels a lot like tilting at windmills. However, many taxes we pay today started when one jurisdiction tackled the issue and others climbed aboard – so this is worth keeping an eye on.

Simultaneous Data Streams

By working all over the country I get to hear a lot of stories about how people use broadband. I’ve noticed that over the last few years that the household expectation for broadband performance has changed.

As recently as three or four years ago most households seemed to judge the adequacy of their broadband connection by how well it would handle a video stream from Netflix or other streaming service. Households that couldn’t stream video well were unhappy, but those that could generally felt that their broadband connection was good enough.

Interestingly, much of the perceived improvement in the ability to steam video was not due to better broadband performance. Streaming services like Netflix took steps to improve the performance of their product. Netflix had always buffered their content, meaning that a customer would load the video stream a few minutes ahead of viewing to eliminate the variation in customer broadband connections. They subsequently built some brains into the service so that the compression used for a given stream would vary according to the broadband connection of the customer. They also began caching their content with ISPs so that their signal would be generated from the ISP’s local network and not from somewhere in the distant cloud.

Streaming quality then became an issue again with the introduction of live streaming sports and other content, and many of the flaws in the video stream became more apparent. I remember trying to watch ESPN online when it was first offered by Sling TV and the experience was miserable – the stream would crash a number of times during a football or basketball game. Live-streaming services have subsequently improved their product to work better with a variety of broadband connections.

Over the last two years I’ve noticed a big change in how households talk about their broadband performance. I haven’t heard anybody mention single video streaming in a few years and the expectation for a broadband connection now is that it can handle multiple data streams at the same time.

This tells me two things. First, as mentioned above, video streaming has improved to the point where you don’t get interruptions on most broadband connections. But more importantly, households have changed how they use broadband. I think my household is a typical example. The only broadband need we have that is different from many families is that my wife and I both work from home. But other than that, we don’t have atypical broadband demands.

If you go back five years we probably had perhaps half a dozen devices in our home capable of connecting to the Internet. We rarely demanded a lot of simultaneous broadband. Today we have over 40 Internet capable devices in our house. While some of them use little or no broadband, we’ve changed how we use broadband. We are cord cutters and routinely are streaming several videos at the same time while also using the Internet for gaming and schoolwork. We’re often stream music. Our computers automatically upload files to the cloud and download software updates. Cellphones are connected to the WiFi and there is regular use of FaceTime and other apps that include video streams.

Interestingly, when the FCC established 25/4 Mbps as the definition of broadband they justified the speed by looking at simultaneous uses of multiple broadband services. At that time a lot of critics derided the FCC’s justification since it wasn’t realistic for how most households really used broadband. Perhaps the staff at the FCC was prescient, because their illustrative examples are exactly how a lot of homes use broadband today.

If anything, the FCC’s method was conservative because it didn’t account for the interference that arises in a home network that is processing multiple data streams at the same time. The more streams, the more interference, and it wouldn’t be unusual for a home like ours to experience 20% to 30% overhead in our WiFi network while processing the numerous simultaneous streams.

Unfortunately, many policy makers are still stuck on the old paradigm. This is the only way they can justify something like the CAF II program that will provide data steams in the 10 Mbps range. They still talk about how that connection will allow a household to watch video or do homework, but they ignore all of the other ways that homes really use broadband today. I know for my home that a 25 Mbps broadband stream is not sufficient and will bog down at various times of the day – so I buy something faster. It’s hard to imagine stepping back to a 10 Mbps connection, because doing so would force us to make hard choices on curtailing our broadband usage.

The Growing Dislike of Big ISPs

The annual ratings from the American Consumer Satisfaction Index came out recently, and they show that consumer dislike for the big ISPs is increasing. This survey looks at how consumers feel about a wide range of businesses, and the ISPs have been ranked as some of the most disliked corporations for a number of years.

The survey asks numerous questions and creates a satisfaction scale from 1 to 100. The survey looks at several different categories of telecom companies and has separate rankings for for cable TV providers, broadband providers and a new category for streaming video providers.

Among the big ISPs that offer cable TV service, the rank of every provider except AT&T U-Verse sank compared to last year. AT&T was the highest rated company in this group with a rating of 70. At the bottom was Mediacom with a rating of 55, down from 56 a year ago. The two giant cable companies both saw a drop in consumer satisfaction: Charter had a huge drop from 63 down to 58, Comcast dropped from 58 to 57.

The rankings for how consumers feel about their broadband provider were similar. The only big ISP that didn’t drop was Comcast that stayed at a ranking of 60 for two years running. Everybody other big ISP dropped. At the top of the list was Verizon FiOS which dropped from 71 to 70. At the bottom was Mediacom again which had a big drop from 58 to 53. Charter also had a big drop from 63 to 58. Rounding out the bottom rankings were Frontier (54), Windstream (56) and CenturyLink (58)

Streaming services got significantly higher rankings. Topping this first time list were Netflix, Playstation Vue and Twitch with a ranking of 78. At the bottom were Sony Crackle (68), Showtime Anywhere (70) and DirecTV Now (70), all still significantly better than traditional cable companies.

It must be frustrating for the big ISPs to see their customer satisfaction drop year after year. The rankings of the ISPs are lower than other unpopular industries like airlines, banks, insurance companies and even the Internal Revenue Service.

If there is any upside to the low customer satisfaction rankings it’s that it creates opportunities for competitors. It’s been conventional wisdom for years that a new competitor will get up to 30% of a market just for showing up with an alternative network – assuming they know how to sell and have decent customer service.

They survey doesn’t dig into the reasons for the sinking dissatisfaction, but it’s easy to speculate on some of the reasons. People are certainly unhappy with traditional cable TV due to the ever-rising prices. High prices are the number one factor cited for consumers who are cutting the cord, and the dropping satisfaction shows there is likely another growing pile of future cord cutters.

It’s a little harder to understand the dissatisfaction with broadband. At least in major metropolitan areas the ISPs have continued to unilaterally increase download speeds with only modest rate hikes. One would expect satisfaction with the the broadband product to be higher and my guess is that the low ranking deal more with the pain involved in having to ever call these big companies. Compared to other businesses we all deal with, the interaction with the cable company / ISP is often the one we dread the most. The other likely cause for dissatisfaction is that ISPs often don’t deliver the speeds they promise. This varies by market, but we’ve seen cities where consumers only get a fraction of the speed they are paying for.

It’s much easier to understand unhappiness with ISPs immediately outside of big cities. Broadband is smaller towns is often still generations behind and is inadequate for what households expect today in terms of download speeds and latency. Anybody who reads this blog will understand the near-hatred for the ISPs in rural areas. The cable companies don’t come to rural America and the big telcos have abandoned maintenance of the copper networks for decades. Rural broadband is either poor or nonexistent with practically everybody hating the companies that won’t bring them broadband.

 

Industry Shorts – March 2018

Following are a few topics that I find interesting, but which are too short to cover in a full blog:

Surge in Online Video Subscriptions. The number of households buying online video is surging. Netflix added almost 2 million US and 6.36 million international customers in the 4th quarter of 2017. That’s 18% more than the same quarter from a year earlier. There are also a growing number of vMVPD customers. At the end of last year CBS All Access has nearly 5 million customers. Showtime OTT also has nearly 5 million customers. Sling TV now has nearly 2 million customers. AT&T DirecTV hit the 1 million customer mark in December. PlayStation Vue reported 670,000 customers in mid-December. The new YouTube service has about 300,000. Hulu is also growing but doesn’t separately report it’s live TV customers from it’s video on demand customers (reported at 17 million total in December). Note that Hulu let’s customers buy one TV series or movies without needed a subscription.

Cellphone Data Usage Growth. According to the research firm NPD the average US smartphone now is used for an average of 31.4 GB per month of data. This is combined usage between cellular and WiFi data and is evidence that people are starting to really accept the small screen for video. This is up over 25% from a year earlier. The firm reports that video accounts for 83% of the usage.

The number of people willing to use a cellphone for video has also surged. NPD reports that 67% of cellphone users watched at least one video during the 3rd quarter of 2017, up from 57% in the 2nd quarter. Another research firm, Strategic Analytics reported that worldwide cellular data usage grew 115% in 2017, or more than doubled.

Global Streaming Doubled in 2017. Conviva, which provides systems to monitor and analyze online usage also reports that online video content more than doubled last year. They report that there were 12.6 billion viewing hours of online video in 2017 measured across 2.4 billon viewing devices. They report that 58% of video viewing came from North America; 21% from Europe; 19% from Asia 2% from the rest of the world.

Satellite TV Taking the Brunt of Cord Cutting. For some reason cord cutting seemed to be hitting the two big satellite TV providers even harder than landline cable companies. Dish Networks and DirecTV together lost 4.7% of their subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2017. We can only speculate for the reasons for the shift. The bundles of the landline cable companies make it harder for customers to drop their cable subscription. But to offset this, many satellite customers are in rural areas where there is often not a good broadband alternative to cable. But perhaps the FCC’s CAF II and ACAM programs are speeding up rural broadband enough for households to consider cutting the cord. It should be noted that AT&T is pushing their DirecTV now product more than their satellite TV, which also might account for part of the shift from satellite TV.

Apple Jumps into Programming. Apple quietly has gotten into the programing business. They’ve allocated over $1 billion in 2018 for the creation of new content. They’ve landed some big-name talent such as Steven Spielberg, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon for projects. Apple doesn’t have a content platform and the industry is buzzing with speculation on how they might market and distribute the content.

Pirated Video Content on Rise. Sandvine reports that 6.5% of North American households have accessed pirated video content in the last year. I’ve read reports from Canada of companies openly advertising pirated content, including providing settop boxes that can download IPTV content directly from the Internet. Yesterday’s blog talked about new efforts by content owners to force ISPs to enforce copyright infringement.

AT&T and Net Neutrality

The big ISPs know that the public is massively in favor of net neutrality. It’s one of those rare topics that polls positively across demographics and party lines. Largely through lobbying efforts of the big ISPs, the FCC not only killed net neutrality regulation but they surprised most of the industry by walking away from regulating broadband at all.

We now see states and cities that are trying to bring back net neutrality in some manner. A few states like California are creating state laws that mimic the old net neutrality rules. Many more states are limiting purchasing for state telecom to ISPs that don’t violate net neutrality. Federal Democratic politicians are creating bills that would reinstate net neutrality and force it back under FCC jurisdiction.

This all has the big ISPs nervous. We certainly see this in the way that the big ISPs are talking about net neutrality. Practically all of them have released statements talking about how much they support the open Internet. These big companies already all have terrible customer service ratings and they don’t want to now be painted as the villains who are trying to kill the web.

A great example is AT&T. The company’s blog posted a letter from Chairman Randall Stephenson that makes it sound like AT&T is pro net neutrality. It fails to mention how the company went to court to overturn the FCC’s net neutrality decision or how much they spent lobbying to get the ruling overturned.

AT&T also took out full-page ads in many major newspapers making the same points. In those ads the company added a new talking point that net neutrality ought to also apply to big web companies like Facebook and Twitter. That is a red herring because web companies, by definition, can’t violate net neutrality since they don’t control the pipe to the customers. Many would love to see privacy rules that stop the web companies from abusing customer data – but that is a separate issue than net neutrality. AT&T seems to be making this point to confuse the public and deflect the blame away from themselves.

Stephenson says that AT&T is favor of federal legislation that would ensure net neutrality. But what he doesn’t say is that AT&T favors a bill the big companies are pushing that would implement a feel-good watered-down version of net neutrality. Missing from that proposed law (and from all of AT&T’s positions) is any talk of paid priority – one of the three net neutrality principles. AT&T has always wanted paid prioritization. They want to be able to charge Netflix or Google extra to access their networks since those two companies are the largest drivers of web traffic.

In my mind, abuse of paid prioritization can break the web. ISPs already charge their customers enough money to fully cover the cost of the network needed to support broadband. Customers with unlimited data plans, like most landline connections, have the right to download as much content as they want. The idea of an AT&T then also charging the content providers for the privilege to get to customers is a terrible idea for a number of reasons.

Consider Netflix. It’s likely that they would pass any fees paid to AT&T on to customers. And in doing so, AT&T has violated the principle of non-discrimination of traffic, albeit indirectly, by making it more expensive for people to use Netflix. AT&T will always say that are not the cause of a Netflix rate increase – but AT&T is able to influence the market price of web services, and in doing so discriminate against web traffic.

The other problem with paid prioritization is that it is a barrier to the next Netflix. New companies without Netflix’s huge customer base could not afford the fees to connect to AT&T and other large ISPs. And that barrier will stop the next big web company from launching.

I’ve been predicting that the ISPs are not going to do anything that drastically violates net neutrality for a while. They are going to be cautious about riling up the public and legislators since they understand that Congress could reinstate both net neutrality and broadband regulation at any time. The ISPs are enjoying the most big-company friendly FCC there has ever been, and they are getting everything they want out of them.

But big ISPs like AT&T know that the political and regulatory pendulum can and will likely swing the other way. Their tactic for now seems to be to say they are for net neutrality while still working to make sure it doesn’t actually come back. So we will see more blogs and newspaper ads and support for watered-down legislation. They are clearly hoping the issue loses steam so that the FCC and administration don’t reinstate rules they don’t want. But they realistically know that they are likely to be judged by their actions rather than their words, so I expect them to ease into practices that violate net neutrality in subtle ways that they hope won’t be noticed.

The Crowded MVPD Market

The virtual MVPD (Multichannel Video Programming Distributor) market is already full of providers and is going to become even more crowded this year. Already today there is a marketing war developing between DirecTV Now, Playstation Vue, Sling TV, Hulu Live, YouTube TV, CBS All Access, fuboTV and Layer3 TV. There are also now a lot of ad-supported networks offering free movies and programming such as Crackle and TubiTV. All of these services tout themselves as an alternative to traditional cable TV.

This year will see some new competitors in the market. ESPN is getting ready to launch its sports-oriented MVPD offering. The network has been steadily losing subscribers from cord cutting and cord shaving. While the company is gaining some customers from other MVPD platforms they believe they have a strong enough brand name to go it alone.

The ESPN offering is likely to eventually be augmented by the announcement that Disney, the ESPN parent company, is buying 21st Century Fox programming assets, including 22 regional sports networks. But this purchase won’t be implemented in time to influence the initial ESPN launch.

Another big player entering the game this year is Verizon which is going to launch a service to compete with the offerings of competitors like DirecTV Now and Sling TV. This product launch has been rumored since 2015 but the company now seems poised to finally launch. Speculation is the company will use the platform much like AT&T uses DirecTV Now – as an alternative to customers who want to cut the cord as well as a way to add new customers outside the traditional footprint.

There was also announcement last quarter by T-Mobile CEO John Legere that the company will be launching an MVPD product in early 2018. While aimed at video customers the product will be also marketed to cord cutters. The T-Mobile announcement has puzzled many industry analysts who are wondering if there is any room for a new provider in the now-crowded MVPD market. The MVPD market as a whole added almost a million customers in the third quarter of 2017. But the majority of those new customers went to a few of the largest providers and the big question now is if this market is already oversaturated.

On top of the proliferation of MVPD providers there are the other big players in the online industry to consider. Netflix has announced it is spending an astronomical $8 billion on new programming during the next year. While Amazon doesn’t announce their specific plans they are also spending a few billion dollars per year. Netflix alone now has more customers than the entire traditional US cable industry.

I would imagine that we haven’t seen the end of new entrants. Now that the programmers have accepted the idea of streaming their content online, anybody with deep enough pockets to work through the launch can become an MVPD. There have already been a few early failures in the field and we’ve seen Seeso and Fullscreen bow out of the market. The big question now is if all of the players in the crowded field can survive the competition. Everything I’ve read suggests that margins are tight for this sector as the providers hold down prices to build market share.

I have already tried a number of the services including Sling TV, fuboTV, DirecTV Now and Playstation Vue. There honestly is not that much noticeable difference between the platforms. None of them have yet developed an easy-to-use channel guide and they feel like the way cable felt a decade ago. But each keeps adding features that is making them easier to use over time. While each has a slightly different channel line-up, there are many common networks carried on most of the platforms. I’m likely to try the other platforms during the coming year and it will be interesting to see if one of them finds a way to distinguish themselves from the pack.

This proliferation of online options spells increased pressure for traditional cable providers. With the normal January price increases now hitting there will be millions of homes considering the shift to online.