Trends in Traditional TV

Nielsen has now been publishing quarterly reports on TV viewing habits since 2011. Comparing the latest report for the 4th quarter of 2016 to the original 2011 report shows a major decrease in the hours spent by younger Americans in watching traditional television – which is defined as the combination of both live viewing and time-delayed viewing of network television content.

The changes differ by age group and don’t paint a pretty picture for the traditional TV market:

  • Teens (12-17) watched almost 14 hours per week of television, but that’s down almost 11% from 2015 and down 38% from five years.
  • Younger Millennials (18-24) watched 15.5 hours per week of TV, and that’s down 39%, or 1.5 hours per day over 5 years.
  • Older Millennials (25-34) watched 22 hours per week, and which is down 26.5% over five years.
  • Gen-Xers (35-49) watched almost 40 hours per week and have seen a 10% drop over five years.
  • Baby Boomers (50-64) watched 43 hours per week and have had a slight increase over five years of 1.6% in viewing time.
  • 65+ viewers watched 52 hours per week which is up 0.6% over 2015 and is up 8.4% over five years.

So what are the younger people doing other than watching traditional TV?  The numbers for 19-24 year old users is interesting.

  • They spend 15.5 hours per week watching traditional television (including time-shifting).
  • They spend 20.8 hours watching subscription-based OTT content like Netflix or Amazon.
  • They spend another 17 hours watching something else, which includes things like DVRs, video on social media, or free web content like YouTube.
  • That’s an average of 53 hours per week, about the same amount of screen time as those over 65 watching traditional TV.

This same group also uses a variety of different screens. That includes an average of 9.2 hours per week watching video on a PC or laptop, 1.5 hours per week watching on a tablet and 1 hour per week watching on a smartphone. The rest still use a television screen, even if the content is not a traditional TV feed.

The good news for the whole industry is that young people are not tuning out from watching video content – they are just watching a lot less traditional television. And that means less of the major networks, less sports, and less of all of the various networks found on cable systems. They have decided, as a group that other content is of more interest.

It’s soon going to be harder for Nielsen and others to quantify the specific types of content viewing because the lines are starting to blur between the various categories. If somebody watches a live feed of a basketball game or a traditional network show on Sling TV that is basically the same as watching traditional TV. But on that same platform you can also watch streaming movies in the same manner as Netflix. And traditional broadcasters are doing something similar. For example, CBS All-access not only includes traditional CBS programming, but there is new content like the new Star Trek series that is only going to be available on-line.

We’ve known for a long time that younger viewers are not watching television in the same way as older generations, but these numbers really highlight the differences. Those over 65 years old are watching four times more traditional television than teens. And viewing hours for younger viewers are steadily dropping while older viewers are watching as much or more TV than five years ago. You only have to trend this forward for a decade to foresee continued dramatic drops in total TV viewership.

For years there has been hope in the industry that as kids age and get families and buy homes that they will return to the traditional pay-TV packages. But numerous surveys have shown that this is not happening. It seems that the viewing habits of youth influences viewing habits for life. And that creates a real challenge for the advertising-supported pay TV model. TV advertisers are only reliably reaching older viewers, and yet most advertisers still believe that TV advertising is one of their most effective tools. But each year TV advertising is going to reach fewer and fewer younger viewers, and at some point the advertisers are going to be forced to look elsewhere.

Why Isn’t Cord Cutting Going Faster?

If cord cutting is such a big deal, then why aren’t more people leaving traditional television? That’s a question I’ve been asked several times lately and it’s a good one.

Cord cutting is definitely real. Numerous articles make cord cutting seem like an imminent disaster for the cable industry. But industry estimates are that between 1.7 million and 2.5 million people walked away from traditional cable TV in 2016. The lower number is the net drop in national cable subscribers while the higher number takes into account the fact that there were over a million new housing units built in the country – and I think the higher number is closer to correct.

And while losses of that many customers hurts the cable industry, it’s hard to yet call it a flood. If annual losses stay at this level the cable industry will still have over 50 million customers twenty years from now. The real story might be that most people aren’t yet cutting the cord. There are a lot of reasons for this, but I think the most important ones are:

People Still Like Cable. Total pay television subscribers just fell to under 100 million sometime last year. There are a lot of households that still like the variety of channels that come with the big packages. While a lot customers are now time shifting by the use of DVRs and TV everywhere, they still like what they are buying.

Bundling Discount. It’s really easy to forget that the big cable companies have priced their bundles in such a way as to penalize customers for leaving just one service. Cord cutters generally want to retain their broadband while dropping cable – and when they go to do this they find that the savings is not as large as they thought. Interestingly, if you want to keep cable and drop broadband the same thing is true. The big cable companies apply the ‘bundling’ discount to whatever product you want to drop – meaning that you then revert to paying full market price for whatever product is kept. People that want to save $20 per month by switching to an OTT service like Sling TV quickly find out that they actually won’t save much.

Cord Shaving Instead. There is a whole lot of cord shaving going on – that is, people migrating to smaller cable packages. Cord shaving lets people who mostly like Netflix to keep local network stations and a few other things they like about traditional TV, without fully cutting the cord. This is best evidenced by looking at the subscriber numbers to the various cable networks, which are losing subscriptions at a much faster pace than total pay TV subscribership. For example, ESPN has lost around 12 million subscribers since their peak in 2013, and the majority of other cable networks are also seeing large subscriber losses. Since the total net subscribers to pay television are dropping more slowly, the only explanation is that customers are opting out of the big cable packages for smaller ones. The cable companies don’t release statistics on cord shaving, and so we can only guess at the magnitude of the changes by seeing what is happening to ESPN and other networks.

The Alternatives are not that Different. Over half of the homes in the country now subscribe to at least one of the OTT services like Netflix. But it appears that most homes are viewing this content as alternate content and not a straight replacement for traditional cable.

There are a lot of new alternatives to traditional cable such as Sling TV or Playstation Vue – but I don’t think most customers are seeing them as significantly different than traditional cable content. I’ve been trying some of these services and they honestly still feel like cable. The content is mostly streamed at fixed times and even with smaller line-ups I find I’m not interested in most of the channels they carry. While these alternatives can save money, they often don’t have the same reliability or quality of picture as a cable system. The bottom line, at least to me, is that services like Sling TV still feel like cable offerings to me.

It’s Not Easy for Some. It’s not easy for the technically unsophisticated to totally cut the cord. Unless you live in a major metropolitan market you’re going to want to somehow tie in your local network stations with other online programming, and that is still not that easy. You can get an antenna to pick up off-the-air content, but that is not easily integrated into any easy-to-use program guide or search engine.

It’s also not always easy to drop the cable company. People get tied up in contracts that are expensive to break. There is a whole gauntlet of steps needed to get away from the cable company from listening to retention specialists to returning settop boxes that make leaving a hassle – and the cable companies know that these tactics work.

We may get to a time when cord cutting accelerates more quickly, as happened with landline telephones. But before that happens there needs to be easier to use and more satisfying alternatives to draw most people away from traditional cable altogether. If there is any one issue that might push more households over the edge it’s the price of cable packages – but the big cable providers are now introducing skinny bundles to try to retain the budget minded customers. I’m looking at the numbers and thinking we are going to have traditional cable around a lot longer than many people predict.

Comcast as a Competitor

Somebody recently asked me about Comcast as a competitor. They have been a formidable competitor for many years, but I think they are pulling ahead of other cable companies in many ways. I’m sure that over time some of the other cable companies will try to emulate them. Consider the following:

  • They’ve created Comcast Labs (similar to Bell Lab). This group of scientists and engineers are concentrated largely on developing products that improve the customer experience. Nobody else has a research arm of this size and focus.
  • One of the first things out of Comcast Labs has been the proprietary X1 settop box, which has rave reviews and is heads above any other box. It has easy-to-use menus and is voice activated. It integrates the Internet into every TV. And it includes a growing list of unique features that customers really like.
  • Comcast has also now integrated Netflix and Sling TV into their settop box to keep customers on their box and platform. I suspect that Comcast takes a little slice of revenue for this integration. And it looks like they have a goal of becoming what the industry is starting to call a superbundler. There are around 100 OTT offerings on the market today and my guess is that over time they are going to integrate more of them into their ecosystem.
  • Comcast is working on skinny bundle packages that will let people buy smaller and more focused TV packages to keep them from leaving. Comcast is highly motivated to keep customers on the system since they own a lot of programming.
  • Comcast has found great success with their smart home product. This is probably the most robust such product on the market and includes such things as security and burglar alarms, smart thermostat, watering systems, smart blinds for energy control, security cameras, smart lights, smart door locks, etc. And this can all be easily monitored from the settop box or from a smartphone app. They don’t report numbers, but I’ve seen estimates that they now have a 7% to 8% customer penetration. Those customers are totally sticky and won’t easily drop Comcast.
  • Comcast has been an industry leader in in the race to unilaterally increase customer data speeds. They moved my 50 Mbps product to 75 Mbps with plans to raise it again to 100 Mbps after the DOCSIS 3.1 upgrade. I think they have figured out that faster speeds means a lot fewer customer complaints.
  • They are going to soon be offering cellphone services and will integrate them into the bundle. They just announced tentative pricing that looks to be lower than Verizon and AT&T in two-thirds of the markets in the US. Analysts say that over five years they could capture as much as 30% of the cellphone business in their markets. We’ll have to wait and see if that happens – because the cellular companies have better customer service than Comcast. But there is no doubt that they will get a lot of customers, and that those customers will also be sticky. They just bought a pile of spectrum that will help them offer some service directly to improve their margins.
  • One big advantage Comcast has over wireless competitors is that they own a lot of programming content. The industry expects them to use zero-rating, meaning that they will give their cellular customer access to all of their programming without having it count against cellular data caps.
  • As the biggest ISP Comcast probably has the most to gain from the reversal of customer privacy rules and net neutrality. Comcast already does well selling advertising but could become one of the major players online using customer data to target marketing.
  • Comcast is putting a lot of money into making their customer service better. They are quickly moving away from making everybody call their customer service centers. They also now have a decent customer service by text process. And they now allow people to ask and resolve questions by chat from their web site. Each of these improvements satisfies a niche of their customers and relieves the long wait times for a customer service rep.

They are also moving a lot of customer service back to the US, finally understanding that the cost savings of using foreign reps is not worth the customer dissatisfaction. But what they (and all of the other big companies) are banking on is the general belief that within five years there will be a decent artificial intelligence system for handling customer service. This will not be like the dreadful systems used today by airlines and banks. The expectation is that an AI will be able to satisfactorily handle the majority of customer service calls satisfactorily without needing a human service rep. Comcast will have these systems long before smaller competitors, giving them a big cost advantage.

I probably have a dozen blogs over the last few years blasting Comcast for their various practices and policies. But it’s not hard to see that they are possibly the most formidable competitor in the country. When you consider all of these positives and also understand that on a local basis that Comcast will match competitor’s prices – they are hard to beat. Like with any large ISP there are probably 20% of their customers that will choose somebody else out of reflex. But after that it’s a real challenge prying and keeping customers away from them.

Who Wins with Cable Deregulation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Content Finally is King

One of the more common memes in our industry is the phrase “content is king.” This was first said by Sumner Redstone of Viacom in 1994 but made more famous by Bill Gates in 1996. The phrase has been used since then to describe how the creators of content have the power in our industry – be that programming or web content.

John Stankey, the CEO of AT&T Entertainment, recently emphasized this same concept in talking about the company’s planned merger with Time Warner. At the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona he said, “We just cannot envision a future where AT&T is relevant if we don’t directly participate in some of the water flowing through our pipes.”

All of the big ISPs have decided that content is key to their survival. Comcast already owns a mountain of programming, and after the merger with Time Warner, AT&T will be a content powerhouse as well. Verizon has climbed into the game with the acquisitions of AOL and Yahoo. There are web companies with the same philosophy. Netflix has built a new industry by creating new content. Google is pushing content heavily through YouTube. Amazon has started to create unique content and recently said they are going to make that a priority. Facebook is becoming a content force through Facebook Now.

I remember having this conversation with Derrel Duplechin of CCG back in 2000. We were asked by several clients to speculate about the future of the carrier industry and we foresaw that most carriers were likely on the path to eventually become what we called “dumb pipe” providers. I remember that this was a story that many of our clients did not want to hear.

We lived in a different carrier world in 2000. Most homes still had telephones and voice was the most profitable product for most carriers. The cable TV product that many of our clients sold then also had decent margins. But we predicted that both products would eventually sink in importance and in margins and that eventually most of our clients would earn most of their profits from broadband. We thought this would happen to all carriers, small and large, and we figured that the most profitable future companies would be those that found some other line of business other than just selling data pipes to end users.

We had some clients take this to heart and some of them have made a really good living by providing extra value to customers. For example, we have several clients who thrive by bringing a suite of products to businesses other than just plain connectivity. But for the most part, the majority of the ISP industry sells dumb pipes today. They compete with the speed of those pipes and with price and with good customer service – but the primary products (and the driver of most of the profits) are now data pipes.

The big companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast looked at that future and it scared them. It’s pretty obvious that if your only product is dumb pipes that your earnings are not going to continue to grow fast enough to satisfy Wall Street. This is probably what convinced Verizon to stop expanding their FiOS network. Both AT&T and Verizon got huge earnings boosts from expanding their cellular businesses, but that industry also seems to be heading towards the same plateau as landline ISPs – cell service is becoming a commodity.

So these big companies are now pursuing content because it looks to be the last area in our industry with the potential for significant bottom line growth. It’s going to be an interesting race to watch. Content providers have succeeded or failed over the years according to their ability to find smash hits. A huge hit movie or TV series can mean huge returns to the bottom line. But content providers that don’t create what the public wants to watch suffer badly in terms of stock prices and earnings. Being a content provider is not predictable in the same way as telecom.

Interestingly. AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast are now direct competitors of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Netflix. Content certainly is king, but content also brings the risk from competition. The companies that fall behind in this race are likely to be gobbled up by their more successful competitors. I find it extremely unlikely that all of these big companies will still be in existence in 10 years.

There is no real barrier to entry into the world of content creation other than having a pile of money. It’s likely that other big companies will join the content fray. But all of these companies are entering a world that is in big flux. For example, traditional video and web content might well be replaced by virtual and enhanced reality. The companies that succeed in content will have to spend a lot of money staying one step ahead of the competition, and my money is on the more nimble technology companies. Twenty years ago I would have been shocked to know that someday AT&T would have a CEO of Entertainment – and that may turn out to be the most important job in the corporation.

AT&T and Time Warner

ATTI have been thinking about the AT&T and Time Warner merger since it was first announced. Generally the reasons for megamergers are apparent – there is generally some big efficiency or cross benefit to both companies that makes sense. But I had a very hard time seeing very much benefit to either company with this merger.

The obvious intersection between the two companies is programming. Time Warner produces a lot of content – networks including HBO, TNT, TBS, CNN and a host of smaller networks.  And AT&T has a lot of cable customers through DirecTV and U-verse.

But as I think through the programming advantage it’s not as big as you might think. AT&T is not likely to buy any more cable content from Time Warner after a merger than it does today. It’s likely that all of Time Warner’s content is already delivered to AT&T’s video customers. In fact, once the two companies combine, any transactions between the two of them disappear upon consolidation when creating the financial statements for the combined companies.

The non-accountant will say, “Wait, doesn’t that mean that AT&T gets the content for free”? And the answer is no, because it also means that the revenue that AT&T pays to Time Warner today in real cash also disappears. On the consolidated books both sides of the transaction disappear, as if they never happened.

And it’s hard to see any of the typical merger savings from consolidating management. The two businesses have almost nothing in common and it would make no sense for program executives to run a giant ISP or for AT&T executives to make programming decisions.

The only other obvious benefit is for AT&T to somehow leverage the Time Warner content to grow the wireless business. When the merger announcement was first announced the FCC sent a letter to AT&T and told them they would be investigating their zero-ratings practices. Zero-rating is when an ISP provides content to customers without counting the usage against any data caps. AT&T already does this today with a limited amount of content, but if they owned Time Warner they would have far more content they could send over cellphones that wouldn’t count against data caps. An AT&T customer could watch Game of Thrones, for instance, on their AT&T cellular plan without worrying about their monthly data cap. But if they watch non-AT&T video they would be penalized.

With the new administration it looks like zero-rating (and net neutrality in general) is likely dead. But how much of a benefit is zero-rating to a wireless company? Certainly this could drive more advertising revenue to the combined company, but that doesn’t seem like a big enough motivation for the mega-merger. And unless one cellular companies gets killer content that everybody wants to watch on a cellphone, it’s hard to think that zero-rating is going to be a big game changer in terms of shifting wireless customers between providers. I have a hard time seeing AT&T zero-rating as a Verizon Wireless killer.

The only real benefit I can foresee is a bit of a scary one. With each of these mergers between ISPs and programmers the industry collapses to fewer and fewer major players. This merger would put AT&T on the same footing as Comcast in terms of programming content. And maybe that is the major reason for the merger – just keeping up.

But what is to stop the biggest companies from selling content to each other in bulk? I could foresee AT&T and Comcast agreeing to sell content to each other at a reduced price based upon some volume discount. This would end up giving both companies an edge over every other ISP. These two mega-companies (and probably a few others) would then be able to leverage that advantage to crush their other competitors – leaving the nation with even fewer competitors than today.

I don’t know that this scenario could be sustained. It seems like the public is migrating away from a lot of traditional content towards programming produced independently by companies like Netflix. But if the AT&T / Time Warner merger is allowed to happen, what will stop one of these big companies from buying Netflix and every other independent content provider that pops up?

Some OTT Statistics

sling-tvAs usual the quarterly Digitalsmiths and TiVo recent Video Trends Report contains a ton of interesting statistics about the industry. The following table shows the number of households that subscribed to the various OTT services during the third quarter of each of the last four years.

 

‘                                              Q3 2013          Q3 2014          Q3 2015          Q3 2016

Netflix                                     41.7%              46.4%              49.9%              51.8%

Amazon Prime                        12.9%              17.9%              19.9%              24.8%

Hulu                                          9.4%                9.6%              12.1%                9.9%

HBO Now                                                                                  4.3%                5.2%

YouTube Red                                                                                                      3.1%

Shomi                                                                                                                2.7%

CBS All Access                                                                           2.1%                2.1%

Sling TV                                                                                      1.0%                1.7%

Play Station Vue                                                                         1.3%                1.6%

Blockbuster                               1.8%                1.2%                 1.0%                1.0%

Other                                         1.5%                1.4%                 1.7%                1.8%

Nothing                                    51.8%              47.3%               43.7%              38.1%

Netflix has continued to dominate the industry and has grown to cover an additional 10% of all homes nationwide since 2013. Hulu increased market share in 2015 but is back down again. But expect Hulu to grow again since they are picking up a lot of new content from its owner programmers. In four years Amazon Prime has doubled, although there is a lot of debate about how many people actually watch the video service since it comes free with the Prime shipping program.

What springs out most from the chart is how the industry is diversifying. In just the last year YouTube Red and Shomi sprang to fifth and sixth place in the industry. And 2014 saw the introduction of Play Station Vue, SlingTV, CBS All Access, and HBO Now. It’s also striking to see the number of homes that don’t watch OTT content drop from 52% in 2013 to only 38% today.

You may be surprised to see Blockbuster still active on the list. While all their stores have closed, the Blockbuster brand is still being used to market OTT movies and is now integrated into SlingTV.

The ‘Other’ category is interesting. On last count there were over 100 different video pay services on the web, yet outside the major OTT players these services together are only seen in 1.8% of households.

This next chart shows what people pay for OTT content, comparing 2014 and today

Monthly Expense                  Q3 2014                      Q3 2016

$1 – $2                                     2.0%                            3.6%

$3 – $5                                     2.3%                            3.2%

$6 – $8                                    33.4%                          16.5%

$9 – $11                                  21.7%                          30.1%

$12 – $14                                  8.1%                           10.0%

$15 – $20                                 14.0%                          15.8%

$21+                                           6.8%                          10.7%

Use But Don’t Pay                    11.1%                          10.1%

In just two years the average bills have crept significantly upward. Currently over 2/3 of homes report paying more than $9 per month for OTT service, while in 2014 that was only 51%. Probably more interesting is that 26% of homes pay more than $15 per month for OTT content. My household is in this category and we have subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime (including Starz), and SlingTV.

The percentage of households who told an interviewer that they watch but don’t pay for OTT content dropped slightly, but represents about the same number of people from 2014 to 2016.

 

The FCC and Data Caps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OTT Latest – August 2016

tubitv_squareThe only way for cord cutting to become a true problem for the cable companies is for there to be so much content online that people feel comfortable walking away from the cable packages. If the last few months are any indication of where the OTT industry is heading, we soon ought to be seeing more people cut the cord. So far this year there has been an average of almost one new OTT roll-out every week and there are now over 130 subscription video services on the web. Here are just a few of the more interesting recent announcements in what is becoming a busy new industry:

Acorn TV. Priced at $4.99 per month (first month free) this service bundles the best shows from the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The service is starting with 60 exclusive titles that include a lot of drama, police who-dunnits and dry British comedy.

Sling TV. The service has grown from very simple to having a wide range of options. They have added a ton of new programming such as Fox Sports and other Fox Shows, They brought in the NBC suite including the live NBC feed, USA, Bravo, SyFy and BBC America. They beefed up the sports offering with some regional sports networks. The NBC live feed will be the first place that local NFL games will be broadcast on the web. They have added E! and Oxygen to their Lifestyle package. And they’ve added BBC World News, CNBC and MSNBC to their World News Package. Overall this is starting to become as large and confusing as looking at cable packages!

Hulu. The company has confirmed it will soon be launching a skinny bundle. Much of the content is going to come from the owners of Hulu including a suite of packages from ABC / Disney including ESPN, a package from NBC Universal, and a package from 21st Century Fox. Plus Hulu is making a deal with CBS. This would make Hulu the first to offer all of the major networks’ feeds live online, with ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox. The company has said that their base package will be around $35, and this makes it a true skinny bundle since it includes the networks plus other most-watched channels. As I was writing this blog Hulu announced they are ceasing all free / ad-based program and are now all-subscription.

Tubi TV. Tubi TV is taking a different approach from the other services and is free to customers and is ad-supported. The service carries a lot of content aimed at millennials, who supposedly are most interested in free content. The service includes Japanese anime 2-days after being aired in Japan as well as a lot of movies and various series of interest to millennials. The service has made deals with over 200 content provides including MGM, Lionsgate, Paramount Pictures and Starz!

Comcast brings in Netflix. In an attempt to keep viewers on their platform and under their channel guide Comcast has made a deal to bring Netflix into the fold. Netflix will appear in the lineup like any other network and customers can navigate using their remote control.

Speaking of remote controls, Comcast distributed a lot of new voice-controlled remotes in time for the Olympics in the hopes of keeping customers from cutting the cord. We’ll have to watch to see how customers like the new devices.

Networks go Directly Online. All of the major (and many not-so-major) networks are taking their content online, but with different business models. It will be interesting to see which of these approaches is the most popular.

Fox has announced that it is now online for customers using the Fox.com website or the Fox Now app. This is an authenticated service and customers have to be verified as a customer of a cable provider and already paying for the Fox programming.

ABC is re-launching its unauthenticated streaming service (free for anybody) and showing older series for free, supported with ads.

CBS has taken the premium subscription approach and is a monthly subscriptions for $5.99 it’s calling CBS All Access. The company is producing original content just for this platform including the next Star Trek Series.

NBC has chosen to produce OTT content through its Seeso platform. This is going to consist of a number of different types of programming, with the comedy platform launched late last year. The comedy channel costs $3.99 per month. It includes older NBC comedy series as well as twenty new comedy series produced only for the Seeso platform.

Even smaller networks like CW now have an unauthenticated ad-supported platform called CW Seed that is showing older shows such as MadTV, Constantine and the O.C.

Industry Shorts – July 2016

unflagHere are a few topics I’ve been following but which don’t merit a full blog.

Mediacom Announces Upgrade Plans. Mediacom has announced plans to invest over $1 billion to upgrade its networks. The main thrust of the upgrades would be to increase speeds up to a gigabit in the 1,500 communities it serves in 22 states.

It will be interesting to see how they do this. There are many markets where they don’t have to do a lot more than upgrade to DOCSIS 3.1 and introduce new cable modems for high-bandwidth customers. But a lot of their rural markets will require forklift upgrades involving headend upgrades as well as revamping the coaxial cable plant. In the worst cases they’d have to replace coaxial cables, but in others would have to replace power taps and line amplifiers.

The company also announced it would open public WiFi hotspots in many of its markets. However, their current WiFi program is pretty weak by industry standards and only gives existing broadband subscribers access to 30 free WiFi minutes per month.

Dish Cuts Back on Ad-Skipping. Dish Networks has agreed to largely disable the feature in their new VCRs that let customers skip ads automatically. This has become such a sticky point in negotiations for content that Dish finally agreed to cut back on the very popular feature. Dish reached agreements with Disney and CBS to disable the feature in order to get new programming for Dish’s Sling TV OTT offering.

Google Launches Undersea Cable. Google and Japanese telecoms have built a new undersea cable joining Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco to two POPs in Japan. The cable can carry 60 terabits of data per second and is now the fastest undersea fiber. Google is also planning to complete a fiber between Florida and Brazil by the end of the year. Facebook and Microsoft are working together on an undersea connection between Virginia Beach and Bilboa Spain. With the explosive growth of Internet traffic worldwide this is probably just the beginning of the effort to create the needed connectivity between continents.

It’s interesting to see that some of the big traffic generators on the web are willing to spend money on fiber, and one has to suppose this will save them money in the long term by avoiding transport charges on other fiber routes. It’s probably also not a bad time to own a fiber-laying ship.

UN Declares Broadband Access a Universal Human Right. The United Nations recently passed a series of resolutions that makes online access to the Internet a basic human right. Among the key extracts in the resolutions are:

  • That people have the same rights online as offline, “in particular, freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice.”
  • That human rights violations enacted against people due to making their views known online are “condemned unequivocally,” and states are held accountable for any such violations.
  • Any measures to “intentionally prevent or disrupt access” to the internet are also “condemned unequivocally,” and all states should “refrain from and cease such measures.”

While it’s easy to argue that much of what the UN does has no teeth, it has been the forum since its creation for recognizing human rights.

Netflix Users Would Hate Ads. In a survey with mixed results it’s clear that Netflix users have strong feelings about introducing advertising into the popular ad-free service. In a survey given by All Flicks, 75% of Netflix users said they would dump the service if it started carrying ads.

In a somewhat contradictory finding, the pole indicated that most Netflix users would pay a premium price to avoid ads if there were options. Nearly 60% of Netflix users said they would pay $1 per month to avoid ads with many others saying they would pay even more.