Telecom Predictions for 2018

It’s that time of year to pause and look at what the next year might bring us. I see the following as the biggest telecom trends for 2018:

End of Net Neutrality Not a Big Deal. At least during 2018 we aren’t going to see the end of the Internet as predicted by many in the press and on social media. First, there are going to be a series of lawsuits challenging the FCC ruling, and ISPs are generally unwilling to do anything that might be changed by the courts. But I also think the big ISPs are unlikely to immediately do anything that will be unpopular with the general public. We might instead see subtle changes like more zero-rating that the public seems to favor. The big ISPs understand that this FCC ruling is immensely unpopular and they have to be worried about Congress or a new administration reversing a lot of the ruling. For now I think this means we won’t see any drastic changes in ISP behavior in the coming year. The big ISPs want the issue to quietly die away, and the best way for them to accomplish that is to not do anything unpopular right away.

Cable TV Declines Faster as a Product. We are seeing the perfect storm of events attacking the traditional cable market. First, programmers are raising programing rates to cable providers at historically high rates. It’s almost as if they want to get the last drop of profits out of the product before it wanes. This means another round of noticeably high cable rate increases – the primary reason that cord cutters cite for leaving traditional cable. We are also seeing a proliferation of alternate programming choices. The most popular cable networks are now available in lower-priced online alternatives. The growth in OTT alternatives has been significant in 2017 and in 2018 a lot more people are going to be lured into switching to one of the alternatives. The 3rd quarter of 2017 saw the cable providers lose a million customers and losses will accelerate in 2018.

Is 5G Hype or Real? In 2018 we are going to find out if the 5G hype is real. Verizon has been talking about rolling out a residential 5G broadband solution to 30 million homes, with a few specific markets identified in 2018. AT&T has been hyping the near-term roll-out of its AirGig 5G product. I think in 2018 we are going to get a look at how these technologies function in real neighborhoods and we’ll find out the real-life benefits and shortcomings of the technologies.

Networked WiFi Goes Mainstream. Poorly configured home WiFi networks are one of the major culprit for poor broadband experiences. Many homes have decent broadband connections but then lose all of the power by using a poorly placed single WiFi router. Many ISPs are now offering managed WiFi as a way to solve this problem. But there are also numerous inexpensive solutions available directly to consumers. Word of mouth about the benefits of networked WiFi are making this into the preferred home solution.

Voice Controls Become Practical. Until now voice control devices like the Amazon Echo have been novelties. But there are now practical applications with these devices that will make them go mainstream in 2018. Functions like simple web searches, home intercom systems, initiating phone calls or texts, controlling TVs and other devices along with the ability to play music everywhere is going to make most houses try the technology. This will be the year when a lot of people accept the idea of a voice interface to technology as an alternative to computers or smart phones.

Real Cellular Competition. The entrance of Comcast and Charter into the cellular markets is going to be significant. We also see T-Mobile increasing competitive pressure by bundling video with cell service. It’s clear that the cellular market in the US is fully saturated and that everybody has a cell phone. This all adds up to another round of price wars between cellular providers. It also means that the ‘unlimited’ plans introduced by the cellular companies in 2017 will quickly move from a novelty to the become the expected norm.

Explosion in Rural Communities Looking for a Broadband Solution. The digital divide between towns and rural areas is now obvious to everybody. Broadband has grown to become a necessity rather than a nice-to-have commodity. Rural citizens are demanding that their local governments help them find a broadband alternative. This movement is accelerated by the numerous success stories from proactive communities that have found a broadband solution. The most common market solution I see is public-private partnerships, but communities are finding other creative solutions. I also see numerous rural communities willing to talk about bringing public financing to help solve the problem. Expect numerous rural communities to start looking for solutions in 2018.

The Need for Networked WiFi

Wi-FiThe way that broadband providers wire homes continues to evolve and ISPs are always looking for ways to provide good broadband while cutting down the amount of time they have to spend in a home for an installation.

Historically a lot of ISPs connected each of the triple play services in a home to the existing wiring for that service. But this meant dealing with any existing inside wire issues, and it also meant stringing new wires when there weren’t wires where the customer wanted service. It was not unusual for a FTTP installation to take 4- 5 hours for a crew of two installers.

Today some ISPs have gone to the other extreme. Comcast brought a coaxial cable into my house and tied it into the existing coax in the house and put a WiFi router where the coax entered the house. One installer came to my house, installed the drop and wired up the services in about an hour. (It should have taken a bit longer because he was not the person that buried drops and so he just laid it across my lawn.)

A lot of fiber providers are taking the same path as Comcast. They drop the cable TV onto existing coax and place a WiFi router. While this has cut down on installation time, I have clients who are now re-examining this decision because a large percentage of their trouble calls are now about WiFi problems and not network problems.

There are ISPs that use the powerlines in the home to move data from room to room. But companies are abandoning that for the same reason that WiFi is having problems today. The problem is the big increase in bandwidth demand in homes. Customers today want big bandwidth and they want mobility within the home. Every room in my house needs to have broadband today. We have the typical array of desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones, a smart TV, some IOT devices, and two Amazon Echos. And we often use them all at the same time.

Some ISPs have started to battle the bandwidth demand by changing the way they wire. One new strategy is to run a wire directly to the devices that use a lot of bandwidth to lessen overall demand on the WiFi network. For instance, I have clients that offer centralized DVR service and they are now running a category 5 or 6 cable to the primary settop box which can have a huge bandwidth demand.

But the one thing almost no ISP is doing yet is making WiFi work right. A WiFi signal of any power deteriorates when it passes through solid impediments like walls. It doesn’t really matter if you are starting at the WiFi router with 50 Mbps or a gigabit, the WiFi signal will usually die by the time it gets to the far reaches of the house.

ISPs are already reconsidering the strategy of deploying only a single WiFi router. And they are coming to different conclusions. I know one ISP that no longer supplies WiFi routers and leaves that to the customer – this way they can blame poor WiFi performance on the customer. But most companies would see that as very bad customer service.

Some ISPs are going to the other extreme and installing the best WiFi router they can find. But one router, no matter how good it is is not a good solution for a significant percentage of homes. The solution that is needed is to install a WiFi network consisting of several hotspots all sharing the same core router.

I think the industry is missing a big new revenue stream from charging to set up and maintain networked WiFi. Companies have always known that they make money leasing out boxes – and settop boxes and that modems are some of the most profitable products they sell.

Since customers want their broadband to work all over the house they are probably willing to pay to make it work right. Networked WiFi requires spending more time again during the installation, but it’s probably worth that to get happy customers. And it ought to cut down on future truck rolls that are really WiFi problems. I know of a handful of ISPs starting to sell the service and they say it’s very popular. It’s not hard to see why – the majority of homes are unhappy with their broadband, at least in some parts of the home.

How We Wire Our Homes

Phone jackOver the years builders have changed the way that they wire homes for communications. A good telco guy can tell you approximately how old a home is just be seeing how it was wired. I’ve noticed a recent change in wiring that reflects current homeowner preferences.

There was a time not too many decades ago when the telephone company and the cable company owned the wire inside of homes. I recall that sometime in the 80s the FCC gave ownership of inside telephone wire to homeowners, and they did the same for cable TV wiring in the mid-90s. Before that time builders did not typically put wires in new homes and the telcos and cable companies were expected to come and put the wire in at their cost. I recall that in some cases the telco or cable company would come and install wiring while a home was under construction, particularly in new subdivisions.

But after the FCC gave the wires to homeowners this all changed. The telco or cable company would still install wiring, but only after a customer asked for it, and typically by stringing the wires along baseboards, and usually for a fee. Since people wanted the wires hidden inside the walls, builders began offering wiring as an option. And over time this grew from option to an expectation. There was a twenty year period where a builder just routinely wired a home for telephone and cable and they generally put outlets all over a new home.

Back in the late 90s when cable modems and DSL became popular many builders started providing an option to wire homes with category 5 cables for broadband. And in upscale homes this soon became a standard feature.

What is interesting over the years was the assumption of how homes ought to be wired. For instance, in the old days Ma Bell assumed that a house wanted one telephone and would put it where it was requested. Those old phones didn’t have jacks and the phones were hard-wired into a big thick telephone cable. The cable company was similar and for many years they assumed homes needed one cable outlet, generally in the living room. If customers wanted more than that they had to pay for it.

At the other end of the spectrum, a home build in 2000 probably had phone jacks and cable outlets all over the house. The way that people used communications had changed a lot from the 60s and people wanted option on where to place phones and TVs.

Today we are moving back to seeing wiring as an option again. Less than 50% of homes in the US have telephones and builders don’t want to spend money for telephone wiring if it’s not needed, so homes are not automatically being wired for phone any longer. My home was built 4 years ago and it has one phone jack in the kitchen wall, and that jack is not even wired to a telephone cable. I guess it’s there to make it easier to put in phone if I want it.

In the data and TV worlds we’ve seen a big shift to using WiFi in the last few years. And that is making it obsolete to wire a  home with category 5 cable because the day of hard-wiring computers is gone. We have three apple laptops in our house that don’t even have an RJ411 jack. And our one desktop connects wirelessly. Most homes are still wired with coaxial cable, although in looking online I can find builders who are now making this optional. My home is wired with coax, but we don’t use it.

Fiber overbuilders are now using category 6 wire because category 5 wire is not adequate for gigabit speeds. It’s interesting that almost no homes are wired today for gigabit capabilities. The ideal set-up for a home would be category 6 wiring to the primary WiFi router and then more category 6 wiring to the ends of the home allowing for easy installation of additional networked WiFi routers. I’ve written several blogs talking about how a single WiFi router is already inadequate for a large percentage of homes.

It’s probably going to take builders a while to catch onto this because carriers are just now figuring it out. I talked to the engineers at one of the mid-major cable companies who estimated that 20% of their customers wanted more capacity than can be supplied by a single WiFi router, and that problem is going to quickly mushroom. We are only a few years away from when the networked WiFi routers will become the standard, and, if done right ought to be able to handle our home bandwidth needs for decades to come. And in doing so, pre-wiring homes will become a thing of the past.