Comcast Dismantles Data Throttling

On June 11 Comcast announced they had dismantled a congestion management system that had been in place since 2008. This system was used to throttle data speeds for large users of residential data. The company says that their networks are now robust enough that they no longer need to throttle users and that they system wasn’t used for the last year.

Comcast implemented the congestion management system in 2008 after it had been caught throttling traffic to and from Bit Torrent. The FCC said the throttling was discriminator and ordered Comcast to cease the practice. Comcast responded to the FCC with the introduction of the congestion management system that cut back usage for all large residential data users, with what Comcast said was a non-discriminatory basis.

At the time Comcast claimed that large data users, who at that time were exchanging video files, were slowing down their network – and they were probably right. The ISP industry has been blindsided twice in my memory by huge increases in demand for bandwidth. The first time was in the 1990s when Napster and many others promoted the exchange of music MP3 files. The same thing happened a decade ago when people started sharing video files – often pirated copy of the latest movies.

To be fair to Comcast, a decade ago the number one complaint about cable company broadband was that speeds bogged down during the evening prime time hours – the time when most customers wanted to use the network. The Comcast throttling was an attempt to lower the network congestion during the busiest evening hours. Comcast says the throttling system is no longer needed since the widespread implementation of DOCSIS and improvements in backhaul have eliminated many of the network bottlenecks.

Comcast now offers gigabit download speeds in many markets. I suspect that they are relying that only a small percentage of their customers will buy and use this big bandwidth in a given neighborhood, because a significant number of gigabit users could still swamp an individual neighborhood node. I wonder if the company would reinstitute the throttling system again should their network become stressed with some future unexpected surge in broadband traffic. It’s possible that some big bandwidth application such as telepresence could go viral and could swamp their data networks like happened in the past with music files and then video.

Interestingly, the company still maintains customer data caps. Any customer that uses more than 1 terabyte in a month must pay $10 for each extra 50 gigabytes or pay $50 extra to get unlimited data. Comcast never directly said that the data caps were for congestion management, although they often hinted that was the reason for the caps.

The official explanation of the data caps has been that heavy users need to pay more since they use the network more. Comcast has always said that they use the revenues from data caps to pay for the needed upgrades for the network. But this seems a little ingenuous from a company that generated $21.4 billion in free cash in 2017 – nearly $1.8 billion per month.

Comcast is not the only ISP that has been throttling Internet traffic. All four major wireless carriers throttle big data users at some point. T-Mobile is the most generous and starts throttling after 50 GB of month usage while the other three big wireless carriers throttle after 20 – 25 GB per month.

A more insidious form of data throttling is the use of bursting technology that provides faster broadband speeds for the first minute or two of any given broadband session. During this first minute customers will get relatively fast speeds – often set at the level of their subscription – but if the session is prolonged past that short time limit then speeds drop significantly. This practice fools customers into thinking that they get the speeds they have subscribed to – which is true for the short duration of the burst – but is not true when downloading a large file or streaming data for more than a minute or two. The carriers boast about the benefits of data bursts by saying they give extra broadband for each request – but they are really using the technology to throttle data for any prolonged data demands.

5G Cellular for Home Broadband?

Sprint and T-Mobile just filed a lengthy document at the FCC that describes the benefits of allowing the two companies to merge. This kind of filing is required for any merger that needs FCC approval. The FCC immediately opened a docket on the merger and anybody that opposes the merger can make counterarguments to any of the claims made by the two companies.

The two companies decided to highlight a claim that the combined Sprint and T-Mobile will be able to roll out a 5G network that can compete with home broadband. They claim that by 2024 they could gain as much as a 7% total market penetration, making them the fourth biggest ISP in the country.

The filing claims that their 5G network will provide a low-latency broadband product with speeds in excess of 100 Mbps within a ‘few years’. They claim that customers will be able to drop their landline broadband connection and tether their home network to their unlimited cellular data plan instead. Their filing claims that the this will only be possible with a merger. I see a lot of holes that can be poked into this claim:

Will it Really be that Fast? The 5G cellular standard calls for eventual speeds of 100 Mbps. If 5G follows the development path of 3G and 4G, then those speeds probably won’t be fully met until near the end of the next decade. Even if 5G network can achieve 100 Mbps in ideal conditions there is still a huge challenge to meet those speeds in the wild. The 5G standard achieves 100 Mbps by bonding multiple wireless paths, using different frequencies and different towers to reach a customer. Most places are not receiving true 4G speeds today and there is no reason to think that using a more complicated delivery mechanism is going to make this easier.

Cellphone Coverage is Wonky.  What is never discussed when talking about 5G is how wonky all wireless technologies are in the real world. Distance from the cell site is a huge issue, particular with some of the higher frequencies that might be used with 5G. More important is local interference and propagation. As an example, I live in Asheville, NC. It’s a hilly and wooded town and at my house I have decent AT&T coverage, but Verizon sometimes has zero bars. I only have to go a few blocks to find the opposite situation where Verizon is strong and AT&T doesn’t work. 5G is not going to automatically overcome all of the topographical and interference issues that affect cellular coverage.

Would Require Significant Deployment of Small Cell Sites. To achieve the 100 Mbps in enough places to be a serious ISP is going to require a huge deployment of small cell sites, and that means the deployment of a lot of fiber. This is going to be a huge hurdle for any wireless company that doesn’t have a huge capital budget for fiber. Many analysts still believe that this might be a big enough hurdle to quash a lot of the grandiose 5G plans.

A Huge Increase in Wireless Data Usage. Using the cellular network to provide the equivalent of landline data means a magnitude increase in the bandwidth that will be carried by the cellular networks. FierceWireless along with Strategic Analytics recently did a study on how the customers of the major cellular companies use data. They reported that the average T-Mobile customer today uses 18.4 GB of data per month with 5.3 GB on the cellular network and the rest on WiFi. Sprint customers use 18.2 GB per month with 4.4 GB on the cellular networks. Last year Cisco reported that the average residential landline connection used over 120 GB per month – a number that is doubling every three or four years. Are cellular networks really going to be able to absorb a twenty or thirty times increase in bandwidth demand? That will require massive increases in backhaul bandwidth costs along with huge capital expenditures to avoid bottlenecks in the networks.

Data Caps are an Issue.  None of the cellular carriers offers truly unlimited data today. T-Mobile is the closest, but their plan begins throttling data speeds when a customer hits 50 GB in a month. Sprint is stingier and is closer to AT&T and Verizon and starts throttling data speeds when a customer hits 23 GB in a month. These caps are in place to restrict data usage on the network (as opposed to the ISP data caps that are meant to generate revenue). Changing to 5G is not going to eliminate network bottlenecks, particularly if we see millions of customers using cellular networks instead of landline networks. All of the carriers also have a cap on tethering data – making it even harder to use as a landline substitute – T-Mobile caps tethering at 10 GB per month.

Putting it all into Context. To put this into context, John Legere already claims today that people ought to be using T-Mobile as a landline substitute. He says people should buy a multi-cellphone plan and use one of the phones to tether to landline. 4G networks today have relatively high latency and 4G speeds today can reach 15 Mbps in ideal conditions but are usually slower. 4G also ‘bursts’ today and offers faster speeds for the first minute or two and then slows down to a crawl (you see this when you download phone apps). I think we have to take any claims made by T-Mobile with a grain of salt.

I’m pretty sure that concept of using the merger to create a new giant ISP is mostly a red herring. No doubt 5G will eventually offer an alternative to landline broadband for those homes that aren’t giant data users – but it’s also extremely unlikely that a combined T-Mobile / Sprint could somehow use 5G cellular to become the fourth biggest ISP starting ‘a few years from now’. I think this claim is being emphasized by the two companies to provide soundbites to regulators and politicians who want to support the merger.

Convergence

Even a decade ago it was apparent that the telecom industry was headed towards convergence. By that, I mean that the various cable companies, telcos and wireless companies are expanding service lines and are starting to compete with each other in areas that were unimaginable even a few years ago.

Comcast is the best example of this. Their CEO Brian Roberts was quoted last year as saying that the company was now in all of the business lines available to it. Compare today’s Comcast with the company a decade ago. Then they were just becoming a triple play provider by adding voice to their product line-up. Since then they have added a lot more business lines.

A decade ago Comcast barely went after business customers and didn’t even own network in many business districts and industrial parks – and now they are a major provider of business services. The company recently added cellular service and it appears they are adding customers at a furious pace. They are becoming a major player in home security. The company has a thriving product line selling residential smart home services. They even started bundling home solar panels with their residential product line recently.

The company has even stepped up their traditional cable service to do better against the satellite providers. They’ve developed their own settop box that is said to be the best in the industry. And they have bought a number of the cable programmers like NBC, giving them a margin advantage over any competitor for video.

It seems to me like everybody else wants to be Comcast. Consider AT&T. A decade ago they were a traditional telco. They operated a huge copper network for residential broadband and telephone service and owned the country’s largest fiber network for providing wholesale transport and business services. They were also one of the two largest cellular companies, and with Verizon controlled the vast majority of that business.

AT&T not only added cable TV service to their product line, but they bought DirecTV and become a major video provider. They are trying hard to buy programming and content by merging with Time Warner. The company has been aggressive building fiber to large apartment complexes and has become a major player in the MDU market that used to be almost exclusively controlled by the cable incumbents. The company has also been building a lot of fiber to better compete head-to-head with Comcast and other cable companies that have faster residential broadband.

Verizon took a different path and competed head-to-head with Comcast in the northeast even a decade ago with its FiOS fiber network. The company continues to buy smaller regional fiber providers like XO to beef up its business and fiber networks. Verizon has announced that it intends to roar back into the residential market by use of small cell 5G over the next decade. And Verizon continues to thrive as a cellular carrier.

Even smaller companies like CenturyLink are looking a lot like their bigger competitors. The company had added cable to its bundle. They built fiber past almost a million passings last year to provide more robust competition for broadband speeds. And they bought Level 3 to become a major player for transport and business services.

But these big ISPs are not the only ones crossing into new product lines. Consider T-Mobile. In a move that was unthinkable even a few years ago they are making a major play to bundle video content with their cellular service – making them a direct competitor of all of the ISPs for the market segment of folks who are happy with mobile video rather than a landline connection. T-Mobile is pushing the other cellular providers to do the same.

And there are other national competitors on the horizon. For example, there are several satellite companies like SpaceX and OneWeb that are likely to compete nationally with bundles similar to the other ISPs. I also think we’ll see new competitors spring up and compete with 5G last-mile networks as that technology matures.

It’s going to be interesting to see the winners and losers over the next decade. Right now the cable companies are approaching a near monopoly in many markets for broadband. The only way these other competitors are going to survive and thrive is to chop away at Comcast and the other large cable companies. But at the same time the cable companies will be carving cellular customers. For those like me who follow the industry it’s going to be interesting to watch.

Spectrum and 5G

All of the 5G press has been talking about how 5G is going to be bringing gigabit wireless speeds everywhere. But that is only going to be possible with millimeter wave spectrum, and even then it requires a reasonably short distance between sender and receiver as well as bonding together more than one signal using multiple MIMO antennae.

It’s a shame that we’ve let the wireless marketeers equate 5G with gigabit because that’s what the public is going to expect from every 5G deployment. As I look around the industry I see a lot of other uses for 5G that are going to produce speeds far slower than a gigabit. 5G is a standard that can be applied to any wireless spectrum and which brings some benefits over earlier standards. 5G makes it easier to bond multiple channels together for reaching one customer. It also can increase the number of connections that can be made from any given transmitter – with the biggest promise that the technology will eventually allow connections to large quantities of IOT devices.

Anybody who follows the industry knows about the 5G gigabit trials. Verizon has been loudly touting its gigabit 5G connections using the 28 GHz frequency and plans to launch the product in up to 28 markets this year. They will likely use this as a short-haul fiber replacement to allow them to more quickly add a new customer to a fiber network or to provide a redundant data path to a big data customer. AT&T has been a little less loud about their plans and is going to launch a similar gigabit product using 39 GHz spectrum in three test markets soon.

But there are also a number of announcements for using 5G with other spectrum. For example, T-Mobile has promised to launch 5G nationwide using its 600 MHz spectrum. This is a traditional cellular spectrum that is great for carrying signals for several miles and for going around and through obstacles. T-Mobile has not announced the speeds it hopes to achieve with this spectrum. But the data capacity for 600 MHz is limited and binding numerous signals together for one customer will create something faster then LTE, but not spectacularly so. It will be interesting to see what speeds they can achieve in a busy cellular environment.

Sprint is taking a different approach and is deploying 5G using the 2.5 GHz spectrum. They have been testing the use of massive MIMO antenna that contain 64 transmit and 64 receive channels. This spectrum doesn’t travel far when used for broadcast, so this technology is going to be used best with small cell deployments. The company claims to have achieved speeds as fast as 300 Mbps in trials in Seattle, but that would require binding together a lot of channels, so a commercial deployment is going to be a lot slower in a congested cellular environment.

Outside of the US there seems to be growing consensus to use 3.5 GHz – the Citizens Band radio frequency. That raises the interesting question of which frequencies will end up winning the 5G race. In every new wireless deployment the industry needs to reach an economy of scale in the manufacture of both the radio transmitters and the cellphones or other receivers. Only then can equipment prices drop to the point where a 5G capable phone will be similar in price to a 4GLTE phone. So the industry at some point soon will need to reach a consensus on the frequencies to be used.

In the past we rarely saw a consensus, but rather some manufacturer and wireless company won the race to get customers and dragged the rest of the industry along. This has practical implications for early adapters of 5G. For instance, somebody buying a 600 MHz phone from T-Mobile is only going to be able to use that data function when near to a T-Mobile tower or mini-cell. Until industry consensus is reached, phones that use a unique spectrum are not going to be able to roam on other networks like happens today with LTE.

Even phones that use the same spectrum might not be able to roam on other carriers if they are using the frequency differently. There are now 5G standards, but we know from practical experience with other wireless deployments in the past that true portability between networks often takes a few years as the industry works out bugs. This interoperability might be sped up a bit this time because it looks like Qualcomm has an early lead in the manufacture of 5G chip sets. But there are other chip manufacturers entering the game, so we’ll have to watch this race as well.

The word of warning to buyers of first generation 5G smartphones is that they are going to have issues. For now it’s likely that the MIMO antennae are going to use a lot of power and will drain cellphone batteries quickly. And the ability to reach a 5G data signal is going to be severely limited for a number of years as the cellular providers extend their 5G networks. Unless you live and work in the heart of one of the trial 5G markets it’s likely that these phones will be a bit of a novelty for a while – but will still give a user bragging rights for the ability to get a fast data connection on a cellphone.

Cellphone Data Usage

I’ve never seen any detailed information about the amount of data that customers use on cellphones. We have the global statistics from Akamai and others that look at the big picture, but I’ve always wondered how much data the average cell phone user really uses. This is something that is important to understand for ISPs because cellphone usage on home WiFi can be a big chunk of bandwidth these days.

FierceWireless has now partnered with Strategic Analytics to look in more detail at how people use their cellphone data and how they pay for it. The data used in the analysis comes from 4,000 android phone users who agreed to allow their usage to be studied.

Following is a comparison on an average month for the amount of Cellular and WiFi bandwidth used by customers with different kinds of data plans:

‘                                                               Cellular             WiFi               Total

No Data Plan (pay-as-you-go)              0.9 GB              8.8 GB            9.7 GB

Monthly Data Cap                                 2.8 GB            14.0 GB          16.8 GB

Unlimited Data Plan                             5.3 GB            12.3 GB          17.8 GB

Interestingly, there is not that much difference in the total bandwidth used by customers with unlimited data plans versus those with caps. But the unlimited customers obviously feel freer to use data on the cellular network, using twice as much cellular data per month as those with monthly caps.

What is surprising to me is the small amount of data used by unlimited plan customers. There are truly unlimited plans like T-Mobile, but even the quasi-unlimited plans from AT&T and Verizon allow for over 20 Gigabytes of download per month on cellular. But these statistics show that customers, on average, are not using much of that data capability. It looks like many people are buying the unlimited plans for the peace-of-mind of not exceeding their data caps. This reminds me a lot of the days when telcos talked people into buying unlimited long distance plans, knowing that most of them would never use the minutes.

These statistics also show that unlimited data customers are not putting a lot of pressure on cellular networks, as the carriers would have you believe. They have always used the excuse of network congestion as the excuse for charging a lot for cellular data and for having stingy data caps. These statistics show just the opposite and show that, in aggregate that customers are not using cellular data at even a tiny fraction of the bandwidth they use on their home broadband connections.

These statistics also indicate that there are not a lot of people using cellphones to watch video. T-Mobile may give access to Netflix, but it looks like people are either watching the video on WiFi or on a device other than their cellphone. It doesn’t take much video to get to 5 GB per month in download.

To put the total usage numbers in perspective, the average landline broadband connection uses around 120 GB per month according to several ISPs. I’ve seen numerous articles over the last year talking about how cellular data use is exploding, but these numbers don’t back that up. This shows that consumers still go to landline data connections when they want to do something that is data intensive.

These numbers also counterbalance the predictions I keep reading that cellular data will eclipse landline data in a few years. That might true around the world since there are a number of places where almost all ISP connections are through cellphones. But in the US the landline data usage still dwarfs cellphone data usage and is itself still growing rapidly.

The usage by cellular carrier was also reported, as follows:

‘                                                          Cellular             WiFi                Total

AT&T                                                 2.4 GB            11.4 GB          13.6 GB

Sprint                                                4.4 GB            13.8 GB          18.2 GB

T-Mobile                                           5.3 GB            13.1 GB          18.4 GB

Verizon                                             3.6 GB            14.4 GB          18.0 GB

My one take-away from these numbers is that Sprint and T-Mobile customers feel freer to use their smartphone for video and data downloading – but even they mostly do this on WiFi. These numbers also show that the stingy monthly data caps from AT&T and Verizon have trained their customers to not use their cellphones – even after those companies have increased the monthly caps.

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.

 

Portugal and Net Neutrality

Last week I talked about FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s list of myths concerning net neutrality. One of the ‘myths’ he listed is: Internet service will be provided in bundles like cable television as has happened in Portugal.

This observation has been widely repeated on social media and has been used as a warning of what would happen to us Internet access without net neutrality. The social media postings have included a screen shot of the many options of ‘bundles’ available from the mobile carrier Meo in Portugal. Taken out of context this looks exactly like mobile data bundles.

Meo offers various packages of well-known web applications that customers can buy to opt the applications from monthly data caps. For example, there is a video bundle that includes Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, ESPN, Joost and TV.Com. There are a number of similar bundles like the social bundle that includes Facebook and Twitter, or the shopping bundle that contains Amazon and eBay.

But the reality is that these bundles are similar to the zero-rating done by cellular carriers in the US. The base product from Meo doesn’t block any use of cellular data. These ‘bundles’ are voluntary add-ons and allow a customer to exclude the various packaged content from monthly data caps. If a customer uses a lot of social media, for example, they can exclude this usage from monthly data caps by paying a monthly fee of approximately $5.

The last FCC headed by Tom Wheeler took a look at zero-rating practices here in the US. They ruled that the zero-ratings by AT&T and Verizon violated net neutrality because each carrier has bundled in their own content. But the FCC found that T-Mobile did not violate net neutrality when they included content from others in their zero-rating package. The current FCC has not followed through on those rulings and has taken no action against AT&T or Verizon.

The Meo bundles are similar to the T-Mobile zero-rating packages, with the difference being that the Meo bundles are voluntary while T-Mobile’s are built into the base product. The FCC is correct in pointing out that Portugal did not create mobile ‘bundles’ that are similar to packages of cable TV channels. If anything, I see these bundles as insurance – in effect, customers spend a small amount up front to avoid larger data overages later.

It is also worth noting that Portugal is a member of the European Union which has a strong set of net neutrality rules. But the EU is obviously struggling with zero-rating in the same way we are in the US. The real question this raises is if zero-rating is really a violation of net neutrality. It’s certainly something that customers like. As long as we have stingy monthly data caps then customers are going to like the idea of excusing their most popular apps from measurement against those caps. If cellular carriers offered an actual unlimited data then there would be no need for zero-rating.

I disagreed with the Wheeler FCC’s ruling on T-Mobile’s zero-rating. That ruling basically said that zero-rating is okay as long as the content is not owned by the cellular carrier. This ignores that fact that zero-rating of any kind has a long-term negative impact on competition. T-Mobile is like Meo in that they exclude the most popular web applications from data ca measurement. One of the major principles of net neutrality is to not favor any Internet traffic, and by definition, zero-rating favors the most popular apps over newer or less popular apps.

If enough customers participate in zero-rating the popular apps will maintain prominence over start-ups apps due to the fact that customers can view them for free. This is not the same thing as paid prioritization. That would occur if Netflix was to pay T-Mobile to exclude their app from data caps. That would clearly give Netflix an advantage over other video content. But voluntary zero-ratings by the cellular carriers has the exact same market impact as paid prioritization

None of this is going to matter, though, if the FCC kills Title II regulations. At that point not only will zero-rating be allowed in all forms, but ISPs will be able ask content payers for payment to prioritize their content. ISPs will be able to create Internet bundles that are exactly like cable bundles and that only allow access to certain content. And cellular carriers like AT&T or Comcast are going to be free to bundle in their own video content. It’s ironic that Chairman Pai used this as an example of an Internet myth, because killing net neutrality will make this ‘myth’ come true.

Merger Madness

The last year was a busy one for mergers in the industry. We saw Charter gobble up Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. We saw CenturyLink buy Level 3 Communications. But those mergers were nothing like we see on the horizon right now. I can barely read industry news these days without reading about some rumored gigantic acquisitions.

There have always been mergers in the industry, but I can’t remember a time when there was this level of merger talk happening. This might be due in part to an administration that says it won’t oppose megamergers. It’s also being driven by Wall Street that makes a lot of money when they find the financing for a big merger. Here are just a few of the mergers being talked discussed seriously in the financial press:

Crown Castle and Lightower. This merger is already underway with Crown Castle paying $7.1 billion for Lightower. It matches up two huge fiber networks along with tower assets to make the new company the major player in the small cell deployment space, particularly in the northeast.

Discovery and Scripps. Discovery Communications announced a deal to buy Scripps Networks for about $11.9 billion. This reduces the already-small number of major programmers and Discovery will be picking up networks like the Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, the Cooking Channel and Great American Country.

Comcast, Altice and Charter. Citigroup issued a report that speculates that Comcast and Altice would together buy Charter and split the assets. Comcast would gain the former Time Warner cable systems with the rest going to Altice. There is also talk of Altice trying to finance the purchase of Charter on its own. But with Charter valued at about $120 billion while also carrying around $63 billion in debt that seems like a huge number to finance. This would be an amazing merger with the ink not yet dry on Charter’s merger with Time Warner.

Amazon and Dish Network. This makes sense because Amazon could finally help Dish capitalize on its 700 E-block and AWS-4 spectrum licenses. This network could be leveraged by Amazon to track trucks and packages, monitor the IoT and to control drones.

T-Mobile and Sprint. Deutsche Telecom currently owns 63% of T-Mobile and Softbank owns 82% of Sprint. A straight cashless merger would create an instantly larger company and gain major operational advantages. The FCC and the Justice Department nixed a merger between T-Mobile and AT&T a few years back, but in an environment where the cellular companies are getting into the wireless business this might sail through a lot easier today. Sprint has also been having negotiations for either a merger or some sort of partnership with Comcast and Charter.

Comcast and Verizon. There is also Wall Street speculation about Comcast buying Verizon. The big advantage would be to merge the Comcast networks with the Verizon Wireless assets. Comcast has a history of buying companies in distress and Verizon’s stock price has dipped 17% already this year. But this would still be a gigantic merger worth as much as $215 billion. There are also some major regulatory hurdles to overcome with the big overlap in the northeast between Comcast and the Verizon FiOS networks.

Unlimited Cellular Data Pricing

SONY DSCI recently wrote a blog about how all of the cellular companies are now offering unlimited data plans. Today I’m going to look at their plans in some detail to discuss what they really mean by “unlimited.”

AT&T. AT&T now has two unlimited plans. Unlimited Choice starts at $60 for one phone with unlimited voice, text and data. It’s $55 for a second line and $20 each for lines up to ten. There is an extra fee of $5 per month for one line or $10 for multiple lines if the customer doesn’t elect autopay. Data comes with lots of limits. Video is capped at 480p standard resolution. Total download speed is limited to 3 Mbps with video capped at 1.5 Mbps, regardless of the quality of the 4G stream available. And while there is no data cap, AT&T starts throttling data speeds for the month when a customer hits 22 GB of download. And last – and what will be a killer for most potential customers – it doesn’t allow tethering.

The Unlimited Plus plan starts at $90 for the first phone. It also includes a penalty for not using autopay. It undoes all of the speed restriction of the choice plan and can stream HD video. It also allows up to 10 GB per month for tethering. It has the same monthly cap of 22 GB before the data gets throttled. This still is not an alternative for home use because of the 10 GB cap on tethering. But it’s a good business travel plan. And a home user with a tablet might find this to be a good, if expensive, broadband alternative.

Verizon. Verizon’s unlimited plan is $80 for the first phone, $60 for a second, $22 for a third and $18 for a fourth. This also has unlimited voice and text. The data has a very unusual daily cap and speeds get throttled after hitting 500 MB download in a day. There is also a monthly cap of 22 GB, after which all data gets throttled. There is a 10 GB monthly allowance for tethering, with speeds throttled to 3G after hitting that cap. Verizon allows HD video streaming.

T-Mobile. T-Mobile’s plan is priced at $70 for the first phone, $30 for a second, $41 for a third and $19 for a fourth. This also has unlimited voice and text. There is a monthly cap of 28 GB after which data gets throttled. There is a 10 GB monthly allowance for tethering, with speeds throttled to 3G after hitting that cap. T-Mobile allows HD video streaming.

Sprint. Sprint’s plan is priced at $50 for the first phone, $40 for a second. But these are promotion prices and the company warns they will probably price to ‘market’ after March 31. This also has unlimited voice and text. There is a monthly cap of 23 GB after which data gets throttled. There is a 10 GB monthly allowance for tethering, with speeds throttled to 2G (which has been discontinued in much of the country) after hitting that cap. Note that at 2G you can’t even read email, so this is effectively a hard cutoff.  Sprint allows HD video streaming capped at 1080p quality.

Various Issues. There are activation fees to consider with some of the companies. AT&T and Sprint charge $25 and Verizon $30. T-Mobile has no activation fee. T-Mobile also includes all taxes and fees in its price, something that can be fairly expensive in some parts of the country.

None of these plans is truly “unlimited” and I won’t be shocked to see the Federal Trade Commission going after all of these carriers for advertising them that way. Certainly none of these are going to be a good alternative for home broadband, except perhaps for rural customers with no better alternative. But I think even rural users will find the cap on tethering and the throttling after a fairly stingy amount of download to be impossible to live with. It’s a shame because many rural homes using traditional cellular broadband have monthly bills of $500 to $1,000.

Interestingly, I just saw yesterday that some Wall Street analysts are slamming Verizon because they fear that their network cannot handle these new ‘unlimited’ plans. But as you can see these plans are not unlimited. They are effectively capped at 2 – 3 times the size of existing family plans, that that assumes that customers will use all of the allotted data-  which many will not. There is already plenty of excess capacity to handle this at the vast majority of cell sites. And this isn’t going to much hurt the cell sites that are already over-busy.

For customers that routinely go over the current cellular data caps these might be a great alternative. Current cellular data is priced at $10 per gigabyte and these plans have reduced data prices to a more affordable price under $2 – $3 per gigabyte for somebody that uses the full allowance. But compared to traditional plans these plans all have hard monthly caps – and while those caps are at 22 GB or higher, they are effectively hard caps since data gets throttled and becomes largely unusable after hitting the cap. These plans will all tease you into watching a lot of video and then penalize you heavily for watching too much.

A Year of Changes

fast fiberI can’t recall a time when there were so many rumors of gigantic changes in the telecom industry swirling around at the same time. If even half of what is being rumored comes to pass this might be one of the most momentous years in the history of telecom. Consider the following:

Massive Remake of the FCC.  Ajat Pai has been named as the interim head of the FCC, but it’s been said that the president is already referring to him as the Chairman. We know that Pai was against almost every initiative of the Wheeler FCC and there are expectations that things like net neutrality and the new privacy rules will be reversed or greatly modified.

There are also strong rumors in the industry that the new administration is going to follow the advice of the transition telecom team of Jeff Eisenach, Roslyn Layton and Mark Jamison. That team has proposed the following:

  • A reapportionment of ‘duplicative’ functions at the FCC. Functions like fostering competition and consumer protection, for example would be moved the Federal Trade Commission.
  • A remake of telecom rules to remove ‘silos.’ For as long as I can remember we’ve had separate rules for telcos, cable companies, wireless companies and programmers. That probably made sense when these were separate industries, but today we see all of these business lines about to converge within the same corporation like Comcast or AT&T. The transition team says it’s time to change the rules to reflect the reality of technology and the marketplace.

At this point I’ve not seen any specific proposals on what those streamlined rules might be. And Congress will have to take an active role in any changes since the current FCC responsibilities are the results of several major telecom and cable acts.

Verizon Looking to Buy a Cable Company. It’s been reported that Lowell McAdams, the CEO of Verizon, has told friends that the company will be looking for a cable acquisition to boost demand for its wireless data. McAdams also talked to analysts in December and described how Charter might be a natural fit with Verizon. There is also speculation on Wall Street that Comcast could be the target for Verizon.

Mergers of this size are unprecedented in the industry. Charter has over 20 million residential data customers and is second behind Comcast’s 23 million data customers. And both companies now have a significant portfolio of business customers.

I remember a decade ago when AT&T started buying back some of the RBOCs that had splintered off during divestiture back in 1984. We all joked that they were slowly putting Ma Bell back together. But I don’t think anybody ever contemplated that the biggest telcos would ever merge with the cable companies. That would remove the last pretense that there is any competition for broadband in urban areas.

More Merger Mania. At one point it looked like the new administration would be against the AT&T and Time Warner merger. But Wall Street now seems to be convinced the merger will happen. The merger will likely come with the typical list of conditions, but we know from past experience that such conditions are only given lip service. AT&T has already taken a strong position that the merger doesn’t need FCC approval. That would mean that most of the government analysis would come from the Justice Department. Just like with the rumored Verizon acquisitions, this merger would create a giant company that operates in all of the FCC-controlled silos. We don’t really have an effective way today to regulate such giant companies.

Verizon might need to hurry if it wants to buy a giant cable company since there is a rumor that Comcast, Charter and Cox plan to go together and buy T-Mobile. That makes a lot more sense than for those companies to launch a wireless company using the Verizon or AT&T platform. Such an arbitrage arrangement would always allow the wireless companies to dictate the terms of using their networks.