Shrinking Cellular Backhaul Revenues

There are a few carriers that rely on cellular backhaul as a major part of their revenue stream, but there are many more carriers that provide transport to a handful of cell sites. In all cases these are some of the highest-margin and lucrative products sold on the market today, and a business line that every carrier wants to keep. However, there are big changes coming in the cellular market and today I will look at the trends that are going to affect this market over the next decade.

Increasing Bandwidth Demand. The growth in bandwidth demand at many cell sites is explosive with the overall growth in cellular data doubling every 18 months. This growth is not the same everywhere with growth coming in cell sites serving residential customers and not in older cell sites built to satisfy highway phone coverage.

The demand growth is being driven by several factors. First, it’s becoming far more prevalent for customers to use cellphones to watch video. Part of that growth in demand comes directly from the big cellular companies which are bundling in access to content as part of the service. But a more important reason for the growth in demand is that the historic reluctance of customers to use cellular data is eroding as the cellular companies push ‘unlimited’ data plans.

Demands for Lower Transport Costs. Cellular service has become a commodity. The industry is no longer adding many new customers since almost everybody has a cellphone. This has led to price wars between cellular providers, and lower average customer prices are driving the cellular companies to look to cost reductions. At least in urban areas they are starting to also lose significant customers to Comcast, with Charter just entering the fray.

Recently I’ve seen cellular companies ask for lower prices as contracts get renewed or else demand greater bandwidth for the prices already in place. This means that fiber owners are not likely to see increases in revenues even as the bandwidth they are delivering grows.

Cellular Carriers Building Fiber. I’ve had several clients tell me recently that Verizon or AT&T is building fiber in their area. While this construction might be to reach a new large customer, the most likely reason these companies are building right now is to eliminate leased transport at cell sites. This is not just happening in urban areas and one of my clients who serves a market of 10,000 homes tells me that Verizon is building fiber to all of the cell sites in the area.

Verizon made headlines last year when they ordered $1 billion in fiber. AT&T is also building furiously. If you believe the claims made by T-Mobile and Sprint as part of the proposed merger – they also will be expanding their own fiber.

I also expect the cellular carriers to make reciprocal deals to swap fiber connections at cell sites where they now own fiber. If Verizon and AT&T each build to 2,000 cell sites they could easily swap transport and both gain access to 4,000 cell sites – that’s a huge nationwide decrease in transport revenues for others.

Growth of Small Cells. Layered on top of all of this is the predicted growth of small cell sites. I don’t think anybody knows how big this might market grow. I’ve seen optimistic predictions that small sell sites will be everywhere and other predictions that the business case for small cell sites might never materialize. Many of my clients are seeing the deployment of a few small cell sites to relive 4G congestion, but it’s hard to predict in smaller markets if this will ever expand past that.

One thing we can know for sure is that the cellular carriers will not be willing to pay the same prices for connection to small cell sites that they’ve been paying for the big cell tower sites. By definition, a smaller cell site is going to serve a smaller number of customers and the pricing must be reduced accordingly for it to make sense for the cellular providers.

Conclusion. My best guess is that cellular transport will be hit and miss depending up the specific local situation. There are many who will lose all cell site transport where the cellular carriers decide to build their own fiber. But even where they don’t build fiber I would expect the cellular carriers to bring the threat of physical bypass into price negotiations to drive transport prices far below where they are today.

This is a natural economic consequence of cellular becoming a commodity. As the cellular industry tightens its belt it’s going to demand lower costs from its supply chain. Transport costs are one of the major costs of the cellular industry and the most natural place for them to look to reduce costs. The big cell companies already understand this future which is one of the primary reasons they are furiously building fiber today while they have the cash to do so.

Predicting Broadband Usage on Networks

One of the hardest jobs these days is being a network engineer who is trying to design networks to accommodate future broadband usage. We’ve known for years that the amount of data used by households has been doubling every three years – but predicting broadband usage is never that simple.

Consider the recent news from OpenSource, a company that monitors usage on wireless networks. They report a significant shift in WiFi usage by cellular customers. Over the last year AT&T and Verizon have introduced ‘unlimited’ cellular plans and T-Mobile has pushed their own unlimited plans harder in response. While the AT&T and Verizon plans are not really unlimited and have caps a little larger than 20 GB per month, the introduction of the plans has changed the mindset of numerous users who no longer automatically seek WiFi networks.

In the last year the percentage of WiFi usage on the Verizon network fell from 54% to 51%; on AT&T from 52% to 49%, and on T-Mobile from 42% to 41%. Those might not sound like major shifts, but for the Verizon network it means that the cellular network saw an unexpected additional 6% growth in data volumes in one year over what the company might normally have expected. For a network engineer trying to make sure that all parts of the network are robust enough to handle the traffic this is a huge change and means that chokepoints in the network will appear a lot sooner than expected. In this case the change to unlimited plans is something that was cooked-up by marketing folks and it’s unlikely that the network engineers knew about it any sooner than anybody else.

I’ve seen the same thing happen with fiber networks. I have a client who built one of the first fiber-to-the-home networks and use BPON, the first generation of electronics. The network was delivering broadband speeds of between 25 Mbps and 60 Mbps, with most customers in the range of 40 Mbps.

Last year the company started upgrading nodes to the newer GPON technology, which upped the potential customer speeds on the network to 1 gigabit. The company introduced both a 100 Mbps product and a gigabit product, but very few customers immediately upgraded. The upgrade meant changing the electronics at the customer location, but also involved a big boost in the size of the data pipes between neighborhood nodes and the hub.

The company was shocked to see data usage in the nodes immediately spike upward between 25% and 40%. After all, they had not arbitrarily increased customer speeds across-the-board, but had just changed the technology in the background. For the most part customers had no idea they had been upgraded – so the spike can’t be contributed to a change in customer behavior like what happened to the cellular companies after introducing unlimited data plans.

However, I suspect that MUCH of the increased speeds still came from changed customer behavior. While customers were not notified that the network had been upgraded, I’m sure that many customers noticed the change. The biggest trend we see in household broadband demand over the last two years is the desire by households to utilize multiple big data streams at the same time. Before the upgrades households were likely restricting their usage by not allowing kids to game or do other large bandwidth activities while the household was video streaming or doing work. After the upgrade they probably found they no longer had to self-monitor and restrict usage.

In addition to this likely change in customer behavior the spikes in traffic also were likely due to correcting bottlenecks in the older fiber network that the company had never recognized or understood. I know that there is a general impression in the industry that fiber networks don’t see the same kind of bottlenecks that we expect in cable networks. In the case of this network, a speed test on any given customer generally showed a connection to the hub at the speeds that customers were purchasing – and so the network engineers assumed that everything was okay. There were a few complaints from customers that their speeds bogged down in the evenings, but such calls were sporadic and not widespread.

The company decided to make the upgrade because the old electronics were no longer supported by the vendor and they also wanted to offer faster speeds to increase revenues. They were shocked to find that the old network had been choking customer usage. This change really shook the engineers at the company and they feared that the broadband growth curve was going to now be at the faster rate. Luckily, within a few months each node settled back down to the historic growth rates. However, the company found itself instantly with network usage they hadn’t expected for at least another year, making them that much closer to the next upgrade.

It’s hard for a local network owner to predict the changes they are going to affect the network utilization. For example, they can’t predict that Netflix will start pushing 4K video. They can’t know that the local schools will start giving homework that involves watching a lot of videos at home. Even though we all understand the overall growth curve for broadband usage, it doesn’t grow in a straight line and there are periods of faster and slower growth along the curve. It’s enough to cause network engineers to go gray a little sooner than expected!

Who’s Pursuing Residential 5G?

I’ve seen article after article over the last year talking about how 5G is going to bring gigabit speeds to residents and give them an alternative to the cable companies. But most of the folks writing these articles are confusing the different technologies and businesses cases that are all being characterized as 5G.

For example, Verizon has announced plans to aggressively pursue 5G for commercial applications starting later this year. The technology they are talking about is a point-to-point wireless link, reminiscent of the radios that have been commonly used since MCI deployed microwave radios to disrupt Ma Bell’s monopoly. The new 5G radios use higher frequencies in the millimeter range and are promising to deliver a few gigabits of speed over distance of a mile or so.

The technology will require a base transmitter and enough height to have a clear-line-of-sight to the customer, likely sited on cell towers or tall buildings. The links are only between the transmitter and one customer. Verizon can use the technology to bring gigabit broadband to buildings not served with fiber today or to provide a second redundant broadband feed to buildings with fiber.

The press has often confused this point-to-point technology with the technology that will be used to bring gigabit broadband to residential neighborhoods. That requires a different technology that is best described as wireless local loops. The neighborhood application is going to require pole-mounted transmitters that will be able to serve homes within perhaps 1,000 feet – meaning a few homes from each transmitter. In order to deliver gigabit speeds the pole-mounted transmitters must be fiber fed, meaning that realistically fiber must be strung up each street that is going to get the technology.

Verizon says it is investigating wireless local loops and it hopes someday to eventually use the technology to target 30 million homes. The key word there is eventually, since this technology is still in the early stages of field trials.

AT&T has said that it is not pursuing wireless local loops. On a recent call with investors, CFO John Stevens said that AT&T could not see a business case for the technology. He called the business case for wireless local loops tricky and said that in order to be profitable a company would have to have a good grasp on who was going to buy service from each transmitter. He says that AT&T is going to stick to it’s current network plans which involve edging out from existing fiber and that serving customers on fiber provides the highest quality product.

That acknowledgement is the first one I’ve heard from one of the big telcos talking about the challenges of operating a widespread wireless network. We know from experience that fiber-to-the-home is an incredibly stable technology. Once installed it generally needs only minor maintenance and requires far less maintenance labor that competing technologies. We also know from many years of experience that wireless technologies require a lot more tinkering. Wireless technology is a lot more temperamental and it might take a decade or more of continuous tweaking until wireless local loop become as stable as FTTH. Whoever deploys the first big wireless local loop networks .better have a fleet of technicians ready to keep it working well.

The last of the big telcos as CenturyLink and their new CEO Jeff Storey has made it clear that the company is going to focus on high-margin enterprise business opportunities and will stop deploying slow-payback technologies like residential broadband. I think we’ve seen the end of CenturyLink investing in any last-mile residential technologies.

So who will be deploying 5G wireless local loops? We know it won’t be AT&T or CenturyLink. We know Verizon is considering it but has made no commitment. It won’t be done by the cable companies which have upgraded to DOCSIS 3.1. There are no other candidates that are willing or able to spend the billions needed to deploy the new technology.

Every new technology needs to be adopted by at least one large ISP to become successful. Vendors won’t do the needed R&D or crank up the production process until they have a customer willing to place a large order for electronics. We’ve seen promising wireless technologies like LMDS and MMDS die in the past because no large ISP embraced the technologies and ordered enough gear to push the technology into the mainstream.

I look at the industry today and I just don’t see any clear success path 5G wireless loop electronics. The big challenged faced by wireless local loops is to become less expensive than fiber-to-the-home. Until the electronics go through a few rounds of improvements that only come after field deployment, the technology is likely to require more technician time than FTTH. It’s hard to foresee anybody taking the chance on this in any grand way.

Verizon could make the leap of faith and sink big money into an untried technology, but that’s risky. We’re more likely to keep seeing press releases talking about field trials and the potential for the 5G technology. But unless Verizon or some other big ISP commits to sinking billions of dollars into the gear it’s likely that 5G local loop technology will fizzle as has happened to other wireless technologies in the past.

The False 5G Narrative in DC

The FCC and some members of Congress have adopted a false narrative about our need for the rapid deployment of 5G. The narrative says that rest of the world is already ahead of the US with 5G deployment and warns about the huge downsides to our economy should we not sweep aside all barriers for deploying 5G.

This is the narrative being used to justify giving wireless carriers cheap and ubiquitous access to poles for 5G transmitters. The FCC and others want to sweep away all state and local rules for pole-related issues. They want rules that will allow wireless carriers to deploy electronics first and straighten out the paperwork later. They argue that all of this is needed so that the country can keep up with the rest of the world in 5G deployment, with some horrific, yet unspecific disastrous result should we fail to make this happen.

The big problem with this narrative is that it’s based upon false premises. The narrative is nothing more than a fairy tale spun by the wireless industry as a way to justify bypassing the normal regulatory process, to hand them fast and cheap connections on poles for wireless devices.

First, there is no big impending needed to deploy huge numbers of 5G devices, because the technology doesn’t yet exist. There are two distinct 5G technologies – 5G cellular and 5G millimeter wave broadband. The industry agrees that it’s going to take a decade until we have a 5G-compliant cellular technology available. There are thirteen key aspects of the new 5G standard that must now be tackled by engineers and then woven into the next generation electronics. We made numerous gradual incremental improvements in technology to evolve from 3G to 4G and it was only last year that we finally saw the first deployments of 4G technology that meets most of the original 4G specifications. There is no reason to think that we are going to progress any faster towards 5G and we will upgrade over time to 4.1G, 4.2G, etc. until a decade from now we finally have a 5G cellular network. By then we will no doubt start over and begin implementing 6G.

There is similarly no pressing need to deploy millimeter wave 5G. This is a technology that promises to potentially offer a gigabit alternative in residential neighborhoods. We have a long way to go before we are going to see wide-spread deployments of this technology. We are just now seeing the first early trials of the technology and it’s going to take years before electronics are widely available and affordable. Further, this technology is going to require a lot of concurrent fiber deployment, and that is likely to be the biggest cost barrier to deployment – not getting onto poles. I even have to wonder who is going to be deploying the 5G millimeter wave radios on a big scale – every one of the big telcos has made it clear that they are backing away from residential broadband, and the big cable companies have, or will soon have, gigabit-capable networks. We might never see the gigabit wireless networks that are the bait being used to tout 5G, because there might not be any deep-pocket ISPs willing to tackle such a large infrastructure investment.

What the wireless carriers are starting to deploy today are 4G small cell sites. These cell sites are being used to supplement and boost the existing cellular networks. The original big-tower cellular network was built to provide voice services and the cell site spacing is terrible for delivering broadband, which uses frequencies that don’t carry as far as the lower frequencies used for voice. The exploding demand for cellular broadband is driving the need for more cell sites just to accommodate the number of users and the amount of bandwidth that can be deployed in a given neighborhood.

The existing cellular networks are clearly under stress in urban areas. But the real issue we should be talking about is how to bolster 4G networks, not how we are already behind in the mythical 5G race. The cellular carriers are crafty and they are using the 5G race narrative as a way to get politicians to support their demands. They are promising wireless gigabit cellular speeds in just the next few years and cheap wireless gigabit broadband soon coming into every home. They have created a feigned panic that the current regulatory rules will stop this progress dead in it’s track unless carriers get fast and cheap pole access.

If this 5G narrative was true we’d be seeing a collapse of cable company stock prices. Cable companies have the most to lose if they are suddenly faced with gigabit cellular and gigabit wireless to the home. We are probably decades away from seeing cellular speeds approaching anything close to a gigabit – that’s the biggest myth in this narrative. And even when the new technology is developed for wireless gigabit to the home one has to ask what ISPs are going to spend the huge billions needed to build that network to compete against the entrenched cable companies.

I don’t want to minimize some of the barriers faced by wireless companies when trying to get onto poles today. Wireless carriers have cited a few horror stories in FCC filings. But like anything else brand new, most pole owners aren’t sure yet how to respond to requests for wireless attachments. There are a lot of issues to work through including safety, pricing, aesthetics and the long-term impact on the real estate space on poles. These are all issues that need solutions, but I can’t find one reason why we need to tackle this at breakneck speed or why we need to give the wireless carriers everything on their wish list. It’s important to bolster the stressed 4G network and we will want to be ready for the 5G technology when it is finally available. We have the time to make the needed regulatory changes in the deliberative manner that makes sure that all aspects of the issues are considered. We don’t need a fast knee-jerk response to a false 5G narrative that might create more problems than it solves.

Are There Any Level Playing Fields?

If you follow regulatory filings, one of the most common arguments you will encounter from the big ISPs is the concept of a level playing field. The idea behind the level playing field is that every competitor in the industry should be working from the same set of rules and nobody should have a market advantage due to regulatory rules. AT&T and Verizon have both rolled out the argument many times when arguing to tighten rules against potential competitors.

There are several good examples of the level playing field argument anywhere that the big ISPs fight to keep municipal entities from building fiber networks. They argue, for example, that municipal entities have an unfair market advantage because they don’t pay state and federal income taxes. But this argument falls apart quickly under examination. First, many municipal ventures such as electric or broadband entities pay in lieu of taxes. This is a tax-like fee that the local government charge to a municipal business. While it’s not really a tax, the fees ac like taxes and can be substantial.

Even more importantly, I can remember many years when AT&T or Verizon made the news due to paying no federal income taxes. Big corporations have numerous tax shelters that allow them to shield income from taxes, and the telcos have gotten numerous favorable rules into the tax code to allow them to walk away from most of their expected tax obligations. You can’t really fault a big corporation for legally avoiding taxes (unless you fault them for the lobbying that slanted the tax codes in their favor to begin with). It’s dishonest for these big ISPs to claim that a municipality has an advantage due to their tax-free status when they pay little or no taxes themselves. Under deeper examination, a municipal fiber venture paying 5% of revenues for in lieu of taxes is often paying a larger percentage of taxes than the big ISPs.

The big ISPs also claim that municipalities have an unfair advantage due to being able to finance fiber networks with municipal bonds. While it’s true that bonds often have a lower interest rate, I have compared bond and bank financing side-by-side many times and for various reasons that are too long to discuss in a blog, bond financing is usually more expensive than commercial loans. It’s also incredibly difficult for a municipality to walk away from a bond obligation while we have numerous examples, such as the Charter bankruptcy a few years back that let a big ISP walk away from repaying the debt used to build their networks.

The big ISPs don’t only use this argument against municipal competitors. AT&T is using the argument as a way to justify hanging 5G wireless devices on poles everywhere. They think there should be a level playing field for pole access, although at this early stage they are one of the few companies looking to deploy 5G small cells. Interestingly, while AT&T wants the right to easy and cheap pole access everywhere, in those places where they own the poles they fight vigorously to keep competitors from getting access. They effectively stopped Google Fiber plans to build in Silicon Valley by denying them access to AT&T poles.

Every time I hear the level playing field argument my first thought is that I would love it if we really had a level playing field. I look at the way that the current FCC is handing the big ISPs their wish list of regulatory rule changes and wish that my clients could get the same kind of favorable regulatory treatment.

A good case in point is again the 5G small cell deployment issue. The FCC has already said that they are in favor of making it cheap and easy for wireless carriers to deploy 5G cell sites. It seems likely that the FCC is going to pass rules to promote 5G deployments unless Congress beats them to the punch. Yet these regulatory efforts to make it easier to deploy 5G conveniently are not asking to make it easier to deploy fiber. If things go in favor of the big ISPs they will have a market advantage where it’s easier to deploy last mile 5G instead of last mile fiber. This will give them a speed-to-market advantage that will let them try to squash anybody trying to compete against them with a FTTP network.

The FCC is supposedly pro-competition, and so if we really had a level playing field they would be passing rules to make it easier to deploy all broadband technologies. They have had decades to fix the pole attachment issues for fiber deployment and have not done so. But now they are in a rush to allow for 5G deployments, giving 5G ISPs a market advantage over other technologies. The consequences for this will be less competition, not more, because we’ve already seen how AT&T and Verizon don’t really compete with the cable companies. In markets where we have both Verizon FiOS and Comcast cable networks both companies charge high prices and are happy with high-margin duopoly competition. There is no reason to think these big ISPs won’t do the same with 5G.

I look around and I don’t see any level playing fields – particularly not any that give small competitors any advantages over the big ISPs. I do, however, so scads of regulatory rules that provide unequal protection for the big ISPs, and with the current FCC that list of advantages is expanding quickly. The big ISPs don’t really want a level playing field because they don’t want actual competition. There are many reasons why other countries have far more last-mile fiber deployed than the US – but one of the biggest reasons are regulatory rules here that protect the big ISPs.

Technical Support as a Product

Verizon announced a new line of products this week that provide three different tiers of technical support to help customers better handle the wide array of devices and issues they face in the ever-more-confusing digital world.

The first product is the most intriguing. For $10 per month a customer gets technical support for virtually any device connected to their home network such as printers, smart locks, smart lighting, security systems and smart thermostats. Unlike the Comcast smart home product where customers only get Comcast-approved IoT devices, a Verizon customers can buy devices anywhere and still get support from Verizon in connecting or troubleshooting connections to such devices.

The technical support also comes with other useful features. Verizon will help you isolate and remove computer viruses and malware. They’ll help you with complicated tasks such as transferring photos, files or personal settings between computers. They also will provide up to 5 PC tune-ups per year that will run diagnostic tests and maximize computer performance. Maybe most important of all, joining the service puts customers at the top of the queue for call to technical support (which I guess means longer wait times for customers who don’t buy the service).

A second tier at $15 per month adds LifeLock Select, the identity protection service as well as McAfee Security and Safe Family – a suite of virus protection and parental control software. The last tier, priced at $30 per month adds an insurance plan for smart devices in the home other than smartphones or computers. It will cover smart TVs, tablets, smart thermostats and other IoT devices, and Verizon will repair or replace broken devices. This top plan also adds LastPass, a password management tool. The product doesn’t include any in-home assistance, although that is available through Verizon partners.

This is not a new product and there are numerous companies offering online technical support such as 24/7 Techies, AskPCExperts, Bask and Best Buy’s Geek Squad. Several of these services also offer a first-tier plan for $9.99 per month.

I also know a number of smaller US telcos and ISPs that offer something similar. Many of these companies operate in geographically isolated areas where there is no Best Buy or other outlet for technical services and support. Some of my clients sell monthly subscriptions similar to Verizon’s base fee. Others operate a physical store location where customers can get computer repair services.

I think every small company I’ve talked to who offers something like this tells me that they are lucky if the operation breaks even. But they all maintain the service because it distinguishes them from competitors and builds tremendous customer loyalty. Most are happy if their technical support effort breaks even.

I’m sure Verizon has done the math and believes they can make money at this – and they probably can. A company of their size can keep call queues full so that technicians have little or no down time. I’m sure Verizon is also counting on the fact that most customers will buy this service and only use it sporadically. A customer who really uses the service will cost Verizon more than the $10 fee.

The biggest issue that anybody who offers this kind of service faces is keeping a competent technical staff to support customer calls. Many employees who take this kind of job view it as a stepping stone to a better paying technical career, so there is usually high turnover of staff.

It’s an intriguing business line for ISPs to consider, particularly those in more remote markets. Our home networks are getting increasingly confusing. Sometimes just getting a printer to work right can eat up hours of time and figuring out more complicated devices can be maddening. As long as you recognize that you won’t get rich doing this it’s an interesting way to create personal relationships with customers while providing an invaluable service to customers that will differentiate you from the competition – unless your competition is Verizon.

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.

The Lack of Broadband Competition

There is one statistic from the FCC annual report on the state of broadband that I’ve been meaning to write about. There is still a massive lack of broadband competition at speeds that most households are coming to think of as broadband.

Here are the key statistics from that report:

  • 13% of all households can’t get broadband that meets the FCC’s definition of 25/3 Mbps
  • 31% of homes have access to 25/3 Mbps, but not speeds of 100 Mbps
  • 15% have access to 100 Mbps from more than one provider
  • 41% have access to 100 Mbps from only one provider

It’s the last statistic that I find astounding. The current FCC declared with this report that the state of broadband in the country is healthy and that the market is taking care of the country’s broadband needs. I’ve written number blogs about the households in the bottom 13% that have little or no broadband, but I want to look closer at the top two categories.

Households in the 15% category are in markets where there is a fiber provider in addition to the incumbent cable company. The biggest fiber provider is still Verizon FiOS, but there are numerous others building fiber like AT&T, CenturyLink, Google Fiber, smaller telcos, small fiber overbuilders and municipalities.

This means that 41% of households (51 million homes) only have one option for fast broadband – the cable company. I see numerous problems related to this huge monopoly that has been won by the big cable companies. Consider the following:

  • The US already has some of the most expensive broadband in the developed world. The high prices are directly the result of the lack of competition.
  • This lack of competition is likely the driving factor for why most of the big ISPs in the US are rated at the bottom of all US corporations in terms of customer service. We know that customer service improves in markets where is broadband competition, but the big ISPs don’t make the same effort elsewhere.
  • We also know that competition between a cable company and a smaller fiber overbuilder lowers broadband prices. For example, there are markets where competitors like Google have set the price of a gigabit connection at $70, and the cable companies generally come close to matching the lower price. But preliminary pricing from Comcast and Charter for their new gigabit products where there are no competitors will be significantly north of $100 per month.
  • Even where there are competing networks, if both networks are owned by large ISPs we see duopoly competition where the big ISPs don’t push each other on price. For example, Comcast largely is able to offer the same prices when competing against Verizon FiOS as it does in markets where there is no fiber provider.
  • Industry analysts expect the big ISPs to start raising broadband rates for various reasons. The ISPs continue to lose telephone and cable customers and the national penetration rate for broadband is nearing a market saturation point. In order to satisfy Wall Street the big ISPs will have little choice other than raising broadband prices to maintain earnings growth.

I’m sure that the households in the bottom 13% of the market that can’t get good broadband are not sympathetic to those who can only buy fast broadband from one provider. But these statistics say that 41% of the whole market are dealing with a monopoly situation for fast broadband. Telecom is supposed to be a competitive business – but for the majority of the country the competitors have never showed up. For the FCC to declare that we have a healthy broadband market astounds me when so many households are hostage to a broadband monopoly.

There is always the chance that over the next decade that fixed 5G will bring more broadband competition. My guess, however, is that at least for a few years that this is going to be a lot more competition by press release than real competition. Deploying gigabit 5G like the big ISPs are all touting is going to require a lot more fiber than we have in place today. Deploying 5G without fiber backhaul might still result in decent broadband, but it’s not going to be the robust gigabit product that the ISPs are touting. But even poorly deployed 5G networks might bring 100+ Mbps broadband to a lot more homes after the technology gets a little more mature.

Unfortunately there is also the risk that 5G might just result in a lot more duopoly competition instead of real competition. If 5G is mostly deployed by big ISPs like Verizon and AT&T there is no reason to think that they will compete on price. Our only hope for real market competition is to see multiple non-traditional ISPs who will compete on price. However, it’s so tempting for ISPs to ride the coattails of the big ISPs in terms of pricing that 5G might bring more of the same high prices rather than real competition.

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.

Big Telcos and Rural Customers

Recently, Sunit Patel, the CFO of CenturyLink, told investors that the company would be focusing on expanding their broadband networks only to the most densely populated parts of its footprint. Further, the company will now focus on opportunities that maximize both their retail operations as well as their new wholesale business that comes from the purchase of Level3. This is not surprising, and this has undoubtedly been the Company’s philosophy for many years. However, this is something that you rarely hear said publicly by the large telcos. And that’s because saying it so plainly also means that the company is admitting that they are not spending capital for the less dense parts of the footprint.

The large telcos like CenturyLink, Verizon and AT&T have been ignoring the rural parts of their network for literally decades. And yet they rarely talk about this – no doubt due to a public relations edict inside the companies. It’s refreshing to hear one of them spell it out.

We’ve heard this same story from both AT&T and Verizon in the past, but couched in different language. They have tried to put a positive spin on their announcements about rural properties by framing them as upgrading customers to wireless instead of wireline. But this is just another way of saying that they want to tear down copper lines in rural areas and charge more to households that happen to live close enough to a cellular tower to serve them. What’s never said is that these rural transitions to wireless will leave a lot of homes that have poor cellular coverage with no broadband and no telephone coverage – a reversal of a hundred-year universal service effort to keep everybody in the country connected.

CenturyLink isn’t in the same position as the other two giant telcos in that they don’t have a cellular option for rural households. The company is in the process of making substantial upgrades to the rural copper network using money provided by the FCC as part of the CAF II program. This upgrade is intended to bring rural DSL speeds up to at least 10/1 Mbps. But this money isn’t covering everybody in rural areas and the company and the FCC excluded millions of the most rural homes from these upgrades. I’ve heard through the grapevine from technicians at some of the big companies that the telcos are using the FCC money to do their best effort and that not everybody will get the promised speeds. The telcos will do what they can with the FCC money until it is all spent.

What this means for rural customer of the big telcos is that good broadband is not coming. Many households are going to be offered somewhat faster DSL or else cellular broadband from the CAF II upgrades – but that’s a one-time upgrade and it’s unlikely that these companies are going to do any more upgrades beyond this one-time shot.

I find it unfortunate that rural households who don’t understand technology and don’t understand these big telcos probably think their broadband speeds will be improved. The press releases from these companies and even from the FCC make it sound like solutions are on the way.

I probably shouldn’t be so cynical, because for a home that doesn’t have any broadband today a 10/1 Mbps connection is going to be a welcome relief. But a connection at that speed is already inadequate today for any home that really wants to use broadband. That kind of speed is not going to easily let different family members use much broadband at the same time. And that speed will grow quickly obsolete as the amount of speed needed and the amount of total annual download for the average family continues to double every three years. Any connection that feels just barely adequate today is going to feel slow in five years and nearly non-functional in a decade.

I have to give credit to Mr. Patel for saying this so directly. There is no clearer signal to rural communities that they need to look for a broadband solution on their own. The big telcos will spend any money they get from the FCC on rural infrastructure, but otherwise the big companies are unlikely to devote any additional capital dollars towards improving rural networks. This is no change from the way it’s been for a long time, but finally we can point to somebody who said out loud what we’ve always known.