The Zero-rating Strategy

The cable companies are increasingly likely to be take a page from the cellular carriers by offering zero-rating for video. That’s the practice of providing video content that doesn’t count against monthly data caps.

Zero-rating has been around for a while. T-Mobile first started using zero-rating in 2014 when it provided its ‘Music Freedom’ plan that provided free streaming music that didn’t count against cellular data caps. This highlights how fast broadband needs have grown in a short time – but when data caps were at 1 GB per month, music streaming mattered.

T-Mobile then expanded the zero-rating in November 2015 to include access to several popular video services like Netflix and Hulu. AT&T quickly followed with the first ‘for-pay’ zero-rating product, called FreeBee Data that let customers (or content providers) pay to zero-rate video traffic. The AT&T plan was prominent in the net neutrality discussions since it’s a textbook example of Internet fast lanes using sponsored data where some video traffic was given preferential treatment over other data.

A few of the largest cable companies have also introduced a form of zero-rating. Comcast started offering what it called Stream TV in late 2015. This service allowed customers to view video content that doesn’t count against the monthly data cap. This was a pretty big deal at the time because Comcast was in the process at the time of implementing a 300 GB monthly data cap and video can easily push households over that small cap limit. There was huge consumer pushback against the paltry data caps and Comcast quickly reset the data cap to 1 terabyte. But the Stream TV plan is still in effect today.

What’s interesting about the Comcast plan is that the company had agreed to not use zero-rating as part of the terms of its merger with NBC Universal in 2011. The company claims that the Stream TV plan is not zero-rating since it uses cable TV bandwidth instead of data bandwidth – but anybody who understands a cable hybrid-fiber coaxial network knows that this argument is slight-of-hand, since all data uses some portion of the Comcast data connection to customers. The prior FCC started to look into the issue, but it was dropped by the current FCC as they decided to eliminate net neutrality.

The big cable companies have to be concerned about the pending competition with last-mile 5G. Verizon will begin a slow roll-out of its new 5G technology in October in four markets, and T-Mobile has announced plans to begin offering it next year. Verizon has already announced that they will not have any data caps and T-Mobile is also unlikely to have them.

The pressure will be on the cable companies to not charge for exceeding data caps in competitive markets. Cable companies could do this by eliminating data caps or else by pushing more video through zero-rating plans. In the case of Comcast, they won’t want to eliminate the data caps for markets that are not competitive. They view data caps as a potential source of revenue. The company OpenVault says that 2.5% of home currently exceed 1 TB in monthly data usage, up from 1.5% in 2017 – and within a few years this could be a lucrative source of extra revenue.

Comcast and the other big cable companies are under tremendous pressure to maintain earnings and they are not likely to give up on data caps as a revenue source. They are also likely to pursue sponsored video plans where the video services pay them to provide video outside of data caps.

Zero-rating is the one net neutrality practice that many customers like. Even should net neutrality be imposed again – through something like the California legislation or by a future FCC – it will be interesting to see how firmly regulators are willing to clamp down on a practice that the public likes.

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.

FCC Takes Shot at Zero-rating

Network_neutrality_poster_symbolIn perhaps the most futile government decision I’ve ever seen from the FCC, the agency last week ruled last week that AT&T was in violation of net neutrality rules with its zero-rated Sponsored Data plans. AT&T allows customers who buy DirecTV Now the ability to stream the service over cellphones without counting the data against wireless data caps. The agency didn’t take any action against AT&T as a result of the decision, and probably will not.

I call the gesture futile since it’s clear that the new Republican-led FCC is going to either gut or weaken the net neutrality rules. There are even those in Congress talking about disbanding the FCC and spreading its responsibilities elsewhere – something that would require a new Telecommunications Act. So it’s obvious that this decision doesn’t have any teeth.

I guess it’s not hard to understand that the current FCC staff wants to make one last stand for its signature policy. I don’t think there was anything in the history of the agency that got so much positive public feedback. It’s still hard to imagine that over a million people made formal comments in the FCC net neutrality docket.

And yet, as popular as the concept of net neutrality is – the concept of keeping an open internet – there probably is not a worst place to take a stand than zero-rating. This is a practice that the public is going to love. For the first time people will have the ability to watch video on cellphones without worrying about the stingy cellular data caps. I’m probably a bit old and my eyes have a problem enjoying video on a small cellphone screen. But after seeing my daughter watching video on her Apple smartwatch I am positive that this is going to be popular.

But zero-rating is eventually going to lead to exactly what net neutrality was designed to protect against. In this case AT&T is promoting its own programming with DirecTV Now, and perhaps there is nothing wrong with that. But it won’t be long until other content providers are going to be willing to pay AT&T to also carry their video on cellphones outside the data caps. And that will eventually create an environment where only the content of the biggest and richest companies will be sponsored.

The only video that will be available on cellphones will be from companies with the ability to pay AT&T to carry it. And that eventually means the end of innovation and of new start-ups. It means that Google and Facebook and Netflix will be available because they can afford to pay to sponsor their content, but that the next generations of companies that would naturally have supplanted them, as is inevitable in the tech world, will never get started. You can’t become popular if nobody watches you.

On the flip side, zero-rating is going to point out the hypocrisy of the current cellular data prices. A customer will be able to watch 100 gigabytes of DirecTV Now with no extra fees, but will quickly figure out that watching other video would have cost them $1,000 at the current price of $10 for each gigabyte of extra download. The supposed reason for the high data prices is to protect the cellular network – but it will quickly become clear that the high prices are only about profits. So perhaps this will begin the process of lowering the outrageous cost of cellular data – which is clearly the most expensive data in the world today.

Wireless Trends for 2017

Wi-FiToday I look at wireless trends for 2017. While most of my clients are small landline carriers, the wireless industry has a lot of impact on every ISP these days.

New Spectrum for Rural Broadband. The FCC should release spectrum at the end of the current Incentive Auction that can be used for rural broadband. This would be a slice of spectrum that used to be occupied by UHF television stations and that is being referred to as ‘white space’ spectrum. The beauty of this spectrum for rural broadband is that it will travel significantly far from a tower and will penetrate most obstacles that stop other spectrum. This spectrum has been allotted to only a few carriers under experimental licenses and so it might be a few years until affordable gear is ready for the market – but this would be a great tool for reaching remote customers.

New WiFi. The FCC should also finally release new WiFi in the 3.5 GHz band. This bandwidth will be available through a new spectrum sharing arrangement that will make it available to carriers while giving first priority to existing government and satellite users of the spectrum. But it’s a broad swath of 150 MHz and within a few years will add to the capacity of wireless point-to-multipoint networks. If the spectrum-sharing rules being used for 3.5 GHz work well, expect to start seeing sharing with other spectrum. This would be a great change for everybody and would spectrum owners on the notice that they have to either use or share spectrum and they can’t sit on it and let it go unused.

LTE Replaces Rural Copper. This is the year when we will start to really see AT&T and Verizon tearing down rural copper networks and forcing rural customers onto 4G LTE. What will never stop amazing me is that the FCC is paying for a lot of this from the CAF II fund.

Zero Rating Will Be Big. Expect all of the cellular carriers to aggressively adopt zero-rating, which is where they will provide their own video products to customers without it counting against cellular data caps. Zero-rating is not allowed under net neutrality rules, but it’s clear that the new FCC will soon reverse those rules.

Zero-rating is a really mixed bag. It will certainly be a boon to customers who don’t mind getting locked into big company bundles – for instance, an AT&T cellular customer might be able to watch unlimited DirecTV Now (but not Netflix) on their cellphone. But zero-rating also is glaring proof that wireless data caps are all about the extra revenue and not about bandwidth issues since the wireless carriers will open up wireless data pipes wide for those willing to pay them a lot of money.

There Will Be Huge 5G Hype. Expect the wireless companies and the press to talk about nothing but 5G. We will hear all year how the technology is being tested and how it’s right on the horizon. And all of the press releases won’t make any distinction between 5G cellular and 5G indoor gigabit wireless. So the general public will end 2017 mistakenly thinking that they will soon have gigabit cellphones.

There Will Be New Wireless Choices. Expect Comcast to launch their wireless product in a few test markets this year. Charter will also be closely watching those trials. Also don’t be surprised if Sprint or T-Mobile are bought by companies wanting to get into the cellular business. A really crazy rumor I read had Verizon merging with Comcast – but honestly nothing would surprise me any more with big company mergers.

WiFi Calling from Cellphones. There will be a big short this year as more and more calls will be made from cellphones directly over WiFi networks. Google Project Fi and Republic Wireless started this trend in 2016 and many others, including the big cell providers will join the trend.

Regulation and Uncertainty

FCC_New_LogoThe prevalent opinion seems to be that the new administration will shake up the FCC and will make a lot of changes to telecom regulation. I expect I will be writing a number of blogs about those changes as they occur. But today I want to talk about regulation and uncertainty.

There has always been an interesting dynamic between regulators and large telecom providers. No matter what regulators do, the companies always have a wish list of regulations they would like to see, and the companies always complain in the press about being over-regulated. This has always been the case during my 35 years of following regulation in the industry. Regulators regulate and the big companies act like all regulation is killing them.

This has been true no matter the nature of the FCC that is in place. We currently have one of the most consumer-oriented commissions in recent memory. And there have been other liberal FCC’s such as the one under Reed Hundt that oversaw the introduction of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the creation of CLECs. There has also been pro-business FCCs like the one under Michael Powell. Almost by definition the FCC changes direction with changes in administration and gets more liberal or more conservative depending upon who is president.

The FCC is an independent agency and so they don’t always act beholden to the president. The make-up of Congress has always mattered as well and having split parties between the president and Congress generally has acted to somewhat temper the decisions of the FCC since Congress holds the purse strings of the agency.

It’s also important to remember that the FCC doesn’t make decisions in a vacuum. Almost every major policy change the FCC tries to implement gets challenged in court, and over the years the courts have reversed a number of major FCC initiatives.

But with all of that said, it sounds like we are going to see big changes. The new FCC is likely to reverse a lot (or even most) of the changes made by the current FCC. To a large degree the big telcos are going to be granted a lot of the things that are on their wish list.

But here is the kicker. The one thing that the big companies hate more than regulation is regulatory uncertainty. You can be sure that if the new FCC makes radical changes and undoes everything done by this democratic FCC, then the next time there is a democratic president things could easily be changed back again.

That uncertainty is poison to the industry. Just try to picture what this kind of regulatory fluctuation can mean. Take the issue of net-neutrality and the way the current FCC feels about zero-rating. This is the practice where an ISP will favor some content over others. For instance, AT&T plans to zero-rate their DirecTV Now product for their cellular customers, meaning customers will be able to watch it on their cellphones without violating their data caps. This gives the AT&T product a huge leg up over any other streaming service for their 110 million wireless subscribers.

If zero-rating is allowed by the next FCC then there will much bigger deals made. One can picture Netflix or Facebook Live paying AT&T to allow their content without violating the cellular data caps. Over a few years this will turn into big business for AT&T and is something that will be expected by their customers. What happens, though when a future democratic FCC reverses the decision on zero-rating and makes it taboo again? That would be hugely disruptive to the industry and would cost a ton of money to the players involved.

As much as AT&T wants zero-rating, I bet if you told them that over the next twenty years it would be allowed, then banned, and then perhaps allowed again, back and forth, that they might have a different feeling about it. What they really want is a regulatory environment that has some staying power, because that allows them to make long-term investments and business decisions. Regulatory uncertainty is bad for the big companies and they know it. And it’s bad for their stock prices. As much as these companies might be happy now to be getting a pro-business FCC, they will be massively unhappy if the pendulum swings too far the other way every four or eight years.

Just as the country is split down the middle between right and left, it looks like we have come to the point where FCC policy might swing wildly based on the party in power. We’ve had changes at the FCC before due to changes in administration, but we have never had anything like the swing that looks to be coming now, and the future ones that might go back the other way. This is not how regulation is supposed to work, but it might be our new reality.

Free Broadband from Facebook

freebasics_facebook_thumbFacebook is talking to the FCC about launching a free Internet service in the US. This would provide a subset of the Internet for free to anybody with a smartphone and would provide such things as news, health information, job sites, and of course Facebook.

This would obviously benefit many people that can’t afford access to the web. Today the national broadband penetration of households that have some kind of access to the web is around 82%. Some of those without broadband live in rural places that don’t have access. Some don’t want Internet access. And the rest would like web access but can’t afford it.

Facebook has launched a similar product around the world in 53 emerging markets in the Middle East, Asia Pacific and Latin America. This is offered under the name Free Basics.

But the free product ran into problems and has been banned in India due to the fact that it violates net neutrality. The Indian net neutrality laws aren’t too different than our own laws and the service is what called zero-rated, meaning that any use of this plan is not counted against a data plan from a participating ISP.

In India the biggest complaint about the product was that it was restricted only to those things that Facebook wanted customers to see and not to the wider Internet. But in Facebook’s favor, it was free.

For this to work in the US, Facebook will need to find a US cellular partner which would not count usage of the app against a data plan. I recall that Facebook was close to this a few years ago in a partnership with T-Mobile that would have provided free access to a suite of products called GoSmart.

But more importantly, Facebook needs to convince the FCC that this is not a violation of net neutrality. The FCC has not formally made any pronouncements about zero-rating of wireless content, but it has talked to the major wireless carriers about the zero-rating they are already doing today.

This is the kind of situation that is really tough for regulators. With this kind of product Facebook could be providing some sort of free access to the web for millions of people in the country that might otherwise not have it. Even if it’s a scrubbed and sanitized piece of the web, it’s hard to find anything wrong with the results of that. People could buy a smartphone with no data plan and have access to parts of the web.

But the downside to the FCC is the same one faced by the Indian regulators. Once you let Facebook do this then the genie is out of the bottle and there doesn’t seem to be any way that the FCC could stop other kinds of zero-rating.

The dilemma is that Facebook is not quite like other companies. I am sure that somehow this isn’t costing Facebook too much and they might even make a little money from the idea. But Mark Zuckerberg seems to be on an altruistic mission to bring broadband access to the whole world. He has already used this idea to bring free broadband to many millions, and his goal is to bring it to billions.

But even with the altruism, this has certainly been good for Facebook – they had 1 billion users in 2015 and are now are reported to have over 1.7 billion users. That’s a lot of people to advertise to and to gather data from, which is how Facebook makes its money.

And of course, no matter how altruistic Facebook might be, nobody would expect the same motives from other large companies like Comcast, AT&T or Verizon. One of the main fears that drove the creation of net neutrality is that we could end up with a web that is filtered by the biggest ISPs and that the openness of the web would be killed by deals like the one Facebook wants to do. The web brought to you by Comcast is not the same web that we know today – and I think it’s a web that we don’t want as a society. But if we take the first step and let a big company like Facebook filter the web, we could be headed down the path where almost all future web access is filtered.

What’s Next After the Net Neutrality Ruling?

Network_neutrality_poster_symbolNow that the US District Court has affirmed the net neutrality ruling in its entirety it’s worth considering where the FCC will go next. Up until now it’s been clear that they have been somewhat tentative about strongly enforcing net neutrality issues since they didn’t want to have to reverse a year of regulatory work with a negative court opinion. But there are a number of issues that the FCC is now likely to tackle.

Zero-Rating. I would think that zero-rating must be high on their list. This is the practice of offering content that doesn’t count against monthly data caps. This probably most affects the customers in the cellular world where both AT&T and T-Mobile have their own video offerings that don’t count against data caps. With the tiny data caps on wireless broadband there is no doubt that it is a major incentive for customers to watch that free content, and consequently drive ad revenues to their own carrier.

But zero-rating exists in the landline world as well. Comcast has been offering some of its content on the web to its own customers. They claim this is not zero-rating, but from a technical perspective it is. However, now that Comcast has raised the monthly data cap to 1 terabit then this might not be of much concern to the FCC right now.

Privacy. The FCC has already proposed controversial rules that apply to the ISPs and consumer privacy. In those rules the FCC proposes to give customers the option to opt-out of getting advertisement from ISPs, but more importantly consumers can opt-out of being tracked. This would put the ISPs at a distinct disadvantage compared to edge providers like Facebook or Google who are still free to track online usage.

Last year the FCC also started to look at the ‘super-cookies’ that Verizon was using to track customers across the web. This privacy ruling (which is now on a lot more secure footing based upon the net neutrality order) could end the supercookies and many other ways that ISPs might track customer web behavior. Interestingly, both Verizon and AT&T have been bidding on buying Yahoo and this potential privacy ruling puts a big question mark on how valuable that acquisition might be if customers can all opt out from being tracked. I think Verizon and AT&T (and Comcast) all are eyeing the gigantic ad revenues being gained by web companies and this ruling is going to make it a challenge for them to make big headway in that arena.

Lifeline. I think that the net neutrality ruling also makes it easier for the FCC to defend their new plans to provide a subsidy to low-income data customers in the same manner they have always done for voice customers. Now that data is also regulated under Title II it fits right in to the existing Lifeline framework.

Data Caps. At some point I expect the FCC to tackle data caps. It’s been made clear by many in the industry that there are no network reasons for these caps, even in the cellular world. The cellular data plans in most of the rest of the world are either unlimited or have extremely high data caps.

The FCC said in establishing net neutrality that they would not regulate broadband rates. And in the strictest sense if they tackle data caps they would not be. The regulatory rate process is one where carriers must justify that rates aren’t too high or too low and has always been used, as much as anything, to avoid obvious subsidies.

But data caps – while they can drive a lot of revenues for ISPs – are not strictly a rate issue, and in facts, the ISPs hop through a lot of verbal hoops to say that data caps are not about driving revenues. And so I think the FCC can regulate data caps as an unnecessary network practice. It’s been said recently that AT&T is again selectively enforcing its 150 monthly gigabit cap, and so expect the public outcry to soon reach the FCC again, like happened last year with Comcast.