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Wall Street Uneasy About Future 5G Broadband Competition; Ponders Idea of 5G Monopolies

Super monopoly?

Some Wall Street analysts are pondering ideas on how to limit forthcoming 5G wireless home broadband, suggesting providers might want to set up local monopolies, keeping competition to a minimum and profits to a maximum.

Verizon’s presentation at its annual Analyst Day meeting drew little praise from analysts and investors in attendance, “landing like a thud” to quote one person at the event.

The issue concerning Wall Street is what impact 5G wireless broadband will have on the internet access marketplace, which is currently a comfortable monopoly or duopoly in most American cities. That may radically change if the country’s four wireless companies each launch their own 5G services, designed to replace wired home broadband services from the cable and phone companies.

This week Verizon formally announced Sacramento would be the first city in the country to get its forthcoming 5G service, with an additional four of five unnamed cities to follow sometime next year.

Verizon will advertise 1,000Mbps service that will be “priced competitively” with current internet providers in the market. But Verizon intends to market itself as “a premium provider,” which means pricing is likely to be higher than one might expect. Verizon claims they intend to roll out 5G service to 30 million households — 25-30% of the country, making Verizon a prominent provider of fixed wireless home broadband service.

But analysts panned Verizon’s presentation for raising more questions than the company was prepared to answer. Barron’s shared the views of several analysts who were underwhelmed.

Notably, Craig Moffett from Moffett-Nathanson was particularly concerned about how to rate 5G service for his investor clients, and more importantly to them, how to forecast revenue and profit.

Moffett

The biggest problem for Moffett is the prospect of additional competition, and what that will do to each current (and future) provider’s share of customers and its revenue. If every major wireless carrier enters the 5G home broadband business, that will raise the prospective number of ISPs available to consumers to six or more — four wireless carriers competing with the phone and cable company. That is potentially very dangerous to big profits, especially if a competitive price war emerges.

“Let’s assume that AT&T is just as aggressive about this opportunity as Verizon,” Moffett told his investor clients. “Will they enter the same markets as Verizon, or different ones? […] If multiple players enter each market, all targeting the same 25-30% [where 5G service will be sold]. Well, what then? Let’s suppose the 30% market share estimate is right. Wouldn’t it be now shared among two, three, or even four [5G fixed wireless broadband] providers?”

Moffett gently proposes a concept where this profit-bruising competition can be abated by following the cable television model — companies agree to stay out of each others’ markets, giving consumers a choice of just one 5G provider in each city instead of four.

“There’s a completely different future where each operator targets different markets […] Let’s say that AT&T decides to skip Sacramento. After all, Verizon will have gotten there first,” Moffett suggests. “If the required share of the [fixed wireless] market is close to Verizon’s estimated 30%, then there is only room for one provider. So AT&T decides to do Stockton, about 40 miles to the south. Verizon would then skip Stockton, but might do Modesto, twenty miles further south… and then AT&T would then skip Modesto and instead target Fresno… unless Sprint or T-Mobile got there first.”

But Moffett is thinking even further ahead, by suggesting wireless carriers might be able to stop spending billions on building and expanding their competing 4G LTE networks when they could all share a single provider’s network in each city. That idea could work if providers agreed to creating local monopolies.

“That would create a truly bizarre market dynamic that is almost unimaginable today, where each operator ‘owned’ different cities, not just for [5G] but also for 4G LTE. If this kind of patchwork were to come to pass, the only viable solution might then be for companies to reciprocally wholesale their networks. You can use mine in Modesto if I can use yours in Fresno. To state the obvious, there is almost no imaginable path to that kind of an outcome today.”

The reason providers have not attempted this kind of “one provider” model in the past is because former FCC commissioners would have never supported the idea of retiring wireless competition and creating a cable monopoly-like model for wireless service. But things have changed dramatically with the advent of Chairman Ajit Pai, who potentially could be sold on the idea of granting local monopolies on the theory it will “speed 5G deployment” to a large number of different cities. Just as independent wireless providers lease access on the four largest carriers today (MVNO agreements), AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint could sell wholesale access to their networks to each other, allowing massive cost savings, which may or may not be passed on to customers.

But it would also bring an end to network redundancy, create capacity problems, and require every carrier to be certain their networks were interoperable with other wireless companies. The federal government’s emergency first responder program also increasingly depends on a wireless network AT&T is building that would give them first priority access to wireless services. How that would work in a city “designated” to get service from Verizon is unclear.

Restricting competition would protect profits and sharing networks would slash expenses. But such prospects were not enough to assuage Wall Street’s insatiable hunger for maximum profits. That is why analysts were unimpressed with Verizon’s presentation, which “lacked the financials” — precise numbers that explain how much the network will cost, how quickly it will be paid off, and how much revenue it can earn for investors.

A small cell attached to a light pole.

Verizon did sell investors on the idea 5G will put an end to having to wire fiber optics to every home. The service will also keep costs to a minimum by selling retail activation kits customers will install themselves — avoiding expensive truck rolls. Billing and account activation will also be self-service.

Verizon also announced a new compact 4G/5G combined antenna, which means 5G service can be supplied through existing macro/small cell 4G equipment. Verizon will be able to supplement that network by adding new 5G nodes where it becomes necessary.

Investor expectations are that 5G will cost substantially less than fiber to the home service, will not cost massive amounts of new investment dollars to deploy in addition to maintaining existing 4G services, will not substantially undercut existing providers, and will allow Verizon to market 21st century broadband speeds to its customers bypassed for FiOS fiber service. It will also threaten rural phone companies, where customers could easily replace slow speed DSL in favor of what Verizon claims will be “gigabit wireless.”

Despite that, Instinet’s Jeffrey Kvaal was not wowed by Verizon’s look to the future.

“Verizon’s initial fixed wireless implementation seems clunky and it withheld its pricing strategy,” Kvaal told his clients. He believes fixed wireless broadband will cost Verizon an enormous amount of money he feels would be better spent on Verizon’s mobile network. “Verizon glossed over 5-10x LTE upgrades that are already offering ~100Mbps of fully mobile service at current prices to current phones without line of sight. A better 5G story might be to free up sufficient LTE capacity to boost the unlimited cap from 25GB to 100GB for, say, a $25 premium. The ‘cut the cord’ concept was successful in voice, in video, and should be in broadband.”

Defenders of FCC’s Ajit Pai Miss the Point on Cutting Broadband Speed Standards

Defenders of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai are rushing to defend the Republican majority’s likely support for an initiative to roll back the FCC’s 25/3Mbps speed standard embraced by his predecessor, Thomas Wheeler.

Johnny Kampis, writing for Watchdog.org, claims that broadband speed standard has had an adverse affect on solving America’s rural broadband gap.

After raising that standard, suddenly those areas with speeds below 10 mbps were lumped into the same group with those who could access speeds of 10-25 mbps, resulting in diminished focus on those areas where the broadband gap cut the deepest.

Raising the standard meant, too, that fans of big government could point to the suddenly higher percentage of the population that was “underserved” on internet speeds and call for more taxpayer money to solve that “problem.”

Kampis is relying on the talking points from the broadband industry, which also happens to support the same ideological interests of Watchdog.org’s benefactor, the corporate/foundation-funded Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. The argument suggests that if you raise broadband standards, that opens the door to more communities to claim they too are presently underserved, which then would qualify them for government-funded broadband improvements.

Kampis’ piece, like many of those published on Watchdog.org, distorts reality with suggestions that communities with 50Mbps broadband service will now be ripe for government handouts. He depends on an unnamed source from an article written on Townhall.com and also quotes the CEO of Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, which is closely associated with the same Franklin Center that hosts Watchdog.org. Kampis’ piece relies on sourcing that is directly tied to the organization hosting his article.

In reality, rural broadband funding has several mechanisms in place which heavily favor unserved, rural areas, not communities that already have 50Mbps internet access. ISPs also routinely object to projects proposed within their existing service areas, declaring them already served, and much of the funding doled out by the Connect America Fund (CAF) Kampis suggests is a government handout are being given to telephone companies, not municipalities.

Kampis

Kampis is satisfied free market capitalism will eventually solve the rural broadband problem, despite two decades of lackluster or non-existent service in areas deemed unprofitable to serve.

“So while Pai’s critics denigrate him because his FCC is considering lowering that broadband standard, he’s just correcting an earlier mistake, with the realization that the free market, not big government, will solve the rural broadband gap if given enough time,” Kampis writes. “And returning to the old standards will help ensure that the focus will be placed squarely on the areas that need the most help.”

Kampis suggests that free market solution might be 5G wireless broadband, which can potentially serve rural populations less expensively than traditional wired broadband service. Communities only need wait another 5-10 years for that to materialize, if it does at all.

Kampis claims to be an investigative reporter, but he didn’t venture too far beyond regurgitating press releases and talking points from big phone companies and opponents of municipal broadband. If he had spent time reviewing correspondence sent to the FCC in response to the question of easing broadband speed standards, he would have discovered the biggest advocates for that are large phone companies and wireless carriers that stand to benefit the most from the change.

Following the money usually delivers a clearer, more fact-based explanation for what motivates players in the broadband industry. In this case, the 25Mbps speed standard has regularly been attacked by phone and wireless companies hoping to tap into government funds to build out their networks. Traditional phone companies are upset that the 25Mbps requirement means their typical rural broadband solution – DSL, usually won’t cut it. Wireless companies have also had a hard time assuring the FCC of consistent 25Mbps speeds, making it difficult for them to qualify for grants. AT&T wasn’t happy with a 10Mbps standard for wireless service either.

Incidentally, these are the same companies that have failed to solve the rural broadband gap all along. Most will continue not serving rural areas unless the government covers part of their costs. AT&T illustrates that with its own fixed wireless rural broadband solution, which came about grudgingly with the availability of CAF funding.

The dark money ATM network hides corporate contributions funneled into advocacy groups.

The free market broadband solution is rooted in meeting Return On Investment metrics. In short, if a home costs more to serve that a company can recoup in a short amount of time, that home will not be served unless either the homeowner or someone else covers the costs of providing the service. By wiping out the Obama Administration’s FCC speed standard, more ratepayer dollars will be directed to phone and wireless companies that will build less expensive and less-capable DSL and wireless networks instead of investing in more modern technology like fiber optics.

Mr. Kampis, and others, through their advocacy, claim their motive is a reduction in government waste. But in reality, and not by coincidence, their brand of journalism hoodwinks readers into advocating against their best interests of getting fast, future-proofed broadband, and instead hand more money to companies like AT&T. The Franklin Center refuses to reveal its donor list, of course, but SourceWatch reported the Center is heavily dependent on funding from DonorsTrust, which cloaks the identity of its corporate donors. Mother Jones went further and called it “a dark money ATM.”

Companies like AT&T didn’t end up this lucky by accident. It donates to dark money groups that fund various sock puppet and astroturf operations that avoid revealing where the money comes from, while the groups get to claim they are advocating for taxpayers. By no coincidence, these groups frequently don’t attack corporate welfare, especially if the recipient is also a donor.

New York’s rural broadband initiative is on track to deliver near 100% broadband coverage to all New York homes and has speed requirements and a ban on hard data caps.

Raising speed standards does not harm rural broadband expansion. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s broadband expansion campaign is on track to reach the remaining 150,000 homes still without broadband access by sometime next year. His program relies on broadband expansion funding that comes with requirements that insist providers offer internet access capable of at least 25Mbps (with a preference for 100Mbps) for $60 or less and a ban on hard usage caps. Kampis claims the 25Mbps speed standard hampers progress, yet New York is the first state in the nation moving towards 100% broadband availability for its residents at that speed or better.

Chairman Pai’s solution is little more than a gift to the country’s largest phone and wireless companies that would like to capture more CAF money for themselves while delivering the least amount of service possible (and keep money out of the hands of municipalities that want to build their own more capable networks). The evidence is quite clear — relying on the same companies that have allowed the rural broadband crisis to continue for more than 20 years is a stupendously bad idea that only sounds brilliant after some corporation writes a large check.

4GCommunity’s Sprint-Powered 4G LTE Service Shutting Down

4GCommunity.org, a non-profit provider of unlimited 4G LTE wireless internet service, is ending the service by Nov. 30, 2017 for “circumstances beyond the organization’s control.”

The service cost $250 for the first year, which included a mobile hotspot device, and $168 each year thereafter, which means many subscribers that started in the past year may lose some or all of their annual fee as the service closes down.

The company e-mailed its members this morning:

Dear 4GCommunity.org Members,

We are saddened to inform you that due to circumstances beyond the organization’s control the Internet connectivity benefit of membership will be ceasing no later than November 30, 2017. It may be sooner, so please begin looking for other Internet connectivity options right away.

The member online support center will remain a resource through this time next year. Member and support team volunteers will be providing their general assistance through the online support center to assist with questions about basic home computing, networking, and related technologies. It can be accessed through the Support Center page of the website, or directly at: https://4gcommunityorg.happyfox.com/

Respectfully yours,

Support Team

Sprint was 4GCommunity’s 4G service provider, and was potentially not enthusiastic about the partnership.

4GCommunity.org is one of several non-profit groups that have taken advantage of an agreement made years earlier with Clearwire, a company acquired by Sprint in 2013.

Non-profit groups offering inexpensive 4G wireless internet service are exploiting a loophole in a 2006 contract agreement between Clear (now owned by Sprint) and Educational Broadband Service licensees.

In 2006, Clearwire reached an agreement to lease wireless spectrum earmarked for Educational Broadband Service (EBS) providers including Mobile Citizen and Mobile Beacon. In return for the use of those frequencies, Clearwire agreed to sell wireless internet service on its WiMAX network at rock bottom prices to those two providers, their non-profit affiliates and dues-paying members. As a result, more than 1,800 nonprofits, 429 schools, and 61 libraries signed up for service at prices averaging $10 a month. A few of those non-profits creatively exploited a loophole in the agreement which guaranteed access “as long as you are a user, recipient or beneficiary of a non-profit programs or services, but not thereafter.” That provision was interpreted to mean non-profit groups attached to either Mobile Citizen or Mobile Beacon could resell the service to their own members.

A groups have turned up, including 4GCommunity.org, typically offer access to unlimited 4G LTE data on Sprint’s network for an annual fee. 4GConnection effectively charged only $14 a month after the first year. The service has been especially popular with those within Sprint coverage areas, but outside of range for DSL or cable broadband. It also attracted a large number of RV owners and frequent travelers looking for portable internet access.

Sprint and other wireless companies have had experience with all kinds of resellers before. Historically, many of those providers offering unlimited data have been suddenly notified their contract to resell service was canceled or modified, usually after the carrier discovered a surge in traffic and usage it did not originally expect.

4GCommunity did not reveal the specific reasons for the decision to cancel its internet offering, but does suggest the termination is connected to Sprint. The decision is causing customers to scramble to find a new service provider. Selling low-cost internet plans that depend on one of the four major carriers has proven a risky business for providers and customers, because a carrier can put a provider under just by canceling a service agreement.

4GCommunity obviously understood the risks of having their provider drop them, placing this warning (emphasis theirs) in their service agreement:

You understand your support and membership in the organization is not a guarantee of any particular benefit for any duration of time.  You understand you are supporting an organization mission.  You understand we reserve the right to cancel any Internet connectivity Service as a member benefit at any time without notice, for any reason.  You understand that your membership charges may not be refunded or prorated if the Internet connectivity benefit is terminated or modified regardless of reason at any time.   

Customers may be less forgiving, especially if they recently paid several hundred dollars for a year of service that may not be refunded.

Similar resellers still appear to be offering service, but potential customers should be cautious and not assume other service provision contracts won’t be similarly canceled. A customer could be out up to $679 if a service later disappears.

  • Calyx Institute – Membership costs $500 the first year, which includes wireless mobile hotspot service. The renewal rate is $400.
  • Freedata.io – First year prices range from $449 – $679 for three different tiers of service offering different hotspot devices (currently showing as out of stock) and different options to access 3G service, which can be more reliable in rural/fringe reception areas. The service has also been battling with its small business payment processors, which suggests this is a very small operation.
  • PCs for People & Connectall.org – Provide service to those below the 200% poverty level or currently enrolled in an income-based government assistance program. Proof of income required.

One of the few remaining unlimited wireless data providers unlikely to be affected by these developments is Unlimitedville, which offers a variety of expensive plans that correspond to the carrier providing the service. The “Yellow” plan, powered by Sprint, is $99 a month. The “Pink” plan, powered by T-Mobile, is $149 a month. A “Blue” plan offering service from AT&T costs $199 a month, and a “Red” plan using Verizon’s network is $249 a month. All of the plans are free of caps and speed throttles and offer 4G LTE data without hotspot restrictions, but require a one-time $99 “membership fee.”

T-Mobile Makes Deal With FOX Television to Relocate Channels to Boost Cell Coverage

WWOR advertises itself as My 9, but the station actually transmits over UHF channel 38 and will move to channel 25 early next year.

T-Mobile today announced a partnership with FOX Television Stations to hasten channel relocation to make room for the wireless carrier’s expansion of wireless service in the 600MHz spectrum it won at auction.

As part of the agreement, FOX-owned WWOR-TV in Secaucus, N.J., will vacate its current digital UHF channel 38 in early 2018, over a year sooner than originally planned. The station will move to UHF channel 25, but most viewers will still find the channel on virtual channel 9. T-Mobile will then bring new cell service online in metropolitan New York where WWOR’s signal used to be.

T-Mobile is aggressively trying to bring its valued 600MHz spectrum online as quickly as possible because it offers the carrier and its customers expanded coverage and better reception in indoor locations. Although the FCC has set an August 2019 deadline for stations to vacate and move their channels to make way for improved cell service, T-Mobile is offering incentives to get broadcasters to make the move well before that deadline.

Earlier this year, PBS and America’s Public Television Stations announced a similar partnership with T-Mobile. The wireless carrier has offered to pay the costs for a significant number of rural TV translators to move to new channel positions to make room for T-Mobile’s cell expansion.

“We’re committed to working with broadcasters across the country to clear 600MHz spectrum, so we can preserve programming and bring increased wireless choice and competition across the country,” said Neville Ray, chief technology officer at T-Mobile.

Working with the low power television outlets is a win-win solution for T-Mobile and the stations, because some budget-constrained stations may be required to change channel positions at least twice. There are concerns that the diminishing UHF TV dial may not have room to accommodate every TV station that wants to remain on the air.

Internet’s Biggest Frauds: Traffic Tsunamis and Usage-Based Pricing

Providers’ tall tales.

Year after year, equipment manufacturers and internet service providers trot out predictions of a storm surge of internet traffic threatening to overwhelm the internet as we know it. But growing evidence suggests such scare stories are more about lining the pockets of those predicting traffic tsunamis and the providers that use them to justify raising your internet bill.

This month, Cisco — one of the country’s largest internet equipment suppliers, released its latest predictions of astounding internet traffic growth. The company is so confident its annual predictions of traffic deluges are real it branded a term it likes to use to describe it: The Zettabyte Era. (A zettabyte, for those who don’t know, is one sextillion bytes, or perhaps more comfortably expressed as one trillion gigabytes.)

Cisco’s business thrives on scaring network engineers with predictions that customers will overwhelm their broadband networks unless they upgrade their equipment now, as in ‘right now!‘ In turn, the broadband industry’s bean counters find predictions of traffic explosions useful to justify revenue enhancers like usage caps, usage-based billing, and constant rate increases.

“As we make these and other investments, we periodically need to adjust prices due to increases [in] business costs,” wrote Comcast executive Sharon Powell in a letter defending a broad rate increase imposed on customers in Philadelphia late last year.

In 2015, as that cable company was expanding its usage caps to more markets, spokesman Charlie Douglas tried to justify the usage caps claiming, “When you have 10 percent of the customers consuming 50 percent of the network bandwidth, it’s only fair that those consumers should pay more.”

When Cisco released its 2017 predictions of internet traffic growth, once again it suggests a lot more data will need to be accommodated across America’s broadband and wireless networks. But broadband expert Dave Burstein has a good memory based on his long involvement in the industry and the data he saw from Cisco actually deflates internet traffic panic, and more importantly provider arguments for higher cost, usage-capped internet access.

“Peak Internet growth may have been a couple of years ago,” wrote Burstein. “For more than a decade, internet traffic went up ~40% every year. Cisco’s VNI, the most accurate numbers available, sees growth this year down to 27% on landlines and falling to 15-20% many places over the next few years. Mobile growth is staying higher — 40-50% worldwide. Fortunately, mobile technology is moving even faster. With today’s level of [provider investments], LTE networks can increase capacity 10x to 15x.”

According to Burstein, Cisco’s estimates for mobile traffic in the U.S. and Canada in 2020 is 4,525 petabytes and in 2021 is 5,883 petabytes. That’s a 30% growth rate. Total consumer traffic in the U.S. and Canada Cisco sees as 48,224 petabytes and 56,470 petabytes in 2021. That’s a 17% growth rate, which is much lower on wired networks.

Burstein’s findings are in agreement with those of Professor Andrew Odlyzko, who has debunked “exaflood/data tsunami” scare stories for over a decade.

“[The] growth rate has been decreasing for almost two decades,” Odlyzko wrote in a 2016 paper published in IPSI BgD Transactions. “Even the growth rate in wireless data, which was extremely high in the last few years, shows clear signs of a decline. There is still rapid growth, but it is simply not at the rates observed earlier, or hoped for by many promoters of new technologies and business methods.”

Burstein

The growth slowdown, according to Odlyzko, actually began all the way back in 1997, providing the first warning the dot.com bubble of the time was preparing to burst. He argued the data models used by equipment manufacturers and the broadband industry to measure growth have been flawed for a long time.

When new internet trends became popular, assumptions were made about what impact they would have, but few models accurately predicted whether those trends would remain a major factor for internet traffic over the long-term.

Peer-to-peer file sharing, one of the first technologies Comcast attempted to use as a justification for its original 250GB usage cap, is now considered almost a footnote among the applications having a current profound impact on internet traffic. Video game play, also occasionally mentioned as a justification for usage caps or network management like speed throttling, was hardly ever a major factor for traffic slowdowns, and most games today exchange player actions using the smallest amount of traffic possible to ensure games are fast and responsive. In fact, the most impact video games have on the internet is the size of downloads required to acquire and update them.

Odlyzko also debunked alarmist predictions of traffic overloads coming from the two newest and largest traffic contributors of the period 2001-2010 — cloud backups and online video.

Odlyzko

“Actual traffic trends falsified this conjecture, as the first decade of the 21st century witnessed a substantial [traffic growth rate] slowdown,” said Odlyzko. “The frequent predictions about ‘exafloods’ overwhelming the networks that were frequent a decade ago have simply not come to pass. At the 20 to 30% per year growth rates that are observed today in industrialized countries, technology is advancing faster than demand, so there is no need for increasing the volume of investments, or for the fine-grained traffic control schemes that are beloved by industry managers as well as researchers.”

That’s a hard pill to swallow for companies that manufacture equipment designed to “manage,” throttle, cap, and charge customers based on their overusage of the internet. It also gives fits to industry executives, lobbyists, and the well paid public policy researchers that produce on spec studies and reports attempting to justify such schemes. But the numbers don’t lie, even if the industry does.

Although a lot of growth measured these days comes from wireless networks, they are not immune to growth slowdowns either. The arrival of the smartphone was hailed by wireless companies and Wall Street as a rocket engine to propel wireless revenue sky high. Company presidents even based part of their business plans on revenue earned from monetizing data usage allegedly to pay for spectrum acquisitions and upgrades.

McAdam

Verizon’s CEO Lowell McAdam told investors as late as a year ago “unlimited data” could never work on Verizon Wireless again.

“With unlimited, it’s the physics that breaks it,” he said. “If you allow unlimited usage, you just run out of gas.”

The laws of physics must have changed this year when Verizon reintroduced unlimited data for its wireless customers.

John Wells, then vice president of public affairs for CTIA, the wireless industry’s top lobbying group, argued back in 2010 AT&T’s decision to establish pricing tiers was a legitimate way for carriers to manage the ‘explosive growth in data usage.’ Wells complained the FCC was taking too long to free up critically needed wireless spectrum, so they needed “other tools” to manage their networks.

“This is one of the measures that carriers are considering to make sure everyone has a fair and equal experience,” Walls said, forgetting to mention the wireless industry was cashing in on wireless data revenue, which increased from $8.5 billion annually in 2005 to $41.5 billion in 2009, and Wall Street was demanding more.

“There were again many cries about unsustainable trends, and demands for more spectrum (even though the most ambitious conceivable re-allocation of spectrum would have at most doubled the cellular bands, which would have accommodated only a year of the projected 100+% annual growth),” Odlyzko noted.

What the industry and Wall Street did not fully account for is that their economic models and pricing had the effect of modifying consumer behavior and changed internet traffic growth rates. Odlyzko cites the end of unlimited data plans and the introduction of “tight data caps” as an obvious factor in slowing down wireless traffic growth.

“But there were probably other significant ones,” Odlyzko wrote. “For example, mobile devices have to cope not just with limited transmission capacity, but also with small screens, battery
limits, and the like. This may have led to changes of behavior not just of users, but also of app developers. They likely have been working on services that can function well with modest
bandwidth.”

“U.S. wireless data traffic, which more than doubled from 2012 to 2013, increased just 26% from 2013 to 2014,” Odylzko reported. “This was a surprise to many observers, especially since there is still more than 10 times as much wireline Internet traffic than wireless Internet traffic.”

Many believe that was around the same time smartphones achieved peak penetration in the marketplace. Virtually everyone who wanted a smartphone had one by 2014, and as a result of fewer first-time users on their networks, data traffic growth slowed. At the same time, some Wall Street analysts also began to worry the companies were reaching peak revenue per user, meaning there was nothing significant to sell wireless customers that they didn’t already have. At that point, future revenue growth would come primarily from rate increases and poaching customers from competitors. Or, as some providers hoped, further monetizing data usage.

The Net Neutrality debate has kept most companies from “innovating” with internet traffic “fast lanes” and other monetization schemes out of fear of stoking political blowback. Wireless companies could make significant revenue trying to sell customers performance boosters like higher priority access on a cell tower or avoiding a speed throttle that compromised video quality. But until providers have a better idea whether the current administration’s efforts to neuter Net Neutrality are going to be successful, some have satisfied themselves with zero rating schemes and bundling that offer customers content without a data caps or usage billing or access to discounted packages of TV services like DirecTV Now.

Verizon is also betting its millions that “content is king” and the next generation of revenue enhancers will come from owning and distributing exclusive video content it can offer its customers.

Odlyzko believes providers are continuing the mistake of stubbornly insisting on acquiring or at least charging content providers for streaming content across their networks. That debate began more than a decade ago when then SBC/AT&T CEO Edward Whitacre Jr. insisted content companies like Netflix were not going to use AT&T’s “pipes for free.”

“Much of the current preoccupation of telecom service providers with content can be explained away as following historical precedents, succumbing to the glamour of ‘content,'” Odlyzko wrote. “But there is likely another pressing reason that applies today. With connection speeds growing, and the ability to charge according to the value of traffic being constrained either directly by laws and regulations, or the fear of such, the industry is in a desperate search for ways not to be a ‘dumb pipe.'”

AT&T and Verizon: The Doublemint Twins of Wireless

A number of Wall Street analysts also fear common carrier telecom companies are a revenue growth ‘dead-end,’ offering up a commodity service about as exciting as electricity. Customers given a choice between AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile need something to differentiate one network from the other. Verizon Wireless claims it has a best in class LTE network with solid rural coverage. AT&T offers bundling opportunities with its home broadband and DirecTV satellite service. Sprint is opting to be the low price leader, and T-Mobile keeps its customers with a network that outperforms expectations and pitches constant promotions and giveaways to customers that crave constant gratification and change.

The theory goes that acquiring video content will drive data usage revenue, further differentiate providers, and keep customers from switching to a competitor. But Odylzko predicts these acquisitions and offerings will ultimately fail to make much difference.

“Dumb pipes’ [are] precisely what society needs,” Odylzko claims and in his view it is the telecom industry alone that has the “non-trivial skills” required to provide ubiquitous reliable broadband. The industry also ignores the utility-like built-in advantage it has owning pre-existing wireline and wireless networks. The amortized costs of network infrastructure often built decades ago offers natural protection from marketplace disruptors that likely lack the fortitude to spend billions of dollars required to invade markets with newly constructed networks of their own.

Odylzko is also critical of the industry’s ongoing failure of imagination.

Stop the Cap! calls that the industry’s “broadband scarcity” business model. It is predicated on the idea that broadband is a limited resource that must be carefully managed and, in some cases, metered. Companies like Cox and Comcast now usage-cap their customers and deter them from exceeding their allowance with overlimit penalties. AT&T subjectively usage caps their customers as well, but strictly enforces caps only for its legacy DSL customers. Charter Communications sells Spectrum customers on the idea of a one-size fits all, faster broadband option, but then strongly repels those looking to upgrade to even faster speeds with an indefensible $200 upgrade fee.

Rationing Your Internet Experience?

“The fixation with video means the telecom industry is concentrating too much on limiting user traffic,” Odlyzko writes. “In many ways, the danger for the industry, especially in the wireline arena, is from too little traffic, not too much. The many debates as to whether users really need 100Mbps connections, much less 1Gbps ones, reveal lack of appreciation that burst capability is the main function of modern telecom, serving human impatience. Although pre-recorded video dominates in the volume of traffic, the future of the Net is likely to be bursts of traffic coming from cascades of interactions between computers reacting to human demands.”

Burstein agrees.

“The problem for most large carriers is that they can’t sell the capacity they have, not that they can’t keep up,” he writes. “The current surge in 5G millimeter wave [talk] is not because the technology will be required to meet demand. Rather, it is inspired by costs coming down so fast the 5G networks will be a cheaper way to deliver the bits. In addition, Verizon sees a large opportunity to replace cable and other landlines.”

On the subject of cost and broadband economics, Burstein sees almost nothing to justify broadband rate hikes or traffic management measures like usage caps or speed throttling.

“Bandwidth cost per month per subscriber will continue flat to down,” Burstein notes. “For large carriers, that’s been about $1/month [per customer] since ~2003. Moore’s Law has been reducing equipment costs at a similar rate.”

“Cisco notes people are watching more TV over the net in evening prime time, so demand in those hours is going up somewhat faster than the daily average,” he adds. “This could be costly – networks have to be sized for highest demand – but is somewhat offset by the growth of content delivery networks (CDN), like Akamai and Netflix. (Google, YouTube, and increasingly Microsoft and Facebook have built their own.) CDNs eliminate the carrier cost of transit and backhaul. They deliver the bits to the appropriate segment of the carrier network, reducing network costs.”

Both experts agree there is no evidence of any internet traffic jams and routine upgrades as a normal course of doing business remain appropriate, and do not justify some of the price and policy changes wired and wireless providers are seeking.

But Wall Street doesn’t agree and analysts like New Street Research’s Jonathan Chaplin believe broadband prices should rise because with a lack of competition, nothing stops cable companies from collecting more money from subscribers. He isn’t concerned with network traffic growth, just revenue growth.

“As the primary source of value to households shifts increasingly from pay-TV to broadband, we would expect the cable companies to reflect more of the annual rate increases they push through on their bundles to be reflected in broadband than in the past,” Chaplin wrote investors. Comcast apparently was listening, because Chaplin noticed it priced standalone broadband at a premium $85 for its flagship product, which is $20 more than Comcast’s non-promotional rate for customers choosing a TV-internet bundle.

“Our analysis suggests that broadband as a product is underpriced,” Chaplin wrote. “Our work suggests that cable companies have room to take up broadband pricing significantly and we believe regulators should not oppose the re-pricing. The companies will undoubtedly have to take pay-TV pricing down to help ‘fund’ the price increase for broadband, but this is a good thing for the business. Post re-pricing, [online video] competition would cease to be a threat and the companies would grow revenue and free cash flow at a far faster rate than they would otherwise.”

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