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Netflix Agrees to Pay Comcast for Improved Video Streaming; Could ‘Limit Competition’

comcast toll plazaNetflix has agreed to compensate Comcast in return for assurances that the cable company’s subscribers would no longer be caught in the middle of a dispute between Comcast and one of Netflix’s content distributors.

The multi-year agreement between the two companies will bring Netflix direct access to Comcast’s broadband network with a Service Level Agreement that will guarantee streaming stability for customers who have loudly complained about Netflix’s deteriorating performance.

The controversial arrangement has probably established a precedent for other large Internet Service Providers likely to seek compensation to handle Netflix traffic. As of this evening, both AT&T and Verizon have already acknowledged they are negotiating with Netflix for similar arrangements.

Caught in the middle of the dispute are Comcast customers paying for a reliable Internet connection and getting slowing connections and re-buffering problems while attempting to watch Netflix content during peak usage times.

One side accuses Comcast of violating Net Neutrality while the other blames Netflix for dumping enormous Internet traffic on Internet Service Providers without compensation for network upgrades. Also in the crossfire is Cogent, a third-party company delivering Netflix content to Comcast’s front door.

How Netflix Distributes Its Streaming Movies and TV Shows

netflix cdnNetflix has traditionally avoided owning the “pipes” that distribute movies and TV shows to paying customers. Instead, it usually contracts with “transit providers” to send content from Netflix headquarters on to “content distribution networks (CDN)” that manage video streaming. A Netflix video may pass through a number of connections on a variety of independently owned networks before it arrives at the front door of your Internet Service Provider. Companies like Comcast handle “the last mile” of the journey that began at Netflix and ends at your computer or television set.

Netflix does not rely on just one transit provider to handle its traffic. Level 3, Cogent, and XO Communications all reportedly serve in that capacity, depending on where traffic is headed. The same is true for the CDN’s Netflix contracts with to regionally stream content to each subscriber.

Netflix determines how to handle your streaming movie request behind the scenes, selecting a CDN that is close to you and capable of delivering the most stable streaming experience at that moment. If you are a Comcast or Verizon customer, Netflix often selects Cogent to handle its content. Cogent is also well known for its relatively low cost.

If you are served by Cablevision, Frontier, or certain other providers like Google Fiber, Netflix will instead direct your streaming request to a CDN located within your provider’s own network. These “Open Connect” boxes store Netflix content in a type of cache and can stream it to customers directly without sending video packets across multiple third-party networks. Theoretically, Open Connect offers an efficient and stable way of distributing Netflix content to customers. It also saves Netflix money and in return, it costs the ISP nothing — Netflix pays for the equipment and service.

Cogent vs. Big Telecom

220px-CogentlogoNetflix and YouTube together are now estimated to cover 50 percent of all video traffic on the Internet, and that traffic is growing. Cogent dutifully passes that video content along to Internet Service Providers like Verizon and Comcast that have customers waiting to watch. But it is a two-way street. Any outbound traffic from customers could also be forwarded to Cogent to send on. Traditionally, both sides have managed the traffic by gradually increasing the bandwidth and speed of their connections to one-another. But as Netflix traffic grows and grows, companies like Comcast and Verizon believe they are being saddled with the costs to upgrade their networks in ways that are out of proportion to the traffic they send in the other direction. ISPs often grumble about the cost but keep on upgrading to keep paying customers happy. Verizon and Comcast are suspected of dragging their feet on those upgrades in an effort to win compensation.

Verizon and Comcast argue they should be paid by content producers responsible for generating tons of Internet traffic to help cover the cost of upgrades. Instead, Netflix offered its Open Connect boxes, which keep Netflix traffic within an ISPs own network, reducing the necessity of constantly upgrading connections with other transit providers. Verizon and Comcast don’t want Netflix’s solution — they want cold hard cash.

Conflict of Interest

Some network engineers cannot understand all the controversy about Comcast’s arrangement with Netflix. Some believe Netflix is simply shifting traffic away from third-party Cogent to Comcast directly, presumably at a cost savings. They suggest customers will be happy that streaming quality is restored and Netflix also wins a guaranteed level of performance they never had with Cogent.

2hatBut that argument does not explain why Netflix was compelled to make a financial arrangement with Comcast. The two companies have been in negotiations on the subject of traffic compensation for months. Many industry observers believe those talks went nowhere until Netflix customers began complaining about the increasing network slowdowns. Some even dropped their Netflix subscriptions over the issue.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings admitted he made a deal with Comcast to restore customer confidence in Netflix and end subscriber frustration. It was also increasingly clear Comcast was in no hurry to improve things on its own, despite the fact its own customers were the ones most directly affected.

So why wouldn’t Comcast (or Verizon or Time Warner Cable) take Netflix up on its offer of free Open Connect boxes that would reasonably solve streaming problems without forcing anyone to spend a fortune on upgrades? Simply put, all three companies are direct competitors of Netflix. Helping Netflix offer a top quality streaming experience is not in the best interests of Comcast (or others) that are facing potential cord-cutting customer losses in their subscription video businesses. Verizon has partnered with Redbox to deliver streamed video, Comcast operates Streampix, its own online streaming service, and Time Warner Cable offers a variety of on-demand and streamed video content for its cable TV subscribers. None of these services have suffered from traffic congestion issues.

ISP Payday

ISP Payday

What About Net Neutrality? What About Paying Customers?

With Net Neutrality tossed out by the courts, there is little any regulator can do to resolve disputes until Net Neutrality can be properly enforced under a stronger regulatory framework. Some argue the congestion issues creating the problems with Netflix are not a true violation of Net Neutrality in any event because providers are not artificially prioritizing traffic.

They are simply not keeping up with upgrades that just so happen to directly impact a competitor while leaving their own services unscathed.

Providers also seem characteristically unconcerned about complaining customers, passing blame for the problem on to Netflix. Besides, they remind you, paying for an Internet connection alone does not entitle you to any guarantee of performance.

The Dam Breaks

With this week’s agreement between Comcast and Netflix, both AT&T and Verizon wasted no time admitting they are both seeking compensation from Netflix as well. Other providers are likely to follow.

Netflix warned investors that paid agreements with ISPs could adversely affect its earnings due to increased costs. Although stopping short of suggesting price increases for Netflix customers could come as a result, Wall Street wasted no time worrying about the financial impact of deals like the one between Netflix and Comcast.

The Wall Street Journal reported the momentum appears to be shifting in favor of large Internet providers like Comcast and AT&T and away from content producers.

Janney Capital analyst Tony Wible suggested Comcast’s toll booth could create a barrier for other content producers if the cable company asks for significant compensation.

“Although there is no prioritization benefit [from the deal], we suspect that the exchange of money for resolution/performance could (if large) effectively limit competition,” said Wible. “In essence, Netflix could be trading [profit] margins for subscribers. Few others can match Netflix’s [spending budget to acquire content] without incurring massive losses. The competition may now have to cope with additional fees that sway their willingness to compete if they do not already have a large subscriber base.”

In other words, a new Internet startup could face hard questions from investors about how it intends to cover ISP demands for compensation in return for a suitable connection to reach customers. A large venture like Netflix has enough resources to handle those costs and negotiate for a better deal while a smaller startup may not.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSJ Netflix Comcast Agreement 2-24-14.flv

Netflix has signed a deal with Comcast to ensure smooth streaming, in what is being called a landmark agreement. Wall Street Journal reporter Shalini Ramachandran explains the agreement. (3:39)

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Peer Wars: Netflix SuperHD Streaming May Explain Video Traffic Slowdowns for Some Customers

The largest drops in streaming speeds are coming from ISPs that may be stalling necessary upgrades at the expense of their customers' online experience.

The largest drops in Netflix streaming speeds are coming from ISPs that may be stalling necessary upgrades at the cost of their paying customers’ online experience.

Netflix performance for Verizon customers is deteriorating because Verizon may be delaying bandwidth upgrades until it receives compensation for handling the growing amount of traffic coming from the online video provider.

Verizon customers have increasingly complained about Netflix slowdowns during prime-time, especially in the northeast, and Netflix’s latest statistics confirm FiOS customers have seen average performance drop by as much as 14% in the last month alone.

Verizon told Stop the Cap! a few weeks ago the company was not interfering with Netflix traffic or degrading its performance, but there is growing evidence that may not be the whole story. The Wall Street Journal reports Netflix and at least one bandwidth provider suspect phone and cable companies are purposely stalling on upgrading connections to handle traffic growth from Netflix until they are compensated for carrying its video traffic.

The dispute involves the plumbing behind parts of the Internet that are invisible to consumers. As more people stream movies and television, that infrastructure is getting strained, intensifying the debate over who should pay for upgrades needed to satisfy America’s online-video habit.

Netflix wants broadband companies to hook up to its new video-distribution network without paying them fees for carrying its traffic. But the biggest U.S. providers—Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and AT&T Inc. —have resisted, insisting on compensation.

The bottleneck has made Netflix unwatchable for Jen Zellinger, an information-technology manager from Carney, Md., who signed up for the service last month. She couldn’t play an episode of “Breaking Bad” without it stopping, she said, even after her family upgraded their FiOS Internet service to a faster, more expensive package. “We tried a couple other shows, and it didn’t seem to make any difference,” she said. Mrs. Zellinger said she plans to drop her Netflix service soon if the picture doesn’t improve, though she will likely hold on to her upgraded FiOS subscription.

She and her husband thought about watching “House of Cards,” but she said they probably will skip it. “We’d be interested in getting to that if we could actually pull up the show,” she said.

Netflix relies on third-party traffic distributors to deliver much of its streamed programming to customers around the country. Cogent Communications Group is a Netflix favorite. Cogent maintains two-way connections with many Internet Service Providers. When incoming and outgoing traffic are generally balanced, providers don’t complain. But when Cogent started delivering far more traffic to Verizon customers than what it receives from them, Verizon sought compensation for the disparity.

“When one party’s getting all the benefit and the other’s carrying all the cost, issues will arise,” Craig Silliman, Verizon’s head of public policy and government affairs told the newspaper. The imbalance is primarily coming from the growth of online video, and as higher definition video grows more popular, traffic imbalances can grow dramatically worse.

A spat last summer between Cogent and some ISPs is nearly identical to the current slowdown. Ars Technica reported the traditional warning signs providers used to start upgrades are increasingly being ignored:

“Typically what happened is when the connections reached about 50 percent utilization, the two parties agreed to upgrade them and they would be upgraded in a timely manner,” Cogent CEO Dave Schaeffer told Ars. “Over the past year or so, as we have continued to pick up Netflix traffic, Verizon has continuously slowed down the rate of upgrading those connections, allowing the interconnections to become totally saturated and therefore degrading the quality of throughput.”

Schaeffer said this is true of all the big players to varying degrees, naming Comcast, Time Warner, CenturyLink, and AT&T. Out of those, he said that “AT&T is the best behaved of the bunch.”

Letting ports fill up can be a negotiating tactic. Verizon and Cogent each have to spend about $10,000 for equipment when a port is added, Schaeffer said—pocket change for companies of this size. But instead of the companies sharing equal costs, Verizon wants Cogent to pay because more traffic is flowing from Cogent to Verizon than vice versa.

Cablevision, which participates in Netflix's Open Connect program experiences no significant speed degradation during prime time. The same cannot be said with Time Warner Cable, which refuses to participate.

Cablevision, which participates in Netflix’s Open Connect program, experiences no significant speed degradation during prime time. The same cannot be said of Time Warner Cable, which refuses to take part.

Netflix offered a solution to help Internet Service Providers manage its video traffic. Netflix’s Open Connect offers free peering at common Internet exchanges as well as free storage appliances that ISPs can connect directly to their network to distribute video to customers. Free is always good, and Netflix claims many ISPs around the world have already taken them up on the offer, slashing their transit costs along the way.

A few major North American ISPs have also agreed to take part in Open Connect, including Frontier Communications, Clearwire, Telus, Bell, Cablevision and Google Fiber. Open Connect participating ISPs also got an initial bonus for participating they could offer customers – exclusive access to SuperHD streaming.

But most Americans would not get super high-resolution streaming because the largest ISP’s refused to participate, seeking direct compensation from content providers to carry traffic across their digital pipes instead.

On Sep. 26, 2013 Netflix decided to offer SuperHD streaming to all customers, regardless of their ISP. As a result, one major ISP told the newspaper Netflix traffic from Cogent at least quadrupled. ISPs taking Netflix up on Open Connect saw almost no degradation from the increased traffic, but not so for Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Comcast customers.

Net Neutrality advocates fear the country’s largest phone and cable companies are making an end-run around the concept of an Open Internet. Providers can honestly guarantee not to interfere with certain web traffic, but also refuse to keep up with needed upgrades to accommodate it unless they receive payment. The slowdowns and unsatisfactory performance are the same in the end for those caught in the middle – paying customers.

“Customers are already paying for it,” said industry observer Benoît Felten. “You sell a service to the end-user which is you can access the Internet. You make a huge margin on that. Why should they get extra revenue for something that’s already being paid for?”

Some of the web’s biggest players including Microsoft, Google and Facebook may have already capitulated — agreeing to pay major providers for direct connections that guarantee a smoother browsing experience. Netflix has, thus far, held out against paying ISPs to properly manage the video content their subscribers want to watch but in some cases no longer can.

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House of (Credit) Cards: How to Blow Through Your Usage Cap With One Netflix Show

house-of-cards

“…every kitten grows up to be a cat. They seem so harmless, at first, small, quiet, lapping up their saucer of milk. But once their claws get long enough, they draw blood, sometimes from the hand that feeds them. For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: Hunt or be hunted.” — Francis Underwood

Addicts of Netflix’s hit series House of Cards may need to grab a card of a different kind to cover overlimit fees charged by your Internet Service Provider for blowing past your usage allowance.

As online video streaming moves into the realm of 4K — the next generation of high-definition video — watching television shows and movies online could get very expensive because of the massive file sizes involved. It’s all just in time for ISP’s increasing enforcement of usage caps.

courtesy-notice-640x259Gizmodo just did the math for those intending to spend a weekend watching the entire second season of the made-for-Netflix series in high-definition:

Streaming in 1080p on Netflix takes up 4.7GB/hour. So a regular one-hour episode of something debiting less than 5GB from your allotment is no big deal. However, with 4K, you’ve got quadruple the pixel count, so you’re burning through 18.8GB/hour. Even if you’re streaming with the new h.265 codec—which cuts the bit rate by about half, but still hasn’t found its way into many consumer products—you’re still looking at 7GB/hour.

But you’re not watching just one episode, are you? Of course not! You’re binging on House of Cards, watching the whole series if not in one weekend then certainly in one month. That’s 639 minutes of top-quality TV, which in 4K tallies up to 75GB if you’re using the latest and greatest codec, and nearly 200GB if not. That means, best case scenario, a quarter of your cap—a third, if you’re a U-Verse customer with a 250GB cap—spent on one television show. Throw in a normal month’s internet usage, and you’re toast.

Sure you can send 900+ emails, download hundreds of songs, upload hundreds of pictures, but you can't watch one standard and one HD movie a day at the same time without blowing past your AT&T DSL limit.

Sure you can send 900+ emails, download hundreds of songs, upload hundreds of pictures, and play online games 24 hours a day, but you can’t also watch one standard and one HD movie a day at the same time without blowing well past your AT&T DSL limit.

What is worse is that h.265 is still more theoretical than actually available to most consumers, so customers will either have to settle with degraded video or prepare to eat close to 19GB an hour at the highest resolution. No wonder Netflix has introduced video degradation settings to save you from your ISP’s arbitrary cap. Of course, your video quality will suffer, especially on a big screen television.

Comcast customers (and presumably Time Warner Cable customers also eventually subjected to Comcast’s cap) will still have a generous 100GB left over to watch, browse, and send that avalanche of e-mails usage cappers love to boast about. If you live in the reality-based community and have a family active online, that 100GB isn’t going to go too far. Video game addicts regularly face downloading huge updates, many ranging from 8-12GB apiece. Call of Duty: Ghosts? That’s 39.5GB. Madden NFL 25? Another 12.51GB, says Gizmodo. Using a file backup cloud storage service can also eat your allowance for breakfast.

Gizmodo also mentions Sony’s Unlimited Video service has 70 titles (and growing) available in 4K. A Sony representative admits a single two-hour movie will burn up 40GB. Watch a few of those and you are well on your way to blowing your allowance Vegas-style.

AT&T cooked up the arbitrary de facto standard overlimit fee now adopted by many American ISPs, and granular it isn’t. Exceed your allowance by even 1 kilobyte and you will be charged an extra $10 for 50 extra gigabytes. Because AT&T, Comcast, Suddenlink, and others are not already paid enough for broadband service and their modem rental.

Online video is the online application most likely to put you over your limit. Most ISPs don’t like to talk about that, however. They prefer to explain caps in terms of activities no online user is likely to ever exceed, including sending thousands of e-mails, viewing hundreds of thousands of web pages, transferring boatloads of songs and images, and watching YouTube videos at low resolution.

If you don’t watch online video, your cable or phone company thanks you for paying for cable television instead. If you haven’t used a peer-to-peer network in years, chances are you won’t exceed any limits either. But as Internet usage continues to evolve, anything that appears to be a competitive threat delivered over your ISP’s broadband pipe can be effectively controlled with the elimination of flat rate Internet service and imposing overlimit fees that deter usage.

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Is Verizon Purposely Slowing Down Netflix for FiOS Customers? Stop the Cap! Investigates

David Raphael ran into trouble using his Verizon Internet connection last month, discovering major slowdowns when accessing Amazon’s cloud-server ‘AWS,’ which in addition to serving his employer also feeds Netflix video content to customers.

“One evening I also noticed a slowdown while using our service from my house,” Raphael writes on his blog. “I realized that the one thing in common between me and [my employer] was that we both had FiOS internet service from Verizon. Since we host all of our infrastructure on Amazon’s AWS – I decided to do a little test – I grabbed a URL from AWS S3 and loaded it. 40kB/s.”

Internet slowdowns while accessing different websites is nothing new. Just ask anyone trying to watch YouTube in the early evening.

But what was different this time is that a Verizon representative seemed to openly admit the company is purposefully throttling certain web traffic, as this chat screen capture suggests:

verizon_fail
“Frankly, I was surprised he admitted to this,” Raphael writes. “I’ve since tested this almost every day for the last couple of weeks. During the day – the bandwidth is normal to AWS. However, after 4pm or so – things get slow. In my personal opinion, this is Verizon waging war against Netflix. Unfortunately, a lot of infrastructure is hosted on AWS. That means a lot of services are going to be impacted by this.”

That would certainly be the case as many large content distributors increasingly rely on cloud-based delivery services to reach subscribers over the shortest and fastest possible route. But broad-based interference with web traffic would also throw a major wrench in Verizon’s core marketing message for FiOS — its fiber-fast speed when compared against the cable competition. If subscribers notice their Netflix experience degraded to speeds that resemble dial-up, cable companies are going to get a lot of returning customers.

We reached out to Verizon for comment and it turns out the company has not declared war on Netflix after all.

“We treat all traffic equally, and that has not changed,” says Verizon spokesman Jarryd Gonzales. “Many factors can affect the speed a customer’s experiences for a specific site, including, that site’s servers, the way the traffic is routed over the Internet, and other considerations.  We are looking into this specific matter, but the company representative was mistaken. We we’re going to redouble our representative education efforts on this topic.”

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Verizon’s Latest Financial Results Reaffirm Wireless Cash Cow is King, FiOS Expansion Still Dead

Verizon-logoVerizon FiOS expansion is still dead while cash cow Verizon Wireless will continue to get the bulk of Verizon’s attention this year, according to a top executive.

Verizon chief financial officer Fran Shammo delivered the latest quarterly financial results to Wall Street analysts Tuesday and had few specifics about how the Cadillac of wireless carriers will handle increasingly meddlesome competition from T-Mobile, which has torn up the comfortably profitable mobile industry’s business plan and threatened to launch an all-out price war.

Verizon Wireless remains a major earner for Verizon, delivering nearly $18 billion in revenue and $8.3 billion in adjusted profitability during the last quarter alone. Verizon is relying on the quality of its network to keep customers from bolting to less expensive competitors. This month, T-Mobile announced it was prepared to cover the early termination penalty of AT&T customers ready to switch. It’s only a matter of time before Verizon customers are treated to a similar offer and that worried investors enough to send Verizon’s share price downwards even though the company beat analyst’s earnings estimates.

Clues about Verizon’s game plan for 2014 became clearer as Shammo took questions and outlined the company’s strategy.

Wireless Will Get Most of Verizon’s Attention

cash cowAgain this year, Verizon Wireless will get the bulk of Verizon’s attention and financial resources. Verizon Wireless finished 2013 with $81 billion in wireless revenue — up $5.2 billion from 2012 — which represents two-thirds of Verizon’s total earnings. The wireless business has delivered a profit margin of 49% or higher for five of the last seven quarters.

Where do the increased earnings and profits come from?

“Service revenue growth continued to be driven by more customers and devices, increase of data usage, and smartphone penetration,” said Shammo. “Our Share Everything Plans are doing exactly what we expected — driving device adoption and stimulating higher usage — resulting in increases in both the number of devices and revenue per account.”

Shammo said little about the spectrum shortages Verizon claimed were responsible for an end to unlimited use data plans in favor of usage-capped, consumption-based billing. On the contrary, Shammo admitted Verizon expects to grow average revenue per account and profits on the back of usage billing as customers boost wireless data usage and have to upgrade to higher-priced plans in the future. Shammo also noted the company’s restrictions on early upgrades and charging upgrade/activation fees have delivered more revenue to Verizon and deterred customers from phone upgrades, which saves Verizon money.

Verizon Wireless customer bills rose an average of 7.1 percent during the fourth quarter to more than $157 per month.

“We have seen consistent growth in this metric,” said Shammo. “For the full year, average revenue per account was up nearly $10 or 6.9%.”

Some of that increase is attributable to Verizon’s higher cost Share Everything plans, which often cost customers more than the plans they abandon.

Share Everything = a higher Verizon Wireless bill for many customers.

Share Everything = a higher Verizon Wireless bill for many customers.

“In just 18 months more than 46% of our postpaid accounts are on these plans,” said Shammo. “In 2013 we effectively doubled the number of accounts on Share Everything from 8.1 million to 16.2 million.”

In the coming year, Verizon plans to spend up to $17 billion on network maintenance and expansion, but the bulk of it will be spent on the wireless side of the business. Verizon has again cut investment in its wired networks.

Shammo noted Verizon Wireless plans to repurpose some of its 3G spectrum to 4G LTE service this year, which cuts costs for Verizon while stimulating usage which will eventually force many customers into data plan upgrades.

“If you look at a 3G usage moving to a 4G, we know that — and we have seen it in our base — as soon as you get on the 4G with video consumption and the quality of video your usage goes up,” said Shammo.

Verizon FiOS Expansion is Still Dead

Verizon has no plans to expand its FiOS fiber network beyond the areas where the company previously signed franchise agreements several years ago. In fact, Shammo is already reallocating money that in years past targeted FiOS expansion, shifting it to Verizon Wireless.

Verizon's FiOS expansion is still dead. No plans for further expansion in 2014.

Verizon’s FiOS expansion is still dead. No plans for further expansion in 2014.

Shammo added Verizon will continue upgrading to fiber and decommission its copper network within existing FiOS areas, pushing customers with traditional landline service to basic FiOS phone service.

For those bypassed by FiOS, Shammo indicated it will be business as usual for Verizon, still selling DSL and phone service. But he hinted that within three years, Verizon might be open to selling off wireline customers in non-FiOS areas if a company approached Verizon with a lucrative deal. Verizon is under increased regulatory scrutiny in states like New York where there is concern Verizon is diverting resources away from deteriorating landline infrastructure in favor of its unregulated wireless network.

Shammo admitted Verizon stepped back from competing as hard as usual with cable competitors during the third quarter, believing consumers don’t want installers in their homes during the holiday season. As a result, the number of new FiOS customers was down from October-December. But with recent rate increases and voluntary upgrades, revenue remains up. With less than one million potential customers in the FiOS footprint still waiting for the fiber network to arrive, Shammo was comfortable stepping back from promotions temporarily.

Verizon FiOS has been highly successful for Verizon’s wireline division, now representing about 73% of Verizon’s consumer revenue. More than half of Verizon’s FiOS customers have upgraded to FiOS Quantum Internet speeds, starting at 50Mbps. With that kind of success, what holds Verizon back from further expanding FiOS? Verizon’s current CEO Lowell McAdam comes from a Verizon Wireless background and seems preoccupied with the wireless business. Wall Street is also firmly against Verizon increasing investment in fiber when diverting that spending to high-profit wireless can earn a much faster, more lucrative return.

Those lucky enough to have FiOS will continue to see upgrades in 2014. Chief among them is a new proprietary router that will assure Wi-Fi service in the home more closely matches the broadband speeds customers are buying, up to 100Mbps or more.

Verizon’s Intel OnCue Acquisition Doesn’t Mean Online Cable Competition is Coming

Despite a piece in GigaOM suggesting Verizon’s acquisition of Intel’s OnCue technology was all about competing head-to-head with Comcast, Shammo downplayed any expectation Verizon was about to declare war on  that cable company or anyone else:

Shammo

Shammo

As far as the OnCue acquisition, look, the focus here is really to accelerate the availability of the next-generation IP video service which we will integrate into the FiOS video service. And really what we are trying to do is differentiate this even more so with fiber to the home versus others with the TV offerings and reducing the deployment costs. And this really accelerates us from if we were trying to build IP TV versus buying the IP TV technology.

From an FiOS customer perspective, we expect the benefits that they will have more elegant search and discovery activity and cost stream ease of use. But also keep in mind, with the acquisition of Verizon Wireless and becoming 100% ownership of that we also plan to take that platform and integrate it more deeply with our Verizon Wireless 4G LTE network. So that really was the strategy behind this.

 Verizon Wireless Has Enough Spectrum for the Next 3-4 Years

Shammo told investors Verizon Wireless has plenty of wireless spectrum to meet customer needs for the next 3-4 years, but he did outline Verizon’s short-term plans on spectrum management:

As far as our portfolio, obviously we like the 700 megahertz for the coverage of the LTE that we did. AWS is our sweet spot at this point in time, which is the spectrum that we have been swapping for [with competing carriers], so we have a very efficient portfolio of spectrum and I think we have shown through the years that we are very efficient on how we use spectrum.

Keep in mind that, as I said, we will participate in the auctions because we will need more spectrum, but right now our current position is that with the AWS that we have and that we are launching in markets that you know in New York and San Francisco, Chicago we are lighting that spectrum up. It is pretty much completed in New York. We will continue to add to that, but keep in mind though too that we will also re-appropriate our 3G spectrum to 4G.

So we will take that PCS spectrum that has been running in our 3G network — as the volume of that network continues to decrease as we move more 3G phones to 4G, we will bring re-appropriate that spectrum over to the 4G LTE. So three to four years we are in very good shape from a spectrum holding position, but we will participate in the upcoming auctions.

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AT&T Acquires AWS Spectrum from Frequency Squatter-Speculator Aloha Partners II

AT&T today announced it has agreed to buy 49 Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) spectrum licenses from a venture that has done nothing with the frequencies since acquiring them at auctions dating back as early as 2004.

Aloha Partners II, L.P. has no intention to use the frequencies it controls, so it has sold part of its spectrum portfolio to AT&T. The acquired licenses cover almost 50 million people in 14 states, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Aloha Partners II is selling a considerable amount of its AWS portfolio to AT&T for an undisclosed sum. The venture never used the frequencies, although it controlled some of them as early as a decade ago.

Aloha Partners II is selling a considerable amount of its AWS portfolio to AT&T for an undisclosed sum. The venture never used the frequencies, although it controlled some of them as early as a decade ago.

The acquisition will complement AWS frequencies AT&T already controls in the band, which ranges from 1710 – 1755 and 2110 – 2155MHz.

att_logoFinancial terms were not disclosed.

Carriers have complained regularly about spectrum shortages but some consumer groups charge carriers and spectrum squatters are not putting the airwaves they already control to use. Spectrum has become such a valuable asset, some investors have pooled resources to buy licenses only to resell at a profit later.

Before today’s announcement, Aloha Partners II was the 8th largest owner of wireless spectrum in the U.S. The venture owns AWS spectrum concentrated in 12 of the top 50 markets including many of the leading high-tech areas like San Francisco, San Jose, Denver, Austin and San Antonio.

In 2004, Aloha Partners II purchased 15 licenses covering 38 million pops from the Federal Communications Commission in the Advanced Wireless Spectrum (AWS) auction. In 2007 and 2008 Aloha Partners II purchased an extra 37 AWS licenses covering 12 million pops from Nextwave Wireless.

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T-Mobile Needs More of the Public’s Airwaves; Reportedly Seeks Deal With Verizon to Get Some

tmobile“Use it or lose it” is the policy under which the Federal Communications Commission licenses scarce, publicly owned airwaves, but in practice companies warehousing unused spectrum can sell it off and make a handsome profit.

Reuters today reports T-Mobile USA is exploring a spectrum buy from its rival Verizon Wireless to bolster wireless data services to effectively compete against Verizon, AT&T and Sprint.

A source told Reuters the deal is in the early stages and could involve the purchase of Verizon’s unused “A” Block 700MHz spectrum, ideal for long distance and indoor reception. Verizon chief financial officer Fran Shammo earlier said the company was not going to sell its unused spectrum at “fire sale” prices and recently rejected an offer deemed to be too low. One analyst estimated the value of Verizon’s excess “A” spectrum to be as high as $3 billion.

They are coming.

T-Mobile, owned by Deutsche Telekom, told investors on Nov. 12 it was launching an equity offering to raise money for spectrum deals with a private, unnamed party. T-Mobile raised $1.8 billion through a sale of its common stock last week and offered $2 billion in bonds on Nov. 18 with the expected aim of funding future spectrum purchases.

Verizon acquired the spectrum in 2008, part of a broader auction that sold off frequencies formerly used by UHF TV channels 52-69. The “A” block is considered less desirable because of adjacent interference concerns in areas where a television station operates on Ch. 51. Those stations may not be there for long. The FCC is proposing to auction off UHF channels 31-51 to wireless companies in the future, reducing UHF TV to channels 14-30. Verizon’s “A” block licenses do not blanket the entire country, but can cover a number of major cities. Verizon Wireless deployed its LTE 4G network on its “C” block.

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Verizon Admits Congestion Problems for Its LTE 4G Network in NYC, San Francisco, and Chicago

They are coming.

Verizon Wireless quietly admitted Tuesday its much-vaunted LTE network is suffering speed slowdowns so serious, some customers in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco are being randomly kicked off Verizon’s 4G network to slower 3G service until congestion eases.

Fran Shammo, Verizon’s chief financial officer, volunteered that online video was the likely culprit and he was surprised by usage growth well in excess of what Verizon predicted.

Current estimates from the company suggest Verizon’s LTE customers are responsible for 64% of all data traffic on Verizon’s wireless network nationwide. But in large cities, Shammo said traffic numbers are much higher.

Shammo

Shammo

“There are certain pockets where we’re absolutely going to experience that down tick from the LTE network to 3G because of capacity constraints,” Shammo admitted.

The sudden revelation Verizon now has insufficient capacity for its LTE service is a significant reversal for Shammo, who has repeatedly told investors Verizon has enough wireless spectrum for the next 4-5 years.

In May 2013, Shammo told investors attending the JPMorgan Global Technology, Media and Telecom Conference:

As I have said before, our spectrum position right now is very good, with the AWS transaction that we completed with the cable carriers last year, with the sale of the spectrum that we are doing with AT&T later this year, obviously giving that spectrum to someone who can utilize it better than we can at this point in time. So I think our holdings are exactly where we need to be. And I have said before we really don’t need spectrum for the next four to five years, with the way that we deployed CDMA and how we will utilize that spectrum from our CDMA deployment over to the 4G network as we need it.

Later that same month, Shammo confidently repeated his assertion Verizon was all set for spectrum at Barclays Global Technology, Media and Telecommunications Conference:

Well, we have — from where we sit today, we have a very good spectrum portfolio which is why we went after the AWS spectrum, which is really going to be used for our capacity of LTE. The 700 megahertz that we have contiguous across the United States is used for the coverage piece. So we’re in pretty good shape for the next four to five years, even with reallocating our 3G spectrum over to our 4G network. [...] And we think, look, we think that there will be enough spectrum there. We think that technology change — I mean, people are already talking about LTE advanced. Well, LTE advanced is nothing more than creating a bit more speed on the network. But really LTE advances around being able to utilize the spectrum much more efficiently within the network.

Carriers can boost coverage with additional traditional cell towers, street level picocells, or in-building femtocells.

Carriers can boost coverage with more cell towers, street level picocells, or in-building femtocells.

Some critics suggest Verizon is ginning up a spectrum crisis as new FCC chairman Tom Wheeler begins to look at the current state of wireless spectrum and competition in the wireless industry. They also point to the fact Verizon has so much unused, warehoused spectrum, it has tried to sell the excess off to third parties.

“We have A band [unused spectrum] in our pocket today that we put for auction a year and a half ago and we did not get what we thought it was worth,” Shammo said yesterday. “We brought it back into the portfolio. But we can use that as a trade for some different spectrum. We put it up for auction so obviously it was on the block [and was] never taken off the block. But obviously it is not for fire sale. If a transaction makes sense then we will execute the transaction. If it doesn’t, then we will deploy it.”

In the short-term, Shammo promised customers the congestion issues were already being dealt with by “lighting up” acquired AWS spectrum formerly owned by cable operators, and adding data systems and small cell-type antennas in high congestion areas.

Shammo added that since Verizon was finished expanding its wireless network out to new, unserved areas, future investments would be directed at improving service within current coverage areas.

“I think by year-end you’re going to see us [concentrate] all of our CapEx around densification and then you will start to see us talk about things like VoLTE (Voice over LTE) and multicast (video) and some of these LTE advanced technologies that will come in the next year,” said Shammo.

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North America Data Tsunami Warning Canceled; Usage Levels Off, Killing Excuses for Caps

(Image: BTIG Research)

The median bandwidth use slowdown (Image: BTIG Research)

Despite perpetual cries of Internet brownouts, usage blowouts, and data tsunamis that threaten to overwhelm the Internet, new data shows broadband usage has leveled off in North America, undercutting providers’ favorite excuse for usage limits and consumption billing.

Sandvine today released its latest broadband usage study, issued twice yearly. The results show a clear and dramatic decline in usage growth in North America, with median usage up just 5% compared to the same time last year. That is a marked departure from the 190% and 77% growth measured in two earlier periods. In fact, as Richard Greenfield from BTIG Research noted, mean bandwidth use was down 13% year-over-year, after the second straight six month period of sequential decline.

Companies like Cisco earn millions annually pitching network management tools to providers implementing usage caps and consumption billing. For years, the company has warned of Internet usage floods that threaten to make the Internet useless (unless providers take Cisco’s advice and buy their products and services).

“Demand for Internet services continues to build,” said Roland Klemann from Cisco’s Internet Business Solutions Group. ”The increasing popularity of smartphones, tablets, and video services is creating a ‘data tsunami’ that threatens to overwhelm service providers’ networks.”

Providers typically use “fairness” propaganda when introducing “usage based pricing,” blaming exponential increases in broadband usage and costly upgrades “light users” are forced to underwrite. A leveling off in broadband usage undercuts that argument.

ciscos plan for your futureA Cisco White Paper intended for the eyes of Internet Service Providers further strips the façade off the false-”fairness” argument, exposing the fact usage pricing has little to do with traffic growth, pricing fairness, or the cost of upgrades:

In 2011, broadband services became mainstream in developed countries, with fixed-broadband penetration exceeding 60 percent of households and mobile broadband penetration reaching more than 40 percent of the population in two-thirds of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

Meanwhile, traditional voice and messaging revenues have strongly declined due to commoditization, and this trend is expected to continue. Therefore, operators are now relegated to connectivity products. The value that operators once derived from providing value-added services is migrating to players that deliver services, applications, and content over their network pipes.

As if this were not enough, Internet access prices are dropping, sales volumes are declining, and markets are shrinking. The culprit: flat rate “all-you-can-eat” pricing. Such a model lacks stability—sending service provider pricing into a downward spiral—because it ignores growth potential and shifts the competition’s focus from quality and service differentiation to price.

While Klemann was spouting warnings about the dire implications of a data tsunami, Cisco’s White Paper quietly told providers what they already know:

Maximum Profits

Maximum Profits

“[Wired] broadband operators should be able to sustain forecasted traffic growth over the next few years with no negative impact on margins, as the incremental capital expenses required to support it are under control.”

If usage limits and consumption billing are not required to manage data growth or cover the cost of equipment upgrades, why adopt this pricing? The potential to exploit more revenue from mature broadband markets that lack robust competition.

“In light of the forecasted Internet traffic growth mentioned earlier and competitiveness in the telecommunications market, Cisco believes that fixed-line operators should consider gradually introducing selected monthly traffic tiers to sustain [revenue], while a) signaling to customers that “traffic is not free,” and b) monetizing bandwidth hogs more sustainably.”

Cisco makes its recommendation despite knowing full well from its own research that customers hate usage-based pricing.

“The introduction of traffic tiers and caps—especially for fixed broadband services—is not welcomed by the majority of customers, as they have learned to ‘love’ flat rate all-you-can-eat pricing. Most customers consider usage-based pricing for broadband services ‘unfair,’ according to the 2011 Cisco IBSG Connected Life Market Watch study.”

Cisco teaches providers how to price broadband like trendy boutique bottled water.

Cisco teaches providers how to price broadband like trendy boutique bottled water and blame it on growing Internet usage.

But with competition lacking, Cisco’s advice is to move forward anyway, as long as providers initially introduce caps and consumption billing at prices that do not impact the majority of customers… at first. In uncompetitive markets, Cisco predicts customers will eventually pay more, boosting provider revenue. Cisco’s “illustrative example” of usage billing in practice set prices at $45 a month for up to 50GB of usage, $60 a month for 50-100GB, $75 for 100-150GB, and $150 a month for unlimited access — more than double what customers typically pay today for flat rate access.

Usage billing arrives right on time to effectively handle online video, which increasingly threatens revenue from cable television packages.

Sandvine’s new traffic measurement report notes the increasing prominence of online video services like Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, and Amazon Video.

“As with previous reports, Real-Time Entertainment (comprised of streaming video and audio) continues to be the largest traffic category on virtually every network we examined, and we expect its continued growth to lead to the emergence of longer form video on mobile networks globally in to 2014,” Sandvine’s report noted.

Sandvine found that over half of all North American Internet traffic during peak usage periods comes from two services: Netflix and YouTube. YouTube globally is the leading source of Internet traffic in the world, according to Sandvine.

An old excuse for usage caps on “data hogs” – peer-to-peer file-sharing, continues its rapid decline towards irrelevance, now accounting for less than 10 percent of total daily traffic in North America. A decade earlier, file swapping represented 60 percent of Internet traffic.

Cisco’s answer for the evolving world of popular online applications is a further shift in broadband pricing towards “value-based tiers” that monetize different online applications by charging broadband users extra when using them. Cisco is promoting an idea that well-enforced Net Neutrality rules would prohibit.

Citing the bottled water market, Cisco argues if some customers are willing to pay up to $6 for a liter of trendy Voss bottled water, flat rate “one price fits all” broadband is leaving a lot of money on the table. With the right marketing campaign and a barely competitive marketplace, providers can charge far higher prices to get access to the most popular Internet applications.

“Research from British regulator Ofcom shows that consumers are becoming ‘addicted’ to broadband services, and heavy broadband users are willing to pay more for improved broadband service options.”

Wharton School professors Jagmohan Raju and John Zhang concluded price is the single most important lever to drive profitability.

The political implications of blaming phantom Internet growth and manageable upgrade costs for the implementation of usage caps or usage-based billing is uncertain. Even the “data hog” meme providers have used for years to justify usage caps is now open to scrutiny. Sandvine found the top 1% of broadband users primarily impact upstream resources, where they account for 39.8% of total upload traffic. But the top 1% only account for 10.1% of downstream traffic. In fact, Apple is likely to provoke an even larger, albeit shorter-term impact on a provider’s network from software upgrades. When the company released iOS7, Apple Updates immediately became almost 20% of total network traffic, and continued to stay above 15% of total traffic into the evening peak hours, according to Sandvine.

Some other highlights:

  • Average monthly mobile usage in Asia-Pacific now exceeds 1 gigabyte, driven by video, which accounts for 50% of peak downstream traffic. This is more than double the 443 megabyte monthly average in North America.
  • In Europe, Netflix, less than two years since launch, now accounts for over 20% of downstream traffic on certain fixed networks in the British Isles. It took almost four years for Netflix to achieve 20% of data traffic in the United States.
  • Instagram and Dropbox are now top-ranked applications in mobile networks in many regions across the globe. Instagram, due to the recent addition of video, is now in Latin America the 7th top ranked downstream application on the mobile network, making it a prime candidate for inclusion in tiered data plans which are popular in the region.
  • Netflix (31.6%) holds its ground as the leading downstream application in North America and together with YouTube (18.6%) accounts for over 50% of downstream traffic on fixed networks.
  • P2P Filesharing now accounts for less than 10% of total daily traffic in North America. Five years ago it accounted for over 31%.
  • Video accounts for less than 6% of traffic in mobile networks in Africa, but is expected to grow faster than in any other region before it.
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Incoming FCC Chair Stresses Competition Will Be Agency’s Top Priority

Wheeler

Wheeler

Incoming Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler believes competition can be a more effective regulator of telecom industry practices and pricing than “micromanaging” the companies selling service.

“The first goal ought to be to make sure there is effective competition,” Wheeler told the Wall Street Journal in an interview Wednesday. “But I also know competition isn’t something that happens all by itself. We very much have a responsibility to make sure that there is access, at reasonable prices, to competitive broadband services. The way you do that is go back to competition.”

But Wheeler refused to share his views on whether Americans now enjoy his definition of “effective competition” from a wireless industry dominated by AT&T and Verizon and wired broadband service available from only one cable and telephone company in most communities.

“The reason why the U.S. is the world leader on the Internet is because we have the home-field advantage,” Wheeler said. “We want to keep that home-field advantage. One of the ways to do that is to keep the environment competitive, so it’s not the regulators determining what companies do.”

But the United States is not a broadband leader in speed, price, or penetration according to the OECD.

Wheeler seems reluctant to intervene in the market unless he is convinced competition is lacking. As a former lobbyist for the same companies he is now tasked with overseeing, a key test will be if Wheeler adopts the industry view that broadband is already a fiercely competitive and highly regulated business, or the one held by many consumer groups that a consolidated telecommunications marketplace retards competition, leading to higher prices and more restrictive service.

In an article posted on the FCC website, Wheeler described the philosophy governing his chairmanship of the FCC:

During my confirmation hearing I described myself as “an unabashed supporter of competition because competitive markets produce better outcomes than regulated or uncompetitive markets.” Yet we all know that competition does not always flourish by itself; it must be supported and protected if its benefits are to be enjoyed. This agency is a pro-competition agency.

We stand for the things that are important regardless of the network technology being used:

  • To promote economic growth – technological innovation, growth and national economic leadership have always been determined by our networks; competition drives the benefits of those networks; and we have a responsibility to see to the expansion of those networks, including the appropriate allocation of adequate amounts of spectrum.
  • To maintain the historic compact between networks and users – a change in technology may occasion a review of the rules, but it does not change the rights of users or the responsibilities of networks.
  • To make networks work for everyone – it isn’t just that we expand high-speed Internet, but what we will be doing with that capacity. How networks enable a 21st century educational system, enable the expansion of capabilities for Americans with disabilities; and assure diversity, localism and speech are basic underpinnings of our responsibility.

One surprising appointment announced by Wheeler was Public Knowledge’s Gigi Sohn, who will become special counsel for external affairs. Sohn has been a frequent critic of the FCC and its former chairman, Julius Genachowski. She is also a strong advocate of Net Neutrality.

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