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Cox Introducing $50 Option to Waive Data Caps: The ‘Freedom from Extortion Plan’

As Cox Communications continues to expand its arbitrary data cap program on its broadband customers, the company has announced a ‘cap relief’ option for customers willing to pay $50 more for the same service they enjoyed last year without a data cap.

Company insiders tell DSL Reports Cox will introduce a new $50 option to avoid the data caps and overlimit fees the company began imposing in 2015 starting in its Cleveland, Ohio service area.

On Wednesday, Cox is expected to introduce two add-on options to help avoid the bill shock likely if customers exceed 1TB of usage per month and face the $10 overlimit fee for each 50GB of data consumed:

  • $30 a month for 500GB of extra data;
  • $50 a month to avoid data caps altogether and get back unlimited service.

Cox customers in Cleveland were unimpressed with Cox’s data caps when they were introduced in 2015.

These fees are in addition to whatever Cox customers currently pay for broadband service.

“An overwhelming majority of data is consumed by a very small percentage of internet users,” a memo to employees documenting the changes reads. “The new choices are great options for the small percentage of heavy users who routinely use 1TB+ per month and prefer a flat monthly rate, rather than purchasing additional data blocks. In Cox markets with usage-based billing, the less than two percent of customers who exceed the amount of data included in their plan still have the option of paying $10 for each additional 50GB of data when they need it.”

Such claims raise the same questions Stop the Cap! has always asked since we began fighting data caps in 2008:

If data caps only impact <2% of customers, why impose them at all?

Is the actual revenue earned from overlimit fees worth the expense of introducing usage measurement tools, billing system changes, and the cost of customer dissatisfaction at the prospect of an unexpectedly high bill?

What technical reasons did Cox choose 1TB as its arbitrary usage allowance other than the fact Comcast and other operators chose this level first?

Time Warner Cable executives privately admitted in internal company documents obtained by the New York Attorney General’s office that internet traffic costs represent little more than “a rounding error” in expenses for cable companies. But for most consumers, $30-50 to buy a bigger data allowance is hardly that.

In short, the “solution” Cox has decided on this week comes in response to a problem the company itself created — imposing arbitrary, unwanted data caps and overlimit fees on a product that is already intensely profitable at the prices Cox has charged for years. This internet overcharging scheme is just another way to gouge captive customers that will likely have only one alternative — the phone company and its various flavors of DSL or a U-verse product that cannot compete on speed unless you are lucky enough to live in a fiber-to-the-home service area.

Telcos Intentionally Cut Rural Broadband Investments Hoping for Taxpayer Subsidies

AT&T: Using taxpayer and ratepayer dollars to subsidize 4G LTE upgrades for its customers.

With taxpayer subsidies on the horizon, phone companies cut back investing their own money on rural broadband expansion hoping taxpayers would cover funding themselves.

That is the conclusion of Dave Burstein, a long-standing and well-respected industry observer and publisher of Net Policy News. Burstein is concerned the unintentional consequence of Obama and Trump Administration rural broadband funding programs has been fewer homes connected than what some carriers would have managed on their own without government subsidies.

“Since 2009, carrier investment in broadband in rural areas has gone down drastically,” Burstein wrote.

As a result, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced plans to spend $4.53 billion from a public-financed Mobility Fund over the next decade to advance 4G LTE service, primarily in rural areas that would not be served in the absence of government support. Burstein suspects much of that money could end up being unnecessarily wasted.

“Under current plans, most of the money is likely to go where telcos would build [4G] without a subsidy, [or will be used to] buy obsolete technology, or give the telcos two or three times what the job should cost,” Burstein wrote. “Any spending on wireless except where towers or backhaul is unavailable should be assumed wasteful until proven otherwise.  Realistic costs need to be developed and subsidies allocated on that basis.”

AT&T’s rural fixed wireless expansion program, funded substantially by U.S. taxpayers and ratepayers, is a case in point. AT&T is receiving almost $428 million a year in public funds to extend wireless access to 1.1 million customers in 18 states, the FCC says. Much of that investment is claimed to be spent retrofitting and upgrading existing cell towers to support 4G LTE service. But AT&T claims 98% of its customers already have access to 4G LTE service — more than any other carrier in the country, so AT&T is actually spending the money to bolster its existing 4G LTE network, something more likely to benefit its cell customers, not a few thousand fixed wireless customers.

(Source: AT&T)

“An AT&T exec in California said communities didn’t need to worry about the impact of the CAF-funded project, since it was almost all going to be on existing towers,” Burstein wrote, allaying fears among members of the public that money would be spent on lots of new cell towers. “I don’t know what loophole AT&T is using to get the money, but it’s a pretty safe guess they would have upgraded most of them without the government paying. 4G service now reaches all but 3-5 million of the 110-126 million U.S. households. Probably half [of the less than five million] targeted would soon be served without a subsidy – if the telcos knew no subsidy was likely. Before spending a penny on subsidies, the FCC needs to do a thorough assessment of what would be built without government money.”

Burstein

Wireless executives were delighted when the U.S. government in 2009 committed to spending $7 billion in taxpayer funds on broadband stimulus funding as part of a full-scale economic stimulus program to combat the Great Recession.

“Both George Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 had promised to bring affordable broadband to all Americans,” Burstein noted. “The clamor to reach these last few million was so loud, telcos became confident the government would pay for it if they just stopped their own investment. They aren’t stupid and refused to spend their own money. Before 2009 and the expected huge stimulus program, most telcos expanded their networks each year, based on available capital funds.”

Burstein believes some phone companies became better experts at milking government money to pay for needed network upgrades than frugally spending public funds on rural broadband expansion. As a result, after eight years and massive spending, Burstein notes fewer than two million of the “unserved” six million homes were reached by wireline or wireless broadband service when the funding ran out.

Under Chairman Pai’s latest round of rural broadband funding, Burstein believes much of this new money is also at risk of being wasted.

“[Pai] needs to dig into the details of what he’s proposing,” Burstein wrote. “Nearly all cells with decent backhaul will be upgraded to 4G; Verizon and AT&T have already reached 98% of homes. Government money should go to building towers and backhaul where that’s missing, not filling in network holes the carriers would likely cover.”

Rural advocacy groups have been frustrated for years watching rural telephone companies deliver piecemeal upgrades and service expansion, often to only a few hundred customers at any one time. When they learn how much was spent to extend broadband service to a relatively few number of customers, they are confused because companies often spend much less when they budget and pay for projects on their own without government subsidies.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing rural broadband initiatives in New York.

Burstein is currently suspicious about the $200 million approved in subsidy funding to extend rural broadband in parts of upstate New York. Burstein notes Pai is factually wrong about his claim that the hundreds of millions set aside for New York would be spent on “unserved areas of rural New York.”

“Most of that money will not go to unserved areas,” Burstein reports. “Some grants are going to politically connected groups. I’ve read the rules and the approved proposals. The amounts look excessive based on the limited public details.”

Telephone companies have become skilled negotiators when it comes to wiring their rural service areas. Most want more money than the government has previously been willing to offer to help them meet their Return On Investment expectations. Burstein noted that under normal circumstances, a government program offering a 25% subsidy to extend rural broadband into areas considered unprofitable to serve would be enough in most cases to get approval from rural phone companies like CenturyLink and Frontier Communications. But many phone companies, including AT&T, Verizon, and Qwest (now a part of CenturyLink) did not even file applications to participate in early funding rounds. Qwest’s lack of interest was especially problematic, because the former Baby Bell served the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain regions where some of the worst broadband accessibility problems persisted.

Burstein claims Jonathan Adelstein, then Rural Utilities Administrator, had to double his subsidy offer to get Qwest’s attention with a 50% subsidy.

Rural backhaul connectivity is often provided by fiber optic cabling.

“Qwest refused, demanding 75%,” Burstein noted. “That was probably twice the amount necessary and Adelstein rightly refused. They knew the government had few ways to reach those unserved without paying whatever the telcos demanded. A few years later, Qwest is part of Centurylink. Many of those lines are now upgrading under [public] Connect America Funds with what amounts to a greater than 100% subsidy.”

Net Neutrality appeared to have no impact on telephone company investment decisions, even in rural areas. The investment cuts followed a trend that began even before President Barack Obama took office. Wireless carriers slash investments in rural areas when management is confident the government is motivated to step in and offer taxpayer dollars to expand rural broadband service. When those funds do become available, a significant percentage of the money isn’t spent on constructing new infrastructure to extend the reach of wired and wireless networks into unserved rural areas. Instead, it pays for expanding existing infrastructure that may coincidentally reach some rural customers, but is still primarily used by existing cellular customers.

“In many extreme rural areas, only the local telco has the ability to deliver broadband at a reasonable cost,” noted Burstein. “You need to have affordable backhaul and a local staff for repairs. Because the ‘unserved’ are in very small clusters, often less than 100 homes, it’s usually impractical for a new entrant to bring in a backhaul connection.”

Instead, AT&T is attempting to fill some of the gaps with fixed wireless service from existing cell towers. While good news for customers without access to cable or DSL broadband but do have adequate cellular coverage to subscribe to AT&T’s Fixed Wireless service, that is not much help for those in deeply rural areas where AT&T isn’t investing in additional cell towers to extend coverage. In effect, AT&T enjoys a win-win for itself — adding taxpayer-funded capacity to their existing 4G LTE networks at the same time it markets data-cap free access to its bandwidth-heavy online video services like DirecTV Now. That frees up capital and reduces costs for AT&T’s investors. But it also alienates AT&T’s competitors that recognize the additional network capacity available to AT&T also allows it to offer steep discounts on its DirecTV Now service exclusively for its own wireless customers.

Verizon Running Short of LTE Capacity in Large Cities like New York

OpenSignal’s State of American Wireless Networks – Aug. 2017

Verizon Wireless customers are seeing declining wireless internet speeds and the greater potential for congestion because Verizon Wireless is experiencing the impact of some overburdened cell sites in some of its largest markets.

Walter Piecyk from BTIG Research reports over the last few weeks, Verizon has begun using the last 10MHz of PCS spectrum left in its inventory in New York City, nine months earlier than expected.

Verizon’s reserve spectrum in PCS Band 2 near 1900MHz is not as ideal as lower frequency spectrum better able to manage inside buildings in a city as densely packed as New York, but if that is all the company has left for immediate use, that is what it will use. The newly activated frequencies, first uncovered by Milan Milanovic, are not yet operational across all of Verizon’s extensive cell network in the Big Apple. Verizon’s need to activate its last remaining PCS frequencies suggests former chief financial officer Fran Shammo may have been overly optimistic when he claimed Verizon was only using 40% of its spectrum inventory. That may be true in smaller cities, but is no longer the case in large metropolitan areas.

“This latest action also means that the only spectrum Verizon has left to convert to LTE in NYC is the 25MHz of 800MHz spectrum that the FCC gave it for free in 1984,” wrote Piecyk. “Unfortunately, that 800MHz spectrum is being used to support CDMA voice traffic and legacy 3G data for enterprise/IoT applications. Meanwhile, Dish sits on 125MHz of vacant spectrum in NYC.”

BTIG Research has been carefully tracking Verizon’s deployment of its spectrum for years. In New York, LTE expansion has depended heavily on spectrum acquisitions and enabling LTE+, which bonds frequencies together to increase speed and capacity.

BTIG Research Tracks Verizon Wireless’ LTE Deployment in NYC

  • 20 MHz: December 2010 – launched LTE on the 20MHz of 700MHz spectrum it bought in the 2008 700MHz auction for $0.46/MHz/POP for the Northeast regional license and $0.77/MHz/POP nationwide.
  • 40 MHz: December of 2013 – XLTE-branded rollout of AWS spectrum, which mainly included the spectrum it bought from Cable in 2011 for $0.69/MHz/POP, but also the spectrum it acquired in the 2006 AWS-1 auction, where it spent $1.33/MHz/POP for the Northeast regional license and $0.73/MHz/POP overall.
  • 20 MHz: December of 2014 – LTE conversion begins on PCS spectrum. Verizon purchased 10MHz from Northcoast as part of a larger transaction valued at $1.58/MHz/POP in 2003, 10MHz covering NYC from NextWave for $4.63/MHz/POP in 2004, and 20MHz from NextWave in 2005 as part of a larger transaction valued at $2.85/MHz/POP. (Link)
  • 10 MHz: Q1 of 2016 – This enabled Verizon to deliver 15MHz x 15MHz connections on Band 2, thereby improving speeds. When this happened we predicted the remaining PCS spectrum would be used in early 2018. (Link)
  • 10 MHz: Q3 of 2017 – Once again, this was spotted by Milanovic (Link), who notes that it has not been deployed on all sites. This effectively expands the Band 2 deployment to a 20MHz x 20MHz deployment.

The company has also attempted to increase capacity with network densification, which adds more cell sites to divide up the traffic load. But activating a new cell site can take years, especially if Verizon encounters zoning and permitting problems or public opposition. Small cells can ease congestion in particularly dense traffic areas, but are not enough alone to deal with increasing network traffic.

Verizon’s own business practices have also complicated things for the wireless company. Ditching two-year contracts and subsidized phones in favor of customers acquiring devices at retail prices financed through wireless carriers like Verizon have led to a slowdown in subscriber upgrades as consumers hold on to their devices for longer.

Most phones acquired in the last year or two now support Voice over LTE (VoLTE), which means phone calls travel over Verizon’s LTE network, not the legacy CDMA network Verizon has used for well over a decade. Verizon has to dedicate a significant amount of prime spectrum in the 850MHz band for its CDMA network. Although Verizon claims it has migrated “more than 50%” of its voice traffic to the newer, more efficient VoLTE standard, that is below analysts’ expectations.

Piecyk thinks it may be possible Verizon has been slow to convert because of the record low phone upgrade rate of its customers. As a result, it cannot repurpose its CDMA spectrum for LTE use. Discussions with Verizon engineers suggest the company may eventually cut back CDMA spectrum, but will likely still keep 5 x 5MHz reserved for CDMA voice calling for at least the next four years to support its customers with older devices.

As part of its network densification effort, Verizon is once again relying on fiber optic buildouts, some of which it may take on itself in areas where it does not provide landline service. Verizon will be placing cables with 1,700 strands of fiber, so it is obviously thinking about future network demands.

Before it can deploy additional upgrades or acquire more spectrum, customers can anticipate more “network management” techniques, suspects Piecyk, especially now that unlimited data plans are for sale again. Verizon already limits its “unlimited” plan to 22GB of usage per month, before wireless data speeds are throttled. OpenSignal believes Verizon’s recent speed drops are a result of its unlimited plans putting more pressure on its network.

“We suspect management will now follow T-Mobile’s lead and suppress video quality like BingeOn to help with the rise in network traffic,” Piecyk wrote. “They might also discuss control of overall peak data speeds. However, if no mobile applications require more than 10Mbps service, would it make any sense to suppress the speeds on your customers’ phone? What’s the benefit other than offering a convenient excuse on why your speed tests are slower than the competition?”

Will the FCC’s Spectrum Auction Improve Your Service? Let’s Look at the Coverage Maps

Four large telecom companies won the bulk of the available licenses to operate their wireless services on the upcoming 600MHz band, once UHF TV channels occupying part of it vacate. But what exactly did AT&T, Comcast, Dish, and T-Mobile buy and where? Mosaik, a mapping firm, produced maps (courtesy Fierce Wireless) showing exactly where the four companies won 600MHz spectrum in the recent auction. The differences are striking. T-Mobile effectively won the right to launch new service almost everywhere in the country, in part because it acquired a huge number of cheap, low-demand licenses in largely rural areas.

Dish’s plans for its spectrum remain a complete mystery, while Comcast’s winning bids are entirely within areas where it provides cable service. AT&T, although already holding a large supply of low band frequencies, apparently needs more capacity in larger cities, and paid handsomely to get it.

AT&T

Most of AT&T’s winning bids cover larger cities where it already operates an extensive cellular network. Among the areas where AT&T can expand service: Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, St. Louis, Birmingham, Mobile, Tampa, Atlanta, Dallas, Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Minneapolis and Little Rock. But AT&T also grabbed licenses for rural western Massachusetts, central Ohio, and southern Michigan.

Comcast

Comcast’s winning bids consisted of 10MHz of spectrum, except in Nashville where it nabbed 20MHz. Comcast grabbed enough spectrum to cover every city in Florida except Tampa (where Charter provides cable service). The cable company focused heavily on east and west coast bids, winning spectrum across much of the Pacific Northwest, the Boston-NYC-DC corridor, and Illinois and Indiana. The only downside is that 10MHz is not a lot of spectrum to support a large wireless service, but then Comcast does not require that at this time, because it will rely primarily on a shared arrangement with Verizon Wireless to power Xfinity Mobile.

Dish Network

What Dish intends to do with its spectrum remains a complete mystery, but it grabbed a significant amount of it in New York City and its nearby suburbs, including Connecticut. It also won respectable quantities of frequencies in Alaska, California, Florida, Puerto Rico, Seattle and Portland, and several midwestern and south-central cities.

T-Mobile USA

T-Mobile published a similar map as part of its press package claiming victory in the spectrum auction. This map better highlights T-Mobile’s extensive spectrum wins in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. If T-Mobile uses it all, it will command similar coverage areas comparable to Verizon and AT&T. T-Mobile will manage this without any need to merge with anyone else, as AT&T and Sprint have historically argued in their past failed efforts to acquire T-Mobile.

Spectrum Auction: T-Mobile Runaway Winner, But Dish Buy Puzzles Investors

T-Mobile’s 600MHz coverage map — assuming it builds out its full spectrum purchase.

One of the most consequential and visible spectrum auctions ever is over, and it will have a significant impact on broadcasters, wireless carriers, and the future competitive landscape of the wireless industry.

The world’s first “incentive auction” paid television stations to voluntarily vacate or move their assigned channels to make room for the wireless industry’s desire for more spectrum to power wireless data services. Up for bid was 70MHz of spectrum currently used by UHF television stations. A total of 50 winning wireless bidders collectively agreed to pay $19.8 billion to acquire that space. The biggest winner was T-Mobile USA, which is paying almost half the amount of total proceeds to acquire 45% of the spectrum available in the current auction. T-Mobile managed to acquire enough spectrum to cover 100% of the United States and Puerto Rico with an average of 31MHz of available spectrum nationwide, quadrupling its current inventory of important “low-band” spectrum, which is excellent for covering rural areas and inside buildings.

Consumers are likely to benefit as early as later this year when T-Mobile begins lighting up cellular service utilizing the newly available spectrum. Unfortunately, customers will have to buy new devices compatible with the new bands of frequencies.

Having the spectrum alone is not enough to beef up T-Mobile’s network. The company will have to invest in a large number of new cell sites, particularly in outlying areas, to eventually rival the coverage of AT&T and Verizon Wireless. But with an ample supply of 600MHz spectrum, T-Mobile could soon challenge AT&T and Verizon Wireless’ perceived network and coverage superiority. After this auction, AT&T continues to hold the largest portfolio of <1GHz spectrum — 70.5MHz. Verizon is second with 46.2MHz and T-Mobile has moved up in its third place position with 41.1MHz.

Although the FCC claims the current auction was among the highest grossing ever conducted by the FCC, industry observers claim companies got the new frequencies at a bargain price. A 2015 spectrum auction attracted $44.9 billion in bids, more than double the amount bid this year. The average price wireless companies paid per megahertz per person this year was just shy of 90¢, compared with $2.72 in 2015.

Where bargains are to be had, Charles Ergen and his Dish Network satellite company are sure to follow.

Few companies have as much unused wireless spectrum in their portfolio as Dish. Ergen loves to bid in auctions and has also picked up excess spectrum available on the cheap from other satellite companies that have since gone dark or bankrupt. Dish spent $6.2 billion on spectrum during the latest auction, puzzling investors who drove Dish’s share price down wondering what the company intends to do with the frequencies.

Investors were hoping Dish would eventually sell its spectrum portfolio at a profit, something that could still happen if other wireless carriers see a deal to be made. But some Wall Street analysts fear Dish might actually build a large wireless network of its own to offer wireless broadband service. Wall Street dislikes big spending projects and the competition it could bring to the marketplace, potentially driving down prices.

The other possibility is that Dish is making itself look more attractive to a possible buyer like Verizon, which could acquire the satellite company to win cheaper cable programming prices for its FiOS TV and an attractive amount of wireless spectrum for Verizon Wireless. The nation’s biggest wireless carrier notably did not participate in this spectrum auction.

Another unusual bidder was Comcast. Craig Moffett from Wall Street firm MoffettNathanson called Comcast’s $1.7 billion bid “half-hearted” and said it was unlikely to be enough spectrum for the company to begin offering its own wireless service. Comcast plans to rely on Verizon Wireless to power its wireless service, at least initially.

Comcast targeted its bids only in cities where it already provides cable service, which also nixes the theory Comcast and Charter might have been working together to form a cellular joint venture. Moffett expected Comcast would seek at least 20MHz of spectrum across most of the country. It ended up with 10MHz and only in select cities. Moffett thinks that may signal Comcast’s interest in buying an existing wireless carrier is still on the table.

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