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UAE Leads With 93.7% of Homes on Fiber Internet; U.S. Lags at 13.1%

Phillip Dampier September 21, 2017 Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

The United Arab Emirates now has the highest penetration of fiber optic broadband in the world, according to data from the FTTH Council Europe.

At least 93.7% of UAE homes are now hooked up to fiber-to-the-home internet service, and the country’s largest provider — Etisalat — promises it will spend millions more to further expand fiber connected home broadband and mobile services across the country.

In contrast, the United States has only wired 13.1% of its homes to fiber broadband, 11.8% in Canada. The countries with the highest percentage of fiber connections are the UAE, Qatar, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan.

According to the World Bank, broadband internet is today seen as critical to the transition to knowledge-intensive economies across the world. Countries in the Middle East and North Africa are accelerating their fiber broadband programs, believing the technology will prove transformational to remake or build their economies in a digital world. As many first world countries’ telecommunications networks are captive to large, for-profit corporate interests that have dragged out broadband expansion to protect profits, the developing world has a chance to leapfrog over countries in North America and Europe and launch new connected technology centers for the digital economy.

For the UAE, fiber optic broadband is a critical part of the country’s Vision 2021 strategy to invest vast sums in infrastructure and development programs to diversify the country’s economy away from its dependence on oil and gas reserves and guarantee future prosperity.

T-Mobile Increases True Unlimited to 50GB a Month Before Speed Throttling

T-Mobile today announced it was boosting the amount of data its “unlimited data” customers can use before they are subject to speed throttling from 32GB to 50GB, effective Sept. 20, 2017.

“Meanwhile, Verizon and AT&T sit at a meager 22GB, meaning Un-carrier customers can use more than 2x the data before prioritization kicks in,” wrote Neville Ray, T-Mobile’s chief technology officer. “Now, 50GB of data usage means a T-Mobile customer is basically the top 1% of data users, and to put it in context, you could stream a full two hours of Netflix every single day – that’s 30 SD movies – and never even reach that point! You’d still have roughly 8GB to go.”

Like other wireless companies, “unlimited data” does not actually mean “unlimited.” Providers allot a certain allowance of truly unlimited data which, once exceeded, subjects the customer to speed-reducing “throttles” until the next bill cycle begins. T-Mobile claims it only throttles customers when a customer exceeds their “prioritization” allowance — 50GB as of tomorrow — and the cell tower they are using is currently experiencing congestion.

“When T-Mobile customers who use the most data hit these prioritization points during the month, they get in line behind other customers who have used less data and may experience reduced speeds,” Ray wrote. “But this impacts them only very rarely, like when there is a big line, and it resets every month. If you have a lot of congestion in your network (I’m looking at you, Verizon & AT&T), these lines can be long and deprioritized customers can be waiting a long time.”

No wireless company will provide data on which cell towers are likely to experience the most congestion, how many customers are speed throttled, or what speeds customers will get for how long before the throttle usually drops. But it is definitely harder to hit 50GB than 22 or 32GB, which means fewer customers are likely to find their wireless data connections throttled.

There has been no response yet from T-Mobile’s competitors — AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon.

Deutsche Telekom: We’ll Build a Nationwide Fiber Network If You Let Us Monopolize It

German Chancellor Angela Merkel examines fiber optic telecommunications cables.

Germany has an internet access problem not very different from the one afflicting the United States and Canada. The national phone company, still partly owned by the government, remains mostly dependent on a decades-old wireline telephone network to deliver landline and DSL broadband service. The only way Deutsche Telekom will invest adequately to replace it with optical fiber is if they get assurances from the federal government they will be allowed to monopolize access to it.

According to the business weekly WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt, Telekom executives have agreed to build a fiber-optic network everywhere in Germany provided that it is excluded from European anti-monopoly rules so that Deutsche Telekom wouldn’t be forced to open its network to competition.

The proposal from the German telecom giant was particularly audacious because many in the country blame it and its uncompetitive behavior for creating Germany’s slow broadband problem, but that did nothing to stop the company from asking to be shielded from competition.

“A fundamental departure from the kind of logic that viewed regulation of Deutsche Telekom (DT) as the normal state in the last 20 years is urgently needed,” the company said in a filing with the German Federal Network Agency, which regulates the internet in the country.

For most Germans, DT is the problem. The phone company has proven itself a formidable competitor across many parts of eastern Europe, where it bought control of privatized telecommunications companies that used to operate as government monopolies. But back home in Germany, it has been happy to continue offering DSL service that the rest of Europe cannot get rid of fast enough. In certain larger cities like Munich and Cologne, upstart fiber to the home providers have filled the broadband gap and have wired significant parts of both cities, and DT has responded with a fiber offering of its own without complaining about the cost of building a fiber network or the return on its investment.

Oberbürgermeister Wolff

But in smaller towns and villages across Germany — particularly in the eastern states, broadband has been terrible for years and under DT’s “leadership” it has not gotten much better, allowing other countries in the EU to sail past Germany in broadband rankings. Like AT&T and Verizon in the U.S., DT claims that where it has not upgraded its network, there is either no demand for fiber fast internet speed or inadequate return on investment. Also like in the U.S., DT has spent its money on other technologies, notably wireless, while investment in landline networks has not kept up.

Some German communities like Bretten, fed up with inaction, have taken charge of their own broadband future and are building their own fiber to the home networks. Martin Wolff has dreamed of a digital economy boost for his town of 28,000 located near Karlsruhe in western Germany.

As mayor, he has begged and pleaded with DT to give Bretten something beyond lackluster DSL service, which is now too slow to handle the kind of 21st century internet applications that better wired communities take for granted. Mayor Wolff wants Bretten known as a gigabit city. DT, in contrast, wants to leave Bretten as a forgotten digital backwater. The phone company had repeatedly told the community the broadband it gets now is more than good enough and nobody should hold their breath waiting for something better. DT’s few competitors, including Britain’s Vodafone, weren’t interested either. Bretten is too small… too… irrelevant to matter to their investors.

“They are only interested in serving the cream of the crop in the cities and don’t come to rural areas,” the mayor said.

Like in North America, Germans are asking themselves who should be in charge of their digital future — investor-owned telecom companies or the community itself. The country’s continued embarrassing showing in European broadband rankings has become an issue of national pride and has sparked a loud debate between established telecom companies and the public that wants faster and better broadband.

The noise of the debate has attracted the politicians, and the issue of German broadband has now taken center stage in the parliamentary elections, which will be held Sept. 24. Handelsblatt reports the issue of inadequate broadband now interests German voters more than the latest economic policy position paper or how Germany will manage to deal with U.S. President Donald Trump for the next three years. Many Germans have plenty of time for these kinds of offline debates, because online, it can take a minute to load a webpage on some of the country’s dial-up like DSL connections.

“Germany is one of the most under-supplied countries in Europe, especially in terms of rural coverage,” wrote Bernd Beckert, an internet expert at the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research, in a recent study of European broadband. He said countries such as Switzerland, Spain and even tiny Estonia are far ahead of Germany. In fact, the Baltic states and many former Eastern bloc countries are moving towards a fiber future while Germany considers wrapping itself even tighter in copper wiring installed in the 1960s. More than 70% of German internet users get internet access through a DT-provided, ADSL-equipped landline. Many connect at just 1-6Mbps, about the same speed users were getting in the late 1990s when DT’s internet monopoly was abolished.

Since then, DT has done everything possible to encourage “competitors” to not build competing networks. In fact, most competing ISPs like 1&1, Versatel, Telefonica Deutschland, and Vodafone rent DT DSL-capable landlines to provision service to their customers. That means they cannot compete on speed and they are forced to rely on DT to maintain its wireline network. It is no accident that German adoption of fiber optics is stuck at only 1.8%, fifth from last place among the 35 member states of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In comparison, Japan and South Korea have more than 70 percent of their customers on fiber to the home connections.

Germany’s largest political parties that have been in government since 2005, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU) have tolerated DT and its anemic upgrade policies. Broadband stagnancy, many believe, would not be possible without acquiescence and appeasement by those in control of the country. That conspiracy theory is backed by many of Germany’s smaller political parties which believe it is time to change the government’s involvement with DT.

The Left Party’s platform supports nationalizing DT and returning it to a state-owned enterprise that will answer to the public policy priorities of the next government. The capitalist, pro-business Free Democratic Party wants to get the government completely out of its 32% remaining stake in DT and hope that free market solutions will emerge. In the meantime, that party proposes to use the proceeds of any sale to fund a national broadband subsidy fund to convince private telecom companies to upgrade their networks in underserved areas.

DT has not stayed quiet in the public policy debate either. After disappointing the German public by rejecting a proposal to build an open, nationwide fiber to the home network, the company has instead promised to upgrade existing DSL lines to newer technologies like VDSL and vectoring, which DT claims could deliver up to 100Mbps service. American phone companies like Verizon have been reluctant to head in a similar direction, admitting many of the next generation DSL technologies work better in the lab than in the field. Many of the technologies promoting the most dramatic speed improvements have also proved to be vaporware so far.

Deutsche Telekom HQ Bonn, Germany

“We are committed to vectoring, because it is the only way to provide people in rural areas with faster lines quickly,” Deutsche Telekom said in a blog post published in August. “If we are fixated on [fiber to the home], those in the countryside will remain left behind for years. It is simply impossible to roll out fiber lines to homes everywhere in the country. Neither the construction capacity nor the funding is available for that. Plus, there is quite simply no demand for it.”

Some of the other competitors in the market seem to agree with DT.

“No provider can achieve fiber optic expansion on its own,” said Valentina Daiber, a member of the board of Telefonica. Daiber said DT was already nearly $60 billion in debt. Daiber said she hoped a solution could be found after the election.

But just a week after Daiber made that claim Vodafone announced it will spend $2.4 billion on a new fiber to the premises network targeting 100,000 companies in 2,000 German business parks. The company will also spend up to $450 million partnering with municipalities to extend the network to about one million rural homes, in addition to boosting its current broadband speeds delivered to German cable customers to 1Gbps.

That announcement could cause DT’s DSL plans to eventually collapse, if Vodafone follows through on its fiber buildout.

Mayor Wolff has no intention of waiting to see how it all plays out. Wolff has convinced private fiber optics company BBV to install the fiber infrastructure and has a Dutch investor partner arranging $12 million in financing, which is always the biggest stumbling block to get fiber buildouts underway. Upfront construction costs often deter many municipalities and would-be competitors from launching. But for Wolff, where there is a will, there is a way to deliver fiber fast broadband, and he is making certain it happens sooner rather than later.

American Enterprise Institute’s Shallow Formula for Broadband Nirvana

AEI: If you bought broadband service, that means you like your service and don’t need or want anything better.

The American Enterprise Institute wants the FCC to judge to quality of America’s broadband based on what customers are able to buy today and how much they are willing to pay to get it.

Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the FCC to report to Congress whether broadband “is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.” As part of that process, the FCC must determine if Americans are getting internet connections capable of providing “advanced telecommunications capability.”

If the FCC reports to Congress that the country’s biggest telecom companies are letting their customers down with inadequate service or no service at all, that can create conditions for the FCC to step in and start insisting on more competition and oversight as well as setting benchmarks for providers to meet. If the report shows that broadband service is adequately provided, the FCC need not regulate, and in some cases such a finding will fuel calls to further deregulate the industry by getting rid of “unnecessary regulation.”

Not surprisingly, findings since 2001 have varied depending on which political party holds the majority on the Commission. Under President George W. Bush, the FCC consistently found broadband service was being adequately deployed to Americans. The FCC also set the bar pretty low on broadband speed, claiming anything at or above 4/1Mbps service constituted “broadband.” That definition comfortably accommodated DSL service from the phone companies.

Wheeler – Argued for better broadband and more competition.

During the Obama Administration, the FCC set the bar higher. With dissent from the Republican minority, the FCC raised the minimum speed that could be defined as broadband to 25/3Mbps, immediately excluding most DSL and wireless connections. In 2015, former FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler specifically excluded satellite and wireless connections from that formula, despite objections from FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai. Particularly under Wheeler’s watch, the Democratic majority frequently complained about inadequate broadband and competition, and used Section 706 as its authority to override state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that placed onerous restrictions on municipal broadband networks. Wheeler felt such laws were anti-competitive, but the courts ruled the FCC exceeded its authority and overturned his pre-emption orders.

Under the Trump Administration, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai seems to be headed down a similar path taken during the Bush Administration, which was optimistic about the state of broadband service and, as a result, applied a lot less pressure on the telecommunications industry.

Chairman Pai is seeking to overturn current Net Neutrality regulations and seems ready to support efforts to undermine the broadband speed standard established by his predecessor. That would allow mobile/wireless companies to offer 10/1Mbps speed and have it qualify as broadband service. Even better, ISPs — wired or wireless — would be considered “competitive” in many cases, even if only one provider offered service in the area.

Pai’s proposal was met with serious objections from Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn who claimed even the current 25/3Mbps standard no longer met the definition of “advanced telecommunications capability.”

“The statute defines advanced telecommunications capability as broadband that is capable of ‘originat[ing] and receiv[ing] high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications. High-definition video conferencing is squarely within the rubric of ‘originating and receiving high-quality… video telecommunications,’ yet the 25/3Mbps standard we propose would not even allow for a single stream of 1080p video conferencing, much less 4K video conferencing. This does not even consider that multiple devices are likely utilizing a single fixed connection, or the multiple uses of a mobile device.”

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Pai: Wants broadband providers and the competitive marketplace to determine whether broadband is good enough.

AEI dismissed the entire debate, claiming the only people who will respond to the FCC’s request for comments on the subject will be “pundits, special interests, and companies with skin in the game.”

Instead, AEI proposes the FCC rely on watching customers navigate their broadband options — a monopoly for some, duopoly for many others — and only address problems if something unusual emerges. AEI’s test is to see if “a location or demographic is inexplicably different and purchases less than would be expected.”

If something odd does happen in a particular area, AEI argues there could only be two reasons for that:

  • Barriers to competition;
  • Outdated government regulations and policies standing in the way of progress.

Missing from AEI’s list of possibilities is the presence of an abusive monopoly provider, a comfortable duopoly among two providers with no interest from a third competitor to enter the market, or an area served by two lackluster providers that won’t invest in their networks.

AEI’s test depends entirely on gathering data about what internet services are available for sale in any particular area now and then study who is buying what. But this does not measure customer satisfaction or consider whether those speed tiers and prices are adequate.

Under AEI’s test, “if a geographic area does not have broadband, the FCC could use the results of its customer study to determine what customers in the area would likely find valuable. Then, the FCC could do a cost-benefit study and an economic feasibility study — and conduct a reverse auction if a subsidy is potentially needed — to determine what, if any, financial incentive might be appropriate for the area.”

In other words, the same think tank that has been on record for decades opposing government subsidies to private companies now wants to offer telecom companies government funding to build what would become largely unregulated privately-owned broadband networks that would run with little or no oversight.

AEI’s willingness to let “customers express their opinions through their purchases” is hardly an adequate replacement for current broadband policies designed to keep the U.S. competitive with the rest of the world and ensure adequate service and competition. As any cable subscriber knows, you can subscribe to Comcast or Charter/Spectrum and still loathe your options and want something better. AEI doesn’t appear interested in seeing you get those options, much less preserve what little oversight, consumer protection, and broadband benchmarks we have now. Neither does current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

Verizon Wireless Brings Big Changes to “Unlimited” Data Plans; Throttled Video for All

All Verizon Wireless customers, regardless of their data plan, will begin seeing throttled video on their phones, tablets, and tethered devices starting today, Aug. 23.

The change coincides with the introduction of two new “unlimited” data plans that come with an unprecedented number of tricks and traps in the fine print.

Existing customers can keep their current plan, but will still experience throttled online video speeds to at or below 10Mbps that will make it impossible to view 4K streamed video. On smartphones, the top permitted video resolution will be substantially lower than that.

Verizon claims the new throttled video plans will deliver better service for all of their wireless customers.

“We’re doing this to ensure all customers have a great experience on our network since there is no visible difference in quality on a smartphone or tablet when video is shown at higher resolutions,” a Verizon spokesperson claimed. That refers to video resolution above 720p for phones and 1080p on tablets and laptops.

More likely, Verizon engineers observed video traffic spiking as a result of its unlimited data plan reintroduced in February. Independent speed measurement services detected significant speed and performance hits on Verizon’s wireless network as customers got the most they could out of an unlimited plan that started at $80 a line. Even with Verizon’s soft cap of 22GB before customers were subject to throttled performance was not enough to manage traffic loads, so Verizon has decided to specifically target online video.

Verizon’s “Cadillac” network is straining to keep up.

Although many streaming services offer customers an option to reduce video resolution to cut back on data usage, customers often ignore the option, particularly if enrolled in “unlimited” data plans. Starting today, Verizon’s network management speed throttle tells streaming services a customer’s connection is limited and cannot sustain the speeds needed for the highest resolution video. The video player reduces video playback resolution on its own as a result. In turn, this can dramatically lighten the traffic load on Verizon’s network.

Verizon’s new plans seem designed for the “light touch” era the current administration’s FCC advocates for telecom regulation, and the carrier’s new plans will give blatant priority for some customers over others, relegating lower paying users into the slow lane while premium plan customers can race on by.

Verizon’s new unlimited data plans for the Net Neutrality-free future are here, scoff critics.

“‘Unlimited’ = ‘Limited’ and ‘Beyond Unlimited’ = ‘Slightly less limited’,” wrote one customer on Verizon’s customer forum.

Verizon put its best face on its new unlimited plans.

“These plans give you the best unlimited choices, but you also get what only Verizon can give you: the best network, the best rewards program, the best way to manage your plan with the My Verizon app and the best selection of phones and devices,” the company said in a press release.

“If this isn’t a sign that Verizon’s network is crumbling from offering unlimited, I don’t know what is!” countered John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile USA.

Here are the new unlimited plans from Verizon Wireless, effective immediately:

Go Unlimited – $75 (1 line), $65 per line (2 lines), $50 per line (3 lines), $40 per line (4+ lines) – Paperless billing and autopay required (or add $5 per month)

Verizon’s new base unlimited plan automatically throttles your speed when a cell site reports as congested. This plan puts your data usage at a lower priority over other customers and you can experience throttled speeds at any time, regardless of usage. Video streaming is limited to 480p on smartphones and 720p on all other devices. You also get unlimited mobile hotspot, but speeds are permanently locked at a maximum of 600kbps. Unlimited talk and text with no restrictions is included

Beyond Unlimited – $85 (1 line), $80 per line (2 lines), $60 per line (3 lines), $50 per line (4+ lines) – Paperless billing and autopay required (or add $5 per month)

This plan more closely resembles the current unlimited data plan, but costs considerably more. You get unlimited 4G LTE data, but are subject to a speed throttle in congested service areas once exceeding 22GB of usage per month. Video streaming is limited to 720p on smartphones and 1080p on all other devices. No 4K video on any device is allowed. Unlimited mobile hotspot data really means up to 15GB of usage at LTE speed before you are throttled. Unlimited talk/texting included in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

Customers on 2017 Unlimited and Legacy Unlimited Data Plans:

You will be able to keep your current unlimited plans. For those who enrolled in Verizon’s 2017 unlimited plan starting in February, video speed throttles now apply: 720p on smartphones, 1080p on all other devices. You will get a free upgrade to 15GB of mobile hotspot usage, up from 10GB.

For customers on Verizon’s original unlimited plan discontinued several years ago, nothing changes except the introduction of video speed throttles: 720p on smartphones, 1080p on all other devices.

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