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Britain Adopting American Broadband Business Model: Less Competition, More Rate Hikes

british poundA decision by Great Britain’s broadband industry to follow America’s lead consolidating the number of competitors to “improve efficiency” and wring “cost savings” out of the business resulted in few service improvements and a much bigger bill for consumers.

A Guardian Money investigation examining British broadband pricing over the past four years found customers paying 25-30 percent more for essentially the same service they received before, with loyal customers facing the steepest rate increases.

It’s a dramatic fall for a market long recognized as one of the most competitive in the world. In 2006, TalkTalk — a major British ISP — even gave away broadband service for free in a promotion to consumers willing to cover BT’s telephone line rental charges.

But pressure from shareholders and investment bankers to deliver American-sized profits have spurred a wave of consolidation among providers in the United Kingdom, similar to the mergers of cable companies in the United States. Well known ISPs like Blueyonder, Tiscali, AOL, BE, Tesco, O2, and others in the United Kingdom have all been swallowed up by bigger rivals – often TalkTalk. As of last year, just four major competitors remain – BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin, which together hold 88% of the market. If regulators allow BT’s takeover of EE, that percentage will rise to 92%.

talktalk-logo-370x229As consumers find fewer and fewer options for broadband, they are also discovering a larger bill, fueled by runaway rate increases well in excess of inflation. While consolidated markets in the United States and Great Britain increasingly lack enough competition to temper rate increases, heavy competition on the European continent has resulted in flat or even lower prices for broadband along with significant service upgrades. British consumers now pay up to 50% more for broadband than many of their European counterparts in Germany, France, the Benelux countries, and beyond.

Also familiar to Americans, the best prices for service only go to new customers. Existing, loyal customers pay the highest prices, while those flipping between providers (or threatening to do so) get much lower “retention” or “new customer” pricing. But only those willing to fight for a better deal get one.

In October, TalkTalk, responsible for much of the consolidation wave, raised broadband prices yet again — the second major price hike this year. Customers are reeling over the rate increases, despite the fact they still seem inexpensive by American standards. Landline rental charges are increasing from $25.40 to $26.91 a month, and are a necessary prerequisite to buying Internet access from TalkTalk. Its Simply Broadband entry-level package is jumping another £2.50 a month just four months after the last rate hike. That means instead of paying an extra $7.60 a month for broadband, customers will now pay $11.40. The average British consumer now pays an average of $57.79 a month for a phone line with enhanced DSL broadband service.

btIn France, competition is forcing providers to move towards fiber optic broadband and scrap DSL service. But French consumers are not paying a premium for upgrades necessitated by competition on the ground. While British households pay close to $60 a month, a comparable package in France from Orange known as L’essentiel d’internet à la maison costs only $36.50 a month, including a TV package and unlimited calling to other landlines. But the deal gets even better if you shop around. Free, a major French competitor, offers a near-identical package for just $32.19 a month. In the United States, packages of this type can cost $130 or more if you do not receive a promotion, $99 a month if you do.

In France, providers rarely claim they need to cap Internet usage or raise prices to cover the cost of investing in their networks. That is considered the cost of doing business in a fiercely competitive marketplace, and it forces French providers to deliver good value and service for money. Providers like Patrick Drahi/Altice’s SFR-Numericable attempted to reap more profits out of its cable business by cutting costs, discontinuing most promotions and marketing, and offshoring customer support to North African call centers. At least one million customers left for better service elsewhere in 2015.

logo_freeIn Britain, there are fewer options for customers to seek a better deal, and the remaining providers know it. As a result, marketplace conditions and an increasing lack of competition have made conditions right for rate increases. BT, Sky, Virgin, and Plusnet (controlled by BT) have all taken advantage and hiked prices once again this year between 6-10%, on top of other large rises.

Ewan Taylor-Gibson, broadband expert at uSwitch.com, told the Guardian, “it’s the existing customers that have borne the brunt of the increase in landline and package costs over recent years.”

Many British consumers are afraid of disrupting their Internet access going through the process of changing providers in a search for a better deal. Some report it can take a few days to a week to process a provider change that should take minutes (because most providers rely entirely on BT’s DSL network over which they offer service). Those willing to make a change are about the only ones still getting a good deal from British providers. Customers are starting to learn that when their new customer promotion ends, asking for an extension or signing up with another company is the only way to prevent a massive bill spike that Taylor-Gibson estimates now averages 89%.

BT spent $1.36 billion dollars securing an agreement with Champions League football.

BT spent $1.36 billion dollars securing an agreement with Champions League football.

Providers with the largest increases use the same excuses as their American counterparts to defend them. BT claims a reduction in income from providing landline service is forcing it to raise prices to make up the shortfall. Critics suggest those increases are also helping BT recoup the $1.36 billion it controversially paid for the rights to carry Champions League football — money it could have invested in network upgrades instead.

The current government seems predisposed to permit the marketplace to resolve pricing on its own, either through competition among the remaining players or allowing skyrocketing prices to reach a level deemed attractive by potential new entrants into the market. The usually protective British regulator Ofcom also seems content taking a light hand to British ISPs, enforcing price disclosures as a solution to increasingly costly Internet service and making it easier for consumers to bounce between the remaining providers many think are overcharging for service.

Things could be worse. British consumers could face the marketplace duopoly or monopoly most customers in the United States and Canada live with, along with even higher prices charged for service. The Guardian surveyed telecom services across several European countries and found that, like in the UK, most customers are required to bundle a landline rental charge and broadband package together to get Internet access, but they are still paying less overall than North Americans do.

Here is what other countries pay for service:

United Kingdom: Basic BT home phone service with unlimited “up to 17Mbps” DSL broadband costs $31.12 per month, plus a monthly landline charge of $27.35 including free weekend calls. An unlimited calling plan with no dialing charges costs an extra $12 a month. Competitor TalkTalk charges $11.40 for unlimited broadband on its entry-level Simply Broadband offer, plus $26.91 for the monthly landline rental charge.

France: Many Orange customers sign up for the popular L’essentiel d’internet à la maison plan, which bundles broadband, a phone line with unlimited calling to other landlines, and a TV package available in many areas for $36.50 a month. Competitor Free.fr charges $32.19 for essentially the same package.

Germany: Deutsche Telekom offers its cheapest home phone/broadband package for $37.75 after a less expensive promotional offer expires. One of its largest competitors, 1&1, offers the same package for $33.29 a month after the teaser rate has ended.

Spain: Telefónica, Spain’s largest phone company, offers service under its Movistar brand combining an unlimited calling landline and up to 30Mbps Internet access for $46.21 a month. Its rival Tele2 offers a comparable package for a dramatically lower price: $29.11 a month.

Ireland: National telecom company Eircomis is overseeing Ireland’s telecom makeover, replacing a lot of copper phone lines with fiber optics. Basic broadband starts with 100Mbps service on the fiber network with a promotional rate of $26.82 for the first four months. After that, things get expensive under European standards. That 100Mbps service carries a regular price of $66.51 a month, deemed “hefty” by the Guardian, although cheaper that what North Americans pay cable companies for 100Mbps download speeds after their promotion ends. For that price, Irish customers also get unlimited calling to other Irish landlines and mobiles. If that is too much, rival Sky offers a basic phone and broadband deal for $32.18 with a one-year contract.

British Newspapers Giving Away Six Months of Free Broadband

Phillip Dampier March 18, 2014 British Telecom, Competition, Consumer News 2 Comments

free broadbandWhile broadband prices in North America now typically exceed $50 a month, competition in the United Kingdom has brought Internet access pricing down to as low as zero as part of a promotion between BT — Britain’s largest telecom company and Northern & Shell, a newspaper publisher and owner of Channel 5.

Readers of the Daily Star and Daily Express found a four page pullout this week offering six months of free, unlimited use 16Mbps BT broadband service. After six months, the price rises to a discounted rate of $26.50 a month.

Those taking advantage of the offer also get free access to sports channel BT Sport. Readers take advantage of the offer by phoning a toll-free 0800 number or visiting the BT website with offer codes published in the newspapers.

In Britain, newspaper publishers struggling to hold readership are increasingly launching marketing campaigns that bundle broadband, television, and newspaper service into a discounted bundle package. The offers are an effort to stem declines in readership of printed newspapers and can be moderately effective if the price is right.


German Chancellor Mocks British Prime Minister Over State of UK’s Broadband

Phillip Dampier March 11, 2014 British Telecom, Broadband Speed, Public Policy & Gov't, Rural Broadband, Video Comments Off on German Chancellor Mocks British Prime Minister Over State of UK’s Broadband
Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister David Cameron

Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister David Cameron

The slow pace of rolling out superfast broadband across the United Kingdom did not escape the notice of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who stung Prime Minister David Cameron with a joke comparing the two countries’ progress to provide Internet access to every home.

While traveling to Hanover to visit the CeBIT trade fair, Carmeron sought to promote Great Britain’s economic relationship with Germany. But Merkel wanted to know when Britain would finally complete the rollout of high-speed Internet access to every house in the country.

Cameron’s government has faced criticism over its decision to roll out an advanced form of DSL using fiber to the neighborhood technology similar to AT&T U-verse. Some critics accuse the government of allowing BT and other vendors to overspend public resources on a network that some fear will not prove fast enough to compete in the long-term.

Cameron told Merkel the government had earmarked hundreds of millions of pounds on the project. In response, Merkel dryly replied that Germany’s network would successfully reach every citizen in Germany by 2018.

btUK Communications Minister Ed Vaizey has also faced criticism from communities learning they are not on the upgrade list as well as those promised improved service but still waiting to receive it. Vaizey repeated his claim that 95 percent of the United Kingdom would have faster Internet access by 2017. The British regulatory agency Ofcom’s statistics show the government has a long way to go, with only 73 per cent of the country able to get access to high-speed broadband as of this month.

While in Hanover, Cameron suggested the world was nearing a new industrial revolution dependent on a speedy Internet. Cameron noted the future includes “The Internet of Things,” where technology would enable devices of all kinds to interact over wireless networks. Robust broadband infrastructure was therefore essential to the economies of both countries.

As part of that effort, the two leaders announced a joint effort between British and German universities to develop the next generation of Wi-Fi dubbed “5G” that would be fast enough to download a typical movie in less than one second.

Although BT likes to advertise “superfast broadband” as coming from a fiber network, in fact most homes will receive an advanced form of DSL service delivered over a hybrid fiber-copper network. (2:38)

Britain Sets New Broadband Speed Record: 1.4 Terabytes per Second; ‘Exaflood’ Irrelevent

Phillip Dampier January 29, 2014 British Telecom, Broadband Speed, Consumer News Comments Off on Britain Sets New Broadband Speed Record: 1.4 Terabytes per Second; ‘Exaflood’ Irrelevent

fiberFears that growing global Internet traffic might someday result in an Internet brownout were made irrelevant this week after Britain’s BT and Alcatel-Lucent achieved a new speed record in a field trial of ‘flexible grid’ infrastructure that reached 1.4 Terabits per second over an existing fiber network.

Flexgrid technology increases the density of individual transmission channels on traditional fiber networks, resulting in 42.5 percent better transmission efficiency over current standards.

“BT and Alcatel-Lucent are making more from what they’ve got,” explained Oliver Johnson, chief executive of broadband analyst firm Point Topic. “It allows them to increase their capacity without having to spend much more money.”

The trial was conducted through the overlaying of an “Alien Super Channel” comprised of seven 200 Gigabits per second (Gb/s) channels bundled together to provide a combined capacity of 1.4Tb/s. By reducing the spectral spacing between the channels from 50GHz to 35GHz using the 400Gb/s Photonic Services Engine (PSE) technology on the 1830 Photonic Service Switch (PSS), spectral efficiency is enhanced by almost 43%. The 1830 PSS can be used as an optical extension shelf of the 7750 Service Router (SR) and the 7950 Extensible Routing System (XRS). Flexgrid is the key to creating high-capacity, spectrally efficient super channels. The super channel is “alien” because it operates transparently on top of BT’s existing optical network.

btThe speeds were achieved on a standard 410km fiber link between BT’s Adastral Park research campus in Ipswich and the BT Tower in London.

The new transmission technology means existing fiber infrastructure can easily manage far faster speeds and more bandwidth without costly upgrades and more fiber installation.

alcatelWhile the new technology is unlikely to be deployed to individual customer homes and businesses, it is likely to become important for Internet backbone networks which handle connectivity between Internet Service Providers.

Companies like Cisco have warned for years that existing infrastructure might be unsuitable to manage the growth of Internet traffic, resulting in a potential “exaflood” of data over a congested Internet, resulting in “brownouts” that slow or stop Internet connections. But Alcatel-Lucent and BT have demonstrated that ongoing technological advances make such problems unlikely, because as Internet traffic increases, technological improvements assure that capacity keeps up at an affordable cost.

Provider That Claimed Fiber Broadband Wasn’t In Demand Sells Out Every Connection in Hours

Phillip Dampier December 9, 2013 British Telecom, Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Rural Broadband Comments Off on Provider That Claimed Fiber Broadband Wasn’t In Demand Sells Out Every Connection in Hours
Sold Out

Sold Out

An area Britain’s telecom giant BT pronounced “not commercially viable” for a fiber broadband upgrade sold out every available connection after residents successfully campaigned BT to change its mind.

The unassuming “Cabinet 82” in Hunslet (Middleton, north of Manchester, near South Leeds) was left off the telecom company’s fiber upgrade list because the company was convinced residents were satisfied with the DSL speeds they were getting and it wouldn’t be worth the cost to upgrade service.

Nearly 300 residents had complained about slow Internet speeds and requested a fiber upgrade for “Cabinet 82” since 2012, initially to no avail. After relentless complaints from local residents, BT changed its mind.

A newly upgraded cabinet with fiber to the neighborhood service was inaugurated earlier today and within hours, every available connection was sold, proving BT’s assumptions about customer demand for faster speeds wrong.

This is the best possible Christmas present for so many people in this previously under-served area,” Carl Thomas, a member of the Fiber for Middleton Coalition told ISPreview.co.uk. “From being able to work from home for the first time to enjoying the media-rich Internet to, in the case of a deaf family, being able to communicate with relatives via sign language over Skype this is quite literally life-changing.”

The example of Middleton has called into question the veracity of BT’s customer demand modeling scheme, a critical part of how the company decides which areas are most commercially viable for service upgrades. It turns out even in out-of-the-way suburban neighborhoods, there is tremendous demand for speeds far faster than what providers expected.

A short tour inside one of BT’s Fiber to the Neighborhood cabinets produced by Recombu. (1:50)

Creative Accounting Scandal: British Broadband Subsidy Helps BT’s Bottom Line; Whistleblower Fired

Phillip Dampier October 8, 2012 British Telecom, Broadband Speed, Community Networks, Competition, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Rural Broadband, Video Comments Off on Creative Accounting Scandal: British Broadband Subsidy Helps BT’s Bottom Line; Whistleblower Fired

A growing scandal over alleged diversion of British taxpayer funds intended for fiber broadband rollouts has now cost one whistleblower his job, terminated after suggesting British Telecom (BT) is artificially inflating infrastructure expenses.

The Conservative government’s Department for Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) oversees £1 billion in public subsidies to improve broadband in Britain. Much of that is earmarked to construct fiber to the neighborhood facilities in smaller towns and villages — the rural subsidy providing the only chance most of these residents have for better broadband service. But a whistleblower inside the DCMS has said the primary government-approved contractor, BT, is artificially inflating its prices — pocketing a growing amount of taxpayer funds instead of enhancing its broadband buildout.

Courtesy: Br0kenTeleph0n3 (click to enlarge)

The whistleblower, identified as Michael Kiely, a DCMS broadband project consultant, was fired after he detailed BT’s ever-growing (and highly confidential) cost estimates to several village and town councils fighting for a better deal from the phone company. The issue has been closely watched by the Br0kenTeleph0n3 blog, which reports on how Britain’s broadband stimulus funding is being spent. The blog reported the DCMS sacked Kiely, apparently for exposing BT’s secret pricing schemes.

“I am getting increasingly concerned at the way in which whistleblowers are being bullied,” Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, told the Guardian newspaper while demanding an investigation. “All too often people hide behind commercial confidentiality. This culture denies us the right to know how our money is being spent.”

Many local governments are matching broadband subsidies with local funds to increase the number of homes reached by fiber-enhanced Internet access. The demand for fast broadband is so great in the UK, the initial plan to spend £530 million has now been effectively doubled, with even more money coming from the European Commission and other sources. Britain’s broadband expansion plan envisions reaching as many rural homes as feasible with the available funds. The more funds diverted away from broadband expansion into the pockets of others, the fewer number of homes can be reached.

The enormous amount of available government funding  appears to have caught BT by surprise, and Kiely suspects the company is inventing new fees, while inflating others, to ‘soak up’ the additional money without having to deliver any improvements in service.

Kiely noted BT appeared to be setting  new wholesale rates for fiber cabinets, despite the fact costs vary widely in different regions. Kiely notes that even as BT enjoys economies of scale, the price it charges for rural cabinets appears to be rising, even though costs are declining.

In rural areas, BT is seeking up to £30,000 for each fiber cabinet, despite the fact the average price in Northern Ireland’s recent broadband roll-out was just over £13,000 each.

BT’s estimate for two fiber cabinets in Great Asby, which will service hundreds of residents, was estimated at £60,000, a price Kiely also suggests is inflated.

The phone company has made cost verification nearly impossible with strict, mandatory confidentiality agreements that prohibit local councils from learning BT’s true costs. BT’s non-disclosure agreement also prohibits local governments from comparing notes about what the company charges in nearby communities. The government has approved only two vendors for the government-funded broadband expansion — BT and Fujitsu, with BT winning the overwhelming majority of contracts.

The giant, former state-owned phone company, comparable to AT&T or Bell Canada, can also hide cost reductions achieved from experience rolling out service, economies of scale like volume discounts, and other labor savings. BT’s attempt to create standardized pricing also leaves plenty of room to inflate prices by rolling in unexplained charges like “planning costs,” “availability charges,” and “take up bonuses.”

Despite this, BT says claims it is misspending public funds are completely baseless, and points to its own independent investment in British broadband.

“It is ludicrous that some people are suggesting that we are trying to pass on the full cost of deployment to our public sector partners,” BT said in a statement. “In fact, we are looking at a low double digit year payback in these areas even when the public funds are taken into account.”

Courtesy: Br0kenTeleph0n3 (Click to enlarge)

Conservative party loyalist Maria Miller, recently appointed as the government’s new culture secretary during a cabinet reshuffle, has not commented on the BT controversy. Instead, she has prioritized reducing government “red tape” for providers like BT while also tamping down expectations for the broadband expansion program.

Among her deregulation priorities: scrap the right for local governments to object to the placement of often unsightly broadband street cabinets, force “reasonable” terms on private landowners where necessary infrastructure must be placed or routed across, and sweeping permission to allow virtually anyone to put overhead lines up anywhere they please. All of these objectives heavily favor BT’s interests, according to industry observers.

Miller also recently took pressure off BT to deliver game-changing speeds by redefining “superfast broadband” as “potential headline download access speeds greater than 24Mbps.” That falls far short of the 100Mbps service most expected in return for more than £1 billion in taxpayer subsidies, often directed to BT.

Even more telling, Miller considers 2Mbps broadband speeds adequate: “Our investment will help provide 90% of homes and businesses with access to superfast broadband and for everyone in the UK to have access to at least 2Mbps,” she said.

The European continent, in comparison, is targeting 30Mbps as the bare minimum speed, with at least 50% of Europeans getting 100Mbps service by 2020.

Great Britain’s broadband expansion plan is highly dependent on fiber to the neighborhood (FTTN) technology, with traditional copper phone lines carrying the service the rest of the way into a home or office. Both AT&T’s U-verse and Bell’s Fibe are examples of FTTN technology.

As elsewhere, BT considers 24Mbps a suitable maximum speed for FTTN technology, but most customers will not even achieve that. Just like traditional DSL, distance matters, as does line quality. BT has quietly told most councils the average speed most local residents will actually receive is 15Mbps on average.

Former Secretary of State for Olympics, Culture, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt outlining Britain’s superfast broadband initiative in 2010. (4 minutes)

At Least One-Third of Great Britain Now Has Access to 100Mbps Broadband

Phillip Dampier November 7, 2011 British Telecom, Broadband Speed, Competition, Virgin Media (UK) Comments Off on At Least One-Third of Great Britain Now Has Access to 100Mbps Broadband

While you plod along with 3Mbps DSL service, an increasing number of British broadband users can now buy speeds up to 100Mbps.  Those speeds come increasingly from the deployment of fiber optics by cable competitor Virgin Media, which now reaches over 20 million residents with fiber-fast service.

The latest regions to be enabled for 100Mbps service include Harborne in Birmingham, Lincoln, Seven Kings in Greater London and Solihull.  Virgin said it will complete the roll out of 100Mbps service across the entire Virgin network by the middle of next year.

Virgin has attacked some of its competitors for promising fast speeds but never delivering them.  Oversold ADSL service has been an issue for many British households who are promised speeds of 10Mbps or better, only to discover speeds slowing to a crawl during peak usage periods.  Virgin says its fiber network has a level of capacity unprecedented in the United Kingdom and it can actually deliver sustained speeds to its customers day or night.

Efforts by British Telecom to improve its network are progressing with a fiber-to-the-neighborhood expansion project to handle increasing demand.  BT’s fiber network ends at street-side cabinets, where traditional copper telephone wiring delivers broadband to individual homes.  But BT’s broadband speeds are faster than what North Americans can purchase from similar networks like AT&T U-verse and Bell’s Fibe.  Current top speeds of 40/10Mbps have been declared inadequate, so the British phone company is planning to double them by early next year.

Faster speeds are always welcomed by customers.  Virgin notes over half of their customers purchase speeds of 30Mbps or faster.  BT’s move to supply 80/20Mbps broadband to customers will help keep the phone company competitive.

“It will provide a further boost for local businesses and homeworkers as well as families and other people for whom the internet has become an essential part of their daily lives – whether it’s for leisure, education or business,” said Brendan Dick, director of BT Scotland.

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