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Is Your Landlord Taking Kickbacks to Keep Better Internet Out of Your Building?

xfinity communitiesIs your cable television service included in your rent or condo “services” fee? Have you ever called another provider and told service was not available at your address even through others outside of your condo neighborhood or apartment complex can sign up for service today? Chances are your landlord or property management company is receiving a kickback to keep competition off the property, while you may be stuck paying for substandard services you neither want or need. Worst of all, chances are it’s all legal and everyone is getting a piece of the action… except you.

Welcome to the world of Multiple Dwelling Unit (MDU) Bulk Service Agreements, the seedy underbelly of the anti-competitive cable and telco-TV world. When cable TV first got going, most people wanted access. In the early days, cable franchises were typically exclusive and cable companies maintained the upper hand in negotiations with apartment owners and property owners. Since the service was in demand, many property owners were told to sign whatever “Right Of Entry” Agreement (ROE) was put in front of them. Most contained clauses that guaranteed that cable company would get exclusive access to the property for as long as it was given a franchise to operate within that community. In other words, basically forever.

This turned out very handy when competitors started showing up. First on the scene were satellite television providers, which had a rough time dealing with landlords who loathed tenants installing satellite dishes that “ruined the aesthetics” of the property. Many rental agreements still restrict satellite television dishes in ways that make their use untenable. But things got much more serious when Verizon and AT&T got into the cable business. Initially, both companies found extending FiOS and U-verse to some rental and gated communities was blocked by the exclusive agreements held by cable operators. By 2007, the FCC finally acted to forbid exclusive service contracts, but the cable industry and property developers have played cat and mouse games with the FCC’s loopholes ever since.

Property Developers, Management Companies, Landlords, and Homeowner Associations With Their Hands Out

att connectedWith the FCC’s 2007 declaration that exclusive contracts between cable companies and property owners were “null and void,” the power of the cable industry to negotiate on their terms was markedly diminished. Although many property owners applauded their new-found freedom to tell the local cable company to take a hike if they did not offer better service to their tenants, many others saw dollar signs in their eyes. With leverage now in the hands of the property owner, if the local cable company wanted to stay, in many cases it had to pay. Only the most brazen property owners kicked uncooperative cable companies off their properties, putting tenants at a serious inconvenience. Instead, many found life more peaceful and lucrative to stick with the existing cable company, signing a new contract for “bulk billing” tenants. On the surface, it seemed like a good deal. Property owners advertised that cable TV was included in the rent (and they paid a deeply discounted price per tenant) and the cable operator had a guaranteed number of customers, whether they wanted the service or not.

Bulk billing also proved a very effective deterrent for would-be competitors, who had to overcome the challenge of marketing their service while the tenant was already paying for another as part of their rent. As a result, telco TV competitors often stayed away from properties with bulk billing arrangements.

As broadband has become more prominent and threatens to become more important than the cable TV package, the cable industry has refined its weapons of non-competition. While they cannot force competitors off properties, they can make life very expensive for them. The latest generation of ROE agreements often grant access rights to the building’s telecommunications conduit, cabling, and equipment exclusively to the cable operator.

fiosIf Google Fiber, AT&T U-verse or Verizon FiOS sought to offer service on one of these properties, they would have to overcome the investment insanity of wiring each building with its own infrastructure, including duplicate cables, in separate conduits and spaces not already designated for the exclusive use of the cable company. Verizon in New York City has faced numerous obstacles wiring some buildings, including gaining access to the building itself. Intransigent on site employees, bureaucratic and unresponsive property management companies, and developers have all made life difficult for Verizon’s fiber upgrade.

AT&T often takes the approach “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” and offers its own bulk billing incentives, along with occasional commitments for fiber upgrades. Google Fiber can afford to skip places where it isn’t wanted, although with recent revelations that landlords can raise the rent by up to 11% with the arrival of Google Fiber alone, it may hurt to alienate that fiber to the home provider.

Kickbacks for New Developments = Windfall

Kickbacks for existing properties are lucrative, but nothing compared to the lucrative windfall new property developments can achieve with the right deal.

In 2013, one property developer in Maryland went all out for an exclusive deal with a provider that was going to get de facto exclusivity by using a convoluted series of entities and agreements designed to insulate the company from competition and a challenge from the FCC. A court later ruled the provider used an “elaborate game of regulatory subterfuge” using various corporate entities to escape potential competition.

Some lawyers devote a substantial amount of their practice to the issue of bulk contracts and ROE agreements. Carl Kandutsch serves clients nationwide, many trying to extricate themselves from bad deals of the past. In many cases, an attorney may be needed to find a way out of contracts that don’t meet FCC rules. Other communities sometimes have to buy out an existing contract. Many have to sit and suffer the consequences for years. One residential community found itself trapped with a service provider that was quietly protected by an “airtight contract” negotiated not with the property management company or the homeowner association, but the development’s original builder. The provider delivered lousy service and the community spent six years trying to get rid of the offending firm with no result until they hired an attorney. Although happy to be rid of the bad provider, the homeowner association ended up illustrating how pervasive this problem is after it signed a similar contract with another provider also handing out kickbacks.

Comcast pays up to 10% of a renter's cable bill to the landlord.

Comcast pays up to 10% of a renter’s cable bill to the landlord. (Image: Susan Crawford)

Comcast is more creative than most. It calls its handouts: “Marketing Support Compensation.” The property owner gets an increasing reward for every tenant signed up for Comcast service. Once around two-thirds of tenants are subscribed, the owner gets up to a 10% take of each bill, plus a one time payment of up to $130 per tenant.

Because Comcast’s reputation often precedes it, customers reluctant to sign up without considering other providers will find that tougher to do because Comcast bans other providers from marketing their services to tenants with the support or cooperation of the landlord. In other words, no door hangers, free coffee, brochures in the lobby, or any other on-site promotions. In case a property owner forgets, Comcast sends reminders in the mail:

Comcast likes to remind landlords it has an exclusive. (Image: Susan Crawford)

Comcast likes to remind landlords it has an exclusive. (Image: Susan Crawford)

Susan Crawford calls it “astounding, enormous, decentralized payola” and claims it affects millions of renters.

Crawford

Crawford

“These shenanigans will only stop when cities and national leaders require that every building have neutral fiber/wireless facilities that make it easy for residents to switch services when they want to,” Crawford wrote. “We’ve got to take landlords out of the equation — all they’re doing is looking for payments and deals (understandably: they’re addicted to the revenue stream they’ve been getting), and the giant telecom providers in our country are more than happy to pay up. The market is stuck. Residents have little idea these deals are happening. The current way of doing business is great for landlords and ISPs but destructive in every other way.”

One real world example of how this deters competition comes from Webpass (recently acquired by Google), which offers gigabit Ethernet speeds in select MDUs in San Francisco, San Diego, Miami, Chicago, and Boston. The service comes with a low price, but that doesn’t get the company in the door, according to its president, Charles Barr.

Barr has been refused entry by multiple building owners who have agreements with Comcast, AT&T, or others.

“Tenants want us, but we can’t get in,” Barr said.

Crawford argues the FCC has once again been outmaneuvered by ISPs and their attorneys.

“Sure, a landlord can’t enter into an exclusive agreement granting just one ISP the right to provide Internet access service to an MDU, but a landlord can refuse to sign agreements with anyone other than Big Company X, in exchange for payments labeled in any one of a zillion ways,” added Crawford. “Exclusivity by any other name still feels just as abusive.”

This isn’t a new problem. Stop the Cap! first reported on these kinds of bulk buying arrangements back in 2010, all made possible by the FCC’s regulatory loopholes. Six years later, the problem appears to be getting worse.

Unintended Consequences: Feds Let Telecom Companies Skirt Taxes While States Crack Down

Tax-FreeSome of America’s largest telecommunications companies continue to pay almost nothing in federal taxes even as state taxing authorities hungry for revenue  are getting more aggressive about denying access to tax loopholes and suing some for failing to pay their fair share.

Special interest-inspired “pro-business” loopholes have been a growing part of the U.S. tax code since the Reagan Administration. The premise seemed reasonable enough: high corporate taxes are simply passed on to consumers as a cost of doing business, so lowering them will trickle savings down to the consumer and also free capital to create more jobs. It has not worked that way, however. Product pricing for services like broadband have been based more on what customers believe the product is worth, not what it costs to deliver, and Verizon was among the companies cited for significant job cuts after its corporate tax rate plummeted. Regardless of corporate tax rates, providers continue to raise broadband prices, even as the costs to provide the service are declining. The old maxim of charging what the market will bear is alive and well. So where do the tax savings go? Into share buybacks, shareholder dividend payouts, increased executive salaries and bonuses, and lobbying.

Some states are discovering they have been leaving money on the table when they don’t insist on collecting owed state taxes, and as state budgets continue to be strapped with increasing medical and infrastructure-related expenses, taking companies to court who try to avoid their tax obligations is getting more popular.

One of the biggest potential windfalls could eventually fill New York State coffers with $300 million in damages and penalties courtesy of Sprint, which was accused of deliberately not billing customers for state taxes on its wireless services over seven years.

SprintYesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court turned away Sprint’s effort to void an October 2015 New York Court of Appeals decision that would allow the state to proceed to court arguing Sprint intentionally failed to collect more than $100 million in taxes from New Yorkers from 2005 on. At the time, Sprint was attempting to rebuild its market share by luring customers with cheaper mobile service. One way to offer a lower price is to stop charging tax. In New York alone, municipalities lost $4.6 million a month as a result of the scheme.

Sprint has repeatedly argued the lawsuit is invalid because a 2000 federal law trumps a 2002 New York State law that covered state taxes. The court disagreed, and the fact a whistleblower at Sprint revealed what Sprint was up to didn’t help. The case will now likely head to state court or get settled.

Verizon-Tax-Dodging-bannerWhile $300 million sounds like a lot, it pales in comparison to the money Verizon manages to dodge paying the Internal Revenue Service. The phone company is the poster child of corporate tax dodging according to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Sanders targeted Verizon because between 2008-2013, Verizon not only did not pay a nickel in federal taxes, it actually received a refund from the federal government after achieving a federal tax rate of -2.5%, despite booking $42.5 billion in profits. American taxpayers effectively subsidized Verizon when it got its refund check.

In the last two years, Verizon is paying federal taxes once again, but at a rate of 12.4%, well below the tax rate of most middle class Americans.

It’s a sensitive matter for Verizon, because CEO Lowell McAdam launched a full-scale media blitz trying to paint the Sanders campaign as inaccurate. McAdam claims Verizon actually paid a 35% tax rate in 2015, which would only be true if the company added the tax obligations it owes on the billions of dollars it stashes in overseas bank accounts. Foreign taxes don’t help the American taxpayer, suggest critics, and Citizens for Tax Justice consider McAdam’s claims “artificial.”

“In fact, over the past 15 years, Verizon has paid a federal tax rate averaging just 12.4 percent on $121 billion in U.S. profits, meaning that the company has found a way to shelter about two-thirds of its U.S. profits from federal taxes over this period,” the group claims. “In five of the last 15 years, the company paid zero in federal taxes. While there is no indication that this spectacular feat of tax avoidance is anything but legal (the company’s consistently low tax rates are most likely due to overly generous accelerated depreciation tax provisions that Congress has expanded over the last decade), few Americans would describe the company avoiding tax on $78 billion of profits as ‘fair.’”

unintendedBruce Kushnick, executive director of the New Networks Institute, claims Verizon also specializes in dumping most of its costs and “losses” on Verizon Communications, which owns its legacy wireline network, which helps them cut their tax obligations.

Too often, changes to the U.S. tax code have unintentional consequences, especially when corporations can hire tax attorneys that outclass those working for the federal government.

Fredric Grundeman helped draft a tax bill that was supposed to curb loopholes in the estate tax and though well-trained as a trusted attorney at the Treasury Department, the bill quickly backfired. The new law opened even larger loopholes than those it was originally written to close, allowing some of America’s richest families to pass on money to heirs with no tax implications at all. Grundeman admits legislators often don’t recognize a new tax law’s potential for abuse.

“How do I say it?” Grundeman told Bloomberg News back in 2013. “When Congress enacts a law, it isn’t always well thought out.”

That is also true on the state level.

Oregon officials push a button to exempt Google Fiber from a state property tax.

Oregon officials push a legislative button and give Google Fiber a tax break. Then Comcast shows up.

Oregon wants to attract Google Fiber to Portland, but Google objected to one of the state’s property tax provisions that affects companies that sell data services. Oregon partly sets the tax rate commensurate with the value of the provider’s brand name, among other factors. It’s all very vague, but not so vague that Google would miss it could pay an even higher tax rate that its competitors — Comcast and CenturyLink.

Oregon’s legislature voted to correct the problem by exempting providers that offer gigabit broadband. The tax law changes were tailored to benefit Google, assuming Comcast and CenturyLink would continue to drag their feet to upgrade their Oregon networks.

But the enterprising lawyers at Comcast promptly requested the same tax exemption that Google would get in return for building its fiber network in the state. The reason? Comcast had introduced its own gigabit Internet service on a much more limited scale.

Rep. Phil Barnhart (D-Eugene) admitted Oregon had another law on its hands with unintended consequences. Barnhart told utility regulators this spring his fellow lawmakers never intended to give the tax break to Comcast, which charges hundreds of dollars for 2,000Mbps service. But nobody bothered to set any price guidelines in the law, meaning Google can charge $70 a month for gigabit service and get a tax break and Comcast can offer 2Gbps service in a limited number of locations, at the “go away” price of $300 a month, with start-up costs up to $1,000, and a multi-year contract, and get the exact same tax break.

Barnhart

Barnhart

Or maybe not, at least for now.

Last week, the Oregon Department of Revenue ruled Comcast is not eligible for that tax break, at least not this year, according to The Oregonian. The department wouldn’t explain why, citing taxpayer confidentiality. For good measure, the same department also rejected applications from Google Fiber and Frontier Communications (Frontier operates a very limited FiOS fiber to the home network in communities including Beaverton, Hillsboro, and Gresham that it inherited from Verizon), claiming Google and Frontier’s gigabit networks were theoretical in Oregon and there needed to be gigabit service actually up and running to qualify.

That leaves Google in a classic catch-22. It won’t bring fiber to Oregon so long as it faces a stiff tax bill and tax authorities won’t forgive the tax until there is gigabit fiber up and running. For some taxpayers, what burns the most is the legislature paved the road to tax bliss to attract Google Fiber, but the only company that may actually ultimately travel down it is Comcast.

Google Fiber Offering New $15 for 25Mbps Plan for Low Income Families in Kansas City

google fiber truckGoogle Fiber has quietly unveiled its own discount Internet plan for the income-challenged that vastly simplifies the hoops consumers have to successfully jump through to enroll.

Relying on Census block and FCC broadband availability data, Google proposes to sell residents of Kansas City living in areas identified as having a sustained digital divide a 25Mbps Internet plan for $15 a month. The new plan is accompanied by totally free connections and service for residents of select subsidized housing — mostly apartment buildings.

The new service offerings will replace Google’s 5Mbps free service option, which was dropped from Google Fiber’s menu this week. Google previously charged residents a $300 installation fee to qualify for free service which proved to be an insurmountable challenge for many paycheck-to-paycheck residents who did not realize Google would also accept $10 monthly installments for 30 months.

The choice of 25Mbps happens to coincide with the FCC’s official minimum speed designation to qualify as “broadband.” Google hopes the low-priced broadband option will inspire residents living in broadband-sparse neighborhoods to sign up for service. Currently, most low-income residents not subscribed to fixed broadband rely on their cell phones for Internet access. Google makes its money providing search results and accompanying contextual advertising, and home broadband service remains an important part of Google’s ad revenue stream.

Google’s plan avoids the intrusive qualification requirements most phone and cable companies insist on to receive discounted Internet service. Comcast, among others, demands evidence of school-age children enrolled in the federal school lunch program, and forbids participation to current customers who manage to already scrape together enough to pay for broadband service. Google’s plan relies on a potential customer’s location and avoids income tests and paperwork, opening its program to childless couples, young singles, and seniors.

Google’s $15 Broadband plan features:

  • $15 a month
  • 25Mbps upload and download speeds
  • No data caps
  • No application process or contracts
  • No equipment rental and no construction or installation fees

Residents of Kansas City can determine their eligibility on or after May 19, 2016 on this website.

Google Fiber Announces $10 Landline Phone Service

google phoneAlthough tens of millions of Americans have pulled the plug on landlines in favor of their mobile phones, there is still a market for affordable landline phone service, especially if you hate talking on cellphones.

Today Google Fiber has announced Fiber Phone, a new $10 phone line with unlimited local/nationwide calling, Google Voice rates for international calls, and package of phone features and voicemail that includes reliable access to 911.

Customers signing up will get a portable Voice Over IP box similar in style to those supplied by cable companies and VoIP providers like Vonage. It is designed to connect to your home’s existing phones and your Google Fiber service, but can also be taken with you on trips.

“We’ll be introducing Fiber Phone in a few areas to start,” Google writes in a blog post. “Over time, we’ll roll out Fiber Phone as an option to residential customers in all of our Fiber cities. Once we bring the service to your area, you can sign up and get the service through a simple installation process. To stay updated on the latest, sign up here.”

Google Fiber has offered TV and broadband service in a “double play” package since its start, but steered clear of phone service due to the complexity of local, state and federal regulations, especially pertaining to 911 service. Google apparently has overcome those challenges.

Google Fiber’s Contractors Create Headaches for Austin Residents

Flash flooding in a neighborhood where storm drains were blocked by construction debris. (Image: Adolfo Romero)

Flash flooding in a neighborhood where storm drains were blocked by Google’s construction debris. (Image: Adolfo Romero)

Some Austin residents are fuming over the sloppy construction work and eyesores left by contractors hired by Google to install its fiber optic service.

Last year, 254 formal complaints were filed against Google and its contractors, by far the largest compared with AT&T and Time Warner Cable, which are also in the process of upgrading their networks in the city.

The epicenter of construction nightmares for homeowners is on Lambs Lane in Southeast Austin, where last October a flash flood allegedly caused by Google’s construction crews blocking nearby storm drains brought two feet of water into the home of Arnulfo and Dolores Cruz, causing $100,000 in damages.

Oregon Lawmakers Write Loophole for Google Fiber That Will Save Comcast Millions Instead

bank_error_in_your_favorFrom the Department of Unintended Consequences, Comcast will likely be the biggest benefactor of a new Oregon law intended to attract Google Fiber to Portland.

The Oregon Legislature rewrote the state’s tax laws after learning Google objected to Oregon’s concept of “central assessment,” which calculates local property taxes partly on the value of a company’s brand. The tax policy proved so contentious, Comcast spent years fighting the tax before ultimately losing its appeal before the Oregon Supreme Court in 2014. After two years of lobbying Google to come to Portland, nothing short of a repeal or exemption of this tax policy was likely to get the search engine giant to reconsider.

Comcast officials must not have believed their luck when state lawmakers resolved the tax problem for them, all because of efforts to woo Google back to the state. Legislators proposed a tax exemption for companies that agreed to invest in gigabit speed broadband and deliver it to the majority of the state’s broadband customers. The new law was a clear invitation to Google to begin wiring the state for fiber, but Comcast has crashed the party instead.

Comcast officials argue their own new “Gigabit Pro” service qualifies the cable company for the same tax exemptions Oregon intended Google to receive, despite the fact its 2-gigabit offering costs a fortune and is unlikely to attract more than a fraction of Comcast customers.

gigabit proOregon lawmakers wrote a law seeking to assure equal access by prohibiting companies from targeting only affluent neighborhoods for fiber upgrades, while forgetting to consider the cost of the service itself. Gigabit Pro will never feature prominently in Portland’s challenged neighborhoods at a cost of $4,600 for service during the first year.

Lawmakers now face the wrath of several local tax authorities that report they’ll lose tens of millions in tax revenue if Comcast successfully applies for an exemption. Staff members of the Oregon Public Utility Commission believes Comcast ultimately will qualify for that exemption, even if only a few customers pay Comcast’s asking price for gigabit service.

“If the application is approved, schools, libraries and local governments across the state would receive significantly less revenue,” wrote Mary Beth Henry, director of Portland’s Office of Community Technology, in a letter to state regulators. “This application was not the kind anticipated by the Legislature.”

Portland officials argue Comcast is violating the spirit of the new broadly written law by pricing its fiber service at $300 a month, far out of reach of most households. Google Fiber typically charges $70 for its gigabit service.

Critics of the legislature contend this isn’t the first instance of the Oregon body making a mess of things. In addition to not bothering to define what qualifies as “affordable” Internet, how much companies had to spend to offer it, or how many customers had to actually sign up for the service, language in the original bill accidentally left Google Fiber off the exemption list.

Newest Google Fiber Cities Rely on Pre-Existing Fiber Networks; Is Google Cost-Cutting?

google fiberTwo of Google Fiber’s newest fiber cities will only get the gigabit fiber-to-the-home service because someone else already laid the fiber.

In the last week, residents of San Francisco and Huntsville, Ala. were told they were next in line for Google Fiber service. But instead of proposing to build a citywide fiber network for all residents, Google will rely almost entirely on pre-existing fiber networks they will use to reach customers.

In San Francisco, only an unspecified portion of the metro area will qualify for Google Fiber, namely certain apartments, condos, and subsidized housing units already served by a fiber optic connection. Single family homes and apartments not currently connected to fiber may never qualify for Google’s service.

A Google Fiber executive seemed to signal Google may be taking a harder look at the cost of building fiber service, and future expansion may rely on renting space on someone else’s cable.

“To date, we’ve focused mostly on building fiber-optic networks from scratch,” said Michael Slinger, Google Fiber’s business operations director. “Now, as Google Fiber grows, we’re looking for more ways to serve cities of different shapes and sizes.”

That suddenly makes existing municipal and private dark fiber networks very attractive and in demand. Many municipalities have underused institutional fiber networks that serve anchor institutions, public safety, and government offices. Public access is often limited to non-existent. The prospect of Google paying to use those networks to reach more customers may prove attractive to cash-strapped cities. Private fiber overbuilders and those with excess capacity may also find a new revenue stream renting space to the search engine giant. In Huntsville, Google will have non-exclusive access to the city’s publicly owned fiber network. Any competitor could technically offer their services over the same network.

Competitors and analysts seemed ready to dismiss Google’s latest expansion announcements. Diffusion Group analyst Joel Espelien told the San Jose Mercury News Google Fiber’s plans to wire affordable housing in San Francisco was nothing more than “pure PR.” He’s unimpressed with Google Fiber generally, dismissing it as “Costco Internet,” delivering bulk sized connections at prices most consumers are unaccustomed to paying for Internet access.

“It’s both cheap and it isn’t cheap,” Espelien said. “It kind of depends on your point of view.”

Google’s reasons to offer service to only a few locations in San Francisco are clearly pegged to the costs of wiring the entire city.

“We considered a number of factors, including the city’s rolling hills, miles of coastline, and historic neighborhoods,” Google said in a blog post. All of those features that tourists love to see are also expensive because of costly engineering efforts to hide the cables from view to stay within zoning regulations.

Google Fiber Testing New Landline Phone Service: Google Fiber Phone

Phillip Dampier February 1, 2016 Competition, Consumer News, Google Fiber & Wireless No Comments

Google-Fiber-Rabbit-logoDespite predictions Google Fiber had no interest in offering customers landline telephone service, Google has quietly begun testing a new residential voice service called Google Fiber Phone that appeared to be powered by its Google Voice service.

Google hoped to keep the trial confidential, but one of its subscribers shared their invitation with the Washington Post:

We are always looking to provide new offerings to members of our Fiber Trusted Tester program which gives you early access to confidential products and features.

Our latest offering is Google Fiber Phone, which gives you the chance to add home phone service to your current Fiber service plan and offers several advanced features:

  • A phone number that lives in the cloud. With Fiber Phone you can use the right phone for your needs whether it’s your mobile device on the go or your landline at home. No more worrying about cell reception or your battery life when your home.
  • Voicemail the way it should be. Get your messages transcribed delivered directly to your email.
  • Get only the calls you want when you want. Spam filtering, call screening, and do not disturb make sure the right people can get in touch with you at the right time.

With Fiber Phone you have the option to get a new number or transfer an existing landline or cell number. If you’re interested in testing this product please fill out this form within one week.

Please be aware that testing Google Fiber Phone will require a service visit in which a Fiber team member will come to your home to install a piece of equipment. If you’re selected for this Trusted Tester group, we will be actively seeking your feedback – both good and bad – so that we can improve Fiber Phone once we launch it to all of our customers.

Please remember that the Trusted Tester Program gives you early access to features which are not yet available to the public, so please help us keep this confidential.

Thanks,

The Google Fiber Team

Google-voiceThe feature set sounds almost identical to Google Voice, which offers free phone service. For the first time, Google is prepared to allow customers to port existing landline numbers to its phone service. Previously, Google Voice customers could only port a cell phone number or select a new number to start the service.

Google Fiber has only sold single or double-play packages of Internet and/or television service. Customers looking for telephone service had to select a third-party provider like Vonage or Ooma or be technically proficient to get Google Voice service up and running with Voice over IP equipment. Including Google Fiber Phone would allow Google to sell a triple-play package.

The technician visit required is likely to involve wiring Google Fiber’s beta test phone line into a home’s existing telephone wiring, which will let customers use their current home and cordless phones.

Google has not announced a price for the service, but there is every chance it could come free with Google Fiber, which starts at $70 a month for 1 gigabit broadband service.

Despite the increasing frequency of announcements promoting new Google Fiber cities, Google’s currently operating fiber network remains modest. In October 2015, Bernstein Research estimated Google Fiber passed about 427,000 homes and 96,000 business locations, primarily in Kansas City and Provo, Utah, according to Multichannel News. Bernstein estimated Google Fiber has about 120,000 paid customers nationwide.

Google Invites Jacksonville, OKC, and Tampa to Contemplate Fiber; Northeast Need Not Apply

google fiberGoogle Fiber today announced it would accept applications from Oklahoma City, Jacksonville, and Tampa to become the next cities qualified for its fiber to the home service.

We’re inviting Oklahoma City, OK, Jacksonville, FL and Tampa, FL, to explore bringing Google Fiber to their communities, as we did last month with three other cities. These growing tech-hubs have a strong entrepreneurial spirit and commitment to small business growth. Their list of accolades is long—from Jacksonville’s title as a top 10 city for tech jobs, to Tampa Bay’s #2 spot on the list of best cities for young entrepreneurs, to Oklahoma City’s recognition as the #1 city to launch a business. One of our goals is to make sure speed isn’t an accidental ceiling for how people and businesses use the Web, and these cities are the perfect places to show what’s possible with gigabit Internet.

Google continues its informal boycott of the northeastern United States, where community interest in fiber service has been rebuffed through a lack of responsiveness.

The three latest cities will have to prove they can meet Google’s extensive list of requirements on everything from zoning to pole attachment access and fees. Things that tend to upset Google include endless zoning paperwork, intransigent bureaucracy, and dealing with an excess of county, city, town, and village governments (states in the northeast are also often notorious for layers of local government, all demanding compliance with local codes.) Communities are even expected to get their arborist on board.

google fiber 10 15

Local governments that take the attitude Google must win them over are unlikely to ever see the service. Those that bend over backwards to accommodate the fiber project are the ones managing successful applications. In other words, ask not what Google can do for you, ask what you can do for Google.

Tampa is the first city invited to apply that is also served by Verizon FiOS, although Verizon is in the process of selling its wired networks in Florida to Frontier Communications. Tampa’s cable competitor is Bright House Networks, itself in the process of being sold to Charter Communications. Jacksonville is Comcast and AT&T country and OKC is served by AT&T and Cox Communications.

Making it to the invitation list does not guarantee Google Fiber service, although most local governments are lobbied by their constituents to do whatever is necessary to secure fiber competition.

Cable’s Fiber Fears: Broadband Market Share Drops to 40% or Less When Fiber Competition Arrives

The magic of fiber

The magic of fiber

Ever wonder why Comcast, one of the strongest defenders of classic coaxial-based cable technology, is suddenly getting on board the fiber-to-the-home bandwagon? New research suggests if they don’t, their market share could fall to 40% or less if a serious fiber competitor arrives.

“There’s some sort of magic associated with fiber,” John Caezza, president of Arris’s Access Technologies division, told Multichannel News. “Everyone thinks it’s better than [cable technology].”

The risks to the cable industry are clear: be prepared to upgrade or face customer losses.

Craig Moffett of Moffett Nathanson has never been a cheerleader for fiber to the home service. In 2008, Moffett vilified Verizon for its investment in a major fiber upgrade we know today as FiOS to replace its aging copper infrastructure, complaining it was too expensive and was overkill for most residential customers. He was more tolerant of AT&T’s less-costly fiber to the neighborhood approach, dubbed U-verse, that still used traditional telephone lines to deliver service into the home. Because U-verse did not need AT&T to replace wiring at each customer location, the cost savings were considerable. But the cost-capability compromise left AT&T with a less robust platform, with broadband speeds initially limited to a maximum of around 24Mbps.

While phone companies like AT&T and Verizon were saddled with the enormous cost of tearing out decades-old obsolete phone wiring to varying degrees, the cable industry seemed well positioned with a mature, yet still recent hybrid fiber-coaxial (HFC) platform that was upgraded in the 1990s in many cities. While still partly reliant on the same RG-6 and RG-11 coaxial cable used since the first days of cable television, cable companies also invested in fiber optics to bring services from distant headends to each town, removing some of the copper from their networks without the huge expense of bringing fiber all the way to customer homes.

For Moffett, it was the cable industry that had the network with room to grow without spending huge amounts of capital on upgrades. He has touted cable stocks ever since.

Moffett

Moffett

What worries Moffett now isn’t Google, Frontier, CenturyLink, or even Verizon. He’s concerned about AT&T.

As part of its commitment to win approval of its merger with DirecTV, AT&T promised regulators in June it would expand AT&T U-verse with GigaPower — AT&T’s gigabit fiber to the home upgrade — to at least 11.7 million homes, nine million more than it has ever promised before. Comcast has a 32% overlap with AT&T U-verse, compared to Time Warner Cable (26%), Charter Communications (32%), Bright House Networks (25%) and Cox Communications (25%). Comcast had promised faster broadband with the advent of DOCSIS 3.1 beginning as early as next year. But the company isn’t willing to wait around to watch AT&T and others steal its speed-craving customers. This spring, it promised 2Gbps Gigabit Pro fiber to the home service to customers living within 1/3rd of a mile of the nearest Comcast fiber line.

Some in the cable industry complain Google’s huge marketing operation has saddled cable broadband with a bad rap — ‘it’s yesterday’s news, with Google Fiber representing the future.’ The marketing war has been largely won by Google, they say, leaving consumers convinced fiber is the better and more reliable technology, and they need it more than the cable company.

Cable’s defense is to consider some marketing changes of its own — including the idea of dropping the name “cable” from the business altogether, because it implies older technology. But despite any name change, most cable companies will continue to rely on HFC infrastructure for at least several more years, despite claims they are bringing their own middle mile fiber networks closer to customers than ever. Cable operators now serve an average of 400 homes from each cable node. Some cable companies like Comcast plan to cut the number of customers sharing a node to around 100-125 homes, which means fewer customers will share the same broadband connection. But in the end, that will make cable comparable at best to a fiber to the neighborhood network, still hampered to some degree by the presence of legacy coaxial copper cable. The industry believes most consumers will never see the limitations, and for those that do, a limited fiber buildout with a steep installation fee may keep costs (and demand) down to those who need the fastest possible speeds and are willing to pay to get them.

CableLabs_TaglineThat philosophy may still cost cable companies customers if a fiber competitor doesn’t have to compromise speed and performance and can afford to charge less.

The top 10 U.S. cable companies currently account for 60% of the residential broadband market and 86% of all broadband net additions in the first quarter of 2015, says Leichtman Research Group.

Moffett predicts cable broadband will only capture 40% of share in markets where it faces a fiber to the home competitor (Google, EPB, Greenlight, Verizon FiOS), 55% in markets served by a fiber to the neighborhood competitor (U-verse, Prism), and 60% where the competition only sells DSL (most Frontier, Windstream service areas). Nationwide, AT&T’s newest gigabit fiber commitment could cost the cable industry 2.4% of the whole residential broadband market, Moffett said.

Phil McKinney, president and CEO of CableLabs, believes DOCSIS 3.1 — the next standard for cable broadband — can easily stand toe to toe with fiber to the home providers.

McKinney

McKinney

“I think it [HFC] has tremendous life, and we are going to be riding it all day long,” Werner said. DOCSIS 3.1 “is definitely going to be our go-to animal. Due to ubiquity, we can go out and virtually serve all of our [customers] very quickly.”

Cable companies claim their speed increases reach all of their customers in a given area at the same time without playing games with “fiberhoods” or waiting for incremental service upgrades common with Google Fiber or AT&T’s U-verse. Customers, the industry says, also appreciate DOCSIS upgrades bring no service disruption and nobody has to come to the home to install or upgrade service.

“The cable industry has more fiber in the ground than each fiber provider in the world,” McKinney argues. “If you look at total fiber strand miles, there’s more fiber under management and under control of the [cable] operators than anybody else combined.”

That may be true, but Moffett thinks it is only natural shareholders may eventually punish the stocks of cable operators that will face competition from AT&T’s U-verse with GigaPower. There is precedent. Cablevision serves customers in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey and faces fierce competition from Verizon FiOS in most of its service areas. That competition has been brutal, occasionally made worse in periodic price wars. What may be protecting cable stocks so far is the fact AT&T competition will only affect, at most, 32% of the impacted cable operators’ service areas.

AT&T’s gigabit network has also proved itself to be more press release than performance, with very limited availability in the cities where it claims to be available. Verizon FiOS, in contrast, is widely available in most of Cablevision’s service area.

Still, Comcast is hoping it can hang on to premium customers who demand the very fastest speeds and performance with targeted fiber.

“Gigabit Pro is really for those customers who have got extreme needs,” said Tony Werner, Comcast’s executive vice president and chief technology officer.

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