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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.

Virgin Media Doubling Broadband Speeds for Free While Competitor Sky Unveils 100Gbps Internet for UK

Phillip Dampier January 11, 2012 Broadband Speed, Competition, Internet Overcharging, Net Neutrality, Online Video, Sky (UK), Virgin Media (UK) Comments Off on Virgin Media Doubling Broadband Speeds for Free While Competitor Sky Unveils 100Gbps Internet for UK

Virgin Media is doubling customer broadband speeds... for free.

Great Britain is leapfrogging ahead in the global broadband speed race with two announcements this morning that represent major advances in British broadband.

First, Virgin Media is announcing it will double the broadband speeds for four million of its customers starting next month, for free.

The company says it will be the first residential provider in the United Kingdom offering 120Mbps broadband — a 20Mbps speed increase for their existing 100Mbps clients.  Customers on Virgin’s 10, 30, and 50Mbps tiers will soon receive free upgrades to 20, 60, and 100Mbps, respectively.  Those on the company’s popular 20Mbps plan will have their speeds tripled to 60Mbps.

That’s a major advancement for British broadband, where dominant BT-provided DSL runs at speeds averaging just over 6Mbps.

The new speeds were made possible by “modest investments” in Virgin’s fiber network, according to Virgin Media CEO Neil Berkett.

Berkett said the new speeds would help meet growing demand for faster access to support the proliferation of new digital devices.  Because Virgin invested primarily in fiber and cable broadband, speed upgrades on their existing infrastructure come “at a fraction of the cost of other network operators.”

That understanding was not lost on Sky Broadband, a growing competitor in the United Kingdom.  Sky this morning announced it has launched a newly-upgraded 100Gbps optical network to support its 3 million broadband customers.  The company is spending several hundred million British pounds on updating its network to position itself to become Britain’s largest Internet Service Provider.

Sky’s new network is based on the latest Alcatel-Lucent fiber technology, capable of supporting 100Gbps speeds on each of the individual 88 wavelengths on a single optical fiber.  Sky deployed the new dense wavelength division multiplexing technology on its existing optical fiber backbone network, demonstrating the infinite upgrade possibilities fiber optic technology offers.

Sky pitches its network capacity to consumers as a key benefit of its service, noting it is free of “traffic management” policies that reduce speeds for customers of other Internet providers.

The upgrade arrives just in time to handle the expected explosion of online traffic with this week’s introduction of Netflix streaming across Great Britain.

Sky Dumps Usage Limits for Most UK Customers, Gives Away Free, Limited Broadband Service to Others

More evidence arrived this week that Internet Overcharging schemes are becoming a thing of the past for many global broadband users.

Sky has announced it is getting rid of its usage limits and speed throttles for most of its broadband customers.  It’s also giving away a free speed upgrade to up to 20Mbps for its DSL-provisioned broadband service.

“It comes with no usage caps, fair use policies or traffic management, making it ideal for those who want the freedom to download emails, photos, TV programs, movies and games. It’s also ideal for those who want to access live and on-demand TV through Sky Player,” Sky said.

That may be part of the plan.  Sky, a satellite television company serving the United Kingdom, is preparing to launch new video on demand features that will work in conjunction with its broadband service.  Delivering faster access, without limits, could be part of the equation of making their video on demand service a success.

For occasional broadband users who don’t exceed 2 gigabytes of use per month, Sky is giving free usage-limited broadband service to customers who also subscribe to Sky’s telephone service.  For those that don’t, the 2 gigabyte-capped service costs £5 ($7.59US) per month.

For those looking for unlimited service, Sky Unlimited is available for £7.50/$11.38 per month for Sky customers with Sky Talk or £12.50/$18.97 per month for those without.  In the United Kingdom, line charges for the phone line are broken out from broadband pricing and have to be considered towards the total monthly cost for broadband service.  Line rental from BT costs £12.50/$18.97 a month for customers who pay by direct debit and receive paper billing (£11.25/$17.08 with paperless billing).

Sky requires a 12 month service commitment.  These prices and plans take effect June 1st.  New customers can get a promotion offering six months of free broadband service, including line rental, when signing a 12-month service commitment.

New customers can get six months of broadband service for free when signing up

Is there a downside to this offer?  Not as far as usage limits are concerned.  However, the service is dependent on BT-provisioned DSL phone lines, which can create great variability in the maximum actual speeds customers receive.  The further away from a BT exchange office, the slower the maximum speed a customer will achieve.

But for existing Sky satellite customers looking for a discount on bundled service and an end to worries about monthly usage or speed throttles, Sky Broadband is a welcome relief for those tired of Internet Overcharging schemes.

It’s also one fewer example North American providers can point to as an excuse to attempt Internet Overcharging schemes of their own.

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