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Wall Street Investors Suckered By Broadband, Wireless Myths on Usage Pricing, Network Investment

verizon-protestBig Telecom companies like Verizon and AT&T use phony numbers and perpetuate myths about broadband traffic and network investments that have conned investors out of at least $1 trillion in unnecessary investments and consolidation.

Alexander Goldman, former chief analyst for CTI’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants, is warning Wall Street and investors they are at risk of losing millions more because some of the largest telecom companies in the country are engaged in disseminating bad math and conventional wisdom that relies more on repetition of their talking points than actual facts.

Goldman’s editorial, published by Broadband Breakfast, believes the campaign of misinformation is perpetuated by a media that accepts industry claims without examining the underlying facts and a pervasive echo chamber that delivers credibility only by the number of voices saying then same thing.

Goldman takes Verizon Communications CEO Lowell McAdam to task for an editorial published in 2013 in Verizon’s effort to beat back calls on regulators to oversee the broadband industry and correct some of its anti-competitive behavior.

McAdam claimed the U.S. built a global lead in broadband on investments of $1.2 trillion over 17 years to deploy “next generation broadband networks” because networks were deregulated.

Setting aside the fact the United States is not a broadband leader and continues to be outpaced by Europe and Asia, Goldman called McAdam’s impressive-sounding dollar figures meaningless, considering over the span of that 17 years, the United States progressed from dial-up to fiber broadband. Wired networks have been through a generational change that required infrastructure to be replaced and wireless networks have been through at least two significant generations of change over that time — mandatory investments that would have occurred with or without deregulation.

Over the past 17 years, the industry has gotten more of its numbers wrong than right. An explosion of fiber construction in the late 1990s based on predictions of data tsunamis turned out to be catastrophically wrong. University of Minnesota professor Andrew Odlyzko, the worst enemy of the telecom industry talking point, has been debunking claims of broadband traffic jams and the need to implement usage-based pricing and speed throttling for years. In 1998, when Wall Street was listening intently to forecasts produced by self-interested telecom companies like Worldcom that declared broadband traffic was going to double every 100 days, Odlyzko was telling his then-employer AT&T is was all a lot of nonsense. The broadband traffic emperor had no clothes, and statistics from rival telecom companies suggested Worldcom was telling tall tales. But AT&T executives didn’t listen.

fat cat att“We just have to try harder to match those growth rates and catch up with WorldCom,” AT&T executives told Odlyzko and his colleagues, believing the problem was simply ineffective sales, not real broadband demand. When sales couldn’t generate those traffic numbers and Wall Street analysts began asking why, companies like Global Crossing and Qwest resorted to “hollow swaps” and other dubious tricks to fool analysts, prop up the stock price and executive bonuses, and invent sales.

Nobody bothered to ask for an independent analysis of the traffic boom that wasn’t. Wall Street and investors saw dollars waiting to be made, if only providers had the networks to handle the traffic. This began the fiber boom of the late 1990s, “an orgy of construction” as The Economist called it, all to prepare for a tidal wave of Internet traffic that never arrived.

After companies like Global Crossing and Worldcom failed in the biggest bankruptcies the country had ever seen at the time, Odlyzko believes important lessons were never learned. He blames Worldcom executives for inflating the Internet bubble more than anyone.

A bubble of another kind is forming today in America’s wireless industry, fueled by pernicious predictions of a growing spectrum crisis to anyone in DC willing to listen and hurry up spectrum auctions. Both AT&T and Verizon try to stun investors and politicians with enormous dollar numbers they claim are being spent to hurry upgraded wireless networks ready to handle an onslaught of high bandwidth wireless video. Both Verizon’s McAdam and AT&T’s Randall Stephenson intimidate Washington politicians with subtle threats that any enactment of industry reforms by the FCC or Congress will threaten the next $1.2 trillion in network investments, jobs, and America’s vital telecom infrastructure.

Odlyzko has seen this parade before, and he is not impressed. Streaming video on wireless networks is effectively constrained by miserly usage caps, not network capacity, and to Odlyzko, the more interesting story is Americans are abandoning voice calling for instant messages and texting.

8-4WorldcomCartoonThat isn’t a problem for wireless carriers because texting is where the real money is made. Odlyzko notes that wireless carriers profit an average of $1,000 per megabyte for text messages, usually charged per-message or through subscription plan add ons or as part of a bundle. Cellular voice calling is much less profitable, earning about $1 per megabyte of digitized traffic.

Wireless carriers in the United States, particularly Verizon and AT&T, are immensely profitable and the industry as a whole haven’t invested more than 27% of their yearly revenue on network upgrades in over a decade. In fact, in 2011 carriers invested just 14.9% of their revenue, rising slightly to 16.3 percent in 2012 when companies collectively invested $30 billion on network improvements, but earned $185 billion along the way.

While Verizon preached “spectrum crisis” to the FCC and Congress and claimed it was urgently prioritizing network upgrades, company executives won approval of a plan to pay Vodafone, then a part owner of Verizon Wireless, $130 billion to buy them out. That represents the collective investment of every wireless provider in the country in network upgrades from 2005-2012. Verizon Wireless cannot find the money to upgrade their wireless networks to deliver customers a more generous data allowance (or an unlimited plan), but it had no trouble approving $130 billion to buy out its partner so it could keep future profits to itself.

Odlyzko concludes the obvious: “modern telecom is less about high capital investments and far more a game of territorial control, strategic alliances, services, and marketing, than of building a fixed infrastructure.”

That is why there is no money for Verizon FiOS expansion but there was plenty to pay Vodafone, and its executives who walked away with executive bonuses totaling $89.6 million.

As long as American wireless service remains largely in the hands of AT&T and Verizon Wireless, competition isn’t likely to seriously dent prices or profits. At least investors who are buying Verizon’s debt hope so.

Goldman again called attention to Odlyzko’s latest warning that the industry has its numbers (and priorities) wrong, and the last time Odlyzko had the numbers right and the telecommunications industry got its numbers wrong, telecommunications investors lost $1 trillion in the telecommunications dot.com bust.

As the drumbeat continues for further wireless consolidation and spectrum acquisition, investors have been told high network costs necessitate combining operations to improve efficiency and control expenses. Except the biggest costs faced by wireless carriers like Verizon are to implement strategic consolidation opportunities like the Vodafone deal, not maintain and grow their wireless network. AT&T is putting much of its spending in a proposed acquisition of DirecTV this year as well — at a cost of $48.5 billion. That could buy a lot of new cell towers and a much more consumer-friendly data plan.

Voice to text substitution (US)

year voice minutes billions texts billions
2005 1,495 81
2006 1,798 159
2007 2,119 363
2008 2,203 1,005
2009 2,275 1,563
2010 2,241 2,052
2011 2,296 2,304
2012 2,300 2,190

Cell phone network companies (if you can believe their SEC filings) are incredibly profitable, and are spending relatively little on infrastructure:

year revenues in $ billions capex in $ billions capex/revenues
2004 102.1 27.9 27.3%
2005 113.5 25.2 22.2
2006 125.5 24.4 19.4
2007 138.9 21.1 15.2
2008 148.1 20.2 13.6
2009 152.6 20.4 13.3
2010 159.9 24.9 15.6
2011 169.8 25.3 14.9
2012 185.0 30.1 16.3

Time Warner Cable Recommits: No Mandatory Usage Caps As Long As Company Remains Independent

timewarner twcTime Warner Cable today recommitted itself to providing unlimited broadband service to any customer that wants it, promising customers they won’t be forced into a tiered usage plan as long as Time Warner Cable remains an independent company.

“We have no intention of abandoning an unlimited product we think that something that customers value and are willing to pay for,” said Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus. “The way we’ve approached usage-based pricing is to offer it as an option for customers who prefer to pay less because they tend to use less. And we’ve made those available at 5 gigabytes per month and 30 gigabytes per month levels.”

Marcus told Wall Street analysts on an afternoon conference call that the average Time Warner Cable customer now generates 35GB of traffic per month, and that a significant percentage of light users might realize some savings choosing a 30GB optional usage plan. But Marcus also admitted that few do.

marcus

Marcus

“I think that’s a testament to the value they place on unlimited,” said Marcus.

Marcus’ decision to stay away from compulsory usage-capped Internet was questioned by Marci Ryvicker from Wells Fargo Securities, LLC., a Wall Street investment firm. Ryvicker tied the growth of online video consumption to the implementation of usage caps as way of protecting video revenue and regaining money lost from lost cable television subscriptions.

“I guess the underlying question is do you think you can monetize the pipe enough through high-speed data pricing to offset video decline,” asked Ryvicker.

“We haven’t really viewed usage-based pricing quite the way you’re postulating,” responded Marcus. “I think there’s a separate question as to whether or not we have the ability to offset video declines with [broadband]. I think it’s fair to say we’re very bullish on the high-speed data business and think we can continue to grow it based on both subscriber volume and incremental ARPU per [broadband] customer.”

Marcus added that Time Warner can continue to boost revenue by raising broadband prices and encouraging customers to upgrade to faster speed tiers at a higher price.

Comcast has a very different philosophy about usage caps — it embraces them. Comcast continues to test mandatory usage caps in several markets, leading to howls of complaints from customers and bill shock. One customer complained their cable bill frightens them every time they receive it, not knowing how much Comcast would charge them for that month of service. The family’s last cable bill, including Internet, exceeded $560, primarily due to Comcast’s overlimit usage fees. Comcast has also received complaints about its usage meter’s accuracy, but the company adamantly bills customers according to the readings of their meter.

“I’ll tell you what really isn’t fair,” wrote one customer. “That is that in ‘test markets’ like mine, Atlanta, we have the 300GB [cap] enforced with the penalty overage charge and we pay the SAME rates as people in other markets that aren’t yet one of the ‘test markets.’

Most analysts expect Comcast will eventually roll out usage caps to all of its customers, including any it acquires from Time Warner Cable. Customers cannot choose an unlimited use option in Comcast’s usage cap test markets.

Federal Trade Commission Suing AT&T Over Unfair Speed Throttles for Unlimited Data Customers

throttleThe Federal Trade Commission today filed a lawsuit against AT&T for its practice of subjecting grandfathered unlimited data customers to speed throttles that dramatically cut speeds up to 90 percent after customers use more than 3GB of data on AT&T’s 3G network or 5GB on its 4G network. Thus far, according to the FTC, AT&T has throttled at least 3.5 million unique customers a total of more than 25 million times.

The FTC’s complaint alleges that the company failed to adequately disclose to its customers on unlimited data plans that, if they reach a certain amount of data use in a given billing cycle, AT&T reduces – or “throttles” – their data speeds to the point that many common mobile phone applications – like web browsing, GPS navigation and watching streaming video –  become difficult or nearly impossible to use.

“AT&T promised its customers ‘unlimited’ data, and in many instances, it has failed to deliver on that promise,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “The issue here is simple: ‘unlimited’ means unlimited.”

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler publicly complained about Verizon’s plans to start a similar throttling program on its wireless network, questioning the fairness of cutting speeds for certain customers while exempting others. Both Verizon and AT&T have claimed speed throttles are part of a fair usage policy that allows all customers to share its wireless resources. Broadband providers have often painted a picture of a “bandwidth hog” taking a disproportionate share of network resources away from other customers, but there is no evidence heavier users are creating conflicts for other users, especially as wireless carriers encourage customers to use more data.

throttle att

From AT&Ts website

The logic of rationing Internet use for unlimited customers while providing unlimited access to those willing to pay usage-based charges escaped the FTC, which is what brought the suit.

According to the FTC’s complaint, AT&T’s marketing materials emphasized the “unlimited” amount of data that would be available to consumers who signed up for its unlimited plans. The complaint alleges that, even as unlimited plan consumers renewed their contracts, the company still failed to inform them of the throttling program. When customers canceled their contracts after being throttled, AT&T charged those customers early termination fees, which typically amount to hundreds of dollars.

The FTC alleges that AT&T, despite its unequivocal promises of unlimited data, began throttling data speeds in 2011 for its unlimited data plan customers after they used as little as 2 gigabytes of data in a billing period. According to the complaint, the throttling program has been severe, often resulting in speed reductions of 80 to 90 percent for affected users.

According to the FTC’s complaint, consumers in AT&T focus groups strongly objected to the idea of a throttling program and felt “unlimited should mean unlimited.” AT&T documents also showed that the company received thousands of complaints about the slow data speeds under the throttling program. Some consumers quoted the definition of the word “unlimited,” while others called AT&T’s throttling program a “bait and switch.” Many consumers also complained about the effect the throttling program had on their ability to use GPS navigation, watch streaming videos, listen to streaming music and browse the web.

The complaint charges that AT&T violated the FTC Act by changing the terms of customers’ unlimited data plans while those customers were still under contract, and by failing to adequately disclose the nature of the throttling program to consumers who renewed their unlimited data plans.

FTC staff worked closely on this matter with the staff of the Federal Communications Commission.

The Commission vote authorizing the staff to file the complaint was 5-0. The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, San Francisco Division.

FCC Delays Wireless Spectrum Auction; Hires Investment Banker to Pitch Stations to Sell and Sign-Off

fcc2The Federal Communications Commission announced Friday it will postpone an important spectrum auction until 2016 after broadcasters filed suit against the regulator challenging its proposed format.

The FCC wants your free, over-the-air television dial to be a lot smaller with a deal that will pay broadcasters to sign-off their channels for good to benefit the wireless industry. Remaining stations will be moved to VHF channels 2-13 and UHF channels 14-30. The spectrum covering UHF channels 31-51 would likely then be sold in pieces to major wireless carriers including AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and/or T-Mobile.

To entice broadcasters to voluntarily switch off their transmitters, the FCC has designed a spectrum auction that would provide tens of millions in proceeds to smaller stations and up to $570 million for a UHF station in Los Angeles to get off the air. Technically, stations giving up their channels don’t have to sign-off — they can move to low/lower-powered broadcasting, share channel space with another television station on a digital subchannel, or move to cable television exclusively.

To sell stations on the deal, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler hired Greenhill, a Wall Street investment bank, to prepare a presentation sent to every eligible television station in the country, encouraging them to sell their channels for some eye-popping proceeds:

(These numbers refer to full-power stations; in some markets there are also Class A stations, low-power stations that meet certain programming requirements. The estimated value of their spectrum is lower.)

In millions of dollars
MARKET Full-Power Stations
Maximum Median
New York $490 $410
Los Angeles $570 $340
Chicago $130 $120
Philadelphia $400 $230
Dallas-Fort Worth $67 $53
San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose $140 $110
Boston $140 $93
Washington, D.C. $140 $130
Atlanta $91 $65
Houston $52 $45
West Palm Beach $100 $93
Providence, R.I. $160 $110
Flint, Mich. $100 $45
Burlington, Vt. $58 $17
Youngstown, Ohio $95 $90
Palm Springs, Calif. $180 $100
Wilkes-Barre-Scranton $150 $140

Source: The FCC

 

getoffThere is so much money to be made buying and selling the public airwaves — at least twice as much as broadcasters originally anticipated– spectrum speculators have also jumped on board, snapping up low power television station construction permits and existing stations with hopes of selling them off the air in return for millions in compensation. Wireless customers are effectively footing the bill for the auction as wireless companies bid for the additional spectrum. Television stations will receive 85% of the proceeds, the FCC will keep 15%.

take the moneyMajor network-affiliated or owned stations in major cities are unlikely to take the deal. But in medium and smaller-sized markets where conglomerates own and operate most television stations, there is a greater chance some will be closed down, moved to a lower channel, or transferred to a digital sub-channel of a co-owned-and-operated station in the same city. The most  likely targets for shutdown will be independent, CW and MyNetworkTV affiliates. In smaller cities, multiple network affiliates owned by one company could be combined, relinquishing one or more channels in return for tens of millions in cash compensation.

In Los Angeles, the stakes are especially high with auction prices estimated at up to $570 million for a high-powered UHF station like KDOC-TV.

“There is some real money to be had,” Bert Ellis, chief executive of Ellis Communications, which owns KDOC-TV, told the Wall Street Journal. “I think every broadcaster should take a very close look at this.”

Estimates show at least 80 significant U.S. cities will likely lose one or more channels, especially when the bid price well exceeds the value of an independent, ethnic or religious station. Many of these will go dark, move to cable or a less desirable lower power VHF channel, or sign an agreement with a remaining station to carry its programming on a sub-channel.

The National Association of Broadcasters filed suit against the FCC’s auction in August. The NAB wants the FCC to guarantee that stations that wish to stay on the air will not have their coverage area reduced or forced to pay to move to a new channel number assigned by the FCC as the regulator “repacks” a much smaller UHF band.

“We’ve said from day one, if stations want to volunteer to go out of business, that’s their prerogative. But for those stations that choose to remain in business, they should be held harmless,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

The spectrum auction is designed to address the wireless industry’s claim of a spectrum crisis, warning that if more frequencies are not found, wireless users will eventually see their service degraded.

Half of AT&T’s Customers Are Paying $100 for 10GB Data; Unlimited Customers Still Throttled After 3-5GB

Speed bump

Speed bump

More than half of AT&T’s wireless customers are paying at least $100 a month for 10GB or more of wireless data on AT&T’s Mobile Share Plans at the same time AT&T continues to throttle its legacy unlimited data customers who use more than 3GB of data on its 3G network or 5GB of data on its 4G LTE network.

AT&T claimed in 2012 it implemented its “fair usage policy” for unlimited customers to assure all could receive reasonable service during peak usage times when cell towers become congested.

AT&T also blames “a serious wireless spectrum crunch” for the speed throttling, implying access to more spectrum could help ease the problem. But there is a much faster way to overcome AT&T’s “spectrum crunch:” agree to pay them more money by ditching that $30 unlimited plan for a tiered plan.

John Stephens, AT&T’s chief financial officer, told investors Wednesday that nothing boosts revenue more than pushing customers into usage-cappped data plans that customers are regularly forced to upgrade.

“On the ARPU (average revenue per user/customer) story, I think the biggest issue with the improvement is people buying the bigger [data] buckets and buying – upping plans,” said Stephens. “We had over 50% of the customer base at the 10GB or bigger plans.”

Stephens added that AT&T benefited from customers upgrading to 4G LTE devices that are handled more efficiently by AT&T’s mobile data network.

Increased usage and upgraded data plans delivered a 20% increase in data billings over the last quarter.

Since 2012 AT&T has paid out more than $50 billion to shareholders through dividends and share buybacks. The company benefited from nearly $20 billion a year in free cash flow and asset sales over the last two years and is expected to repeat those numbers this year. Consolidated revenue at AT&T grew to $33 billion, up $800 million since the same time last year.

Miraculously, despite the “alarming spectrum crunch,” AT&T found more than enough spectrum to award its best customers with a “double data” promotion that turns a 15GB data plan into a 30GB plan, a 20GB plan to 40GB, a 30GB plan to 60GB, a 40GB plan to 80GB, or a 50GB plan to 100GB. Importantly, AT&T boasts its double data promotion won’t “explode” — their language for “expire” — on customers until their contract ends.

Lowering the bar on "unlimited use" customers.

Lowering the bar on “unlimited use” customers.

“Those exploding offers — customers hate those offers,” said AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega at a recent investor conference. “Unless they change their mind, we won’t offer those kinds of promotions.”

But de la Vega doesn’t mind leaving the company’s most loyal legacy customers in the penalty box if they cling to their grandfathered unlimited data plans. The throttles stay and the allowances have remained unchanged since first announced, despite the bountiful spectrum obviously ready and available to serve AT&T’s deluxe customers. Unlimited customers are regularly reminded they can easily avoid the throttle — just abandon that unlimited data plan. According to Stephens, more than 80% of AT&T’s customers already have.

The excuses for wireless speed throttles and killing off unlimited data plans at AT&T and Verizon Wireless don’t seem to wash with FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, who demanded Verizon offer the “rationale for treating customers differently based on the type of data plan to which they subscribe, rather than network architecture or technological factors,” after it announced it was planning speed throttles for its remaining unlimited data plan customers. Verizon canceled the plan after Wheeler began scrutinizing it, but the throttles are still in place at AT&T.

AT&T’s 10GB Mobile Share Plan starts with a $100 data plan. Customers also pay:

  • $10 a month for each auto-based smart-locator;
  • $10 a month for each tablet, camera or game device;
  • $15 a month for each basic phone;
  • $20 a month for each wireless home phone replacement;
  • $20 a month for each connected Internet device;
  • $40 a month for each connected smartphone.

A family of four with four smartphones, a tablet, and AT&T’s wireless home phone replacement would be billed $290 a month before at least $39 in taxes, fees, and surcharges — well north of $300 a month for most.

Marriott’s Scheme to Force Guests to Use $1,000 Hotel Hotspots Derailed by FCC; Fined $600K

Marriott's Gaylord Opryland Resort made sure it had a corner on the Wi-Fi market by blocking the competition and charging $250-1,000 to win access to the hotel's Wi-Fi.

Marriott’s Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville made sure it had a corner on the Wi-Fi market by blocking the competition and charging $250-1,000 to gain access to the hotel’s Wi-Fi.

Marriott International, Inc. and its subsidiary, Marriott Hotel Services, Inc., have been fined $600,000 after a Federal Communications Commission investigation uncovered hotel employees intentionally interfering with personal Wi-Fi networks during convention events, forcing guests and exhibitors to use the hotel’s Wi-Fi network, at a cost of up to $1,000.

The FCC Enforcement Bureau, in response to a guest’s complaint that the hotel was intentionally jamming every Wi-Fi network except their own, discovered hotel workers were using a Wi-Fi monitoring system at the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville to prevent visitors from using their personal mobile broadband hotspots, a serious violation of Section 333 of the Communications Act.

Employees of Marriott, which has managed the day-to-day operations of the Gaylord Opryland since 2012, were tasked with using features of the hotel’s Wi-Fi monitoring system at the Gaylord Opryland to contain and/or de-authenticate guest-created Wi-Fi hotspot access points in the conference facilities. In some cases, employees sent de-authentication packets to the targeted access points, which would dissociate consumers’ devices from their own Wi-Fi hotspots and lock out the devices to keep them from connecting in the future.

Guests and exhibitors arriving expecting to use their AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile mobile hotspots found them completely disabled while on the property. Even adjacent Wi-Fi networks from nearby properties stopped working the moment users entered or approached the hotel grounds.

At the same time the hotel was blocking connections, Marriott charged conference exhibitors and guests dependent on Wi-Fi to run their exhibits or manage business matters connection fees ranging from $250-$1,000 per device for access to the Gaylord’s Wi-Fi network, the only network available.

“Consumers who purchase cellular data plans should be able to use them without fear that their personal Internet connection will be blocked by their hotel or conference center,” said Enforcement Bureau chief Travis LeBlanc. “It is unacceptable for any hotel to intentionally disable personal hotspots while also charging consumers and small businesses high fees to use the hotel’s own Wi-Fi network. This practice puts consumers in the untenable position of either paying twice for the same service or forgoing Internet access altogether.”

Marriott claimed they were just protecting their guests from cyber attacks and the FCC’s decision to fine the hotel has created confusion across the hospitality industry.

marriott-logo“Marriott has a strong interest in ensuring that when our guests use our Wi-Fi service, they will be protected from rogue wireless hot spots that can cause degraded service, insidious cyber-attacks and identity theft,” Marriott said in a statement. “Like many other institutions and companies in a wide variety of industries, including hospitals and universities, the Gaylord Opryland protected its Wi-Fi network by using FCC-authorized equipment provided by well-known, reputable manufacturers. We believe that the Opryland’s actions were lawful. We will continue to encourage the FCC to pursue a rule making in order to eliminate the ongoing confusion resulting from today’s action and to assess the merits of its underlying policy.”

Several hotel chains have turned to Internet connectivity as a revenue generator, but few hotels have asked as much as Marriott. Some hotel chains charge as much as $22 per day for permission to connect to the facility’s Wi-Fi network, convincing many guests to use their own personal mobile devices as Wi-Fi hotspots instead. But Marriott’s debacle with the FCC allowed several chains to get an edge on the competition and trumpet they are not in the Wi-Fi jamming business:

  • Hilton Hotels:  “We do not block or jam any wireless transmissions at our properties;”
  • Kempinski and Hyatt Hotels: There are no policies that allow our hotels to jam, block or prevent guests’ use of personal Wi-Fi hotspots;
  • InterContinental Hotels Group (Candlewood Suites, Crowne Plaza, Even, Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Hotel Indigo, Hualuxe, InterContinental and Staybridge Suites) has no problem with guests using personal networks on hotel property, but why bother when any guest can enroll in the IHG Rewards Club at no charge which gives them free unlimited access to the chain’s Wi-Fi;
  • The majority of Wyndham’s hotels are independently owned and operated, but most already offer complimentary Wi-Fi to guests, according to a hotel spokesperson.

Marriott was convinced it was not in violation of the law because it was not using an illegal signal jammer, commonly available overseas and often used in restaurants and theaters to silence cell phones. Marriott’s guests could still make and receive phone calls and text messages. But the Enforcement Bureau found that argument uncompelling after discovering hotel employees intentionally targeting any non-hotel hotspots they could locate to disconnect or block consumers from using them.

The $600,000 fine, the first of its kind for an incident of this kind, won’t mean much to the Marriott Gaylord Opryland. For staying at one of the hotel’s 3,000 rooms, Marriott charges $18 a day in “resort fees” for the “free Internet access,” $6.99 a day for enhanced Internet speed “suitable for downloading files, video chat and video streaming,” and $21-28 a day to park your car there.

But the FCC enforcement action has put a stop to this kind of access blockade spreading further. Under the terms of Marriott’s agreement with the FCC announced today, Marriott must cease the unlawful use of Wi-Fi blocking technology and take significant steps to improve how it monitors and uses its Wi-Fi technology at the Gaylord Opryland. Marriott must institute a compliance plan and file compliance and usage reports with the Bureau every three months for three years, including information documenting any use of access point containment features at any U.S. property that Marriott manages or owns.

Verizon Wireless Cancels Its LTE 4G “Network Optimization” (Speed Throttling) Plan Before It Launches

throttleVerizon Wireless, facing scrutiny from FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, today announced it has canceled plans to introduce a new “network optimization” policy that would have significantly throttled down speeds for heavy users still on grandfathered, unlimited use data plans.

Stop the Cap! received a statement from Verizon Wireless this afternoon announcing a sudden change of heart:

Verizon is committed to providing its customers with an unparalleled mobile network experience.  At a time of ever-increasing mobile broadband data usage, we not only take pride in the way we manage our network resources, but also take seriously our responsibility to deliver exceptional mobile service to every customer.  We’ve greatly valued the ongoing dialogue over the past several months concerning network optimization and we’ve decided not to move forward with the planned implementation of network optimization for 4G LTE customers on unlimited plans.  Exceptional network service will always be our priority and we remain committed to working closely with industry stakeholders to manage broadband issues so that American consumers get the world-class mobile service they expect and value.

Chairman Wheeler questioned Verizon’s strategy almost immediately after the company announced its “network optimization” strategy in July.

Wheeler

Wheeler

“‘Reasonable network management’ concerns the technical management of your network; it is not a loophole designed to enhance your revenue streams,” Wheeler wrote in a July 30 letter to Verizon Wireless CEO Dan Mead. “It is disturbing to me that Verizon Wireless would base its ‘network management’ on distinctions among its customers’ data plans, rather than on network architecture or technology.”

Wheeler reminded Mead the FCC defined network management practices to be reasonable “if it is appropriate and tailored to achieving a legitimate network management purpose, taking into account the particular network architecture and technology of the broadband Internet access service.”

Wheeler told Mead Verizon’s plans didn’t qualify.

“I know of no past FCC statement that would treat as ‘reasonable network management’ a decision to slow traffic to a user who has paid, after all, for ‘unlimited” service,'” Wheeler wrote.

everybody does itWheeler also questioned how Verizon could justify its planned speed throttling under the conditions it agreed to after winning the 700MHz “C Block.” That spectrum was accompanied by a special FCC mandate – open platform rules which prohibits Verizon Wireless from denying, limiting, or restricting the ability of end users to download and use applications of their choosing on the C Block networks. A speed throttle would make using some applications impossible.

In August, Wheeler hammered home his opposition to Verizon’s plans at a news conference.

“My concern in this instance–and it’s not just with Verizon, by the way, we’ve written to all the carriers–is that [network management] is moving from a technology and engineering issue to a business issue, such as choosing between different subscribers based on your economic relationship with them.”

Wheeler has expressed irritation that Verizon’s justification for congestion management only applied to its unlimited customers, while those paying on a per-gigabyte basis could use (and spend) as much as they like.

Verizon responded that other providers — notably AT&T — already have a similar network management policy in place, throttling speeds of grandfathered unlimited customers who consume more than 3GB of wireless traffic on its 3G network or 5GB on its 4G network a month.

“‘All the kids do it’ was never something that worked with me when I was growing up and didn’t work with my kids,” Wheeler responded, noting Verizon was trying to reframe the issue instead of justifying the need for speed throttles for some customers, while giving others unlimited access as long as they pay.

Los Angeles Public TV Station Gives Up Its Channel So AT&T/Verizon Can Have More Spectrum

Two educational public broadcasting stations in Los Angeles will soon share the same channel to make room for AT&T and Verizon Wireless’ growing needs for wireless spectrum.

KCET, a charter member of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) that left the network to become the nation’s largest independent TV station in 2010 will share the transmitter of KLCS, an educational PBS TV station owned by the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education. The move will turn back a 6MHz UHF channel to the Federal Communications Commission, to be auctioned off to the highest wireless carrier bidder in a future spectrum auction.

The two stations will share a single UHF channel, multiplexed into up to eight digital over-the-air sub-channels, equally divided between the two.

The time-sharing agreement is nothing new for KLCS, which had shared one of its digital sub-channels with Spanish language KJLA-TV earlier this year in a trial in partnership with the biggest wireless lobbying organization in the country – CTIA and the Association of Public Television Stations. The trial was designed to see how well two stations could use the H.264 compression video codec for simultaneous shared digital television transmissions. The multiplexing test, completed in March, found generally good results as long as the stations avoided concurrent HD broadcasts on the same channel. There is simply not enough bandwidth in a single 6MHz channel to handle multiple HD feeds showing complex content.

KJLA’s primary transmitter already multiplexes 10 low resolution digital sub-channels of its own, primarily in Vietnamese, Mandarin and Spanish.

When KCET and KLCS begin the channel sharing arrangement, one is unlikely to air its programming in HD. Instead, the channel space will be divided into up to eight 480i channels airing both stations’ programming lineups. For some, it will be a viewing quality downgrade. KCET was one of the first stations in Los Angeles to air HD programming, but that will be unlikely in the future.

KCET’s Channel Lineup

Channel Video Aspect PSIP Short Name Programming
28.1 720p 16:9 KCET-HD Main KCET programming
28.2 480i 4:3 KCET-LN KCET Link
28.3 KCET-Vm V-me
28.4 N H K NHK World Japan

KLCS’ Channel Lineup (No HD programming)

Channel Video Aspect PSIP Short Name Programming
58.1 480i 4:3 KLCS-1 Main KLCS programming/PBS
58.2 KLCS-2 PBS Kids
58.3 KLCS-3 Create
58.4 KLCS-4 MHz WorldView

KCET is the financially weaker of the two stations, having given up its membership in PBS four years ago and seeing a dramatic decline in viewer pledges ever since. KCET sold its studio complex to the Church of Scientology in 2011 and moved its operations to smaller facilities in Burbank. KOCE-TV in Huntington Beach is now the primary PBS station in greater Los Angeles.

The Federal Communications Commission will hold its voluntary spectrum incentive auction in mid-2015, allowing stations to bid on surrendering their licenses, moving their UHF channel to an open VHF channel or sharing their channel with another station — all in exchange for cash payments. AT&T and Verizon Wireless are widely expected to be the two largest bidders for the valuable spectrum.

Wi-Fi is Threatening AT&T and Verizon Wireless’ 4G Data Money Party; Wi-Fi Usage Conquers 4G

att verizonVerizon Wireless and AT&T have invested billions expanding and improving their wireless networks, telling investors that revenue from exploding wireless data usage would more than recoup their investments, but the growing availability of low-cost and free Wi-Fi is threatening to derail those plans.

Business Week reports that as carriers have dropped unlimited use data plans in favor of costly, restricted-usage offers, savvy customers have learned to conserve their data allowance by switching to Wi-Fi wherever possible. Adobe Systems reported this week that more than half of all wireless data traffic from smartphones occurs over Wi-Fi, not 3G or 4G networks. Total Wi-Fi traffic passed mobile data networks more than a year earlier.

AT&T and Verizon’s business plans depend on smartphone users accessing faster 4G LTE networks to consume high bandwidth online applications like video streaming, but that isn’t happening at the rate they expected. Instead, customers are waiting to connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot before watching.

The carriers are partly to blame for the Wi-Fi habit by encouraging customers to switch to Wi-Fi to reduce congestion on their 3G and 4G networks while they were upgraded and expanded. But after carriers completed those upgrades, customers are sticking with Wi-Fi.

“There’s a flavor of too much of a good thing here, where Wi-Fi offloads start to really impinge on the prospects of monetizing all that additional usage,” says industry analyst Craig Moffett. “All the carriers have put their eggs in the basket of incremental usage as the source of revenue growth. It isn’t going according to plan.”

wifiAT&T and Verizon hoped customers would face upgrades to more costly plans with more generous usage allowances as data usage increased. Early efforts to monetize data usage seemed encouraging. Both carriers reported surprising success from in-store marketing efforts to push families to upgrade to deluxe 10GB+ usage plans in larger numbers than anticipated. But customers are now increasingly trying to stay within their budget and current usage allowance, with the help of Wi-Fi.

‘As customers become more aware of the limits on their data plans, they’re more careful about moving to Wi-Fi as often as possible,’ says Tamara Gaffney, an analyst with Adobe’s Digital Index.

Wi-Fi hotspots are easier to find as cable companies provide them for their customers. Major shopping, dining and entertainment venues often offer free access to draw and keep customers.

As carriers began to realize smartphones would not be the data sucking vampires they were expecting, both AT&T and Verizon eagerly dove into the tablet business, hoping to convince customers to buy mobile-ready versions of the devices that would more likely be used for data allowance-killing online video.

But customers outsmarted them again, preferring tablets equipped only with Wi-Fi. Carriers responded by slashing prices, to no avail. Even those who splurged on 3G and 4G-ready tablets rarely use them on AT&T and Verizon’s wireless networks. More than 93% of tablet traffic is done over Wi-Fi, derailing a potential wireless data money train.

onstarTheir latest plan is to push the “Internet of Things” — machine to machine communications. Both AT&T and Verizon have invested heavily in wireless utility meter technology and are pushing manufacturers to add 4G capability to all sorts of home appliances from refrigerators, ovens, and dishwashers to home laundry centers, alarm systems, and even pet-webcams. But early efforts have not been promising. Reception in fixed indoor locations, especially basements, is often very poor to non-existent, and manufacturers don’t see much benefit adding mobile network connectivity when traditional Wi-Fi is cheaper and much more reliable.

That hasn’t stopped AT&T, which won a lucrative contract to offer 4G LTE and/or HSPA+ support inside Audi and GM vehicles. To them, the “connected car” is a cash cow waiting to be milked.

“Five or six years ago when we talked to car OEMs, it was about safety and embedded modules and cheap rates,” said Glenn Lurie, CEO of AT&T Mobility.

That was the era of OnStar and other competing telematics systems that can monitor vehicle performance and notify emergency responders in the event of an accident. Verizon Wireless has supported GM’s OnStar system for years and until GM’s bankruptcy reorganization offered Verizon customers the option of adding their OnStar speakerphone to a Verizon Wireless family plan for $9.99 a month, sharing that plan’s voice calling minutes. Starting this year, AT&T has the contract.

AT&T is celebrating the end of cheap rates and see big dollar signs selling in-car connectivity, which will be available in dozens of car models.

Mary Chan from GM committed to offer AT&T 4G access on 33 GM model vehicles by the end of this year.

Customers will get a free sample of the service in promotions lasting from 30-90 days. After that, customers will need to pay:

  • OnStar’s data plan (doesn’t include voice calling/emergency response) will cost $10 a month to add the car as a device on your AT&T Mobile Share plan and $10 a month for 200MB of data; $30 a month for 3GB of data, or $50 a month for 5GB;
  • Applicable taxes and federal/state universal service charges, regulatory cost recovery charge (up to $1.25), gross receipts surcharge, administrative fees and other government assessments which are not taxes or government required charges are not included in the above-stated prices;
  • A $5 day pass will be available for occasional users providing 250MB of access for up to 24 hours;
  • All payments must be made in advance of receiving service and will be automatically renewed month-by-month until the customer cancels;
  • The built-in Wi-Fi hotspot will support up to seven devices;
  • Excessive roaming may result in service termination.

“The connected car will change the entire wireless industry,” said AT&T Mobility’s Ralph de la Vega. AT&T expects as many as 10 million connected cars will be signed up for service in just a few years.

But at AT&T’s prices, Moffett suspects the ingenuity of Silicon Valley and other entrepreneurs will eventually find a much cheaper solution, potentially robbing AT&T of yet another expected cash coup.

Internet Slowdown Day is Here: Tell the FCC to Classify ISPs as Common Carriers

Phillip "It's common sense" Dampier

Phillip “It’s common sense” Dampier

The concept is so simple one might think there was nothing controversial about the common sense idea of requiring Internet Service Providers to handle Internet traffic equally.

But that would throw a wrench into the money-making plans of some of America’s top cable and phone companies looking for new ways to collect more money and bigger profits from selling Internet access.

Wireless phone companies have already got the Money Party started, throttling certain traffic while exempting partnered apps and websites from counting against your monthly usage allowance. Americans pay some of the highest prices in the world for broadband service, but it is never enough for some executives who believe the increasing necessity of having Internet access means companies can charge even more for access. With few competitive alternatives, where are you going to go?

With most Americans confronted with just two Internet providers to choose from, the stage is set for mischief. The normal rules of competition simply don’t apply, allowing companies to raise prices while limiting innovation to finding new ways to improve revenue without improving the service. That has worked well for stockholders and executives that green-light these schemes, but for all the money Americans pay for service, broadband in the United States is still way behind other nations.

A few years ago, the CEO of AT&T decided that collecting money from customers to provide Internet access wasn’t enough. The company now wanted compensation from websites that generate the traffic ISPs handle for their customers. In other words, they wanted to be paid twice for doing their job.

If you listen to some of America’s largest cable and phone companies talk, you would think that traffic from Netflix and other high-volume websites was sucking them dry. But in fact their prices and profits are up and their costs are down… way down. But that doesn’t stop them from contemplating usage-based billing and reducing investment in upgrades to keep up with demand. Netflix learned that lesson when Comcast refused to upgrade some of its connections which left Netflix streaming video constantly buffering for Comcast customers. Those problems magically disappeared as soon as money changed hands in a deal that leaves Netflix dependent on paying Comcast protection money to make sure customers can actually enjoy the service they already paid to receive.

internetslowdownhero-100413741-large

Former FCC chairman Kevin Martin believed competition would keep ISPs honest, but since he left at the end of the Bush Administration, competition has barely emerged for most of us. Julius Genachowski, the FCC chairman under President Obama’s first term gave some strong speeches about protecting Net Neutrality but caved to provider demands the moment he met with them behind closed doors. Today, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler presides over an agency that has repeatedly had its regulatory hat handed to them by the D.C. Court of Appeals, which has ruled time and time again that the current regulatory foundation on which Internet-related policies are enforced is completely unsound.

We can thank former FCC chairman Michael Powell for that. His decision to classify broadband as an “information service” during the first term of the Bush Administration carries almost no legacy of court-upheld authority the FCC can rely on to enforce its regulations. Powell’s innovation was warmly received by America’s biggest cable companies who quickly realized the FCC had regulatory authority over the broadband business in name-only. Powell’s reward? A cushy job as head of America’s biggest cable lobby – the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA).

Don't allow Comcast and others to slow down your favorite cat videos.

Don’t allow Comcast and others to slow down your favorite cat videos.

Wheeler used to hold that position himself, and his trip through D.C.’s revolving door connecting regulators with the regulated makes it unsurprising that Wheeler’s own Net Neutrality proposal is not far from what Big Telecom companies want themselves — permission to create paid “fast lanes” on highways that currently lack enough capacity to protect other traffic from suffering the speed consequences of prioritized traffic.

It reminds me of those highway projects where cars dutifully change lanes well in advance of lane closures while other cars blow past only to merge at the last possible minute, saving them time while slowing cars behind them to a crawl as they wait to move ahead.

Make no mistake – paid fast lanes will compromise unpaid traffic, reducing the quality of your Internet experience.

The best solution to this problem would be for providers to devote more revenue to regular network upgrades that benefit everyone, not create new ways to ration the Internet for some while letting others pay to avoid speed bumps and congestion issues that are easy and inexpensive to solve. But if your provider was already delivering that kind of capacity, there would be no market for Internet fast lanes, would there? Without Net Neutrality, providers have a financial incentive not to upgrade their networks and have little fear unhappy customers will switch to the other competitor likely trying the same thing.

Net Neutrality cannot just be a policy, however. A strong regulatory foundation must exist to allow the FCC to enforce Internet-related policies without having them overturned by the courts. That means one thing: reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service subject to common carrier regulations.

Net Neutrality opponents like to claim that would saddle Internet providers with decades old telephone regulations that have nothing to do with today’s broadband marketplace. But in fact that regulatory framework was originally established precisely for the reasons we need it again today — a non-competitive, largely unregulated marketplace is exploiting its market power to abuse customers and artificially interfere with traffic just to invent new ways to make more money.

People forget that in the 1920s, AT&T not only monopolized telephone service in most areas (and had a history of refusing to connect calls made from competing telephone companies to its own subscribers even as it hiked rates to pay for “improvements”), it was also attempting to force its for-profit vision on the newly emerging world of radio: “toll-broadcasting.” AT&T insisted that radio stations charge a fee to anyone who wanted access to the airwaves, and imposed the toll system on its own stations, starting with WBAY-AM (later WEAF) in New York on July 25, 1922.

Westinghouse, GE, RCA, and AT&T maintained such strong control over broadcasting and telecommunications in the 1920s, the Federal Trade Commission eventually filed a formal complaint with Congress declaring the four had “combined and conspired for the purpose of, and with the effect of, restraining competition and creating a monopoly in the manufacture, purchase and sale in interstate commerce of radio devices…and in domestic and transoceanic communication and broadcasting.”

It took the Justice Department to finally force a resolution to protect competition and the free exchange of ideas on the airwaves with a 1930 antitrust lawsuit against the four companies. In 1934, Congress passed the Communications Act establishing the FCC as the national regulator in charge of protecting some of the values that monopolies tend to trample.

The thing about history is that those who ignore it are bound to repeat it. Whether we are dealing with railroad robber barons, a Bell System monopoly, or barely competitive cable and phone companies, if the conditions are right to exploit customers on behalf of shareholders looking for bigger returns, companies will follow through. In the first two cases, with little chance that natural competition would bring a solution in a reasonable amount of time, regulators stepped in to restore some balance in the marketplace and protect consumers from runaway abuses. That has to happen again.

  • First, reclassify broadband as a common carrier under Title 2;
  • Second, enact strong Net Neutrality protections under that authority.

And don’t you believe that old chestnut that sensible regulatory policies will impede investment in telecommunications. Other nations that have much better broadband than we enjoy (at lower prices) already have reasonable regulatory protections in place that promote and protect competition instead of protecting incumbent market power and impeding would-be competitors. Investment in upgrades continues to pour in, further widening the gap between the kind of service we receive and what customers in other countries get for a lot less money.

The deadline for FCC comments on Net Neutrality is Sept. 15. Sending one directly is simple, effective, and will take less than five minutes.

  1. Visit fcc.gov/comments
  2. Click on the proceeding 14-28 (usually in the top three)
  3. Complete the form and type your comments in the big box. Tell the FCC you want broadband reclassified as a common carrier under Title II as a telecommunications service and that you want strong Net Neutrality policies enacted that forbid paid fast lanes and provider interference in your Internet experience.
  4. Submit the form and you are finished.
http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Democracy Now Internet Slowdown 9-10-14.mp4

If your favorite website seems to load slowly today, take a closer look: You might be experiencing the Battle for the Net’s “Internet Slowdown,” a global day of action. The Internet won’t actually be slowing down, but many sites are placing on their homepages animated “Loading” graphics , which organizers call “the proverbial ‘spinning wheel of death,’ to symbolize what the Internet might soon look like.

Large Internet service providers, or ISPs, like Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T and Verizon, are trying to change the rules that govern the Internet. Some of the biggest companies on the Internet — Netflix, Mozilla, Kickstarter, Etsy and WordPress — are joining today’s Internet Slowdown to draw attention to Net Neutrality, the principle that service providers shouldn’t be allowed to speed up, or slow down, loading times on certain websites, such as their competitors.

This comes as 27 online advocacy groups sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler Tuesday, calling on him to take part in town hall-style public hearings on Net Neutrality before ruling on the issue as early as this year. Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman talks with Tim Karr from the group Free Press, one of the main organizers of the Internet Slowdown global day of action. (7:15)

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