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DirecTV Now Adds NFL Network to Most Packages

Phillip Dampier August 2, 2018 Consumer News, DirecTV, Online Video 1 Comment

After raising rates last month for its cable TV streaming alternative, AT&T’s DirecTV Now today announced it was adding NFL Network to all packages except the budget-priced “Live a Little” tier.

Coming soon, customers will also have access to stream NFL Network through Watch NFL Network, available on NFL.com and the NFL app across connected TV and mobile devices.

NFL Network will provide extensive coverage of the NFL’s 2018 Preseason, airing the entire slate of 65 preseason games, highlighted by 15 live games. NFL Network’s live preseason schedule kicks off Thursday, August 9 with the New York Giants hosting the Cleveland Browns at 7:00 p.m. EDT. Also featured as part of NFL Network’s package of live preseason games are top picks Sam Darnold (Falcons-Jets, August 10 at 7:30 p.m. EDT) and Josh Allen (Bills-Browns, August 17 at 7:30 p.m. EDT), as well as eight playoff teams from 2017.

In addition to 13 Thursday Night Football games, NFL Network will televise a Week 8 International Series matchup from London (Philadelphia Eagles vs. Jacksonville Jaguars), a Week 15 Saturday doubleheader (Houston Texans vs. New York Jets and Cleveland Browns vs. Denver Broncos), and a Week 16 Saturday doubleheader with matchups to be determined.

Sports programming remains the most expensive component of TV packages. The addition of NFL Network will not raise the price of DirecTV Now at this time, but its cost will be a factor in future rate increases.

Tennessee’s “Smoke and Mirrors” Rural Broadband Initiatives Fail to Deliver

Rural Roane County, Tenn.

Earlier this month, a standing room only crowd packed the offices of Rockwood Electric Utility (REU) in Rockwood, Tenn., despite the fact the meeting was held at 10 a.m. on a Friday morning.

Local residents were there on a work day to listen to area providers and local officials discuss rural broadband access. Most wanted to know exactly when the local phone or cable company planned to expand to bring internet access to the far corners of the region between Knoxville and Chattanooga in east Tennessee.

Comcast, Charter, and AT&T told Roane County Commissioners Ron Berry and Darryl Meadows, State Sen. Ken Yager (R-Kingston), and the crowd they all had a long wait because the companies couldn’t profit offering rural broadband service to the county.

“That is what our shareholders expect and the way we operate in a capitalistic society,” declared Andy Macke, vice president of external affairs at Comcast.

“The biggest challenge for all of you in this room is what they call the last mile,” said Alan L. Hill, the regional director of external and legislative affairs at AT&T Tennessee. “It is a challenge. We all face these challenges.”

In short, nothing much had changed in Roane County, or other rural counties in southeastern Tennessee, to convince service providers to spend money to bring internet service to the region. Until that changed, AT&T, Comcast and others should not be expected to be on the front lines addressing rural internet access. Successive governors of Tennessee have long complained about the rural broadband problem, but the state legislature remains cool to the idea of the state government intervening to help resolve it.

Gov. Haslam

In 2017, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam noted Tennessee currently ranked 29th in the U.S. for broadband access, with 34 percent of rural Tennessee residents lacking access at recognized minimum standards. In splashy news releases and media events, Haslam sold his solution to the problem — the Broadband Accessibility Act, offering up to $45 million over three years to assist making broadband available to unserved homes and businesses.

In reality, the law authorized spending no more than $9.5 million annually on rural broadband grants over the next three years. It also slashed the FCC’s broadband standard from 25/3 Mbps to 10/1 Mbps, presumably a gift to the phone companies who prefer to offer less-capable DSL service in rural areas. In the first year of awards, 13 Tennessee counties, none in the southeastern region where Roane County lies, divided the money, diluting the impact to almost homeopathic strength.

Critics called Haslam’s broadband improvement program “The Smoke and Mirrors Act” for promising a lot and delivering little. At current funding levels, broadband service can only be expanded to 5,000 of the estimated 422,000 households that lack access to internet service, and then only with the award winner’s matching financial contribution.

The demand for rural broadband financial assistance is obvious from the $66 million in requests received from 71 different utilities, co-ops, and communications companies in the first year of the program, all seeking state funding to expand rural broadband. Only a small fraction of those requests were approved. AT&T applied for money targeting Roane County and was turned down. AT&T’s Hill expressed sympathy for the county’s school children who need to complete homework assignments by borrowing Wi-Fi access from fast food establishments, area businesses, and larger libraries. But AT&T’s sympathy will not solve Roane County’s broadband problems.

What might is Rockwood Electric Utility, the municipal power company that sponsored the broadband event.

REU is a not-for-profit, municipally owned utility that has successfully served portions of Roane, Cumberland, and Morgan counties since 1939. By itself, the community-owned utility is no threat to companies like Comcast, because it offers service in places the cable company won’t. But if REU partnered with other municipal providers and offered internet service in larger nearby towns and communities to achieve economy of scale and a more secure financial position, that is a competitive threat apparently so perilous that the telecom industry spent millions of lobbying dollars on state legislatures like the one in Tennessee to ghost-write legislation to discourage utilities like REU from getting into the broadband business, much less dare to compete directly with them. AT&T, Charter, and Comcast also fear how they will compete against municipal utilities that have successfully delivered electric service and maintained an excellent reputation in the community for decades.

Tennessee law is decidedly stacked in favor of AT&T, Charter, and Comcast and against municipal utilities. Although the state allows municipal providers to supply broadband, it can come only after satisfying a series of regulatory rules designed to protect commercial cable and phone companies. It also prohibits municipal providers from offering service outside of existing service areas. That leaves communities served by a for-profit, investor-owned utility out of luck, as well as residents in areas where a rural utility lacked adequate resources to supply broadband service on its own.

Haslam’s Broadband Accessibility Act cynically retained these restrictions and blockades, hampering the rural broadband expansion the law was supposed to address.

For several years, Sen. Janice Bowling (R-Coffee, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Sequatchie, Van Buren and Warren Counties), has tried to cut one section of Tennessee’s broadband-related laws that prohibits municipal providers from offering service outside of their existing utility service area. Her proposed legislation would authorize municipalities to provide telecommunication service, including broadband service, either on its own or by joint venture or other business relationship with one or more third parties and in geographical areas that are inside and outside the electric plant’s service area.

In her sprawling State Senate District 16, a municipal provider already offers fiber broadband service, but Tennessee’s current protectionist laws prohibit LightTUBe from offering service to nearby towns where service is absent or severely lacking. That has left homes and businesses in her district at a major disadvantage economically.

Sen. Janice Bowling (R-Tenn.) discusses rural broadband challenges in her 16th district south of Nashville and her bill to help municipal utilities provide broadband service. (4:20)

“In rural Tennessee, if we have what is called an industrial park, and we have electricity, you have running water, you have some paved roads, but if you do not have access to fiber at this point, what you have is an electrified cow pasture with running water and walking trails. It is not an industrial park,” she complained, noting that the only reason her bill is prevented from becoming law is lobbying by the state’s cable and phone companies. “We can no longer leave the people of Tennessee hostage to profit margins of large corporations. We appreciate what they’re doing. We appreciate where they do it, but in rural Tennessee we will never meet their profit margins and so we can no longer be held hostage when we have the ability to help ourselves.”

Sen. Yager

Her sentiment in shared by many other Tennessee legislators who serve rural districts, and her Senate bill (and House companion bill) routinely receive little, if any, public opposition. But private lobbying by telecom industry lobbyists makes sure the bill never reaches the governor’s desk, usually dying in an obscure committee unlikely to attract media attention.

That reality is why residents of Roane County were meeting in a crowded room to get answers about why broadband still remained elusive after several years, despite the high-profile attention it seems to get in the legislature and governor’s office.

“‘It is a critical issue as I said. It is not a luxury. It is a necessity. I certainly understand your frustration,” responded Sen. Ken Yager. “This problem is so big I don’t think one person can do it alone, one entity. It’s going to have to have partnerships. One thing this bill encourages is for your co-ops to partner with one another to bring broadband in.”

The bill Sen. Yager refers to and endorsed at the meeting was written by Sen. Bowling. Sen. Yager must be very familiar with Bowling’s proposals, because she has appeared before the Senate Commerce & Labor Committee he belongs to year after year to promote it. On March 3, 2018, the bill failed again in a 4-3 vote. But unbeknownst to those in attendance at the public meeting, Sen. Yager himself delivered the fourth “no” vote that killed the bill.

Undeterred, Bowling promises to be back next year with the same bill language as before. Perhaps next time, voters will know who their friends are in the legislature, and who actually represents the interests of big corporate cable and phone companies.

Historical Truths: The Telecom Act of 1996 Sowed the Seeds of a Telecom Oligopoly

How exactly did America get stuck with a broadband monopoly in many areas, a duopoly in most others? It did not happen by accident. In this occasional series, “Historical Truths,” we will take you back to important moments in telecom public and regulatory policy that would later prove to be essential for the creation of today’s anti-competitive, overpriced marketplace for broadband internet service. By understanding the trickery and legislative shell games practiced by lobbyists and their elected partners in Congress, you will learn to recognize when the telecom industry and their friends are preparing to sell you another bill of goods. 

Vice President Al Gore watches President Bill Clinton digitally sign the 1996 Telecom Act into law on February 8, 1996.

By the end of the first term of the Clinton Administration, the president faced a major backlash from Republicans two years into the Gingrich Revolution. A well-funded chorus of voices in the business community, the Democratic Leadership Council — a business-friendly group of moderate Democrats, as well as commentators and pundits had the attention of the Beltway media, complaining in unison that the Democrats shifted too far to the left during the first term of the Clinton Administration, leaving it exposed in the forthcoming presidential election to another voter backlash like the one that installed the Gingrich revolutionaries in the House of Representatives and delivered a Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate in 1994.

With pressure over the growing lack of bipartisanship, and a presidential election ahead in the fall, the Clinton Administration was looking for ideas to prove it could work across the aisle and pass new laws that would deliver for ordinary Americans.

Revamping telecommunications policies would definitely touch every American with a phone line, computer, modem, and a television. Before 1996, America’s telecommunications regulation largely emanated from the Communications Act of 1934, which empowered the Federal Communications Commission to establish good order for the growing number of radio stations, telephone, and wire lines crisscrossing the country.

The 1934 Act’s legacy remains today, at least in part. It created the FCC, firmly established the concept of content regulation on the public airwaves, and established a single body to conduct federal oversight of the nation’s telephone monopoly controlled by AT&T.

Efforts to replace the 1934 Act began well before the Clinton Administration. In the early 1980s, Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) attempted to push for a legislative breakup of AT&T and a significant reduction in the oversight powers of the FCC. The bill met considerable opposition from AT&T, spending $2 million lobbying against the bill in 1981 and 1982. Alarm companies also heavily opposed the measure, terrified AT&T would enter their market and put them out of business. AT&T preferred a more orderly plan of divestiture being carefully negotiated in a settlement of a 1974 antitrust lawsuit by the Justice Department. A 1982 consent decree broke off AT&T’s control of local telephone lines by establishing seven Regional Bell Operating Companies independent of AT&T (NYNEX, Pacific Telesis, Ameritech, Bell Atlantic, Southwestern Bell Corporation, BellSouth, and US West). AT&T (technically an eighth Baby Bell) kept control of its nationwide long distance network.

Also in the 1980s, the cable television industry gained a much firmer foothold across the country, quickly gaining political power through well-financed lobbyists and close political ties to selected members of Congress (particularly Democrat Tim Wirth, who served in the House and later Senate representing the state of Colorado) that allowed them to push through a major amendment to the 1934 Act in 1984 deregulating the cable industry. The result was an early wave of industry consolidation as family owned cable companies were snapped up by a dozen or so growing operators. These buyouts were largely financed by dramatic rate increases passed on to consumers, resulting in cable bills tripling (or more) in some areas almost immediately. By the end of the 1980s, a major consumer backlash began, creating enormous energy for the eventual passage of the 1992 Cable Act, which re-regulated the industry and allowed the FCC to order immediate rate reductions.

The Progress and Freedom Foundation, with close ties to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, closed its doors in 2010.

The biggest push for a near-complete revision of the 1934 Act came during the Gingrich Revolution. In 1995, the conservative Progress & Freedom Foundation — a group closely tied to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) floated a trial balloon calling for the elimination of an independent Federal Communications Commission, replaced by a stripped-down Office of Communications that would be run out of the White House and be controlled by the president. A small army of telecom industry-backed scholars also began proposing privatizing the public airwaves by selling off spectrum to companies to be owned as private property. The intense interest in the FCC by the group may have been the result of its veritable “who’s who” of telecom industry backers, including AT&T, BellSouth, Verizon, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, cable companies like Comcast and Time Warner; cell phone companies like T-Mobile and Sprint; and broadcasters like Clear Channel Communications and Viacom.

The proposal outraged Democrats and liberal groups who called it a corporate-friendly sell-off and giveaway of the public airwaves. Then FCC Chairman Reed Hundt took the proposal very seriously, because at the time Gingrich lieutenant Tom DeLay’s (R-Tex.) secretive Project Relief group had 350 industry lobbyists, including some from BellSouth and Southwestern Bell literally drafting deregulation bills and a regulatory moratorium on behalf of the new Republican majority, coordinating campaign contributions for would-be supporters along the way. The proposal ultimately went nowhere, lost in a sea of the House Republicans’ constantly changing agendas, but did draw attention to the fact a wholesale revision of telecommunications policy would attract healthy campaign contributions from all corners of the industry — broadcasters, cable companies, phone companies, and the emerging wireless industry.

When it became known Congress was once again going to tackle telecommunications regulation, lobbyists immediately descended from their K Street perches in relentless waves, with checks in hand. There were two very important agendas in mind – deregulation, which would remove FCC rate regulation, service oversight, cross-competition prohibitions, and ownership caps, and ironically, protectionism. The cable and satellite companies had become increasingly fearful of the regional Baby Bells, which arrived in Congress in the early 1990s promoting the idea of entering the cable TV business. The cable industry feared phone companies would cross-subsidize the development of Telco TV by charging telephone ratepayers new fees to finance that entry. The cable industry had carefully developed a de facto monopoly over the prior decade of consolidation. Companies learned quickly direct head-to-head competition between two cable operators in the same market was bad for business.

The original premise of the 1996 Telecom Act was that it would eliminate regulations that discouraged competition. Promoters of the legislation asked why there should only be one phone or cable company in each city and why maintain regulations that kept cable and phone companies out of each others’ markets. Fears about market power and allowing domineering cable and phone companies to grow even larger were dismissed on the premise that a wide open marketplace, with regulations in place to protect consumers and competition would avoid creating telecom robber barons.

The checks handed out by industry lobbyists were bi-partisan. Democrats could crow the new rules would finally give consumers a new choice for cable TV or phone service, and help bring the “information superhighway” of the internet to schools, libraries, and other public institutions. Republicans proclaimed it a model example of free market deregulation, promoting competition, consumer choice, and lower prices.

At a high-brow bill signing ceremony held at the Library of Congress, both President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore were on hand to “electronically sign” the bill into law. Both the president and vice-president emphasized the historical significance of the emerging internet, and its ability to connect information-have’s and have-not’s in an emerging digital divide. Missing from the discussion was an exploration of what industry lobbyists and their congressional allies were doing inserting specific language into the 1996 Telecom Act that would later haunt the bill’s legacy.

On hand to celebrate the bi-partisan bill’s signing were Speaker Gingrich, Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.); Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.); Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.); Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.); and Ron Brown, the Secretary of Commerce. Pressler was among the soon-to-be-endangered moderate Republicans, Hollings was a holdout against the gradual wave of Republican takeovers in southern “red states,” and Dingell was a veteran lawmaker with close ties to the broadcasting industry.

Some of the bill’s industry backers were also there, some who would ironically see its signing as directly responsible for the eventual demise of their independent companies. John Hendricks of the Discovery Channel, Glenn Jones of Jones Intercable (acquired by Comcast in 1999), Jean Monty of Northern Telecom (later Nortel), Donald Newhouse of Advance Publications (eventual part owner of Bright House Networks and later Charter Communications), William O’Shea of Reuters Ltd. and Ray Smith of Bell Atlantic (today part of Verizon) were on hand. Also in the audience was Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America, representing Hollywood Studios.

Among the fatal flaws in the Telecom Act of 1996 were its various ‘competition tests,’ which were open to considerable interpretation and latitude at the FCC. The Republican supporters of the bill argued that the presence of an open and free marketplace would, by itself, induce competition among various entrants. They were generally unconcerned with the question of whether new competition would actually arrive. Their priority was lifting the protective levers of legacy regulation as soon as possible. Many Democrats assumed what appeared to be carefully drafted regulatory language would protect consumers by preventing the FCC from lifting protections too early in the competitive process. But lobbyists consistently outmaneuvered lawmakers, finding ways to insert loopholes and compromise language that introduced inconsistencies that could be dealt with and eliminated either by the FCC or the courts later.

For example, lawmakers insisted on unbundling telecommunications network elements, an arcane way of saying new competitors must be granted access to existing networks to be shared at wholesale rates. In practice, this meant if a phone company entered the internet service provider business, it must also make its network available for other ISPs as well. In some areas, competing local telephone companies also offered landline service over existing telephone lines, paying wholesale connection fees to the incumbent local phone company. As competition emerged, the incumbent company usually petitioned for a lifting of the regulations governing their business, claiming competition had arrived.

The first warning the 1996 Act was going awry came a year after the bill was signed into law. Phone companies started raising rates from $1.50-6 a month on average. AT&T was petitioning to hike rates $7 a month. Someone would have to pay to replace the scrapped subsidy system in a competitive market — subsidies that had been in place at the nation’s phone companies for decades. By charging higher rates for phone service in cities and for pricier long distance calls before the arrival of companies like MCI and Sprint, the phone companies used this revenue to subsidize their Universal Service obligations, keeping rural phone bills low and often below the real cost of providing service. To establish a truly competitive phone business, the subsidies had to be reformed or go, and that meant someone had to cover the difference.

“This game is called ‘shift and shaft,'” Sharon L. Nelson, the chairwoman of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, said in 1997. “You shift the costs to the states and shaft the consumer.”

Sam Brownback (R-Kansas)

Gradually, consumers suddenly discovered their phone bill littered with a host of new charges, including the Subscriber Line Charge and various regulatory recovery fees and universal service cost recovery schemes. Phone companies also boosted rates on their unregulated Class phone features, like call waiting, caller ID, and three-way calling. The proceeds helped make up for the tens of billions in lost subsidies, but the end effect was that phone bills were still rising, despite promises of competitive, cheap phone service.

At a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee later that year, several angry senators said they would never have voted in favor of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 if they had thought it would lead to higher rates. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, was in the line of fire because of his rural constituents. Rates for those customers are subsidized more heavily than elsewhere because of the cost of extending service to them. Rates were threatening to skyrocket.

“We would be foolish to build up all these expectations about competition without saying to the American people, ‘We’re going to have to raise your phone bill,'” Brownback said.

But the rate hikes were just beginning. By the beginning of the George W. Bush administration, telecom lobbyists brought a thick agenda of action items to Michael Powell’s FCC. Despite promises of competition breaking out everywhere, that simply was not the case. Republicans quickly blamed the remaining regulatory protections still in place in noncompetitive markets for ‘deterring competition.’ But the companies knew the only thing better than deregulation was deregulation without competition.

Consolidation wave

The Republican-dominated FCC quickly began removing many of those protective regulations, claiming they were outdated and unnecessary. The very definition of competition was broadened, allowing the presence of virtually any company offering almost any service good enough to trip the deregulation levers. Later, even open access to networks by competitors was often limited to pre-existing networks, not the future next generation networks. Republicans argued those networks should be managed by their owners and not subject to “unbundling” requirements.

The weakened rules also sparked one of the country’s largest consolidation waves in history. Cable companies bought other cable companies and the Baby Bells gradually started putting themselves back together into what would eventually be AT&T, Verizon, and Qwest/CenturyLink. For good measure, phone companies even snapped up a handful of independent phone companies, most notably General Telephone and Electronics, better known as GTE by Verizon and Southern New England Telephone (SNET) by AT&T.

Prices rising as costs dropping.

The cable industry, under the premise it needed territories of scale to maximize potential ad insertion revenue from selling commercials on cable networks, gradually shrunk from at least a dozen well-known companies to two very large ones – Comcast and Charter, along with a few middle-sized powerhouses like Cox and Altice. Merger and acquisition deals faced little scrutiny during the Bush years of 2002-2009, usually approved with few conditions.

The result has been a rate-raising oligopoly for telecom services. In broadcasting, the consolidation wave started in radio, with entities like Clear Channel buying up hundreds of radio stations (and eventually putting the resulting giant iHeartMedia into bankruptcy) and Sinclair and similar companies acquiring masses of local television outlets. On many, local news and original programming was sacrificed, along with a significant number of employees at each station, in favor of inexpensive music, network or syndicated programming. Some stations that aired local news for 50 years ended that tradition or turned newsgathering over to a co-owned station in the same city.

Although telephone service eventually dropped in price with the advent of Voice over IP service, consumers’ cable TV and internet bills are skyrocketing at levels well in excess of inflation. Last year, the Washington Center for Equitable Growth demonstrated that the current consolidated, anti-competitive telecom marketplace results in rising prices for buyers and falling costs for providers.

Your oligopoly tax.

“In truly competitive markets, a significant part of cost reductions would be passed through to consumers,” the group wrote. “Based on a detailed analysis of profits—primarily EBITDA—we estimate that the resulting overcharges amount to more than $45 per month, or $540 per year, an aggregate of almost $60 billion, or about 25 percent of the total average consumer’s monthly bill.”

That is one expensive bill, paid by subscribers year after year with no relief in sight. Several Republicans are proposing to double down on deregulation even more after eliminating net neutrality, which could cause your internet bill to rise further. Several Republicans want to rewrite the 1996 Telecom Act once again, and lobbyists are already sharing their ideas to further curtail consumer protections, lift ownership caps, and promote additional consolidation.

T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless Achieve Top Scores in Mobile Performance Report

Mobile broadband performance in the United States remains nothing to write home about, achieving 43rd place worldwide for download speeds (between Hong Kong and Portugal) and a dismal 73rd for upload speed (between Laos and Panama). With this in mind, choosing the best performing carrier can make the difference between a tolerable experience and a frustrating one. In the first six months of 2018, Ookla’s Speedtest ranked T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless the two top carriers in the U.S.

From January through the end of June, 2,841,471 unique mobile devices were used to perform over 12 million consumer-initiated cellular network tests on Speedtest apps, giving Ookla insight into which carriers consistently performed the best in different cities around the country. The results showed average download speed of 27.33 Mbps, an increase of 20.4% on average since the same period in 2017. Upload speed achieved an average of 8.63 Mbps, up just 1.4%.

Achieving average speeds of 36.80 Mbps, first-place Minnesota performed 4 Mbps better than second place Michigan. New Jersey, Ohio, Massachusetts and Rhode Island were the next best-performing states. In dead last place: sparsely populated Wyoming, followed by Alaska, Mississippi, Maine, and West Virginia.

T-Mobile’s heavy investment in 4G LTE network upgrades have clearly delivered for the company, which once again achieved the fastest average download speed results among the top-four carriers: 27.86 Mbps. Verizon Wireless was a close second at 26.02 Mbps. Verizon’s speed increases have come primarily from network densification efforts and equipment upgrades. Further behind was AT&T, achieving 22.17 Mbps, and Sprint which managed 20.38 Mbps, which actually represents a major improvement. Sprint has been gradually catching up to AT&T, according to Ookla’s report, because it is activating some of its unused spectrum in some markets.

Your Device Matters

Which device you use can also make a difference in speed and performance. In a match between the Apple iPhone X and the Samsung Galaxy S9, the results were not even close, with the Samsung easily outperforming the popular iPhone. The reason for the performance gap is the fact Samsung’s latest Galaxy phone has four receive antennas and the iPhone X does not. The iPhone X is also compromised by the total amount of LTE spectrum deployed by each carrier and the fact it cannot combine more than two spatial streams at a time. Until Apple catches up, iPhone X users will achieve their best speeds on T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless, in part because Verizon uses more wideband, contiguous Frequency Division Duplex (FDD) LTE spectrum than any other carrier, which will allow iPhone users to benefit from the enhanced bandwidth while connected to just two frequency blocks. The worst performing network for iPhone X users belongs to Sprint, followed by AT&T.

 

Rural vs. Urban

For customers in the top-100 cities in the United States, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless were generally the best choices, with some interesting exceptions. AT&T and Verizon Wireless generally performed best in areas where the companies also offer landline service, presumably because they are able to take advantage of existing company owned infrastructure and fiber networks. Verizon Wireless performed especially well in 13 states in the northeast, the upper midwest (where it acquired other cellular providers several years ago), Alaska, and Hawaii. AT&T was fastest in four states, especially the Carolinas where it has offered landline service for decades, as well as Nebraska and Nevada. Sprint outperformed all the rest in Colorado, while T-Mobile’s investments helped make it the fastest carrier in 31 states, notably in the southeast, southwest, and west coast cities.

The story rapidly changes in rural areas, however. Almost uniformly, speeds are considerably slower in rural areas where coverage and backhaul connectivity problems can drag down speeds dramatically. In these areas, how much your wireless provider is willing to spend makes all the difference. As a result, T-Mobile’s speed advantage in urban areas is dramatically reduced to near-equivalence with Verizon Wireless in rural communities, closely followed by AT&T. Sprint continues to lag behind in fourth place. No speed test result means a thing if you have no coverage at all, so rural customers need to carefully consider the impact of changing carriers. Always consider a 10-14 day trial run of a new provider and take the phone to places you will use it the most to make sure coverage is robust and reliable. Sprint and T-Mobile’s roaming agreements can help, but in areas with marginal reception, the two smaller carriers still favor their own networks, even if service is spotty.

MSA-Metropolitan Service Area; RSA-Rural Service Area

Network Upgrades and the Future

In the short term, most wireless upgrades will continue to enhance existing 4G LTE service and capacity. True 5G service, capable of speeds of a gigabit or more, is several years away for most Americans.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile has invested in thousands of new cell sites in over 900 cities and towns to quash its reputation of being good in cities but poor in the countryside. Many, but not all of these cell sites are in exurban areas never reached by T-Mobile before. The company is also deploying its 600 MHz spectrum, which performs well indoors and has a longer reach than its higher frequency spectrum, which will go a long way to end annoying service drops in marginal reception areas. These upgrades should make T-Mobile’s service stronger and more reliable in suburbs and towns adjacent to major roadways. But service may remain spotty to non-existent in rural states like West Virginia. Most of T-Mobile’s spectrum is now dedicated to 4G LTE service, with just 10 MHz reserved for 3G legacy users. T-Mobile has set aside only the tiny guard bands for LTE and UMTS service for legacy GSM channels handling some voice calls and 2G services.

T-Mobile is also introducing customers to Carrier Aggregation through Licensed Assisted Access (LAA). This new technology combines T-Mobile’s current wireless spectrum with large swaths of unlicensed spectrum in the 5 GHz band. Because the more bandwidth a carrier has, the faster the speeds a carrier can achieve, this upgrade can offer real world speeds approaching 600 Mbps in some areas, especially in urban locations.

Verizon Wireless

Verizon Wireless is suffering a capacity shortage in some areas, causing speeds to drop during peak usage times at congested towers. Verizon’s solution has been to add new cell sites in these mostly urban areas to divide up the traffic load. In many markets, Verizon has also converted most or all of its mid-band spectrum to LTE service, compacting its legacy CDMA network into a small section of the 850 MHz band. With 90% of its traffic now on LTE networks, this week Verizon confirmed it will stop activating new 3G-only devices and phones on its network, as it prepares to end legacy CDMA and 3G service at the end of 2019. Once decommissioned, the frequencies will be repurposed for additional LTE service.

In the immediate future, expect Verizon to continue activating advanced LTE features like 256 QAM, which enables customers’ devices and the network to exchange data in larger amounts and at faster speeds, and 4×4 MIMO, which uses an increased number of antennas at the cell tower and on customers’ devices to minimize interference when transmitting data. How fast this technology arrives at each cell site depends on the type of equipment already in place. At towers powered by Ericsson technology, a minor hardware upgrade will quickly enable these features. But where older legacy Alcatel-Lucent equipment is still in use, Verizon must first install newer Nokia Networks equipment to introduce these features. That upgrade program has moved slower than anticipated.

Older phones usually cannot take advantage of advanced LTE upgrades so Verizon, like other carriers, may have to convince customers it is time to buy a new phone to make the most efficient use of its upgraded network.

AT&T

AT&T customers are also dealing with capacity issues in some busy markets. AT&T has a lot of spectrum, but not all of it is ideal for indoor coverage or rural areas. The company, like Verizon, is trying to deal with its congestion issues by deploying new technologies in traffic-heavy metropolitan markets. AT&T is using unlicensed spectrum in parts of seven cities, accessible to customers using the latest generation devices, to increase speeds and free up capacity for those with older phones. For most customers, however, the most noticeable capacity upgrade is likely to come from AT&T’s nationwide public safety network. This taxpayer-supported LTE network will be reserved for first responders during emergencies or disasters, but the rest of the time other AT&T customers will be free to use this network with lower priority access. This will go a long way towards easing network congestion, and customers will get access automatically as available.

At the same time, AT&T, like Verizon, is trying to deploy additional advanced LTE features, but has been delayed as it mothballs older Alcatel-Lucent equipment at older cell sites, replaced with current generation Nokia equipment.

Sprint

Sprint has done the most in 2017-2018 to improve its wireless network, especially its traditionally anemic download speeds. While still the slowest among all four national carriers, things have gotten noticeably better for many Sprint customers in the last six months. Sprint recently activated LTE on 40-60 MHz of its long-held 2.5 GHz spectrum, which has improved network capacity. Carrier Aggregation has also been switched on in several markets.

Unfortunately, Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum isn’t the best performer indoors, and the company has also had to adjust frame configuration in this band. Sprint is the only Time Division Duplex (TDD) LTE carrier in the country. This technology allows Sprint to adjust the ratio of download and upload capacity by dedicating different amounts of bandwidth to one or the other. Sprint tried to address its woeful download speeds by devoting 30% more of its capacity to downloads. But this also resulted in a significant drop in upload speeds, which are already anemic. Sprint has been able to further tweak its network in some areas to boost upload speeds up to 50%, assuming customers have good signals, to mitigate this issue.

Sprint is also restrained by very limited cell site density and less lower frequency spectrum than other carriers. That means more customers are likely to share a Sprint cell tower in an area than other carriers, and the distance between those towers is often greater, which can cause more instances of poor signal problems and marginal reception than other carriers. Sprint’s best solution to these problems is a merger with T-Mobile, which would allow Sprint to contribute its 2.5 GHz spectrum with T-Mobile’s more robust, lower frequency spectrum and greater number of cell sites, instead of investing further to bolster its network of cell sites.

AT&T’s Vision for HBO: Hook ’em With Freebies, Addict Them Wanting More, Monetize Everything

Phillip Dampier July 9, 2018 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 1 Comment

This isn’t going to be your parent’s HBO much longer.

In a recent town hall attended by 150 employees, AT&T laid out its new vision for the premium network it recently acquired. one almost similar at times to the business plan of a drug pusher.

“We need hours a day,” said John Stankey, a recent transplant from AT&T’s executive suites now tapped to run WarnerMedia — AT&T’s new name for what used to be Time Warner (Entertainment) and owner of HBO. Stankey was complaining that HBO was out of touch with the times, attracting too few viewers to its multiplex of premium channels only a handful of times a week, if that. In a world shared by Netflix, that was not nearly good enough.

HBO, which began life as Home Box Office in November, 1972 is by far America’s oldest cable television channel. Originally a venue for high profile, unedited, commercial-free movies, along with sports and specials, HBO grew into a well-respected producer of high budget (often millions of dollars per episode), cutting-edge original movies and series, showcased to loyal audiences on Sunday nights for years. Series like The Wire, The Sopranos, Sex in the City, Oz and Game of Thrones are well-known across the country, but fewer than half of Americans subscribe to HBO to watch them. HBO has also been the critics’ choice for original content, showering awards on the network in unprecedented numbers for almost 20 years.

Now that AT&T is in charge, that is all about to change, as executives prepare to shift HBO away from “quality over quantity” towards “quality and quantity.” Stankey also made it clear the changes are first and foremost about making money — a lot of it earned by keeping subscribers on HBO property so their viewing habits can be studied and sold.

Stankey

“It’s going to be a tough year,” Stankey warned. “It’s going to be a lot of work to alter and change direction a little bit.”

“It’s not hours a week, and it’s not hours a month,” Stankey said of how long he expects HBO subscribers to spend time watching the service. “It’s hours a day. You are competing with devices that sit in people’s hands that capture their attention every 15 minutes. I want more hours of engagement. Why are more hours of engagement important? Because you get more data and information about a customer that then allows you to do things like monetize through alternate models of advertising as well as subscriptions, which I think is very important to play in tomorrow’s world.”

That will be a major shift for a network overseen top to bottom since 1992 by Richard Plepler, HBO’s chief executive. Plepler expanded on HBO original movies by launching expensive scripted series in the late 1990s that stood out by escaping broadcast television network censorship. But Plepler was very selective about the number of shows on HBO’s schedule, with some series taking years to develop. Under Stankey’s leadership, HBO will now be expected to dramatically expand original content, much like Netflix has done to keep viewers coming back for more.

“As I step back and think about what’s unique about the brand and where it needs to go, there’s got to be a little more depth to it, there’s got to be more frequent engagement,” Stankey said, adding HBO’s brand has to broaden its appeal to new audiences.

That will require a big boost to HBO’s budget. The pay movie channel is already extremely profitable, making almost $6 billion in profits over the last three years. It invested $2 billion in programming development, much less than the $8 billion Netflix is investing in less costly, but more prolific programming. HBO’s business plan depends heavily on American cable subscribers paying $10-15 a month for the network. It also earns money selling its original shows to television outlets in other countries. Its high monthly cost has always limited subscriber numbers, especially these days with cord-cutting and bill shaving. Premium movie channels are often the first networks to be dropped in return for a lower bill.

Plepler

To monetize its subscriber base, HBO either has to cut the cost of the network, transform it into must-have television, or a combination of both. Stankey is unhappy HBO has wavered around 40 million subscribers (out of 142 million American potential households) for years. He told audiences the network has to find ways to move the network beyond its perpetual 35-40% penetration “to have this become a much more common product.”

There was a clear sense of tension between Plepler, who is part of the New York City entertainment scene, and Stankey, a business-focused Texan with decades of experience in the Bell System — later AT&T. Plepler’s deference to Stankey’s new vision seemed uncomfortable at times, as Stankey made it clear who was now in charge:

Stankey: “We’ve got to make money at the end of the day, right?”
Plepler: “We do that.”
Stankey: “Yes, you do, just not enough.”

Plepler’s clearly defined tenure and vision at HBO had not wavered much since taking over in the early 1990s. But that vision was nervously discarded almost immediately as Stankey looked on.

“I’ve said, ‘More is not better, only better is better,’ because that was the hand we had,” Plepler explained. “I’ve switched that, now that you’re here, to: ‘More isn’t better, only better is better — but we need a lot more to be even better.’”

As a result, HBO, which used to be the darling of critics and well-to-do viewers in big cities on the east and west coast is getting a radical makeover. Onlookers can expect a much more aggressive marketing effort and free samples of the service to attract and hold new customers. It will have to keep its pricing closer to the competition, particularly as many consumers already subscribe to 1-2 different streaming services. Then it will have to give people a reason to subscribe to just one more service.

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