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Time Warner Cable Continues Commitment to Keep Unlimited Data, Expand Maxx Upgrades

timewarner twcTime Warner Cable will continue to offer customers unlimited data plans and further expand its Maxx upgrade program until it reaches the company’s entire service area or the merger with Charter Communications is approved by regulators.

CEO Robert Marcus told investors on a morning conference call the company has been “completely committed to delivering an unlimited broadband offering in connection with whatever else we do, because we know customers do place a value on the peace of mind that comes with unlimited plans.”

Marcus continued to admit his company’s experiments with voluntary usage pricing have largely failed, noting the “vast majority” of customers choose unlimited plans, and Time Warner “never had any intention of substituting the availability of unlimited with exclusively usage-based programs.”

The original goal for Time Warner’s voluntary usage pricing options “was to offer customers who use less bandwidth, who maybe just do e-mail, an opportunity to pay less and have an Internet offering that better meets their demands for both usage and price.”

Time Warner Cable goes out of its way to advertise "No Data Caps."

Time Warner Cable goes out of its way to advertise “No Data Caps.”

Most broadband customers do not want usage-based billing or usage-capped Internet, but some providers force such usage plans on customers anyway.

“Different providers have had different philosophies on these things,” Marcus offered.

Marcus reported TWC Maxx deployment in Austin is finished, and the company is working on completing upgrades in Dallas, San Antonio, Raleigh, Charlotte, Kansas City and Hawaii by year-end. The latest markets to be upgraded — San Diego, Wilmington and Greensboro, N.C., will start this year, but speed increases will not begin until next year. The upgrades are improving customer satisfaction with a 35% drop in voluntary disconnects in Maxx service areas, but will cost an estimated $4.45 billion in spending this year by the country’s second largest cable operator.

Time Warner Cable Maxx has been very successful at bringing new customers to Time Warner, attracted by improved broadband speeds and better service, Marcus told investors. Maxx customers see broadband speed upgrades that dramatically boost speeds at no additional cost. Standard Internet speeds in non-Maxx markets are 15Mbps. In Maxx areas, customers receive 50Mbps. Customers signed up for 50Mbps “Ultimate” Internet in Maxx markets see that speed raised to 300Mbps.

Large sections of Time Warner Cable territory have yet to be upgraded, however. Marcus today said he plans to continue the Maxx upgrade effort as the Charter merger proceeds through a lengthy regulatory review process. If the merger is delayed or unsuccessful, Time Warner likely will announce additional cities targeted for upgrades in 2016, but customers should not expect speed changes until later that year or 2017. If the Charter merger is approved, areas bypassed for Maxx upgrades will likely get a more modest upgrade promised by Charter, with maximum broadband speeds of 100Mbps.

Marcus

Marcus

Time Warner Cable spent the last quarter pushing lower priced promotions to attract new and returning customers. That, combined with higher programming costs, increased spending on network upgrades, and pension expenses cut into the cable company’s profits, which declined 7.2% in the last quarter.

Time Warner Cable added 66,000 residential customers overall, its best ever second quarter and its first rise in any quarter since 2008, according to Marcus. Time Warner added 172,000 new broadband customers and 252,000 voice subscribers, primarily from a promotion that allows any subscriber to add phone service to their package for $10 a month. But Time Warner is not immune to cord cutting, and lost 45,000 video customers in the second quarter.

The cable company may have stepped up promotions to be certain it can report good results as investors wait for the Charter Communications merger to win or lose regulator approval. A triple play promotion for new customers runs as low as $89 a month and despite touting an earlier philosophy the company did not see much value promoting cheap phone service, it has apparently reversed course, boosting triple play upgrades as a result of reduced pricing.

It is also continuing strong customer retention policies, a sign Time Warner Cable will continue to respond when customers threaten to cancel unless they get a better deal.

“Our whole view of retention hasn’t really changed since the middle part of 2014,” said William F. Osbourn, Jr., acting co-chief financial officer. “Our view is that we will always rather save the customer than lose the customer, but I think we’re pretty disciplined about not giving away the farm in doing that.”

Some other highlights:

  • Programming costs rose 11%, a sure bet another rate increase will be forthcoming in the future;
  • Marcus loves mergers: “The only thing I’d add to that is that from an industry structure perspective, in roughly a quarter of our footprint, the deal [between AT&T and DirecTV] results in two competitors becoming one. And, generally speaking, that’s a positive for all the players in the industry”;
  • Time Warner Cable will continue to encourage customers to use their own set-top box devices (Roku, Apple TV, etc.) as an alternative to the traditional cable set-top box;
  • Roughly 12% of customers now own their own cable modems to escape Time Warner’s rental fee;
  • Despite the clamor for “skinny bundles” 82% of Time Warner Cable customers subscribed to the full video package;
  • In Maxx areas, customers need set-top boxes on all of their connected televisions. Most are opting for the cheapest option, taking an average of two less-capable DTA boxes instead of more expensive set-tops. DVR subscriber numbers have remain largely unchanged after Maxx upgrades.

Newly Independent Cable One Plans Broadband Makeover With Speed Upgrades

cable oneNewly independent Cable One will reduce its emphasis on cable television and turn its time, attention, and capital towards improving broadband service for its 690,000 largely rural customers in 19 states.

Cable One was spun off from Graham Holdings on July 1 and is not likely to stay independent for long before it is acquired by another cable operator, most likely Patrick Drahi’s Altice, S.A. — which recently acquired Suddenlink. But in the meantime, Cable One is attempting to persuade investors it is remaking itself into a broadband company, de-emphasizing the traditional cable television package in favor of dedicating more bandwidth for faster broadband speeds.

“Our standard broadband offering for our residential customers since 2011 has been a download speed of 50Mbps, which is at the high-end of the range of standard residential offerings even today in our markets,” the company reported in a statement. “Our enhanced broadband offering for our residential customers is currently a download speed of 75Mbps, which we expect to raise to 100Mbps by the end of 2015.”

Cable One primarily serves small cities and towns in the central and northwestern United States.

Cable One primarily serves small cities and towns in the central and northwestern United States.

In several markets, 100Mbps speed is already available and regular pricing has been simplified to $1 per megabit of service: 50Mbps for $50, 75Mbps for $75, or 100Mbps for $100 a month.

To protect its broadband business model, which carries prices traditionally higher than larger operators, Cable One will stay focused on largely uncompetitive markets where it faces token DSL broadband competition from companies like Frontier Communications, CenturyLink, and Windstream. More than 75 percent of its customers are located in Mississippi, Idaho, Oklahoma, Texas and Arizona, many served by these three telephone companies.

Cable One signaled it will hold the line on cable programming costs as well. In April 2014, the company dropped 15 Viacom networks, including MTV, VH1, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and others over contract renewal prices it claimed were too high. The cable TV package has continued without the Viacom networks for more than a year, resulting in the loss of more than 20% of its cable TV customers. More than 100,000 homes have dropped Cable One video service for another provider, but ironically that actually helped Cable One increase its cash flow by more than 11%, because it no longer has to pay programming fees on behalf of the lost customers.

On the bright side, Cable One executives discovered many of its former TV customers have stayed with Cable One for Internet service because the competition either does not offer broadband or generally provides DSL at speeds under 10Mbps. Company officials have emphasized this point to investors, suggesting broadband is a true money-maker and television can safely take second chair without sabotaging profits.

“We certainly have some sympathy for the notion that a broadband-only cable operator might be more profitable,” wrote analyst Craig Moffett in an investor note this month. “But there are some critical holes in the Cable One story. Does the company truly believe that all costs are variable such that cutting video will bring endless margin expansion? Are Cable One’s new shareholders really better off for having played hardball with Viacom?”

Moffett does not believe so because he is convinced Cable One’s independence will be short-lived.

“We all know the consensus opinion is that someone will buy Cable One,” Moffett wrote. “But the above questions still matter. Any potential acquirer would still place value on a video business, or pay less for the fact that Cable One has less of one.”

But as long as rural telephone companies barely compete for broadband customers, Cable One’s broadband performance will deliver them a de facto broadband monopoly in their largely rural service areas. That gives the cable company, or its next owner, plenty of room for rate hikes.

Vidéotron Will Offer 1Gbps Broadband Speed in Montréal

videotron_coul_anglais_webMontréal cable subscribers will soon be able to buy gigabit broadband speeds from Vidéotron after a successful pilot project demonstrated the cable company’s existing DOCSIS 3.0 network was up to the task.

“It is with great pride that we announce today that we have passed another milestone in the history of Videotron Internet service,” said Manon Brouillette, president and CEO of Vidéotron. “We have always been a trailblazer in this area. Over the past 10 years, we have introduced a series of high-speed Internet access services, each faster than the last, in order to meet consumers’ steadily expanding needs.”

Testing gigabit speeds began in a few Montréal homes and businesses earlier this year and the results have helped the cable operator optimize its network architecture and choose the correct cable modems to reliably support the service across its service area. Availability is expected sometime this year.

In 2016, Vidéotron will upgrade its network to DOCSIS 3.1 technology, which should support even faster speeds and require less network configuration to support the fastest Internet speeds.

Vidéotron has been aggressively pushing speed upgrades to its customers, largely in Québec. Fibre Hybrid 120 and Fibre Hybrid 200 Internet services are available to nearly 2.9 million households and businesses.

VP Biden Announces Broadband-Challenged Rochester, N.Y. Home to National Photonics Institute

Vice president Biden

Vice President Biden in Rochester, N.Y.

Vice President Joe Biden and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo today announced Rochester, N.Y., a city notorious for its slow broadband, will be the home of the $600 million Integrated Photonics Institute for Manufacturing Innovation, a hub supporting the development of photonics — technology that powers everything from fiber optic broadband to laser surgery.

Rochester, the home of dramatically downsized household names like Eastman Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch and Lomb, could see thousands of new high technology jobs created in the western New York city to develop new products and services that depend on light waves.

“The innovation and jobs this institute will create will be a game changer for Rochester and the entire state,” said U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, (D-Rochester). “This is a huge win that will shape our region’s economy for decades to come.”

Slaughter reportedly spent three years working to bring the center to Rochester and helped secure $110 million from the Defense Department and another $500 million in state and private sector funding to finance its development. The project could prove transformational for a community ravaged by downsizing, most dramatically exemplified by Eastman Kodak, which had 62,000 workers in Rochester during the 1980s but employs fewer than 2,500 today.

Today, Rochester’s largest employers are no longer manufacturers. Health care service providers now lead the way, including the University of Rochester Medical Center/Strong Health (#1) and the Rochester General Health System (#3). Upscale grocery chain Wegmans calls Rochester home and is the community’s second largest employer. The bureaucracies that power the Rochester City School District and Monroe County Government are also among the area’s top-10 employers.

rochesterDespite the job shifts, the fact 24,000 workers in the region are already employed in photonics-related jobs may have been a deciding factor in selecting Rochester for the center.

“The photonics center we are now bringing to Rochester will harness the power of the Defense Department and the prowess of Rochester’s 24,000 employee-strong photonics industry and focus it like a laser beam to launch new industries, technologies and jobs,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.

Employers, small business start-ups and workers moving into the region are likely to be considerably less impressed by Rochester’s incumbent telecommunications service providers. Although institutional and large commercial fiber networks are available to those with deep pockets, with the exception of Greenlight Networks, a local fiber to the home retail overbuilder providing fast gigabit fiber Internet to a tiny percentage of local residents, the area’s fiber future remains bleak.

Time Warner Cable, by far the largest Internet provider in the region, has left Rochester off its Maxx upgrade list, leaving the city with a maximum of 50/5Mbps Internet speed. Frontier Communications still relies on 1990s era DSL service and the anemic speeds it delivers, evident from the company’s poor average speed ranking — 11.47Mbps — less than half the minimum 25Mbps the FCC considers broadband.

Rochester is hardly a broadband speed leader in New York State, only managing to score in 332nd place. (Image: Ookla)

Rochester is hardly a broadband speed leader in New York State, only managing to score in 332nd place. (Image: Ookla)

The performance of the two providers has dragged Rochester’s broadband speed ranking to an embarrassingly low #336 compared with other communities in New York. Suburban towns in downstate New York enjoy more than twice the speed upstate residents get, largely thanks to major upgrades from Verizon (FiOS) and Time Warner Cable (Maxx). But even compared with other upstate communities, Rochester still scores poorly, beaten by small communities like Watertown, Massena, and Waterloo. Suburban Buffalo, Syracuse, and Albany also outperform Rochester.

In contrast, in Raleigh, N.C., home to the Power America Institute — another federal manufacturing center — broadband life is better:

  • Raleigh is a Google Fiber city and will receive 1,000/1,000Mbps service for $70 a month, around $20 more than what Time Warner charges for 50/5Mbps with a promotion;
  • Raleigh is a Time Warner Cable Maxx city with free broadband speed upgrades ranging from 15Mbps before/50Mbps after to 50Mbps before/300Mbps after;
  • Raleigh is an AT&T U-verse with GigaPower city with 1,000/1,000Mbps service for $120 70 a month.

This article was updated to correct the pricing of AT&T U-verse with GigaPower in Raleigh, N.C., with thanks to reader Darrin Evans for the corrected information.

CRTC Orders Phone and Cable Companies to Open Their Fiber Networks to Competitors

CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais

CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais

Independent Internet Service Providers are hailing a decision by telecommunications regulators that will force big phone and cable companies to open their fiber optic networks to competitors, suggesting Canadian consumers will benefit from lower prices, fewer usage caps, and higher-speed Internet.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission on Wednesday ordered companies like Bell/BCE, Telus, Rogers, Shaw, and others to sell wholesale access to their growing fiber optic networks, despite industry protests giving that access would harm future investment in fiber technology just as it is on the cusp of spreading across the country.

“We’re an evidence-based body, so we heard all of the positions of the various parties and we balanced those off through what we heard in our deliberations afterwards,” said CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais. “In this particular case, we are concerned about the future of broadband in the country so we have to make sure we have a sustainable and competitive marketplace. It’s a wholesale decision that says Canadians can expect a better competitive marketplace because we are going to require incumbent cable and telephone companies to make their high-speed facilities available to competitors.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/BNN Breaking News CRTC Decision Fiber 7-22-15.flv

BNN broke into regular programming with this Special Report on the CRTC decision that will grant independent ISPs access to large telecom companies’ fiber optic networks. (3:13)

Large phone companies, including Bell, warned regulators in a hearing last fall that forcing them to open their networks to third parties would deter investment in fiber expansion. Canadian telecom companies now provide about three million homes with either fiber to the home or fiber to the neighborhood service. Blais, along with representatives of independent ISPs have rejected Bell’s arguments, arguing competition from cable operators was forcing telephone companies to upgrade their networks regardless of the wholesale access debate.

crtc“Our view is the incumbent telcos have a market reason to invest in improving their plant through the investment in fiber,” Blais said. “That’s what Canadians expect and because of market conditions they have to do that investment. So we’re quite confident that’s going to happen.”

Canadian telecommunications companies have done well selling Internet and television services in a highly concentrated telecommunications and media marketplace. For example, BCE, the parent company of Bell Canada, Bell Media, and Bell TV owns a wireless carrier, a satellite TV provider, the CTV television network and many of its local affiliates, dozens of radio stations, more than two dozen cable networks, a landline telephone company, an Internet Service Provider, and ownership interests in sports teams like the Montreal Canadiens as well as a part interest in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s unofficial newspaper of record.

Companies like Rogers, Shaw, Vidéotron, Telus, and Bell have dominated the market for Internet access. But regulators began requiring these companies to sell access to their networks on a wholesale basis to smaller competitors to foster additional retail competition. Today, there are over 500 independent ISPs selling service in Canada, including well-known companies like TekSavvy, Primus, and Distributel. In the past few years, Internet enthusiasts have flocked to these alternative providers to escape a regime of usage caps and usage-based billing of Internet service common among most incumbent cable and phone companies. Competition from the independents, which offer more generous usage allowances or sell unlimited access, has forced some phone and cable companies to offer cap-free Internet service as well.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/BNN CRTC Decision Interview with Jean Pierre Blais 7-22-15.flv

BNN interviewed CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais about the commission’s decision to open up wholesale access to Canada’s fiber optic networks. (5:26)

bellDespite the competition, the majority of Canadians still do business with BCE, Rogers Communications, Quebecor (Vidéotron), Shaw Communications, or Telus, that collectively captured 75 percent of telecom revenue in 2013.

Although competitors have been able to purchase wholesale access to cable broadband and DSL service, nothing in the CRTC rules required big cable and phone companies to sell access to next generation fiber networks. That gap threatened the viability of independent ISPs, left with offering customers access to older cable/copper technology only. This week’s CRTC decision is the first step to grant access to fiber networks as well, although some ISPs are cautious about the impact of the decision until the CRTC provides pricing guidance.

“The commission took a great step today in favor of competition,” Matt Stein, CEO of Distributel Communications Ltd., told The Globe and Mail. “In giving us access to fiber to the premise, they have ensured that as speeds and demands increase, we’re going to continue to be able to provide service that customers want. It’s definitely going to be some time before these products make it to market. There’s going to be the costing and the implementation, and reasonably it could be a year or even longer before the products are actually out the door. But the heavy lifting? Today that was done.”

Bram Abramson, chief legal and regulatory officer for TekSavvy Solutions Inc., added some caution.

Distributel, an independent ISP, made a name for itself offering usage-cap free Internet access to Canadians.

Distributel, an independent ISP, made a name for itself offering usage-cap free Internet access to Canadians.

“The devil really is in the details on this,” Abramson told the newspaper. “That’s why I say we like the direction, because there are a million ways in which this could become unworkable if implemented wrong. For example, what rates are we going to pay? We won’t know until those tariffs are done and settled.”

Other so-called “wireline incumbents” like Manitoba Telecom and SaskTel will also be required to make their fiber optic networks available to competitors.

Last fall, Bell warned the CRTC of the consequences of letting TekSavvy, Distributel, and others resell access to their fiber networks.

“We are not suggesting that mandated access will immediately grind investment to a halt in every location in Canada, but it is a question of balance and it will have an impact,” Mirko Bibic, chief legal and regulatory officer for BCE/Bell told CRTC commissioners at a hearing.

Bibic cautioned if the CRTC granted competitive access it could affect how the company allocated its capital investments and could lead it to shift spending to other areas instead.

“What we’re saying is a mandated access rule will affect the pace of deployment and the breadth of deployment,” Bibic said.

Bibic

Bibic

Specifically, Bibic claimed Bell may call it quits on fiber expansion beyond the fiber-to-the-neighborhood service Bell sells under the Fibe brand in 80% of its service area in Ontario and Quebec. Bell had envisioned upgrading the network to straight fiber-to-the-home service, eliminating the rest of the legacy copper still in its network. But perhaps not anymore.

“If the commission forces the incumbent telephone operators to open access to fiber-to-the-home, BCE might not prioritize building that final leg in some communities,” Bibic warned. “The point is, with 80% of our territory covered […] we can hold and do really well with fiber-to-the-node for longer than we otherwise might.”

Nonsense, independent ISPs told the CRTC, pointing to the cable industry’s preparations to introduce DOCSIS 3.1 cable broadband and vastly increase broadband speeds well in excess of what a fiber-to-the-neighborhood network can offer.

“First of all, [telephone companies] have a natural incentive to build wherever there is a cable carrier, because otherwise the cable carrier will eat their lunch,” said Chris Tacit, counsel to the Canadian Network Operators Consortium, which represents the interests of independent ISPs. “There’s a reason that they’re sinking all that money into [fiber-to-the-home], it’s because they have to keep up. Now, I don’t believe for a minute that they are going to stop investing if they have to grant access.”

Regulators in the United States have traditionally sided with large telecommunications companies and have largely allowed phone and cable companies to keep access to their advanced broadband networks to themselves. Republicans have largely defended the industry position that regulation and forced open access would deter private investment and competitors should construct networks of their own. In some cases, they have. Google Fiber is now the most prominent overbuilder, but several dozen independent providers are also slowly wiring fiber optics in communities already served by cable and telephone company-provided broadband. Whether it is better to inspire new entrants to build their own networks or grant them access to existing ones is an ongoing political debate.

But the CRTC has not given independent ISPs a free ride. The commission announced it will begin moving towards “disaggregated” network availability for smaller ISPs, which will require them to invest in network equipment to connect with incumbent networks on a more local level, starting in Ontario and Quebec.

The CRTC under Blais’ leadership is gaining a reputation of being pro-consumer, a departure from the CRTC’s often-industry-friendly past. Blais has presided over rulings to regulate wholesale wireless roaming fees to lower consumer costs and forced pay television providers to unbundle their huge TV channel packages so consumers can get rid of scores of channels they don’t watch.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/The Globe and Mail Internet competitors welcome CRTC decision on broadband access 7-23-15.flv

Canadian Press spoke with independent ISPs about their reaction to the wholesale access decision. (1:18)

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

The magic of fiber

The magic of fiber

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moffett

Moffett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McKinney

McKinney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midcontinent Communications Prepares for Gigabit Speeds and DOCSIS 3.1

Midcontinent_logoMidcontinent Communications customers will be able to get gigabit broadband speeds… by the end of 2017.

Midco is waiting for DOCSIS 3.1 to support the fastest broadband speeds instead of dedicating more bandwidth to support 1,000Mbps service under the current DOCSIS 3.0 standard.

The company has started to deploy Cisco’s cBR-8, a new Converged Cable Access Platform that will fully support DOCSIS 3.1 – a more efficient cable broadband standard expected to be deployed by larger cable operators like Comcast beginning next year. The new standard will support speeds up to 10/1Gbps, but most cable systems are expected to offer only a fraction of those speeds.

Midco’s 300,000+ customers in Minnesota, North & South Dakota and Wisconsin already receive speeds up to 200Mbps, and the faster the service offered, the more data used.

“Cisco’s cBR-8 aligns with our strategy and vision to deliver Gigabit-speed Internet experiences that will change the quality of life and spur business innovation in the communities we serve,” said Midcontinent vice president of technology Jon Pederson. “With our customers’ bandwidth consumption doubling every 15 months, we need the right technology in place to support our network demands now and in the future. The unique DOCSIS and Remote PHY capabilities of the cBR-8 will help us meet our commitments for the Midcontinent Gigabit Initiative.”

Midcontinent publishes a promotional and retail price list fully disclosing their pricing, a rarity among cable operators. Midco's broadband tiers have no usage caps.

Midcontinent publishes a promotional and retail price list fully disclosing their pricing, a rarity among cable operators. Midco’s broadband tiers have no usage caps.

Australia’s Netflix Anxiety Attack Exposes Weakness of Broadband Upgrades on the Cheap

netflix-ausWith video streaming now accounting for at least 64 percent of all Internet traffic, it should have come as no surprise to Australia’s ISPs that as data caps are eased and popular online video services like Netflix arrive, traffic spikes would occur on their networks as well.

It surprised them anyway.

Telecom analyst Paul Budde told the WAToday newspaper “video streaming requires our ISPs to have robust infrastructure, and to use it in more sophisticated ways, and that largely caught Australia off guard. I think it’s fair to say everybody underestimated the effect of Netflix.”

Not everybody.

Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) was originally envisioned by the then Labor government as a fiber-to-the-home network capable of enormous capacity and gigabit speed. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed buying out the country’s existing copper phone wire infrastructure from telecom giant Telstra to scrap it. Instead of DSL and a limited number of cable broadband providers, the national fiber to the home network would provide service to the majority of Australians, with exceptionally rural residents served by wireless and/or satellite.

Conservative critics slammed the NBN as a fiscal “white elephant” that would duplicate or overrun private investment and saddle taxpayers with the construction costs. In the run up to the federal election of 2013, critics proposed to scale back the NBN as a provider of last resort that would only offer service where others did not. Others suggested a scaled-down network would be more fiscally responsible. After the votes were counted, a Coalition government was formed, run by the conservative Liberal and National parties. Within weeks, they downsized the NBN and replaced most of its governing board.

Netflix's launch increased traffic passing through Australia's ISPs by 50 percent, from 30 to 50Gbps in just one week, and growing.

Netflix’s launch increased traffic passing through Australia’s ISPs by 50 percent, from 30 to 50Gbps in just one week, and growing.

Plans for a national fiber to the home network similar to Verizon FiOS were dropped, replaced with fiber to the neighborhood technology somewhat comparable to AT&T U-verse or Bell Fibe. Instead of gigabit fiber, Australians would rely on a motley mix of technologies including wireless broadband, DSL, VDSL, cable, and in areas where the work had begun under the earlier government, a limited amount of fiber.

In hindsight, the penny wise-pound foolish approach to broadband upgrades has begun to haunt the conservatives, who have already broken several commitments regarding the promised performance of the downsized network and are likely to break several more, forcing more costly upgrades that would have been unnecessary if the government remained focused on an all-fiber network.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has admitted the new NBN will not be able to deliver 25Mbps service to all Australians by 2016. Only 43 percent of the country will get that speed, partly because of technical compromises engineers have been forced to make to accommodate the legacy copper network that isn’t going anywhere.

Think Broadband called the fiber to the neighborhood NBN “a farce” that has led to lowest common denominator broadband. A need to co-exist with ADSL2+ technology already offered to Australians has constrained any speed benefits available from offering faster DSL variants like VDSL2. Customers qualified for VDSL2 broadband speeds will be limited to a maximum of 12Mbps to avoid interfering with existing ADSL2+ services already deployed to other customers. Only multi-dwelling units escape this limitation because those buildings typically host their own DSLAM, which provides service to each customer inside the building. In those cases, customers are limited to a maximum of 25Mbps, not exactly broadband nirvana. The NBN is predicting it will take at least a year to take the bandwidth limits off VDSL2.

nbnThe need for further upgrades as a result of traffic growth breaks another firm commitment from the conservative government.

NBN executive chairman Ziggy Switkowski told reporters in 2013 that technology used in the NBN would not need to be upgraded for at least five years after construction.

“The NBN would not need to upgraded sooner than five years of construction of the first access technology,” Switkowski said. “It is economically more efficient to upgrade over time rather than build a future-proof technology in a field where fast-changing technology is the norm.”

Since Switkowski made that statement two years ago, other providers around the world have gravitated towards fiber optics, believing its capacity and upgradability makes it the best future-proof technology available to handle the kind of traffic growth also now being seen in Australia. At the start of 2015, 315,000 Australians were signed up for online video services. Today, more than two million subscribe, with Netflix adding more than a million customers in less than four months after it launched down under.

Many ISPs offer larger data caps or remove them altogether for “preferred partner” streaming services like Netflix. With usage caps in place, some customers would have used up an entire month’s allowance after just one night watching Netflix.

But the online viewing has created problems for several ISPs, especially during peak usage times. iiNet reports up to 25% of all its network traffic now comes from Netflix. As a result iiNet is accelerating network upgrades.

Customers still reliant on the NBN’s partial copper network are also reporting slowdowns, especially in the evening. The NBN will have to upgrade its backbone connection as well as the last mile connection it maintains with customers who often share access through a DSLAM. The more customers use their connections for Netflix, the greater the likelihood of congestion slowdowns until capacity upgrades are completed.

Hackett

Hackett

Optus worries its customers have extended Internet peak time usage by almost 90 minutes each night as they watch online streaming instead of free-to-air TV. Telstra adds it also faces a strain from “well over half” of the traffic on its network now consisting of video content.

This may explain why Internet entrepreneur and NBN co-board director Simon Hackett wishes the fiber to the neighborhood technology would disappear and be replaced by true fiber to the home service.

“It sucks,” Hackett told an audience at the Rewind/Fast Forward event in Sydney in March, referring to the fiber to the neighborhood technology. His mission is to try and make the government’s priority for cheaper broadband infrastructure “as least worse as possible.”

“Fiber-to the-[neighborhood] is the least-exciting part of the current policy, no arguments,” he added. “If I could wave a wand, it’s the bit I’d erase.”

Another cost of the Coalition government’s slimmed-down Internet expansion is already clear.

According to Netflix’s own ISP speed index, which ranks providers on the quality of streaming Netflix on their networks, Australia lags well behind the top speeds of dozens of other developed nations, including Mexico and Argentina.

But even those anemic speeds come at a high cost to ISPs, charged a connectivity virtual circuit charge (CVC) by NBN costing $12.91 per 1Mbps. The fee is designed to help recoup network construction and upgrade costs. But the fee was set before the online video wave reached Australia. iiNet boss David Buckingham worries he will have to charge customers a “Netflix tax” of $19.18 a month for moderate Netflix viewing to recoup enough money to pay the CVC fees. If a viewer wants to watch a 4K video stream, Buckingham predicts ISPs will have to place a surcharge of $44.26 a month on occasional 4K viewing, if customers can even sustain such a video on NBN’s often anemic broadband connections.

Some experts fear costs will continue to rise as the government eventually recognizes its budget-priced NBN is saddled with obsolete technology that will need expensive upgrades sooner than most think.

Instead of staying focused on fiber optics, technology the former Rudd government suggested would offer Australians gigabit speeds almost immediately and would have plenty of capacity for traffic, the conservative, constrained, “more affordable” NBN is leaving many customers with no better than 12Mbps with a future promise to deliver 50Mbps some day. There is little value for money from that.

Spain Nears 2 Million Fiber to the Home Connections in Broadband Speed Race

spainSpanish consumers are switching to fiber to the home broadband service in droves as it becomes available around the country. In the last quarter, Spain tripled the number of fiber connections available the year before to a record 1,933,000 homes, according to a Spanish regulator.

Both DSL and mobile broadband options are losing interest with customers and have seen subscriber declines. Only cable broadband has grown alongside fiber, from 2,059,000 customers to 2,229,000 as of the end of March.

There are 12.83 million broadband lines in Spain, up from 12.14 million at the same time last year. Around 100,000 customers are signing up for fiber service each month. Most cite speed advantages fiber offers over competing broadband technologies.

Stop the Cap! Will Participate in New York State’s Review of Charter-Time Warner Merger

stop-the-capStop the Cap! will formally participate in New York State’s regulator review of the proposed merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable.

“We will be submitting documents and testimony to the New York State Department of Public Service on behalf of consumers across the state that need a better deal from their cable company,” said Phillip Dampier, the group’s president. “A review of the current proposal from Charter is inadequate for New York ratepayers and most of Charter’s commitments for better service and lower prices expire after just three short years.”

Stop the Cap! will urge regulators to insist on significant changes to Charter’s proposal that will permanently guarantee a broadband future with no compulsory usage caps/usage-based billing, Net Neutrality adherence, affordable broadband to combat the digital divide, and upgrades that deliver faster broadband than what Charter currently proposes outside of New York City.

Dampier

Dampier

“Upstate New York is at serious risk of falling dramatically behind other areas where Google Fiber and other providers are moving towards a gigabit broadband future,” Dampier said. “In most of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Binghamton, and Albany buying the FCC’s definition of broadband means calling a cable company that now delivers no better than 50Mbps to residential customers. Verizon FiOS expansion is dead and obsolete/slow DSL from Frontier and Verizon should have been scrapped years ago.”

Stop the Cap! worries that with limited prospects for a major new competitor like Google in Upstate New York, broadband speeds and service will not keep up with other states. Verizon has devoted most of its financial resources to expanding its wireless mobile network, which is too expensive to use as a home broadband replacement. Frontier claims to be investing millions in its networks, but has delivered only incremental improvements to their DSL service, which in most areas is still too slow to qualify as broadband.

“Frontier is more interested in acquisitions these days, not upgrades,” Dampier argued.

“Although we have some entrepreneurs managing to deliver competitive fiber service in limited areas, it will likely take years before they will reach most customers,” Dampier added. “Upstate New York cannot wait that long.”

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