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Math Problem: The Telecom Industry’s Bias Against Fiber-to-the-Home Service

Phillip "Spending $6k per cable customer is obviously a much better deal than paying half that to build a fiber to the home network" Dampier

Phillip “Spending $6k per cable customer is obviously a much better deal than paying half that to build a fiber to the home network” Dampier

Math was never my strong subject, but even I can calculate the groupthink of American cable and telephone companies and their friends on Wall Street just doesn’t add up.

This week, we learned that cable companies like Bright House Networks, Suddenlink, and Charter Communications are already lining up for a chance to acquire three million cable customers Comcast intends to sell if it wins approval of its merger with Time Warner Cable. Wall Street has already predicted Comcast will fetch as much as $18 billion for those customers and pegged the value of each at approximately $6,000.

But for less than half that price any company could build a brand new fiber to the home system capable of delivering 1,000Mbps broadband and state-of-the-art phone and television service and start banking profits long before paying off the debt from buying an inferior coaxial cable system. Yet we are told time and time again that the economics of fiber to the home service simply don’t make any sense and deploying the technology is a waste of money.

Let’s review:

Google Fiber was called a boondoggle by many of its competitors. The folks at Bernstein Research, routinely friendly to the cable business model, seemed appalled at the economics of Google’s fiber project in Kansas City. Bernstein’s Carlos Kirjner and Ram Parameswaran said Google would throw $84 million into the first phase of its fiber network, connecting 149,000 homes at a cost between $500-674 per home. The Wall Street analyst firm warned investors of the costs Google would incur reaching 20 million customers nationwide — $11 billion.

“We remain skeptical that Google will find a scalable and economically feasible model to extend its build out to a large portion of the U.S., as costs would be substantial, regulatory and competitive barriers material, and in the end the effort would have limited impact on the global trajectory of the business,” Bernstein wrote to its investor clients.

dealSo Google spending $11 billion to reach 20 million new homes is business malpractice while spending $18 billion for three million Time Warner Cable customers is confirmation of the cable industry’s robust health and valuation?

Bernstein’s firm never thought highly of Verizon FiOS either.

“If I were an auto dealer and I wanted to give people a Maserati for the price of a Volkswagen, I’d have some seriously happy customers,” Craig Moffett from Bernstein said back in 2008. “My problem would be whether I could earn a decent return doing it.”

Back then, Moffett estimated the average cost to Verizon per FiOS home passed was $3,897, a figure based on wiring up every neighborhood, but not getting every homeowner to buy the service. Costs for fiber have dropped dramatically since 2008. Dave Burstein from DSL Prime reported by the summer of 2012 Verizon told shareholders costs fell below $700/home passed and headed to $600. The total cost of running fiber, installing it in a customer’s home and providing equipment meant Verizon had to spend about $1,500 per customer when all was said and done.

Moffett concluded Verizon was throwing money away spending that much on improving service. He wasn’t impressed by AT&T U-verse either, which only ran fiber into the neighborhood, not to each home. Moffett predicted AT&T was spending $2,200 per home on U-verse back in 2008, although those costs have dropped dramatically as well.

Moffett

Moffett

Moffett’s solution for both Verizon and AT&T? Do nothing to upgrade, because the price wasn’t worth the amount of revenue returns either company could expect in the short-term.

It was a much different story if Comcast wanted to spend $45 billion to acquire Time Warner Cable however, a deal Moffett called “transformational.”

“What we’re talking about is an industry that is becoming more capital intensive,” Todd Mitchell, an analyst at Brean Capital LLC in New York told Bloomberg News. “What happens to mature, capital-intensive companies — they consolidate. So, yes, I think the cable industry is ripe for consolidation.”

Other investors agreed.

“This is definitely a bet on a positive future for high-speed access, cable and other services in an economic recovery,” said Bill Smead, chief investment officer at Smead Capital Management, whose fund owns Comcast shares.

ftth councilBut Forbes’ Peter Cohan called Google’s much less investment into fiber broadband a colossal waste of money.

“Larry Page should nip this bad idea in the bud,” Cohan wrote.

Cohan warned investors should throw water on the enthusiasm for fiber before serious money got spent.

“FTTH authority, Neal Lachman, wrote in SeekingAlpha, that it would cost as much as $500 billion and could take a decade to connect all the houses and commercial buildings in the U.S. to fiber,” Cohan added.

Cohan was concerned Google’s initial investment would take much too long to be recovered, which apparently is not an issue for buyers willing to spend $18 billion for three million disaffected Time Warner Cable customers desperately seeking alternatives.

An investment for the future, not for short term profits.

An investment for the future, not short term profits.

Municipal broadband providers have often chosen to deploy fiber to the home service because the technology offers plenty of capacity, ongoing maintenance costs are low and the networks can be upgraded at little cost indefinitely. But such broadband efforts, especially when they are owned by local government, represent a threat for cable and phone companies relying on a business model that sells less for more.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), funded by Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, Verizon, and other large telecom companies is at the forefront of helping friendly state legislators ban community fiber networks. Their excuse is that the fiber networks cost too much and, inexplicably, can reduce competition.

“A growing number of municipalities are […] building their own networks and offering broadband services to their citizens,” ALEC writes on its website. “ALEC disagrees with their answer due to the negative impacts it has on free markets and limited government.  In addition, such projects could erode consumer choice by making markets less attractive to competition because of the government’s expanded role as a service provider.”

The Fiber-to-the-Home Council obviously disagrees.

“Believe it or not, there are already more than a thousand telecom network operators and service providers across North America that have upgraded to fiber to the home,” says the Council. “The vast majority of these are local incumbent telephone companies that are looking to transform themselves from voice and DSL providers into 21st century broadband companies that can deliver ultra high-speed Internet and robust video services, as well as be able to deliver other high-bandwidth digital applications and services to homes and businesses in the years ahead.”

Stephenson

Stephenson

In fact, a good many of those efforts are undertaken by member-owned co-ops and municipally owned providers that answer to local residents, not to shareholders looking for quick returns.

The only time large companies like AT&T move towards fiber to the home service is when a competitor threatens to do it themselves. That is precisely what happened in Austin. The day Google announced it was launching fiber service in Austin, AT&T suddenly announced its intention to do the same.

“In Austin we’re deploying fiber very aggressively,” said AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. “The cost dynamics of deploying fiber have dramatically changed. The interfaces at the homes, the wiring requirements, how you get a wiring drop to a pole, and the way you splice it has totally changed the cost dynamics of deploying fiber.”

Prior to that announcement, AT&T justified its decision not to deploy fiber all the way to the home by saying it was unnecessary and too costly. With Google headed to town, that talking point is no longer operative.

Time Warner Cable, Comcast Crash, Burn in Consumer Reports’ 2014 Ratings

consumer reportsDespite claims of improved customer service and better broadband, Comcast and Time Warner Cable’s customer satisfaction scores are in near-free fall in the latest Consumer Reports National Research Center’s survey of consumers about their experiences with television and Internet services.

Although never popular with customers, both cable operators plummeted in the 2014 Consumer Reports ratings — Time Warner Cable is now only marginally above the perennial consumer disaster that is Mediacom. Comcast performs only slightly better.

In the view of Consumers Union, this provides ample evidence that two wrongs never make a right.

“Both Comcast and Time Warner Cable rank very poorly with consumers when it comes to value for the money and have earned low ratings for customer support,” said Delara Derakhshani.  “A merger combining these two huge companies would give Comcast even greater control over the cable and broadband Internet markets, leading to higher prices, fewer choices, and worse customer service for consumers.”

These ratings reflect Internet service only.

These ratings reflect Internet service only.

Comcast ranked 15th among 17 television service providers included in the ratings and earned particularly low marks from consumers for value for the money and customer support.  Time Warner ranked 16th overall for television service with particularly low ratings for value, reliability, and phone/online customer support.

Another ratings collapse for Comcast and Time Warner Cable

Another ratings collapse for Comcast and Time Warner Cable

Comcast and Time Warner Cable were mediocre on overall satisfaction with Internet service.  Both companies received especially poor marks for value and low ratings for phone/online customer support.

“In an industry with a terrible track record with consumers, these two companies are among the worst when it comes to providing good value for the money,” said Derakhshani.  “The FCC and Department of Justice should stand with consumers and oppose this merger.”

For as long as Stop the Cap! has published, Mediacom has always achieved bottom of the barrel ratings, with satellite fraudband provider HughesNet — the choice of the truly desperate — scoring dead last for Internet service. We’re accustomed to seeing the usual bottom-raters like Frontier (DSL), Windstream (DSL), and FairPoint (DSL) on the south end of the list. But now both Comcast and Time Warner Cable have moved into the same seedy neighborhood of expensive and lousy service. Comcast couldn’t even beat the ratings for Verizon’s DSL service, which is now barely marketed at all. Time Warner Cable scored lower than CenturyLink’s DSL.

Breathing an ever-so-slight sigh of relief this year is Charter Communications, which used to compete with Mediacom for customer raspberries. It ‘rocketed up’ to 18th place.

If you want top-notch broadband service, you need to remember only one word: fiber. It’s the magical optical cable phone and cable companies keep claiming they have but largely don’t (except for Verizon and Cincinnati Bell, among a select few). If you have fiber to the home broadband, you are very happy again this year. If you are served by an independent cable company that threw away the book on customer abuse, you are relieved. Topping the ratings again this year among all cable operators is WOW!, which has a legendary reputation for customer service. Wave/Astound is in second place. Verizon and Frontier FiOS customers stay pleased, and even those signed up with Bright House Networks and Suddenlink report improved service.

Ratings are based on responses from 81,848 Consumer Reports readers. Once again they plainly expose Americans are not happy with their telecom options. The average cost of home communications measured by the Mintel Group is now $154 a month — $1,848 a year. That’s more expensive than the average homeowner’s clothing, furniture or electricity budget. The same issues driving the bad ratings last year are still there in 2014: shoveling TV channels at customers they don’t want or need, imposing sneaky new fees along with broad-based rate increases every year, low value for money, and customer service departments staffed by the Don’t Care Bears.

Time Warner Cable Spams Customers With Empty Promises E-Mail

twc spam

Robert D. Marcus has plenty to be excited about. After less than two full months on the job as CEO, he agreed to sell Time Warner Cable and exit his management role if and when the merger is approved. But he won’t be hurting, because he negotiated a bountiful golden parachute that will award him more than $56 million in exit compensation the day he leaves.

Courtesy: Jacobson

Courtesy: Jacobson

That is but one example of the kind of “innovation” Comzilla will offer Time Warner Cable customers. Others include charging top dollar cable modem rental fees, a broadcast TV surcharge, a completely arbitrary usage cap on broadband service, and an offshore customer service experience even more despised than what Time Warner Cable customers get. 

Without actual head-to-head competition, there is no doubt we will hear executives crow to Wall Street that a supersized Comcast has plenty of room to raise broadband prices even higher and to cut company investments in innovation it won’t need to succeed in a controlled duopoly market.

AT&T and Verizon executives — Comcast’s largest competitors — have shrugged their shoulders about the merger deal, believing it will have almost no effect on their bottom lines. Why should it? Comcast has found a growth formula that works — a tap dance away from competition — buy out other cable companies to grow the customer base instead of winning ex-customers back with better service and a lower price.

It appears Marcus’ grand vision for turning Time Warner Cable around with a massive investment in faster speeds and better service is now dead. All that is left on the table is the vague notion of a “significant investment to improve reliability and to enhance our customer service.” In other words – we’ll do a better job to make sure the service you already pay big money to receive actually works and we’ll do a better job answering our phones.

Survey results show the proposed merger is not at all popular with Time Warner customers.

Nothing about Marcus’ spammed e-mail to customers is likely to change that perception.

Time Warner Cable Phone Customers May See Their Phone Numbers Go Unlisted

Phillip Dampier March 10, 2014 Competition, Consumer News, Frontier, Time Warner Cable No Comments

digital phoneTime Warner Cable telephone customers may find their phone numbers missing from directory assistance records and residential phone books.

This year, the cable company began charging directory publishers for its residential customer listings and some, including Frontier Communications, have refused to pay.

As a result, customers are likely to find their next copy of the White Pages thinner than it used to be.

The usefulness of telephone directories and directory assistance services have both been in decline for years as customers migrate to unlisted cell phones. But the loss of cable phone customers from phone books is a new trend. In the past, cable companies provided the listings for free to most directory publishers as a service to customers who wanted to keep their phone numbers in the directory. But now those listings are a money-maker, only available for sale.

Phil Yawman, Frontier Communications vice president and general manager for the Rochester, N.Y. area — Frontier’s largest urban market — told WXXI News the phone company opted not to buy the listings. 

Time Warner Cable spokesperson Joli Plucknette-Farmen said charging a fee for residential directory listings is accepted by the Federal Communications Commission.

Frontier, like many other phone companies, also no longer provides automatic delivery of residential White Pages listings, although the lucrative Yellow Pages will still appear on customer doorsteps. 

Comcast Considers What to Do With 3 Million Time Warner Customers It Plans to Toss Away

comcast twcShould regulators bless the coupling of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, some TWC customers will not be invited to the wedding.

In an effort to appease Washington, Comcast is voluntarily abiding by a 30% market share cap the company itself successfully sued to overturn in federal court. That means Comcast plans to voluntarily shed the three million Time Warner Cable customers that would put the company over its self-imposed limit.

Comcast is so confident its merger will win approval, the company is already contemplating what to do with the orphaned customers. Bloomberg News reports Comcast is considering launching a new publicly traded independent cable company to manage the ex-Time Warner customers. It would automatically be the fourth largest cable company in the country, behind the super-sized Comcast, Cox Communications, and Charter Cable. Comcast would use the new entity to claim it was creating a new “cable competitor” in the industry, despite the fact it would almost certainly never compete in markets where other cable companies already offer service.

Other cable companies are already expressing interest in picking up the stranded TWC customers. Among the suitors:

  • Charter Communications, which lost its original bid to take over Time Warner Cable;
  • Bright House Networks, which now serves markets in the southern U.S.;
  • Suddenlink Communications, which primarily serves rural communities and small cities ignored by larger providers.

Comcast hasn’t announced what cities will not be included in the Comcast-TWC merger, and does not plan to decide until at least late spring. Financial strategists are recommending Comcast “spinout” the subscribers to a new entity that would be loaded up with debt to win significant tax savings from the transaction. The new cable company would likely be worth at least $17 billion.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Comcast Might Spin Off TWC Subs 2-28-14.flv

Bloomberg News reports Comcast would be in the enviable position of creating its own “competitor” by spinning off certain Time Warner Cable customers into a new company Comcast would launch. (2:45)

Comcast/Time Warner Cable Now Hated More Than Bird Flu

Now that Comcast plans to consume Time Warner Cable in a $45 billion dollar deal, customers hate both companies more than ever.

Time Warner Cable’s consumer perception ratings only slightly recovered since their damaging fist fight with CBS last summer that darkened CBS-owned stations in several large cities and took Showtime and The Movie Channel off subscriber screens nationwide.

But the devil you know is apparently better than the one you don’t, because once consumers learned two of the most loathed cable companies in the country were hooking up, it was all downhill from there.

No cable company rated by YouGov’s BrandIndex has ever scored high enough to get out of the ratings gutter, but once consumers found out about the merger, both Comcast and Time Warner Cable’s ratings plummeted, even though nothing has changed yet at either company as the deal awaits regulator approval:

The American cable industry is notoriously unpopular. But it’s worth noting that other providers have not suffered similar since hits to their brands since the blockbuster deal was announced (including Charter Communications, which was originally expected to buy Time Warner Cable, but missed out).

consumer-perception-comcast-time-warner-cable_chartbuilder-2

us-cable-industry-consumer-perception-cablevision-charter-comcast-cox-time-warner-cable_chartbuilder

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Funny or Die Comcast Doesnt Give A FCK censored 3-2-14.mp4

The folks at Funny or Die created this (censored) short explaining what Comcast thinks about its own customers and those joining the company from Time Warner Cable. (1:45)

Sen. Al Franken vs. Time Warner Cable/Comcast Merger

Franken

Franken

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has turned over much of his campaign website to expressing concern about the merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

Franken has maintained a comparatively low profile since arriving in the U.S. Senate and rarely grants interviews to reporters outside of Minnesota, but after the announced $45 billion merger deal between the two largest cable companies in the country, he started making exceptions.

Franken has repeatedly tangled with Comcast, the dominant cable operator in his home state, since being elected. He favors Net Neutrality/Open Internet policies, strongly opposed Comcast’s purchase of NBCUniversal, and believes cable rates are too high and service quality is too low.

Although the senator claims he remains undecided about the merger, his public comments suggest he is likely going to oppose the deal.

“We need more competition, not less,” said Franken, who mocked Comcast’s claim that the two cable companies never compete with each other. “This is going exactly in the wrong direction. Consumers, I am very concerned, are going to pay higher bills and get even worse service and less choice.”

Although the merger will leave the combined company serving nearly one in three households, Comcast says it plans to keep its total nationwide broadband market share under 30%. But Franken points out Comcast isn’t just a cable company. It also owns a major television network and has ownership interests in nearly three dozen cable networks and television stations around the country — many in America’s largest cities.

Franken mass e-mailed his campaign supporters to express concern about the current state of the cable and broadband business and asked consumers what they thought about their cable company. More than 60,000 have shared their mostly negative views so far.

Minnesota Public Radio takes a closer look at why Sen. Al Franken is interested in the merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast. Feb. 24, 2014 (4:32)
You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

competitionThat may prove to be smart politics for Franken, seen as a polarizing figure in the left-right divide. The near-universal loathing among consumers for both Comcast and Time Warner Cable threaten to rise above traditional partisan politics. Republican lawmakers have kept largely quiet about the merger deal, and some are even openly questioning it. Franken may tapped into a re-election issue that voters across Minnesota are likely to support — especially older Republican-leaning independents.

Franken claims his survey is trying to level the playing field by getting consumers involved in the issue. For Washington regulators accustomed to only hearing from company lobbyists and various third party groups often financially tied to merger advocates, it could be a game-changer.

Comcast’s connections in Washington are legendary. Former Republican FCC commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker wasted no time taking a job as a senior Comcast lobbyist shortly after voting in favor of Comcast’s buyout of NBCUniversal. Former Republican FCC chairman Michael Powell today heads the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the cable industry’s largest lobbying group and supporter of the merger.

The merger deal’s regulatory review will be conducted by current FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, a past president of the NCTA and former cable and wireless industry lobbyist. Bill Baer is in charge of the Antitrust Division that will examine the merger at the U.S. Department of Justice. His last job was leading the law firm that represented NBC in support of the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNN Al Franken Talks With CNN About TWC-Comcast Merger 2-13-14.flv

Sen. Al Franken spoke to CNN’s Jake Tapper earlier this month about the Time Warner Cable-Comcast merger. Tapper admitted he dropped Comcast because he was dissatisfied with their service. (7:45)

Aereo Banned in Six States; Utah Judge Rules Service Violates Copyright Laws

aereo_logoA Utah federal district court judge has found Aereo in violation of federal copyright law and must end online streaming of over the air television stations to customers within his jurisdiction, which includes Utah, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Wyoming and Oklahoma.

U.S. District Court Judge Dale A. Kimball broke ranks with district court judges in the eastern U.S. that have ruled Aereo’s streamed feeds of local television stations received over the air by tiny antennas is within the law, but the Supreme Court is expected to have the last word when it hears arguments about the service’s legality later this spring.

The ruling means Aereo will have to suspend service in two of its 10 operating markets — Salt Lake City and Denver. Service to other markets will continue unaffected for now.

Kimball’s decision was based on The Copyright Act of 1976 which requires broadcasters and retransmission services to pay royalties to content originators, in this case the networks and the affiliated local stations involved. Broadcasters consider Aereo a major threat to their retransmission consent revenue stream. Cable, satellite, and telephone company providers are collectively paying millions for permission to carry local stations on their lineups. Should Aereo offer a free alternative, these pay television providers could adopt similar technology to avoid paying the fees.

Kimball determined Aereo was operating more like a cable company than a remote antenna service.

Unlike Here, British Broadband Customers Satisfied With Their Broadband Providers

Plusnet offers DSL and fiber broadband plans (in some areas) that offer budget-priced capped or unlimited use plans.

Plusnet offers DSL and fiber broadband plans (in some areas) that offer budget-priced capped or unlimited use plans.

While North American cable and phone broadband providers are among the most-hated companies on the continent, in the United Kingdom, customers gave generally high scores to their Internet providers.

PC Advisor partnered with Broadband Genie, an impartial, independent, and consumer-focused commercial broadband comparison service. Together they engaged an independent survey company (OnPoll) to survey 3,000 broadband users, chosen at random, in late 2013 and early 2014. They asked those users how happy they were with their ISP, tested the speed and reliability of their connections, and found out other valuable tidbits, such as how much they were paying, and for what exactly. Altogether, more than 10,000 U.K. broadband users contributed to the data that made an in-depth assessment of British broadband possible.

The results might stun those on the other side of the Atlantic. Unlike in Canada and the U.S., British broadband users are satisfied overall with their providers, and are enthusiastic about recommending many of them to others. Even the worst-performing provider – BE – still had a 46% recommendation rating, and the company was sold to BSkyB well over a year ago and is in the process of being merged with Sky’s broadband service.

Around 68 percent of British broadband users responding still rely primarily on various flavors of DSL for Internet service. But BT, the national telephone company, is in the process of upgrading facilities and dramatically increasing the amount of fiber optics in its network. The result is what the Brits call “Super Fast Broadband.” Back here, we call it fiber to the neighborhood service similar to AT&T’s U-verse or Bell’s Fibe. In many cases, improved service is providing speeds much closer to 25Mbps vs. the 1-6Mbps many customers used to receive. The upgrade is an important development, especially in rural Britain, often left without Internet access.

Cable broadband is much more common in North American than in the United Kingdom. While cable television became dominant here, the British favored small satellite dishes like those used by DirecTV or Dish customers. With BT dominating wired infrastructure, the government required the company to open its landline network to third-party providers. Some cable companies do exist in England, but they hold only a 12% broadband market share, even lower than fiber to the home service now at nearly 20%.

Great Britain treats broadband as a national priority, and although the current government has controversially settled for a hybrid fiber-copper network instead of delivering fiber straight to every British home, it’s a considerable improvement over what came before, especially in rural areas. Usage caps that used to dominate British broadband plans are now an option for the budget-minded. Unlimited use plans are becoming more mainstream.

With all the upgrade activity and improved service, the Brits have gotten optimistic about their broadband future. Only 12% of those surveyed loathe their broadband supplier. Another 20% were neutral about recommending their ISP, but 51% considered themselves satisfied and another 17% considered their provider top rate. Many in Britain even expect their Internet bill will decrease in 2014, and compared with North American prices, it’s often very low already.

The average price paid by customers of various British ISPs (excluding line rental)

The average price paid by customers of various British ISPs (excluding line rental)

Average speed received by customers varies depending on the technology. Virgin operates cable broadband, Plusnet uses a mix of DSL and fiber, while the slower performers are primarily ADSL.

Average speed test results per ISP (kbps)

  • Virgin: 27,266

    virgin-media-union-logo

    Was top-rated for broadband reliability.

  • Plusnet: 24,529
  • BT: 13,164
  • TalkTalk: 6,910
  • EE: 6,818
  • Demon: 6,586
  • Sky: 5,942
  • Eclipse: 5,786
  • O2: 5,642
  • Be: 5,458
  • AOL: 3,809
  • Post Office: 3,255

Overall ratings and reviews from PC Advisor found Virgin Media (cable) and Plusnet (DSL/Fiber) near tied for top ratings.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/PC Advisor Best cheapest fastest broadband UK ISPs rated 2-19-14.mp4

PC Advisor talks about this year’s British ISP review, which reveals Brits are generally satisfied with their broadband speeds and pricing. (3:51)

Peer Wars: Netflix SuperHD Streaming May Explain Video Traffic Slowdowns for Some Customers

The largest drops in streaming speeds are coming from ISPs that may be stalling necessary upgrades at the expense of their customers' online experience.

The largest drops in Netflix streaming speeds are coming from ISPs that may be stalling necessary upgrades at the cost of their paying customers’ online experience.

Netflix performance for Verizon customers is deteriorating because Verizon may be delaying bandwidth upgrades until it receives compensation for handling the growing amount of traffic coming from the online video provider.

Verizon customers have increasingly complained about Netflix slowdowns during prime-time, especially in the northeast, and Netflix’s latest statistics confirm FiOS customers have seen average performance drop by as much as 14% in the last month alone.

Verizon told Stop the Cap! a few weeks ago the company was not interfering with Netflix traffic or degrading its performance, but there is growing evidence that may not be the whole story. The Wall Street Journal reports Netflix and at least one bandwidth provider suspect phone and cable companies are purposely stalling on upgrading connections to handle traffic growth from Netflix until they are compensated for carrying its video traffic.

The dispute involves the plumbing behind parts of the Internet that are invisible to consumers. As more people stream movies and television, that infrastructure is getting strained, intensifying the debate over who should pay for upgrades needed to satisfy America’s online-video habit.

Netflix wants broadband companies to hook up to its new video-distribution network without paying them fees for carrying its traffic. But the biggest U.S. providers—Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and AT&T Inc. —have resisted, insisting on compensation.

The bottleneck has made Netflix unwatchable for Jen Zellinger, an information-technology manager from Carney, Md., who signed up for the service last month. She couldn’t play an episode of “Breaking Bad” without it stopping, she said, even after her family upgraded their FiOS Internet service to a faster, more expensive package. “We tried a couple other shows, and it didn’t seem to make any difference,” she said. Mrs. Zellinger said she plans to drop her Netflix service soon if the picture doesn’t improve, though she will likely hold on to her upgraded FiOS subscription.

She and her husband thought about watching “House of Cards,” but she said they probably will skip it. “We’d be interested in getting to that if we could actually pull up the show,” she said.

Netflix relies on third-party traffic distributors to deliver much of its streamed programming to customers around the country. Cogent Communications Group is a Netflix favorite. Cogent maintains two-way connections with many Internet Service Providers. When incoming and outgoing traffic are generally balanced, providers don’t complain. But when Cogent started delivering far more traffic to Verizon customers than what it receives from them, Verizon sought compensation for the disparity.

“When one party’s getting all the benefit and the other’s carrying all the cost, issues will arise,” Craig Silliman, Verizon’s head of public policy and government affairs told the newspaper. The imbalance is primarily coming from the growth of online video, and as higher definition video grows more popular, traffic imbalances can grow dramatically worse.

A spat last summer between Cogent and some ISPs is nearly identical to the current slowdown. Ars Technica reported the traditional warning signs providers used to start upgrades are increasingly being ignored:

“Typically what happened is when the connections reached about 50 percent utilization, the two parties agreed to upgrade them and they would be upgraded in a timely manner,” Cogent CEO Dave Schaeffer told Ars. “Over the past year or so, as we have continued to pick up Netflix traffic, Verizon has continuously slowed down the rate of upgrading those connections, allowing the interconnections to become totally saturated and therefore degrading the quality of throughput.”

Schaeffer said this is true of all the big players to varying degrees, naming Comcast, Time Warner, CenturyLink, and AT&T. Out of those, he said that “AT&T is the best behaved of the bunch.”

Letting ports fill up can be a negotiating tactic. Verizon and Cogent each have to spend about $10,000 for equipment when a port is added, Schaeffer said—pocket change for companies of this size. But instead of the companies sharing equal costs, Verizon wants Cogent to pay because more traffic is flowing from Cogent to Verizon than vice versa.

Cablevision, which participates in Netflix's Open Connect program experiences no significant speed degradation during prime time. The same cannot be said with Time Warner Cable, which refuses to participate.

Cablevision, which participates in Netflix’s Open Connect program, experiences no significant speed degradation during prime time. The same cannot be said of Time Warner Cable, which refuses to take part.

Netflix offered a solution to help Internet Service Providers manage its video traffic. Netflix’s Open Connect offers free peering at common Internet exchanges as well as free storage appliances that ISPs can connect directly to their network to distribute video to customers. Free is always good, and Netflix claims many ISPs around the world have already taken them up on the offer, slashing their transit costs along the way.

A few major North American ISPs have also agreed to take part in Open Connect, including Frontier Communications, Clearwire, Telus, Bell, Cablevision and Google Fiber. Open Connect participating ISPs also got an initial bonus for participating they could offer customers – exclusive access to SuperHD streaming.

But most Americans would not get super high-resolution streaming because the largest ISP’s refused to participate, seeking direct compensation from content providers to carry traffic across their digital pipes instead.

On Sep. 26, 2013 Netflix decided to offer SuperHD streaming to all customers, regardless of their ISP. As a result, one major ISP told the newspaper Netflix traffic from Cogent at least quadrupled. ISPs taking Netflix up on Open Connect saw almost no degradation from the increased traffic, but not so for Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Comcast customers.

Net Neutrality advocates fear the country’s largest phone and cable companies are making an end-run around the concept of an Open Internet. Providers can honestly guarantee not to interfere with certain web traffic, but also refuse to keep up with needed upgrades to accommodate it unless they receive payment. The slowdowns and unsatisfactory performance are the same in the end for those caught in the middle – paying customers.

“Customers are already paying for it,” said industry observer Benoît Felten. “You sell a service to the end-user which is you can access the Internet. You make a huge margin on that. Why should they get extra revenue for something that’s already being paid for?”

Some of the web’s biggest players including Microsoft, Google and Facebook may have already capitulated — agreeing to pay major providers for direct connections that guarantee a smoother browsing experience. Netflix has, thus far, held out against paying ISPs to properly manage the video content their subscribers want to watch but in some cases no longer can.

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  • Doom: Nice to see Rocky Miller openly whoring himself out to the telecoms against the people he's purporting to represent....
  • Oscar@SA: Come to San Antonio. I will help bury the cable in my area if needed, then I can go tell TWC to go you know where.. lol...
  • ssssssssssss: who want to make money online >>> http://adf.ly/wTP2i <<< after 3 mouth can you make almost 5 usd per day but after 1 year can youy...
  • John: Gah, they are putting up Google Fiber in NC and Georgia, but nothing in SC? Not even Charleston or Columbia or Myrtle Beach?...
  • BobInIllinois: So far, NO Google FIber in Big 10 country!!.....
  • Javier: Im having bad internet and phone signal with brighthouse for many years, I get disconnected from internet and my son xbox game is the same, technician...
  • Brian: I am an avid gamer who feels this pain as my speed drops to half (or less) during peak hours. Imagine my pain as only 10 miles away my friends have su...
  • Jason: Great article! I had U200, 18mps internet with 3 receivers, HD with no premium channels. I was paying $163/month and received a mailer from Comcast...
  • Limboaz: Figuring out how to stop the blatant corruption in Washington is one of the biggest challenges facing the American public. Frankly, crony capitalism s...
  • jdhdbsb: Post this on reddit in as many subreddits as you can, post on Facebook, Twitter, and whatever else you can. Will get more attention this way....
  • Howie: I think Verizon will eventually get out of the landline business including dropping Fios and will become a wireless only company. It's just a matter ...
  • Joe V: I ask all of you to sign this petition regarding broadband in the United States. Most people are not aware that AT&T and Verizon want to eliminate...

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