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Time Warner Cable Goes Shopping: Approached Cox for Deal, Told to Take a Hike

Phillip Dampier April 27, 2015 Competition, Consumer News, Cox, Time Warner Cable No Comments

coxA week after its deal with Comcast collapsed, Time Warner Cable may be in the buying mood.

The Wall Street Journal reports the cable giant approached privately held Cox Communications about a deal. Cox told them they weren’t interested.

“We’ve been clear we’re not for sale and we’ll continue to explore any potential growth opportunities that align with our business objectives,” said a Cox spokesperson.

Time Warner Cable’s apparent interest in cutting a quick deal with another operator may be a sign they are not going to lie down for another expected offer from Charter Communications that could come within days or weeks. The groundwork for such a deal is already being laid.

Cox, like Cablevision, have been perennially rumored takeover targets, but both have proved elusive. In 2004, Cox went private for a second time and a second generation of the Dolan family, which holds a controlling interest in Cablevision, continues to be integrally involved in Cablevision’s operations.

Time Warner Cable still has several options to pursue acquisitions. Suddenlink customers are in open revolt over that company’s decision to enforce usage caps on its broadband service. Both Charter and Mediacom are routinely rated poor by customers and could be swayed into a deal. Bright House Networks already relies on Time Warner Cable for programming deals and technical services.

Updated 4:22pm — Reuters is reporting Time Warner’s denials that it approached Cox for a deal. “It’s simply not true. We have not engaged in any discussions with Cox,” Time Warner Cable’s spokeswoman Susan Leepson told Reuters.

Justice Department Nearing Decision to Block Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

Phillip Dampier April 17, 2015 Competition, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 5 Comments

comcast twcStaff attorneys that have reviewed details of the Time Warner Cable/Comcast merger proposal are prepared to make a recommendation as early as next week that the Department of Justice should block the deal because it is anti-competitive and anti-consumer.

The staff in the Justice Department’s antitrust division have spent more than a year reviewing documents submitted by both cable companies to determine what impact the merger would have on the cable television and broadband landscape.

Bloomberg News today reported the attorneys did not like what they saw and believe the merger would harm consumers. For the first time, a cable company merger deal was reviewed not so much for its impact on cable television programming, but on broadband.

When the Federal Communications Commission redefined broadband as an Internet connection of at least 25Mbps, Comcast suddenly found itself the largest broadband provider in the country. If the merger with Time Warner Cable is approved, Comcast will have a 56.8 percent market share of U.S. broadband customers, far exceeding any other provider.

In upstate New York, Comcast would have more than a 75% market share — nearly 9o% if you just consider non-Verizon FiOS areas. In California, Comcast would control more than 80% of the market, not only picking up Time Warner Cable customers, but Charter customers in Southern California as well. 

Comcast and Time Warner Cable have argued competition is not affected because the two companies never compete with each other. But a de facto broadband monopoly could allow Comcast to raise rates at will and bring a return to usage-related billing. It would also discourage new competitors from entering the market – particularly those relying on broadband to deliver video services, and hand Comcast more leverage to force compensation from online content companies like Netflix.

justiceUnder consideration by the Justice Department:

  • Whether the combined entity would have too much control over nationwide broadband Internet delivery;
  • whether Comcast could use its financial influence to strike exclusive cable deals that could keep programming off other platforms;
  • whether Comcast could limit how programming is delivered through video streaming services (usage caps, etc.);
  • if Comcast complied with terms under a previous merger deal with NBCUniversal.

Renata Hesse, a deputy assistant attorney general for antitrust, will take the analysis and ultimately decide, along with the division’s top officials, whether to file a federal lawsuit to block the deal. Bloomberg reports lawyers at the Justice Department have contacted outside parties to collect evidence to strengthen their potential case against the merger.

Another clear sign the merger is not being received well inside the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission is a complete lack of negotiations with Comcast over possible concessions to make the deal less anti-competitive. That also happened with the AT&T/T-Mobile merger where negotiations to ease anticompetitive concerns never seriously got off the ground before the Justice Department sued to block the deal. The FCC quickly announced its own opposition later that same day.

A lawsuit does not necessarily kill the merger deal. Comcast could take its case to federal court to win approval over the objections of the Justice Department. The company might also counter-propose new concessions to address concerns raised by the lawsuit. 

After learning of today’s Bloomberg News story, spokespeople at both Comcast and Time Warner Cable are either confident or in denial:

“There is no basis for a lawsuit to block the transaction,” said Sena Fitzmaurice, a Comcast spokeswoman. The merger “will result in significant consumer benefits — faster broadband speeds, access to a superior video experience, and more competition in business services resulting in billions of dollars of cost savings.”

Time Warner Cable spokesman Bobby Amirshahi said “we have been working productively with both DOJ and FCC and believe that there is no basis for DOJ to block the deal.”

Zimbabwe: Fast Broadband is a “Basic Human Right”; Victoria Falls Going Fiber-to-the-Home: 100Mbps Service

zol-logo-newThe two largest telecom companies in Zimbabwe believe broadband access isn’t just an essential utility — it’s a basic human right and they are responding with major upgrade projects that will deliver speedier broadband, sometimes even faster than what most customers in North America can access.

Anything less than fiber-to-the-home service won’t do, according to Tom Tudor, chief marketing officer at Liquid Telecom. The company is expanding its fiber project in Zimbabwe with popular tourist destination Victoria Falls getting a major upgrade. Liquid Telecom believes data caps are incompatible with the concept of bringing the Internet to more people to “participate in, and benefit from, the digital revolution.” Liquid Telecom’s fiber service – Fibroniks, doesn’t have usage limits or hidden gotcha fees.

“Every day we lay new fiber which enables us to deliver what we refer to as ‘The Real Internet’, a superfast service which transforms how people access and share information,” Tudor said.

superfast-fibreAt the outset in Victoria Falls, Fibroniks will offer unlimited use packages up to 100Mbps, with a commitment customers can access whatever they want, whenever they want, at a guaranteed fixed monthly price. Liquid Telecom already supplies fiber service in the capital city of Harare, but Tudor believes getting into smaller communities in the country is essential.

“We believe that internet connectivity is a basic human right and so it is our mission to provide quality broadband to every person and business in Africa,” said Tudor.

It will bring a broadband revolution to Victoria Falls, a community of over 35,000 that has languished with ADSL and last generation wireless services like WiMAX and 3G, which offer speeds typically no higher than 512kbps.

Fibroniks also includes telephone service, which will cost a fraction of what Tel•One, Zimbabwe’s sole fixed landline provider, charges for service. Tel•One has focused most of its investment improving and expanding ADSL service over its existing landline network. Although Tel•One may end up reaching more Zimbabwe citizens faster that Liquid Telecom, the speeds Tel•One provides will be much slower than Liquid Telecom’s Fibroniks.

Liquid Telecom’s other fiber to the home projects are in Zambia, with plans to expand to Kenya, Rwanda, and two other African countries yet to be announced.

Cox Boosting Its Economy Class Broadband Speeds in Arizona: 5Mbps is Now the Minimum

COX_RES_RGBCox Communications has raised Internet speeds for its economy class customers in Arizona as it continues network enhancements across the state.

One-third of Cox customers in Arizona subscribe to the company’s two cheapest tiers — Internet Starter and Internet Essential. Both packages are getting free speed upgrades that began in late March. Now all Cox customers in the state should have the higher speeds:

  • Cox High Speed Internet Starter was 1Mbps and is now 5Mbps;
  • Cox High Speed Internet Essential was 5Mbps and is now 15Mbps.

Speed increases in one state often eventually turn up in other states where Cox provides service.

Last July, Cox doubled speeds for its Preferred tier (increased from 25 to 50Mbps) and Premiere tier (increased from 50 to 100Mbps).

Usage caps are still in place on Cox broadband packages, but they are widely ignored by most customers because Cox rarely cracks down on offenders, and usually backs off if a customer threatens to cancel service over the issue.

AT&T Barely Launches GigaPower U-verse in Houston… Another Fiber to the Press Release Irritates Locals

gigapower-600x315Houston residents excited by this week’s launch of AT&T U-verse with GigaPower have been quickly disappointed after learning the service is available practically nowhere in Houston and likely won’t be for some time.

The upgrade, offering up to 1,000/1,000Mbps broadband, was launched Monday with an announcement “select residents” in Bellaire, Pasadena, and northwest Harris County, Tex. will be the first to get the service.

Bellaire, known as the “City of Homes,” is a primarily residential community of 6,000 houses surrounded by the city of Houston. AT&T’s Houston headquarters are located in Bellaire, and the company maintains good relations with the local government. Larry Evans, AT&T’s vice president and general manager for South Texas told the Houston Chronicle that is a key factor for getting GigaPower upgrades. Evans said Bellaire, Pasadena and northwest Harris County have been very cooperative in clearing red tape and letting AT&T install fiber infrastructure for GigaPower with a minimum of fuss from permitting and zoning authorities.

Bellaire is a mostly residential community surrounded by Houston.

Bellaire is a mostly residential community surrounded by Houston.

The larger city of Pasadena, with a population approaching 150,000 is another case where close cooperation with the city government made the difference. The city council contracts with AT&T to supply telecom services to the local government as well.

As in other AT&T service areas, actual availability of GigaPower is extremely limited. A search of prospective addresses in Pasadena found service available in only a few neighborhoods. In Bellaire, only a few streets now qualify for service. We were unable to find a single address in “northwest Harris County” that qualified for U-verse with GigaPower, but AT&T claims that “surrounding communities” would also have access, without disclosing the names of any of them. That makes it extremely difficult to accurately use AT&T’s service qualification tool to verify coverage.

Jim Cale found he pre-qualified on the website for U-verse with GigaPower service, but his hopes were dashed when a representative informed him his order was canceled because, in fact, GigaPower was not actually available on his street.

“My neighborhood was wired with fiber to the home when it [was built] a few years ago,” shared “Ed From Texas.” “AT&T is the provider and that was one of its advertised features. Who do I need to harass at AT&T to get Gigapower turned on for us?”

Gene R. is in a similar predicament:

“I can’t even get U-Verse and I am two blocks from loop 610,” he said. “AT&T says they don’t know when it will be available. I suspect…never.”

Richard dumped AT&T in the past for not meeting the speeds U-verse advertises, but is hopeful an all-fiber network might finally bring better speeds.

pasadena“I dropped AT&T’s MaxPlus because I never got anything approaching the 18Mbps speed I was being billed for,” he wrote.

AT&T will sell several U-verse with GigaPower plans in Houston. The packages below include waivers of equipment, installation and activation fees, if you agree to allow AT&T to monitor your browsing activity:

  • U-verse High Speed Internet Premier: Internet speeds up to 1Gbps starting as low as $110 a month, or speeds at 300Mbps as low as $80 a month, with a one year price guarantee;
  • U-verse High Speed Internet Premier + TV: Internet speeds up to 1Gbps and qualifying TV service starting as low as $150 a month, or speeds at 300Mbps and qualifying TV service as low as $120 a month, with a one year price guarantee;
  • U-verse High Speed Internet Premier + TV + Voice: Internet speeds up to 1Gbps with qualifying TV service and Unlimited U-verse Voice starting as low as $180 a month, or speeds at 300Mbps with qualifying TV service and Unlimited U-verse Voice as low as $150 a month, with a two-year price guarantee.

These offers all include a provision in the service agreement allowing AT&T to spy on your browsing habits ostensibly to supply “targeted advertising.” But the terms and conditions do not limit AT&T from broadening its monitoring of your usage for other purposes. If you opt out, the price goes up to $109 monthly for 300Mbps service and $139 monthly for 1Gbps broadband and you will pay installation and activation fees.

AT&T says the monitoring is done purely to power its targeted ads. Some examples:

  • If you search for concert tickets, you may receive offers and ads related to restaurants near the concert venue;
  • After you browse hotels in Miami, you may be offered discounts for rental cars there;
  • If you search for a car online, you may receive an email notifying you of a local dealership’s sale;
  • If you are exploring a new home appliance at one retailer, you may be presented with similar appliance options from other retailers.

“You might receive these offers or ads online, via email or through direct mail,” says AT&T on their Internet Preferences page.

The “price guarantee” provision is actually a contract obligating you to stay with U-verse for 1-2 years or face an early termination fee of $180. AT&T also warns your Internet speeds will deteriorate “if two or more HD shows [are] viewed at same time.” Usage caps apply, as usual. GigaPower customers signed up for the fastest speeds receive 1 terabyte, or 1,000 gigabytes, of data per month. Customers will get warnings if they exceed the cap twice. The third time, and going forward after that, they’ll pay a $10 fee for each 50GB over the cap.

Stop the Cap! Calls on Comcast to End Its Usage Caps/Usage Billing Trials, Restore Unlimited Service

Phillip "Comcast lost its case for usage caps" Dampier

Phillip “Comcast lost its case for usage caps” Dampier

With today’s announcement Comcast intends to bring unlimited 2Gbps broadband to as many as 18 million homes across its service area, one thing is clear — if Comcast is not worried about the impact of that many potential customers consuming 2Gbps of bandwidth, there is absolutely no justification to impose usage caps and allowances on any Comcast customer.

A frequent justification for usage caps and usage billing is to guarantee fair access for all customers on a shared, congested network. Another is to help defray the cost of broadband expansion. But Comcast’s new super-speed tier will have no usage cap and customers are invited to use it as much as they like for a fixed price. Clearly, a customer maxing out a 2Gbps connection to upload and download enormous amounts of content, say on a peer-to-peer network, will have a far greater impact on Comcast’s infrastructure than a user with a basic 25Mbps Internet connection. Yet today in Atlanta, Comcast is asking its 25Mbps customers to stay within a 300GB usage allowance, if they want to avoid an overlimit penalty of $10 for each 50GB block of additional usage.

Comcast does not like Stop the Cap! calling Comcast’s “data usage trials” what we believe them to be: “usage caps.”

In response to our testimony before the New York Public Service Commission last year regarding its application to acquire Time Warner Cable, Comcast objected to our claim it was placing usage allowances or limits on its broadband customers.

“Comcast does not have ‘data caps’ today,” Comcast told the PSC in its filing. “Comcast announced almost two years ago that it was suspending enforcement of its prior 250GB excessive usage cap and that it would instead be trialing different pricing and packaging options to evaluate options for subscribers—options that reflect evolving Internet usage and that are based on the desire to provide flexible consumption plans, including a plan that enables customers who want to use more data the option to pay more to do so as well as a plan for those who use less data the option to save some money.”

Yet Comcast’s desire to offer “flexible” usage plans becomes very inflexible when customers ask for unlimited service. Comcast has refused to offer such an option in several trial markets where usage caps are once again being tested.

courtesy-notice-640x259Last May, Comcast vice president David Cohen emphatically stated usage caps and usage-based billing were all about “fairness,” telling investors: “People who use more should pay more, and people who use less should pay less.”

Those signing up for 2Gbps service will be in a position to use far more bandwidth and data than any other Comcast customer subscribing to a lower speed broadband tier, yet will not be asked to pay more for using more or pay less for using less. They will be signing up for a simple to understand unlimited usage plan most Comcast customers want that will carry no billing surprises. At the moment, that is the only unlimited tier residential plan a Comcast customer in Atlanta will be able to buy.

Also turned on its head is the idea that customers who use the most bandwidth or cost Comcast the most should be contributing more to help Comcast pay for network upgrades, but once again this will not be the case for 2Gbps customers in Atlanta. They will cost Comcast a fortune as the company rips out its existing HFC (coaxial cable) infrastructure and replaces it with fiber to the home service. Yet the 25Mbps customer still using decades-old coaxial cable is effectively being asked to limit their Internet usage to avoid additional charges while the 2Gbps modern fiber customer is not.

It clearly makes no sense, but will rake in dollars for Comcast as usage continues to grow.

If Comcast’s network can sustain up to 18 million 2Gbps users with no usage cap, it has more than enough capacity to take the limits off every Comcast broadband customer. Comcast must shelve its usage billing trials immediately and remove all usage allowances from residential broadband customers in various test markets where they have been in place for more than a year. Google, Verizon, Time Warner Cable, Cablevision, Charter, and many other broadband providers have found no defensible reason to slap usage limits on their broadband customers. If they can provide comparable speeds and service without a cap, so can Comcast.

Comcast should clearly state it is in the business of providing the best possible customer experience using 21st century infrastructure more than robust enough to sustain usage demands, and compulsory usage caps and consumption billing are incompatible with the company’s goal to provide top-quality, worry-free Internet access.

If Comcast wants to test voluntary discount programs for light users, we have no objection. But customers should always have access to an affordable unlimited option without having to watch usage meters or worry about bill shock.

Comcast needs to do the right thing today and end all compulsory data usage trials across the country and commit to providing unlimited, allowance-free broadband service.

Comcast Announces 2Gbps Fiber Service for Atlanta; Up to 18 Million Homes Nationwide May Eventually Qualify

Could a speedtest like this be in your future?

Could a speed test like this be in your future?

Comcast is entering the gigabit broadband business and is guaranteeing customers willing to pay for the experience will not be subjected to a usage cap.

Comcast’s Gigabit Pro will arrive next month in select Atlanta neighborhoods located within one-third of a mile of Comcast’s fiber backbone network in the city. Promising 2,000/2,000Mbps unlimited fiber-to-the-home service (at a yet to be disclosed price), Comcast hopes to upstage Google Fiber and AT&T U-verse with GigaPower which are both working to upgrade Atlanta to 1,000Mbps service.

“We’ll first offer this service in Atlanta and roll it out in additional cities soon with the goal to have it available across the country and available to about 18 million homes by the end of the year,” said Marcien Jenckes, executive vice president of consumer services for Comcast. “Gigabit Pro is a professional-grade residential fiber-to-the-home solution that leverages our fiber network to deliver 2Gbps upload and download speeds. We’ve spent a decade building a national fiber backbone across 145,000 route miles of fiber. This new service will be available to customers that are within close proximity to our fiber network.”

Comcast says it will price Gigabit Pro below the cost of its current Extreme 505 (505/100Mbps) service, which costs $399.95 a month, not including the $250 technology activation fee, $250 installation fee, and three-year contract with up to a $1,000 early cancellation penalty. It seems unlikely Comcast’s price for 2Gbps will hover near Google and AT&T’s usual $70 fee for 1Gbps service. Comcast has to bring fiber from its nearest fiber node to a customer’s home and install commercial-grade equipment capable of handling 2Gbps. Existing Extreme 505 customers will be upgraded to 2Gbps for no additional charge.

Comcast-LogoComcast officials have repeatedly stressed its 2Gbps tier will be exempt from usage caps, which makes it the only unlimited residential broadband offering available to Comcast customers in Atlanta. Other residential customers are now subjected to a 300GB usage cap with $10/50GB overlimit fee.

Marketing Comcast’s 2Gbps offering may prove tricky because potential customers must live close to pre-existing Comcast fiber. If you don’t qualify, Comcast won’t pay to bring fiber infrastructure your way. Those outside of the fiber service area will continue to be serviced by standard coaxial cable. Comcast will wait for DOCSIS 3.1 to be officially available before deploying more speed upgrades in 2016. It promises to boost speeds up to at least 1Gbps if demand warrants.

The sudden announcement Comcast was willing to ditch part of its HFC coax network in favor of fiber, almost unprecedented for a major cable operator, and boost speeds beyond a gigabit may also be used to boost its chances of winning approval of its merger deal with Time Warner Cable. TWC Maxx, Time Warner’s own speed upgrade effort, only raises Internet speeds to a maximum of 300Mbps. Comcast had promised to upgrade Time Warner Cable customers’ speeds as part of the merger, but TWC Maxx offered most customers better speeds than what Comcast offered most of its residential customers.

Article was updated to correct the upload speed for the 505Mbps Comcast tier. It is now evidently 100Mbps, up from 65Mbps.

AT&T Gigabit Price Gouging in Cupertino, Calif.: $110/Mo (It’s $40 Less in Cities Where Google Fiber Competes)

Phillip Dampier April 2, 2015 AT&T, Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News No Comments

uverse gigapowerAT&T is rolling out its gigabit fiber service in Cupertino, Calif., but if you want it you will pay $40 a month more than those who live in cities where Google Fiber offers competition.

AT&T U-verse with GigaPower launched Monday in “select areas,” which traditionally means it won’t be immediately available to most customers. The San Jose Mercury News reports AT&T admitted the service will be available only to a few thousand homes for now in the city and refused to give a percentage of how many of Cupertino’s 20,000 homes would ultimately be able to get the service. AT&T is under no obligation to provide the service and can cherry-pick neighborhoods and skip past government buildings, schools, and hospitals. AT&T won’t give any commitments to the city on its gigabit service.

The company justifies charging $110 a month for the same service it charges $70 for in Austin, Kansas City and North Carolina because it can afford to test higher price points where competitors won’t steal their business.

“We are trying to understand how different markets respond,” Eric Boyer, senior vice president of AT&T U-verse told the Wall Street Journal.

AT&T doesn’t treat the home town of their corporate headquarters much better. In Dallas, Gigapower costs $110, down $10 from its initial price. As Time Warner Cable and Google ponder their own broadband upgrades in North Carolina, AT&T suddenly cut the price of GigaPower on Mar. 17 from $120 to $70 in Winston-Salem and Raleigh-Durham.

cupertinoAT&T customers who do not want the company to monitor their browsing activities have to pay $29 more for privacy protection, which opts them out of AT&T’s tracking systems. Despite the high-speed and price, AT&T still insists on usage caps for its most premium broadband offering. Customers can use up to 1TB per month, after which AT&T slaps overlimit fees of $10 for each 50GB customers use over their limit. Its primary competitors, including Google, Time Warner Cable, Verizon and Charter do not have usage caps. Boyer says he knows of no customer that has exceeded the 1,000GB usage cap. But that also brings the question if no customer has exceeded the cap, why have one?

More importantly, Boyer added the company isn’t yet offering services that would be exempt from the cap but might do so in the future. “We are open to a whole host of options,” he said. Critics would likely call that an end run around Net Neutrality.

Competition is the significant driver pushing AT&T and other providers to accelerate broadband upgrades and lower prices for higher speed tiers. In markets where cable operators face DSL competition from the phone companies, speeds are lower and prices are higher. Where an incumbent announces major upgrades like GigaPower or Time Warner Cable Maxx, competitors are forced to respond with upgrades of their own.

That leaves cities served by independent telephone companies like Frontier, CenturyLink, and Windstream at a distinct disadvantage because none of those companies have announced sweeping broadband speed increases and have relied instead on acquired fiber networks (Frontier FiOS and U-verse), limited fiber rollouts (CenturyLink) and incremental speed increases using VDSL and bonded DSL (all three). Frontier claims its customers are not interested in faster broadband speeds.

The northeastern United States has seen only one major market disruptor — Verizon FiOS, and it has shelved future expansion. Dominant cable provider Time Warner Cable has not seen its market share hurt much by limited DSL speeds offered in many areas by Verizon, Frontier, and FairPoint Communications. It continues to offer a maximum of 50/5Mbps broadband in upstate New York, Maine, and Massachusetts.

Singapore ISP Introduces Home 2Gbps Broadband, Video Streaming, Phone Service for $65 a Month

Phillip Dampier March 19, 2015 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News 1 Comment
viewqwest

Prices are in Singapore dollars.

One gigabit broadband is apparently too slow for Singapore consumers, so one ISP has introduced the world’s fastest home broadband plan, bundling 2000Mbps Internet access with an Android-based video streaming box and residential phone service for around $65US a month with a 2-year commitment, about the same price Comcast charges for 50Mbps broadband alone.

Singapore’s ViewQwest is the first provider outside of Japan offering residential speeds higher than 1000Mbps, despite the fact few home users have computers equipped to handle the service at its fastest speed.

“We want to offer them the fastest residential Internet connectivity available in the world,” said CEO Vignesa Moorthy. “Our current 1Gbps customers can re-contract for 2Gbps for free. This, coupled with the usual high rate of sign-ups that occurs during events such as IT Show, makes us very confident that we’ll be able to sustain this plan.”

Usage caps, speed throttles, and expensive Internet plans common in the United States and Canada are not an issue in Singapore as fierce competition has created a consumer-friendly price war among the city’s competing fiber to the home providers.

One challenge users will discover is finding a router capable of supporting 2000Mbps speeds. For now, the ISP recommends a $600 enterprise-grade network card if a customer insists on getting 2Gbps on a single machine. But ViewQwest expects most customers will aggregate their 2Gbps connection through multiple consumer-grade routers to give each family member concurrent gigabit speeds that will sustain at least 1Gbps for each user.

Customers will also discover their speeds will only be as fast as the connection to the website they want to reach. For now, that means international content traveling across undersea cables or distant servers will arrive at considerably slower speeds, but as the Internet grows faster, ViewQwest customers won’t have to wait for their ISP to catch up.

Sorry, That Competing Online Video/Cord-Cutter Competitor is Dead in the Water When Usage Caps Arrive

Phillip "It isn't so dumb to own the pipes" Dampier

Phillip “It isn’t so dumb to own the pipes” Dampier

In 2006, AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre thought his company was at a disadvantage being stuck with “dumb pipes” while Google, Yahoo! (remember them?) and Vonage couldn’t count their earnings fast enough. While AT&T sold consumers plain DSL service, content was king on Wall Street and Whitacre groused it was unfair for bandwidth hogs to use “the pipes for free.” That one statement was the equivalent of throwing a lit match on a hillside in Malibu Canyon and a predictable firestorm over Net Neutrality ensued.

Nine years later, Net Neutrality is now official FCC policy, although the sour grape-eating Republicans will continue to throw Congressional hissyfits along the way. While they rely on tissue-thin evidence to back their assertion the FCC secretly colluded with the Obama Administration to stick it to AT&T and demand its repeal, the future of Net Neutrality will more likely be decided in a courtroom a year or two from now.

Back in 2006 AT&T primarily sold DSL service and was looking for cash to finance its then emerging U-verse platform. AT&T planned to follow cable’s lead, devoting most of the available bandwidth on its fiber to the neighborhood network to cable television programming. Broadband speeds were limited to just under 25Mbps — even less if a large household had multiple television sets in use.

But as the Great Recession arrived and wages stagnated, the cost of what used to be a “must-have” service for most Americans increasingly began to exceed the household budget and the day finally arrived when cable companies started losing more television customers than they were adding. Even worse, cable programming costs continue to spiral upwards and no major cable company can increase cable television rates fast enough to support the usual profit margin the industry counted on.

What Whitacre failed to realize nine years earlier is that broadband providers did not simply own “dumb pipes.” AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner Cable, Charter and other providers actually occupy two gilded catbird seats, with AT&T and Verizon dominating the wireless Internet business and Comcast, Time Warner, and Charter dominating at-home viewing and wired broadband. Lawmakers who deregulated both industries predicted pitting AT&T against Comcast or Verizon against Time Warner Cable would create competition not seen since Coke vs. Pepsi. Consumers would benefit and world-class service would result.

Instead, Time Warner Cable now sells Verizon Wireless phone service. Verizon gave up on expanding its FiOS network and is selling off its DSL and FiOS business in pieces to focus on its best moneymaker, Verizon Wireless. Comcast in turn threw in the towel on any notion of offering competing cellular service and, in fact, sold its acquired wireless spectrum to Verizon.

PlayStation Vue's lineup

PlayStation Vue’s lineup

The best way to make money is to avoid price wars with your competitors and the evidence shows there is growing peace in America’s Telecom Valley. Comcast can now raise your broadband bill because, for most, Verizon FiOS isn’t an option. AT&T U-verse does not have to hurry speed upgrades to customers if Time Warner Cable delivers no better than 50/5Mbps service in large parts of its service area. Google Fiber remains a minor threat, only available in a handful of cities. AT&T distributed more copies of its press release touting U-verse Gigapower — its gigabit Internet offering — than there are customers qualified to sign up.

Notice that we’ve drifted away from talking about cable television programming. So has the industry, now increasingly dependent on broadband rate increases to make up the difference in revenue they used to take home from their television packages.

But now that the biggest players have a predictable source of revenue, allowing disruptors to further challenge earnings isn’t something your local cable and phone company will allow for long. At the moment, those most likely to cause problems are the growing number of “over the top” streaming video services that do not require a cable television subscription to watch. But they do need broadband — Whitacre’s “dumb pipes” — to reach subscribers. To manage that, services like Apple, PlayStation Vue and Sling TV and their customers must deal with the gatekeepers — AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon and others.

What Whitacre thought was a disadvantage is now becoming the best thing in the world — manning a toll booth on the only two roads most Americans can use to access online content.

Today, Sony officially launched its Internet-TV service, “PlayStation Vue” in three cities (New York, Chicago and Philadelphia) with a base price of $49.99/month. In includes more than 50 cable networks and in the three launch cities — local network affiliates. In Chicago and Philadelphia, where Comcast provides cable service, potential customers will need to pay $50 a month for Vue and another $64.95 a month for 50Mbps broadband — the least expensive broadband-only tier that is suitable for high quality viewing. Your combined bill for both services is $114.94 a month. Comcast charges $99.99 a month for its double play – 220 TV channels and 50Mbps broadband — almost $15 a month less for its package, and it includes around 150 more channels than Vue.

Comcast explans its new usage caps.

Comcast explains its new usage caps.

But Comcast also has another weapon it is testing is several of its markets — the resumption of usage caps and overlimit fees on its broadband service. Comcast customers in most test markets are given 300GB a month, after which they face overlimit fees of $10 for each additional increment of 50GB. While web browsing and e-mail fit more than comfortably within those caps, watching HD video may not. That leaves a potential Vue customer with a major dilemma. Should they pay $15 a month more for service than they can pay Comcast for a better package -and- chew away their usage allowance using it?

Comcast has yet to figure out how to install a coin collector on top of your television set, so you can watch as much Comcast cable television as you’d like. But watching streaming video could get very expensive if it exceeds a future Comcast usage allowance.

Smaller video packages from providers like Sling TV or the forthcoming Apple streaming service might make more sense, but will still be subject to Comcast’s usage caps if/when they are reintroduced around the country, while Comcast’s own television service will not.

This is why cable and phone companies hold enormous power over their potential competitors, even if Net Neutrality is fiercely enforced. Usage caps and usage-based billing represent an end run around Net Neutrality and both are permitted. The FCC has consistently refused to engage on the issue of broadband usage caps, leaving providers with a useful weapon to deter customers from dropping their television package in favor of an online alternative.

With most Americans having a choice of only one or two “dumb pipes” over which they can reach these services, being an owner of those pipes and getting to set the rates and conditions to use them is a very comfortable (and profitable) place to be.

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  • Joe V: I hope the people of New Jersey are happy. They voted for Chris Christie and this is exactly what they got....
  • Susan: After diligently watching my credit score for over a year and how negative as well as positive postings affect it, I have a hard time believing that o...
  • David Therchik: An intense investigation needs to put into this! As soon as one starts I bet they'll stop charging/cheating people from over usage. Before they bought...
  • Charles Bingham: I did but customer no service was no help - said it did no good to have pass word with symbols, cap and small letters and #'s. IF only I had an alte...
  • Phillip Dampier: That assumes this customer had access to a working usage meter and notification messages and ignored them. Evidently it was big enough of a problem fo...
  • Are you kidding me...: "Over the years" people are using the internet differently. If your bill went up, you have usage. Responsible would be calling and talking to them ab...
  • Charles Bingham: Actually my usage has decreased over the years as I sold my business and only kept the internet for a few tax returns that I still do, no employees no...
  • Are you kidding me...: This entire article reeks of "poor me, I'm a victim and I can't be responsible about my own Internet usage, my own bills or my own actions." Grow up....
  • a gci customer: even with the new plans, you are still data capped, they just speed rate you at that point vs charging you for overages. You are given the ability t...
  • random-gci-customer: How do you think their Senior Vice President of Consumer services funds his opulent exotic car collection??? https://www.dropbox.com/s/uj7yh1r7hcfc03...
  • whyatt: Well this is what I know. There are 4 internet plans called r:10 r:50 r:100 and RED. And these plans are cheaper than the old plans. Those old plans u...
  • oobovigif: Well I guess they don't want the Tax Breaks anymore either. They just need to seriously Stop with all this BS about lack of Spectrum. They have Plenty...

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