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Wall Street’s Latest Great Idea: Providers Should Charge More for 5G, But Only After You Are Hooked

“You’re giving it away… you are giving it all away!” — An unknown Wall Street analyst tossing and turning in the night.

America is simply not paying enough for wireless service. Thanks to dastardly competition introduced by T-Mobile and Sprint (potentially to be snuffed out in due course if their merger gets approved), wireless pricing is no longer a license to print money. Forced to offer one-size-fits-all affordable $40-50 unlimited plans, the prospects to grow Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) have never been worse because you can’t charge people for more service on an “unlimited plan” without admitting that plan is not exactly “unlimited.”

Wall Street analysts, already upset at the thought of carriers spending more than $100 billion on 5G network upgrades, are in a real tizzy about how companies are going to quickly recoup that investment. No matter that some wireless companies have profit margins in the 50% range and customers have paid providers for a service they were assured would keep up with the times and network demand. If there is to be a 5G revolution in the United States, some insist it must not come at the cost of reliable profits — so the industry must find a way to stick consumers with the bill.

It is not common for industry analysts to go public brainstorming higher prices and more customer gouging. After all, North Americans already pay some of the highest cell phone bills in the world, only mitigated (for now) by scrappy T-Mobile and Sprint. Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, was willing to go public in the pages of Fierce Wireless, arguing “operators should be considering charging a premium price for what will hopefully be a premium service.” That is likely music to the ears of AT&T and Verizon, both frustrated their pricing power in the market has been reduced by credible competition from a significantly improved T-Mobile.

Lowenstein fears the prospects of a “race-to-the-bottom 5G price war” which could arrive if America’s wireless companies offer a credible home internet replacement that lets consumers tell the local phone or cable company to ‘take a hike.’ Since wireless operators will bundle significant discounts for those who subscribe to both home and mobile plans, telecommunications services may actually cost less than what Wall Street was banking on.

Something must be done. Lowenstein:

In mobile, there’s been premium pricing for premium phones. And Verizon Wireless, for a few years when it had a clear network lead, was sort of able to charge a higher price for its service (but not a premium price). But today, there isn’t really premium pricing for premium services. That should change when 5G really kicks into gear.

So how do you extract more cash from consumers’ wallets? Create artificial tiers that have no relationship to the actual cost of the network, but could potentially get people to willingly pay a lot more for something they will initially get for a simple, flat price:

One simple way would be a flat premium price, similar to the “tiers” of Netflix for a higher number of devices or 4K/Ultra HD.  So, perhaps $10 per line for 5G, or $25 for a family plan. Another approach would be more akin to broadband, where there are pricing tiers for different levels of service performance. So if the base 4G LTE plan is $50 per month today, for an average 100 Mbps service, 5G packages could be sold in gradations of $10 for higher speeds (i.e. $60 for 300 Mbps, $70 for 500, $80 for 1 Gbps, and so on). An interesting angle on this is that some of the higher-end 4G LTE services such as Gigabit LTE (and beyond) could get incorporated into this, so it becomes less of a 4G vs. 5G discussion and more of a tier of service discussion.

I would also like to see some flexibility with regard to how one can purchase 5G capabilities. For example, a user might only need those premium 5G features occasionally, and might only be prepared to pay that higher price when the service is being used. Here, we can borrow from the Wi-Fi model, where operators offer a “day pack” for 5G, or for a certain city, location, or 5G-centic app or experience. 5G is going to be hot-spotty for awhile anyway, so why not use a Wi-Fi type model for pricing?

Even better, now with net neutrality in the ash heap of history, courtesy of the Republican-dominated FCC, providers can extract even more of your money by artificially messing with wireless traffic!

Lowenstein sees a brand new world of “app-centric pricing” where wireless carriers can charge even more to assure a fast lane for those entertainment, gaming, and virtual reality apps of the future, designed to take full advantage of 5G. Early tests have shown millimeter wave 5G networks can deliver extremely low latency traffic to customers from day one. That kills the market for selling premium, low-latency add-ons for demanding apps before companies can even start counting the money. So assuming providers are willing to purposely impede network performance, there just could be a market selling sub-100ms assured latency for an extra fee.

The potential of a Money Party only 5G can deliver is coming, but time is short to get the foundation laid for surprise toll lanes and “premium traffic” enhancements made possible without net neutrality. But first, the wireless industry has to get consumers hooked on 5G at a tantalizingly reasonable price. Charge too much, too soon and consumers may decide 4G LTE is good enough for them. That is why Lowenstein recommends operators not get carried away when 5G first launches.

“We don’t want to be setting ourselves up for a WiMAX-like disappointment,” Lowenstein writes. “The next 12-18 months are largely going to be ‘5G Experimentation’ mode, with limited markets, coverage, and devices. Heck, it’s likely to be two years before there’s a 5G iPhone in the United States, where iOS still commands nearly half the market.”

The disappointment will eventually be all yours, dear readers, if Lowenstein’s recommendations are adopted — when “certain milestones” trigger “rate adjustment” letters some day in the future.

Lowenstein sees four signs to start the pillaging, and we’ve paraphrased them:

  • Coverage: Wait until 30-40% of a city is covered with 5G, then jack up the price. As long as customers get something akin to 5G one-third of the time, they’ll moan about why their 5G footprint is so limited, but they will keep paying more for the scraps of coverage they get.
  • Markets: Price the service differently in each market depending on how stingy customers are likely to be at different price points. Then hike those prices to a new “nationwide” standard plan when 5G is available in the top 20-30 cities in the country. Since there may not be much competition, customers can take it or leave it.
  • Performance: AT&T and Verizon’s gotta gouge, but it’s hard to do it with a straight face if your 5G service is barely faster than 4G LTE. Lowenstein recommends waiting until speeds are reliably north of 100 Mbps, then you can let rip with those diamond-priced plans.
  • Devices: It’s hard to extract another $50-100 a month from family plan accounts if there are an inadequate number of devices that support 5G. While your kids “languish” with 4G LTE smartphones and dad enjoys his 5G experience, mom may shut it all down when the bill comes. Wait until everyone in the family can get a 5G phone before delivering some good old-fashioned bill shock, just like companies did in the golden days of uncompetitive wireless.

These ideas can only be adopted if a lack of competition assures all players nobody is going to call them out for pickpocketing customers. Ajit Pai’s FCC won’t interfere, and is even subsidizing some of the operators’ costs with taxpayer dollars and slanted deregulation to let companies construct next generation 5G networks as cheaply as possible (claiming it is important to beat China, where 5G service will cost much less). Should actual competition remain in the wireless market, all the dreams of rate-hikes-because-we-can will never come true, as long as one carrier decides they can grow their business by charging reasonable prices at their competitors’ expense.

Investigation: Spectrum’s Best Discounts Go Only to Areas With Robust Competition

Spectrum customers living in areas wired for fiber optics get substantially better discounts for longer periods of time than those living in areas where anemic phone company DSL service is the only competition.

Charter Communications, like many cable operators, asks all prospective customers to enter their complete mailing address, claiming prices “vary per location.” What the company does not say is that it maintains a database of addresses where fiber-fast competition is currently available and only offers the best deals to those locations.

In Rochester, N.Y., Spectrum competitor Greenlight Networks has made headway installing fiber to the home service in select neighborhoods in the city and suburbs. As fiber service becomes available, some Spectrum customers start switching to Greenlight, which markets 100/20 Mbps service for $50/mo, 500/50 Mbps for $75/mo, or 1,000/100 Mbps for $100/mo. In response, to keep customers, Spectrum offers 24 months of reduced pricing on its internet package. But your address must match Spectrum’s database as being within a competitive service area. Otherwise, the deals will not be so good.

Stop the Cap! found dramatic differences in prices between addresses nearly across a street from one another – one wired for Greenlight Fiber, the other not.

Competitive Area (Spectrum, Frontier DSL, Greenlight fiber-to-the-home service)

Spectrum Ultra (400 Mbps): $44.99/month for 24 months (free upgrade from Standard 100 Mbps package)

All promotions last 24 months

Free Wi-Fi Service

No installation or set up fee*

Non-Competitive Area (Spectrum, Frontier DSL)

Spectrum Standard (100 Mbps): $44.99/month for 12 months (for Ultra 400 Mbps, add $25/mo)

All promotions last 12 months

Wi-Fi Service is $5/month

$49.99 professional installation fee required for Ultra 400 Mbps service*

In Greenlight service areas, Spectrum now undercuts Greenlight’s pricing by offering Spectrum Ultra 400 Mbps service for $5 less than what Greenlight charges for 100 Mbps.

“Racerbob,” a DSL Reports reader in Webster, N.Y., discovered the same “enhanced offers” as an ex-Spectrum customer. He switched to Greenlight three months ago. He discovered if he added a Spectrum cable TV package, the price for 400 Mbps Ultra internet service dropped even lower, to $39.99 a month for two years.

In all, a sample package he assembled delivered dramatic savings, but only if a robust competitor like Greenlight was also offering service to his address:

Addresses used for comparison were in zip code 14618, with verified access to Greenlight at a street address to represent the “competitive” service area and verification Greenlight was not available at the address used for “non-competitive” service area. *-Although a setup fee was found on the final checkout page in both competitive and non-competitive service areas, it was only actually charged in non-competitive service areas during our investigation.

Rochester, N.Y. Based GoNetspeed Delivers $90 Gigabit Broadband to Pittsburgh and Connecticut

A Rochester, N.Y.-based broadband company founded by an ex-president of Time Warner Cable and a former top executive at Rochester Telephone is bringing broadband competition to thousands of residents in Connecticut and Pennsylvania through its fiber-to-the-home network.

GoNetspeed has been aggressively expanding its service in Comcast, Verizon, and Frontier Communications service areas in suburban Pittsburgh and several cities in Connecticut. According to chief operating officer Tom Perrone, GoNetspeed has managed to buildout 100 network miles of fiber across 13 towns in two different states in just the first six months of 2018, providing a new choice for broadband service to over 30,000 homes and businesses.

Most recently, the company completed expansion in the New Haven, Conn. neighborhoods of Beaver Hills, Edgewood, and West River, adding an additional 3,000-5,000 homes to its network service area.

GoNetspeed prioritizes expansion in areas where there is little competition and where neighborhood density makes it financially feasible to bring fiber optic cables into an area. The company markets its service with simplified, lifetime pricing:

  • $50 for 100/100 Mbps
  • $70 for 500/500 Mbps
  • $90 for 1,000/1,000 Mbps

In areas when service is first offered, the $100 installation fee is traditionally waived. There are no data caps. Static IPs and inside wiring are available at an additional cost.

GoNetspeed has received positive reviews from customers in parts of Bridgeport and West Hartford, where service is already available in Connecticut. In suburban Pittsburgh, GoNetspeed is available in parts of Ambridge, Beaver Falls, Baden, Conway, Beaver, Monaca, and Rochester. Over the summer, it announced it would soon also service New Brighton and Aliquippa. In general, the company wires neighborhoods where at least 10% of residents are committed to signing up for service. In Pennsylvania, it faces competition primarily from Comcast and Verizon. In Connecticut, competition will come from incumbents Comcast, Altice USA, and Frontier.

GoNetspeed’s headquarters are in suburban Rochester, N.Y. Ironically, it does not offer residential service in New York.

A GoNetspeed truck

The company originally behind GoNetspeed was Fibertech Networks (since sold to Crown Castle, a cell tower owner/operator). The founding partners were John K. Purcell, a former vice president at Rochester Telephone Corporation (now Frontier Communications) and Frank Chiano, the former head of Time Warner Cable in Rochester.

Fibertech was founded in 2000 as a fiber optic network operator. Purcell passed away in 2017, but Fibertech continued, eventually amassing a valuable 14,000 mile metro fiber network serving cities around the northeast. Fibertech served commercial customers like corporations, institutions, and wireless network operators seeking fiber connections to buildings or cell tower sites.

In the last several years, fiber network operators have started to enter the retail broadband marketplace as fiber overbuilders — providing fiber to the home service to areas where demand warrants investment. Most overbuilders target areas where no existing fiber competitor exists, which makes the northeast a viable target.

Verizon dropped its FiOS fiber to the home network expansion project eight years ago and incumbent telephone companies including Verizon, Frontier, Consolidated (formerly FairPoint), Windstream, and CenturyLink have shown little interest in investing in significant fiber upgrades in medium-sized cities in New England, the Northeast, and Mid-Atlantic region. That has given Comcast and Charter Communications — the two largest cable operators, a substantial and growing market share. But customers often loathe both cable operators, and there is built-in demand for new competition.

New Haven. Conn.

Local officials are also happy to see another competitive option. New Haven officials, like many others in Connecticut, have embarked on an effort during the last few years to attract new players to the state, especially after Frontier Communications acquired the assets of AT&T Connecticut. Many communities in Connecticut report a significant digital divide, particularly over the cost of internet access. New Haven, which has a significant low-income population, is happy to see GoNetspeed be part of the solution, but has wondered if GoNetspeed will expand service into lower-income areas of the city.

Connecticut Consumer Counsel Elin Swanson Katz, whose office manages broadband expansion in Connecticut, told the New Haven Register GoNetspeed’s expansion in New Haven “is just another strong indicator that Connecticut consumers are interested in having different options for broadband Internet service.”

“The more competition there is for consumers, for them to have choices, the better off we are,” Katz said. “It’s really important for our state to have ubiquitous access to affordable high-speed broadband that is reliable and that touches every corner of out state.”

USDA’s Rural Broadband Funding Protects Incumbents

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is trumpeting the availability of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to fund rural broadband programs around the country, but only in the most rural communities where an existing monopoly provider won’t be harmed.

“USDA has been investing in rural telecommunications infrastructure for decades, and our current programs offer more than $700 million per year for modern broadband e-Connectivity in rural communities,” the USDA writes on its new Broadband website. “In the coming months, USDA will almost double these longstanding programs with at least $600 million of additional funds for expanding rural broadband infrastructure in unserved rural areas and tribal lands.”

The funds will target unserved areas through a “pilot program” that goes to great lengths to keep funds away from underserved areas where an existing phone company offering slow speed DSL might suddenly face unwanted competition.

The Trump Administration’s budget language requires that funds be only spent in rural areas with a population of less than 20,000 residents, and only where there is insufficient access to broadband service with speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps — a drop from the FCC’s 25/3 Mbps standard. That lower speed threshold is widely seen as protecting incumbent phone companies and will keep broadband funds out of communities where DSL service predominates. The USDA will also notify all service providers in the general area about any application for funds, providing ample opportunity to object if a provider(s) report it already offers service to at least some of its customers at speeds of 10/1 Mbps or more.

If a dispute arises about service availability, the USDA will consult broadband availability maps that Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said “stink” or send USDA employees to the community to conduct an investigation.

For the moment, the USDA is asking rural Americans to share their stories about their broadband experiences:

To best bridge the e-Connectivity gap in rural America, USDA wants to hear the thoughts and needs of those individuals living and doing business in rural communities. Only through your participation can this program succeed in making rural America great again, so please share your user and service provider feedback, insights and ideas, on the many factors we’re considering, including:

  • How affordable and reliable should rural broadband service be?

  • What time-of-day (morning, afternoon or evening) do rural residents and businesses most need to use high-speed internet?

  • How fast of internet connectivity is needed for business management, e-commerce, farming, ranching, education, and medical/healthcare purposes in rural areas, especially for large data transfers and real-time communications?

Share your feedback with the USDA.

Consumer, Industry Groups Slam T-Mobile/Sprint Merger Now Before FCC

“Devastating.”

“Too big to fix.”

“A bad, recurring dream.”

“An oligopoly.”

“A meritless merger.”

These were some of the comments from objectors to T-Mobile and Sprint’s desire to merge the two wireless carriers into one.

Consumer and industry groups filed comments largely opposed to the merger on the grounds it would be anti-competitive and lead to dramatic price increases for U.S. consumers facing a consolidated market of just three national wireless carriers.

Free Press submitted more than 6,000 signatures from a consumer petition opposed to the merger.

“This is like a bad recurring dream,” one of the comments said, reflecting on AT&T’s attempt to acquire T-Mobile in 2011.

The comments reflected consumer views that mergers in the telecom industry reduce choice and raise prices.

The American Antitrust Institute rang alarm bells over the merger proposal it said was definitively against the public interest and probably illegal under antitrust laws. It declared two competitive harms: it creates a “tight oligopoly of the Big 3 and [raises] the risk of anticompetitive coordination” and it “eliminates head-to-head competition between Sprint and T-Mobile.”

The group found the alleged merger benefits offered by the two companies unconvincing.

“The claim that two wireless companies need a merger to expand or upgrade their networks to the next generation of technology is well worn and meritless. The argument did not hold any water when AT&T-T-Mobile advanced it in 2011 and the same is true here,” the group wrote. “The FCC should reject it, particularly in light of the merger’s presumptive illegality and almost certain anticompetitive and anti-consumer effects. Both AT&T and T-Mobile expanded their networks in the wake of their abandoned merger. And T-Mobile became a vigorous challenger to its larger rivals. Sprint-T-Mobile’s investor presentation notes, for example ‘T-Mobile deployed nationwide LTE twice as fast as Verizon and three times as fast as AT&T.’”

“The Sprint-T-Mobile merger is one of those mergers that is ‘too big to fix,’” the group added. “Like the abandoned AT&T-T-Mobile proposal, it is a 4-3 merger. It combines the third and fourth significant competitors in the market, creating a national market share for Sprint-T-Mobile of about 32%. Next in the lineup is AT&T, with a share of about 32%. Verizon follows with a share of about 35%. These three carriers would make up the vast majority (almost 99%) of the national U.S. wireless market with smaller MVNOs accounting for the remaining one percent. These carriers include TracPhone, Republic Wireless, and Jolt Mobile, Boost Mobile, and Cricket Wireless, which purchase access to wireless infrastructure such as cell towers and spectrum at wholesale from the large players and resell at retail to wireless subscribers.”

A filing from the groups Common Cause, Consumers Union, New America’s Open Technology Institute, Public Knowledge and Writers Guild of America West essentially agreed with the American Antitrust Institute’s findings, noting removing two market disruptive competitors by combining them into one would hurt novel wireless plans that are unlikely to be introduced by companies going forward.

Rivals, especially AT&T and Verizon, have remained silent about the merger. That is not surprising, considering T-Mobile and Sprint have forced the two larger providers to match innovative service plans, bring back unlimited data, and reduce prices. A combined T-Mobile and Sprint would likely reduce competitive pressure and allow T-Mobile to comfortably charge nearly identical prices that AT&T and Verizon charge their customers.

Smaller competitors are concerned. Rural areas have been largely ignored by T-Mobile, and Sprint’s modestly better rural coverage has resulted in affordable roaming arrangements with independent wireless companies. Sprint has favored reciprocal roaming agreements, allowing customers of independent carriers to roam on Sprint’s network and Sprint customers to roam on rural wireless networks. T-Mobile only permits rural customers to roam on its networks, while T-Mobile customers are locked out, to keep roaming costs low. Groups like NTCA and the Rural Wireless Association shared concerns that the merger could leave rural customers at a major disadvantage.

Many Wall Street analysts that witnessed the AT&T/T-Mobile merger flop are skeptical that regulators will allow the Sprint and T-Mobile merger to proceed. The risk of further consolidating the wireless industry, particularly after seeing T-Mobile’s newly aggressive competitive stance after the AT&T merger was declared dead, seems to prove opponents’ contentions that only competition will keep prices reasonable. Removing one of the two fiercest competitors in the wireless market could be a tragic mistake that would impact prices for a decade or more.

The American Antitrust Institute reminded regulators:

In 2002, there were seven national wireless carriers in the U.S.: AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, Nextel, AllTel, and Cingular. In a consolidation spree that began in 2004, Cingular acquired AT&T. This was followed by Sprint’s acquisition of Nextel in 2005—a merger that has been called one of the “worst acquisitions ever.” At the time of the merger, Sprint and Nextel operated parallel networks using different technologies and maintained separate branding after the deal was consummated. The company lost millions of subscribers and revenue in subsequent years in the wake of this costly and confused strategy.

In 2009, Verizon bought All-Tel. This was followed by AT&T’s unsuccessful attempt to buy T-Mobile in 2011 and T-Mobile’s successful acquisition of mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) Metro PCS. The DOJ and the FCC forced the abandonment of the AT&T-T-Mobile deal. Like Sprint-T-Mobile, it was also a 4-3 merger that would have eliminated T-Mobile, a smaller, efficient, and innovative player that set the industry bar high for the remaining rivals.

AT&T’s rationale that the merger with T-Mobile was essential for expanding to the then-impending 4G LTE network technology also did not pass muster. In August of 2014, two years after the abandoned attempt, Forbes magazine concluded that there would have been “no wireless wars without the blocked AT&T-T-Mobile merger.”

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