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More than 25 Companies Rushing Fiber to the Home Service Across South Africa

TelkomSAMore than two dozen independent broadband providers are busily wiring parts of the Republic of South Africa with fiber to the home service in a rush to relegate telephone company giant Telkom’s DSL offerings into the dustbin of irrelevance.

The pace of fiber broadband expansion is happening so rapidly, Telkom CEO Sipho Maseko has had to warn investors the phone company’s continued dependence on its copper infrastructure could threaten the company’s future. Consumers and businesses are demanding better broadband in a country that has languished under Telkom’s insistence on sticking with copper infrastructure that has delivered slow Internet speeds and stingy data caps for more than a decade.

The Sunday Times notes South Africa’s fiber revolution is delivering speeds up to 1,000Mbps on a network that literally sells itself. Fiber providers deliver speeds 250 times faster than ADSL and are helping make usage caps and usage-based billing a part of South Africa’s past. New fiber builds are announced in neighborhoods, towns, and cities almost weekly, many driven by residents in neighborhoods pooling together to attract competition. Independent contractors are winning a large share of the broadband deployment business, able to string fiber cables less expensively than Telkom and its bureaucracy.

VUMA is a fiber service provider in South Africa, following Google Fiber's "fiberhood" example to expand service.

VUMA is a fiber service provider in South Africa, following Google Fiber’s “fiberhood” example to expand service.

“The rate at which con­sumers are turn­ing to al­ter­na­tives to Telkom to build these net­works is re­mark­able,” the Times editorial states. “Un­til a year ago, [Telkom’s] ab­so­lute dom­i­nance over the ‘last mile’ into homes and busi­nesses seemed set to last for years. No more. Telkom’s core busi­ness is sud­denly threat­ened.”

Maseko

Maseko

The projects are large and small. Sea Point in Capetown, Blair­gowrie in Jo­han­nes­burg, Kloof and Hill­crest in Dur­ban are all working with start-up providers instead of Telkom. Many are convinced Telkom management is either incompetent or has been more interested in the welfare of its executives than its customers, and more than a few are voting with their feet.

The most aggressive stampede to fiber broadband is occurring in rich suburbs and gated communities prevalent in affluent areas. These are the customers Telkom cannot afford to lose and many are unlikely to ever return to what used to be the state-owned telephone company. The Times argues the longer Telkom pretends it still has a monopoly, the worse things are going to be for a company in for a rude shock.

“For the first time, the lum­ber­ing in­cum­bent, which once held an ab­so­lute mo­nop­oly over fixed lines, is hav­ing to com­pete for con­sumers’ at­ten­tion with a range of nim­ble start-ups that prom­ise su­perb broad­band at de­cent prices, and of­ten on an ‘open ac­cess’ ba­sis — mean­ing con­sumers are free to choose Internet Service Providers, and ser­vice providers can get di­rect ac­cess to the infrastructure,” the newspaper writes.

The newspaper scoffed at Telkom’s wasted opportunities and poor management decisions that now threaten its future viability.

Among Telkom’s biggest failures was a $815 million investment beginning in 2007 on an “ill-fated adventure” in the Nigerian wireless marketplace. Telkom said it was “misled” by several Nigerian businessmen into bleeding billions of South African Rand into a wireless company that used CDMA technology in a country dominated by cheap GSM providers. A shaky network of cellular dealers incapable of attracting new customers only made things worse. The venture’s losses were so huge, it attracted the attention of South African legislators who questioned the wisdom of Telkom investing in Nigeria while allowing South African broadband to stagnate from inadequate investment.

When two dozen fiber to the home competitors began installing fiber to the home service in South Africa, Telkom grudgingly has started to compete with fiber builds of their own.

When two dozen fiber to the home competitors began installing fiber to the home service in South Africa, Telkom grudgingly has started to compete with fiber builds of their own. They are likely to face two new national fiber competitors, in addition to the independents, within months.

A year earlier, Telkom also proved less than competent when it entered South Africa’s pay television business. In 2006, Telkom earmarked more than $600 million to be spent on a venture unlikely to win enough customers from dominant MultiChoice to be sustainable. By 2009, Telkom decided to sell most of its stake in the venture at fire sale prices and still found few interested buyers.

Telkom’s management has been accused of gross incompetence, particularly for spending resources on poorly researched business ventures where it lacked experience. The Times asked readers to ponder what South African telecommunications would look like today if Telkom instead spent its almost $2 billion dollars in Nigerian and pay television losses on fiber broadband upgrades inside the country. Since 2006, Telkom preferred to spend as little as possible on network upgrades while trying to convince South Africans to stick with copper-delivered DSL and its variant VDSL, available only in very limited areas. Telkom’s business decisions today still leave most of its customers with no better than 4Mbps DSL.

The question South African business observers are asking is whether Telkom’s new interest in fiber is too little, too late. Mobile operators Vodacom and MTN are planning to build their own competing national fiber to the home networks to compete with Telkom as well.

The ISP Defense Squad Attacks Guardian Story on Internet Slowdowns

Phillip "Speaking as a Customer" Dampier

Phillip “Speaking as a Customer” Dampier

Two defenders of large Internet Service Providers are coming to the defense of the broadband industry by questioning a Guardian article that reported major Internet Service Providers were intentionally allowing a degradation in performance of Content Delivery Networks and other high volume Internet traffic in a dispute over money.

Richard Bennett and Dan Rayburn today both published articles attempting to discredit Battle for the Net’s effort highlighting the impact interconnection disputes can have on consumers.

Rayburn:

On Monday The Guardian ran a story with a headline stating that major Internet providers are slowing traffic speeds for thousands of consumers in North America. While that’s a title that’s going to get a lot of people’s attention, it’s not accurate. Even worse, other news outlets like Network World picked up on the story, re-hashed everything The Guardian said, but then mentioned they could not find the “study” that The Guardian is talking about. The reason they can’t find the report is because it does not exist.

[…] Even if The Guardian article was trying to use data collected via the BattlefortheNet website, they don’t understand what data is actually being collected. That data is specific to problems at interconnection points, not inside the last mile networks. So if there isn’t enough capacity at an interconnection point, saying ISPs are “slowing traffic speeds” is not accurate. No ISP is slowing down the speed of the consumers’ connection to the Internet as that all takes place inside the last mile, which is outside of the interconnection points. Even the Free Press isn’t quoted as saying ISPs are “slowing” down access speed, but rather access to enough capacity at connection points.

Bennett:

In summary, it appears that Battle for the Net may have cooked up some dubious tests to support their predetermined conclusion that ISPs are engaging in evil, extortionate behavior.

It may well be the case that they want to, but AT&T, Verizon, Charter Cable, Time Warner Cable, Brighthouse, and several others have merger business and spectrum auction business pending before the FCC. If they were manipulating customer experience in such a malicious way during the pendency of the their critical business, that would constitute executive ineptitude on an enormous scale. The alleged behavior doesn’t make customers stick around either.

I doubt the ISPs are stupid enough to do what the Guardian says they’re doing, and a careful examination of the available test data says that Battle for the Net is actually cooking the books. There is no way a long haul bandwidth and latency test says a thing about CDN performance. Now it could be that Battle for the Net has as a secret test that actually measures CDNs, but if so it’s certainly a well-kept one. Stay tuned.

The higher line measures speeds received by Comcast customers. The lower line represents speeds endured by AT&T customers, as measured by MLab.

The higher line measures speeds received by Comcast customers connecting to websites handled by GTT in Atlanta. The lower line represents speeds endured by AT&T customers, as measured by MLab.

Stop the Cap! was peripherally mentioned in Rayburn’s piece because we originally referenced one of the affected providers as a Content Delivery Network (CDN). In fact, GTT is a Tier 1 IP Network, providing service to CDNs, among others — a point we made in a correction prompted by one of our readers yesterday.

Both Rayburn and Bennett scoff at Battle for the Net’s methodology, results, and conclusion your Internet Service Provider might care more about money than keeping customers satisfied with decent Internet speeds. Bennett alludes to the five groups backing the Battle for the Net campaign as “comrades” and Rayburn comes close to suggesting the Guardian piece represented journalistic malpractice.

Much was made of the missing “study” that the Guardian referenced in its original piece. Stop the Cap! told readers in our original story we did not have a copy to share either, but would update the story once it became available.

We published our own story because we were able to find, without much difficulty, plenty of raw data collected by MLab from consumers conducting voluntary Internet Health Tests, on which Battle for the Net drew its conclusions about network performance. A review of that data independently confirmed all the performance assertions made in the Guardian story, with or without a report. There are obvious and undeniable significant differences in performance between certain Internet Service Providers and traffic distribution networks like GTT.

So let’s take a closer look at the issues Rayburn and Bennett either dispute or attempt to explain away:

  1. MLab today confirmed there is a measurable and clear problem with ISPs serving around 75% of Americans that apparently involves under-provisioned interconnection capacity. That means the connection your ISP has with some content distributors is inadequate to handle the amount of traffic requested by customers. Some very large content distributors like Netflix increasingly use their own Content Delivery Networks, while others rely on third-party distributors to move that content for them. But the problem affects more than just high traffic video websites. If Stop the Cap! happens to reach you through one of these congested traffic networks and your ISP won’t upgrade that connection without compensation, not only will video traffic suffer slowdowns and buffering, but so will traffic from every other website, including ours, that happens to be sent through that same connection.

MLab: "Customers of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon all saw degraded performance [in NYC] during peak use hours when connecting across transit ISPs GTT and Tata. These patterns were most dramatic for customers of Comcast and Verizon when connecting to GTT, with a low speed of near 1 Mbps during peak hours in May. None of the three experienced similar problems when connecting with other transit providers, such as Internap and Zayo, and Cablevision did not experience the same extent of problems."

MLab: “Customers of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon all saw degraded performance [in NYC] during peak use hours when connecting across transit ISPs GTT and Tata. These patterns were most dramatic for customers of Comcast and Verizon when connecting to GTT, with a low-speed of near 1 Mbps during peak hours in May. None of the three experienced similar problems when connecting with other transit providers, such as Internap and Zayo, and Cablevision did not experience the same extent of problems.”

MLab:

Our initial findings show persistent performance degradation experienced by customers of a number of major access ISPs across the United States during the first half of 2015. While the ISPs involved differ, the symptoms and patterns of degradation are similar to those detailed in last year’s Interconnections study: decreased download throughput, increased latency and increased packet loss compared to the performance through different access ISPs in the same region. In nearly all cases degradation was worse during peak use hours. In last year’s technical report, we found that peak-hour degradation was an indicator of under-provisioned interconnection capacity whose shortcomings are only felt when traffic grows beyond a certain threshold.

Patterns of degraded performance occurred across the United States, impacting customers of various access ISPs when connecting to measurement points hosted within a number of transit ISPs in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. Many of these access-transit ISP pairs have not previously been available for study using M-Lab data. In September, 2014, several measurement points were added in transit networks across the United States, making it possible to measure more access-transit ISP interconnection points. It is important to note that while we are able to observe and record these episodes of performance degradation, nothing in the data allows us to draw conclusions about who is responsible for the performance degradation. We leave determining the underlying cause of the degradation to others, and focus solely on the data, which tells us about consumer conditions irrespective of cause.

Rayburn attempts to go to town highlighting MLab’s statement that the data does not allow it to draw conclusions about who is responsible for the traffic jam. But any effort to extend that to a broader conclusion the Guardian article is “bogus” is folly. MLab’s findings clearly state there is a problem affecting the consumer’s Internet experience. To be fair, Rayburn’s view generally accepts there are disputes involving interconnection agreements, but he defends the current system that requires IP networks sending more traffic than they return to pay the ISP for a better connection.

Rayburn's website refers to him as "the voice of industry."

Rayburn’s website refers to him as “the voice of industry.”

  1. Rayburn comes to the debate with a different perspective than ours. Rayburn’s website highlights the fact he is the “voice of the industry.” He also helped launch the industry trade group Streaming Video Alliance, which counts Comcast as one of its members. Anyone able to afford the dues for sponsor/founding member ($25,000 annually); full member ($12,500); or supporting member ($5,500) can join.

Stop the Cap! unreservedly speaks only for consumers. In these disputes, paying customers are the undeniable collateral damage when Internet slowdowns occur and more than a few are frequently inconvenienced by congestion-related slowdowns.

It is our view that allowing paying customers to be caught in the middle of these disputes is a symptom of the monopoly/duopoly marketplace broadband providers enjoy. In any industry where competition demands a provider deliver an excellent customer experience, few would ever allow these kinds of disputes to alienate customers. In Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Chicago, for example, AT&T has evidently made a business decision to allow its connections with GTT to degrade to just a fraction of the performance achieved by other providers. Nothing else explains consistent slowdowns that have affected AT&T U-verse and DSL customers for months on end that involve GTT while Comcast customers experience none of those problems.

We also know why this is happening because AT&T and GTT have both confirmed it to Ars Technica, which covered this specific slowdown back in March. As is always the case about these disputes, it’s all about the money:

AT&T is seeking money from network operators and won’t upgrade capacity until it gets paid. Under its peering policy, AT&T demands payment when a network sends more than twice as much traffic as it receives.

“Some providers are sending significantly more than twice as much traffic as they are receiving at specific interconnection points, which violates our peering policy that has been in place for years,” AT&T told Ars. “We are engaged in commercial-agreement discussions, as is typical in such situations, with several ISPs and Internet providers regarding this imbalanced traffic and possible solutions for augmenting capacity.”

competitionMissing from this discussion are AT&T customers directly affected by slowdowns. AT&T’s attitude seems uninterested in the customer experience and the company feels safe stonewalling GTT until it gets a check in the mail. It matters less that AT&T customers have paid $40, 50, even 70 a month for high quality Internet service they are not getting.

In a more competitive marketplace, we believe no ISP would ever allow these disputes to impact paying subscribers, because a dissatisfied customer can cancel service and switch providers. That is much less likely if you are an AT&T DSL customer with no cable competition or if your only other choice cannot offer the Internet speed you need.

  1. Consolidating the telecommunications industry will only guarantee these problems will get worse. If AT&T is allowed to merge with DirecTV and expand Internet service to more customers in rural areas where cable broadband does not reach, does that not strengthen AT&T’s ability to further stonewall content providers? Of course it does. In fact, even a company the size of Netflix eventually relented and wrote a check to Comcast to clear up major congestion problems experienced by Comcast customers in 2014. Comcast could have solved the problem itself for the benefit of its paying customers, but refused. The day Netflix’s check arrived, problems with Netflix magically disappeared.

More mergers and more consolidation does not enhance competition. It entrenches big ISPs to play more aggressive hardball with content providers at the expense of consumers.

Even Rayburn concedes these disputes are “not about ‘fairness,’ it’s business,” he writes. “Some pay based on various business terms, others might not. There is no law against it, no rule that prohibits it.”

Battle for the Net’s point may be that there should be.

So Much for Competition: Rogers to Buy Independent Mobilicity to Use in Tax Savings Scheme

mobilicityMobilicity, a struggling independent wireless carrier serving some of Canada’s largest cities, will end its efforts to compete with larger wireless companies if a court approves its sale to Rogers Communications, Canada’s largest mobile operator.

Late this afternoon, sources told The Globe and Mail Mobilicity accepted an offer from Rogers in excess of $400 million to acquire the wireless company’s assets and transfer some of its wireless spectrum to Wind Mobile Corp., one of the last remaining Canadian independent carriers, to appease regulators, who could still block a deal with Rogers.

The federal government’s wireless telecom policy has stressed the importance of having at least four wireless providers competing in every region. Wind has managed to achieve that in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta, but lacks enough coverage elsewhere. Mobilicity landed itself in financial trouble soon after launch, finding the costs of network construction high for a company with below-expected customer numbers.

rogers logoMobilicity has been under creditor protection since September 2013 and has only managed to keep 157,000 active customers on its discount cellular network. Rogers is said to be interested in Mobilicity primarily as part of a tax write-off strategy. Mobilicity had non-capital loss carry forwards of $567-million by the end of 2013, which offers Rogers a reduction in its tax bill of about 25 to 30% of that amount.

Observers predict Mobilicity could continue for a time, if in name only, as part of Rogers’ larger portfolio of wireless brands. Rogers already controls two other Canadian wireless brands: Fido and Chatr.

As late as yesterday, Rogers and Telus were both fighting to acquire Mobilicity after it became clear there would be no “white knight” for Mobilicity that would satisfy competition regulators or creditors. Telus attempted an acquisition twice, only to be rebuffed by the Competition Bureau. A last-ditch effort by Wind Mobile to acquire its comparatively sized competitor was a flop with creditors who expected a higher bid.

Mobilicity’s network coverage was always one of its biggest challenges. The company only managed to offer direct coverage in parts of the Greater Toronto Area, Ottawa/Gatineau, Calgary, Edmonton, and Greater Vancouver. Mobilicity’s network also relied on very high frequencies that had a challenging time penetrating buildings, and its lack of network densification led to complaints about dropped calls and poor coverage overall.

The disposition of an earlier plan submitted by employees and Mobilicity’s founder to transform the company into an MVNO — providing independent wireless service using its acquirer’s network, isn’t known at press time.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/BNN Clock ticking on Rogers and Telus to conclude Mobilicity takeover 6-22-15.flv

As late as yesterday, BNN was reporting Telus and Rogers were both competing to acquire Mobilicity. It appears Rogers has won. (2:23)

Switzerland Moving Into World’s Top 10: Competition Forces Major Broadband Upgrades

upc_cablecom_logoJohn Malone’s cable systems in Europe share little in common with what Americans get from their local cable company. In Switzerland, Liberty-owned UPC Cablecom charges $95 a month for 250/15Mbps service — a speed Charter Communications customers cannot buy at any price. Liberty is Charter’s biggest investor/partner. Later this month, Swiss cable customers will be able to buy 500Mbps from UPC. When implemented, that is expected to push Switzerland’s broadband speed rankings into the global top-10. Currently Switzerland is rated #11. The United States is #28 and Canada is ranked #34.

UPC’s primary competitor  — telephone company Swisscom — is aggressively upgrading its facilities with its eye on offering G.fast, the latest version of DSL capable of delivering up to 500Mbps across 200-300 meters of old copper phone wiring, making it suitable for fiber to the neighborhood deployments similar to AT&T U-verse or Bell’s Fibe. Swisscom is also expanding fiber to the home service on a more limited basis, offering customers 1,000/1,000Mbps service on that network.

Tveter

Tveter

Why all the upgrades? Competition in the Swiss broadband marketplace.

If Swisscom can offer gigabit broadband speeds, then so can UPC Cablecom, claims its CEO Eric Tveter.

“We can offer every customer across the country the same speeds,” Tveter told the Schweiz am Sonntag newspaper. “At the end of June, we will introduce new Internet speeds of 500Mbps. Demand for [fiber’s] symmetrical speeds is still very low among residential customers, but if demand increases we will offer them.”

Customers looking for gigabit speed would likely have to sign up as a commercial customer of UPC for now. But the company is preparing to introduce DOCSIS 3.1 which will allow the existing cable network to easily deliver gigabit speeds to residential customers. In fact, Tveter is looking at introducing 10Gbps speeds in Switzerland in the coming years.

Tveter aggressively criticized some of his biggest competitors for using marketing-speak to promote “new” products UPC already offers.

swisscom_logo_detailSome providers have promoted “cloud-based” on-demand access to video that Tveter says has been available from the cable company for several years.

This year, UPC Swisscom has been reassuring customers it does not allow America’s National Security Agency to spy on its customers and has taken measures to keep Chinese intelligence agents and hackers out of its network. The Swiss courts have made it clear they want nothing to do with NSA spying and permit operators to take any and all steps to keep unauthorized American and Chinese agencies from penetrating Swiss telecommunications.

Tveter points out all Swiss networks use equipment manufactured by U.S. and Chinese companies, but there are no indications either government has forced manufacturers to give back-door access to that equipment for surveillance or espionage purposes.

UPC Cablecom also voluntarily adheres to Net Neutrality principles for its Swiss customers.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Swisscom fibre optic network 2014.mp4

Swisscom shows the advantages of its fiber to the home network. (1:54)

Sling TV CEO Fears Providers Will Jack Up Broadband Prices to Kill Online Video

DishLogo-RedIn the last three years, several Wall Street analysts have called on cable and telephone companies to raise the price of broadband service to make up for declining profits selling cable TV. As shareholders pressure executives to keep profits high and costs low, dramatic price changes may be coming for broadband and television service that will boost profits and likely eliminate one of their biggest potential competitors — Sling TV.

For more than 20 years, the most expensive part of the cable package has been television service. Cable One CEO Thomas Might acknowledged that in 2005, despite growing revenue from broadband, cable television still provided most the profits. That year, 64% of Cable One’s profits came from video. Three years from now, only 30% will come from selling cable TV.

While broadband prices remained generally stable from the late 1990’s into the early 2000’s, cable companies were still raising cable television prices once, sometimes twice annually to support very healthy profit margins on a service found in most American homes no matter its cost. Despite customer complaints about rate hikes, as long as they stayed connected, few providers cared to listen. With little competition, pricing power was tightly held in the industry’s hands. The only significant challenge to that power came from programmers demanding (and consistently winning) a bigger share of cable’s profit pie.

The retransmission consent wars had begun. Local broadcast stations, popular cable networks, and even the major networks all had hands out for increased subscriber fees.

Rogers

Rogers

In the past, cable companies simply passed those costs along, blaming “increased programming costs” in rate hike notifications without mentioning the amount was also designed to keep their healthy margins intact. Only the arrival of The Great Recession changed that. New housing numbers headed downwards as children delayed leaving to rent their own apartment or buy a house. Many income-challenged families decided their budgets no longer allowed for the luxury of cable television and TV service was dropped. Even companies that managed to hang on to subscribers recognized there was now a limit on the amount customers would tolerate and the pace of cable TV rate hikes has slowed.

For a company like Cable One, the impact of de facto profit-sharing on cable television service was easy to see. Ten years ago, only about $30 of a $70 video subscription was handed over to programmers. This year, a record $45.85 of each $81 cable TV subscription is paid to programmers. The $35.50 or so remaining does not count as profit. Cable One reported only $10.61 was left after indirect costs per customer were managed, and after paying for system upgrades and other expenses, it got to keep just $0.96 a month in profit.

To combat the attack on the traditional video subscription model, Cable One raised prices in lesser amounts and began playing hardball with programmers. It permanently dropped Viacom-owned cable networks to show programmers it meant business. Subscribers were livid. More than 103,000 of Cable One’s customers across the country canceled TV service, leaving the cable company with just over 421,000 video customers nationwide.

Some on Wall Street believe conducting a war to preserve video profits need not be fought.

Prices already rising even before "re-pricing" broadband.

U.S. broadband providers already deliver some of the world’s most expensive Internet access.

Analysts told cable companies that the era of fat profits selling bloated TV packages is over, but the days of selling overpriced broadband service to customers that will not cancel regardless of the price are just beginning.

Cablevision CEO James Dolan admitted the real money was already in broadband, telling investors Cablevision’s broadband profit margins now exceed its video margins by at least seven to one.

The time to raise broadband prices even higher has apparently arrived.

new street research“Our work suggests that cable companies have room to take up broadband pricing significantly and we believe regulators should not oppose the re-pricing (it is good for competition & investment),” wrote New Street Research’s Jonathan Chaplin in a recent note to investors. The Wall Street firm sells its advice to telecom companies. “The companies will undoubtedly have to take pay-TV pricing down to help ‘fund’ the price increase for broadband, but this is a good thing for the business. Post re-pricing, [online video] competition would cease to be a threat and the companies would grow revenue and free cash flow at a far faster rate than they would otherwise.”

If you are already a triple play cable television, broadband, and phone customer, you may not notice much change if this comes to pass, at least not at first. To combat cord-cutting and other threats to video revenue, some advisers are calling on cable companies like Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter to re-price the components of their package. Under one scenario, the cost of cable television would be cut up to $30 a month while the price of Internet access would increase by $30 or more a month above current prices. Only customers who subscribe to one service or the other, but not both, would see a major change. A cable TV-only subscriber would happily welcome a $50 monthly bill. A broadband-only customer charged $80, 90, or even 100 for basic broadband service would not.

broadband pricesNeither would Sling CEO Roger Lynch, who has a package of 23 cable channels to sell broadband-only customers for $20 a month.

“They have their dominant — in many cases monopolies — in their market for broadband, especially high-speed broadband,” Sling CEO Roger Lynch told Business Insider in an interview, adding that some cable companies already make it cheaper for people to subscribe to TV and broadband from a cable company than just subscribe to broadband.

A typical Sling customers would be confronted with paying up to $100 a month just for broadband service before paying Sling its $20 a month. Coincidentally, that customer’s broadband provider is likely already selling cable TV and will target promotions at Sling’s customers offering ten times the number of channels for as little as a few dollars more a month on top of what they currently pay for Internet access.

Such a pricing change would damage, if not destroy, Sling TV’s business model. Lynch is convinced providers are seriously contemplating it to use “their dominant position to try to thwart over the top services.”

At least 75% of the country would be held captive by any cable re-pricing tactic, because those Americans have just one choice in providers capable of meeting the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband.

Even more worrying, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler may be responsible for leading the industry to the re-pricing road map by repeatedly reassuring providers the FCC will have nothing to do with price regulation, which opens the door to broadband pricing abuses that cannot be easily countered by market forces.

Lynch has called on the FCC to “protect consumers” and “make sure there’s innovation and competition in video.”

Unfortunately, Wheeler may have something else to prove to his critics who argued Net Neutrality and Title II oversight of broadband would lead to rampant price regulation. Wheeler has hinted repeatedly he is waiting to prove what he says — an allusion to hoping for a formal rate complaint to arrive at the FCC just so he can shoot it down.

CBS’ Idea of Choice: $5.99/Mo for CBS Library and Live Local CBS Station Streaming

broken bankThink you are already paying too much for cable television? If you thought Comcast charges too much, consider what CBS thinks is fair to charge for an on-demand library of CBS shows and a single live stream of your local CBS station – $5.99 a month.

Retransmission consent disputes are all about the money. As your local provider fights with a local station or cable network over their latest demand for more money, channels get dropped, providers get blamed and the content owners get richer when networks are restored.

One of the richest of all is CBS, which has told investors it plans to empty $2 billion from the pockets of American cable customers by the year 2020, up from $500 million in 2013. Not only will CBS demand new programming fees from its affiliates, it is also cajoling stations to demand not less than $1.75 a month from every cable subscriber for access to the local CBS over the air station.

Each time a retransmission consent contract comes up for renewal, cable operators know as certain as the sun will rise from the east that programmers will demand a healthy rate increase for the next contract period. That is why many cable companies now look to broadband for much of their future profits, because the TV business is getting very expensive when everyone has their hand out looking for more.

Some cable companies want an end to being stuck in the middle of these disputes and are supporting a plan to compel programmers like CBS, ESPN, TNT, HBO, and all the rest to publish a retail rate for their channel or network and let consumers decide whether it is worth the asking price.

cable-inflation-comparison

A proposal introduced last year called “Local Choice” would start the process with local television stations, which have demanded ever-higher carriage fees over the last 10 years, especially for network-affiliated stations.

Under the concept, customers would be given a choice of local stations by their provider. Theoretically, a customer could subscribe to CBS and ABC and tell NBC (and its local affiliate) to take a hike if they demanded too much. Another might be happy just paying for FOX and grab the rabbit ears for anything else they wanted to watch over the air for free.

Rockefeller

Rockefeller

No local station or network would voluntarily say goodbye to the golden goose that lays compulsory retransmission consent fees programmers currently collect from every cable subscriber, so last summer Congress proposed to mandate the concept in a clause of the Satellite Television Access and Viewer Rights Act (STAVRA).

Then Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) and Ranking Member John Thune (R-S.D.) beat the bipartisan drum loudly for change. But lobbyists also had drums. Rockefeller and Thune began wavering almost immediately.

“During the last month, Chairman Rockefeller and Ranking Member Thune have successfully begun a discussion on Local Choice, which would empower TV viewers, maintain our policy of broadcast localism, and ensure TV stations get fairly compensated for the retransmission of their signals,” read a joint statement issued last September. “Because it is a big and bold idea, Local Choice deserves more discussion and a full consideration by policymakers, and the committee may not have time to include it as part of STAVRA. Rockefeller and Thune are focused on passing STAVRA next week, and continuing to work with their colleagues on Local Choice.”

After the sudden insertion of Local Choice into a satellite television bill, an orange glow filled the night sky at 1771 N Street in Washington. It was Gordon Brown’s hair on fire. Brown is president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the very powerful lobby representing television stations and networks. But that night, he sounded exactly like a cable guy.

“NAB opposes this proposal because it eliminates the basic [cable] tier upon which millions rely for access to lifeline information,” Brown responded in a statement. “It proposes a broadcast a-la-carte scheme that will lead to higher prices and less program diversity. Furthermore, STAVRA appears to confer unfettered and unprecedented authority for government intervention into private marketplace negotiations.”

8679-2_NAB_logos_csThe cable industry has fought its own battle against a-la-carte on exactly the same ground Brown was now occupying.

Rockefeller later claimed he was only poking the Broadcast TV Bear to provoke a response, and he got one. The idea of Local Choice was stripped out of the bill by the fall. Rockefeller was reduced to saving face.

“What we wanted to do was introduce those ideas,” Rockefeller later told The Hill. “We made it sound like it was the focus of the bill, and K Street just went crazy, which is always good. But we knew that we’d have to take it out.”

Yes they did, after the NAB and their allies launched a major PR campaign against Local Choice, attracting over 130,000 comments against the plan.

Polka

Polka

But Rockefeller knew the idea was not going away.

“As people get a taste of being able to say ‘I only watch 10 channels so I should only pay for 10 channels,’ they’re going to love that. It’s going to spread like wildfire,” Rockefeller said.

Fast forward to this spring and it was back to business as usual. Retransmission consent disputes yanked several networks and stations off cable systems, providers mailed their annual rate increase notices, and the cable industry’s popularity and reputation with customers now rivaled ISIS.

Much of the collateral damage (apart from the collective emptying of your wallet) continues to be felt by America’s smallest cable operators that cannot negotiate for what passes as fair and reasonable programming rates from networks like ESPN and CBS. They cannot qualify for volume discounts that are so compelling, it drove AT&T (U-verse TV) into the arms of DirecTV just to get enough subscribers to knock a few more cents off the monthly price of regional sports channels. Only the biggest players in the game have the power and get the savings.

Matthew Polka, president of the American Cable Association (ACA), the other cable trade association representing the interests of small, often family owned cable systems, may not have the most power but he could have the strongest argument against the status quo. While the National Association of Broadcasters spent tens of thousands of dollars arguing today’s retransmission consent system works just fine, some of America’s smaller TV stations apparently didn’t read the NAB’s talking points.

GotchaThe “TV Station Group,” an informal collective of small market TV stations seeking a renewal of their carriage contract with DirecTV has been stonewalled by DirecTV for months. Last week, the station owners filed a complaint with the FCC asking them to stop or block AT&T’s merger with DirecTV until the satellite provider agreed to negotiate in good faith. It was clear from their filing DirecTV’s idea of negotiation is to send ‘take it or leave it’ nastygrams to the TV stations, serving markets like Spokane, Wash., and Yuma, Ariz. The only thing clear from the back and forth is that DirecTV has no doubt it can squash the stations like little bugs:

[W]e will not fall victim to your silly and obvious tactics to try to audit our retrans deals so you can see them all. We did not ask you to send to us your supposed rates, and your unilateral decision to do so doesn’t give you the right to see our other deals. But trust [us], no other station group – especially small groups such as Northwest – are paid by DIRECTV nearly what you have proposed, let alone what your sheet says.

A few weeks later, in response to another request from the broadcasters, DirecTV scolded them like a misbehaving teenager:

To repeat yet again, DIRECTV is not going to get pulled into your transparent trap to define what is ‘market’ by seeing our other deals. That is a precedent we will not set, including for NW. Please do not ask again.

“Judging from the TV stations’ complaint, it is evident that the retransmission consent market is broken and not working for these broadcasters any better than for cable operators,” Polka wrote in a press release issued today. “The time has come for these TV stations and others that have also filed good faith complaints to step out from NAB’s long shadow and join ACA in supporting efforts to update the rules and equip them with a strong referee that can help protect consumers and competition when negotiations break down.”

Polka continues to advocate letting customers decide whether they want to pay for local stations and cable networks. He argues CBS is already doing that today with its All Access program for broadband customers. In 94 markets, serving 64% of U.S. households, consumers can voluntarily subscribe to a live stream of their local CBS station and access a large 6,500 title on-demand library of CBS content for $5.99 a month.

cbs all accessNobody besides CBS knows how many have agreed to pay for All Access, but executives have told investors they are pleased with how the program is working. Still, Marc DeBevoise, executive vice president and general manager of CBS Digital Media at CBS Interactive knows he walks a very fine line promoting a product that could eventually undermine CBS’s current commitment to today’s retransmission consent system. DeBevoise told The Drum it does not market or intend to offer All Access as an alternative to the current cable model.

“At a high level, our strategy in launching CBS All Access was two-fold. First, to delivery our best fans access to the most CBS content we could on any device at any time – really delivering a service for our ‘superfans,'” DeBevoise said. “Additionally this service enables us to reach ‘cord-nevers’ that want to watch CBS content but don’t have a traditional cable package –a significant audience, with industry estimates ranging from 6.5 to 16 million households.”

But at $5.99 a month, that price may prove too steep for many casual viewers looking only for a show or two. Many viewers now rely on ad-supported Hulu, a project of the major American broadcast networks except CBS. Most Hulu customers watch their favorite network shows for free. The future possibility of paying $6 for each of four major American broadcast networks will likely be seen as out of line, especially by more casual viewers.

But for Polka and ACA member cable systems, the idea that customers will direct their All Access price shock wrath out on CBS, not the cable company, may be worth it.

EU Competition Minister: Telecom Consolidation Helps Companies, While Consumers Pay More

Vestager

Vestager

Rampant consolidation of the telecom industry in Europe may help companies, their executives and shareholders, but more often than not it leads to higher prices for consumers. Those are the views of the European Union’s Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in a speech on antitrust issues delivered earlier today in Paris.

“Incumbent operators argue that if they cannot merge with their rivals […] they will be unable to increase their investment,” said Vestager. “I’ve heard this claim quite often, but I have not seen evidence that this is the case. Instead, there is ample evidence that excessive consolidation may lead not only to less competition and more expensive bills for consumers, but that it also reduces the incentives in national markets to innovate.”

Vestager believes much of the drumbeat for industry consolidation is coming from the financial markets. But competition on the ground suggests more competition, not consolidation, brings improved service.

“Infrastructure investment can be stimulated by competition,” Vestager said. “In 2009 a new player, Free Mobile, entered the French telecom market. Following that entry, the overall level of telecoms investment in France grew, and remains at higher levels than at the moment of Free’s entry.”

Free Mobile also triggered a major wireless price war in France, leading to dramatic drops in the cost of wireless service. Independent research from Rewheel seemed to confirm Vestager’s thesis. After Hutchison and Orange merged in Austria, for example, prices rose sharply.

Vestager argued the real motivation behind consolidation is limiting competition, which also helps operators avoid or delay necessary network upgrades.

“In these markets, we have also seen established players abuse their dominant positions to try and prevent competition from alternative operators,” Vestager added. “And we shouldn’t forget that these alternative operators are also behind major network investments in the EU.”

Vestager’s speech could pose major problems for European dealmakers like Altice and Hutchison Whampoa, because they signal the EU will likely closely scrutinize future mergers and acquisitions on antitrust grounds.

Charter CEO: Net Neutrality No Deterrent to System Upgrades, Investment

Rutledge

Rutledge

Despite claims from Net Neutrality critics that increased oversight of the broadband business would lead to reduced investment and upgrades, Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge said the new rules would have no effect on Charter’s investment plans.

Last week Rutledge sat down with FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler to discuss Charter’s proposed merger with Bright House Networks and Time Warner Cable. He was joined by Catherine Bohigian, Charter’s executive vice president for governmental affairs and FCC general counsel Jonathan Sallet and senior counselor Phil Verveer.

“Mr. Rutledge explained that the transactions will bring substantial consumer benefits, including providing a better Internet experience for watching on-line video, gaming, and using other data-hungry apps at more competitive prices, and that the mergers will not harm competition,” according to a one page filing with the FCC disclosing the meeting.

Despite repeated claims from pro-industry policy wonks that Net Neutrality and Title II oversight of cable broadband would cause operators to reconsider their investment plans, Rutledge made it clear Charter’s spending plans are unaffected.

“Mr. Rutledge agreed that the Commission’s decision to reclassify broadband Internet access under Title II has not altered Charter’s approach of investing significantly in its network to deliver cutting edge services including: the fastest entry-level broadband service (60 Mbps) with unlimited usage; out-of-home Wi-Fi hotspots; a state-of-the art, cloud-based user guide, allowing search and discovery across linear, video on demand and online content; open, non-proprietary downloadable security; and an innovative video app with hundreds of live and downloadable channels and the ability to display over-the-top content seamlessly on the television,” the disclosure continues.

Charter’s chief executive said the company supports Open Internet rules, including no throttles or blocks on lawful content and no paid prioritization. But he does worry about regulatory uncertainty while the FCC explores its expanded powers of oversight.

Hometown Newspaper of Charter Communications Warns Time Warner Deal Not in the Public Interest

Editor’s Note: This editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is reprinted in its entirety. It comes from a newspaper that has covered Charter Communications since its inception. The Post-Dispatch reporters are also some of Charter’s subscribers — the cable company serves all of metropolitan St. Louis. Charter has never been received particularly well in St. Louis and in other cities where it provides generally mediocre service. Communities across Missouri that have endured poor cable and broadband service have recently taken a serious look at doing something about this by building their own public broadband networks as an alternative. But big money telecom interests, especially AT&T, have found it considerably less expensive to lobby to ban these networks from ever getting off the ground than spending the money to upgrade networks to compete.

charter twc bhOn May 15, the last day of this year’s session of the Missouri Legislature, House Bill 437 finally was assigned to a committee, where it promptly died. Given the power of the American Legislative Exchange Council, it may well be back next year.

HB 437, sponsored by Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark, was full of gobbledygook about “municipal competitive services,” but its effect would have been to condemn Missourians to ever-higher prices for broadband Internet service. Cities would have been forbidden from establishing their own broadband services to compete with private operators, thus holding down prices.

ALEC, which wines and dines state lawmakers and then gets them to pass pro-business “model legislation” in their states, had succeeded in getting restrictions on public Internet providers in 20 states. But in February, the Federal Communications Commission struck down North Carolina’s ALEC-inspired law, so the future of other such laws is uncertain.

About 22 percent of Missourians are still regarded as “underserved,” having no reliable access to broadband service of at least 25 megabits per second — what’s needed to stream video without lags. About 1 in 6 Missourians have only one wired access provider to choose from. More than 400,000 Missourians have no wired broadband at all.

Missouri is ranked 38th “most connected” in the nation by the federal-state Broadband Now initiative. In the 21st century, this is like being underserved by railroads in the 19th century or power lines in the early 20th. In parts of rural Missouri, it’s hard to do business, which helps explain why HB 437 died in committee.

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

The basic question is whether companies that invest in high-speed Internet infrastructure should be able to charge whatever they can get away with, or whether broadband service should be treated as a public utility. If it’s the latter, as the FCC determined in February, then government must make sure it’s affordable.

Which brings us to Charter Communications proposed $56 billion takeover of Time Warner Cable and its $10.4 billion acquisition of Bright House Networks. Both deals were announced May 26; both will need approval from the FCC and the Justice Department’s antitrust regulators.

In St. Louis, we have a love-hate relationship with Charter, a homegrown company built atop what was once Cencom Cable. It has dominated the cable TV market here almost as long as there’s been a cable market.

Charter customers endured years of poor service, its bankruptcy, its legal challenges, its ownership and management changes. Just when it got itself together, in 2012, the headquarters was moved from Des Peres to Stamford, Conn., though it retains a significant presence here.

Today our little Charter is a big fish; the Time Warner and Bright House deals would make it the nation’s second-largest cable company, with 24 million customers, behind only Philadelphia-based Comcast, with 27 million.

But cable TV no longer drives cable TV. Internet-based video services, like YouTube and Netflix, have revolutionized the way people, particularly younger people, watch TV. When cable companies first started connecting customers to the Internet through the same cables that delivered TV programming, it was regarded as a nice add-on business. Now broadband delivery is seen as a far bigger part of the future than providing TV programs.

missouriIndeed, when Comcast tried to acquire Time Warner last year, the dominance (nearly 60 percent of the market) that the combined company would have had over broadband service caused federal regulators to look askance. Comcast abandoned its bid in April.

By contrast, a Charter-Time Warner-Bright House combination (it will do business as Spectrum) will control 30 percent of the broadband market. Charter Spectrum will have 20 million broadband subscribers, compared with 22 million for Comcast.

So what can customers expect? Charter’s CEO Tom Rutledge has promised “faster Internet speeds, state-of-the-art video experiences and fully featured voice products, at highly competitive prices.”

This begs the question, competitive with whom? Comcast? Mom-and-pop operations that can’t afford the infrastructure? Municipal service providers who are being ALEC’d out of business?

Neither Charter nor Time Warner has particularly good customer service ratings (though to be fair, Charter is miles ahead of where it used to be, at least in St. Louis). Still, Charter will take on lots of debt to finance the deal, much of it in high-yield junk bonds. The broadband business provides leverage. As analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson told the Wall Street Journal: “Broadband pricing is almost an insurance policy for cable operators, in that if all else fails, you’ve always got the option to raise broadband rates.”

America wouldn’t let a private operator own 30 percent of its roads and highways. It wouldn’t allow two of them to control half the electricity. If broadband Internet service is a public utility, it must be regulated strictly.

The lesson is old as the hills: The free-marketeers who talk most passionately about competition are generally in the business of trying to eliminate it. Charter and Time Warner are both members of ALEC.

The Charter-Time Warner deal clearly is not in the public interest. The upside for shareholders is huge. The upside for Charter executives is even bigger. But it’s hard to see how Charter’s customers would see much benefit at all.

After Seeing Broadband-a-Plenty in Longmont, Fort Collins, Colorado Wants Public Broadband Too

nextlightIt’s an acute case of broadband envy.

Residents of Fort Collins, Colo., that have an excuse to take an hour’s drive south on U.S. Route 87 to visit Longmont and experience the Internet over the community’s public broadband service can’t believe their eyes. It’s so fast… and cheap. Back home it is a choice between Comcast and CenturyLink, and neither will win any popularity contests. While large parts of Colorado have gotten some upgrades out of Comcast, Fort Collins is one of the communities that typically gets the cable company’s attention last.

The city of Longmont took control of its digital destiny after years of anemic and expensive service from Comcast and CenturyLink. Longmont Power & Communications’ NextLight Internet service delivers gigabit fiber to the home service to the community of 90,000. The service was funded with a $40.3 million bond the city issued in 2014, to be paid back by NextLight customers, not taxpayers, over time. It remains a work in progress, but is expected to start construction to reach the last parts of Longmont by next spring.

chart memberNextLight delivers a mortal blow to competitors by charging a fair price for fast service. Instead of spending to upgrade their networks to compete, the incumbents demagogued the public project and Comcast spent $300,000 of its subscribers’ money in a campaign to kill the service before it even got started. Perhaps they had a right to be worried considering NextLight customers pay $49.95 a month for unlimited 1,000/1,000Mbps service. NextLight offers 20 times the download speed and 100 times the upload speed of Comcast’s Blast! package for nearly $30 less a month.

 

After NextLight was rated America’s fastest performing Internet service by Ookla in May, residents in Fort Collins began to wonder why they were still putting up with poor service from Comcast and lousy DSL from CenturyLink.

Fort Collins is about a one hour and fifteen minute drive north of Denver.

Fort Collins is about a one hour, fifteen minute drive north of Denver.

At the same time, city officials were doing their best to leverage some modest improvements from Comcast in return for a renewed franchise agreement. All they got was a vague commitment permitting the city to monitor Comcast’s notorious customer service and two HD channels set aside for Public, Educational, and Government use, along with a $20,000 grant to help the public access channel with online streaming.

The Coloradoan urged Fort Collins officials to think big and establish public fiber optic broadband in the city.

To manage this, they will have to overcome a 2005 state law backed by Comcast and Qwest (now CenturyLink) that bans municipal telecommunications services. A local vote or federal waiver can sidestep a law that was always designed to restrict competition and make life easier for the two telecom giants.

The newspaper opines that Fort Collins is in no way ready for the digital economy of the 21st century relying on Comcast and CenturyLink.

The cable company’s attention is focused on bigger cities in the state and CenturyLink remains hobbled by its copper legacy infrastructure. While some upgrades have been forthcoming, both Comcast and CenturyLink are also testing usage caps or usage-based billing — just another way to raise the price of the service. And speaking of service, neither Comcast or CenturyLink are answerable to the communities they serve – a community owned broadband alternative would be.

As the Coloradoan writes:

We’ve got to lay the groundwork now. Society took huge steps forward when automobiles replaced the horse and carriage. And no, installing municipal broadband isn’t adopting a new mode of transportation, but it is symbolic of laying an entirely new road.

Look at it another way. The city provides needed services such as water and electricity. Internet access is a needed service.

One thing Fort Collins doesn’t absolutely need Comcast or CenturyLink. But nobody is asking them to leave. They have a choice to use their massive buying power and resources to upgrade their networks to compete. But Fort Collins residents should not have to wait for that day to come when there is a better alternative in their grasp today: public broadband.

 

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