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Mediacom Usage Caps Annoy Customers; Usage-Based Billing Excuses Don’t Fit the Facts

Mediacom, logo_mediacom_mainthe worst-rated cable operator in the United States, claims it needs usage caps and consumption billing to force heavy users to pay for needed upgrades. But that isn’t what Mediacom’s executives are telling investors and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Thomas Larsen, group vice president of legal and public affairs for Mediacom told The Gazette the consumption-based billing program was intended to pay for the cost of network upgrades incurred by “individuals who are the highest users.”

But Mediacom’s August 10-Q filings (Mediacom LLC and Mediacom Broadband LLC) with the SEC indicate Mediacom’s revenues are increasing faster than the cable operator’s costs to provide service, as customers upgrade to more costly, faster speed Internet tiers.

internet limitRevenues from residential services are expected to grow as a result of [broadband] and phone customer growth, with additional contributions from customers taking higher speed tiers and more customers taking our advanced video services,” Mediacom reports. “Based upon the speeds we offer, we believe our High Speed Data (HSD) product is generally superior to DSL offerings in our service areas. As consumers’ bandwidth requirements have dramatically increased in the past few years, a trend we expect to continue, we believe our ability to offer a HSD product today with speeds of up to 105Mbps gives us a competitive advantage compared to the DSL service offered by the local telephone companies. We expect to continue to grow HSD revenues through residential customer growth and more customers taking higher HSD speed tiers. “

Mediacom’s consumption billing program, already in effect for new customers, will be imposed on all Mediacom broadband customers starting in September. Larsen claims only about three percent of customers will be impacted by the usage allowance, which will include 250GB of usage for customers selecting the company’s most popular speed tier. Larsen also claimed the average Mediacom customer uses only 14GB per month.

That usage profile is below the national average, and leads to questions about why Mediacom needs a usage allowance system when 97 percent of its customers do not present a burden to the cable company.

“Once a customer reaches their monthly allowance,  for $10 they can purchase an additional 50GB a month of capacity,” Larsen explained. “Each time that they reach that next level, they’ll be able to purchase another allotment. We’re never going to stop you from using data, we’re just going to charge you more if you exceed your monthly allowance. Before, we could cap you, there was no mechanism for them to purchase more.”

Mediacom did not frequently enforce its usage caps in the past except in instances where usage levels created problems for other customers. Despite Larsen’s assertion Mediacom would spent the overages collected from heavy users on broadband upgrades, Mediacom’s report to the SEC indicates broadband usage has never been a significant burden for the cable operator:

Our HSD and phone service costs fluctuate depending on the level of investments we make in our cable systems and the resulting operational efficiencies. Our other service costs generally rise as a result of customer growth and inflationary cost increases for personnel, outside vendors and other expenses. Personnel and related support costs may increase as the percentage of expenses that we capitalize declines due to lower levels of new service installations. We anticipate that service costs, with the exception of programming expenses, will remain fairly consistent as a percentage of our revenues.

Although Mediacom reported field operating costs rose 7.6%, much of that increase was a result of greater fiber lease and cable location expenses on its wireless backhaul business for cell towers and greater use of outside contractors. In the company’s latest 10-Q filing, Mediacom reports its revenues increased 2.9 percent in the past year while its costs rose only 1.5 percent. Mediacom’s revenues from its broadband division are even more rosy, rising 9% in the past year alone. In fact, broadband is the company’s highest growth residential business.

Many of Mediacom’s long-standing customers were initially promised they would be exempt from usage caps, with only new customers subject to usage limits. But Mediacom has unilaterally changed their minds, much to the consternation of some customers.

As of this afternoon, Mediacom is still promising customers usage caps only apply to new customers and those making plan changes.

As of this afternoon, Mediacom is still promising customers usage caps only apply to new customers and those making plan changes.

“It is my belief a man’s word is gold and when Mediacom customers have been told for ages they were grandfathered in with no usage data charges unless they changed plans, that is how it is supposed to be,” said D. Gronceski. “I have explicitly turned down service increases in the past to stay on the unlimited usage plan originally offered by Mediacom […] so I get screwed twice, once for bandwidth caps and again because I’m not getting the services I would be getting if I had not refused the automatic increases.”

annoyedOther customers incensed about the new usage limits have called to cancel service only to be threatened with steep early termination fees.

“Why do I have to pay an early termination fee?” asked AustinPowersISU. “The way of billing for the service is changing and I do not agree to this method of billing. I should be allowed to terminate my service without paying a fee.”

A Mediacom social media team representative offered one suggestion for customers finding themselves quickly over their usage limits: upgrade to faster speed tiers at a higher price. As for complaints about the unilateral introduction of usage caps with overlimit fees, it’s tough luck for customers, on contract or off:

All Internet users will be held to the new terms of service and usage based billing as of Sept. 7, 2013.  There is no agreement to sign, no acknowledgement needed.  Continuing to utilize Internet services is acceptance of these changes. If for any reason you do not feel that your current service level meets your needs, let us know and we can have a representative contact you with further options.

[…] Per the posted terms of service and acceptable use policy, there has always been an established data consumption threshold (data allowance) to be enforced at Mediacom’s discretion.  With this change, we have clarified these methods of enforcement and have expanded the allowance to offer different levels of users different options.  We have notified the proper departments of possible additions, but these statements are and have been posted.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KCRG Cedar Rapids Mediacom Going Usage Billing 8-21-13.mp4.

KCRG in Cedar Rapids reports Mediacom is switching to consumption billing for broadband service in September.  (2 minutes)

Comcast Introduces 5GB “Flexible Data Option” Usage Cap in Fresno, Calif.

Phillip Dampier August 1, 2013 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News, Internet Overcharging Comments Off
Won't take no for an answer.


Comcast is introducing a new 5GB optional usage cap for customers subscribing to their Economy Plus ($29.95 – 3Mbps/768kbps) tier willing to limit their Internet usage in return for a $5 discount.

“The Flexible-Data Option is specifically designed for casual or light Internet users who typically use 5GB of data or less a month,” says a new Comcast FAQ on the subject. “It provides a $5 credit if your total monthly data usage is less than or equal to 5GB per month.”

Comcast admits only a tiny percentage of customers subscribe to the Economy Plus tier, and those are the only customers receiving letters offering a discount for keeping Internet usage low.

The company says it will inject a message into subscribers’ web browsers notifying them when they reach 90% of their usage allowance. If customers do happen to exceed 5GB of usage per month, there are repercussions. First, they automatically lose the $5 credit. Instead, they will be charged $1 per gigabyte in overlimit fees.

“We believe this monthly option is fair because it allows our eligible customers who use less data to now pay less,” writes the company.

But unlike Time Warner Cable’s trials of 5 and 30GB usage-capped plans that limit the overlimit fee to $25 a month, Comcast has no disclosed maximum, which means a customer consuming 200GB a month could face a $195 overage usage penalty.

Comcast notes the option is being offered later this month on a trial basis and only in the Fresno area. Customers can drop the usage capped option at any time.

Comcast discontinued its formal 250GB usage cap in May 2012, but it has not abandoned interest in usage limits or consumption-based pricing.

In Tucson, Comcast is testing variable usage caps with an overlimit fee of $10, which includes an extra 50GB of usage. In Nashville, all customers face a hard 300GB usage cap.

Time Warner Cable has repeatedly admitted very few customers have shown any interest in usage capped broadband plans.

Why Time Warner Cable Can Jack Up Rates Willy-Nilly: Lack of Competition

cable ratesAlthough cable and phone companies love to declare themselves part of a fiercely competitive telecommunications marketplace, it is increasingly clear that is more fairy tale than reality, with each staking out their respective market niches to live financially comfortable ever-after.

In the last week, Time Warner Cable managed to alienate its broadband customers announcing another rate increase and a near-doubling of the modem rental fee the company only introduced as its newest money-maker last fall. What used to cost $3.95 a month will be $5.99 by August.

The news of the “price adjustment” went over like a lead balloon for customers in Albany, N.Y., many who just endured an 18-hour service outage the day before, wiping out phone and Internet service.

“They already get almost $60 a month from me for Internet service that cuts out for almost an entire day and now they want more?” asked Albany-area customer Randy Dexter. “If Verizon FiOS was available here, I’d toss Time Warner out of my house for good.”

Alas, the broadband magic sparkle ponies have not brought Dexter or millions of other New Yorkers the top-rated fiber optic network Verizon stopped expanding several years ago. The Wall Street dragons complained about the cost of stringing fiber. Competition, it seems, is bad for business.

In fact, Verizon Wireless and Time Warner Cable are now best friends. Verizon Wireless customers can get a fine deal — not on Verizon’s own FiOS service — but on Time Warner’s cable TV. Time Warner Cable originally thought about getting into the wireless phone business, but it was too expensive. It invites customers to sign up for Verizon Wireless service instead.

timewarner twcThis is hardly a “War of the Roses” relationship either. Wall Street teaches that price wars are expensive and competitive shouting matches do not represent a win-win scenario for companies and their shareholders. The two companies get along fine where Verizon has virtually given up on DSL. Time Warner Cable actually faces more competition from AT&T’s U-verse, which is not saying much. The obvious conclusion: unless you happen to live in a FiOS service area, the best deals and fastest broadband speeds are not for you.

Further upstate in the Rochester-Finger Lakes Region, Time Warner Cable faces an even smaller threat from Frontier Communications. It’s a market share battle akin to United States Cable fighting a war against Uzbekistan Telephone. Frontier’s network in upstate New York is rich in copper and very low in fiber. Frontier has lost landline customers for years and until very recently its broadband DSL offerings have been so unattractive, they are a marketplace afterthought.

Rochester television reporter Rachel Barnhart surveyed the situation on her blog:

Think about this fact: Time Warner, which raked in more than $21 billion last year, has 700,000 subscribers in the Buffalo and Rochester markets. I’m not sure how many of those are businesses. But the Western New York market has 875,000 households. That’s an astounding market penetration. Does this mean Time Warner is the best choice or the least worse option?

Verizon-logoThat means Time Warner Cable has an 80 percent market share. Actually, it is probably higher because that total number of households includes those who either don’t want, need, or can’t afford broadband service. Some may also rely on limited wireless broadband services from Clearwire or one of the large cell phone companies.

In light of cable’s broadband successes, it is no surprise Time Warner is able to set prices and raise them at will. Barnhart, who has broadband-only service, is currently paying Time Warner $37.99 a month for “Lite” service, since reclassified as 1/1Mbps. That does not include the modem rental fee or the forthcoming $3 rate hike. Taken together, “Lite” Internet is getting pricey in western New York at $47 a month.

Retiring CEO Glenn Britt believes there is still money yet to be milked out of subscribers. In addition to believing cable modem rental fees are a growth industry, Britt also wants customers to begin thinking about “the usage component” of broadband service. That is code language for consumption-based billing — a system that imposes an arbitrary usage limit on customers, usually at current pricing levels, with steep fees for exceeding that allowance.

frontierRochester remains a happy hunting ground for Internet Overcharging schemes because the only practical, alternative broadband supplier is Frontier Communications, which Time Warner Cable these days dismisses as an afterthought (remember that 80 percent market share). Without a strong competitor, Time Warner has no problem experimenting with new “usage”-priced tiers.

Time Warner persists with its usage priced plans, despite the fact customers overwhelmingly have told the company they don’t want them. Time Warner’s current discount offer — $5 off any broadband tier if you keep usage under 5GB a month, has been a complete marketing failure. Despite that, Time Warner is back with a slightly better offer — $8 off that 5GB usage tier and adding a new 30GB usage limited option in the Rochester market. We have since learned customers signing up for that 30GB limit will get $5 off their broadband service.

internet limitIn nearby Ohio, the average broadband user already exceeds Time Warner’s 30GB pittance allowance, using 52GB a month. Under both plans, customers who exceed their allowance are charged $1 per GB, with overlimit fees currently not to exceed $25 per month. That 30GB plan would end up costing customers an extra $22 a month above the regular, unlimited plan. So much for the $5 savings.

Unfortunately, as long as Time Warner has an 80 percent market share, the same mentality that makes ever-rising modem rental fees worthwhile might also one day give the cable company courage to remove the word “optional” from those usage limited plans. With usage nearly doubling every year, Time Warner might see consumption billing as its maximum moneymaker.

In 2009, Time Warner valued unlimited-use Internet at $150 as month, which is what they planned to charge before pitchfork and torch-wielding customers turned up outside their offices.

Considering the company already earns 95 percent gross margin on broadband service before the latest round of price increases, one has to ask exactly when the company will be satisfied it is earning enough from broadband service. I fear the answer will be “never,” which is why it is imperative that robust competition exist in the broadband market to keep prices in check.

Unfortunately, as long as Wall Street and providers decide competition is too hard and too unprofitable, the price increases will continue.

Time Warner Cable Introduces New 30GB Usage-Capped Billing Plan in Rochester, N.Y.

twc logoIn addition to an August broadband rate increase for western New York’s Time Warner Cable customers, those in Rochester will also be among the first to experience a new 30GB usage-capped billing option for broadband service.

The subject of usage-based billing is a major sore spot for customers in the Flower City, who joined forces with customers in Greensboro, N.C., and San Antonio and Austin, Tex. to force the cable company to shelve a mandatory usage billing scheme announced in 2009. Stop the Cap! was in the middle of that fight, although this group was founded after Frontier Communications proposed a 5GB usage cap the summer before.

Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt personally promised Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y) that the cable company would yank its planned experiment with usage caps and consumption-based billing after it became clear Rochester and other cities were being singled out where Verizon FiOS would never offer competition, making it seem Time Warner was taking advantage of a lack of broadband competition to charge dramatically higher prices.

In 2009, Time Warner Cable planned to implement mandatory usage pricing starting in Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and San Antonio and Austin, Tex.

In 2009, Time Warner Cable planned mandatory broadband usage pricing starting in Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and San Antonio and Austin, Tex.

But Britt has never stopped believing in usage pricing, and Time Warner has since switched to a more gradual introduction of the pricing scheme, this time offering discounts to customers that agree to limit their Internet usage.

Time Warner’s current usage billing plan offers a meager $5 discount to those who limit consumption to less than 5GB per month. That plan was originally introduced in Texas and Time Warner Cable employees confidentially tell Stop the Cap! it has attracted almost no interest from customers.

Now Time Warner Cable plans to introduce a second usage limited plan, with a yet to be disclosed discount for subscribers who keep Internet usage under 30GB a month.

“Those who use the Internet for e-mail or to surf the web need not pay the same rates as those who download games and the like,” said company spokesperson Joli Plucknette-Farmen.

As far as we can tell, the 30GB capped plan is new for Time Warner Cable and Rochester will be among the first communities to experience it. Unless the company chooses to more aggressively discount both the 5GB and 30GB plans, we expect few customers will take Time Warner Cable up on their offer.

For now, Time Warner says the usage capped plans are optional and that flat rate Internet service will continue. But company executives have not said for how long or what the company might choose to eventually charge for unlimited broadband usage.

Britt has stressed repeatedly he wants customers to get re-educated to accept “a usage component as part of broadband pricing.” But customers may not accept that, particularly considering the cable company already enjoys a 95% gross margin on flat rate broadband service.

Wireless Spectrum: Highest Bidder Wins in U.S., Competition Wins in Europe… for Now

analysisIn the race to acquire spectrum and market share, AT&T and Verizon Wireless have already won most of the awards worth taking and have little to fear from smaller competitors. The U.S. government has seen to that.

The two wireless giants have benefited enormously from government spectrum auctions that award the most favorable wireless spectrum to the highest bidder, a policy that retards competition and guarantees deep-pocketed companies will continue to dominate in the coverage wars.

Winner-take-all spectrum auctions have already proven that AT&T and Verizon are best equipped to bid and win coveted 700MHz spectrum which provides the best indoor and fringe-area reception. This is why AT&T and Verizon customers often find “more bars in more places” than customers relying on Sprint or T-Mobile. Smaller carriers typically have to offer service over much-higher frequencies that don’t penetrate buildings very well. With a reduced level of service, these competitors are at an immediate competitive disadvantage. They also must spend more for a larger number of cell towers to provide uniform service.

Verizon's own presentation materials tout the benefits of controlling 700MHz spectrum which is less costly to deploy and offers more robust coverage.

Verizon’s own presentation materials tout the benefits of controlling 700MHz spectrum, which is less costly to deploy and offers more robust coverage.

Sprint and T-Mobile have two strikes against them at the outset — less favorable spectrum and much smaller coverage areas. Customers who want the best reception under all circumstances usually get it from the biggest two players. Those focused primarily on price are willing to sacrifice that reception for a lower bill.

The same story is developing in the wireless data marketplace. AT&T and Verizon Wireless have the strongest networks as Sprint and T-Mobile fight to catch up.

Where America Went Wrong: The Repeal of Spectrum Caps

Tom Wheeler: America's #1 Advocate for Repeal of Spectrum Caps is now the chairman of the FCC.

Tom Wheeler: America’s #1 advocate for repeal of Spectrum Caps is now the chairman of the FCC.

Originally, the United States prevented excessive market domination with a “Spectrum Cap,” — a maximum amount of wireless spectrum providers could hold in any local market. The rule was part of the sweeping changes in telecommunications law introduced in the mid-1990s. Wireless spectrum auctions replaced lotteries or strict frequency assignments based on merit. The U.S. government promoted the auction system as a win for the U.S. Treasury, which has been promised $60 billion in proceeds from the wireless industry (not the amount actually collected) since auctions began in 1994.

The cost to U.S. consumers from increasing cell phone bills in barely competitive markets is still adding up.

After the auction system was introduced, the largest carriers acquired some of the most favorable, lower-frequency spectrum, easily outbidding smaller rivals. Most of the smaller regional carriers that ultimately won coveted 700MHz spectrum emerged victorious only when AT&T and Verizon felt the smaller markets were not worth the investment. In larger markets, spectrum caps were a gatekeeper against acquiring excess spectrum and, more importantly, rampant industry consolidation.

Under the pre-2001 rules, wireless companies couldn’t own more than 45MHz of spectrum in a single urban area or more than 55MHz in a rural area. That was when Verizon and AT&T competed with carriers that no longer exist — old familiar names like Nextel, Cingular, VoiceStream, Alltel, Centennial Communications, Qwest, and many others considered safe from poaching because the most likely buyers would find themselves over their spectrum limits.

As the largest carriers realized the caps were an effective merger/buyout firewall, the wireless industry began a fierce lobbying campaign against them. Leading the charge was Tom Wheeler, then-president of the CTIA Wireless Association, the nation’s top cellular industry lobbying group. Today he is chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

“Today, America faces a severe spectrum shortage for wireless services,” Wheeler said in 2001. “The spectrum cap is a legacy of spectrum abundance, not shortages; the inefficiencies it perpetuates cannot be allowed to continue. While the U.S. government is looking for ways to catch up to the rest of the world on spectrum allocations, removal of the cap can at least increase the efficiency of existing spectrum.”


Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps opposed retiring Spectrum Caps: “Let’s not kid ourselves: This is, for some, more about corporate mergers than it is about anything else.”

Wheeler was backed by an intensive lobbying effort funded by the largest wireless companies itching to merge and acquire.

By the end of 2001, the new Bush Administration’s FCC was ready to deal, gradually repealing the spectrum caps and fueling major wireless industry consolidation in the process. Providers everywhere could now own or control 55MHz of spectrum in any market, with the promise the caps would be repealed altogether by March 2003.

The result was already foreseen by former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps in November 2001, when he strongly dissented to the Republican majority gung ho for dissolving spectrum caps.

“Let’s not kid ourselves: This is, for some, more about corporate mergers than it is about anything else,” Copps wrote in his strong dissent. “Just look at what the analysts are talking about as the specter of spectrum cap renewal approaches – their almost exclusive focus is on evaluating the candidates for corporate takeovers and handicapping the winners and losers in the spectrum bazaar we are about to open.”

Just in case Copps might be making headway in his campaign to protect competition, Wheeler began complaining even louder about spectrum caps during the spring of 2003, just before their dissolution.

“The wireless industry fought long and hard to secure this spectrum for America’s wireless consumers,” said Wheeler. “Now we must tread carefully — in this era of rapid technological change, writing rules that are too restrictive would be irresponsible. In order to use this spectrum both efficiently and effectively, those who purchase this spectrum at auction must be allowed the freedom to grow and evolve with the demands of the market.”

Europe: Protecting Consumers from Giant Multinational Competition Consolidators (Some of the same ones AT&T reportedly wants to buy)

There is a reason Europeans are shocked by the costs of wireless service in the United States and Canada. North Americans pay higher prices for less service than our European counterparts. Most of the New World also has fewer choices in near-equivalent service providers.

Much of this difference can be attributed to European regulators maintaining focus on driving competition forward and disallowing rampant industry consolidation. But as Wall Street turns its attentions increasingly towards Europe to push for the next big wave of wireless mergers, the European system of “competition first” could be undermined if providers follow the North American model of high profits and reduced competition through consolidation.

Across much of Europe, at least four national carriers serve each EU member state, almost all controlling a share of the most valued, low-frequency wireless spectrum. European regulators do not allow a small handful of providers to maintain a stranglehold on the most valuable radio spectrum. Competitors have traditionally been offered a spectrum foundation to build networks that can stand up to their larger counterparts — the large multinationals or ex-state monopoly providers who had a head start providing service.

A report released by Finland market research firm Rewheel in May found clear evidence that the European model was benefiting consumers at the expense of rampant provider profits. Europeans in “progressive” markets that welcomed new competitive entrants pay lower prices for far more service. In some cases, the price differences between the five giant multinational providers that dominate Europe — Vodafone, KPN, France Telecom, Telefonica and Deutsche Telekom — were staggering. Competitors like Tele2, TeliaSonera, and “3” charge up to ten times less than the larger companies for equal levels of service.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg ATT Takeover List of European Wireless Carriers 7-15-13.flv

“Europe is ripe for competition,” reports Bloomberg News. Providers like AT&T may be preparing to embark on a European wireless acquisition frenzy, but Wall Street warns profits are much lower because of robust price competition in Europe that benefits consumers. (4 minutes)

The study also found a number of the largest European providers were following in the footsteps of Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Rogers, Bell, and Telus here in North America:

  • Prices were enormously higher in markets that lack effective competition from an upstart competitor able to deliver a comparable level of service. Smaller cell companies with very limited infrastructure or with non-favored spectrum could not provoke dominant players to cut prices because reception quality was starkly lower and consumers would have to cope with a reduced level of service. In Europe, when new competitors were able to fully build-out their networks using favorable spectrum, incumbents in these progressive markets slashed prices and boosted services to compete. In North America, upstart competitors cannot access favorable spectrum for financial reasons and the investor community has dismissed many of these players as afterthoughts, starving them of much-needed investment.
  • Large dominant European providers are now heavily lobbying for deregulation of merger and acquisition rules and want the right to acquire the competition entering their markets.
  • In almost half of the EU27 member state markets spectrum is utilized very inefficiently by the largest incumbent telco groups who are keen to protect their legacy fixed assets and cement their European dominance with more consolidation at the price of competition. In the United States and Canada, many of the largest providers crying the loudest for more wireless spectrum have still not used the spectrum already acquired.

competition slide

From the Finnish report:

The obvious question that needs to be asked is how is it technologically possible and economically viable for Tele2, 3 and TeliaSonera to offer four times more gigabytes of data usage at a fraction of the price charged by larger companies.

  • Do independent challengers have privileged access to more efficient technologies (i.e. LTE) than the E4 group members?
  • Do they hold relatively more spectrum capacity than the E4 group members?
  • Do independent challengers have access to more radio sites and their spectrum reuse factor is higher than the E4 group members?
  • Or are independent challengers (i.e. Tele2, DNA) unprofitable?

None of the above are true.

The answer is actually very simple. Independent challengers and incumbents such as TeliaSonera present mainly in progressive markets are utilizing the spectrum resources assigned to them. In contrast, incumbent telco groups […] rather than utilizing their spectrum resources instead appear to be more concerned about keeping the unit price of mobile data very high […] by restricting supply, the same way the lawful “cartel” of OPEC controls the price of oil by turning the tap off.

In progressive markets (where at least one independent challenger is present, triggering spectrum utilization competition) such as Finland, Sweden, Austria and the UK, mobile data consumption per capita is up to ten times higher than in protected markets.

In some European countries dominated by the biggest players, consumers are being gouged for service. Where robust competition exists, prices are dramatically lower.

The European nation where market conditions are most similar to the United States is Germany. Two large carriers dominate the market: Deutsche Telekom, the former state-owned telephone company and Vodafone, part owner of Verizon Wireless.

In Germany, consumers spending €20 ($26) end up with a data plan offering as little as 200MB of usage per month. In progressive markets in adjacent countries, spending the same amount will buy an unlimited use data plan or at least one offering tens of gigabytes of usage. In short, German smartphone service is up to 100 times more restrictive than that found in nearby Scandinavia or in the United Kingdom. These same two companies charge Germans double what English customers pay and a Berliner will end up with 22 times less data service after the bill is settled.

competition slide 2

So what is going on in Germany that allows the marketplace to stay so price-distorted? The fact all four significant competitors have close ties to or are owned by the large multinational telecom operators mentioned above. Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, Telefonica and E-Plus, the latter one belonging to the Dutch KPN Group are all members of a lobbying organization attempting to persuade the EU to invest public funds into improving Europe’s wired broadband networks. Playing against that proposition is a growing number of Europeans moving to wireless. By charging dramatically higher wireless prices in Germany, all four companies have successfully argued that wireless adoption is not a significant reason to stall public financing of private broadband projects. In fact, Germany’s wireless growth is well below other EU nations.

The Finnish researchers point out the evidence of informal provider collusion is pretty stark in Germany:

“One would expect these ‘European Champions,’ especially the ones with lower market shares (Telefonica and E-Plus), to look at the smartphone centric market transformation as an opportunity to secure or improve their market share, especially in light of the fact they should have plenty of unused radio spectrum capacities to make their offers more consumer-appealing,” the report finds. But in fact these new entrants have priced their services very closely in alignment with the larger two.

“Undoubtedly, multinational incumbent telco groups and their investors have good reasons to lobby EU decision makers to enact friendly policies that will protect their inherited oligopolistic high profit margins,” the report states. “But will the German model serve the best interest of consumers and business in other EU member states? In Rewheel’s opinion, clearly not. Enforcing an overly ‘convergent player friendly’ German model would severely limit competition in the mobile markets, leading to high prices for consumers and the Internet of mobile things and sever under-utilization of the member states’ scarce national radio spectrum resources.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg ATT Entry in Europe Not Seen as Competitive Threat 7-15-13.flv

Competition is brutal in Europe’s wireless marketplace — a factor Bloomberg News says could temper AT&T’s planned “European Wireless Takeover.” What makes the difference between enormous profits in North America and heavy price discounting in Europe? Spectrum policy, which gives European competitors a more level playing field. Bloomberg analysts speculate AT&T will bankroll its rumored European buyouts and mergers with the enormous profits it earns from U.S. subscribers.  (4 minutes)

Widespread Usage-Based Pricing: Netflix Would Instantly Lose 2/3rds of Its Subscribers



A consolidated cable industry envisioned by Dr. John Malone, currently bidding for a merger between Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable, would feature widespread usage caps and usage billing and could obliterate competition from over-the-top online video providers, predicts a cable industry analyst.

Craig Moffett, now out on his own as co-head of independent Wall Street research firm MoffettNathanson, says broadband usage pricing is the sleeper issue of the last five years.

“I’ve written for years that [usage based pricing] is the single most important issue in all [the telecom sector],” Moffett said in an interview last week. “I’ve always been amazed by how little attention people have always paid to the issue.”

The Street reports that a unified cable cartel limiting consumer access to the Internet or more importantly monetizing that access would immediately devastate streaming video competitors including Netflix, Amazon, YouTube and Hulu.

If usage based pricing were implemented across the cable industry tomorrow, Moffett believes Netflix’s subscriber base would immediately fall from 30 million to 10 million. Nascent video players like Intel and Apple would likely find their business plans untenable, and some analysts believe the sweeping price changes would probably end the shift towards integrating streaming technology into large flat panel television sets.

Consumer backlash is the inevitable result of usage pricing, say concerned analysts.

Consumer backlash

Moffett says the impact would be broadly felt. Other analysts predict it could cause a national consumer uprising, especially at a time when other countries are swiftly moving to get rid of usage limits and consumption-based billing that have never been popular with customers.

“I think it will become clear that over the summer the window may have already closed for the cable operators to move to a usage based pricing theme,” Moffett said.

The Federal Communications Commission has done almost nothing about the issue of usage caps and usage pricing. Former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski even applauded the unpopular price scheme, calling it an important innovation.

Customers call it something else, and an uproar from consumers and competitors alike could overshadow the broadband successes of the Obama Administration. It would represent “a laughable setback for the nation’s communications infrastructure,” predict increasingly pessimistic Wall Street analysts concerned about the inevitable backlash.

The Street:

In a new broadband pricing regime, regulators would have to condone what consumers and competitors would immediately recognize as anti-competitive. Meanwhile, immensely popular content providers such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube and the like would have to lose a Washington lobbying battle to the interests of cable monopolies, their arcane billing and off shored customer service.

Hollywood and broadcast networks would lose marginal new content buyers such as Netflix. Tablet makers such as Apple, Google, Samsung and Amazon would see the value of their fastest growing products put at risk.

Most importantly, it would be an affront to one of the few clear consumer victories for the Department of Justice in the Obama administration.

Malta Gets 250/20Mbps Cable Broadband; National Fiber Network Also On the Way

Phillip Dampier June 17, 2013 Broadband Speed, Competition, Public Policy & Gov't Comments Off

maltaThe people of Malta will soon have a choice between a cable broadband provider offering 250/20Mbps service or a fiber to the home network now under construction that will be capable of delivering gigabit broadband across the island — all without usage limits or speed throttles.

Starting this month, for €96 per month ($128), customers of Melita can buy a triple play package of phone, broadband, and cable television that includes a free upgrade to 250/20Mbps.

“The FibrePower 250 product leverages the investments Melita has made in the past years and further strengthens the company’s position as Malta’s fastest service provider,” said Michael Darmanin, director of marketing and corporate services at Melita. “We are seeing an exponential growth in demand for higher speeds and capacity. This is driven by more people connected in the same household or business, more devices and more consumption of video over the Internet.”

Darmanin added the Maltese people want fast and unlimited broadband service, and they will deliver it, starting at Tigne Point (Midi) and Fort Cambridge in Sliema. The service will then gradually be rolled out in other Maltese communities.

Malta, in the Mediterranean Sea, has a population of around 450,000. The country has two major telecom companies: Melita which delivers cable service and GO, which delivers DSL service over the telephone network. Vodafone used to offer a now-discontinued WiMAX service across the island, which never had a significant market share.

250-MBPS-WITH-THE-XXL-HOME-ENT-PACKThe Maltese government made broadband expansion a national priority and set regulatory policies that would increase competition. But the government also insisted that telecom market improvements also benefit customers, and the country laid the foundation of its broadband policy on encouraging the development of a nationwide fiber to the home network.

The tradeoff: the government would deregulate the broadband marketplace and remove regulatory obstacles and unnecessary red tape governing pole usage and underground trenching, but in return providers must meet government objectives towards enhancing broadband speeds and price competition.

melitaAs a result, Melita has aggressively invested in cable broadband upgrades that have delivered broadband speeds faster than what most Americans and Canadians can buy from their cable providers. The cable operator plans to be among the earliest adopters of DOCSIS 3.1 which will support up to 10/1Gbps broadband speeds.

Not to be outdone, GO is rolling out its own fiber to the home network supporting interactive IPTV and faster broadband speeds. It will then be able to retire its DSL service, which now provides respectable Internet speeds up to 35Mbps.

Comcast Turns Your $7/Month Wireless Gateway Into Their Public Wi-Fi Hotspot

Comcast Wireless Gateway (Model 2)

An older Comcast Wireless Gateway (Model 2)

Comcast customers may soon find themselves providing free Internet access to other Comcast customers under a new initiative announced today that will turn millions of homes into Wi-Fi hotspots.

The “xfinitywifi” project will activate a second 15-25Mbps Wi-Fi signal from Comcast’s XB2 and XB3 wireless gateways that any Comcast broadband customer can reach as long as they stay within 250-300 feet of the gateway.

“We’ve been able to add certain feature functionality to the firmware of our devices,” Tom Nagel, senior vice president of business development, told CED. “The way its architected is we sort of logically split the modem in two. On the private side, you still get the same things. You can do your own security, you can manage, you can do port forwarding and all the things that no one really understands but are available to you. On the public side what happens is it’s logically a separate network. We actually provision a separate service flow to that cable modem for the public side. If that public side uses up what we’ve given them, there is no getting from someone else.”

In simplified terms, Comcast is opening up a second dedicated Internet connection for its public Wi-Fi service that will not share your existing broadband service. The two networks will co-exist from the wireless gateway, and although the available bandwidth cannot be combined to increase connection speed, customers do have the option of connecting various wireless devices to either the home Wi-Fi or public Wi-Fi connection. The public Wi-Fi service is exempt from usage measurement, caps, and/or consumption-based billing at this time. (Comcast last year suspended usage caps in all of its service areas except Nashville and Tucson.)

In beta tests, Comcast claims customers did not object to sharing their Wi-Fi wireless gateways as long as it did not affect their speed and protected their privacy.

xfinity wifiNagel says the service was designed to address both concerns, noting a 50Mbps Blast customer will still have full access to 50Mbps service, regardless of how many wireless visitors are connected to the customer’s gateway.

“There’s also no leakage of the public and private security functions as well,” Nagel said. “We do two totally different security regimes in the box and there’s really no way to get in between the two. We do provide people the ability to opt out of the service but there have been very few people that have done that, like sub fractions of 1 percent.”

Comcast enables the new service with a firmware upgrade automatically sent to customers when an area is ready for a Wi-Fi launch. Customers in Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; Boston; Northern Virginia, Chicago, Atlanta; Delaware; and California will likely be among the first to receive the new service.

Some customers do have a problem with Comcast charging them for equipment Comcast is appropriating for its own benefit.

“This is a fine deal for Comcast, which can keep charging customers $7 a month for their gateway and benefit from millions of new hotspots they did not have to build themselves,” said Comcast customer David Tate. “If customers get wise and buy their own [gateway/cable modem], Comcast’s new Wi-Fi service will begin losing hotspots as customers return the equipment to avoid the fee. They should be charging a lot less or nothing at all for equipment if they want us to host their hotspots.”

Tate also believes Comcast will ruin its own service if they attempt to bring usage caps back.

“If Comcast brings back the cap, I wouldn’t want anyone else sharing my connection and I would avoid using Comcast’s Wi-Fi if they counted that usage against my allowance,” Tate explained. “If they exempt the wireless service from caps, customers can just connect to that network to avoid the cap so they would have a big loophole.”

Time Warner Cable Laying Groundwork for Usage Pricing, Higher Modem Fees

timewarner twcTime Warner Cable has laid the foundation to eventually begin charging broadband customers usage-based pricing, raise the modem rental fee originally introduced last fall, and continue to offer customers unlimited broadband service if they are prepared to pay a new, higher price.

Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt spoke at length at this week’s Bank of America/Merrill Lynch Global Telecom and Media Conference in London about how Time Warner Cable intends to price its broadband service going forward. The moderator peppered Britt with questions as investors looked on from the audience about if and when the cable company can raise prices for its broadband service or start a usage pricing plan that will generate higher revenues based on metering customer usage.



Britt repeated his earlier assertions that Time Warner Cable has no interest in capping customer usage. In fact, the company sees fatter profits from increased usage, as long as customers are willing to pay for it.

For the first time, Britt admitted customers seeking unlimited service should be ready to pay a higher cost for that option, telling the audience Time Warner would set a premium price on the unlimited tier and offer discounts to customers seeking downgrades to comparatively cheaper, usage-based pricing plans. The company hopes this new approach will limit political opposition and customer push-back.

Britt also said there is room to grow Time Warner Cable’s monthly modem rental fee ($3.95 a month), comparing it against Comcast’s current rental fee, which is $7 a month.

Britt complained that increasing usage and demand for broadband speed was requiring the company to invest more in its broadband service, something not clear on the company’s quarterly balance sheets. Real investment, except for expansion by the business/commercial services division, has been largely flat or in decline for several years. Time Warner Cable’s broadband prices have increased over the same period.

Britt also admitted that the costs to offer the service remain comparatively minor.

“In broadband there are the costs of connectivity and peering and all that sort of stuff, but they are pretty minor compared with (video) programming costs so it appears that broadband is usually profitable versus video.”

Britt also admitted the cable industry in general is increasingly dependent on broadband revenue and the profits it generates to shore up margin pressure on the industry’s formerly lucrative video service. As programming costs increase, pressure on profits increase. Yet the cable industry remains profitable, primarily because broadband earnings are making up the difference.

The meter is lurking

The meter is lurking

“I think if you look at the U.S. cable companies the EBITDA margins have been remarkably stable over a long time period,” Britt said. “The mix has [recently] changed. The video gross margin is getting squeezed, the broadband gross margin is larger and we are growing broadband so that is helping. The voice gross margin is higher than video and a little less than broadband and until recently that has been a growing part. And then we have business services which are growing rapidly and have a high gross margin.”

Additional Quotes:

Cable Modem Equipment Rental Charge: “It was received with a minimum of push-back and we’re still actually charging less than Comcast ($7/month), so I think there is room to charge more going forward. People can buy their own if they want and a small percentage of customers have chosen to do that which is fine with us.”

Usage-Based Pricing: “In order to keep up with the demand for throughput and speed which is going up every year, we are going to have to keep investing capital which we do on a regular basis, so we are going to have to figure out how to get paid for that. I think inevitably there is going to be some usage dimension, not just speed within the package, so what we have done is to put in place pretty much throughout our footprint, with a few exceptions, the idea that you can buy the standard service that [includes] unlimited usage and that costs whatever it costs, but if you want to save $5 (and that is the first thing we put in place) you can agree to a consumption limit, and we can start expanding on that.”

“I think the key to this — there has been push-back against caps in the past — I think the reason for the push-back is it was perceived in a sort of punitive, coercive fashion. The usual rhetoric is, ‘gee 20 percent of the people use 80 percent of the bandwidth or some number like that — we need to make them stop using so much.'”

“My feeling is we actually want everybody to use more, we want to invest the capital, we just want to get paid for it. So I think we should always have an unlimited offering and that should probably cost more than it costs today as the usage goes up and then people who don’t use as much should have the opportunity to save money. They don’t have to but they can, so I think that is a much more politically and consumer-acceptable way to do it than a sort of punitive thing people talk about.”

Broadband Lessons from JCPenney: Listen to Wall Street or Customers?

Phillip "I Shop At TJMaxx" Dampier

Phillip “I Shop Online” Dampier

Last week, JCPenney launched their nationwide redemption tour, apologizing to millions of ex-customers that fled the former retail giant, begging them to come back.

It took over a year for JCPenney to get the message that “disciplining” and “re-educating” customers to accept the wisdom of everyday higher prices with few sales and almost no coupons was hardly the door-busting success “miracle worker” CEO Ron Johnson originally had in mind. The ex-Apple executive was rewarded a $52.7 million signing bonus to take over JCPenney’s tired leadership and in return he dragged sales down 28.4% from the year before, with same store sales down 32%. Johnson’s new vision also steamrolled one-third of JCPenney’s online business.

The day those results became known, he confidently showed Wall Street he did not dwell in the reality-based community: “I’m completely convinced that our transformation is on track!” (For Kohl’s benefit anyway.)

Johnson also believed in a “less is more” philosophy in human resources, overseeing layoffs of 13 percent of the company’s workforce last April, with another 350 let go in July.

Despite the fact his all-new, rebooted vision of JCPenney was about as popular as bird flu, he stayed, even as customers and employees didn’t.

It wasn’t that the company didn’t know customers had a problem with all this. Many complained about the radical, unwanted changes at JCPenney, particularly middle-aged professional women representing one of the stores’ most important business segments. Company executives simply didn’t listen.

A year later, some of the same analysts that cheered JCPenney’s crackdown on discounting now wonder if the company will survive 2013. Many fretted about the real possibility the last customer to brave the “new era” of JCP might forget to turn the lights out when they left for good. Others were mostly furious the board let Johnson go.

Despite the tragic consequences, the conventional wisdom on Wall Street remains: Alienating customers with a revamp nobody asked for and “everyday pricing” designed to boost profits every day was not the problem, how Johnson implemented the strategy was. He just didn’t educate customers enough.

We see the same warped thinking in the broadband marketplace, particularly with usage caps, consumption billing, junk fees and the general ever-increasing price of broadband itself.

On providers’ quarterly results conference calls, the regular questions challenging leaders of the industry are not about providers charging too much for too little. The real concern is that your ISP is leaving too much ripe fruit on the tree:

  • Where is the revenue-boosting usage caps and consumption billing, Time Warner Cable?
  • Comcast: can’t you raise prices further on those recent speed increases to maximize additional revenue?
  • Verizon: why are you spending so much on fiber broadband upgrades customers love when that money could have gone back to shareholders?
  • AT&T: Is there anything else you can do to exploit your market share and make even more money from costly data plans?

The best ways a consumer can reward a good broadband provider include remaining a loyal customer, paying your bill on time and upgrading to faster speeds as needed. For Wall Street, the growing demand for broadband is a sign there is plenty of wiggle room for at-will rate increases, new fees and surcharges, contract tricks and traps, customer service cuts, and monetizing usage wherever possible. After all, you probably won’t cancel because the other guy in town is doing the same thing.

This is what sets the broadband marketplace of today apart from most retailers: consumers don’t have 10-20 other choices to take their business to if they are fed up.

Comcast or AT&T? Both charge a lot and have usage limits on their broadband service for no good reason. Your other alternatives? A wireless provider charging even more with an even lower usage cap. Or you can always go without.

While providers may tell you there is a healthy, competitive broadband marketplace, Wall Street knows better. When Time Warner Cable recently announced it would dramatically curtail new customer promotions and concentrate on delivering fewer services for more money, nobody bothered asking whether this would result in a stampede to the competition. What competition?

Although Google is delivering much-needed, game-changing competition in a tiny handful of cities, most Americans will not benefit because the best upgrades and lowest prices are only available where Google threatens the status quo. A larger number of municipalities are done putting their broadband (and economic) future in the hands of the phone and cable company and are building their own digital infrastructure for the good of their communities.

For everyone else, we can dream that one day, someday, the cable and phone company most Americans do business with will be forced to run their own JCPenney-like apology tour for years of abusive pricing and mediocre “good enough for you” broadband with unwarranted usage limits. Time Warner Cable went half way, but until competition or oversight forces some dramatic changes, we should not count on providers to actually listen to what customers want. They don’t believe they need to listen to earn or keep your business.

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