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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.


Time Warner Cable’s Horn Of Plenty for Austin: Free Wi-Fi for Broadband Customers

Austin gets a horn 'o plenty with free Time Warner Cable Wi-Fi because Google is coming to town.

Austin gets a horn of plenty with free Time Warner Cable Wi-Fi because Google is coming to town.

As Time Warner Cable faces forthcoming competition from Google Fiber in Austin, the company is responding with the construction of a free Wi-Fi network for its broadband customers to protect its business.

TWC WiFi is available now from a limited number of hotspots, but hundreds more will become available across Austin in 2013 as the company builds out its wireless network.

Time Warner Cable customers with Standard Internet or above qualify for free access, as do Business Class customers. Others can trial the service for free and then buy access for $2.95 an hour.

“Increasingly, our Austin customers want to take their high-speed Internet with them out of the home and on-the-go,” said Area Vice President Kathy Brabson. “The TWC WiFi network we are building for Austin will allow our customers to greatly maximize their TWC Internet subscription at no additional charge.”

It is no coincidence Time Warner Cable has selected Austin for a Wi-Fi rollout. The Wi-Fi service was specifically intended to provide more value for Time Warner Cable customers in competitive markets to keep them from switching to a competitor.

It represents a sea change for a cable company that in 2009 targeted Austin for an Internet Overcharging scheme that would have slapped a usage limit and consumption billing on the area’s broadband customers. With the advent of strong competition from Google, Time Warner Cable is giving customers something instead of taking things away.

Austin customers can download the free TWC WiFi Finder app available in Google Play and the Apple App Store or visit www.twc.com/wificoverage to view the hotspot coverage map as the wireless network grows. Once authenticated, customers can also access Wi-Fi hotspots in other cities including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Orlando, Tampa, Kansas City, Charlotte and more.


AT&T, Time Warner Cable Claim They Are Ready for Google Fiber in Austin

me too

AT&T suddenly announced it was ready to build its own gigabit fiber network in Austin.

AT&T and Time Warner Cable report they are ready to make more investments in their operations in Austin, Tex. to compete with Google Fiber when it arrives in the middle of next year.

Time Warner Cable says it already operates a multi-gigabit fiber optic network — one residential customers cannot easily access or afford. Residential broadband speeds at the cable operator top out at 50/5Mbps in Austin, at a cost higher than what Google plans to charge for 1,000/1,000Mbps service. AT&T’s U-verse network maxes out at 24/3Mbps, assuming customers have good copper wiring between AT&T’s fiber in the neighborhood and their home.

“The cable and phone company providers have purposely confused their networks’ maximum speed capacity with real end-user speeds for years, and when that fails to convince they simply claim customers don’t need or want those speeds anyway,” says Stop the Cap! reader and Austin resident Sam Knoll.

Knoll is enthusiastic about giving Time Warner Cable the boot, partly to pay them back for their aborted consumption billing trial attempted in Austin in 2009.

“I am not completely convinced Time Warner Cable understands just how much damage they did to their reputation when they pulled that stunt, and I’m certain they will attempt it again if they have a chance,” Knoll said. “The best thing customers can do is switch to a provider that believes usage caps and consumption billing are the fraudulent ripoff we know them to be. Google already knows this.”

Some Time Warner Cable customers in Austin never forgot the company tried to meter Internet usage in a failed experiment back in 2009.

Some Time Warner Cable customers in Austin never forgot the company tried to meter Internet usage in a failed experiment back in 2009. (Image: The Austinst)

Competition from deep-pocketed Google could eventually transform the broadband business model for American providers, assuming Google builds its fiber network in enough cities to challenge the conventional wisdom that prices have plenty of room to grow with faster Internet access. The more customers that sign up for Google’s already-super-fast broadband, the more providers will have to compete with better and faster service.

But AT&T is not convinced. The company announced yesterday it was prepared to build a gigabit fiber network not just in Austin, but also in surrounding Williamson County, with plenty of caveats.

“[We will only build the network if] the demand is there and if we get the same terms and conditions as Google received,” said AT&T spokeswoman Tracy King.

AT&T told the Austin American-Statesman the company wanted a faster regulatory approval process and permission to only build its faster fiber network in neighborhoods where there is proven demand for the service. Current franchise agreements often compel providers to offer service throughout the community and prohibits “cherry-picking” customers in high-income or low construction cost areas.

An AT&T official told KEYE-TV he had no idea how much AT&T would charge for gigabit broadband. Google charges $70 a month in Kansas City.

Austin has promised cooperation with Google, although it is not extending tax breaks or grants to the search engine giant. Google will get easy access to Austin Energy’s municipally owned infrastructure including utility poles and rights-of-way.

Google is speculated to be building showcase fiber networks to embarrass incumbent cable and phone providers who typically sell standard broadband service with speeds of 6-15Mbps in most larger communities. Rural areas are lucky to have 3Mbps service, and often much less.

But if Google intended to force major upgrades by cable and phone companies across the country, it might be disappointed with the response so far from AT&T and Time Warner Cable. Both companies indicate they will invest in and upgrade their networks to compete, but only in the service areas where Google-style competition exists. For the rest of the country, phone and cable companies are prepared to continue with the current “broadband scarcity” business model that delivers upgrades only occasionally, often accompanied by usage limits, consumption billing, and/or higher prices.

“Google has proved that there is a business model for selling abundant bandwidth as opposed to a business model for allocating scarce bandwidth,” said Blair Levin, a former chief of staff of the Federal Communications Commission.

“They are saying this is not an experiment. It is a business,” Levin told the newspaper. “In Kansas City, Google did the country an enormous favor. They said, give us regulatory flexibility to design the business and give us access to city property so we can build a network to lower the cost.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KEYE Austin Competitor Chimes In After Google Announcement 4-9-13.flv

KEYE in Austin talks with AT&T about their plans for a gigabit broadband network to compete with Google Fiber. The AT&T spokesman seemed more interested in pitching the company’s deregulation agenda and was short on specifics.  (3 minutes)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KXAN Austin What competition will Google Fiber face 4-9-13.mp4

KXAN in Austin talked with Google competitors Time Warner Cable and AT&T about how they will respond to the Google Fiber challenge.   (3 minutes)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KVUE Austin Fiber Wars in Austin 4-9-13.mp4

KVUE in Austin called Google’s entry into the city the opening salvo of ‘Fiber Wars,’ as AT&T promises its own gigabit network. Austin residents intend to take advantage of the competition to force providers to give them better deals to keep their business.  (3 minutes)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KXAN Austin Google Fiber Possibilities Google Insider 4-9-13.mp4

KXAN explains the possibilities of gigabit fiber, but also asks a former Google insider why the search engine is getting into the broadband business.  (5 minutes)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KTBC Austin Time Warner Cable Responds to Google 4-9-13.mp4

KTBC was skeptical of AT&T’s sudden interest in gigabit broadband. “Gee, what a coincidence,” commented the anchor of Austin’s Fox affiliate.  (2 minutes)


Verizon Reaffirms No Usage Caps; Speed Matters: Almost 50% Opt for 50-75Mbps FiOS Service

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Verizons Fios Gaining Market Share 3-4-13.mp4

Bob Mudge, president of consumer mass business markets at Verizon Communications, Inc., has reaffirmed Verizon FiOS has no plans to implement usage caps or consumption billing on its fiber to the home broadband customers. Mudge also told Bloomberg News that broadband speed really does matter. Nearly 50 percent of FiOS customers have chosen to upgrade to at least 50Mbps service, which is priced just $10 higher than its entry-level 15Mbps plan. Mudge also talked about changes Verizon is making for FiOS installations in New York City. Twenty-five so-called “Magic” buses will replace 250 single technician trucks, transporting teams of technicians to small businesses and homes in and around the Big Apple.  (6 minutes)


Google Illustrates the Big Broadband Ripoff: Costs Flat Despite Huge Traffic Growth


One of the side benefits of Google getting into the broadband provider business is learning first-hand what is reality and what represents provider spin and marketing nonsense used to justify high prices and usage limits.

As Google Fiber slowly spreads across Kansas City, the search engine giant is gaining first hand-experience in the broadband business. Google understands what cable operators endured in the 1980s and what Verizon was coping with until it pulled the plug on FiOS expansion: the upfront costs to build a new network that reaches individual subscribers’ homes and businesses can be very high. But once those networks are paid off, revenue opportunities explode, particularly when delivering broadband service.

Milo Medin, a former cable Internet entrepreneur and now vice president of access services at Google, presented a cogent explanation of why Google can make gigabit broadband an earner once construction costs are recouped. He demonstrated the economics of fiber broadband at a meeting of the San Jose chapter of the IEEE.


In addition to a long term investment in fiber, and the new business opportunities 1,000Mbps Internet provides, Google has learned from the mistakes other utilities have made and is trying to establish close working relationships with local governments to find ways to cut costs and bureaucracy.

In Kansas City, Google has placed staff in the same office with city zoning and permit officials. Working together in an informal public-private partnership to cut red tape, local inspectors have agreed to coordinate appointments with Google installers to reduce delays. That alone reportedly saves Google two percent in construction expenses.

“Governments have policies that can make it easy or hard, so I say, ‘if you make it hard for me, enjoy your Comcast,’” Medin said.

Internet traffic vs. costs

Internet traffic vs. costs

Medin notes broadband adoption and expansion in the United States is being artificially constrained by the marketplace, where wired providers are resting on their laurels.

More than a decade ago, people paid $40 a month for 4-5Mbps service, Medin noted.

Providers have kept the price the same, arguing they create more value for subscribers with ongoing speed increases.

But Medin notes overseas, prices are falling and speeds are increasing far faster than what we see in North America.

“Broadband in America is not advancing at nearly the pace it needs to be,” Medin argues. “Most of you have seen dramatic changes in wireless, but there’s never been a real step function increase in wired. That’s what’s needed for us to retain leadership in technology — and not having it is a big problem.”


Medin points to OECD statistics that show the cost per megabit per month in the U.S. is the sixth highest among 34 OECD nations. Only Mexico, Chile, Israel, New Zealand, and Greece pay higher prices. Every other OECD nation pays less.

By leveraging fiber optics, which every provider uses to some extent, costs plummet after network construction expenses are paid off. In fact, despite the explosion in network traffic, provider bandwidth costs remain largely flat even with growing use, which makes the introduction of Internet Overcharging schemes like usage caps and consumption-based pricing unjustified.

“Moving bits is fundamentally not expensive,” said Medin.

In 1998, when cable broadband first became available in many markets, the monthly price for the service was around $40 a month. Internet transit prices — the costs to transport data from your ISP to websites around the world averaged $1,200 per megabit that year. Today that cost has dropped below $4 per megabit and is forecast to drop to just $0.94 by 2015.



Entertainment Producers Call Out Stifling Data Caps That Upset the Online Video Revolution

Public-KnowledgeData caps protect incumbent big studio and network content creators at the expense of independent producers and others challenging conventional entertainment business models.

That was the conclusion of several writers and producers at a communications policy forum hosted by Public Knowledge, a consumer group fighting for an open Internet.

A representative from the Writers Guild of America West noted that cord-cutting paid cable TV service has become real and measurable because consumers have a robust online viewing alternative for the first time. John Vezina, the Guild’s political director, noted how Americans watch television is transitioning towards on-demand viewing.

New types of short-form programming and commissioned series for online content providers like Netflix are also changing the video entertainment model.

Welch: It is about the money.

Welch: It is about the money.

But a digital roadblock erected by some of the nation’s largest broadband providers is interfering with that viewing shift: the data cap.

Data caps place artificial limits on how much a customer can use their Internet connection without either being shut off or finding overlimit fees attached to their monthly bill. Critics contend usage caps and consumption billing discourage online viewing — one of the most bandwidth intensive applications on the Internet. With broadband providers like Time Warner Cable, AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast also in the business of selling television packages, cord-cutting can directly impact providers’ bottom lines.

Providers have traditionally claimed that usage limits are about preserving network resources and fairness to other customers. But Time Warner Cable admits they exist as a money-making scheme.

Rachel Welch, vice president of federal legislative affairs at Time Warner Cable, says the cable company is not worried about limiting data consumption. It considers monetizing that consumption more important.

“We want our customers to buy as much of the product as possible,” Welch told PC World. “The goal of companies is to make money.”

Time Warner now offers customers a choice of unlimited service or a $5 discount if customers keep their monthly usage under 5GB, but some worry that is only a prelude to introducing expanded usage limits on a larger number of customers in the future.

For many consumers already hard-pressed by high broadband bills, worrying about exceeding a data allowance and paying even more may keep viewers from watching too much content online.

For that reason, Vezina called data caps “anti-innovation.”

“It hurts consumers [and] it hurts creators who want to get as much out to the public in as many ways” as possible, he said.

Public Knowledge has become increasingly critical of data caps in the last two years. The organization has questioned how ISP’s decide what constitutes a ‘fair’ usage limit and criticized inaccurate usage meters that could potentially trigger penalties and overlimit fees.


South Africa’s Journey to Unlimited, Flat Rate Broadband Continues

Africa's international Internet connectivity is primarily provided by underseas fiber cables. (Map: Steve Song)

Africa’s international Internet connectivity is primarily provided by underseas fiber cables. (Map: Steve Song)

One of the most common arguments pro-capping telecom companies use is since the rest of the world has already adopted consumption billing for broadband, why can’t North American ISPs follow in their footsteps. But ISPs around the world are actually heading away from capped, throttled, or nickle-and-dime broadband pricing towards flat rate, unlimited service.

The Republic of South Africa is a case in point. Located on the southeastern tip of the African continent, South Africa has faced down a number of broadband challenges. Antiquated infrastructure lacking investment in upgrades, political and economic challenges, and very costly, limited capacity international connectivity have all conspired to leave the country with poor broadband service.

The biggest problem domestically is deteriorating landline infrastructure, leaving most South Africans with slow speed ADSL service. Wireless mobile broadband has proved less costly to deploy, but connectivity costs remain high regardless of how customers obtain service because of international bottlenecks.

South Africa’s problems are similar to those faced in South Pacific nations like Australia and New Zealand. Data caps have been a fact of life for years, primarily because there has never been sufficient capacity on underseas fiber and satellite links to sustain anticipated traffic if the caps were removed. But those problems are starting to ease as new high capacity backbone connections continue to come online.

Heavily capped broadband transforms how people use the Internet. In all three nations, many people do their heaviest web surfing at work over business connections. Some ISPs ease their usage caps or speed throttles during low-demand overnight hours, leaving many to hold off on significant file transfers and software updates until most people have gone to bed.

Regardless of whether you live in Johannesburg, Adelaide, or Wellington, people hate data caps and speed throttles and cannot wait to be rid of them.

That day has come in South Africa. Telkom, the former state-owned telephone company, has announced dramatic price cuts and relaxation of speed throttles for customers choosing its unlimited ADSL offerings. The company has announced a 40% price cut for residential customers and a 35% cut for business customers that took effect Feb. 1. Speed throttles that used to block international traffic when customers were deemed to be “using too much” are also being removed, although Telkom can still reduce speeds for their heaviest users.

Speeds are still very slow compared to what most North Americans can receive, but the average South African can now purchase unlimited 4Mbps ADSL for around $42 a month. A 10Mbps account remains out of reach for many at an unaffordable $157 a month. Some of Telkom’s competitors sell unthrottled and unlimited 1Mbps service for a budget-priced $22 a month.

South African ISPs are managing to achieve speed increases, but the primary bottleneck remains Telkom’s aging copper wire infrastructure. The answer is more fiber links further out in telephone exchanges and reducing the amount of copper customers have between their homes and Telkom’s central exchange offices. Although urban residents in relatively prosperous areas can achieve faster speeds, South Africa’s large expanse of low income areas often rely on prepaid wireless services because wired infrastructure is often sub-standard.

International capacity concerns will continue to ease as new underseas fiber cables are brought online. By 2014, one new underseas fiber cable will be able to carry more Internet traffic than all of the currently operational cables preceding it combined.


Cable Industry That Makes 90%+ Margin on Broadband Now Says Caps Are About ‘Fairness’

They are in the money.

Follow the money to the real root of this argument.

After conclusive evidence that cable broadband upgrades have eliminated any congestion problems, the cable industry has finally admitted usage caps are not about “congestion relief,” but are, in their view, “about fairness.”

Reports of the Internet data exaflood, tsunami, brownouts, or even blackouts are highly exaggerated and always have been. But we knew that from the first day Stop the Cap! got started.

In the summer of 2008, Frontier Communications attempted to define a top limit on their residential DSL accounts at a staggeringly small 5GB per month. Time Warner Cable initially thought 40-60GB a month was more than fair when it tried to ram its own Internet Overcharging scheme down the throats of customers in New York, North Carolina, and Texas in April 2009. Comcast said using more than 250GB a month could create congestion problems on their network and be unfair to other customers. To this day, AT&T, one of the nation’s largest telecommunications companies, claims that anything more than 150GB on their DSL service or 250GB on U-verse could bring their entire network to its knees.

The Holy Grail of Wall Street economics for broadband is to monetize its usage, creating an endless money party for what is today a utility service. Millions have been spent lobbying anyone who will listen that usage caps and consumption billing were essential to promote investment, upgrades, and to expand broadband service into rural America. Since those arguments have been made, broadband rates have increased, investment has decreased on a per customer and often real basis, and the government is now trying to chip in public taxpayer dollars to get providers to wire areas that will never pass demanding return on investment formulas.

The second prong of selling this meme is the creation of an Internet boogeyman — the “data hog,” a largely fictional creature that supposedly cares only about consuming every possible bit of bandwidth and slowing your web browsing to a crawl. Shouldn’t he pay more, you are asked, at the same time these same companies continue to raise your rates and now attempt to limit your use of a service that should cost less.

This week, Michael Powell, former FCC chairman turned head of the nation’s largest cable lobby — the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, capitulated on the “congestion” myth to an audience at the Minority Media and Telecommunications Association.

Asked by MMTC president David Honig to weigh in on data caps, Powell said that while a lot of people had tried to label the cable industry’s interest in the issue as about congestion management. “That’s wrong,” he said. “Our principal purpose is how to fairly monetize a high fixed cost.”

He said bandwidth management was part of it, though a more serious issue with wireless.

But he pointed out that the cable industry had to spend a bunch of money on its network before the first customer was signed. So, for a business that requires “enormously high” fixed costs — digging up the streets, put the wires in — and operational expense, “it is a completely rational and acceptable process to figure out how to fairly allocate those costs among your consumers who are choosing the service and will pay you to recover those costs.”

When will Washington regulators and lawmakers stop drinking the Kool-Aid handed them by high-paid lobbyists?

When will Washington regulators and lawmakers stop drinking the Kool-Aid handed them by high-paid lobbyists?

But our readers know Powell’s arguments are based on nothing more than the same empty rhetoric that declared the Internet exaflood was at hand.

Cable broadband was introduced as an ancillary service in the late 1990s utilizing cable television infrastructure that was constructed and paid off years earlier. Introducing broadband required only incremental investment and that remains true to this day. Cable operators more than cover their costs with sky high prices for service delivering some operators as high as 95% gross margin on broadband. Capital investments have broadly declined for years as have the costs to deliver the service on a per customer basis.

Suddenlink president and CEO Jerry Kent admitted the days of expensive system upgrades were over and it was now time to rake in profits.

“I think one of the things people don’t realize [relates to] the question of capital intensity and having to keep spending to keep up with capacity,” Kent said. “Those days are basically over, and you are seeing significant free cash flow generated from the cable operators as our capital expenditures continue to come down.”

Powell’s arguments ironically may apply partly to Verizon’s FiOS fiber network, which requires the retirement of copper wire infrastructure around since Alexander Graham Bell, but even Verizon covered much of its costs winning permission to raise rates years earlier to cover fiber upgrades. Much of that money was diverted to their wireless business instead. Today, Verizon FiOS manages just fine with no usage limits at all.

In fact, the only argument about fairness that should be open for debate regards the current cost of broadband service in the United States when compared against operators’ enormous profit margins. The lack of competition has allowed providers to increase prices and introduce “creative pricing” that always guarantees protection for the incredibly high average revenue per customer already earned.

Too often, Washington regulators and lawmakers drink the Kool-Aid handed them by an industry with an incentive to distort the truth. That incentive is the billions at stake in this fight.

Powell has even shelved the notion of the Cheetos-eating data hog burning up the Internet in his parent’s basement and has elected to try class warfare instead, claiming the most capacity is used “by a high end elite subsidized by the rest.” The real high-end elite are the telecom company executives cleaning up overcharging customers for a service that has become a necessity. Arguing for usage caps as a way to offer “lower prices” for those who cannot afford the ridiculously high prices the industry charges today only creates a new digital divide – the have’s and the have only so much.

Either way, providers laugh all the way to the bank.


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