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Britain Adopting American Broadband Business Model: Less Competition, More Rate Hikes

british poundA decision by Great Britain’s broadband industry to follow America’s lead consolidating the number of competitors to “improve efficiency” and wring “cost savings” out of the business resulted in few service improvements and a much bigger bill for consumers.

A Guardian Money investigation examining British broadband pricing over the past four years found customers paying 25-30 percent more for essentially the same service they received before, with loyal customers facing the steepest rate increases.

It’s a dramatic fall for a market long recognized as one of the most competitive in the world. In 2006, TalkTalk — a major British ISP — even gave away broadband service for free in a promotion to consumers willing to cover BT’s telephone line rental charges.

But pressure from shareholders and investment bankers to deliver American-sized profits have spurred a wave of consolidation among providers in the United Kingdom, similar to the mergers of cable companies in the United States. Well known ISPs like Blueyonder, Tiscali, AOL, BE, Tesco, O2, and others in the United Kingdom have all been swallowed up by bigger rivals – often TalkTalk. As of last year, just four major competitors remain – BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin, which together hold 88% of the market. If regulators allow BT’s takeover of EE, that percentage will rise to 92%.

talktalk-logo-370x229As consumers find fewer and fewer options for broadband, they are also discovering a larger bill, fueled by runaway rate increases well in excess of inflation. While consolidated markets in the United States and Great Britain increasingly lack enough competition to temper rate increases, heavy competition on the European continent has resulted in flat or even lower prices for broadband along with significant service upgrades. British consumers now pay up to 50% more for broadband than many of their European counterparts in Germany, France, the Benelux countries, and beyond.

Also familiar to Americans, the best prices for service only go to new customers. Existing, loyal customers pay the highest prices, while those flipping between providers (or threatening to do so) get much lower “retention” or “new customer” pricing. But only those willing to fight for a better deal get one.

In October, TalkTalk, responsible for much of the consolidation wave, raised broadband prices yet again — the second major price hike this year. Customers are reeling over the rate increases, despite the fact they still seem inexpensive by American standards. Landline rental charges are increasing from $25.40 to $26.91 a month, and are a necessary prerequisite to buying Internet access from TalkTalk. Its Simply Broadband entry-level package is jumping another £2.50 a month just four months after the last rate hike. That means instead of paying an extra $7.60 a month for broadband, customers will now pay $11.40. The average British consumer now pays an average of $57.79 a month for a phone line with enhanced DSL broadband service.

btIn France, competition is forcing providers to move towards fiber optic broadband and scrap DSL service. But French consumers are not paying a premium for upgrades necessitated by competition on the ground. While British households pay close to $60 a month, a comparable package in France from Orange known as L’essentiel d’internet à la maison costs only $36.50 a month, including a TV package and unlimited calling to other landlines. But the deal gets even better if you shop around. Free, a major French competitor, offers a near-identical package for just $32.19 a month. In the United States, packages of this type can cost $130 or more if you do not receive a promotion, $99 a month if you do.

In France, providers rarely claim they need to cap Internet usage or raise prices to cover the cost of investing in their networks. That is considered the cost of doing business in a fiercely competitive marketplace, and it forces French providers to deliver good value and service for money. Providers like Patrick Drahi/Altice’s SFR-Numericable attempted to reap more profits out of its cable business by cutting costs, discontinuing most promotions and marketing, and offshoring customer support to North African call centers. At least one million customers left for better service elsewhere in 2015.

logo_freeIn Britain, there are fewer options for customers to seek a better deal, and the remaining providers know it. As a result, marketplace conditions and an increasing lack of competition have made conditions right for rate increases. BT, Sky, Virgin, and Plusnet (controlled by BT) have all taken advantage and hiked prices once again this year between 6-10%, on top of other large rises.

Ewan Taylor-Gibson, broadband expert at uSwitch.com, told the Guardian, “it’s the existing customers that have borne the brunt of the increase in landline and package costs over recent years.”

Many British consumers are afraid of disrupting their Internet access going through the process of changing providers in a search for a better deal. Some report it can take a few days to a week to process a provider change that should take minutes (because most providers rely entirely on BT’s DSL network over which they offer service). Those willing to make a change are about the only ones still getting a good deal from British providers. Customers are starting to learn that when their new customer promotion ends, asking for an extension or signing up with another company is the only way to prevent a massive bill spike that Taylor-Gibson estimates now averages 89%.

BT spent $1.36 billion dollars securing an agreement with Champions League football.

BT spent $1.36 billion dollars securing an agreement with Champions League football.

Providers with the largest increases use the same excuses as their American counterparts to defend them. BT claims a reduction in income from providing landline service is forcing it to raise prices to make up the shortfall. Critics suggest those increases are also helping BT recoup the $1.36 billion it controversially paid for the rights to carry Champions League football — money it could have invested in network upgrades instead.

The current government seems predisposed to permit the marketplace to resolve pricing on its own, either through competition among the remaining players or allowing skyrocketing prices to reach a level deemed attractive by potential new entrants into the market. The usually protective British regulator Ofcom also seems content taking a light hand to British ISPs, enforcing price disclosures as a solution to increasingly costly Internet service and making it easier for consumers to bounce between the remaining providers many think are overcharging for service.

Things could be worse. British consumers could face the marketplace duopoly or monopoly most customers in the United States and Canada live with, along with even higher prices charged for service. The Guardian surveyed telecom services across several European countries and found that, like in the UK, most customers are required to bundle a landline rental charge and broadband package together to get Internet access, but they are still paying less overall than North Americans do.

Here is what other countries pay for service:

United Kingdom: Basic BT home phone service with unlimited “up to 17Mbps” DSL broadband costs $31.12 per month, plus a monthly landline charge of $27.35 including free weekend calls. An unlimited calling plan with no dialing charges costs an extra $12 a month. Competitor TalkTalk charges $11.40 for unlimited broadband on its entry-level Simply Broadband offer, plus $26.91 for the monthly landline rental charge.

France: Many Orange customers sign up for the popular L’essentiel d’internet à la maison plan, which bundles broadband, a phone line with unlimited calling to other landlines, and a TV package available in many areas for $36.50 a month. Competitor Free.fr charges $32.19 for essentially the same package.

Germany: Deutsche Telekom offers its cheapest home phone/broadband package for $37.75 after a less expensive promotional offer expires. One of its largest competitors, 1&1, offers the same package for $33.29 a month after the teaser rate has ended.

Spain: Telefónica, Spain’s largest phone company, offers service under its Movistar brand combining an unlimited calling landline and up to 30Mbps Internet access for $46.21 a month. Its rival Tele2 offers a comparable package for a dramatically lower price: $29.11 a month.

Ireland: National telecom company Eircomis is overseeing Ireland’s telecom makeover, replacing a lot of copper phone lines with fiber optics. Basic broadband starts with 100Mbps service on the fiber network with a promotional rate of $26.82 for the first four months. After that, things get expensive under European standards. That 100Mbps service carries a regular price of $66.51 a month, deemed “hefty” by the Guardian, although cheaper that what North Americans pay cable companies for 100Mbps download speeds after their promotion ends. For that price, Irish customers also get unlimited calling to other Irish landlines and mobiles. If that is too much, rival Sky offers a basic phone and broadband deal for $32.18 with a one-year contract.

Comcast, Frontier: It’s Too ‘Hilly and Woodsy’ to Bring Broadband to Rural Connecticut

no signalAn aversion of open, hilly landscapes and trees is apparently responsible for keeping residents of rural Connecticut from getting broadband service from the state’s two dominant providers — Comcast and Frontier Communications.

In the Litchfield Hills of northwestern Connecticut, you can visit some of the state’s finest antique shops and Revolutionary War-era inns, tour vineyards and even establish roots in the Upper Naugatuck Valley in towns like Barkhamsted, Colebrook, Goshen, Hartland, Harwinton, Litchfield, Morris, New Hartford, Norfolk, Torrington, and Winchester. Just leave your cellphone, tablet, and personal computer behind because chances are good you will find yourself in a wireless dead spot and Internet-free zone.

Obtaining even a smidgen of cell phone service often means leaning out a second story window or worse, climbing the nearest church steeple. The wealthiest residents, often second-homeowners from New York or California, can afford to spend several thousand dollars to entice the cable company to extend a coaxial cable their way or buy commercial broadband service at eye-popping prices from Frontier Communications, which acquired AT&T’s wireline network in the state. But for many, dial-up Internet remains the only affordable or available option.

Despite the area’s significant number of high income residents ready and willing to pay for service, Comcast and Frontier blame hilly terrain and dense woods for staying away. Those excuses get little regard from residents who suggest it is all about the money, not the landscape.

Northwest Connecticut region is shown in green and the Litchfield Hills region in blue.

Broadband-challenged areas in northwest Connecticut are shown in green and the often “No signal” and “No Internet” Litchfield Hills region is shown in blue.

Despite the need for service, deregulation largely allows cable and phone companies to decide where to offer broadband service, and arguments about fulfilling a public need and performing a community service don’t get far with Wall Street and shareholders that constantly pressure companies to deliver profits, not expensive investments that may never pay off.

State Rep. Roberta Willis (D-Salisbury) told the Register Citizen News the status quo is not acceptable — telecommunications companies are not doing enough to build out their networks.

“You just can’t say it’s the topography and walk away,” she told the newspaper. “If electricity companies were deregulated like this there would be no electricity in my district.”

Comcast spokeswoman Laura Brubaker Crisco claims the company extended cable service nearly 62 miles in northwest Connecticut since 2005 (ten years ago) and completed nearly 100 projects extending fiber more than 10 miles in the past two years. But many of those projects overhauled Comcast’s existing middle-mile network and extended cable service to profitable new markets serving commercial customers, especially office parks and commercial storefronts. Comcast’s other priority was to reach new high-income residential developments being built as the area continues to grow. Rural customers who could not meet Comcast’s Return On Investment formula in 2005 are still unlikely to have service in 2015 unless population density increases in their immediate area.

Connecticut's effort to extend gigabit fiber statewide is dismissed as a waste of money by incumbent cable operators.

Connecticut’s effort to extend gigabit fiber statewide is dismissed as a waste of money by incumbent cable operators.

Crisco admits Comcast does not wire low density areas and isn’t surprised other providers won’t either.

Frontier prefers to blame the area’s topography for keeping broadband out.

David Snyder, vice president for engineering for the east region of Frontier Communications, told the newspaper “it’s just natural the investment and the time become more challenging.”

Frontier does say it has expanded broadband to 40,000 additional households in Connecticut since taking over for AT&T a year ago. But nobody seems to know exactly who can get broadband in the state and who cannot. The have-nots are the most likely to complain, and those businesses that serve visitors are in peril of losing business without offering reasonable Wi-Fi or Internet access. Rural families with school-age children are also at risk from having their kids fall behind those that can get broadband.

Wireless Internet Service Providers, which offer long-range wireless broadband in rural areas, complain the federal government is wasting money on studies instead of helping to underwrite solutions that can quickly bring Internet access to the rural masses.

Others believe talking to Frontier and Comcast is futile. They prefer to follow the lead of western Massachusetts, where 24 small communities across the region have joined forces to build a public fiber to the home broadband network. One estimate suggests 22 Connecticut towns covering 200,000 residents could be reached with a bond-financed fiber network completed by 2018. That network would likely reach more unserved customers than Frontier or Comcast will elect to serve over the next three years combined.

A separate effort to establish gigabit fiber broadband across the state — the CT Gig Project — promptly ran into a buzzsaw of opposition, primarily from incumbent telecommunications companies that refuse to offer that service now. With a threat to current profitable business models, it was not unexpected to hear opposition from Paul Cianelli, CEO of the New England Cable & Telecom Association — a cable company lobbying group.

He called public broadband unnecessary and “potentially disastrous.” He wants assurances no government subsidies or loan guarantees are given to the project. He also said providing gigabit service was unnecessary and faster Internet speeds were not important to the majority of customers in the state. Public broadband proponents respond Cianelli should tell that to the residents of Litchfield Hills and other unserved and underserved communities.

Frontier Plans to Finance Acquisition of Verizon Lines With $6.6 Billion in Junk Bonds

frontier-fast-buffalo-large-2To complete an acquisition of landline assets in California, Florida, and Texas from Verizon Communications, Frontier Communications is hoping to raise $6.6 billion in “speculative-grade debt” to finance the deal.

Frontier will begin selling the securities better known as “junk bonds” starting today with a target date of Sept. 15 or 16 to complete the sale, according to Bloomberg News.

Wall Street raised its eyebrows at the amount of the transaction — the second largest junk-rated deal since Valeant Pharmaceuticals sold almost $10 billion in junk bonds in March.

Frontier plans to offer a high yield to attract investors, some already favoring the company’s stock for its reliable shareholder dividend payout. Frontier has been a popular choice for investors relying on dividend income — money Frontier distributes to shareholders — that critics contend limit Frontier’s ability to improve its network of largely rural landlines.

analysisCalifornian consumers are among those most concerned about a Frontier takeover of landline and FiOS service. Verizon ventured far beyond its original service area extending from Maine to Virginia after it acquired independent telephone networks operated by General Telephone (GTE) and Continental Telephone (Contel) in 2000. In 2015, the company wants to return to its core landline service area in the northeast.

junk1David Lazarus, a consumer reporter for the Los Angeles Times, wonders how ratepayers will benefit from a Frontier takeover.

“Financial analysts are generally upbeat about the deal, but that reflects the projected benefits to the corporate players, not consumers,” Lazarus wrote.

Verizon’s claims the sale will help refocus the company on its “core markets” in the east and Frontier’s suggestion the Verizon acquisition will enhance Frontier’s footprint with “rich fiber-based assets” didn’t seem to excite Lazarus.

“I honestly wonder if corporate leaders know how ridiculous they sound when they spout such gobbledygook,” he added.

Lazarus suspects Verizon is worried the Obama Administration may eventually extend universal service obligations to broadband, which would force phone companies to deliver broadband to any telephone customer that wants the service, regardless of how much it costs to offer it. Universal Service remains an important legacy of wireline landline telephone service. Your landline survives under a regulatory framework not applicable to the wireless business, where both AT&T and Verizon Wireless now make the bulk of their profits.

junk2As AT&T and Verizon ponder ditching high-cost landline customers, so long as there are companies like Frontier willing to buy, the deal works for both. Verizon gets a tax-free transaction that benefits both executives and shareholders. An already debt-laden Frontier satisfies shareholders by growing the business, which usually makes the balance sheet look good each quarter.

Even as Frontier takes on a massive new tranche of debt, in the short-term the more landlines Frontier acquires, the happier shareholders will be. More customers equal more revenue — revenue that can assuage fears of Frontier’s eye-popping debt load. That added revenue often also means a nice dividend payout to shareholders, unless that money has to be diverted to debt payments or network improvements.

Unfortunately, like a Ponzi scheme, Frontier will have to continue acquiring new landline customers from other companies indefinitely to make it all work. If it can’t, or if customers continue to flee Frontier for more capable providers, revenue numbers will worsen, only making the company’s large debt obligations look even more ominous. Some shareholders think Frontier’s days of paying very high dividends are already behind them as the company takes on even more debt. The value of Frontier stock has dropped 35% in the last six months. In the second quarter of 2015, Frontier reported losses of $28 million. Last year at the same time, Frontier reported $38 million in profits.

junk3Those losses have to be reflected somewhere, and customers complain they are paying the highest price. West Virginians are among those that regularly accuse Frontier of chronically under-investing in broadband service in the state. Many rural communities obtaining broadband for the first time initially appreciated Frontier’s efforts, but have since grown critical of the performance of Frontier’s DSL service, which can slow to 1Mbps or less during the evenings because Frontier has oversold its network and not kept up with usage demands.

Frontier’s deal with Verizon allows it to acquire a large state of the art FiOS fiber to the home network Frontier has never been willing to build itself. Keeping an existing fiber network up and running is considerably less expensive than building one from scratch. That explains why Frontier customers in ex-Verizon FiOS areas enjoy relatively good service while legacy customers still connected to copper phone lines that were installed in the 1960s (or earlier) are stuck with uneven and slow-performing DSL that rarely meets the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband — 25Mbps. Where customers have a choice between Frontier DSL and another wired provider, most choose fiber or coaxial-based Internet service. Frontier’s rural service focus protects the company by limiting the effects of that kind of competition.

In the near term, Frontier’s biggest threat could eventually come from wireless 4G LTE broadband from AT&T and Verizon Wireless, if the companies can deliver an affordable service for rural residents without a punishing low usage allowance. That remains a big “if.”

(Illustrations by Chris Serra.)

North Carolina, Where Fiber Begets More Fiber; Ting Explores Wiring Cities Google Forgot

Ting-truck-closedNorth Carolina residents bypassed by Google Fiber and impatient waiting for AT&T U-verse with GigaPower may still have a chance to get gigabit fiber Internet.

Ting, a Toronto-based wireless provider, is exploring building fiber broadband networks in as many as a half-dozen cities in 2016, and some of them may be in North Carolina.

Elliot Noss, CEO of Ting’s parent company, told the Triangle Business Journal he is impressed with the enthusiasm for fiber optic broadband in the state. He recognized Greenlight, Wilson’s community-owned fiber network, as a fiber pioneer that helped fuel demand for better Internet in the state. He added North Carolina is one of the leaders in fiber to the home service in the country, and that makes it a very suitable place to bring even more fiber to the state.

The Triangle region of North Carolina is receiving network upgrades from Time Warner Cable and AT&T, and Google Fiber is coming to Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, but there remains a number of Triangle communities including Clayton, Dunn, Henderson, Louisburg, Norlina, Oxford, Pittsboro, Rocky Mount, Roxboro, Sanford, Selma, Siler City, Smithfield, Tarboro and Wake Forest where fiber networks would be welcomed.

Ting workers installing fiber optics in Charlottesville, Va.

Ting workers installing fiber optics in Charlottesville, Va.

Noss believes fiber begets even more fiber, which may explain why some states are getting huge investments in competing fiber optic projects while others struggle with little or no fiber at all. As soon as a fiber provider enters a region, it creates a higher level of awareness that better Internet service exists when you look beyond “good enough” broadband from phone and cable companies. The resulting “broadband envy” fuels demand for network upgrades.

Noss believes smaller, outlying metros bypassed for fiber upgrades now want them more than ever because they are at a competitive disadvantage without better Internet access.

“North Carolina might be the first state in the union that has moved from where cities and towns are looking at fiber as a way to differentiate and to lead,” Noss told the newspaper. “(North Carolina) is seeing it almost defensively: We need it for our survival because we’re surrounded by it.”

So what makes a community ripe for fiber broadband? A community already sold on fiber and willing to make things happen quickly and smoothly.

“The first thing we look for when we’re engaging with a city or town is an understanding that this is something they deeply want to do,” Noss says. “We don’t take meetings with cities who want to hear about why they should have fiber or gigabit connectivity.”

That attitude is shared by Google, which has taken to issuing a checklist for city officials interested in attracting Google Fiber to their community. In short, it means developing a working relationship between zoning/permitting officials and Google’s engineers to cut the “red tape.”

In the past, politicians often treated cable franchise contracts as valuable enough to ask providers for concessions in return for an agreement. Many cities treated Verizon the same way when it sought franchise agreements to offer cable television over its FiOS fiber to the home network. Some city officials sought compensation for PEG services – Public Access, Educational, and Government channels. Others sought funding for technology and educational programs, community centers, or free service for public and government-owned buildings.

Google has turned that formula upside down. Today, communities offer concessions to Google competing to be the next fiber city. Other providers entering the fiber market with promises of better Internet are getting a similar reception from eager communities.

Charlottesville, Va. and Westminster, Md., neither a likely prospect for Google Fiber or Verizon FiOS did not need any convincing. Ting now provides gigabit fiber service in both communities for $89 a month or a cheaper 5/5Mbps budget option for $19 a month — both with a $399 installation fee. Customers cannot wait to sign up for service, often to say goodbye to companies like Comcast or Verizon’s DSL offering.

Ting is owned by Tucows, Inc., a provider of network access, domain names, and other Internet services.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Ting What gigabit fiber means for Westminster 2015.mp4

Ting produced this video about what gigabit fiber broadband will mean for a community like Westminster, Md. (2:07)

Comcast Finds Excuses to Avoid Installing Gigabit Pro Fiber; Construction Costs Seem to Matter

qualifiedComcast is rejecting some requests for its new 2Gbps fiber to the home service, claiming construction costs to provide the service to some homes are too high, even for customers living 0.15 of a mile from Comcast’s nearest fiber optic connection point.

Stop the Cap! reader Thomas, who wishes to withhold his last name, was excited at the prospect of signing up for Comcast’s 2Gbps broadband service for his home-based Internet business, despite the steep $1,000 installation fee and $159/mo promotional price he saw in the media.

“For the average person just looking for a faster connection at home, 2Gbps is absolute overkill, but if you run a home-based business that depends on a fast Internet connection, Comcast’s prices are a lot more reasonable than a Metro Ethernet or fiber solution from AT&T,” Thomas said.

Thomas is a Comcast customer in the Chicago area and knew he’d qualify for the service because he watched Comcast crews install/upgrade fiber cables close to his home. Comcast requires customers to live within one-third of a mile of the nearest company-owned fiber connection point to get 2Gbps service. Thomas lives far closer than that and Comcast’s online qualification tool also seemed to show the service would be available to him.

“I assumed it would be easy to order service, but it has not turned out that way at all,” Thomas complained.

Comcast’s regular customer service agents were hit or miss for Thomas. Some are acquainted with Comcast’s Gigabit Pro offering, many others are not. It took three calls for him to find a representative aware of the product, but even then the representative informed him someone would have to call him back to take his order. Two days later, he did receive a call from a Comcast regional office that explained the lengthy ordering and installation procedure. If everything worked as it should, it would take up to three months for Comcast to complete the fiber installation. But Thomas warned there were potential deal-breakers along the way.

Equipment Costs

Comcast will supply some, but not all, of the necessary equipment. A router provided by Comcast adds $19.99/mo to the price, and could be worthwhile to customers wanting to limit their out-of-pocket up front costs. But there are other equipment requirements to consider as well:

  • Desktop PC with available PCIe expansion slot
  • 1 10G PCIe network interface controller with SFP+ cage ($200-400)
  • 1 10G enhanced small form factor pluggable SFP+ transceiver (850nm MMF) ($200-350)
  • 1 MMF LC patch cable ($25-30)

To connect multiple devices to the fiber handoff, a compatible and very expensive 10Gbps Layer 3 switch or router is also required, which can run well into the thousands of dollars.

Pricing Gotchas

Installation is $500 and activation costs another $500. There is an early termination fee of $1,100 if you disconnect service before the end of your term contract. On a three-year contract, the amount of the fee is reduced by $100 every three months you keep the service. That $159 promotional price quoted in the press turned out to be another issue. Comcast informed him that offer is only good in the cities of Nashville (a future Google Fiber city also designated for GigaPower U-verse from AT&T) and Chattanooga, Tenn. (which already has gigabit service from EPB). It would cost him $299.95 a month, not $159.

Service Qualification Procedure

slow noComcast implies any customer within 1/3rd of a mile of their nearest fiber cable is qualified to get Gigabit Pro service, but Thomas tells us that just isn’t true.

“Comcast treats these installations the same way they would running cable into virgin territories like an unserved neighborhood or office park,” Thomas said. “Once you commit to an order, I am convinced they do a Return On Investment (ROI) and cost analysis to decide if it makes financial sense to actually bring fiber to you.”

It begins with an in-office map survey that reviews Comcast’s existing network and verifies a path from Comcast’s existing fiber network to the customer’s home. This process takes up to 14 days, according to Thomas, and makes certain the customer is within the qualified distance for service.

“But I can say it goes beyond this, because Comcast was also looking at proposed routes to get fiber to me, and the representative was concerned about whether Comcast’s cables in my area were on telephone poles or underground in conduit,” reported Thomas. “There was also an issue with a pedestal and I was informed a site survey was required to check whether existing infrastructure in my neighborhood could support the service.”

Comcast said a visit from a technician would be required — another two-week process, and about then he was told “there was indeed a problem with their existing pedestal and they also ran into a conduit issue,” Thomas said. “At that point, I was informed my order could not go ahead because Comcast would have to spend about $17,000 to correct these issues and cover my installation and that evidently failed their ROI and cost analysis.”

Had Thomas passed all the qualification tests, he would have waited up to 13 weeks (more than three months) from the time he ordered service before he could actually use it. Now, he will wait at least a year for Comcast’s suggested alternative — the arrival of DOCSIS 3.1, which is expected to support gigabit speeds over Comcast’s existing coax cable network.

“I honestly felt mislead by Comcast’s press releases that suggested service was just a matter of where you lived without telling customers they will deny service if it costs Comcast over a certain dollar amount, no matter how close you live to their existing fiber,” Thomas added. “Promoting a service and actually providing it are two very different things and it seems Comcast just isn’t providing it, at least to me.”

Have you explored Comcast Gigabit Pro? If so, share your experiences in the comment section. We’d love to hear from you if you actually have the service installed.

VP Biden Announces Broadband-Challenged Rochester, N.Y. Home to National Photonics Institute

Vice president Biden

Vice President Biden in Rochester, N.Y.

Vice President Joe Biden and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo today announced Rochester, N.Y., a city notorious for its slow broadband, will be the home of the $600 million Integrated Photonics Institute for Manufacturing Innovation, a hub supporting the development of photonics — technology that powers everything from fiber optic broadband to laser surgery.

Rochester, the home of dramatically downsized household names like Eastman Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch and Lomb, could see thousands of new high technology jobs created in the western New York city to develop new products and services that depend on light waves.

“The innovation and jobs this institute will create will be a game changer for Rochester and the entire state,” said U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, (D-Rochester). “This is a huge win that will shape our region’s economy for decades to come.”

Slaughter reportedly spent three years working to bring the center to Rochester and helped secure $110 million from the Defense Department and another $500 million in state and private sector funding to finance its development. The project could prove transformational for a community ravaged by downsizing, most dramatically exemplified by Eastman Kodak, which had 62,000 workers in Rochester during the 1980s but employs fewer than 2,500 today.

Today, Rochester’s largest employers are no longer manufacturers. Health care service providers now lead the way, including the University of Rochester Medical Center/Strong Health (#1) and the Rochester General Health System (#3). Upscale grocery chain Wegmans calls Rochester home and is the community’s second largest employer. The bureaucracies that power the Rochester City School District and Monroe County Government are also among the area’s top-10 employers.

rochesterDespite the job shifts, the fact 24,000 workers in the region are already employed in photonics-related jobs may have been a deciding factor in selecting Rochester for the center.

“The photonics center we are now bringing to Rochester will harness the power of the Defense Department and the prowess of Rochester’s 24,000 employee-strong photonics industry and focus it like a laser beam to launch new industries, technologies and jobs,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement.

Employers, small business start-ups and workers moving into the region are likely to be considerably less impressed by Rochester’s incumbent telecommunications service providers. Although institutional and large commercial fiber networks are available to those with deep pockets, with the exception of Greenlight Networks, a local fiber to the home retail overbuilder providing fast gigabit fiber Internet to a tiny percentage of local residents, the area’s fiber future remains bleak.

Time Warner Cable, by far the largest Internet provider in the region, has left Rochester off its Maxx upgrade list, leaving the city with a maximum of 50/5Mbps Internet speed. Frontier Communications still relies on 1990s era DSL service and the anemic speeds it delivers, evident from the company’s poor average speed ranking — 11.47Mbps — less than half the minimum 25Mbps the FCC considers broadband.

Rochester is hardly a broadband speed leader in New York State, only managing to score in 332nd place. (Image: Ookla)

Rochester is hardly a broadband speed leader in New York State, only managing to score in 332nd place. (Image: Ookla)

The performance of the two providers has dragged Rochester’s broadband speed ranking to an embarrassingly low #336 compared with other communities in New York. Suburban towns in downstate New York enjoy more than twice the speed upstate residents get, largely thanks to major upgrades from Verizon (FiOS) and Time Warner Cable (Maxx). But even compared with other upstate communities, Rochester still scores poorly, beaten by small communities like Watertown, Massena, and Waterloo. Suburban Buffalo, Syracuse, and Albany also outperform Rochester.

In contrast, in Raleigh, N.C., home to the Power America Institute — another federal manufacturing center — broadband life is better:

  • Raleigh is a Google Fiber city and will receive 1,000/1,000Mbps service for $70 a month, around $20 more than what Time Warner charges for 50/5Mbps with a promotion;
  • Raleigh is a Time Warner Cable Maxx city with free broadband speed upgrades ranging from 15Mbps before/50Mbps after to 50Mbps before/300Mbps after;
  • Raleigh is an AT&T U-verse with GigaPower city with 1,000/1,000Mbps service for $120 70 a month.

This article was updated to correct the pricing of AT&T U-verse with GigaPower in Raleigh, N.C., with thanks to reader Darrin Evans for the corrected information.

CRTC Orders Phone and Cable Companies to Open Their Fiber Networks to Competitors

CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais

CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais

Independent Internet Service Providers are hailing a decision by telecommunications regulators that will force big phone and cable companies to open their fiber optic networks to competitors, suggesting Canadian consumers will benefit from lower prices, fewer usage caps, and higher-speed Internet.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission on Wednesday ordered companies like Bell/BCE, Telus, Rogers, Shaw, and others to sell wholesale access to their growing fiber optic networks, despite industry protests giving that access would harm future investment in fiber technology just as it is on the cusp of spreading across the country.

“We’re an evidence-based body, so we heard all of the positions of the various parties and we balanced those off through what we heard in our deliberations afterwards,” said CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais. “In this particular case, we are concerned about the future of broadband in the country so we have to make sure we have a sustainable and competitive marketplace. It’s a wholesale decision that says Canadians can expect a better competitive marketplace because we are going to require incumbent cable and telephone companies to make their high-speed facilities available to competitors.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/BNN Breaking News CRTC Decision Fiber 7-22-15.flv

BNN broke into regular programming with this Special Report on the CRTC decision that will grant independent ISPs access to large telecom companies’ fiber optic networks. (3:13)

Large phone companies, including Bell, warned regulators in a hearing last fall that forcing them to open their networks to third parties would deter investment in fiber expansion. Canadian telecom companies now provide about three million homes with either fiber to the home or fiber to the neighborhood service. Blais, along with representatives of independent ISPs have rejected Bell’s arguments, arguing competition from cable operators was forcing telephone companies to upgrade their networks regardless of the wholesale access debate.

crtc“Our view is the incumbent telcos have a market reason to invest in improving their plant through the investment in fiber,” Blais said. “That’s what Canadians expect and because of market conditions they have to do that investment. So we’re quite confident that’s going to happen.”

Canadian telecommunications companies have done well selling Internet and television services in a highly concentrated telecommunications and media marketplace. For example, BCE, the parent company of Bell Canada, Bell Media, and Bell TV owns a wireless carrier, a satellite TV provider, the CTV television network and many of its local affiliates, dozens of radio stations, more than two dozen cable networks, a landline telephone company, an Internet Service Provider, and ownership interests in sports teams like the Montreal Canadiens as well as a part interest in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s unofficial newspaper of record.

Companies like Rogers, Shaw, Vidéotron, Telus, and Bell have dominated the market for Internet access. But regulators began requiring these companies to sell access to their networks on a wholesale basis to smaller competitors to foster additional retail competition. Today, there are over 500 independent ISPs selling service in Canada, including well-known companies like TekSavvy, Primus, and Distributel. In the past few years, Internet enthusiasts have flocked to these alternative providers to escape a regime of usage caps and usage-based billing of Internet service common among most incumbent cable and phone companies. Competition from the independents, which offer more generous usage allowances or sell unlimited access, has forced some phone and cable companies to offer cap-free Internet service as well.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/BNN CRTC Decision Interview with Jean Pierre Blais 7-22-15.flv

BNN interviewed CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais about the commission’s decision to open up wholesale access to Canada’s fiber optic networks. (5:26)

bellDespite the competition, the majority of Canadians still do business with BCE, Rogers Communications, Quebecor (Vidéotron), Shaw Communications, or Telus, that collectively captured 75 percent of telecom revenue in 2013.

Although competitors have been able to purchase wholesale access to cable broadband and DSL service, nothing in the CRTC rules required big cable and phone companies to sell access to next generation fiber networks. That gap threatened the viability of independent ISPs, left with offering customers access to older cable/copper technology only. This week’s CRTC decision is the first step to grant access to fiber networks as well, although some ISPs are cautious about the impact of the decision until the CRTC provides pricing guidance.

“The commission took a great step today in favor of competition,” Matt Stein, CEO of Distributel Communications Ltd., told The Globe and Mail. “In giving us access to fiber to the premise, they have ensured that as speeds and demands increase, we’re going to continue to be able to provide service that customers want. It’s definitely going to be some time before these products make it to market. There’s going to be the costing and the implementation, and reasonably it could be a year or even longer before the products are actually out the door. But the heavy lifting? Today that was done.”

Bram Abramson, chief legal and regulatory officer for TekSavvy Solutions Inc., added some caution.

Distributel, an independent ISP, made a name for itself offering usage-cap free Internet access to Canadians.

Distributel, an independent ISP, made a name for itself offering usage-cap free Internet access to Canadians.

“The devil really is in the details on this,” Abramson told the newspaper. “That’s why I say we like the direction, because there are a million ways in which this could become unworkable if implemented wrong. For example, what rates are we going to pay? We won’t know until those tariffs are done and settled.”

Other so-called “wireline incumbents” like Manitoba Telecom and SaskTel will also be required to make their fiber optic networks available to competitors.

Last fall, Bell warned the CRTC of the consequences of letting TekSavvy, Distributel, and others resell access to their fiber networks.

“We are not suggesting that mandated access will immediately grind investment to a halt in every location in Canada, but it is a question of balance and it will have an impact,” Mirko Bibic, chief legal and regulatory officer for BCE/Bell told CRTC commissioners at a hearing.

Bibic cautioned if the CRTC granted competitive access it could affect how the company allocated its capital investments and could lead it to shift spending to other areas instead.

“What we’re saying is a mandated access rule will affect the pace of deployment and the breadth of deployment,” Bibic said.



Specifically, Bibic claimed Bell may call it quits on fiber expansion beyond the fiber-to-the-neighborhood service Bell sells under the Fibe brand in 80% of its service area in Ontario and Quebec. Bell had envisioned upgrading the network to straight fiber-to-the-home service, eliminating the rest of the legacy copper still in its network. But perhaps not anymore.

“If the commission forces the incumbent telephone operators to open access to fiber-to-the-home, BCE might not prioritize building that final leg in some communities,” Bibic warned. “The point is, with 80% of our territory covered […] we can hold and do really well with fiber-to-the-node for longer than we otherwise might.”

Nonsense, independent ISPs told the CRTC, pointing to the cable industry’s preparations to introduce DOCSIS 3.1 cable broadband and vastly increase broadband speeds well in excess of what a fiber-to-the-neighborhood network can offer.

“First of all, [telephone companies] have a natural incentive to build wherever there is a cable carrier, because otherwise the cable carrier will eat their lunch,” said Chris Tacit, counsel to the Canadian Network Operators Consortium, which represents the interests of independent ISPs. “There’s a reason that they’re sinking all that money into [fiber-to-the-home], it’s because they have to keep up. Now, I don’t believe for a minute that they are going to stop investing if they have to grant access.”

Regulators in the United States have traditionally sided with large telecommunications companies and have largely allowed phone and cable companies to keep access to their advanced broadband networks to themselves. Republicans have largely defended the industry position that regulation and forced open access would deter private investment and competitors should construct networks of their own. In some cases, they have. Google Fiber is now the most prominent overbuilder, but several dozen independent providers are also slowly wiring fiber optics in communities already served by cable and telephone company-provided broadband. Whether it is better to inspire new entrants to build their own networks or grant them access to existing ones is an ongoing political debate.

But the CRTC has not given independent ISPs a free ride. The commission announced it will begin moving towards “disaggregated” network availability for smaller ISPs, which will require them to invest in network equipment to connect with incumbent networks on a more local level, starting in Ontario and Quebec.

The CRTC under Blais’ leadership is gaining a reputation of being pro-consumer, a departure from the CRTC’s often-industry-friendly past. Blais has presided over rulings to regulate wholesale wireless roaming fees to lower consumer costs and forced pay television providers to unbundle their huge TV channel packages so consumers can get rid of scores of channels they don’t watch.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/The Globe and Mail Internet competitors welcome CRTC decision on broadband access 7-23-15.flv

Canadian Press spoke with independent ISPs about their reaction to the wholesale access decision. (1:18)

Cable’s Fiber Fears: Broadband Market Share Drops to 40% or Less When Fiber Competition Arrives

The magic of fiber

The magic of fiber

Ever wonder why Comcast, one of the strongest defenders of classic coaxial-based cable technology, is suddenly getting on board the fiber-to-the-home bandwagon? New research suggests if they don’t, their market share could fall to 40% or less if a serious fiber competitor arrives.

“There’s some sort of magic associated with fiber,” John Caezza, president of Arris’s Access Technologies division, told Multichannel News. “Everyone thinks it’s better than [cable technology].”

The risks to the cable industry are clear: be prepared to upgrade or face customer losses.

Craig Moffett of Moffett Nathanson has never been a cheerleader for fiber to the home service. In 2008, Moffett vilified Verizon for its investment in a major fiber upgrade we know today as FiOS to replace its aging copper infrastructure, complaining it was too expensive and was overkill for most residential customers. He was more tolerant of AT&T’s less-costly fiber to the neighborhood approach, dubbed U-verse, that still used traditional telephone lines to deliver service into the home. Because U-verse did not need AT&T to replace wiring at each customer location, the cost savings were considerable. But the cost-capability compromise left AT&T with a less robust platform, with broadband speeds initially limited to a maximum of around 24Mbps.

While phone companies like AT&T and Verizon were saddled with the enormous cost of tearing out decades-old obsolete phone wiring to varying degrees, the cable industry seemed well positioned with a mature, yet still recent hybrid fiber-coaxial (HFC) platform that was upgraded in the 1990s in many cities. While still partly reliant on the same RG-6 and RG-11 coaxial cable used since the first days of cable television, cable companies also invested in fiber optics to bring services from distant headends to each town, removing some of the copper from their networks without the huge expense of bringing fiber all the way to customer homes.

For Moffett, it was the cable industry that had the network with room to grow without spending huge amounts of capital on upgrades. He has touted cable stocks ever since.



What worries Moffett now isn’t Google, Frontier, CenturyLink, or even Verizon. He’s concerned about AT&T.

As part of its commitment to win approval of its merger with DirecTV, AT&T promised regulators in June it would expand AT&T U-verse with GigaPower — AT&T’s gigabit fiber to the home upgrade — to at least 11.7 million homes, nine million more than it has ever promised before. Comcast has a 32% overlap with AT&T U-verse, compared to Time Warner Cable (26%), Charter Communications (32%), Bright House Networks (25%) and Cox Communications (25%). Comcast had promised faster broadband with the advent of DOCSIS 3.1 beginning as early as next year. But the company isn’t willing to wait around to watch AT&T and others steal its speed-craving customers. This spring, it promised 2Gbps Gigabit Pro fiber to the home service to customers living within 1/3rd of a mile of the nearest Comcast fiber line.

Some in the cable industry complain Google’s huge marketing operation has saddled cable broadband with a bad rap — ‘it’s yesterday’s news, with Google Fiber representing the future.’ The marketing war has been largely won by Google, they say, leaving consumers convinced fiber is the better and more reliable technology, and they need it more than the cable company.

Cable’s defense is to consider some marketing changes of its own — including the idea of dropping the name “cable” from the business altogether, because it implies older technology. But despite any name change, most cable companies will continue to rely on HFC infrastructure for at least several more years, despite claims they are bringing their own middle mile fiber networks closer to customers than ever. Cable operators now serve an average of 400 homes from each cable node. Some cable companies like Comcast plan to cut the number of customers sharing a node to around 100-125 homes, which means fewer customers will share the same broadband connection. But in the end, that will make cable comparable at best to a fiber to the neighborhood network, still hampered to some degree by the presence of legacy coaxial copper cable. The industry believes most consumers will never see the limitations, and for those that do, a limited fiber buildout with a steep installation fee may keep costs (and demand) down to those who need the fastest possible speeds and are willing to pay to get them.

CableLabs_TaglineThat philosophy may still cost cable companies customers if a fiber competitor doesn’t have to compromise speed and performance and can afford to charge less.

The top 10 U.S. cable companies currently account for 60% of the residential broadband market and 86% of all broadband net additions in the first quarter of 2015, says Leichtman Research Group.

Moffett predicts cable broadband will only capture 40% of share in markets where it faces a fiber to the home competitor (Google, EPB, Greenlight, Verizon FiOS), 55% in markets served by a fiber to the neighborhood competitor (U-verse, Prism), and 60% where the competition only sells DSL (most Frontier, Windstream service areas). Nationwide, AT&T’s newest gigabit fiber commitment could cost the cable industry 2.4% of the whole residential broadband market, Moffett said.

Phil McKinney, president and CEO of CableLabs, believes DOCSIS 3.1 — the next standard for cable broadband — can easily stand toe to toe with fiber to the home providers.



“I think it [HFC] has tremendous life, and we are going to be riding it all day long,” Werner said. DOCSIS 3.1 “is definitely going to be our go-to animal. Due to ubiquity, we can go out and virtually serve all of our [customers] very quickly.”

Cable companies claim their speed increases reach all of their customers in a given area at the same time without playing games with “fiberhoods” or waiting for incremental service upgrades common with Google Fiber or AT&T’s U-verse. Customers, the industry says, also appreciate DOCSIS upgrades bring no service disruption and nobody has to come to the home to install or upgrade service.

“The cable industry has more fiber in the ground than each fiber provider in the world,” McKinney argues. “If you look at total fiber strand miles, there’s more fiber under management and under control of the [cable] operators than anybody else combined.”

That may be true, but Moffett thinks it is only natural shareholders may eventually punish the stocks of cable operators that will face competition from AT&T’s U-verse with GigaPower. There is precedent. Cablevision serves customers in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey and faces fierce competition from Verizon FiOS in most of its service areas. That competition has been brutal, occasionally made worse in periodic price wars. What may be protecting cable stocks so far is the fact AT&T competition will only affect, at most, 32% of the impacted cable operators’ service areas.

AT&T’s gigabit network has also proved itself to be more press release than performance, with very limited availability in the cities where it claims to be available. Verizon FiOS, in contrast, is widely available in most of Cablevision’s service area.

Still, Comcast is hoping it can hang on to premium customers who demand the very fastest speeds and performance with targeted fiber.

“Gigabit Pro is really for those customers who have got extreme needs,” said Tony Werner, Comcast’s executive vice president and chief technology officer.

Comcast Says Early 2Gbps Gigabit Pro Customers Will Be Served by Metro Ethernet

comcast2gbps-495x316The first 2Gbps Gigabit Pro deployments from Comcast will rely on Metro Ethernet that now serves Comcast’s midsized business customers, later migrating to passive optical network [PON] technology Comcast intends to begin installing in new housing developments and apartment complexes.

Multichannel News reports Comcast is now offering a limited promotional price of $159/mo for the ultra-fast broadband service, but to receive the discount customers must sign a three-year service contract with early cancellation penalties and agree to pay up to $1,000 in installation and activation fees.

Comcast claims it will offer the service to about 18 million homes by the end of the year — those within 1/3rd of a mile of Comcast’s existing fiber network.

Tony Werner, Comcast’s executive vice president and chief technology officer would not say which version of PON — GPON or EPON Comcast will use long-term, but a decision had already been made within the company and would eventually be known to customers.

Comcast-LogoZTE, a Chinese provider of telecommunications equipment and network solutions, says EPON is the dominant fiber to the home solution in Japan, Korea, China and other Asia-Pacific countries. In other countries, especially in America, GPON is the preferred choice, as it can coexist with earlier PON systems.

Werner added Comcast will quietly deploy fiber to the home service in certain new housing developments.

“Once the trench is open, the incremental economics are close enough that we will do fiber-to-the-home, unless it’s a very small stub off of existing plant,” Werner said.

But for everyone else, it will be coaxial cable as usual unless customers pay that $1,000 fiber fee and are willing to wait up to eight weeks for installation. Comcast will run fiber and install the necessary equipment, including the Optical Network Terminal, only to customers who sign up for Gigabit Pro.

Comcast Reveals 2Gbps Pricing: $1,000 Install/Setup Fee, $299.95/Month

Comcast-LogoSigning up for Comcast’s 2Gbps fiber to the home service will not come cheap.

The cable company this morning announced pricing for its 2,000/2,000Mbps residential-only broadband tier: $299.95/mo with $1,000 in installation fees on the first bill.

If you can afford that, you may not mind Comcast’s other installation and contract requirements:

  • The first bill will require a payment of about $1,159 — $500 for installation, $500 for activation plus $159 if you qualify for a limited time service promotional discount;
  • Only a select number of residential Comcast customers will qualify for the service — those living within 1/3rd of a mile of Comcast’s existing fiber network in a limited number of cities;
  • Customers must opt for professional installation and it may take six to eight weeks to complete;
  • A two-year term contract is also required, with a stiff early termination fee;
  • Equipment, taxes and fees and other applicable charges extra;
  • This tier is exempt from usage caps/usage-based billing, but actual speeds vary and are not guaranteed.


multigigLater this year, the service is also expected to reach further west:

  • Colorado: Denver, Fort Collins, Loveland, Longmont and Colorado Springs
  • Minnesota: Minneapolis/St. Paul
  • Oregon: Portland
  • Texas: Houston
  • Utah: Salt Lake City
  • Washington: Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma, and Everett

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