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Altice Dismisses Wireless Broadband as Inadequate, “There is No Substitute” for Wired

Goei

While Wall Street and the tech media seems excited about the prospect of 5G and other fixed wireless home broadband services, Altice, which owns Cablevision and Suddenlink, dismissed wireless broadband as inadequate to meet rapidly growing broadband usage.

“In terms of usage patterns, our customers are taking an average download speed of 162 Mbps as of the second quarter of 2018, which is up 74% year-over-year,” Dexter Goei, CEO of Altice USA told investors on a recent conference call. “[Our customers now use] over 220 GB of data per month, which is up 20% year-over-year, with 10 in-home connected devices, on average. If you take the top 10% of our highest data consuming customers as a leading indicator, they are using, on average, almost 1 terabyte of data per month with 26 in-home connected devices. To support these usage patterns, which are mainly driven by video streaming and the proliferation of new over-the-top [streaming] services, it requires a high quality fixed network like ours. There is no substitute.”

Goei argued America’s wireless carriers are not positioned to offer a credible, serious home broadband alternative.

“For example, so-called unlimited data plans from the U.S. mobile operators start capping or significantly throttling customers at 20 GB of usage per month,” Goei said. “Over 60% of our customers are now using over 100 GB of data per month right now, which the mobile operators do not and will not have the capacity to match on a scaled basis unless they overbuild with a new dense fiber network.”

Altice just so happens to be building a dense fiber network, scrapping Cablevision’s remaining coaxial cable in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut in favor of a fiber-to-the-home network that will eventually reach all of its customers.

Frontier’s Latest Salvation Plan Doesn’t Include Significant Broadband Upgrades

While celebrating its success at cutting $350 million in expenses, Frontier’s newest plan to keep the company from drifting towards bankruptcy is a $500 million increase in revenue (and hopefully profits) with a series of “revenue enhancements” and cost cutting.

Significant broadband upgrades in legacy DSL service areas are not on the table, as Frontier continues to spend most of its capital on matching Connect America Funds (CAF) and state grants to expand broadband into unserved and underserved rural areas.

“Approximately 80% of our capital program continues to focus on revenue generating and productivity enhancing projects,” said R. Perley McBride, Frontier’s outgoing chief financial officer. “The focus of our capital spending remains consistent. We continue to focus on our CAF builds, using both wired and wireless technologies.”

Frontier has been criticized by some for spending too much on its network and acquisitions and not enough on shareholder return. The company suspended its dividend in February, and the share price has remained below $6 a share since July. After announcing its latest quarterly results and a new $500 million EBITDA initiative on July 31, the average share price posted only modest gains of around $0.25 a share.

Frontier’s business remains troubled, with looming debt repayments in its future. The date to remember is Sept. 15, 2022 — the day Frontier needs to repay $2 billion in unsecured bonds to maintain its credibility in the credit markets. If it fails to pay, the company could find future financing difficult, which is often what triggers a trip to bankruptcy court.

The year 2022 is also very important to Californians. Frontier disclosed it planned to expand rural broadband service to 847,000 unserved/underserved rural residents by the end of 2022, with specific commitments in the next few years to upgrade 77,402 locations, in part with CAF funding, increase broadband speed for 250,000 households, and deploy newly available service to 100,000 homes.

Frontier’s own deployment goals in California — goals the company may not be honoring. (Image courtesy of: Steve Blum’s blog)

According to the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF), Frontier has no intention of meeting its rural broadband commitments. In effect, similar to Charter Communications, it merely made the commitments to win approval of its acquisition of Verizon’s wireline and FiOS business in California.

A day of reckoning for the company’s alleged failure to meet its obligations is likely forthcoming. Steve Blum’s blog notes Frontier isn’t saying much:

In its formal response to CETF’s allegations, Frontier never actually says that it kept to that timetable. All it says is that “Frontier sent a letter to the Communication Division dated March 8, 2018 on its commitments that includes a confidential attachment reflecting completed locations through December 31, 2017”. It sent a letter, but doesn’t say what’s in the letter or even claim that the letter documents fulfillment of its obligations.

CETF told California regulators a disturbing story about Frontier’s failure to perform and other allegations in its filing with the California Public Utilities Commission, alleging Frontier is reneging on the deal it made with the state and various stakeholders in return for getting its acquisition approved. The group also accused Frontier of failing to deliver on its affordable broadband offering, because the company made signing up difficult and bundled extra fees and surcharges onto the bill.

“Frontier launched its existing affordable broadband offer in late August 2016 and to date only 9,173 adoptions have been achieved, a mere 4.5% of the 200,000 household adoption goal,” the CETF wrote. “Due to the initial Frontier eligibility requirement that Frontier customers be a telephone landline Lifeline subscriber and the total bundled cost, the affordable broadband offer has only attracted 7,452 low-income subscribers, which is 190,827 households short of the agreed-upon goal.”

Frontier has a employer turnover problem in California, evident from this filing by the CETF. (Courtesy: CETF)

The CETF said Frontier was “shirking” and should face the maximum fine of $50,000 a day retroactive to July 1, 2016 for failure to comply with its obligations. As of the end of July, 2018 that fine would amount to over $39 million.

To comply with existing obligations to California, Frontier could have to spend in excess of $1 billion in the next two years. But Frontier has told investors it planned to spend no more than $1.15 billion on capex in fiscal year 2018 across its entire national service area. This could explain why Frontier may be stalling on upgrades in California.

Also raining on Frontier’s parade is the muted reaction to Frontier’s latest money-raising scheme. Shareholders appear lukewarm, with some openly skeptical that Frontier can deliver what it promises.

The plan’s success depends on:

  • Frontier’s ability to raise rates and find other “revenue enhancements” of $150-200 million. Rate increases drive customers to competitors, reducing revenue.
  • Vague “operational improvements” are expected to bring $150-200 million.
  • Customer care and support savings are anticipated to generate $125-175 million in EBITDA benefit.

Outgoing CFO McBride relies heavily on opaque corporate-speak like this, with few specifics:

“In addition to the dedicated resources, we are utilizing a new approach that will significantly accelerate the benefits of both revenue and expense initiatives. This new approach involves utilization of external expertise to significantly reduce the time to successfully realize our objectives. This will allow us to execute more initiatives in parallel while still managing day to day requirements of the business.”

In short, this suggests Frontier will outsource a lot of initiatives they used to manage in-house. The company also plans to start limiting truck rolls to customer homes if the company determines the problem is likely elsewhere in their network. It also claims it is cutting customer hold times at their call centers, which are still frequently outsourced.

What Frontier has made clear, again, is their determination to keep a cap on spending, which means much of the money Frontier will spend each year will go towards network maintenance, not service upgrades. Therefore, customers can expect incremental upgrades, usually when a construction project requires Frontier to replace existing copper wire infrastructure with fiber optics or at a building site for a new housing development. Most customers in existing neighborhoods served by legacy copper wiring on the poles since the 1960s will continue to be serviced by those lines until they are torn down in a storm or stolen. Frontier has consistently shown no interest in wholesale network upgrades in its legacy service areas.

Competition Drives Internet Prices Down 45% in Toronto This Summer

Fierce competition by eastern Canada’s largest internet service providers are driving down prices across the Greater Toronto Area by as much as 45%.

Bell’s fiber to the home service, making its way across parts of the GTA, is now offering unlimited gigabit (1,000/940 Mbps) internet for $79.95 a month, a major drop from its original price of $149.95, if customers sign up before the end of July. Those signing up by July 7 can also get a $50 gift card.

Rogers, the country’s biggest cable company, has been pushing its own limited time promotional offer for its gigabit (1,000/30 Mbps) package, which is more widely available than Bell’s Fibe but also suffers from anemic upload speed. Rogers was selling the package for $152.99/month, but it’s now $79.99 for the first year. The offer is good throughout Ontario, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland.

The two telecom companies are trying to boost subscriber numbers during the slow summer months when quarterly financial reports can show a decrease in customers.

Canadians have generally had less access to gigabit speed plans than their American neighbors. Experts believe these companies are cutting prices to hook people on super-fast internet plans that will change consumer attitudes about gigabit speed from an unaffordable luxury into a necessity. Like Americans, Canadians are gravitating towards faster speed plans at an accelerating rate. They also continue to choose unlimited plans wherever available.

There are the usual terms and conditions in the fine print to consider:

Rogers: Offer available for a limited time to new Rogers internet subscribers within Rogers cable service area in Ontario (where technology permits). Subject to change without notice. Data usage subject to Rogers Terms of Service and Acceptable Use Policy. See rogers.com/terms for full details. Taxes extra. One-time activation fee of $14.95 and one-time installation fee (waived for Self-Install; Basic $49.99 or Professional $99.99) apply. Savings as compared to regular price for 12 months. Advertised regular price applies in month 13, subject to any applicable rate increases.

Speeds may vary with internet traffic, server gateway/router, computer (quality, location in the home, software and applications installed), home wiring, home network or other factors. See Acceptable Use Policy at rogers.com/terms. An Ethernet/wired connection and at least one additional wired or wireless connection are required to reach maximum download speeds of up to 1 Gbps for Rogers Ignite Gigabit Internet. Offer available until July 31, 2018 within Rogers cable service area (where technology permits) to new customers subscribing to Ignite Internet 60u or above.

Bell: Offer ends on July 31, 2018. Available to new residential customers in Ontario, where access and technology permit. For certain offers, the customer must select e-billing and create a MyBell profile. Modem rental required; one-time modem rental fee waived for new customers. Subject to change without notice and cannot be combined with any other offer. Taxes extra. Other conditions apply, including minimum system requirements. Subject to compliance with the Bell Terms of service; bell.ca/agreements.. Speeds on the internet may vary with your configuration, internet traffic, server, environmental conditions, simultaneous use of Fibe TV (if applicable) or other factors; bell.ca/speedguide.

$50 gift card promotion: Offer ends on July 7, 2018. The selected internet tier must include unlimited usage. An unloaded gift card will be mailed after the customer maintains a continuous subscription to the same eligible Bell services and has an account in good standing for 60 days following the installation of all services. All services need to be activated by July 31, 2018. Not combinable with any other offers or promotions. Subject to change without notice. One gift card per account. When received, customer must register the gift card online at bellgiftcard.com to request loading of the amount. Allow 30 days for gift card to be loaded and ready to use. If you cancel your services before you activate your gift card, you will not be able to use your gift card. Gift card and use are subject to the card program. Other conditions apply; see bell.ca/fullinstall.

Australia’s National Broadband Network Looking for Scapegoats Over Maddening Slowdowns

Australia’s speed-challenged NBN is looking for scapegoats and finds video game players an easy target.

In 2009, Australia’s Labor Party proposed scrapping the country’s copper wire networks and replacing virtually all of it with a state-of-the-art, public fiber to the home service in cities from Perth to the west to Brisbane in the east, with the sparsely populated north and central portions of the country served by satellite-based or wireless internet.

It was a revolutionary transformation of the country’s challenged broadband networks, which had been heavily usage capped and speed throttled for years, and for large sections of the country stuck using Telstra’s DSL service, terribly slow.

The National Broadband Network concept was immediately attacked by the political opposition as too expensive and unnecessary. Conservative demagogues in the media and in Parliament dismissed the concept as a Cadillac network delivering unnecessarily fast 100 Mbps connections to 90% of Australians that would, in reality, mostly benefit internet addicts while leaving older taxpayers to foot the estimated $43AUS billion dollar bill for the network.

The leaders of the center-right Liberal Party of Australia promised in 2010 to “demolish” the NBN if elected, claiming the network was too costly and would take too long to build. As network construction got underway, the organized attacks on the NBN intensified, and it was a significant issue in the 2013 election that defeated the Labor government and put the conservative government of Tony Abbott into power. Almost immediately, most of the governing board of the NBN was asked to resign and in a series of cost-saving maneuvers, the government canceled plans for a nationwide fiber-to-the-home network. In its place, Abbott and his colleagues promoted a cheaper fiber to the neighborhood network similar to AT&T’s U-verse. Fiber would be run to neighborhood cabinets, where it would connect with the country’s existing copper wire telephone service to each customer’s home.

Abbott

Unfortunately, the revised NBN implemented by the Abbott government appears to be delivering a network that is already increasingly obsolete. Long gone is the goal for ubiquitous 100 Mbps. For Senator Mitch Fifield, who also happens to be the minister for communications in the Liberal government, 25 Mbps is all the speed Australians will ever need.

“Given the choice, Australians have shown that 100 Mbps speeds are not as important to them as keeping monthly internet bills affordable, when the services they are using typically don’t require those speeds,” Fifield wrote in an opinion piece in response to an American journalist complaining about how slow Australian broadband was while reporting from the country.

The standard of “fast enough” for Senator Fifield also seems to be the minimum speed at which Netflix performs well, an important distinction for the growing number of Australians watching streaming television shows and movies.

Unfortunately for Fifield, network speeds are declining as Australians use the NBN as it was intended. While perhaps adequate for a network designed and built for 2010 internet users, data usage has grown considerably over the last eight years, and the government’s effort to keep the network’s costs down are coming back to haunt all involved. Several design changes have erased much of the savings the Abbott government envisioned would come from dumping a straight fiber network in favor of cheaper alternatives.

Right now, depending on one’s address, urban Australians will get one of four different fiber flavors the revised NBN depends on to deliver service:

  • Fiber to the Home (FTTH): the most capable network that delivers a fiber connection straight into your home.
  • Fiber to the Neighborhood (FTTN): a less capable network using fiber into neighborhoods which connects with your existing copper wire phone line to deliver service to your home.
  • Fiber to the Basement (FTTB): Fiber is installed in multi-dwelling units like apartments or condos, which connects to the building’s existing copper wire or ethernet network to your unit.
  • Fiber to the Distribution Point (FTTDP): Fiber is strung all the way to your front or back yard, where it connects with the existing copper wire drop line into your home.

In suburban and rural areas, the NBN is depending on tremendously over-hyped satellite internet access or fixed wireless internet. Customers were told wireless speeds from either technology would be comparable to some flavors of fiber, which turned out to be true assuming only one or two users were connected at a time. Instead, speeds dramatically drop in the evenings and on weekends when customers attempt to share the neighborhood’s wireless internet connection.

Instead of improving the wireless network, or scrapping it in favor of a wired/fiber alternative, the government has set on so-called “heavy users” and blamed them for effectively sabotaging the network.

Morrow

NBN CEO Bill Morrow recently appeared before a parliamentary committee to discuss reported problems with how the NBN was being rolled out in regional Australia. Morrow blamed increasing data usage for the wireless network’s difficulties, singling out slacker video game addicts for most of the trouble, and was considering implementing speed throttles on “extreme users” during peak usage periods.

Stephen Jones, Labor’s spokesperson for regional communications, questioned Morrow on what exactly an “extreme user” was.

“It’s gamers predominantly, on fixed wireless,” said Morrow. “While people are gaming it is a high bandwidth requirement that is a steady streaming process,” he said.

Morrow suggested a “fair-use policy” of speed throttles might be effective at stopping the gamers from allegedly hogging the network.

“I said there were super-users out there consuming terabytes of data and the question is should we actually groom those down? It’s a consideration,” he said. “This is where you can do things, to where you can traffic shape – where you say, ‘no, no, no, we can only offer you service when you’re not impacting somebody else’.”

The NBN itself has regularly dismissed claims that online gamers are data hogs. In an article written by the NBN itself, it stressed gameplay was not a significant stress on broadband networks.

“Believe it or not, some of the biggest online games use very little data while you’re playing compared to streaming HD video or even high-fidelity audio,” the article stated. “Where streaming 4K video can use as much as 7 gigabytes per hour and high-quality audio streaming gets up to around 125 megabytes per hour, (but usually sits at around half that) certain online games use as little as 10MB per hour.”

The article admits a very small percentage of games are exceptions, capable of chewing through up to 1 GB per hour, but that is still seven times less than a typical 4K streaming video.

In fact, the NBN’s own data acknowledged in March 2017 that high-definition streaming video was solely responsible for the biggest spike in demand. NBN data showed the average household connected to the NBN used 32% more data than the year before. When Netflix Australia premiered in March 2015, overall usage grew 22% in the first month.

So why did Morrow scapegoat gamers for network slowdowns? It’s politically palatable.

“They always have someone to blame for why the NBN doesn’t deliver, they have every excuse except the one that really matters, which is the flawed technology,” said the former CEO of Internet Australia Laurie Patton. “In this case for some reason shooting from the hip [Bill Morrow] had a go at gamers and gamers are not the problem.”

As long as Australia continues to embrace a network platform that is not adequate robust to cope with increasing demands from users, slow speeds and internet traffic jams will only increase over time. In retrospect, the decision to scrap the original fiber to the home network to save money appears to be penny wise, pound foolish.

AT&T’s 5G Trials and Tribulations: Fast Speeds for Some, Zoning Concerns for Others

AT&T is continuing its 5G wireless trials in several cities around the country, attempting to determine if there is a business case for wireless home broadband offering speeds up to a gigabit on a shared, next-generation wireless network. While some trial participants are getting blazing fast speeds, some may be out of luck if their homeowner association or apartment owner bans outdoor antenna equipment from being attached to the side of buildings for aesthetic reasons.

More than a year ago, AT&T launched an enterprise 5G trial in Austin to learn more about millimeter wave spectrum and how it could be used to deliver very high-speed fixed wireless internet access. In late 2017, AT&T expanded 5G trials to Waco, Tex., Kalamazoo, Mich., and South Bend, Ind., to test whether the service would work in residential and suburban neighborhoods where tree-lined streets and yards could theoretically block the extremely high and very line-of-sight frequencies AT&T’s 5G service uses.

“My team spent countless hours collecting data and talking to real people who elected to join the trial,” wrote Melissa Arnoldi, president, technology and operations for AT&T, in a blog post. “What worked? What didn’t? What did we need to change? Why was this happening here and not there? Would mmWave spectrum really work to deliver 5G? Did we really just hit that speed in South Bend?”

Part of AT&T’s 5G wireless service trial is taking place in the River Park neighborhood of South Bend, Ind.

What AT&T also learned is to talk about the successes and keep the failures to themselves. In a more recent blog post, Arnoldi shared how the Rubbelke family is benefiting from AT&T’s 5G wireless service at their home in the River Park neighborhood, just to the southeast of downtown South Bend:

Well, for one – it’s providing them with ultra-fast wireless speeds. Just how fast?  At the Rubbelke household, they’re seeing peak wireless speeds nearing 1 Gbps and latency rates less than 20 milliseconds.

Using this emerging technology, Rebecca can easily stream their 3-year-old daughters’ favorite TV show on the tablet. Her husband, Michael, can download textbooks and research materials in an instant for his graduate program. And they can connect with family over video chat without noticeable buffering.

And they can use all of these bandwidth-heavy applications simultaneously and seamlessly—something that would be nearly impossible with current LTE technologies.

Arnoldi’s summary of AT&T’s experiences with 5G are all positive, all the time:

Waco, Texas
Participants: Small and mid-sized businesses

  • Provided 5G mmWave service to a retail location more than 150 meters away from the cell site and observed wireless speeds of approximately 1.2 Gbps in a 400 MHz channel.
  • Observed latency rates at 9-12 milliseconds.
    • Latency impacts things like the time between pressing play and seeing a video start to stream or hitting a web link and seeing a webpage begin to load. For context, MIT researchers discovered the human brain “latency” is 13 milliseconds.
  • Supported hundreds of simultaneous connected users using the 5G network.

Kalamazoo, Michigan
Participants: Small businesses 

  • Observed no impacts on 5G mmWave signal performance due to rain, snow or other weather events.
  • Learned mmWave signals can penetrate materials such as significant foliage, glass and even walls better than initially anticipated.
  • Observed more than 1 Gbps speeds under line of sight conditions up to 900 feet. That’s equal to the length of 3 football fields.

South Bend, Indiana
Participants: Small business and residential customers

  • Observed a full end-to-end 5G network architecture, including the 5G radio system and core, demonstrating extremely low latency.
  • Successfully provided gigabit wireless speeds on mmWave spectrum in both line of sight and some non-line of sight conditions.

But it isn’t all great news.

Line of Sight vs. Zoning and HOA Restrictions

AT&T’s millimeter wave trials are taking place in the 28 and 39 GHz bands that are way above even the 5 GHz Wi-Fi your home router may be equipped with. Anyone who has compared the older 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi band with the newer, but less congested 5 GHz band knows that while 5 GHz can deliver faster speeds with less interference, it is also more distance sensitive than the lower frequency alternative. The more obstacles between your Wi-Fi enabled router and your wireless device, the poorer the results.

A simulated small cell antenna as part of a light pole. (Image courtesy of Crown Castle)

AT&T claims its beta tests are showing “better than expected” results from its 5G service in both line of sight and non-line of sight conditions, but won’t say how much speeds are affected in more marginal reception conditions. AT&T’s 5G antennas are located outdoors, which should offer a clearer path between the transmitter and the receiver, and AT&T claims the signal “performs well” despite foliage and buildings blocking the line of sight between the antenna and a subscriber’s home.

But AT&T itself must not be totally satisfied with the results, because the company told Ars Technica it has begun testing adaptive beamforming and beam tracking to “enable non-line-of-sight 5G services in our trials.” ‘Enable’ in this context suggests that without these adaptive technology add-ons to overcome foliage and building blockages, 5G service did not work well.

Other blockages, those AT&T cannot outwit with technology, are zoning controversies over small cell antennas and homeowner association agreements that restrict outdoor antennas, even though fixed wireless antennas are protected by a FCC ruling allowing them. Despite the fact these antennas are small and unobtrusive — usually installed on an exterior wall near the roof-line — some requests have created controversy in neighborhoods for aesthetic or dubious health and safety concerns.

Even more controversial are the small cell antennas that must be installed inside neighborhoods within 200-800 feet of customers. Some local authorities and homeowner associations may object less to the antenna than to its power supply and battery backup equipment, usually housed inside large-sized metal cabinets placed nearby on the ground or on the pole itself.

In South Bend, AT&T Fiber is on the way in many parts of the city, offering wired gigabit speed service without the limitations of marginal signal reception or fussy HOA agreements and paranoid neighbors. That fact has not been lost on AT&T’s executive management, who remain uncertain about the business case of offering fixed 5G wireless home broadband in areas that will also be served by AT&T Fiber, the company’s fiber to the home service.

In the case of South Bend, AT&T’s trial is taking place in a relatively dense city neighborhood that would normally be a prime target for AT&T Fiber. The cost to provision fiber to the home service in areas already wired for AT&T Fiber may prove a better value for AT&T than contemplating the cost of installing nearly 60 small cells to serve each square mile of South Bend.

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