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Canadian Telecom Giants Outwit Would-Be Cord Cutters; Alternatives Also Under Pressure

Canadian cable, phone, and satellite providers have done a better job stymieing would-be “cord-cutters” than their counterparts further south in the United States.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) annual report on the country’s telecom companies shows all of them remain exceptionally profitable, keeping pay TV customers far more effectively than American providers. Total revenues climbed from $12.5 billion to $13.5 billion in just one year, as price hikes, Internet Overcharging schemes like usage-based billing, and lack of competition continue to takes its toll on Canadian wallets.

The biggest winners were the biggest telecom companies in Canada — Rogers Communications, Bell Canada (BCE), and Shaw Communications, which all saw profits soar 8.2% to $11 billion.  Costs increased about 10.7% in 2011, fueled by network upgrades and rampant hikes in programming costs — an interesting state of affairs considering Rogers and Bell own or control a substantial number of the programmers demanding higher payments.  Most of those increases were passed on to customers in the form of rate hikes.

Although Canadians are increasingly interested in streaming online video, virtually every major Internet Service Provider in the country has effectively prevented customers from dropping cable television service in favor of broadband-only access.  They manage it with usage caps and usage billing on their broadband products.  With streamed video accounting for a substantial drain on customers’ monthly usage allowances, Canadians are unlikely to cancel cable TV in favor of watching all of their favorite shows online.

In fact, the number of Canadian households that subscribed to a cable company’s basic television service actually increased by 2.8% in 2011 to reach 8.5 million.  Experts say the country’s transition to digital over the air television may account for some of that increase, but a few high broadband bills with overlimit fees for “excessive Internet use” can effectively drive online video fans back to traditional cable TV as well.

Satellite television in Canada remained flat,  with a virtually unchanged 2.9 million Canadians relying on Bell and Shaw satellite service for television entertainment.

But everyone is paying more to watch.

In 2011, cable companies paid $2.1 billion in wholesale fees to the pay and specialty services they distribute, an increase of 10.2% over the $1.9 billion paid the previous year. The fees paid by satellite companies rose by 2.8% in one year, going from $894.4 million to $919 million.

That leaves vertically and horizontally-integrated conglomerates like Bell in the perfect position to extract higher programming payments.  Those costs are passed down to Canadian consumers and blamed on “greedy programmers,” despite the fact those programmers are owned in part or outright by Bell.

A Rogers retail rental store

Rogers is also well-suited to remain a part of the Canadian entertainment experience.  The company owns cable systems, wireless phone networks, programmers, and even home video stores. However Stop the Cap! reader Alex notes Rogers has been closing a number of those video stores over the past few months.

“This gives customers one less choice for renting movies, basically forcing them to use Rogers On Demand instead,” writes Alex.

Rogers On Demand comes with a higher price, too.  In-store rentals from Rogers are priced at 2 for $9 or 3 for $15.  A recent look at Rogers’ video on demand website, Rogers Anyplace TV, shows most movie titles priced at $4.99 each.  With Rogers closing 40 percent of their retail rental outlets, movie fans have had fewer competitive choices for movie rentals.

One potential new contender coming to Canada – kiosk video rentals.  Although services like Redbox are now commonplace in the States, they are virtually unknown in the north.  Jim Gormley, former owner of Jumbo Video is back with Planet DVD.  With just 2% of Canadians renting movies from kiosks, Gormley believes there is plenty of room to grow, especially as Rogers scales back its video rental business.

Planet DVD has a pilot project running with supermarket chain Sobeys to place kiosks in front of nine store locations.  The first kiosk was erected in early March in front of a Sobeys store in Mississauga, Ont.

A new release at a Planet DVD kiosk is priced at $3 for a one-day rental.  That’s less than what most video stores charge, but more than double what Americans pay at a Redbox kiosk.

Comcast Changes Language Over Xbox-Usage Cap Spat: Same Story, Different Words

Comcast has changed its explanation why the company’s XFINITY TV service, streamed over Xbox 360 has been made exempt from the company’s 250GB usage cap.

Last week, the company claimed the service traveled over the company’s “private IP” network, exempting it from usage restrictions.  That created a small furor among public interest groups and Net Neutrality supporters because of the apparent discrimination against streamed video content not partnered with the country’s biggest cable operator.

Stop the Cap! argued what we’ve always argued — usage caps and speed throttles are simply an end run around Net Neutrality — getting one-up on your competition without appearing to openly discriminate.

Now Comcast hopes to make its own end run around the topic by changing the language in its FAQ:

Before:

After:

Although the words have changed, the story stays the same.

The key principle to remember:

Data = Data

Comcast suggests its Xbox XFINITY TV service turns your game console into a set top box, receiving the same type of video stream its conventional cable boxes receive.  The cable company is attempting to conflate traditional video one would watch from an on-demand movie channel as equivalent to XFINITY TV over the Xbox.  Since the video is stored on Comcast’s own IP network, the company originally argued, it creates less of a strain on Comcast’s cable system.

AT&T's U-verse is an example of an IP-based distribution network.

But the cable industry’s inevitable march to IP-based delivery of all of their content may also bring a convenient excuse to proclaim that data does not always equal data.  They have the phone companies to thank for it.

Take AT&T’s U-verse or Bell’s Fibe.  Both use a more advanced form of DSL to deliver a single digital data pipeline to their respective customers.  Although both companies try to make these “advanced networks” sound sexy, in fact they are both just dumb data pipes, divided into segments to support different services.  The largest segment of that pipe is reserved for video cable TV channels, which take up the most bandwidth. A smaller slice is reserved for broadband, and a much smaller segment is set aside for telephone service.

AT&T and Bell’s pipes don’t know the difference between video, audio, or web content because they are all digital data delivered to customers on an IP-based network.  Yet both AT&T and Bell only slap usage caps on their broadband service, claiming it somehow eases congestion, even though video content always uses the most bandwidth. (They have not yet figured out a way to limit your television viewing to “maintain a good experience for all of their customers,” but we wouldn’t put it past them to try one day.)

What last mile congestion problem?

Comcast’s argument for usage limiting one type of data while exempting other data falls into the same logical black hole.  Comcast’s basic argument for usage caps has always been it protects a shared network experience for customers.  Since cable broadband resources are shared within a neighborhood, the company argues, it must impose limits on “heavy users” who might slow down service for others.

We've heard this all before. Former AT&T CEO Dan Somers: "AT&T didn’t spend $56 billion to get into the cable business to have the blood sucked out of (its) veins."

But in a world where DOCSIS 3 technology and a march to digital video distribution is well underway or near completion at many of the nation’s cable operators, the “last mile” bandwidth shortage problem of the early 2000s has largely disappeared.  In fact, Comcast itself recognized that, throwing the usage door wide open distributing bandwidth heavy XFINITY TV over the Xbox console cap-free.

As broadband advocates and industry insiders continue the debate about whether this constitutes a Net Neutrality violation or not, a greater truth should be considered.  Stop the Cap! believes providers have more than one way to exercise their control over broadband.

Naked discrimination against web content from the competition is a messy, ham-handed way to deal with pesky competitors.  Putting up a content wall around Netflix or Amazon is a concept easy to grasp (and get upset about), even by those who may not understand all of the issues.

Internet Overcharging schemes like usage caps and speed throttles can win providers the same level of control without the political backlash.  Careful modification of consumer behavior can draw customers to company-owned or partnered content without using a heavy hammer.

Simply slap a usage limit on customers, but exempt partnered content from the limit.  Now customers have a choice: use up their precious usage allowance with Netflix or watch some of the same content on the cable company’s own unlimited-use service.

Nobody is “blocking” Netflix, but the end result will likely be the same:

  • Comcast wins all the advantages for itself and its “preferred partners”;
  • Customers find themselves avoiding the competition to save their usage allowance;
  • Competitors struggle selling to consumers squeezed by inflexible usage caps.

It is all a matter of control, and that is nothing new for large telecom companies.

Back in 1999, AT&T Broadband owned a substantial amount of what is today Comcast Cable.  Then-CEO Dan Somers made it clear AT&T’s investment would be protected.

“AT&T didn’t spend $56 billion to get into the cable business to have the blood sucked out of [its] veins,” Somers said, referring to streamed video.

Obviously Comcast agrees.

Samsung Negotiating for Higher Data Caps Bundled With New TV Purchases

Phillip Dampier March 28, 2012 Internet Overcharging, Online Video, Wireless Broadband Comments Off

Samsung has a problem selling Internet-enabled televisions in South Africa because of the pervasive impact of Internet Overcharging schemes like data caps and metered billing.  Now the company is taking its case directly to telecommunications providers, negotiating larger usage allowances for customers who buy new Samsung “Smart TVs.”

Samsung South Africa says streamed video-on-demand is impossible in the country with current data caps, often as low as 2GB per month, and even lower on wireless.

“If you download one movie on [wireless], your data is gone in one movie,” Matthew Thackrah, business leader of consumer electronics at Samsung South Africa told MyBroadband. “If you then go over your data cap and you download a few movies, you don’t know what bill you’re going to get – but it’s going to be expensive.”

Thackrah said the average high quality streamed movie consumes around 1.6GB, far too much for heavily-capped broadband in countries like South Africa.

Samsung is now approaching providers about bundling special, larger data allowances for customers buying their televisions.  Instead of 2-5GB per month, customers would get 20-30GB per month — still small by comparison to North America, Europe, and Asia, but perhaps tolerable in southern Africa.

Samsung is reportedly negotiating with wireless providers Vodacom and MTN, and Telkom (the former state-owned phone company) to offer the enhanced data packages.

So far, Samsung has been successful with Telkom, according to a press release sent last week:

This partnership will see Samsung and Telkom cooperate in the marketing of Samsung Smart TVs and fixed-line broadband solutions as bundled packages, thereby ensuring that consumers have access to affordable broadband while enabling Smart viewing experiences through Samsung’s latest Smart TV line-up.

Bell Lights Up Fiber to the Home in Quebec City, Suburbs

Bell Canada Enterprises, Inc. announced Monday it extended its Fibe Internet and television service to most parts of Quebec City.

Unlike in most other Fibe-enabled Canadian cities, Bell’s network in Quebec City offers true fiber to the home service, not a combination of fiber to the neighborhood/copper wire.  That means increased broadband speeds — downloads up to 175Mbps and uploads of up to 30Mbps.  Quebec City was selected for true fiber service because of of the predominance of overhead aerial wiring, which is much easier and cheaper to replace with fiber than underground wiring.  For other major Canadian cities like Montreal and Toronto, Bell has made do with a lesser network that combines fiber and existing copper phone wiring that offers lower capacity for broadband and video services.

Bell says Fibe is now open for business in the region’s boroughs of Quebec, Beauport, Sillery, Ste-Foy, Cap-Rouge, Charlesbourg, L’Ancienne-Lorette, Loretteville, Sainte-Therese-de-Lisieux and Montmorency.  Service for Levis is expected shortly.

The company says it intends to reserve additional fiber to the home service primarily for multi-dwelling units and new housing developments in Ontario and Quebec, primarily between Windsor in the west and Quebec City in the east.

The company’s aggressive deployment of fiber is an effort to stem landline losses in eastern Canada.  Between cell phone providers and cable companies like Rogers, Cogeco, and Quebecor’s Vidéotron Ltee., Canadians have been hanging up permanently on Bell landlines at an alarming rate for the company.

Dvai Ghose, analyst at Canaccord Genuity told his clients, “Bell is now reporting amongst the worst residential line losses in North America.”  In the last quarter alone, 90,000 Bell customers said goodbye, perhaps permanently.

Bell has lost more than 1.2 million customers in the last two years.  Even Fibe may not be enough to stem the losses.  Canadians are not excited by the company’s video or broadband services, adding only around 27,000 new customers in the last quarter.  Bell’s notorious love of Internet Overcharging schemes like usage caps may be partly responsible.  The company enjoys a poor reputation among Internet enthusiasts for its wholehearted support for usage-limiting Canada’s online experience.

Financial analysts believe aggressive deployment of Fibe may be critical to the company’s long term survival.  Not only must Bell compete with a trend towards wireless phones, it has cable competitors selling triple play packages of phone, Internet and television service at prices that are frequently lower than what Bell charges.

Fibe is expected to be expanded to include the entire island of Montreal and some of the surrounding region by the end of 2012.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bell Entertainment Fibre Internet and TV in Canada.flv

An extended length introductory commercial for Bell Canada’s Fibe TV and Internet.  (6 minutes)

Netflix: “Cost of Providing 1GB of Data is Less Than One Cent, and Falling”

Netflix continues to step up its attacks on providers who implement Internet Overcharging schemes on their wired broadband customers.

That concern is understandable as Netflix increasingly transitions to broadband streaming instead of mailing DVD’s to customers.

Getting in the way are five of the nation’s seven largest broadband providers, all imposing limits on customers just as they discover they might be able to do without cable television.

Netflix’s streamed HD shows now consume around 2GB per hour, according to Netflix general counsel David Hyman.  That can eat through usage allowances quickly.  Hyman penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last year blasting the practices of usage caps and consumption billing.

Hyman

“Wireline bandwidth is an almost unlimited resource due to advances in Internet architecture,” Hyman wrote. “The marginal cost of providing an extra gigabyte of data—enough to deliver one episode of 30 Rock from Netflix—is less than one cent, and falling.”

That doesn’t seem to matter much to Comcast, CenturyLink, Charter Communications, and Cox.  All four providers have introduced hard usage limits on customers — a usage cap.  Exceeding it gives any of those providers the right to cut off your broadband service.  AT&T, always one to see a financial angle, charges for excess use of their DSL and U-verse service — $10 for every 50GB. Time Warner Cable recently announced its own experimental “optional” usage pricing package for very light users who consume fewer than 5GB per month.  It will slap overlimit fees on those participating customers who break through the 5GB ceiling at a rate of $1/GB, an enormous markup.

Providers with strict caps usually argue they come as a result of their own network’s capacity problems.  Cable operators who do not consistently manage their network traffic can experience traffic clogs by overselling service without upgrading capacity to sustain user demand.  But providers like Comcast, Cox, and Charter resolved those capacity problems with upgrades to DOCSIS 3 technology, which offer operators an exponentially bigger pipeline for Internet traffic.

Although Comcast promised to regularly review and adjust usage caps since implementing them four years ago, the nation’s largest cable operator has thus far seen no need to raise them.

“We feel that that is an extraordinarily large amount of data,” says Comcast’s Charlie Davis. “That limit is there to make sure we provide a great online experience for every single paying customer.”

Wall Street bankers have closely monitored the industry’s early results from Internet Overcharging, and have been encouraged, so long as operators implement it carefully.

Credit Suisse in a 2011 report to its investor clients suggested the key for successful usage-based pricing is to introduce it slowly and keep “sticker shock to a minimum in the early days” to reduce backlash by consumers and lawmakers.

Once established, the sky is the limit.

Netflix itself is also battling an Internet Overcharging scheme it faces — double-dipping by cable operators like Comcast.  In addition to the fees Comcast collects from customers for its broadband service, the cable operator also wants to be paid directly by Netflix to allow the movie service’s traffic on its network.

That’s an Internet toll booth, charges Netflix and consumer groups.  It’s also uncompetitive, says Hyman.

This month Comcast unveiled its own movie and TV show streaming service — Xfinity Streampix — from which, unsurprisingly, the cable company has not sought extra traffic payments from itself.

Opposed to Internet Overcharging

Three providers which don’t cap customers don’t see a reason to try.

Verizon Communications says its fiber network FiOS has plenty of capacity and has no plans to restrict customers’ enjoyment of the service.  In 2009, Cablevision’s Jim Blackley told one panel discussion usage caps are not in the cards.

“We don’t want customers to think about byte caps so that’s not on our horizon,” Blackley said. “We literally don’t want consumers to think about how they’re consuming high-speed services. It’s a pretty powerful drug and we want people to use more and more of it.”

California’s Sonic.net Inc., goes even further.  Its CEO, Dane Jasper, believes the Federal Communications Commission needs to be more assertive about protecting America’s broadband revolution and the customers that depend on the service.

The fact different operators can take radically different positions on the subject, despite running similar networks, suggests technical necessity is not the reason providers are implementing usage restrictions and extra fees on customers.

As Hyman writes:

Bandwidth caps with fees piled on top are a lousy way to manage traffic. All of the costs of supplying residential broadband are for supporting peak usage. Bandwidth consumed off-peak is completely free. If Internet service providers really wanted to manage traffic efficiently, they would limit speeds at peak times. If their goal is instead to increase revenues or lessen competition, getting consumers to pay per gigabyte is an excellent strategy.

Consumer access to unlimited bandwidth is good for society. It fosters innovation, drives commerce, and advances political and social discourse. Given that bandwidth is cheap and plentiful and will only grow more so with time, there is no good reason for bandwidth caps and fees to take root.

Consumers and regulators need to take heed of what is happening and avoid winding up like the proverbial frog in a pot of boiling water. It’s time to jump before it’s too late.

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