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Fine Print Fun: Sprint Backs Off From Throttling All Wireless Video Traffic to 600kbps

sprint all inSprint’s all-new “All-In” wireless plan was supposed to simplify wireless pricing for consumers by bundling a leased phone, unlimited voice, data, and texting for a flat $80 a month, but customers slogging through the fine print discovered speed throttling and roaming punishments were silent passengers along for the ride:

To improve data experience for the majority of users, throughput may be limited, varied or reduced on the network. Streaming video speeds will be limited to 600Kbps at all times, which may impact quality. Sprint may terminate service if off-network roaming usage in a month exceeds: (1) 800 min. or a majority of min.; or (2) 100MB or a majority of KB. Prohibited network use rules apply—see sprint.com/termsandconditions.

Although many smaller wireless carriers also have limits on off-network roaming usage, none have proposed to permanently throttle web videos to a frustratingly slow 600kbps. At those speeds, Sprint customers could expect buffering delays or degraded HD video.

Many customers contemplating switching to the All-In plan considered the speed throttle a deal-breaker and let Sprint know through its social media accounts. Even websites friendly to Sprint were very critical of the plan:

Sprint 4G Rollout Updates:

We just aren’t seeing the new and innovative thing with All In. You already have plans that price out the same way as All In (some even less expensive). It appears as a marketing gimmick that is disguising a desperate move to limit streaming. This is not popular with your current customers and your new customers are likely going to hate you for it. After they find out.
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Marcelo, it’s really bad that David Beckham touts unlimited movie watching and you reference unlimited watching videos in your Press Release. 600kbps video streaming can hardly run any YouTube or Netflix streaming. It will buffer significantly even with the lowest resolution settings. 600kbps is insufficient for most moderate quality video streaming on a smartphone screen.

Claure

Claure

Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure got the message and announced late yesterday the video speed throttle was gone, but general network management would remain.

“At Sprint, we strive to provide customers a great experience when using our network,” said Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure. “We heard you loud and clear, and we are removing the 600 kbps limitation on streaming video. During certain times, like other wireless carriers, we might have to manage the network in order to reduce congestion and provide a better customer experience for the majority of our customers.”

Claure has been hinting the days of unlimited data from Sprint may be coming to an end sometime in the near future. Sprint is among the last carriers that offer a truly unlimited experience, and some customers have used Sprint as a home broadband replacement and have created congestion issues as they consume hundreds of gigabytes of wireless data, which can slow Sprint’s network to a crawl in some areas. T-Mobile experienced similar issues and recently updated their terms and conditions to apply a speed throttle after 21GB of usage during a billing cycle.

Unlimited 4G LTE customers who use more than 21 GB of data in a bill cycle will have their data usage de-prioritized compared to other customers for that bill cycle at locations and times when competing network demands occur, resulting in relatively slower speeds. See t-mobile.com/OpenInternet for details.

Customers report in high volume areas speeds drop well below 1Mbps if they are temporarily sentenced to “speed jail.”

Many of those attempting to use a wireless carrier as their primary home broadband connection do not do so because of convenience or selfishness. Often, they have no other choice because they are bypassed by cable operators and not served by DSL. But it does not take too many customers to start creating problems for wireless carriers if a nearby cell tower becomes congested. Online video is probably the most bandwidth intensive application for wireless companies, especially HD video streaming. The growth of video traffic also raises questions about whether AT&T and Verizon’s efforts to move rural customers to an all-wireless phone and data platform will work well for the companies or customers.

Premium Hulu Customers Can Buy Showtime at a Discount: $8.99/Month

Phillip Dampier June 24, 2015 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video, Video 1 Comment

showtimeCustomers paying $7.99 a month for what used to be called Hulu Plus will be able to add Showtime to their Hulu subscription for an extra $8.99 a month — two dollars less than what Showtime will charge Apple TV and other online video customers.

Showtime Networks’ online streaming service will launch in early July for $10.99 a month, $4 less than HBO Now, which charges $14.99. But Hulu customers will get an extra 18 percent discount if they bundle Showtime with Hulu’s premium option.

huluTM_355Hulu customers who subscribe to Showtime will have access to every Showtime original series ever produced along with Showtime’s full catalog of the same movies, documentaries, specials and sports programming available to cable television customers. Hulu will also carry the east and west coast feeds of Showtime’s primary channel for those who want to watch live events.

The partnership is designed to strengthen Hulu’s competitive position against Netflix and Amazon’s video services.

Showtime CEO Matt Blank doubts Showtime’s online streaming service will cannibalize its existing subscriber base, although most satellite and cable providers charge at least $5 more per month for the premium movie channel ($13.99-16.99 through most cable/telco/satellite providers).

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Showtime CEO Broadband-Only Customers Are an Opportunity 6-4-15.flv

Showtime CEO Matt Blank explains to Bloomberg News why selling Showtime online for $10.99 a month ($8.99 for premium Hulu customers) will not hurt existing distributors like cable and satellite providers. (4:22)

Sling TV CEO Fears Providers Will Jack Up Broadband Prices to Kill Online Video

DishLogo-RedIn the last three years, several Wall Street analysts have called on cable and telephone companies to raise the price of broadband service to make up for declining profits selling cable TV. As shareholders pressure executives to keep profits high and costs low, dramatic price changes may be coming for broadband and television service that will boost profits and likely eliminate one of their biggest potential competitors — Sling TV.

For more than 20 years, the most expensive part of the cable package has been television service. Cable One CEO Thomas Might acknowledged that in 2005, despite growing revenue from broadband, cable television still provided most the profits. That year, 64% of Cable One’s profits came from video. Three years from now, only 30% will come from selling cable TV.

While broadband prices remained generally stable from the late 1990’s into the early 2000’s, cable companies were still raising cable television prices once, sometimes twice annually to support very healthy profit margins on a service found in most American homes no matter its cost. Despite customer complaints about rate hikes, as long as they stayed connected, few providers cared to listen. With little competition, pricing power was tightly held in the industry’s hands. The only significant challenge to that power came from programmers demanding (and consistently winning) a bigger share of cable’s profit pie.

The retransmission consent wars had begun. Local broadcast stations, popular cable networks, and even the major networks all had hands out for increased subscriber fees.

Rogers

Rogers

In the past, cable companies simply passed those costs along, blaming “increased programming costs” in rate hike notifications without mentioning the amount was also designed to keep their healthy margins intact. Only the arrival of The Great Recession changed that. New housing numbers headed downwards as children delayed leaving to rent their own apartment or buy a house. Many income-challenged families decided their budgets no longer allowed for the luxury of cable television and TV service was dropped. Even companies that managed to hang on to subscribers recognized there was now a limit on the amount customers would tolerate and the pace of cable TV rate hikes has slowed.

For a company like Cable One, the impact of de facto profit-sharing on cable television service was easy to see. Ten years ago, only about $30 of a $70 video subscription was handed over to programmers. This year, a record $45.85 of each $81 cable TV subscription is paid to programmers. The $35.50 or so remaining does not count as profit. Cable One reported only $10.61 was left after indirect costs per customer were managed, and after paying for system upgrades and other expenses, it got to keep just $0.96 a month in profit.

To combat the attack on the traditional video subscription model, Cable One raised prices in lesser amounts and began playing hardball with programmers. It permanently dropped Viacom-owned cable networks to show programmers it meant business. Subscribers were livid. More than 103,000 of Cable One’s customers across the country canceled TV service, leaving the cable company with just over 421,000 video customers nationwide.

Some on Wall Street believe conducting a war to preserve video profits need not be fought.

Prices already rising even before "re-pricing" broadband.

U.S. broadband providers already deliver some of the world’s most expensive Internet access.

Analysts told cable companies that the era of fat profits selling bloated TV packages is over, but the days of selling overpriced broadband service to customers that will not cancel regardless of the price are just beginning.

Cablevision CEO James Dolan admitted the real money was already in broadband, telling investors Cablevision’s broadband profit margins now exceed its video margins by at least seven to one.

The time to raise broadband prices even higher has apparently arrived.

new street research“Our work suggests that cable companies have room to take up broadband pricing significantly and we believe regulators should not oppose the re-pricing (it is good for competition & investment),” wrote New Street Research’s Jonathan Chaplin in a recent note to investors. The Wall Street firm sells its advice to telecom companies. “The companies will undoubtedly have to take pay-TV pricing down to help ‘fund’ the price increase for broadband, but this is a good thing for the business. Post re-pricing, [online video] competition would cease to be a threat and the companies would grow revenue and free cash flow at a far faster rate than they would otherwise.”

If you are already a triple play cable television, broadband, and phone customer, you may not notice much change if this comes to pass, at least not at first. To combat cord-cutting and other threats to video revenue, some advisers are calling on cable companies like Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter to re-price the components of their package. Under one scenario, the cost of cable television would be cut up to $30 a month while the price of Internet access would increase by $30 or more a month above current prices. Only customers who subscribe to one service or the other, but not both, would see a major change. A cable TV-only subscriber would happily welcome a $50 monthly bill. A broadband-only customer charged $80, 90, or even 100 for basic broadband service would not.

broadband pricesNeither would Sling CEO Roger Lynch, who has a package of 23 cable channels to sell broadband-only customers for $20 a month.

“They have their dominant — in many cases monopolies — in their market for broadband, especially high-speed broadband,” Sling CEO Roger Lynch told Business Insider in an interview, adding that some cable companies already make it cheaper for people to subscribe to TV and broadband from a cable company than just subscribe to broadband.

A typical Sling customers would be confronted with paying up to $100 a month just for broadband service before paying Sling its $20 a month. Coincidentally, that customer’s broadband provider is likely already selling cable TV and will target promotions at Sling’s customers offering ten times the number of channels for as little as a few dollars more a month on top of what they currently pay for Internet access.

Such a pricing change would damage, if not destroy, Sling TV’s business model. Lynch is convinced providers are seriously contemplating it to use “their dominant position to try to thwart over the top services.”

At least 75% of the country would be held captive by any cable re-pricing tactic, because those Americans have just one choice in providers capable of meeting the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband.

Even more worrying, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler may be responsible for leading the industry to the re-pricing road map by repeatedly reassuring providers the FCC will have nothing to do with price regulation, which opens the door to broadband pricing abuses that cannot be easily countered by market forces.

Lynch has called on the FCC to “protect consumers” and “make sure there’s innovation and competition in video.”

Unfortunately, Wheeler may have something else to prove to his critics who argued Net Neutrality and Title II oversight of broadband would lead to rampant price regulation. Wheeler has hinted repeatedly he is waiting to prove what he says — an allusion to hoping for a formal rate complaint to arrive at the FCC just so he can shoot it down.

Pay Television in Denial: Linear TV is on Life Support; Do You Still Watch Live Television?

Phillip Dampier June 9, 2015 Editorial & Site News, Online Video 5 Comments
acura

Ranger

While fast-forwarding through the 5,000th time I’ve briefly endured the mangling of Blondie’s “Rapture,” in those 2015 Acura RDX ads, I concluded two things:

  • I will never buy an Acura RDX, if only to deliver the message that grating ads first thing in the morning will not win you any sale from me;
  • I have not watched a commercial (on purpose) since 2011.

Ironically, the young woman behind the wheel of the aforementioned Acura is none other than Chelsea Ranger, who became a YouTube sensation after her husband recorded his wife rapping in the car to Salt-n-Pepa’s “None of Your Business,” itself an irony. Ranger’s singing was viewed by 17 million people watching a recorded YouTube video instead of cable television. Like popcorn, nobody quits after just one. YouTube is a confirmed time wormhole, where hours can disappear in what seemed like just a few minutes. This phenomena can also be experienced with Netflix, Amazon, or a myriad of other multimedia websites where on-demand entertainment is always on. How can it be 2am already? Darn, it’s too late to watch Anthony Bourdain and 18 minutes of ads on CNN now.

tv-ad-load-versus-video-ad-load-2014-augustine-fou-1-638Advertisers wondering how many viewers actually spend time watching their commercials are right to be worried. Some have tried to cover their bases by spreading ad budgets around to include online video advertising. But when the online ads become meddlesome (Hulu, anyone?), here comes ad blocking software. No more Geico ads on YouTube, but the experience is less fulfilling watching a blank screen for a few minutes on certain other services. You might actually have to talk to the person sitting next to you.

What cannot be found online can be recorded with a DVR, if only to build up enough buffered video to blow right past those ad breaks. Others collect entire seasons of favorite shows, reserved for binge viewing later. All of this after-the-fact viewing is conditioning you (like a gateway drug) for a future life without linear/live television. You started just to be rid of the advertising, but now you seriously toy with getting rid of cable TV if you can find enough to watch online.

There are exceptions, of course. News and sports junkies are often uncomfortable watching recordings of in-the-moment events. Others cannot imagine losing sports aired on ESPN or CNN for breaking news. But beyond these groups, the chains that hold us to the linear 500-channel pay television universe are rusting.

Phillip "Ad nauseum" Dampier

Phillip “Ad nauseum” Dampier

Getting off the cable television drug is easiest if you never started. That is why Millennials, often cable-nevers, are among the least likely to buy a cable television package. They don’t miss what they never watched, preferring the personalized viewing of their mobile device or tablet over the family television. For those that grew up with the cable box and have never been without it, there was always suspicion that the stories from brave souls who canceled service and never regretted it come from closeted book-reading Luddites.

But consider for a moment you may already be watching less cable television than you think. Spend a week and take note of how much time you spend with the cable box. Then compare it with how many hours you watch Roku, YouTube, Apple TV, Netflix, or any other non-linear television experience. If you can find more to watch on YouTube than on cable, ditching pay TV may not be as hard as you think.

The cable industry’s response to the challenge of online video has been to shoot itself in the foot. Despite the constant complaints that cable programming costs are rising out of control, there is always room for more networks customers did not ask to receive. Navigating cumbersome set-top box software means many customers won’t find those new channels anyway. But they will pay for them.

The higher the price of cable television, the less value many place on it.

People-skipping-the-Preroll-adsCable operator (and network) greed has effectively ruined the industry’s best chance to prove continued value in an increasingly on-demand viewing world. TV Everywhere was supposed to make the 500 channel universe accessible online and on-demand for authenticated paying customers.

Some networks want customers to watch on their websites, others deliver shows on-demand from a set-top box. Instead of envisioning a TV Everywhere model to compete with online video, most cable companies are turning it into the equivalent of a DVR viewing experience with the fast-forward button disabled.

Comcast and Time Warner Cable make enormous amounts of free video available to customers. At the beginning, programmers used an informal honor system. In return for a quick pre-show advertisement and limited commercial interruptions, viewers wouldn’t bother ad-skipping if it meant they could watch a one-hour show in less than 50 minutes. Start inserting five 30 second commercials in every ad break and viewers will start looking for the remote control.

The challenge: should cable companies side with their customers and deliver a compelling TV Everywhere experience or with their bean counters, cramming ads into every available spot. Many are choosing the money. When customers rebelled and began to fast forward through the ads, the cable company retaliated by disabling that option (sometimes, it must be admitted, at the behest of a cable or broadcast network).

But it has gotten worse. For absolutely no reason other than to torture customers, Comcast is notorious for running a very small number of ads aired over and over and over again. Nothing makes television less fun than the same car ad repeated 10-15 times in a single one-hour show. Less is more is not a concept known to the cable industry. As a result, they will now have fewer television customers.

There is nothing about this quest for cash that has not been repeated in other forms of entertainment. Corporate commercial radio with 10 minute ad breaks drove listeners to Sirius XM or MP3 players. Running three minutes of ads to a captive movie theater audience that just paid $10 for a seat will not bring a theater chain any fans. The traditional 30-second ad is increasingly dead in the online world and advertisers and the companies that show them should adopt to the new reality instead of trying to force compliance to the “old ways.”

The cable industry earned its bad reputation by not listening to customers. Now that those customers have a choice to watch something else, the $80 cable TV bill is increasingly expendable as viewers cut the cord and never look back.

Is your linear TV experience not what it used to be? How often are you watching non-news/sports shows live? When the commercials start, do you reflexively reach for the remote control? Are you spending time with cable’s TV Everywhere on demand services? Share your thoughts in the comment section.

Competition Works: América Móvil Plans $50 Billion Fiber to the Home Network in Mexico

infinitum-telmexWith AT&T’s arrival in the Mexican wireless marketplace with its purchase of Iusacell and Nextel, América Móvil is responding with plans to build a new state-of-the-art $50 billion fiber-to-the-home network for Mexican consumers.

According to El Economista, América Móvil has a five-year plan to construct a 311,000 mile fiber network that will offer phone, broadband, and television service. The move comes in response to media reports AT&T is exploring delivering a video package over its acquired wireless networks within the next two years. The network will support broadband speeds that are faster than what most Americans along the border with Mexico can receive from AT&T and CenturyLink’s prevalent DSL services.

In comparison, U.S. phone companies like Verizon have stopped expanding its FiOS fiber to the home network and AT&T largely relies on a less-capable hybrid fiber/copper network for its U-verse service.

Competition in Mexico has forced providers to upgrade their networks to compete for customers while those in the United States tend to match each other’s prices or advocate for industry consolidation to maximize revenue and keep their costs as low as possible.

América Móvil’s broadband service Infinitum Telmex has already attracted 22.3 million broadband customers — a number likely to rise once it can enhance its online video streaming service Clarovideo.

Wireless Bills are Rising: Prices Up More than 50% Since 2007 and Will Head Even Higher When 5G Arrives

Phillip Dampier June 1, 2015 Broadband "Shortage" 1 Comment

attverizonWithout dramatic changes in wireless pricing and more careful usage, owning a smartphone will cost an average of $119 a month per phone by the year 2019.

Ever since the largest players in the wireless industry decided to monetize wireless data usage by ending unlimited use data plans, the average monthly phone bills of smartphone users have been on the increase. In 2013, the average cell phone bill was $76 a month, according to Bureau of Labor statistics. That’s up 50% from the $51 a month customers paid in 2007, the first year the iconic Apple iPhone was offered for sale.

Although wireless companies claim their current 4G (largely LTE) networks are robust enough to sustain the growing demand for wireless data until more spectrum becomes available, the transition to next generation 5G technology will dramatically increase the efficiency of wireless data transmission, delivering up to 40 times the speed of existing 4G networks. But if providers are not willing to slash prices on 5G data plans, average usage and customers’ phone bills are likely to soar to new all-time highs, costing a family of four smartphone owners an average of $476 a month.

A study by Wafa Elmannai and Khaled Elleithy at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Bridgeport found wireless carriers have given up on monetizing voice and texting services, including unlimited minutes and text messages as part of most basic service plans. The real money is made from wireless data plans which traditionally cost customers between $10.79-16.72 per gigabyte, depending on the carrier and whatever fees, surcharges and required add-ons are necessary to get the service.

4g-5gWireless carriers defend their pricing, claiming they have cut prices on certain data plans while granting some customers extra gigabytes of usage at no extra cost. Some evidence shows that carriers have indeed reduced the asking price of delivering a megabyte of data by 50 percent annually. But their costs to deliver that data have dropped even faster, particularly as networks shift traffic away from older 3G networks to 4G technology, which is vastly more efficient than its predecessor.

The end of unlimited data plans by AT&T and Verizon Wireless was key to shifting the industry towards monetizing data usage. The more a customer consumes, the more revenue a carrier earns. But as web pages and applications become more complex and bandwidth intensive, customers will naturally consume more and more data each month, forcing regular usage plan upgrades to avoid confronting overlimit fees. Unless providers pass along more of their savings on traffic costs to consumers, bills will rise.

At current usage estimates from Cisco, the average customer will consume at least 57% more wireless data by 2019 than they do today. To sustain that usage, wireless providers are bidding for additional spectrum rights and are working towards upgrading to next generation 5G technology. But some carriers, including AT&T and Verizon, are also investing in new applications for their networks that include in-car telematics, home security and automation, and online video. Using some of these technologies guarantees an even greater amount of data usage, particularly for online video. Unless customers are careful about their usage and avoid high-bandwidth applications, they are in for a much bigger bill in the future, much to the delight of wireless providers.

While most analysts expect wireless companies will choose to give customers a larger data allowance instead of resorting to fire sale pricing, Elmannai and Elleithy expect that will not be enough to keep cell phone bills stable.

“We will need to reduce the bit rate to (1/1000th) of today’s level in order to receive x1000 of data capacity [at the] same cost [we see today],” the authors conclude. That would mean a low end 1GB data plan on a 4G network would cost just $0.03. Larger allowance plans would cost less than one cent per gigabyte.

The authors of the study expect carriers to price 5G data plans more or less the same as 4G plans, but will probably boost usage allowances to deliver a perception of greater value. But as web applications continue to gravitate towards higher data usage, bills will continue to rise, assuring providers of growing returns even with modest to moderate levels of competition.

At the moment, despite some evidence of price competition, some carriers are still raising prices. Verizon increased the price of its 10GB plan by $20 to $100 a month and T-Mobile raised the price of its unlimited data plan by $10 a month last year.

Time Warner Cable’s CEO Reflects on His Efforts to Transform Company’s Image; Gigabit Speed Arrives by 2017

Marcus

Marcus

Even as some of the largest investment banks on Wall Street are assembling a $24 billion loan package to further Charter Communication’s next effort to acquire Time Warner Cable, CEO Robert Marcus has learned not to take his eyes off the day-to-day business of running the country’s second largest cable operator.

Marcus turned up late last week at Le Parker Meridien in New York to speak at the 2nd Annual MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit, largely an affair putting Wall Street investors together with top cable executives to learn about industry trends.

Immediately peppered with questions about the failed merger between Time Warner and Comcast, Marcus sought to turn the page on the deal that would have handed him an $80 million golden parachute.

“The horse is dead,” Marcus said in response to continued questions about the deal.

But Marcus did say he felt the deal was rejected for reasons that were never explained to him or the industry, which could have an impact on future cable mergers and acquisitions. Regulator-inspired uncertainty could make some companies think twice about pursuing the next big deal, but so far that does not seem to apply to Charter Communications — still hot on the trail for a deal with the much larger Time Warner Cable.

twc maxxMarcus claims he understood Time Warner Cable’s image with customers was a real problem that needed to be addressed immediately after becoming the company’s new CEO in  January 2014.

“The residential business was where the work needed to be done,” said Marcus.

Reliability became the top priority for Marcus’ team.

“It trumped features and functionality,” Marcus said, noting that if its network performed as it should, that would result in fewer calls into its customer care centers and reduced “truck rolls” to customer homes, saving Time Warner Cable time and money and improving its image. Marcus claims those efforts paid off.

“It works, we’re not pixelating, and we don’t have [huge] outages,” Marcus said.

Under Marcus’ leadership, Time Warner has adopted a “non-sexy stuff” approach to the cable business, focusing on making sure its existing products work before jumping into new products. That may explain why Time Warner has traditionally been behind other operators introducing vast broadband speed increases, cloud-based set-top boxes with improved user interfaces, more TV Everywhere contract arrangements allowing Time Warner customers to access online video content from third-party cable network websites, and the largest on-demand video libraries.

Not much is likely to change for the time being. Marcus reiterated his plan for major network upgrades under his Time Warner Cable Maxx program remain on track to reach 75% of Time Warner Cable service areas by the end of 2016.

When Maxx upgrades are complete, customers are transitioned to an all-digital television platform and Standard broadband customers move from 15/1Mbps service to 50/5Mbps at no additional charge. Although the top speed for Time Warner Cable broadband is currently 300/20Mbps in Maxx markets like New York, Los Angeles, Austin and Kansas City, Marcus said he was ready to bring 1Gbps broadband to Time Warner Cable customers sometime in late 2016, after DOCSIS 3.1 equipment becomes available.

“As the market evolves to that place, we’ll make it available,” Marcus said.

Recent movement at the Federal Communications Commission to introduce additional oversight over the cable industry has not made much impact at Time Warner Cable, which plans business as usual.

“I live in a different world than Chairman Wheeler in terms of the competitive dynamic,” Marcus said. “We’re fighting it out everyday in the trenches to gain and keep High Speed Data subscribers. The idea we would pull back and not press any competitive advantages of product enhancements we’re capable of delivering, just feels counter-intuitive and bad business.”

The idea that policy changes in Washington would somehow impact the investment in and introduction of new and better services from Time Warner Cable was ridiculous to Marcus.

“I cannot translate that into holding back the product and I can’t imagine what the policy objective would be that would encourage holding back the product,” Marcus said.

Cable Stock Fluffer Craig Moffett Encourages Cable Operators to Add Usage Caps Before Title II Takes Effect

"More Caps" Moffett

“More Caps” Moffett

If you are a cable executive looking to further gouge customers captive to your “only game in town” broadband speeds, now is the time to slap around customers with usage caps and overlimit fees, because your company may no longer be able to do that after June 12, when the FCC’s new Title II regulations officially take effect.

“If you’re a cable operator, you might want to strike while the iron is hot,” said MoffettNathanson principal and senior analyst Craig Moffett, who has shared his love for all-things-cable with investors for years.

Moffett regularly asks cable industry executives about when they plan to introduce usage limits or usage-based billing for customers who often have no other choice for 25Mbps service, the lowest speed that now qualifies as broadband.

But tricking customers into accepting industry arguments about “fair pricing” must be handled carefully, because making a mistake with customers could cost your executives their summer bonuses if the pocket-picking policies cause a revolt.

Multichannel News reminds its cable industry readers Time Warner Cable failed to start their usage cap experiment in 2009 due to a “furor” by customers (often led by us). Instead of filling their coffers with the proceeds of overlimit fees, “the cable giant [was forced] to rethink its pricing strategy, keeping prices the same for heavy users of bandwidth but offering discounts to customers whose usage was lighter.”

Image: schvdenfreude

Image: schvdenfreude

Unable to get its definition of “fairness” across to customers, Time Warner Cable never had to look back, raking in greater and greater unlimited broadband profits quarter after quarter, even as their costs to deliver service continued to drop.

Faced with the prospect of a newly empowered FCC to keep cable industry abuses in check, Multichannel News tells cable executives the money party may be over before it begins if they wait too long:

Title II regulations, which reclassify broadband as a common- carrier service, are about to take effect June 12, and the Federal Communications Commission has said it would look closely at any usage-based pricing plans to determine if they discriminate against online video providers. That could force some Internet service providers to move to implement their version of usage-based pricing before the deadline.

To “soften the blow,” the trade journal reported Cox significantly increased usage caps and are setting the overlimit fee at $10 for each 50GB of excessive usage, much lower than wireless plan overlimit fees. Multichannel News suggests this will help customers “get accustomed to overage charges.”

But Cox customers in the Cleveland area may be able to turn the table on Cox.

“Let them get accustomed to the fact I am dumping them for WOW! the moment I receive official notification about the caps,” said Stop the Cap! reader Dave, who has a choice between Cox, AT&T, and WOW! — a competing cable operator without usage caps. “AT&T isn’t enforcing its cap around here either, so I am definitely canceling my service and have two other choices. People have to be willing to send a clear message usage caps are an absolute deal-breaker.”

Although usage caps are not affected by Net Neutrality regulations, the fact the cable industry faces added regulator scrutiny under Title II allows the FCC to put an end to practices it considers to be anti-competitive. Introducing usage caps for customers trying to find an alternative to Cox’s cable television package by watching online video instead may qualify.

Cox Cracking Down on Internet Customers With Hard Usage Caps and Overlimit Fees: Let the Gouging Begin!

cox say noCox Communications will begin testing overlimit fees this summer starting in its Cleveland, Ohio service area with plans to introduce hard usage allowances and excess usage violation charges nationwide if customers tolerate the market test in Cleveland.

DSL Reports learned that Cox will formally notify customers beginning May 19 it has increased broadband usage allowances and will introduce an overlimit fee of $10 for each 50GB allotment a customer exceeds their limit starting this fall.

Cox’s marketing machine is attempting to justify its usage based pricing scheme with a pre-written script to appease anticipated customer complaints:

A draft customer support script obtained exclusively by DSLReports states that this lead-in period will “give customers the opportunity to familiarize themselves with their typical data usage and take action, such as secure their WiFi network or change service plans, if they exceed their limit.”

The script also notes that customers will be notified via e-mail and a browser popup when they’ve reached 85% and 100% of their monthly data allotments. Cox services like Cox TV Connect, Cox Digital Telephone and Cox Home Security will not count toward the usage cap, a Cox insider claims.

To make the idea of potential bill shock more palatable to their customer base, Cox generously increased usage allowances last week:

  • Starter: 150 GB/month
  • Essential 250 GB/month
  • Preferred 350 GB/month (the most popular plan)
  • Premier 700 GB/month
  • Ultimate 2 TB/month

Exceed those limits and the company will slap penalty fees on your bill as a matter of “fairness.” Customers will get a preview of any specific overlimit fees they would incur starting in June, but the company will not begin to actually charge them until October.

price-gouging-cake“Data usage plans promote fairness by asking the high-capacity Internet users to pay a greater share of network costs,” argues Cox. “Some critics of data usage plans push a flat fee pricing model, meaning that users would pay a flat fee whether they simply use the Internet to surf the web and check email or if they are a ‘super user’ and consume copious amounts of bandwidth. Data usage plans are a far more fair approach, giving consumers a choice based on their personal needs rather than forcing all customers to absorb the network costs incurred by the 5% of customers who exceed their allowance.”

Stop the Cap! would point out we’ve heard those same talking points since 2009 and they were not credible then and are even less so today.

First, we’d note Cox is attacking the business plans of some of the most successful broadband providers in the United States. Time Warner Cable, Cablevision, Google, and a myriad of other phone and cable operators not only deliver on their commitment to offer unlimited use Internet, they actually market it as a good reason to buy Internet access from them.

Cox’s concerns for fairness might be a bit less hypocritical had Cox not sold customers unlimited use plans for years. Were they being unfair to their customers then, now, or both?

Second, the company’s claimed noble intentions for keeping the cost of broadband down might be more believable if it didn’t charge its base customers a whopping $34.99 a month for “up to 5Mbps” Internet that it now wants to limit. Five years ago it charged customers just $21.99 a month for that service. By 2015, it had raised the price more than 59%.

In comparison, Time Warner Cable charges less than half that for unlimited “$14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet” – a tier that has not increased in price since its introduction. Time Warner has also offered its light users an optional plan to win a discount if they keep their usage down. As a reflection of customer interest in plans that place limits (even optional) on broadband service, out of some 11 million Time Warner Cable customers, only a few thousand have shown any interest in plans that introduce a usage allowance component.

coxThird, Cox’s excuses are very similar to those given by Time Warner Cable when it tried (and failed spectacularly) to impose usage allowances on its broadband customers in 2009. Time Warner officials promised it would represent greater fairness and would help pay for network improvements, while only a small percentage of customers would face higher charges. In fact, none of those claims were true. Customers seeking to keep unlimited access faced a tripling of the cost of broadband, Time Warner Cable only committed to network improvements in their most-populous service areas (which were excluded from the usage cap market trials and had significant competition), and at the usage caps Time Warner proposed in 2009 – 5, 10, 20, and 40GB, more than half of today’s Time Warner customers would be subject to overlimit fees. At the time, Time Warner claimed their proposed usage allowances were generous and fewer than 5% of customers would exceed them. That is eerily familiar to the “5% of customers” Cox refers to today.

The real money is to be made selling broadband, already amazingly profitable.

The real money is to be made selling broadband, already amazingly profitable.

Cox’s need for strict usage allowances comes at a time when other Internet Service Providers in competitive markets are either abandoning or not strictly enforcing them. Alienating customers has proven bad for business, and there is still plenty of money to be made selling unlimited access. Both broadband and telephone service is declining in cost for the operator to offer, particularly when examining bandwidth expenses.

Cox Communications is a privately held company and does not disclose specific financial data to the public, but similarly sized Charter Communications is publicly held and revealed in 2014 it had revenue of $9.1 billion and Adjusted EBITDA of $3.2 billion – each rising 8.2% on a pro forma basis, year over year. In plain English, broadband is already a real moneymaker for the cable industry, with revenue boosts recorded across the board. In comparison, cable television expenses have taken a toll on the profitability of offering television service. Charter is making so much money on broadband it dropped its usage caps recently.

Because the cable industry relies almost exclusively on existing hybrid fiber-coax networks to deliver products and services, the capital costs of providing Internet access have continued to drop for years. The industry’s decision to invest in and adopt DOCSIS 3 was considered a “no brainer” because it did not need major upgrades to network infrastructure and could recoup its cost by allowing companies to market higher-profit, higher-speed tiers.

In contrast, new entrants like Google Fiber are constructing new all-fiber network infrastructure at an enormous cost, but remain comfortable marketing broadband service with no usage allowances. So do many community-owned providers, including EPB in Chattanooga, GreenLight and Fibrant in North Carolina, among many dozens of others. Even Comcast has committed to not imposing usage caps for its premium 2Gbps fiber service, on which residential customers will be capable of racking up enormous amounts of usage.

In short, Cox’s usage cap regime is completely unjustifiable under current marketplace conditions and represents little more than an effort to raise prices and block online video competition, which Cox customers may decide will eat too much into their usage allowance.

Time Warner Cable goes out of its way to advertise "No Data Caps."

Time Warner Cable goes out of its way to advertise “No Data Caps.”

There are a number of questions Cox customers should ask:

  1. Why did nobody ask us whether we thought usage allowances and overlimit fees were fair?
  2. Why not offer optional discounts for low-usage customers and see how many actually enroll in such a program?
  3. Why has Cox removed the option of an unlimited use tier for customers that want unlimited service?
  4. Why won’t Cox commit to a price freeze on its broadband service if usage caps are really about controlling costs?
  5. How is it fair to offer a more generous allowance to a customer sold a higher speed tier that can easily chew through more data than customers on lower speed tiers?
  6. Why do low-speed customers get a smaller usage allowance when they cannot effectively use the highest bandwidth web applications?
  7. Why can’t customers roll unused portions of their usage allowance over to future months?
  8. How many customers, if any, actually asked for this type of pricing?
  9. Why can Google, Time Warner and other operators provide unlimited access for the same or less than Cox charges and your company can’t?

Source: FCC Will Get Serious About Data Caps if Comcast Moves to Impose Them Nationwide

fccA well-placed source in Washington, D.C. with knowledge of the matter tells Stop the Cap! the Federal Communications Commission is prepared to take a hard look at the issue of Internet data caps and usage-based billing if a major cable operator like Comcast imposes usage allowances on its broadband customers nationwide.

Comcast introduced its usage cap market trial in Nashville, Tenn. in 2012 but gradually expanded it to include Huntsville and Mobile, Alabama; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Georgia; Central Kentucky; Maine; Jackson, Mississippi; Knoxville and Memphis, Tennessee; Charleston, South Carolina; and Tucson, Arizona.

“Two and a half-years is exceptionally long for a ‘market trial,’ and we expected Comcast would avoid creating an issue for regulators by drawing attention to the data cap issue during its attempted merger with Time Warner Cable,” said our source. “Now that the merger is off, there is growing expectation Comcast will make a decision about its ‘data usage plans’ soon.”

In most test markets, Comcast is limiting residential customers to 300GB of usage per month, after which an overlimit fee of $10 per 50GB applies. Despite that, Comcast’s forthcoming premium gigabit speed plans are exempt from usage caps, the company announced.

Comcast sustomers in market test cities have not been happy with the usage caps, some confronted with inaccurate usage measurement tools or “bill shock” after claiming to find surprise charges on their cable bill. One federal employee offered his own story of bill shock — $200 in overlimit fees on his April Comcast bill. The customer spent $70 a month on broadcast basic cable television and Comcast Internet service. As an almost cord-cutter, he could instead rely on one of several alternative online video providers like Netflix or Hulu, but watching video that did not come from Comcast’s cable TV package contributed to eating his monthly usage allowance and subjected him to hundreds of dollars in extra fees.

cohen“I’ve reviewed [the] account to see and can confirm the charges are valid,” responded a Comcast representative who defended the company’s usage cap trials. “Please understand that we are not here to take advantage of customers. We are here to provide a great customer service experience.  After researching [the] account, at this time no matter what level of service you obtain, the Internet usage [allowance] will remain the same.”

To date, the Federal Communications Commission has left the issue of data caps and usage-based billing on the back burner, despite a Government Accounting Office report that found little justification for usage limits or compulsory usage allowances on broadband.

In 2012, former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski defended the practice, claiming it would bring lower prices to light users, spur “innovation” and enable consumer choice. But Comcast customers have found little, if any savings from Comcast’s so-called “data usage plans.” The only savings comes from enrollment in Comcast’s Flexible Data Option, which offers a $5 discount if a customer keeps usage under 5GB a month on just one plan — Comcast’s 3Mbps $39.95/mo Economy Plus tier.

“We don’t see much innovation coming from Comcast’s usage limit trials because Internet pricing continues to rise and the plans have the side effect of discouraging customers from using competing video providers, which can consume a lot of a customer’s usage allowance,” our source adds.

You're over our arbitrary usage limit!

You are over our arbitrary usage limit!

As far as enabling consumer choice, Comcast’s own representative put the kibosh on that, unless a customer wants to pay higher Internet bills.

Net Neutrality and issues surrounding Title II have consumed much of the FCC’s attention in the residential broadband business during the first half of the Obama Administration’s second term. Usage billing and data caps are likely to become bigger issues during the second half if there is a decisive move towards compulsory usage limits and consumption billing by large operators.

“An operator the size of Comcast absolutely will draw scrutiny,” said our source. “If Comcast decides to impose its currently tested market trial plans on Comcast customers nationwide, the FCC will take a closer look. Under Title II, the agency is empowered to watch for attempts to circumvent Net Neutrality policies. Usage caps and charging additional fees to customers looking for an alternative to the cable television package will qualify, especially if Comcast continues to try to exempt itself.”

Cable industry officials have also become aware of the buzz surrounding usage caps and growing regulator concern. Some reportedly discussed the possibility of FCC intervention behind closed doors at the recent cable industry conference in Chicago. Multichannel News reported (sub. req.) cable industry executives increasingly fear federal officials will ban usage pricing for wired broadband service on competitive grounds. Online video competitors rely on large cable and phone companies to reach prospective customers, many that may think twice if usage allowances are imposed on consumer broadband accounts.

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