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Cable Listens to Wall Street: Standalone Broadband Pricing Heading for $80/Month

Phillip Dampier October 18, 2017 Competition, Consumer News 9 Comments

Cable operators that have watched their stocks get pounded after warning their third quarter earnings would reflect an undeniable trend towards cord-cutting are considering dramatically raising broadband-only pricing to $80 or more to protect profits.

Comcast is among the largest cable companies responding to repeated calls from Wall Street analysts to boost broadband pricing, hiking broadband-only rates to around $65 a month after a customer’s $40 promotional pricing offer expires. Charter Communications also hiked prices earlier this year to $65 a month for its entry-level 60 or 100Mbps package, with further rate increases expected in early 2018. But those incremental rate hikes are not enough to satisfy analysts who fear cable’s video earnings losses are already higher than the revenue gained from charging more for broadband service.

In a note to investors, Morgan Stanley said the cable industry’s efforts to jack up prices for those dropping video service have made some progress, noting most companies raised prices by 12% in 2017, establishing a new beachhead rate of $65 a month — the rate broadband-only customers should now expect to pay.

“As video revenue growth is increasingly pressured, leaning on data pricing is tempting to sustain earnings,” said Benjamin Swinburne, a Morgan Stanley analyst in a report.

But recent rate hikes don’t go far enough for some. Prices must rise at least another $15 a month to satisfy Jeffries analyst Mike McCormack and restore industry profits lost from cord-cutting. McCormack notes customers who have not canceled cable television are being insulated from the most dramatic rate hikes impacting cord-cutters, pointing out the average customer with a bundle of services now pays around $49 a month for broadband service — $16 less.

“Cable companies are likely to raise stand-alone broadband pricing in order to combat the EBITDA declines from downsizing,” said McCormack in a report. “This practice is already evident and justified given the lack of a bundling discount. Based on our analysis, we estimate Comcast would need to raise stand-alone pricing to roughly $80 in order to break even from a profitability perspective.”

Swinburne

Jonathan Chaplin, an analyst for New Street Research who has called on the cable industry to double broadband pricing for more than a year, thinks the marketplace is ripe for sweeping rate increases.

“We have argued that broadband is underpriced, given that pricing has barely increased over the past decade while broadband utility has exploded,” New Street said. “Our analysis suggested a ‘utility-adjusted’ ARPU target of ~$90. Comcast recently increased standalone broadband to $90 (including modem), paving the way for faster ARPU growth as the mix shifts in favor of broadband-only households. Charter will likely follow, once they are through the integration of Time Warner Cable.”

Wall Street analysts typically use code language that avoids portraying the marketplace as a monopoly or barely-competitive duopoly, instead preferring to note there is little risk or headwind to prevent operators from boosting prices or using their large market share to their advantage. Chaplin argues that cable television is no longer to profit center it used to be — broadband is.

“In fact, the [free cash flow] lost from subs dropping pay-TV is generally recovered through higher [broadband] pricing,” said Chaplin.

Many analysts also argue that most of the proceeds collected from charging higher broadband prices should be used to buy back shares of stock or returned to shareholders, not used to upgrade or expand service. In fact, Wall Street is currently punishing Altice USA, sending its initial stock price from $30 a share to just $24.49 this week. One of the reasons for the fall is the money its Cablevision unit is spending to replace its coaxial cable network with fiber optics. AT&T’s stock has also suffered as the company continues to spend money on expanding its AT&T Fiber service while combating cord cutting with its U-verse and DirecTV services.

AT&T Loses 390,000 U-verse, DirecTV Subscribers; Denies Cord-Cutting a Factor

Phillip Dampier October 12, 2017 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 3 Comments

AT&T tried to calm investors Wednesday in an 8-K filing with regulators, reporting that although it has likely lost 390,000 DirecTV satellite and U-verse video customers in the last three months, it has gained 300,000 online streaming customers for its DirecTV Now TV service.

The company is required to report materially adverse changes to its business to shareholders, and AT&T elected not to wait until its next quarterly earnings report to divulge the substantial losses in video customers. DirecTV Now gains are not expected to be a significant panacea for investors because AT&T reportedly makes little or no profit from the service since it launched in late 2016.

AT&T avoided blaming cord-cutting for customer losses:

The video net losses were driven by heightened competition in traditional pay TV markets and over-the-top services, hurricanes and our stricter credit standards. The decline of traditional video subscribers negatively impacts our Entertainment Group revenues and margins, resulting in an adjusted consolidated operating income margin that will be essentially flat versus the year-ago third quarter.

Overall, the company confessed it lost 90,000 total video subscriptions once DirecTV Now’s gains were included.

AT&T told investors earlier this year it was substantially cutting marketing of its U-verse video service and began encouraging customers to subscribe to DirecTV satellite service instead. But the satellite TV service is rapidly losing customers as well. Wall Street analysts suggest the only explanation for this is cord-cutting.

“The issue is in the acceleration in cord-cutting, and the prevalence of [online streaming], not each other,” said Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson. “It is becoming increasingly clear that the wheels are falling off of satellite TV” noting that Dish Networks subscriber numbers appeared dismal as well.

Moffett predicted with the ongoing video losses impacting satellite television, he thought it unthinkable the two satellite companies might consider merging.

T-Mobile/Sprint Merger Approval May Depend on GOP Maintaining Majority in Congress

As the wireless industry awaits an announcement that T-Mobile and Sprint have an agreement to merge, some on Wall Street are skeptical the merger deal will win approval, especially if Republicans lose their majority in the House and Senate in the 2018 mid-term elections.

Matthew Niknam of Deutsche Bank has warned his clients any merger deal not approved by next November is more likely to fall apart if  Democrats take back control of Congress:

“There also may be greater incentive for both sides to evaluate a potential deal sooner rather than later, given the risk that deal approval may slip beyond mid-term elections in late 2018 (with the risk that more populist/less corporate-friendly sentiment may become more pervasive in D.C.) In fact, we note that the Democrats’ ‘Better Deal’ agenda (unveiled in July 2017, targeted towards 2018 elections) highlights ongoing corporate consolidation as a threat to U.S. consumers, and proposes sharper scrutiny of potential deals.”

Nikram writes there has not been a lot of interest by cable operators to acquire Softbank’s Sprint, which has been effectively up for sale or merger for at least a year.

Fierce Wireless notes Cowen & Company Equity Research last month suggested the chance of a merger between T-Mobile and Sprint was now 60-70%, down from 80-90% originally. The reason for the pessimism is their estimate that any deal’s chance of winning approval was only about 50%. The odds get even worse if the Democrats start to check the Trump Administration’s power.

Public policy groups and well-compensated industry opinion leaders are already preparing to wage a PR war over a deal that would reduce America’s major wireless carriers to just three.

Professor Daniel Lyons, well-known for writing pro-industry research reports defending almost anything on their corporate policy wish list, is hinting at a possible strategy by the merging carriers by suggesting neither could survive without a merger.

Most analysts predict that with just three national wireless carriers, the U.S. wireless marketplace would more closely resemble Canada — widely seen as more carrier-friendly and expensive.

Wall Street analysts are debating exactly how many tens of thousands of jobs will be lost in a merger, and the numbers are staggering.

Jonathan Chaplin of New Street Research predicts the merger would cost the country more jobs than now exist at Sprint.

He predicts “approximately 30,000 American jobs” will be permanently lost in a merger. Together the two companies currently employ 78,000 — 28,000 at Sprint and 50,000 at T-Mobile.

Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson Research was more conservative, predicting 20,000 job losses would come from a merger. But the impact would not be limited to just direct hire employees.

“We conservatively estimate that a total of 3,000 of Sprint and T-Mobile’s branded stores (or branded-equivalent stores) would eventually close,” Moffett’s report said.

Golden parachutes will make some executives at Sprint and T-Mobile very wealthy if a merger succeeds.

Many T-Mobile and Sprint stores are located in malls and retail “power centers” where maintaining both stores would be unnecessary. Also hard hit would be wireless tower owners and those employed to care for them. Most believe Sprint’s CDMA wireless network would eventually be decommissioned in a merger, and many of its cell sites would be mothballed. Sprint’s biggest asset is its currently unused trove of high frequency wireless spectrum it could use to deploy future 5G services, but those services would likely be provided from small cells mounted on utility poles and street lights.

The biggest winners in any deal will likely be top executives at Softbank, Sprint, and T-Mobile, Wall Street banks providing deal advisory services and financing, and shareholders, who can expect higher earnings from a less competitive marketplace. Fierce competition from T-Mobile and Sprint were both directly implicated for threatening revenues for all four wireless companies, who have had to respond to aggressive promotions by cutting prices and offering more services for less money.

The Trump Administration’s choices of Ajit Pai for Chairman of the FCC and Makan Delrahim as United States Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department are both widely seen as signals the White House is not going to crack down on competition-threatening merger deals. Mr. Pai has recently improved the foundation for a T-Mobile/Sprint merger by declaring the wireless industry to be suitably competitive, something required before seriously contemplating reducing the number of competitors.

Eight Democrats sent a letter to the FCC chairman last week calling on both the FCC and the Justice Department to begin an investigation into the possible merger as soon as possible, citing possible antitrust concerns.

The text of the letter:

Dear Chairman Pai and Assistant Attorney General Delrahim:

We write to ask you to begin investigating the impact of a merger between T-Mobile International and Sprint Corporation. According to Pew Research, over three-quarters of Americans now own smartphones, driven by a 12 percent increase in smartphone ownership among adults over age 65 and a 12 percent increase in smartphone ownership in households earning less than $30,000 a year since 2015. Today, smartphones are not really just phones at all. For many, they are the primary connection to the internet. An anticompetitive acquisition would increase prices, burdening American consumers, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet, or forcing them to forego their internet connection altogether. Neither outcome is acceptable.

We believe that an investigation is appropriate for three reasons. First, aggressive antitrust enforcement benefits consumers and competition in the wireless market. Second, a combination of T-Mobile and Sprint would raise significant antitrust issues and could dramatically harm consumers. Third, although a deal has not been announced, the two parties have made repeated attempts to merge, and current reports suggest they are close to an agreement. Your agencies should be in a position to fully – but expeditiously – investigate and analyze this deal should it occur.

Competition among wireless carriers has lowered prices, increased quality, and driven innovation

Consumers have benefited from competition among the four national carriers, and we have effective antitrust enforcement to thank for that competition. In the summer of 2011, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division filed suit to block AT&T’s proposed acquisition of T-Mobile despite claims that T-Mobile was a weak competitor and, without the deal, remaining options “won’t be pretty.”  The FCC likewise outlined its opposition to the deal that fall. The deal collapsed, but T-Mobile did not. It competed. It spent billions improving its network, and it offered better terms; for example, it eliminated two-year contracts and data overages. It enticed customers to switch providers by paying their termination fees. And, its competitors had to respond in kind. As William Baer, former head of DOJ’s Antitrust Division, has explained, consumers have enjoyed “much more favorable competitive conditions” since that transaction was blocked.  In May 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that cellphone plan prices were down 12.9 percent since April 2016, the largest decline in 16 years, and attributed the drop to “intense competition” among the top cell service providers: Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T.  Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, specifically suggested that it was caused by the “price war that has broken out among cell-phone service providers, with all the big providers now offering unlimited data plans at cheaper rates.”

Further, the fact that T-Mobile and Sprint appear to be each other’s primary competitor raises additional concerns about this potential horizontal merger. That direct competition has particularly benefited lower-income families and communities of color, many of whom rely on mobile broadband as their primary or only internet connection.  Sprint and T-Mobile have offered products and service options that are more appealing to lower-income consumers. For example, T-Mobile was the first major carrier to offer a no contract plan,  and both Sprint and T-Mobile have been leaders in offering prepaid and no credit check plans, which allow people who may have poor credit to obtain a cell plan and ultimately access the internet.

A combination of T-Mobile and Sprint would raise significant antitrust concerns

Not surprisingly, when T-Mobile and Sprint first discussed a merger in 2014, both of your predecessors expressed skepticism. William Baer stated that “[I]t’s going to be hard for someone to make a persuasive case that reducing four firms to three is actually going to improve competition for the benefit of American consumers.”  Similarly, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler simply explained, “[f]our national wireless providers are good for American consumers.”

What is surprising, however, is that a few years later the two companies have revived their merger talks. Whether one looks at cellphone competition as a national market or as numerous local markets, T-Mobile’s acquisition of Sprint would very likely be presumptively anticompetitive. We are concerned that this consolidation would increase prices, reduce incentives to offer new plans, and allow the remaining carriers to curtail their investment in their networks. Further, given both companies’ focus on competing for lower-income customers, the combination of Sprint and T-Mobile could disproportionately harm those consumers. In addition to potentially raising retail prices, the remaining carriers are also likely to increase prices to companies like Straight Talk, which buys bulk access to one or more of the four national carriers and advertises almost exclusively to lower-income communities.

T-Mobile and Sprint will no doubt claim that the merger will leave sufficient competition, increase cost savings, and spur investment. The agencies will need to examine these issues in depth and make the ultimate determination as to whether the effect of such a deal would be to undermine or promote competition. The very complexity of the issues only further justifies the need for the agencies to begin examining the markets and investigating the competitive dynamics sooner rather than later.

Initiating an investigation is appropriate

Although the antitrust agencies often wait for an official filing before opening an investigation, nothing requires this delay. For example, in May, the Antitrust Division announced an investigation of the possible acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times by the owner of the Chicago Tribune.  The two companies in question here have had a longstanding interest in combining, and, according to reports, an agreement between Sprint and T-Mobile may be weeks away.

Beginning an investigation into a merger of T-Mobile and Sprint now will allow your agencies to quickly, but fully, review the agreement if it is announced. Indeed, multiple news sources are reporting that the two parties are close to a deal in principle. The likelihood of the transaction occurring combined with the serious issues that it raises provide compelling reason for DOJ and the Federal Communication Commission to begin investigating the potential transaction.

For the reasons stated above, we urge you to begin to examine this potential transaction now. Competition among four major cell phone carriers has benefited consumers with lower prices, better service, and more innovation. We are concerned that consolidation will thwart those goals. Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)
Al Franken (D-Minn.)
Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)
Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)
Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)
Ed Markey (D-Mass.)
Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)

The End of Google Fiber Expansion: Where Did It All Go Wrong?

Alphabet, the parent company of Google Fiber, has lost interest in expanding its fiber to the home service and is showing signs of pulling the plug on its cable television alternative while it drags its feet on keeping promised rollout commitments.

The first sign of trouble for the upstart fiber network came as early as 2015, when without warning Google co-founder Larry Page suddenly unveiled Alphabet, a new holding company that would be at the heart of Google and its many ventures, including Google Fiber. The concept was tailor-made to please Wall Street and investors, because it would better expose which Google projects were earning money and which were hemorrhaging cash with no sign of profitability. But an equally important event occurred in May with the hiring of Ruth Porat, who would become Alphabet’s chief financial officer.

Known inside by some at Google as “Ruthless Ruth,” Porat is Wall Street’s definition of a proper executive that keeps shareholder interests first in mind. Porat lead Morgan Stanley’s technology banking division at the heart of the first dot.com boom in the late 1990s, served as an adviser to the Treasury Department on the taxpayer bailouts of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and was chief financial officer at Morgan Stanley by 2010. Her mission at Google: put an end to expensive innovation for innovation’s sake. If a project did not show signs of making money for shareholders, it would face intense scrutiny under her watch.

“She’s a hatchet man,” a former senior Alphabet executive frankly told Bloomberg News.

Porat

Her key priorities are “discipline” and “focus,” something Google never had to be concerned with while earning truckloads of ad-click cash. Google’s reputation for cool innovation and free services earned the company a lot of goodwill with the public, but that left money on the table for investors who want the company to step up shareholder value. Google’s founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page had enjoyed a long run innovating and announcing new projects, including scanning every printed book on the planet, giving away e-mail and office apps, and laying fiber optic cables to deliver the kind of internet service big phone and cable companies were not delivering. The company also acquired other innovators, including Nest Labs — which made connected thermostats and Webpass, which provides wireless high-speed internet access.

But for all of its success, Google also had several high-profile failures that cost billions, setting the stage for future project accountability.

One of the biggest failures was its Google Glass wearable tech project. The first edition, dubbed Explorer, was a flop and received terrible reviews. But the device also clashed with a country increasingly preoccupied with personal privacy. Not everyone appreciated Google Glass’ always-watching camera pointing in their direction, and some wearing the device were derided as “glassholes.”

“I was a Google Glass Explorer, and the experience was horrible from the start. Google Glass now sits in my office museum of failed products,” said Tim Bajarin, President of Creative Strategies Inc. in this post at re/code. “The UI was terrible, the connection unreliable and the info it delivered had little use to me. It was the worst $1,500 I have ever spent in my life. On the other hand, as a researcher, it was a great tool to help me understand what not to do when creating a product for the consumer.”

Google Glass: a major misstep

Google’s other experiments weren’t exactly pulling in a lot of money either. The company’s vision of driver-less cars met the reality of real world driving conditions (some accidents were the result) and traffic planning and safety regulators were cautious about giving a green light to the concept on American streets and highways. A long-time favorite project of Brin and Page, Project Loon — sending 100,000 balloons, blimps, and/or drones into the sky to deliver internet access is still seen by conventional wisdom as weird. These and other experimental projects lost $3.6 billion of Google’s revenue in 2016, almost twice as much as they lost the company in 2014.

After “Ruthless Ruth” entered the picture, as Bloomberg News documented, it appeared the open door to the experiment lab was closed and an exodus of project leaders and engineers began:

Six months after Teller’s rousing speech, Loon’s Mike Cassidy stepped down as project leader. Around the same time, Urmson, the self-driving car engineer, left Alphabet, as did David Vos, the head of X’s drone effort, Project Wing. Vos’s top deputy, Sean Mullaney, left the company as well. Other recent departures: Craig Barratt, chief executive officer of Access, its telecom division; Bill Maris, the CEO of its venture capital arm, GV; and Tony Fadell, the CEO of smart-thermostat company Nest, who was also working on a reboot of Google Glass. That project, now called Aura, also lost its leads of user design and engineering.

Barratt: The former head of Google Access.

The bean counters also arrived at Google Access — the division responsible for Google Fiber — and by October 2016, Google simultaneously announced it was putting a hold on further expansion of Google Fiber and its CEO, Craig Barratt, was leaving the company. About 10% of employees in the division involuntarily left with him. Insufficiently satisfied with those cutbacks, additional measures were announced in April 2017 including the departure of Milo Medin, a vice president at Google Access and Dennis Kish, a wireless infrastructure veteran who was president of Google Fiber. Nearly 600 Google Access employees were also reassigned to other divisions. Medin was a Google Fiber evangelist in Washington, and often spoke about the impact Google’s fiber project would have on broadband competition and the digital economy.

Porat’s philosophy had a sweeping impact on Alphabet and its various divisions. The most visionary/experimental projects that were originally green-lit with no expectation of making money for a decade or more now required a plan to prove profitability in five years or less. Wall Street was delighted and Alphabet’s stock was up 35% since “Ruthless Ruth” arrived, winning praise for remaking Alphabet/Google into a conventional American corporation using familiar corporate principles.

But Alphabet’s transition seems to break a promise Google co-founders Brin and Page made when Google became a public company in 2004.

“We do not intend to become one.”

Both men promised Google would never focus on short-term profitability and would encourage employees to devote 20% of their working hours on exactly the kinds of innovative projects and product developments Porat was intent on cutting or killing. Porat even has a willing army of helpers — executives were paid bonuses to kill their projects before expenses got out of hand. This helped halt development of Tableau, a project to create enormous size TV screens originally championed by Brin.

Porat also had a major hand in slashing the budget at Google’s Nest Labs division. Google spent $3.2 billion acquiring the home thermostat and smoke alarm company in 2014. Nest CEO Tony Fadell came along as part of the deal and was initially considered a major asset, having been the former Apple engineer who built the original iPod prototype. But Fadell clashed with Google’s culture and reports surfaced he was a tyrannical boss comparable to Steve Jobs at his nastiest. Google executives expected more products out of the Nest division, and didn’t get them. Fadell blamed employees and ruthless budget cuts that broke Google’s commitment to allow Nest to lose up to $500 million annually for the first five years under Google’s ownership. Even when Nest managed to generated $340 million in revenue in 2015, Porat wasn’t pleased. The higher-ups expected more considering the amount of money Google spent buying Nest Labs.

Google Fiber was launched knowing it would take billions of dollars and years to pay off for Google. Laying fiber optic cable is expensive, time-consuming, and frequently bureaucratic. Google projects that still have support from Brin and Page are usually protected from Porat’s red pencil, but if either’s optimism waivers, Porat is likely to start cutting.

By the time Barratt tried to jump-start excitement for the slowly progressing fiber service by announcing a series of new launch cities, Page appeared to have lost interest. Former employees say Page became frustrated with Google Fiber’s lack of progress.

“Larry just thought it wasn’t game-changing enough,” says a former Page adviser. “There’s no flying-saucer shit in laying fiber.”

Charter Communications took out newspaper ads trumpeting Google’s abandonment of some of its potential fiber customers in Kansas City.

Left unprotected, Porat’s budget cutters invaded and further fiber expansion has been suspended, except in areas where Google was already committed to provide the service. But the cutbacks have been so significant, cities are now complaining Google is dragging its feet on its commitments.

In Kansas City — the first to get Google Fiber, the network remains incomplete. In March 2017, Google signaled it was likely to remain incomplete indefinitely after returning hundreds of $10 deposits — many paid years earlier — to residents who were informed Google Fiber would no longer expand into their neighborhoods. In the last two years, Google has become very conservative about the neighborhoods where it will expand service. In most cases, the company now targets multi-dwelling units like condos and apartments, which are cheaper to serve than single family homes.

In late September, Atlanta noticed Google Fiber was stalled in the city and nearby Sandy Springs and Brookhaven. A clear sign Google had effectively suspended construction was a sudden end to construction permit applications around six months ago. Google Fiber denies it is pulling out, but city officials notice work progress has slowed to a crawl.

“Google Fiber is currently available in over 100 residential buildings in the metro Atlanta area and in several neighborhoods in the center of the city. We’re working hard to connect as many people as possible, and encourage people to sign up for updates on our website,” a Google Fiber spokesperson said.

There have been similar problems with Google Fiber expansion in several Texas cities. Some neighborhood residents complained about shoddy installation work because of poor quality third-party contractors, and expansion has slowed down markedly in many areas.

Ironically, AT&T may have been responsible for helping kill Page’s enthusiasm for Google Fiber, serving as a regular obstacle to Google Fiber’s expansion in states like Tennessee where it has been delayed by bureaucratic pole attachment disputes, some resulting in legal action. For Ma Bell and its progeny, a five-year delay is nothing for a company that has been around since the early 1900s and took decades to build out its original telephone network.

Google Fiber Huts – Nashville, Tenn.

Utilities employ a small army of workers that do nothing but deal in a world of tariffs, permit applications, and various filings to regulatory bodies that still govern parts of their operations. For a dot.com company in a hurry, filing permit applications, negotiating pole attachment agreements, hiring subcontractors that can meet regulated specifications, and dealing with incomplete or inaccurate infrastructure maps could be hell on earth. But for phone and cable companies, it is just another day on the job, and their “concern trolling” over the danger of allowing a neophyte like Google to mess with existing electric, phone, and cable wiring to make room for fiber did give some local officials pause.

Page’s hurry to accomplish his fiber dreams were effectively dashed by AT&T’s very close relationship with local officials and its ability to generate a mountain of regulatory and legal paperwork. As a result, Google admitted with great frustration that in Nashville, after months of work, it had only upgraded 33 telephone poles out of 88,000 in the city. The delay also took its toll on a Nashville-based subcontractor helping to build out Google Fiber in the city. Phoenix of Tennessee declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September with liabilities between $1-10 million. It also laid off 70 employees. The reason? Google Fiber is stalled in the city.

One Alphabet employee mischaracterized the end effect of the dispute in comments to the Wall Street Journal last year, “Everyone who has done fiber to the home has given up because it costs way too much money and takes way too much time.”

Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Project summarized the situation more succinctly for Gizmodo: “the new guy gets screwed.

Yet it would be more accurate to say companies with short attention spans and an evolving commitment away from innovation and towards Wall Street and its fixation on short-term results will have more difficulty than other companies and communities that have successfully built fiber networks with a patient focus on the future.

Porat has been defending Alphabet’s increasingly conservative spending plans and pull-backs.

“As we reach for moonshots,” she told investors on a financial results conference call, “it’s inevitable that there will be course corrections along the way.” She called some of the shifting priorities and cutbacks “taking a pause” in some areas of business to “lay the foundation for a stronger future.”

For Google Fiber, that is coming in a number of different directions.

The company this week announced it is pulling back on offering cable television service in its new markets, including Louisville, Ky., and San Antonio, Tex., and is raising rates $20-30 a month for bundled customers in areas where television service is still being sold.

“The cost of providing TV programming continues to rise,” the company said in an email notifying customers of the rate increase. The price change will hit existing customers paying $130 a month for Fiber 1000Mbps service + TV. Current customers will pay $150 a month going forward. New customers will pay $10 more for the bundle – $160 a month.

“We’re not afraid to try new things as part of our normal way of doing business, focused on the end goal of getting superfast internet into people’s homes,” wrote head of sales and marketing for Google Access Cathy Fogler in a blog post.

Google Fiber has been a minor player in the cable television business, according to analysts, attracting around 54,000 customers nationwide as of December — only 24,000 more than it had in 2014.

As for the future, with Porat in charge of finances, it is likely Google will downscale expectations and rely on its acquisition of Webpass for future expansion, providing high-speed wireless internet to multi-dwelling apartments, condos, and businesses in dense urban areas. That eliminates costly fiber expansion to individual homes or businesses and is much less expensive to install and maintain.

Any plans for a major Google Fiber push in the future seems unlikely, considering Wall Street’s demands for Return On Investment are not easily tempered. That leaves independent local overbuilders with established ties to their communities the most likely to pick up where Google Fiber has left off. But even those are in short supply. Like any major project of this scope, the best option for getting fiber optics in your community, assuming the local cable or phone company isn’t doing it already, is to treat it as a public infrastructure project like water, sewer, roads or sidewalks.

Most cities were all too happy to compete for Google’s attention (and infrastructure investment). But now that is no longer likely, and many communities will have to decide for themselves which side of the digital divide they want to live in — the side without 21st century broadband or the side that has elected to control their own broadband future and not wait for someone else to get the job done.

Internet’s Biggest Frauds: Traffic Tsunamis and Usage-Based Pricing

Providers’ tall tales.

Year after year, equipment manufacturers and internet service providers trot out predictions of a storm surge of internet traffic threatening to overwhelm the internet as we know it. But growing evidence suggests such scare stories are more about lining the pockets of those predicting traffic tsunamis and the providers that use them to justify raising your internet bill.

This month, Cisco — one of the country’s largest internet equipment suppliers, released its latest predictions of astounding internet traffic growth. The company is so confident its annual predictions of traffic deluges are real it branded a term it likes to use to describe it: The Zettabyte Era. (A zettabyte, for those who don’t know, is one sextillion bytes, or perhaps more comfortably expressed as one trillion gigabytes.)

Cisco’s business thrives on scaring network engineers with predictions that customers will overwhelm their broadband networks unless they upgrade their equipment now, as in ‘right now!‘ In turn, the broadband industry’s bean counters find predictions of traffic explosions useful to justify revenue enhancers like usage caps, usage-based billing, and constant rate increases.

“As we make these and other investments, we periodically need to adjust prices due to increases [in] business costs,” wrote Comcast executive Sharon Powell in a letter defending a broad rate increase imposed on customers in Philadelphia late last year.

In 2015, as that cable company was expanding its usage caps to more markets, spokesman Charlie Douglas tried to justify the usage caps claiming, “When you have 10 percent of the customers consuming 50 percent of the network bandwidth, it’s only fair that those consumers should pay more.”

When Cisco released its 2017 predictions of internet traffic growth, once again it suggests a lot more data will need to be accommodated across America’s broadband and wireless networks. But broadband expert Dave Burstein has a good memory based on his long involvement in the industry and the data he saw from Cisco actually deflates internet traffic panic, and more importantly provider arguments for higher cost, usage-capped internet access.

“Peak Internet growth may have been a couple of years ago,” wrote Burstein. “For more than a decade, internet traffic went up ~40% every year. Cisco’s VNI, the most accurate numbers available, sees growth this year down to 27% on landlines and falling to 15-20% many places over the next few years. Mobile growth is staying higher — 40-50% worldwide. Fortunately, mobile technology is moving even faster. With today’s level of [provider investments], LTE networks can increase capacity 10x to 15x.”

According to Burstein, Cisco’s estimates for mobile traffic in the U.S. and Canada in 2020 is 4,525 petabytes and in 2021 is 5,883 petabytes. That’s a 30% growth rate. Total consumer traffic in the U.S. and Canada Cisco sees as 48,224 petabytes and 56,470 petabytes in 2021. That’s a 17% growth rate, which is much lower on wired networks.

Burstein’s findings are in agreement with those of Professor Andrew Odlyzko, who has debunked “exaflood/data tsunami” scare stories for over a decade.

“[The] growth rate has been decreasing for almost two decades,” Odlyzko wrote in a 2016 paper published in IPSI BgD Transactions. “Even the growth rate in wireless data, which was extremely high in the last few years, shows clear signs of a decline. There is still rapid growth, but it is simply not at the rates observed earlier, or hoped for by many promoters of new technologies and business methods.”

Burstein

The growth slowdown, according to Odlyzko, actually began all the way back in 1997, providing the first warning the dot.com bubble of the time was preparing to burst. He argued the data models used by equipment manufacturers and the broadband industry to measure growth have been flawed for a long time.

When new internet trends became popular, assumptions were made about what impact they would have, but few models accurately predicted whether those trends would remain a major factor for internet traffic over the long-term.

Peer-to-peer file sharing, one of the first technologies Comcast attempted to use as a justification for its original 250GB usage cap, is now considered almost a footnote among the applications having a current profound impact on internet traffic. Video game play, also occasionally mentioned as a justification for usage caps or network management like speed throttling, was hardly ever a major factor for traffic slowdowns, and most games today exchange player actions using the smallest amount of traffic possible to ensure games are fast and responsive. In fact, the most impact video games have on the internet is the size of downloads required to acquire and update them.

Odlyzko also debunked alarmist predictions of traffic overloads coming from the two newest and largest traffic contributors of the period 2001-2010 — cloud backups and online video.

Odlyzko

“Actual traffic trends falsified this conjecture, as the first decade of the 21st century witnessed a substantial [traffic growth rate] slowdown,” said Odlyzko. “The frequent predictions about ‘exafloods’ overwhelming the networks that were frequent a decade ago have simply not come to pass. At the 20 to 30% per year growth rates that are observed today in industrialized countries, technology is advancing faster than demand, so there is no need for increasing the volume of investments, or for the fine-grained traffic control schemes that are beloved by industry managers as well as researchers.”

That’s a hard pill to swallow for companies that manufacture equipment designed to “manage,” throttle, cap, and charge customers based on their overusage of the internet. It also gives fits to industry executives, lobbyists, and the well paid public policy researchers that produce on spec studies and reports attempting to justify such schemes. But the numbers don’t lie, even if the industry does.

Although a lot of growth measured these days comes from wireless networks, they are not immune to growth slowdowns either. The arrival of the smartphone was hailed by wireless companies and Wall Street as a rocket engine to propel wireless revenue sky high. Company presidents even based part of their business plans on revenue earned from monetizing data usage allegedly to pay for spectrum acquisitions and upgrades.

McAdam

Verizon’s CEO Lowell McAdam told investors as late as a year ago “unlimited data” could never work on Verizon Wireless again.

“With unlimited, it’s the physics that breaks it,” he said. “If you allow unlimited usage, you just run out of gas.”

The laws of physics must have changed this year when Verizon reintroduced unlimited data for its wireless customers.

John Wells, then vice president of public affairs for CTIA, the wireless industry’s top lobbying group, argued back in 2010 AT&T’s decision to establish pricing tiers was a legitimate way for carriers to manage the ‘explosive growth in data usage.’ Wells complained the FCC was taking too long to free up critically needed wireless spectrum, so they needed “other tools” to manage their networks.

“This is one of the measures that carriers are considering to make sure everyone has a fair and equal experience,” Walls said, forgetting to mention the wireless industry was cashing in on wireless data revenue, which increased from $8.5 billion annually in 2005 to $41.5 billion in 2009, and Wall Street was demanding more.

“There were again many cries about unsustainable trends, and demands for more spectrum (even though the most ambitious conceivable re-allocation of spectrum would have at most doubled the cellular bands, which would have accommodated only a year of the projected 100+% annual growth),” Odlyzko noted.

What the industry and Wall Street did not fully account for is that their economic models and pricing had the effect of modifying consumer behavior and changed internet traffic growth rates. Odlyzko cites the end of unlimited data plans and the introduction of “tight data caps” as an obvious factor in slowing down wireless traffic growth.

“But there were probably other significant ones,” Odlyzko wrote. “For example, mobile devices have to cope not just with limited transmission capacity, but also with small screens, battery
limits, and the like. This may have led to changes of behavior not just of users, but also of app developers. They likely have been working on services that can function well with modest
bandwidth.”

“U.S. wireless data traffic, which more than doubled from 2012 to 2013, increased just 26% from 2013 to 2014,” Odylzko reported. “This was a surprise to many observers, especially since there is still more than 10 times as much wireline Internet traffic than wireless Internet traffic.”

Many believe that was around the same time smartphones achieved peak penetration in the marketplace. Virtually everyone who wanted a smartphone had one by 2014, and as a result of fewer first-time users on their networks, data traffic growth slowed. At the same time, some Wall Street analysts also began to worry the companies were reaching peak revenue per user, meaning there was nothing significant to sell wireless customers that they didn’t already have. At that point, future revenue growth would come primarily from rate increases and poaching customers from competitors. Or, as some providers hoped, further monetizing data usage.

The Net Neutrality debate has kept most companies from “innovating” with internet traffic “fast lanes” and other monetization schemes out of fear of stoking political blowback. Wireless companies could make significant revenue trying to sell customers performance boosters like higher priority access on a cell tower or avoiding a speed throttle that compromised video quality. But until providers have a better idea whether the current administration’s efforts to neuter Net Neutrality are going to be successful, some have satisfied themselves with zero rating schemes and bundling that offer customers content without a data caps or usage billing or access to discounted packages of TV services like DirecTV Now.

Verizon is also betting its millions that “content is king” and the next generation of revenue enhancers will come from owning and distributing exclusive video content it can offer its customers.

Odlyzko believes providers are continuing the mistake of stubbornly insisting on acquiring or at least charging content providers for streaming content across their networks. That debate began more than a decade ago when then SBC/AT&T CEO Edward Whitacre Jr. insisted content companies like Netflix were not going to use AT&T’s “pipes for free.”

“Much of the current preoccupation of telecom service providers with content can be explained away as following historical precedents, succumbing to the glamour of ‘content,'” Odlyzko wrote. “But there is likely another pressing reason that applies today. With connection speeds growing, and the ability to charge according to the value of traffic being constrained either directly by laws and regulations, or the fear of such, the industry is in a desperate search for ways not to be a ‘dumb pipe.'”

AT&T and Verizon: The Doublemint Twins of Wireless

A number of Wall Street analysts also fear common carrier telecom companies are a revenue growth ‘dead-end,’ offering up a commodity service about as exciting as electricity. Customers given a choice between AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile need something to differentiate one network from the other. Verizon Wireless claims it has a best in class LTE network with solid rural coverage. AT&T offers bundling opportunities with its home broadband and DirecTV satellite service. Sprint is opting to be the low price leader, and T-Mobile keeps its customers with a network that outperforms expectations and pitches constant promotions and giveaways to customers that crave constant gratification and change.

The theory goes that acquiring video content will drive data usage revenue, further differentiate providers, and keep customers from switching to a competitor. But Odylzko predicts these acquisitions and offerings will ultimately fail to make much difference.

“Dumb pipes’ [are] precisely what society needs,” Odylzko claims and in his view it is the telecom industry alone that has the “non-trivial skills” required to provide ubiquitous reliable broadband. The industry also ignores the utility-like built-in advantage it has owning pre-existing wireline and wireless networks. The amortized costs of network infrastructure often built decades ago offers natural protection from marketplace disruptors that likely lack the fortitude to spend billions of dollars required to invade markets with newly constructed networks of their own.

Odylzko is also critical of the industry’s ongoing failure of imagination.

Stop the Cap! calls that the industry’s “broadband scarcity” business model. It is predicated on the idea that broadband is a limited resource that must be carefully managed and, in some cases, metered. Companies like Cox and Comcast now usage-cap their customers and deter them from exceeding their allowance with overlimit penalties. AT&T subjectively usage caps their customers as well, but strictly enforces caps only for its legacy DSL customers. Charter Communications sells Spectrum customers on the idea of a one-size fits all, faster broadband option, but then strongly repels those looking to upgrade to even faster speeds with an indefensible $200 upgrade fee.

Rationing Your Internet Experience?

“The fixation with video means the telecom industry is concentrating too much on limiting user traffic,” Odlyzko writes. “In many ways, the danger for the industry, especially in the wireline arena, is from too little traffic, not too much. The many debates as to whether users really need 100Mbps connections, much less 1Gbps ones, reveal lack of appreciation that burst capability is the main function of modern telecom, serving human impatience. Although pre-recorded video dominates in the volume of traffic, the future of the Net is likely to be bursts of traffic coming from cascades of interactions between computers reacting to human demands.”

Burstein agrees.

“The problem for most large carriers is that they can’t sell the capacity they have, not that they can’t keep up,” he writes. “The current surge in 5G millimeter wave [talk] is not because the technology will be required to meet demand. Rather, it is inspired by costs coming down so fast the 5G networks will be a cheaper way to deliver the bits. In addition, Verizon sees a large opportunity to replace cable and other landlines.”

On the subject of cost and broadband economics, Burstein sees almost nothing to justify broadband rate hikes or traffic management measures like usage caps or speed throttling.

“Bandwidth cost per month per subscriber will continue flat to down,” Burstein notes. “For large carriers, that’s been about $1/month [per customer] since ~2003. Moore’s Law has been reducing equipment costs at a similar rate.”

“Cisco notes people are watching more TV over the net in evening prime time, so demand in those hours is going up somewhat faster than the daily average,” he adds. “This could be costly – networks have to be sized for highest demand – but is somewhat offset by the growth of content delivery networks (CDN), like Akamai and Netflix. (Google, YouTube, and increasingly Microsoft and Facebook have built their own.) CDNs eliminate the carrier cost of transit and backhaul. They deliver the bits to the appropriate segment of the carrier network, reducing network costs.”

Both experts agree there is no evidence of any internet traffic jams and routine upgrades as a normal course of doing business remain appropriate, and do not justify some of the price and policy changes wired and wireless providers are seeking.

But Wall Street doesn’t agree and analysts like New Street Research’s Jonathan Chaplin believe broadband prices should rise because with a lack of competition, nothing stops cable companies from collecting more money from subscribers. He isn’t concerned with network traffic growth, just revenue growth.

“As the primary source of value to households shifts increasingly from pay-TV to broadband, we would expect the cable companies to reflect more of the annual rate increases they push through on their bundles to be reflected in broadband than in the past,” Chaplin wrote investors. Comcast apparently was listening, because Chaplin noticed it priced standalone broadband at a premium $85 for its flagship product, which is $20 more than Comcast’s non-promotional rate for customers choosing a TV-internet bundle.

“Our analysis suggests that broadband as a product is underpriced,” Chaplin wrote. “Our work suggests that cable companies have room to take up broadband pricing significantly and we believe regulators should not oppose the re-pricing. 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.”

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