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AT&T Out of In-Flight 4G LTE Air-to-Ground Wireless Data Business; Will Focus on Overseas Acquisitions

Phillip Dampier November 10, 2014 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Wireless Broadband No Comments

att_logoAT&T has decided it is too risky to get into the in-flight connectivity business and has pulled the plug on a plan to launch 4G LTE air-to-ground wireless data service in the United States.

“As AT&T explores opportunities for future growth and diversification, expanding our international presence has remained an area of interest,” an AT&T spokesperson told Runway Girl Network, an air transport intelligence news service. “On Friday we announced our intent to acquire Mexico wireless company Iusacell. After a thorough review of our investment portfolio, the company decided to no longer pursue entry into the Inflight Connectivity industry.  We are focusing our capital on transformative investments, such as international and video.”

The sudden cancellation of the project came as a surprise, because AT&T had been planning an extensive network that would offer Wi-Fi to in-flight passengers and was discussing partnerships with vendors and airlines in late September.

AT&T bought Iusacell instead, for $2.5 billion. The Mexican cell carrier serves 8.6 million subscribers across 70% of Mexico. AT&T could eventually rebrand the venture as “AT&T” and market it as America’s first “North American Mobile Service,” covering over 400 million consumers and businesses in Mexico and the United States without roaming charges for AT&T customers who often travel to Mexico.

Iusacell’s network is fully compatible with AT&T’s GSM network, but lacks 4G LTE data service.

FCC Delays Wireless Spectrum Auction; Hires Investment Banker to Pitch Stations to Sell and Sign-Off

fcc2The Federal Communications Commission announced Friday it will postpone an important spectrum auction until 2016 after broadcasters filed suit against the regulator challenging its proposed format.

The FCC wants your free, over-the-air television dial to be a lot smaller with a deal that will pay broadcasters to sign-off their channels for good to benefit the wireless industry. Remaining stations will be moved to VHF channels 2-13 and UHF channels 14-30. The spectrum covering UHF channels 31-51 would likely then be sold in pieces to major wireless carriers including AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and/or T-Mobile.

To entice broadcasters to voluntarily switch off their transmitters, the FCC has designed a spectrum auction that would provide tens of millions in proceeds to smaller stations and up to $570 million for a UHF station in Los Angeles to get off the air. Technically, stations giving up their channels don’t have to sign-off — they can move to low/lower-powered broadcasting, share channel space with another television station on a digital subchannel, or move to cable television exclusively.

To sell stations on the deal, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler hired Greenhill, a Wall Street investment bank, to prepare a presentation sent to every eligible television station in the country, encouraging them to sell their channels for some eye-popping proceeds:

(These numbers refer to full-power stations; in some markets there are also Class A stations, low-power stations that meet certain programming requirements. The estimated value of their spectrum is lower.)

In millions of dollars
MARKET Full-Power Stations
Maximum Median
New York $490 $410
Los Angeles $570 $340
Chicago $130 $120
Philadelphia $400 $230
Dallas-Fort Worth $67 $53
San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose $140 $110
Boston $140 $93
Washington, D.C. $140 $130
Atlanta $91 $65
Houston $52 $45
West Palm Beach $100 $93
Providence, R.I. $160 $110
Flint, Mich. $100 $45
Burlington, Vt. $58 $17
Youngstown, Ohio $95 $90
Palm Springs, Calif. $180 $100
Wilkes-Barre-Scranton $150 $140

Source: The FCC

 

getoffThere is so much money to be made buying and selling the public airwaves — at least twice as much as broadcasters originally anticipated– spectrum speculators have also jumped on board, snapping up low power television station construction permits and existing stations with hopes of selling them off the air in return for millions in compensation. Wireless customers are effectively footing the bill for the auction as wireless companies bid for the additional spectrum. Television stations will receive 85% of the proceeds, the FCC will keep 15%.

take the moneyMajor network-affiliated or owned stations in major cities are unlikely to take the deal. But in medium and smaller-sized markets where conglomerates own and operate most television stations, there is a greater chance some will be closed down, moved to a lower channel, or transferred to a digital sub-channel of a co-owned-and-operated station in the same city. The most  likely targets for shutdown will be independent, CW and MyNetworkTV affiliates. In smaller cities, multiple network affiliates owned by one company could be combined, relinquishing one or more channels in return for tens of millions in cash compensation.

In Los Angeles, the stakes are especially high with auction prices estimated at up to $570 million for a high-powered UHF station like KDOC-TV.

“There is some real money to be had,” Bert Ellis, chief executive of Ellis Communications, which owns KDOC-TV, told the Wall Street Journal. “I think every broadcaster should take a very close look at this.”

Estimates show at least 80 significant U.S. cities will likely lose one or more channels, especially when the bid price well exceeds the value of an independent, ethnic or religious station. Many of these will go dark, move to cable or a less desirable lower power VHF channel, or sign an agreement with a remaining station to carry its programming on a sub-channel.

The National Association of Broadcasters filed suit against the FCC’s auction in August. The NAB wants the FCC to guarantee that stations that wish to stay on the air will not have their coverage area reduced or forced to pay to move to a new channel number assigned by the FCC as the regulator “repacks” a much smaller UHF band.

“We’ve said from day one, if stations want to volunteer to go out of business, that’s their prerogative. But for those stations that choose to remain in business, they should be held harmless,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

The spectrum auction is designed to address the wireless industry’s claim of a spectrum crisis, warning that if more frequencies are not found, wireless users will eventually see their service degraded.

Verizon Wireless Cancels Its LTE 4G “Network Optimization” (Speed Throttling) Plan Before It Launches

throttleVerizon Wireless, facing scrutiny from FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, today announced it has canceled plans to introduce a new “network optimization” policy that would have significantly throttled down speeds for heavy users still on grandfathered, unlimited use data plans.

Stop the Cap! received a statement from Verizon Wireless this afternoon announcing a sudden change of heart:

Verizon is committed to providing its customers with an unparalleled mobile network experience.  At a time of ever-increasing mobile broadband data usage, we not only take pride in the way we manage our network resources, but also take seriously our responsibility to deliver exceptional mobile service to every customer.  We’ve greatly valued the ongoing dialogue over the past several months concerning network optimization and we’ve decided not to move forward with the planned implementation of network optimization for 4G LTE customers on unlimited plans.  Exceptional network service will always be our priority and we remain committed to working closely with industry stakeholders to manage broadband issues so that American consumers get the world-class mobile service they expect and value.

Chairman Wheeler questioned Verizon’s strategy almost immediately after the company announced its “network optimization” strategy in July.

Wheeler

Wheeler

“‘Reasonable network management’ concerns the technical management of your network; it is not a loophole designed to enhance your revenue streams,” Wheeler wrote in a July 30 letter to Verizon Wireless CEO Dan Mead. “It is disturbing to me that Verizon Wireless would base its ‘network management’ on distinctions among its customers’ data plans, rather than on network architecture or technology.”

Wheeler reminded Mead the FCC defined network management practices to be reasonable “if it is appropriate and tailored to achieving a legitimate network management purpose, taking into account the particular network architecture and technology of the broadband Internet access service.”

Wheeler told Mead Verizon’s plans didn’t qualify.

“I know of no past FCC statement that would treat as ‘reasonable network management’ a decision to slow traffic to a user who has paid, after all, for ‘unlimited” service,'” Wheeler wrote.

everybody does itWheeler also questioned how Verizon could justify its planned speed throttling under the conditions it agreed to after winning the 700MHz “C Block.” That spectrum was accompanied by a special FCC mandate – open platform rules which prohibits Verizon Wireless from denying, limiting, or restricting the ability of end users to download and use applications of their choosing on the C Block networks. A speed throttle would make using some applications impossible.

In August, Wheeler hammered home his opposition to Verizon’s plans at a news conference.

“My concern in this instance–and it’s not just with Verizon, by the way, we’ve written to all the carriers–is that [network management] is moving from a technology and engineering issue to a business issue, such as choosing between different subscribers based on your economic relationship with them.”

Wheeler has expressed irritation that Verizon’s justification for congestion management only applied to its unlimited customers, while those paying on a per-gigabyte basis could use (and spend) as much as they like.

Verizon responded that other providers — notably AT&T — already have a similar network management policy in place, throttling speeds of grandfathered unlimited customers who consume more than 3GB of wireless traffic on its 3G network or 5GB on its 4G network a month.

“‘All the kids do it’ was never something that worked with me when I was growing up and didn’t work with my kids,” Wheeler responded, noting Verizon was trying to reframe the issue instead of justifying the need for speed throttles for some customers, while giving others unlimited access as long as they pay.

Kentucky Wakes Up: AT&T Dereg Bills Will Not Bring Better Broadband, Will Make Rural Service Worse

luckykyQuestion: How will ripping out landline infrastructure in Kentucky help improve broadband service for rural areas?

Answer: It won’t.

This is not for a lack of trying though. AT&T has returned to the Kentucky state legislature year after year with a company-written bill loaded with more ornaments than a Christmas tree. In the guise of “modernizing” telecom regulation, AT&T wants to abolish most of it, replaced by a laissez-faire marketplace for telecommunications services not seen in the United States since the 1910s. AT&T claims robust competition will do a better job of keeping providers in check than a century of oversight by state officials. But customers in rural Kentucky have a better chance of sighting Bigfoot than finding a competitive alternative to AT&T’s telephone and DSL service. AT&T retains a monopoly in broadband across much of the state where cable operators like Time Warner don’t tread.

This year, Senate Bill 99, dubbed “The AT&T Bill” received overwhelming support from the Kentucky Senate as well as in the House Economic Development Committee. AT&T made sure the state’s most prominent politicians were well-compensated with generous campaign contributions, which helped move the bill along.

Since 2011, AT&T’s political-action committee has given about $55,000 to state election campaigns in Kentucky, including $5,000 to the Senate Republican majority’s chief fundraising committee and $5,000 more to the House Democratic majority’s chief fundraising committee. The company spent $108,846 last year on its 22 Frankfort lobbyists.

That generosity no doubt helped Republican Floor Leader Jeff Hoover find his way to AT&T’s talking point that only by “modernizing” Kentucky’s telecom laws would the state receive much-needed broadband improvements.

Hoover

Hoover

Hoover is upset that the state’s House Democratic leadership stopped AT&T’s bill dead in its tracks, despite bipartisan begging primarily from AT&T’s check-cashers that the bill see a vote. Speaker Greg Stumbo, whose rural Eastern Kentucky district would have seen AT&T’s landline and DSL service largely wiped out by AT&T’s original proposal, would hear none of it.

He has been to AT&T’s Deregulation Rodeo before.

“When I served as attorney general, I dealt with deregulation firsthand to protect consumers as much as possible,” he wrote in a recent editorial. “In most cases, deregulation led to worse service and less opportunity to correct the problems customers invariably faced. It is now our job as House leaders to continue defending Kentucky’s consumers.”

Stumbo, like many across Kentucky, have come to realize that AT&T’s custom-written legislation gives the company a guarantee it can disconnect rural landline service en masse, but does not guarantee better broadband as a result.

“In fact, there is nothing in the legislation guaranteeing better landline, cell or Internet service,” Stumbo noted.

Hoover declared that by not doing AT&T’s bidding, Kentucky was at risk of further falling behind.

“This decision by Stumbo and House Democrat leadership, like many others, has unfortunately had a real effect on the lives of Kentuckians as we will go, at minimum, another year before these private businesses can focus on increasing broadband speed throughout the commonwealth,” he wrote. “It is another year in which we risk falling further behind our neighboring states and others in the competitive world of economic development.”

Stumbo

Stumbo

Stumbo responded the Republicans seemed to have a narrow vision of what represents progress. Hoover and his caucus voted against the House budget that included $100 million for a broadband improvement initiative spearheaded by Gov. Steve Beshear, Rep. Hal Rogers, and private interests.

By relying entirely on a deregulated AT&T, rural Kentucky residents may lose both landline and DSL service and be forced to wireless alternatives that come at a high price.

“There are citizens, many of whom are elderly or on fixed income, who depend on their landline or cannot afford more expensive options; these are the people I am fighting for,” said Stumbo. “I do not want to get a call from a family member who lost a loved one because that person could not reach a first responder in time.”

State residents watching the debate have increasingly noticed discrepancies between what AT&T wants and what it is promising Kentucky.

“No one has ever been able to satisfactorily explain to me how allowing phone companies to abandon landline service will help expand broadband Internet, especially since DSL service requires phone lines,” said H.B. Elkins, Public Information Officer at KYTC District 10.

Matt Simpson recognizes that Senate Bill 99 and other similar measures will not change the economic realities of AT&T’s for-profit business.

“Without regulation, the for-profit companies like AT&T are going to invest in the most profitable areas,” he wrote. “If they thought they could make a huge profit providing broadband in rural areas, they would already be doing it. Deregulation is not going to change that profit calculation. They will still view rural broadband as unprofitable, and they still won’t do it. The bill was a total giveaway to the industry, with no offsetting benefit to the consumers.”

Michael Yancy summed up his views more colorfully.

“The ‘AT&T bill should be classified as a sheep bill. It was all about pulling the wool over the eyes of the public,” Yancy said. “Anyone who thinks the people of Kentucky will benefit from more of the same, needs to make inquiries into moving the Brooklyn Bridge to the Ohio River.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KET Phone Deregulation Kentucky Tonight 1 2-19-13.mp4

Kentucky Educational Television aired a debate between AT&T and the Kentucky Resources Council on the issue of telephone deregulation in 2013. The same issues were back this year in AT&T’s latest failed attempt to win statewide deregulation and permission to switch landline customers in rural Kentucky to less reliable wireless service. In this clip AT&T argues it should be able to shift investment away from landline service towards wireless because wireless is the more popular technology, but not everyone gets good coverage in Kentucky. (Feb. 19 2013) (3:00)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KET Phone Deregulation Kentucky Tonight 2 2-19-13.mp4

In this second clip, AT&T claims customers who want to keep landline service can, but Kentucky Resources Council president Tom Fitzgerald reads the bill and finds AT&T’s claims just don’t hold up under scrutiny. The carrier of last resort obligation which guarantees quality landline phone service to all who want it is gone if AT&T’s bill passes. Customers can be forced to use wireless service instead. (Feb. 19 2013) (4:33)

Vidéotron Launches 4G LTE Network in Quebec With Speeds Up to 40Mbps

videotron

Vidéotron, Quebec’s largest cable operator, has switched on its upgraded 4G LTE wireless network for the benefit of its mobile customers, offering real world wireless speeds up to 40Mbps.

LTE-capable devices will automatically connect to the new wireless network immediately, boosting speeds and network performance. Customers with older devices that are LTE-compatible may need a new LTE SIM card, available at any of the company’s stores at no charge.

“At Videotron, innovation is rooted in 50 years of history,” commented Manon Brouillette, president and CEO of Vidéotron. “Today, we have reached another watershed in our progress by bringing consumers this state-of-the-art mobile network.”

Vidéotron is a smaller player in a wireless market dominated by Bell (33% market share), Rogers (29%), and Telus (28%) but has grown significantly since the 2008 spectrum auction that allowed the cable operator to build out the wireless network in launched in 2010. Today the company has more than 550,000 customers and between 10-13 percent of the market, mostly in Quebec where Vidéotron’s network reaches 90 percent of the province.

Ottawa is watching the cable company’s performance closely, perhaps believing Vidéotron is Canada’s best hope to be the fourth largest carrier in the country. But most of the company’s wireless facilities are in Quebec and it is unknown if Vidéotron can or will be able to build a nationwide network of its own.

FCC Chairman Complains About State of U.S. Broadband But Offers Few Meaningful Solutions

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler doesn’t like what he sees when looks at the state of American broadband.

At a speech today given to the 1776 community in Washington, Wheeler complained about the lack of broadband competition in the United States.

“The underpinning of broadband policy today is that competition is the most effective tool for driving innovation, investment, and consumer and economic benefits,” Wheeler said. “Unfortunately, the reality we face today is that as bandwidth increases, competitive choice decreases.”

faster speed fewer competitors

“The lighter the blue, the fewer the options,” Wheeler said, gesturing towards his chart. “You get the point. The bar on the left reflects the availability of wired broadband using the FCC’s current broadband definition of 4Mbps. But let’s be clear, this is ‘yesterday’s broadband.’ Four megabits per second isn’t adequate when a single HD video delivered to home or classroom requires 5Mbps of capacity. This is why we have proposed updating the broadband speed required for universal service support to 10Mbps.”

But Wheeler added that even 10Mbps was insufficient as households increasingly add more connected devices — often six or more — to a single broadband connection.  When used concurrently, especially for online video, it is easy to consume all available bandwidth at lower broadband speeds.

Wheeler

Wheeler

Wheeler’s new informal benchmark is 25Mbps — “table stakes” in 21st century communications. About 80 percent of Americans can get 25Mbps today or better, but typically only from one provider. Wheeler wants even faster speeds than that, stating it is unacceptable that more than 40% of the country cannot get 100Mbps service. Wheeler seemed to fear that phone companies have largely given up on competing for faster broadband connections, handing a de facto monopoly to cable operators the government has left deregulated.

“It was the absence of competition that historically forced the imposition of strict government regulation in telecommunications,” Wheeler explained. “One of the consequences of such a regulated monopoly was the thwarting of the kind of innovation that competition stimulates. Today, we are buffeted by constant innovation precisely because of the policy decisions to promote competition made by the FCC and Justice Department since the 1970s and 1980s.”

Wheeler said competition between phone and cable companies used to keep broadband speeds and capacity rising.

“In order to meet the competitive threat of satellite services, cable TV companies upgraded their facilities,” Wheeler said. “When the Internet went mainstream, they found themselves in the enviable position of having greater network capacity than telephone companies. Confronted by such competition, the telcos upgraded to DSL, and in some places deployed all fiber, or fiber-and-copper networks. Cable companies further responded to this competition by improving their own broadband performance. All this investment was a very good thing. The simple lesson of history is that competition drives deployment and network innovation. That was true yesterday and it will be true tomorrow. Our challenge is to keep that competition alive and growing.”

But Wheeler admits the current state of broadband in the United States no longer reflects the fierce competition of a decade or more ago.

“Today, cable companies provide the overwhelming percentage of high-speed broadband connections in America,” Wheeler noted. “Industry observers believe cable’s advantage over DSL technologies will continue for the foreseeable future. The question with which we as Americans must wrestle is whether broadband will continue to be responsive to competitive forces in order to produce the advances that consumers and our economy increasingly demand. Looking across the broadband landscape, we can only conclude that, while competition has driven broadband deployment, it has not yet done so a way that necessarily provides competitive choices for most Americans.”

Wheeler recognized what most broadband customers have dealt with for years — a broadband duopoly for most Americans.

antimonopoly“Take a look at the chart again,” Wheeler said. “At the low end of throughput, 4Mbps and 10Mbps, the majority of Americans have a choice of only two providers. That is what economists call a “duopoly”, a marketplace that is typically characterized by less than vibrant competition. But even two “competitors” overstates the case. Counting the number of choices the consumer has on the day before their Internet service is installed does not measure their competitive alternatives the day after. Once consumers choose a broadband provider, they face high switching costs that include early termination fees, and equipment rental fees. And, if those disincentives to competition weren’t enough, the media is full of stories of consumers’ struggles to get ISPs to allow them to drop service.”

Wheeler emphasized that true competition would allow customers to change providers monthly, if a vibrant marketplace forced competitors to outdo one another. That market does not exist in American broadband today.

“At 25Mbps, there is simply no competitive choice for most Americans,” Wheeler added. “Stop and let that sink in…three-quarters of American homes have no competitive choice for the essential infrastructure for 21st century economics and democracy. Included in that is almost 20 percent who have no service at all. Things only get worse as you move to 50Mbps where 82 percent of consumers lack a choice. It’s important to understand the technical limitations of the twisted-pair copper plant on which telephone companies have relied for DSL connections. Traditional DSL is just not keeping up, and new DSL technologies, while helpful, are limited to short distances. Increasing copper’s capacity may help in clustered business parks and downtown buildings, but the signal’s rapid degradation over distance may limit the improvement’s practical applicability to change the overall competitive landscape.”

Wheeler finds little chance wireless providers will deliver any meaningful competition to wired broadband because of pricing levels and miserly data caps. Such statements are in direct conflict with a traditional industry talking point.

In a remarkable admission, Wheeler added that the only hope of competing with cable operators comes from a technology phone companies have become reluctant to deploy.

“In the end, at this moment, only fiber gives the local cable company a competitive run for its money,” Wheeler said. “Once fiber is in place, its beauty is that throughput increases are largely a matter of upgrading the electronics at both ends, something that costs much less than laying new connections.”

Wheeler also continued to recognize the urban-rural divide in broadband service and availability, but said little about how he planned to address it.

Wheeler’s answer to the broadband dilemma fell firmly in the camp of promoting competition and avoiding regulation, a policy that has been in place during the last two administrations with little success and more industry consolidation. Most of Wheeler’s specific commitments to protect and enhance competition apply to the wireless marketplace, not fixed wired broadband:

1. comcast highwayWhere competition exists, the Commission will protect it. Our effort opposing shrinking the number of nationwide wireless providers from four to three is an example. As applied to fixed networks, the Commission’s Order on tech transition experiments similarly starts with the belief that changes in network technology should not be a license to limit competition.

In short, don’t expect anymore efforts to combine T-Mobile and Sprint into a single entity. Wheeler only mentioned “nationwide wireless providers” which suggests it remains open season to acquire the dwindling number of smaller, regional carriers. Wheeler offers no meaningful benchmarks to protect consumers or prevent further consolidation in the cable and telephone business.

2. Where greater competition can exist, we will encourage it. Again, a good example comes from wireless broadband. The “reserve” spectrum in the Broadcast Incentive Auction will provide opportunities for wireless providers to gain access to important low-band spectrum that could enhance their ability to compete. Similarly, the entire Open Internet proceeding is about ensuring that the Internet remains free from barriers erected by last-mile providers. Third, where meaningful competition is not available, the Commission will work to create it. For instance, our efforts to expand the amount of unlicensed spectrum creates alternative competitive pathways. And we understand the petitions from two communities asking us to pre-empt state laws against citizen-driven broadband expansion to be in the same category, which is why we are looking at that question so closely.

Again, the specifics Wheeler offered pertain almost entirely to the wireless business. Spectrum auctions are designed to attract new competition, but the biggest buyers will almost certainly be the four current national carriers, particularly AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Although low-band spectrum will help Sprint and T-Mobile deliver better indoor service, it is unlikely to drive new market share for either. Wheeler offered no specifics on the issues of Net Neutrality or municipal broadband beyond acknowledging they are issues.

3. Incentivizing competition is a job for governments at every level. We must build on and expand the creative thinking that has gone into facilitating advanced broadband builds around the country. For example, Google Fiber’s “City Checklist” highlights the importance of timely and accurate information about and access to infrastructure, such as poles and conduit. Working together, we can implement policies at the federal, state, and local level that serve consumers by facilitating construction and encouraging competition in the broadband marketplace.

competitionMost of the policies Wheeler seeks to influence exist on the state and local level, where he has considerably less influence. Based on the overwhelming interest shown by cities clamoring to attract Google Fiber, the problems of access to utility poles and conduit are likely overstated. The bigger issue is the lack of interest by new providers to enter entrenched monopoly/duopoly markets where they face crushing capital investment costs and catcalls from incumbent providers demanding they be forced to serve every possible customer, not selectively choose individual neighborhoods to serve. Both incumbent cable and phone companies originally entered communities free from significant competition, often guaranteed a monopoly, making the burden of wired universal service more acceptable to investors. When new entrants are anticipated to capture only 14-40 percent competitive market share at best, it is much harder to convince lenders to support infrastructure and construction expenses. That is why new providers seek primarily to serve areas where there is demonstrated demand for the service.

4. Where competition cannot be expected to exist, we must shoulder the responsibility of promoting the deployment of broadband. One thing we already know is the fact that something works in New York City doesn’t mean it works in rural South Dakota. We cannot allow rural America to be behind the broadband curve. Our universal service efforts are focused on bringing better broadband to rural America by whomever steps up to the challenge – not the highest speeds all at once, but steadily to prevent the creation of a new digital divide.

Again, Wheeler offers few specifics. Current efforts by the FCC include the Connect America Fund, which is nearly entirely devoted to subsidizing rural telephone companies to build traditional DSL service into high-cost areas. Cable is rarely a competitor in these markets, but Wireless ISPs often are, and they are usually privately funded and consider government subsidized DSL expansion an unwelcome and unfair intrusion in their business.

“Since my first day as Chairman of the FCC my mantra has been consistent and concise: ‘Competition, Competition, Competition,'” said Wheeler. “As we have seen today, there is an inverse relationship between competition and the kind of broadband performance that consumers are increasingly demanding. This is not tolerable.”

Under Wheeler’s leadership, Comcast has filed a petition to assume control of Time Warner Cable, AT&T is seeking permission to buy DirecTV, Frontier Communications is acquiring the wired facilities of AT&T in Connecticut, and wireless consolidation continues. A forthcoming test of Wheeler’s willingness to back his rhetoric with action is whether he will support or reject these industry consolidating mergers and acquisitions. Wheeler’s FCC has also said little to nothing about the consumer-unfriendly practice of usage caps and usage-based billing — both growing among wired networks even as they upgrade to much-faster speeds and raise prices.

Surprise Bid for T-Mobile USA from Iliad’s Free Mobile Has Wireless Competitors, Wall Street Unnerved

french revolutionThe French Revolution in wireless could be spreading across the United States if Paris-based Iliad is successful in its surprise $15 billion bid to acquire T-Mobile USA (right out from under Sprint and Japan-based Softbank). Wall Street hopes it isn’t true.

If you named one wireless carrier in the world guaranteed to provoke groans, sweat, and Excedrin headaches from powerful wireless industry executives living high on 40%+ annual margins, Iliad and its notorious Free Mobile would be the chief provocateur. Initially dismissed as an irrelevant upstart (much like T-Mobile itself) when it announced service on a less-robust network in 2012, as soon as Free Mobile announced its groundbreaking prices, panic was rife in the boardrooms and executive suites of competitors Orange, SFR and Bouygues Telecom, who couldn’t slash their own prices fast enough.

As one wireless executive in Paris put it, when Free Mobile launched, “the tsunami hit.”

In short order, Free Mobile has taken nearly five million of their competitors’ very profitable customers in France, mostly from its vicious price-cutting that results in rates half that of any other competitor.

Orange and other carriers promptly announced slashed shareholder dividend payouts and implemented cost-saving measures after being forced to cut pricing.

American wireless executives visiting Europe were aghast at the prices charged by the French upstart, suggesting they were reckless and would eliminate necessary investment in upgrades. Although France has been behind the United States in launching 4G service upgrades, French customer satisfaction with their wireless service is higher than in the U.S., and Free Mobile has the lowest customer loss (churn) rate of any carrier in France.

Iliad’s reputation as a nasty competitor is fine with self-made billionaire CEO Xavier Niel, who has become extremely wealthy selling cutting edge, yet affordable, telecommunications products without losing touch of his more modest roots. But he is reviled by most of his competitors for disrupting the comfortable wireless service business models his competitors have maintained for years. Niel has thrown marketing bombs into every sector of the French telecom market, ruthlessly cutting prices for customers while relying on in-house innovations to keep costs low.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Euronews Telecoms turmoil in France 2012.mp4

Euronews reported on the turmoil Iliad caused incumbent wireless carriers when it forced them to respond with major price-cuts to stay competitive. (0:44)

freemobileFree’s customer care center is run on Ubuntu-based, inexpensive notebook and desktop computers. Free’s wired broadband, television, and phone service is powered by set-top boxes and network devices custom-developed inside Iliad to keep costs down. Its creative spirit has been compared to Google, much to the chagrin of its “business by the book” competitors.

“It’s not done like this,” is a common refrain heard when Free Mobile announces more price cuts, an easing of usage caps, or completely free add-ons.

Today, a typical Free Mobile customer pays $26.75US a month for wireless service which includes:

  • Unlimited calls to France and 100 other destinations, including the U.S., Canada, China, and all French overseas departments (eg. Guadeloupe, Tahiti, Mayotte, etc.);
  • Unlimited SMS/text messages;
  • Unlimited MMS messages to French numbers;
  • 20GB of 4G access before the speed throttle kicks in;
  • Unlimited free Wi-Fi on Free’s extensive Wi-Fi network.

A Free Mobile customer that also subscribes to Free’s wired broadband or television service gets an even bigger discount. Their monthly wireless bill for the same features? $21.40US a month.

Niel said the reason he has not brought the Free Mobile brand to the United States is because the wireless industry here is highly anti-competitive. The fact T-Mobile USA is now up for sale represents ‘the opportunity of a lifetime,’ a “one-time opportunity to enter the world’s-largest telecoms market,” a person familiar with the matter said prior to the announcement.

“The competitive landscape in the U.S. is a lot less aggressive than what we are used to in France,” added Niel. “There is enormous potential. It is almost too good to be true.”

A number of Wall Street analysts who prefer the current business model of high cost/high profits are keeping their fingers crossed the Iliad offer is just a pipe dream. Some, including analysts on Bloomberg TV, dismissed Niel as a former pornographer and suggested “for the guppies, it is whale season,” a reference to Iliad’s small size relative to T-Mobile USA.

“To say this is surprising is something of an understatement; it is one of the most bizarre bits of potential M&A we have ever witnessed in the sector,” said analysts from Espirito Santo in a note to investors.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Who Is T-Mobiles New French Suitor 8-1-14.flv

Some on Wall Street are mocking the deal as a guppy hoping to swallow a whale. T-Mobile is considerably larger than Iliad, says CNBC. “It’s preposterous. Who put them up to it?” (6:18)

“Iliad is about a third of the size of T-Mobile US, and we don’t think there would be synergies from the deal,” said Jonathan Chaplin, an analyst at New Street Research, in a note. “It would be tough to finance without Xavier Neil relinquishing control. Sprint and anyone else with synergies should be able to outbid them.”

Should Free Mobile enter the United States, its cutthroat pricing would make CEO John Legere’s “bad wireless boy” campaign to make T-Mobile the “uncarrier” quaint in comparison. Every wireless carrier in the U.S. could be forced to cut rates by one-third or more to stay competitive should Niel adopt a similar business model for Free Mobile in the U.S. market.

Some worry that Softbank’s bid to merge Sprint and T-Mobile together has just become even less likely with the possibility of a new player in the U.S. market, competing against three other carriers, not two as the Softbank deal proposes.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNBC Sprint Deal with T-Mobile Has Little Chance 8-1-14.flv

CNBC spoke with Nik Stanojevic, equity analyst at Brewin Dolphin, who was surprised Iliad threw in a bid for T-Mobile, but believes Softbank/Sprint’s deal to acquire T-Mobile has very little chance getting by regulators. (2:40)

Google Makes Good on Verizon’s Broken Promise of a Free Data Plan for Chromebook Owners

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Verizon decided a year was long enough to give away 100MB of LTE data every month. It unilaterally cancels the 2-year offer after 12 months.

Verizon’s credibility in keeping its word with customers is under fire this week as owners of Google’s $1,450 LTE Chromebook Pixel discover their free 100MB data plans are being shut off a year earlier than promised.

Only if you are willing to pay. No freeloaders!

One year was plenty for you.

Google’s high-end LTE-enabled Chromebook Pixel was supposed to include two years of free mobile data, but Verizon unilaterally reinterpreted “two years” to actually mean “one year” and began terminating the free data plans this spring. In its place, Chromebook owners were invited to sign up for new paid Verizon data offers:

  • Unlimited: $9.99/day
  • 1GB: $20/month
  • 3GB: $35/month
  • 5GB: $50/month

Computerworld’s J.R. Raphael got nowhere with Verizon Wireless customer service:

Verizon is telling customers that as far as it’s concerned, the plans were valid only for one year — and that’s why those initiated last spring are now expiring. I called the carrier’s customer service line and, after holding for 15 minutes and then talking in circles to an agent for another 10, was able to get through to a supervisor. That person politely told me he wasn’t aware of any two-year commitment and that — despite my pointing out official documentation to the contrary — there was nothing he could do to help me.

shenanigansWith Verizon unwilling to budge, Google has stepped in with $150 Visa gift cards for all affected customers to make up for Verizon’s stinginess and broken promises.

“While this particular issue is outside of our control, we appreciate that this issue has inconvenienced some of our users,” a Google spokesperson told Computerworld.

Affected customers can contact Google Play Store customer service to start the process of obtaining the gift card.

 

 

Albania Says Goodbye to Usage Caps: 1-100Mbps Broadband in the Land of Sheep

ABCom is Albania's largest ISP.

ABCom is Albania’s largest ISP.

Albanians no longer have to watch usage meters while browsing the Internet and downloading movies and music. The country’s largest ISP – ABCom – has eliminated data caps on all but its cheapest broadband plans (4Mbps service with a 2GB cap: $4.81 for 15 days or 4Mbps service with a 5GB cap: $9.69 for 30 days). Now residents of Tirana, Durrës, Shkodër, Elbasan, Vlorë, and Gjirokastër can browse the Internet at self-selected speeds between 1-100Mbps with no usage-based billing or fixed caps.

It is remarkable progress for Europe’s poorest country. For much of the 20th century, Albania was infamous for its oppressive Communist dictatorship under the leadership of Enver Hoxha, a man who felt Stalin was the Soviet Union’s last true Communist leader and who courted and later cut ties with both the U.S.S.R. and the People’s Republic of China over what he called their “revisionist Marxist-Leninist” policies that betrayed true socialism. Hoxha’s idea of a worker’s paradise was to force huge numbers of both blue and white color workers into the fields every summer to help harvest the country’s strawberry crop.

During Hoxha’s 40 years in power, telecommunications for most Albanians consisted of a portable radio (and occasionally an imported television). Only 1.4 out of 100 had basic telephone service. If more wanted it, they could not get it. A long waiting list guaranteed an installation date years in the future. Albania began its transformation into a democracy with just 42,000 telephone lines, despite a population of nearly three million.

After the Communist government fell in 1991, life changed little in rural Albania. Peasants found initiatives to improve rural telephone service so irrelevant they knocked out service to about 1,000 villages after commandeering telephone wire to build fences to keep their sheep herds from straying. Even in the capital city Tirana, telecommunications infrastructure was decrepit at best. Even the wealthiest Albanians had to contend with rotary dial telephones produced in a forgotten factory in Bulgaria or Romania. Many preferred refurbished telephones rebuilt with scrap parts obtained from Italy.

Today, like many other countries lacking wired infrastructure, Albanians depend mostly on their cell phones to communicate. In 2012, there were 312,000 landlines in use, but 3.5 million cell phones were active. More than a half million wireless users rely entirely on their phones for Internet access.

no limit internet

“Are you ready for unlimited Internet with guaranteed 100Mbps speed?”

In 1998, ABCom launched its Internet Service Provider business, initially selling DSL and wireless broadband. With Albania’s economy always in difficulty, the country chose the cheaper path followed by North America — adopting Hybrid Fiber-Coax (HFC) network technology instead of fiber to the home, common elsewhere in southern Europe. HFC Internet access is better known by most of us as broadband from our local cable company. Expansion of wired broadband has been very slow in Albania. The concept of delivering television, broadband, and phone service over ABCom’s cable system in a triple play package only began in 2009.

The biggest attractions to wired broadband include no data caps and more reliable fixed broadband speeds the country’s wireless providers cannot deliver. Because of wide income disparity, ABCom offers a large range of speed plans for different budgets: 1, 2, 4, 8, 12, 30, and 100Mbps.

In response, competition from wireless providers has stepped up recently. Vodafone Albania is offering five mobile Internet options for users of its 3G network. Customers can opt to pay for daily, weekly or monthly bundles. The 40MB daily bundle costs $0.58; the 250MB weekly bundle costs $2.91; the 500MB monthly bundle costs $4.85, and the 1GB monthly bundle costs $7.76. The speeds are much slower than the plans offered by ABCom, however.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ABCom Mesazh Promocional nga ABCom March 2013.mp4

ABCom produced this television ad introducing its new triple play TV, broadband, and telephone package for Albanian customers. (Albanian) (0:31)

NY Times’ Reality Check: Feds Should Block the Godzilla-Sized Time Warner Cable-Comcast Merger

free_press_comcast_twc_market_shares-791x1024The New York Times recommends the Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission reject Comcast’s $45 billion purchase of Time Warner Cable, if only because the combined company will have an unregulated choke-hold on telecommunications services not seen since the days of the regulated AT&T/Bell monopoly.

In an editorial published Sunday, the newspaper called out many of the “merger benefit”-talking points claimed by the two cable giants as specious at best, hinting some even bordered on misleading:

By buying Time Warner Cable, Comcast would become a gatekeeper over what consumers watch, read and listen to. The company would have more power to compel Internet content companies like Netflix and Google, which owns YouTube, to pay Comcast for better access to its broadband network. Netflix, a dominant player in video streaming, has already signed such an agreement with the company. This could put start-ups and smaller companies without deep pockets at a competitive disadvantage.

There are also worries that a bigger Comcast would have more power to refuse to carry channels that compete with programming owned by NBC Universal, which it owns. Comcast executives say that they would not favor content the company controls at the expense of other media businesses.

The company argues that this deal would not reduce choice because the company does not directly compete with Time Warner Cable anywhere. Comcast would face plenty of competition in high-speed Internet service, they say, from telephone and wireless companies.

The reality is far different. At the end of 2012, according to the FCC, 64 percent of American homes had only one or at most two choices for Internet service that most people would consider broadband. Wireless services can handle streaming video, but many customers of Verizon or AT&T would blow through their monthly wireless data plan by streaming just one two-hour high-definition movie, at which point they would have to fork over extra fees.

Comcast executives argue that companies like Sprint are planning to provide very fast Internet service that will compete with wired broadband. But wireless companies have been working on such services for more than a decade with little success.

Those wireless services that do exist uniformly impose low usage caps and cost considerably more than traditional wired broadband plans, especially when considering the cost compared to the actual speed delivered to consumers.

The Times doesn’t believe imposing a litany of conditions in return for approving the deal, similar to those involving Comcast’s purchase of NBCUniversal, would be sufficient to protect consumers from monopoly abuse.

“This merger would fundamentally change the structure of this important industry and give one company too much control over what information, shows, movies and sports Americans can access on TVs and the Internet,” concluded the newspaper. “Federal regulators should challenge this deal.”

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