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Maine Raises the Bar on Public Broadband: Will Fund Projects Offering 100/100 Mbps

Maine’s broadband internet authority is proposing major changes to win public financing of broadband projects in the state, demanding better speeds and performance and giving more Maine communities the potential to construct their own public internet projects.

The ConnectMaine Authority (ConnectME), which traditionally modestly funds a variety of smaller scale internet projects in the state, wants to think big now that it has a budget over fifteen times its original size. With at least $15 million to spend this year and potentially tens of millions in federal broadband funding to manage, courtesy of Congress and the Biden Administration, the authority wants to make certain future projects can deliver the scale and service consumers need in the 21st century digital economy.

In April, ConnectME’s board voted to propose changing the criteria for broadband funding awards, now insisting that projects be capable of delivering at least 100/100 Mbps service, which is four times faster than the FCC’s current minimum definition of downstream broadband. The board hopes the faster speeds will be future-proof and more realistic of what consumers need to telecommute and access online classes, streaming video, and other high bandwidth services. The result of the proposed standards would likely require all future projects to be fiber to the home, although historically the vast majority of broadband projects funded by ConnectME in the past have been fiber to the home.

The authority has also proposed expanding the definition of what represents an “unserved/underserved” area qualified to receive public funding to include any address that lacks access to at least 50/10 Mbps service, up from the current standard of 25/3 Mbps. Such a change would likely open up funding in areas where only DSL service or wireless internet is currently available. Most cable operators can meet the new standard, so their territories would likely remain closed to public funding. Opposition from the state’s telephone companies was almost instant, however, represented in comments from Ben Sanborn, executive director of the Telecommunications Association of Maine, a state telecom lobbying group.

Sanborn considers the proposed changes negative because public dollars could end up funding competitors in areas already served by lower speed providers.

“Arguably, there are going to be a whole bunch of areas in the state that will be eligible for funding either from ConnectME or with federal dollars,” Sanborn told the Press Herald. “Our concern with that is that it is going to create a situation of overbuilding existing networks,” which could leave currently unserved areas out of getting any funding for service.

At present, about 11% of Maine homes still have no internet access, mostly in rural areas. Traditionally, telephone companies or co-op telecom providers are the most likely to provide rural internet service, but the costs to reach those not currently served can be prohibitive. Cable operators have been the least likely to extend service in rural areas, and cash-strapped telephone companies have been reluctant to replace rural copper wire networks that can extend for miles with fiber optics, just to reach a few dozen homes. As broadband penetration increases, the cost to reach remaining unserved homes typically rises as they are often the most costly to reach. Subsidy funding can make a considerable difference when determining the cost/benefit analysis of expanding service to these homes.

The authority is also hoping to inspire existing providers to adopt 100/100 Mbps as the new broadband speed minimum across the state, which it claims will meet the needs of customers. For cable providers, that likely will not happen until upgrades to DOCSIS 4.0 are implemented, unlikely in the short term. Cable broadband networks are designed to deliver much faster downstream speeds at the expense of uploads.

The newly available funds are likely to achieve a significant increase in the number of rural homes served, but probably will not be enough to achieve 100% penetration.

ConnectME plans a public hearing to discuss the proposed changes on May 13, with a final vote scheduled for later this month.

Charter Spectrum Raises Rates (Again); Broadcast TV Surcharge Reaches $17.99/Month

Phillip Dampier May 6, 2021 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News 1 Comment

Charter Spectrum is notifying customers rates are increasing once again on selected services and equipment, taking effect June 2, 2021.

The Broadcast TV Surcharge, which covers the fees charged by local, over-the-air stations, is increasing $1.54 a month — from $16.45 to $17.99/month. The surcharge applies to all video customers, including those on promotional plans.

The special tier of Spanish language channels, known as Latino View, is up $1 a month to $9.99. So is the cost of renting Spectrum’s set-top box. The old fee of $7.99/mo increases to $8.99 per box.

Altice USA’s Optimum Selling Gigabit Service for $45 a Month… With a $200 Prepaid Visa Card

Altice USA is pushing hard to grab market share away from Verizon FiOS — its biggest competitor in the northeastern U.S., with a new customer promotion that offers a year of gigabit broadband speed for $45/month, as well as a $200 prepaid Visa gift card just for signing up.

To qualify for this rate, you must be a new Altice customer (or a customer that disconnected Altice service for at least 30 days). To get the gift card, you must be a new customer and have not received an earlier gift card from Altice in the last 12 months. This offer is good for residents of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

The Bill Breakdown:

  • $50/mo for 1 gigabit service (up to 940 Mbps download/up to 50 Mbps upload) + $5/mo discount for signing up for paperless billing and autopay (total equals $45/mo)
  • $10/mo optional gateway modem/router rental fee
  • $3.50/mo mandatory “Network Enhancement Fee”
  • Your out the door price is $58.50/mo if you use their gateway, $48.50/mo if you bring your own.

Customers can also choose a 500 Mbps tier for $35 a month with similar fees.

If you sign up, you will also be offered the option of multiple TV packages, including a Basic TV package of 50 channels for $15/mo or a Core TV package of 210 channels for $25/mo. Home phone service is also available in this promotion for $10/mo. A bundle including gigabit internet, Core TV and home phone service is priced at $80/mo. There is no installation fee for customers that can manage their own inside wiring if needed.

Mobile Data Costs Plummet 88% in Five Years, U.S. Consumers Pay 4x More Than Rest of the World

Phillip Dampier May 4, 2021 Competition, Consumer News, Wireless Broadband 2 Comments

The cost to deliver a gigabyte of data over mobile networks has plummeted 88% in the last five years, yet U.S. consumers are still paying an average of four times more than the rest of the world and twice the price that Europeans pay for average, comparable mobile plans.

The average cost to deliver mobile data has dropped to around $1/GB, thanks to network upgrades including Massive MIMO, carrier aggregation, the wide use of 4G LTE and the gradual introduction of 5G technology. As a result, mobile pricing has dropped significantly in competitive market areas. In much of Europe, a mobile plan with a generous allowance of mobile data and a bundle of texting and voice calls now costs around $15 a month, largely due to market competition. In Luxembourg and Australia, two companies sell generous data, calling and texting plans for under $10 a month. Iliad, a mobile provider in Italy, offers a plan with unlimited calling/texting and a 50 GB data allowance, including hotspot service, for $9.60 a month.

Despite the increased pressure on pricing, U.S. consumers are still paying some of the highest prices in the world, especially when dealing with two dominant carriers — AT&T and Verizon. Broadband and mobile analyst Dave Burstein noted an increasing pricing gap between the U.S. and Western Europe that widened starting in 2018.

“U.S. prices are now twice the Europeans and four times the world average,” Burstein noted. “Prices continue to fall rapidly except in the U.S., [which has remained] almost flat the last three years.”

Burstein also noted Verizon and AT&T have both estimated wireless data costs decline 40% per year in cost per bit. But most consumers are not benefiting from the dramatic cost declines as wireless companies stubbornly refuse to reset rates. The pressure for further price reductions has also been reduced with the recent merger of Sprint and T-Mobile, which had been largely responsible for forcing AT&T and Verizon to offer more generous plans or reduce rates.

Some of the most significant mobile competition has come from cable operators, which offer plans that resell access to the established 4G networks of Verizon (Charter, Comcast) and T-Mobile/Sprint (Altice USA). While AT&T and Verizon focus on high value customers and increasingly market costly “unlimited” family data plans, cable operators have offered consumers more simplified pricing focused on value for money, including per gigabyte plans and a basic unlimited data offer. Recently, Comcast’s XFINITY Mobile introduced its own family plan pricing, which can further reduce the price for multiple lines billed together and poses a more direct threat to Verizon.

Some researchers believe that marketing mobile plans by focusing on price and data allowances will be a dead end for wireless companies hoping to deliver regular increases in the amount of revenue collected from each subscriber. If competition does pressure companies to increase data allowances and reduce pricing, companies will need to find new revenue sources to deliver the financial results their investors demand each quarter.

“With many consumers picking price plans that fit their budget first and their data usage requirements second, operators need to educate users away from high-volume, low-cost plans and the idea that 150GB is meaningfully better than 100GB,” said Josie Sephton, director of Teligen. “We are in a data pricing merry-go-round that needs to be reset.”

Phil Kendall, director of the Service Provider Group and author of a report on mobile pricing suggests operators cannot provoke upgrades to higher cost plans with higher data allowances alone.

“Operators need ‘more for more’ pricing that offers revenue uplift through better experiences and richer content rather than through more data,” Kendall said.

20% of Charter Spectrum Customers Now Exceed 1 TB of Usage Every Month

Almost 20% of Charter Spectrum’s broadband-only customers now consume over 1 TB of data per month, with the average cord-cutting Spectrum customer now reaching 700 GB of usage.

Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge revealed the company’s increasing usage figures on a conference call with investors this morning. Rutledge pointed to a spike in pandemic-related, at-home video streaming, but also an explosion in video conferencing traffic from work-at-home customers. Video traffic constitutes the majority of consumer broadband traffic in the United States, and as video quality improves, so does the amount of data each customer consumes.

Recent pressure from some in Washington to increase upstream capacity has been noticed by company officials but largely dismissed. In fact, Rutledge claimed Spectrum had no capacity issues that it could not address with incremental capacity upgrades and neighborhood node splits.

“We don’t have any immediate need to expand the capacity of the plant,” Rutledge said, noting that Charter still has room to grow after adopting DOCSIS 3.1 technology. Rutledge added that with the majority of traffic still firmly originating from downloads and streaming, incremental network improvements could allow the company to boost some speeds, but only if market demand for it emerges.

Rutledge noted the company has the capacity to expand its existing infrastructure to 1.2 GHz by expanding network bandwidth. DOCSIS 3.1 can support multi-gigabit download speeds and 1,000 Mbps for uploads. Charter, along with many other cable companies, has been slow to move towards the next cable broadband standard, DOCSIS 4.0, which would exponentially increase speeds and capacity even further.

Another potential method of curtailing usage growth could come from data caps or usage-based billing, but Charter’s efforts to rid itself of its 2016 agreement not to impose data caps until at least 2023 (if ever) in return for approval of its merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks was withdrawn by the company after receiving significant opposition. The agreement’s expiration date remains May 2023.

Despite the usage growth, Charter’s chief financial officer Christopher Winfrey told investors the impact on the company’s capacity and costs were insignificant and remained confident Charter’s costs to deliver broadband service and expand it would continue to decline overall in the years ahead.

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