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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.

Frontier Exits Bankruptcy on Friday; Company to Focus on Gradual Fiber Upgrades

Frontier Communications is scheduled to announce its emergence from bankruptcy reorganization as early as Friday, beginning a new era with a reduced debt load, new leadership, and a plan to retire a considerable amount of its copper wire network in favor of fiber optics over the next decade.

“Frontier is ready to set a new course as a revitalized public company. Through the restructuring process, the company has stabilized its business and recapitalized its balance sheet, while making significant progress on the early stages of implementing our initial fiber expansion plan,” said John Stratton, incoming executive chairman of the board. “Frontier’s success with the Fiber-to-the-Home pilot program, which upgraded more than 60,000 locations from copper to fiber optic service in 2020, is just one example of the important work already underway. Frontier’s future is bright. I’m eager to work closely with our new board, our CEO Nick Jeffery, and the rest of the leadership team to build the new Frontier.”

As part of its reorganization, Frontier shed nearly $10 billion in debt, most attributable to its earlier buying spree of castoff landline customers formerly served by AT&T and Verizon. The company’s budget busting 2016 acquisition of Verizon service areas in California, Texas, and Florida was called “a textbook case of how not to do an acquisition,” by The Dallas Morning News

For at least a decade covering 2010-2020, Frontier was regarded as one of the worst phone companies in America in consumer surveys. Most of its legacy customers still suffer with Frontier’s dilapidated and deteriorating copper wire network and the slow speed DSL service barely supported on it. Speeds of 1-3 Mbps maximum are still common in some places, even in urban areas. Frontier’s acquisition of Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse service areas in states like Indiana, Washington, Connecticut, Florida, Texas and California gave a minority of customers access to pre-built fiber to the home networks, but Frontier’s notoriously poor switchover from Verizon and AT&T’s billing systems to their own effectively drove off hundreds of thousands of formerly loyal customers.

Under the leadership of former CEOs Maggie Wilderotter and Dan McCarthy, Frontier dragged from one quarter to the next, promising improvements that failed to materialize for most customers. The company’s $10.5 billion acquisition of landlines in California, Texas and Florida was particularly costly as the company sold bonds offering astonishing 10.5-11% interest rates to investors to cover more than $5 billion in debt coming due for repayment. A year after the Verizon deal, a half million Frontier customers left for good and the company lost $262 million.

Frontier’s latest fiber plan is to target upgrades in its legacy service areas, noted in blue on this map. These areas are all almost entirely served by copper wire, provide slow speed DSL, and are long overdue for fiber upgrades. Frontier will also expand fiber in its acquired service areas, represented by other colors on the map. Note that Frontier sold its Pacific Northwest region, marked by the red box, to Zipply Fiber, which also plans to scrap Frontier’s copper wire network in favor of fiber. (Map courtesy of Light Reading)

By the time bankruptcy was inevitable, Frontier was saddled with billions in debt and no financial ability to embark on fiber upgrades the company should have committed to a decade ago. Almost all of its existing fiber footprint was acquired from other companies.

Stratton

Frontier’s new management includes John Stratton, a former Verizon executive. Stratton believes Frontier’s future depends on the company expanding its fiber footprint. In 2020, it put that plan to the test by expanding fiber to the home service to 60,000 additional homes in a pilot project proving Frontier can plan and execute fiber upgrades on time and on budget. But a closer look at the numbers shows the majority of homes Frontier “upgraded” were brand new. Of the 60,000 homes, 44,000 were located in new housing developments or were unwired previously. These “greenfield” locations are typically easier to provision and much less expensive to service than pre-existing homes where Frontier first needs to decommission its existing copper wiring and replace it with fiber optics. Only around 16,000 pre-existing homes saw copper wire replaced with fiber in so-called “brownfield” locations.

For Frontier to succeed, it will need to move a lot more copper customers to fiber optics to remain competitive in the marketplace. Currently, Frontier serves approximately three million fiber homes and 11 million copper homes. Frontier is expected to announce fiber upgrades for an additional six million homes and target about 85% of its footprint to be serviced by fiber… eventually.

Some proposals hint the company could take five years or more to complete upgrades at the same time independent fiber to the home providers, next generation satellite internet, and wireless home 4G/5G internet plans are expanding. Much of Frontier’s service area is serviced by cable companies already providing high speed internet. Frontier’s plan assumes it will capture about 40% of the market — a tall order in communities like Rochester, N.Y., where dominant cable provider Charter Spectrum is assumed to have 70+% of the home broadband market. When competing fiber providers enter the market, Spectrum often slashes promotional pricing to $30 a month for 400 Mbps internet service for two years. Spectrum will probably offer similar pricing in newly competitive markets to retain customers threatening to cancel service and switch to Frontier.

Frontier plans to discuss its exit from bankruptcy and where the company will go in the future in a webcast presentation this Friday, April 30, 2021 at 10:00am ET.

New York Mandates $15 Low-Income Broadband Tier Available to All Who Qualify

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo discussed affordable internet at the State of the State address in January 2021.

Low income New Yorkers will soon be able to subscribe to internet service at speeds starting at 25/10 Mbps for $15 a month, thanks to a new law passed by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

To qualify, a consumer will need to show proof of active enrollment in any of the following programs:

  • Medicaid
  • Free or discounted school lunches
  • the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as “food stamps”
  • A senior or disability rent increase exemption

Almost every internet service provider of consequence in New York will be required to introduce a low income discounted internet program by June 2021. Consumers will be offered at least two options, depending on the technological capacity of a provider’s network:

  • $15/month basic service at speeds of at least 25/10 Mbps
  • $20/month enhanced service bringing download speeds up to 200 Mbps.

Rates will be fixed for at least five years, after which providers can increase prices based on the rate of inflation or by a modest percentage allowed by the state. In 2023, the New York State Public Service Commission will be permitted to require increases in the minimum download speeds offered.

The measure is part of New York’s effort to expand broadband availability and affordability across the state. Earlier broadband funding programs helped expand service into rural, unserved areas. This year, the legislature and the governor are targeting the digital divide between those who can and cannot afford internet access. The state’s largest cable operator, Charter Spectrum, already offers low-income customers its own Spectrum Internet Assist program, with similar qualifications. The company charges $14.99/month for 30/4 Mbps internet service, but excludes current customers from enrolling and may reject customers with past due balances owed in the past.

Gov. Cuomo announced the initiative at the State of the State Address in January. Critics called the plan “window dressing,” noting the state’s largest telecommunications companies including Charter Spectrum, Verizon, Altice, and Frontier already offer internet discount programs. Many also continue to question the governor’s contention that 98% of New Yorkers can now access high-speed internet and the overall cost and quality of service.

To assist residents in finding a suitable provider, the state launched an Affordable Internet website to help consumers sign up for discounted service. In some cases, additional discounts may be available.

The legislation also mandates the Public Service Commission to study and report back on internet accessibility and affordability by this time next year. The PSC will scrutinize how many New York homes and businesses still lack access to high-speed internet, as well as studying how reliable service providers are, what rates they charge, and the current state of competition in New York.

New York consumers can share their own experiences with internet service providers the state will use to guide potential future legislation.

WGRZ in Buffalo took a closer look at whether New York’s mandate for affordable internet service was a game changer or just window dressing. (2:33)

Locast Comes to Cleveland

Phillip Dampier March 10, 2021 Consumer News, Locast, Online Video 1 Comment

Cleveland, Ohio area residents now have access to over 70 over-the-air channels from northeast Ohio thanks to the efforts of Locast, a nonprofit service that streams local broadcast stations online with the request of a monthly donation.

The Cleveland broadcast market includes the cities of Cleveland, Akron, Ashland, Ashtabula, Canton, Mansfield, and Sandusky and encompasses almost four million viewers. Locast’s app and website use location verification to provide service only to those living or traveling inside one of their 30 service areas. To access Cleveland-area stations, online viewers must be inside Ashland, Ashtabula, Carroll, Cuyahoga, Erie, Geauga, Holmes, Huron, Lake, Lorain, Medina, Portage, Richland, Stark, Summit, Tuscarawas, or Wayne County.

Among the stations included: WKYC NBC 3, WEWS ABC 5, WJW FOX 8, WOIO CBS 19, PBS and PBS Kids, as well as DABL, Univision, Azteca America, CourtTV, Mystery, MeTV, TrueCrime, QUBO, Circle, The CW, BOUNCE, Movies!, LAFF, COMET, cheddar, ION, GRIT, Charge!, and more.

Locast now has more than 2.5 million registered users nationwide in 30 markets reaching approximately half of the U.S. population. In 2020, Locast added over 1 million users. The service selects new cities to cover based on donations and requests. Locast also looks favorably on requests that volunteer a safe and permanent location where it can locate its equipment to receive and stream over the air stations.

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