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Internet Only Customers: Average Usage: 395.7 GB; 1 TB+ “Power Users” Double in One Year

Phillip Dampier May 23, 2019 Consumer News, Data Caps, Online Video No Comments

Online video-driven broadband usage has reached an all-time high, increasing 27% in just one year, with internet-only customers now consuming an average of 395.7 GB — almost double the average 209.5 GB consumed by households that still have traditional cable television.

The OpenVault Broadband Industry Report, issued quarterly, reports that significant differences in usage between households with a traditional cable TV package and those that have cord-cut make it clear online video is driving much of the increased usage.

“Cord cutting behavior is impacting bundling and bandwidth consumption,” OpenVault explained. “Service providers rode a significant wave over the past ten years with triple and double-play bundling of services. There is evidence to suggest that wave has crested, as more consumers opt for internet-only packages.”

The results suggest the one effective tool providers still have to curtail heavy video streaming is mandatory data caps or consumption-based billing. An internet provider with a low data cap deters online video streaming, protecting traditional cable television revenue.

In the last year, the number of “power users” (those using 1 TB per month) doubled to 4.2% of all subscribers, with “power users of the future” (2+ TB of usage a month) more than doubling from 0.16% last year to 0.38% this year. “Power users” of 1 TB or more account for 6.5% of all internet-only households vs. 2.2% in homes still subscribing to a bundle of TV and internet service.

The clearest evidence of how data caps deter usage is found among “power users” that use 1 TB or more of data each month. With several large providers enforcing a 1 TB data allowance, OpenVault found dramatic differences in usage patterns between uncapped and capped customers. As customers become wary of exceeding their 1 TB cap, many “power users” ration usage out of fear of incurring overlimit fees, especially towards the end of a billing cycle.

Subscribers treat an assigned “data allowance” more like a hard data cap. OpenVault found that with flat-rate/unlimited plans, the percentage of power users is 32% greater than those with usage-based billing, and the percentage of subscribers using over 2 TB is 76% greater on unlimited plans where customers don’t have to fear using up their allowance.

‘Drive-By Pai’ Takes Out Consumer Interests by Favoring T-Mobile/Sprint Merger

Pai

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai found a lot to like about the proposed merger of T-Mobile and Sprint and has recommended his fellow commissioners approve the transaction after the companies offered new commitments to ease anti-competitive and anti-trust concerns.

That typically means the FCC’s 3-2 Republican majority will quickly approve the deal in a forthcoming vote, with three Republicans in favor and two Democrats opposed, if tradition holds.

Pai’s support for the merger is hardly surprising. Since joining the FCC as a commissioner in the second half of the Obama Administration, Pai has consistently opposed every pro-consumer item on the FCC’s docket. He loves industry-consolidating mergers, hates telecom companies being forced to open their businesses to competition on things like set-top boxes, and considers almost all pro-consumer protection policies from net neutrality to merger deal conditions examples of “overregulation” that he argues are harmful to the free market and investment.

The troubled merger, which would create what we will call T-Sprint, has remained under review for months, recently stalled over revelations the two companies tailored the transaction to appeal to President Trump. T-Mobile executives spent $195,000 repeatedly renting rooms at the Trump International Hotel in Washington and spent large sums hiring Trump-connected “advisors” including Reince Priebus and Corey Lewandowski. The merger pitch was changed to emphasize its impact on rapidly growing 5G networks, a talking point favorite of President Trump, who wants to beat the Chinese over the development of next generation wireless networks.

The merger must win approval from both the FCC and the Justice Department. The latter is said to be troubled about the anti-competitive impact of reducing the number of national wireless carriers from four to three. Such a consolidation would likely permanently change the wireless competition paradigm, because there has been no interest among new entrants to construct multi-billion dollar national cellular networks to compete with established wireless companies.

On Monday, T-Mobile and Sprint delivered additional concessions which seem to have won the approval of Mr. Pai.

“Two of the FCC’s top priorities are closing the digital divide in rural America and advancing United States leadership in 5G, the next generation of wireless connectivity,” Pai said in a statement Monday. “The commitments made today by T-Mobile and Sprint would substantially advance each of these critical objectives.”

But a closer examination of “T-Sprint’s concessions” shows there is remarkably little there to protect competition and consumers:

  • A proposed spin off of prepaid Boost Mobile, which relies on the weaker Sprint network, is hardly much of a concession considering it will likely be impacted by the decommissioning of Sprint’s network, requiring at least some customers to buy new equipment that works on T-Mobile’s network. T-Sprint would also continue to control Boost competitors Virgin Mobile and MetroPCS, putting Boost at a distinct disadvantage.
  • The “nationwide” 5G network promised by T-Sprint is replete with fine print. The company will not be formally assessed on its expansion progress for three years, has demanded that T-Mobile’s own employees be allowed to conduct network performance tests — a conflict of interest, and that if it fails to meet its own proposed metrics, the FCC must forego the use of its regulatory forfeiture powers. Instead, the company agrees to pay “voluntary” fines if it fails coverage expansion commitments that are open to wide interpretation and litigation.
  • T-Sprint agreed to expand its “5G” coverage, but will rely heavily on existing macro cell towers and low and mid-band spectrum, shared by a much larger number of users than millimeter wave/small cell technology. That will probably deliver a more modest, incremental upgrade over existing 4G LTE technology, not a game-changer that can deliver gigabit speeds to wireless customers. Nothing precludes AT&T and Verizon from deploying similar upgrades without a competition-crushing merger between the third and fourth largest competitors.
  • T-Sprint’s proposed wireless home broadband replacement does not include a commitment to provide unlimited service. In fact, vague language in the commitment letter suggests T-Sprint will offer the service with a performance and usage expectation akin to other fixed wireless networks. That likely means customers will endure a data cap and speeds that are not comparable to wired technology. Once the company has signed up 9.5 million home broadband customers, any commitments offered to regulators about that service automatically expire.
  • The FCC is expected to give up much of its regulatory authority in return for T-Sprint’s commitments. If T-Sprint walks away from its commitments and not invest billions on its network expansion, it can pay a much smaller fine and have its merger obligations disappear. The FCC will not be able to use its more effective compliance power: forfeiture penalties.

T-Sprint’s argument is that this transaction will accelerate the deployment of 5G technology in a war for 5G supremacy with China. But exactly what technology is deployed, on what spectrum, using small cells or macro cell towers, makes a lot of difference. China’s wireless companies are owned and controlled by the Chinese government, which is also underwriting some of the costs. America’s networks are financed with private capital (and customer bills). T-Sprint’s 5G plans are also far less ambitious than those from AT&T and Verizon, and the cost to long-term competition is too high. The FCC should know that.

Congress has noticed that this merger has been rejected before during the Obama Administration for being anti competitive. Nothing has changed with respect to that. But T-Mobile’s lobbying sure has — this time trying to appeal to the Trump Administration for approval. Pai is certainly on board, and that could cost American consumers plenty.

Most telling of all is Wall Street’s reaction to today’s news. A merger that is being sold as as an AT&T/Verizon killer appears to be anything but. Verizon stock rose by 4.2% and AT&T by 4%. Investors recognize that consolidation can mean only one thing: higher prices. It means the end of the wireless price war that had Sprint and T-Mobile taking potshots at their larger rivals, forcing them to cut prices and bring back unlimited data plans.

It would be ruinous for T-Sprint to continue slashing prices and taunting AT&T and Verizon with costly promotions and giveaways. AT&T and Verizon expect T-Sprint will join their comfortable cartel with suspiciously similar plans and pricing, while firing up to 30,000 redundant workers and decommissioning Sprint’s wireless network. That last fact is well known on Wall Street, too. Cellphone tower owners took a beating in the stock market on the news they could lose Sprint as a customer. American Tower was down 1.9%, Crown Castle fell 3.2% and SBA Communications Corp. dropped as much as 4.5%.

The deal still must pass muster with the Justice Department, and attorneys general from multiple U.S. states are also opposing the deal on the state level. But the Republican members of the FCC joining up to support the deal make it more likely that it will eventually get approved.

Cable One: A Regime of High Prices and Data Caps

Cable One has the highest average revenue per customer of any publicly traded cable company in the United States, with the average customer paying Cable One $70.80 a month, mostly for internet access.

The company’s first quarter earnings growth of 5.5% reflect the company’s recent price increases and regime of low-allowance data caps, which have pushed 10 percent of its customers to pay an extra $40 a month to bring back unlimited access. Others are upgrading to costlier, faster tiers with more generous usage allowances.

“During the first quarter, we saw roughly 50% of our new customers choose our 200 Mbps or higher speed service and nearly 10% of our new customers opted to purchase our unlimited data plan,” said Julia Laulis, Cable One CEO.

Laulis

Cable One’s 200 Mbps plan (with a 600 GB data cap) costs $65 a month after promotions expire. A DOCSIS 3.0 modem lease fee of $10.50 applies. A $2.75 monthly internet service surcharge may apply. If a customer wants unlimited access to avoid overlimit fees, there is an additional charge of $40 a month (a 5 TB cap applies to the “unlimited plan”). Customers choosing a 200 Mbps broadband-only package with unlimited data will pay up to $118.25 a month.

Cable One’s broadband customers are concerned about staying within the data caps to avoid overlimit fees. While Comcast and Charter Spectrum customers consume over 300-400 GB of data per month (Comcast has a 1 TB cap, Spectrum only sells unlimited service), Cable One customers use an average of 290 GB, with usage growing at a 30-35% annual rate. Many Cable One customers have little choice either. Laulis noted that Cable One’s DSL competition is not very relevant when customers want to watch streaming video. Speeds are often so slow, customers do not have a good experience streaming HD video over DSL.

 

Cable One is also shedding its video customers in record numbers, with just 305,000 of its cable TV customers left. More than 29,000 departed year over year, and that number continues to rise as consumers rebel against the company’s high prices and unwillingness to negotiate.

MoffettNathanson warned that Cable One’s high pricing may eventually price itself out of broadband growth, as consumers elect to sign up with telephone companies instead. But many of its service areas are still served by low-speed DSL, and despite Cable One’s high cost, the company added 10,600 new internet customers in the last quarter.

In addition to raising prices, the company also plans to spend between $9-11 million to change its name from Cable One to Sparklight over the next two years.

Average Spectrum Broadband-Only Customer Now Using More than 400 GB a Month

Charter Spectrum’s broadband-only customers run up more than double the amount of broadband usage average customers subscribing to both cable TV and broadband use, and that consumption is growing fast.

“Data usage by residential internet customers is rising rapidly and monthly median data usage is over 200 GB per customer,” Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge said on a morning quarterly results conference call. “When you look at average monthly usage for customers that don’t subscribe to our traditional video product, usage climbs to over 400 GB per month.”

Last week, Comcast reported its average broadband customer also used over 200 GB a month, but did not break out the difference between those subscribing to cable TV and those who do not. If Comcast’s broadband-only customers are consuming a comparable amount of data, they could be nearing half of their monthly usage allowance (1 TB), in markets where Comcast caps its customers’ usage. But because that is only an average, it means many more Comcast customers are likely nearing or now exceeding Comcast’s data cap, exposing them to hefty overlimit penalties.

Spectrum does not impose any data allowances on its customers — all usage is unlimited.

Charter officials also reported their average mobile customers use “well under 10 GB a month.” The fact Charter did not get more specific about mobile usage is important because the new product is getting scrutiny from some on Wall Street concerned it will have a hard time becoming profitable because of its wholesale agreement with Verizon Wireless, which provides the 4G LTE service for Spectrum Mobile.

Subscribers have been primarily drawn to the $14/GB plan, which includes unlimited talk and texting, because it offers a very low entry price for a full-function wireless plan. But a customer only needs to use more than 3 GB of service per month to find their bill higher than what they would pay subscribing to Spectrum Mobile’s $45 unlimited usage plan. If Charter executives said the average mobile user consumed 5 GB of data, analysts could deduce what the average customer bill probably looked like. To maximize profits, Charter needs customers to select an unlimited data plan and keep data usage low to assure it can cover the wholesale costs Verizon Wireless charges the cable company for wireless connectivity.

Rutledge

Rutledge stressed he expects Spectrum Mobile to be profitable with the current Verizon Wireless MVNO contract in place — the service simply needs a larger user base to overcome its current losses.

Rutledge also announced Spectrum Mobile was testing dual SIM technology, which could allow it to eventually offload more of its 4G LTE traffic to its own (cheaper) network, which could eventually include mid-band wireless spectrum and the CBRS spectrum the company is already testing for fixed wireless service for rural areas. Spectrum could also follow Comcast with its own in-home network of publicly available Wi-Fi or innovate with unlicensed wireless mobile spectrum using small cells or external antennas.

Charter executives noted that customer data demands were pushing many to upgrade to higher speed internet products.

“Over 80% of our internet customers are now in packages that deliver 100 Mbps of speed or more and 30% of our customers are getting 200 Mbps or more,” Rutledge said. “We’re also seeing strong demand for our Ultra product, which delivers 400 Mbps, and we have gigabit service available everywhere.”

The costs to continue upgrading service for broadband customers are negligible on the company’s current platform, Rutledge admits. In the future, Charter Spectrum is considering offering 10 Gbps and 25 Gbps symmetrical service to customers, and it can scale up upgrades very quickly.

“For example, in only 14 months we launched DOCSIS 3.1, which took our speeds up to 1 Gbps across our entire footprint at a cost of just $9 per passing,” Rutledge said.

The Average Comcast Customer Now Uses Over 200 GB of Data Per Month

The average Comcast broadband customer now consumes over 200 GB of online data per month, an increase of 34% over just one year ago, according to Dave Watson, president and CEO of Comcast Cable Communications.

The increased usage accelerated during the last quarter of 2018, Watson told investors on a quarterly conference call.

What remains unchanged is Comcast’s data cap, which remains fixed at 1 TB per month for many customers. To avoid overlimit penalty fees of $10 for each additional 50 GB block of data consumed (up to $200 per month), Comcast is still pitching its unlimited data option — insurance against Comcast’s own overlimit penalties, which costs a growing number of customers an extra $50 a month.

Watson knows data usage over Comcast’s network is about to grow exponentially, mostly thanks to streaming video.

“I think that we start with the central view that streaming is going to happen, video over the internet is more friend than foe. and we wish every bit was our bit,” Watson told investors this morning. “If people consume more bits and video clearly does that, and 4K video does even more than that, that is the sweet spot of where this company is going to grow.”

Translation: We intend to make a killing on usage growth. Comcast can market you a faster internet package at a higher price, or as your usage approaches the data cap, scare you into buying overlimit insurance.

Remember that Comcast drops usage caps for some customers willing to rent their latest network gateway (available only in some areas at this time).

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