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Telecom Industry Slashes Investments for 2020-2021; Focus on Profit Margins New Priority

Telecom companies are cutting investment in their networks despite promises by Republican members of the FCC that repeal of net neutrality would inspire increased investment.

Charter, Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon have surprised Wall Street with dramatic cutbacks in spending and investment in their networks, with one provider admitting improving profit margins are now a bigger priority.

As a result, Wall Street analysts are revising down capital expenditure (Capex) estimates in reports to their investor clients.

“Comcast and Charter missed [third quarter] expectations for Capex and guided 2019 lower than previously planned,” reported Nomura in a note to investors. “We have lowered our combined 2019 Capex forecast for Comcast and Charter from $14.6 billion to $14.2 billion.”

AT&T’s drop in network spending was the most dramatic among the country’s top telecom companies. AT&T has declared an end to fiber broadband expansion and slashed spending forecasts from the $23 billion the company spent this year to as little as $20 billion next year, despite claiming it would dramatically expand its 5G service to over two dozen cities over the next 12 months.

In a recent conference call with investors, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said “now it’s time to reap the rewards of what we’ve been doing [and] begin to reward to shareholders these investments that we’ve been making over the last few years.”

Over the next three years, AT&T will pay shareholders $45 billion in dividends and spend $30 billion on buying back shares of AT&T stock to retire debt racked up buying Time Warner (Entertainment). In fact, AT&T will devote 50-75% of its free cash flow exclusively on retiring shares of AT&T stock, which is expected to benefit shareholders.

Verizon reported spending $4.4 billion in the third quarter on network upgrades, approximately $100 million less than expected. That is a concern because Verizon is trying to expand its costly 5G network, but is not devoting the investment dollars required to make such an upgrade happen without cutting investments elsewhere in the company. Verizon has told Wall Street analysts to expect stable Capex spending of $17-18 billion annually for 2019-2021. That will either mean Verizon’s 5G expansion will be modest or the phone company will have to slash investments in other areas, such as wireline, fiber to the home, or business services.

Many analysts expect 5G will be a top spending priority for AT&T and Verizon over the next several years, leaving little room in budgets for upkeep of the company’s legacy landline networks or its other products. Charter and Comcast have effectively stopped spending on large upgrade projects, also as part of improved profit-taking.

The spending realities are in direct conflict with the promises made by Republican members of the FCC. Trump-picked FCC Chairman Ajit Pai repeatedly claimed that banishing net neutrality would lead to significant increases in investment by the nation’s top telecom companies. In fact, the opposite has happened.

Trump Administration Can’t Stop States From Enacting Net Neutrality Protection, Court Rules

Phillip Dampier October 1, 2019 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't, Reuters 3 Comments

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court on Tuesday rejected the decision of the Federal Communications Commission to declare that states cannot pass their own net neutrality laws and ordered the agency to review some key aspects of its 2017 repeal of rules set by the Obama administration.

The court, which upheld most of the FCC’s December 2017 order, said the agency “failed to examine the implications of its decisions for public safety” and must also review how its decision will impact a government subsidy program for low-income users.

The decision means the more than 10-year-old debate over net neutrality will continue to drag on for months or more likely years. The ruling is a setback to the Trump administration’s efforts to reverse rules adopted under former President Barack Obama in 2015 which barred internet service providers from blocking or throttling traffic, or offering paid fast lanes, also known as paid prioritization.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the decision affirmed the FCC’s “decision to repeal 1930s utility-style regulation of the internet. A free and open internet is what we have today. A free and open internet is what we’ll continue to have going forward.”

Pai added that the FCC would address “the narrow issues that the court identified.”

Championed by large tech companies and consumer groups, net neutrality was formally adopted by the FCC in 2015. Major telecommunications companies argued it limited their ability to offer new services to content providers, and under the Trump administration, the FCC overturned the policy.

California passed sweeping state net neutrality protections but agreed not to enforce the measure pending the court challenge.

The court threw out the part of the order that barred all states from setting net neutrality rules and argued that states were preempted by federal law.

“The commission lacked the legal authority to categorically abolish all 50 states statutorily conferred authority to regulate intrastate communications,” the court said.

The FCC could still make “provision-specific arguments” to seek to block individual aspects of state net neutrality rules.

Judge Stephen Williams wrote in his dissenting opinion that “On my colleagues’ view, state policy trumps federal; or, more precisely, the most draconian state policy trumps all else.”

The Trump administration rules were a win for internet providers like AT&T Inc, Comcast Corp and Verizon Communications Inc but opposed by companies such as Facebook Inc, Amazon.com Inc and Alphabet Inc.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Paul Simao and Lisa Shumaker

Wall Street Journal Says Faster Internet Not Worth It, But They Ignore Bottlenecks and Data Caps

The Wall Street Journal believes the majority of Americans are paying for internet speed they never use or need, but their investigation largely ignores the question of traffic bottlenecks and data caps that require many customers to upgrade to premium tiers to avoid punitive overlimit fees.

The newspaper’s examination was an attempt to test the marketing messages of large cable and phone companies that claim premium speeds of 250, 500, or 1,000 Mbps will enhance video streaming. A total of 53 journalists across the country performed video streaming tests over a period of months, working with researchers at Princeton University and the University of Chicago to determine how much of their available bandwidth was used while streaming videos from Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube and other popular streaming services.

Unsurprisingly, the newspaper found most only need a fraction of their available internet speed — often less than 10 Mbps — to watch high quality HD streaming video, even with up to seven video streams running concurrently. That is because video streaming services are designed to produce good results even with lower speed connections. Video resolution and buffering are dynamically adjusted by the streaming video player depending on the quality of one’s internet connection, with good results likely for anyone with a basic broadband connection of 10-25 Mbps. As 4K streams become more common, customers will probably get better performance with faster tiers, assuming the customer has an unshaped connection that does not throttle video streaming speeds as many mobile connections do and the streaming service offers a subscription tier offering 4K video. Netflix, for example, charges more for 4K streams. Some other services do not offer this option at all.

Image: WSJ

WSJ:

For most modern televisions, the highest picture clarity is the “full” high-definition standard, 1080p, followed by the slightly lower HD standard, 720p, then “standard resolution,” 480p. The Journal study found a household’s percentage of 1080p viewing had little to do with the speed it was paying for. In some cases, streaming services intentionally transmit in lower resolution to accommodate a device such as a mobile phone.

When all HD viewing is considered—1080p and 720p—there were some benefits to paying for the very highest broadband tiers, those 250 Mbps and above.

Streaming services compress their streams in smart ways, so they don’t require much bandwidth. We took a closer look at specific services by gathering data on our households’ viewing over a period of months. Unlike the “stress test,” this was regular viewing of shows and movies, one at a time.

Netflix streamed at under 4 Mbps, on average, over the course of a show or movie, with not much difference in the experience of someone who was paying for a 15 Mbps connection and someone with a one gigabit (1,000 Mbps) connection. The findings were similar for the other services.

There is a brief speed spike when a stream begins. Netflix reached the highest max speeds of the services we tested, but even those were a fraction of the available bandwidth.

Users watching YouTube might launch a video slightly faster than those watching Netflix, and at lower resolution, but this is a function of how those services work, not your broadband speed, the researchers said.

Whereas Netflix tries to load “nice high quality video” when you press play and hence has higher spikes, YouTube appears to “want to start as fast as possible,” said Paul Schmitt, one of the researchers.

A spokeswoman for Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube said the service chooses playback quality based on factors including type of device, network speed, user preferences and the resolution of the originally uploaded video. A Netflix Inc. spokeswoman said the company aims to deliver quality video with the least possible bandwidth. Amazon.com Inc. had no comment.

The Journal finds little advantage for consumers subscribing to premium speed tiers, if they did so hoping for improved streaming video. The unanswered question is why customers believe they need faster internet speeds to get those improvements in the first place.

The answer often lies in the quality of the connection between the streaming provider and the customer. There are multiple potential bottlenecks that can make a YouTube video stutter and buffer on even the fastest internet connection. Large providers have had high profile disputes with large streaming companies over interconnection agreements that bring Netflix and YouTube traffic to those internet service providers’ customers. Some ISPs want compensation to handle the increasing amount of incoming video traffic and have intentionally not allowed adequate upgrades to keep up with growing subscriber demand. This creates a traffic bottleneck, usually most noticeable at night, when even a small YouTube video can get stuck buffering. Other streaming videos can suffer from repeated pauses or deteriorate into lower resolution video quality, regardless of the speed of your connection.

Another common bottleneck comes from oversold service providers that have too much traffic and not enough capacity to manage it. DSL and satellite internet customers often complain about dramatic slowdowns in performance during peak usage times in the evenings and on weekends. In many cases, too many customers in a neighborhood are sharing the connection back to the phone company. Satellite customers only have a finite amount of bandwidth to work with and once used, all speeds slow. Some other providers do not pay for a large enough pipeline to the internet backbone, making some traffic slow to a crawl when that connection is full.

Customers are sold on speed upgrades by providers that tell them faster speeds will accommodate more video traffic, which is true but not the whole answer. No amount of speed will overcome intentional traffic shaping, an inadequate connection to the video streaming service, or an oversold network. Too bad the Journal did not investigate these conditions, which are more common than many people think.

Finally, some customers feel compelled to upgrade to premium tiers because their provider enforces data caps, and premium tiers offer larger usage allowances. Cable One, Suddenlink, and Mediacom customers, among others, get a larger usage allowance upgrading. Other providers offer a fixed cap, often 1 TB, which does not go away unless a customer pays an additional monthly fee or bundles video service.

Data caps are a concern for video streaming customers because the amount of data that can be consumed in a month is substantial. As video quality improves, data consumption increases. The Journal article does not address data caps.

Finally, the Journal investigation confined itself to video streaming, but internet users are also increasingly using other high traffic services, especially cloud backup and downloading, especially for extremely large video game updates. The next generation of high bandwidth internet applications will only be developed if high speed internet service is pervasive, so having fast internet speed is not a bad thing. In fact, providers have learned it is relatively cheap to increase customer speeds and use that as a justification to raise broadband prices. Other providers, like Charter Spectrum, have dropped lower speed budget plans to sell customers 100 or 200 Mbps service, with a relatively inexpensive upgrade to 400 Mbps also gaining in popularity.

Does the average consumer need a premium speed tier for their home internet connection? Probably not. But they do need affordable unlimited internet service free of bottlenecks and artificial slowdowns, especially at the prices providers charge these days. That is an investigation the Journal should conduct next.

Cable Industry Spending Freeze Causes Cisco to Halt Investment in Full Duplex DOCSIS

Despite assurances from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai that the repeal of net neutrality would inspire cable operators to increase investment in broadband, a year-long virtual spending freeze by the nation’s top cable operators has resulted in a major vendor pulling out of the next generation cable broadband standard until there are signs cable companies are prepared to spend money on upgrades again.

Cisco Systems has confirmed to Light Reading it has ceased investment in Full Duplex DOCSIS technology that would allow cable customers to get the same upload speed as download speed.

“Cisco has internally communicated that we are suspending further investment in Full Duplex DOCSIS (FDX) until the market timing, ecosystem development and size of the opportunity can be quantified,” a Cisco spokesperson said in a statement to Light Reading.

The news is a significant blow to the cable industry’s plans to upgrade to 10 Gbps capacity and a growing desire by customers to get much faster upload speeds than are currently available.

Cisco blamed its pullback on the cable industry’s lack of investment in broadband upgrades and an uncertain timetable when major cable companies including Comcast, Charter, Cox, and others will announce specific plans for future upgrades.

FDX has already been the victim of delays. Originally planned as an incremental upgrade for DOCSIS 3.1, FDX is now scheduled to be included in CableLabs’ DOCSIS 4.0 specification, which is not expected to be released for a few years. FDX will be one of several new features incorporated into the next cable broadband standard, which will allow for low latency connections and an expanded amount of coaxial cable spectrum that can be devoted to broadband services.

The cable industry has been taking a sober look at the costs associated with adopting FDX, which includes scrapping a significant amount of coaxial cable and pushing fiber optic technology much closer to customers. Cable systems that want to move towards FDX will have to remove amplifiers that maintain signal strength between the fiber optic connection and the coaxial cable entering customers’ homes. In some cases, this will mean removing multiple amps from the cable system and stringing new fiber optic cables deep into neighborhoods. This is known as node+0 architecture. Moving towards node+0 is expected to be both costly and labor intensive, and some large cable systems and investors are balking.

“There are a lot of operators who have no intention of getting to a node+0 environment in next 10 years,” Tom Cloonan, chief technical officer of Arris’ Networks Solutions unit, told Multichannel News last fall. “It’s going to take a while to run fiber deep enough to get to node+0.”

To date, the only major cable operator that has definitively backed moving to node+0 is Comcast. Other cable companies, notably Cox Communications, are seeking a much cheaper solution to manage upgrades.

Extended Spectrum DOCSIS (ESD)
Image courtesy of: Huawei

An emerging alternative concept has emerged that can be implemented at a lower cost. Extended Spectrum DOCSIS (ESD) would essentially repurpose much of the bandwidth available over a coaxial cable solely to broadband service. DOCSIS 3.1 currently dedicates 1.2 GHz of spectrum for broadband. FDX would increase that to more than 1.8 GHz. ESD would devote as much as 3 (or possibly 6) GHz of spectrum for data transmissions. The cable system would devote as much as half of that spectrum for downstream traffic, the other half for upstream. Theoretical speeds in the future could be as high as 60 Gbps, and ESD will not require cable systems to ditch existing amplifiers. It will, however, force some cable systems to evaluate and replace at least part of their older coaxial cable network. ESD will be less forgiving of deteriorating cable than DOCSIS 3.1 is.

Unfortunately for Cisco, and other cable broadband equipment suppliers, ESD is still more theory than fact, and with cable operators demonstrating they are in no rush to move to either FDX or ESD, it will likely be several years before either technology becomes available to customers. Cloonan predicts ESD will not be implemented by cable systems until the mid-2020s.

The muddy waters over where the cable industry will ultimately plant the flag on next generation broadband upgrades means a lot of uncertainty for companies like Cisco, which has resulted in the company pulling out of developing FDX until there are assurances the cable industry has a timetable to implement it. The decision has also cost several Cisco employees their jobs. Multiple industry sources told Light Reading job cuts included 5-7 engineers dedicated to FDX, and some sources also report at least 40 employees in the cable access division of Cisco have also been let go.

If certainty does not return to the cable broadband market soon, Cisco could ultimately jettison much of its cable broadband technology division to focus on other technology growth areas.

The cable industry’s investment freeze is ironic because the Trump Administration’s FCC trumpeted its decision to repeal net neutrality, claiming it would inspire cable operators to accelerate investment in network upgrades. It appears the exact opposite has occurred.

Deutsche Telekom Loses All-You-Can-Watch StreamOn Dispute in Germany Over Net Neutrality Violation

While net neutrality in the United States has been neutered by the Republican-controlled FCC, the concept of an online level playing field is alive and well in Germany, and T-Mobile’s parent company Deutsche Telekom (DT) just got called out for a foul ball.

The German telecom giant has lost its legal battle with Germany’s telecom regulator, the Federal Network Agency (Regulator Bundesnetzagentur) over StreamOn, its all-you-can-stream mobile video product that does not count against customer usage allowances. The company introduced the unlimited video streaming service in Germany in 2017, emulating a similar service available in the United States that offers zero rated mobile video content at a reduced video resolution. An appeals court in Münster this week ruled that the German regulator was correct to forbid DT from continuing to offer StreamOn to customers in its present form for two reasons:

  • StreamOn was only available to T-Mobile customers inside Germany or those who visited the country, violating Europe’s “roam like at home” rules that require carriers to not restrict or charge more for mobile services or features when traveling between member states of the European Union.
  • StreamOn violates German net neutrality rules by delivering only T-Mobile approved, speed-throttled, low resolution video content that won’t count against a customer’s usage cap.

“StreamOn must conform to the ‘roam like at home’ principle and customers must have video streaming available in an unthrottled bandwidth,” said Federal Network Agency president Jochen Homann. “The rule of equal treatment is a cornerstone of European net neutrality regulations. The principle of equal treatment has made the internet a driver of innovation, and the diversity of applications and services benefits all consumers.”

Hohmann

DT immediately contested the regulator’s decision and sued. The case has been drifting through German courts since December 2017, with the most recent ruling in favor of the regulator issued by an appeals court, which declared its ruling to be final.

DT has claimed it finds the regulator’s objections “very puzzling indeed,” claiming StreamOn has been wildly popular in the United States and Germany. Two years ago, it warned that if the courts upheld the regulator’s ruling, it would force the company to stop offering it.

“The Bonn-based regulatory authority is ordering us to also offer StreamOn in other EU countries. It bases this order on the EU Roaming Regulation,” DT said in a statement in 2017. “Fulfilling the order would mean the end of our free service, because we would not be able to offer it cost-effectively in other countries.”

Despite its threat to shutter StreamOn in Germany, the company claimed this week it would continue offering the service for the time being, without increasing prices.

“We are delighted that the court has confirmed our interpretation of the law,” a Federal Network Agency spokesman said after the decision was announced. “We will take quick action to ensure that Telekom adjusts its product accordingly.”

“We expect the [Federal Network Agency] to allow an appropriate amount of time to make the necessary adjustments,” a DT spokesman said. “We are convinced that StreamOn is a legal product and will explore all our legal options.”

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