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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.

AT&T TV Launches In 10 Cities; New Streaming Service Resembles DirecTV

Phillip Dampier August 19, 2019 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Data Caps, Online Video No Comments

AT&T TV launched today in 10 U.S. cities — all within AT&T’s U-verse/fiber service areas, providing a comparable TV lineup to the DirecTV satellite service with discounts for bundling internet access.

Customers can begin signing up today for the service in Orange and Riverside, Calif., West Palm Peach, Fla., Topeka and Wichita, Kan., Springfield and St. Louis, Mo., and Corpus Christi, El Paso, and Odessa, Tex.

The service’s television lineup is closely comparable to the DirecTV satellite lineup, and AT&T intends its new streaming TV service to offer an alternative to those who do not want to install a satellite dish or deal with AT&T’s own U-verse TV. The biggest bundle discounts go to consumers who bundle internet and television service together. Video packages start at $59.99 and include a much larger lineup than AT&T’s streaming-only service targeting cord cutters — AT&T TV Now (formerly DirecTV Now).

These plans bundle television and internet from AT&T.

Customers bundling internet and TV service will find a deeply discounted 300 Mbps internet plan for $40 a month for the first year ($70 for gigabit service) and AT&T will include unlimited internet in any package bundling TV service (a $30/mo value). Installation fees are waived, but there is a $19.95 activation fee and an early termination fee of $15/mo for TV and $15/mo for internet for each month remaining on a two-year contract. AT&T TV requires a set-top box for each television and the first one is free. Each additional box is $120, payable up front or in 12 equal monthly installments of $10. The box is powered by Android TV and supports various apps and comes with a voice remote control.

Features include a 500-hour cloud DVR package, with recordings stored up to 90 days. You can record as many channels as you want at the same time, but we suspect premium movie channels may be excluded. The full lineup is available for streaming outside of your home and includes local major network affiliates in most markets. AT&T TV supports 4K streaming as well, and since AT&T is waiving its data cap for TV and broadband customers, you will not have to worry about any data caps. Up to three people can stream your TV lineup simultaneously. Keep in mind each television represents one stream.

AT&T makes life complicated for would-be customers with a panoply of confusing discounts, rebates, and savings that often expire after one year into a two-year contract. Customers should pay careful attention to the breakdown of the charges AT&T provides and mark your calendar so you are not surprised by the gradually rising bill.

Stop the Cap! put together a package to give you an idea of what to expect. We selected the “Ultimate” TV package, which includes just about every English language channel on the lineup. Mysteriously, the biggest exception is Hallmark Movies and Mysteries. Like AT&T TV Now, this channel is only available on the cheapest package, which makes no sense to us.

Let’s start with the TV package:

Note that the TV package is discounted significantly, but only for the first 12 months of your 24 month commitment. Also note the “Regional Sports Fee” which varies depending on the city. In this case, we chose Topeka, Kan. to build this package.

Premium movie channels are provided free for the first 90 days. The prices shown represent à la carte pricing. If you want these channels going forward, ask if a package price is available and bundle them for additional savings.

AT&T’s mini set-top box has been tested by DirecTV Now customers for almost a year. It earned mixed reviews and can be cumbersome. Keep in mind the first box is free, but each additional box costs $120, payable up front or in installments.

AT&T’s pricing for the first three months is very low, then higher prices kick in for the next 12 months unless you cancel those four premium movie channels, with still higher pricing during the second year of the two-year contract. AT&T makes things needlessly complicated and this explains the subscriber confusion about billing issues that is common with AT&T. But AT&T cannot be accused of not letting you know what to expect. In 2020, you could be paying $188.37 just for your TV lineup:

Next up is the internet portion of our order:

Note you get a $20 discount, but only during the first year. The fact you seem to owe nothing when placing the order does not mean the first month is free. AT&T is not sure what they will charge you because: “The monthly total on your bill may vary depending on your billing date and prorated monthly fees, based on the date of installation, that are applied to your account. Quoted prices don’t include taxes, fees, surcharges, shipping, or other charges including city video cost-recovery and Universal Services Fund fees, where applicable.” AT&T wouldn’t tell us exactly what those charges were.

Finally, AT&T includes some additional savings from various promotions, including an odd double gift card promotion awarding a total of $100 in Visa gift cards for signing up online:

The gift card promotion ends September 15, 2019 but will likely reappear. Customers have to submit their rebate request soon after service is ordered and spend the gift card(s) within six months to avoid forfeiture.

AT&T plans to roll out AT&T TV nationwide during 2020. But the company seems to be favoring markets where it already offers broadband service. It is not known if or when AT&T will introduce this streaming alternative to DirecTV in areas where other phone companies dominate. Customers do not have to use AT&T for internet access to subscribe.

CBS and AT&T Reach Carriage Agreement, CBS Sports Net and Smithsonian Channel Part of Deal

Phillip Dampier August 8, 2019 AT&T, Consumer News, DirecTV, DirecTV Now, Online Video No Comments

CBS and AT&T have agreed to end the blackout of 26 CBS owned and operated TV stations in 17 markets including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta, Tampa, Seattle, Detroit, Minneapolis, Miami, Denver, Sacramento, Pittsburgh and Baltimore. CBS local stations in these areas will return to AT&T U-verse, DirecTV, and DirecTV Now lineups sometime today.

The renewed retransmission consent contract covers carriage of these stations and CBS-owned CBS Sports Network and Smithsonian Channel for the next several years and could broaden carriage of the two CBS cable networks to additional AT&T platforms in the coming months.

Terms of the agreement were not disclosed, but analysts suggest AT&T is now paying several dollars a month per subscriber for each over the air station. AT&T had earlier claimed CBS was being unreasonable in requesting a substantial hike in rates to continue carrying stations that viewers can get over the air for free.

AT&T is still engaged in weeks-long disputes with several Nexstar and Sinclair-managed local station, resulting in ongoing station blackouts in markets around the country.

CBS and Viacom Move Closer to Multi-Billion Dollar Mega-Merger Under CBS Name

Phillip Dampier August 6, 2019 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video, Video No Comments

CBS and Viacom are one important step closer to merging under the CBS name, creating one of the country’s largest programming and broadcasting powerhouses.

Last week, the two companies’ board of directors agreed on who would run the combined company that will be worth tens of billions of dollars.

Under the agreement, the top spot will go to current Viacom CEO Bob Bakish, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. Bakish has been working with Viacom to transform its operations in a world increasingly dominated by cord-cutting and online streaming. Viacom had a reputation of being ruthless with its cable and satellite partners, demanding some of the industry’s highest rates for Viacom-owned cable channels, causing some cable operators to drop Viacom networks from their cable TV lineups.

It will not be the first time CBS and Viacom have been merged. Owner Sumner Redstone kept the two companies together until splitting them apart in 2006. Shortly after, Redstone’s declining health led to warring factions inside the two companies and several legal disputes with Sumner’s daughter Shari, who took over for her 96-year-old father. Former CBS CEO Les Moonves long opposed a merger between CBS and Viacom, but Moonves was forced out of CBS because of a burgeoning sexual harassment scandal. His replacement, acting CBS CEO Joseph Ianniello, is said to be sanguine about the merger deal, even though it would result in a demotion to managing CBS’ broadcast network, owned and operated TV stations, and Showtime.

The merged company would absorb Viacom into CBS, putting assets including Comedy Central, MTV, VH-1, Nickelodeon, BET, and Paramount Pictures under CBS ownership and control.

Three people close to the situation cautioned talks were still ongoing and not final.

Fox Business News reports the merger of CBS and Viacom may be imminent. Will they also acquire Discovery Networks? (4:53)

DirecTV Now Becomes AT&T TV Now, With AT&T TV Coming Later This Summer

Phillip Dampier July 30, 2019 AT&T, Consumer News, DirecTV, DirecTV Now, Online Video 1 Comment

DirecTV Now customers will soon be introduced to AT&T TV Now as the streaming service rebrands with new apps and prepares for the launch of WarnerMedia’s HBO Max streaming service early next year.

The streaming service, originally branded as part of the DirecTV platform, has suffered major subscriber losses (168,000 in the last three months alone) after reducing the size of its TV packages and raising prices twice in the last year. To date, more than 26% of DirecTV Now’s subscriber base has defected to other streaming services, with no end to those losses in sight. AT&T’s DirecTV satellite and U-verse TV have also turned in stunning reductions in the number of subscribers, losing at least two million customers in the last year, with 778,000 departing during the second quarter of 2019.

AT&T has stopped offering deep promotional discounts to most customers threatening to cancel over rate hikes, and subscribers are making good on their threats to leave. The company is also embroiled in two major retransmission consent disputes that have left customers in several cities facing a blackout of as many as three network affiliated local TV stations. With higher prices for fewer channels, and plenty of alternatives, customers are turning to other providers.

AT&T’s 2015 purchase of DirecTV, in retrospect, appears to have been a major business mistake, according to some Wall Street analysts. Originally intended to help AT&T manage the spiraling costs of video for its U-verse TV service by winning more generous volume discounts from programmers, the DirecTV acquisition came just before the phenomenon of cord-cutting took off, leaving all of AT&T’s video services vulnerable to customer losses. DirecTV Now initially benefited from cord-cutters attracted to its generous package of channels at a low price, but an executive decision to reduce the channel lineup while raising prices drove off what executives characterized as ‘undesirable customers only looking for deals.’

AT&T has also been experimenting with a separate streaming service that will likely eventually replace the satellite-based DirecTV. Beta testers have been providing feedback to AT&T about a new set top streaming box intended to work with this service, now to be called AT&T TV. AT&T is also reducing the number of apps required to access its myriad of video services. AT&T TV and AT&T TV Now customers will download the same app, only the channel lineups will be different. The company is targeting AT&T TV Now on cord-cutters looking for a cheaper and smaller video package, while AT&T TV will include a range of packages likely identical or very similar to DirecTV’s current satellite lineup.

If AT&T TV is successful, AT&T can cut costs incurred installing and maintaining satellite dishes and also eventually decommission DirecTV’s satellite fleet. Rural satellite TV customers without access to broadband may be in a difficult position if that happens, and the country has still not resolved the rural broadband challenge.

Even with these changes, AT&T customers are faced with a large menu of potentially confusing video options. AT&T sells traditional live cable TV services through AT&T TV, AT&T TV Now, DirecTV, and U-verse. It also offers a stripped down WatchTV package offering 35 channels for $15 a month or less. Premium customers still trying to tell the difference between HBO Go and HBO Now will soon also contend with HBO Max. Cinemax has its own similar offerings for cable TV customers and direct to consumer subscribers.

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