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AT&T Reportedly Looking for a Buyer for DirecTV, But Some Are Skeptical a Deal Can Be Done

Just five years after buying DirecTV for $49 billion, AT&T is looking to sell the satellite TV service after losing over 10 million customers because of repeated price hikes, network blackouts, and the ongoing shift to streaming online video.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that AT&T was in talks with private equity firms, potentially including Apollo Global Management and Platinum Equity about the possibility of acquiring DirecTV and taking the service private.

Regardless of who buys the service, AT&T might lose $30 billion on the five-year-old venture, buying high and selling low at a price that could drop below $20 billion. AT&T is rapidly losing its television customers. More than six million people have dropped TV packages from AT&T’s U-verse TV and satellite provider DirecTV in the last two years. Craig Moffett, an analyst with MoffettNathanson, told the New York Post even at a rumored discount sale price of $20 billion, AT&T may have “overvalued” the “albatross.”

Moffett is skeptical buyers will close a deal, considering AT&T’s remaining 17.7 million television customers are still in the mood to cancel, with an “astounding” 18% of customers leaving each year.

But even with the customer losses, DirecTV moves a lot of money through its operations, making it at least look attractive on certain buyers’ books. DirecTV’s cash flow helped AT&T’s own unimpressive earnings, adding $22 billion to AT&T’s balance sheet since buying the satellite company. A buyout by a private equity firm could further slowly drain DirecTV by saddling it with debt, secured in part by its still healthy cash flow. A buyer could also attract investors by borrowing even more to pay out handsome dividend bonuses. That could leave DirecTV hopelessly hobbled in debt, leaving DirecTV in an “inevitable” position of having to merge with its chief competitor, Dish Network, or face eventual bankruptcy. If that were to happen, rural Americans could face a satellite TV monopoly as their only choice for live video entertainment.

DirecTV customers report innovation at the satellite service seems to have disappeared since AT&T took over. Very little has changed with the service in the past few years, except for AT&T raising prices and getting stingier with promotions. Many rural DirecTV customers still depend on satellite television because of a lack of over the air reception or broadband service. For these customers, saving money on television service means having to bounce back and forth between Dish Network and DirecTV, trying to keep a discounted promotion active on their account. If the two satellite services eventually merge, that will cease.

After AT&T acquired Time Warner (Entertainment), insiders report many of AT&T’s legacy businesses, including DirecTV and U-verse, have become afterthoughts. AT&T’s bigger priorities now lie with its new 5G wireless service and HBO Max, its new online video service. But the company’s most profitable businesses continue to be cell phone service and selling wired broadband internet access, which together now earns the company over $180 billion annually.

Early Speed Tests of SpaceX’s Starlink Are Underwhelming; Alpha Testers Leaking Info Protected by NDAs

SpaceX’s Starlink service is unlikely to compete in the same arena as fiber and cable internet service providers, if leaked early speed test results are an accurate indication of the service’s performance.

A sub-Reddit for Starlink, the low earth orbiting (LEO) satellite internet service, is buzzing with activity after one or more anonymous users in Washington State shared speed test results in a public forum, in apparent violation of the non-disclosure agreement SpaceX insists alpha testers sign.

Starlink’s current alpha test, open to rural areas in Washington State only, will give SpaceX data on how well the platform performs in the marketplace. As beta tests begin later this year, testers will be required to have an unobstructed view of the northern sky, live within 44 and 52 degrees latitude, be willing and able to complete multiple surveys about the service over a two-month period, and agree to receive and properly install the equipment. All alpha and beta testers will receive the service for free, but will be asked to pay $1 to test Starlink’s billing system.

Testers are supposed to keep information about their Starlink experiences private, as per a detailed non-disclosure agreement that each tester must sign. But anonymous leaks about the service, along with ‘telling’ questions, have frequently appeared in a public forum about the satellite service, frustrating SpaceX. The satellite provider has reportedly issued multiple “takedown requests” to remove violating content.

Last week, Starlink began requesting more detailed information from those seeking to enroll in future beta tests, a sign it is gearing up to test the service more widely soon.

So far, Starlink testers in Washington State willing to leak their experiences are reporting download speeds no better than 60 Mbps, with upload speed averaging between 10-15 Mbps. Latency, a constant problem with satellite internet, was a more impressive 50 ms on average, but can vary between 31-94 ms.

Only a small number of people in Washington State are estimated to be taking part in current trials, which started before SpaceX’s entire satellite fleet is in orbit. SpaceX previously claimed the service was designed to deliver “blazing fast speeds” up to 1,000 Mbps. That clearly is not happening at the moment. Some testers have been told that speed will increase as more satellites are placed into orbit, but others are wondering if early results are good enough, especially considering they are conducted on satellite infrastructure that currently has a light load with almost no users.

Starlink’s speed and performance will be crucial indicators of how the broadband industry will respond to the emerging market of LEO-based satellite internet. If 60/10 Mbps service is what many users can expect to get, that might deflate SpaceX’s boasts that its Starlink platform could be a competitive game-changer. Cable and fiber providers will likely dismiss Starlink as a serious competitor in the urban and suburban markets they serve, noting wired internet performance is already considerably faster. Still, the project could provide much-needed internet service in exurban and rural areas bypassed by cable companies, leaving consumers with a current choice of <10 Mbps DSL from the phone company or no service at all.

Verizon Launches 4G LTE Home Broadband Service Without Data Caps, Starting at $40/Month

Verizon is introducing a new wireless home broadband service that will target customers that can get good cell phone reception from home but are stuck with slow speed DSL from the phone company, or no internet access at all.

Verizon’s new LTE Home Internet will offer customers speeds of 25-50 Mbps without data caps on Verizon’s already built 4G network. The service launched this week in Savannah, Ga., Springfield, Mo., and Tri-Cities, Tenn./Va./Ky. Starting today, Verizon says it will expand home internet access to customers outside of its existing Fios and millimeter-wave 5G Home footprints, primarily to reach rural customers.

“With LTE Home Internet, our most awarded 4G LTE network will provide internet connectivity for customers in more rural parts of America who may not have access to broadband internet service – a critical need, especially now, when so many are counting on reliable connectivity for remote work and educational needs,” said Frank Boulben, senior vice president of Consumer Marketing and Products at Verizon.

The service and equipment are sold at different prices depending on how much business you already do with Verizon:

LTE Home Internet Service Pricing

  • If you do NOT have an active Verizon mobile plan and DO NOT WISH to enroll in paper-free billing and auto-pay, the service costs $70/month.
  • If you do NOT have an active Verizon mobile plan or one that costs less than $30/month and ARE WILLING to enroll in paper-free billing and auto-pay, the service costs $60/month.
  • If you DO have an active Verizon mobile plan that costs $30/month or more and DO NOT WISH to enroll in paper-free billing and auto-pay, the service costs $50/month.
  • If you DO have an active Verizon mobile plan that costs $30/month or more and ARE WILLING to enroll in paper-free billing and auto-pay, the service costs $40/month.
  • The required LTE router costs $240 or $10/month for 24 months (0% interest) on Verizon’s Device Payment Plan. If you order the router using “device payments,” you will receive a $10/month promotional credit for the next 24 months, making the router free of charge if you stay with the service for two years. If you cancel service early, the remaining payments will become due immediately.

Although the service cannot match the speeds offered by modern cable and fiber broadband networks, Verizon’s wireless speeds do appear to qualify as “broadband service” and for the first time on a 4G LTE network, do not include any data caps or sneaky speed throttling, making it a potentially respectable option for those in rural areas looking for something better than phone company DSL.

Verizon offers this coverage check tool to determine if service is available in your area. If not, you can leave your e-mail address and phone number and Verizon will contact you as the service expands.

This Verizon-provided video introduces the company’s new LTE Home Internet service, a wireless broadband option without data caps for those looking for rural access or something better than phone company DSL. (1:25)

Fiber to the Home Customers Only Cancel “If They Move or Die”

Customer satisfaction with fiber to the home internet service is so high, one industry leader says the only time customers cancel service is if they move or die.

Carl Russo, CEO of internet equipment vendor Calix, says phone companies are relying on fiber optic networks to turn their struggling businesses around except in the most rural areas of the country.

“Fixed wireless will sometimes be the right choice and Calix’s software supports it. But our telco customers with fiber will lose very few customers. If they provide strong, customer-focused service, no one will have a reason to switch,” Russo told Dave Burstein’s Fast Net News. “It’s only a slight exaggeration to say customers only churn if they move or die. This is provided the service provider chooses to ‘own’ the subscriber experience. A service provider that invests in fiber but doesn’t further invest in an excellent subscriber experience is still vulnerable.”

Russo argues that fiber to the home service has been the right choice for most of the developed world for several years now, at least where there is hearty competition between providers.

Where competition is lacking, phone companies often still rely on archaic DSL service, which is increasingly incapable of competing with even smaller cable operators. Phone companies are now up against the wall, forced to recognize that existing, decades-old copper wire infrastructure cannot sustain their future in the broadband business. Companies that drag their feet on fiber upgrades are bleeding customers, and some companies are even in bankruptcy reorganization.

Russo

Fiber networks are future-proof, with most offering up to gigabit speed to consumers and businesses. But upgrading to 10 Gbps will “add little to the cost” once demand for such faster speed appears, Russo said.

Fast Net News notes that France Telecom, Telefonica Spain, Bell Canada, and Telus have all proven successful using fiber to the home service to compete with cable companies to market internet access. Companies that approved less costly fiber to the neighborhood projects that relied on keeping a portion of a company’s legacy copper network, including AT&T, BT in the United Kingdom, and Deutsche Telekom in Germany, have had to bring back construction equipment to further extend fiber optic cables to individual customer homes — a costly expense.

Even public broadband projects like Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) paid dearly for a political decision to downsize the NBN’s original fiber optic design to save money. The NBN was hobbled by a more conservative government that came to power just as the network was being built. Many NBN customers ended up with a more advanced form of DSL supplied from oversubscribed remote terminals, which delivered just 50 Mbps to some subscribers. For-profit companies have also been pressured to keep costs down and limit fiber rollouts by Wall Street and investors. Verizon FiOS is the best known American example, with further network expansion of the fiber optic service essentially shelved in 2010 at the behest of investors that claimed the upgrades cost too much.

Underfunded upgrades often bring customer dissatisfaction as speeds cannot achieve expectations, and many hybrid fiber-copper networks are less robust and more subject to breakdowns. In the United Kingdom, BT’s “super fast” broadband initiative has been a political problem for years, and communities frequently compete to argue who has the worst service in the country. BT’s fiber-to-the-village approach supplies fiber internet service to street cabinets in smaller communities that link to existing BT copper phone lines that are often in poor shape. Customers often get less than 50 Mbps service from BT’s “super fast” service while a few UK cable companies are constructing all-fiber networks in larger cities capable of supplying gigabit internet speed to every customer.

Calix is positioned to earn heavily by selling the equipment and infrastructure that will power future fiber network upgrades that are inevitable if companies want to attract and keep customers. A new round of federal rural broadband funding will help phone companies pay for the upgrades, which means many rural Americans will find fiber to the home service in their future.

Telecom Industry Lobbyist Gets Friendly Reception on C-SPAN

The cable industry’s public affairs network — C-SPAN, gave a friendly reception to a top telecom industry lobbyist over the weekend, responding to soft ball questions about rural broadband and telecommunications public policy debates.

Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom appeared on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators” to answer questions about broadband service in the era of COVID-19. USTelecom’s members, primarily telephone companies, have been strong proponents for government funding of rural broadband expansion, are opposed to telecom industry regulation and net neutrality policies, and argues that the more oversight and regulation the industry deals with, the less investment Wall Street will direct towards broadband networks.

Spalter was asked about how American broadband networks handled the work/learn-from-home requirements during the coronavirus pandemic. Spalter said networks handled the increased traffic well, but noted many rural Americans still lack access to high-speed internet. Some Democrats have proposed regulating broadband service as a utility to deal with issues of access and affordability, an idea that Spalter rejects.

“To wrap it in the red tape of regulatory strictures, the overhang of bureaucracy that would be required if we were to make it a utility, would take us backward,” Spalter said, adding he prefers “light touch” regulation. But Spalter had no objection to spending taxpayer dollars to pay for-profit telephone companies to expand broadband service in high-cost rural areas. Spalter called estimates that it would cost $100 billion to bring high speed internet service to all Americans “adequate.”

Jonathan Spalter, USTelecom’s president and CEO, talked about the coronavirus’s impact on telecommunications, regulatory issues, and solving the problems of rural internet access. (28:52)

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