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Netflix: “Cost of Providing 1GB of Data is Less Than One Cent, and Falling”

Netflix continues to step up its attacks on providers who implement Internet Overcharging schemes on their wired broadband customers.

That concern is understandable as Netflix increasingly transitions to broadband streaming instead of mailing DVD’s to customers.

Getting in the way are five of the nation’s seven largest broadband providers, all imposing limits on customers just as they discover they might be able to do without cable television.

Netflix’s streamed HD shows now consume around 2GB per hour, according to Netflix general counsel David Hyman.  That can eat through usage allowances quickly.  Hyman penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last year blasting the practices of usage caps and consumption billing.


“Wireline bandwidth is an almost unlimited resource due to advances in Internet architecture,” Hyman wrote. “The marginal cost of providing an extra gigabyte of data—enough to deliver one episode of 30 Rock from Netflix—is less than one cent, and falling.”

That doesn’t seem to matter much to Comcast, CenturyLink, Charter Communications, and Cox.  All four providers have introduced hard usage limits on customers — a usage cap.  Exceeding it gives any of those providers the right to cut off your broadband service.  AT&T, always one to see a financial angle, charges for excess use of their DSL and U-verse service — $10 for every 50GB. Time Warner Cable recently announced its own experimental “optional” usage pricing package for very light users who consume fewer than 5GB per month.  It will slap overlimit fees on those participating customers who break through the 5GB ceiling at a rate of $1/GB, an enormous markup.

Providers with strict caps usually argue they come as a result of their own network’s capacity problems.  Cable operators who do not consistently manage their network traffic can experience traffic clogs by overselling service without upgrading capacity to sustain user demand.  But providers like Comcast, Cox, and Charter resolved those capacity problems with upgrades to DOCSIS 3 technology, which offer operators an exponentially bigger pipeline for Internet traffic.

Although Comcast promised to regularly review and adjust usage caps since implementing them four years ago, the nation’s largest cable operator has thus far seen no need to raise them.

“We feel that that is an extraordinarily large amount of data,” says Comcast’s Charlie Davis. “That limit is there to make sure we provide a great online experience for every single paying customer.”

Wall Street bankers have closely monitored the industry’s early results from Internet Overcharging, and have been encouraged, so long as operators implement it carefully.

Credit Suisse in a 2011 report to its investor clients suggested the key for successful usage-based pricing is to introduce it slowly and keep “sticker shock to a minimum in the early days” to reduce backlash by consumers and lawmakers.

Once established, the sky is the limit.

Netflix itself is also battling an Internet Overcharging scheme it faces — double-dipping by cable operators like Comcast.  In addition to the fees Comcast collects from customers for its broadband service, the cable operator also wants to be paid directly by Netflix to allow the movie service’s traffic on its network.

That’s an Internet toll booth, charges Netflix and consumer groups.  It’s also uncompetitive, says Hyman.

This month Comcast unveiled its own movie and TV show streaming service — Xfinity Streampix — from which, unsurprisingly, the cable company has not sought extra traffic payments from itself.

Opposed to Internet Overcharging

Three providers which don’t cap customers don’t see a reason to try.

Verizon Communications says its fiber network FiOS has plenty of capacity and has no plans to restrict customers’ enjoyment of the service.  In 2009, Cablevision’s Jim Blackley told one panel discussion usage caps are not in the cards.

“We don’t want customers to think about byte caps so that’s not on our horizon,” Blackley said. “We literally don’t want consumers to think about how they’re consuming high-speed services. It’s a pretty powerful drug and we want people to use more and more of it.”

California’s Sonic.net Inc., goes even further.  Its CEO, Dane Jasper, believes the Federal Communications Commission needs to be more assertive about protecting America’s broadband revolution and the customers that depend on the service.

The fact different operators can take radically different positions on the subject, despite running similar networks, suggests technical necessity is not the reason providers are implementing usage restrictions and extra fees on customers.

As Hyman writes:

Bandwidth caps with fees piled on top are a lousy way to manage traffic. All of the costs of supplying residential broadband are for supporting peak usage. Bandwidth consumed off-peak is completely free. If Internet service providers really wanted to manage traffic efficiently, they would limit speeds at peak times. If their goal is instead to increase revenues or lessen competition, getting consumers to pay per gigabyte is an excellent strategy.

Consumer access to unlimited bandwidth is good for society. It fosters innovation, drives commerce, and advances political and social discourse. Given that bandwidth is cheap and plentiful and will only grow more so with time, there is no good reason for bandwidth caps and fees to take root.

Consumers and regulators need to take heed of what is happening and avoid winding up like the proverbial frog in a pot of boiling water. It’s time to jump before it’s too late.

Independent Gigabit Broadband for San Francisco, While AT&T Struggles to Provide U-verse

Phillip Dampier December 15, 2011 AT&T, Broadband Speed, Competition, Data Caps, Sonic.net Comments Off on Independent Gigabit Broadband for San Francisco, While AT&T Struggles to Provide U-verse

While AT&T endures zoning-related delays to build out its fiber-to-the-neighborhood service U-verse, a scrappy anti-cap, pro-speed Internet provider in Santa Rosa has announced its intention to deliver gigabit speeds to San Franciscans over a fiber-to-the-home network that will begin construction early next year.

Sonic.net has been providing broadband services for years in northern California, using AT&T’s network of phone lines to deliver unlimited 20Mbps DSL service (including a phone line) for $40 a month.

Sunset District, San Francisco, Calif. (Courtesy: Stilfehler)

Now the company is branching beyond traditional DSL into fiber optics.  Sonic.net has already completed the first phase of its gigabit fiber network in Sebastopol, where it advertises 100Mbps service for $40 a month and 1000Mbps for $70 a month, both including phone service at no extra charge (two lines for the 1Gbps plan).

In San Francisco, Sonic plans to start with 2000 homes in the Sunset District, expanding its network to fully cover the city within five years.

Such a network could deliver serious competition to Comcast and AT&T, the currently-dominant providers.  AT&T’s U-verse buildout has been stalled over the need to install 768 large, unsightly metal cabinets on San Francisco street corners.  The company, as late as this summer, remains mired in zoning disputes and public protests.  Sonic’s fiber network will require similar equipment, and the San Francisco Chronicle reports Sonic filed its own application with the city Department of Public Works to install 188 cabinets, measuring 5 feet tall, starting next year.

Sonic may have a better chance if only because it does not have AT&T’s less-than-stellar reputation among some residents and customers who have been upset with the company’s wireless performance, and ongoing battles over cell tower placement.  Sonic.net CEO Dane Jasper tells the Chronicle:

“There is a huge demand in San Francisco for higher bandwidth services, and fiber is the only long-term way to meet this demand,” he said.

Given the fact that the company’s all-fiber network will bring “the fastest and cheapest” broadband service to the city, Jasper says he thinks the chances of overcoming the obstacles experienced by his larger rival are “pretty good.”

Sonic.net has gained a reputation for excellent customer service and vociferously opposes usage caps and other Internet Overcharging schemes.  The company has attracted the support of Google, which is using Sonic to manage its gigabit fiber network on the campus grounds of Stanford University in Palo Alto.

AT&T has previously dismissed fiber to the home service as too costly to provide, and has adopted in its place a fiber-to-the-neighborhood system that relies on traditional home phone wiring for the last part of its network.

Providers Big and Small Can Deliver 1Gbps Broadband At a Fair Price – Why Can’t Yours?

The employees of Sonic.net, a California ISP that threatens to expose the chasm between the cost of providing broadband and the profits reaped from it.

It doesn’t take trillions of dollars to offer world class broadband service in America.  Companies large and small are building gigabit broadband networks to reach customers at prices your local phone or cable company would charge at least $1,000 a month or more to receive, if you consider many charge around $100 a month for 100Mbps.  Now, 700 families in California are going to be offered 1,000Mbps service for just $69.99 per month — including a phone line.

Sonic.net has been in the ISP business for more than 15 years, selling DSL service to California customers at prices that offer value for money.  Most recently, Sonic has been pitching bonded DSL service offering speeds upwards of 40Mbps for the same price it plans to sell its new Fusion gigabit fiber broadband.  For customers who don’t need that much speed, Sonic recently reduced the price for its 20Mbps service to $39.95 per month (including phone line.)

For those in the Sebastopol area lucky enough to qualify for fiber service, Sonic promises unlimited access and an exceptional online experience.

Sonic’s qualifications to run the project are not in question, considering Google selected the company to operate and support the trial fiber-to-the-home network the search giant is building at Stanford University.

Google itself is building an extensive fiber to the home network to serve Kansas City residents and businesses, and promises service at a profitable, but reasonable price.  So has Sonic.net CEO Dane Jasper, whose written views on the state of American broadband explains his personal drive to make Internet access better and faster, without ripping people off with Internet Overcharging schemes or unjustified high monthly prices.

Jasper recognizes much of North America is trapped in a broadband duopoly that delivers all of the benefits to investors, while leaving the continent saddled with slow and overpriced service.  Nine months ago Jasper explained the business model to Benoit Felten, a Yankee Group broadband analyst:

During the construction of this network we have given a lot of thought… to the business model in the US, and how we could do things in a different and more interesting way. The natural model when you have a simple duopoly capturing the majority of the market is segmentation: maximize ARPU [average revenue per user] by artificially limiting service in order to drive additional monthly spending. But fundamentally this is the wrong model for a service provider like us, and we have looked to Europe for inspiration. The model pioneered by Iliad under the Free brand is a better fit, both for us and for our customers.

As the marginal cost of providing more bandwidth or less, and providing [phone service] or not are both minimal, we have adopted a simple flat rate model instead of the more typical US model of “$5 more goes faster”… I believe that removing the artificial limits on speed, and including home phone with the product are both very exciting.

It’s exciting to customers as well, most who give the company nearly five star reviews for excellence, without five-star pricing.  An added bonus: Jasper occasionally responds to customer service inquiries himself.

Reviewing Sonic.net’s blogs and website shows off a company that loves the business it’s in.  If a switch 100 miles away has a problem that interferes with Sonic’s service, you will promptly read about it on the company’s technical blog.

There are houses for sale in Sebastopol, Calif., if you want affordable gigabit broadband.

Jasper’s frustration with the enormous corporate-owned ISPs that dominate the country (and Washington) was on full display in a blog entry in March, answering a question about why American broadband is lagging behind:

[…] In 2003 and 2004, the then Republican led FCC reversed course [on policies guaranteeing a level playing field for broadband], removing shared access to essential fiber infrastructure for competitive carriers and codifying instead a policy of exclusive use and “multi-modal competition”.

This concreted our unique US duopoly: cable versus telco, the two broadband choices that most Americans have today.

In exchange for a truly competitive market, the US received promises of widespread deployment. And, to some degree this has worked. Unfettered by significant competition or price pressure, broadband in at least in its most basic form can now be delivered to most homes in America, albeit at a comparatively high cost to the consumer.

What was given up in exchange for this far-reaching but mediocre pablum was true competition and innovation.

Elsewhere in the world, regulatory bodies followed the lead of the US Congress and separated essential copper and fiber infrastructure from the services and providers who used them, and the result has been amazing. In Asia and Europe, Gigabit services are becoming common, and the price paid by consumers per megabit is a tiny fraction of what we pay here at home.

I won’t deny the innovation that has occurred in the telco/cable duopoly. They’ve got TV, Internet and telephone bundles designed to serve up prime time network shows in over-saturated HD glory, with comparatively middling Internet speeds, all offered with teaser rates and terms that would baffle an economics professor. The clear value of the bundle is to baffle, and pity the consumer who wants to shed a component. At least during the intro periods, it’s often cheaper to take the whole package than just a component or two.

For cable companies, the entrenched interest in the television entertainment portion creates a clear conflict: why should they offer an uncapped broadband connection that can deliver enough video entertainment to allow consumers to cut the TV cord? And if you do drop the TV, up goes the price for even this slow and capped Internet connection, so you pay more either way. And now that telcos have gotten into the television business too, their interest in slowing the pace of increasing broadband speed is aligned as well.

This has yielded a competitive truce in America.

In a slow tide, back and forth, cable delivers a slightly better product, then telco slightly better again, all at the highest possible cost. It is iterative, not innovative, and Americans deserve more. After all, we invented the Internet, right?

Among the giant phone and cable companies providing broadband today are a growing number of innovation outliers — companies challenging the prevailing views that Americans don’t need or want fiber-fast speeds (not at the prices some providers charge), that there is no economic justification for the capital spending required to construct fiber networks when incremental upgrades can suffice (the Wall Street view), or that the best way to drive increased revenue from a maturing broadband market is to throw away today’s flat rate pricing model and establish a guaranteed growth fund collecting tolls on Internet traffic that is sure to rise in the days ahead (Time Warner Cable’s CEO).

Google cannot understand why 1Gbps broadband “doesn’t work” in the United States and intends to construct its own network to prove otherwise.  EPB, a municipal utility in Chattanooga, Tenn. sells gigabit broadband, in their words, because they can.  The concept of a provider offering the fruits of their innovation, even if they aren’t certain how to price or sell the service, is a remarkable and refreshing change from the usual obsession with nickle-and-dime “extras” for add-on features or not selling service that your marketing department does not understand or find useful.

It also exposes the indefensible gap between the cost of providing the service and the price paid to receive it.

Thanks to Stop the Cap! reader Mark for sharing news about Sonic.net’s fiber network.

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