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Cable Industry Upgrade Investments Cratered in 2019; Lack of Competition Removes Incentives

Heynen

Equipment vendors serving the cable industry had one of the worst years in recent memory, with cable industry investment in upgrades dropping like a stone in 2019.

Companies supplying cable broadband equipment that powers internet service saw steep revenue declines to just over $1 billion, compared to $1.6 billion in 2018 and $1.7 billion in 2017. One vendor reported a 30% drop to just $255 million last year, according to Jeff Heynen, Dell’Oro Group’s senior research director for broadband access and home networking. Providers spend this money on DOCSIS broadband upgrades, cable modems and routers, and laying the foundation for next generation cable broadband and fiber networks.

Heynen blamed a reduction in capacity upgrades, an ongoing debate about where cable operators will take the DOCSIS standard next, and an overall lack of broadband competition.

Light Reading reports that a general decline in broadband investment by Charter and Comcast were hard-hitting on vendors. Both companies have been profit-taking after completing DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades and believe that gigabit download-capable broadband networks will suffice for several years to come. Phone company broadband competition growth has also waned as AT&T ends its large-scale fiber to the home expansion and as other phone companies refuse to undertake widespread upgrades; most will continue to rely on DSL technology in non-fiber-upgraded markets. The overall lack of competition from phone company broadband speed upgrades has given the cable industry no reason to undertake more upgrades, except in competitive service areas.

Still, the cable industry is planning to deploy two relatively low cost upgrades starting this year: increasing upstream broadband speeds and growing adoption of routers supporting Wi-Fi 6, a new Wi-Fi standard.

Light Reading:

[Heynen expects] moves to expand upstream bandwidth to help lead the next network investment cycle as cable operators deploy mid-splits or high-splits that expand the amount of bandwidth used for upstream traffic. In most legacy North American DOCSIS networks, the spectrum dedicated to the upstream is in the range of 5MHz to 42MHz. Mid-splits will raise that to 85MHz and high-splits could elevate it to around 200MHz.

Those upstream-impacting network decisions will also help to drive a new generation of DOCSIS consumer premises equipment (CPE) that can tune to these updated upstream/downstream bandwidth splits.

Heynen also notes the business picture is brighter in Europe, where phone companies are moving at a much faster pace to ditch DSL in favor of fiber to the home service. As a result, competing cable and wireless providers are investing in fiber networks of their own to remain competitive.

NY PSC Clarifies Broadband Speed Requirement Merger Terms

Charter Communications is not obligated to upgrade New York internet customers to a minimum internet speed of 300 Mbps, according to a letter of clarification directed to Stop the Cap! and received today from the New York State Department of Public Service.

DPS:

In the Commission’s 2016 order, Charter was required to offer broadband internet service with speeds up to 100 Mbps to all customers served by its New York networks (including its Columbia County systems) by the end of 2018; and offer broadband internet service with speeds up to 300 Mbps to all customers served by its New York networks by the end of 2019. At the time of the Commission’s decision, although Time Warner operated some systems in New York that were already capable of offering customer speeds up to 300 Mbps, the majority of Time Warner customers in Upstate New York were limited to broadband speeds of 50 Mbps.

Charter was therefore required to upgrade its network to be able to offer broadband service at speeds up to 300 Mbps by the end of 2019 but was not required to increase its minimum service offering to 300 Mbps. Charter has reported that it has complied with this condition ahead of schedule and Department of Public Service Staff has begun the process of independently field-testing Charter’s network to verify compliance with the condition.

Stop the Cap! raised this issue with the Commission as part of the recent settlement agreement between New York State and Charter Communications, and sought an official clarification. Approximately 40% of Charter’s national footprint now receives 200 Mbps download speeds while most New Yorkers receive just 100 Mbps for the same price, putting the state at a disadvantage.

Dampier

“The Commission’s language in the original merger agreement was unclear, because Time Warner Cable had already embarked on a statewide upgrade to its so-called ‘Maxx’ service tiers, which included free speed increases, negating most of the benefits of the state’s condition requiring Charter to upgrade broadband speeds as part of its terms to approve the merger,” said Phillip Dampier, founder and president of Stop the Cap! “In fact, this merger made things worse for New Yorkers because customers would have been getting Time Warner Cable Maxx speeds as much as a year earlier than what Spectrum finally delivered across the state, and customers would have been offered a number of options for less costly internet service that Spectrum dropped.”

Shortly after the merger was approved, Charter placed a moratorium on Time Warner Cable Maxx upgrades and spent months attempting to knit Charter’s existing systems with the much larger Time Warner Cable.

Time Warner Cable Maxx speeds were well on the way throughout Upstate New York before Charter acquired the company and issued an upgrade moratorium.

“Consumers already know from their cable bills that this merger was just another bad deal for New York, and now nearly half of Spectrum’s national service area gets twice the speed Upstate New York gets for the same price, and there is no pressure on the company to deliver any additional upgrades,” Dampier added.

Stop the Cap! also urged the Commission to do all it could to make life easier for customers in the New York City area, where Charter has been trying to rid itself of union technicians that have been on strike for over two years.

“For all the talk by state officials, including the governor, it appears there is no end in sight for this strike and customers are caught in the middle,” Dampier said. “We hear frequently from New York City consumers about substandard repair work and unacceptable installations that suggest the company is not using the best available workforce to take care of customer needs. Charter is making loads of money in profits and can afford to offer a square deal to workers to end this strike and get these technicians back to work.”

Cable Industry Has Low Latency Software Upgrade for DOCSIS 3.1; <1ms Possible

Phillip Dampier June 24, 2019 Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Cox 1 Comment

CableLabs has published a new specification for the DOCSIS 3.1 cable broadband platform that will support <1 ms latency, optimal for online gaming and virtual reality.

The new specification, dubbed low-latency DOCSIS (LLD), costs little to implement with a simple software upgrade, but some cable companies plan to charge customers nearly $15 a month more to enable the extra performance.

CableLabs Blog:

VR needs incredibly low latency between head movement and the delivery of new pixels to your eyes, or you start to feel nauseated. To move the PC out of the home, we need to make the communications over the cable network be a millisecond or less round trip. But our DOCSIS® technology at the time could not deliver that.

So, we pivoted again. Since 2016, CableLabs DOCSIS architects Greg White and Karthik Sundaresan have been focused on revolutionizing DOCSIS technology to support sub-1ms latency. Although VR is still struggling to gain widespread adoption, that low and reliable DOCSIS latency will be a boon to gamers in the short term and will enable split rendering of VR and augmented reality (AR) in the longer term. The specifications for Low Latency DOCSIS (as a software upgrade to existing DOCSIS 3.1 equipment) have been released, and we’re working with the equipment suppliers to get this out into the market and to realize the gains of a somewhat torturous innovation journey.

Your provider may already have LLD capability — the updates were pushed to cable operators in two stages, one in January and the most recent update in April. It will be up to each cable company to decide if and when to enable the feature. Additionally, low latency is only possible if the path between your provider and the gaming server has the capability of delivering it. Cable companies may need to invite some gaming platforms to place servers inside their networks to assure the best possible performance.

Cable operators are already conceptualizing LLD as a revenue booster. Cox Communications is already testing a low-latency gaming add-on with customers in Arizona, for which it charges an extra $14.99 a month. But reports from customers using it suggest it is not a true implementation of LLD. Instead, many users claim it is just an enhanced traffic routing scheme to reduce latency using already available technology.

A Cox representative stressed the service does not violate any net neutrality standards.

“This service does not increase the speed of any traffic, and it doesn’t prioritize gaming traffic ahead of other traffic on our network,” said CoxJimR on the DSL Reports Cox forum. “The focus is around improving gaming performance when it leaves our network and goes over the public internet, like a Gamer Private Network. No customer’s experience is degraded as a result of any customers purchasing Cox Elite Gamer service as an add-on to their internet service.”

CableLabs is treating LLD as a part of its “10G” initiative, expected to upgrade broadband speeds up to 10 Gbps. Among the next upgrades likely to be published is full duplex DOCSIS, which will allow cable operators to provide the same upload and download speeds.

Frontier Wrestles Worst ISP in America Award Away from Mediacom

“Frontier offers a level of suckage that cannot be proportionally compared with any other company in America. Stabbing yourself with knitting needles is less painful than their snail slow internet service and dealing with customer service agents that formerly served as prison guards at a Syrian detention camp.” — A deeply dissatisfied Frontier DSL customer in Ohio

Frontier Communications has achieved a new low in customer satisfaction, wrestling away the award for America’s worst ISP from perennial favorite Mediacom, in a newly released American Customer Satisfaction Index.

No internet service provider did particularly well in customer satisfaction, but Frontier managed to alienate more of their customers than any other this year, ranking poorly in speed, reliability, and customer service. Customers also complained about being given inaccurate information, inaccurate billing, and surprise charges on their bill.

Frontier’s worst performance is delivered in legacy DSL service areas, where its aging copper wire network is often incapable of delivering 21st century broadband speeds. In many areas, speeds drop well below 10 Mbps during peak usage. Even worse, company officials signaled that the company had few plans to improve its wireline network or service experience in 2019. As a result, many customers switched providers, if one was available. If Frontier is the only option, customers often have no options.

“For several years we have had no internet options except for Frontier. We receive 10 to 20% of the service we pay for time and time again,” wrote one customer in a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. “The service has even diminished over time, [and] whenever my work demands me to log online, I often have to leave my home at different times of the day or night to a location where I can get free Wi-Fi or drive 24 miles to my job. This is totally unacceptable. Every single weekend and every night my internet shuts off. I mean every night. Nothing has been done from a customer’s view to improve service.”

What seems to have driven Mediacom out of last place was not so much an improvement in their network or service.

“Mediacom has the second-lowest score among subscription TV services at 56, but has one of the highest-rated mobile apps, both in terms of quality and reliability,” the ACSI found.

Frontier has an improved website, but still offers many potential subscribers a severe disappointment when shopping for internet plans, and finding only one:

Conservative Business Group Sues to Toss Pro-Consumer Time Warner/Charter Merger Conditions

A corporate-funded business advocacy group backed by the telecom industry and the Koch Brothers is pursuing a lawsuit asking the D.C. Court of Appeals to toss pro-consumer deal conditions imposed by the Federal Communications Commission in return for granting its 2016 approval of the acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks by Charter Communications.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute filed an initial petition with the FCC asking the agency to rescind its own deal conditions shortly after the merger was completed. CEI argued the agency imposed “harmful merger conditions on Charter that had nothing to do with the merger itself,” and that the FCC did not have the authority to put corporate merger deal conditions in place.

CEI specifically targeted its objections to the FCC’s seven-year ban on Charter Spectrum data caps and consumption billing, arguing the ban raised broadband pricing for all Spectrum customers and prevented the cable company from offering discounts to low usage customers. It also claimed that Charter had to increase pricing for all customers because the FCC required Spectrum to raise broadband speeds, introduce a discounted internet program for low-income customers, and expand service to at least two million new households not presently served by Spectrum.

The FCC ultimately rejected CEI’s petition in 2018, claiming the group had no standing to challenge the merger transaction or deal conditions. The group called the FCC’s decision wrong, claiming consumers will “have to foot the bill for an overreaching federal agency” and that “the FCC has no authority to micromanage the internet at the public’s expense.”

This week, it filed an opening brief appealing the FCC’s decision to the D.C. Court of Appeals, which oversees the legality of the FCC’s regulatory decisions.

The 101-page filing maintains the FCC overreached by imposing any deal conditions on the 2016 multi-billion dollar merger deal, especially those that might require the merged company to spend money to improve service to customers. CEI argued such conditions were “arbitrary and capricious” and had no place as part of approving a business merger transaction.

The group submitted evidence from four individuals who attested to their belief that the deal conditions “probably contributed” to price increases after customers abandoned their legacy Bright House and Time Warner Cable plans in favor of Spectrum plans and pricing. The customers reported rate hikes ranging from $4 a month to $20 a month “for the same services,” but did not attach copies of their bills allowing a court to ascertain whether those rate increases involved cable television or broadband service or both.

No evidence was provided to prove CEI’s assertion that rate increases were directly tied to merger conditions other than a declaration from Robert W. Crandall, an economist and nonresident senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Crandall argued any deal conditions requiring a cable company to spend money to expand, improve, or discount services would likely impact subscriber rates.

No disclosure was made regarding any fees paid to Crandall to conduct research on behalf of CEI. The Technology Policy Institute is financially backed almost entirely by the Koch Brothers and corporate interests including AT&T, Charter Communications, Comcast, and Verizon.

CEI’s legal brief depends on assertions made by then-minority Republican members of the FCC, notably then-Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, who objected to the FCC’s merger conditions. CEI ignored the views of the then-Democratic majority on the Commission, who voted to approve the merger with deal conditions. Then Chairman Thomas Wheeler and Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel were not mentioned anywhere in CEI’s brief. Today the Commission has a Republican majority, with Pai now serving as chairman.

The FCC in 2016 (from left to right): Commissioners Ajit Pai, Mignon Clyburn, Chairman Tom Wheeler, and Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Michael O’Rielly

CEI’s argument follows a similar pattern to arguments made against net neutrality — namely, the FCC has no authority to regulate broadband services or the pricing and policies of the companies providing it. Charter Communications has occasionally argued the same point with the New York State Public Service Commission, which imposed deal conditions of its own in return for approval of the merger.

Charter has consistently reserved the right to object to deal conditions requiring it to build out service to rural areas, as well as any deal conditions that go beyond the authority of state regulators to oversee broadband service. In Charter’s view, state regulators have no such authority. In the state’s view, the PSC has the right to consider a myriad of factors because its regulatory mandate  requires approving or rejecting a merger based on the public interest. Its 2016 merger order found the transaction was not in the public interest unless the parties agreed to certain deal conditions, which closely resembled those required by the FCC. When Charter allegedly failed to meet the conditions it agreed to, the New York regulator could not directly compel Charter Spectrum into compliance, but it could and did decertify the merger itself.

Should the D.C. Court of Appeals find in favor of CEI, the deal conditions imposed by the FCC would be revoked, although Charter could continue to honor those conditions voluntarily. Separate legal cases would have to be brought in state courts to invalidate deal conditions imposed by state regulators.

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