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U.S. Gone from World Ranking of Fastest Broadband Countries; Cozy Duopoly Results in Less Investment, Upgrades

Phillip Dampier September 13, 2021 Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

The United States is rapidly losing its place among the world’s fastest broadband countries, dropping out of the top-10 this year and falling behind Chile, Liechtenstein, and Romania.

While other countries and internet providers are investing billions to improve their standing in an increasingly competitive global broadband marketplace, a comfortable duopoly of phone and cable companies in the United States has successfully kept regulators at bay and allowed many of the largest internet service providers to divert investment away from upgrades and towards stock buybacks, dividend payouts, debt reduction, and ongoing merger and acquisition activities.

Internet speed testing firm Ookla has watched the United States slip in its fixed broadband speed standings over the last three years, dropping from 8th place (2019) to 9th place (2020), to being dropped from its top 10 list this year (it now scores 14th). Canada has never made the list.

This year, the countries with the fastest internet download speeds are: Monaco, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Romania, Switzerland, South Korea, Chile, Denmark and Liechtenstein. The only other countries to fall off the top-10 list in the last three years are Taiwan, Andorra, Macau, and France.

Globally, wireless internet speeds are benefitting from 4G and 5G upgrades on cell towers, with overall speed increasing nearly 60% in the last year. Fixed broadband speeds are up 32% year over year, primarily from an increase in the amount of fiber to the home connections providers are making as they move away from traditional copper wiring. Heavy investment in network upgrades can deliver remarkable boosts in internet speeds.

“South Korea and the United Arab Emirates stood out with mean mobile download speeds that were more than 240% faster than the global average and fixed broadband downloads that were more than 70% faster than the global average,” said Ookla’s Isla McKetta. “China’s mobile download speed was more than 180% faster than the global average and the country was more than 70% faster than the global average for fixed broadband. Switzerland’s mobile and fixed broadband download speeds were close to 100% faster than the global average.”

All of those countries have invested heavily in fiber connectivity for both their mobile and fixed wired broadband connections.

In contrast, U.S. cable companies have delayed upgrades to DOCSIS 4.0, capable of supporting 10 Gbps connections, and many telephone companies have dragged their feet on fiber upgrades, facing resistance from Wall Street as well as heavy debt burdens from prior mergers and acquisitions.

Most of the countries ranking the fastest have pushed providers to supply gigabit internet speed connections, but U.S. regulators and politicians have reduced pressure on large providers by proposing to subsidize millions of expanded internet connections with U.S. taxpayer funds while reducing required speed minimums to just 100/20 Mbps.

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

Phillip Dampier July 29, 2019 Broadband Speed, Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Editorial & Site News, Public Policy & Gov't Comments Off on 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:

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