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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.

Cox Getting Into the Mobile Business, Sources Say; Plans Will Resemble Xfinity/Spectrum Mobile

Phillip Dampier June 10, 2020 Competition, Consumer News, Cox, Wireless Broadband 2 Comments

Cox was planning to get into the wireless business back in 2010 until T-Mobile started slashing prices after a failed merger with AT&T a year later. Cox canceled its mobile ambitions in 2012. Now they are interested once again.

Cox Communications is in advanced stages of launching a new mobile service for customers that subscribe to at least one Cox cable service, according to sources speaking to multiple media outlets.

“We believe the market is becoming more attractive for us to enter the wireless space and we are exploring it more aggressively now, but have not announced any specific plans,” company spokesperson Todd Smith wrote in response to questions from Light Reading. “We have not entered into any MVNO agreements yet.”

Stop the Cap! has learned Cox has spoken to at least two major wireless carriers about signing an agreement that would allow customers to roam on a carrier’s pre-existing wireless network. AT&T is reportedly aggressively pursuing Cox and other cable operators to resell access to its network, after watching Charter’s Spectrum Mobile and Comcast’s Xfinity Mobile partner with Verizon Wireless.

A source tells us Cox would offer pricing and packages comparable to what Charter and Comcast offer customers — at least two plans, one flat rate unlimited, selling for around $45 a month, and a second “By the Gig” plan that would include 1 GB of data, unlimited voice and texting for between $14-16. Customers would be billed an additional $14-16 for each additional gigabyte consumed during the month.

Cox will market its wireless service to current customers that subscribe to at least one Cox product. If a customer switches to a competitor, Cox would charge an additional non-customer wireless fee, likely $20 a month.

If Cox closely follows Comcast and Charter, it will debut with a very limited selection of premium devices available for purchase or 0% financing, with Bring Your Own Device plans likely to follow. Devices will be programmed to favor cable industry or home Wi-Fi where available and automatically switch to 4G LTE service from an unspecified carrier once traveling outside of a Wi-Fi signal area. A soft cap of around 20 GB of usage per month will also likely be attached to the unlimited plan, with speed throttling applied once customers exceed that amount.

Cox had aborted attempts to enter the wireless business earlier. In 2012, Cox was months away from launching wireless service over its own 3G CDMA network over favorable 700 MHz spectrum it acquired earlier. It suddenly dropped the effort after AT&T failed to acquire T-Mobile in 2011 and T-Mobile began cutting prices to shake up the wireless industry.

Cable operators have attempted to keep wireless costs as low as possible, combining the use of cable companies’ pre-existing Wi-Fi hotspot networks with agreements with third party wireless carriers to handle data traffic and calls. Cable operators have so far chosen not to construct their own wireless mobile networks, although there are indications Charter will probably be the first to build some of its own wireless capacity using 3.5 GHz CBRS spectrum, which will likely work better outdoors than indoors. The more traffic wireless companies can offload to their own networks, the lower their costs.

Cox would likely launch its mobile offering by the fourth quarter of this year, in time for the holiday season.

Cable Companies See Large Gains in Mobile Customers During COVID-19 Pandemic

With record-breaking unemployment and an economy in tatters, consumers are abandoning high-priced mobile plans and switching to lower priced cable operator mobile plans.

Comcast, Charter/Spectrum, and Altice USA saw dramatic customer gains of 547,000 new customers in the first quarter of 2020, primarily at the expense of AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint, according to Wall Street analyst firm MoffettNathanson. The four largest wireless carriers saw a collective 1.3% drop in subscribers, which counts as the worst performance the traditional wireless sector has seen since 2014. But their loss was the cable industry’s gain, with three cable operators achieving a 130% increase in new mobile customers during the first quarter of the year. The three cable companies now have a combined 3.7 million wireless customers.

Comcast and Charter contract with Verizon Wireless for 4G LTE and 5G service, while Altice USA provides its mobile customers with access to Sprint’s network. The cable operators keep costs down by favoring Wi-Fi connections wherever possible.

Two factors are driving the growth of cable industry mobile plans:

  1. Price: Altice USA sells its mobile service at just $20/mo per line. Comcast and Charter both sell unlimited data, talk and text plans for $45 a month per line and a “By the Gig” plan option that includes 1 GB of data bundled with unlimited calls and texting for a flat $14/per gig at Charter and $15/1 GB or $30/3 GB or $60/10 GB at Comcast. With unemployment numbers high and consumers worried about the future of the job market, economizing expenses matters.
  2. Network: Comcast and Charter both rely on Verizon Wireless, recognized as one of the strongest wireless performers in terms of coverage and signal quality. Customers can switch to a cheaper cable company mobile plan without sacrificing network coverage.

MoffettNathanson’s Craig Moffett noted that the COVID-19 pandemic closed most wireless retail stores, and there was a wide belief that wireless industry sales would be anemic at best during the spring as people stayed home. Instead, the cable industry heavily marketed its wireless plans and expanded the number of pre-owned devices qualified for “Bring Your Own Device” switching, allowing customers to swap SIM cards instead of being forced to buy new devices.

“Given the levels of economic hardship that have accompanied the lockdowns, one can reasonably imagine that these kinds of hyper-aggressive pricing plans won’t have much trouble breaking through to capture market share,” Moffett said in a research note.

Moffett predicts the second quarter will show an even greater number of customers dropping traditional mobile plans in favor of plans provided by their local cable company. Some customers report saving over $100 a month by switching.

One potential downside: customers must subscribe to other products sold by their cable provider to get the best price on wireless service. Comcast’s Xfinity Mobile applies a $20 per line monthly charge if the customer does not maintain at least one of the following: Xfinity TV, Internet or Voice service. Spectrum customers that cancel internet service with the cable company will pay an additional $20 monthly charge per line, have Spectrum Wi-Fi speeds limited to 5 Mbps, and are not allowed to add any additional mobile lines.

10% of Homes Now Exceed Comcast/AT&T/Cox’s 1 TB Usage Cap; Average Use Now 402.5 GB

Note that data usage is slightly higher for users with “flat rate billing (FRB)” plans vs. those stuck with “usage-based billing (UBB).” (Source: OpenVault)

A record 10 percent of U.S. households now exceed 1 TB of data usage per month, putting some customers at risk of overlimit fees for exceeding data allowances that are usually enforced by AT&T, Comcast, Cox, and other telecom companies. Those caps are temporarily suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

OpenVault, which collects average data usage from several service providers, reports a dramatic increase in the number of homes it designates as “power users” that consume at least 1 TB of data each month. In the first quarter of 2019, 4.2% of customers regularly exceeded 1 TB of usage. During the same period this year, that number shot up 138% to 10% of customers. “Extreme power users” that consume 2+ TB of data increased a record 215% from just one year ago, now representing 1.2% of broadband households. Last year it was 0.38%.

Overall total broadband usage across all users increased 47% in the first quarter of 2020, reaching an average of 402.5 GB a month. But that number mostly comprises average usage before the COVID-19 pandemic forced many to work from home. OpenVault originally predicted in January 2020 that monthly usage would reach 425 GB by the end of 2020. But with most Americans sheltering at home, measurements now suggest average broadband usage already exceeds that, reaching a record high of 460 GB in April.

“Nearly all the growth in broadband usage we would have expected for 2020 has now been achieved in the first quarter, with much of it concentrated in the last two weeks of the quarter,” OpenVault reported.

Despite usage growth, broadband providers in the United States are universally confident their networks are more than capable of sustaining the increased traffic. In fact, many providers report a spike in new customers, upgrades to higher speed tiers, and at least one — Spectrum, is confident enough of its network capacity to give away two months of broadband service to households with school-age children for free.

NCTA–The Internet & Television Association reports the biggest increases in broadband traffic are occurring on the upstream side, likely because of video teleconferencing. Although downstream traffic also spiked after the pandemic forced many businesses to close their offices, that traffic has flattened out and most recently has even decreased slightly.

Source: NCTA

Broadband providers may have lost key arguments to support reimposing data allowances and usage caps after the pandemic eases. Not only have broadband networks managed dramatic spikes in traffic with no significant difficulties, there are no signs of any “data tsunamis” in the future, even as broadband usage growth exceeds predictions. NCTA reports that 99.8% of the time broadband providers had “ample” or “excess” capacity available, not only to sustain current traffic levels but also potential future spikes in traffic. Peak traffic usage reaching levels where reduced capacity was available was identified just 0.2% of the time, causing a “minor impact on performance and customer experience.”

The current crisis is likely to bring a flood of new revenue to many broadband companies, even without usage overlimit fees. Since the pandemic began, OpenVault reports a 3.75% growth in premium-priced gigabit speed upgrades, up 97% from the same time last year.  In the New York City area, gigabit service subscriptions at Altice/Optimum increased 56% as many workers began to telecommute.

The biggest challenge the cable broadband industry faces as a result of this year’s usage growth is a need to accelerate plans already under development to increase upload speeds. Much of the recent traffic growth came from upstream traffic, which is cable broadband’s biggest Achilles’ Heel. Cable broadband networks devote most available bandwidth to downloads, with only a small fraction devoted to upload speed. Cable companies are expected to modestly increase upload speeds in a few months and will eventually deploy the next DOCSIS standard, supporting far faster upload speeds, beginning sometime next year.

CableLabs Introduces DOCSIS 4.0 — Up to 10/6 Gbps Over Cable Broadband

Phillip Dampier March 26, 2020 Broadband Speed, Consumer News 1 Comment

CableLabs unveiled the final DOCSIS 4.0 specification today, dramatically improving upload speeds and offering the potential of much faster internet service from cable operators in the next few years.

DOCSIS 4.0 will support downstream speeds as fast as 10,000 Mbps and upload speed as fast as 6,000 Mbps, finally bringing faster upstream speed to cable company-provided internet. The new standard raises maximum speeds by opening up “extended spectrum” on the coaxial cable coming into your home. By dedicating additional frequencies for data services, cable companies can raise both speed and capacity.

Consumers have been asking for faster upload speeds to support streaming live video, cloud backup services, and a growing number of in-home devices sharing a single internet connection. For years, cable providers have only been able to provide a small fraction of upstream speed in comparison to download speed. That distinction will largely be erased as DOCSIS 4.0 gets deployed over the next few years. Providers are likely to raise upload speeds on existing speed tiers and offer consumers symmetrical download and upload speed for gigabit connections. The increased speed will also likely make cable broadband more attractive to business customers.

The new standard will also decrease network latency, crucial for some online applications. It will also feature more robust security and higher reliability by identifying potential network problems before they become apparent to customers.

Consumers may see DOCSIS 4.0 modems and service available within the next two years.

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