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The Magic of Broadband Competition: Sparklight Without Competition vs. Sparklight With Competition

America’s most costly large cable internet service provider is Sparklight, formerly known as Cable One. Its internet plans are usually data-capped and it barely offers new customers a pricing break before high regular prices apply. Sparklight primarily services small cities and towns, many income-challenged, in the middle of the country. Customers do not have much to rave about, because Sparklight puts its own profits far ahead of its customers. The cable operator was among the first to slap on data caps and was the nation’s most aggressive at getting rid of costly cable television channels.

About the only thing that does move Sparklight’s pricing is the presence of a formidable competitor. In Meridian and Garden City, Ida., TDS Fiber (formerly TDS Telecom) has been bringing gigabit fiber to the home service to area residents at prices low enough to motivate Sparklight customers to abandon the cable company. That motivated Sparklight to improve their plans and lower prices.

First, let’s examine the internet rate card for ordinary Sparklight customers typically stuck choosing either the cable company or DSL from Frontier, AT&T, or Windstream:

Sparklight regular pricing nationwide

Notice the entry-level internet plan (100/10 Mbps) costs $55 a month, does not mention the $10.50/mo modem rental fee (required if you choose the company’s Wi-Fi service), an internet service surcharge of $2.75/mo (not charged in all areas), and a stingy data cap of just 350 GB, which is at least 100 GB less than what the average U.S. broadband household now consumes each month. Internet overlimit fees are $10 for each additional block of 100GB of data in excess of your allowance, up to a maximum of $50 a month. Unlimited service costs an extra $40 a month.

When you add it all up: for an unlimited (100/10 Mbps) internet service plan with in-home Wi-Fi, Sparklight charges $108.25 a month.

If you happen to live in a competitive service area, such as Meridian and Garden City, Ida., speeds are faster, prices are lower, and data caps are nowhere to be found:

Pricing for Sparklight in Meridian and Garden City, Ida.

Customers still face a $10.50/mo charge to lease a cable modem, and that $2.75/mo internet surcharge fee might also apply.

The prospect of competition could cut dramatically into company profits, which is one reason telecom companies are fiercely lobbying the Biden Administration not to fund municipal broadband projects or supply funds to a new competitor as part of the 2021 Infrastructure Plan.

Increased Investment and Fierce Competition Brings 1.5 Gbps Internet to Western Canada

Phillip Dampier November 12, 2020 Broadband Speed, Canada, Competition, Consumer News, Shaw, Telus No Comments

Shaw is western Canada’s dominant cable operator.

While American cable companies have cut back investing in their high-speed broadband services as competition languishes, a price and service war has erupted between western Canada’s biggest cable and phone companies, with consumers winning the benefits of increased investment and fierce competition.

Shaw Communications, the largest cable company west of Ontario, has just upped the ante with the introduction of 1,500/100 Mbps unlimited internet service for $127 (all prices in $US) a month. The new speed tier, known as Fibre+ Gig 1.5,  is delivered over Shaw’s existing DOCSIS 3.1 cable broadband network, and is already available in Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Victoria, and is gradually expanding outwards to smaller cities, including Banff in Alberta, and Burnaby and Dawson’s Creek in British Columbia. Shaw also offers a traditional gigabit unlimited plan in most of its service area, offering 940/25 Mbps for $88/month. Both high-speed plans include a two-year contract.

“The hard work and investments we’ve made in building, upgrading and expanding our Fibre+ and Fast LTE networks and services — nearly $22.8 billion over the past seven years — allow us to deliver these ultrafast speeds to western Canadians over our existing infrastructure,” said Zoran Stakic, chief operating officer and chief technology officer. “These ongoing investments are the foundation to providing our customers service beyond one gigabit today and ultrafast speeds to more places in the future.”

“We know that there’s a growing segment of people — including heavy gamers, content creators and super streamers — who need access to ultrafast internet services, and that need has only increased during the pandemic as many of our customers manage the reality of having multiple people working from home and sharing bandwidth,” said Paul Deverell, president of Consumer, Shaw Communications. “With the launch of our Fibre+ Gig 1.5 product, we are delivering the speeds and capacity needed by today’s super users and data-heavy customers, while confirming Shaw’s position as the western Canadian leader in gigabit speed deployment.”

Telus is western Canada’s largest phone company.

Shaw’s increased investment is designed to fend off its chief competitor, Telus. In 2020, Shaw discovered a growing number of its broadband customers defecting in favor of Telus, the region’s telephone company. Telus is expanding its own high-speed offering, which relies on fiber to the home service. In some areas, Telus offers 940/940 Mbps service on a two-year contract for $76 a month and a 1,500/940 Mbps plan for $127 a month — which matches Shaw’s price but vastly exceeds Shaw in upload speed. To further sweeten the deal, Shaw gives its premium-speed internet customers discounts on Shaw Mobile services — including the exclusive rate of $25 per month on Unlimited Data wireless plans for Shaw Fibre+ Gig 1.5 and Fibre+ Gig internet subscribers.

Shaw claims its infrastructure has made it possible to offer gigabit service to at least one million more western Canadians than Telus. Telus has been gradually scrapping its legacy copper wire network in favor of fiber optics, but will likely take over a decade to complete the transition in significantly populated communities.

While Canadian cable companies are pushing DOCSIS 3.1 to the limit, American cable companies have taken it easy this year, reducing estimated budgets for network investment, returning to data caps, and putting further upgrades to next generation DOCSIS 4.0 on hold for at least a year or two. With AT&T and Verizon distracted and focused on spending billions to build 5G wireless networks, both companies have stopped significant expansion of fiber-to-the-home service for residential customers, reducing competitive pressure on cable operators. This reduced competition allows cable companies an opportunity to raise rates on broadband customers, and Charter Spectrum has done exactly that, announcing a general $5/month increase on residential internet service to take effect by the start of 2021.

Comcast Expanding Fiber Across Its Service Areas in Preparation for DOCSIS 4.0

Phillip Dampier May 6, 2020 Broadband Speed, Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News 1 Comment

Some Comcast customers are receiving notifications their service may be briefly interrupted as a result of ongoing network enhancements:

As you can imagine, customers are using our services more than usual, and in certain neighborhoods we are adding capacity to improve our network and your service now. Your area has been identified as a location that will benefit from network improvements, which is why it’s necessary for us to complete the work at this time, so you’ll continue to connect and enjoy the services you expect.

We are installing more fiber throughout our network by replacing some coaxial cable with fiber lines. This will include some construction in your neighborhood and will cause some intermittent interruptions to your service during the day.

In the future, we’ll be able to offer you even more reliable service, greater network capacity and more gig speeds to more homes down the line. This means more downloading, more streaming and more gaming.

Comcast is currently preparing its network for full duplex DOCSIS 4.0 service by adopting “node plus zero” network architecture, which in plainer terms means removing signal amplifiers from existing lines and replacing a significant percentage of its copper coaxial cable infrastructure with fiber optics. The fiber network upgrades are reportedly bringing more consistent and faster internet speed on a more reliable network as soon as the switch is complete. Most customers won’t see fiber cables replacing the current cable line coming into their homes, however. The upgrade is mostly taking place on utility poles and, in some places, underground as Comcast replaces copper wiring with optical fiber cables.

Sometime next year, Comcast is expected to start adopting Full Duplex DOCSIS (FDX) 4.0, the newest cable broadband standard, capable of bringing identical upload and download speeds to customers. It is the only major American cable operator to favor FDX, which will place upstream and downstream traffic on the same block of cable spectrum. Other cable operators including Charter Spectrum, Cox, and Mediacom will support Extended Spectrum DOCSIS (ESD) 4.0, which is expected to be cheaper to deploy and will continue to keep downstream and upstream traffic confined to separate frequency bands, albeit larger ones capable of delivering much faster speeds.

 

Streaming Services Are Monitoring Customers for Signs of Password Sharing

Large media companies and streaming services are on to many of you.

If you are among the two-thirds of subscribers that have reportedly shared your Netflix, HBO GO, Hulu, or Disney+ password with friends and family, your provider probably already knows about it.

A recent report from HUB Entertainment Research found that at least 64% of 13-24-year-olds have shared a password to a streaming service with someone else, with 31% of consumers admitting they are sharing passwords with people outside of their home.

The reason many people share passwords is to save money on the cost of signing up for multiple streaming services. Many trade a Netflix password in return for a Hulu password, or hand over an HBO GO password in exchange for access to your Disney+ account. Research firm Park Associates claims that streamers lost an estimated $9.1 billion in revenue from password sharing, and can expect to lose nearly $12.5 billion by 2024 if password sharing is not curtailed.

Oddly, most streaming services are well aware of password sharing and the lost revenue that results from sharing accounts, and most care little, at least for now.

Marketplace notes a lot of the complaints about password sharing are coming from cable industry executives, shareholders, and Wall Street analysts, but for now most streaming services are just monitoring the situation instead of controlling it.

“I think we continue to monitor it,” said Gregory K. Peters, Netflix’s chief product officer, on the 2019 third quarter earnings call. “We’ll see those consumer-friendly ways to push on the edges of that, but I think we’ve got no big plans to announce at this point in time in terms of doing something differently there.”

Netflix sells different tiers of service that limit the number of concurrent streams to one, two, or four streams at a time. The company believes that if customers that share accounts bump into the stream limits, many will upgrade to a higher level of service which will result in more revenue.

Newcomer Disney+ not only recognizes password sharing is going on, it almost embraces it.

“We’re setting up a service that is very family friendly. We expect families to consume it,” Disney CEO Bob Iger said in an interview with CNBC. “We will be monitoring [password sharing] with the various tools that we have.”

The biggest tool Disney has to monitor account sharing is Charter Spectrum, which is aggressively encouraging streaming services to crack down hard on password sharing. Spectrum internet customers who watch Disney+ are now tracked by Spectrum, recording each IP address that accesses Disney+ content over Spectrum’s broadband service. When multiple people at different IP addresses access Disney+ content on a single account at the same time, Spectrum can flag those customers as potential password sharers.

Synamedia, a streaming provider security firm, uses geolocation tools to determine who is watching streaming services from where. If someone is watching one stream from one address and another person is watching from another city at the same time, password sharing is the likely culprit. For now, most companies are quietly collecting data to learn just how big a problem password sharing is and are not using that information to crack down on customers.

Streaming providers are more interested in stopping the pervasive sale of stolen account credentials on services like eBay and shutting down stolen accounts used to harvest content for unauthorized resale. But as sharing grows, so will calls from stakeholders to curtail the practice. Those in favor of vigorous crackdowns on password sharing argue billions of dollars of lost revenue will be lost. If a service like Netflix blocked password sharing, that could lead to dramatic increases in account sign-ups. But less established brands like Disney+ seem more concerned about losing the unofficial extra viewers that are watching and buzzing about shows on its new streaming platform.

Cable companies are frustrated about losing scores of cable TV customers to competitors that may be effectively giving away service for free. That has raised tempers at companies like Charter Communications.

“Pricing and lack of security continue to be the main problems contributing to the challenges of paid video growth,” Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge said in recent prepared remarks with Wall Street analysts. “The traditional bundle … is very expensive, and the actual unit rate of that product continues to rise, and that’s priced a lot of people out of the market. And it’s free to a lot of consumers who have friends with passwords. So our ability to sell that product is ultimately constrained by our relationship with content [companies], and we have to manage that in terms of the kinds of power that the content companies have.”

Charter’s power comes from its willingness to distribute cable networks like The Disney Channel to tens of millions of homes around the country. That forces Disney to listen to Charter’s concerns about piracy and password sharing and the issue is even documented in the latest carriage contract between the two companies.

Cable industry executives believe a crackdown on password sharing is inevitable, eventually. Just as the cable industry was forced to combat cable pirates during its formative years, streaming providers that welcome extra viewers today may lament the lost revenue those subscribers don’t bring to the table tomorrow.

 

Marketplace reports on the growing issue of streaming service password sharing. (2:19)

Another Cable Company Drops Cable TV

Phillip Dampier January 23, 2020 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video No Comments

Another independent cable company is dropping cable television service.

Rainbow Communications of Everest, which serves customers in northeastern Kansas, has set a “TV End” date for customers of June 30, 2020, after which it will only sell broadband and phone service:

As your local communications provider, we strive to bring innovative solutions for both entertainment and business purposes. Now a high-quality and less-expensive technology exists for watching TV by using an internet connection. In fact, most of our customers have chosen this route because watching video now accounts for 80% of our internet network traffic. Therefore, we have decided to focus our efforts on delivering the best internet experience possible, and end our TV service offering.

Rainbow TV service will end on June 30, 2020.

Rainbow, like many smaller cable operators, faces spiraling costs for video programming without the benefit of the volume discounts large national cable companies routinely receive. As streaming live TV video providers expand, they can now out-compete many independent cable companies by delivering a lower cost lineup of video channels. As a result, a growing number of small cable companies are deciding to exit the video business, concentrating on selling broadband and, to a lesser extent, phone service to their customers.

Rainbow claims customers will save up to $600 a year dropping its cable TV service in favor of a streaming video package from providers like YouTube TV or Sling. As large streaming providers continue to add local over the air channels to their lineups, many consumers can get the same or better lineup from a streaming provider at a lower cost.

The move will also allow Rainbow to dedicate all of its cable bandwidth towards data services, including digital phone service. That could allow the company to boost broadband speeds.

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