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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.

New Bipartisan Bill Would Deliver $40 Billion to Expand Rural Internet Access, Subsidize Service for Poor Americans

Sen. Portman

Three moderate senators will reintroduce the latest in a line of broadband funding initiatives later today that would allocate $40 billion to expand rural internet access and provide subsidies to make service more affordable for income-challenged Americans.

The Broadband Reform and Investment to Drive Growth in the Economy Act (BRIDGE Act), is a bipartisan measure sponsored by Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, Democrat Michael Bennet of Colorado, and independent Angus King of Maine. Originally introduced in 2020, the measure has been expanded this year to combine rural funding of broadband projects with direct subsidies to keep service affordable for poorer Americans. The measure is considerably smaller than the Biden Administration’s own proposal to spend $100 billion on broadband initiatives, the $94 billion broadband proposal from Congressional Democrats, and the $65 billion compromise plan Republicans tentatively reached with the Biden Administration before talks were called off.

Funding would be provided to internet providers prepared to expand broadband service, but only using technology capable of providing speeds starting at 100/100 Mbps — gigabit being even better. The bill would also invalidate state laws that impede or prohibit the development of municipal/public broadband projects. This could eventually lead to additional competition in rural areas not adequately served by existing providers. Funding would also be used to reduce the retail cost of internet service for those qualified as economically disadvantaged.

The reduced cost of the bill would limit the number of rural subsidy projects and would likely not be enough to provide service to all unserved Americans.

 

Des Moines Welcomes Fiber Competition for Mediacom and CenturyLink

The capital city of Iowa will soon get citywide access to gigabit service from a new competitor when MetroNet fires up its fiber to the home network beginning in the spring of 2022.

MetroNet, based in Indiana, has developed a lucrative business competing with some of America’s lesser known telecom companies, which have generally offered poorer service and slower speeds. When MetroNet cuts the ribbon on its gigabit fiber network, it will compete with usage-capped cable operator Mediacom, which Consumer Reports has bottom rated for at least a decade, and underfunded phone company CenturyLink, which has struggled to keep up with cable operator upgrades.

Des Moines, Iowa

According to the Des Moines Register, the fiber overbuilder will invest $70 million in its Des Moines network, and will be the third local competitor for internet, phone, and video service. The company traditionally undercuts competitors on regular pricing and at least matches their introductory pricing. In Des Moines, Mediacom offers new customers gigabit speed for $79 per month, which almost doubles to $139.99 when the promotion ends. CenturyLink’s limited fiber network starts at $65 a month, but also rises significantly after the promotional pricing ends. MetroNet will charge $60 a month for gigabit speed with a $100 debit card rebate, with prices increasing after the sixth month to $69.95 for the next 12 months. After the 18th month, regular pricing ($89.95) will apply.. MetroNet does not impose any data caps or usage based pricing.

MetroNet already offers service in Davenport, Ames, and Bettendorf, and has similar networks under construction in Ankeny, Urbandale, Gilbert, Grimes, Johnston, Clive, Le Claire, Nevada and Mason City — all in Iowa.

Google Fiber also has a nearby presence in West Des Moines. The city is constructing a fiber network that Google will license to provide its fiber internet service to residents in that area.

MetroNet received significant assistance from “red-tape-cutting” city officials, and the network will use existing rights-of-ways, with cables placed on poles and underground. MetroNet expects construction to take up to three years to complete, and residents can follow the company’s progress on a special website.

KCCI in Des Moines reports on MetroNet’s entry into Iowa’s largest city. (1:59)

A Tale of Two Homes in Spectrum Territory: What Competition Does to Pricing

Phillip Dampier May 26, 2021 Charter Spectrum, Competition, Consumer News 6 Comments

Competition is a wonderful thing. A case in point is the enormous difference Charter Spectrum charges new customers in areas where competition exists, and where it does not.

Charter’s offers are address sensitive. The cable company knows its competition and almost exactly where those competitors offer service. That is why the company asks for your service address before it quotes you pricing.

Stop the Cap! compared promotional new customer offers in the metro Rochester, N.Y. market where Spectrum faces token competition from Frontier’s slow speed DSL service. Then we checked pricing in neighborhoods where a fiber to the home overbuilder called Greenlight also offers service.

In neighborhoods where Spectrum enjoys a broadband monopoly, here are the offers for internet-only service available to new customers. Notice they expire after 12 months:

Spectrum promotional prices in non-competitive service areas.

Just one street away, where Greenlight offers customers the option of gigabit speed over a fiber to the home network, Spectrum’s promotional prices are quite different. Notice these offers last 24 months, twice as long as in non-competitive neighborhoods:

Spectrum promotional prices in some areas where customers can choose a competitor offering fiber to the home service.

Spectrum does not even bother offering new customers its entry-level 200 Mbps plan in areas where it has significant fiber competition. For $20 less per month, you get double that speed. Gigabit service is $20 less in competitive areas, too.

Spectrum charges a hefty $199.99 compulsory installation fee for gigabit service in non-competitive neighborhoods. Where fiber competition exists, sometimes just a street away, that installation fee plummets to just $49.99.

Note similar pricing variability exists in Spectrum service areas around the country, with the most aggressively priced offers reserved for addresses also served by a fiber to the home provider or multiple competitors (e.g. cable company, phone company, Google Fiber or other overbuilder). Current customers typically have to cancel existing service and sign up as a new customer to get these prices.

Greenlight Networks has four internet plans that range from $50-200 a month. They do not offer promotional prices, instead marketing “what you see is exactly what you will pay” pricing. As a relatively new company, they charge an installation fee that helps recoup the investments they are making to dig and string fiber cables in neighborhoods across Rochester (and Buffalo as well, where they are expanding). Spectrum (and its predecessors) use pre-existing cable lines that have been there for decades.

Greenlight Networks pricing

Charter’s promotion strategy is designed to undercut the competition on price, believing customers will choose 400/20 Mbps service for $29.99 a month over Greenlight’s 500/50 Mbps service for $50 a month. Of course, after two years Spectrum’s regular prices can kick in, more than tripling the cost to around $94.99 a month, although customers usually get a less attractive secondary promotion after the original one expires, usually offering around $10 off per month.

Mobile Data Costs Plummet 88% in Five Years, U.S. Consumers Pay 4x More Than Rest of the World

Phillip Dampier May 4, 2021 Competition, Consumer News, Wireless Broadband 2 Comments

The cost to deliver a gigabyte of data over mobile networks has plummeted 88% in the last five years, yet U.S. consumers are still paying an average of four times more than the rest of the world and twice the price that Europeans pay for average, comparable mobile plans.

The average cost to deliver mobile data has dropped to around $1/GB, thanks to network upgrades including Massive MIMO, carrier aggregation, the wide use of 4G LTE and the gradual introduction of 5G technology. As a result, mobile pricing has dropped significantly in competitive market areas. In much of Europe, a mobile plan with a generous allowance of mobile data and a bundle of texting and voice calls now costs around $15 a month, largely due to market competition. In Luxembourg and Australia, two companies sell generous data, calling and texting plans for under $10 a month. Iliad, a mobile provider in Italy, offers a plan with unlimited calling/texting and a 50 GB data allowance, including hotspot service, for $9.60 a month.

Despite the increased pressure on pricing, U.S. consumers are still paying some of the highest prices in the world, especially when dealing with two dominant carriers — AT&T and Verizon. Broadband and mobile analyst Dave Burstein noted an increasing pricing gap between the U.S. and Western Europe that widened starting in 2018.

“U.S. prices are now twice the Europeans and four times the world average,” Burstein noted. “Prices continue to fall rapidly except in the U.S., [which has remained] almost flat the last three years.”

Burstein also noted Verizon and AT&T have both estimated wireless data costs decline 40% per year in cost per bit. But most consumers are not benefiting from the dramatic cost declines as wireless companies stubbornly refuse to reset rates. The pressure for further price reductions has also been reduced with the recent merger of Sprint and T-Mobile, which had been largely responsible for forcing AT&T and Verizon to offer more generous plans or reduce rates.

Some of the most significant mobile competition has come from cable operators, which offer plans that resell access to the established 4G networks of Verizon (Charter, Comcast) and T-Mobile/Sprint (Altice USA). While AT&T and Verizon focus on high value customers and increasingly market costly “unlimited” family data plans, cable operators have offered consumers more simplified pricing focused on value for money, including per gigabyte plans and a basic unlimited data offer. Recently, Comcast’s XFINITY Mobile introduced its own family plan pricing, which can further reduce the price for multiple lines billed together and poses a more direct threat to Verizon.

Some researchers believe that marketing mobile plans by focusing on price and data allowances will be a dead end for wireless companies hoping to deliver regular increases in the amount of revenue collected from each subscriber. If competition does pressure companies to increase data allowances and reduce pricing, companies will need to find new revenue sources to deliver the financial results their investors demand each quarter.

“With many consumers picking price plans that fit their budget first and their data usage requirements second, operators need to educate users away from high-volume, low-cost plans and the idea that 150GB is meaningfully better than 100GB,” said Josie Sephton, director of Teligen. “We are in a data pricing merry-go-round that needs to be reset.”

Phil Kendall, director of the Service Provider Group and author of a report on mobile pricing suggests operators cannot provoke upgrades to higher cost plans with higher data allowances alone.

“Operators need ‘more for more’ pricing that offers revenue uplift through better experiences and richer content rather than through more data,” Kendall said.

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