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Shocking Revelation: Big Telecom Companies Treating You Like Trash Turns Out to Be a Mistake

Jeff Kagan is a name familiar to anyone that follows the cable industry. For over 30 years, Kagan has been tracking consumer perceptions about the telecom industry and offering insight into the challenges these and other businesses were likely to face in the future.More recently, Kagan has been fretting about the growing trend of retail businesses paying more attention to cultivating their relationships with Wall Street while targeting their customers for abuse.

“I have been noticing how in recent years, retail is becoming increasingly unfriendly to the customer. This is a mistake,” Kagan offers in a new opinion piece on Equities.com. “New technologies and new ideas may be good for the bottom line in the short-term. They may solve problems like shoplifting, and that may make investors happy today. However, in the long-term, these customer unfriendly trends will take their toll as customers will shop where they feel appreciated, respected and wanted. Customers shop at stores they love. Love is an emotion. So, we must think of winning the customer with emotion. This is difficult for most businesspeople to understand.”

‘My way or the highway’-type attitudes from retailers come from all sorts of businesses. Warehouse clubs make you pay for the honor of shopping there. Chains like Walmart are beefing up security teams and in some places now demand to see receipts from customers exiting the store. But nobody has abused customers better and longer than the telecom industry. Not even the cattle car-like airlines.

Kagan

After literally decades of almost bragging about their “don’t care” customer service while throwing attitude and intransigence at customers unhappy with service or pricing, the nation’s biggest cable and phone companies are now experiencing long-overdue customer revenge. Kagan notes that cord-cutting is not just about switching to a competitor for service. Many customers are literally thrilled to see the back end of their long hated provider.

Decades of monopoly service made abusing customers a risk-free and very profitable strategy for companies like Comcast, AT&T, Charter, Cox, Mediacom, and Verizon. In fact, someone turned the concept of the “cable guy” into a horror movie. Did you stay home from work to wait for a service call that never materialized? Tough luck. Don’t like yet another rate increase? Too bad.

“The reason they did this was, they had no competition in their market area. That meant the customer could not leave them,” Kagan noted.

After years of getting a bad reputation, only two things threatened to scare telecom companies straight — the fear of imminent regulation, such as what happened in 1992 when reregulation of cable companies turned out to be the only bill that year to be vetoed by President George H. W. Bush and overridden by the U.S. Senate to become law.

The other, much more scary fear is competition. In the mid-1990s, the nation’s biggest phone companies including what we now know as AT&T and Verizon were contemplating getting into the video business. This proved far more threatening than the much smaller home satellite dish business, which attracted around three million Americans at the time. The cable industry spent years taking shots at satellite competitors, including sticking dishowners with the cost of buying a $300 descrambler box up front, and charging as much (or even more) for programming than cable customers paid, despite the fact homeowners had to purchase and service their own dish, often 6-12 feet wide and not cheap to install.

The cable industry feared phone companies would charge ratepayers to subsidize their entry into the television business and sought protective legislation prohibiting the same cross-subsidization the cable industry would later rely on to introduce broadband and phone service.

More recently, after the country reached “peak cable” — the year the highest number of us subscribed to cable TV, the industry recognized it was likely all downhill from there. Comcast, in particular, specialized in empty lip service gestures to improve the customer service experience. For years, it promised to do better, only to do worse. The company even attempted to shed its bad reputation by changing the brand of its products from Comcast to “XFINITY.” Customers were not fooled, but that did not stop Charter from following Comcast’s lead, introducing the “Spectrum” brand to its products and almost burying its corporate name, which it barely references these days.

Kagan notes not following through on the customer service experience made cable companies ripe for stunning customer losses as new competitors for video service emerged. Comcast and Charter are among the biggest losers of cable TV customers, but their bad attitudes persist. Their latest ideas? Keep raising prices, rely on tricky Broadcast TV surcharges that are soaring in cost, end customer retention offers for dissatisfied video customers, and make up the difference in lost revenue by jacking up the price of broadband service, which is already nearly all-profit.

“The bottom line for any business is always focus on the customer. If they are happy, your business will remain strong and growing,” Kagan warned.

At some point, customers will get more choices for broadband service. Community owned broadband solutions have been very successful in communities that have experienced the worst abuse AT&T, Comcast, and Charter can deliver. In the future, fixed 5G wireless may provide perfectly respectable internet service if it is not data capped. Next generation satellite providers, interloping independent fiber to the home providers, and mesh wireless providers may offer consumers a number of options that can deliver suitable service and perhaps finally put cable and phone companies in their place.

India Getting 100 Mbps Fiber-to-the-Home Service for Under $10/Month

Jio founder Mukesh Ambani formally announces the launch of Jio Fiber.

Starting Thursday, the first 500,000 of over 15 million Indians pre-registered for service will begin receiving fiber to the home broadband at speeds starting at 100 Mbps, bundled with free unlimited voice calling for under $10 per month.

Jio Giga Fiber will eventually serve more than 20 million Indian homes and businesses in over 1,600 communities, charging a fraction of the prices charged by North American cable and phone companies, and expects to remain profitable by selling extra services, including unlimited global calling plans and television service, to Indian consumers. To sweeten the deal, customers that commit to a year of service will receive a 4K LED TV and set-top box for free.

Jio has already laid over 186,000 miles of optical fiber and has an existing base of 500,000 trial customers across India that have been testing the service.

Jio is India’s largest wireless provider, with over 323 million subscribers, making it the third largest mobile operator in the world. It is also one the newest, having launched wireless service in late 2015 over an expansive 4G LTE network. The company was founded by Mukesh Dhirubhai Ambani, one of Asia’s wealthiest men. His vision is to make telecommunications services affordable and available to the largest number of people possible, with an emphasis on making entry-level plans usable and affordable. His presence in the Indian telecom market has caused the same marketplace disruption T-Mobile has caused in the U.S.

Jio’s chief competitor, the state-owned BSNL telephone company, is rumored to be negotiating with several of India’s independent cable and internet providers to offer a competing joint bundle of TV, landline, and broadband services over optical fiber at prices under $9.75/month.

If both companies are successful, Indians will have access to some of the cheapest internet service in the world. 

Jio Fiber is designed to provide India with fiber broadband service as good or better than what is available in the United States and Canada, for a much cheaper price. Ambani noted the average broadband speed in the U.S. is now 90 Mbps, but Jio Fiber will beat that with plans starting at 100 Mbps. He has successfully navigated around skeptical investors by putting up more than $30 billion of his firm’s own money to back the telecom venture, instead of returning that money to shareholders in the form of dividend payouts and share buybacks. He can raise even more cash by selling and leasing back Jio’s extensive network of wireless cell sites.

Ambani sees Jio’s fiber network as a foundation for marketing additional products and services. Wealthier Indians will be invited to spend up to $139 a month on gigabit internet, a deluxe TV package with over 600 TV channels, a landline with unlimited international calling, and access to popular movies on the same day titles are released in Indian theaters. Customers with premium level service will also get free subscriptions to “most” popular video streaming services available in India (excluding Netflix and Amazon Prime Video). One downside to Jio’s plan — it comes with a 100 GB monthly data cap. Those exceeding it will see their speeds reduced to 1 Mbps for the rest of the current billing period. There is no word yet about the availability of unlimited use plans at an additional cost.

Jio has been strategically planning to introduce fiber service for several years and has purchased several Indian cable companies to help manage infrastructure, installation, and a network of retail stores that will act as a sales point for Jio’s wireless and fiber services.

Jio’s Mukesh Ambani introduces India to Jio’s new fiber to the home service, which will cost under $10 a month. (6:59)

Wall Street Hates CenturyLink’s Dividend Cut; Company Punished for Upgrade Spending

CenturyLink’s stock is being pummeled after the company announced a cut in divided payouts to shareholders earlier this year, preferring to keep the money in-house to reduce debt and increase spending on necessary broadband upgrades.

Last fall, CenturyLink stock was trading for over $23 a share. By January, rumors that CenturyLink was going to cut its dividend put the stock on a downward trajectory, falling to an all-time-low below $11 this month. Company officials argued that with tightening credit opportunities and increasing interest rates, the company needed to devote money normally paid back to shareholders towards paying down its $35.5 billion long-term debt and provide better service to its customers.

A half billion dollars of that money will also be spent on upgrading CenturyLink’s broadband service, particularly in rural areas where the company is receiving Connect America Fund (CAF) dollars from the federal government.

“Our plan for 2019 includes investing to improve the trajectory of the business increasing CapEx by roughly $500 million,” Jeff Storey, president and CEO of CenturyLink said on a January analyst conference call. “As I mentioned earlier those investments include expanding the fiber network, adding new buildings throughout our footprint, enhancing our enterprise product portfolio, continuing our investments in CAF-II, and transforming our customer and employee experience.”

Investors were not impressed with those plans, and CenturyLink’s share price cratered.

Independent phone companies have traditionally attracted investors with handsome dividend payouts, but the realities of their aging infrastructure and the inability to compete effectively with cable companies on lucrative broadband services have left companies like CenturyLink, Windstream, and Frontier Communications in a quandary. Shareholders do not perceive value investing in fiber optic network upgrades and punish companies that announce dramatic increases in network investments. Customers left on slow-speed ADSL networks are increasingly dissatisfied with their internet experience and seek alternative providers — usually the local cable company. As Frontier Communications has discovered, attempting to win back ex-customers has been exceedingly difficult, often only possible with lucrative promotional offers that undercut the cable company. But such offers attract customers with above-average price sensitivity, making it difficult to extract increased revenue from them going forward.

CenturyLink’s stock price has dropped to an all-time low over the last six months.

Investors are also increasingly concerned about the financial viability of investor-owned phone companies that are stuck between leveraging their old networks and facing down shareholders when upgrades become essential. AT&T and Verizon have wireless units responsible for much of the revenue earned by those two Baby Bells. Traditional phone companies have had less luck trying to sell ancillary support services like Frontier’s “Peace of Mind” technical support service, or bundling satellite TV service into packages.

CenturyLink’s Local Service Territory (Source: CenturyLink)

CenturyLink is increasingly depending on its enterprise and wholesale businesses to earn revenue. That fact has prompted some shareholders to ask why the company hasn’t spun off or sold off its traditional landline network and consumer businesses, which currently account for only 25% of its revenue. In May, CenturyLink seemed determined to placate those investors with an announcement it was exploring “strategic options” for its consumer business. Investors theorize that CenturyLink could “unlock value” from its legacy landline networks in such a sale or spinoff that would benefit shareholder value. It would also be much cheaper than investing in that network to upgrade it.

The chorus for a sale increased after Frontier Communications announced it was spinning off its landline territories in the Pacific Northwest to a company specializing in upgrading legacy networks to support better broadband. Frontier, mired in debt and facing a concerning due date for some of its bonds, made the sale to give a boost to its balance sheet. Frontier had also been facing increasing scrutiny about a potential Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. Windstream declared bankruptcy earlier this year, reminding investors that a trip to bankruptcy court could quickly wipe out all shareholder value.

MoffettNathanson, a Wall Street analyst firm that specializes in telecommunications, finds little to like about CenturyLink shedding its own landline operations. Frontier’s sale benefited from the fact a significant part of its Pacific Northwest territory was built from an acquisition from Verizon, which had already installed its FiOS fiber to the home network in parts of Washington and Oregon. About 30% of the territory Frontier is selling is fiber-enabled. In comparison, CenturyLink has installed fiber to the home service in only about 10% of its territory, dramatically reducing any potential sale price. Much of CenturyLink’s core fiber network powers its enterprise and wholesale operations — businesses CenturyLink would likely keep for itself.

MoffettNathanson also sees little value from the proposition a buyer could leverage CenturyLink’s network to provide backhaul fiber capacity for future 5G services, because CenturyLink provides service mostly in smaller communities likely to be bypassed by 5G, at least for the near term.

Wall Street’s idea of a win-win strategy for CenturyLink is to keep its consumer business and expand its broadband service footprint and capability, if the federal government offers to cover much of the cost through more rounds of CAF subsidies. Taxpayers would subsidize broadband expansion while CenturyLink and shareholders share all the profits.

Cable’s DOCSIS 4.0 – Symmetrical Broadband Coming

Phillip Dampier June 25, 2019 Broadband Speed, Consumer News No Comments

The next standard for cable broadband is now due by 2020.

CableLabs is working on the next generation of broadband over existing Hybrid Fiber-Coax (HFC) networks, finally achieving identical upload and download speed and supporting more spectrum on existing cable lines, which could mean another leap in broadband speed.

DOCSIS 4.0 is still evolving, but according to Light Reading, the next upgrade will fully support Full Duplex DOCSIS, allowing customers to get the same upload speed as their download speed, and will fully implement Low Latency DOCSIS which could reduce traffic delays to under 1 ms. The new standard will also introduce Extended Spectrum DOCSIS, which will open up broadband traffic on frequencies up to 1.8 GHz — 600 Mhz more bandwidth than available today. That additional spectrum will allow for speed increases in excess of 1 Gbps, support IP video traffic, and backhaul for wireless applications like small cells. 

According to Light Reading, people familiar with the development of the cable broadband specification believe much of the work will be complete by the end of 2019, with the spectrum expansion specification expected before mid-2020. This would allow the introduction of DOCSIS 4.0 modems for purchase beginning in 2021.

Cable operators are largely taking a break on large investments this year, with few planning major infrastructure changes beyond some projects underway at Comcast and Altice-Cablevision’s ongoing replacement of its HFC network with fiber to the home service. In 2020, operators will make crucial decisions about their next upgrade commitments. Comcast and Altice will have the easiest time delivering symmetrical broadband because Comcast will support the “Node+0” design that eliminates amplifiers between the nearest node and the customer’s home. This will facilitate the introduction of symmetrical speeds. Altice is dropping the DOCSIS standard as it moves to fiber service, which already supports symmetrical speeds.

Other cable operators are not currently committed to removing amplifiers from their networks, supporting alternate designs like “Node+1,” “Node+2,” etc., which are similar to today’s cable system designs. Instead, they are hoping to leverage Extended Spectrum DOCSIS to boost their speeds. Most will likely offer significant speed bumps for uploading, but those speeds won’t match download speed. For example, Charter Spectrum or Cox might upgrade customers to 500/100 Mbps service, on the theory that 100 Mbps upload speed will still be a welcome change for customers, and not noticeably slower for most current applications, such as uploading videos or file storage in the cloud.

Industry trade association NCTA reports that Comcast, Charter, Cox, Mediacom, Midco, Rogers (Canada), Shaw Communications (Canada), Vodafone (Europe), Taiwan Broadband Communications, Telecom Argentina, Liberty Global (Europe/Latin America) are all implementing the industry’s 10G initiative, with lab trials already underway, and field trials beginning in 2020. DOCSIS 4.0 will ultimately be a part of that project.

CableLabs is already making plans for DOCSIS 4.1 (our name, not theirs), that will further extend DOCSIS spectrum up to 3 GHz — a massive upgrade in usable spectrum. Whether that will be technically plausible on aging cable systems last rebuilt in the 1990s isn’t known, and probably won’t be for two or more years. But if it proves technically feasible, DOCSIS 4.1 could be one of the last DOCSIS standards before cable systems consider abandoning HFC in favor of all-fiber networks.

CableLabs has proved itself to be adept at squeezing every bit of performance out of a network that was originally built with simple coaxial copper cable and designed to distribute analog TV signals. DOCSIS 4.1 would support speeds potentially as high as 25 Gbps downstream and 10 Gbps upstream. Customers would require new cable modems and cable systems would have to tighten standards to take aging infrastructure out of service more frequently. Upload traffic would likely be assigned spectrum below 1 GHz, with 1-3 GHz reserved for downloads. By then, television, phone, and internet services would likely all be a part of a single broadband pipe.

Cable systems have enjoyed enormous cost savings over the last 20 years deploying DOCSIS upgrades instead of scrapping their existing HFC networks in favor of all-fiber. Charter Spectrum admitted the cost to upgrade from DOCSIS 3.0 to DOCSIS 3.1 was just $9 per subscriber.

AT&T Expects to Offer “Nationwide” 5G and Fiber Broadband Service Within 3-5 Years

Stephenson

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson on Tuesday told investors that AT&T will deploy a combination of fiber optics and 5G wireless and be able to sell a “true, high-speed internet network throughout the United States” within the next three to five years.

“In three to five years out, there will be a crossover point,” Stephenson told investors. “We go through this all the time in industry. 5G will cross over, performance wise, with what you’re seeing in home broadband. We’re seeing it in business now over our millimeter-wave spectrum. And there will be a place, it may be in five years, I think it could be as early as three, where 5G begins to actually have a crossover point in terms of performance with fiber. 5G can become the deployment mechanism for a lot of the broadband that we’re trying to hit today with fiber.”

Although the remarks sound like a broadband game changer, Stephenson has made this prediction before, most recently during an AT&T earnings call in January, 2019. Stephenson told investors he believed 5G will increasingly offer AT&T a choice of technology to deploy when offering broadband service to consumers and businesses. In high-cost scenarios, 5G could be that choice. In areas where fiber is already ubiquitous, fiber to the home service would be preferred.

Stephenson’s predictions about nationwide service will depend in part on the commercial success of millimeter wave 5G fixed home broadband, which will be required to satisfy broadband speed and capacity demands. Verizon Wireless has been offering fixed 5G in several markets with mixed results. The company’s early claims of robust coverage have been countered by Verizon’s own cautious customer qualification portal, which is more likely to deny availability of service to interested customers than offer it.

But Stephenson remains bullish about expanding broadband.

“So all things considered, over the next three to five years, [with a] continued push on fiber, 5G begins to scale in millimeter-wave, and my expectation is that we have a nationwide, true, high-speed internet network throughout the United States, [using] 5G or fiber,” Stephenson said.

Whether anything actually comes of this expansion project will depend entirely on how much money AT&T proposes to spend on it. Recently, AT&T has told investors to expect significant cuts in future investments as AT&T winds down its government-mandated fiber expansion to 14 million new locations as part of approval of the DirecTV merger-acquisition. In fact, AT&T’s biggest recent investments in home broadband are a result of those government mandates. AT&T has traditionally focused much of its spending on its wireless network, which is more profitable. For AT&T to deliver millimeter wave 5G, the company will need to spend billions on fiber optic expansion into neighborhoods where it will place many thousands of small cell antennas to deliver the service over the short distances millimeter waves propagate.

AT&T could sell a fixed 5G broadband service similar to Verizon Wireless, confine its network to mobile applications, or offer fixed wireless service to commercial and manufacturing users in selected areas. Or it could offer a combination of all the above. AT&T will also need to consider the implications of a fiber buildout outside of its current landline service area. Building fiber optic networks to provide backhaul connectivity to AT&T’s mobile network would not antagonize its competitors nearly as much as the introduction of residential fixed 5G wireless as a home broadband replacement. The competitive implications of that would be dramatic, especially in communities skipped by Verizon FiOS or stuck with DSL from under-investing independent telephone companies like CenturyLink, Frontier, and Windstream. Should AT&T start selling 300+ Mbps fixed 5G wireless in these territories, it would cause significant financial distress for the big three independent phone companies, and could trigger a competitive war with Verizon.

Wall Street is unlikely to be happy about AT&T proposing multi-billion dollar investments to launch a full-scale price war with other phone and cable companies. So do not be surprised if AT&T’s soaring rhetoric is replaced with limited, targeted deployments in urban areas, new housing developments, and business parks. It remains highly unlikely rural areas will benefit from AT&T’s definition of “nationwide,” because there is no Return on Investment formula that is likely to work deploying millimeter wave spectrum in rural areas without heavy government subsidies.

For now, AT&T may concentrate on its fiber buildout beyond the 14 million locations mandated by the DirecTV merger agreement. As Stephenson himself said, “When we put people on fiber, they do not churn.” AT&T has plenty of runway to grow its fiber to the home business because it attracts only about a 25 percent market share at present. Stephenson believes he can get that number closer to 50%. He can succeed by offering better service, at a lower price than what his cable competitors charge. Since 5G requires a massive fiber network to deploy small cells, there is nothing wrong with getting started early and then see where 5G shakes out in the months and years ahead.

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