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Stop the Cap!’s Testimony to FCC on Allowing Spectrum to Impose Data Caps

Testimony to Federal Communications Commission
Re: Charter’s Petition to Sunset Merger-related Deal Conditions
July 22, 2020

Stop the Cap! is an all-consumer, all-volunteer advocacy group created in 2008 to oppose data caps on home broadband internet service. Our group does not accept corporate contributions of any kind and our only motivation is to promote better, more affordable broadband service without the imposition of unnecessary data caps or usage-based pricing schemes. We have submitted comments to the FCC in multiple proceedings over the last decade, including the 2016 merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.[1] We feel well-qualified to share our views on this issue because our group recommended the FCC ban data caps as a condition of approving this merger.

We are strongly opposed to Charter’s petition to sunset the order that prohibits Charter from imposing data caps and usage-based pricing for a period of 7-years. We are disappointed the company has petitioned the FCC to do so in the middle of a historic pandemic and economic downturn rivaling the Great Depression. Never before has reliable and affordable broadband service been more important to the American people. From at-home learning to tele-commuting for work, online health care and teleconferencing, updates on the coronavirus and testing, filing for unemployment or applying for a job – all require the use of the internet to fully maintain social distancing to keep people safe. Charter’s untimely petition demonstrates it does not have the best interests of its customers at heart.

Consumers Hate Data Caps and Usage-based Pricing Schemes

Time Warner Cable, which today is part of Charter/Spectrum, learned quickly that customers loathe data caps and usage-based pricing schemes. An effort to replace flat-rate unlimited internet with a compulsory usage-based billing scheme flopped after the company announced it would expand a data cap trial to customers in parts of New York, Texas, and North Carolina in April 2009.[2] The trial caused a media sensation in cities like Rochester, San Antonio, Austin, and the Triangle region around Greensboro in North Carolina. Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) proposed federal legislation banning data caps as a result. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) criticized the caps as anti-consumer and anti-competitive.

Just two weeks after word leaked about the expanded data cap trial and protests erupted, then-Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt permanently shelved the plan. That was the last attempt Time Warner Cable would make to impose a compulsory data cap and usage-based pricing scheme on its customers.

Subsequent efforts to test optional usage-based pricing plans were spectacular failures for Time Warner Cable. Consumers simply do not want compulsory data-capped internet service or usage-based pricing. Inadequate competition is the key reason such unpopular plans still exist today.

Time Warner Cable management shared their experiences with data caps with investors while exploring how customers would react to two optional usage-based discount programs the company offered consumers for a time in the early 2010s.

In 2013, Time Warner Cable welcomed new broadband customers with an unlimited Standard Broadband plan for $44.99/month. (Today, Charter’s Standard Internet plan starts at a less affordable $65/month, although it delivers substantially faster speed than Time Warner Cable’s basic plan did in 2013.) The voluntary usage-capped plan that Time Warner Cable offered that year provided a paltry $5/month discount off the price of Standard Broadband if subscribers agreed to keep usage under 5 GB a month. The cost of that usage-based plan was $39.99/month. In that year, average broadband usage was approximately 28 GB a month, according to the company. Assuming a customer enrolled in the usage capped plan accidentally consumed the average amount of data most customers used, their total bill including overlimit fees would have been $62.99, far more than the cost of the unlimited option. Consumers fearing unplanned bill shock made the company’s traditional unlimited plans far more attractive.

Former Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus told investors in September 2013:

“Most customers today — the vast, vast majority — take our unlimited offering and I think over time most customers will continue to take unlimited,” said Marcus, who was serving as Time Warner Cable’s chief operating officer at the time. “They value it and will be willing to pay for it. I think that is great and we have no desire to change that.”[3]

In the spring of 2014, Marcus told investors at a Deutsche Bank investor conference that its attempt to introduce a more generous, optional 30 GB usage plan was also a major failure.

“If you take the 30GB a month and compare it to what median usage is, let’s say high 20s — 27GB a month, that would suggest a whole lot of customers would do well by taking the 30GB service,” Marcus said. “Notwithstanding that, very few customers — in the thousands — have taken the usage-based tiers and I think that speaks to the value they place on unlimited — not bad because we plan to continue to offer unlimited for as far out as we can possibly see.”[4]

Based on Marcus’ figures, less than 1% of Time Warner Cable customers enrolled in one of their usage-based billing schemes.

Coincidentally, just prior to Charter’s announcement it would merge with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, the company suddenly shelved its own data caps.[5]

Despite the overwhelming distaste for data caps and usage pricing in the home broadband marketplace, many providers have ignored consumer sentiment and implemented data caps averaging 1 TB, with a punishing overlimit fee that averages an extra $10 for each additional 50 GB increment of usage.

The Seven-Year Ban on Charter Imposing Data Caps Remains Warranted

Stop the Cap! argues, and the FCC stated in its May 5, 2016 “Memorandum Opinion and Order” granting the merger between Charter, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks, that data caps can be an anticompetitive weapon to protect video profits, are a tool to earn even more revenue from subscribers, and can be symptomatic of a lack of competition in the broadband provider marketplace.

The FCC’s reasoning for the imposition of a 7-year ban on Charter imposing data caps was to protect consumers and competition. In fact, the FCC found that absent conditions, the merger deal Charter proposed was not in the public interest. Specifically, the FCC concluded that Charter’s desire to protect its video profits “will increase incentives to impose data caps and usage-based prices in order to make watching online video more expensive, and in particular more expensive than subscribing to a traditional pay-TV bundle.”[6] To approve the deal, the FCC required “New Charter” to comply with certain conditions to clearly demonstrate “its claimed public interest benefits so that the transaction’s benefits will clearly outweigh the likely public interest harms.”[7]

Nearly five years after the merger was approved, Charter is now petitioning the FCC to sunset various deal conditions early, including a prohibition on implementing data caps or usage-based billing. Charter’s petition narrowly focuses its argument on the state of the competitive video marketplace.

Since the 2016 order granting the merger, some consumers have chosen to drop Spectrum’s TV packages in favor of new linear TV streaming packages like Sling TV, YouTube TV, and AT&T TV Now, while a potentially larger number have chosen on-demand video content from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and others.

Charter argues the presence of these “OVD” services and their relative success is evidence that data caps already imposed by other companies have not stifled their growth. Charter’s core argument is that the prohibition on data caps imposed by the FCC leaves Charter on an unlevel playing field where other providers are free to impose data caps while it cannot until the 7-year ban sunsets.

But the likely outcome of rescinding the ban on data caps would result in direct harm to consumers, potentially deterring usage either by limiting the quality of streamed video to keep data consumption down, or foregoing certain viewing opportunities. Charter seems to forget that other cable operators in the marketplace did not approach the FCC requesting approval of the largest cable industry merger deal in at least a decade – a merger the FCC declared was not in the public interest without conditions like the data cap ban.

We submit that any imposition of data caps on residential broadband service is anti-consumer and anti-competitive, providing strong evidence of the pricing power of a concentrated, uncompetitive marketplace for high-speed internet service – one that became even more concentrated with the merger of Charter, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. The FCC itself found no discernable justification for usage-based billing or data caps in its 2016 Memorandum and Order approving the transaction:

“While wired BIAS providers sometimes claim there are cost-based and efficiency justifications for implementing usage-based billing policies, the Applicants fail to advance such a justification or demonstrate any cost-based or efficiency enhancing rationale for the implementation of data caps or UBP.”[8]

Charter’s petition also conveniently ignores the question of competitiveness in the high-speed internet marketplace. High-speed internet is required to take advantage of online video streaming services. Few companies would alienate their customers with unpopular usage-based pricing plans unless they understood consumers lacked good alternatives. The FCC’s 2016 Memorandum and Order noted the 7-year ban on data caps came partly as a result of concern about the lack of choice in broadband providers (emphasis ours):

“Seven years may also provide the high-speed BIAS provider market sufficient time to develop further with additional investments in fiber from established wireline BIAS providers, Wireless 5G technology, use of smartgrid fiber for broadband, additional overbuilding, and other potential competitors to traditional wired BIAS providers. It is our expectation that these developments will foster competition in the market to make the anticompetitive use of data caps less tenable in the future.”[9]

We submit there is already evidence that strong competition deters the imposition of unpopular data caps or usage-based pricing schemes. Comcast has conspicuously not imposed data caps or usage-based pricing in the northeast and mid-Atlantic regions where Verizon FiOS is its largest competitor.[10] Charter claimed in its petition that Verizon FiOS engages in usage-based pricing, which we argue is in error. As evidence, Charter cites Verizon’s prepaid offerings, which do not involve usage pricing.[11] In fact, Verizon FiOS has marketed its internet service without any disclosed data caps or usage pricing since its inception.

Stop the Cap! submits there has been only an incremental increase in competition among home broadband providers in the United States over the last four years. Fiber overbuilders have made some progress, but have also been hampered by pole attachment disputes, long permit and easement delays, and the need for more investment.[12]

AT&T has successfully completed its fiber expansion program, largely undertaken as a condition of the Commission’s 2015 approval of AT&T’s merger with DirecTV.[13] But AT&T is already the incumbent provider in those markets, which limits competitive benefits. One relatively new entrant, Google Fiber, once cited as a new and potentially strong competitor in the broadband marketplace has clearly retrenched from further expansion, at least for now.[14]

The launch of 5G as a wireless home broadband replacement has been modest, limited to a handful of neighborhoods in a very small number of cities. While 5G will certainly deliver an incremental upgrade to wireless mobile device users, its prospect as a direct competitor to wired cable and phone company home broadband products is questionable.[15] In December 2019, cable executives scoffed at 5G’s potential to deliver serious competition in the home broadband business. Dexter Goei, CEO of Altice USA, called available 5G plans “deeply flawed” because 5G service is not financially viable outside of densely populated urban areas.[16]

Stop the Cap! believes as of the date of this filing, there is still insufficient competition in the broadband marketplace. An early sunset of Charter’s prohibition on data caps will once again make the original merger deal not in the public interest. We agree with the FCC that strong and robust competition will likely eventually resolve the data cap issue, but we see no evidence of any potential marketplace entrant having sufficient scale and market share within the next two years to deter incumbent providers from engaging in anticompetitive data caps and usage-based pricing abuse.

Charter’s Claim It Has No Plans to Impose Data Caps or Usage-Based Pricing, Despite Lobbying for Permission to Do So is Suspect

Charter’s public comments on this issue are not reassuring:

“Once the conditions expire, Charter will weigh the options as we would any business decision, but is currently not even considering implementing data caps or charging for interconnection and has no plan to do so. What Charter seeks is a level playing field so that we can continue to grow and provide superior service to our customers across the country.”[17]

Charter can easily argue it isn’t currently considering implementing data caps because the earliest date that prohibition would sunset is nearly a year away: May 18, 2021. It is highly likely that “weighing the options” would include an assessment by Charter of the existing marketplace and level of competition. That would also include an analysis of Charter’s broadband pricing power, price elasticity and what some industry executives have suggested is broadband’s “long runway” for pricing. Broadband providers enjoy a scarcity in competition and a high demand for their product, which makes price increases inevitable. S&P Global quotes Kagan analyst Tony Lenoir noting “that in the long run, the industry could see more conversation around data caps as usage continues to grow.”[18]

It is questionable why a company like Charter would spend its valuable resources attempting to sunset deal conditions early only to reject taking full advantage of implementing data caps during the next two years before the conditions would have originally expired.

Charter’s petition is in direct conflict with what it argued before the Commission in 2016:

“Charter in particular emphasizes its aversion to data caps, stating that instead of enforcing usage limits it chooses to market the absence of data caps as a competitive advantage. Charter also argues there is a strong business case for not implementing caps. Specifically, Charter explains that it terminated its enforcement of the usage limits trial in the AUP in January 2012 because the benefits to customers of continuing the trial (minimizing bandwidth consumption to preserve a positive Internet experience) would not exceed the program’s costs. Charter also states that caps create marketing challenges because they complicate consumer purchasing decisions. Furthermore, Charter argues that data caps increase churn among subscribers. Finally, Charter states that it plans to distinguish itself from its competitors based largely on the quality and speed of its broadband offerings and that data caps undermine that marketing message.”[19]

Charter’s apparent understanding of how much consumers dislike usage caps and usage-based pricing is admirable, and no doubt was influenced by the lackluster reception Time Warner Cable received when it trialed optional data-capped tiers referenced above. Charter has also emphasized the fact it imposes no data caps in most of its broadband advertising to this day. But when a company faces few competitors, there are no market forces deterring Charter from changing its mind. Only the FCC’s 7-year ban on data caps has assured Charter’s customers they will not face the near-term prospect of data caps, usage pricing, and a possible regime of overlimit fees and costly add-on plans promising to restore unlimited service for an additional $30-40 a month.[20] [21]

Broadband Usage Growth During the Pandemic Exposes the Folly of Data Cap/Usage Pricing Arguments

After an unprecedented number of Americans remained in their homes to work, learn, and entertain themselves while socially distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19, broadband providers saw historic growth in network usage. In fact, a report from OpenVault, which collects U.S. cable subscribers’ usage behaviors and puts them into data sets, found a 47% increase in broadband traffic year-over-year during the first quarter of 2020.[22]

Average broadband consumption increased from 273.5 GB in the first quarter of 2019 to 402.5 GB in the first quarter of 2020. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, OpenVault had projected that average consumption would reach 425 GB by the end of the year. Instead, due in large part to subscriber self-quarantines and work from home policies, OpenVault said the average monthly usage for April was on track to top 460 GB.

OpenVault also predicted at least 10% of broadband subscribers, an unprecedented number, are now using in excess of 1 TB a month, which could subject them to usage penalties or overlimit fees if their provider has data caps. About 1.2% of customers consume more than 2 TB a month, which would likely result in additional monthly overlimit charges of $100, using Comcast’s overlimit penalty policy as an example.[23]

The average Charter Spectrum internet customer exceeds OpenVault’s averages. Charter Communications disclosed to investors in May 2020 that the average broadband-only Spectrum customer averaged over 600 GB of usage per month, increasing by more than 20% since the fourth quarter of 2019.[24] Despite the higher usage, Charter’s only significant disclosure of unusual first quarter capital expenditures was $87 million of mobile costs. Charter also told investors (emphasis ours), “Charter currently expects 2020 cable capital expenditures to decline as a percentage of cable revenue versus 2019.”

In other words, the costs to support rapidly increasing usage of Spectrum’s broadband service are not significant enough to require unusual investment. There is no evidence that justifies a need to implement usage caps or usage-based pricing. The cable industry’s largest lobbyist and trade organization, the NCTA, has touted how the cable industry has taken COVID-19 related traffic growth in stride, well prepared to manage current and future traffic increases.[25]

In fact, since the merger closed, Charter stock has more than doubled in value, from $227.41 on May 18, 2016 – the date the merger deal closed, to over $560 as of today, demonstrating the company’s current products, services, and pricing are more than adequate to deliver financial results that provide an excellent return on shareholder investments.[26]

We urge the Commission to carefully review claims that usage pricing and data caps deliver savings to any customer. Historically, any modest savings from discounts are more than absorbed by regular rate increases and occasional overage fees.

Charter’s claim that restricting it from imposing data caps “hamstrings Charter’s ability to allocate the costs of maintaining its network in a way that is efficient and fair for all of its customers—above-average, average, and light users alike” is simply not supported by the available evidence.[27] Except for the aforementioned, barely marketed offer of a slight discount for users agreeing to limit usage to 5 or 30 GB per month previously offered by Time Warner Cable (that has long been discontinued), and a somewhat similar discount offered in 2013 by Comcast which attracted almost no customers, no major cable operator or phone company has priced internet service fairly for “light users.”[28]

Charter, like many providers, already balances network costs and usage by offering different prices and speed tiers to meet the needs of its light, moderate and heavy users. The result is that Charter still collects increasing amounts of revenue from light and moderate use customers through periodic rate increases and heavy users often voluntarily upgrade to premium priced, faster speed tiers that more than cover any increased usage costs.

Every provider that implements data caps also claims those caps will affect almost none of their customers. Today, many providers choose a monthly usage allowance of around 1 TB, which sounds generous. But as we have shown above, average usage is rising quickly. But at the same time, costs to provide the service have not. The result has been costly broadband service that is also highly profitable. Giving a company like Charter permission to begin imposing usage caps in 2021 will leave many of its customers effectively trapped with that single monopoly provider, with the only alternative often a telephone company capable of providing only slow speed DSL service that does not meet the FCC’s standard for broadband speed.

Charter’s Performance Post-Merger is One of “Persistent Non-Compliance”

Stop the Cap! also reminds the Commission Charter Communications established a record of egregiously failing to meet its obligations to the State of New York. As a participant in the proceedings by the New York State Department of Public Service/Public Service Commission (NYDPS) to review Charter’s 2016 merger proposal, Stop the Cap! advocated for deal conditions including a requirement to expand its service area to cover unserved, rural areas of New York State.

The NYDPS ultimately approved the merger with the understanding Charter would expand service to 145,000 homes and businesses in largely rural, unserved areas on a strict timeline. In 2018, Charter failed to meet its merger obligations in what the NYDPS called “persistent noncompliance” and the Commission ultimately revoked the company’s franchise in New York State.[29]

The various instances of misconduct included:

  • The company’s repeated failures to meet deadlines;
  • Charter’s attempts to skirt obligations to serve rural communities;
  • Unsafe practices in the field;
  • Its failure to fully commit to its obligations under the 2016 merger agreement; and
  • The company’s purposeful obfuscation of its performance and compliance obligations to the Commission and its customers.

After lengthy negotiations and additional fines and revised buildout requirements, the NYDPS reversed its decision. Still, Charter has a history of failing to meet its commitments, and we argue that makes the company’s commitments suspect.

Conclusion

A 7-year commitment to not data cap customers is a very small price to pay for the approval of a colossal merger worth more than $70 billion dollars. A deal is a deal. For customers, a guaranteed reprieve from the implementation of data caps and usage pricing provides solace in these extremely difficult times. It assures customers of internet service they can use as needed without worrying about a usage meter or overlimit fees.

Charter Communications has been extremely successful marketing its broadband products without data caps and clearly does not need them to achieve the kind of financial results that have doubled the company’s stock price. In most industries, adequate competition would dissuade companies from attempting to extract more money from customers with no discernable improvement in service. Absent that competition, some cable operators and phone companies have imposed arbitrary and unjustified usage caps as a result of market power.

To argue to also be allowed to impose similar unjustified usage caps as representative of a level playing field is ludicrous. It would be one of those rare cases where companies competed to see who could raise prices the most and the fastest.

Americans already pay too much for internet access. It is crucial for the FCC to do all it can to protect consumers and foster true competition that can demonstrably bring prices down and force unnecessary data caps from the marketplace. For now, the way to protect consumers is easy and clear: tell Charter a deal is a deal and the company has just two years left of a sensible, pro-consumer requirement that it not implement usage caps or usage-based billing.

[1] Stop the Cap! Comments on 2016 Merger of Charter, Time Warner Cable, et al. https://ecfsapi.fcc.gov/file/60001328856.pdf

[2] “Time Warner Cable shelves some Internet cap plans” https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=7368388&page=1

[3] “Time Warner Cable’s Incoming CEO Promises to Keep Unlimited Broadband Tier” https://stopthecap.com/2013/09/12/time-warner-cables-incoming-ceo-promises-to-keep-unlimited-broadband-tier/

[4] “Time Warner Cable Admits Usage-Based Pricing is a Big Failure – Only Thousands Enrolled” https://stopthecap.com/2014/03/13/time-warner-cable-admits-usage-based-pricing-is-a-big-failure-only-thousands-enrolled/

[5] “FCC Demands Details About Charter’s Suddenly Retired Usage Caps” https://stopthecap.com/2015/09/23/fcc-demands-details-about-charters-suddenly-retired-usage-caps/

[6] May 5, 2016 Memorandum Opinion and Order, page 4, executive summary number 7.

[7] May 5, 2016 Memorandum Opinion and Order, page 4, executive summary item numbers 8-9.

[8] 2016 Memorandum and Order, page 42, paragraph 84

[9] 2016 Memorandum and Order, page 44, paragraph 86

[10] https://www.xfinity.com/support/articles/data-usage-find-area

[11] Charter petition, page 22.

[12] “Access Issue Slows Rollout of Fiber Optic Network in Erie” https://www.goerie.com/news/20190609/access-issue-slows-rollout-of-fiber-optic-network-in-erie

[13] “FCC Grants Approval of AT&T-DirecTV Transaction” https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/DOC-334561A1.pdf

[14] “Why Google Fiber stopped its plans to expand to more cities” https://www.sacbee.com/news/nation-world/national/article110655177.html

[15] “What You Need to Know About 5G in 2020” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/08/technology/personaltech/5g-mobile-network.html

[16] “5G Broadband is a threat to cable companies but execs aren’t worried.” https://www.cnbc.com/2019/12/01/5g-broadband-is-a-threat-to-cable-companies-but-execs-arent-worried.html

[17] “Charter seeks FCC OK to impose data caps and charge fees to video services” https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2020/06/charter-seeks-fcc-ok-to-impose-data-caps-and-charge-fees-to-video-services/

[18] “Broadband ARPU is Growing As Homes and Businesses Ask for Faster Speeds” https://www.spglobal.com/marketintelligence/en/news-insights/latest-news-headlines/broadband-arpu-growing-as-homes-businesses-ask-for-faster-speeds-analysts-say-58637057

[19] 2016 Memorandum and Order, page 38, paragraph 78

[20] Comcast Xfinity Unlimited Data Pricing https://www.xfinity.com/support/articles/exp-unlimited-data

[21] Sparklight Unlimited Data Pricing https://www.sparklight.com/internet

[22] “Broadband usage spikes due to COVID-19” https://www.fiercetelecom.com/operators/due-to-covid-19-broadband-usage-spikes-47-q1-nearly-surpassing-all-2020-s-projections

[23] Comcast Xfinity Overlimit Fees https://www.xfinity.com/support/articles/data-usage-exceed-usage

[24] Charter 1st Quarter 2020 Results https://ir.spectrum.com/news-releases/news-release-details/charter-announces-first-quarter-2020-results

[25] “Why Cable’s Broadband Network is Handling the Pandemic and Ready for the Future” https://www.ncta.com/whats-new/why-cables-broadband-network-is-handling-the-pandemic-and-ready-for-the-future?utm_source=NCTA+Updates&utm_campaign=a959c28eb0-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2020_04_29_05_11&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_58679950e4-a959c28eb0-90061877

[26] Charter Historical Stock Pricing for May 18, 2016 https://www.marketwatch.com/investing/stock/CHTR/historical?siteid=mktw&date=may%2018%2C%202016&x=0&y=0

[27] Charter petition, page 23, paragraph 2

[28] “Comcast testing a 5GB plan for subscribers. But don’t worry, you get a $5 discount!” https://gigaom.com/2013/08/01/comcast-testing-a-5gb-plan-for-subscribers-but-dont-worry-you-get-a-5-discount/

[29] PSC RESCINDS CHARTER MERGER APPROVAL https://apps.cio.ny.gov/apps/mediaContact/public/view.cfm?parm=9FA0F8EE-EFFA-9F23-60B0A25F0043BDD8

Providers Look for New Ways to Boost Broadband Bills with “Value Added Services”

Phillip Dampier July 7, 2020 Consumer News No Comments

Parks Associates: Broadband VAS Adoption & Awareness

Cable and phone companies may increasingly turn to selling broadband subscription add-ons to restore the high level of profitability investors expect from the nation’s internet service providers.

With an increasing number of people deciding to ditch cable TV subscriptions, cable and phone companies are seeing lower growth in the average amount they charge subscribers every month, leaving many to consider finding new broadband “value-added” products and services to sell.

Falling video subscription revenue and increased programming costs have made it difficult for operators to report the glowing results Wall Street has come to expect over the last 20 years. In 2017, only 34% of customers were signed up for broadband-only service. By the first quarter of this year, that number had risen to 42%. Broadband only customers pay less than customers who choose a bundle of services. Parks Associates found the average internet-only customer paid $60 a month for service, with rates up 36% from the first quarter of 2012 to the third quarter of 2019. In comparison, cable operators only managed to raise rates for bundled video/internet packages from $107 to $127 a month over the same period. When a customer downgrades to internet-only service, the average revenue per subscriber (also known as “ARPU”) drops significantly, sometimes by as much as half.

To keep revenue growing, providers have a few options:

  1. Raise prices: Cable and phone companies have traditionally raised prices on services least likely to be dropped as a result of price hikes. For years, cable operators could significantly raise prices for cable TV packages with little fear customers would cancel service. Cord-cutting changed that, and as a result video-related rate hikes have slowed. Instead, operators have found broadband to be the service most cannot do without, and have shifted rate hikes accordingly.
  2. Offer upgraded services: The most popular and effective revenue enhancer is upselling customers to better packages and services. For broadband, that traditionally means a faster speed package. Most companies charge a comparatively small amount (often $10-20 more) for a considerably faster speed tier.
  3. Sell value-added services: These are ancillary services that offer subscribers more value from their existing subscription. Examples include: Unlimited Access (waiving data caps), Enhanced Technical Support, Anti-Virus/Malware Protection, Enhanced Streaming Video Services, Enhanced Network Performance for Gameplay, Wiring Maintenance/Insurance, Home Security/Automation, and Cloud Backups.

Currently, only a few providers aggressively promote value-added services. Many already provide anti-virus/malware software as part of their broadband service offering. Others, like Charter/Spectrum, have soured on selling value-added services in favor of a simplified menu of services and options. Spectrum ceased supporting Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks’ legacy home security/automation services in early 2020. Some phone companies, notably Frontier Communications, have long depended on value-added services to bolster revenue for its increasingly beleaguered DSL internet service. Frontier heavily markets anti-virus, enhanced tech support, and wiring maintenance services to customers, which can add a considerable amount to a customer’s bill.

Parks Associates, a market research and consulting company, is now offering insight on value-added services to phone and cable companies in its latest research report, 360 Deep Dive: Broadband Value-added Services (for $7,500 a copy):

As the broadband market becomes increasingly commoditized, broadband providers are seeking way to differentiate themselves through new products and services. This research investigates consumer perception and interest in value-added services from service providers including Wi-Fi services, network optimization, and data security and monitoring services.

The report finds most consumers have traditionally ignored or were unaware of value-added services from internet providers. As a result, the impact on revenue from sales of such services has been usually negligible.

“Value-added services (VAS) have little impact on ARPUs because [internet] speed, which correlates with VAS adoption, is the primary driver of ARPUs,” said David Drury, Parks’ research director. “In other words, speed rather than the number of VAS broadly determines ARPU levels, even though those with higher speeds also have a higher number of VAS.”

But Parks suggests the ongoing coronavirus pandemic may open fresh opportunities to introduce customers to value-added services. Among the services consumers may now be using for the first time are telehealth services, which allow for virtual online doctor visits, video conferencing with friends, family, and colleagues, and remote learning tools. After the COVID-19 crisis passes, providers could begin marketing service and support for these applications, either directly or in partnership with other companies.

Still undetermined is whether companies should bundle these types of services into existing subscriptions for free as a customer retention tool, or offer them for sale to customers.

“Broadband growth has plateaued, so the next opportunity is in VAS,” Drury said. “Providers have generally used VAS as a marketing tool to attract and retain subscribers, so for them to make the transition to a revenue source, companies need a clear understanding of the gaps in consumer satisfaction and demand for strategic and successful VAS deployments.”

Internet Service Tax Ending on July 1 in 7 States, But Will Streaming Services Be Targeted Next?

Phillip Dampier June 15, 2020 Consumer News, Online Video, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

Residents of Hawaii, New Mexico, North and South Dakota, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin will get a slight reprieve on their internet bill starting July 1, as taxes on internet access will end in the few remaining states that have been taxing service since 1998.

The Internet Tax Freedom Act prohibits states and local municipalities from taxing internet access, but seven states already taxing service at the time the law was passed were permitted to phase out the tax over several years. Time is up for those states on July 1st, the first day the internet tax ban will apply in all 50 states.

If providers did not pass taxes along to subscribers, those cable and phone companies will pocket up to $500 million in tax savings annually. If taxes were passed along to subscribers, they could see a lower internet bill starting next month.

The seven states are likely to take a significant budget hit as a result of the lost taxation. Revenue officials estimate Texas will lose at least $500 million a year in tax revenue, while Ohio will take a hit of up to $207 million annually. In Wisconsin, $170 million less taxes will be collected, while New Mexico will collect $81 million less. The amounts in North and South Dakota will be $20-25 million for each state, and Hawaii will emerge relatively unscathed, as their internet tax collects less than $1 million annually.

But a growing number of states hungry for tax revenue might make up revenue shortfalls by implementing new taxes or fees on streaming services instead.

Steve Lacoff, formerly with The Walt Disney Co. and Comcast, is now general manager of communications at Avalara, which provides cloud-based SAAS (software as a service) tax compliance. He told Multichannel News, “You are starting to see jurisdictions impose streaming-specific taxes on things like Netflix and Disney+ subscriptions. Roughly half the states [in the country] are applying sales and use taxes, and seven or eight of them are applying streaming ‘comm style’ taxes.”

Such fees can add 6-10% to the monthly cost of a subscription to services like Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, HBO Max, and others.

Lacoff thinks the seven states losing the ability to tax internet service could soon join many others now surcharging online streaming services to find more tax revenue.

“I think that is absolutely an issue that states are actively considering as the tax revenue base continues to decline,” Lacoff said. “Some of these [taxes] are statewide, some are in specific municipalities. For example, Chicago has an amusement tax whose origins, I think, go back to fairs and they have used this as a means to tax streaming service.”

This Internet Provider Earned a 94% Customer Satisfaction Score, and It Isn’t Comcast or Spectrum

One of America’s internet service providers managed to achieve a customer satisfaction score of 94%, an unprecedented vote of approval from consumers that typically loathe their cable or phone company.

What also makes this provider different is that it is owned by the public, and administered by the City of Fairlawn, Ohio. Fairlawn is a suburb of Akron, with a population of around 7,400 people. Akron is dominated by Charter Spectrum for cable and AT&T for telephone service. But the suburbs have been underserved by both companies for decades. As with many northeastern cities, the economic shift away from manufacturing towards high-tech businesses requires robust connectivity. But many communities are stuck with a cable company that will not service less populated areas in town and a phone company that is willing to leave many customers with low-speed DSL and nothing better.

When a community finds it cannot get gigabit fiber optic service for residents, it can either live with what is on offer instead or decide to do something about it. Fairlawn decided it was time to establish FairlawnGig, a municipal broadband utility that would provide gigabit fiber service to every resident in town, if they wanted it.

Broadband Communities reports local residents love the service they are getting:

The online survey results reveal overall satisfaction with FairlawnGig at an astoundingly high number of 94% with more than 3 out of 4 (77%) saying they are “very satisfied.”

Additionally, FairlawnGig 94% of residential customers rated the service they receive from FairlawnGig as “excellent” or “very good.”

FairlawnGig offers two plans to residents: 300/300 Mbps service for $55 a month or 1,000/1,000 Mbps service for $75. Landline phone service is an extra $25 a month, and the municipal provider has pointed its customers to online cable TV alternatives like Hulu and YouTube TV for television service. Incumbent cable and phone companies usually respond to this kind of competition with cut-rate promotions to keep the customers they have and lure others back. Spectrum has countered with promotions offering 400 Mbps internet for as little as $30/mo for two years. Despite the potential savings, most people in Fairlawn won’t go back to Spectrum regardless of the price. FairlawnGig’s loyalty score is 80, with 85% of those not only sticking with FairlawnGig but also actively recommending it to others.

Residents appreciate the service, deemed very reliable, and that technicians are local and accessible. The City says it works hard to ensure that customer appointments are kept and on time and representatives are available to assist customers with their questions and technical support needs. FairlawnGig claims its technicians spend extra time teaching customers about their services.

City officials candidly admit they were willing to build and launch the municipal fiber service even if it did not recoup its original investment for years to come. That is because the municipal fiber network has benefited the city in other ways:

  • It has attracted new residents to town and kept them there.
  • Several businesses launched or moved to be within FairlawnGig’s service area. Most are white collar businesses, such as IT firms, software and hardware engineers, and consultants.
  • A new orthopaedic hospital is being developed in the town, in part because FairlawnGig can provide connectivity up to 100 Gbps for things like medical imaging and video conferencing.
  • As businesses move in, so do workers looking for a shorter commute. Property values in the town have increased and realtors make a point to alert would-be buyers when a property is within FairlawnGig’s service area.

In short, Fairlawn officials see providing internet access as more than just a profit center. It is a public service initiative that is paying back dividends that will eventually exceed the $10 million investment taken from the city’s general fund to build the network. Taxes did not increase as a result of FairlawnGig either. Now other towns around Fairlawn and the city of Akron itself are showing interest in how to join forces to expand the public service well beyond Fairlawn’s town borders.

WOIO in Akron covered FairlawnGig back in January 2019 in this report explaining how a publicly owned fiber to the home service was delivering gig speed to this northeastern Ohio community. (2:31)

Siberia May Have Better Rural Internet Access Than You Do

Russian satellite television provider Tricolor, in collaboration with Eutelsat Networks, has launched satellite broadband service throughout Siberia, with data plans offering speeds up to 100 Mbps.

Customers can choose from packages of internet and television service or just go broadband-only. A one time fee of $136.75 gets the customer a startup package including a satellite receiver and data modem. Customers can pick up equipment from stores in Novosibirsk, Omsk, Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk, Barnaul, Irkutsk and Kemerovo or have it direct shipped to their home address.

Customers can choose between three “unlimited” data packages: 40/10 Mbps for $75/mo, 20/5 Mbps for $45/mo, or 10/5 Mbps for $27/mo. Like many satellite providers, Tricolor reduces data speeds during peak usage times for customers using over 50, 25, and 15 GB of usage per month, respectively. But Tricolor says speed reductions will not be as severe as some providers that reduce speeds to less than 1 Mbps. A faster, usage-limited tier with speeds up to 100 Mbps is also to be introduced, and customers can get discounted subscriptions by agreeing to usage caps on the three aforementioned speed tiers.

Tricolor provides solid reception across the Russian Federation, including the vast expanse of Siberia. Wiring a country the size of Russia is a daunting task, so satellite and wireless internet services are likely to be a major offering across the country for years to come.

Tricolor’s coverage map.

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