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Cuomo Administration Capitulates on Affordable Broadband Law; State Laws Cannot Regulate Broadband Pricing

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As expected, New York’s efforts to lower broadband pricing through a state mandate has been effectively killed in a Brooklyn federal court, putting an end to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s efforts to require providers to offer a $15 broadband tier to income-challenged state residents.

U.S. District Judge Denis R. Hurley, who signed a preliminary injunction preventing the mandate from taking effect on June 15, signaled the concept was likely unlawful in a memorandum attached to the injunction. Several telecom companies challenged the mandate in a lawsuit heard in Hurley’s courtroom, claiming states have no regulatory authority to set broadband terms or pricing. Hurley was clearly persuaded in their direction, and was pessimistic the state could ever show a legal way to regulate internet pricing, something currently reserved to the FCC. As a result, a settlement has been proposed dropping the affordable pricing mandate.

Hurley was also moved by arguments from several smaller New York providers that claimed the new mandate would force them to sell service below cost. Empire Access, a fiber to the home overbuilder based in Prattsburgh, filed a declaration with the court threatening to cancel a major expansion project to wire customers in Livingston and Broome counties, including the city of Binghamton, if the mandate was implemented, because it would likely lose federal funding.

Because of the state’s definition as to who would have qualified for the affordable broadband tier, many smaller companies in rural, economically challenged area of upstate New York claimed they would face substantial economic losses to their businesses. Empire claimed it would lose “approximately $2 million per year,” Heart of the Catskills claimed top-line revenue would decrease $1,364,000 annually, Delhi Telephone claimed it would lose at least $90,000 per month, and the Champlain Telephone Company notified the court that “nearly half (48%) of its existing broadband customers will qualify for discounted rates,” causing the company to lose money on each customer.

“While a telecommunications giant like Verizon may be able to absorb such a loss, others may not,” Judge Hurley wrote in his order.

Gov. Cuomo bristled after learning of the lawsuit, threatening to revoke the franchise of any company that refused to implement the  state’s affordable broadband program. But the governor has made empty threats before, including a promise in 2018 to revoke the merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable because the company failed to live up to the deal commitments it made to state regulators. A settlement was eventually reached between the cable giant and the state, and it appears a settlement between the plaintiff telecom companies and the state will also end this dispute and lawsuit. It appears the state has capitulated and plans to walk away from the affordable broadband proposal, although it reserved the right to appeal the case.

Stop the Cap! predicts the state will work with larger providers to increase public knowledge of the companies’ existing affordable internet programs, which usually have similar qualifications to the affordable internet law Cuomo proposed. Cuomo Administration officials will also likely lobby the Biden Administration to toughen federal oversight of broadband service and suggest a possible federal mandate for an affordable service tier and a return to net neutrality under a regulatory framework that opens the door for future price and service regulation.

The court decision signals states the solution to broadband affordability will not be found in state laws or mandates that attempt to regulate broadband pricing, at least until the current federal law changes.

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.

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.

Spectrum Lowers the Gigabit Service Installation Fee… for Some

Spectrum is offering certain new customers a discount on the usually high installation fee for its gigabit service tier.

Normally, Spectrum expects new gigabit customers to pay a compulsory installation fee of $199.99 and $109.99 a month for internet only service. But customers living in areas where significant competition exists are now finding far more generous promotions, including 24 months of gigabit service for $89.99 a month with an installation fee of $49.99.

Spectrum prices can vary wildly depending on how much competition is around. A new customer in an uncompetitive area can expect to pay around $310 for the first month of gigabit service and installation fees. In competitive areas, customers will pay half as much — around $140 — for the exact same service. In both cases, in-home Wi-Fi is included at no extra charge.

The best way to check where you stand is to visit the Spectrum website and enter a specific street address to verify exact pricing.

This is pricing representative of a competitive service area.

If Spectrum is your only option for high-speed internet, you are likely to encounter these prices.

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