Tag Archives: monopoly

Streetlight gifts to mobile carriers spread to other states

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California is not the only state where lobbyists for mobile carriers and other big, incumbent cable and telephone companies are giving stacks of cash offering somber advice to state legislators and getting huge gifts of public property in return. According to a couple of articles by Timothy Clark in Route Fifty, several other states are preempting local ownership of vertical infrastructure and municipal control of public right of ways.

In some states, the giveaway is even more generous than the California’s gift to telecoms lobbyists last year, senate bill 649. It was vetoed by governor Jerry Brown, who eased the pain by reinforcing AT&T’s and Frontier Communications monopoly in rural California with $300 million and, effectively, an end to similar subsidies for independent broadband projects. SB 649 would have set a blanket $250 a year lease rate for wireless broadband providers to attach cell sites and other equipment to city owned street lights. Depending on how you figure it, that’s something like one-fourth to one-half of the market rate.

In Texas, lawmakers went one better and sliced off a zero, setting the maximum municipal pole lease rate at $20 a year. The City of McAllen, Texas sued, claiming that the preemption violated the Texas constitution. McAllen is no stranger to fighting for municipal broadband rights, by the way. It drafted a “minority report” protest to the Federal Communications Commission over the way that industry lobbyists hijacked the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee, and convinced San Jose and New York City to sign on.

According to Clark’s story

“In our legal analysis,” [McAllen city attorney Kevin Pagan] said, “the law forces us to give gifts to private parties. It is forcing us to give access to our rights-of-way at far less than market value. What about other companies using the rights of way? They are paying higher rates, and why wouldn’t they say, ‘What about us?’”

The wireless telecom companies, he continued, “want access to the rights of way like public utilities, but they don’t want to be regulated like a public utility.” Pagan noted while the companies promote small-cell as cutting-edge wireless technology, the cells rely on a vast fiber cable network that comprises 90 percent of the system, largely strung on poles in the rights of way.

Georgia lawmakers also passed similar legislation, and a preemption bill is making its way through the Nebraska legislature.

Unless it’s AT&T or Verizon, telco capital investment is at life support levels

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As with subscriber numbers, there’s a big gap between the two biggest telcos in the U.S. – AT&T and Verizon – and the rest of the field when it comes to capital spending. Both companies are planning multi-billion dollar investments in their networks in 2018, according to a story by Sean Buckley in FierceTelecom, with AT&T planning to spend $25 billion on capital upgrades in 2018, while Verizon is looking at the $17 billion to $18 billion range.

That includes spending on their mobile networks as they move toward 5G upgrades. It’s a much different story for pure wireline plays.

Number three on the list – CenturyLink – barely hits a dime on the dollar versus AT&T, with $2.6 billion spent last year and a 2018 capital budget pegged at 16% of revenue, whatever that turns out to be. Its priority will be integrating newly acquired Level 3 Communications into its overall operations. According to the FierceTelecom story

“We have to keep driving profitable growth,” said Glen Post, CEO of CenturyLink during the fourth quarter earnings call. “Most of it will be success based. The allocation of capital [will] shift harder in making sure it’s for return profiles that are higher, take advantage of our on-net footprint, and are predictable whether it’s a cost reduction or driving profitable margin growth.”

Translation: regardless of what we said in order to get regulatory approval of the deal, we’re going to bundle Level 3’s long haul fiber assets into CenturyLink’s monopoly business model. Adios dark fiber.

Frontier is a distant fourth, with a 2018 capital budget of between $1 billion and $1.5 billion and a number one priority of “finding ways to reduce costs”. In other words, it’s going to spend money on its infrastructure only when it absolutely has to – replace burnt out poles in Santa Barbara County, maybe? – or to meet self liquidating commitments, such as those it made to get $2 billion in federal Connect America Fund subsidies. Given Frontier’s possible plans to exit California, that might well be the best it can do.

Colorado hands broadband subsidy decisions to telephone, cable companies

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Colorado has its own version of a state broadband infrastructure subsidy program. Governor John Hickenlooper signed three bills into law on Monday that, together, set up a grant program, funded by $100 million from taxes assessed for universal telephone service, that will pay for broadband projects in unserved areas (h/t to Fred Pilot at the Eldo Telecom blog for the pointer) . Those are defined as places where Internet service at 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds is not available.

In many regards the program is similar to the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), particularly in its deference to incumbent telcos and cable companies, and the low rural standards they embrace. One notable difference is that last year California lawmakers set an even lower minimum speed – 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up – as the good enough standard for rural Californians.

As in California, the Colorado program gives incumbent providers a right of first refusal over any proposed project, although at least it’s honest about calling it what it is. When independent Internet service providers submit applications, they’re required to provide the information directly to incumbents, who then have the opportunity to underbid the applicant. Additionally, areas where telcos, or other providers, are getting federal subsidies, including particularly money from the Federal Communication Commission’s Connect America Fund, are off limits. Again, as in California.

Unlike CASF, though, municipal broadband projects are not excluded from Colorado’s program, although only unincorporated areas and cities of no more than 7,500 residents are eligible for any kind of project. But Colorado isn’t giving muni projects a green light either: the program will be run by a “broadband deployment board” which has 15 voting members. Seven seats are reserved for “members representing the broadband industry”, including specifically telephone and cable company representatives, and three more go to state apparatchiks. Only three are designated for local agency representatives and two for members of the public.

The odds of the board doing anything that doesn’t suit telco and cable interests are very, very low.

Colorado senate bill 18–002, Concerning the Financing of Broadband Deployment, 29 March 2018.
Colorado house bill 18–1099, incumbent’s right of first refusal, 2 April 2018.
Colorado senate bill 18–104, permission to apply for FCC waiver asking that broadband subsidies be given to the State of Colorado, 29 March 2018.

FCC sets up rich exurb versus poor rural, urban debate over broadband subsidies

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Should low income areas be first in line for broadband subsidies? That’s a question that both the Federal Communications Commission and the California Public Utilities Commission are asking. The CPUC is considering giving priority for California Advanced Services Fund infrastructure grants to communities where median household income is at or below $49,200 a year.

The FCC floated that same idea last week. In the course of approving limits on allowable expenses for some subsidised rural broadband projects, it decided to take the next step and ask for public comment on possible approaches: giving eligible consumers a theoretical choice of providers through a voucher system, adding household income to the criteria for picking eligible areas, or even basing federal subsidies on a state’s ability to pay…

For example, should we target support not only to high-cost areas but low-income areas as well? Should we adopt means-testing within the high-cost program? Either approach could target support where it is needed most by focusing only on areas or consumers with lower household income. Should we award support for high-cost areas through a portable consumer subsidy or voucher? Would a voucher system increase the choices available to consumers? Should we target support to States with less ability to fund the deployment of broadband in rural areas? How should we identify States that are most in need of support, and how can we do so while avoiding perverse incentives? Are there other alternatives we should consider?

Two commissioners, who are usually on opposite sides of issues but sometimes find common ground, both support a means-tested approach to subsidies. Mignon Clyburn and Michael O’Rielly – democrat and republican, respectively – began pushing for it last year.

For them, the question boils down to whether taxes on phone service – specifically earmarked for rural broadband subsidies – paid by people living in low income, urban areas should go towards upgrading broadband service in high income exurbs or resort communities. The FCC is asking the public to offer suggested answers.

Open access fiber drives down consumer broadband prices in New Zealand

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A national project to build fiber-to-the-premise infrastructure and offer it to any Internet service provider on a wholesale basis began in New Zealand in 2011, with an initial goal of reaching 75% of Kiwi homes and businesses. According to a study done by International Data Corporation, a research firm, and sponsored by Spark, the biggest NZ reseller of FTTP service, the build out has reached about 65% of NZ premises, and the goal is now to reach 87% by 2022.

A total of 92 resellers are using the wholesale network to offer retail service. The resulting competition resulted in a drastic drop in retail prices, according to the report

New Zealand telecommunication’s structural separation and national broadband plan have created new constructs and market dynamics. The [Ultra Fast Broadband] initiative has commoditised fibre in New Zealand. Consumer fibre plan prices have plummeted from averaging over NZ$200 per month in 2013 to around NZ$85 per month as at February 2018.

In U.S. dollars, that’s a drop from $144 (or more) per month in 2013 to $61 per month now.

The report questions whether the current level of competition can be sustained. But it also shows that there’s a big gap between the a long tail of small competitors and the handful of market leaders who, presumably, have staying power. Five companies own 91% of subscribers, and all have complementary businesses that share much of the operating costs, including marketing and subscriber management. One is Spark, which is the legacy telephone company in New Zealand, two are mobile carriers – Vodafone and 2degrees – and two are energy companies.

Even if there’s a huge cull amongst the remaining 86 providers, the level of competition will remain high. Five companies competing to offer gigabit class Internet service for $60 or so a month is a robust market, far more competitive than the monopoly/duopoly conditions in nearly all of the U.S..

15 Mbps is the holy grail for 4K video

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Different online video companies put it differently, but the net result is the same: if you want to watch 4K streaming video – aka ultra high definition – you need a broadband connection that reliably delivers 15 Mbps and has enough head room to support whatever other Internet traffic is passing in and out of your house.

A story by Rob Pegoraro in USA Today provides a run down of the 4K bandwidth recommendations from the two big dogs in the over-the-top video game…

  • Amazon says “you need an Internet connection of at least 15 Mbps to watch videos in UHD”.
  • Netflix recommends “an internet connection speed of at least 25 megabits per second to stream Ultra HD titles”. But it also says you’ll burn through 7 gigabytes an hour of your data cap. Taking rounding into account, that’s the same as saying you need a steady stream at 15 Mbps over the course of that hour.

Given that Internet service providers don’t really promise to deliver a particular service level – typically, speeds are offered up to a certain level – a 15 Mbps download package won’t cut it. So Netflix’s 25 Mbps recommendation is a little more realistic, assuming you’re the only person in your home and you turn everything else off.

That rate coincides with the Federal Communications Commission’s 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up standard for advanced services capability.

It’s also where the market is heading. Big cable companies, which typically offer download speeds starting at 60 Mbps and frequently climbing to 200 Mbps or more, own 61% of U.S. broadband subscribers. Telcos, which have a 34% market share, struggle to get to 25 Mbps on even recently upgraded and well maintained copper systems.

With 4K television sets expected to be in half of U.S. homes by the end of next year, the gap between cable and telco market share, and the gap between cable-rich urban and telco-monopoly rural areas – will continue to grow.

Cable’s broadband monopoly profile sharpens with 2017 results

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Share of U.S. broadband households, as of 31 December 2017. Source: Leichtman Research Group.

Comcast and Charter own half of U.S. residential broadband subscribers, and their share of the market – if you want to call it that – is growing. That’s one of the conclusions gleaned from a tabulation of year-end 2017 financial reports by Leichtman Research Group. As with a similar count by FierceTelecom, the numbers show telcos continue to bleed subscribers profusely, while cable – and the overall broadband universe – keep on growing.

Leichtman’s report was published before Wow cable released its final 2017 financial results, so I added those into the totals. Over the course of 2017, the top cable companies added 2.7 million broadband subscribers, while the top telcos lost 626,000 subs. Big cable’s share of the, um, market was up a point to 61%, while the largest telcos lost a point, dropping to 34%.

Overall, the race for broadband customers is down to a two and a half horses. Comcast has 26% and Charter is behind by a nose at 24%. Their combined 50% share (after rounding) is up from 48% at the end of 2016.

AT&T was the only other broadband provider to hit double digits, with 16% of U.S. broadband households. It was also the only big telco to show growth in broadband customers – fiber-to-the-home gains offset DSL loses, producing a net increase of 114,000 subs. Cincinnati Bell, a much smaller fry, was also in the black, adding 5,500 subs. All the other big telcos – Verizon, Frontier, Windstream and FairPoint – ended 2017 with fewer broadband customers than they started it with.

The top providers – seven cable companies and seven telcos – account for 95% of U.S. broadband households, according to Leichtman. Since it’s a choice between one cable and one telephone company, at most, for any given home, it’s technically a duopoly. But one with a junior partner who is on the ropes. Factor in cable’s overwhelming superiority in the 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up and better category – the minimum federal standard for modern broadband service – and it looks more and more like a one player game.

If it prices like a monopoly, slams and crams like a monopoly and shows a monopoly’s lack of respect to its customers, then it’s a monopoly.

Cable wins the broadband market fight, telcos lose. Again

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The U.S. cable industry’s broadband subscriber count grew by 1.7% in the last quarter of 2017, while telephone companies continued to lose customers. That’s the top line from a tally by FierceTelecom of 15 of the 16 largest Internet service providers (Wow Cable hasn’t reported yet, although check the link – FierceTelecom will be updating its numbers). It’s a trend that continued throughout 2017.

In total, cable companies added 918,000 Internet subscribers, while the telco loss was a bit more than 7,000 subs – negligible in terms of percentage, but a significantly bad result in a growing market.

There are six cable companies and nine telcos on the list, with Comcast topping the chart at 22.8 million broadband subscribers, and Charter close behind with 22.5 million subs. A more distant third place goes to AT&T with 14.3 million subs, and Verizon came fourth with 12.0 million subs. All four added to their broadband subscriber counts in the final three months of last year, but not at the same rate. The two top cable companies increased their customer base by 1.4%, while the two big telcos only grew by 0.5%.

Further down the list, telcos start showing losses. CenturyLink lost 90,000 subs, Frontier shed 62,000 subs and Windstream’s loss was 11,000 subs.

The reason cable companies are gaining while telcos, in aggregate, are losing customers – despite a 1.1% increase for the broadband industry (or at least the big dogs) as a whole – is clear. AT&T reported that it gained 95,000 broadband customers overall, but that includes a loss of 76,000 DSL subscribers. Frontier lost both subscribers on both DSL and fiber to the home systems, but the bleeding was much heavier on the copper side of the ledger.

Speed matters. Although cable-based Internet service is not uniformly excellent, it is virtually always better than DSL service telcos can offer. It’s better than the federal advanced services standard of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds, which only the top tier of copper-based telco systems can touch.

Wyoming’s legislature bows to telco, cable lobbyists, but not as deeply as California’s

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Following California’s lead, Wyoming lawmakers grabbed their ankles and took what cable and telco lobbyists gave them: a law that subsidises broadband infrastructure, but only to the extent that incumbents want. Even so, Wyoming is not buying into the 1990s service levels that lobbyists for Frontier Communications, AT&T, Comcast and Charter Communications bribed convinced Californian assembly members and senators to accept.

As described by Phillip Dampier in Stop the Cap, what started out as an effort to give communities the option of pursuing their own broadband projects turned into an incumbent right of first refusal, secretly rewritten by lobbyists for Charter and CenturyLink. Which prompted a sharp response from Cheyenne mayor Marian Orr…

The substitute bill is substantially different than the original bill. And it wasn’t posted on-line or anywhere for anyone except insiders to have access to. CenturyLink and [Charter] are bullies. It’s wrong, and they are hurting Cheyenne and other WY communities from gaining affordable access.

Orr pushed back, but it wasn’t enough. According to Karl Bode, writing in DSL Reports, Wyoming legislators approved the bill this week.

That said, Wyoming’s legislators did not completely prostrate themselves, as California’s did. If no private ISP is interested in serving a Wyoming community, even with subsidies, then a local government can step in.

Perhaps even more importantly, Wyoming’s residential broadband standard is pegged at 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds. That’s equal to the federal agriculture department’s minimum for rural communities, and the Federal Communications Commission’s benchmark for “advanced services” capability. In larger communities, the standard for business service is even higher – 50 Mbps down/5 Mbps up.

California’s lawmakers thought that was too generous. Blindly accepting the campaign cash poor mouth arguments offered by AT&T, Frontier and cable companies, they decided last year that 6 Mbps down/1 Mbps up is good enough for every Californian.

State of Wyoming, Senate File No. SF010, Economic diversification-broadband services

AT&T CEO explains why net neutrality is necessary

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Randall Stephenson, AT&T’s chief executive officer, offered a hell of good example of why he can’t be trusted to do the right thing and refrain from using his position as a dominant, monopoly-centric broadband service provider to benefit his equally hefty video content business.

In an interview with CNBC, Stephenson complained that his online competition is beating him up…

“Reality is, the biggest distributor of content out there is totally vertically integrated. This happens to be something called Netflix. But they create original content; they aggregate original content; and they distribute original content. They have 100 million subscribers,” Stephenson said on CNBC. “Look at Amazon. They’re doing the exact same thing. Amazon Studios, creating, aggregating, distributing; Google, YouTube, Hulu, this thing is prolific.”

Reality is, Stephenson has a choke hold on their necks. AT&T is a gatekeeper – for hundreds of thousands of Californians, the only gatekeeper – between those online video platforms and their subscribers.

He intends to make good use of that power, too. The “Internet bill of rights” that AT&T published, and claims to honor, conspicuously fails to include paid prioritisation on the list of network management tactics it promises not to use. Voluntarily promises not to use – there’s nothing preventing it from posting another version of what, reality is, a declaration of AT&T’s rights.

Even if all AT&T does is play the paid prioritisation game, it will gain a big competitive advantage over video platforms that don’t share the top-to-bottom supply chain control it hopes to gain from its proposed purchase of Time Warner’s content and distribution business. AT&T can raise the price of Internet fast lanes to the point where it forces the likes of Netflix and Amazon to either reimburse it for any profits lost to the competition they present, or concede the fight to DirecTv Now and other in-house content engines. Even if the established players can adjust, new video ventures would be blocked. High prioritisation prices won’t matter much to AT&T – it’ll just shift money from one pocket to another.

Reality is, what reality is.