Our story so far… We moved our office at the end of May, but our communications services were not established until mid-June.
At about 9am on June 14 – our re-scheduled installation date – I called CenturyLink to confirm the technician’s arrival time. “Between 10am and 12 noon,” I was assured. When I called again at about 3pm, they confirmed that a technician had in fact been dispatched. A few minutes later, the CenturyLink truck pulled up and I intercepted the technician as he was inspecting the side of the building. Expressing frustration with the state of the outside wiring, he said that the first installer and one of his colleagues had both taken early retirement, leaving just two installers for our area.
At that moment, a second CenturyLink truck pulled up, and as the two technicians conferred, I overheard that neither of them knew that the other one was coming, and that neither of them had the hardware they needed to complete my installation. Undaunted, the first technician dismissed the second one and sheepishly asked whether I would be here the next morning (Yes!), and then asked me to lead him to the indoor telecom patch panel was so he could complete his pre-installation inspection.
Here’s where I reveal a guilty secret: prior to my move, and before I found out that I had been calling the “wrong” CenturyLink office to schedule install my new service, I placed a $100 deposit with CableCo to install phone and broadband service.
When the CableCo technician visited during the last week of May to pre-inspect my facilities, I showed him the access panels to both the outdoor and indoor wiring. Equipped with the knowledge he needed and making no further comments, he left. But when the “right” CenturyLink office was revealed to me, my sense of loyalty to the Telco industry led me to cancel CableCo’s installation and ask for my deposit back. I was beginning to regret that decision.
As the CenturyLink installer proceeded inside to complete his inspection, I asked whether he would mind whether I followed along to watch what he was doing – explaining to him that I was in the telecom industry and knowledgeable about the Mediaroom platform that CenturyLink uses for TV. Realizing that he was talking to a friend (sorta…), lots of revealing conversation ensued.
As he removed the cover to expose the indoor wiring patch panel, we saw that there was none – just a mass of wires. As he organized the wires into three pairs, he informed me not to expect an upgrade path to CenturyLink’s (advertised) 100mbps service. Having settled for 3mbps VDSL service in my previous office, I was ecstatic at the prospect of having 20mbps service at the new one. But then again, what if I did want to upgrade to 100mbps later?
To get 100mbps service, we needed four pairs of conductors from the Calix switch providing our service. The technician had seen this situation in our neighborhood before. Apparently, despite an agreement with the builders of our development to equip every subscriber with four pairs of wiring, the contractors engaged by the builders installed only three. To get to four-per-subscriber, new wiring would need to be installed for each subscriber, and capacities of the up-stream transport facilities would need to be re-evaluated, and possibly upgraded.
The agreement also apparently called for them to install patch panels, but as we saw, none were present. Meanwhile, CenturyLink had equipped this area to handle hundreds of subscribers, but CenturyLink’s actual subscriber-count was only about two dozen, partly due to this situation. Ceding the rest to CableCo (which doesn’t need four pairs to provide service).
To add insult to injury, the CenturyLink installers who had recently taken early retirement had been suspected of sabotaging new installations by stuffing small rocks into the wiring conduits alongside the buildings, so the wiring would not be accessible. If true – and perhaps they were just disgruntled short-timers – it made me wonder who they were really working for. Between possible sabotage, insufficient in-building wiring, and the lack of IT integration described earlier, the cards are stacked against any possibility that CenturyLink could do much better than it is doing.
It’s really a sad situation, and it would probably motivate the developer of this area to take some kind of legal action – if only they knew about it. Even if I have some of the details not-quite-right, I’ve been thinking about informing the development’s management of this situation. But how far would this information get within the developer’s organization, and will it motivate them to take action? And if so, against whom?
On Friday June 15, we had service. But one of the primary reasons we opted for CenturyLink service was to have line-powered phones in the event of power outage. Because CenturyLink has fiber-to-the-premises access here (not that I’m complaining), we could need a battery back-up to preserve service unless the nearest switch has its own. If we do need one, hopefully the charge for it is minimal.
Also on Friday I received a $100 refund check for the deposit I had made in May with CableCo for the service that we canceled before it was installed. I had forgotten.
At the end of May, tvstrategies moved its global headquarters, but our communications services were not to be active until mid-June. It’s the second time that CenturyLink failed at provisioning our basic telephone and broadband services. Our story…
Because we are in an area that occasionally loses electrical power, we need a land-line from the local telephone company. People forget that the CableCo provides phone service using Voice over IP. Which means that when you lose power, you lose your router, which in turn means you lose not only your broadband service but also your phone – which will be important when the Zombie Apocalypse strikes.
So before our move, rather than placing an order with CableCo, I called local incumbent Telco CenturyLink. Strangely, they couldn’t find our new address, asked me to identify the township and section from county land records (!) and instructed us to contact CenturyLink in Florida, 2,700 miles away.
Figuring that there had to be a better way, we contacted the management of our new development which gave us the number for the CenturyLink office that manages the area surrounding tvstrategies‘ new digs. They located us quickly and scheduled the installation for May 30th.
But why did this happen? Because although CenturyLink’s acquisition of Qwest Communications (previously US West, one of the seven regional operating companies that resulted from the 1984 break-up of the Bell System) was completed in 2011, the two companies had still not integrated their IT systems.
Since my old office was in former Qwest territory and the new one is in a territory that was once part of CenturyLink’s predecessor CenturyTel, it meant that CenturyLink had no way to coordinate the relocation of our services – which should have been a simple of entering a new address on an admin screen. Instead, our new address was invisible to them, and therefore didn’t exist.
But there’s more. A CenturyLink installer came out on May 30, poked around for a few minutes and informed us that they had to do some digging. Even though there is a FTTH pedestal on the property, literally 20 feet from the door. So yes, CenturyLink does in fact serve the neighborhood (or, in Telco/Cable jargon, “the buildings are passed”), but even the responsible office can’t seem to see whether or not the individual buildings are actually connected without a site visit.
CableCo, on the other hand, also passes all these buildings – and knows where their lines are. They are also good at incenting new subscribers with “triple play” service (TV, broadband access and telephone together). To provide the TV portion of the triple play, CenturyLink offers AT&T’s DirecTV, since they are no longer promoting their own Mediaroom-based Prism TV service.
When I asked the CenturyLink installer how long it would be (“Days? Weeks? Months?), he said “probably a week – someone will get back to you.” After he left, I saw that he had left the door open for the network interface box on the side of our building. I rolled up the exposed wiring by hand, stuffed it onto the box, and closed the door.
After several days of no contact, I called CenturyLink in Gig Harbor again and was informed that our installation would happen on June 14. I called them again on the Monday prior to installation to re-confirm, and was assured it was still on.
I’m glad I had the foresight to add cellular/LTE compatibility for my iPad – as a mobile hot spot, it serves to connect our computers and other sundry devices to the outside world. But the cellular signal is marginal here, and we sometimes lose the connection.
June 14th couldn’t come soon enough. Click for what happened next…
Over the weekend, AT&T announced its intentions to acquire satellite TV operator DirecTV. Should the deal pass regulatory muster and go through, it will create an operator with about 26 million pay TV subscribers, plus 17 million broadband subs, 11 million phone subscribers and 100 million wireless customers. As a merged entity, AT&T becomes a national pay TV provider, with immediate access to TV subscribers outside its fixed-line (U-verse) territory. That’s just in North America. DirecTV has about 18 million TV subs in Latin America as well. All told, this would make AT&T the largest pay TV provider in the US (and in the Western Hemisphere).
Of course, DirecTV is a high-value target for content reasons as well: particularly its exclusivity for NFL Sunday Ticket. Some major AT&T suppliers must also be taking notice. For one, AT&T has based its TV service on Microsoft Mediaroom, which Ericsson bought last year. DirecTV uses NDS TV security and middleware, and NDS is now owned by Cisco. So, two TV infrastructure leaders that also both happen to be incumbent network suppliers to AT&T.
But there’s also a bigger picture: while a combined Comcast-TWC results in a triple-play provider, DirecTV adds to AT&T’s existing quad-play advantage. Without offerings that compete against AT&T wireless and DirecTV, Comcast will remain a local carrier within its own cable TV service territory; even with Time Warner Cable. To serve any devices – mobile or fixed – outside of its territory, Comcast will remain an OTT player. (Note: TWC is partnered with Verizon Wireless – but it’s anyone’s guess as to how Verizon might treat ‘foreign’ video providers over its mobile network in the future).
The expiration of Net Neutrality was certainly a strategic consideration for both AT&T and Comcast. One of AT&T’s terms in the proposed DirecTV acquisition is to place a three-year expiration date on its commitment to the FCC’s current version of Net Neutrality. This is interesting, given that DirecTV is a satellite operator with no Internet access network of its own. My own guess is that this is really a pre-emptive move to keep Comcast from having (or making Comcast pay for) equal access to AT&T mobile subscribers; for video delivered to smartphones, tablets or the Connected Car.
And Comcast doesn’t really have an answer to that. Even if Comcast were to let its own Net Neutrality commitment expire in 2018 (which is the year specified in the terms for its NBC Universal acquisition), that will only be within Comcast’s own network. Comcast would have little power over mobile carriers which, by then, will be perfectly able to parachute right into the thick of Comcast territory, to deliver high quality pay TV over LTE mobile access. This places Comcast at the ultimate disadvantage, even with TWC, because it can’t do the same in a U-verse territory. All the more reason to keep Net Neutrality principles in place.
By missing out on DirecTV now, and by not bidding for Sprint last year, Comcast missed two strategic opportunities to reach subscribers that don’t depend on fixed lines, at a time when mobility arguably represents the biggest single opportunity in telecom. Not quite so much to see here after all.
But the competition will really get interesting when DISH finally launches a national LTE service, using all that spectrum that they’ve acquired in recent years. Or, even more interesting if DISH were to acquire T-Mobile as well.
I hadn’t been active with my blog in a while, but I was so incensed at my poorly coordinated broadband activation by CenturyLink that I posted six articles in rapid succession, ending yesterday with my thoughts about competition.
So, from my own personal perspective, the announcement that Comcast would acquire Time Warner Cable struck me as ironic. Some of the early reports seemed to position this acquisition as a fait accompli, which it is not. Most news outlets, ranging from The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg to The PBS News Hour and National Public Radio, emphasized that the deal would take time, and face regulatory scrutiny. As a point of reference, Comcast’s acquisition of NBC Universal took two years to close.
One of my morning calls today (2/14) was with an industry friend in the UK, who asked “What do you think?” From a services perspective, Comcast and TWC serve mutually-exclusive territories, so competition among TV, voice, and broadband providers in any given locality is not likely to change significantly. And although this acqusition would make Comcast more powerful overall, a successful acquisition isn’t likely to reduce the number of voices in the American marketplace of ideas because Time Warner content is not part of the deal. The acquisition is likely to be approved, but I hope that certain conditions are applied.
The greatest potential for risk comes with broadband market share. A merged Comcast-TWC would serve nearly 30% of American households. With that kind of market presence, the results can be both good and bad. On the good side, a larger Comcast could conceivably negotiate lower costs from its programming suppliers because the new entity would be reaching the new and higher aggregate number of subscribers (although whether or not such a negotiation would be successful, and whether or not such a savings would then be reflected in the consumer’s bill are both open questions. I do know that my Comcast broadband-only bill was nearly $80/month before I moved out of their service territory this past month, which included ambiguously-defined surcharges).
On the other side of the coin, many fear that the company could quietly compromise the quality of over-the-top video services like Netflix with impunity, and ignore or rationalize their way past any challenges to such a practice. Comcast and others have been accused of this practice. (the corollary of that being that, maybe, Hulu would remain at full quality, since Comcast’s NBC Universal is a co-owner in Hulu). But that is an ill-informed point of view (** See below).
Just last month, we were reminded of this issue when D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidated the Federal Communications Commission’s 2010 Open Internet Order, which Verizon Communications and others had challenged. A group of US Senators quickly sent a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who is evaluating that situation; urging him to “quickly adopt enforceable rules to prevent the blocking and discrimination of Internet traffic… (and) withstand judicial scrutiny.” Mr. Wheeler says that he will try. US Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) introduced a bill to keep Net Neutrality in effect until this evaluation is complete.
Internet advocates have differing opinions as to whether or not Net Neutrality will stand. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is pessimistic, while Freepress thinks the FCC can preserve it. I personally believe that Net Neutrality is as basic as universal telephone service or the availability of electricity, or law enforcement, or fire prevention: available to all, without bias.
One of the FCC’s conditions in the Comcast NBC Universal acquisition was for Comcast to maintain a practice not to discriminate against online video programmers, and to add ten independently-owned programming channels to its cable lineup over the 8 years following the acquistion. But what happens after 2018, when the non-discrimination period expires? Will Internet access speeds be intentionally limited for streams of IP video programming that originate outside of a Comcast headend? Will independent programmers find themselves shut out? Comcast has many friends in the US Congress, and contributed more than $853,000 to members of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology in the US House of Representatives between 2001 and 2012.
If only just to quell the fears of the paranoid, I would propose that FCC Chairman Wheeler take two steps: first, make the non-discrimination clauses of the FCC’s conditions to Comcast from the NBC Universal acquisition permanent as a condition of a Comcast – Time Warner acquisition. Second, extend those conditions to all service providers. The FCC could reclassify broadband as a Common Carrier service, obligating Comcast and all other operators to carry any traffic on their networks or face legal action.
As remote as the FCC may seem to average mortals, anyone can submit comments to the FCC about this issue (and select “09-191 Preserving the Open Internet” from the drop-down menu). On the other hand, it’s best to keep emotions at a minimum: fear that the sky is falling is probably misplaced.
The above-linked Wall Street Journal article on the acquisition provides a detailed timeline of consolidation in the cable industry, and the Columbia Journalism Review maintains Who Owns What, to track the holdings of major media companies.
** Edited February 25: Netflix will in fact be paying Comcast to guarantee QoS/QoE over Comcast’s network. If the intent were to collude in order to raise prices to the consumer, it would be a terrible precedent and probably found to be illegal. But that fear is not grounded in realities of OTT delivery, because paying Comcast or any other access provider for transport on their networks is a common practice, and is more likely reduce the content providers’ transport costs, not raise them. Pay TV operators with broadband services have always positioned OTT video providers as freeloaders on their networks, but that positioning is disingenuous because paid transport at a wholesale level is a common practice and a revenue stream.
See Dan Rayburn’s recent posts for the best characterization that I’ve seen to date.
Way back in 1997, Wired breathessly heralded the era of Push, which anticipated that the demand-driven Web, in which we clicked URLs, would be replaced by content that is pushed to your browser (remember, this was in the days before smartphones). Widespread broadband access was years away so the idea of pre-caching content on your computer seemed a good idea – even better if it was preferences-driven, in hopes that it would be more relevant. The article went on to propose that the browser itself would become obsolete (which, in a way, anticipated Apps).
Here we are 13 years later. Today’s “push” comes in the form of interstitial advertising. Want to watch videos on most of the TV networks’ sites? You have to zone out for fifteen or thirty seconds with the volume down, tapping your toe or drumming your fingers, waiting for the darn ad to play. Then, on to the content that you actually wanted.
Now we’re seeing YouTube and Amazon experimenting with paid video. Netflix has an app on the iPhone and iPod Touch (surprising, since Apple has its own video-on-demand service through iTunes to the same devices, and has relaunched Apple TV with no storage). The TV networks continue to limit what’s available online, in hope that online video consumers return to traditional TV where their traditional advertising models still work. But in the long run, I think that paid on-demand rentals and download-to-own models will become the default for TV programming, just as it is for movies. It already is a trend that’s building momentum.
“On demand” models will ultimately be the way we get most of our commercially-originated video programming on the Internet. People like to opt in. They like to control their destiny, and that includes video. It follows that people are willing to pay for content they want, just as much as they hope to avoid having unwelcome content pushed at them. Even when it’s “free” to the consumer (but it isn’t because my time has value too).
Personally, I get annoyed when I have to opt out. But on-demand, without commercial interruptions? I gladly pay for Major League Baseball and Netflix because they have content that I want, and neither of them push ads at me. In that light, Hulu Plus is a non-starter: why would I pay for it, and still have to watch commercials? No, that’s just greedy. That’s almost as bad as Comcast pushing banner ads into their EPG, hoping that I’ll click one in haste and generate a few pennies of revenue to them – I’m about to dump Comcast altogether as a result, and go back to satellite.
Similarly, I was a Facebook early adopter because I wanted to understand social media. But over time, Facebook’s sole purpose became blatantly obvious: it’s a data mining and viral marketing app, and the social benefit to its users is entirely incidental. Advertisers mine your activities and push ads in your face. Call me old-school but I, for one, visit my Facebook preferences and settings often because Facebook changes them constantly, trying to outsmart you into allowing the camel’s nose into the privacy of your tent. Thank The New York Times for its May 2010 article pointing out that Facebook’s privacy terms are longer than the United States Constitution!
Nope, I’m a “pull” kind of guy, and I’m willing to bet that most of you are too.