Tales of the Sausage Factory

Please Tell Idiots In Industry Wireless Broadband Is ALREADY Metered, So Stop Spreading FUD To Support Price Gouging.

If I had a dime for every article I have seen since AOL went to flat rate back in 1996 that foretold the coming end of flat rate internet access plans and the inevitability of metered pricing, I’d have so much money I could actually afford what wireline providers dream of providing as a monthly fee. Despite the “inevitability” of metered pricing for nearly 15 years, it hasn’t happened and I don’t expect it any time soon. Why? Because not only is it wildly unpopular with the customers (it is one of the few things powerful enough to overcome the switching cost for anyone with a choice), but the economics of it do not make a heck of a lot of sense. Heck, Comcast (the largest residential broadband provider) announced in its earnings call on 4Q 09 that it is reducing its capital expenditure on network capacity for 2010 because it has nearly completed necessary upgrades for DOCSIS 3.0, which gives it all the capacity it needs for the foreseeable future. “We don’t need to invest anymore in our network because we have all the capacity we need” is a might inconsistent with “we need to switch to metered pricing so we can afford to expand our network capacity and create incentives against ‘bandwidth hogs’ and other mythical beasts.”

I can forgive wireline providers for indulging in metered pricing fantasies, while admiting them for perpetuating the useful myth og limited capacity to ward off regulation. But when this article on the purported inevitability of metering wireless plans. This strikes me as “Keep The Government Out of My Medicare” lunacy.

As the article itself concedes without saying directly, wireless broadband plans are already metered. Blow past your monthly usage cap and you will pay per-minute charges. For those not old enough to remember, this was the old AOL metered pricing model. You got ten hours for free, then got charged on a per-minute basis. They abandoned it because customers hated it and moved to flat rate price plans. So what wireless providers apparently mean by “metered” is “find a away to reduce the usage cap further by pretending to call it something else.” I expect this will not catch on any better than the efforts to change pricing structure on the wireline side, and for the same reason. The economics don’t make sense.

Which brings us to the next lesson on network economics. The cost structure of building and maintaining the network is marked by high fixed cost and low marginal cost. That is to say, the vast majority of cost comes from building the network itself, regardless of how many customers use it. Once the network is built, the actual marginal cost of each customer is fairly low. Even an intense user does not “consume” very much of the network resources (the supposed “bandwidth hog” is a problem only because network capacity is ridiculously oversold). The argument that the majority of subscribers subsidizes the few “bandwidth hogs” is simply rubbish. The question is simply how obscenely high a rate of return can the network operator squeeze out of each customer.

Back in the old days, we used to require providers to prove cost. Sure we had metered pricing, but that was so that the very profitable areas could subsidize the high cost areas. Nowadays, we rely on “the market” to regulate cost, with the result that profit per customer for the major providers continues to rise. I’m cynical enough to wonder if that’s why we see this endless parade of speeches by network operators and articles by their sycophants about the “inevitability” of metered pricing — so we will thank our lucky stars that when we are outrageously ripped off that it is at the “bargain” of overpriced flat rates.

Stay tuned . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

700 MHz Aftermath: What Does The EchoStar Win Mean?

EchoStar getting a near-national footprint ranks as one of the major successes for the 700 MHz auction. Chased out of the AWS auction, deserted by its former partner DIRECTV, no one gave EchoStar much hope of winning anything significant (with the exception of yr hmbl obdn’t blogger).

But what does it mean? Can EchoStar become the broadband “third pipe” hoped for by Martin and others? Or is the conventional wisdom right that this is just about improving EchoStar’s subscription television service? Or is there something else at work here? According to the Wall St. Journal (subscription required), the same analysts that could not understand why Ergen would play, and did not believe he could win, now wonder what the heck he will do. Nor is the journal alone in asking this question.

My short version is: EchoStar cannot become a serious broadband provider with just E Block spectrum — particularly given the current service rules for E Block. But, as we all know, FCC service rules are fluid — particularly when licensees promise to deliver broadband services (the recent changes to the AWS service rules providing a perfect example). But even with favorable rule changes, EchoStar faces serious capacity issues if it tries to compete head-to-head with DSL or cable modem service.

Still, there are ways EchoStar can pull it out, especially if it focuses on rural markets with relatively poor broadband connectivity. While the E Block licenses don’t have enough terrestrial capacity to go head-to-head with FIOS or even the high-end cable or DSL services, it can provide a better option than dial-up or ridiculously expensive broadband currently available in flyover country and even in the exurbs. And then there are the perpetually swirling rumors of an AT&T/Echostar merger. Could the E Block merely be AT&T bait? More importantly perhaps, does even Charlie Ergen know what the heck his plan is? Or did he simply see an opportunity and grab it?

In advance of tomorrow’s lifting of the anti-collusion rules, when winning bidders will finally start talking about their plans, I offer my own speculations.

More below….

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Econoklastic

Comcast and BitTorrent: Why Now?

As both Declan McCullough’s The Iconoclast blog and Farhad Manjoo’s Machinist blog on Salon report, the AP has caught Comcast red-handed interferring with BitTorrent peer-to-peer filesharing with even relatively small, uncopyrighted files. The comes after Comcast denied a TorrentFreak report in August that the broadband provider was blocking BitTorrent uploads from its customers, which appears now to have been simply another outright Comcast lie.

What is particularly surprising is the size of the file in the tests run by the AP — the Gutenburg Bible text used by the AP for the test is only 4.24MB (the average size of an .mpeg or .avi file of a two-hour feature film is 700-900MB). If Comcast is blocking uploads of 4.24MB, the intention to prevent any use of BitTorrent on its network. While Comcast does have serious peak-use capacity constraints on its network, this level of blocking is like using an artillery piece to swat a fly. A more tightly targeted blocking effort would have put highest bandwidth BitTorrent users out of business, freeing up significant newtwork capacity, while rendering the activity almost invisible to tests like that run by the AP. Despite the fact that its network needs significant upgrading, Comcast’s network isn’t being threatened by 4.24MB BitTorrent uploads. Why would Comcast run the risk of the adverse publicity associated with getting caught blocking small files of clearly public-source documents?

I have a hypothesis. Mind you, it’s only a hypothesis, but it fits the available evidence and there’s very little otherwise which explains why Comcast is willing to weather the ensuing bad press. It is clear to anyone who has watched the FCC closely that Chairman Martin has had Comcast in his sights for some time. Comcast is the cable industry’s baddest bad-boy, and a bad-boy which has been defiant and disrespectful of Martin’s authority. There are a number of crucial issues which are coming to decision at the FCC in the next several months which will likely involve Comcast taking it on the chin: commercial cable leased access, carriage dispute resolution procedures, mandatory cable a la carte pricing, cable ownership limits, possible invocation of the 70/70 rule. In short, Comcast is likely to be on the ropes and getting pummeled on some issues in which it is very interested. At the same time the intellectual property mafia has been reaching out to broadband providers. The folks at the RIAA and MPAA regard the internet as the worst mistake they ever let happen and need cooperation from major providers if they are going to have a prayer of cutting into the peer-to-peer filesharing which has dramatically lowered their profits in the last decade. Comcast needs allies to lobby against even the Republican FCC majority wanting its scalp for past misbeaviour. The intellectual property mafia needs large providers who are willing to shut down peer-to-peer filesharing software like BitTorrent. Only the guys in the room where such a deal would have been cut would know for certain, but it’s a plausible hypothesis. And one the FCC should investigate.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Whiny Techies or Dishonest Salesmen?

I cannot help but add a coda onto my latest article. Steven Pearlstein, econ columnist for the Washington Post, has written this piece on the recent complaints wrt to Comcast. To quote Mr. Pearlstein:

The latest rallying cry is “network neutrality.” This campaign started out with the legitimate goal of making sure that consumers could continue to access whichever services or content they want, rather than having to take those offered by the cable and phone company duopolists. But lately the campaign seems to have morphed into a broader demand that all consumers should be able to pay the same monthly fee for using the Internet, no matter how much bandwidth they use or how much their movie downloads and video chats are slowing service to everyone else in the neighborhood.

Perhaps this is the kind of economic illiteracy we should expect from people who get their information from “The Daily Show” and the Daily Kos. But isn’t it time for the rest of us to move on and acknowledge that the days of the online free lunch are over?

As you may imagine from my recent post, my complaint is not with charging more for more bandwidth, but for dishonestly promising me an “always on all you can eat” connection, then cutting me off when I use it all the time for all I can eat. I sent Mr. Pearlstein the following reply, reproduced below….

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

VDC — Video VOIP

I confess I hadn’t heard of VDC: Virtual Video Cable until they filed a program access complaint. Of course, since the vast majority of people probably hadn’t heard about that either (or even know what a “program access complaint” is), I imagine I remain in the distinct minority.

VDC bills itself as a purely broadband-based cable-like service. I compare it to “video VOIP” (or voice-over-IP for the five readers unfamiliar with the acronym). In theory, a service like VDC could provide real competition to cable by letting you get an actual cable service (as opposed to video clips like YouTube or random episodes from iTunes or from some streaming site) — just like VOIP allows a company like Vonage or Sunrocket to offer voice if you have a broadband connection so you can discontinue phone service, saving a bundle (assuming your broadband provider does not make you buy a bundled service or interere with your VOIP packets).

So it is unsurprising that when a possible competitor like VDC emerges, cable uses its market power to try to squash it like a bug. In this case, cable companies have resurected one of the old reliable tricks from their early days: deny the would-be competitor needed programming. Here, Time Warner has refused to enter into negotiations to make CNN available to VDC. (We can expect that if this doesn’t do the trick, cable cos will move to the new fangled tricks — mess with the packets.)

But VDC has a few weapons in its arsenal. It has invoked a provision of the 1992 Cable Act called the “program access rule” that Congress passed to force cable operators to make programming available to would-be competitors like Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) providers. VDC has only two problems:

1) The complaint is being handled by the FCC’s usual cable enforcement staff which, as I have observed previously, does not exactly move on “internet time.”

2) The program access rules stop working (“sunset”) this October. So even if staff resolve the complaint in something approaching reasonable time, it may not do much good.

So is video VOIP dead before it even starts? Not necessarily. For a full explanation of what’s going on and how you (yes, you) can help make video VOIP a reality, see below . . . .

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Comcast Really Ought to Do Something About That Spam Blacklist Policy

The San Jose Mercury News reports on yet another group blaklisted by Comcast’s anti-spam policy. This time, it was the venerable online community The WELL that got blocked, then had a devil of a time getting off the blacklist.

Having been temporarily blocked by Comcast myself, I can say that it is rather unnerving to find oneself cut off from a huge number of folks because you fit some email online profile (or, in the case of The Well, because a bad actor in your community created a problem). As I reported, my case was easily resolved, but The Well and others (such as afterdowningst.org) have run into trouble.

Yes, blacklists have a long tradition, going back to the old days when there were damn few of us online and cutting off someone’s access to your subscribers was unlikely to cause anyone any harm. Nowadays, when it is easy to spoof IP addresses and when getting blacklisted even for a short period of time can cause serious issues, companies should reexamine their policies. Given that Comcast is the largest residential broadband provider in the U.S., I really hope they reevaluate the usefulness of their blacklist policy ASAP.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

The Tiered Internet and “Virtual Redlining”

If Senator Stevens or Representatives Rush and Wynn ever thought about the impact of “tiered access” (or, as I prefer, Whitacre tiering) on rural areas and minority communities, they’d probably switch their votes. Because the flip side of charging for “premium” access is that the third party has to want to pay for it.

If you are a big company, will you pay extra to reach “undesirable” customers like rural customers or minority communities? Of course not! If you have to negotiate with every ISP for premium access, you are only going to want to pay for the “good” customers. And happily, because the ISP is under no requirement to protect customer privacy, the ISP can provide you with precisely the right target demographic.

Welcome to the new world of “Virtual Redlining.” Made possible by Senator Stevens, Bobby Rush and Al Wynn. I hope they have fun explaining to their constituents why, even when they buy the “high speed” pipe, their content downloads slower than the exact same content in the nice neighborhoods of NYC and LA.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

What the $#@! is the “Public” Internet

So here I am, at one of these DC discussion fests between “stakeholders” on “network neutrality.” Net neutrality is what we talk about post Brand X . It means the provider can’t mess with the packets (other than to screen malware or engage in network management). Needless to say, the incumbent wireline providers are not happy with this thought, while all the time proclaiming they will never, ever mess with content.

So what incumbents float instead is the concept of providing “enhanced service” to those with content who will pay extra to be given “priority” to the broadband provider’s subscribers. (“Hey, nice packets you got there. Be a shame if anything . . . happened to them on the way to the customer. But good news. We’re here to offer you a ‘premium’ service that gaurantees you speedy delivery! I suppose I shouldn’t mention this, but your competitor has already signed up . . .”)

This is being justified, in part, as offering premium service on the “private internet” as opposed to the “public interent.”

What the #$@! is a “public internet?” Unless there is some remnant of the NSF backbone out there, or we’re talking about the government funded root servers, there is no such thing as a “public” internet and never was. “The Internet” (back when everyone always used to capitalize it) is a “network of networks” which, since the mid-1990s, have been private networks.

So why are wireline incumbents pushing the “public internet” meme? See below . . .

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