Entries in IPTV (7)

Thursday
Jan122012

For ILEC with 210k-Mile Network, IPTV Just "Another Application"

It appears CenturyLink didn't want to miss making an announcement at last week's Citi Entertainment and Media Conference, going with a "me too" approach to IPTV services. The "announcement" was modest, as CenturyLink revealed that they would be extending their IPTV services to one or two new markets in the former Qwest territory. Currently CenturyLink's Prism IPTV service passes 1m homes in select markets and, as of 3Q11, had 50k subscribers. For a telecom provider as large as CenturyLink, however, those numbers are relatively small—but what's interesting is how CenturyLink executive vp and cfo Stephen Ewing characterized IPTV: as just “another application.”

Ewing said, “The incremental cost of us rolling out IPTV is not significant. Once you get a 20 Mbps service out there to a customer the incremental cost of layering IPTV on top we view it as another application.” These sentiments, of course, square with what we've been saying for a while—that since so many providers spent so much time and money on network build-outs and improvements, this was the year to capitalize on those networks with new services, content, and applications.

But CenturyLink's "announcement" seems pretty modest, and offering IPTV in only two markets seems like a paltry "expansion," considering that the company has 210k miles of fiber. With its acquisitions and its expansive network, rollouts like IPTV appear to be an obvious next step. For now, Ewing said that, “The (IPTV) customer base is still small, but we did increase the customer base 25% during the third quarter.”

CenturyLink's network design also makes IPTV easier to distribute, as all of its video content is put into a head end in Missouri and, from there, distributed to each of the 8 markets currently served with IPTV. Each market also has its own mini-head end for local content, and all content is delivered over CenturyLink's fiber network.

Last fall, the company denied speculation that it would expand its Prism service to former Qwest markets. CenturyLink had just inherited Qwest's 1m DirecTV subscribers and was committed to satellite TV. But now the Louisiana-based ILEC says it's following a two-pronged approach to video services: satellite and IPTV. It's a strategy that allows CenturyLink to hedge its bets, capitalize on the satellite subs it's already inherited, and continue to anticipate consumer trends, as greater numbers of Americans access over-the-top video services like Netflix. Ewing said, “If over the top eventually takes some of the traditional TV market, we think we'll be well positioned with the bandwidth with have to our customers to participate in that.”

What is surprising, however, is that CenturyLink does not seem to have an overarching strategy to build out broadband to former Qwest markets. So far the company has just said, vaguely, that it plans to "expand its broadband footprint." Broadband has been a key component to the ILEC's business strategy for a while now, and in 3Q11, the service provider added 57k high-speed Internet subscribers, versus only 12k in 2Q11. Part of these gains, however, come from Qwest's FTTN initiative, which CenturyLink has continued after the acquisition. By the end of this year, CenturyLink estimates that it will pass 5.4m homes with FTTN.

In FTTN service areas, 75% of customers enjoy 20 Mbps speeds, while the remainder of subscribers have speeds of 10 Mbps or higher. As for CenturyLink's big picture, about 20% of subscribers can get 20 Mbps, over half can get 6 Mbps, and two-thirds can get 6 Mbps or higher. According to Ewing, “The speeds will continue to improve over 2012 and future years as we continue to build out the IPTV footprint and the Fiber to the Node footprint in the Qwest markets primarily,” he said.

Of course, CenturyLink will find itself increasingly in competition with LTE services (which we will look into more next week), but for now Ewing said CenturyLink seemed to have an edge, due to its increasing bandwidth. Ewing said that average customer usage is continuing to rise to about 18 Mbps, double where it was a year ago.

Monday
Jan092012

A Picture is Worth... A Reduction in Churn

When an ILEC as big as TDS Telecom says that IPTV has allowed them to gain “30% share against two national cable operators in just three years,” and that, “based on that success we're planning to roll out to... 19 [additional] markets during 2012,” perhaps it's time to take IPTV seriously. Speaking at Citi Entertainment and Media Conference this past Friday, TDS president and ceo, LeRoy Carlson Jr., said that the company's wager on IPTV had proved wise, warranting these additional markets. Carlson added that, after these 19 markets, “we'll see if there are additional markets to roll out into in future years."

Of course, we've been hearing more about successful IPTV rollouts recently, usually by ILECs who are trying to offset significant voice line losses. In the past, it seemed so many IPTV ventures were deemed “defunct” after initial trials, never actually making good on the promise of additional revenue.

But TDS says its initial two-market roll-out, last year, was successful in both markets. Now the Madison, Wisconsin-based telecom giant isn't just dabbling in video services; instead, Carlson and company see IPTV as a way both to retain and attract subscribers. Last year, TDS rolled out VDSL services in 20 markets of its 30-state operating area, offering up to 25 Mbps, and it operates ADSL and ADSL2+ services as part of its broadband offering.

So it's safe to say that building out broadband, through a variety of pipes, has been an emphasis for TDS. With a staggering $100m in broadband stimulus funding, the company has been working to extend high-speed services into many of its rural territories, then bundling data with voice and, in some cases, video services. To date, Carlson said that TDS had approximately 55% market share of broadband in its traditional ILEC markets—something he said was "quite different than the other ILECs that typically have only 40 percent share compared to cable's 60 percent."

And broadband has been working to reduce churn. "What we have found is that when we have three services in a household our churn rate drops from over 2% for a single service to 1.5% for two services and down to 0.5 and 0.6% when we have three services," Carlson said. "As we add DSL on top of voice and we add video on top of voice and DSL we dramatically reduce our churn in the consumer household."

That's something ILECs across the country have been waiting to hear, as many smaller companies and cooperatives have also started to (re)consider IPTV for its “stickiness.” Carlson said that, by bundling its services, they're able to moderate voice line losses, but also "drive our top line revenue in our consumer business.” The company's IPTV services will be revenue on top of its $37 ARPU.

“On the ILEC side,” Carlton said, “the primary drivers of growth have been on pushing DSL further to our customer base. Sixty-one percent of our lines now have some form of DSL and we're pushing faster speeds out there.”

Carlton also announced that TDS's new IPTV markets would incorporate Microsoft's Mediaroom platform—an interface that many smaller ILECs and co-ops are adopting as well (several of whom we've profiled last year). Mediaroom allows for the bells-and-whistles services many consumers have come to expect and ILECs now want to provide: VOD, whole-home DVR, caller ID over the TV, and even remote DVR services.

TDS's IPTV announcement comes after a year of investment and diversification at the company. In the past two years, TDS has pursued both the data center and cloud services markets, most recently with its acquisition of OneNeck for $95m this past summer. But as I predicted for 2012 (and we're only a few days in), companies like TDS will also want to find new ways of making their broadband expansion count for even more. We'll be interested to see the numbers when all 21 IPTV markets are live.

Thursday
Dec292011

2011's Broadband Bonanza Means New "Explorations" in 2012

While researching for a profile on Paul Bunyan Communications several months ago, I was struck by the cooperative's 60-plus years of underdog status—a fitting 2011 year-end metaphor for many of the companies I talk to across the country. There, in Minnesota, was a cooperative that organized in 1950 to connect underserved areas, and was helped along in its goal by federal legislation that sought to improve rural telephone service. Now, as 2011 draws to a close and we look ahead to what 2012 will bring, many companies I've interviewed this year are still trying to reach underserved areas—this time with broadband—and doing so is part of the larger, national plan to bring valuable high-speed internet connections to every home and business, in every community. With the year ending, these companies and co-ops are also hoping that broadband subs will help offset landline losses; this may be the last year for such a ying-yang balance, too, as broadband growth slows and it becomes less likely these adds will be able to offset the losses going forward.

A sweeping dedication to broadband will certainly continue into 2012, but boy has the game gotten more complex.Thanks to the recent detailed analysis offered by our own Cassandra Heyne, I won't use this space to parse out the specifics of federal funding for broadband or other regulatory hurdles facing rural providers. But I would like to reflect on what 2011 has meant for the rural service providers, cooperatives, start-ups, and advocacy groups I've spent the year researching and interviewing. Whether the goal was to tap into vertical markets, harness the potential of the cloud, or test out new services and platforms, without a question the name of the game this year was broadband—how to build-out fiber networks, how to increase speeds, how to offers services via broadband, how to pool resources and efforts through alliances and consortiums, how to share resources and infrastructure, how to get into the data storage market, and so on. Ultimately 2011 centered on a challenge and a source of opportunity; both are captured in the phrase I heard over and over again—“broadband build-out."

2011: Betting on Broadband

Just last week, new ceo of 3 Rivers Communications David Gibson summed up one of the most fitting characterizations for rural and independent companies. In an interview for the Great Falls Tribune, he said that, without a doubt, “Fiber is the way of the future... When you replace all that copper [with fiber] the service quality is better; you get much faster broadband speeds. You can offer IPTV. It's just good all around, it's where we need to be to position ourselves.” But Gibson went on to note the snags in building out rural broadband—threats to funding by “problems... in the mechanics” of the new Connect America fund and threats of stiff competition from satellite and wireless broadband, encroaching cable companies, municipal-owned broadband and others.

This year, I've talked to rural co-ops, independent providers, advocacy groups and consortiums in Kentucky, Ohio, Minnesota, Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, West Virginia, Texas and the Dakotas, and for all of them, broadband was central to their goal of providing new services and connecting unserved or underserved rural communities. In some cases, broadband meant better connectivity for local high schools, community colleges or universities; in other cases, there were advances in telemedicine, improvements for tribal communities, or farming technologies. But in every case, the directors and spokespersons I interviewed insisted that broadband brought with it the possibilities for a changed community and more vibrant opportunities for rural residents and businesses. And they had examples of these improvements... many, many examples.

The question remains, however, do these broadband build-outs actually mean more stability for the ILECs and co-ops, many who find themselves in an increasingly competitive market? Will all of the federal dollars in broadband grants and build-outs in 2011 equal more advancements to rural areas in 2012? Will rural providers need to delve more deeply into new options like LTE and cloud services to remain relevant? Or will fiber as the “way of the future” actually mean subscriber retention and added revenue? These are all questions to investigate in the coming year, by talking to the experts on the front lines: the rural providers themselves.

2012: Building on Broadband, Exploring New Territory

Just recently we've seen announcements about IPTV and LTE—two services that are getting attention from rural ILECs and co-ops who consider them potential golden tickets. Most likely, 2012 will bring more in-depth look at what these services might mean for the independent communications provider industry—most specifically for the rural companies I talk to regularly. LTE's potential is up in the air (pun intended), but IPTV has already become a key talking point for ILECs who want to attract and retain customers in their communities. Earlier this year, we ran the numbers and found that, for the companies who disclosed that they provided video services, “their rate of decline in access lines... was sharply lower than those in the survey who did not provide data on video subscribers.”

Several of the companies I profiled to this year—Palmetto Rural Telephone Cooperative and Paul Bunyan Communications, to name two—named IPTV as central to their business strategy going forward. Earlier this month, Texas ILEC Valley Telephone Cooperative announced that it would offer a hybrid IPTV service that combines HDTV, DVR and cloud services through a single TV input and interface. And last month, Griswold Cooperative Telephone Company announced it would use its hefty $12.7m RUS loan, in part, to lay fiber that would support advanced services like IPTV.

As for LTE, it will be interesting to see what comes of the partnership between rural ILECs/ rural cellular providers and Verizon's Rural 4G LTE Program. Just last week, Pioneer Cellular (of Kingfisher, OK-based Pioneer Telephone) announced its first successful end-to-end data test with Verizon's 700 MHz spectrum, and so far Pioneer is just one of 13 rural providers partnering with Verizon for use of its LTE network. The goal, of course, is to provide LTE services in areas where Verizon does not plan to extend coverage, and, through the program, rural partners are allowed to build and operate their own LTE network, using some elements of Verizon's core network. Just as cooperatives and partnerships have helped bring fiber to rural areas, it's possible that partnerships between small, rural providers and the Big Guys could supplement existing services and retain customers. It's possible.

Ultimately the influence of LTE in rural areas remains to be seen, but it is a step toward spectrum use that so many rural providers have looked into but not developed. In my own discussions this year, I have heard numerous company spokespersons say that they were currently “exploring the possibilities” of spectrum for a variety of services, but had not made any definite commitments. Perhaps 2012 will bear the fruit of these, and many other, “explorations.”

Wednesday
Dec282011

Digging Deep: Palmetto Rural Looks to Bury Its Competition

When Chuck Crabtree joined Palmetto Rural Telephone Cooperative as its Director of Marketing this year, he was attracted to the co-op's commitment to broadband and advanced services like IPTV. Right now he says PRTC is making great progress towards an extensive fiber build-out that will cover most of Colleton County, South Carolina. And PRTC has been able to fund this upgrade to FTTH “without any big grants. We're mostly doing it ourselves, utilizing business loans,” Crabtree said. With many ILECs and cooperatives counting on broadband, PRTC's story may not seem like a unique one—but the provider's embrace of services like IPTV and advanced video platforms, is. According to Crabtree, PRTC is fighting “formidable competitors” like Comcast and Frontier by offering richer, dependable services through fiber. In underserved areas of the county, PRTC is the first to lay fiber and, in doing so, hopes to better serve its entire territory.

Crabtree characterized PRTC's service area as a combination of Low Country rural lands and small- to mid-sized towns. “Currently we've completed roughly 15% of our fiber build-out, but the overall fiber-to-the-home plan will take longer,” he said. “It's a lot of work. They don't call us the Low Country for nothing— we have a lot of wetlands and it can be very swampy, but we're absolutely committed to getting fiber to every home, even the most remote areas.”

Of course, fiber builds can be tricky for smaller companies and co-ops, with cost often exceeding return on investment. But Crabtree says that PRTC has taken great measures not to just provide broadband services, but to do so with media platforms that rival those from large competitors. Earlier this year, PRTC announced it was transitioning its IPTV-based video services to Alcatel-Lucent's starter pack end-to-end solution, which included the Microsoft Mediaroom 2.0 software platform. Mediaroom, created specifically for Tier 1 service providers, “helped get rid of some traditional IPTV problems, but also opens up new opportunities,” Crabtree said. “Some telcos deploy IPTV and then really aren't thrilled with what they're able to provide. But for us, Mediaroom was really a great choice for the consumer. It really is a very slick, great interface,” he said, noting that the platform makes it possible to introduce VOD, whole-home DVR, caller ID over the TV, and even remote DVR services. Right now, the co-op's IPTV services are about 10% penetrated, but Crabtree says that Mediaroom should dramatically increase marketability and will allow PRTC to “ratchet up marketing for this particular service. We're already seeing great responses, and we believe it's going to be successful.”

But for PRTC, the fiber build-out is about much more than just IPTV services alone. It's about “future-proofing,” as Crabtree put it. “The more fiber you have, the more you can do with it. Fiber-to-the-home provides almost limitless bandwidth capacity, allowing our customers to share multi-media content, watch videos on any device, and so on.” In other words, PRTC is looking to provide the bells-and-whistles that the Big Guys provide, but they plan to bring it to even the most remote areas where subscribers live and do business.

In some areas, DirecTV and Dish Network provide stiff competition, Crabtree acknowledged, but when it comes to providing the whole package of services, PRTC still maintains an edge. In Colleton County, Comcast provides TV and Internet services, but no voice service, and Frontier offers voice and broadband in small pockets of coverage. “We keep hearing rumors of improvements coming down from the Charleston area [in regard to Comcast], but right now they have a pretty standard offering. Our TV service is much richer, according to what we offer, and of course we have a whole package of services we provide.”

Crabtree noted the importance of broadband in small communities and rural areas—something that he says is threatened by recent changes to USF funding. When asked about how the Connect America fund will impact cooperatives like PRTC, Crabtree said, “We stand with everyone at NTCA and the other ILECs who have voiced their opposition to these changes. We're working fast and furious to run fiber and offer as high a service level as possible, and the cutting of USF funds hurts our efforts to do that in the fashion we'd like. We're not happy about the changes in the way they're distributing funds.”

Despite these federal battles, like most cooperatives, PRTC is committed to improving its community, Crabtree said. “We are very involved in the area, and are especially excited about the advanced services that the Colleton County Medical Center is able to offer through our broadband connection.” He explained that, in the past, the facility had to rely on its sister hospital in Charleston for difficult diagnoses, advanced technologies, and specialist services. This often included transporting patients via helicopter or a one-and-a-half hour drive. But now, in seconds, doctors at CCMC can send data to physicians in Charleston and get a detailed diagnosis right away. Doctors at CCMC are also making use of iPads to collect patient information; hospital management will soon rely on “hot boards” to streamline providers and get physicians to the hospital when demand increases, and the hospital website will offer online updates on emergency room wait times. Crabtree said, “These are super patient-friendly services and, while they've had our [PRTC's] broadband for years, they're now really expanding the utilization of its functionality.”

In addition to medical services, Crabtree said that PRTC's broadband has been “a real game-changer” for Colleton County High School and Colleton Preparatory Academy. “We offer broadband connections to each school in a way that fits their needs very well... and we partner with the local schools all the time—to sponsor athletic departments and support recreational teams. We really try to have a local presence in a variety of ways,” Crabtree said, explaining that PRTC also provides telecommunications services to the police and fire departments and sponsors fundraisers for March of Dimes. “That personal connection is really important,” he said.

One of PRTC's smaller business divisions is its wireless service, which Crabtree said is branded PRTC Wireless but also accesses one of the largest networks in the country. PRTC has offered wireless for the last 2-3 years and hopes to more aggressively promote “a quad play in the future,” Crabtree said. “It's not an easy business to grow in, but we're doing it, slowly but surely.”

As for the regional area surrounding PRTC's base in Walterboro, South Carolina—the county seat of Colleton County—there is plenty of growth to go around. PRTC's service area sits outside the main competitive markets of the Charleston area, but the county enjoys growth from nearby economic expansion. Early this month a new aerospace company, Colleton Aerospace LLC, announced it would construct a $15m plant in the county, bringing 300 jobs to the area and hopefully spurring development in the Low Country. PRTC is already scheduled to be the telecommunications supplier to Colleton Aerospace, and Crabtree noted that this was just one of the ways that the area is continuing to see growth in jobs, residential expansion, and population increases. Recently Boeing opened a new facility in North Charleston and tire manufacturers Bridgestone, Continental, and Michelin have all made significant investments in the surrounding area. Likely this growth will spill into PRTC's service area, and Crabtree says the company has already been active in Charleston media markets. “We can't help but think our region's growth will help us, and we hope to enjoy some of its success.”

Tuesday
Nov292011

Griswold IA Cooperative Looks Forward to $12.7m Broadband Loan

Much-Needed Funds will Help “Ramp up Speed and Bandwidth”

On November 14, JSI Capital Advisors reported that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the recipients of over $400m in USDA Rural Utilities Service broadband funding. 22 rural telecom providers in 15 states will receive broadband loans ranging from $3.7m to $32m “to build, expand and improve broadband in their rural service territories” (The Monitor: Vilsack Announces Additional Telco Funding to Expand Rural Broadband).

One company slated to receive funding immediately jumped out to me—Griswold Cooperative Telephone Company (Griswold, Iowa), which will receive $12,747,000 “to complete a system-wide FTTP network, enhancing broadband service to all subscribers.” I grew up about 20 miles away from Griswold, so I was naturally curious to check in with general manager Robert Drogo and learn more about his company’s plans to expand FTTH near my homeland in Southwest Iowa.

Drogo explained that the Griswold board of directors started discussing their options two years ago, and in order to be successful “we knew we had to look at fiber.” In addition to improving Internet speeds and capacity, the fiber will also support other capabilities like IPTV for all customers (which Griswold currently offers just in the towns it serves). Over the past 18 months, Griswold has been deploying middle-mile fiber and preparing for the end-goal of FTTH, “should we be fortunate enough to get the loan.” Griswold’s $12.7m good fortune will be used to take the company from its current 60% fiber deployment to FTTH for its entire customer base—1,700 lines in the communities of Griswold, Lewis, Elliot and Grant.

The company’s current DSL speeds go up to 3/1 Mbps tops, but with IPTV also running on the lines to the in-town customers, the bandwidth is getting crowded. Once the fiber is fully deployed, Drogo estimates that customers will experience 5/1 Mbps at the low end and 10/3 Mbps at the high end. He also commented that “now speed isn’t an option,” and it is absolutely necessary for the company to keep reaching for higher limits—hence the importance of the RUS loan.

Many RLECs surely hope that deploying high-speed FTTH will attract new businesses to their service areas, and a few new medium- or large-sized businesses would obviously be a real catch for a rural community like Griswold (located about mid-way between Des Moines and Omaha). Drogo wasn’t sure if the project would help attract any significant new businesses to the area. However, he explained, “I don’t see a big draw on the top end, but [the FTTH] will definitely be a benefit to home based, small and agricultural businesses.” As I grew up in this area, I can certainly see the appeal of being able to run a business from home—the hour plus drive to Omaha or Des Moines can get quite monotonous (especially every day for a job), and volatile Iowa winters definitely add an element of uncertainty to a long commute. Griswold’s FTTH may facilitate more teleworkers and home-based start-ups, and it will surely benefit the area’s important agricultural economy.

Companies eager to deploy FTTH are often quick to claim that the investment will bring new business to struggling rural economies, but it really might be just as important to focus on bolstering the community’s current small businesses. Hopefully Griswold’s broadband loan will help ensure that the local businesses (current and future) will have the tools to move forward at a pace that matches economic and business development in urban areas.

The fiber expansion should help Griswold become more competitive on the video front as well. IPTV will become available for the rural consumers, who currently can only receive pay TV from satellite providers. Of course, the FTTH will also give the rural consumers an opportunity to “cut the cord” on traditional video if they desire, since the FTTH connections will be able to handle plenty of Netflix. Drogo speculates that Mediacomm may come to the community in several years, but by that time Griswold could have a significant competitive advantage on video services. Drogo does not see wireless broadband as an immediate competitive threat, but he anticipates that 4G will eventually be available in the area—although that could also be years down the road too. Even so, it is likely that wireless broadband will complement, and not substitute, Griswold’s FTTH service offerings.

Griswold will probably not see the $12.7m RUS loan money for at least 18 months, but the company has been approved for interim investments such as ordering the fiber. Drogo believes that the $12.7m will be enough to complete the entire FTTH build out. He added that this amount is “very conservative” and was calculated to account for various regulatory, legislative and resource uncertainties. Drogo is “not concerned” about the bad publicity that has been hanging over USDA and BTOP broadband loans like a dark cloud in the past few months. For the most part, RLECs have been putting their broadband loans to good use and have not been caught up with any of the various failures or mismanagement catastrophes that some other  loan recipients have encountered.

With this $12.7m broadband loan, it sounds like Griswold Cooperative Telephone Company will be in a position to achieve its strategic goals and bring benefits to the community. The FTTH deployment could solidify the company's competitive advantage if it is completed before cable and 4G competitors start knocking on the door.