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When we went looking for an apartment here a couple years ago, we had two primary considerations in addition to the usual ones: walking distance from a Red Line subway stop, and fiber-based Internet access. The latter is easy to spot if you know what to look for, starting with too many wires on the poles. After that you look for large loops among the wires. That means the wiring contains glass, which breaks if the loops are too small. The apartment we chose has other charms, but for me the best one is a choice between three high speed Internet services: Comcast, Verizon FiOS and RCN. Although Comcast comes via coaxial cable, it’s a HFC (hybrid fiber-coax) system, and competes fairly well against fiber all the way to the home. That’s what Verizon FiOS and RCN provide.

fiber

We chose Verizon FiOS, which gives us 20Mb symmetrical service for about $60/month. The 25 feet between the Optical Network Terminal box and my router is ironically provided by old Comcast cable TV co-ax. (Hey, if Comcast wants my business, they can beat Verizon’s offering.)

My point is that we live where we do because there is competition among Internet service providers. While I think competition could be a lot better than it is, each of those three companies still offer far more than what you’ll find pretty much everywhere in the U.S. where there is little or no competition at all.

The playing field in the skies above sidewalks is not pretty. Poles draped with six kinds of wiring (in our case electrical, phone, cable, cable, fiber, fiber — I just counted) are not attractive. At the point the poles become ugly beyond endurance, I expect that the homeowners will pay to bury the services. By the grace of local regulators, all they’ll bury will be electrical service and bundles of conduit, mostly for fiber. And they won’t bury them deep, because fiber isn’t bothered by proximity to electrical currents. In the old days (which is still today in most fiber-less places), minimum separations are required between electrical, cable and phone wiring — the latter two being copper. In Santa Barbara (our perma-home), service trenching has to be the depth of a grave to maintain those separations. There’s no fiber yet offered in Santa Barbara. At our house there the only carrier to provide “high” speed is the cable company, and it’s a fraction of what we get over fiber here near Boston.

All this comes to mind after reading D.C. Court Upholds Ban on MDU Contracts: FCC prevents new exclusive contracts and nullifies existing ones, by John Eggerton in Broadcasting & Cable.  It begins, “The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Monday upheld an FCC decision banning exclusive contracts between cable companies and the owners of apartments and other multiple-dwelling units (MDU).”

The rest of the piece is framed by the long-standing antipathy between cable and telephone companies (cable lost this one), each as providers of cable TV. For example,

Not surprisingly, Verizon praised the decision. It also saw it as a win for larger issues of access to programming:

“This ruling is a big win for millions of consumers living in apartments and condominiums who want nothing more than to enjoy the full benefits of video competition,” said Michael Glover, Verizon senior VP, deputy general counsel, in a statement. “In upholding the ban on new and existing exclusive access deals, the Court’s decision also confirms the FCC’s authority to address other barriers to more meaningful competitive choice and video competition, such as the cable companies’ refusal to provide competitors with access to regional sports programming.”

Which makes sense at a time in history when TV viewing still comprises a larger wad of demand than Internet use. This will change as more and more production, distribution and consumption moves to the Internet, and as demand increases for more Internet access by more different kinds of devices — especially mobile ones.

Already a growing percentage of my own Internet use, especially on the road, uses cellular connectivity rather than wi-fi (thanks to high charges for crappy connectivity at most hotels). Sprint is my mobile Internet provider. They have my business because they do a better job of getting me what I want: an “air card” that works on Linux and Mac laptops, and not just on Windows ones). Verizon wanted to charge me for my air card (Sprint’s was free with the deal, which was also cheaper), and AT&T’s gear messed up my laptops and didn’t work very well anyway.

In both cases — home and road — there is competition.

While I can think of many reforms I’d like to see around Internet connectivity (among citizens, regulators and regulatees), anything that fosters competition in the meantime is a Good Thing.

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There’s a good chance that the best picture you can put on your HD screen doesn’t come from your cable or satellite TV company, but from your new HD camcorder. As time and markets march on, that chance will only get larger. That’s because the there is a trade-off between the number of channels carried and the quality of each channel. That quality compression shows up as “artifacts” in the picture itself. Gradations of shading and color, such as in a blue or gray sky, turn to a mosaic of blocks. (In this shot, I show how grass on a football field has pimples.) Carriers compete more by the number of channels they carry than by the quality of each channel.(There are exceptions to this, but on the whole that’s what we’ve got.) Meanwhile your camcorder quality only goes up.

And as camcorder quality goes up, more of us will be producing rather than consuming our video. More importantly, we will be co-producing that video with other people. We will be producers as well as consumers. This is already the case, but the results that appear on YouTube are purposely compressed to a low quality compared to HDTV. In time the demand for better will prevail. When that happens we’ll need upstream as well as downstream capacity.

So here’s a piece in Broadband Reports that shows how carriers can be out of touch with the future, even as they increase the capacities of their offerings. An excerpt:

In upgraded markets, Comcast is not only upgrading existing speed tiers ($42.95 “Performance” 6Mbps/1Mbps and $52.95 “Performance Plus” 8Mbps/2Mbps tiers became 12Mbps/2Mbps and 16Mbps/2Mbps), but is adding two new tiers to the mix ($62.95 “Ultra” 22Mbps/5Mbps and the aforementioned $139.95 “Extreme 50″ 50Mbps/10Mbps).

One recurring theme we’ve seen in our forums is that the new speeds have many users downgrading. In both forum threads and polls, many customers on Comcast’s 16Mbps/2Mbps tier say they’re downgrading to their 12Mbps/2Mbps tier — apparently because they don’t think an additional 4Mbps downstream is worth $10. Customers used to be willing to pay the additional $10 for double the upstream speed, but there’s no longer an upstream difference between the tiers.

That last line is the kicker. Comcast apparently still thinks that downstream is all that really matters. It isn’t. For anybody producing a lot of photography or video, upstream not only matters more, but supports activities where the user can see the difference.

In fact there isn’t a lot of perceived difference between 12Mbps and 16Mbps on the downstream side. Either is fast enough for a YouTube video. But on the upstream side, you can see the difference. In my case, that difference appears in the progress bars for pictures I upload to Flickr.

A few months ago I upgraded my Verizon FiOS service from 20/5Mbps to 20/20Mbps. The difference was obvious as soon as it went in. The difference will be a lot more obvious to a lot more people once those people start sharing, mashing up and co-producing higher-definition videos.

Just watch.

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