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Summary:

From 1990s through 2011, DSL, a broadband technology, had a strong run at large phone companies in America. Now it is falling behind cable broadband and fiber. The latest data from Verizon, AT&T and Time Warner Cable points to its declining fortunes.

So long, copper!

For a brief moment in the past decade, Verizon and AT&T gave cable broadband a good run for its money. Not anymore. As two of the largest phone companies have shifted focus to their more lucrative wireless business, cable broadband has been running away with the wired broadband market. The proof — admittedly in bits and pieces — comes from the recently reported earnings of AT&T, Verizon and Time Warner Cable. Both major phone companies reported astonishing revenue growth, most of it from the sale of smartphones and lucrative (and increasingly expensive) data plans for the customers.

During the fourth quarter of 2011 (which ended on Dec. 31, 2011), Verizon lost 103,000 DSL lines. In comparison, it lost 118,000 DSL lines during the third quarter of 2011 (which ended on Sept. 30, 2011) and 127,000 in the quarter ending June 39, 2011. The numbers at AT&T are worse. During the fourth quarter of 2011, Ma Bell lost 636,000 DSL lines, up from 501,000 during the third quarter of 2011 and 451,000 during the three months ending on June 30, 2011.

Now compare this with Time Warner Cable, which added a whopping 130,000 broadband connections, way ahead of the 96,000 lines that Wall Street analysts were predicting for the fourth quarter. And that is one of the worst cable broadband providers in the U.S. It would be interesting to see how well Comcast does when it reports its earnings on Feb. 15.

So why is DSL continuing to nose-dive? First of all, the phone companies themselves are not interested in pushing the envelope on DSL and instead are focusing on their higher-end offerings: FiOS Internet for Verizon and U-verse for AT&T. Verizon added 201,000 subscribers for its FiOS (fiber) Internet service during the three months ending on Dec. 31, 2011. In comparison, AT&T added 587,000 new U-verse broadband subscribers. U-verse uses fiber-to-the-node technology in combination with VDSL2, a variant of DSL. AT&T lost 49,000 net broadband subscriber — mostly DSL.

The question is, Can this newer technology make up for the subscriber losses and help Verizon and AT&T grow their overall share of the U.S. broadband market? From the looks of it, I don’t think so. I expect Comcast, which currently is the fastest broadband provider, according to Ookla’s Net Index, to see market share gains. However, this loss of traction by the phone companies in wired broadband makes the recent spectrum deal between Verizon (buyer) and cable companies (sellers) a problematic deal for those hoping to keep broadband competitive. These numbers show how wireless is going to AT&T and Verizon while wireline will go to the cable companies. And apparently the executives at each company are okay with that.

  1. it would be interesting to put this into the larger context of peering and content (access and distribution)

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  2. So what happens to us? For our semi-rural neighborhood it is DSL or nothing. Time Warner,s cables run on the road 800 feet from my house but the cost of hooking us up is a couple of thousand. Humph.

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    1. Sad situation isn’t it? This kind of parallels the changeover from analog to digital TV broadcasting — even though analog signals carry a lot further and provide wider coverage, we were all forced to convert to digital. Or in situations where you live too far away to get the better quality/lower range digital signals, your options became limited, and all involved additional costs. The telecom industry works with disgustingly high profit margins and if you’re not willing or able to pay, they don’t give a sh*t about you, that’s sadly the American way. Your only value to society is now based on what you are able or willing to contribute monetarily.

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      1. “Sad situation isn’t it? This kind of parallels the changeover from analog to digital TV broadcasting — even though analog signals carry a lot further and provide wider coverage, we were all forced to convert to digital. Or in situations where you live too far away to get the better quality/lower range digital signals, your options became limited, and all involved additional costs.” My experience is that digital TV signals give you a much better picture at a much greater distance. I’ve picked up 15 kW UHF LP stations at 48 miles. Of course digital reception requires a better understanding of RF reception, it’s not just turn my rabbitears till I get a semi-watchable picture. But, digital was the best thing that could have happened for TV broadcasting.

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  3. Teresa Mastrangelo Thursday, January 26, 2012

    Last time I checked VDSL was DSL – so your headline really makes no sense at all and this is definitely not one of your better articles

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    1. i agree. AT&T’s u-verse 12mbps plan uses VDSL. in other words, phone line.

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    2. Well actually it does, what it means is that pure DSL on phone line from CO to customer, VDSL is fiber to the curb and phone line to the home, and it only comes in a bundle of U-Verse where you get Data, Voice and TV, as DSL referred in this article means Data only plan.

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  4. The bigger story is the slowdown in the growth of FTTH at the two large telcos. If they don’t want to be in the wired broadband business (and they certainly don’t want to be in the wired voice business for the long term), they should spin it off and let somebody who wants to build that business run it. They only seem to care about their wireless divisions, mainly because it is less regulated and easier for them to grow profits.

    Since the wiring in the ground (and above it) is already in place, it makes little sense for a new company to come in and compete with them in many (but not all) places. Instead of letting this valuable asset wither away, they need to divest themselves of it and focus on screwing, I mean, serving just the wireless customers.

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    1. Bill Kula here from Verizon media relations…

      Respectfully, we disagree with the viewpoint in the blog at Verizon. We firmly believe the answer to Om’s key question, “…can this newer technology make up for the subscriber losses and help Verizon & AT&T grow their overall share of the US broadband market?” at Verizon, is a resounding yes.

      Why, followers may ask?

      This Tuesday during our financial earnings, we reported among other things, an increase of nearly 100,000 broadband connections in Q4 2011 alone. Three other key metrics for our latest earnings report that are important to be aware of relative to our wireline broadband emphasis.
      1. Broadband connections totaled 8.7 million at year-end 2011, a 3.3 percent year-over-year increase. FiOS Internet connections more than offset a decrease in DSL-based HSI connections, resulting in a net increase of 98,000 broadband connections from third-quarter 2011.
      2. Consumer average revenue per user (ARPU) for wireline services was $96.43 in fourth-quarter 2011, up 8.5 percent compared with fourth-quarter 2010. The ARPU for FiOS customers totaled more than $148 in fourth-quarter 2011, rising approximately $2 year over year. FiOS services to consumer retail customers represented 61 percent of consumer wireline revenues in fourth-quarter 2011.

      3. FiOS penetration (subscribers as a percentage of potential subscribers) continued to increase. In all of our FiOS markets nationally combined, FiOS Internet penetration was 35.5 percent at year-end 2011, compared with 31.9 percent at year-end 2010. In the same periods, FiOS TV penetration was 31.5 percent, compared with 28.0 percent, respectively.

      We’re still actively deploying our fiber to the premises network, with about 1.5 million more households to pass and that will include a combination of single family and multi-dwelling residences. Our future is strong and the demand for our flagship FiOS services continues to grow each quarter.

      When we complete the provisioning of fiber to our previously announced 18 million households, and are marketing the services to the residents, our FiOS services will be available to roughly 70 percent of our wireline customer base. Today, our DSL Internet service is available to about 80 percent of our wireline customer base.

      To compare and review our FiOS services, this site is great: http://www.verizonfios.com/

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      1. Hey Bill, I might believe that Verizon cared about broadband… if you didn’t cancel the expansion of FiOS. You would have more credibility if Verizon committed to deploy FiOS in all of its urban and suburban markets, but you’re not doing that. At this point, there is no plan to bring FiOS to areas where the rollout hasn’t started. If I’m wrong, correct me, and point me to a place that details Verizon’s plans to bring fiber everywhere they have copper (or even everywhere they have wireless service).

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      2. FTTH is more expensive than customers are willing to pay. Indeed, customers are CORRECT not to want to pay its real cost because at the present time, there is no practical residential application for it. More correctly, there is no residential application which can not be easily met by DOCSIS, which can be provided at a small fraction of the cost. Thus, FTTH projects are not sound businesses for investors (like you).

        Actually, I’m a HUGE proponent of FTTH, but the capital markets (remember, that’s you) will not fund FTTH because the ROI is simply not there. I don’t blame the LEC’s such as AT&T, Verizon for abandoning it. KenG is incorrect in his implication that verizon’s failure to roll out is attributable to parsimony.

        As a matter of running a business, fiber-to-the-node is the only feasible business model that stands a chance of competing with cable on a cost basis at the present time (in my opinion). Especially since it lends itself to extended to the home in the future should the demand arise.

        As I said, I’m a HUGE proponent of FTTH because I believe it may be in the strategic interist of the US to invest in capital projects such as this. China and Europe OUTPACE our investment in infrastruture by a factor of 4-to-1 and 2-to-1 respectively. We should be doing the same instead of “eating our seed corn”. Grumble, Grumble…

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      3. Karl, the numbers I have read for the cost of deploying FTTH is about $750-$1000 per home. Service providers can easily recoup that investment in 2-3 years (if that long), which is far faster than they used to recover their investments in copper telephone infrastructure. They just choose to not make that investment (as for capital markets, the world is awash in capital, and chooses to lend it only to the safest borrowers, of which Verizon and ATT would qualify).

        That being said, I would be happy with fiber to the node, but they won’t even do that, or even upgrade their 10 year old ADSL technology to VDSL. My office is less than 4000 feet from a Verizon CO, and the fastest DSL they offer is 7 Mbps (unless I want static addresses, in which case they limit me to 5 Mbps). If they brought fiber to the node, they could easily offer > 20 Mbps, but they mostly choose not to.

        If all we need is DOCSIS, then there is no need for the phone companies to stay in the wireline business, is there? Let them sell it for what they think it’s worth, which is not much.

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  5. Steve Timmerman Thursday, January 26, 2012

    The status of DSL is much more positive than the article indicates. For example:
    1. DSL provides 70% of consumer broadband worldwide and has maintained that share over the last 5 years.
    2. Service providers in some countries are now delivering DSL speeds of 50Mbps on short loop lengths.
    3. DSL technology can deliver speeds of more than 100Mbps on 700 meter loops, and that technology has been codified under ITU standards.
    4. As previously mentioned, AT&T’s U-verse product depends on VDSL to deliver the last mile.

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  6. The title for this article appears misleading. The higher bandwidth demands from, among other things, the phone company provided services riding on the lines (e.g. video, Internet access & VoIP) are driving the deployment of fiber closer to the home, causing the reach of xDSL to shrink. Perhaps it should be Telco Broadband subscribers are declining and less about the technologies they are deploying.

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  7. Do you think this will be the beginning of charging us for bits?

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  8. I believe there is an error in the article. It states that Verizon added 201,000 FiOS subscribers and AT&&T added 587,000 U-Verse subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2011. The AT&T subscriber count stated appears to be for the last three quarters of 2011, not the last three months. The number of U-Verse video adds reported in AT&T’s fourth quarter 2011 financial filing is 208,000. The net reported broadband loss for AT&T is correct as stated, 49,000.

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