By Matt Hrodey, Tim McCormick & Dan Shafer High-tech doesn’t have to mean high-maintenance. Whether you’re a tech-savvy savant or a modern-day Luddite, the connected world is shaping your daily life in ways you never imagined. So why not navigate these wirey roads and pull on to the information superhighway? We’re here to help – […]

By Matt Hrodey, Tim McCormick & Dan Shafer

High-tech doesn’t have to mean high-maintenance.

Whether you’re a tech-savvy savant or a modern-day Luddite, the connected world is shaping your daily life in ways you never imagined. So why not navigate these wirey roads and pull on to the information superhighway? We’re here to help – and we’re more reliable than the cable guy.


The Art of Negotiation

Rekindle that spark with your provider by cutting costs.

Remember back to when you first signed up for cable (or Internet or even cell phone service)? Sparks flew. Promises to stay connected for life were bandied about. And that goliath made you feel as if you were the only person in the world who mattered.

Then that introductory trial period ended. And your rates (and the romance) flew north.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Your bills don’t have to keep soaring.

If you’re looking at new delivery methods, see “Cutting the Cord” (Page 29) or “Dialing In” (Page 32). However, if you’re more or less happy with the service, but wouldn’t mind fattening your wallet, follow along.

“When it comes to reducing monthly bills like cable, Internet or cell phone, understanding how you use your services is the first place to start,” says Josh Sheehan of BillCutterz.com.

That means studying your bill to see if there’s any fat to trim. Do you really need all 1,810 channels? Are you coming anywhere close to your allotted minutes? Be sure you aren’t paying for services you aren’t using. This is also a good time to see if your company offers a corporate rate, which could end up saving you bundles.

Next, you’ve got to realize that it’s much more expensive for a company to attract a new customer than it is to retain one. So, customer service reps have been instructed to do most anything in their power to keep you happy, short of giving away the store.

That means if you’ve seen promotions for newbies, ask if you can get those rates applied to your account. “The longer you have been with your service provider, the more likely they are to reward that loyalty,” says Sheehan. “Asking for the same promotion new customers are getting won’t increase your bill – if anything, you’ll get a large discount.” The same goes for competitors’ bargain-basement offers. Often, you’ll get that price match.

But before you even pick up the phone, keep in mind peak call times – like the weekend or after the 9-to-5 grind – will usually mean longer hold times. Although your wait time might not directly impact your bottom line, know that if you have a shorter fuse, it won’t help the situation. Don’t let that frustration boil over.

“People often forget that customer representatives are people too,” Sheehan says. Start off by cursing out the poor soul on the other end of the line, and “the representative is going to be less likely to help you out. Be nice! It will help get you more savings.” (Tim McCormick) 

Illustration by Thomas James.

Illustration by Thomas James.

Cutting the Cord

The alternatives to cable are changing the way we watch TV.

In many ways, the cord has already been cut. The paradigm for how we watch what we watch TV has been irrevocably altered. Cable companies have not been made irrelevant – not by a long shot – but streaming is here to stay.

Solidifying this fact was an October announcement from HBO, saying it would launch a standalone online service in 2015. The operative word here is “standalone.” The premium cable giant is not new to the streaming world, as its HBO GO service was launched in full in 2010. In fact, Time Warner subscribers in Milwaukee and Green Bay were among the first to have HBO available online, with the 2008 test release of HBO On Demand, the prequel to GO. What’s different about what’s to come is that it will no longer require online viewers to have a cable subscription. Since HBO’s parent company is Time Warner, it’s no reach to see this as a tacit acknowledgement that change has already come.

“I don’t want to overemphasize HBO’s decision to do this,” says Thad Nation, executive director of Wired Wisconsin. “They are the trendsetter in the industry. Every content provider is going to be looking at this.”

Cord-cutting “fundamentally changes the nature of how cable companies are organized today,” he says. “It’s going to give consumers more flexibility, more choices. It’s going to change the consumption model, and we’re going to see a seismic shift in how cable companies operate.”

Nation says HBO’s decision to make Go standalone will change things as soon as this year, and the full effect will be felt by consumers a “couple years down the road.”

The wheels of change are turning elsewhere, too. AT&T’s U-verse has grabbed considerable market share since its 2006 introduction, but, as Time notes, AT&T recently began offering U-verse packages geared specifically to cord-cutters – combining broadband Internet, a small lineup of channels, HBO (with HBO GO) and Amazon Prime’s streaming service for roughly $40.

For many cable and satellite-viewers, the argument against cutting the cord centers on tuning into live sporting events. That, too, could be changing. The NBA’s new deal with ESPN and Turner Sports, which begins in 2016, establishes a framework for online-only, standalone streaming.

Although the dust is still settling, the landscape is shifting. According to Bloomberg, in 2013, the number of Americans subscribing to cable or satellite TV service declined for the first time, and a November 2014 report from the Leichtman Research Group says, “Over the past year, major pay-TV providers lost about 105,000 subscribers – compared to a loss of about 45,000 over the prior year.” Meanwhile, according to Experian Marketing Services, the number of cord-cutters has grown by 44 percent since 2010, and Parks Associates, a market research firm, says 10 percent of U.S. broadband households purchased a streaming media device in 2014 alone. (Dan Shafer) 


Tools of the Trade

The ‘Need-to-Know’ Cord-Cutting Products & Services

ROKU ($49-$99): Emerging as the market leader in streaming media, Roku offers options from its Streaming Stick, which connects via HDMI, to the Roku 3, considered by many to be the best set top box option available. While Roku doesn’t host its own content, it’s able to access the most overall content and search across multiple streaming platforms.

APPLE TV ($99): Although it was ahead of the curve when first introduced in 2007, the Apple TV has become a bit dated and has lost market share. Still, because of iTunes, it has more first-party content than other options, and if you’re already an Apple user, it integrates well with other iProducts. A new Apple TV box is on the horizon, but it’s been delayed.

GOOGLE CHROMECAST ($35): Google’s is the most affordable option available, and it’s about the size of a flash drive. Chromecast is liked for its simplicity, but it’s a bit of “get what you pay for.” There are fewer apps and channels available compared to other options. But it’s still a fairly new product – 2014 was its first full year on the market – and it has continued to evolve.

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AMAZON FIRE TV ($99): With the help of its voice control feature, Amazon Fire TV made a loud entry in 2014. It’s designed to work with Amazon’s subscription streaming services, giving it a great deal of content at the ready, and reviewers give it a leg up over other options for its gaming offerings. Amazon also introduced the Fire TV Stick ($39), which is not unlike Roku’s Streaming Stick or Google’s Chromecast.

NETFLIX ($7.99-$11.99 per month): It’s no secret that Netflix has a lot going for it. It’s commercial free. Its ever-growing slate of original content, such as Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, continues to impress. And the above hardware options all list Netflix as a featured application. Its newer platinum or family options allow for streaming on four devices at once, essentially making it OK to share passwords, which was definitely not happening before (wink-wink).

HULU PLUS ($7.99 per month): The one downside of Netflix is that it takes awhile for new content to get there, but that immediacy is Hulu Plus’ forte. New shows are usually available a day after they air. Like Netflix, Hulu Plus is a staple of streaming media hardware; unlike Netflix, Hulu Plus has commercials. However, Hulu does have something Netflix doesn’t: a freely available online service at hulu.com.

AMAZON PRIME INSTANT VIDEO/AMAZON INSTANT VIDEO (included in $99 Amazon Prime membership/priced per title): Amazon has both a Netflix-like option (Prime Instant Video) and an iTunes-like option for video streaming (Instant Video), but it’s the Prime offering that’s worth keeping an eye on. It’s not as massive in scope or efficient in delivery, but some consider it to be a legitimate Netflix competitor. Those already paying for Prime’s free two-day shipping get this streaming service included. (Dan Shafer) 

Sources: CNET, Mashable, Yahoo, TechCrunch, Forbes, Tom’s Guide, TechSpot, Parks Associates


Ludicrous Speed, Go!

By harnessing fiber optics, one Wisconsin town has snagged a front-row seat to the Internet.

Shawano, Wis., a cozy burg of about 9,200 people in northeastern Wisconsin, may not look like the Badger State’s Silicon Valley, but its residents enjoy some of the best Internet service imaginable. How? One very aggressive referendum. In 2006, residents approved a $4 million proposal that empowered city leaders to build their own fiber optic network and operate it as a utility selling phone, TV and Internet services. The millions borrowed – bonds the city planned to pay off using revenue from customers – constituted a bold lunge into the 21st century.

Shawano Municipal Utilities got its new-fangled telecom utility off to a jogging start in 2008, after minor delays. Essentially bundles of glass carrying encoded streams of photons, the new fiber cables were open for traffic and enabled blindingly fast upload and download speeds. Congestion, which drags down data speeds in metro areas, was but a pittance in Shawano, where an iron sculpture of a farmer leading a cow stands proudly in the town center.

Ultimately, Shawano sold the network to Nsight, a medium-sized telecom company based in Green Bay, for $1.25 million. The 2013 deal fell under the auspices of Nsight’s Cellcom brand, the leading cell provider in northeastern Wisconsin. “They were having trouble operating the network efficiently and profitably,” says Robert Webb, Nsight’s vice president of fixed operations and technical projects. Today, Cellcom sells a “Quad Play” package – cell phone, TV, telephone and Internet service – to a market of about 4,000 households in the Shawano area, not counting business customers. The network was first conceived as an economic development tool “to create an inviting community for new businesses and opportunities,” he says.

Elsewhere in Wisconsin, tapping directly into a fiber network comes at a higher cost. “We often joke about moving to Shawano,” says Brighid Riordan, Nsight’s director of public affairs, because with fiber, “All of your Internet dreams can come true.” The company even opened a coffee shop in Shawano called Glas (Gaelic for green), the third in a small chain. The other locations, in Sturgeon Bay and Sheboygan, lie on the eastern edges of Nsight’s turf.

Statewide, fiber forms the invisible backbone that carries Internet and phone traffic. Most signals cross over fiber at some point, according to Richard Kelnhofer, an electrical engineering instructor at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. “Even a local call might be going over fiber,” he says, and wireless companies rely heavily on fiber optic networks to carry voice and mobile Internet signals. More and more providers are connecting fiber directly to cell phone towers, to better feed consumer demand for mobile data.

For most Wisconsinites, “fiber to the home” technology remains out of reach. “It’s a fairly expensive proposition,” he says, even as demand rises. Streaming services like Netflix compress their content based on the speeds available, so in most homes, “You’re not getting full HD.” (Matt Hrodey)


Phone Companies That Could

Competitive local exchange carriers can be an alternative for businesses, but residential folks may need to stick with the status quo.

The telecommunications market is a confusing patchwork of acronyms, technologies, end points and outdated legislation. As a field, “it’s social as well as political as well as technical,” says Richard Kelnhofer, an electrical engineering instructor at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. He would know – before joining MSOE, he served as both director of engineering and operations for Norlight Telecommunications (a Midwestern telecom company later acquired by Kentucky Data Link, which was later acquired by the Arkansas outfit Windstream). At the time of this last deal, Norlight was serving about 5,500 business customers in the Midwest, according to Windstream, while doing business in Madison, Milwaukee and Green Bay as a competitive local exchange carrier.

Deep breath. A CLEC is an acronym. It’s also a sort of telecom company. It’s different than an ILEC, an incumbent local exchange carrier. Many years ago, before the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, the telecom landscape was dominated by phone companies that served – and were regulated – as public utilities. These are the ILECs, and many can trace their roots back to the early 1900s. Such companies include not just AT&T but many more covering Wisconsin, both great and small.

OK. ILECs generally own the telephone lines in the areas where they are regulated as the incumbent. This provides them a certain amount of economic influence. CLECs, as registered and approved by the state Public Service Commission, generally piggyback on the incumbent networks via deals that allow them to use the ILEC’s lines to sell services directly to consumers.

Who do CLECs go after? According to Michael Varda, assistant general counsel for the PSC, the margins on business customers are usually much higher than those for residential clients, and this creates openings for CLECs to undercut ILECs and win over big accounts. Such competition on the residential side would involve undercutting “to the bone,” he says, and is far less common.

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The typical CLEC is a small-to-medium-sized telecom company that pitches phone and data service to business clients at competitive prices, and with a personalized touch. Robert Webb, vice president of fixed operations and technical projects for Nsight, a Green Bay company that operates as an ILEC in some parts of the state and a CLEC in others, says that the outfit “competes with premium customer service.” A player in the local market since 1910, according to its corporate history, Nsight plays the role of hometown favorite. “We’ve been in these communities we serve,” Webb says.

The result: A relatively vigorous market for businesses with few choices for residential service. Of the approximately 150 CLECs registered with the PSC, many are located out of state, and some have applied “just in case” a chance to do business here arises, says Varda. The rest are spread in the central, northern and northeastern reaches of the state, and a few, including Windstream-Norlight, maintain offices in the Milwaukee area. (Matt Hrodey) 

Illustration by Thomas James.

Illustration by Thomas James.

Picking Up Speed

We take a closer look at average broadband speeds in Wisconsin and around the county.

The average speed of broadband Internet in Wisconsin is improving. We now rank 16th in the nation, with an average speed of 12.172 megabits per second (Mbps), according to the latest data from the State of the Internet report from Akamai Technologies of Cambridge, Mass.

In 2013, however, Wisconsin ranked only 22nd, at 7.3 Mbps, which prompted concerns that broadband coverage was not widely available. “I really think areas of the state that don’t have adequate broadband are at a disadvantage,” Reed Hall, CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, said in April 2013.

Many factors can impact broadband speed – number of available providers, private sector investments, and broadband speeds in public facilities, to name a few – and the speed of connection can vary wildly, state to state and city to city. (Dan Shafer) 

 

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Dialing In

How to find the fastest/slickest/most reliable cell phone provider for your neck of the woods.

Thanks to a couple of helpful startup companies, selecting a cell phone provider is no longer a matter of selecting the service you’ve heard your friends complain about the least. RootMetrics, the most systematic of these data-crunching firms, sends field analysts to U.S. cities to test coverage in both indoor and outdoor locations. Using a “randomized selection process” and off-the-shelf cell phones, these representatives test texting speeds, Internet connectivity and call reliability, watching for the frequency of dropped and blocked calls.

During the most recent evaluation of the Milwaukee metro area’s top four providers, Verizon and AT&T raced neck and neck to the end with Sprint and T-Mobile posting lesser but still respectable performances. For reliability, AT&T earned a perfect score, 100, as compared to 99.8 for Verizon, 99.1 for Sprint and 94.0 for T-Mobile.

Illustration by Thomas James.

Illustration by Thomas James.

Data speeds in the (relatively) busy metro area weren’t as impressive. RootMetrics rated AT&T and Verizon as statistically equivalent with scores of 94.2 and 93.9, respectively, and all four carriers posted similar ratings for text speed – about 96. The analyst sent to Milwaukee recorded a median download speed for Verizon of 20.20 megabytes per second, more than twice that of T-Mobile and Sprint. AT&T followed close behind with a speed of 16.81 but had a superior texting speed of just 1.88 seconds per message.

Nationally, RootMetrics has found many close matchups between Verizon and AT&T, according Julie Dey, RootMetrics’ vice president of marketing, although “T-Mobile is really coming up. They’ve invested a lot in their LTE network” – their backbone providing “Long-Term Evolution” service, an advanced standard for wireless data service.

Another company, U.K.-based Open Signal, relies primarily on data collected from users of the company’s mobile app to create an international “heat map” of strong and weak connections. (Both Open Signal and RootMetrics host these maps online, rendered down to a street-by-street level for the four leading cellular providers.) The results from Open Signal also slightly favor AT&T in the Milwaukee area, however, “The U.S. does very, very poorly compared to areas like Australia and Hong Kong,” according to Samuel Johnston, the outfit’s brand strategist. Relative to such areas, the U.S. network is underdeveloped and has too few cell towers to handle our insatiable consumption of wireless broadband.

Open Signal has tended to record slightly stronger signal strength from users of AT&T phones, and as in the RootMetrics trials, Verizon phones have posted slightly higher download speeds. Performance depends in large part on those all-important towers linking wireless devices to ground-based networks, and how saturated both have become with local users. (Matt Hrodey) 


Glossary

ILEC: An incumbent local exchange carrier, generally a telephone company with deep roots in its local service area. In keeping with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which attempted to expose such companies to new competition, ILECs are specially regulated by the state Public Service Commission and include the former “Baby Bell” companies.

CLEC: A competitive local exchange carrier is, alternately, a telephone company that competes with established local telephone companies by providing its own network and switching. CLECs arose as a result of that Telecommunications Act and were intended to promote competition.

Wi-Fi: Wireless technology that uses radio waves to allow an electronic device to exchange data or connect to the Internet.

Fiber optics: Hair-thin wired connections that use glass or plastic threads (fibers) to carry digital info over long distances.

Mbps: Megabits per second is the standard unit of measurement for broadband speed, and measures bandwidth on a telecommunications medium. For example, if your broadband speed is 10 Mbps and you are looking to download a 1-GB file, it will take an estimated 13 minutes and 20 seconds.

LTE: Long-Term Evolution. The fastest, most consistent variety of 4G on the market.

4G versus 3G: 4G refers to the fourth (and latest) generation of data technology for cellular networks. So yes, 3G refers to the third generation. Download speeds on 4G LTE networks are four to five times faster than 3G networks, generally clocking in at speeds of between 10 and 20 megabits per second, though they can creep up to (and in excess of) 30 Mbps.

Screen resolutions:

1080p: The standard abbreviation for a “full HD” screen with 1,080 vertical pixels. The “p” denotes progressive scan and not “interlaced,” an older method in which video frames are merged to simulate a higher frame rate.

4K: Roughly speaking, an “ultra HD” screen with 4,000 horizontal pixels. 4K televisions and PC monitors represent the next evolution in fidelity from 1080p and contain about four times as many pixels, or about 26 times as many as DVD-quality video. (Milwaukee Magazine Staff)

‘Wired Milwaukee’ appears in the January, 2015, issue of Milwaukee Magazine. Click here to subscribe.

 

 

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