The Year Broadband Access Prices Were "Destroyed"

Major Internet service providers long have argued that demand for very high speed Internet access (50 Mbps, 100 Mbps, 300 Mbps and faster) is limited. For a very long time, those ISPs have had the numbers on their side.

Take rates, a measure of consumer demand for very high speed Internet access services, have historically been rather limited in the United States.

ISPs in the United Kingdom likewise have found demand challenges for very high speed services.

Major ISPs would have been on firm ground in arguing that most consumers were happy enough with the 20 Mbps to 30 Mbps speeds they already were buying, and that demand for 50 Mbps, 100 Mbps, 300 Mbps or 1 Gbps services were largely limited to business users or early adopters.

But something very important changed in 2013, namely the price-value relationship for very high speed Internet access services. Previously, where triple-digit speeds were available, the price-value relationship had been anchored around $100 or so for 100 Mbps, each month.

In the few locations where gigabit service actually was available, it tended to sell for $300 a month.

Then came Google Fiber, resetting the value-price relationship dramatically, to a gigabit for $70 a month. Later in 2013, other providers of gigabit access lowered prices to the $70 a month or $80 a month level, showing that Google Fiber indeed is resetting expectations.

Sooner or later, as additional deployments, especially by other ISPs, continue to grow, that pricing umbrella will settle over larger parts of the market, reshaping consumer expectations about the features, and the cost, of such services.

That price umbrella also should reshape expectations for lower-speed services as well. If a gigabit costs $70 a month, what should a 100-Mbps service cost?

An analogy: in the past, voice service was the basic offer, while “voice mail” was a separate add-on. These days, it is inconceivable that a standard voice service comes without voice mail.

To be sure, instant messaging and over the top VoIP services do not routinely include the equivalent of “voice mail.” But the price-value relationship there also is quite different. People expect to use those services, much of the time, for no incremental cost. So despite the fact that a store-and-forward messaging capability is not available, the retail price also reflects the difference: no messaging, but also no incremental cost.

For a “paid” service, voice mail has to be included in the basic product.

The big change in 2013 was that the high end of the Internet access or broadband access market was fundamentally reset, even if the practical implications will take some time to be realized on a fairly ubiquitous basis.

Google Fiber’s 1 Gbps for $70 a month pricing now is reflected in most other competing offers, anywhere in the United States.

And those changes will ripple down through the rest of the ecosystem. Where Google Fiber now offers 5 Mbps for free, so all other offers will have to accommodate the pricing umbrella of a gigabit for $70 a month.

Be clear, Google Fiber has sown the seeds for a destruction of the prevailing price-value relationship for Internet access.

Eventually, all consumers will benchmark what they can buy locally against the “gigabit for $70” standard. And those expectations will affect demand for all other products.

Where alternatives are offered, many consumers will opt for hundreds of megabits per second at prices of perhaps $35 a month, because that satisfies their needs, and is congruent with the gigabit for $70 pricing umbrella.

One might also predict that, on the low end, 5 Mbps will be seen as a product with a retail price of perhaps cents per month.

Someday, we will look back and likely see 2013 as the year broadband access prices started to be “destroyed” (one way of looking at matters) or “reshaped” (the way Google looks at it).
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