In this episode of the Broadband Bunch, we speak with Mike Render, Founder and CEO of RVA LLC Marketing & Consulting. RVA is known as North America’s premier market research expert tracking fiber broadband deployment and corresponding consumer attitudes.
RVA has a long partnership with the Fiber Broadband Association, providing fiber broadband market research, producing annual North American Fiber to the Home (FTTH) forecast reports and most recently generating The Broadband Experience Index.
Pete Pizzutillo: Thank you for joining us from Tulsa, Oklahoma. Mike, before we get into some of the work that you’ve been doing and some of the interesting metrics and measures that you’re introducing into the marketplace, maybe you can help our listeners understand a little bit about your journey.
Pete Pizzutillo: How did you become the person that you are today and end up leading the RVA team?
Mike Render: Sure. Well, I started out working for… Back in the late 1970s, working in sales early on. Then had an early startup, technical startup opportunity that ultimately failed, but it was a great learning experience. Went to work for a corporation, did market research and then was head of marketing for a firm that did consumer electronic products. About 1990, started my market research firm and I’ve been doing that ever since. Somewhere in the later ’90s, we combined with another market research firm, so I’ve been doing that ever since. Locally, we do research related to many different subjects, diverse. We’re the largest full service market research firm in this region, so we do a lot of that.
Mike Render: But in about 2002, I got involved with the Fiber to the Home Council, now the Fiber Broadband Association, and started doing all their work related to broadband. I had done some before. Williams Communication was a fiber provider, a long haul here in Tulsa that was important back in those times and so forth. But really got involved in 2002, with the Fiber Broadband Association and started working with them, doing many projects for them. And then of course over the course of these nearly 20 years, I’ve done work for many other companies along the way in broadband as well. So, that’s what we’re really known for nationally and internationally is the broadband work we do, which is a big part of what we do.
Pete Pizzutillo: No, that’s great. That’s very helpful. Yeah, if you get a chance, check out his profile on LinkedIn, he’s got a rich background. You have just recently released in conjunction with the Fiber Broadband Association, this 2019 Broadband Experience Index.
Pete Pizzutillo: We are going to dig into that a bit, but first off, what led to this conversation with the Fiber Broadband Association? What was the problem that they were trying to solve that they’ve asked you to do some research and propose a solution?
Mike Render: Yeah, sure. Well, our consumer research that we do for the Fiber Broadband Association, we determined that broadband is really important to people’s lifestyles now. People spend nearly six hours, even at home online, sometimes multitasking, but a lot of time online. They say when you give them a list of features of things people want to look at when they’re moving to a new home, it’s one of the most important items, usually number one. More important certainly than granite counter tops, and even the view out the window and so forth. It’s just such a big part of our lives now, both in terms of entertainment, and work, and doing the tasks of life. So, very important. So, all that’s important.
Mike Render: With that in mind, we felt that sometimes consumers and policymakers and providers just didn’t have a good way to measure broadband. And the Fiber Broadband Association, some people there have been talking about that for a while. Unfortunately, the only measure that many people see is advertised download speed, as the measure they look at when they compare different providers, or compare different types of broadband. So, that was really the reason that this came about. It’s important in people’s lives, and two, people and policymakers, network operators need better ways to determine how to compare these different methodologies.
Pete Pizzutillo: And even more broadly, right? So, there’s a lot of criticism around the FCC reporting about served and underserved communities, right? And that when folks like Microsoft are comparing them to usage statistics, and there are certainly discrepancy between those two parties in their reporting. But it sounds like adding a more robust definition versus something that’s reported and qualitative, something you’re suggesting it’s measurable and objective, gives not only a way to compare existing broadband performance, but also to help highlight the underserved areas.
Mike Render: It can certainly. It certainly could be used in that way as well, to show the index. Geographically, we haven’t done that yet. But to your point, we know that for example, looking at that rural digital divide, people in the rural areas according to our research, actually need broadband more. And it actually makes sense when you think about it. They’re two hours from a mall, they’re two hours from places of work sometimes. It varies, but the need is certainly there for entertainment, for shopping, all those things.
Mike Render: So, the need is certainly there and they more than anyone needs not only the download speeds, but the full range, reasonable latency, upload speeds, reliability, and all those things are important. So, yes, it could be used in a geographic sense as well.
Pete Pizzutillo: Interesting. So, let’s dig into a little bit. You describe the Broadband Experience Index as a multiple measurable performance criteria, to compare consumer experience by broadband type. But help us understand at the highest level what it is, and then maybe dig in a little bit in terms of the dimensions of the index.
Mike Render: Sure. So, yes, we’ve tried to develop an index that one was transparent, that people could see exactly how we were developing it. That was credible, that had as its basis measurements that were based on real surveys and studies and so forth. So, that people could understand it. They may have different interpretations, but it should be something that’s right there for people to see how we got there.
Mike Render: We wanted to use multiple criteria, because again going back to our consumer work, we’ve found that while broadband speed is what most people talk about when they talk about broadband, download speed. It’s actually… The number one issue that people are concerned about is reliability. They’re at home and they need that broadband for work. They need it for school, they need it for just shopping, whatever the purpose is. It’s quite concerning when that broadband is down for periods of time, or they frequently have to make adjustments to try to get their broadband back up, doing rebooting, calling customer service, all those kinds of things.
Mike Render: So, reliability is certainly very important. Download speed is important, but when we do measurements of regression analysis and compare different factors back to satisfaction, upload speed actually currently is a bigger determinant of satisfaction than download speed. And I hypothesize that that’s because people are more constrained with their upload speed currently than download speeds.
Mike Render: So, that’s important. Latency is an issue that not everyone understands, broadband is the amount of data that’s coming down, which is important to make things load and work quickly. But the distance… The time it takes an individual packet to reach one place to another is important also.
Mike Render: And of course as you know, Pete, if it was high latency, this conversation would be difficult.
Pete Pizzutillo: Right.
Mike Render: Like when we see sometimes talking across the ocean and people seem to have to wait a few seconds before they answer. So, those things are important. It’s important for gamers, it’s important for people doing stock trading. Obviously as we get into smart cities and we’re trying to determine an incident up ahead on the road and get that information back to the cars behind, latency becomes very important. So, that was another factor to really look at in this study. So, we wanted to look at all of those.
Pete Pizzutillo: Yeah, so you’re looking at four primary factors, reliability, latency, upload and download. And then you’re looking across a couple of technologies. What are those technologies that you’re investigating?
Mike Render: Sure. So, we wanted to compare it to everything that’s reasonably being used today. And that would be DSL over copper wire, cable modem over hybrid fiber coax, coax in the last leg to the home. A true fiber network, fiber all the way to living units, wireless technologies, which we currently are combining both mobile and fixed wireless, if that’s the source that they have it at their home. And then satellite technologies, using a dish to get the information from satellite.
Pete Pizzutillo: So, what are some of the key findings that people should be thinking about that you guys have uncovered?
Mike Render: We measured reliability indirectly by asking people how many times they have to reboot their modems, how many times they have to call customer service?
Mike Render: But for the other measures, we can actually take a measurement during the survey, excuse me, and take it over… Without them having to write down measurements, as we used to have. We have a speed test built into our surveys, so that we can actually measure download speed, upload speed, latency. And so that’s important. We’re also asking how satisfied they are with these issues. And we take a Net Promoter Score, which is looking at people that are really promoters, give it a nine or a ten on a rating scale, less detractors, those who give it a lower score, and come up with a Net Promoter Score rating.
Mike Render: So, using all that data, then we pulled it together and looking at the actual results by technology.
Pete Pizzutillo: Right. And so I’m looking at the raw data and it’s not just the RVA data that you’re showing here, you’re contracting that to the FCC data, specifically around the performance measurements. What are the observations between what you all are seeing and versus what the FCC is reporting?
Mike Render: Well, we do use the FCC data as well, just to show that they from their own measurements are getting fairly similar information. The note of difference there is that their data tends to be older. For example, currently, or at least at the time we last did the index a couple months ago, 2017 was the last data available from the FCC, and they tend to use a smaller number of providers, mostly tier one providers that they’re measuring. Whereas we are effectively measuring all providers, using a random sample of people across the country. So, we’re measuring people that are getting their service from a Verizon or an AT&T, but also an Ajax telephone company, or a small rural electric, whoever is providing that service.
Mike Render: So, there are some differences that we see in the data.
Pete Pizzutillo: And this is all consumer data. Are you doing any commercial sampling at all?
Mike Render: No. At this point, this is all consumer index. So, looking at these factors from a consumer point of view.