Tech Break: CenturyLink and Qwest

About a week ago, you may have received a card in the mail from Comcast spreading FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt for the uninitiated) about Qwest’s impending takover by CenturyLink. Vague references were made about being “sold out” to a company that few people in Colorado have heard of, and offers were made for Comcast services to which you don’t subscirbe already. But what is really going on, and what will change when Qwest “goes green” with the CenturyLink takeover?

First, some history. Qwest’s territories were at one time part of the Bell System, the monopoly telephone network that provided non-rural areas with telephone service until 1984, when the government broke everything up. CenturyLink on the other hand was never part of the Bell System; a few years ago Louisiana-based CenturyTel merged with Embarq, a spinoff of Sprint’s wireline phone assets, to form a company whose service area ranges from Las Vegas to rural Texas and North Carolina.

Qwest has for a long time been on hard times due to the mass exodus of wireline telephone customers to cable companies and cell phones, and had been keeping costs low and shopping itself around as an acquisition target for the last few years. CenturyLink saw Qwest as an opportunity to grow, something that is hard to do for a company of its stature, and took it, netting millions of landline, internet and cellular backhaul accounts as well as a Tier 1 Internet backbone in the process.

The first thing the merged entity will likely do is launch promotions on both sides of the company to bring in subscribers and make subscriber addition numbers look good for investors in the company. Qwest’s $15-$20 per month for six months “any speed” promotion, complete with a zero-dollar activation fee and no landline service requirement, is an outgrowth of that goal. If you’re okay with slowish internet service compared to Comcast, jump on this deal or one like it; they won’t last for long.

Next, CenturyLink will raise prices and standardize internet service tiers over its footprint. “Raise prices” is a relative term, however; realistically the company will likely just scale down promotional offers significantly so people are paying list price for internet service (which, due to some behind the scenes price drops a year or so ago, isn’t that expensive) instead of riding the promotional wave. Standard DSL speed tiers will be adjusted on Qwest to more closely follow what CenturyLink provides in its current territories, though Qwest’s zippy VDSL2 tiers may stay put for a bit longer while CenturyLink figures out what to do with them.

The third step in the CenturyLink takeover (if you don’t count rebranding and truck-painting) will be service upgrades in more urban areas where the company has heavy cable competition. Fortunately for Golden residents, this area will almost undoubtedly be one of those upgraded. Expect to see higher speeds across the board as CenturyLink starts selling bonded ADSL2+ instead of last-generation single-line DSL.

Speeds will vary depending on where you are, but they’ll hit 25 Mbps down, 2 Mbps up in some cases, if you are willing to pay for the speed. CenturyLink likes to compete on performance rather than speed where it can economically do so, which is a good thing for performance-minded internet users, but expect to pay as much as Comcast charges for a comparable package when promotions are over.

One big difference between Qwest and CenturyLink is their approach to TV. Qwest has for the last few years relied on DirecTV as the TV part of the “triple play” bundles that they have been selling. CenturyLink sells dish-based service where it doesn’t have the facilities for anything else, however they have been aggressively deploying TV service over DSL and fiber where network capacity has allowed. Their IPTV service, branded Prism, is comparable from a technology standpoint to AT&T’s U-Verse system, which means that video quality may not be the greatest, but service should be reliable and have more features than a standard cable system. Prism will probably get deployed wherever Qwest has VDSL2 up and running first, and as other areas get upgrades service will expand and customers will have another option for getting their TV fix.

All that said, don’t expect CenturyLink to start running fiber to every home and apartment; the Qwest acquisition will saddle them with debt, and there is a lot of systems integration that needs to be done before upgrades in the field will take place. However it’s nice to see that Qwest’s holding pattern of dawdling network upgrades has been broken by the CenturyLink acquisition; your DSL will now be provided by a telephone company rather than a buyout candidate. Until systems integration is complete though, grab Qwest’s insane pricing promotions while they last; having $40 per month in your pocket may be worth the slower speeds that DSL provides versus the nation’s largest cable company.

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