At the beginning of May, Highland city leaders spoke a panel of experts on how broadband can positively impact a rural community.
City Manager Mark Latham and the Director of Technology and Innovation Angela Imming were asked to speak about Highland Communication Services, the city's Internet, television and telephone company, at the Broadband Communities Summit on May 2 in Austin, Texas.
Imming and Latham presented as a part of the "Rural Broadband Track" segment of the conference, where they gave an overview of Highland, its development challenges as rural community, and how broadband can be used strategically to overcome those challenges.
During the presentation, Imming also relayed some preliminary results from a survey recently conducted by HCS. Though the final results had not been gathered, Imming was able to present some points which she said grabbed the interest of the conference attendees.
"I had no shortage of people wanting to talk to me afterward," Imming said.
However, since the presentation, the survey results have been organized and quantified into understandable data. Imming said the results could have an impact on HCS's future. The city has already seen the first of it.
Among these changes have been some rate decreases in high-speed internet plans. The council also approved plan changes to a streaming package provided by HCS, to help give subscribers higher speeds for quality streaming.
"That's the thing about technology — is that at the beginning it costs more, and then as people develop and as tech defines its place in the market, it drives the prices down," Imming said.
About the survey
The survey, which was launched in March, is an extension of the city's effort to develop a road map for the future of HCS, according to Imming. Both HCS customers and Highland residents who do not use HCS were encouraged to participate.
"We just wanted to take the pulse of the customers to see if we are on track," Imming said.
To develop the survey, the city worked with Strategic Network Group, a research firm that has collected data over 15 years across nine states. The company then "decoded" the data and compared Highland to information from 19,000 other respondents, which the company calls the "Digital Economy Database."
Overall, 474 people took the Highland survey. Of these responses, 15 percent of the people were not HCS users. The other 403 people represent about 22 percent of the HCS's current customer base, according to Imming.
"Which is well above what we expected to get," Imming said.
Consumers want higher speeds
Out of the responses received, Imming said a major takeaway was that users want higher internet speeds for a cheaper price.
Recenlty, Harvard University published a study which showed HCS provides the fifth most savings for basic broadband services over its local competitor. However, some of HCS's higher speeds remained higher than some local and regional services.
These results, as well as a recent assessment which compared Highland's speed rates to other local and regional providers, encouraged HCS to lower its rates for its highest speed plan, "The Gig-a-Share," which provides subscribers with a broadband speed of 1 gigabit per second (Gb/s).
The rate was approved at the Highland City Council meeting on May 21.
The council also approved at its June 4 meeting reductions in the rates for 50 and 100 Mb/s Ethernet private lines.
Competition is 'good for Highland'
Imming said the survey shows that, because HCS pushes the competition, Highland's overall broadband speeds are higher than the national average, even with non-HCS users.
"The fact that we compete against Charter has been good for Highland," Imming said.
The current national average for internet speed is 23.6 Mb/s download speed and 9.5 Mb/s upload speed. However, the survey indicates that Highland users have an average download speed of 44.6 Mb/s and an upload speed of 32.3 Mb/s.
The new Federal Communications Commission standard for recommended broadband speed needs to be better than 25 MB/s download speed and 3 Mb/s upload speed. About 68 percent of Highland users are above this mark, whereas outside of Highland, only about 22 percent of users exceed that standard.
"All HCS customers exceed the current FCC minimum," Imming said.
Imming said that the survey indicates that Highland internet speeds remain consistent across all income levels.
"That's not typical. Usually, the lower your income, the lower your speed," Imming said.
Customers want 'speed, reliability and value'
Through the survey, Imming said HCS wanted to track the priorities of their users.
The survey relayed that reliability is the highest priority for broadband users — inside and outside of Highland. Coming in second in Highland was affordability, though internet speed only ranked 7 percent behind. In other communities, broadband speed came in as the second-highest priority, with affordability falling lower on the priority list.
Outside of Highland, data shows that almost half of users have either frequent or occasional problems with internet reliability. In Highland, survey results say that number is around 21.7 percent, whereas about 79 percent of respondents said their service is either very good most of the time or always excellent.
"The satisfaction comparison with speed was very noticeable," Imming said.
Almost 1/3 third of the people outside of Highland think their Internet is not fast enough, according to the survey, whereas only 6.1 percent of Highland users said this.
About 38 percent of users outside of city think their speed is fast enough, with 13 percent saying it is very fast.
In Highland, 56.6 percent of respondents relayed their speed is fast enough, and 24.5 percent said it is very fast.
As for value, the survey indicates that 22.9 percent of users outside of Highland believe their service brings them poor value, 36.6 percent said their value was below satisfaction, 32.6 percent thought their value was acceptable, and only 8 percent thought it was worth every penny.
Looking at Highland users, only 1.1 percent felt their value is poor, 13.4 said below expectations, 56.6 percent said it is acceptable, and 28.9 percent said it is worth every penny.
From these results, the percentages from HCS user responses were:
- Poor value was at .8 percent;
- Below expectations came in a 9.1 percent;
- Acceptable was 57.8 percent;
- Worth every penny was 32.3 percent.
Relocation and use
Imming said another takeaway from the survey was realizing how broadband services impact the likelihood of people to relocate.
From the results, Imming inferred that, without broadband service, one in five households would definitely consider relocating, whereas half express some likelihood of moving.
"This graph right here defines why the city of Highland developed HCS — because people were leaving," Imming said.
Imming said that, in some cases, home internet connection is essential to way of life.
The survey indicated that about 19 percent of Highland broadband users have a home business. Imming also relayed the survey showed that about 60 percent of survey respondents also use their internet to access the workplace, informally telecommute or formally telecommute. About half of these results said they telecommute.
The survey results also touch on how broadband positively impacts some families in Highland, and touches on other forms of usage such as finding employment, and education and training.
“It’s important for Highland to accommodate their residents, whether it be by providing local employment opportunities or by supporting a quality of life that includes working remotely with strong, stable and fast connectivity to the cloud,” Imming said.
Video is changing
Of the many goals of the survey, Imming said they wanted to discover how people are using their linear video services, also known as cable television, and if it is worth it for the city to continue pursuing video.
Imming said that providing linear video is expensive for HCS. Currently, HCS offers about 250 television programs, though she relayed most people watch fewer than 15 programs on a regular basis. She mentioned that moving away from them could be beneficial for the community.
Overall, about 48.4 percent of HCS users utilize its video services. But, she said the way people consume entertainment is changing.
Outside of broadcast television, consumers are using the internet, smart TVs and platforms such as Chromecast, Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, to stream or cast programs to their devices. Currently, Imming said 74 percent of households stream or cast. Of the 274 survey responses who said they use HCS video services, 68 percent said they also stream video content.
Imming said that the survey also relays that 35 percent of the users would be interested in casting or streaming if it is was as easy as regular television.
"So that's making us think maybe we should provide a service of helping people cut the cord," Imming said.
However, about 65 percent of the respondents said they were either neutral, uninterested or not interested at all in streaming and casting. But, the city could begin working on a program to help HCS customers move away from traditional video services sometime this fall, according to Imming.
As an additional move toward the streaming future, the Highland City Council also approved a change to HCS's Streamers Dream package. The plan is catered toward streaming households as it provides 60 Mbps download and upload speeds and standard definition television with local channels.
The plan now allows data additions of 20 Mbps increments for about $10 per add on. Imming said the change was made to help accommodate the growing demand quality streaming services on wireless devices. Currently, 97 HCS customers subscribe to the package.
As for what HCS will look like in the future, Imming said the consumer feedback helped bring up some interesting points.
First, she said the respondents who do not use HCS relayed their desire to have it one day. Recently, the city started to pursue the final build-out stage of bringing its fiber-optic services out to the city limits and its remaining customer base. Imming said they are confident that construction will begin this summer.
Additionally, Imming said that customers hope that the service will remain affordable.
Imming also said that customer responses encouraged the city to take another look at its websites and technology uses so citizens can be better informed.
As another route to new technology, Imming said HCS is looking into household "Telehealth," which is a means to enhance health care, public health, and health education through technology. However, overall, the survey relayed interest about this new technology is lower in Highland than in other communities. But, Imming said as the market grows, HCS will grow with it to bring access to Telehealth for consumers.
The full results of the HCS survey can be found online at the HCS website.