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A Deal With Charter, Comcast Could Further Burden Sprint’s Poor-Performing Network

With Sprint and T-Mobile reportedly far apart in prospective merger talks, Sprint has given a two-month exclusive window to Charter Communications and Comcast Corp. to see if a wireless deal can be made between the wireless carrier and America’s largest cable operators. But any deal could initially burden Sprint’s fourth place network with more traffic, potentially worsening performance for Sprint customers until additional upgrades can be undertaken.

The two cable companies are reportedly seeking a favorable reseller arrangement for their forthcoming wireless offerings, which would include control over handsets, SIM cards, and the products and services that emerge after the deal. Both Charter and Comcast also have agreements with Verizon Wireless to resell that network, but only within the service areas of the two cable operators. Verizon’s deal is far more restrictive and costly than any deal Charter and Comcast would sign with Sprint.

Such a deal could begin adding tens of thousands of new wireless customers to Sprint’s 4G LTE network, already criticized for being overburdened and slow. In fact, Sprint’s network has been in last place for speed and performance compared with AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon for several years. A multi-year upgrade effort by Sprint has not delivered the experience many wireless customers expect and demand, and Sprint has seen many of its long-term customers churn away to other companies — especially T-Mobile, after they lost patience with Sprint’s repeated promises to improve service.

PC Magazine’s June 2017 results of fastest mobile carriers in United States shows Sprint in distant fourth place.

At least initially, cable customers switching to their company’s “quad-play” wireless plan powered by Sprint may find the experience cheaper, but underwhelming.

Sprint chairman Masayoshi Son was initially aggressive about upgrading Sprint’s network with funds advanced by parent company Softbank. But it seems no matter how much money was invested, Sprint has always lagged behind other wireless carriers. In recent years, those upgrades seem to have diminished. Instead, Son has been aggressively trying to find a way to overcome regulator and Justice Department objections to his plan to merge Sprint with third place carrier T-Mobile USA. Likely part of any deal with Charter and Comcast would be a substantial equity stake in Sprint, or some other investment commitment that would likely run into the billions. That money would likely be spent bolstering Sprint’s network.

A deal with the two cable companies could also give Sprint access to the cable operators’ large fiber networks, which could accelerate Sprint’s ability to buildout its 5G wireless network, which will rely on small cells connected to a fiber backhaul network.

Less likely, according to observers, would be a joint agreement between Charter and Comcast to buy Sprint, which is currently worth $32 billion but also has $32.6 billion in net debt. Sprint’s talks with Charter and Comcast do not preclude an eventual merger with T-Mobile USA. But any merger announcement would likely not come until late this summer or fall, if it happens at all.

Wall Street is downplaying a Sprint/T-Mobile combination as a result of the press reports indicating talks between the two companies appear to have gone nowhere.

“We didn’t give a Sprint/cable deal high odds,” wrote Jonathan Chaplin of New Street Research.  “While a single cable company entering into any transaction with Sprint has a strong likelihood of regulatory approval, a joint bid raises questions that add some uncertainty. However, the deal corroborates our view that Sprint isn’t as desperate as many thought and T-Mobile didn’t have the leverage that most seemed to assume.”

Malone

“An equity stake or outright acquisition is less likely in our view, but not out of the realm of possibility,” said Mike McCormack of Jefferies. “In our view, this likely suggests major hurdles in any Sprint/T-Mobile discussions and could renew speculation of T-Mobile and Dish should Sprint talks falter.”

Marci Ryvicker of Wells Fargo believes Comcast will be “the ultimate decision maker” as to which path will be taken. Amy Yong of Macquarie Research seems to agree. “We note Comcast has a strong history of successfully turning around assets and could contribute meaningfully to Sprint; NBCUniversal is the clearest example. But she notes Charter is likely to be distracted for the next year or two trying to integrate Time Warner Cable into its operations.

Behind the cable industry’s push into wireless is Dr. John Malone, Charter’s largest shareholder and longtime cable industry consigliere. Malone has spent better than a year pestering Comcast CEO Brian Roberts to join Charter Communications in a joint effort to acquire a wireless carrier instead of attempting to build their own wireless networks. But both Roberts and Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge have been reluctant to make a large financial commitment in the wireless industry at a time when the days of easy wireless profits are over and increasing competition has forced prices down.

For Malone, wireless is about empowering the cable industry “quad play” – bundling cable TV, internet, phone, and wireless into a single package on a single bill. The more services a consumer buys from a single provider, the more difficult and inconvenient it is to change providers.

Malone also believes in a united front by the cable industry to meet any competitive threat. Malone favored TV Everywhere and other online video collaborations with cable operators to combat Netflix and Hulu. He also advocates for additional cable industry consolidation, in particular the idea of a single giant company combining Charter, Cox, and Comcast. Under the Trump Administration, Malone thinks such a colossal deal is a real possibility.

Vandalism Wiped Out Charter/Spectrum Service for 60,000 in Queens, Brooklyn

Phillip Dampier June 27, 2017 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Video No Comments

More than 60,000 Charter/Spectrum customers were without broadband, television, and phone service for more than 24 hours after vandals sliced through fiber optic cables at four major service hubs at around 2AM Monday morning.

The service outage idled workers in offices, telecommuters, and shoppers at corner stores. ATM withdrawals and credit card transactions were impossible in some neighborhoods.

Police sources told WCBS they believe striking Spectrum union workers are behind the vandalism, owing to the specialized equipment the vandals needed to successfully cut through the fiber cable’s protective sheath. Those responsible also had to know the exact location of the fiber cables and what cutting them would mean for Charter customers across two boroughs.

“We would never condone that, we would never do that,” on-strike Spectrum technician Ray Reyes told WCBS. IBEW Local 3 made it clear it does not condone the destruction of property, despite a strike that has gone on for months with no end in sight.

This is the second major vandalism incident experienced by Charter in metropolitan New York this year. The first, in April, left 30,000 customers without service for hours. Police have no leads in either incident and no one is likely to be prosecuted.

Affected customers will need to contact Charter/Spectrum and ask for a service credit for the outage. No automatic credits are likely to be given.

Area shop owners are upset because they lose money when credit card and ATM transactions are not available. Mike Patel told WCBS his customers were mad about the outage and he lost at least $500 in credit card transactions, forcing him to turn business away.

WCBS-TV in New York reports Charter’s outage in Brooklyn and Queens affected more than 60,000 customers. (1:35)

Ohio’s MCTV Ditching Coaxial Cable and Moving to Fiber-to-the-Home Service

Phillip Dampier June 27, 2017 Broadband Speed, Consumer News, MCTV 1 Comment

Another cable company has announced it won’t be bothering with DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades, deciding instead to ditch its coaxial copper network in favor of fiber-to-the-home service.

Massillon, Ohio-based MCTV announced it will begin gradually replacing its coaxial cable network with a new all-fiber system capable of delivering synchronous high-speed broadband to every customer it serves.

MCTV is a small independent cable company serving more than 47,000 homes and business in Stark, Wayne, Summit, Holmes and Tuscarawas counties in northeastern Ohio, including the cities of Canton, Massillon, and Wooster.

MCTV’s “Excellerate” service will use a Passive Optical Network (PON) to provide customers with 100/100Mbps service. MCTV already uses some fiber in its hybrid fiber-coax network, but what used to be sharing one fiber strand with 500 homes connected via coaxial cable will soon become sharing one fiber strand with 32 homes with no coaxial cable at all.

“At MCTV, we pride ourselves on deploying technologies that are at the forefront of the industry to meet the ever-changing needs of our customers,” said Robert Gessner, president of MCTV. “The fiber-to-the-home technology that we are using to build Excellerate is the latest method to deliver the best Internet experience, both today and in the future.”

Excellerate service is already available to customers in select areas and customers can arrange a fiber upgrade with a phone call to the cable company.

Massillon, Ohio

“The real benefit to our customers will be in the long-term future,” Gessner said. “We are putting in a great, new network that will be upgradeable and expandable to meet the growing needs for internet bandwidth, faster speeds.”

The fiber upgrade will cost approximately $20 million and will not affect customer rates. Both MCTV and Cablevision have announced upgrades to all-fiber networks even as some industry-funded researchers and groups complain that the FCC’s 2015 decision to enforce its authority over broadband using the FCC’s Title II enforcement powers was dampening investment in broadband. Yet smaller cable companies are at the forefront of fiber upgrades, and are also the most vulnerable to an uncertain business climate. Title II appeared to have absolutely no bearing on MCTV’s decision to upgrade.

“We live in an instant society,” Gessner said, noting the company chose to take on this project now before broadband traffic demands put pressure on MCTV’s existing network capacity. “We aren’t operating on a budget or time constraints. I always say I want it to be good not fast.”

French Media: Altice’s Big Bad Wolf Hits the U.S. Running

Phillip Dampier June 26, 2017 Altice NV, Consumer News No Comments

Patrick Drahi is about to take American investors for a ride. Unfortunately, some won’t survive the journey.

“The only merit of American cars is that we can carry corpses in the trunk without having to fold their legs,” wrote French crime novelist Frédéric Dard, as noted in a piece in Les Echoes. Ironically, the French newspaper notes, the transport of “stiffs” is perfectly legal on Wall Street, where the art of the deal is often more important than its outcome for investors that take a bath.

This time, Mr. Drahi is taking advantage of Wall Street’s ability to Think Big with other people’s money. The newspaper notes he is not loading the trunk more than average, at least for the United States. “From Twitter to Snap, investors are used to swallowing the ‘private equity’ snakes as long as it delivers an outstanding success like Facebook from time to time.”

While Europe looks on with astonishment at the audacity of Mr. Drahi’s big splash in the States, the newspaper notes American investors don’t seem to notice Mr. Drahi has popped his trunk open on them even as he showers current shareholders with $1.28 billion in dividend payouts as the company constantly attempts to refinance its enormous debts. Altice’s two biggest financial allies, a Canadian employee retirement fund and BC Partners, seem more than happy unloading half their stake in Altice USA during the recent IPO, transferring their exposure to Drahi’s wily ways to someone else.

In the ultimate example of “heads I win, tails you lose” business practices, Drahi has well insulated himself from his own investors and from any consequences for his future mistakes. Les Echoes notes that as part of the complex backing away of Drahi’s North American partners, 98.5% of the voting rights will be conferred not to the buyers, but to Altice itself. Altice will also collect a breathtaking $30 million in fees from the unload. Not to be outdone, Altice’s top three executives are also constructing an elaborate protective cocoon for themselves. In the event of any damage control that changes Altice’s control of ownership, the three get more than $70 million in bonuses.

The newspaper later wrote Altice’s IPO was the latest example of the complacency of the U.S. stock market.

“Altice does not hide its vocation of feeding the great appetite for concentration of cable in the United States,” the newspaper wrote. “The telecoms tycoon passed the final test of entry into the temple of stock market temples.”

While Drahi promises great upgrades that will require considerable investment, his actual record of spending is more mixed than his ambitious statements would otherwise suggest. Upgrades at his acquisition SFR-Numericable languished for years as the company’s attention was more focused on making additional acquisitions, usually with borrowed cash. More than one million customers left while waiting for upgrades, even as service continued to deteriorate.

Back in France, some shareholders are pushing back over what they feel is Drahi’s personal conflict of interest, which may make him very rich off their money.

Last week, activist fund CIMA, a minority shareholder of Altice’s SFR wireless company, filed a complaint with the Tribunal de Grande Instance (TGI) in Paris, noted Le Figaro.

Altice Name Change Will Personally Profit Drahi

CIMA claimed that by 2018, all of Drahi’s acquisitions will be consolidated under the Altice brand. Oddly, Drahi is willing to toss away the SFR brand, which is widely recognized in France and worth an estimated €904 million, and replace it with Altice — a name hardly known inside or outside of France.

“Altice has no commercial recognition,” says Catherine Berjal, co-founder of CIMA.

But then that misses the fact Altice’s trademark is held personally by Drahi and he won’t be offering it for free. Every company owned by Altice will be required to pay unspecified annual royalties to Mr. Drahi starting three years from now, just to license the use of the Altice name.

Making Someone Else Pay Your Fine

When Altice was caught violating French competition regulations, it was fined €80 million by France’s Competition Authority. SFR shareholders were unpleasantly surprised to discover SFR alone covered the fine, despite the ruling which found Altice and SFR equally liable.

Drahi the Landlord

SFR headquarters, Saint-Denis

Finally, some shareholders are scrutinizing SFR’s sudden decision to relocate its corporate headquarters, despite signing a 12-year lease in 2013 for brand new offices in Saint-Denis, priced at €490 per square meterBerjal notes this sudden move doesn’t make any business sense, until one digs a little deeper.

“Patrick Drahi has decided to break this lease to move SFR into a building that belongs to him personally,” Berjal said, adding the move will result in a spectacular rent increase. “The rent is 725 per square meter [at Drahi’s property], not to mention the contract termination fees that have to be paid [to the old landlord].”

CIMA feels Drahi isn’t exactly representing the best interests of shareholders, just himself.

“The operations mentioned in this complaint were perfectly legal and in compliance with the applicable rules of governance,” countered a spokesman for SFR contacted by AFP.

Drahi’s Ultimate Compensation Package: $43 Billion+

The Wall Street Journal has been tracking Drahi’s dreams of being one of the world’s most richly compensated CEOs, perhaps the richest ever.

Even the most casual investor couldn’t turn a blind eye to Drahi’s original plan for personal compensation, which would have given him $817 million in compensation over five years simply by paying him a management fee of 0.2% of revenues plus a performance fee of 5% of increased cash flows, which was child’s play to accomplish with additional acquisitions or rate hikes. One minority shareholder balked, complaining this kind of compensation was “too easy to achieve.”

Plan “B” could redefine CEO greed for years to come. In addition, to Drahi’s outstanding stock options, worth €55 million at the current stock price, Drahi would keep his 59% ownership of Altice, a stake currently worth €19 billion today. If Drahi manages to triple the share price, his net worth automatically increases another $43 billion dollars. But Drahi is also asking for a bonus: another 30 million shares of Altice stock to be awarded to him automatically. The first 10 million shares automatically are his if he is still alive and breathing at Altice in 2020. Another 10 million shares show up if the share prices doubles by then, and yet another 10 million go into his portfolio if the share price triples by the end of 2021. That represents another €1.1 billion on top of the $43 billion.

That may be why some in the French press have dubbed Drahi the “Big, Bad Wolf.” Les Echoes notes Wall Street has never particularly minded this kind of wolf, as long as it confined itself to eating consumers. But Drahi’s desire to also drain his investors is what the newspaper cautions is a “big bad wolf none would have expected.”

AT&T Fixed Wireless Expands to 8 New States; Up to 10Mbps, 160GB Usage Cap

AT&T Fixed Wireless Internet, intended for rural areas, is now available in eight new states in the southern U.S., joining Georgia:

  • Alabama
  • Florida
  • Kentucky
  • Mississippi
  • North Carolina
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Louisiana

More than 70,000 locations can now subscribe to the fixed wireless service at prices ranging from $50-70 a month. AT&T said it was on track to expand the service to over 400,000 locations by the end of 2017 and over 1.1 million locations by 2020. Later this year, the service will be introduced in rural areas of Arkansas, California, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin.

“We’re committed to connect hard-to-reach locations to the internet. This changes lives and creates economic growth for these areas,” said Cheryl Choy, vice president of wired voice and internet products at AT&T. “We’re excited to bring this service to even more underserved locations.”

An exact list of communities served isn’t available, but AT&T allows potential customers to enter their zip code on its website to determine availability.

AT&T introduced the fixed wireless service in parts of rural Georgia earlier this spring. The plan offers up to 10Mbps of speed with a 160GB monthly data cap. If a customer exceeds that amount, their account is charged $10 for each additional 50GB increment, up to a maximum overlimit fee of $200 a month.

Customers with a DirecTV and AT&T mobile phone subscription can get AT&T’s Fixed Wireless service for $50 a month. Those who don’t have a satellite package but are willing to sign a one-year contract will pay $60 a month. If you want to skip the contract, the price rises to $70 a month. An installation fee of $99 also applies, unless a customer also signs up for DirecTV.

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  • Shari Douglass: What can we do? Do we have a leg to stand on legally? I received the same message Jonathon received. I had a long chat online. With no resolve. I to...
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