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Cable Listens to Wall Street: Standalone Broadband Pricing Heading for $80/Month

Phillip Dampier October 18, 2017 Competition, Consumer News 6 Comments

Cable operators that have watched their stocks get pounded after warning their third quarter earnings would reflect an undeniable trend towards cord-cutting are considering dramatically raising broadband-only pricing to $80 or more to protect profits.

Comcast is among the largest cable companies responding to repeated calls from Wall Street analysts to boost broadband pricing, hiking broadband-only rates to around $65 a month after a customer’s $40 promotional pricing offer expires. Charter Communications also hiked prices earlier this year to $65 a month for its entry-level 60 or 100Mbps package, with further rate increases expected in early 2018. But those incremental rate hikes are not enough to satisfy analysts who fear cable’s video earnings losses are already higher than the revenue gained from charging more for broadband service.

In a note to investors, Morgan Stanley said the cable industry’s efforts to jack up prices for those dropping video service have made some progress, noting most companies raised prices by 12% in 2017, establishing a new beachhead rate of $65 a month — the rate broadband-only customers should now expect to pay.

“As video revenue growth is increasingly pressured, leaning on data pricing is tempting to sustain earnings,” said Benjamin Swinburne, a Morgan Stanley analyst in a report.

But recent rate hikes don’t go far enough for some. Prices must rise at least another $15 a month to satisfy Jeffries analyst Mike McCormack and restore industry profits lost from cord-cutting. McCormack notes customers who have not canceled cable television are being insulated from the most dramatic rate hikes impacting cord-cutters, pointing out the average customer with a bundle of services now pays around $49 a month for broadband service — $16 less.

“Cable companies are likely to raise stand-alone broadband pricing in order to combat the EBITDA declines from downsizing,” said McCormack in a report. “This practice is already evident and justified given the lack of a bundling discount. Based on our analysis, we estimate Comcast would need to raise stand-alone pricing to roughly $80 in order to break even from a profitability perspective.”

Swinburne

Jonathan Chaplin, an analyst for New Street Research who has called on the cable industry to double broadband pricing for more than a year, thinks the marketplace is ripe for sweeping rate increases.

“We have argued that broadband is underpriced, given that pricing has barely increased over the past decade while broadband utility has exploded,” New Street said. “Our analysis suggested a ‘utility-adjusted’ ARPU target of ~$90. Comcast recently increased standalone broadband to $90 (including modem), paving the way for faster ARPU growth as the mix shifts in favor of broadband-only households. Charter will likely follow, once they are through the integration of Time Warner Cable.”

Wall Street analysts typically use code language that avoids portraying the marketplace as a monopoly or barely-competitive duopoly, instead preferring to note there is little risk or headwind to prevent operators from boosting prices or using their large market share to their advantage. Chaplin argues that cable television is no longer to profit center it used to be — broadband is.

“In fact, the [free cash flow] lost from subs dropping pay-TV is generally recovered through higher [broadband] pricing,” said Chaplin.

Many analysts also argue that most of the proceeds collected from charging higher broadband prices should be used to buy back shares of stock or returned to shareholders, not used to upgrade or expand service. In fact, Wall Street is currently punishing Altice USA, sending its initial stock price from $30 a share to just $24.49 this week. One of the reasons for the fall is the money its Cablevision unit is spending to replace its coaxial cable network with fiber optics. AT&T’s stock has also suffered as the company continues to spend money on expanding its AT&T Fiber service while combating cord cutting with its U-verse and DirecTV services.

AT&T Loses 390,000 U-verse, DirecTV Subscribers; Denies Cord-Cutting a Factor

Phillip Dampier October 12, 2017 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 3 Comments

AT&T tried to calm investors Wednesday in an 8-K filing with regulators, reporting that although it has likely lost 390,000 DirecTV satellite and U-verse video customers in the last three months, it has gained 300,000 online streaming customers for its DirecTV Now TV service.

The company is required to report materially adverse changes to its business to shareholders, and AT&T elected not to wait until its next quarterly earnings report to divulge the substantial losses in video customers. DirecTV Now gains are not expected to be a significant panacea for investors because AT&T reportedly makes little or no profit from the service since it launched in late 2016.

AT&T avoided blaming cord-cutting for customer losses:

The video net losses were driven by heightened competition in traditional pay TV markets and over-the-top services, hurricanes and our stricter credit standards. The decline of traditional video subscribers negatively impacts our Entertainment Group revenues and margins, resulting in an adjusted consolidated operating income margin that will be essentially flat versus the year-ago third quarter.

Overall, the company confessed it lost 90,000 total video subscriptions once DirecTV Now’s gains were included.

AT&T told investors earlier this year it was substantially cutting marketing of its U-verse video service and began encouraging customers to subscribe to DirecTV satellite service instead. But the satellite TV service is rapidly losing customers as well. Wall Street analysts suggest the only explanation for this is cord-cutting.

“The issue is in the acceleration in cord-cutting, and the prevalence of [online streaming], not each other,” said Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson. “It is becoming increasingly clear that the wheels are falling off of satellite TV” noting that Dish Networks subscriber numbers appeared dismal as well.

Moffett predicted with the ongoing video losses impacting satellite television, he thought it unthinkable the two satellite companies might consider merging.

T-Mobile/Sprint Merger Approval May Depend on GOP Maintaining Majority in Congress

As the wireless industry awaits an announcement that T-Mobile and Sprint have an agreement to merge, some on Wall Street are skeptical the merger deal will win approval, especially if Republicans lose their majority in the House and Senate in the 2018 mid-term elections.

Matthew Niknam of Deutsche Bank has warned his clients any merger deal not approved by next November is more likely to fall apart if  Democrats take back control of Congress:

“There also may be greater incentive for both sides to evaluate a potential deal sooner rather than later, given the risk that deal approval may slip beyond mid-term elections in late 2018 (with the risk that more populist/less corporate-friendly sentiment may become more pervasive in D.C.) In fact, we note that the Democrats’ ‘Better Deal’ agenda (unveiled in July 2017, targeted towards 2018 elections) highlights ongoing corporate consolidation as a threat to U.S. consumers, and proposes sharper scrutiny of potential deals.”

Nikram writes there has not been a lot of interest by cable operators to acquire Softbank’s Sprint, which has been effectively up for sale or merger for at least a year.

Fierce Wireless notes Cowen & Company Equity Research last month suggested the chance of a merger between T-Mobile and Sprint was now 60-70%, down from 80-90% originally. The reason for the pessimism is their estimate that any deal’s chance of winning approval was only about 50%. The odds get even worse if the Democrats start to check the Trump Administration’s power.

Public policy groups and well-compensated industry opinion leaders are already preparing to wage a PR war over a deal that would reduce America’s major wireless carriers to just three.

Professor Daniel Lyons, well-known for writing pro-industry research reports defending almost anything on their corporate policy wish list, is hinting at a possible strategy by the merging carriers by suggesting neither could survive without a merger.

Most analysts predict that with just three national wireless carriers, the U.S. wireless marketplace would more closely resemble Canada — widely seen as more carrier-friendly and expensive.

Wall Street analysts are debating exactly how many tens of thousands of jobs will be lost in a merger, and the numbers are staggering.

Jonathan Chaplin of New Street Research predicts the merger would cost the country more jobs than now exist at Sprint.

He predicts “approximately 30,000 American jobs” will be permanently lost in a merger. Together the two companies currently employ 78,000 — 28,000 at Sprint and 50,000 at T-Mobile.

Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson Research was more conservative, predicting 20,000 job losses would come from a merger. But the impact would not be limited to just direct hire employees.

“We conservatively estimate that a total of 3,000 of Sprint and T-Mobile’s branded stores (or branded-equivalent stores) would eventually close,” Moffett’s report said.

Golden parachutes will make some executives at Sprint and T-Mobile very wealthy if a merger succeeds.

Many T-Mobile and Sprint stores are located in malls and retail “power centers” where maintaining both stores would be unnecessary. Also hard hit would be wireless tower owners and those employed to care for them. Most believe Sprint’s CDMA wireless network would eventually be decommissioned in a merger, and many of its cell sites would be mothballed. Sprint’s biggest asset is its currently unused trove of high frequency wireless spectrum it could use to deploy future 5G services, but those services would likely be provided from small cells mounted on utility poles and street lights.

The biggest winners in any deal will likely be top executives at Softbank, Sprint, and T-Mobile, Wall Street banks providing deal advisory services and financing, and shareholders, who can expect higher earnings from a less competitive marketplace. Fierce competition from T-Mobile and Sprint were both directly implicated for threatening revenues for all four wireless companies, who have had to respond to aggressive promotions by cutting prices and offering more services for less money.

The Trump Administration’s choices of Ajit Pai for Chairman of the FCC and Makan Delrahim as United States Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department are both widely seen as signals the White House is not going to crack down on competition-threatening merger deals. Mr. Pai has recently improved the foundation for a T-Mobile/Sprint merger by declaring the wireless industry to be suitably competitive, something required before seriously contemplating reducing the number of competitors.

Eight Democrats sent a letter to the FCC chairman last week calling on both the FCC and the Justice Department to begin an investigation into the possible merger as soon as possible, citing possible antitrust concerns.

The text of the letter:

Dear Chairman Pai and Assistant Attorney General Delrahim:

We write to ask you to begin investigating the impact of a merger between T-Mobile International and Sprint Corporation. According to Pew Research, over three-quarters of Americans now own smartphones, driven by a 12 percent increase in smartphone ownership among adults over age 65 and a 12 percent increase in smartphone ownership in households earning less than $30,000 a year since 2015. Today, smartphones are not really just phones at all. For many, they are the primary connection to the internet. An anticompetitive acquisition would increase prices, burdening American consumers, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet, or forcing them to forego their internet connection altogether. Neither outcome is acceptable.

We believe that an investigation is appropriate for three reasons. First, aggressive antitrust enforcement benefits consumers and competition in the wireless market. Second, a combination of T-Mobile and Sprint would raise significant antitrust issues and could dramatically harm consumers. Third, although a deal has not been announced, the two parties have made repeated attempts to merge, and current reports suggest they are close to an agreement. Your agencies should be in a position to fully – but expeditiously – investigate and analyze this deal should it occur.

Competition among wireless carriers has lowered prices, increased quality, and driven innovation

Consumers have benefited from competition among the four national carriers, and we have effective antitrust enforcement to thank for that competition. In the summer of 2011, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division filed suit to block AT&T’s proposed acquisition of T-Mobile despite claims that T-Mobile was a weak competitor and, without the deal, remaining options “won’t be pretty.”  The FCC likewise outlined its opposition to the deal that fall. The deal collapsed, but T-Mobile did not. It competed. It spent billions improving its network, and it offered better terms; for example, it eliminated two-year contracts and data overages. It enticed customers to switch providers by paying their termination fees. And, its competitors had to respond in kind. As William Baer, former head of DOJ’s Antitrust Division, has explained, consumers have enjoyed “much more favorable competitive conditions” since that transaction was blocked.  In May 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that cellphone plan prices were down 12.9 percent since April 2016, the largest decline in 16 years, and attributed the drop to “intense competition” among the top cell service providers: Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T.  Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, specifically suggested that it was caused by the “price war that has broken out among cell-phone service providers, with all the big providers now offering unlimited data plans at cheaper rates.”

Further, the fact that T-Mobile and Sprint appear to be each other’s primary competitor raises additional concerns about this potential horizontal merger. That direct competition has particularly benefited lower-income families and communities of color, many of whom rely on mobile broadband as their primary or only internet connection.  Sprint and T-Mobile have offered products and service options that are more appealing to lower-income consumers. For example, T-Mobile was the first major carrier to offer a no contract plan,  and both Sprint and T-Mobile have been leaders in offering prepaid and no credit check plans, which allow people who may have poor credit to obtain a cell plan and ultimately access the internet.

A combination of T-Mobile and Sprint would raise significant antitrust concerns

Not surprisingly, when T-Mobile and Sprint first discussed a merger in 2014, both of your predecessors expressed skepticism. William Baer stated that “[I]t’s going to be hard for someone to make a persuasive case that reducing four firms to three is actually going to improve competition for the benefit of American consumers.”  Similarly, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler simply explained, “[f]our national wireless providers are good for American consumers.”

What is surprising, however, is that a few years later the two companies have revived their merger talks. Whether one looks at cellphone competition as a national market or as numerous local markets, T-Mobile’s acquisition of Sprint would very likely be presumptively anticompetitive. We are concerned that this consolidation would increase prices, reduce incentives to offer new plans, and allow the remaining carriers to curtail their investment in their networks. Further, given both companies’ focus on competing for lower-income customers, the combination of Sprint and T-Mobile could disproportionately harm those consumers. In addition to potentially raising retail prices, the remaining carriers are also likely to increase prices to companies like Straight Talk, which buys bulk access to one or more of the four national carriers and advertises almost exclusively to lower-income communities.

T-Mobile and Sprint will no doubt claim that the merger will leave sufficient competition, increase cost savings, and spur investment. The agencies will need to examine these issues in depth and make the ultimate determination as to whether the effect of such a deal would be to undermine or promote competition. The very complexity of the issues only further justifies the need for the agencies to begin examining the markets and investigating the competitive dynamics sooner rather than later.

Initiating an investigation is appropriate

Although the antitrust agencies often wait for an official filing before opening an investigation, nothing requires this delay. For example, in May, the Antitrust Division announced an investigation of the possible acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times by the owner of the Chicago Tribune.  The two companies in question here have had a longstanding interest in combining, and, according to reports, an agreement between Sprint and T-Mobile may be weeks away.

Beginning an investigation into a merger of T-Mobile and Sprint now will allow your agencies to quickly, but fully, review the agreement if it is announced. Indeed, multiple news sources are reporting that the two parties are close to a deal in principle. The likelihood of the transaction occurring combined with the serious issues that it raises provide compelling reason for DOJ and the Federal Communication Commission to begin investigating the potential transaction.

For the reasons stated above, we urge you to begin to examine this potential transaction now. Competition among four major cell phone carriers has benefited consumers with lower prices, better service, and more innovation. We are concerned that consolidation will thwart those goals. Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)
Al Franken (D-Minn.)
Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)
Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)
Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)
Ed Markey (D-Mass.)
Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)

Cable Operators Talk Broadband Capacity and Upgrades

With many cable operators reporting a need to double network capacity every 18-24 months to keep up with customer traffic demands, the industry is spending time and money contemplating how to meet future needs while also finding ways to cut costs and make networks more efficient.

Top technology executives from five major cable operators answered questions (sub. req’d.) from Multichannel News about their current broadband networks and their plans for the future. Some, like Mediacom, are aggressively adopting DOCSIS 3.1 cable broadband upgrades for their customers while companies like Cox and Comcast are deploying multiple solutions that use both traditional hybrid fiber-coax network technology and, on occasion, fiber-to-the-home to boost speed and performance. But at least one cable company — Charter Communications — thinks it can continue operating its existing DOCSIS 3 network without major upgrades for several years to come.

Cable Broadband Traffic Can Be Handled

“We’ve been on a pretty steady path of doubling our network capacity every 18-24 months for several years, and I don’t see anything that makes me think that will change,” said Tony Werner, president of technology and product at Comcast. “We’ve been strategically extending fiber further into our network to meet customer demand, and that effort, combined with our commitment to deploying DOCSIS 3.1 has given us a network that’s powerful, flexible, and ready for what’s next.”

J.R. Walden, senior vice president of technology at Mediacom was more aggressive.

“We have completed the removal of all the analog channels. That was the big step one,” Walden said. “Step two was to start transitioning high-speed data over to DOCSIS 3.1, so we’re not adding any more 3.0 channels, and reuse spectrum for 3.1, which is a bit more efficient. The whole company is 3.1, all the modems we’re buying since June have been 3.1, so we’ve begun that next transition.”

Walden added Mediacom is also trying to improve broadband performance by reducing the number of customers sharing the same connection.

“We average about 285 homes to 290 homes per node as an average,” he said.

Mediacom is also scrapping older technology on the TV side to open new bandwidth. The cable company is getting rid of MPEG-2-only set-top boxes so the company can transition its video lineup to MPEG-4. But even that won’t last long. Walden admits the company will then quickly start moving less-viewed channels and some premium networks to IP delivery.

Traditional cable broadband service relies on a hybrid fiber-coax network.

In its European markets, Liberty Global has adopted Converged Cable Access Platform (CCAP) equipment across its footprint. CCAP technology saves cable operators space and operates more efficiently, and supports future convergence of technologies that cable operators want to adopt in the future. CCAP has helped Liberty Global deal with its 45% traffic growth by making upgrades easier. The company is also using advanced features of CCAP to better balance how many customers are sharing a connection. The next step is adopting DOCSIS 3.1.

“Seventy to 80% of our plant will be DOCSIS 3.1 ready by the end of next year, giving us a path to even greater capacity expansion allowing us to continue to increase the available capacity across our access network, upstream and downstream,” said Dan Hennessy, chief architect of network architecture for Liberty.

Charter is prioritizing maximizing performance on the network it already has.

“Our priority is to constantly balance capacity against demand. It’s a never-ending quest,” said Jay Rolls, Charter’s chief technology officer. “We watch it very closely, and we’re very pragmatic about it — the volume of tools, metrics and ways to see what’s really happening, and invest accordingly, is really deepening in ways that matter.”

Is Fiber-to-the-Home in Your Future?

While some cable operators like Altice’s Cablevision are scrapping their existing hybrid fiber-coax networks in favor of fiber-to-the-home (FTTH), America’s largest cable operators are not in any hurry to follow Altice.

Comcast has expanded its fiber network closer to customers in the last few years, but sees no need to convert customers to FTTH service.

“I feel pretty strongly that the best path ahead is to leverage the existing coaxial network and DOCSIS resources to the fullest, then inch towards FTTH, over time Why? Because we can. We don’t have to build an entire network just to turn up one customer.”

The next generation of cable broadband service may depend on CCAP – technology that will cut operator costs and lay the foundation for changing the way video and other services are delivered to customers.

Cox has a 10-year Network 2.0 plan that will bring fiber closer to customers, but not directly to every home. More important to Cox is having the option to support symmetrical speeds, which means delivering upload speeds as fast as download speeds.

“We’re also thinking about the fiber investment and fiber deep as it relates to our wireless strategy, enabling some of our customers with a small cell strategy but also positioning ourselves to take advantage of that in the future, as well as thinking about fiber deep to benefit both residential and our commercial customers simultaneously,” said Kevin Hart, Cox’s executive vice president and chief product and technology officer.

Liberty/Virgin Media’s Project Lightning is bringing cable broadband and TV service to places in the UK that never had cable service before.

In Europe, Liberty Global’s “Project Lightning” network expansion initiative is building out traditional cable service in the United Kingdom. Most of the UK never adopted cable service, favoring small satellite dish service instead. Now Liberty Global is putting cable expansion on its priority list. But decades after most North Americans got cable service for the first time, today’s new buildouts are based largely on fiber optics — either fiber to the home or fiber to the neighborhood, where coaxial cable completes the journey to a customer’s home.

Charter admits the technology it will use in the future partly depends on what the competition is offering. Rolls says the company can eventually roll out DOCSIS 3.1, take fiber deeper, or offer symmetrical download/upload speeds presumably targeted towards its commercial customers. But he also suggested Charter’s existing network can continue to deliver acceptable levels of service without spending a lot on major upgrades.

“It’s a rational approach, where we’re trying to balance the needs, the available technologies, and the costs,” Rolls said. But he also suggested DOCSIS 3.1 isn’t always the answer to upgrades. “DOCSIS 3.1 has some pretty remarkable capabilities, but it’s not necessarily a hard-and-fast reason to not take fiber deeper, for instance [allowing for additional DOCSIS 3 node splits]. Different situations drive different capacity decisions.”

Walden agreed, and Mediacom customers should not expect more than DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades for the near future.

“[Fiber deep] is a bit further out, at least as a large-scale type of project,” Walden told Multichannel News. “I think fiber deep for multi-dwelling units, high-density areas and some planned higher end communities doing deeper fiber or fiber-to-the-home [is happening]. But as a wholesale [change] and going to node+0 kind of architecture, I don’t see that in the next two years.”

Are Symmetrical Speeds Important for Customers?

Verizon’s fiber to the home service FiOS uses symmetrical broadband speeds to its advantage in the marketplace.

Many fiber to the home networks offer customers identical upload and download speeds, but cable broadband was designed to favor downstream speeds over upstream. That decision was based on the premise the majority of users will receive much more traffic than they send. But as the internet evolves, some are wondering if cable broadband’s asymmetric design is now outdated and some competitors like Verizon’s FiOS fiber to the home service now use its symmetrical speed advantage as a selling point.

Cox Communications does not think most customers care, even though its network upgrades are laying the foundation to deliver symmetrical speeds.

“It’s a little but further out on the horizon,” said Hart. “The upstream growth rate is ticking up a couple of notches, but not to the tune that we would need significant additional capacity and/or a complementary need for symmetrical bandwidth. [A]t this stage, the symmetrical is a nice-to-have for residential and definitely will be a good option for our commercial customers.”

Rolls isn’t sure if symmetrical speeds are important to customers either and Charter has no specific plans to move towards upload speed upgrades.

“The world of applications and services continues to evolve, obviously, but so far we’ve been able to meet those needs with an asymmetrical topology,” Rolls said. “That said, things like real-time gaming, augmented and virtual reality, and the Internet of Things — some of those will likely drive more symmetry in the network. It remains to be seen.”

Netflix is Raising Their Rates

Phillip Dampier October 5, 2017 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 1 Comment

Most Netflix customers in the U.S. will be paying $1-2 more a month to the online streaming service starting in November.

Mashable reports Netflix is raising prices on its Standard plan (currently $9.99/mo) by $1 and those on its Premium plan (now $11.99) will pay $2 more a month. The basic $7.99 plan remains unchanged for now.

“From time to time, Netflix plans and pricing are adjusted as we add more exclusive TV shows and movies, introduce new product features and improve the overall Netflix experience to help members find something great to watch even faster,” Netflix said in a statement.

Most of the extra money will likely be spent on content creation and acquisition for subscribers. Netflix is expected to spend $7 billion on content in 2018.

Netflix plans are differentiated based on video quality and the number of concurrent streams. Here are the respective features of each plan. Customers and downgrade or upgrade at any time.

Prices reflected are prior to the impending rate increase.

The last Netflix rate increase was announced in 2014, but did not take full effect for all customers until 2016.

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