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Wall Street Grumbling About Estimated $130 Billion Needed for National 5G Fiber Buildout

Wall Street analysts are warning investors that mobile providers like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint will have to spend $130-150 billion on fiber optic cables alone to make 5G wireless broadband a reality in the next 5-7 years.

A new Deloitte study found providers will have to spend a lot of money to deploy next generation wireless service across the United States, money that many may be unwilling to spend.

“5G relies heavily on fiber and will likely fall far short of its potential unless the United States significantly increases its deep fiber investments,” the study notes. “Increased speed and capacity from 5G will rely on higher radio frequencies and greater network densification (i.e., increasing the number and concentration of cell sites and access points).”

Unlike earlier cellular technology, which worked from centralized cell towers that covered several miles in all directions, 5G technology is expected to be deployed through “small cell” antennas attached to utility and light poles with coverage limited to just 300-500 feet. To reach city residents, providers will need countless thousands of new antenna installations and a massive fiber network to connect each antenna to the provider.

Telecom providers seeking financing for such networks will face the same criticism Verizon Communications took from Wall Street over the expense of its FiOS fiber-to-the-home upgrade as well as doubts about the viability of other fiber projects like Google Fiber.

Goldman Sachs told its investors back in 2012 that throwing money at Google Fiber or Verizon FiOS was not going to give them a good return on their investment. That year, Goldman was “Still Bullish on Cable, But Not Blind to the Risks.” That report, written by analyst Jason Armstrong, noted Google’s fiber upgrades would cost billions and only further dilute industry profits from increasing competition.

Goldman Sachs steered investors back to the cable industry, which gets significant praise from Wall Street for its ability to repurpose 20-year-old wired infrastructure for enhanced broadband without having to spend huge sums on a complete system rebuild.

In 2013, Alliance Bernstein continued to slam Google Fiber’s buildout as an unwise business investment:

We remain skeptical that Google will find a scalable and economically feasible model to extend its build out to a large portion of the US, as costs would be substantial, regulatory and competitive barriers material, and in the end the effort would have limited impact on the global trajectory of the business.

For example, making the far from trivial assumption that Google can identify 20 million homes in relatively contiguous areas with (on average) similar characteristics as Kansas City when it comes to the most important drivers of network deployment cost, homes per mile of plant and the mix of aerial, buried and underground infrastructure, and that Google decides to build out a fiber network to serve them over a period of five years, we estimate the [total capital expenditure] investment required to be in the order of $11 billion to pass the homes, before acquiring or connecting a single customer.

Some analysts are even questioning the relevance of 5G when providers investing in the massive fiber expansion required for 5G wireless could simply extend fiber cables directly into homes, assuring customers of more bandwidth and reliability. In many cases, fiber to the home technology is actually cheaper than 5G deployment will be.

VantagePoint released a report in February that called a lot of the excitement surrounding 5G “hype” and cautioned it will not be the ultimate broadband solution:

Undoubtedly, 5G wireless technologies will result in better broadband performance than 4G wireless technologies and will offer much promise as a mobile complement to fixed services, but they still will not be the right choice for delivering the rapidly increasing broadband demanded by thousands or millions of households and businesses across America.

Previous analysis of 4th generation (4G) wireless networks clearly demonstrated how these networks, even with generous capacity assumptions for the future, will have limited broadband capabilities, and inevitably will fail to carry the fixed broadband experience that has been and will be demanded by subscribers accustomed to their wireline counterparts. Although there is understandably much anticipation today about phenomenal possible speeds for 5G wireless networks tomorrow, they will continue to have technical shortcomings that will, like their predecessor wireless networks, render them very useful complements but poor substitutes for wireline broadband. These technical challenges include:

  • Spectral limitations: 5G networks will require massive amounts of spectrum to accomplish their target speeds. At the lower frequencies traditionally used for wide area coverage, there is not enough spectrum. At the very high frequencies proposed for 5G where there may be enough spectrum, the RF signal does not propagate far enough to be practical for any wide area coverage. This is particularly important in rural areas where customer concentration is far, far less than what can be expected in densely populated urban areas where 5G may offer greater promise.
  • Access Network Sharing: This is not a good solution for continuous-bit-rate traffic such as video, which will make up 82% of Internet traffic by 2020.
  • Economics: When compared to a 5G network that can deliver significant bandwidth using very high, very short-haul frequencies, FTTP is often less expensive and will have lower operational costs. This is particularly true when one consider how much fiber deployment will be needed very close to each user even just to enable 5G.
  • Reliability: Wireless inherently is less reliable than wireline, with significantly increased potential for impairments with the very high frequencies required by 5G.

In 2014, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP released a report urging telecom executives to shift their thinking about telecom capital spending away from one that focuses on upgrades to deal with increasing traffic and demand and move instead to a hardline view of only spending on projects that meet Return On Investment (ROI) objectives for investors.

“The predominant task of management is to take a considered view of the future, allocate capital towards strategies that maximize value for the providers of that capital, and manage the execution of those strategies through to the delivery of returns for those investors,” wrote PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. “For too long, telecoms have been on auto-drive for much of their capex. Departments assume if they had the money last year, they are going to get it again this year, under the premise of increasing traffic. But rarely do telecoms truly analyze that spending for its ROI or ask whether the investment should be made at all.”

In short, if a project is not certain to quickly deliver significant ROI, serious questions should be asked about whether that investment is appropriate to undertake. That reluctance is at the heart of Deloitte’s new study.

Deloitte notes if providers cannot overcome Wall Street’s reluctance to support major spending on fiber infrastructure, lack of investment will be even more costly.

It predicts falling short on fiber deployment will cause a dwindling number of broadband provider choices for consumers. Today, fewer than 33% of U.S. homes have access to fiber broadband and only 39% have the option of choosing more than one provider capable of meeting the FCC’s minimal definition of broadband – 25Mbps. As competition declines, the need to further expand is reduced while prices can freely rise.

PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP also recommends cable and phone companies partner with content providers like Netflix or Google, and let those companies take an ownership interest in return for capital investments for fiber upgrades. Those type of solutions also protect Wall Street from a feared price war should alternative providers launch in markets that are barely competitive, if at all.

Lexington City Council, Public Ready to Roast “Spawn of Satan” Spectrum Over the Coals

Finally, a cable company that can bring everyone together, regardless of gender, age, color, or socio-economic status. Rich or poor, urban or suburban, everybody in Lexington, Ky. agrees on one thing: they hate Charter Spectrum.

Tom Eblen from the Lexington Herald Leader savaged the cable company that has alienated so many locals, the city council is looking for a bigger venue to hold their first ever performance evaluation of a telecommunications company. There are doubts the meeting, scheduled for Aug. 24 at the new senior center in Idle Hour Park (seating for 800+), is big enough to accommodate a crowd bearing pitchforks and lit torches.

Lexington chief administrative officer Sally Hamilton tried to keep things sober at the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council work session held last week.

“We have been receiving numerous complaints,” Hamilton said.

Locals have accused Spectrum of being the “spawn of Satan” and are shocked and surprised by how much they miss Time Warner Cable, something few thought could be possible.

Since the “shameful ones” took over, customers are furious about channels that disappear without notice, failing equipment, and enormous lines at the remaining cable stores still open to accept equipment exchanges. Since Charter Communications took control of Time Warner Cable, internet speeds are reportedly dropping while bills are skyrocketing.

As Eblen notes, “It’s like the old days of Ma Bell, which comedian Lily Tomlin, as Ernestine the telephone operator, famously satirized in the 1970s: ‘We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the phone company.'”

The best word to describe local customers’ feelings for their new cable company: contempt.

Some city officials are getting close to agreeing after learning Spectrum is abruptly and unilaterally moving the community’s local public access channels to TV Siberia, where almost no customer is likely to find them:

  • GTV3, used to broadcast city government meetings, is leaving Channel 3 and moving to Channel 185.
  • Fayette County Public Schools will lose Channel 13 and find themselves on Channel 197.
  • The University of Kentucky’s Channel 16 is relocating to Channel 184.

City officials spent money branding and promoting GTV3, which apparently will soon be GTV185, where only the most dedicated channel surfer will likely find it. The city claims Spectrum is thumbing its nose at its franchise agreement. Charter executives know well cities are practically powerless to intervene or have any significant say about how cable companies operate within their borders. Deregulation gives the city very few options to keep Spectrum in line. Officials also admit there is no chance another cable operator will agree to provide service in the area, effectively trapping the community with Charter indefinitely.

All the city can do about the channel repositioning is ask for money from Charter to help pay for rebranding the channel. Lexington officials are requesting $20,000, as per the terms of the franchise agreement. Charter hasn’t sent the check.

“That performance evaluation will allow the public to air their differences,” Hamilton said. “We do not have a lot of rights under the franchise agreement, but we can demand respect.”

It doesn’t seem likely Charter will be a hurry to provide it.

Wall Street Hissyfit: Raise Broadband Prices to $90/Month Immediately! (Or Else)

If the average customer isn’t paying $90 a month for broadband service, they are paying too little and that needs to stop.

That is the view of persistent rate hike advocate Jonathan Chaplin, a Wall Street analyst with New Street Research, who has advocated for sweeping broadband rate increases for years.

“We have argued that broadband is underpriced, given that pricing has barely increased over the past decade while broadband utility has exploded,” Chaplin wrote in a note to investors. “Our analysis suggested a ‘utility-adjusted’ ARPU target of ~$90. Comcast recently increased standalone broadband to $90 with a 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.”

Companies that fail to raise prices risk being downgraded by analysts with views like these, which can have a direct impact on a stock’s share price and the executive compensation and bonus packages that are often tied to the company’s performance.

But there is a dilemma and disagreement between some cable industry analysts about how much companies can charge their customers. Companies like Cable ONE have been aggressively raising broadband prices to unprecedented levels in some of the poorest communities in the country, which worries fellow Wall Street analyst Craig Moffett from MoffettNathanson LLC.

“Never mind that the per capita income in Cable ONE’s footprint is the lowest (by far) of the companies we [Moffett’s firm] cover, or that the percentage of customers living below the poverty line is the highest (also by far),” Moffett told his investor subscribers. “What matters is that there is very little competition in Cable ONE’s footprint. If you want high-speed broadband, where else are you going to go? The unspoken fear among their larger peers is that over-reliance on broadband pricing invites regulatory intervention, not just for Cable ONE, but for everyone.”

Chaplin thinks the risk from gouging broadband customers is next to zero. With cable TV becoming less profitable every day, all the big profits that can be made will be made from broadband, where cable operators often enjoy a monopoly on high-speed service.

According to Chaplin, if customers value internet access, they will pay the higher prices cable companies charge. So what are companies waiting for? Raise those prices!

Lexington, Ky.: “What Abuse Will Be Heaped On Us Next by Charter/Spectrum”

Lexington, Ky. officials are mad as hell about some of the sales and customer service tactics heaped on the local citizenry courtesy of Charter Communications, better loathed as “Spectrum.”

In a letter released yesterday, Lexington’s chief administrative officer Sally Hamilton told the cable company her office mail is running hot and a lot of it is from local residents furious about Charter’s business practices and pricing.

The city now wants Charter officials to turn over company records detailing customer complaints and attend a public hearing to discuss the cable company’s performance since taking over for Time Warner Cable.

Lexington officials are also unhappy that Charter recently laid off 56 customer service employees in its local office.

“The city is left wondering what abuse will be heaped upon it next by Charter-Spectrum,” the letter said. “Because of the public urgency regarding Charter’s actions regarding its Spectrum service, we insist on a swift response to this letter,” Hamilton added.

The Herald-Leader obtained copies of earlier correspondence between the city and the cable company detailing its response to accusations of “shoddy customer service.”

Local residents are unhappy that Charter has dramatically raised rates, shows an unwillingness to negotiate over its pricing, and has removed a number of channels from Spectrum’s basic cable lineup.

The cable company has also been accused of aggressive sales techniques, including using door-to-door agents to browbeat mentally and developmentally impaired people into signing up for cable service, even though they are legally not able to sign contracts. The city is demanding to know how many times that has happened.

Charter is also accused of preventing customers from talking to supervisors, lowering advertised broadband speeds, and no longer accepting returned cable equipment through the mail.

Charter’s June 5 letter assured the city that “quality customer service is of the utmost importance to Charter,” and claimed the company was in the process of spending $3.1 million on local improvements, including 860 new outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots, and low-cost internet access for the poor.

Please Stand By… Charter and I Have a Disagreement

A typical crowd at a Charter/Spectrum store still displaying Time Warner Cable signage. (Image: Sherry T.)

Your patience is appreciated as I spent the last two days more offline than online, courtesy of “problems” with Charter Communications and their confusion factory.

The good news: The local employees I have dealt with have been both polite and professional and are trying to be helpful, and I’ve always recognized this as true with both Time Warner Cable and now Charter.

The bad news: Corporate policies, the merger, and confusion over glacially slow integration of Charter and TWC’s separate billing and provisioning systems can leave customers caught in the middle. Also, despite the well-intentioned assistance provided by the offshore call center workers (Sandheep, Moanwalla, and someone I think was named Sunshine), their abilities to navigate Charter’s own service and provisioning systems properly left plenty to be desired. Much of their efforts had to be redone from the beginning stateside.

Phillip Dampier’s Charter/Time Warner Cable Account — Born 2004, Died 2017.

We will be back with regular articles tomorrow, assuming our internet service is functioning properly, and look for a write-up of my experiences navigating around Charter’s new policies towards their adopted TWC and Bright House customers.

To be sure, I was not alone having problems with Charter. I have never seen such crowds at Charter Cable Stores, where 20 people were ahead of me in line at one location, almost 30 at another. Nearly half brought their equipment back with new, higher bill in hand. They had enough after their bill increased $20-80(!) dollars, all thanks to Charter’s “pro-consumer merger benefits.”

Yes, a higher bill and a package of fewer channels.

It was stunning to think Charter had lost several hundred thousand TWC customers in just three months, but not after what I witnessed yesterday. It is entirely believable they will be losing a lot more, all thanks to higher prices and intransigence on giving loyal customers the kind of deals new customers get.

Charter/Spectrum: Same s***, different name.

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