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Big Red Verizon Really Wants to Own a Cable Company – Charter or Comcast Will Do Nicely

Shhh… Don’t tell anyone except the newspapers, trade journals, everyone else….

Well-placed sources inside Verizon are leaking like a sieve to the media about the phone giant’s ambition to own and operate a large cable company.

In what may be a trial balloon to test the waters with the incoming Trump Administration, at least two “well-placed sources” have told the New York Post Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam is seriously contemplating countering AT&T’s buy of DirecTV and its attempted acquisition of content company Time Warner, Inc., with the buyout of a major national cable operator.

Verizon’s primary interest, according to multiple sources, is expanding available content to fill its current and future wireless platforms, especially 5G. Acquiring a cable operator would make content deals easier and more affordable because of volume discounting. It would also allow Verizon to directly sell cable products and services without investing in further FiOS expansion.

The CEO told friends at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas that he “wants to buy into cable.”

The most likely targets would have to be large cable operators with a national footprint, and a source told the tabloid two companies qualified: Charter or Comcast.

“Altice is too small,” the source speculated. That would also count out other medium-sized companies like Cox and Mediacom, because they have too limited a service area to be of much use to Verizon.

No final decision has been made, the newspaper notes, adding no talks are underway between Verizon and any cable company at present. Should Mr. Trump repeat the earlier objections to the AT&T-Time Warner, Inc., merger he made last October, any marriage of Verizon with a cable operator would be unlikely. Trump cited unchecked media consolidation as his primary reason for opposing AT&T’s latest acquisition deal, but he has not repeated those objections recently. Last week Trump met with AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson in New York.

McAdam originally planned to use Verizon’s acquisition of Yahoo! as a way to broaden the phone company’s content library, but that yet-to-be-finished deal has been in turbulence since media reports exposed major security breaches of Yahoo’s e-mail and portal sites.

A deal with Charter is more likely than a buyout of Comcast because Charter’s most significant shareholder – John Malone, has no allegiance to keeping Charter Communications independent. Charter also lacks the kind of complications that an acquisition of Comcast could bring – notably Comcast’s ownership of NBC and its dozen owned-and-operated TV stations.

Malone has a long history of dispassionately buying and selling large telecom assets, including the cable company Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) he helped build from a handful of cable systems into what used to be the nation’s largest cable operator. In 1999, TCI was sold and rebranded as AT&T Broadband and Internet Services. Three years later, most of those cable systems were again sold to their present owner Comcast.

Verizon may argue it has already divested significant amounts of its FiOS service to Frontier Communications in the Pacific Northwest, Indiana, Texas, California, and Florida, limiting antitrust concerns. But state regulators, particularly in New York, are likely to raise serious objections if Verizon, already the dominant telephone company in New York (except Rochester) attempts to acquire Charter, the only significant cable operator in upstate New York and Manhattan. That would leave the vast majority of New York with a classic telecom monopoly, with only one provider for landline and broadband service.

Wall Street Analyst Craig Moffett Unhappy “Unwelcome” Phone Subsidies Are Back

Moffett

Craig Moffett, a Wall Street analyst specializing in telecommunications stocks, has lowered his opinion of T-Mobile after the wireless company successfully topped analyst estimates of subscriber growth, in part by giving customers a better deal than its competition.

Moffett is concerned T-Mobile’s subsidized holiday price cuts on the latest Apple iPhone and a new flat rate plan delighted customers but threatened profits.

“[…]Even as the wireless stocks were rising in November and December, handset subsidies were quietly making their unwelcome return,” said Moffett in a report to his clients. “T-Mobile’s new ‘All-In’ pricing plan opens yet another front in the battle over service plan pricing, leaving us incrementally more cautious about ARPU (average revenue per user) forecasts for all operators, not least T-Mobile itself.”

T-Mobile has ditched promotions for all of its usage capped data plans and is now advertising T-Mobile One, an “unlimited” (but throttled for very heavy users) data, text, and calls for an all-inclusive price of $40 per line. Customers can still buy a limited data plan, but T-Mobile’s website strongly de-emphasizes that option.

While T-Mobile added 1.2 million postpaid customers in the fourth quarter, exceeding estimates, Moffett isn’t happy with the prices those customers are paying because it may force other carriers to reduce their pricing as well. That hurts everyone… on Wall Street.

T-Mobile USA John Legere has become a perennial and profane thorn in the side of his competitors.

That kind of marketplace disruption the wireless industry could do without, so analysts on Wall Street are taking bets on what company will acquire T-Mobile and get things back to business as usual. Moffett believes all signs point to an unprecedented wave of deregulation, lower corporate taxes, and money-fueled industry consolidation under the incoming Trump Administration.

Sprint is a rumored favorite to acquire T-Mobile, but then so is Comcast, which may seek to enter the wireless space through a large acquisition. Companies repatriating billions in excess funds stashed in overseas banks at the special low tax rate President-Elect Trump is proposing may be what drives the next buyout frenzy.

Today is Last Day to Grab 100+ Channel DirecTV Now Promotional Package for $35/Mo

Starting tomorrow, new customers signing up for AT&T’s 100+ channel streaming television package will pay $60 a month, up from the $35 promotional price AT&T has been advertising during the holidays.

Today is the last day customers can lock in the $35/month price, and those willing to pay in advance will receive either an Amazon Fire TV Stick (prepay one month) or a 4th generation 32GB Apple TV (prepay three months).

Since launching, DirecTV Now has received mixed reviews. Many customers like the wide range of popular cable channels, and access to HBO and Cinemax for just $5 a month each. But early after launch technical glitches also proved frustrating for many subscribers. Among the most common are cryptic error messages that claim viewers are attempting to stream from outside the U.S. and another that claims customers have too many concurrent streams running. Several app updates have been released to deal with the problems, and complaints seem to be easing.

AT&T hasn’t reported how many customers convert from its free trial to become paying customers, but some analysts remain skeptical if customers without cable television care about a streaming package of linear TV, even at the $35 price point.

Fool.com:

When it first launched, Sling TV seemed like it would be a big hit. That has not proven to be the case possibly because the cord-cutting audience has learned to live without cable and the cord-never folks (people who never had cable in the first place) perhaps don’t miss what they never had.

[…] By putting an end date on this promotion, AT&T can gauge whether enough interest exists in live-streaming television for the company to continue. These are products that seem like a good idea, that have so far been rejected by the marketplace.

That may be because even the top packages from the live-streaming services have holes compared to cable. In most cases they are missing at least some broadcast networks and their interfaces — while not bad for a digital product — are clunky compared to just flipping around with a remote control.

It’s also very possible that cord-cutters and cord-nevers are finding their entertainment elsewhere.

Rutledge: Not worried about the competition

The CEO of Charter Communications continues to consider “cable TV alternatives” like Sling TV and DirecTV Now not much of a threat, because customers appreciate the convenience of having local channels and DVR capability available, and cable operators claim they provide a better set-top box experience.

“I think there’s a lot of reasons why the packages, the big rich packages, will stay together, and why people will continue to pursue their historic [consumer] patterns,” CEO Thomas Rutledge told the annual Citi 2017 Internet, Media and Telecommunications Conference in Las Vegas.

For many ordinary cable TV customers, taking the final step of canceling cable TV has been more psychologically difficult than dropping services like a landline phone because the alternatives available in the marketplace do not yet match the quality and convenience of the cable package.

AT&T apparently also believes a-la-carte cable TV sounds better in theory than practice, considering its marketing efforts have focused on a cable television replacement that most closely resembles traditional cable’s bloated TV lineup. Sling TV’s slim package has not been as successful in the marketplace as some investors had hoped.

For AT&T, there may be more at stake than just a standalone streaming television package. The company announced last week it planned to provide DirecTV Now over its 5G wireless network it plans to test in Austin later this year.

AT&T wants to see how 5G networks manage heavy video streaming traffic, according to a company news release. The development of 5G, which can achieve 14Gbps speeds in lab tests, could be critically important to AT&T’s plan to gradually decommission wired networks in its rural telephone service areas. Should AT&T be able to demonstrate 5G is a more robust replacement for traditional wired communications networks, it could bolster its argument to discontinue wired telephone and broadband service. But it could also mean the eventual end of DirecTV’s costly fleet of satellites in favor of broadband and wireless distribution.

Wall Street: The Time is Right for a Comcast-Verizon Mega-Merger

(Image courtesy: FCC.com)

(Image courtesy: FCC.com)

Many of President-elect Donald Trump’s choices for America’s newest regulators have track records of being so “hands-off,” it is hard to find their fingerprints.

Wall Street expects the Trump Administration and the Republican majority in Congress to eliminate vast swaths of regulatory oversight, perhaps enough to put the federal government’s involvement in commerce at a level not seen since before the Great Depression. UBS analyst John Hodulik believes the Trump Administration will look the other way as an unprecedented frenzy of corporate mergers and acquisitions begins — mergers that would never have passed an antitrust review during prior administrations.

Hodulik might as well suggest the next four years could represent The Great Convergence, as cable and wireless operators merge, potentially leaving the majority of Americans with just one choice for telecommunications services.

“We have long believed that secular changes in technology and usage would lead to the convergence of the cable and wireless industries,” Hodulik said. “The transformation of the internet into a mobile-first platform combined with the rapid migration of video from proprietary networks to digital and the rise in competitive pressure this entails increases the value of an integrated fixed and wireless service to cable providers. Densification of wireless networks required to meet the needs of video-centric subscribers increases synergies of cable-wireless combinations and provides the springboard for 5G-based services. A roll-back of Title II re-classification could further increase incentives for cable.”

Hodulik envisions that a wave of mergers during the first term of the Trump Administration could look like this:

  • Comcast <-> Verizon: Conquering the northeast and mid-Atlantic states, a supersized Comcast would likely be the only telecommunications company offering broadband service in states like New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland with Verizon FiOS just another flavor of Comcast’s coaxial and fiber network. The only remaining competitors of significance would be Frontier Communications in Connecticut and upstate New York and FairPoint Communications in northern New England. Charter Communications would also still provide cable service in New York, Massachusetts, and parts of the Carolinas. Hodulik called the effective monopoly a win-win for shareholders of Comcast and Verizon. Customers are likely to hold a different view.
  • Charter <-> T-Mobile/Sprint or Dish Networks: As the number two player, Charter already envisions offering wireless phone service through an arrangement it has with Verizon. But in a “converged” world, why rent someone else’s network when you can buy your own. Deutsche Telekom has been a motivated seller since AT&T tried and failed to buy T-Mobile USA and Sprint’s largely uninspiring performance may make it an easy sell for Japan’s Softbank. The wildcard: Dish Networks. Charter might want Dish’s huge number of video subscribers to win itself better volume discounts for cable programming.
  • Never forget about Altice, laying the foundation for another wave of buyouts starting in 2017. So far, Altice seems interested in the handful of remaining independent cable companies — Cox, Cable One, Mediacom, and the few others increasingly becoming anomalies in the consolidated cable marketplace. Cox and Mediacom may have to be coaxed to sell much the same way Cablevision was — by overpaying.

Hodulik also believes some side mergers may also turn up, especially a Dish/T-Mobile deal that would bring Dish’s large wireless spectrum holdings into T-Mobile’s network. T-Mobile could also sell Dish programming by streaming it over the internet and/or mobile devices.

Alaska’s Telecom Companies Will Waste $365 Million in Taxpayer Funds Building Duplicate 4G Networks

A new fiber provider is expected to vastly expand Alaska's internet backbone, but there are not enough middle mile networks to allow all Alaskans to benefit.

Quintillion, a new underseas fiber provider, is expected to vastly expand Alaska’s internet backbone, but there are not enough terrestrial middle mile networks to allow all Alaskans to benefit.

A federal taxpayer-funded effort to improve broadband access in rural Alaska will instead improve the bottom lines of Alaska’s telecommunications companies who helped collectively “consult” on a plan that will pay $365 million in taxpayer subsidies to companies building profitable and often redundant 4G wireless networks.

The Alaska Plan, which took effect Nov. 7, is a decade-long effort to subsidize telecom companies up to $55 million annually to encourage them to expand broadband service to 134,000 Alaskan households that get either no or very little internet service today. The Alaska Telephone Association (ATA) — an industry trade association and lobbying group, claims if the plan is successful, only 758 Alaskans will still be waiting for broadband by the year 2026.

But critics of the plan claim taxpayers will give millions to help subsidize private telecom companies that have plans to spend much of the money on redundant, highly profitable 4G wireless data networks that will cost most Alaskans large sums of money to access.

One company — AT&T, which refused to participate in the plan, is still taken care of by the plan, receiving $15.8 million dollars from taxpayers for doing absolutely nothing to improve broadband service in Alaska. The plan directs the money to AT&T to provide phase-down, high-cost support, which drew a sharp rebuke from Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai, who questioned why taxpayers had to subsidize AT&T for anything.

“The order claims this a ‘reasonable’ accommodation but cannot explain why the nation’s second largest wireless carrier needs ‘additional transition time to reduce any disruptions,’” Pai wrote.

quintillionThe biggest weakness of the plan, according to its critics, is its lack of support for middle-mile networks — wired infrastructure that connects providers to a statewide broadband backbone that can manage traffic needs without having to turn to slow-speed satellite connectivity. One of Alaska’s biggest challenges is finding low-cost connectivity with Canada and the lower-48 states. Much of the state relies heavily on GCI’s still-expanding TERRA network, which provides fiber as well as microwave connectivity to 72 towns and villages in rural Alaska. Quintillion, a new player, is working on stretching fiber connectivity through the Northwest Passage. Its forthcoming 30 terabit capacity fiber network offers the possibility of dramatically lower broadband rates and no more data caps, assuming providers have the network capacity to connect their service areas and the nearest fiber access point.

Instead of subsidizing the development of middle mile networks for this purpose, the authors of The Alaska Plan have instead favored wireless connectivity, including the very lucrative 4G wireless networks cellular providers want to expand. By definition, the broadband plan accommodates the limitations of wireless by easing broadband speed requirements for providers. To earn a subsidy, providers need not offer the FCC’s minimum speed to qualify as broadband — 25Mbps.

gciInstead, the ATA managed to convince regulators that 10/1Mbps service was good enough — speed that can be achieved by the DSL service phone companies favor. This is well below Alaska’s Broadband Task Force goal of 100Mbps for every state resident by 2020. Another free pass built into the plan is allowing providers to collect subsidies even when they do not offer 10Mbps because of network limitations, including lack of suitable middle mile networks. In those cases, the only speed requirement is 1Mbps download speeds and 256kbps uploads, the same as satellite broadband providers.

Commissioner Pai complained those are broadband speeds reminiscent of the internet a decade ago and hardly represents a vision for a faster future.

In a rare moment of bipartisanship at a divided FCC, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn joined Commissioner Pai dissenting from Alaska’s plan.

“It is clear that Alaska’s ‘majestic geography’ makes deployment difficult, but without affordable middle-mile connectivity, high-cost program support spent on the last mile does little to improve communications service to Alaskans,” Clyburn wrote. “Commissioner Pai and I supported an approach that would have taken the $35 million a year in duplicative universal service money and use[d] it to support a middle-mile mechanism that would enable many Alaskans in the Bush to receive broadband for the very first time. The status quo is simply not good enough, and the cost of doing nothing is far too high.”

Pai

Pai

Both Clyburn and Pai also complained federal tax dollars will be used to build duplicative 4G wireless networks that will primarily benefit providers. From Commissioner Clyburn’s statement:

We do not subsidize competition. We do not provide duplicative high-cost support to carriers in the same area and we do not subsidize carriers where other unsubsidized carriers are providing service. That underlying principle should be applied here as well. With Alaska’s “sublime scale,” we should instead be directing support to areas that are unserved, not subsidizing competition in areas that already receive mobile service. And just what is the cost to the American consumer of continuing to support overlap in these areas? About $35 million a year!

The companies benefiting from federal tax subsidies include: ASTAC, Copper Valley Wireless, Cordova Wireless, GCI, OTZ Wireless, which covers Northwest Alaska, TelAlaska Cellular, covering Interior and Northwest Alaska, and Windy City Cellular, covering Adak.

Clyburn

Clyburn

Pai called many of the spending priorities a waste of money that will still leave 21,000 Alaskans without 4G LTE broadband and another 46,000 without 25Mbps fixed broadband:

All together these wasted payments total $365 million, or about one quarter of the total Alaska Plan pot. That’s $365 million that could be used to link off-road communities to urban Alaska as requested by the Alaska Federation of Natives, the Bering Straits Native Corporation, the Chugachmiut rural healthcare organization, and many others. That $365 million is more than eight times the $44 million grant from the Broadband Initiatives Program that launched the TERRA Southwest middle-mile network that connected 65 off-road communities in 2011.

With the federal government now pouring federal tax dollars into Alaskan broadband, the state government has been using that as an opportunity to slash state investments in internet access.

A bill from Rep. Neal Foster (D-Nome) to upgrade all rural school districts to 10Mbps broadband for $6.2 million died in committee without any hearings, according to the Alaska Commons. State Rep. Lynn Gattis (R-Wasilla) proposed killing a $5 million broadband grant to schools, and the House Education subcommittee also recommended eliminating the Online with Libraries (OWL) program. Both programs ultimately survived, but not before the state legislature significantly cut the budgets of both programs.

Guttenberg

Guttenberg

State Rep. David Guttenberg (D-Fairbanks) hopes the results from last week’s election in Alaska will allow him to position stronger broadband-related legislation in the state legislature.

Guttenberg wants to reinstate a long-cut Broadband Task Force and Working Group while also creating a public Broadband Development Corporation that would build and own middle mile broadband infrastructure and sell it to telecommunications companies that have refused to build those types of networks on their own.

A lot of members of the ATA are lining up in opposition, the newspaper notes, because they won’t directly own the infrastructure. Guttenberg’s view is that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of deep-pocketed telecom companies.

“If you want to build a strong state, if you want to build a strong community, we need to start putting those pieces together,” Guttenberg said of broadband infrastructure last year. “If you give a kid a laptop or a pad in a school district, it’s pointless if he can’t get online.”

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