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Despite Net Neutrality, Providers Launch Fiber Spending Spree

Despite claims from some industry-backed researchers and former members of Congress that Net Neutrality has reduced investment in telecommunications, a new research note from Deutsche Bank shows America’s top telephone and cable companies are spending billions on fiber upgrades to power wireless, business, and consumer broadband.

“Telecoms have become much more public signaling their intent to increase fiber investment, with AT&T and Verizon leading the spending ramp,” reports Deutsche Bank Markets Research.

Verizon has been on a fiber spending spree in the northeastern United States, signing contracts with Corning and Prysmian worth $1.3 billion to guarantee a steady supply of 2.5 million miles of fiber optic cable Verizon plans to buy over the next three years. Much of that spending allows Verizon to lay a foundation for its future 5G wireless services, which will require fiber to the neighborhood networks. But in cities like Boston, Verizon is also once again expanding its FiOS fiber to the home service to consumers.

AT&T is committed to connecting 12.5 million homes to gigabit-ready fiber broadband by 2019 — part of a deal it made with the FCC to win approval of its acquisition of DirecTV. AT&T claims it has already connected 5.5 million homes to its gigabit AT&T Fiber network, expected to reach 7 million by the end of this year.

Deutsche Bank thinks providers’ future drive towards 5G service will also simultaneously benefit fiber to the home expansion, because the same fiber network can power both services.

“To support the upcoming innovations such as autonomous driving, IoT, smart cities, the US needs to densify its fiber network,” Deutsche Bank said. “The U.S. fiber penetration rate is 20% vs. 75% for leading OECD countries, which suggests a large gap needs to be closed.”

Altice founder Patrick Drahi (second from left) and Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei (center) visit a Cablevision fiber deployment on Long Island, N.Y.

The bank predicts companies will spend around $175 billion over the next 10 years building out their fiber networks, with most of the spending coming from the phone companies, who may see fiber buildouts as their best attempt to level the playing field with cable operators’ hybrid fiber-coaxial cable networks. As cable operators expand their networks to reach more business parks, they have been gradually stealing market share for phone and data services from phone companies. Consumer broadband is also increasingly dominated by cable operators in areas where phone companies still rely on selling DSL services.

FierceCable notes Comcast and Altice have stepped up aggressive spending on fiber networks for their consumer and business customers. Altice is planning to decommission Cablevision’s existing coaxial cable network and move customers to fiber-to-the-home service. Comcast is deploying fiber services while still selling traditional cable broadband upgraded to DOCSIS 3.1, which supports substantially faster broadband speeds. The two networks co-exist side-by-side. Customer need dictates which network Comcast will use to supply service.

Customers benefit differently in each state, depending on what type of service is available. Comcast’s large footprint in Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia, is usually served by traditional coaxial cable. Verizon still sells DSL in much of the state. In Massachusetts, Verizon is building out its FiOS network to serve metro Boston while Comcast will depend on DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades to speed up its internet service. In New Jersey, long a battleground for Verizon’s FiOS service the company stopped aggressively expanding several years ago, Comcast has announced DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades for the entire state.

Independent phone companies are also seeing a bleak future without fiber upgrades. Both CenturyLink and Windstream are planning moderately aggressive fiber expansion, particularly in urban service areas and where they face fierce cable competition. Frontier continues its more modest approach to fiber expansion, usually placing fiber in new housing developments and in places where its copper facilities have been severely damaged or have to be relocated because of infrastructure projects.

None of the companies have cited Net Neutrality as a factor in their future broadband expansion plans. In fact, fiber networks have opened the door to new business opportunities to the companies installing them, and the high-capacity networks are likely to further reduce traffic/transit costs, while boosting speeds. That undercuts the business model of selling digital slow and fast lanes.

Who Will Buy Charter? Altice, Comcast, SoftBank, or None of the Above?

The French press did not take kindly to comments from MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett, who suggested Altice’s ability to swallow up Charter Communications in a deal worth at least $185 billion dollars was “not credible.”

Panelists appearing on French language business news channel BFM TV chuckled at Mr. Moffett’s ability to predict Altice chairman Patrick Drahi’s next move.

“Mr. Moffett does not know Mr. Drahi like we’ve come to know Mr. Drahi,” noted one analyst. “We’ve learned not to underestimate his ability to put together business deals that some would call bold, others financially reckless, yet he does it again and again. If Mr. Drahi wants [Charter], he shall have it.”

French business reporters have scoffed at Altice for years, well before the company arrived in the United States to acquire Cablevision and Suddenlink and rebrand them as Altice.

“When you don’t take him seriously, that is when he strikes,” reported BFM.

Drahi is a master of using other people’s money to finance massive telecommunications deals. For him, bigger is essential, and that means he’d either have to acquire Comcast or Charter or hope to build a cable empire out of smaller cable companies he’d acquire and combine.

Drahi (center)

Multiple independent media outlets are tracking Drahi’s movements. Le Figaro reports Drahi has spent months laying the groundwork for his next big takeover in the United States and the newspaper knew all along it would be a major deal, because Drahi is banking on the prospects of emptying the pockets of millions of American cable subscribers to fund his operations. Americans pay vastly more for cable television and broadband service than consumers in Europe because of a lack of regulation and competition.

The newspaper adds that Drahi routinely tells investors and reporters he wants to be “number one or two” in all countries where he does business. Right now Altice is the fourth largest cable operator in the United States, an absolutely intolerable situation for Mr. Drahi.

Drahi is well aware of the enormous cost of a Charter acquisition, and Bloomberg News reports he is considering asking the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board and BC Partners to help fund the potential merger. Both groups are already familiar with Mr. Drahi and Altice and were instrumental in his acquisition of Cablevision and Suddenlink. Despite the potential help, Moffett still believes Charter is well outside of Altice’s reach.

“None of the proposed suitors—Verizon, SoftBank, Altice—have the balance sheet to acquire Charter,” Moffett wrote his investor clients in a research note. He notes Greg Maffei, chairman of Liberty Broadband, is unconvinced of the wisdom of allowing a buyer to use its other highly leveraged companies as compensation in a merger deal.

Moffett believes the deal has to make sense to two people to proceed – John Malone, Charter’s largest shareholder and ironically Drahi’s mentor and Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge, who was America’s highest paid executive in 2016. He stands to get considerably richer if he can fend off a deal until he achieves tens of millions in stock option awards, first when Charter’s average share price tops $455.66 a share and stays there for at least 60 days and then again when the share price exceeds $564 a share and stays there for 60 days. This morning, Charter Communications was selling at just over $399 a share. All of the merger and acquisition talk is helping boost Charter’s stock price, but Rutledge doesn’t want the company sold until after he can walk out with his compensation package fully funded or finds a buyer willing to make him whole.

As for Malone, he’s always been willing to cash out, but only when the deal makes financial sense to him and avoids taxes.

“Let’s put a finer point on it,” Moffett added. “The ONLY reason [Liberty Media chief] John Malone would be willing to swap his equity in Charter for equity in Altice would be if he believed, with real conviction, that Altice could simply manage the asset better than Charter’s current management.  It is not a knock on Altice to suggest that there is simply no way that Liberty would believe that. Next.”

But then, Time Warner Cable’s management didn’t take an acquisition offer from Charter Communications seriously either when it was first proposed. Time Warner Cable believed selling to Comcast made better sense to shareholders and executives. Like Altice, Charter was a much smaller cable operator proposing to buy a much larger one. In the end, regulators rejected the deal with Comcast and with Wall Street beating the drum for someone to acquire Time Warner Cable, Charter’s sweetened second offer was readily accepted.

Charter’s biggest downside to a potential acquirer is the $60 billion in debt it took on buying Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Debt at SoftBank also makes Moffett skeptical of a deal between Sprint and Charter.

“They [SoftBank] already sit on $135 billion of debt,” Moffett wrote. “Add Charter’s $63 billion and you’re within a rounding error of $200 billion. Add any cash at all for Charter’s equity and you’re flirting with a quarter trillion (trillion!) dollars of debt. Were SoftBank to buy Charter, they would become not only the most heavily indebted non-financial company the world has ever seen, they would in fact be more indebted than most countries.”

To avoid crushing debt scuttling a deal, Citigroup speculated in a report to their investors that Comcast and Altice could partner up to divvy up Charter Communications themselves. The Wall Street bank speculates Comcast would help finance a deal if it meant it would take control of Charter’s customers formerly served by Time Warner Cable. Legacy Charter customers and those formerly served by Bright House would become part of the Altice family.

Such a transaction would likely overcome Malone’s objections over an Altice-only offer leaving him with a large pile of Altice USA stock.

Just as with Time Warner Cable, once a company is seen willing to deal, fervor on Wall Street to make a deal — any deal — can drive companies into transactions they might not otherwise have considered earlier. If Charter is seen as a seller, there will be growing pressure to find a buyer, if only to satiate investors and executives hoping for a windfall and Wall Street banks seeking tens of millions in deal advisory fees.

Altice Returns: Patrick Drahi Wants Charter/Spectrum to Be His, Preparing an Offer

Patrick Drahi, Altice, and his friends at Goldman Sachs are depicted as working together to make Altice’s acquisition dreams come true.

Patrick Drahi rarely gives up on his dreams. His latest is to be America’s biggest cable magnate, and there are signs he is laying the groundwork to make that dream come true.

CNBC and some French media outlets report Drahi’s Altice NV and Altice USA are assembling their European and North American financiers, attorneys, and dealmakers to potentially make an offer to acquire Charter Communications. If successful, Altice would leapfrog to the largest cable operator in the United States after combining its Cablevision and Suddenlink systems with Charter’s own legacy systems and those it acquired from Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

Any succcessful deal would likely require an offer of $500 a share for Charter stock, which would make the company worth about $200 billion. Because Altice is dwarfed by Charter, it is unlikely Drahi will be able to raise enough cash on his own to make a deal, and Altice is already mired in debt from its ongoing aggressive acquisitions. Drahi’s biggest competitor for Charter is expected to be Japan’s SoftBank, which has shown an interest in acquiring the cable operator to combine with its wireless carrier Sprint.

Altice isn’t likely to encounter the regulatory hurdles that have caused other colossal cable deals like Comcast’s attempt to buy Time Warner Cable to collapse over regulator opposition.  Drahi’s involvement in U.S. cable has been limited to acquisitions of two smaller players – Cablevision and Suddenlink.

Drahi’s strongest arguments to sell investors on the deal are likely to surround his well-known obsession with draconian cost-cutting at his acquired companies. Drahi would certainly offer investors billions in deal synergies and savings, accomplished through dramatic layoffs, scrutinizing costs right down to replacement coffee makers for the break room and copy paper for the office, and sweeping cutbacks on employee and vendor perks. Drahi has also taken a strong stand against Hollywood studios and cable programmers that seek double-digit rate increases for cable programming. In Europe, Drahi is known for terminating costly contracts with programmers and launching alternative channels Altice owns and operates to replace them.

Drahi is also likely to sell regulators on his current plans to transform cable in the United States away from coaxial cable and towards fiber optics straight through to the home. Drahi has already offered to wire all of France with fiber optics and is presently embarking on a fiber upgrade for his Cablevision systems in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. But Drahi’s ambitious fiber plans have been met with suspicion in France where some believe Drahi is all talk and no spending.

He has promised the Macron government he will spend $17.6 billion on building an Altice-owned fiber broadband network in France by 2025 without any taxpayer subsidies. While that sounds laudable, it would mean Altice’s SFR would pull out of the government’s national fiber strategy that depends on different telecom companies building out fiber in different regions of the country.

Drahi is threatening to become a spoiler because before he acquired SFR, the former management cut a deal with Orange – France’s largest telecom company, to jointly build a fiber network for 14 million French households in smaller towns and suburbs. Orange would build and own 80% of the territory, SFR 20%. But because SFR needs access to that fiber network for its own wired and wireless broadband and television services, it will have to pay rental fees to Orange to use the network in most of the territory. Drahi instead wants a 50-50 ownership split to cut costs and Orange has said no. Altice’s plans for its own alternative fiber network would allow it to bypass the Orange-owned network and deliver traffic over its own fiber system. That could mean parts of less-populated France will have two fiber networks to choose from instead of just one.

Drahi

It is an expensive gamble, but investors seem largely unfazed so far, perhaps suspecting Drahi has no intention of actually following through on spending billions on a potentially redundant fiber network in the suburbs and farm country, preferring to believe the threat of doing so will drive Orange back to the negotiating table.

Some American analysts are uncertain whether Drahi can pull off an acquisition deal that would combine Charter, a company many times larger than Altice, with Altice’s much smaller earlier cable acquisitions. Some also suspect he won’t find enough money to attract interest from Charter’s biggest shareholder — John Malone’s Liberty Media and Charter’s current CEO Thomas Rutledge.

But French media has little doubt Drahi can pull it off, especially when he is motivated.

“Patrick Drahi, founder of Altice, has set his limits: he has none,” notes Le Figaro, adding Drahi is a classic industry spoiler, completely happy to blow up cable’s comfortable status quo, even when at risk of attracting the wrath of his competitors.

CNBC reports Altice is preparing a serious offer to acquire Charter Communications. (5:54)

Altice Deploys Gigabit Broadband in Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas

Phillip Dampier July 19, 2017 Altice NV, Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Suddenlink 1 Comment

Altice’s Suddenlink Communications has announced gigabit service for its customers in Batesville and El Dorado, Ark., Maryville, Mo., and Conroe, Tex.

“Today’s announcement is the next step in Altice USA’s Operation GigaSpeed initiative to provide gigabit broadband service to our Suddenlink customers,” said Hakim Boubazine, co-president and chief operating officer of Altice USA, in a statement.

Altice will continue to use DOCSIS 3.0 technology for most of its Suddenlink customers instead of adopting DOCSIS 3.1 in the near future. Because Suddenlink systems are all-digital, Altice is using a significant amount of its available cable bandwidth for broadband services. Customers who don’t want to pay for 1,000Mbps can also choose from 100 and 200Mbps plans, up from 75 and 100Mbps respectively.

These communities bring the number of GigaSpeed enabled cities in Suddenlink territory to 45. Here are the others, below the break:

… Continue Reading

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.”

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