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Altice USA: 90% of Our New Customers Want Broadband Speeds 100+ Mbps

Cablevision customers get very attractive promotions in the highly competitive northeastern United States, while Suddenlink customers in more rural areas pay more.

The majority of Cablevision and Suddenlink broadband customers want speeds of 100 Mbps or greater from the Altice-owned cable operators, and average monthly data usage by those customers is now reaching 200 GB per month.

Those statistics were part of a quarterly financial results presentation by Altice USA executives about how the company is doing in the United States.

Altice’s cable holdings include Cablevision, serving a generally affluent customer base in and around the New York City area where Verizon FiOS is its biggest competitor, and Suddenlink, which serves in less competitive markets where local economies are often challenged and phone company DSL still has a significant presence.

Regardless of whether customers receive broadband from Cablevision or Suddenlink, Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei made it clear consumers want faster internet service and are consuming exponentially more data than ever before.

Goei said Altice will continue to increase internet speeds over its existing hybrid fiber-coax network (HFC) even as it builds out its fiber to the home replacement network in some areas. At least 95% of Cablevision customers can now subscribe to 400 Mbps broadband on the company’s legacy HFC network. Around 72% of Suddenlink customers can get similar speeds today. Gigabit speed is available to 29% of Altice USA customers.

Goei said 90% of new Cablevision and Suddenlink customers now choose internet plans featuring 100 Mbps or faster broadband. The average data use of those customers “is now reaching about 200 GB” per month, Goei reported. For customers on HFC systems, Goei said the maximum speed Altice’s implementation of DOCSIS 3 can support is around 600 Mbps, depending on how many customers are sharing the connection. As customers transition to fiber service in the northeast, faster speeds are planned. In fact, Goei wants Cablevision to offer speeds even faster than Verizon FiOS, its chief competitor.

“In terms of the speed capabilities, we’ll have the ability to do higher speeds than the competition,” Goei said.

Altice USA’s fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) deployment is “well underway” in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, with plans to connect several hundred thousand customers to the new network starting later this year. Goei told investors Altice was accelerating the rollout this year with the hope of further reducing network and customer operation costs related to servicing the older coaxial network.

Cablevision and Suddenlink will gradually be rebranded as Altice, and the company has begun familiarizing customers with the new brand name in various ways, including the rollout of its new deluxe set-top box, called Altice One.

“This is our new entertainment platform with an all in one box, including TV, internet, Wi-Fi, integrated apps such as Netflix and a voice activated remote control,” said Goei. “The service includes an improved Wi-Fi experience […] as many TV boxes double up as Wi-Fi repeaters around the home. This is a key part of our strategy of enhancing the customer experience and we’ll have the capacity for ongoing upgrades and the addition of new apps as they become available.”

But that new platform comes at a cost. Currently, Cablevision customers can pay as much as $10 for each set-top box and $5 for a cable modem. Altice One is regularly priced at $25 a month — $10 more for a customer that has one television set-top box and cable modem. That makes Altice’s box among the most costly in the cable industry. The company is trying to hide the cost of its box by bundling it into promotions targeting price sensitive new customers.

In fact, the cost of service is increasingly becoming a factor, especially for Suddenlink customers. Over the last two years, Altice has been “harmonizing” Suddenlink’s rate plans, which used to be set based on the technical capabilities and performance of each cable system. Goei said Suddenlink comprised “five or six different customer bases” — each served by cable systems with different capabilities and rate plans. In the last two years, Suddenlink customers have been introduced to new rate plans, and some are paying considerably higher rates than before, especially for equipment and surcharges.

“All of that activity was probably more than we ever wanted to or anticipated as harmonizing all the different variables is not that easy,” Goei said. “And so we made a very concerted effort to not implement a usual or industry like price increase at the end of 2017, given all the various changes that happened over both customer bases as we harmonized them.” But Goei added the reprieve from rate hikes won’t last forever, promising a “rate event” strategy sometime this year, different from rate changes in past years.

Altice is emphasizing the progress it is making boosting internet speeds at its Cablevision and Suddenlink cable systems.

What Suddenlink and Cablevision charge for service is very dependent on what the competition is offering in Altice’s various markets. Goei paradoxically noted that some of the most attractive rates go to customers living in the most affluent areas of the New York Tri-State Area because of intense competition from Verizon FiOS. Prices have remained so low historically that, in Goei’s view, “it makes it very difficult for third parties to come into these markets” and compete with attractive offers that can match Cablevision. That also explains why Cablevision customers do not deal with data caps while Suddenlink customers often do.

Goei

Conversely, in Suddenlink service areas where less capable competitors exist, prices can be higher and service is considered less affordable. As a result, financial analysts have noted Suddenlink’s broadband growth has been anemic since Altice bought the company, presumably because would-be customers cannot afford the service or have chosen a more economic package sold by the phone company, even if it less capable.

Goei promised Altice would be more “nimble” in the future about targeting pricing in different service areas, taking current conditions on the ground into account when setting rates.

In more general terms, Altice is dealing with the same challenges most cable operators are facing these days. Cord-cutting continues to result in reduced numbers of video subscribers. The company also recently endured a multi-week programming dispute with Starz that cost the company video subscribers in the Cablevision service area. The dispute eventually ended with a new multi-year affiliation agreement that allows Altice systems to carry Starz and Starz Encore networks, on-demand services, and online access for several years.

But Altice clearly sees broadband as its key product going forward, which is why the company is upgrading its Cablevision and Suddenlink systems to support faster internet speeds.

Cablevision, Suddenlink Will Bail Out Altice’s Struggling European Business

Altice’s American cable companies will help bail out the parent company’s struggling French operations.

Cablevision and Suddenlink are coming to the rescue of their parent company Altice in a deal that will transfer $1.5 billion from the two American cable operators to help bail out its struggling European operation, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Founding shareholder Patrick Drahi is splitting his U.S. cable operations away from Altice NV, spinning them off into a new publicly traded company known as Altice USA. But Drahi has also ordered the new U.S. company to pay a one time $1.5 billion dividend, most of which will end up in the bank account of Altice NV to help the parent company reduce its leveraged debts that have been largely responsible for its falling stock price.

While Cablevision and Suddenlink customers can look forward to additional rate increases, shareholders of Altice USA are being enticed to invest with sweeteners including an unexpected dividend payout and a sudden decision by Drahi to forego his usual management fee charged to companies he acquires to acquaint them with the “Altice Way” of doing business. That fee can amount to an initial $30 million payment plus an ongoing percentage (usually 2-3%) of a Drahi-acquired company’s future revenue.

Altice USA believes it can afford the bailout thanks to President Donald Trump’s tax cuts. In addition to using $2 billion of anticipated savings to pay for share buybacks, Altice USA hopes to quickly recoup an additional $1.5 billion from reduced taxes and revenue increases it will earn from customer rate hikes and new broadband customers.

Altice NV, soon to be renamed Altice Europe, was a veritable disaster financially — called the “worst large-cap performer in Europe” in 2017. At the center of Altice’s European operations remains the dismally performing SFR-Numericable, the French wireless and cable company. After Drahi acquired the company, he slashed costs and investments and threatened to lay off one-third of its workforce. Service deteriorated and customers canceled in droves. Investors starting selling their Altice shares around Halloween of 2017, after watching Mr. Drahi pile on unprecedented debt and become convinced Drahi’s highly leveraged company could not succeed.

The Wall Street Journal cautioned potential investors in Altice USA that the new venture will gladly take your money, but give shareholders almost no say in how it will be governed. Drahi has engineered his continued dominance of the new entity with control of at least 51% of voting rights.

Wall Street analysts are largely positive about the deal, noting Altice USA won’t be attached to Altice’s European money troubles and the company will have the ability to extract revenue from its customers with ongoing rate increases.

Altice Customers Lose Starz/Encore Premium Channels in First Programming Dispute of 2018

Phillip Dampier January 2, 2018 Altice USA, Competition, Consumer News, Online Video No Comments

Altice customers woke up on New Year’s Day to discover as many as 17 Starz and Encore premium movie channels missing from their lineup, replaced with little-watched alternative networks like The Cowboy Channel and Hallmark Drama.

It is the first retransmission consent dispute of 2018, and it began as 2017 ended. Altice issued a terse statement:

As of midnight December 31, 2017, Altice USA will no longer carry Starz or StarzEncore programming directly. Despite numerous attempts by Altice USA to reach a deal with Starz for continued carriage in video packages and a la carte carriage, Starz refused all offers, including an offer to extend our current arrangement.

Customers will not get a discount on their cable bill because of the loss of the premium movie networks. Instead, Altice quickly signed carriage agreements with several replacement basic cable networks including Hallmark Drama, Sony Movies, MGM HD, HD Net Movies, Flix, and Cowboy Channel. The last network on the list seemed an odd choice for the New York City market, featuring rodeos and rural living-oriented programming. Some customers were also placated with a replacement subscription to The Movie Channel.

Customers don’t consider the six replacements adequate for the loss of more than a dozen premium-priced movie channels, including STARZ, STARZ Edge, STARZ In Black, STARZ Comedy, STARZ Cinema, STARZ Kids & Family, STARZENCORE, STARZENCORE Action, STARZENCORE Classic, STARZENCORE Black, STARZENCORE Family, STARZENCORE Suspense, STARZENCORE Westerns, STARZENCORE Español and Movie Plex channels, and some plan to downgrade or cancel service.

Altice has played hardball with programmers in the past, especially those that direct-sell their programming to consumers through online streaming. In follow-up remarks, Altice essentially told customers to go and buy Starz directly from Starz itself, and took a shot at the network claiming most of their customers don’t watch their movie channels anyway.

“We are focused on providing the best content experience for our customers and continually evaluate which channels meet their needs and preferences relative to the cost of the programming imposed by content owners,” Altice officials said in a statement. “Given that Starz is available to all consumers directly through Starz’ own over-the-top streaming service, we don’t believe it makes sense to charge all of our customers for Starz programming, particularly when their viewership is declining and the majority of our customers don’t watch Starz. We believe it is in the best interest of all our customers to replace Starz and StarzEncore programming with alternative entertainment channels that will provide a robust content experience at a great value.”

Altice did expand on what it felt were unfair terms being offered to it while consumers could get the same movies and original series for less money elsewhere:

“Since our last contract renewal, Starz began offering a direct to consumer streaming service for $8.99 per month. Given that Starz is available direct to consumer through their subscription service, we have been actively negotiating to reach a deal that makes sense for all our customers, and made numerous offers of increasing value and partnership structures.

Starz wanted an all or nothing-type deal and their insistence on terms would force us to charge customers more than what the Starz OTT product costs — that would not make sense for our customers. Given the limited viewership of Starz amongst our customer base and that consumers can get Starz directly, we believe this approach is in the best interest of all of our customers who otherwise would have seen an impact on prices due to Starz’ demands.

We have simply been seeking to do what Starz itself is doing: support a Starz a la carte product, whether through our sales channels or through their OTT service.

We have reached more than two dozen agreements over the last few months that reflect the company’s commitment to both negotiate fairly and keep costs down for customers. In addition to offers to maintain packaged distribution, we proposed extending our a la carte deal in Suddenlink to include Optimum and Starz refused – this despite the fact that Starz has a la carte only deals with other distributors. We also offered to help sell the Starz OTT service to our broadband customers and they refused. We also offered to extend our current agreements.”

Analysts say it is very uncommon for a cable company to encourage its customers to directly subscribe to a service traditionally sold by the cable operator itself. Altice sought to drive home their view that selling cable programming direct-to-consumers devalues the product for cable operators, especially if the programmer sells it directly to consumers at a lower retail price than a cable operator can can buy at the wholesale rate.

“Despite all of Altice’s assertions to the contrary, the facts in this dispute are simple. Altice wanted a drastic reduction in price that was totally inconsistent with the market and flew in the face of the record popularity of our programming,” Starz said in a statement that did not refute Altice’s cost claims.

Starz offers a 7-day free trial of its streaming app, which offers on-demand access to most titles found on Starz or Encore networks. After the free trial, the service is available for $8.99 a month or $89.99 a year, which offers a 17% discount off the monthly price. The website offers more information about supported devices and streaming policies.

Fierce Cable Predicts 2018 Will Be A Year of Big Cable Mergers

While giant cable company mergers unexpectedly took a breather in 2017, Fierce Cable predicts this year isn’t likely to be a repeat of last year.

“With polls showing Democrats poised to begin sweeping back into power with the 2018 midterm elections, look for cable operators to make hay on the current regulatory climate and start turning their rivals into that most precious of resources: scale,” writes Daniel Frankel.

With time for large cable operators to get easy approval of merger deals from deregulation-minded Republicans potentially running out, 2018 could bring dramatic consolidation in the cable industry, with Comcast a likely buyer and Charter Communications a potential seller… if the offer is good enough.

Many industry observers expected the first year of the Trump Administration to be a banner year for cable mergers, especially with the entry of Altice, a European cable conglomerate known for its willingness to overpay to acquire cable operators. Altice has since run into significant financial challenges and investor blowback, forcing the company to shelve acquisition plans for now and focus on debt reduction and developing a stronger business plan to operate its ailing cable and wireless properties in Europe. Altice USA, which owns Suddenlink and Cablevision, has not shelved its plans to upgrade many of its customers to fiber to the home service, but is also no longer seen as an immediate bidder for Charter, Cable One, or WideOpenWest.

Fierce Cable expects Comcast to respond to AT&T’s merger with Time Warner, Inc., assuming the deal successfully overcomes Department of Justice objections in court, and 21st Century Fox’s asset sales to Disney. Both transactions threaten to consolidate programming production and distribution around an even smaller group of media giants, which could challenge Comcast’s NBCUniversal unit as well as the cost of cable programming networks. Comcast has shied away from acquisitions after an embarrassing failure of its attempt to buy Time Warner Cable a few years ago.

If Comcast wants to build scale, it would naturally target an acquisition of Charter Communications, the second largest cable company in the country. The deal would give Comcast dominance over the New York and Los Angeles media markets and broadband service provision across most major American cities. Comcast could also seek a less controversial acquisition of Cox Communications, one of the few major independent cable companies left. But Comcast could also seek acquisitions in Hollywood to bolster its production capabilities.

Most other cable acquisition options would be considered scraps by the largest operators. Altice could be persuaded to prematurely exit the American market and sell Cablevision and Suddenlink if convinced it has no chance of building adequate scale to stand with Comcast and Charter. Beyond that are smaller rural and regional operators including Mediacom, Midco, WOW!, GTT, RCN, and many others that serve fewer than one million customers.

Company executives may be hoping the objections to the AT&T/Time Warner deal are an anomaly for the Trump Administration. But it’s clear that whatever smooth waters exist for upcoming mergers will get choppy as the midterm elections approach. Should Democrats win back the House and/or Senate, life will get considerably more difficult for future media consolidation deals.

Altice Abandons Fiber to the Home Network Upgrade in France as Major Cost Cuts Loom

In a sign that could spell trouble for Altice’s ambitious plans to scrap Cablevision’s coaxial cable network in favor of fiber to the home service, Altice has announced it is ending its plan to build its own fiber to the home network by 2025 across France.

Instead of building its own network, Alain Weill, head of Altice’s SFR Group said the company would lease space on the government’s own public fiber network now under construction instead.

“With Patrick Drahi… we’ve recently decided to go for a more traditional model… and a collaboration with local authorities,” Weill told surprised French officials.

France considers its forthcoming national fiber network a national priority to help the country achieve the ability to fully compete in the 21st century digital economy. France is treating fiber broadband like roads and bridges — a public infrastructure project necessary to maintain the country’s standing in the global economy. France had relied on private providers like Altice to construct telecommunications networks and as a result fell to the bottom of EU rankings for superfast broadband.

President Emmanuel Macron said relying on the private free market to stimulate France’s digital economy was inadequate because the companies answered to shareholders, not the country. The European Union is on track to bump North America to third place behind Asia and Europe in fiber speed broadband.

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