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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.”

As Expected, Altice’s IPO Raising Money for Possible Cox, Mediacom Acquisitions

Altice USA today revealed the terms of its long-expected initial public offering likely to bring more than a billion dollars to the company’s merger and acquisition fund that many Wall Street analysts now expect will be spent to acquire privately held Cox Communications and/or Mediacom.

Cox has long claimed it is not for sale. But Altice founder Patrick Drahi has a history of being willing to overpay for the companies he covets, including Cablevision, which was a reluctant seller for at least a decade before Altice made an offer the Dolan family that founded Cablevision couldn’t refuse.

Telsey Group analyst Tom Eagan told his Wall Street clients he expected Altice would be “active” in American cable consolidation, with Cox and Mediacom systems being likely targets. Other analysts have downplayed potential interest in Cable ONE, another likely target, because of the company’s recent aggressive rate increases and the fact its systems are often in economically depressed areas. An acquisition of Cox and/or Mediacom would make Altice the third largest cable company in the country, but it would still be far behind Comcast and Charter Communications, which hold first and second place respectively.

Any acquisition would likely not get much scrutiny on the federal level by the FCC and Justice Department, and most states would likely give the deal only a perfunctory review before approving it.

Altice USA has applied to be listed as “ATUS” on the New York Stock Exchange.

Cablevision Class Action Lawsuit Filed Over Cancellation Policy

A class action lawsuit has been filed in New York alleging Cablevision’s new owner — Altice USA, illegally changed the terms and conditions of its cancellation policy without adequate notice and was unjustly enriched charging millions for service departing customers did not receive.

New York resident Christopher Krafczek discovered he was still being billed for Altice’s Optimum cable service after canceling his service. He was caught in Altice’s change of its terms and conditions that took effect Oct. 10, 2016, which declared in all-capital letters Altice doesn’t give refunds for customers electing to cancel service before the end of a billing cycle:

Monthly Charges: Your monthly subscription begins on the first day following your installation date and renews thereafter on a monthly basis beginning on the first day of the next billing period assigned to you until cancelled by you. The monthly service charge(s) will be billed at the beginning of your assigned billing period and each month thereafter unless and until you cancel your Service(s). PAYMENTS ARE NONREFUNDABLE AND THERE ARE NO REFUNDS OR CREDITS FOR PARTIALLY USED SUBSCRIPTION PERIOD(S).

Krafczek and his attorneys are taking Altice to court claiming the cable company broke New York’s General Business Law § 349 for deceptive practices and for unjust enrichment. The class action lawsuit claims the cable operator failed to provide proper written notice of the change in its billing practices.

Customers canceling service before the end of a billing cycle can incur $100 or more in charges for cable service no longer received after turning in cable equipment as part of a move or to switch providers.

Altice is likely to claim Krafczek has no standing to bring the case because Cablevision/Altice subscribers are bound by a mandatory arbitration provision in their subscriber agreement. If a customer did not send Altice a written opt-out request within a limited window of time when mandatory arbitration was first introduced, Altice will likely claim that customer cannot sue or participate in a class action lawsuit.

Company officials told the Asbury Park Press last fall subscribers were given advance notice of the change of terms. A spokeswoman told the newspaper Cablevision included the change of terms notice in several monthly billing statements. The spokeswoman also claimed customer service representatives are trained to tell departing customers that billing would continue until the end of the billing cycle, allowing customers to schedule a disconnect at that time.

The case seeks a minimum of $50 or greater in damages for each class member, based on the amount billed after disconnecting service, attorney fees, and punitive damages.

The lawsuit claims customers in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey who voluntarily disconnected cable service between October 2016 and May 3, 2017 paid more than $5 million for service they did not want to continue receiving.

The law firm of Mayer Brown LLP is handling the case.

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