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AT&T’s Vision for HBO: Hook ’em With Freebies, Addict Them Wanting More, Monetize Everything

Phillip Dampier July 9, 2018 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 1 Comment

This isn’t going to be your parent’s HBO much longer.

In a recent town hall attended by 150 employees, AT&T laid out its new vision for the premium network it recently acquired. one almost similar at times to the business plan of a drug pusher.

“We need hours a day,” said John Stankey, a recent transplant from AT&T’s executive suites now tapped to run WarnerMedia — AT&T’s new name for what used to be Time Warner (Entertainment) and owner of HBO. Stankey was complaining that HBO was out of touch with the times, attracting too few viewers to its multiplex of premium channels only a handful of times a week, if that. In a world shared by Netflix, that was not nearly good enough.

HBO, which began life as Home Box Office in November, 1972 is by far America’s oldest cable television channel. Originally a venue for high profile, unedited, commercial-free movies, along with sports and specials, HBO grew into a well-respected producer of high budget (often millions of dollars per episode), cutting-edge original movies and series, showcased to loyal audiences on Sunday nights for years. Series like The Wire, The Sopranos, Sex in the City, Oz and Game of Thrones are well-known across the country, but fewer than half of Americans subscribe to HBO to watch them. HBO has also been the critics’ choice for original content, showering awards on the network in unprecedented numbers for almost 20 years.

Now that AT&T is in charge, that is all about to change, as executives prepare to shift HBO away from “quality over quantity” towards “quality and quantity.” Stankey also made it clear the changes are first and foremost about making money — a lot of it earned by keeping subscribers on HBO property so their viewing habits can be studied and sold.

Stankey

“It’s going to be a tough year,” Stankey warned. “It’s going to be a lot of work to alter and change direction a little bit.”

“It’s not hours a week, and it’s not hours a month,” Stankey said of how long he expects HBO subscribers to spend time watching the service. “It’s hours a day. You are competing with devices that sit in people’s hands that capture their attention every 15 minutes. I want more hours of engagement. Why are more hours of engagement important? Because you get more data and information about a customer that then allows you to do things like monetize through alternate models of advertising as well as subscriptions, which I think is very important to play in tomorrow’s world.”

That will be a major shift for a network overseen top to bottom since 1992 by Richard Plepler, HBO’s chief executive. Plepler expanded on HBO original movies by launching expensive scripted series in the late 1990s that stood out by escaping broadcast television network censorship. But Plepler was very selective about the number of shows on HBO’s schedule, with some series taking years to develop. Under Stankey’s leadership, HBO will now be expected to dramatically expand original content, much like Netflix has done to keep viewers coming back for more.

“As I step back and think about what’s unique about the brand and where it needs to go, there’s got to be a little more depth to it, there’s got to be more frequent engagement,” Stankey said, adding HBO’s brand has to broaden its appeal to new audiences.

That will require a big boost to HBO’s budget. The pay movie channel is already extremely profitable, making almost $6 billion in profits over the last three years. It invested $2 billion in programming development, much less than the $8 billion Netflix is investing in less costly, but more prolific programming. HBO’s business plan depends heavily on American cable subscribers paying $10-15 a month for the network. It also earns money selling its original shows to television outlets in other countries. Its high monthly cost has always limited subscriber numbers, especially these days with cord-cutting and bill shaving. Premium movie channels are often the first networks to be dropped in return for a lower bill.

Plepler

To monetize its subscriber base, HBO either has to cut the cost of the network, transform it into must-have television, or a combination of both. Stankey is unhappy HBO has wavered around 40 million subscribers (out of 142 million American potential households) for years. He told audiences the network has to find ways to move the network beyond its perpetual 35-40% penetration “to have this become a much more common product.”

There was a clear sense of tension between Plepler, who is part of the New York City entertainment scene, and Stankey, a business-focused Texan with decades of experience in the Bell System — later AT&T. Plepler’s deference to Stankey’s new vision seemed uncomfortable at times, as Stankey made it clear who was now in charge:

Stankey: “We’ve got to make money at the end of the day, right?”
Plepler: “We do that.”
Stankey: “Yes, you do, just not enough.”

Plepler’s clearly defined tenure and vision at HBO had not wavered much since taking over in the early 1990s. But that vision was nervously discarded almost immediately as Stankey looked on.

“I’ve said, ‘More is not better, only better is better,’ because that was the hand we had,” Plepler explained. “I’ve switched that, now that you’re here, to: ‘More isn’t better, only better is better — but we need a lot more to be even better.’”

As a result, HBO, which used to be the darling of critics and well-to-do viewers in big cities on the east and west coast is getting a radical makeover. Onlookers can expect a much more aggressive marketing effort and free samples of the service to attract and hold new customers. It will have to keep its pricing closer to the competition, particularly as many consumers already subscribe to 1-2 different streaming services. Then it will have to give people a reason to subscribe to just one more service.

AT&T Agrees to Pay $5.25 Million to Settle 911 Outages

Phillip Dampier July 2, 2018 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Reuters No Comments

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – AT&T will pay $5.25 million to settle a U.S. investigation after two outages in 2017 prevented about 15,000 callers from making emergency “911” calls, the company and a federal regulator said last week.

The Federal Communications Commission said Thursday AT&T had agreed to make changes to reduce the likelihood and impact of future 911 outages and improve notifying 911 call centers of outages.

AT&T said it has “taken steps to prevent this from happening again.”

The FCC said the 911 service outages were the result of planned network changes implemented by AT&T inadvertently interfering with the company’s routing of 911 calls.

The FCC said the March 2017 outage lasted about five hours, resulting in the failure of 911 calls from some 12,600 unique users, while the May 2017 outage lasted 47 minutes, resulting in 2,600 failed 911 calls.

The FCC said during the March outage the company failed to “quickly, clearly, and fully notify all affected 911 call centers.”

AT&T said it had cooperated with the review and agreed that “providing access to emergency 911 services is critically important.”

Several other carriers agreed to settlements after an April 2014 outage affected 11 million telephone users.

Verizon Communications agreed to a $3.4 million fine after a six-hour 911 outage in April 2014 that affected about 750,000 wireless consumers in nine California counties.

CenturyLink agreed to a $16 million settlement in the April 2014 outage.

The FCC said the outages at the carriers in April 2014 resulted in 6,600 missed 911 calls about domestic violence, assault, motor vehicle accidents, a heart attack, an overdose, and an intruder breaking into a residence.

The April 2014 outage was the result of a preventable software coding error at a call management center in Colorado, the FCC said.

In 2015, T Mobile US agreed to a $17.5 million settlement after two 911 service outages nationwide in August 2014. The separate but related outages lasted approximately three hours and affected almost all of T-Mobile’s then 50 million customers.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and David Gregorio

AT&T’s 5G Trials and Tribulations: Fast Speeds for Some, Zoning Concerns for Others

AT&T is continuing its 5G wireless trials in several cities around the country, attempting to determine if there is a business case for wireless home broadband offering speeds up to a gigabit on a shared, next-generation wireless network. While some trial participants are getting blazing fast speeds, some may be out of luck if their homeowner association or apartment owner bans outdoor antenna equipment from being attached to the side of buildings for aesthetic reasons.

More than a year ago, AT&T launched an enterprise 5G trial in Austin to learn more about millimeter wave spectrum and how it could be used to deliver very high-speed fixed wireless internet access. In late 2017, AT&T expanded 5G trials to Waco, Tex., Kalamazoo, Mich., and South Bend, Ind., to test whether the service would work in residential and suburban neighborhoods where tree-lined streets and yards could theoretically block the extremely high and very line-of-sight frequencies AT&T’s 5G service uses.

“My team spent countless hours collecting data and talking to real people who elected to join the trial,” wrote Melissa Arnoldi, president, technology and operations for AT&T, in a blog post. “What worked? What didn’t? What did we need to change? Why was this happening here and not there? Would mmWave spectrum really work to deliver 5G? Did we really just hit that speed in South Bend?”

Part of AT&T’s 5G wireless service trial is taking place in the River Park neighborhood of South Bend, Ind.

What AT&T also learned is to talk about the successes and keep the failures to themselves. In a more recent blog post, Arnoldi shared how the Rubbelke family is benefiting from AT&T’s 5G wireless service at their home in the River Park neighborhood, just to the southeast of downtown South Bend:

Well, for one – it’s providing them with ultra-fast wireless speeds. Just how fast?  At the Rubbelke household, they’re seeing peak wireless speeds nearing 1 Gbps and latency rates less than 20 milliseconds.

Using this emerging technology, Rebecca can easily stream their 3-year-old daughters’ favorite TV show on the tablet. Her husband, Michael, can download textbooks and research materials in an instant for his graduate program. And they can connect with family over video chat without noticeable buffering.

And they can use all of these bandwidth-heavy applications simultaneously and seamlessly—something that would be nearly impossible with current LTE technologies.

Arnoldi’s summary of AT&T’s experiences with 5G are all positive, all the time:

Waco, Texas
Participants: Small and mid-sized businesses

  • Provided 5G mmWave service to a retail location more than 150 meters away from the cell site and observed wireless speeds of approximately 1.2 Gbps in a 400 MHz channel.
  • Observed latency rates at 9-12 milliseconds.
    • Latency impacts things like the time between pressing play and seeing a video start to stream or hitting a web link and seeing a webpage begin to load. For context, MIT researchers discovered the human brain “latency” is 13 milliseconds.
  • Supported hundreds of simultaneous connected users using the 5G network.

Kalamazoo, Michigan
Participants: Small businesses 

  • Observed no impacts on 5G mmWave signal performance due to rain, snow or other weather events.
  • Learned mmWave signals can penetrate materials such as significant foliage, glass and even walls better than initially anticipated.
  • Observed more than 1 Gbps speeds under line of sight conditions up to 900 feet. That’s equal to the length of 3 football fields.

South Bend, Indiana
Participants: Small business and residential customers

  • Observed a full end-to-end 5G network architecture, including the 5G radio system and core, demonstrating extremely low latency.
  • Successfully provided gigabit wireless speeds on mmWave spectrum in both line of sight and some non-line of sight conditions.

But it isn’t all great news.

Line of Sight vs. Zoning and HOA Restrictions

AT&T’s millimeter wave trials are taking place in the 28 and 39 GHz bands that are way above even the 5 GHz Wi-Fi your home router may be equipped with. Anyone who has compared the older 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi band with the newer, but less congested 5 GHz band knows that while 5 GHz can deliver faster speeds with less interference, it is also more distance sensitive than the lower frequency alternative. The more obstacles between your Wi-Fi enabled router and your wireless device, the poorer the results.

A simulated small cell antenna as part of a light pole. (Image courtesy of Crown Castle)

AT&T claims its beta tests are showing “better than expected” results from its 5G service in both line of sight and non-line of sight conditions, but won’t say how much speeds are affected in more marginal reception conditions. AT&T’s 5G antennas are located outdoors, which should offer a clearer path between the transmitter and the receiver, and AT&T claims the signal “performs well” despite foliage and buildings blocking the line of sight between the antenna and a subscriber’s home.

But AT&T itself must not be totally satisfied with the results, because the company told Ars Technica it has begun testing adaptive beamforming and beam tracking to “enable non-line-of-sight 5G services in our trials.” ‘Enable’ in this context suggests that without these adaptive technology add-ons to overcome foliage and building blockages, 5G service did not work well.

Other blockages, those AT&T cannot outwit with technology, are zoning controversies over small cell antennas and homeowner association agreements that restrict outdoor antennas, even though fixed wireless antennas are protected by a FCC ruling allowing them. Despite the fact these antennas are small and unobtrusive — usually installed on an exterior wall near the roof-line — some requests have created controversy in neighborhoods for aesthetic or dubious health and safety concerns.

Even more controversial are the small cell antennas that must be installed inside neighborhoods within 200-800 feet of customers. Some local authorities and homeowner associations may object less to the antenna than to its power supply and battery backup equipment, usually housed inside large-sized metal cabinets placed nearby on the ground or on the pole itself.

In South Bend, AT&T Fiber is on the way in many parts of the city, offering wired gigabit speed service without the limitations of marginal signal reception or fussy HOA agreements and paranoid neighbors. That fact has not been lost on AT&T’s executive management, who remain uncertain about the business case of offering fixed 5G wireless home broadband in areas that will also be served by AT&T Fiber, the company’s fiber to the home service.

In the case of South Bend, AT&T’s trial is taking place in a relatively dense city neighborhood that would normally be a prime target for AT&T Fiber. The cost to provision fiber to the home service in areas already wired for AT&T Fiber may prove a better value for AT&T than contemplating the cost of installing nearly 60 small cells to serve each square mile of South Bend.

AT&T Raising Administrative Fees on Wireless Customers, Helping to Defray Merger Costs

AT&T has some expensive legal bills to pay facing down the Justice Department’s objections to its recent expensive acquisition of Time Warner, Inc. But no worries, AT&T’s wireless customers will be helping to pick up the tab after another major hike in an “Administrative Fee” that will raise at least $800 million a year for the phone company.

BTIG Research analyst Walt Piecyk caught AT&T hiking its Administrative Fee twice during the last quarter, now reaching $1.99 a month, billed to every post-paid wireless customer.

AT&T introduced the fee in 2013, claiming it would cover some of AT&T’s costs connecting phone calls and managing its wireless network. It started at $0.61 a month, then increased at some point to $0.76.

Although AT&T received negative press after introducing the fee, for most customers it is just one of several barely noticed charges applied in a separate section of monthly bills usually reserved for mandatory government fees and taxes. Many customers assume the fees are mandated by local, state, or federal governments, but in fact many are actually conjured up by AT&T and pocketed by the company. Most analysts believe companies create these fees to raise revenue without the perception of raising rates.

“The Administrative Fee helps defray certain expenses AT&T incurs, including but not limited to: (a) charges AT&T or its agents pay to interconnect with other carriers to deliver calls from AT&T customers to their customers; and (b) charges associated with cell site rents and maintenance.” – AT&T

Customers are now noticing the $1.99 Administrative Fee and complaining about it, after the company nearly tripled it over the last three months.

Fees and surcharges paid by a typical AT&T wireless customer in Illinois.

“In April of 2018, the Administrative fee increased to $1.26 and in June it rose again to $1.99,” Piecyk writes. “We believe the increase applies to all post-paid phone lines other than perhaps some large enterprise contract customers. We have confirmed that it does not apply to pre-paid lines after some customer service reps incorrectly told us otherwise last night. We believe this fee is included in AT&T’s reported service revenue and ARPU despite AT&T’s accounting change last quarter, which stripped regulatory fees and taxes out of both revenue and cost of service.”

Piecyk calculates that if 85% of AT&T’s 64.5 million postpaid wireless customers are now charged the fee, it will result in $800 million of incremental service revenue annually.

Piecyk is skeptical AT&T needed the money to cover cost increases.

“It’s hard to believe that interconnection costs have increased in the past six months enough to justify this fee increase,” Piecyk writes. “In fact, wireless operators have been crediting LOWER interconnection costs when explaining why their cost of service was in decline. Not surprisingly, we don’t recall any reductions in Administrative Fees by AT&T or its peers associated with reductions in interconnection expenses.”

Tower fees, also mentioned by AT&T, may have increased slightly, but as compensation for building out FirstNet, a public safety/first responder-prioritized wireless network, taxpayers are reimbursing AT&T $6.5 billion of FirstNet’s construction costs, despite the fact FirstNet will also benefit AT&T’s ordinary paying customers who will share the benefits of AT&T’s network expansion.

AT&T’s Administrative Fee hike will play right into the hands of T-Mobile, which has an advertising campaign blasting other wireless companies for sneaky fees. (0:45)

Delrahim Suggests Justice Dept. Was Outgunned by CNN, Judge in AT&T-Time Warner Merger

Phillip Dampier June 27, 2018 AT&T, Audio, Competition, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Delrahim

The top antitrust regulator in the United States partly blames CNN for helping AT&T and Time Warner outmaneuver the Justice Department and win approval of their merger, despite antitrust objections.

“We have some of the best and most dedicated public servants who tried this case, but we don’t have the same resources available to us,” Makan Delrahim, assistant attorney general of the United States and chief of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division told Marketplace Morning Report. “We don’t have a 24-hour dedicated news channel to go out and spin your case to the American public and judges and others as some merging parties might.”

CNN is owned by Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., a division of Time Warner, Inc.

Delrahim admitted the government “is often the underdog in a lot of these cases, and we’re still considering our next steps and whether or not the government will appeal.”

AT&T and Time Warner clearly do not believe the government will further pursue the case, treating the merger as a done deal as the two companies move forward on combining their assets.

Delrahim complained about the judge handling the case, whose ruling excoriated the government’s case and strongly urged the Justice Department to not contemplate an appeal. In Delrahim’s view, the judge gave favorable weight to evidence from the two companies and dismissed much of the evidence the government presented.

“I think eight out of 10 judges may have treated this case differently,” he concluded.

Delrahim expressed his general frustration with government antitrust regulators attempting to impose various deal conditions and limitations designed to mitigate a transaction’s anti-competitive harm in the marketplace.

“If there’s a substantial lessening of competition, that’s the legal test, then the transaction is illegal,” Delrahim said. Instead of that simple test, the antitrust division often tries to rescue troublesome transactions with deal conditions he calls “microengineering an industry which is dynamic,” and in his view, is contrary to the role Congress assigned to the Antitrust Division. “I think the role is you go in, if there’s problematic aspect of a transaction, you divest and you let the market decide what the prices are now.”

“So the idea is: the greater the competitive process, the better the price ultimately will be, or the better the products will be for the consumer. And that’s where you have fair competition in the marketplace,” he added. “Our job is to police that. It isn’t to keep companies from getting too big. If they’re better at what they do, if customers like what they do, more power to them. The free market system encourages that. And we shouldn’t punish them once they have reached a certain level of success. If they are too big though, they also got to be careful. They can’t take anti-competitive practices that harms competition, which ultimately harms consumers.”

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