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Republican FCC Commissions Itching to Move on Charter-Time Warner-Bright House Cable Merger

Pai

Pai

Republican FCC Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly are in a hurry to start the merger review clock on Charter Communications’ acquisition of Time Warner Cable while the agency contemplates how to handle access to submitted documents the two companies insist should be confidential.

“We are deeply dismayed that the FCC’s leadership seems unwilling to begin the formal review of the Charter Communications/Time Warner Cable/Bright House Networks transaction until Commissioners agree to change the FCC’s procedures for protecting confidential information,” the commissioners said. “We don’t plan to allow this maneuver to deter us from giving careful scrutiny to the important item in front of us, which if adopted, would apply not only to future transactions but all Commission proceedings. Among other things, we believe that the better course would be for the Commission to seek public input on these proposed procedures before moving ahead.”

The FCC has a responsibility to review merger proposals to decide if they are in “the public interest, convenience, and necessity.”

O'Rielly

O’Rielly

Part of that process is reviewing proprietary information sent by the applicants, usually with the understanding the information will be kept confidential or released to the public only in redacted form. Competitors can only get a limited view of the documents the FCC reviews in making its decision about a merger, but some have successfully requested limited access to unredacted documents, including contracts the companies have with third-party programmers.

The fact those documents might be shared with competitors like Dish Networks was not acceptable to CBS, Disney, 21st Century Fox, Scripps Networks, Time Warner Inc., and Univision, all fearing competitors would learn confidential pricing information and use it to their advantage during the next round of contract renewal negotiations. Those media companies sued the FCC in the D.C. Court of Appeals and largely won their case.

Now the FCC has to craft new rules to decide what information they can share with competitors and the public. That process has slowed the start of the 180 day clock the FCC uses to review merger deals, and the two minority Republicans serving as commissioners on the FCC are annoyed.

“The agency has access to the relevant documents at issue in this matter and can continue to evaluate the proposed merger….” So let’s start the ‘aspirational’ merger review shot clock and get on with the process,” said Pai and O’Rielly.

“On a Razor’s Edge:” Charter’s Deal With Time Warner Financed With Junk Bond Debt

Charter will be among America's top junk bond issuers. (Image: Bloomberg News)

Charter will be among America’s top junk bond issuers. (Image: Bloomberg News)

The attempted $55 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable will saddle buyer Charter Communications with so much debt, it will make the cable operator one of the nation’s largest junk bond borrowers.

Bloomberg News reports investors are concerned about the size and scope of the financing packages Charter is working on to acquire the much-larger Time Warner Cable. Total debt financing this year has already reached $18.2 billion and one of Charter’s holding companies is signaling plans to add another $10.5 billion in unsecured debt. Bloomberg reports the total value of Charter’s combined debt from existing operations and its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks may reach as high as $66 billion.

Ironically, Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus used Charter’s penchant for heavily debt-financed acquisitions as one of the reasons he opposed Charter’s first attempted takeover of Time Warner in January 2014.

The New York Times suggested Marcus seemed to be looking out for shareholders when he called the offer “grossly inadequate” and demanded more cash and special protections, known as “collars,” to protect stockholders against any swings in the value of Charter stock used to cover part of the deal.

charter twc bhThe Marcus-led opposition campaign against Charter gave Comcast just the time it needed to mount a competing bid — all in Comcast stock, then worth around $159 a share. Comcast also offered Marcus an $80 million golden parachute if the deal succeeded.

Marcus’ concerns for shareholders suddenly seemed less robust. Gone was any demand for cash to go with an all-stock deal — Comcast stock was good enough for him. Most blockbuster mergers of this size and complexity also contain provisions for a breakup fee payable by the buyer if a deal falls apart. Marcus never asked for one, a decision the newspaper called “foolish,” considering regulators eventually killed the deal, leaving Time Warner Cable with nothing except bills from their lobbyists and lawyers.

After the Comcast deal failed to impress regulators, Charter returned to bid for Time Warner Cable once again. This time, Charter offered nearly $196 a share — nine times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization. (They offered about seven times earnings in 2014.) Marcus will now get the $100 a share in cash he wanted from Charter the first time, but shareholders are realizing that cash will be a lower proportion of the overall higher amount of the second offer.

Marcus has also said little about the enormous amount of borrowing Charter will undertake to seal its deal with Time Warner Cable. Nor has he said much about a revisited and newly revised golden parachute package offered to him by Charter, expected to be worth north of $100 million.

Marcus

Marcus

But others did notice Charter raised $15.5 billion selling bonds on July 9, many winning the lowest possible investment grade rating from independent ratings services. Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings bottom-rated part of Charter’s debt offering and Moody’s classified that portion as Ba1 — junk grade.

Charter traveled down a similar road six years ago, overwhelmed with more than $21 billion in debt to cover its aggressive acquisitions. Charter declared bankruptcy in 2009. The cable company has survived this time, so far, because of the Federal Reserve’s low-interest rates and very low corporate borrowing costs.

“Charter is walking on a razor’s edge,” warned Chris Ucko, a New York-based analyst at CreditSights.

Not so fast, responds Charter.

“The combined company will” reduce debt quickly, Francois Claude, a spokesman for Stamford, Conn.-based Charter said in a statement to Bloomberg News.

One likely source of funds to help pay down that debt will come from customers as the company seeks to drive higher-cost products and services into subscriber homes. Some of that revenue may come from selling higher speed broadband, a service customers are unlikely to cancel and may find difficult to get from telephone companies that have not kept up with the speed race. If cord cutting continues, and online video competition increases, that could result in customers dropping cable television packages at a growing rate, negatively impacting Charter’s revenue.

Time Warner Cable’s bondholders are already counting their losses. Their “investment grade” securities have already lost 9.3 percent of their value this year, compared with 0.58% losses in the broader high-grade debt market, according to Bank of America/Merrill Lynch. If increased competition does arrive or the FCC continues its pro-consumer advocacy policies, there is a big risk Charter’s revenue expectations may never materialize.

Charter Asks FCC to Approve Time Warner Cable/Bright House Merger; Stop the Cap! Urges Changes

charter twc bhCharter Communications last week filed its 362 page redacted Public Interest Statement laying out its case to win approval of its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, to be run under the Charter banner.

“Charter may not be a household name for all Americans, but it has developed into an industry leader by implementing customer and Internet-friendly business practices,” its statement reads.

The sprawling document is effectively a sales pitch to federal regulators to accept Charter’s contention the merger is in the public interest, and the company promises a range of voluntary and committed service upgrades it says will improve the customer experience for those becoming a part of what will be America’s second largest cable operator.

Charter’s proposed upgrades fall under several categories of direct interest to consumers:

Broadband: Charter will commit to upgrade customers to 60Mbps broadband within 30 months (about 2.5 years) after the deal is approved. That could mean some Time Warner Cable customers will still be serviced with standard speeds of 15Mbps as late as 2018. Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade program will be effectively frozen in place and will continue in only those areas “consistent with Time Warner Cable’s existing deployment plans.” That will leave out a large sections of the country not on the upgrade list. Charter has committed to impose no data caps, usage-based pricing or modem fees, but only for three years, after which it will be free to change those policies at will.

Wi-Fi: Charter promises to build on Time Warner’s 100,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, most in just a few cities, and Bright House’s denser network of 45,000 hotspots with a commitment to build at least 300,000 new hotspots across Charter’s expanded service area within four years. Charter will also evaluate deploying cable modems that also act as public Wi-Fi hotspots. Comcast already offers over 500,000 hotspots with plans for many more, making Charter’s wireless commitment less ambitious than what Comcast today offers customers.

Cable-TV: Charter has committed to moving all Time Warner and Bright House systems to all-digital service within 30 months. Customers will need to lease set-top boxes designed to handle Charter’s encryption system for all cable connected televisions. Among those boxes includes Charter’s new, IP-capable Worldbox CPE and cloud-based Spectrum Guide user interface system.

Video on the Go: Charter will adopt Time Warner Cable’s streaming platform and apps to provide 300 streaming television channels to customers watching from inside their homes (a small fraction of those channels are available while outside of the home). Customers will not be able to watch on-demand recorded DVR shows from portable devices, but can program their DVRs from apps or the website.

Discount Internet for the Poor: Charter references the fact its minimum entry-level broadband speed is 60Mbps so that does not bode well for Time Warner Cable’s Everyday Low Priced Internet $14.99 slow-speed Internet plan. Instead Charter will build upon Bright House Networks’ mysterious broadband program for low-income consumers.

Based on Charter’s initial proposal, Stop the Cap! will urge state and federal regulators to require changes of these terms before approving any merger. Among them:

  1. All existing Time Warner Cable and Bright House service areas should be upgraded to meet or exceed the levels of service offered by Time Warner Cable’s Maxx program within 30 months. It is not acceptable to upgrade some customers while others are left with a much more modest upgrade program proposed by Charter;
  2. Charter must commit to Net Neutrality principles without an expiration date;
  3. Regardless of any usage-cap or usage-based pricing plans Charter may introduce after its three-year “no caps” commitment expires, Charter must permanently continue to offer unlimited, flat rate Internet service at a reasonable price as an alternative to usage-priced plans;
  4. Customers must be given the option of opting out of any leased/provided-modem Wi-Fi hotspot plan that offers a wireless connection to outside users without the customer’s consent;
  5. Charter must commit to a more specific Wi-Fi hotspot program that details towns and cities to be serviced and proposed pricing for non-customers;
  6. Charter must allow customers to use their own set-top equipment (eg. Roku, Apple TV, etc.) to receive cable television service without compulsory equipment/rental fees. The company must also commit to offering discount alternatives such as DTAs for secondary televisions and provide an option for income-challenged customers compelled to accept new equipment to continue receiving cable television service;
  7. Charter must retain Time Warner Cable’s Everyday Low Priced $14.99 Internet plan regardless of any other low-income discount program it offers. If it chooses to adopt Bright House’s program, it must broaden it to accept applications year-round, simplify the application process and eliminate any waiting periods;
  8. Charter must commit to independent verification of customer quality and service standards and adhere to any regulatory guidelines imposed by state or federal regulators as a condition of approval.
  9. Charter must commit to expansion of its cable network into a reasonable number of adjacent, unserved areas by committing a significant percentage (to be determined) of measurable financial benefits of the merger to the company or its executives towards this effort.

Stop the Cap! will closely monitor the proceedings and intends to participate on both the state (New York) and federal level to guarantee any merger provides consumers with an equitable share of the benefits. We will also be examining the impact of the merger on existing Time Warner Cable and Bright House employees and will promote merger conditions that protect jobs and limit outsourcing, especially overseas.

Bright House’s Mysterious Internet Discount Program Charter Wants to Adopt Nationwide

If you can find it.

If you can find it.

A major concern about the merger between Charter and Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks is the availability of affordable Internet access. That was a major issue for New York regulators contemplating the earlier failed merger attempt between Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Time Warner Cable offers all subscribers a low-speed budget Internet option called Everyday Low Price Internet for $14.99 a month with no pre-qualifications, no paperwork, and no contract commitment. Although originally designed to appeal to price sensitive DSL customers, it has become Time Warner’s de-facto low-income Internet offering for those who cannot afford Standard Internet service.

According to Charter Communications’ Public Interest Statement filed today with the Federal Communications Commission — its case to win approval of its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House — the future is not looking too good for Time Warner’s $15 Internet program if the merger is approved. Charter makes a point of stating its entry-level Internet option is 60Mbps service at almost three times that price.

So what will “New Charter” offer more than 10 million cable customers going forward:

New Charter will build upon Bright House Networks’ broadband program for low-income consumers by making a broadband offering available with higher speeds and expanded eligibility while continuing to offer the service at a significant discount, and will begin making the offer available within six months after the transaction closes and offer it across the New Charter footprint within three years of closing.

If you were even aware Bright House offered a discount broadband program, congratulations!

An advocate of affordable Internet service claims Bright House has done an excellent job keeping any mention of the program off its website. In fact, it appears arranging for a visa to visit North Korea is probably slightly easier than getting cheap service from Bright House.

It turns out Bright House does have a modified version of its barely advertised “Lite Internet” plan offering 2Mbps downloads and 512kbps uploads. Anyone can buy that plan for about $20 (with a separate modem fee). Bright House’s Low-Income Internet plan offers the same service for $9.95 a month for up to 24 months.

To qualify, there is an Olympic-style playing field of hoops to jump through, according to Cheap Internet:

1) You must have at least one child qualified for the National School Lunch Program. They need not be enrolled now.

2) You cannot have been a Bright House broadband customer during the last three months. If you are a current customer, you must first cancel and go without Internet service for 90 days (or call the phone company and hope to get a month-to-month DSL plan in the interim.)

3) If you have an overdue bill older than 12 months, you are not eligible until you pay that bill in full.

But it gets crazier.

4) Bright House does not enroll customers in discounted Internet programs year-round. From a Bright House representative:

“We do participate in this particular program, however, it is only around September that we participate in it. This is a seasonal offer that we have which can only be requested from the middle of August to the middle of September, which is when most start up with school again for the year.”

That restriction gets heavy criticism from Cheap Internet.

“Families fall into poverty every day of the year, and poverty-stricken families move from one school district to another every day of the year,” the website writes. “So it’s horribly unfair to tell them they’d qualify for this program if only they had fallen into poverty sometime between the middle of August and the middle of September.”

Time Warner Cable offers $14.99 to anyone without paperwork.

Time Warner Cable offers $14.99 to anyone without paperwork.

But wait, there is more.

Bright House does not take orders for the Low-Income Internet plan over the Internet. That’s right. No Internet sign ups over the Internet. You have to enroll by phone: (205) 591-6880. We dialed it and experienced 30 seconds of… silence. No ringing, no busy signals, nothing. Then an automated attendant picked up looking for a pre-qualification phone number to decide if we are in a Bright House service area. That is as far as we could get. It hung up.

It turns out Bright House sometimes refers to its discount Internet program under another name: Connect2Compete. As both Cheap Internet and Stop the Cap! found, if you visit Bright House’s website and search for either term, you will find absolutely nothing.

Does it seem Bright House lacks enthusiasm selling this option to income-challenged consumers?

The most information available about the discount Internet program Charter wants to bring to Time Warner Cable customers is available on a pretty skimpy third-party website that has no connection to Charter, Time Warner or Bright House. Nothing to be concerned about there!

New Charter promises to improve the program, but Stop the Cap! believes there is a much simpler solution. For $5 more, Time Warner Cable already offers a fine discount option available to anyone, anywhere, for as long as they want it. No paperwork, no complications, no drama. The fact New Charter seems to prefer a different option — one that requires an archaeological dig to unearth needed information — makes us wonder whether they are interested in serving the needy at all.

Charter CEO: Net Neutrality No Deterrent to System Upgrades, Investment

Rutledge

Rutledge

Despite claims from Net Neutrality critics that increased oversight of the broadband business would lead to reduced investment and upgrades, Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge said the new rules would have no effect on Charter’s investment plans.

Last week Rutledge sat down with FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler to discuss Charter’s proposed merger with Bright House Networks and Time Warner Cable. He was joined by Catherine Bohigian, Charter’s executive vice president for governmental affairs and FCC general counsel Jonathan Sallet and senior counselor Phil Verveer.

“Mr. Rutledge explained that the transactions will bring substantial consumer benefits, including providing a better Internet experience for watching on-line video, gaming, and using other data-hungry apps at more competitive prices, and that the mergers will not harm competition,” according to a one page filing with the FCC disclosing the meeting.

Despite repeated claims from pro-industry policy wonks that Net Neutrality and Title II oversight of cable broadband would cause operators to reconsider their investment plans, Rutledge made it clear Charter’s spending plans are unaffected.

“Mr. Rutledge agreed that the Commission’s decision to reclassify broadband Internet access under Title II has not altered Charter’s approach of investing significantly in its network to deliver cutting edge services including: the fastest entry-level broadband service (60 Mbps) with unlimited usage; out-of-home Wi-Fi hotspots; a state-of-the art, cloud-based user guide, allowing search and discovery across linear, video on demand and online content; open, non-proprietary downloadable security; and an innovative video app with hundreds of live and downloadable channels and the ability to display over-the-top content seamlessly on the television,” the disclosure continues.

Charter’s chief executive said the company supports Open Internet rules, including no throttles or blocks on lawful content and no paid prioritization. But he does worry about regulatory uncertainty while the FCC explores its expanded powers of oversight.

Hometown Newspaper of Charter Communications Warns Time Warner Deal Not in the Public Interest

Editor’s Note: This editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is reprinted in its entirety. It comes from a newspaper that has covered Charter Communications since its inception. The Post-Dispatch reporters are also some of Charter’s subscribers — the cable company serves all of metropolitan St. Louis. Charter has never been received particularly well in St. Louis and in other cities where it provides generally mediocre service. Communities across Missouri that have endured poor cable and broadband service have recently taken a serious look at doing something about this by building their own public broadband networks as an alternative. But big money telecom interests, especially AT&T, have found it considerably less expensive to lobby to ban these networks from ever getting off the ground than spending the money to upgrade networks to compete.

charter twc bhOn May 15, the last day of this year’s session of the Missouri Legislature, House Bill 437 finally was assigned to a committee, where it promptly died. Given the power of the American Legislative Exchange Council, it may well be back next year.

HB 437, sponsored by Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark, was full of gobbledygook about “municipal competitive services,” but its effect would have been to condemn Missourians to ever-higher prices for broadband Internet service. Cities would have been forbidden from establishing their own broadband services to compete with private operators, thus holding down prices.

ALEC, which wines and dines state lawmakers and then gets them to pass pro-business “model legislation” in their states, had succeeded in getting restrictions on public Internet providers in 20 states. But in February, the Federal Communications Commission struck down North Carolina’s ALEC-inspired law, so the future of other such laws is uncertain.

About 22 percent of Missourians are still regarded as “underserved,” having no reliable access to broadband service of at least 25 megabits per second — what’s needed to stream video without lags. About 1 in 6 Missourians have only one wired access provider to choose from. More than 400,000 Missourians have no wired broadband at all.

Missouri is ranked 38th “most connected” in the nation by the federal-state Broadband Now initiative. In the 21st century, this is like being underserved by railroads in the 19th century or power lines in the early 20th. In parts of rural Missouri, it’s hard to do business, which helps explain why HB 437 died in committee.

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

The basic question is whether companies that invest in high-speed Internet infrastructure should be able to charge whatever they can get away with, or whether broadband service should be treated as a public utility. If it’s the latter, as the FCC determined in February, then government must make sure it’s affordable.

Which brings us to Charter Communications proposed $56 billion takeover of Time Warner Cable and its $10.4 billion acquisition of Bright House Networks. Both deals were announced May 26; both will need approval from the FCC and the Justice Department’s antitrust regulators.

In St. Louis, we have a love-hate relationship with Charter, a homegrown company built atop what was once Cencom Cable. It has dominated the cable TV market here almost as long as there’s been a cable market.

Charter customers endured years of poor service, its bankruptcy, its legal challenges, its ownership and management changes. Just when it got itself together, in 2012, the headquarters was moved from Des Peres to Stamford, Conn., though it retains a significant presence here.

Today our little Charter is a big fish; the Time Warner and Bright House deals would make it the nation’s second-largest cable company, with 24 million customers, behind only Philadelphia-based Comcast, with 27 million.

But cable TV no longer drives cable TV. Internet-based video services, like YouTube and Netflix, have revolutionized the way people, particularly younger people, watch TV. When cable companies first started connecting customers to the Internet through the same cables that delivered TV programming, it was regarded as a nice add-on business. Now broadband delivery is seen as a far bigger part of the future than providing TV programs.

missouriIndeed, when Comcast tried to acquire Time Warner last year, the dominance (nearly 60 percent of the market) that the combined company would have had over broadband service caused federal regulators to look askance. Comcast abandoned its bid in April.

By contrast, a Charter-Time Warner-Bright House combination (it will do business as Spectrum) will control 30 percent of the broadband market. Charter Spectrum will have 20 million broadband subscribers, compared with 22 million for Comcast.

So what can customers expect? Charter’s CEO Tom Rutledge has promised “faster Internet speeds, state-of-the-art video experiences and fully featured voice products, at highly competitive prices.”

This begs the question, competitive with whom? Comcast? Mom-and-pop operations that can’t afford the infrastructure? Municipal service providers who are being ALEC’d out of business?

Neither Charter nor Time Warner has particularly good customer service ratings (though to be fair, Charter is miles ahead of where it used to be, at least in St. Louis). Still, Charter will take on lots of debt to finance the deal, much of it in high-yield junk bonds. The broadband business provides leverage. As analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson told the Wall Street Journal: “Broadband pricing is almost an insurance policy for cable operators, in that if all else fails, you’ve always got the option to raise broadband rates.”

America wouldn’t let a private operator own 30 percent of its roads and highways. It wouldn’t allow two of them to control half the electricity. If broadband Internet service is a public utility, it must be regulated strictly.

The lesson is old as the hills: The free-marketeers who talk most passionately about competition are generally in the business of trying to eliminate it. Charter and Time Warner are both members of ALEC.

The Charter-Time Warner deal clearly is not in the public interest. The upside for shareholders is huge. The upside for Charter executives is even bigger. But it’s hard to see how Charter’s customers would see much benefit at all.

Time Warner Cable Customers – Your Price to Cover Executive Golden Parachutes, Deal Fees: $19.48 Each

money grabEach of 15.4 million Time Warner Cable customers will effectively pay $19.48 to cover executive golden parachutes and Wall Street bank advisory fees if the merger with Charter Communications is approved by regulators.

Five senior executives at Time Warner Cable will split $200 million with an additional $100+ million going to a variety of investment banks that provided advice for the merger deal.

A required filing with regulators disclosed the exit bonuses likely to be paid to the departing executives of Time Warner Cable, some who have been in those positions for less than two years:

  • CEO Robert Marcus, who has served in that role for only a year and a half, will receive roughly $4.5 million in salary, $23 million in bonuses and stock worth $74 million. His total golden parachute: $102 million;
  • COO Dinesh Jain: $32 million;
  • CFO Arthur Minson: $32 million;
  • General Counsel Marc Lawrence-Apfelbaum: $22 million;
  • Chief Strategy Officer Peter C. Stern: $18 million.

Ironically, golden parachutes were originally designed to protect shareholders from executives’ self-interest. Instead of interfering in merger and acquisition deals to protect their salaries and positions, the incentive of a generous exit bonus encouraged executives to do the right thing for shareholders.

charter twc bh

Wall Street investment banks participating in the deal are also handsomely compensated for a few weeks of “advice.”

Together, the banks will share an estimated $100 million to $150 million in fees, according to Thomson Reuters and Freeman Consulting Services. The lucky ones — Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, Centerview Partners and Allen & Company — advised Time Warner Cable and get 60 percent of the proceeds. The pickings are slimmer for a larger pool of banks that advised Charter, some that will only get to earn based on their role financing the deal. The biggest winners on the Charter side are omnipresent Goldman Sachs along with the tiny firm LionTree Advisors (which barely has a website). LionTree enjoys the confidence of John Malone, who uses them often in similar deals. These two firms will split $30-50 million.

Charter executives will benefit from the deal later, when future demands for bigger compensation packages are met.

twc repairAmong investors, a handful of hedge funds will likely walk away with the most money. Paulson & Company, run by the billionaire John Paulson, owned 8.7 million shares of Time Warner Cable stock, according to a March 31 public filing. He is expected to walk away with a profit of at least $250 million by buying low and selling high. Time Warner shares have risen ever since Wall Street found out Time Warner was a willing seller.

So who is likely to lose the most from the deal? Customers, employees and middle management.

If approved, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers will become customers of Charter Communications, a considerably indebted company with mediocre customer service ratings and a menu of service options carefully designed to boost the average revenue Charter collects from each of its customers. Charter is likely to endure growing pains common when a company swallows another four times larger than itself. Bright House customers will likely see the changes the most. Its customer service ratings are stellar when compared against Charter and Time Warner Cable.

Middle management positions at Time Warner Cable and Bright House deemed redundant in the era of New Charter will be eliminated. At even bigger risk are call center and customer service positions. Charter Communications has already beefed up its own customer service operations, partly for its customers and those it assumed it would gain from a deal with Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Charter was also to be closely involved in supporting the GreatLand Connections spinoff proposed in that failed deal. With excess customer service capacity, Charter is in a position to consolidate or close several Time Warner Cable and Bright House call centers. Charter has also aggressively pursued savings by offering customers more self-service options, such as mailing set-top boxes and cable modems customers can install themselves. Whether Charter decides to outsource more of its cable service technician positions is not yet known.

The Economist: Charter Communications’ Buyout of Time Warner Cable Structured So It Will Pay No Taxes for Years

Malone

Malone

The Economist reports Charter Communications’ acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks has been structured so that “it should pay no tax for several years, at least.”

The merger deal, which intimately involves John Malone, the boss of Liberty Media — a cable and media conglomerate, has all the hallmarks of a classic Malone-inspired deal: complex ownership structures, high debt levels, assiduous tax planning and a refusal to overpay.

Unlike many other dealmakers, Malone seems to want to avoid the spotlight. His firm Liberty Media is Charter’s biggest single investor and will kick in at least $5 billion in Charter stock purchases to help consummate the transaction, which will be handled primarily by Charter’s management.

The deal comes at Malone’s insistence the American cable landscape must be consolidated into just 2-3 large companies. For now, he is content standing aside while the public faces of the merger are Charter’s CEO Thomas Rutledge and Time Warner Cable’s Rob Marcus. (Bright House Networks is also a part of the transaction but has been completely overshadowed by its larger deal partners.)

While coverage of the transaction has been relegated to the Business section of newspapers and has evoked shrugs from American reporters, The Economist calls it nothing short of an extraordinary landmark.

Liberty Global logo 2012“The boss of Liberty, a cable and media conglomerate, he has struck more deals than perhaps any other tycoon in the world—buying and selling hundreds of firms worth over $100 billion since the 1970s, often negotiating on his own, using calculations that fit on a napkin,” said the publication. “Unusually for an empire-builder he has made his investors a ton of money, and has little interest in the public eye.”

While Malone is hardly a household name, he could soon be at the center of the sixth largest corporate takeover in U.S. history and make him the world’s unparalleled media baron, controlling an empire three times the size of Rupert Murdoch’s media ventures. While Comcast will remain America’s largest single cable operator, Malone’s Liberty Media will dwarf Comcast globally with more than 75 million cable customers around the world.

charter twc bhMalone does not share the concerns of some Time Warner Cable and Charter investors that the merger will generate a “staggering” $66 billion in debt from day one, initially loaned from Wall Street investment banks. The Economist notes Malone seems to be violating his own rule to never overpay in a deal. In the British financial press, Charter’s deal for Time Warner Cable and Bright House does not pass Malone’s own smell test.

“At 9.1 times gross operating profits he is paying at least a fifth more for TWC than he typically does,” says the newspaper. “He is offering 23% more for it than Comcast did in its bid last year, which was scuppered by antitrust regulators. Based on last year’s cash-flow figures the deal will make a pitiful 5.6% return on capital, assuming no tax is paid. Like most cable firms TWC has a stagnant top line, with growing broadband sales being offset by declining TV and telephony revenues. So fast growth will not bail out Mr Malone.”

So where does The Economist believe John Malone will make his killing? From captive customers and suppliers, of course.

“The most obvious explanation is that Mr. Malone thinks the world has not changed much since the 1990s and that the cable industry remains a collection of local monopolies from which ever more juicy profits can be squeezed,” says The Economist. “America’s cable firms have poor service and high prices: the average Charter customer pays at least 50% more per month than one of Mr Malone’s customers in Britain or the Netherlands. In Europe cable firms face tough competition in broadband from telecoms operators; in America the telecoms firms have rolled out fixed-line broadband to perhaps just half of homes or fewer.”

The Economist suspects Malone’s new cable empire will follow Europe and be less dependent on flogging costly bundles of unwanted television channels to reluctant punters. Instead, it’s all about broadband and the platform it represents to obtain a range of video services that replace traditional cable television. But Malone’s future vision almost certainly includes a wireless mobile component, which means Americans should not be surprised to see the tycoon attempt to acquire a large mobile company, even one as large as AT&T, on which he can sell video and other telecom services. That is precisely what he is doing today in Europe.

Money Party: Tiny Investment Bank Reaps Up to $65 Million in Fees for a Week’s Work on Cable Mergers

liontree_logo_web1A tiny Madison Avenue investment bank (so small its only web presence is a webpage displaying its logo) that spent one week advising Charter Communications on its merger deal with Time Warner Cable and Altice SA on its acquisition of Suddenlink Communications will earn as much as $65 million in fees if both deals close, according to a report from Bloomberg News.

LionTree Advisors has fewer than 50 employees, which adds up to more than $1 million per worker. Charter is expected to be billed as much as $25 million for the bank’s advice on the Time Warner acquisition and $40 million advising Altice on its buyout of Suddenlink. That represents about $1 from each Charter, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customer and approximately $27 from each Suddenlink customer.

Aryeh Bourkoff and Ehren Stenzler, co-founders of the bank, were more than little thankful to “be a part of these transactions on behalf of our clients.”

Analysis: Charter Communications Will Acquire Time Warner Cable/Bright House – What It Means for You

charter twc bhAs expected, Charter Communications formally announced its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks in a deal worth, including debt, $78.7 billion.

The deal brings Dr. John Malone, a cable magnate during the 80s and 90s, back into the top echelon of cable providers. Malone orchestrated today’s deal as part of his plan to dramatically consolidate the American cable industry. Malone’s Liberty Broadband Corp. assisted in pushing the deal across the finish line with an extra $5 billion (supplied by three hedge funds) in Charter stock purchases.

The companies expect to win regulator approval and close the deal by the end of 2015.

“No one has ever had a better sense of the multichannel world than John [Malone],” Leo Hindery, a veteran cable-industry executive, told the Wall Street Journal. “Obviously he sees in Charter and Time Warner Cable a way to perpetuate a legacy that is unrivaled.”

But the man who may have made today’s deal ultimately possible was FCC chairman Tom Wheeler. Last week, he personally called cable executives at Charter and Time Warner Cable to reassure them the FCC was not against all cable mergers just because it rejected one involving Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

But Wheeler warned he would only approve deals that were in the public interest.

“In applying the public interest test, an absence of harm is not sufficient,” Mr. Wheeler said.

Consumer groups are wary.

“The cable platform is quickly becoming America’s local monopoly broadband infrastructure,” said Free Press Research Director S. Derek Turner. “Charter will have a tough time making a credible argument that consolidating local monopoly power on a nationwide basis will benefit consumers. Indeed, the issue of the cable industry’s power to harm online video competition, which is what ultimately sank Comcast’s consolidation plans, are very much at play in this deal.”

“Ultimately, this merger is yet another example of the poor incentives Wall Street’s quarterly-result mentality creates,” Turner added. “Charter would rather take on an enormous amount of debt to pay a premium for Time Warner Cable than build fiber infrastructure, improve service for its existing customers or bring competition into new communities.”

new charter

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Inside the Charter Plan to Buy Time Warner Cable 5-26-15.flv

A panel of Wall Street analysts discusses the chances for Charter’s plan to buy Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Some analysts continue to frame regulator approval over video programming costs, while others argue broadband is the key issue the FCC and Justice Department will consider when reviewing the merger. From Bloomberg TV. (5:36)

A heavily indebted Charter Communications will not own the combined entity free and clear. At the close of the deal, Time Warner Cable shareholders will own up to 44% of the new company, Liberty Broadband up to 20%, Advance/Newhouse (Bright House) up to 14%. Charter itself will own just 22%, but will be able to leverage voting control over the entity with the help of Malone’s Liberty, which will get almost 25% of the voting power. That will give Charter just enough of a combined edge to control the destiny of “New Charter.”

As with the aborted deal with Comcast, lucrative golden parachutes are expected for Time Warner’s top executives who will be departing if the deal wins approval. In their place will be Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge and a board compromised of 13 directors (including Rutledge himself). Seven directors will be appointed by independent directors serving on Charter’s board, two designated by Advance/Newhouse and three from Liberty Broadband, again giving Rutledge and Malone effective control.

Current Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers will see major changes if Charter follows through on its commitment to bring Charter’s way of doing business to both operators.

No More Analog Television

all digitalCharter told investors at today’s merger announcement it will accelerate the removal of all analog television signals on TWC and Bright House cable TV lineups to free capacity for faster Internet products, more HD channels, and “other advanced products.”

Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus told investors earlier this month TWC was already well-positioned with excess spectrum from moving lesser-watched analog channels to digital service and using “Switched Digital Video,” a technology that conserves bandwidth by only sending certain cable channels into neighborhoods where customers are actively watching them. This allowed Time Warner Cable customers to avoid renting a cable box for lesser-watched, cable-connected televisions in the home.

Charter’s plan requires a cable box on every connected television, at an added cost. The standard lease rate for the digital decoder box is $6.99 per month, and those customers on the lowest basic tier will likely receive at least two devices for up to two years for free, or five years for customers on Medicaid. Customers who subscribe to higher tiers of service or premium channels may receive only one device for free for one year before the monthly lease rate applies. For a home with an average of three connected televisions, this will eventually cost an extra $21 a month. DVR boxes cost considerably more.

No More Modem Lease Fee, But Only Two Choices for Internet Service

The good news is Charter does not apply any modem lease fees and there is a good chance if you already purchased your own modem, Charter will continue to let you use it. The bad news is that if you were used to sticking with a lower-speed broadband tier to save money, those days are likely coming to an end. Charter’s “simplified” menu of broadband options cuts Time Warner’s six choices and Bright House’s five options to just two:

  • 60/4Mbps for Spectrum Internet ($59.99)
  • 100/5Mbps for Internet Ultra ($109.99)

Charter_Spectrum_Mobile_Internet-finalThis is likely to be a red flag for regulators concerned about broadband affordability. Although it is likely Charter may offer concessions by grandfathering existing Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers under their current plans, Charter has nothing comparable to Time Warner’s “Everyday Low Price Internet” for $14.99 a month or a 6Mbps Basic broadband alternative far less expensive than Charter’s entry-level Internet tier. Bright House customers are not likely to experience something similar. The entry-level 15Mbps broadband-only plan is $65 a month without a promotion, according to Bright House.

Charter is rumored to be testing speed boosts for those two tiers for deployment in areas where they face fiber competitors. The first phase would raise Spectrum speeds to 100/25Mbps and Ultra to 300/50Mbps with plans to further increase speeds when DOCSIS 3.1 arrives — likely to 300/50Mbps for Spectrum and 500/300 for Ultra, at least where Google Fiber, U-verse with GigaPower, and Verizon FiOS offers competition.

Recently, Charter has followed Time Warner Cable’s marketing script and is actively promoting the fact the company has no data caps on broadband service, but Charter had a history of loosely enforced “soft caps” for several years in the recent past, so we’re not convinced data caps are gone for good at Charter.

Pricing & Service

billCharter enjoys a higher rate of revenue per customer than either Time Warner or Bright House, which is a sign customers are paying more. It is likely Charter’s reduced menu of choices is responsible for this. Although customers do get a better advertised level of service, they are paying a higher price for it, with no downgrade options. Ancillary equipment rental fees for television set-top boxes are also a likely culprit.

Charter also tells investors its merger with Time Warner and Bright House will bring “manageable promotional rate step-ups and rate discipline” to both companies. That means Charter will likely be less generous offering promotions to new and existing customers. Like Time Warner and Bright House, Charter will gradually raise rates on customers coming off a promotion until they eventually reset a customer’s rates to the regular price. But while Time Warner, in particular, was receptive to putting complaining customers back on aggressively priced promotions after an old promotion ended, Charter is not.

Charter customers tell us the company’s customer service department is notoriously inconsistent and promotional rates and offers can vary wildly. For some, Charter only got aggressive on price after they turned in their cable equipment and closed their accounts.

As far as service is concerned, CEO Thomas Rutledge has managed significant improvements while at Charter. What used to rival Mediacom in Consumer Reports’ annual ranking of the worst cable companies in America is now ranked number nine (Bright House took fourth place, Time Warner Cable: 12th).

But the presence of Malone in this deal, even peripherally, is a major concern. Malone-run cable companies are notorious for massive rate increases and poor customer service. Sen. Al Gore routinely called his leadership style of Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), since sold to Comcast, the Darth Vader of a cable Cosa Nostra and Sen. Daniel Inouye from Hawaii once remarked in a Senate oversight hearing that Malone’s executives were a “bunch of thugs.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Charter CEO Comfortable With Price Paid for Time Warner 5-26-15.flv

Watch Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge stumble his way through an answer to a simple question: What are the public benefits of your merger with Time Warner Cable that the deal with Comcast didn’t offer? Did you like his answer? (5:28)

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