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Wall Street Hissyfit: Raise Broadband Prices to $90/Month Immediately! (Or Else)

If the average customer isn’t paying $90 a month for broadband service, they are paying too little and that needs to stop.

That is the view of persistent rate hike advocate Jonathan Chaplin, a Wall Street analyst with New Street Research, who has advocated for sweeping broadband rate increases for years.

“We have argued that broadband is underpriced, given that pricing has barely increased over the past decade while broadband utility has exploded,” Chaplin wrote in a note to investors. “Our analysis suggested a ‘utility-adjusted’ ARPU target of ~$90. Comcast recently increased standalone broadband to $90 with a modem, paving the way for faster ARPU growth as the mix shifts in favor of broadband-only households. Charter will likely follow, once they are through the integration of Time Warner Cable.”

Companies that fail to raise prices risk being downgraded by analysts with views like these, which can have a direct impact on a stock’s share price and the executive compensation and bonus packages that are often tied to the company’s performance.

But there is a dilemma and disagreement between some cable industry analysts about how much companies can charge their customers. Companies like Cable ONE have been aggressively raising broadband prices to unprecedented levels in some of the poorest communities in the country, which worries fellow Wall Street analyst Craig Moffett from MoffettNathanson LLC.

“Never mind that the per capita income in Cable ONE’s footprint is the lowest (by far) of the companies we [Moffett’s firm] cover, or that the percentage of customers living below the poverty line is the highest (also by far),” Moffett told his investor subscribers. “What matters is that there is very little competition in Cable ONE’s footprint. If you want high-speed broadband, where else are you going to go? The unspoken fear among their larger peers is that over-reliance on broadband pricing invites regulatory intervention, not just for Cable ONE, but for everyone.”

Chaplin thinks the risk from gouging broadband customers is next to zero. With cable TV becoming less profitable every day, all the big profits that can be made will be made from broadband, where cable operators often enjoy a monopoly on high-speed service.

According to Chaplin, if customers value internet access, they will pay the higher prices cable companies charge. So what are companies waiting for? Raise those prices!

Viacom, Booted Off Some Basic TV Tiers, Plans Own $10-20 Non-Sports TV Package

Viacom, which owns cable networks including Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, MTV, BET, and TV Land, will launch a cheap non-sports bundle of entertainment cable networks viewable online for $10-20 a month this year.

Viacom has lost basic cable viewers at an accelerating rate as cable operators drop their networks or repackage them in more expensive basic tiers as Viacom raises wholesale rates cable companies pay to carry the channels.

Viacom CEO Bob Bakish talked about the new service this morning at the J.P. Morgan Global Technology, Media and Telecom Conference in Boston. Bakish said most of the current “skinny cable TV” bundles were priced at around $40 a month, which is too expensive to attract “cord-never millennials” that frequently don’t subscribe to cable television.

“The transformational opportunity is to bring in a new entry segment at a much lower price point,” Bakish said. The cable industry needs “a path to bring in someone who wants high-quality entertainment” but has no interest in expensive sports networks.

That is why Bakish wants to create a cheap entertainment-oriented bundle of networks that omits sports-related channels. But Bakish has also repeatedly stressed he has no intention of giving consumers a comprehensive online alternative to traditional cable TV, telling investors Viacom is “not creating inexpensive opportunities to serve as an alternative.”

Bloomberg News reported Viacom was talking to Discovery and AMC Networks about participating in the new service. The only complication may be a backlash from sports programmers like Walt Disney’s ESPN and 21st Century Fox, Inc., which have contracts requiring providers to include the sports networks in their most popular bundles. Some contracts even limit how many customers are permitted to sign up for a sports-free TV package, according to Michael Nathanson, an analyst at MoffettNathanson LLC.

“It’s meant to dissuade distributors from doing something like this,” Nathanson told Bloomberg. “The issue is how many subscribers they can have before the legal questions appear.”

Bakish may also be trying to remind cable and satellite companies that Viacom can always go direct-to-consumers if operators banish Viacom’s networks off the cable dial or move them to a more expensive tier, although there is no guarantee the new service will bundle all of Viacom’s networks.

Viacom has seen its relationships with cable and satellite providers deteriorate over the last few years under prior management. Some smaller cable companies including Cable One dropped Viacom channels from their cable systems over cost issues in 2014, and many more subscribers have seen Viacom networks temporarily dropped as a result of contract renewal disputes. Bakish has made repairing relations with cable and satellite customers a priority since taking over as CEO in December, but he still has a way to go.

Recently, Charter Communications moved Viacom networks out of its Select basic cable TV package and moved them to its most expensive Gold package for new customers. With only a minority of customers signed up for Gold service, Viacom networks could eventually lose millions of viewers as Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers adopt Spectrum packages in the next few years. If those customers do not subscribe to Gold or refuse to pay extra for a “digipak” of Gold’s basic channels without the premium networks, they will lose access to Viacom channels when they change TV plans.

That issue also concerns Wall Street analysts who believe it could eventually erode Viacom’s viewer base. Bakish made certain to tell investors Viacom was not surrendering to Charter’s “re-tiering.”

“We firmly don’t believe they have the rights to do that,” Bakish said. “We’ve been in discussions with them. We’ve got to get that resolved.”

If it is resolved, those networks may again be available to Select TV customers.

Viacom, AMC, and Discovery are partnering up to offer a $10-20 entertainment-only package on streaming basic cable networks for consumers, as this Bloomberg News story reports. (2:58)

Fido Cable Leases Access from Current Cable Providers, Charges More Than They Do

(PRNewsFoto/Fido Cable)

(PRNewsFoto/Fido Cable)

You may soon have a choice of cable companies, but don’t expect any savings doing business with the competition.

South Carolina-based Sky Play, LLC has launched a new cable service it claims is available across the U.S., offering competitive broadband and later phone and television service.

The service, known as Fido Cable, is dependent on leasing access from cable companies including Cablevision-Altice, Charter-Bright House-Time Warner Cable, Cable One, Comcast, and Cox as well as telephone company AT&T.

“We believe that people deserve to select which internet company they would like to utilize as opposed to being stuck with one or two options of service from companies who constantly raise their rates and offer no thought of the customer they service,” said David Wheeler, vice president of Sky Play. “Fido Cable is available to everyone in every major city and surrounding cities throughout the U.S.”

The company’s claims about the aspirations of American cable subscribers may be true but after Stop the Cap! called the company and obtained price quotes, it is clear any savings doing business with Fido Cable are illusory at best. Fido has a single page website that needs work, including correcting “Cable Vision,” when it actually meant “Cablevision.” Details about service and pricing was scant, so we called the company to get prices for two large cable operators: Time Warner Cable and Charter.

The company claims it offers internet access today and will be offering voice services across its national footprint and television in “select cities.” For purposes of obtaining pricing information, we quickly learned our home city of Rochester, N.Y., is not select enough for Fido Cable.

charter twcFido Cable (which has no relationship with the Canadian prepaid mobile provider “Fido,” owned by Rogers Communications), says internet and voice plans start at $39.99 a month, but not for TWC or Charter customers.

In fact, Fido does not seem to offer any new customer promotional pricing. Their quoted rates were consistently higher than their cable company hosts charge their own customers. No wonder cable operators allowing Fido to compete using their systems are not breaking any sweat over the “competition.”

For instance, Fido charges a $120 installation and $15 modem fee for both Time Warner Cable and Charter customers. The representative claimed the modem fee was a one-time charge and customers were allowed to supply their own equipment. In comparison, both Charter and Time Warner Cable agreed to waive any installation fees for new customers. Time Warner Cable charges a $10 monthly modem rental fee and Charter includes the modem in the price of its service.

Fido Cable charges $65 a month for 15/1Mbps service. Time Warner Cable’s equivalent plan costs $59.99 a month for the service and modem rental (deduct $10 a month from TWC’s price if you buy your own modem). A 50Mbps plan from Fido costs $120 a month, but it’s $119 a month from Time Warner Cable (again, deduct $10 if you supply your own modem).

For Charter customers, a 60/4Mbps plan is priced $59.99 direct from Charter, but if you choose Fido Cable you will pay $5 more a month: $65. A 100/7Mbps plan from Charter is priced at $99.99, or you can pay Fido $105.

Here are more details about Fido internet plans we obtained today:

Time Warner Cable Service Areas

  • 10/1Mbps: $55
  • 15/1Mbps: $65
  • 50/5Mbps: $120

Charter Cable Service Areas

  • 60/4Mbps: $65
  • 80/5Mbps: $99
  • 100/7Mbps: $105

A 2-year price guarantee applies to all pricing.

Cable One: Your Price and Customer Service Depend on Your Credit Worthiness

Phillip Dampier June 29, 2016 Cable One, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 7 Comments

no-thanksFirst credit cards were tied to your credit score, then auto insurance, and now how much you pay for cable television and what kind of support you receive from customer service may also depend on your creditworthiness, at least at Cable One.

CEO Thomas Might ignited controversy over his remarks at a recent J.P. Morgan Global Technology, Media and Telecom Conference when he told Wall Street analysts the company was working hard to reduce the “hollow profitability” of its cable TV business. Fierce Cable caught the transcript. One of the biggest reasons to blame for low profits may be Cable One’s deadbeat customers who don’t pay their bills. Starting in 2013, Might ordered a “very rigorous FICI credit scoring process” on all video customers to weed out the good from the bad.

Might suggested Cable One discovered those with low credit scores were among the company’s low value customers, and they deserve much less from the cable company in return.

“We don’t turn people away,” Might said, but the cable company’s technicians aren’t going to “spend 15 minutes setting up an iPhone app” for a customer who has a low FICO score. “What we found is that through lifestyle and billing analysis, we could start to pinpoint where churn and bad debt was coming from, and credit scoring started to be a really good test.”

cable oneCable One has even stopped direct marketing its cable service, even though it was winning nine percent of new customer sign-ups. The customers Cable One attracted were so low quality, Might claims the company didn’t make a penny from the marketing effort.

“It was the worst of the lifetime value segments we had,” Might said.

Cable One’s unwelcome credit challenged customers returned the favor and canceled their service in droves. Although bad debt is down 70 percent under the new credit check policy, Cable One has lost about half of their cable TV customers, most leaving for AT&T U-verse or satellite television.

Might

Might

Might’s intemperate remarks evidently triggered the company’s recent decision to contact the FCC to “clarify” the situation. Chief operating officer Julie Laulis tried to quell any controversy Cable One treats its customers differently based on how they handle their credit.

“Cable One runs a consumer credit pre-qualification, with the applicant’s consent, solely during the new customer sign-up process,” Laulis said. “The pre-qualification results are used to determine the size of the deposit and the installation charge, if any, that would be appropriate for the particular customer to offset the customer to offset the non-payment of bills or the non-return of equipment, as well as any introductory offers the customer may be eligible to receive.”

But once signed up, Laulis admitted the company still treats customers differently based on an internal scoring system it calls Lifetime Value (LTV), which determines what perks and special deals each customer is qualified to receive.

“Importantly, the LTV program has nothing at all to do with the use of credit scores,” Laulis added. “Any Cable One customer can, through a good payment history, achieve the highest LTV level and achieve additional levels of customer service and other benefits. This LTV level is independent of a credit score, and a credit score is not used to determine levels of service or loyalty rewards.”

Laulis claimed “the media” confused Might’s positions on credit scoring inside Cable One, although the cable company never asked for any corrections. Laulis also doesn’t deny the amount of customer service assistance available to customers may still depend on their creditworthiness.

Newly Independent Cable One Plans Broadband Makeover With Speed Upgrades

cable oneNewly independent Cable One will reduce its emphasis on cable television and turn its time, attention, and capital towards improving broadband service for its 690,000 largely rural customers in 19 states.

Cable One was spun off from Graham Holdings on July 1 and is not likely to stay independent for long before it is acquired by another cable operator, most likely Patrick Drahi’s Altice, S.A. — which recently acquired Suddenlink. But in the meantime, Cable One is attempting to persuade investors it is remaking itself into a broadband company, de-emphasizing the traditional cable television package in favor of dedicating more bandwidth for faster broadband speeds.

“Our standard broadband offering for our residential customers since 2011 has been a download speed of 50Mbps, which is at the high-end of the range of standard residential offerings even today in our markets,” the company reported in a statement. “Our enhanced broadband offering for our residential customers is currently a download speed of 75Mbps, which we expect to raise to 100Mbps by the end of 2015.”

Cable One primarily serves small cities and towns in the central and northwestern United States.

Cable One primarily serves small cities and towns in the central and northwestern United States.

In several markets, 100Mbps speed is already available and regular pricing has been simplified to $1 per megabit of service: 50Mbps for $50, 75Mbps for $75, or 100Mbps for $100 a month.

To protect its broadband business model, which carries prices traditionally higher than larger operators, Cable One will stay focused on largely uncompetitive markets where it faces token DSL broadband competition from companies like Frontier Communications, CenturyLink, and Windstream. More than 75 percent of its customers are located in Mississippi, Idaho, Oklahoma, Texas and Arizona, many served by these three telephone companies.

Cable One signaled it will hold the line on cable programming costs as well. In April 2014, the company dropped 15 Viacom networks, including MTV, VH1, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon and others over contract renewal prices it claimed were too high. The cable TV package has continued without the Viacom networks for more than a year, resulting in the loss of more than 20% of its cable TV customers. More than 100,000 homes have dropped Cable One video service for another provider, but ironically that actually helped Cable One increase its cash flow by more than 11%, because it no longer has to pay programming fees on behalf of the lost customers.

On the bright side, Cable One executives discovered many of its former TV customers have stayed with Cable One for Internet service because the competition either does not offer broadband or generally provides DSL at speeds under 10Mbps. Company officials have emphasized this point to investors, suggesting broadband is a true money-maker and television can safely take second chair without sabotaging profits.

“We certainly have some sympathy for the notion that a broadband-only cable operator might be more profitable,” wrote analyst Craig Moffett in an investor note this month. “But there are some critical holes in the Cable One story. Does the company truly believe that all costs are variable such that cutting video will bring endless margin expansion? Are Cable One’s new shareholders really better off for having played hardball with Viacom?”

Moffett does not believe so because he is convinced Cable One’s independence will be short-lived.

“We all know the consensus opinion is that someone will buy Cable One,” Moffett wrote. “But the above questions still matter. Any potential acquirer would still place value on a video business, or pay less for the fact that Cable One has less of one.”

But as long as rural telephone companies barely compete for broadband customers, Cable One’s broadband performance will deliver them a de facto broadband monopoly in their largely rural service areas. That gives the cable company, or its next owner, plenty of room for rate hikes.

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