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GOP Tax Cut Law Will Deliver $14.4 Billion to Comcast for Mergers, Share Buybacks by 2021

Phillip Dampier January 18, 2018 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

The Republican-pushed corporate tax rollback will bring a $14.4 billion increase in available cash flow for Comcast to use for future mergers and acquisitions or share buybacks by 2021, even as the cable company has no plans to share its tax savings bonanza with subscribers in the form of lower rates.

MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett noted Comcast will likely only spend the largess on two things — acquiring other companies to further concentrate the media marketplace or, more likely use its newly available cash flow on a blockbuster share buyback program, which will boost Comcast’s stock price and deliver dramatically higher bonuses to the company’s top executives.

Moffett believes Comcast is following in the footsteps of Time Warner Cable a decade ago, shortly after the company was split away from Time Warner, Inc. The former Time Warner Cable fueled interest in its stock by committing to keep its leverage at a stable 3.25 x EBITDA, which means it would not be spend a lot of money or take on a lot of debt to upgrade its cable systems, make expensive acquisitions, or cut rates for subscribers. As a result, Comcast’s free cash will quickly accumulate, which it will either use to buy other companies, return to investors in the form of a dividend payout, or buy back large numbers of shares of its own stock, making shares already owned by investors more valuable. Since most executive compensation packages tie bonuses to the share price of the company’s stock, and often include stock share awards for executives, top officials can take home tens of millions of dollars in bonuses.

The Trump Administration claimed the dramatic cut in the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% would create new investment, result in new job creation and higher pay. But at Comcast, its existing investment plans developed before the tax cut law was passed remain largely unchanged, the company laid off nearly 1,000 workers in the last month, and so far has only committed to giving qualified employees a one-time $1,000 bonus, which will cost the company a one time charge of less than $150 million — about 1.04% of Comcast’s tax cut cash haul.

Comcast Adds 4G Backup to Cover Internet Outages for Businesses

Phillip Dampier January 11, 2018 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News, Wireless Broadband 2 Comments

Comcast’s Business division has introduced the first automatic 4G backup internet connection service for commercial customers who experience an internet outage or network problem.

Comcast’s Connection Pro ($29.95/mo) offers automatic switching to a backup 4G LTE wireless internet service that will keep business customers connected to the internet until Comcast’s wired broadband connection is repaired and goes back online.

“Internet connectivity is critical for any business. Losing their connection – even shortly – can be disruptive,” said Jeff Lewis, vice president, data product management, Comcast Business. “Comcast Business understands that businesses need a redundant back-up solution to help stay connected and provide greater peace of mind in the event of a power or internet outage.”

The service targets small businesses and retailers and is marketed as a backup for cash registers/credit card point of sale terminals, email, and cloud services, and includes battery backup to maintain connectivity for up to eight hours in the event of a power outage.

Business customers can also access an online control panel to remotely monitor outages at individual business locations.

Comcast Laid Off Hundreds Before Christmas and Kept it Quiet With Non-Disclosure Agreements

Phillip Dampier January 4, 2018 Comcast/Xfinity, Public Policy & Gov't 3 Comments

Two weeks before Christmas and on the cusp of passage of the Republican-sponsored corporate tax cuts that promised better pay and more jobs for workers, Comcast fired at least 500 door-to-door sales employees and required them to sign non-disclosure agreements in return for a severance package.

Managers, supervisors, and direct sales staff in Chicago, Florida, and across Comcast’s Central division — including the midwest and southeastern U.S., were abruptly terminated around Dec. 15, according to documents obtained by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Most of the workers trudged door to door in neighborhoods and apartment complexes selling Comcast services to residential customers. Comcast has attempted to keep the layoffs quiet by requiring laid off workers to sign a non-disclosure agreement if they want a severance package. After being confronted by the newspaper, a Comcast spokesperson confirmed the layoffs.

“The Central Division is creating a new territory-based sales model that will connect more closely with residential prospects and customers in their communities,” Comcast spokeswoman Jennifer Moyer said Thursday. “By giving highly trained sales professionals direct responsibility for entire neighborhoods, we can provide a better experience for those who are interested in our services, during and after the sale.”

Because the layoffs only affect some of Comcast’s regional divisions, additional job cuts could be forthcoming if the company adopts its new sales model nationwide.

The Philadelphia Inquirer could not identify affected employees because Comcast required laid-off workers to sign Non Disclosure Agreements (NDAs).

Embittered employees are upset having to remain anonymous talking about their jobs disappearing just before Christmas. Comcast also gets to avoid paying the fired workers its heavily promoted $1,000 bonus because Comcast conveniently eliminated their positions shortly before announcing the bonus.

The Trump Administration promoted the corporate tax cut as a Christmas gift to the middle class, claiming it would inspire companies to add jobs and boost worker pay. At Comcast, the tax cut will provide hundreds of millions in tax savings annually that are expected to be mostly returned to shareholders. Corporate executives are also expected to benefit through significantly higher bonuses tied to the increased cash on hand from tax savings and the higher value of Comcast’s stock. Comcast has made no commitments about hiring new workers, but did claim it would invest up to $50 billion in its company’s operations, which is roughly comparable to what Comcast traditionally spent before the tax cuts were announced.

According to the newspaper, it seems Comcast treated its shocked workers with about as much sensitivity as it gives its customers:

Rumors of an employee cutback among the sales people at Comcast had been percolating for weeks. But the disclosure of the terminations came as a shock when the employees were called into a company meeting in the southeastern U.S. in mid-December.

They were told that a new Comcast direct sales system requires fewer bodies “and as of today everyone in this room does not have a job anymore,” the terminated Comcast employee said.

One employee kept holding his head and saying “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.” Another worried about how to find new health-care coverage. A third employee was close to purchasing a new home and feared the personal income hit.

Comcast direct sales employees earned $50,000 to $100,000 through a low base salary and commissions, the terminated employee said. The commissions ranged between roughly $75 for a new Internet Plus customer to $350 for a new customer who ordered a triple-play package with home security, the former employee said.

“I don’t know how you do this right before Christmas.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Telecom Companies Win Huge New Tax Breaks and Falsely Promise Spending Spree

Some of America’s top telephone and cable companies will likely pay little, if any federal taxes as a result of the passage of a Republican-sponsored tax cut plan, while some may also receive generous “refunds” based on depreciation-related expenses and future investments the companies would have made with or without changes to the tax code.

For several years in the last decade, companies with significant infrastructure expenses often did not spend a penny in federal taxes thanks to generous loopholes and incentive programs designed to encourage corporations to invest in new equipment, research, and development. The new Republican-sponsored tax cut is expected to provide a windfall of tax savings for every corporation in the country, but telecom companies are expected to do especially well with a combination of a lower corporate tax rate and the GOP’s failure to fulfill a commitment to close many of the tax loopholes and incentives that were originally designed to get companies spending during the Great Recession.

No provider has promised customers lower rates as a result of the billions of additional dollars the companies are expected to keep in the bank starting next year. In fact, there are early signs that much of the anticipated windfall will be returned to shareholders in the form of increased dividend payouts and accelerated share buyback schemes that reduce the number of shares available for sale, boosting both the sale price of the stock and executive bonus compensation tied to the price performance of the stock.

Despite that, companies including AT&T and Comcast are cranking up their PR machines to get on the good side of the Trump Administration, suggesting the new tax cuts will directly benefit middle class employees at both companies.

AT&T’s capex increased $1.1 billion to $11.2 billion for the first six months of 2017 without the tax cut legislation.

AT&T announced it would pay a one-time $1,000 bonus to its workers and invest an additional $1 billion in network upgrades as a direct result of the tax cuts.

However, a closer look reveals AT&T’s commitments to boost compensation came not as a result of the tax cut but instead from nearly a year of hard negotiations with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), one of the biggest unions representing AT&T workers.

The CWA argued that AT&T needed to follow-through on the Republican Party’s promise that passage of the tax cuts would result in higher wages for the middle class.

“Republicans, including the president, said the average household would get $4,000 under this tax plan,” CWA spokesperson Candice Johnson told The Daily Beast. In November, CWA officials began to demand $4,000 raises for AT&T workers promised by the GOP. “This bonus came out of that conversation. It’s a start, and we’re going to keep holding our leaders accountable.”

Instead of $4,000 more a year for AT&T workers as a result of the tax cut bill, the union’s influence achieved a $1,000 one time bonus and an average salary bump of 10.1%. Without pressure from the union, many AT&T employees and union officials believe AT&T would have offered little, if anything to its employees as a result of the tax cut.

AT&T’s Christmas Bonus will cost the company a fraction of the amount it risks losing if its $109 billion merger deal with Time Warner, Inc., does not survive an antitrust review by the Justice Department and the courts. The Justice Department announced its opposition to the merger. The connection between AT&T’s press release, which plays into the Trump Administration’s talking points about the tax cut law, and AT&T’s need for a friendlier response to its merger deal by administration officials, was not lost on Crane’s Chicago Business:

By now, companies have learned the art of crafting the type of upbeat, largely symbolic press releases our president loves, with enough big numbers to get them on the White House’s good side. If this time around that also means some extra money in workers’ pockets, all the better. But some of these announcements come across as more gimmicky than others, and it’s not hard to wonder if there are also other motives at work.

AT&T is angling to overcome regulatory objections to its $109 billion merger with Time Warner Inc. and either way, needs to invest in the U.S. to build out its fiber-optic cable and 5G networks. Analysts estimate AT&T’s net income will be close to $14 billion this year.

AT&T’s commitment to spend up to $1 billion additional dollars next year as a direct result of the tax cut is recycled old news, critics charge, because AT&T previously announced the same $1 billion commitment in early November. Regardless, the extra spending is a small fraction of AT&T’s overall capex budget.

In 2016, at the height of so-called “investment-killing net neutrality,” AT&T exceeded its 2016 capex forecast, spending $22.9 billion — $900,000 more than it expected. In 2017, AT&T announced it expected to spend $22 billion again this year, primarily on its wireless network and wired business solutions. The other major former Baby Bell – Verizon Communications, spent $17.1 billion in 2016 and expected to spend up to $17.5 billion this year.

AT&T’s promise to spend an additional $1 billion is a token amount, especially when considering the tax cut savings likely to be won by phone companies like AT&T and Verizon. From 2008-2015, AT&T paid an effective federal tax rate of just 8.1%, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. It will pay considerably less under the Republican tax law, potentially saving the company billions. During the same period, Verizon paid absolutely zero federal taxes during many of those years, and in fact won a refund from the IRS because of network investments and depreciation-related savings. Because the GOP did not close many of the corporate loopholes the politicians initially promised would be ended, many telecom companies could once again pay little, if any federal tax, and may secure hefty refunds.

Source: Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy

Comcast’s $1,000 Christmas Bonus and $50 Billion Spending Commitment

Not to be outdone, Comcast has also promised a $1,000 one time Christmas bonus for its employees as a result of the passage of the GOP tax measure, along with a commitment to spend $50 billion on its business over the next five years:

Based on the passage of tax reform and the FCC’s action on broadband, Brian L. Roberts, chairman and CEO of Comcast NBCUniversal, announced that the company would award special $1,000 bonuses to more than 100,000 eligible frontline and non-executive employees. Roberts also announced that the company expects to spend well in excess of $50 billion over the next five years investing in infrastructure to radically improve and extend our broadband plant and capacity, and our television, film and theme park offerings.

Roberts

Comcast’s spending on its theme parks acquired from NBCUniversal has been especially bullish, with Roberts announcing earlier this year nearly $2 billion in spending  in 2017. In fact, Comcast’s capex spending has trended higher year after year, especially after its acquisition of NBCUniversal. In 2014, the company spent $7.2 billion on capital investments. In 2015, as net neutrality rules took effect, Comcast raised investments to $8.1 billion. In 2016, the capex budget fell slightly to $7.597 billion in 2016, but was forecast to reach $8.445 billion in 2017. Ars Technica reports that from the fourth quarter of 2016 through the third quarter of 2017, Comcast spent $9.4 billion on capital investments.

Much of that spending has been to pay for its X1 set-top box, theme park upgrades, and scaling up its broadband infrastructure to handle faster internet speeds. Earlier in 2017, Comcast also boosted its commitment to spend billions on buying back shares of its own stock, which will benefit shareholders and company executive compensation plans.

As the industry marches towards fiber upgrades and DOCSIS 3.1 deployment, Comcast’s capex forecast without the tax cuts would like come very close to Roberts’ $50 billion estimate over the next five years, assuming the company spent a reasonable average of close to $10 billion annually. Roberts said he “expects” spending at that level, but did not commit to it formally, so there is no penalty for overestimating investment numbers.

AT&T earlier noted predictions about capital investments always relate to actual need at the time and the company doesn’t spend money it does not need to spend.

“There is no reason to expect capital expenditures to increase by the same amount year after year,” AT&T said at the time. “Capital expenditures tend to be ‘lumpy.’ Providers make significant expenditures to upgrade and expand their networks in one year (e.g., perhaps because a new generation of technology has just been introduced), and then focus the next year on signing up customers and integrating those new facilities into their existing networks, and then make additional capital expenditures later, and so on.”

But there are political upsides to making no-strings-attached investment predictions anyway.

Comcast’s share repurchase program also allows the company to boost dividend payouts to shareholders.

Issuing a favorable press release that dovetails with the Trump Administration’s tax cut plan could buy Comcast goodwill from the administration as the company faces calls from Congress to extend merger deal conditions and restrictions on its 2011 acquisition of NBCUniversal. Those conditions are scheduled to expire in September 2018.

Jon Brodkin notes that telecom companies frequently tie their spending plans to regulatory matters going in their favor:

When ISPs are asking the government for a specific policy change—such as the repeal of a regulation or a tax break—they are quick to claim that the desired policy will lead to more investment.

AT&T, for example, announced last month that it would invest “an additional $1 billion” if Congress passes tax reform. With the tax reform now passed by Congress, AT&T said yesterday that it will move ahead with that $1 billion increase.

But neither one of those AT&T announcements said what the exact level of investment would have been if the tax bill wasn’t passed.

And in 2010, AT&T told the FCC that capital expenditures are based on technology upgrade cycles rather than government policy. At the time, AT&T was asking the FCC for a favor—the company wanted a declaration that the wireless market is competitive, a finding that can influence how the FCC regulates wireless carriers.

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