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A Deal With Charter, Comcast Could Further Burden Sprint’s Poor-Performing Network

With Sprint and T-Mobile reportedly far apart in prospective merger talks, Sprint has given a two-month exclusive window to Charter Communications and Comcast Corp. to see if a wireless deal can be made between the wireless carrier and America’s largest cable operators. But any deal could initially burden Sprint’s fourth place network with more traffic, potentially worsening performance for Sprint customers until additional upgrades can be undertaken.

The two cable companies are reportedly seeking a favorable reseller arrangement for their forthcoming wireless offerings, which would include control over handsets, SIM cards, and the products and services that emerge after the deal. Both Charter and Comcast also have agreements with Verizon Wireless to resell that network, but only within the service areas of the two cable operators. Verizon’s deal is far more restrictive and costly than any deal Charter and Comcast would sign with Sprint.

Such a deal could begin adding tens of thousands of new wireless customers to Sprint’s 4G LTE network, already criticized for being overburdened and slow. In fact, Sprint’s network has been in last place for speed and performance compared with AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon for several years. A multi-year upgrade effort by Sprint has not delivered the experience many wireless customers expect and demand, and Sprint has seen many of its long-term customers churn away to other companies — especially T-Mobile, after they lost patience with Sprint’s repeated promises to improve service.

PC Magazine’s June 2017 results of fastest mobile carriers in United States shows Sprint in distant fourth place.

At least initially, cable customers switching to their company’s “quad-play” wireless plan powered by Sprint may find the experience cheaper, but underwhelming.

Sprint chairman Masayoshi Son was initially aggressive about upgrading Sprint’s network with funds advanced by parent company Softbank. But it seems no matter how much money was invested, Sprint has always lagged behind other wireless carriers. In recent years, those upgrades seem to have diminished. Instead, Son has been aggressively trying to find a way to overcome regulator and Justice Department objections to his plan to merge Sprint with third place carrier T-Mobile USA. Likely part of any deal with Charter and Comcast would be a substantial equity stake in Sprint, or some other investment commitment that would likely run into the billions. That money would likely be spent bolstering Sprint’s network.

A deal with the two cable companies could also give Sprint access to the cable operators’ large fiber networks, which could accelerate Sprint’s ability to buildout its 5G wireless network, which will rely on small cells connected to a fiber backhaul network.

Less likely, according to observers, would be a joint agreement between Charter and Comcast to buy Sprint, which is currently worth $32 billion but also has $32.6 billion in net debt. Sprint’s talks with Charter and Comcast do not preclude an eventual merger with T-Mobile USA. But any merger announcement would likely not come until late this summer or fall, if it happens at all.

Wall Street is downplaying a Sprint/T-Mobile combination as a result of the press reports indicating talks between the two companies appear to have gone nowhere.

“We didn’t give a Sprint/cable deal high odds,” wrote Jonathan Chaplin of New Street Research.  “While a single cable company entering into any transaction with Sprint has a strong likelihood of regulatory approval, a joint bid raises questions that add some uncertainty. However, the deal corroborates our view that Sprint isn’t as desperate as many thought and T-Mobile didn’t have the leverage that most seemed to assume.”

Malone

“An equity stake or outright acquisition is less likely in our view, but not out of the realm of possibility,” said Mike McCormack of Jefferies. “In our view, this likely suggests major hurdles in any Sprint/T-Mobile discussions and could renew speculation of T-Mobile and Dish should Sprint talks falter.”

Marci Ryvicker of Wells Fargo believes Comcast will be “the ultimate decision maker” as to which path will be taken. Amy Yong of Macquarie Research seems to agree. “We note Comcast has a strong history of successfully turning around assets and could contribute meaningfully to Sprint; NBCUniversal is the clearest example. But she notes Charter is likely to be distracted for the next year or two trying to integrate Time Warner Cable into its operations.

Behind the cable industry’s push into wireless is Dr. John Malone, Charter’s largest shareholder and longtime cable industry consigliere. Malone has spent better than a year pestering Comcast CEO Brian Roberts to join Charter Communications in a joint effort to acquire a wireless carrier instead of attempting to build their own wireless networks. But both Roberts and Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge have been reluctant to make a large financial commitment in the wireless industry at a time when the days of easy wireless profits are over and increasing competition has forced prices down.

For Malone, wireless is about empowering the cable industry “quad play” – bundling cable TV, internet, phone, and wireless into a single package on a single bill. The more services a consumer buys from a single provider, the more difficult and inconvenient it is to change providers.

Malone also believes in a united front by the cable industry to meet any competitive threat. Malone favored TV Everywhere and other online video collaborations with cable operators to combat Netflix and Hulu. He also advocates for additional cable industry consolidation, in particular the idea of a single giant company combining Charter, Cox, and Comcast. Under the Trump Administration, Malone thinks such a colossal deal is a real possibility.

Tennessee Electric Co-Op Threatens to Rip Comcast’s Wires Off Its Poles Next Week

If Comcast doesn’t send a check for $176,000 to cover the last three years of pole attachment fees owed to the Southwest Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation (STEMC), the electric co-op is prepared to rip Comcast’s lines right off its poles.

Comcast, under a license agreement with the utility, pays a small fee to the utility to place its infrastructure on its utility poles. Comcast has not paid since June 2014, and if the cable giant doesn’t send a check by June 28, STEMC will remove Comcast’s attachments from their poles, knocking out cable service for thousands of customers.

“We’ve been going back and forth with them for going on three years now trying to get payment out of them,” said STEMC chief financial officer Scott Sims.

A notice on STEMC’s website explains Comcast’s foot-dragging isn’t fair to the cooperative:

We regret that some customers may lose their Comcast service.  However, the full cost and maintenance of these utility poles are borne by all members of STEMC, and we cannot allow STEMC members to subsidize Comcast’s services.  We are hopeful that Comcast will make payment prior to the deadline and avoid the need to remove their cable attachments.

Many residents are taking the side of the utility, pointing out Comcast would have shut off their cable service long before Comcast’s three years of non-payment.

A Comcast representative told WREG-TV that STEMC started billing Comcast double what they used to, claiming to have discovered previously unbilled pole attachments. Comcast wanted evidence of these attachments from STEMC, despite the fact they were capable of counting their own cable subscribers in the area, and refused to make a payment until this information was provided. Comcast claims it finally got evidence this month.

“Since receiving that information, we have completed our own audit and are taking the appropriate next steps to arrange for payment in the correct amount,” Comcast said in a released statement. “We look forward to working with STEMC to resolve this issue quickly and ensure that our mutual customers’ services are not disrupted.”

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!

Comcast Introduces Gigabit DOCSIS 3.1 Broadband in 7 New Cities: $70-109.99/Month

Comcast may be undercutting its own fiber broadband aspirations by introducing a cheaper way for customers to get gigabit broadband service over their existing Comcast cable connection.

Customers in seven new areas, including most of Colorado, Oregon, southwest Washington State, and the cities of Houston, Kansas City, San Francisco and Seattle now have access to Comcast’s DOCSIS 3.1-powered gigabit downloads. (Upload speeds are limited to a much less impressive 35Mbps.)

Comcast announced the new communities as part of their gradual rollout of DOCSIS 3.1 — the standard that powers cable broadband — across their national footprint. These communities join Utah, Detroit, Tennessee, Chicago, Atlanta, and Miami where Comcast has already introduced the new speeds.

It is Comcast’s latest foray into gigabit speed broadband, and it is decidedly focused on the cities outside of the northeast (except Boston) where Comcast has not faced significant competition from Google Fiber or AT&T Fiber, both delivering gigabit speed internet access. Verizon FiOS, predominately in the northeast, only recently introduced gigabit speed options for its residential customers. Comcast continues to be among the most aggressive cable operators willing to boost broadband speeds for its customers, in direct contrast to Charter Communications, the second largest cable operator in the country that is predominately focused on selling 60-100Mbps internet packages to its customers.

Comcast sells multiple broadband speed tiers to its customers.

Comcast’s efforts may undercut its own fiber-on-demand project, which wires fiber to the home service for some Comcast customers seeking up to 2Gbps service. That plan comes with a steep installation fee and term commitment, making it a harder sell for customers. Comcast’s DOCSIS-powered gigabit will retail for $159.95 a month, but Comcast is offering pricing promotions ranging from $70-109.99 a month with a one-year term commitment in several cities. The more competition, the lower the price.

In Kansas City, where Google Fiber premiered and AT&T is wiring its own gigabit fiber, Comcast charges $70 a month, price-locked for two years with a one-year contract. Customers who don’t want a contract will pay dearly for that option — $160 a month, which is more than double the promotional price.

In Houston, where AT&T has not exactly blanketed the city with gigabit fiber service and Comcast has been the dominant cable operator for decades, gigabit speed will cost you $109.99 — almost $40 more a month because of the relative lack of competition. Customers who bundle other Comcast services will get a price break however. Upgrading to gigabit service will cost those customers an additional $50 to $70 a month, depending on their current package.

“Additional prices and promotions may be tested in the future,” the company said in a news release.

Comcast does not expect many customers will want to make the jump to gigabit speeds and a higher broadband bill. Rich Jennings, senior vice president of Comcast’s Western/Mountain region, told the Colorado Springs Gazette that gigabit service was a “niche product for people who want that kind of speed.”

Comcast does suspect a number of signups will be from broadband-only customers who don’t subscribe to cable television.

Mike Spaulding, Comcast’s vice president of engineering, thinks the service will appeal most to those who rely entirely on a broadband connection for entertainment and communications.

“There’s not a lot of need for gigabit service for one customer to do one thing,” Spaulding told the Denver Post. “But what it does is enable an even better experience as more devices in the home are streaming, whether it’s video or gaming or whatever they are doing in the home. Most of our customers subscribe to the 100Mbps package today. Less than 10 percent of our customers are in the 200-250Mbps. We’ll see where one gig takes us.”

One place a gig may take customers is perilously close to Comcast’s notorious 1TB usage cap, which is currently enforced in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, Western Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, South Carolina, Utah, Southwest Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin, even for this premium-priced internet tier. Customers exceeding it will automatically pay a $10 overlimit fee for each 50GB of excess usage, up to a maximum of $200 a month. An unlimited ‘insurance plan’ is also available for $50 a month, which removes the 1TB cap.

Customers will have to use a new modem if they upgrade to gigabit service, either renting one from Comcast for around $10 a month or buying a compatible DOCSIS 3.1 modem. Two of the most recommended: the Arris Surfboard SB8200 ($189) or the Netgear CM1000 ($171.99) (prices subject to change).

Zoom’s Motorola MB8600 DOCSIS 3.1 Modem Arrives This Month: $159.99

Zoom’s Motorola MB8600

Zoom Telephonics will introduce its first full-featured DOCSIS 3.1 modem for broadband consumers later this month at a price of $159.99.

The Motorola MB8600 includes four GigE LAN ports with support for bonding to allow for delivered speeds of up to 4Gbps and includes Broadcom’s Full-Band Capture (FBC) digital tuning, which supports future IPTV applications.

Zoom licensed the Motorola brand name for broadband-related equipment and is hoping to grab more market share in a field dominated by more familiar brands including Arris, Ubee, and Netgear.

The unit is backwards-compatible with DOCSIS 3.0 and includes support for up to 32×8 DOCSIS 3 channels, which some cable operators are using to provide gigabit speeds.

The full feature set:

  • DOCSIS 3.1 with fallback to 32×8 DOCSIS 3.0
  • Full-band Capture Digital Tuning enhances speed and saves energy
  • Works with any router, Windows or Mac computer, HDTV, or game station that has an Ethernet port
  • This DOCSIS 3.1 modem supports Active Queue Management (AQM), which significantly reduces Internet latency.
  • 4 GigE Ethernet ports with support for port bonding
  • Vertical case saves space and enhances cooling
  • High resistance to lightning and to power surges
  • Future proof, including DOCSIS 3.1, DOCSIS 3.0
  • 2 year warranty
  • IPv6 next generation Internet addressing support
  • Multi Processor Technology with ARM based Application Processor

The box comes pre-branded with Comcast’s XFINITY logo, which means it is a sure bet Comcast will support this modem. Consumers should verify if other cable operators will approve use of this modem before buying. It will be available for retail online sale by Walmart, Amazon.com, Target, Best Buy and MicroCenter as early as late May.

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