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John Malone’s Liberty Interactive Buying Alaska’s GCI for $1.12 Billion

Phillip Dampier April 4, 2017 Consumer News, GCI (Alaska) 1 Comment

Cable magnate John Malone’s Liberty Interactive today announced it would acquire Alaska’s largest cable operator General Communication, Inc. (GCI) for $1.12 billion in an all-stock transaction.

Malone is the biggest individual shareholder of Charter Communications, Inc., and has decades of experience running cable companies in the lower 48 states and abroad. He also has experience structuring deals to avoid the U.S. tax authorities, and this deal is no different. Malone will pay zero taxes on the transaction by creatively spinning off the cable operator, first rechristening it as QVC Corp (named after his home shopping channel), then combining QVC Corp with Liberty Ventures and splitting off the combined company to existing Liberty Ventures shareholders. When the transaction is complete, Malone will again rename the cable company GCI Liberty and keep all the proceeds for himself and his shareholders.

GCI’s 108,000 customers won’t see any changes at the cable company and wireless venture this year. The deal is not scheduled to close until 2018.

GCI’s oldest customers may recall John Malone used to own the Alaskan cable operator, but under a different name. Until 1986, it was part of Malone’s Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) empire.

Expensive and usage-capped.

Malone’s operating philosophy these days is best represented by Charter Communications. GCI customers can eventually expect to see a dramatically simplified menu of choices for broadband, television, and telephone service. Broadband from GCI is expensive and usage-capped. Its $60 entry-level plan offers 50/3Mbps service that is “speed reduced” after 50GB of usage a month. For that reason, many customers prefer GCI’s “Faster” plan of 100/5Mbps service for $84.99 a month, with speeds curtailed after 250GB of usage. A gigabit tier is available in certain locations offering 1,000/50Mbps for $174.99 a month, speed-throttled after 1TB of usage.

GCI’s Stingy Caps About to Get a Boost

gciBroadband life in Alaska is usually a choice (if you live in Fairbanks, Anchorage, Juneau, or another significantly sized city) between usage-capped cable operator GCI or slow-speed DSL (if you can get it) from Alaska’s two telephone companies – ACS, where unlimited service is still available, or MTA, where a 10Mbps Internet plan starts at $50 and offers up to 50GB of usage a month.

GCI has traditionally been the fastest option, but the company’s usage caps and high prices have brought scores of complaints from customers over the years. A basic 10/1Mbps internet plan costs $59.99 a month and only includes 40GB of usage. Many Alaskans who want faster access with a more reasonable allowance have to spend $84.99 a month for 50/3Mbps access to get a 150GB usage allowance or $134.99 for 100/5Mbps service with 300GB of included usage.

Late last week, GCI announced it was boosting the usage allowance for just one of its plans, the premium-priced, limited availability 1,000/50Mbps plan ($174.99), which until recently included a 750GB usage allowance. The new usage allowance is 1TB (1,000GB).

“In today’s connected society, people are demanding more and more access to data at incredibly fast speeds,” said Paul Landes, GCI’s senior vice president/general manager of consumer services. “GCI is proud to have a product that keeps our customers connected in ways people in Boston and LA can’t even receive. Even better, we are able to provide these upgrades at no additional cost to our loyal customers.”

Alaskans face high prices for internet access from GCI, the state's largest cable company.

Alaskans face high prices for internet access from GCI, the state’s largest cable company.

Gigabit customers like Stop the Cap! reader Dave Langhorn certainly hoped so.

“This is long overdue,” said Langhorn. “For $175 a month, there shouldn’t be any data caps, considering unlimited gigabit plans in the lower-48 often sell for $70-80 a month, which is less than half what we pay and still get capped.”

Our reader Michael Horton is incensed that GCI managed a usage allowance boost for its most premium internet plan, while leaving everyone else with the same old service.

“We shouldn’t be allowing any ISPs to restrict usage on their networks,” said Horton. “You should be paying for the speed that you use and nothing more.”

Horton considers data caps anachronistic at a time when the digital economy is moving towards online distribution of products and services like movies, games, software, and other digital products. Even Windows 10 has been more often installed from a download than from physical media.

GCI has promised to address at least one of Horton’s concerns, stating they are planning speed boosts and allowance upgrades for all of their internet plans at an unspecified time later this year.

GCI says the allowance boost comes in response to customer requests from surveys and “listening sessions.”

Horton and Langhorn both believe that those voices would be heard much louder if GCI had more significant competition.

“ACS is the only alternative if you want unreliable speed,” Horton writes.”They don’t have bandwidth caps, but you will be unable to use their service efficiently if you are a gamer or watch Netflix a lot.”

 

Updated: GCI Changes Usage Cap Policies: Automatic Overlimit Fees Replaced With Speed Throttling

GCI_logoAlaska’s largest cable company today unveiled changes to its Internet plans, ditching surprise overlimit fees in favor of a speed throttle.

GCI has been the subject of bad press in the past, with some customers experiencing up to $1,200 in overlimit fees after exceeding GCI’s usage allowances. In an effort to avoid public relations nightmares like that, GCI will stop assessing automatic overlimit fees and instead impose a speed throttle on customers over their limit that will temporarily reduce broadband speeds to less than 1Mbps until the next billing cycle begins. Customers can voluntarily pay for more usage in $10 increments, which buys a reprieve from the speed throttle.

GCI “No Worries” Broadband Plans offer varying usage caps and extra usage allotments:

no worries

Customers on lower speed plans continue to face a lower usage allowance and will receive considerably less extra data for their $10 add-on data plan. GCI’s highest speed re:D offering does get a bigger usage allowance: 600GB, up from 500GB. An $11.99/mo surcharge continues for broadband-only customers.

GCI’s largest competitor remains telephone company ACS, which heavily markets its unlimited usage DSL plans. Almost as an afterthought, ACS now markets packages that include landline service with unlimited local calling and 180 minutes of long distance for free.

acs unlimited

A price comparison between the two providers is somewhat hampered by the fact GCI does not publicize a broadband+home phone bundle package on their website. GCI Home Phone is priced at $19.99 a month.

A 10Mbps unlimited use package from ACS costs $110/month. A 10Mbps plan from the cable company with a 30 40GB allowance + GCI Home Phone costs $79.98. On price, GCI wins at this speed… if you stay within your allowance. A 50Mbps unlimited use package from ACS runs $180 a month. GCI charges $104.98 with 150GB of included usage. Again, the price winner is GCI if you stay within your allowance. Taxes, surcharges and government fees are extra.

Heavier users may find ACS’ initially higher prices worthwhile if they are forced to buy GCI’s add-on data buckets. Both companies charge considerably more than providers in the lower 48 states.

Last year, nearly 10% of GCI’s revenue was earned from automatically applied overlimit fees. Giving up some of that revenue is a concession, but one that is likely to end bill shock and negative media attention. Still, usage allowances remain arbitrary. GCI’s entry level 10Mbps plan only offers a paltry 30 40GB a month — an allowance largely unheard of among other U.S. cable providers. GCI will also have a difficult time explaining why $10 will only offer one customer 5GB of extra usage while others will get up to 30GB. The costs for the additional data to GCI are the same.

Our thanks to an anonymous reader for sharing the news.

Updated 4:08pm EST 1/15: After going to press, GCI changed their website, adjusting the usage allowance for their 10/1Mbps plan to 40GB (up from 30GB) and deleted references to the $11.99 surcharge for broadband-only customers, which apparently no longer applies.

Verizon Wireless Arrives in Alaska; Helps Drive Alaska Communications Out of the Wireless Business

acs logoWhen Verizon Wireless finally fired up its network in Alaska in September of 2014, the writing was on the wall for at least one of Alaska’s homegrown wireless competitors.

Faced with competing against Verizon’s $115 million, state-of-the-art advanced LTE network that already supports new features like Voice over LTE (far ahead of what many customers in the lower 48 states get) Alaska Communications System Group, Inc., decided it was time to sell.

An ACS and GCI-shared cell tower. (Photo: Rosemarie Alexander)

An ACS and GCI-shared cell tower. (Photo: Rosemarie Alexander)

ACS’ 109,000 wireless customers won’t be going far. The buyer, General Communications, Inc., (GCI) is a co-investor in the Alaska Wireless Network that ACS also relies on to offer wireless service. Besides billing and rate plans, most ACS customers won’t notice much of a change after the $300 million sale is complete during the first quarter of this year. GCI will end up with about 253,000 customers after the transaction is finished, which represents about one-third of the Alaskan wireless marketplace. The sale will mean most Alaskans will have a practical choice of three major wireless carriers — AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and GCI.

ACS, weighed down by debt, wanted out of the wireless business because it has proven expensive to support a network serving a high-cost, low margin state like Alaska, where small communities are often far apart. Serving cities like Fairbanks and Juneau is one thing. Serving hundreds of settlements like Meyers Chuck (pop. 21) or towns like Unalakleet (pop. 688) is another.

Like many traditional rural or independent telephone companies, ACS sees gold in its future focusing on selling lucrative broadband service to residential and business customers, where profit margins often exceed 50 percent. There is plenty of room to grow if ACS invests in network upgrades. ACS currently only has a 20 percent share of Alaska’s broadband market, primarily selling DSL service. GCI, which sells cable broadband, has managed a speed advantage.

Both companies have reassured Wall Street that despite ACS’ renewed focus on broadband, there will be no fierce competition, no price wars, or lower prices for consumers. ACS will devote considerable resources into bolstering its business broadband marketing and has already secured contracts with the state government and a regional health consortium.

Despite the $300 million windfall, ACS plans to turn most of that money towards paying off its debts and possibly reinstating a dividend payout program for shareholders. The company is expected to only spend $35 million to $40 million annually on capital investment projects and executives promise they will only open their wallet for projects that guarantee a high return on that investment. As a result, ACS will likely not spend much on rural broadband expansion.

Alaska’s GCI Boosts Speeds But Leaves Its Caps and Overlimit Fees Intact

redAlaska-based GCI has rolled out a free upgrade for customers in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan, Mat-Su Valley, and Sitka that delivers broadband speeds up to 250/10Mbps.

GCI’s re:D broadband used to max out at 200Mbps, but thanks to channel bonding on the cable system, download speeds will be upgraded to 250Mbps in re:D service areas by the end of this year.

But getting 250Mbps broadband is not cheap in Alaska. The service is priced at $174.99 a month when part of a service bundle. Broadband-only customers also pay a $11.99 monthly access fee. Both come with 24-month contracts at that price. Customers who don’t want to be tied down can choose month-to-month service for $5 more per month.

At those prices, one might hope GCI would drop its usage cap, but customers can forget it. A 500GB monthly usage cap applies, with overlimit fees up to $30/GB on some plans.

GCI also announced it would deliver 1Gbps next year over a fiber to the home network under construction in Anchorage, promising “no limits with what you can do with broadband” without mentioning whether it planned usage limits for its fiber service as well.

GCI is asking customers to vote support for their neighborhoods getting fiber upgrades. The more red this map of Anchorage shows, the more customers who have shown support for fiber broadband.

GCI is asking customers to vote support for their neighborhoods getting fiber upgrades. The more red sections of this map of Anchorage shows, the more customers who have shown support for fiber broadband.

For most GCI customers, however, broadband will continue to arrive over the company’s HFC coaxial cable network. To better manage speeds, the company’s DOCSIS 3 platform is bonding eight cable channels, but in re:D areas the company bonds up to 24 cable channels, with plans to increase to 32 channels.

acs logoThe speed increases come after its competitor Alaska Communications announced speed increases of its own. ACS sells unlimited access broadband service at speeds up to 50Mbps. ACS has beefed up its copper infrastructure to support faster Internet speeds, starting with 15Mbps introduced across the state in May. Now customers in Anchorage can subscribe to faster tiers including 30 and 50Mbps.

“Alaskans asked for faster Home Internet, and we’ve responded with these increased speeds, delivered with great customer service and without overage charges,” said ACS president and CEO Anand Vadapalli. “In addition to faster download speeds, customers choosing our product get the highest upload speeds that are so important for sharing videos and gaming.”

ACS has found its unlimited broadband offering attractive to customers who don’t want to worry about GCI’s overlimit fees. ACS also claims its customers get broadband over a dedicated line, not shared infrastructure like GCI, resulting in no speed slowdowns at peak usage times.

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