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Cablevision’s Next Owner Drove Away One Million Customers in Europe; Profits Come First

The French press continues to ridicule Patrick Drahi's debt-laden acquisitions as "Altice in Wonderland." (Cartoon: Les Echos)

The French press continues to ridicule Patrick Drahi’s debt-laden acquisitions as “Altice in Wonderland.” (Cartoon: Les Echos)

The next owner of Cablevision and Suddenlink put profits ahead of people and managed to drive away more than one million of his own customers in Europe within a year of a massive cost-cutting operation that led to service degradation and noncompetitive prices.

Patrick Drahi’s Altice NV has similar plans in store for both American cable companies if he manages to win regulator approval of the acquisitions.

The Wall Street Journal reports Altice was willing to sacrifice market share if it meant the company could extract cost-savings and higher profits that Drahi could use to help pay off some of his acquisition loans.

Some Wall Street analysts were initially excited to hear Drahi would slash salaries, knock union heads, and eviscerate at least $900 million in costs annually from Cablevision, results likely to boost Cablevision’s share price and fatten investor returns.

The cost-cutting formula is always the same in an Altice takeover. Special teams arrive from Europe within days of a deal closing with strict instructions to cut employees, reduce the salaries of those remaining, and brutally cut costs out of the business. Drahi is famous in Europe for stopping payment on checks to suppliers, leaving them unpaid until they agreed to offer his company discounts up to 40%. Employees also share stories of having to pay for office supplies out-of-pocket and in at least one case, staffed a wireless store that carried no phones in inventory because Drahi stiffed his supplier.



The bad news for Wall Street? Customers of Drahi’s cable and wireless companies are fleeing in droves. At least 1.1 million of Altice’s French customers have taken their business elsewhere, fed up with deteriorating service and uncompetitive prices.

One manager lamented that as Altice-owned Numericable-SFR’s wireless network deteriorated to the point of regularly dropping calls, Drahi borrowed nearly $2 billion he set aside in preparation for further acquisitions.

“Debt is Drahi’s drug,” commented French news site LeJDD.

Drahi leverages his buyouts with loans covering up to 80% of the purchase price. Eerily similar to toxic sub-prime mortgage debt, investment banks consider holding too much of Drahi’s debt potentially poisonous, so they routinely repackage it with other loans and resell it to other financial institutions and unknown investors. That has some in the French government concerned Drahi is building the world’s first “too big to fail” telecom company, while leaving investors in the dark about the risks of holding his loans.

The lessons learned watching Drahi manage one of France’s largest wireless operators may concern U.S. regulators contemplating Drahi’s buyout offers of Cablevision and Suddenlink.

numericable_sfr_logoIn the first quarter under Drahi, SFR boosted margins by 21% based on ruthless cost cutting. But a stunning 445,000 customers quickly left the operator. Critics contend Drahi’s cost cutting does temporarily boost profits, but also allows network quality to degrade, eventually alienating customers who leave. Drahi then uses SFR’s smaller customer base as an excuse for further cost-cutting. Between 2006-2011, Drahi eliminated half of the wireless provider’s workforce and outsourced much of his call center customer support operations.

Those still working at Altice companies after the cost-cutters depart are left in a state of siege.

Optimum-Branding-Spot-New-Logo“He’s a beast,” one employee told LeJDD in a piece that compared working for SFR with being in hell. All expenses are scrutinized, company-paid travel is canceled, team exercises and company meals are dropped, and for vendors and suppliers things are even worse. All projects are frozen and all outstanding invoice payments are stopped, reviewed one-by-one. Drahi’s goal is to find 600 million euros annually in savings to repay the €13 billion he borrowed to acquire SFR in 2014.

Employees, even those represented by France’s powerful trade unions, are scared into silence, reports LeJDD.

“Be happy you have a job,” is the standard response one trade unionist routinely receives from what is left of SFR’s management. Drahi doesn’t spare management below him either. Within weeks of Altice’s takeover, the flown-in French cost cutters immediately terminated 55 of the 70 SFR managers earning more than 150,000 euros per year. At least 100 middle managers were also quickly shown the door. IT and networking positions are also deemed ‘bloated’ and a reorganization quickly whittled employees down to a token force. The marketing department? Abandoned. Also dismantled was SFR’s team of innovators, working on next generation network upgrades and technology.

SuddenlinkLogoCall centers that handle customer service requests were “on the verge of suffocation,” reported LeJDD. One small call center operator had to send his attorney to SFR’s offices to threaten them over an outstanding bill of one million euros. Drahi demanded an immediate 35% discount if the attorney wanted to leave with a check in hand.

Cable customers share their own anecdotal stories, including one forced to acquire and supply his own cable to complete an installation because the technician had run out. Another reported a tardy cable installer humbly apologized, claiming he was forced to pay out-of-pocket for fuel to get his stalled cable truck back on the road again.

The horror stories from Europe are making an impact in New York’s financial markets, along with Altice’s improbable formula of profiting from alienating customers. After 18 months of unbridled growth and 47 billion euros in loans to finance multiple acquisitions, Wall Street is getting worried. Altice has lost 50% of its value in just six months and Moody’s has now rated Altice’s debt as “highly speculative,” the last step on the basement stairs right before “default.”

“Drahi carries too much debt,” said the head of a French investment fund. “He and his team have lost all sense of reality.”

competitionLeJDD put it more colorfully: “The ogre was too greedy.”

To placate investors, Drahi is planning to slow future acquisitions, something he may not have had much say in. Bankers forced Drahi to accept considerably higher interest rates to finance his American cable company buyouts.

Numericable-SFR’s long-dead marketing department is also being revived, offering discounts and marketing the service more aggressively to stem customer defections. But the company’s increasingly poor reputation is making that a hard sell in Europe, where fierce competition among multiple providers has fueled a long-lasting price war.

Altice officials point to the fact their severe cost-cutting strategy may have faced greater challenges in Europe, where competition is always a speed bump to high profits. But company officials privately stress their ‘profits first’ formula stands a better chance of success in America, where customers don’t have a lot of choice. Competition is less risky for Suddenlink than it is for Cablevision. Altice promises to wring $215 million annually in savings out of the largely rural and small city provider Suddenlink. But Altice’s estimate of $900 million in savings from Cablevision, which faces formidable competition from Verizon FiOS, seems much less realistic, according to Wall Street analysts.

MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett said Altice was taking cuts to an extreme.

“You’re talking about huge cuts to customer service levels to installation and maintenance costs to marketing and promotions,” Moffett told Reuters. “You can’t expect to be able to make dramatic cuts… without having an impact on the business.”

Suddenlink Introduces Gigabit Broadband Service and Slaps 550GB Usage Cap On It

SuddenlinkLogoSuddenlink’s Operating GigaSpeed has reached parts of Texas, Missouri and North Carolina — the first areas to get 1,000/50Mbps service from the cable company. But customers are not happy to learn it is accompanied by a 550GB usage cap.

The first markets qualified for gigabit service include:

  • Bryan-College Station, Texas;
  • Nixa, Mo.;
  • Greenville and Rocky Mount, N.C.

Customers learning about the faster speeds tell Stop the Cap! they are deeply disappointed Suddenlink has kept a cap on the premium-priced speed tier.

greenville“Here in Greenville they are charging $110 a month for the service, $5 for a cable modem or $10 for a Wi-Fi router, and a $35 mandatory technician visit fee which sounded reasonable until they mentioned there was a 550GB data allowance on the service,” said Stop the Cap! reader J.J. Wallace. “That killed it for me. That is nothing short of outrageous to charge that kind of money and place a ridiculously low cap on it. It’s funny the local newspaper and Suddenlink’s press releases never bother to mention the usage cap.”

Wallace says he avoids usage caps by subscribing to Business Class service, which carries no usage allowance but forces him to a slower speed tier to keep things affordable. A 50/8Mbps business plan costs around $80 a month with modem rental and Suddenlink does not mind selling it to residential customers who refuse to deal with a usage cap.

“That is just about the most affordable plan they have that is tolerable,” Wallace writes. “If you want gigabit speeds on a business account, that will run you at least $575 a month plus equipment fees.”

“Suddenlink is no Google Fiber,” adds Pitt County resident Jennifer Davis. “Google is coming to the Triangle and Charlotte and can easily sell gigabit service for $40 less with absolutely no usage cap or equipment fees. Suddenlink wants another shake of our pocketbooks to grab even more money from us. You can’t even buy your own modem for gigabit service. You have to rent theirs. My area of the county is stuck with Suddenlink like a punishment. As a small business owner who depends on the Internet I am tired of being jerked around by these people.”

Some Suddenlink customers have managed to score better deals for broadband by threatening to leave Suddenlink for the phone company, often CenturyLink, AT&T, or Windstream.

gig city“If you impress on them they are charging too much, they will often find a promotion for you, but so far I’ve had no luck getting them to waive the caps unless you switch to business service,” said Wallace. “They always act like you are the first person to complain about usage caps, but if you read their social media pages, there are many others very upset to find they’ve lost unlimited use service after Suddenlink introduced speed upgrades. Most of my friends would rather have unlimited than faster service you can’t use.”

As for speed upgrades, the communities now qualified for gigabit service will find some changes as Suddenlink adjusts their Internet tiers:

  • Internet 50: 50/5Mbps is the new base speed with a 250GB cap
  • Internet 100: 100/10Mbps comes with a 350GB cap (current 75Mbps customers upgraded to this tier)
  • Internet 200: 200/20Mbps comes with a 450GB cap (current 100Mbps customers upgraded to this tier)
  • Internet 1 Gig: 1,000/50Mbps comes with a 550GB cap
  • Overlimit Fee: $10 per 50GB of usage, not pro-rated

Suddenlink is pushing existing DOCSIS 3.0 technology to its practical limit offering gigabit service. The latest DOCSIS 3.0 chipsets in newer model cable modems can bond up to 32 downstream channels, enough to support up to 1.2Gbps. To make room for gigabit speeds, Suddenlink needs to migrate its cable television offering to an all-digital format in the cities where it offers the fastest service. It also needs to retire any remaining legacy DOCSIS 2 modems still in use.

Operation GigaSpeed will offer gigabit broadband to all Suddenlink customers in the markets where the service is offered. The company considers that an advantage over Google Fiber and AT&T U-verse with GigaPower, which is only available in certain neighborhoods.

DOCSIS 3.1, expected to make gigabit speeds available more widely on cable systems, is expected to begin market trials as early as later this year with an expectation it will begin to see wider deployment in 2016.

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.”

Patrick Drahi’s Altice Buys Suddenlink in Surprise $9.1 Billion Deal That Is Likely Bad News for Customers, Employees

Drahi (center) surrounded by executives.

Drahi (center) surrounded by executives.

The billionaire owner of France’s largest cable operator has acquired St. Louis-based Suddenlink in a surprise $9.1 billion deal, and it is likely only the first move for the Altice Group in the U.S. cable business. But it may not be a welcome one for customers, employees, and suppliers of America’s seventh largest cable company about to be introduced to the notorious “Drahi Method” of conducting business that French newspaper La Parisien calls “brutal.”

The acquisition of Suddenlink represents a modest first step for a company that hopes to divide its business half in Europe and half in the United States. Incorporated in Luxembourg for tax-savings purposes, most of Altice’s interests in the cable business are in France and its overseas territories. Numericable is Altice’s cable brand in Luxembourg, France, and parts of Portugal and recently acquired SFR is Altice’s fiber broadband and mobile brand in French-speaking Europe.

suddenlink logoMoroccan-born billionaire businessman Patrick Drahi sees investing in cable as a great opportunity to build needed cash flow from America’s pervasive broadband duopoly. Altice is heavily in debt, financing a whirlwind of acquisitions including Israeli cable and mobile providers, Portugal’s largest telecom company, a mobile carrier in the Dominican Republic, in addition to SFR, France’s second largest wireless company, all mostly paid for with debt and junk bonds. That’s a long way from Drahi’s early days in cable, when he sold service door to door for his small regional Internet and cable-TV company in France’s Alsace region.

Suddenlink's national service area

Suddenlink’s national service area

His mentor is Dr. John Malone, America’s former cable magnate, who followed a similar pattern of buying up cable companies across the United States in the 1970s and 80s to create Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), then America’s largest cable company (it was later sold to Comcast). Drahi shares Malone’s philosophy for cash flow-generating acquisitions: “Always start with cable.” He has plenty of opportunities in the United States, which unlike Europe is largely a cable broadband duopoly in big cities and a monopoly everywhere else. While Drahi confronts revenue erosion from European telecom price wars among phone, broadband, and television companies, he has plenty of room to raise the rates on captive customers on the other side of the Atlantic.

The average Suddenlink customer lives in a small to medium-sized city in West Virginia, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana or Arizona. Suddenlink is well-positioned to sell its 1.5 million customers broadband service, because the alternative is usually low-speed DSL from companies like Frontier, Windstream, CenturyLink or AT&T. Drahi will sell all the services Suddenlink traditionally has, but customers can expect to pay a higher price.

Drahi has decided to focus on his high-end customers and has stopped competing to win customer volume based on price. The customers that pay the most for service also get the best customer service. If lower-end customers feel ignored and decide to leave, that is increasingly an accepted fact of life by Altice management. As a result, Numericable-SFR continues to lose mobile and market share in Francophone markets because customers have found better deals elsewhere. But the company is still keeping its best customers well-pampered and they have stayed, so far.

Life will be anything but pampered for Suddenlink employees and suppliers, who will soon be targeted for Drahi’s traditional culling of the herd and vicious cost cutting. European capitalists look in awe at “the Drahi Method,” a program of ruthless cost controls, job cuts, and threats visited on every acquired company. The French press is buzzing about Drahi’s latest acquisition in the United States, and wonder if Drahi’s slash and burn management style was better suited to America’s greed era of the 1980s and not the Obama’s ‘we are better than that’ era of the 2010s. But they know the story of how Drahi takes over is always the same.

Suppliers complain Drahi's companies don't pay their bills.

Suppliers complain Drahi’s companies don’t pay their bills.

After each acquisition is complete, Altice flies in a small team of executives who live to slash costs. It’s what Le Echos calls “helicopter management.” Many middle and upper management at the acquired companies are terminated instantly, replaced with relocated Drahi loyalists. Salary freezes are imposed on those remaining and are indefinite. Job cuts in customer service are frequently next and are sometimes severe. In fact, the company’s relationship with its employees is so bad, the French trade union CFDT has taken several actions against Altice-owned SFR-Numericable over pay freezes and terminations they call unjust for a company collecting a profit margin of more than 25%, even during a price war.

But the worst is reserved for the suppliers that provide everything from coaxial cable to paper for the office printer.

“Suppliers are fifth wheel,” complained one French company that considered itself extorted to hand over a 40% discount just to get their past due invoices paid. One told Le Monde the best a supplier can hope for from an Altice-run company is to barely survive. Many more die than live.

Sometimes, the hardball tactics against suppliers and vendors seem to backfire on the company. Les Echos shares the embarrassing story of the major SFR-owned mobile store that had a big problem. This past January, the demonstration display where customers can sample the latest tablets and smartphones was curiously empty, except for a few employees milling around a coffee machine placed there to take up some of the empty space. Where were the phones and tablets to show off to make the sale? The distributor who supplies SFR had not been paid. No payment, no phones.

Drahi's company even stiffed Cisco, which sent this warning note suspending shipments pending payment.

Drahi’s company even stiffed Cisco, which sent this warning note suspending shipments pending payment.


Just a few months before announcing his deal to acquire Suddenlink, a large group of French suppliers went to French authorities to seek a broad-based mediation to stop Drahi’s promises of payment in return for future discounts.

Les Echos reports Drahi spared no one from the cut.

“Cleaning companies, network equipment manufacturers, call centers, manufacturers of smartphones, TV, everybody goes,” it reported. Drahi’s managers even dared to challenge the local power company, Dalkia, threatening to cancel their energy services contract unless the company was granted an immediate 80 percent discount. Le Figaro reported the company ignored the contracts it had already signed with the energy company.

An empty bag: No phones at the SFR store.

An empty bag: No phones at the SFR store.

“It’s vicious,” one supplier told Les Echo. “For them, everything can be renegotiated, even contracts already signed and running.”

An IT company also accused Drahi’s company of refusing to pay for past work unless it received a 30% discount. The firm said no and threatened to sue. It is now facing bankruptcy because its business overwhelmingly depends on Numericable and SFR.

The cuts can also seem petty.

Last December, office workers in Saint-Denis found themselves without paper for the office printers. Numericable SFR management had not bothered to pay its office suppliers and they cut the company off. This year, employees report they often have to bring their own toilet paper to work as the company has stopped stocking employee restrooms, apparently part of another cost-cutting measure.

The problem of unpaid invoices has grown so bad the cable operator is increasingly responsible for suppliers clogging the only Commercial Court in Paris with cases large and small, including those from Pace – the company that provides set-top boxes for Drahi’s cable companies, M6 – a television channel not paid for its programming, STS – a major software company, Orange – a major telecom operator, and even the workers who solicit customers to buy cable service going door to door, who say they have not been paid either. In fact, Numericable-SFR has been hauled into court with stunning regularity, losing almost every case, and forced to pay costs, including court fees and interest. The company has already been convicted 12 times for unpaid bills and in several other cases, it only agreed to settle minutes before a trial began.

Altice’s willingness to put itself deeply in debt just to make more acquisitions was enough for Moody’s to throw a caution flag in February, warning investors the company was under review for a credit downgrade.

Altice1“Today’s rating action is prompted by significant uncertainties about the funding of the envisaged €1.95 billion share repurchase program and its impact on Numericable-SFR’s liquidity, leverage and operational flexibility. Moody’s views the potential transaction as aggressive given that the company closed the large acquisition of SFR only recently and is still in the early stage of integrating the acquired asset,” the ratings agency said.

One might forgive Drahi’s desire to economize, considering his recent acquisition of SFR left Altice in debt for more than $12 billion and owing $55 million in interest payments a month. But Drahi continues his acquisitions unabated by those economic realities.

Another problem is Drahi’s crackdown on who is authorized to pay suppliers and other vendors. Under SFR’s old owner, about fifty employees were authorized to sign checks over €100,000 across all of France. Today, any check over €10,000 must be signed by at least one of just three employees. Silicon reports the crackdown became even more severe last winter.

“Since December, any investment must be approved by the investment committee,” a source told Silicon. “All projects are blocked, all expenses must be justified, even 50 Euros. It is set to ‘stop and go’.

The inherent delays and austerity measures eventually also reach customers, according to ex-employees who say getting a replacement box or new cable strung can be a major problem when suppliers stop shipping and the company stops buying. It can also annoy customers that discover calling customer service no longer means talking to an employee in France. Drahi found call centers in Tunisia and Morocco that would do the same work for a fraction of the price.

Drahi said his Suddenlink acquisition is only the start. He has reportedly also shown an interest in acquiring Time Warner Cable, and shares of Cablevision stock were also increasing this afternoon suspecting that company could also be a target.

Suddenlink: Subscribers Walloped With Big Rate Increases and “Free” Speed Upgrades (With Usage Caps)

suddenlink meter

Suddenlink customers are unhappy with the cable company’s usage caps that go with “free speed upgrades.”

Suddenlink subscribers promised “free” speed upgrades are calling them Suddenlink’s Trojan Horse because they are accompanied by dramatically higher cable programming surcharges and usage caps.

St. Augustine, Tex. subscribers got a smaller bite in the mail than some other communities:

Effective with the March 2015 billing cycle, Suddenlink customers will experience no change to the price of telephone service and no change to the price of Basic TV service. There will also be no change to the price of Expanded Basic TV service; however, a $3.00 sports programming surcharge will be added to the bills of customers subscribing to this service to cover a portion of the skyrocketing cost of dedicated sports channels and general entertainment networks with sports programming. The broadcast station surcharge will increase $2.88 per month to cover the escalating fees charged by broadcast TV station owners. Optional tiers of digital TV channels will increase $1.25 per month per tier. High-speed Internet services will increase $3.00 per month.

Over in Chandler, Tex., fees went even higher, with one customer reporting his broadcast station surcharge now exceeded $8 a month. Another customer counting up all the extra fees added to his bill found them coming close to an extra $25 a month.

But the state that gets the worst from broadband providers remains West Virginia, where Suddenlink faces only token DSL competition from Frontier Communications. Suddenlink retention representatives dealing with customers threatening to cancel service in West Virginia are well aware customers have nowhere else to go and don’t break a sweat trying to rescue business.

“We are a business and our goal is to make a profit,” one retention representative told a Suddenlink customer dropping service in favor of DirecTV.

Customers tell Stop the Cap! they were first excited Suddenlink was dramatically boosting Internet speeds — good news for the small and medium-sized cities Suddenlink favors over larger cable operators. The bad news is Suddenlink is bringing back strict enforcement of usage caps, temporarily suspended when its usage measurement tool was proven inaccurate.

Suddenlink has been upgrading its cable systems since 2014 and has gradually rolled out new speeds. Most customers can now choose speed tiers of 50, 75, 100, or 150Mbps, but some larger systems are getting more robust upgrades:

  • Current speed 15Mbps increases to 50Mbps (250GB usage cap)
  • Current speed 30Mbps increases to 50Mbps (250GB usage cap)
  • Current speed 50Mbps increases to 75Mbps (350GB usage cap)
  • Current speed 100Mbps increases to 300Mbps (500GB usage cap)
Suddenlink's sales website makes no reference to the company's broadband usage caps.

Suddenlink’s sales website makes no reference to the company’s broadband usage caps.

Suddenlink is also enforcing usage caps again, which most customers only learn about after signing up for service. Suddenlink makes no references to usage allowances on their sales or general support pages and information is difficult to find unless a customer uses a search engine to find specific information.

Suddenlink’s explanation for its usage caps is among the most cryptic we have ever seen from an ISP:

Consistent with our Acceptable Use Policy and Residential Services Agreement, Suddenlink has applied monthly usage allowances to residential Internet accounts in most of its service areas. To determine if there is a monthly allowance associated with your account – and what that allowance is – please set up or log in to an existing online account. See the related instructions under question #8.

While existing residential customers will quickly learn their usage allowance and find a usage measurement tool on Suddenlink’s website, that is not much help to a new or prospective customer. The overlimit fee, also difficult to find, is $10 for each allotment of 50GB.

Some customers have found a way around the usage cap by signing up for Suddenlink’s business broadband service, typically 50/8Mbps for around $75 a month. Business accounts are exempt from Suddenlink’s caps.

Outbid, Charter Expected to Eye Consolation Prizes: Cox, Bright House, and/or Suddenlink

brighthouse_logoBright House Networks’ long standing relationship with Time Warner Cable — which negotiated programming deals on behalf of the smaller cable operator with operations in the south — may come to an end with an approval of a merger between Comcast and Time Warner. That could make Bright House a prime candidate for a takeover.

Charter Communications is likely to seek consolation prizes now that Comcast has outbid the smaller cable company for Time Warner Cable. Liberty Media’s John Malone and Charter’s CEO Tom Rutledge are meeting with advisers and board members to discuss where Charter will go next to grow its operations.

Malone and Rutledge believe the cable industry must consolidate to better position it against competition from online video, phone companies, and satellite television. Malone would like to see the United States served by just a few cable operators, and feels acquisitions are the best way to accomplish his vision.

suddenlink logoCharter is almost certain to buy at least some of the three million Time Warner Cable customers Comcast intends to cast-off if it wins regulator approval of its buyout deal. But Team Charter has assembled enough financing to go much farther than that.

Among the most likely targets, according to CRT Capital Group and Raymond James Financial are family held Cox Communications, the third largest cable operator in the country with more than four million customers, Bright House Networks, the tenth largest operator with just over two million customers, and Suddenlink Communications and its 1.4 million subscribers.

COX_RES_RGBCox, like Cablevision, has been closely controlled by its founding family for years, so rumors of sales of one or both have never come to fruition. But with the merger announcement of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, Wall Street pressure to consolidate is growing by the day. There is talk that if Comcast succeeds in its buyout effort, even satellite providers like DirecTV and DISH are likely to seek a merger. Even Cablevision, which serves suburban New York City may finally feel enough pressure to sell.

A Cox spokesperson this week continued to insist the company is not for sale, but money often has a way of changing minds, if there is enough of it on the table.

Other small regional operators also likely to be approached about selling include: MidContinent, Mediacom, and Cable ONE.

Verizon FiOS Wins PC Magazine’s ISP Award: “FiOS Is the Absolute Fastest Nationwide Broadband”

fastest isp 2013Verizon FiOS is the fastest nationwide broadband service available.

That was PC Magazine’s assessment in its ranking of the fastest Internet Service Providers of 2013. It’s not the first time Verizon FiOS has taken top honors. In fact, the fiber to the home broadband service has consistently won excellent rankings not only for its speed, but also for its value for money and quality of service. The worst thing about FiOS is that many Verizon customers cannot buy the service because its expansion was curtailed in early 2010.

Verizon FiOS has seen its national speed rankings increase this year. In 2012, the provider’s nationwide download speeds averaged 29.4Mbps; this year FiOS average downstream speeds jumped to 34.5Mbps. Upstream speeds are also up from 26.8Mbps to 31.6Mbps. In part, this is because a growing number of customers have moved away from Verizon’s entry-level 15/5Mbps package with a $10 upgrade to Quantum FiOS 50/25Mbps service. FiOS TV customers can upgrade themselves with their remote control.

Frontier Communications made the top five in the Pacific Northwest, thanks to FiOS infrastructure the company inherited from Verizon.

Other high-ranking ISPs included Midcontinent Communications, a small cable provider serving the north-central states. Midco’s DOCSIS 3 upgrade allows the company to offer most customers up to 100Mbps service. The average download speed for Midco customers is 33.1Mbps; average upload speed is 6.4Mpbs.

Where cable operators face head-on competition from Verizon FiOS, the usual competitive response is speed increases. Cablevision is a good example. It came in fourth place nationally with average speeds of 25.9/5.9Mbps. Comcast has also been boosting speeds, especially in the northeast where it faces the most competition from fiber. It came in third place with average speeds of 27.2/6.8Mbps and offers Internet speeds up to 505Mbps in some areas.

There were companies that performed so poorly, they barely made the regional rankings. The most glaring example largely absent from PC Magazine’s awards: Time Warner Cable, which has lagged behind most cable operators in the speed department. It scored poorly for the second largest cable company in the country, beaten by Charter, Mediacom, and CableONE — which all usually perform abysmally in customer ratings. The only regional contest where Time Warner made a showing at all was in the southeast, where it lost to Verizon FiOS, Comcast, and Charter. Only TDS, an independent phone company, scored worse among the top five down south.

Even more embarrassing results turned up for AT&T U-verse, which performed so bad it did not even make the national rankings. AT&T has promised speed upgrades for customers this year, and has implemented them in several cities. Unfortunately for AT&T, its decision to deploy a fiber to the neighborhood system that still depends on copper to the home is turning out to be penny wise-pound foolish, as it continues to fall further behind its cable and fiber competitors. At the rate its competitors are boosting speeds, U-verse broadband could become as relevant as today’s telephone company ADSL service within the next five years.

Other players scoring low include WOW!, a surprising result since Consumer Reports awarded them top honors for service this year. Also stuck in the mud: Atlantic Broadband (acquired by Canada’s Cogeco Cable, which itself is no award winner), Suddenlink, Wave Broadband and Metrocast, which serves smaller communities in New Hampshire, Maine, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Connecticut, South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama.

The magazine also ranked the fastest U.S. cities, with top honors going to the politically important Washington, D.C., and its nearby suburb Silver Spring, Md, which took first and second place. Alexandria, Va., another D.C. suburb, turned up in eighth place. No cable or phone company wants to be caught delivering poor service to the politicians that can make life difficult for them.

Brooklyn, N.Y., took third place because of head-on competition between Cablevision and Verizon FiOS. Time Warner’s dominance in Manhattan and other boroughs dragged New York City’s speed rankings down below the top ten. Among most of the remaining top ten cities, the most common reason those cities made the list was Verizon FiOS. Florida’s Gulf Coast communities of Bradenton (4th place) and Tampa (6th place) have fiber service. So does Plano, Tex. (5th place) and Long Beach, Calif. (7th place). The other contenders: Hollywood, Fla. takes ninth place and Chandler, Ariz. rounds out the top 10.

Cablevision West For Sale: Time Warner Cable, Charter, Suddenlink All Submit First-Round Bids

Here today, gone tomorrow.

Here today, gone tomorrow.

Cablevision West, formerly known as Bresnan Communications, has been up for sale for weeks, and at least three major cable operators have submitted bids to acquire its 300,000 customers in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah.

Cablevision bought Bresnan Communications in 2010 for $1.37 billion. The cable operator invested millions updating the cable properties in the mountain west, but ultimately decided the more rural cable systems were too far away from its hometown systems in densely populated suburban New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

Selling Cablevision West would improve Cablevision’s balance sheet and allow the company to concentrate on its highly competitive home territory in the northeast, where Verizon FiOS frequently competes.

Among the three vying for Cablevision West, Charter Communications seems to be the best positioned to win. Charter already operates cable systems in the central and western United States, mostly in smaller cities and rural areas. Former Cablevision CEO Thomas Rutledge was in charge when Cablevision bought Bresnan Communications, and in his new role as CEO of Charter, he told CNBC he still admires those western systems.

Suddenlink has attained deeper pockets after its acquisition earlier this year by the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, European private equity firm BC Partners and the cable operator’s current management. With money to spend, Suddenlink Communications could find itself the highest bidder. Suddenlink currently serves over 1.4 million residential and commercial customers, primarily in Texas, West Virginia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana.

Time Warner Cable, the second-largest U.S. cable provider, is also among the stingiest of the three bidders. CEO Glenn Britt has consistently told investors the company will not engage in bidding wars or overpay for acquisition opportunities. The company has passed on several earlier opportunities for cable systems up for sale, although it did successfully acquire Insight Communications earlier this year.

The winner will likely be announced as early as January and then customers will have to prepare, once again, for another owner to take control.

Bottom-Ranked Suddenlink Upset About Frontier’s Ad Claims Their DSL is Better

Suddenlink is throwing a hissyfit over Frontier’s aggressive advertising.

Now come on, you are both pretty… slow that is.

Suddenlink Communications is crawling mad that Frontier Communications has been hammering the cable company over their broadband speeds, which PC Magazine this week proclaimed were nothing to write home about. The cable operator successfully challenged some of Frontier’s ads with the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

The group recommended Frontier cease making claims that its DSL service offers “dedicated” lines to the Internet in contrast to Suddenlink, which forces customers to share their connection with the whole neighborhood.

Frontier claims Suddenlink’s network can bog down during peak hours, while Frontier makes sure customers consistently get the speeds they pay for.

Many of the ads targeted customers in West Virginia, who regularly tell Stop the Cap! neither provider competing there offers particularly good service.

“Is Frontier kidding?,” says Shane Foster, a former Frontier customer in West Virginia. “I was supposed to be getting up to 6Mbps service and I was lucky to get 1.5Mbps at 2 am.”

Foster says he believes Frontier oversold its DSL network in his area, with speeds slowing even further during the evening and weekends when everyone got online. While Frontier may not require customers to share a line from their home to the company’s central office, congestion can occur within Frontier’s local exchange or on the connection Frontier maintains with Internet backbone providers.

“The technician sent to my house even privately admitted it,” Foster tells Stop the Cap!

Foster switched to Suddenlink, but he is not exactly a happy customer there either.

“Their usage caps suck, the service is slow, and their measurement tool is always broken,” Foster shares. “West Virginia doesn’t just get the bottom of the barrel, it gets the dirt underneath it.”

Frontier Communications says it has been making improvements in West Virginia and other states where it provides DSL broadband. Some areas can now subscribe to 25Mbps service because of network upgrades. Foster says he would dump Suddenlink and go back to Frontier, if they can deliver speeds the rest of the country gets.

“Sorry, but 1.5Mbps is not broadband and with their prices, tricky fees and contracts it is robbery,” says Foster. “They need to clean up their act and I’ll come back. I hate usage caps with a passion.”

Frontier says it will appeal the NAD’s decision. But Frontier might do better advertising its broadband service as usage cap free — something customers consistently value over those running Internet Overcharging schemes.

Department of Oops: Suddenlink Defends Its “Accurate” Usage Meter, Then Disavows It

Phillip “The Company Paid by Suddenlink to Issue a Third Party Guarantee Makes All the Difference” Dampier

When Stop the Cap! and Broadband Reports reader Simon contacted us about Suddenlink’s fact-free usage measurement tool that managed to rack up nearly 23GB of usage for one West Virginia customer on the same day his service was out for most of the evening, he probably did not think one customer catching the cable company’s fingers in the usage cookie jar would make much difference.

But it did.

Suddenlink spokesman Pete Abel, initially responding to complaints about the usage tool’s accuracy, told Light Reading last week its meter was “consistently accurate, as was demonstrated in the tests we ran before we launched this program.”

Four days later, the company effectively disavowed that, put the meter’s built-in overlimit fee scheme on hold and plans to hire a third party company to “validate the accuracy of its system,” after finding it was faulty after all.

Suddenlink won’t say what is causing the inaccuracies, but blamed “unusual” circumstances for the problem. The company is now refunding customers billed overlimit fees of $10 per 50GB and waiving future charges until its system is reviewed and validated by “a trusted third party.”

Stop the Cap! believes that does not come close to satisfying the company’s responsibility to its customers for accurate billing.

Suddenlink has never demonstrated it actually needs an Internet Overcharging scheme with usage limits and overlimit fees. The company proves that when it claims only a “relatively small number of customers” were ever billed overlimit fees. With no demonstrable usage problem, the company’s need to implement its Project Imagine “Allowance Plan” is sorely lacking.

Easy as counting anyway we like.

Additionally, the accuracy of providers’ usage measurement tools has proven highly suspect, and not just with Suddenlink. All of the companies caught with inaccurate meters always strongly defend them, until overwhelming evidence suggests they should not. Even super-sized companies like Bell Canada (BCE) and AT&T have enforced usage limits with meters the companies later had to disavow. Suddenlink is only the latest.

The scale in your grocery store is checked and certified. So is the corner gas pump, your electric meter, water meter, and gas meter. Why should broadband usage be any different?

Consumers are right to suspect Suddenlink’s usage meter. No official regulatory body verifies the accuracy of usage measurement tools and whatever company Suddenlink chooses to “verify” its meter has a built in conflict of interest — it works for a company that depends on a certain result in its favor. Suddenlink clearly has no business in the usage measurement business when it insists on the accuracy of a meter it disavows just a few days later.

With only murky details available to consumers about what caused the problem and why Suddenlink did not see it until a customer managed to catch them in the act, there is little confidence the company will actually solve a problem it never realized it had. There is also nothing to assure us — “third party guarantee” or not — it cannot happen all over again.

Suddenlink customers need to reach out and tell Suddenlink its “Allowance Plan” is completely unacceptable. Tell the cable company you don’t want to worry about their unverifiable and proven-inaccurate metering program. Ask them why you should remain a customer when they spend time and money on a scheme that the company itself admits is not really needed — targeting just a small number of “heavy users.”

Suddenlink’s customer service team does not think much of customers who use their broadband service a lot, as this recent “Who’s On First” exchange illustrates:

Lisa (Suddenlink): “Well, you show heavy OVERUSAGE of the Internet, you drew 14GB of data yesterday.”

Customer: “Okay, let’s back up, explain to me how I drew 12GB of data when my power was off and I wasn’t home on June 30.”

Lisa: “I didn’t say anything about June 30.”

Customer:  “If you have sooo much faith in your meter, explain to me how I drew 12GBs of data on June 30, while I didn’t have power, and wasn’t home.”

Lisa:  “I didn’t say anything about June 30.”

Customer:  “I’m asking, how did I draw 12GB of data without power to my house?”

If Suddenlink has a problem with a handful of users creating problems for other subscribers on its broadband network, it has always reserved the right to contact those customers directly and work out the problem one on one. That is a far better solution than inconveniencing all of their customers with endless rounds of “usage roulette,” where the big winner could find themselves with Bill Shock from overlimit fees, whether they actually deserve them or not.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNBC Internet v. Cable 8-20-10.flv

CNBC interviewed Suddenlink CEO Jerry Kent in August 2010 on how his company intends to deal with “invasive online video,” threatening to erode cable-TV profits. Kent proved Suddenlink doesn’t really need any extra money from overlimit fees — the days of big spending on capacity are over, but the money is nice to have anyway.  (8 minutes)

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