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Comcast’s Acquisition of Fox Will Make It Among World’s Most Maxed Out Companies

Phillip Dampier June 19, 2018 AT&T, Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News 1 Comment

If Comcast’s $65 billion all-cash offer for 21st Century Fox is accepted, America’s largest cable operator will also be among the world’s largest corporate debtors, owing $170 billion in all.

Comcast will borrow as much as $85 billion to cover the acquisition of Fox, plus an additional $27.5 billion to cover the buyout of the United Kingdom’s satellite operator Sky.

Excluding banks, Comcast will be the world’s second most-buried-in-debt corporation, outdone only by AT&T, according to Moody’s.

Comcast’s all-cash offer to snatch Fox away from its corporate arch-enemy Disney, also bidding for Fox, is remarkable for a company with only $6 billion of cash on hand. Comcast will have to borrow most of the money for the buyout, in addition to covering Fox’s existing $20 billion in debt. The result will be a 1980s style leveraged buyout that is likely to result in a significant downgrade of Comcast’s credit rating. Moody’s has already warned the company of exactly that.

Some Wall Street analysts see the transaction as particularly unusual for Comcast, a company that has avoided massive debt. Some suspect the generous cash offer for Fox is being driven by personal animosity between Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and Disney CEO Robert Iger, originating more than a decade earlier when Comcast attempted a hostile takeover of Disney, and failed.

Many investors are clearly worried about the growing debt levels of several large telecommunications companies, which remind some of two spectacular corporate failures at the end of the dot.com boom, when MCI-Worldcom and Global Crossing were both brought down by accounting scandals and bankruptcy in an effort to hide their debts.

There are fears that a decade of unprecedented low-interest rates, business-friendly regulatory policies, and a stabilized economy have allowed companies to grow complacent about the risks of debts from blockbuster mergers that are now bigger and more expensive than ever. Companies may be overconfident that their huge, debt-financed deals can be managed with low interest loans and frequent refinancing and bond sales to until debts can be paid down. But some analysts warn that if there is a downturn in the economy, easy credit will be hard to get, and interest rates will be significantly higher. Because highly leveraged companies are bigger credit risks, bondholders will likely demand a better deal for themselves.

The Wall Street Journal reports global corporate debt (excluding financial institutions) now stands at $11 trillion, and those companies are now 30% more leveraged than they were just before the start of the financial crisis of 2007. Wall Street expects several additional merger deals in the telecommunications and media sectors this year, which will likely raise debt levels even higher.

The unprecedented level of debt has not escaped the notice of the Federal Reserve. Asked whether the United States is in a “credit bubble,” Fed chief Jerome Powell said last week that officials are “watching” elevated levels of corporate leverage.

AT&T and Comcast officials told the Journal any fears are unwarranted; they are different from most companies because their respective debts are expected to be repaid quickly with higher levels of cash generated by their businesses. AT&T claims it could apply the $8-10 billion of its anticipated free cash flow from the merger with Time Warner to reduce debts, although that could threaten shareholder perks like dividend payouts and share buybacks, as well as customer-focused network upgrades.

Investors that used to treat AT&T and Comcast stock as a safe haven are not anymore.

“We are getting a lot of calls,” Allyn Arden, a telecom and cable analyst at S&P Global Ratings, told the Journal after both S&P and Moody’s cut their respective ratings on AT&T bonds last week to a level just two notches above the junk-debt category.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson downplayed the concerns of Wall Street over the additional debt.

“This thing delivers quickly,” he told CNBC. “Within four years, we’ll be back to our normal levels of debt.”

Where will AT&T and Comcast get the money to pay down their debts? Captive customers could be one source. Both AT&T and Comcast are planning to continue raising rates, particularly on internet customers, providing a lucrative shot of extra revenue. By gaining control of deep content libraries, both Comcast and AT&T will be able to hike licensing fees on that content as well.

Telcos Pile Up Debt From Mergers & Acquisitions While Stalling Fiber Upgrades

Spending priorities: mergers & acquisitions, not upgrades.

Since 2012, two of the country’s largest phone companies spent enough money — $281.4 billion — to wire at least three-quarters of the  nation with fiber-to-the-home service and deliver vastly improved rural internet access to the rest of the country. Instead of doing that, AT&T and Verizon used the money to buy their competitors and content creators including AOL and Yahoo.

A 2017 Deloitte Consulting analysis estimates the United States will need between $130 and $150 billion in investment over the next 5–7 years to upgrade at least 75% of homes and businesses to fiber to the home service, with the remaining 25% serviced by technologies including 5G that are capable of delivering broadband speeds greater than the federal minimum standard of 25/3 Mbps.

AT&T could almost deliver the country a major broadband upgrade all by itself, having spent $138 billion on mergers and acquisitions in the past six years. Verizon could have easily handled the entire cost, but instead spent its $143.4 billion on business deals, including $130 billion to buy out former Verizon Wireless partner Vodafone. Among independent phone companies, things look equally bad. Frontier Communications is saddled with so much debt after acquiring former AT&T customers in Connecticut and Verizon customers in more than a dozen states, it has been forced to suspend its shareholder dividend and has been only able to make token investments in network upgrades for its mostly copper wire infrastructure in its original “legacy” service areas and a mixture of copper and fiber in acquired service areas. Both CenturyLink and Windstream have refocused many of their business activities on the commercial services marketplace, including the sale of hosting, business IT services, and cloud server networks.

More recently, both AT&T and Verizon have raced into content company acquisitions, buying up AOL, Yahoo, and Time Warner to offer their respective customers additional content. The phone companies are diversifying their business interests away from simply offering phone lines and internet access. At the same time, many of these acquisitions are depleting resources that could be spent on critical network upgrades.

The article in Light Reading claims the telecom industry’s traditional financial model of borrowing money to build networks and upgrade others is broken, because telecom companies now prefer to spend money acquiring other companies instead. Although AT&T has, in recent years, been more aggressive than Verizon in deploying fiber to home service, both companies have resisted committing large amounts of capital to a territory-wide fiber buildout, preferring to spend smaller sums to incrementally upgrade their networks in selected areas over the next decade. But the merger and acquisition teams at both companies are far less cautious, given the go ahead to pay handsomely for companies that often have little to do with providing telephone or internet service.

Light Reading reports AT&T’s debt climbed from $59 billion in 2010 to $126 billion at the end of 2017. Verizon’s debt increased from $45 billion to $114 billion. But those acquisitions have done little to attract new customers. Both companies’ operating cash flows have barely budged — $39 billion annually at AT&T (up from $35 billion) and Verizon’s actually declined from $33 billion in 2010 to $25 billion in 2017.

Mergers and Acquisitions (2011-2018)

AT&T

  • 2012: AT&T buys $1.93 billion worth of spectrum from Qualcomm.
  • 2013: AT&T buys Leap Wireless (Cricket) for $1.2 billion.
  • 2014: AT&T pays $49 billion for the DirectTV, issuing $17.5 billion in debt in April.
  • 2015: AT&T buys out assets from bankrupt Mexican wireless business of NII Holdings for around $1.875 billion.
  • 2018: AT&T pays $207 million to acquire FiberTower.
  • 2018: AT&T is cleared to merge with Time Warner in a deal valued at more than $84 billion.

Verizon

  • 2011: Verizon acquires Terremark for $1.4 billion.
  • 2014: Verizon buys out Vodafone’s 45 percent stake in Verizon Wireless, valued at $130 billion, with a mixture of stock and debt.
  • 2015: Verizon buys AOL for a deal valued around $4.4 billion.
  • 2017: Verizon acquires Yahoo Internet assets for $4.5 billion.
  • 2017: Verizon buys spectrum holder Straight Path Communications for $3.1 billion roughly double rival AT&T’s offer, to build up 5G spectrum and footprint.

The more debt (and debt payments) that pile up at the two companies, the less money will be available to spend on fiber upgrades. In fact, there is evidence these companies are hoping to further cut costs in their core landline network operations. Some regulators have noticed. Verizon was forced to make a deal with New York regulators requiring the company to spend millions replacing failing copper-based facilities and upgrade them to fiber and remove or replace tens of thousands of deteriorated utility poles. Verizon faced similar action in Pennsylvania.

AT&T has spent millions lobbying the federal government to permanently decommission rural America’s landline network and replace it with a wireless alternative, while also working to replace the current regulated telephone network with deregulated alternatives like internet and Voice over IP phone service.

Wall Street analysts have occasionally questioned or at least expressed surprise over some of the phone companies’ odd acquisitions:

  • Verizon acquired Terremark to beef up its cloud-based and server-hosting businesses. But shortly after acquiring the company, Verizon began replacing top management, sometimes repeatedly, and ultimately divested itself of its data center portfolio, including Terremark, just five years later.
  • AT&T bought DirecTV to help it reduce wholesale TV programming expenses for its U-verse TV subscribers. But DirecTV has lost more than one million satellite TV customers since AT&T acquired it in 2014, despite new marketing efforts to convince would-be U-verse TV customers to choose DirecTV instead.
  • Verizon saw value in web brands that were major players more than 18 years ago but are mostly afterthoughts today. The company spent almost $9 billion to acquire Yahoo and AOL, and their low quality content portfolios, which rely heavily on clickbait headlines, advertiser-sponsored content, and articles designed to maximize mouse clicks to boost the number of ads you see.

“The telcos are trying to diversify into content when they should instead be focused on their core business — building networks and charging for value-added technology,” said Scott Raynovich, founder and principal analyst at Futuriom. “It’s clear they see content as part of the value-add but customers so far don’t seem to be reacting that way. It’s clear they are allergic to paying higher prices for bundled content.”

AT&T and Verizon’s customers are not clamoring for more content deals. When surveyed, most want better internet service at more affordable prices.

N.Y. Gives Charter 2 Weeks to Come to Terms or Face Revocation of Charter-TWC Merger

The New York Public Service Commission has notified Charter Communications it won’t be the victim of an offer that promises one thing and delivers something less, giving the company 14 days to fully accept the terms of its Time Warner Cable/Charter merger approval or face the possibility of having the merger canceled, potentially throwing Charter’s business plans into chaos.

In a move any aggrieved cable customer would appreciate, Charter’s lawyers gave the PSC a deal that looked good on the surface, only to be eroded away in the fine print. In a May 2018 response to the Commission’s “show cause” order, threatening to severely fine the cable company for breaking its commitments to New York State, the cable company effectively responded it wasn’t their fault if the Commission missed the fact the company did not actually agree to everything the state thought it did, and was in full compliance of what it unilaterally agreed to do.

The hubris of the state’s largest cable operator did not go down well in Albany, to say the least. But first some background:

Charter is coming under fire in New York State for failing to meet its obligations to extend service in a timely way to 145,000 New York homes and businesses not part of Spectrum’s service area and also lack access to broadband service. Today the Commission, in a separate action, fined Charter $2 million, to be drawn from a line of credit previously set aside by the cable company, for failing to meet its original broadband buildout targets and failing to remedy its past poor performance.

Charter’s lawyers last month protested their innocence, claiming the company was not out of compliance with its agreement — in fact it was ahead of schedule.

Both things cannot be true, so who is being honest and who is trading in “alternative facts?”

To find out, one has to turn back the clock to 2016. On January 19, Charter’s attorneys sent an acceptance letter to the Commission in response to the regulator’s offer to approve the acquisition of Time Warner Cable if Charter agreed to a series of pro-consumer benefits designed to allow New York customers to share in the lucrative deal.

Charter agreed to dramatically increase Standard internet speeds for its New York customers, first to 100 Mbps by the end of 2018 and again to 300 Mbps by the end of 2019. Charter met its first commitment ahead of schedule and is on track to again increase speeds for New York residents before the end of next year.

The company also agreed to temporarily retain Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet program. Although that option has since expired for new customers, existing customers can keep the package until at least next year. But regulators note Charter has frequently made it difficult for New York customers to sign up for the program. Stop the Cap! has documented multiple instances of customers being told the plan was unavailable, or representatives have confused it with Spectrum Internet Assist, a similar budget-priced internet package for those that meet certain income and benefits qualifications.

But Charter’s agreement to expand its service to unserved areas of New York is where most of the current conflict arises. Stop the Cap! strongly recommended in our testimony to the PSC that rural broadband expansion be a part of a series of deal commitments that should be imposed on Charter if the Commission saw fit to approve the merger. The Commission agreed with our recommendation. That allows us to speak authoritatively that the Commission, in concert with the New York State government, framed that expansion commitment as an adjunct to the state’s Broadband 4 All program, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s rural broadband expansion effort.

Charter would serve an integral role in the effort by extending service to homes and businesses just outside of its current service area. That would save the state millions in costs trying to subsidize other providers to expand into these typically unprofitable areas of the state. The design and intention of the expansion program was clear from the outset, and the Commission specifically requested Charter provide detailed lists of planned expansion areas, so the state could avoid duplicating its efforts and re-target funding to other areas of the state. The goal was to achieve near-universal broadband availability in every corner of New York.

The Commission’s 2016 letter to Charter seemed clear enough:

The conditions adopted in this Order and listed in Appendix A shall be binding and enforceable by the Commission upon unconditional acceptance by New Charter within seven (7) business days of the issuance of this Order. If the Petitioners’ unconditional acceptance is not received within seven (7) business days of the issuance of this Order, the Petitioners will have failed to satisfy their burden under the Public Service Law as described herein, and this Order shall constitute a denial of the Joint Petition.

But in Charter’s response on January 19, 2016, their lawyers got too cute by half (emphasis ours):

In accordance with the Commission’s Order Granting Joint Petition by Time Warner Cable Inc. (“Time Warner Cable”) and Charter Communications, Inc. (“Charter”) dated January 8, 2016, Charter hereby accepts the Order Conditions for Approval contained in Appendix A, subject to applicable law and without waiver of any legal rights.

On May 9, 2018 the state discovered what that language discrepancy meant. Charter’s lawyers responded to the state’s charges that the company was not complying with the terms of the merger approval agreement with a classic “gotcha” letter, claiming Charter’s agreement provided only a “qualified” acceptance of language contained exclusively in Appendix A, and its obligations started and stopped there.

That is a distinction worth millions of dollars. Appendix A basically summarizes Charter’s commitment to expand to 145,000 new passings in New York, but does not explain the expansion program or its purpose. If only Appendix A did apply, it would allow Charter to count any new cable hookup, whether in a rural hamlet or more likely in a condo in Manhattan as a “new passing,” bringing it one customer closer to meeting its expansion commitment. Charter could count new wealthy gated communities, apartment buildings, offices, and converted lofts, despite the fact it would almost certainly wire those customers for service with or without its agreement with the state government. More importantly, Charter would successfully avoid spending tens of thousands of dollars to extend the cable line down a road just to reach one or two rural customers.

Charter’s lawyers seem to think that their clever loophole will win the company significant savings and avoid fines — too bad, so sad if the state’s lawyers failed to appreciate what Charter was actually willing to agree to in 2016 and what the state accepted by default by not catching the discrepancy sooner.

“Contrary to [Charter’s] assertions, however, the Approval Order accorded Charter only two explicit choices: (1) to accept unconditionally the commitments set forth in the body of the Approval Order and Appendix A; or (2) have the Joint Petition rejected, subject to Charter’s right to judicial review,” the Commission rebutted.

In short, the state is calling Charter’s possible bluff. If it truly intends not to agree to the original terms of the agreement, the state has the right to toss out the merger agreement, in part or in full, canceling the merger. Of course, Charter can always take the matter to court and hope it can find a judge that will accept Charter’s ‘partial agreement’ argument.

To say the PSC was displeased with Charter’s novel legal maneuver would be an understatement. In today’s ruling, the PSC severely admonished Charter for its bad behavior:

Charter was not free to pick and choose the conditions it would accept or the portions of the Approval Order with which it would comply, nor was Charter free to accept only some of the conditions in the Approval Order and Appendix A yet still obtain Commission approval of the merger transaction. Charter is likewise not free to rewrite the Commission’s conditions.

In effect, Charter is ripping off the people of New York, and the state’s regulators are having none of it.

“The Commission is troubled by Charter’s position that the Commission’s Approval Order means something other than what it actually states,” the PSC wrote. “Given that many of the obligations in that Order are continuing and will need to be fulfilled in the future, the Commission believes it is critical that Charter acknowledge the obligations it agreed to undertake in exchange for the benefits it received by the Commission’s conditional approval. Anything short of an unconditional full acceptance of the Approval Order and Appendix A would deprive New York state of its fair share of the incremental benefits.”

It is likely we will know where this is headed by mid-July, because the PSC has given Charter 14 days to recommit itself to the PSC’s original merger terms, not just those in infamous Appendix A. It signaled it will no longer debate the matter, either, telling Charter “the Commission will not countenance that conduct” and wants action:

Charter is directed to cure its defective acceptance and file with the Secretary to the Commission a new letter indicating its full unconditional acceptance of the Approval Order and Appendix A thereof within 14 days.

Should Charter, however, fail to provide a new letter indicating full unconditional acceptance, the Commission may pursue other remedies at its disposal, including but not necessarily limited to the following.

First, beginning proceedings pursuant to PSL §216 to rescind, modify or amend the Approval Order, specifically, the Commission’s approval of the transfer of the Time Warner’s cable franchises and associated facilities, networks, works and systems to Charter, in whole or in part.

Second, initiate an enforcement action pursuant to PSL §26 for failing to comply with the Approval Order’s Ordering Clause 1 including an action in Supreme Court to adjudicate the dispute and/or declare the Commission’s conditional approval null and void for lack of an unconditional acceptance.

And, third, initiate a penalty action for being out of compliance with the Approval Order’s unconditional acceptance requirement under PSL §25.

It’s a teachable moment for regulators, one that cable customers have come to learn over decades of bad experiences. It’s never a good idea to trust a cable company.

Sprint Offering $15/Mo Unlimited Call/Text/Data Plan to New Customers… Until Friday

Sprint debuted its new $15/month Unlimited Kickstart plan on June 7th, and will stop taking new orders for it tomorrow evening, making it one of Sprint’s shortest-lived plans ever.

The plan, intended to steal customers from competitors, offers those bringing a qualified device (or buying one) the opportunity of paying just $15 a month for unlimited talk, texting, and data, with some caveats:

  • Video streams are throttled to support up to 480p, music streams are limited to 500 kbps, and gaming streams don’t exceed 2 Mbps.
  • Customers on this plan are subject to speed throttles, known at Sprint as “data deprioritization” when towers are congested, regardless of usage.
  • Customers must enroll and maintain autopay.
  • Requires customers to sign up for a new line, port an existing number, and either bring your own device or buy one from Sprint.

Unlimited Kickstart gives Sprint a chance to report a big boost in new customer signups during its next quarterly report to Wall Street. But the company claims the plan also allows customers of other carriers the opportunity of sampling Sprint’s upgraded network, or return to Sprint as an ex-customer to see how the network has improved. There are no contracts, and the offer also extends to other family members — each line up to four will cost just $15/month.

Sprint will attempt to upsell customers to its Unlimited Freedom plan, which offers more features at a higher price.

“At Sprint, we’ve worked incredibly hard to improve our network,” the company claimed in a press release. “In fact, Sprint’s national average download speed increased 34.5 percent year-over-year, more than any other national carrier. Plus, we’ve increased our investment to make our coverage, reliability and speed even better as Sprint prepares to launch the first mobile 5G network in the U.S. in the first half of 2019.”

The company claims interest in the offer is extremely heavy, but the press release announcing it also mentioned an expiration date for enrollees of Friday night (June 15) at 11:59pm EDT, which means time is running out. Customers have to sign up for the offer online, which isn’t particularly intuitive. A Live Chat button is located on the web page which may offer some help to those trying to enroll. If you own a qualified phone already, or acquire a new one, you will need to acquire a Sprint SIM card to activate the plan no later than June 22, 2018.

Breaking News: N.Y. Fines Charter $2 Million for Failure to Meet Broadband Targets

The New York State Public Service Commission today fined Charter/Spectrum $2 million after the company failed to meet its obligations to expand its cable network to more than ten thousand homes and businesses the company committed to serve in the time allotted. In addition, the PSC warned the company, which claimed in a response to the state’s “show cause” order that it was not obligated to meet the terms of its 2016 merger agreement, faces the threat of having its merger with Time Warner Cable revoked, which could end Spectrum’s ability to operate in New York State.

“As a condition of our approval of Charter’s merger two years ago, we required Charter to make significant investments in its network,” said Commission chair John B. Rhodes. “Our investigation shows that Charter failed to meet its obligations to expand the reach of its network to unserved and underserved customers at the required pace and that it failed to justify why it wasn’t able to meet its obligations. Furthermore, since the company has taken the unfortunate position of refusing to adhere to all conditions set forth in our initial decision two years ago, we now demand the company unconditionally accept all of the conditions as the Commission unambiguously required in 2016, or run the risk of more severe consequences.”

In its order regarding Charter’s failure to meet its buildout obligations, the Commission rejected 18,363 addresses — including 12,467 in New York City and 4,096 in the cities of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Schenectady, Albany, and Mt. Vernon — to which Charter claimed it expanded network as part of its required buildout requirement. The Commission found that these addresses were already passed by Charter or another company providing high speed broadband, or that Charter was separately required to pass the addresses pursuant to state regulations and/or franchise agreements.

As a result, Charter must revise its overall 145,000 addresses-buildout plan to remove the rejected addresses and file a revised buildout plan for going forward within 21 days. In its initial 2016 order approving Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable, the Commission required that Charter extend its network to pass within its statewide service territory, an additional 145,000 unserved and underserved residential housing units and/or businesses within four years.

About a year later, it became evident that Charter had failed to meet its May 2017 target. To get the company back on track, the Commission approved a settlement under which Charter was required to pass 36,771 eligible premises by December 2017, and meet regular six-month milestones or else pay up to $1 million for each miss, and up to $1 million should the company fail to correct any miss within three months.

Rhodes

Earlier this year, Commission staff, audited Charter’s compliance filing of proposed passings to be counted toward its December 2017 target, and determined that 14,522 passings should be
disqualified, which meant that the company failed to meet its required target. In its May response to the Commission, Charter argued that not all of the Commission’s 2016 merger order applies to the company as part of its rationale for including ineligible addresses. Given the company’s continued intransigence, the Commission today ordered that the company unconditionally accept all of the conditions and requirements spelled out in its 2016 order or face subsequent Commission action.

With today’s decision, the Commission ordered Charter to pay $1 million in accordance with the settlement agreement for failing to satisfy the December 2017 target and failing to demonstrate that it missed the target due to circumstances beyond its control. The Commission similarly  found that Charter did not “cure” this miss by March 16, 2018, nor did it demonstrate that it had good cause for its failure to do so, requiring an additional $1 million payment to the state.

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