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Google, Cablevision Challenge Traditional Cell Phone Plans, Wireless Usage Caps With Cheap Alternatives

freewheelLuxurious wireless industry profits of up to 50 percent earned from selling some of the world’s most expensive cellular services may soon be a thing of the past as Google and Cablevision prepare to disrupt the market with cheap competition.

With more than 80 percent of all wireless data traffic now moving over Wi-Fi, prices for wireless data services should be in decline, but the reverse has been true. AT&T and Verizon Wireless have banked future profits by dumping unlimited data plans and monetizing wireless usage, predicting a dependable spike in revenue from growing data consumption. Instead of charging customers a flat $30 for unlimited data, carriers like Verizon have switched to plans with voice, texting, and just 1GB of wireless usage at around $60 a month, with each additional gigabyte priced at $15 a month.

With the majority of cell phone customers in the U.S. signed up with AT&T or Verizon’s nearly identical plans, their revenue has soared. Sprint and T-Mobile have modestly challenged the two industry leaders offering cheaper plans, some with unlimited data, but their smaller cellular networks and more limited coverage areas have left many customers wary about switching.

Google intends to remind Americans that the majority of data usage occurs over Wi-Fi networks that don’t require an expensive data plan or enormous 4G network. The search engine giant will launch its own wireless service that depends on Wi-Fi at home and work and combines the networks of Sprint and T-Mobile while on the go, switching automatically to the provider with the best signal and performance.

googleCablevision’s offer, in contrast, will rely entirely on Wi-Fi to power its mobile calling, texting, and data services. Dubbed “Freewheel,” non-Cablevision customers can sign up starting in February for $29.95 a month. Current Cablevision broadband customers get a price break — $9.95 a month.

Cablevision’s dense service area in parts of New York City, Long Island, northern New Jersey and Connecticut offers ample access to Wi-Fi. Cablevision chief operating officer Kristin Dolan said its new service would work best in Wi-Fi dense areas such as college campuses, business districts, and multi-dwelling units.

New York City is working towards its own ubiquitous Wi-Fi network, which could theoretically blanket the city with enough hotspots to make Cablevision’s service area seamless. But the biggest deterrent to dumping your current cell phone provider is likely to be available coverage areas. Google’s answer to that problem is combining the networks of both Sprint and T-Mobile, offering customers access to the best-performing carrier in any particular area. While that isn’t likely to solve coverage issues in states like West Virginia and the Mountain West, where only AT&T and Verizon Wireless offer serious coverage, it will likely be sustainable in large and medium-sized cities where at least one of the two smaller carriers has a solid network of cell towers.

Comparing the Wireless Alternative Providers

  • Google Wireless will offer seamless access to Wi-Fi, Sprint and T-Mobile voice, SMS, and mobile data at an undetermined price. Likely to arrive by the summer of 2015;
  • Cablevision Freewheel depends entirely on Wi-Fi to power unlimited voice, SMS, and data. Launches in February for $29.95/mo ($9.95/mo for Cablevision broadband customers);
  • FreedomPop Wi-Fi ($5/mo) offers an Android app-based “key” to open unlimited Wi-Fi access to 10 million AT&T, Google, and cable industry hotspots nationwide for calling, texting, and mobile data;
  • Republic Wireless developed its own protocol to properly hand off phone calls between different networks without dropping it. Calling plans range from $5-40 a month. Less expensive plans are Wi-Fi only, pricier plans include access to Sprint’s network;
  • Scratch Wireless charges once for its device – a Motorola Photon Q ($99) and everything else is free, as long as you have access to Wi-Fi. Cell-based texting is also free, as a courtesy. If you need voice calling or wireless data when outside the range of a hotspot, you can buy “access passes” to Sprint’s network at prices ranging from $1.99 a day each for voice and data access to $24.99 a month for unlimited data and $14.99 a month for unlimited voice.
Scratch Wireless

Scratch Wireless

Google is pushing the FCC to open new unlicensed spectrum for expanded Wi-Fi to accommodate the growing number of wireless hotspots that are facing co-interference issues.

Wi-Fi-based wireless providers are likely to grow once coverage concerns are eased and there is reliable service as customers hop from hotspot to hotspot. The cable industry has aggressively deployed Wi-Fi access with a potential to introduce wireless service. Comcast is already providing broadband customers with network gateways that offer built-in guest access to other Comcast customers, with the potential of using a crowdsourced network of customers to power Wi-Fi coverage across its service areas. FreedomPop will eventually seek customers to volunteer access to their home or business networks for fellow users as well.

AT&T and Verizon are banking on their robust networks and coverage areas to protect their customer base. Verizon Wireless, in particular, has refused to engage in price wars with competitors, claiming Verizon customers are willing to pay more to access the company’s huge wireless coverage area. AT&T told the Wall Street Journal its customers want seamless access to its network to stay connected wherever they go.

Verizon’s chief financial officer Fran Shammo appeared unfazed by the recent developments. On last week’s conference call with investors, Shammo dismissed Google’s entry as simply another reseller of Sprint’s network. He added Google has no idea about the challenges it will face dealing directly with customers in a service and support capacity. While Google’s approach to combine the coverage of T-Mobile and Sprint together is a novel idea, Shammo thinks there isn’t much to see.

“Resellers, or people leasing the network from carriers, have been around for 15 years,” Shammo said. “It’s a complex issue.”

Investors are taking a cautious wait-and-see approach to the recent developments. Google’s new offering is likely to offer plans that are philosophically compatible with Google’s larger business agenda. Challenging the traditional business models of AT&T and Verizon that have implemented usage caps and usage pricing may be at the top of Google’s list. The new offering could give large data allowances at a low-cost and/or unlimited wireless data for a flat price. Such plans may actually steal price-sensitive customers away from Sprint and T-Mobile, at least initially. Sprint is clearly worried about that, so it has a built-in escape clause that allows a termination of its network agreement with Google almost at will.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSJ Google Cablevision Challenge Wireless Industry 1-26-15.flv

The Wall Street Journal talks about the trend towards Wi-Fi based mobile calling networks. (1:59)

Cablevision Calls Deal-Hunters and the Credit-Challenged “Shoplifters;” ‘Go Call Verizon Instead’

Phillip Dampier November 6, 2014 Cablevision, Competition, Consumer News, Verizon 1 Comment

Shoplifting-Is-Crime-Sign-S-7247Beggars can be choosers if you are running Cablevision, the northeast’s largest non-conglomerate cable company, still run by the Dolan family.

In a conference call with Wall Street analysts, company officials noted Cablevision had noticeably tightened its credit standards during the third quarter and has implemented incentives for slow-pay and no-pay customers to take a hike and not come back, even at the risk of subscriber losses.

“Certain of our promotional eligibility policies have put pressure on our net subscriber results,” reported Cablevision CEO James Dolan. “However, we believe that these policies are consistent with our goal of growing long-term shareholder value. For instance, during the third quarter, we tightened certain of our customer credit and payment policies. While these policy changes effectively reduce the number of available sales, they are expected to contribute a stronger base of customers over time.”

For more than a year, Cablevision has restricted promotional pricing and retention offers to keep customers from coming back for better deals when their existing promotion expires. Now it is stripping eligibility for promotional pricing for late-paying customers as well. Subscribers are leaving as a result. Video customers declined by 56,000 during the third quarter, high-speed data customers declined by 23,000, and voice customers declined by 33,000.

“We’re no longer marketing [to] subscribers who have a history of non-pay, so we’re not inviting them back in if they’re not good actors,” said Cablevision’s chief operating officer Kristin Dolan. “We’re requiring full payment in a number of areas where homes have a history of bad debt. And then we’re not doing promotions [for] those customers either. So if you have a history of bad debt with us, you can’t come back in on a promotional offer. [We’re] not letting people back into the bucket that are going to end up being problematic later on in their relationship with us.”

Mr. Dolan was scathingly critical of his biggest competitor, Verizon FiOS, claiming the company will stop at nothing to poach Cablevision’s customers.

“Verizon, in our opinion, continues on a path of pursuing the destruction of their own capital,” said Dolan. “We don’t believe that they’re profitable on any level in our service area. They just rabidly pursue us in an attempt to try and get customers. And I think our strategy is actually working quite well because we’re giving them all the customers that we think are the most expensive customers and the ones that provide the least free cash flow to us.”

Mrs. Dolan told analysts Cablevision is particular about the kinds of customers it wants to win back from competitors.

“I think if it’s a win back that we want to have, that’s a differentiator,” she said. “We’re not going to just chase subscriber numbers. We don’t want to invite people into our store if they’re going to shoplift.”

Windstream Teaches AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Others How to Avoid Federal Income Taxes

A gift from the American taxpayer, willing to make up the difference.

Another corporate tax cut

Wall Street rallied around big telecommunications company stocks this week as news spread that Windstream has found a way to avoid paying federal income tax by converting its copper and fiber networks and other property assets into a tax-exempt trust.

Windstream says it has already won Internal Revenue Service approval to convert all of its network assets into a publicly traded “real estate investment trust.” REIT’s pay no federal income taxes, and if other large telecom companies follow Windstream’s lead, taxpayers will have to make up the estimated $12 billion in lost tax revenue annually.

Investors are excited by the prospect of a major reduction in tax exposure for some of America’s richest telecommunications companies. Windstream was rewarded the most with a 12 percent boost in its share price – a two-year high for the largely rural phone company. But AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Cablevision also saw stock prices rising over the possibility of major increases in dividend payouts to shareholders from the proceeds of the tax savings.

REIT conversions are just the latest trick in the book corporations have used to cut, if not eliminate most of their tax liabilities. REITs are exempt from federal taxes as long as they distribute 90 percent of taxable earnings back to shareholders. Democrats in Congress have been busy fighting their Republican colleagues offer efforts to drop the practice of inversion — allowing companies to cut taxes by relocating offshore. Robert Williams, an independent corporate tax consultant, told Bloomberg News the Democrats have their hands full with that this year and are unlikely to be able to also devote resources to closing the REIT tax loophole.

“Management teams will surely look closely at emulating Windstream because the tax savings are potentially so significant,” said Craig Moffett, an analyst at MoffettNathanson LLC, in a note. “For a company like AT&T, where free cash flow has been under pressure and management has been willing to push hard to save on taxes, the appeal must surely be great.”

staxIf a high-profile phone or cable company moves to enact an REIT, that might be enough to provoke Congress to act, warned Moffett.

“The biggest hurdle in this process is getting the private letter ruling from the IRS, and we’ve got that,” David Avery, a spokesman for Windstream, told Bloomberg. The deal doesn’t need the consent of the Federal Communications Commission, Avery added.

Windstream’s tax savings will cut company debt by around $3.2 billion and produce about $115 million annually in free cash flow. Although Windstream chief financial officer Tony Thomas vaguely promised to use some of the money to invest in broadband upgrades, he was more specific about the benefits Windstream’s REIT will have on the company’s growth agenda. It can use the savings to “acquire other network assets to grow,” — business jargon meaning more merger and acquisition deals, this time fueled by Windstream’s slashed tax bill.

Wall Street investment banks paid to advise on Windstream’s REIT conversion are promoting the concept to other telecom companies as easy to replicate and profoundly profitable. But who should share in the new found wealth?

“People are asking the question if these tax benefits should be passed on to the end user — you and I when we pay our phone or cable bill — versus going to the corporation,” said Phil Owens, vice president at Green Street Advisors, a real estate research firm in Newport Beach, California, that has counseled companies like Equinix on REIT conversions.

Don’t count on it.

Charter’s CEO Remaking Company in Cablevision’s Image; Yet Another Cablevision Exec Poached

Phillip Dampier July 2, 2014 Cablevision, Charter No Comments

uhaulSince Thomas Rutledge was hired on as CEO at Charter Communications, a steady stream of his former colleagues from Cablevision’s executive suites have followed him to his new employer.

This week, James Nuzzo announced his departure from Cablevision, taking the position of executive vice president for business planning at Charter.

Nuzzo will report to Charter chief operating officer, John Bickham, and will oversee business planning for the company, working with the field operations, customer care, marketing, network operations, technology and product teams.

“Jim’s extensive background and experience in the cable industry makes him the ideal choice to lead Charter’s Business Planning efforts,” said Bickham. “During his time at Cablevision, Jim was instrumental in building a highly effective Business Planning organization and I am confident he will provide Charter the same great leadership.”

Bickham should know as he served as president of cable & communications at Cablevision until Rutledge hired him away to join him at Charter in 2012.

charter-communicationsNuzzo has been with Cablevision since 1986, so his sudden choice to leave, along with other long-time Cablevision executives, continues to fuel speculation Cablevision won’t be around much longer, especially if Comcast successfully wins approval to acquire Time Warner Cable. Of course, Wall Street analysts have made similar predictions for years without anything to show for it.

The Dolan family has controlled Cablevision since its start in 1973. The company used to own cable systems scattered across the country, mostly serving suburban and rural areas outside of its core northeastern service area in the tri-state region of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. At its peak in the mid-1990s Cablevision offered service to 2.9 million subscribers in 19 states, but eventually refocused attention on the tri-state, selling its other cable properties further afield.

Today, Charter resembles Cablevision in the 1990s — willing to grow and expand beyond the cable systems it already owns.

Helping them accomplish that includes these former Cablevision executives hired by Charter this spring:

  • Jim Blackley, executive vice president of engineering;
  • Catherine Bohigian, executive vice president of government affairs;
  • Jon Hargis, chief marketing officer;
  • Kathleen Mayo, executive vice president of customer operations;
  • Gary Schanman, executive vice president;

Rutledge himself used to be Cablevision’s chief operating officer but left for Charter in 2011.

Cablevision Promotes More Dolan Family Members to Top Management Positions

Phillip Dampier April 10, 2014 Cablevision, Consumer News No Comments
Kristin and James Dolan

Kristin and James Dolan

Cablevision CEO James Dolan has appointed his wife Kristin to be Cablevision’s next chief operating officer and his brother-in-law Brian Sweeney to serve as Cablevision’s president.

Kristin has been with Cablevision for 24 years and has been repeatedly promoted, first as senior executive vice president of product management and marketing in November 2011 and then president of Optimum services — the position that overseas most of Cablevision’s day-to-day cable operations — last year. The latest promotion come at a time when Kristin and James remain separated on what they call “a trial basis.”

“Brian and Kristin have each played critical senior roles in our efforts over the past two years to reposition Cablevision as a leader in customer service and product innovation in this industry,” Dolan wrote in a statement. “[They] helped propel Cablevision forward during a time of great change.”

The promotions fill a significant hole in top management opened when chief operating officer Tom Rutledge quit two years ago to take over as chief executive of Charter Communications, poaching several former Cablevision executives as he exited. Kristin is his replacement.

Customers should notice little, if any changes as a result of the promotions. But some investors have complained that the Dolan family’s tight control over the cable company serving suburban New York City communities remains a underperformer in its operating service areas, nearly all also served by Verizon’s fiber optic service FiOS. Cablevision has been forced to spend capital on service upgrades to keep up with FiOS’ faster broadband services, as well as improve customer service to keep customers.

The original version of this story mis-identified Mr. Sweeney as Jim Dolan’s son-in-law. We regret the error.

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