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Fierce Cable Predicts 2018 Will Be A Year of Big Cable Mergers

While giant cable company mergers unexpectedly took a breather in 2017, Fierce Cable predicts this year isn’t likely to be a repeat of last year.

“With polls showing Democrats poised to begin sweeping back into power with the 2018 midterm elections, look for cable operators to make hay on the current regulatory climate and start turning their rivals into that most precious of resources: scale,” writes Daniel Frankel.

With time for large cable operators to get easy approval of merger deals from deregulation-minded Republicans potentially running out, 2018 could bring dramatic consolidation in the cable industry, with Comcast a likely buyer and Charter Communications a potential seller… if the offer is good enough.

Many industry observers expected the first year of the Trump Administration to be a banner year for cable mergers, especially with the entry of Altice, a European cable conglomerate known for its willingness to overpay to acquire cable operators. Altice has since run into significant financial challenges and investor blowback, forcing the company to shelve acquisition plans for now and focus on debt reduction and developing a stronger business plan to operate its ailing cable and wireless properties in Europe. Altice USA, which owns Suddenlink and Cablevision, has not shelved its plans to upgrade many of its customers to fiber to the home service, but is also no longer seen as an immediate bidder for Charter, Cable One, or WideOpenWest.

Fierce Cable expects Comcast to respond to AT&T’s merger with Time Warner, Inc., assuming the deal successfully overcomes Department of Justice objections in court, and 21st Century Fox’s asset sales to Disney. Both transactions threaten to consolidate programming production and distribution around an even smaller group of media giants, which could challenge Comcast’s NBCUniversal unit as well as the cost of cable programming networks. Comcast has shied away from acquisitions after an embarrassing failure of its attempt to buy Time Warner Cable a few years ago.

If Comcast wants to build scale, it would naturally target an acquisition of Charter Communications, the second largest cable company in the country. The deal would give Comcast dominance over the New York and Los Angeles media markets and broadband service provision across most major American cities. Comcast could also seek a less controversial acquisition of Cox Communications, one of the few major independent cable companies left. But Comcast could also seek acquisitions in Hollywood to bolster its production capabilities.

Most other cable acquisition options would be considered scraps by the largest operators. Altice could be persuaded to prematurely exit the American market and sell Cablevision and Suddenlink if convinced it has no chance of building adequate scale to stand with Comcast and Charter. Beyond that are smaller rural and regional operators including Mediacom, Midco, WOW!, GTT, RCN, and many others that serve fewer than one million customers.

Company executives may be hoping the objections to the AT&T/Time Warner deal are an anomaly for the Trump Administration. But it’s clear that whatever smooth waters exist for upcoming mergers will get choppy as the midterm elections approach. Should Democrats win back the House and/or Senate, life will get considerably more difficult for future media consolidation deals.

Dish and DirecTV Join the 2018 Rate Hike Parade

Phillip Dampier December 28, 2017 Competition, Consumer News, DirecTV, Dish Network 1 Comment

Satellite dish customers relying on Dish Networks or DirecTV for cable programming will need to open their wallets wider in 2018 to cover rate increases at both providers.

Dish

“On behalf of all of us at Dish, thank you for your business. You have asked us to be honest and upfront with changes to your account, and that is why we are writing you,” the satellite company wrote on its website.

Effective Jan. 16, 2018, broad rate hikes of about $3 a month for cable networks and $2 a month for local channels will take effect. Dish’s “Smart Pack” will increase by 7% to $44.99 a month, America’s Top 200 rises 6% to $89.99 and America’s Everything gets a 3.4% boost to $149.99 a month. Customers on a promotion will not see the rate hike until their offer expires.

The biggest rate increase by percentage applies to local stations, where most will see a 20% rate hike from $10 to $12 a month.

Dish has published its 2018 rate card on its website, detailing the price hikes.

Package Core Programming Local Channels Total
Welcome Pack $22.99 Included $22.99
Smart Pack $32.99 $12.00 $44.99
DISH America $47.99 $12.00 $59.99
America’s Top 120 $62.99 $12.00 $74.99
America’s Top 120 Plus $67.99 $12.00 $79.99
America’s Top 200 $77.99 $12.00 $89.99
America’s Top 250 $87.99 $12.00 $99.99
America’s Everything Pack $137.99 $12.00 $149.99

Spanish/Latino Packages

Package Core Programming Local Channels Total
DishLATINO Basico $34.99 Included $34.99
DishLATINO Clásico $37.99 $12.00 $49.99
DishLATINO Plus $44.99 $12.00 $56.99
DishLATINO Dos $62.99 $12.00 $74.99
DishLATINO Max $74.99 $12.00 $86.99

Channel Packs

Package Price
Locals Pack $12.00
National Action Pack $12.00
Regional Action Pack $12.00
News Pack $10.00
Kids Pack $10.00
Latino Bonus $10.00
Variety Pack $6.00
Heartland Pack $6.00
SiriusXM Pack $6.00
Outdoor Pack $4.00

DirecTV

DirecTV rates will rise effective Jan. 21, 2018 according to its website. The increase is blamed on programming costs. Customers on a promotion will not see the rate increase until that promotion expires. But AT&T, which owns DirecTV, also warns customers if they change their current base package, their promotion will end immediately and the new, higher rates apply.

DIRECTV Packages Monthly Price Increase
Minimum Service
FAMILY
$0
SELECT
SELECT CLASSIC
SELECT CHOICE
$2
ENTERTAINMENT
ENTERTAINMENT CLASSIC
$3
CHOICE
TOTAL CHOICE
$4
TOTAL CHOICE LIMITED $4.50
TOTAL CHOICE Mobile
CHOICE XTRA CLASSIC
$5
PREFERRED XTRA
XTRA
$7
ULTIMATE
PREMIER
$8
DIRECTV Español Monthly Price Increase
ChineseDirect Plus $0
BASIC CHOICE
BASIC
$1
MAS LATINO
OPTIMO MAS
PREFERRED CHOICE
MAS MEXICO
BASICO
OPCION ESPECIAL
$2
FAMILIAR
OPCION EXTRA ESPECIAL
$3
OPCION ULTRA ESPECIAL $4
MAS ULTRA
MAS ULTRA ORIGINAL
FAMILIAR ULTRA
$5
LO MAXIMO
OPCION PREMIER
 $8

Regional Sports Network and Outdoor Channel pricing adjustments for DIRECTV

Service Monthly price increase
Regional Sports Network Tier 1 $0.00
Regional Sports Network Tier 2 $0.70
Regional Sports Network Tier 3 $0.81
Regional Sports Network Tier 4 $0.20
Regional Sports Network Tier 5 $1.00
Outdoor Channel $1.49

More Than 2,000 AT&T Workers Getting $1,000 Bonus and Termination Notice

Phillip Dampier December 27, 2017 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

AT&T’s promised more jobs as a result of a large corporate tax cut, but is now reneging on the deal.

More than 2,000 AT&T employees will be given a one-time bonus of $1,000 as a consequence of the passage of the Republican tax cut legislation signed into law late last week by President Donald Trump and then will see their jobs terminated as AT&T begins sweeping job cuts across several of its divisions.

In the midwest, at least 600 employees working to maintain AT&T’s wireline network have been notified their jobs will be lost by early 2018. Additional layoffs include more than 700 DirecTV home installers whose jobs will be eliminated or outsourced to third-party contractors, 215 “high skilled technicians in nine southern states” whose jobs will not be replaced, and almost 700 workers in Texas and Missouri will see their jobs disappear beginning in February.

“Technology improvements are driving higher efficiencies, and there are some areas where demand for our legacy services continues to decline, and we’re adjusting our workforce in some of those areas as we continue to align our workforce with the changing needs of the business,” AT&T explained in a statement. “Many of the affected employees have a job offer guarantee that ensures they’ll be offered another job with the company, and we’ll work to find other jobs for as many of them as possible.”

Workers report AT&T’s promises do not tell the whole story. Most offered replacement jobs will have to move to other states and accept compensation reductions and a loss of seniority.

“How can you lay people off and then give them $1,000 and say that there’s going to be more jobs available? I wish someone could tell me how that’s possible because I have to explain that to my members, and right now at this time of year, this is a difficult pill to swallow,” Joseph Blanco, president of Local 6360 Communication Workers of America Union in Kansas City, told Fox 4 on Thursday.

Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, joined with Republicans in a press statement that claimed the new tax bill would improve the U.S. economy and the company’s standing.

In the spring of 2017, Stephenson promised an additional 7,000 jobs for every $1 billion in investment:

“The arithmetic for us is simple: For every billion dollars of additional investment we make is 7,000 additional jobs we have to put on to put that capital into the ground or on cell towers and so forth,” he said, adding that those jobs would likely be “hard hat” jobs that pay well.

“Congress, working closely with the president, took a monumental step to bring taxes paid by U.S. businesses in line with the rest of the industrialized world. This tax reform will drive economic growth and create good-paying jobs,” Stephenson said, according to CNBC. Except those “good-paying jobs” likely won’t be with AT&T. In statements to investors, Stephenson reiterated his plans for sweeping job cuts in the form of “cost savings.”

Last year, senior executives at AT&T told The New York Times that “shrinking the [company’s] workforce by 30 percent is not out of the question.”

T-Mobile’s 2017 Christmas Cartoon Calls Out AT&T, Verizon for “Blizzard of BS”

Phillip Dampier December 21, 2017 Competition, T-Mobile, Video 3 Comments

T-Mobile CEO John Legere antagonizes AT&T and Verizon once again in his 2017 Christmas cartoon. Calling Verizon and AT&T’s business practices “bulls**t” in a two-minute cartoon featuring himself, an elf, reindeer and a snowman, Legere recounts how he took out the “misers” AT&T and Verizon that snowed customers with a “blizzard of BS.” Sprint goes unmentioned, which could be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective and its current relevance in the wireless marketplace. (2:11)

Telecom Companies Win Huge New Tax Breaks and Falsely Promise Spending Spree

Some of America’s top telephone and cable companies will likely pay little, if any federal taxes as a result of the passage of a Republican-sponsored tax cut plan, while some may also receive generous “refunds” based on depreciation-related expenses and future investments the companies would have made with or without changes to the tax code.

For several years in the last decade, companies with significant infrastructure expenses often did not spend a penny in federal taxes thanks to generous loopholes and incentive programs designed to encourage corporations to invest in new equipment, research, and development. The new Republican-sponsored tax cut is expected to provide a windfall of tax savings for every corporation in the country, but telecom companies are expected to do especially well with a combination of a lower corporate tax rate and the GOP’s failure to fulfill a commitment to close many of the tax loopholes and incentives that were originally designed to get companies spending during the Great Recession.

No provider has promised customers lower rates as a result of the billions of additional dollars the companies are expected to keep in the bank starting next year. In fact, there are early signs that much of the anticipated windfall will be returned to shareholders in the form of increased dividend payouts and accelerated share buyback schemes that reduce the number of shares available for sale, boosting both the sale price of the stock and executive bonus compensation tied to the price performance of the stock.

Despite that, companies including AT&T and Comcast are cranking up their PR machines to get on the good side of the Trump Administration, suggesting the new tax cuts will directly benefit middle class employees at both companies.

AT&T’s capex increased $1.1 billion to $11.2 billion for the first six months of 2017 without the tax cut legislation.

AT&T announced it would pay a one-time $1,000 bonus to its workers and invest an additional $1 billion in network upgrades as a direct result of the tax cuts.

However, a closer look reveals AT&T’s commitments to boost compensation came not as a result of the tax cut but instead from nearly a year of hard negotiations with the Communications Workers of America (CWA), one of the biggest unions representing AT&T workers.

The CWA argued that AT&T needed to follow-through on the Republican Party’s promise that passage of the tax cuts would result in higher wages for the middle class.

“Republicans, including the president, said the average household would get $4,000 under this tax plan,” CWA spokesperson Candice Johnson told The Daily Beast. In November, CWA officials began to demand $4,000 raises for AT&T workers promised by the GOP. “This bonus came out of that conversation. It’s a start, and we’re going to keep holding our leaders accountable.”

Instead of $4,000 more a year for AT&T workers as a result of the tax cut bill, the union’s influence achieved a $1,000 one time bonus and an average salary bump of 10.1%. Without pressure from the union, many AT&T employees and union officials believe AT&T would have offered little, if anything to its employees as a result of the tax cut.

AT&T’s Christmas Bonus will cost the company a fraction of the amount it risks losing if its $109 billion merger deal with Time Warner, Inc., does not survive an antitrust review by the Justice Department and the courts. The Justice Department announced its opposition to the merger. The connection between AT&T’s press release, which plays into the Trump Administration’s talking points about the tax cut law, and AT&T’s need for a friendlier response to its merger deal by administration officials, was not lost on Crane’s Chicago Business:

By now, companies have learned the art of crafting the type of upbeat, largely symbolic press releases our president loves, with enough big numbers to get them on the White House’s good side. If this time around that also means some extra money in workers’ pockets, all the better. But some of these announcements come across as more gimmicky than others, and it’s not hard to wonder if there are also other motives at work.

AT&T is angling to overcome regulatory objections to its $109 billion merger with Time Warner Inc. and either way, needs to invest in the U.S. to build out its fiber-optic cable and 5G networks. Analysts estimate AT&T’s net income will be close to $14 billion this year.

AT&T’s commitment to spend up to $1 billion additional dollars next year as a direct result of the tax cut is recycled old news, critics charge, because AT&T previously announced the same $1 billion commitment in early November. Regardless, the extra spending is a small fraction of AT&T’s overall capex budget.

In 2016, at the height of so-called “investment-killing net neutrality,” AT&T exceeded its 2016 capex forecast, spending $22.9 billion — $900,000 more than it expected. In 2017, AT&T announced it expected to spend $22 billion again this year, primarily on its wireless network and wired business solutions. The other major former Baby Bell – Verizon Communications, spent $17.1 billion in 2016 and expected to spend up to $17.5 billion this year.

AT&T’s promise to spend an additional $1 billion is a token amount, especially when considering the tax cut savings likely to be won by phone companies like AT&T and Verizon. From 2008-2015, AT&T paid an effective federal tax rate of just 8.1%, according to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. It will pay considerably less under the Republican tax law, potentially saving the company billions. During the same period, Verizon paid absolutely zero federal taxes during many of those years, and in fact won a refund from the IRS because of network investments and depreciation-related savings. Because the GOP did not close many of the corporate loopholes the politicians initially promised would be ended, many telecom companies could once again pay little, if any federal tax, and may secure hefty refunds.

Source: Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy

Comcast’s $1,000 Christmas Bonus and $50 Billion Spending Commitment

Not to be outdone, Comcast has also promised a $1,000 one time Christmas bonus for its employees as a result of the passage of the GOP tax measure, along with a commitment to spend $50 billion on its business over the next five years:

Based on the passage of tax reform and the FCC’s action on broadband, Brian L. Roberts, chairman and CEO of Comcast NBCUniversal, announced that the company would award special $1,000 bonuses to more than 100,000 eligible frontline and non-executive employees. Roberts also announced that the company expects to spend well in excess of $50 billion over the next five years investing in infrastructure to radically improve and extend our broadband plant and capacity, and our television, film and theme park offerings.

Roberts

Comcast’s spending on its theme parks acquired from NBCUniversal has been especially bullish, with Roberts announcing earlier this year nearly $2 billion in spending  in 2017. In fact, Comcast’s capex spending has trended higher year after year, especially after its acquisition of NBCUniversal. In 2014, the company spent $7.2 billion on capital investments. In 2015, as net neutrality rules took effect, Comcast raised investments to $8.1 billion. In 2016, the capex budget fell slightly to $7.597 billion in 2016, but was forecast to reach $8.445 billion in 2017. Ars Technica reports that from the fourth quarter of 2016 through the third quarter of 2017, Comcast spent $9.4 billion on capital investments.

Much of that spending has been to pay for its X1 set-top box, theme park upgrades, and scaling up its broadband infrastructure to handle faster internet speeds. Earlier in 2017, Comcast also boosted its commitment to spend billions on buying back shares of its own stock, which will benefit shareholders and company executive compensation plans.

As the industry marches towards fiber upgrades and DOCSIS 3.1 deployment, Comcast’s capex forecast without the tax cuts would like come very close to Roberts’ $50 billion estimate over the next five years, assuming the company spent a reasonable average of close to $10 billion annually. Roberts said he “expects” spending at that level, but did not commit to it formally, so there is no penalty for overestimating investment numbers.

AT&T earlier noted predictions about capital investments always relate to actual need at the time and the company doesn’t spend money it does not need to spend.

“There is no reason to expect capital expenditures to increase by the same amount year after year,” AT&T said at the time. “Capital expenditures tend to be ‘lumpy.’ Providers make significant expenditures to upgrade and expand their networks in one year (e.g., perhaps because a new generation of technology has just been introduced), and then focus the next year on signing up customers and integrating those new facilities into their existing networks, and then make additional capital expenditures later, and so on.”

But there are political upsides to making no-strings-attached investment predictions anyway.

Comcast’s share repurchase program also allows the company to boost dividend payouts to shareholders.

Issuing a favorable press release that dovetails with the Trump Administration’s tax cut plan could buy Comcast goodwill from the administration as the company faces calls from Congress to extend merger deal conditions and restrictions on its 2011 acquisition of NBCUniversal. Those conditions are scheduled to expire in September 2018.

Jon Brodkin notes that telecom companies frequently tie their spending plans to regulatory matters going in their favor:

When ISPs are asking the government for a specific policy change—such as the repeal of a regulation or a tax break—they are quick to claim that the desired policy will lead to more investment.

AT&T, for example, announced last month that it would invest “an additional $1 billion” if Congress passes tax reform. With the tax reform now passed by Congress, AT&T said yesterday that it will move ahead with that $1 billion increase.

But neither one of those AT&T announcements said what the exact level of investment would have been if the tax bill wasn’t passed.

And in 2010, AT&T told the FCC that capital expenditures are based on technology upgrade cycles rather than government policy. At the time, AT&T was asking the FCC for a favor—the company wanted a declaration that the wireless market is competitive, a finding that can influence how the FCC regulates wireless carriers.

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  • JayS: It will be interesting to see how companies in Utility-Monopoly like markets (Cable Tv, Electric, Wired Internet) treat the "tax rate windfall". Then...
  • Adam Bryant: Please give us any updates you have on this! I received an approval letter on 11/29/2017 12:16 PM sayign they would be sending a check within 10 busin...
  • jgbbmodelrailroad: New York State has a weird law that means Internet Service Providers pay they same taxes on infrastructure regardless of how many customers it serves,...
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  • Phillip Dampier: Charter has not fully converted former Time Warner Cable customers to its legacy Charter website and support platform, which is why TWC customers ente...
  • Phillip Dampier: Folks, I should have been more clear that this list is for approved CUSTOMER-OWNED modems for Charter/Spectrum customers. It does not include modems s...
  • Curious George: use this list too the ubee is on this list under Modems offered by Spectrum https://www.timewarnercable.com/en/support/internet/topics/modems.html#/...
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