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Altice’s World Comes Crashing Down; No More Acquisitions Until Massive Debt Reduced

Drahi’s World

Shareholders have shaken Patrick Drahi’s dreams of being the next king of telecom in the United States by plunging Altice’s share price by more than a third in a single week, forcing Drahi to announce he won’t be making any additional acquisitions until the company’s staggering $59 billion debt is repaid.

Investors were also given a sacrificial lamb from the very sudden departure of Michel Combes, the ruthless cost-cutter that also served as titular operations leader of Altice’s European operations. Combes paid the ultimate price for the continued mediocre financial results at SFR-Numericable, which provides wireless and cable service in France and is Altice’s largest holding. That departure comes only two months after Michel Paulin, Drahi’s right-hand man at SFR, was also shown the door.

Drahi made it clear that he is formally taking back control of Altice, although observers have claimed he has always been in charge. European business analysts have uniformly described Altice as a company mired in crisis management, as European investors lose trust in Drahi’s business philosophy, which depends heavily on acquiring companies with other people’s money.

Drahi’s prominence in France came with his acquisition of SFR-Numericable just three years ago. SFR is France’s fourth largest wireless carrier and the company also has a prominent place in the wired telecom market, providing cable television, phone and internet service. Drahi has attracted investors with promises to wring every possible concession out of the companies he acquires. For financial markets, Drahi’s best trait is his ruthless cost-cutting and employee reductions. In France, employees have reported providing their own copy paper and toner cartridges for empty office printers, occasionally supply their own toiletries, and take turns mopping floors and vacuuming offices.

Employees of Altice-owned Suddenlink have been forced to take requests for replacement coffee machines for break rooms to skeptical company committees that review virtually every transaction. More recently, Cablevision technicians are complaining Altice eliminated their winter apparel budget, leaving workers without coats, bibs, overalls, or rain gear for the upcoming winter. Technicians will have to pay for their unsupplied winter gear out-of-pocket.

While shareholders and financial analysts bid up Altice stock on the premise that cost cutting would deliver better results, the fact France has a highly competitive telecom market brought unintended consequences for Altice and its shareholders: customers fled as cost cuts took their toll on service quality and support.

Competition Matters

Between the end of 2014 and mid-2017, SFR lost 514,000 subscribers in wired internet and 1.7 million mobile customers, delighting Altice’s competitors Orange, Free, and Bouygues Telecom. SFR’s internet problems are well-known across France. Altice’s attempt to offer a “one-box” solution for internet and television service has been of dubious value. Its equipment is notorious for failures, has compatibility problems with online games, and has high support costs. Altice is starting to bring similar equipment to the United States to supply its Cablevision customers, and technicians report many of the same problems are occurring in the U.S., adding they are skeptical Altice’s Le Box, known here as Altice One, will perform well for customers.

The biggest enemy of Altice in Europe is robust competition, which has allowed dissatisfied customers to switch providers in droves. SFR-Numericable, despite promises of fiber-fast speeds, has endured complaints about slow and uneven speeds and persistent service outages. Drahi’s original business plan was to upgrade broadband speeds and performance to win over France’s remaining DSL customers. That worked for a time, according to the French newspaper Libération, but not for long.

Paulin, who used to run the division responsible for Altice’s wired broadband, complained bitterly competitors have “polluted” his marketing campaign by advertising their 100% fiber optic networks, educating customers that Altice isn’t selling that. That ruined Drahi’s plans to slowly upgrade services with the belief customers are more captive to their broadband provider and wouldn’t switch providers if Altice took its time.

A competitor put it this way: “SFR’s remaining DSL customers have indeed migrated at the encouragement of SFR-Numericable… to Orange or Free’s 100% fiber optic network offerings.”

Accusations about service problems and slow upgrades were readily believed by customers because Altice drew headlines for its ruthless efforts to save money.

“First, the restructuring – cuts in spending and pressure on suppliers – has shaped its image as a bad payer,” notes the newspaper. “At the end of 2015, SFR was fined $400,000 for its late payments. Second, package price increases, imposed discreetly and justified by the addition of exclusive video content, annoyed customers when they found extra charges on their bills. Finally, recurring network problems have undermined user trust. The new satisfaction survey of UFC-Que declared SFR was in last place among operators.”

Altice’s one-box solution for TV and internet has proven troublesome for customers in Europe.

Altice blamed most of SFR’s problems on its previous owner, Vivendi, who it claimed underinvested in its network for years. But customers were in no mood to stick around waiting for upgrades. Throughout 2015 and 2016, customers fled, finally forcing Drahi to embark on costly upgrades of SFR’s wireless and broadband networks. Drahi’s investments in SFR amounted to only $2 billion in 2014 and $2.12 billion in 2015, but dramatically increased to $2.71 billion in 2016. By the beginning of 2017, the upgrades stemmed some of the customer losses as independent tests showed SFR’s 4G LTE service finally became competitive with France’s top two providers. SFR commissioned 5,221 new 4G cell sites over the last 12 months, beating 4,333 for Bouygues Telecom, 3,543 for Orange and a distant 2,010 for low-cost carrier Free.

Drahi also made headlines last summer by announcing SFR-Numericable was completely scrapping its coaxial cable networks in France (as well as in Cablevision territory in the United States) to move entirely to optical fiber technology, even in the most rural service areas. But the fiber upgrades are not being financed with cash on hand at Altice. Libération reports the $1.78 billion Altice will need to spend on fiber upgrades for France alone will be financed by more bank loans. Drahi hopes to eventually offer bonds to investors to internally finance fiber upgrades.

The Suddenlink/Cablevision Cash Machine

Drahi was banking on his ability to manage Altice’s debt and boost revenue by milking U.S. cable customers. Unlike in France, where competition and regulation have kept cable television and broadband prices much lower than in North America, Drahi saw enormous potential from the U.S. telecom market, where Americans routinely pay double or even triple the price many Europeans pay for television and internet access. Drahi sold investors on the prospects of slashing costs, initiating employee cutbacks, and raising prices for acquired U.S. cable companies. Suddenlink customers are particularly captive to cable broadband because the only alternative in many Suddenlink markets is slow speed DSL. Cablevision faces fierce competition from Verizon FiOS, but Verizon has sought to ease revenue-eating promotions that the company has offered in prior years. Both U.S. cable operators have raised prices since Altice acquired them.

Altice’s investors demand short-term results more than long-term prospects, and Altice’s heavy reliance on bank loans at a time when interest rates are gradually rising could spell peril in the future. Drahi used to promote a 38% profit margin to his investors with predictions of 45% in the future. Altice recently removed all predictions of its margins going forward, a sign Altice is being forced to spend more money than it planned on network upgrades and expensive exclusive content deals for French cable television customers that might otherwise switch providers to secure a better deal.

Increasing costs and decreasing customers pushed Altice’s net profit in the red in 2016. The company also faces a lump sum loan payment of $4.72 billion in 2022. For now, Drahi will continue to refinance his portfolio of loans to secure lower interest rates and better repayment terms, but investors no longer believe Altice can continue to carry, much less increase its debt load.

That has forced Drahi to declare he is suspending further acquisitions at Altice and will instead spend resources on paying down its current debts. If he doesn’t, any recession could spell doom for Altice if his bankers are no longer willing to offer favorable credit terms.

Comcast Boosting Speeds Across Central U.S.; Most Will Get 25-100Mbps Service

Phillip Dampier November 15, 2017 Broadband Speed, Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News 4 Comments

Comcast is raising broadband speeds across its expansive Central Division, which covers customers in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

  • Performance Starter (10Mbps) increases to 25Mbps;
  • Performance (25Mbps) will now be 60Mbps;
  • XFINITY Blast! (75Mbps) rises to 100Mbps.

Customers subscribed to the Performance tier will see the biggest speed jump, rising by more than double the current speed.

The new speeds are gradually rolling out to customers in these states from mid-November until mid-December. In some cases, customers will need to briefly unplug their cable modems to get the free speed upgrade.

 

Cable Operators Talk Broadband Capacity and Upgrades

With many cable operators reporting a need to double network capacity every 18-24 months to keep up with customer traffic demands, the industry is spending time and money contemplating how to meet future needs while also finding ways to cut costs and make networks more efficient.

Top technology executives from five major cable operators answered questions (sub. req’d.) from Multichannel News about their current broadband networks and their plans for the future. Some, like Mediacom, are aggressively adopting DOCSIS 3.1 cable broadband upgrades for their customers while companies like Cox and Comcast are deploying multiple solutions that use both traditional hybrid fiber-coax network technology and, on occasion, fiber-to-the-home to boost speed and performance. But at least one cable company — Charter Communications — thinks it can continue operating its existing DOCSIS 3 network without major upgrades for several years to come.

Cable Broadband Traffic Can Be Handled

“We’ve been on a pretty steady path of doubling our network capacity every 18-24 months for several years, and I don’t see anything that makes me think that will change,” said Tony Werner, president of technology and product at Comcast. “We’ve been strategically extending fiber further into our network to meet customer demand, and that effort, combined with our commitment to deploying DOCSIS 3.1 has given us a network that’s powerful, flexible, and ready for what’s next.”

J.R. Walden, senior vice president of technology at Mediacom was more aggressive.

“We have completed the removal of all the analog channels. That was the big step one,” Walden said. “Step two was to start transitioning high-speed data over to DOCSIS 3.1, so we’re not adding any more 3.0 channels, and reuse spectrum for 3.1, which is a bit more efficient. The whole company is 3.1, all the modems we’re buying since June have been 3.1, so we’ve begun that next transition.”

Walden added Mediacom is also trying to improve broadband performance by reducing the number of customers sharing the same connection.

“We average about 285 homes to 290 homes per node as an average,” he said.

Mediacom is also scrapping older technology on the TV side to open new bandwidth. The cable company is getting rid of MPEG-2-only set-top boxes so the company can transition its video lineup to MPEG-4. But even that won’t last long. Walden admits the company will then quickly start moving less-viewed channels and some premium networks to IP delivery.

Traditional cable broadband service relies on a hybrid fiber-coax network.

In its European markets, Liberty Global has adopted Converged Cable Access Platform (CCAP) equipment across its footprint. CCAP technology saves cable operators space and operates more efficiently, and supports future convergence of technologies that cable operators want to adopt in the future. CCAP has helped Liberty Global deal with its 45% traffic growth by making upgrades easier. The company is also using advanced features of CCAP to better balance how many customers are sharing a connection. The next step is adopting DOCSIS 3.1.

“Seventy to 80% of our plant will be DOCSIS 3.1 ready by the end of next year, giving us a path to even greater capacity expansion allowing us to continue to increase the available capacity across our access network, upstream and downstream,” said Dan Hennessy, chief architect of network architecture for Liberty.

Charter is prioritizing maximizing performance on the network it already has.

“Our priority is to constantly balance capacity against demand. It’s a never-ending quest,” said Jay Rolls, Charter’s chief technology officer. “We watch it very closely, and we’re very pragmatic about it — the volume of tools, metrics and ways to see what’s really happening, and invest accordingly, is really deepening in ways that matter.”

Is Fiber-to-the-Home in Your Future?

While some cable operators like Altice’s Cablevision are scrapping their existing hybrid fiber-coax networks in favor of fiber-to-the-home (FTTH), America’s largest cable operators are not in any hurry to follow Altice.

Comcast has expanded its fiber network closer to customers in the last few years, but sees no need to convert customers to FTTH service.

“I feel pretty strongly that the best path ahead is to leverage the existing coaxial network and DOCSIS resources to the fullest, then inch towards FTTH, over time Why? Because we can. We don’t have to build an entire network just to turn up one customer.”

The next generation of cable broadband service may depend on CCAP – technology that will cut operator costs and lay the foundation for changing the way video and other services are delivered to customers.

Cox has a 10-year Network 2.0 plan that will bring fiber closer to customers, but not directly to every home. More important to Cox is having the option to support symmetrical speeds, which means delivering upload speeds as fast as download speeds.

“We’re also thinking about the fiber investment and fiber deep as it relates to our wireless strategy, enabling some of our customers with a small cell strategy but also positioning ourselves to take advantage of that in the future, as well as thinking about fiber deep to benefit both residential and our commercial customers simultaneously,” said Kevin Hart, Cox’s executive vice president and chief product and technology officer.

Liberty/Virgin Media’s Project Lightning is bringing cable broadband and TV service to places in the UK that never had cable service before.

In Europe, Liberty Global’s “Project Lightning” network expansion initiative is building out traditional cable service in the United Kingdom. Most of the UK never adopted cable service, favoring small satellite dish service instead. Now Liberty Global is putting cable expansion on its priority list. But decades after most North Americans got cable service for the first time, today’s new buildouts are based largely on fiber optics — either fiber to the home or fiber to the neighborhood, where coaxial cable completes the journey to a customer’s home.

Charter admits the technology it will use in the future partly depends on what the competition is offering. Rolls says the company can eventually roll out DOCSIS 3.1, take fiber deeper, or offer symmetrical download/upload speeds presumably targeted towards its commercial customers. But he also suggested Charter’s existing network can continue to deliver acceptable levels of service without spending a lot on major upgrades.

“It’s a rational approach, where we’re trying to balance the needs, the available technologies, and the costs,” Rolls said. But he also suggested DOCSIS 3.1 isn’t always the answer to upgrades. “DOCSIS 3.1 has some pretty remarkable capabilities, but it’s not necessarily a hard-and-fast reason to not take fiber deeper, for instance [allowing for additional DOCSIS 3 node splits]. Different situations drive different capacity decisions.”

Walden agreed, and Mediacom customers should not expect more than DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades for the near future.

“[Fiber deep] is a bit further out, at least as a large-scale type of project,” Walden told Multichannel News. “I think fiber deep for multi-dwelling units, high-density areas and some planned higher end communities doing deeper fiber or fiber-to-the-home [is happening]. But as a wholesale [change] and going to node+0 kind of architecture, I don’t see that in the next two years.”

Are Symmetrical Speeds Important for Customers?

Verizon’s fiber to the home service FiOS uses symmetrical broadband speeds to its advantage in the marketplace.

Many fiber to the home networks offer customers identical upload and download speeds, but cable broadband was designed to favor downstream speeds over upstream. That decision was based on the premise the majority of users will receive much more traffic than they send. But as the internet evolves, some are wondering if cable broadband’s asymmetric design is now outdated and some competitors like Verizon’s FiOS fiber to the home service now use its symmetrical speed advantage as a selling point.

Cox Communications does not think most customers care, even though its network upgrades are laying the foundation to deliver symmetrical speeds.

“It’s a little but further out on the horizon,” said Hart. “The upstream growth rate is ticking up a couple of notches, but not to the tune that we would need significant additional capacity and/or a complementary need for symmetrical bandwidth. [A]t this stage, the symmetrical is a nice-to-have for residential and definitely will be a good option for our commercial customers.”

Rolls isn’t sure if symmetrical speeds are important to customers either and Charter has no specific plans to move towards upload speed upgrades.

“The world of applications and services continues to evolve, obviously, but so far we’ve been able to meet those needs with an asymmetrical topology,” Rolls said. “That said, things like real-time gaming, augmented and virtual reality, and the Internet of Things — some of those will likely drive more symmetry in the network. It remains to be seen.”

Despite Net Neutrality, Providers Launch Fiber Spending Spree

Despite claims from some industry-backed researchers and former members of Congress that Net Neutrality has reduced investment in telecommunications, a new research note from Deutsche Bank shows America’s top telephone and cable companies are spending billions on fiber upgrades to power wireless, business, and consumer broadband.

“Telecoms have become much more public signaling their intent to increase fiber investment, with AT&T and Verizon leading the spending ramp,” reports Deutsche Bank Markets Research.

Verizon has been on a fiber spending spree in the northeastern United States, signing contracts with Corning and Prysmian worth $1.3 billion to guarantee a steady supply of 2.5 million miles of fiber optic cable Verizon plans to buy over the next three years. Much of that spending allows Verizon to lay a foundation for its future 5G wireless services, which will require fiber to the neighborhood networks. But in cities like Boston, Verizon is also once again expanding its FiOS fiber to the home service to consumers.

AT&T is committed to connecting 12.5 million homes to gigabit-ready fiber broadband by 2019 — part of a deal it made with the FCC to win approval of its acquisition of DirecTV. AT&T claims it has already connected 5.5 million homes to its gigabit AT&T Fiber network, expected to reach 7 million by the end of this year.

Deutsche Bank thinks providers’ future drive towards 5G service will also simultaneously benefit fiber to the home expansion, because the same fiber network can power both services.

“To support the upcoming innovations such as autonomous driving, IoT, smart cities, the US needs to densify its fiber network,” Deutsche Bank said. “The U.S. fiber penetration rate is 20% vs. 75% for leading OECD countries, which suggests a large gap needs to be closed.”

Altice founder Patrick Drahi (second from left) and Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei (center) visit a Cablevision fiber deployment on Long Island, N.Y.

The bank predicts companies will spend around $175 billion over the next 10 years building out their fiber networks, with most of the spending coming from the phone companies, who may see fiber buildouts as their best attempt to level the playing field with cable operators’ hybrid fiber-coaxial cable networks. As cable operators expand their networks to reach more business parks, they have been gradually stealing market share for phone and data services from phone companies. Consumer broadband is also increasingly dominated by cable operators in areas where phone companies still rely on selling DSL services.

FierceCable notes Comcast and Altice have stepped up aggressive spending on fiber networks for their consumer and business customers. Altice is planning to decommission Cablevision’s existing coaxial cable network and move customers to fiber-to-the-home service. Comcast is deploying fiber services while still selling traditional cable broadband upgraded to DOCSIS 3.1, which supports substantially faster broadband speeds. The two networks co-exist side-by-side. Customer need dictates which network Comcast will use to supply service.

Customers benefit differently in each state, depending on what type of service is available. Comcast’s large footprint in Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia, is usually served by traditional coaxial cable. Verizon still sells DSL in much of the state. In Massachusetts, Verizon is building out its FiOS network to serve metro Boston while Comcast will depend on DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades to speed up its internet service. In New Jersey, long a battleground for Verizon’s FiOS service the company stopped aggressively expanding several years ago, Comcast has announced DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades for the entire state.

Independent phone companies are also seeing a bleak future without fiber upgrades. Both CenturyLink and Windstream are planning moderately aggressive fiber expansion, particularly in urban service areas and where they face fierce cable competition. Frontier continues its more modest approach to fiber expansion, usually placing fiber in new housing developments and in places where its copper facilities have been severely damaged or have to be relocated because of infrastructure projects.

None of the companies have cited Net Neutrality as a factor in their future broadband expansion plans. In fact, fiber networks have opened the door to new business opportunities to the companies installing them, and the high-capacity networks are likely to further reduce traffic/transit costs, while boosting speeds. That undercuts the business model of selling digital slow and fast lanes.

Great North American Broadband Ripoff: Canada, U.S. Pay Double What Europe, Asia Pays

Phillip Dampier September 26, 2017 Broadband Speed, Canada, Competition, Public Policy & Gov't 4 Comments

Prices in €. (Source: European Commission)

The European Commission’s latest study on broadband pricing shows while Europe and Asia offer consumers affordable broadband, North American providers are forcing Americans and Canadians to essentially pay twice as much for equivalent levels of service.

Just as was the case in 2015, the report found some of the most costly broadband packages in the world are sold to customers in Canada and the United States. This year, the study found the average Canadian paid more than $52 a month for standalone broadband, in the U.S. an average of $42 a month. In contrast, Europeans paid an average of $30 and Asians paid $22 a month for comparable service. Customers in the U.S. and Canada with a triple play bundle package of broadband, TV, and phone service paid more than double what their counterparts in Asia and Europe did last year.

As U.S. and Canadian providers raise broadband speeds and constrict the number of service tiers they offer, customers are forced into more expensive tiers, whether they need or want them. That further exacerbates the digital divide based on broadband affordability.

In Europe, competition in many EU member states has caused prices to drop for some types of service. Double and triple play packages offering 100Mbps or less declined in price by as much as 10.6% in 2016.

The study found:

Broadband prices for budget tiers actually dropped in Europe last year.

For the download speed basket 12-30Mbps, the EU vies with Japan and in some cases Korea showing the least expensive prices in one or more of the four service bundles. The lowest price for Double Play with fixed telephony in the €28 is also the lowest compared to all the countries analysed. The EU, Japan and South Korea have relatively similar prices when compared with Canada and, in particular, the USA.

Comparing the €28 with other countries in the world, the pattern in the 30-100Mbps speed basket is similar to the 12-30 Mbps basket. Japan is the least expensive country for three of four bundles; only Single Play is slightly less expensive in South Korea. Here, the EU28 just fail to present the lowest price for Double Play with fixed telephony. Again, the EU, Japan, and South Korea stay at more or less close compared to Canada and the USA. Alternatively, Canada is the most expensive country in three of four bundles. However, USA shows the most expensive Double Play with fixed telephony – despite considering the lowest price offers in three States there.

With regard to the 100+ Mbps basket of advertised download speeds, Japan and South Korea are decisively the least expensive markets, across all service bundles. South Korea has the least expensive offer for Single Play, Japan for Double Play including TV services. For the top download speed basket, the EU lies in mid-field between the low-cost Asian and the high-priced North American countries.

Other conclusions:

• Ultra-fast broadband offers (100+ Mbps) were still most expensive in the USA and Canada
• The least expensive offer for South Korea across all bundles was faster than 100Mbps
• Compared to Japan and South Korea, European citizens have to pay similar prices for offers of up to 100Mbps, but significantly more for ultra-fast connections.

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