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Hedge Fund Successfully Pressures FairPoint Communications to Sell Itself

fairpoint greedAn activist group of shareholders led by a hedge fund has successfully pressured executives at FairPoint Communications to sell the company to maximize shareholder value.

The buyer, Illinois-based Consolidated Communications Holdings, Inc., said on Monday it would acquire FairPoint in an all-stock deal worth $1.5 billion, debt included.

The buyout will enrich certain shareholders and hedge funds, including Maglan Capital’s David Tawil and Steven Azarbad, who blasted FairPoint CEO Paul Sunu in a letter sent earlier this summer complaining “shareholders have been extremely patient with the company’s operational turnaround and have suffered because the board has not been vigilant in protecting shareholder value.”

Maglan will cash out its investment initially made after FairPoint went bankrupt, when the share price was below $4. As of 4pm this afternoon, FairPoint stock was trading at $18.85 a share, less than the $23 a share and 75% premium Tawil and Azarbad were hoping for back in August. But they will still walk away earners, selling at around $18 a share plus an additional 17.3% premium. Collectively, the two hedge fund managers control 7.6% of FairPoint’s shares.

consolidated-communications-logoConsolidated Communications will inherit residential FairPoint phone and broadband customers in 17 states, most notably those in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. But press releases from Consolidated showed little interest in the residential telecommunications business. Instead, Consolidated executives are looking at FairPoint’s business and enterprise customers, and the benefits of owning FairPoint’s 17,000 fiber route mile network.

Critics suggest the deal effectively enriches shareholders while putting FairPoint’s existing debt and buyout on the new owner’s credit card. Consolidated will inherit $887 million of FairPoint’s current debt plus the $1.5 billion cost of the acquisition.

The combined company will keep the Consolidated Communications name and FairPoint Communications as a brand will eventually disappear if regulators approve the transaction sometime in 2017.

Consolidated Communications currently serves residential phone customers in:

  • Suburban/Exurban Sacramento, Calif.
  • Fargo, N.D.
  • Mankato, Minn.
  • West Des Moines, Ia.
  • Suburban Kansas City, Kan.
  • Mattoon, Ill.
  • Lufkin, Conroe, and Katy, Tex.
  • Suburban Pittsburgh, Pa.
FairPoint workers on strike in the fall of 2014. (Image: Labor Notes)

FairPoint workers on strike in the fall of 2014. (Image: Labor Notes)

FairPoint customers and state regulators in New England expressed concern about the transaction. After FairPoint acquired landlines formerly owned by Verizon Communications a decade ago, the transition was described as “disastrous” by regulators, who received scores of complaints about service and billing problems before FairPoint ultimately declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, mired in debt.

After emerging from bankruptcy, FairPoint has endured union strikes and was assessed multiple fines for failing to meet service quality standards in Maine.

“The last time these assets were sold to FairPoint it was a disastrous outcome for Maine customers,” says Tim Schneider, Maine’s Public Advocate, who represents consumers on utility matters.

Schneider told Maine Public Radio he is planning to scrutinize the deal to prevent further problems, but customers in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont are already expressing concern regulators are just as likely to rubber stamp this sale just like the last one, further saddling them with problematic service.

The owners of Maglan Capital are pleased with themselves, tweeting out this is a “December to Remember.”

Wall Street: The Time is Right for a Comcast-Verizon Mega-Merger

(Image courtesy: FCC.com)

(Image courtesy: FCC.com)

Many of President-elect Donald Trump’s choices for America’s newest regulators have track records of being so “hands-off,” it is hard to find their fingerprints.

Wall Street expects the Trump Administration and the Republican majority in Congress to eliminate vast swaths of regulatory oversight, perhaps enough to put the federal government’s involvement in commerce at a level not seen since before the Great Depression. UBS analyst John Hodulik believes the Trump Administration will look the other way as an unprecedented frenzy of corporate mergers and acquisitions begins — mergers that would never have passed an antitrust review during prior administrations.

Hodulik might as well suggest the next four years could represent The Great Convergence, as cable and wireless operators merge, potentially leaving the majority of Americans with just one choice for telecommunications services.

“We have long believed that secular changes in technology and usage would lead to the convergence of the cable and wireless industries,” Hodulik said. “The transformation of the internet into a mobile-first platform combined with the rapid migration of video from proprietary networks to digital and the rise in competitive pressure this entails increases the value of an integrated fixed and wireless service to cable providers. Densification of wireless networks required to meet the needs of video-centric subscribers increases synergies of cable-wireless combinations and provides the springboard for 5G-based services. A roll-back of Title II re-classification could further increase incentives for cable.”

Hodulik envisions that a wave of mergers during the first term of the Trump Administration could look like this:

  • Comcast <-> Verizon: Conquering the northeast and mid-Atlantic states, a supersized Comcast would likely be the only telecommunications company offering broadband service in states like New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland with Verizon FiOS just another flavor of Comcast’s coaxial and fiber network. The only remaining competitors of significance would be Frontier Communications in Connecticut and upstate New York and FairPoint Communications in northern New England. Charter Communications would also still provide cable service in New York, Massachusetts, and parts of the Carolinas. Hodulik called the effective monopoly a win-win for shareholders of Comcast and Verizon. Customers are likely to hold a different view.
  • Charter <-> T-Mobile/Sprint or Dish Networks: As the number two player, Charter already envisions offering wireless phone service through an arrangement it has with Verizon. But in a “converged” world, why rent someone else’s network when you can buy your own. Deutsche Telekom has been a motivated seller since AT&T tried and failed to buy T-Mobile USA and Sprint’s largely uninspiring performance may make it an easy sell for Japan’s Softbank. The wildcard: Dish Networks. Charter might want Dish’s huge number of video subscribers to win itself better volume discounts for cable programming.
  • Never forget about Altice, laying the foundation for another wave of buyouts starting in 2017. So far, Altice seems interested in the handful of remaining independent cable companies — Cox, Cable One, Mediacom, and the few others increasingly becoming anomalies in the consolidated cable marketplace. Cox and Mediacom may have to be coaxed to sell much the same way Cablevision was — by overpaying.

Hodulik also believes some side mergers may also turn up, especially a Dish/T-Mobile deal that would bring Dish’s large wireless spectrum holdings into T-Mobile’s network. T-Mobile could also sell Dish programming by streaming it over the internet and/or mobile devices.

Alaska’s Telecom Companies Will Waste $365 Million in Taxpayer Funds Building Duplicate 4G Networks

A new fiber provider is expected to vastly expand Alaska's internet backbone, but there are not enough middle mile networks to allow all Alaskans to benefit.

Quintillion, a new underseas fiber provider, is expected to vastly expand Alaska’s internet backbone, but there are not enough terrestrial middle mile networks to allow all Alaskans to benefit.

A federal taxpayer-funded effort to improve broadband access in rural Alaska will instead improve the bottom lines of Alaska’s telecommunications companies who helped collectively “consult” on a plan that will pay $365 million in taxpayer subsidies to companies building profitable and often redundant 4G wireless networks.

The Alaska Plan, which took effect Nov. 7, is a decade-long effort to subsidize telecom companies up to $55 million annually to encourage them to expand broadband service to 134,000 Alaskan households that get either no or very little internet service today. The Alaska Telephone Association (ATA) — an industry trade association and lobbying group, claims if the plan is successful, only 758 Alaskans will still be waiting for broadband by the year 2026.

But critics of the plan claim taxpayers will give millions to help subsidize private telecom companies that have plans to spend much of the money on redundant, highly profitable 4G wireless data networks that will cost most Alaskans large sums of money to access.

One company — AT&T, which refused to participate in the plan, is still taken care of by the plan, receiving $15.8 million dollars from taxpayers for doing absolutely nothing to improve broadband service in Alaska. The plan directs the money to AT&T to provide phase-down, high-cost support, which drew a sharp rebuke from Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai, who questioned why taxpayers had to subsidize AT&T for anything.

“The order claims this a ‘reasonable’ accommodation but cannot explain why the nation’s second largest wireless carrier needs ‘additional transition time to reduce any disruptions,’” Pai wrote.

quintillionThe biggest weakness of the plan, according to its critics, is its lack of support for middle-mile networks — wired infrastructure that connects providers to a statewide broadband backbone that can manage traffic needs without having to turn to slow-speed satellite connectivity. One of Alaska’s biggest challenges is finding low-cost connectivity with Canada and the lower-48 states. Much of the state relies heavily on GCI’s still-expanding TERRA network, which provides fiber as well as microwave connectivity to 72 towns and villages in rural Alaska. Quintillion, a new player, is working on stretching fiber connectivity through the Northwest Passage. Its forthcoming 30 terabit capacity fiber network offers the possibility of dramatically lower broadband rates and no more data caps, assuming providers have the network capacity to connect their service areas and the nearest fiber access point.

Instead of subsidizing the development of middle mile networks for this purpose, the authors of The Alaska Plan have instead favored wireless connectivity, including the very lucrative 4G wireless networks cellular providers want to expand. By definition, the broadband plan accommodates the limitations of wireless by easing broadband speed requirements for providers. To earn a subsidy, providers need not offer the FCC’s minimum speed to qualify as broadband — 25Mbps.

gciInstead, the ATA managed to convince regulators that 10/1Mbps service was good enough — speed that can be achieved by the DSL service phone companies favor. This is well below Alaska’s Broadband Task Force goal of 100Mbps for every state resident by 2020. Another free pass built into the plan is allowing providers to collect subsidies even when they do not offer 10Mbps because of network limitations, including lack of suitable middle mile networks. In those cases, the only speed requirement is 1Mbps download speeds and 256kbps uploads, the same as satellite broadband providers.

Commissioner Pai complained those are broadband speeds reminiscent of the internet a decade ago and hardly represents a vision for a faster future.

In a rare moment of bipartisanship at a divided FCC, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn joined Commissioner Pai dissenting from Alaska’s plan.

“It is clear that Alaska’s ‘majestic geography’ makes deployment difficult, but without affordable middle-mile connectivity, high-cost program support spent on the last mile does little to improve communications service to Alaskans,” Clyburn wrote. “Commissioner Pai and I supported an approach that would have taken the $35 million a year in duplicative universal service money and use[d] it to support a middle-mile mechanism that would enable many Alaskans in the Bush to receive broadband for the very first time. The status quo is simply not good enough, and the cost of doing nothing is far too high.”

Pai

Pai

Both Clyburn and Pai also complained federal tax dollars will be used to build duplicative 4G wireless networks that will primarily benefit providers. From Commissioner Clyburn’s statement:

We do not subsidize competition. We do not provide duplicative high-cost support to carriers in the same area and we do not subsidize carriers where other unsubsidized carriers are providing service. That underlying principle should be applied here as well. With Alaska’s “sublime scale,” we should instead be directing support to areas that are unserved, not subsidizing competition in areas that already receive mobile service. And just what is the cost to the American consumer of continuing to support overlap in these areas? About $35 million a year!

The companies benefiting from federal tax subsidies include: ASTAC, Copper Valley Wireless, Cordova Wireless, GCI, OTZ Wireless, which covers Northwest Alaska, TelAlaska Cellular, covering Interior and Northwest Alaska, and Windy City Cellular, covering Adak.

Clyburn

Clyburn

Pai called many of the spending priorities a waste of money that will still leave 21,000 Alaskans without 4G LTE broadband and another 46,000 without 25Mbps fixed broadband:

All together these wasted payments total $365 million, or about one quarter of the total Alaska Plan pot. That’s $365 million that could be used to link off-road communities to urban Alaska as requested by the Alaska Federation of Natives, the Bering Straits Native Corporation, the Chugachmiut rural healthcare organization, and many others. That $365 million is more than eight times the $44 million grant from the Broadband Initiatives Program that launched the TERRA Southwest middle-mile network that connected 65 off-road communities in 2011.

With the federal government now pouring federal tax dollars into Alaskan broadband, the state government has been using that as an opportunity to slash state investments in internet access.

A bill from Rep. Neal Foster (D-Nome) to upgrade all rural school districts to 10Mbps broadband for $6.2 million died in committee without any hearings, according to the Alaska Commons. State Rep. Lynn Gattis (R-Wasilla) proposed killing a $5 million broadband grant to schools, and the House Education subcommittee also recommended eliminating the Online with Libraries (OWL) program. Both programs ultimately survived, but not before the state legislature significantly cut the budgets of both programs.

Guttenberg

Guttenberg

State Rep. David Guttenberg (D-Fairbanks) hopes the results from last week’s election in Alaska will allow him to position stronger broadband-related legislation in the state legislature.

Guttenberg wants to reinstate a long-cut Broadband Task Force and Working Group while also creating a public Broadband Development Corporation that would build and own middle mile broadband infrastructure and sell it to telecommunications companies that have refused to build those types of networks on their own.

A lot of members of the ATA are lining up in opposition, the newspaper notes, because they won’t directly own the infrastructure. Guttenberg’s view is that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of deep-pocketed telecom companies.

“If you want to build a strong state, if you want to build a strong community, we need to start putting those pieces together,” Guttenberg said of broadband infrastructure last year. “If you give a kid a laptop or a pad in a school district, it’s pointless if he can’t get online.”

Election 2016: Trump Victory Troublesome for Tech Issues

Phillip Dampier November 10, 2016 Editorial & Site News, Public Policy & Gov't 7 Comments

donaldtrumpThe stunning victory by Donald Trump in Tuesday’s election ended two years of campaigning, negativity, and divisiveness.

Wednesday probably marked the beginning of Election 2020, which will involve four years of campaigning, negativity, and divisiveness.

Before looking at the implications of the forthcoming Trump Administration, some personal words about the results from the perspective of a lifelong resident of western New York, on the periphery of the Rust Belt region that evidently made all the difference for Mr. Trump on Tuesday night.

Casting my vote here in western New York while suffering a severe cold that has now evolved into walking pneumonia, I reflected on the fact this nasty election probably gave it to me. Despite that, I have the good fortune of living in a diverse community. Our next door neighbor, and by far the closest to us personally, is an ardent Republican who supported Sen. McCain, Gov. Romney, and Mr. Trump. Across the street, a reliable panoply of Democratic candidate lawn signs sprout every other fall. I spend my Friday afternoons in a community south of Rochester where Hillary Clinton has been largely reviled since she was a senator of New York. She didn’t win in Ontario County this year either. But Sen. Chuck Schumer routinely wins his elections with little effort or opposition.

Politics in the western half of New York State (known as “somewhere around Canada” to those in New York City and Long Island) is far more comparable to the battleground state of Ohio than reliably Democratic Manhattan. Our urban centers in Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse are solidly Democratic, while the suburbs and rural areas are just as likely to elect Republicans to office. Among those disappointed Democrats pondering a surprising election of Donald Trump, many cannot understand how such a result is possible. But having been a lifelong resident in a region that has seen profound changes from the decimation of blue-collar, high-paying manufacturing jobs in states that still cling to tax rates that assume everyone still has one, the Trump rebellion predicted by Michael Moore was hardly outlandish. Across the Rust Belt, more than a few voters have given up believing politicians, and are still waiting for relief from the relentless pressure on the declining middle class. Some of the worst job declines came in this region during the first Bush Administration and then again under President Bill Clinton. Memories are still fresh.

The changes to local economies in this region are profound and extremely difficult to navigate for those who lack advanced degrees or special technical skills. A state like North Carolina understands these changes well. An economy quickly transformed away from tobacco and textiles towards high technology created enormous challenges for many families. Those problems still exist in many parts of the state where infrastructure and good jobs are still lacking more than two decades later.

In Rochester, the formerly solid and reliable employers like Eastman Kodak and Xerox are a fraction of the size they were in the 1980s. My father met my mother at Eastman Kodak, a company that also employed more than half my extended family. But not for long. I vividly recall watching the inauguration parade of President Bill Clinton on television in 1993 on a day that Eastman Kodak carried out another wave of draconian job cuts. My father’s job survived, but my uncle’s did not. My grandfather had retired by then.

Michael Moore correctly predicted the reality of a Trump victory with the support of a disaffected middle class in economically distressed states.

Michael Moore correctly predicted the reality of a Trump victory with the support of a disaffected middle class in economically distressed states.

Twenty-three years later, the largest employer by far in this area is the University of Rochester/UR Medicine, which includes the university and an enormous medical treatment infrastructure. Together, this accounts for 22,500 workers. The second largest employer in Rochester is a grocery store. A great grocery store — Wegmans, founded and based here, but a grocery store nonetheless. It accounts for 13,500 jobs. Another 13,000+ workers are employed in medical treatment and hospital services that compete with the U of R. Rounding out top employers are the Rochester City School District with 5,500 teachers, administrators and staff, which is almost as big as Monroe County’s government, which accounts for 4,500 employees. The biggest remaining manufacturer is Xerox, which employs 6,300 workers. But consider this contrast: in 1982 Kodak employed 60,400 in the Rochester area. Today, that number is just 2,300.

Rochester had it easy compared to heavy manufacturing cities to our west. Buffalo, western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan have been walloped twice — first by the offshoring of heavy industry and then a second round of manufacturing job losses many voters blame on various free trade agreements. Many tens of thousands of these displaced workers have relocated to other states. Exiting residents of Rochester overwhelmingly prefer North Carolina and Arizona for various reasons, while blue-collar workers further west often end up in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and other southern states. Many of those that remained behind and remember their old jobs are angry, very angry. Some of them supported Bernie Sanders, especially in Michigan. But once the choice came down to Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, more than a few voted for Mr. Trump, not out of a great allegiance to the Republican party, but because Trump vilified free trade and business as usual in D.C. To these voters, fair or not, Hillary seemed to embody the establishment that has done little or nothing except make speeches.

The election is now over and we have the results. My candidate did not win because she did not run. (Elizabeth Warren in 2020!) On the broadband issues Stop the Cap! is concerned with, a Trump Administration is likely to be bad news for consumer protection, fair pricing, and community broadband, primarily because the people Mr. Trump has chosen thus far to advise him on tech issues are the usual sort with close ties to the largest telecommunications companies in the country, and many have penned papers that have closely aligned with those companies’ public policy positions.

Phillip Dampier: This election gave me walking pneumonia.

Phillip Dampier: This election gave me walking pneumonia.

Trump transition team adviser Jeffrey Eisenach, for example — who we wrote about back in August, could hold considerable power over the direction President-elect Trump will take tech policy in this country. Eisenach has written papers opposing Net Neutrality, is unconcerned about data caps and zero rating policies, and called fears about consolidation blowouts like the now-dead Comcast-Time Warner Cable mega-merger overblown.

Trump did state opposition to the recent merger announcement from AT&T and Time Warner, Inc., which has Wall Street concerned the deal will be DOA by the time the merger papers are filed sometime early next year in Washington. If President Trump keeps his word on that, there are many more mergers and acquisition deals that will emerge in 2017 that will likely never be on his radar, but will be reviewed by a Federal Communications Commission stacked with commissioners closer in ideology to Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly than Thomas Wheeler. In our view, Commissioners Pai and O’Rielly have yet to support any significant pro-consumer policy change on broadband before the FCC. Instead, they have largely parroted Big Telecom’s talking points.

It is our suspicion that most of the merger and acquisition deals dreamed about on Wall Street that would never have gotten through the Obama Administration’s Justice Department and FCC will receive quick approval under a Trump Administration.

While Mr. Trump alludes he will prove to be a complete game-changer to business as usual in Washington, his transition team is being swarmed by the usual faces — corporate lobbyists, big donors, and political hacks angling for cabinet or agency positions. Most of them are Beltway insiders, and many have been through D.C.’s revolving door before — lobbyist -> public servant -> lobbyist.

So while Mr. Trump tells America AT&T and Time Warner is “too much concentration of power in the hands of too few,” we remain uncertain he will speak as loudly about other likely deals, particularly involving Altice, Cox, Mediacom, CenturyLink, Windstream, Frontier, Sprint, and T-Mobile — just some of the hunters and the hunted that may get consolidated in 2017.

On other issues:

  • Net Neutrality: Republicans vilified Net Neutrality and a Republican-dominated FCC will likely kill or dramatically downplay any efforts to enforce it. Trump himself has never been a fan. Any new powers won by Chairman Wheeler to regulate internet providers under Title II will also likely be jettisoned by a Chairman Pai or O’Rielly;
  • Data Caps/Zero Rating: This issue is important to us, but isn’t likely to see any regulatory action under a GOP-dominated FCC. Internet providers are likely to see a Trump Administration as a green light for data caps and consumption billing;
  • Internet Privacy: Efforts to regulate internet privacy will also likely face a reversal from skeptical Republicans who will combine excuses for national security with a “hands off” attitude on telecommunications regulation.
  • Community Broadband: The issue of turning back bans on public/municipal broadband will have to be won on the state level. We do not expect to see many friends for municipal broadband in Republican-dominated Washington. The influence of the Koch Brothers, notoriously opposed to public internet projects, has only gotten stronger after this election.

With a GOP-sweep across the Executive and Legislative branches, we expect more deregulation, which is likely to further entrench the broadband duopoly in the United States, if not further expand it with additional consolidation-related mergers and acquisitions, at least among the small and mid-sized players.

On a more personal level, I have been involved in public policy battles surrounding telecommunications issues since 1988. In the late 1980s, I fought for increased competition and regulatory relief for home satellite (TVRO) dishowners and we joined forces to help pass the 1992 Cable Act, which laid the foundation for the emergence of competitors DirecTV and Dish Networks — the first serious competition to the cable industry. That law was vetoed by President George H.W. Bush, but that veto was overridden by the U.S. Congress — the only bill to successfully become law during the first Bush Administration over his objection. Republicans pay cable bills too.

(Image courtesy: Steve Rhodes)

(Image courtesy: Steve Rhodes)

Administrations come and administrations go, but we are still here.

The need for robust consumer protection, true competition, and a level playing field never changes. Your involvement remains essential regardless of what party is in power in Washington. Some battles will be more challenging, but not all. Direct consumer action can make an impact on companies concerned about their brand and public image. Just as consumers are passionate about rising cable bills, broadband is always a hot button issue, especially where service is unavailable or comes only at a price that resembles extortion.

The president-elect says that America doesn’t win anymore. We sure haven’t been winning on broadband, either on speed, pricing, or availability, in comparison to Europe and Asia. The solution is not to turn the problem over to the same companies that created the conditions for broadband malaise we are dealing with now. As seen in fiercely competitive markets like France, true competition is often the only regulation you need. A duopoly answers to itself. Having the choice of four, five, six, or more competing providers answers to customers. Consolidated and entrenched markets resist innovation and the need to compete stagnates. Corporate welfare and ghost-written telecom laws that forbid community broadband restricts economic growth and kills jobs, stranding countless rural residents from the digital economy. That -is- business as usual in too many states where groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) facilitate legislative fixes and legal protectionism that restricts or disadvantages competition.

If Mr. Trump truly believes the words he has spoken, he must be vigilant. He must not surround himself with the same politicians and their minders that created the very problems he promises to fix. The voters that elected him to office expect nothing less than blowing up business as usual. But the nation’s capital has a better track record of changing the politician while resisting change to the status quo.

We wish President Trump success for our country, but we’ll be watching to make certain his rhetoric meets the reality.

Charter Still Losing Time Warner Cable Customers With Hard Line on Retention Deals

charter-twc-bhAt least 54,000 Time Warner Cable customers downgraded or canceled their cable TV service in the last three months as Charter Communications continues to take a harder line on offering or renewing customer retention discounts for customers unhappy with their bill.

Time Warner Cable customers are “mispriced” with discounts and deals that lower the cost of service but face bill shock when the promotion ends, according to Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge.

“Third quarter customer results were more inconsistent with good performance at Legacy Charter and Bright House, but higher churn and downgrades in the Time Warner Cable markets, as we expected, given the way Time Warner Cable had marketed promotional pricing,” said Rutledge. “Until our Spectrum pricing and packaging is launched across the newly acquired service areas, we continue to expect higher levels of churn and downgrades where Time Warner Cable was the operator.”

“Over the next few quarters, our operating results will reflect reversing certain product and packaging strategies, in particular at TWC, in which in our view are not sustainable, given high promotional roll-offs and annual rate increases, high customer equipment fees, including modem fees, all coupled with complex and stacked offers,” added Charter’s chief financial officer Christopher Winfrey.

Traditionally, Time Warner Cable has dealt with price sensitive customers rolling off special pricing promotions by gradually resetting rates higher or, when necessary, by renewing the promotion for another year in an effort not to lose the customer. That will stop under Charter’s ownership, according to Mr. Rutledge. As a result, Charter Communications is seeing significant customer losses at Time Warner Cable when customer service representatives won’t budge on pricing.

Rutledge is seeking more discipline in product pricing so Charter does not have to extend cut-rate retention promotions to customers. As part of the Charter Spectrum rebrand, the cable company introduces new cable, broadband, and phone plans while allowing Time Warner Cable’s legacy plans to stay in effect until a customer elects to switch. While Texas and California Time Warner Cable customers have already been introduced to Spectrum plans, much of the rest of the country is still being offered plans only from Time Warner Cable or Bright House.

Rutledge

Rutledge

Customers are most likely to cancel service as their promotion expires. The resulting price hike can be a considerable shock as rates quickly reset to Bright House or Time Warner’s “regular price.”

Charter wants an incentive to get customers to forfeit their Time Warner or Bright House plan and switch to a new Spectrum plan as they are introduced. By making the grandfathered plans as unattractive as possible, the alternative Spectrum plans appear to be a better deal. Unfortunately, until Spectrum-branded plans arrive nationwide, many customers are stuck in limbo rolling off a promotion, are unable to renew it, and forced to wait for new Spectrum plans to be introduced.

Rutledge announced last week that the next markets to be introduced to Spectrum this month are in New York City and Florida, the latter former Bright House territory. Rutledge predicted half of Time Warner Cable customers will be offered Spectrum plans by the end of this year. But some Time Warner Cable customers may have to wait until next spring before Spectrum rebranding is complete.

Time Warner Cable Maxx is Still Dead, Earning Charter $36 Million in Reduced CapEx

Charter also reported significant financial benefits from prematurely terminating the Time Warner Cable Maxx upgrade effort. Time Warner’s upgrades would have given customers free speed upgrades up to 300Mbps. But Charter pulled the plug on the upgrade project just after completing its acquisition, and has no plans to restart it.

“Cost to service customers declined by about 2% despite overall customer growth of 5.1%, which reflects lower service transactions at Legacy Charter, the lack of all-digital activity at TWC this quarter versus last year’s third quarter, and some benefit from less physical disconnects in all-digital markets,” reported Winfrey. “Capital expenditures totaled $1.75 billion, including $109 million of transition spend. Excluding transition CapEx, our third quarter CapEx was down by $36 million year-over-year, about 2%, driven by all-digital spending at TWC, primarily on [equipment], which did not recur in the third quarter of this year.”

Winfrey

Winfrey

Charter expects to increase CapEx next spring, as the company continues its less ambitious transition to all-digital cable service, which includes broadband speeds topping out at 100Mbps, three times less than what Time Warner Cable was implementing.

Charter is Less Enthusiastic About Digital Phone Service

Time Warner Cable maintained a healthy market share for its digital phone service by bundling it at a promotional price of $10 a month, a rate that remained relatively stable for customers sticking with a triple play package bundle. Time Warner Cable also enhanced its phone service by adding the European Union nations, Mexico, and several popular Asian calling destinations as part of the local calling area, making those calls free of charge.

Charter’s own plan is less feature-rich and customers have to buy an add-on plan to cover international long distance, making the product considerably less attractive to customers. Some customers also find the cost of the phone service has increased under Spectrum, a problem acknowledged by Winfrey, who noted Time Warner Cable’s low-price voice offer in prior year quarters had been discontinued, resulting in higher voice downgrades and relationship churn.

Charter’s Plans for Legacy Charter Customers and Newly-Adopted Time Warner Cable and Bright House Customers

charter spectrum logoRutledge made clear that despite any product changes or rebranding, the long term goal of Charter Communications is to see revenue grow. Whether that will come from gradual repricing of cable products and services to a higher rate or from improved products and services that attract new upgrade business is not yet certain. But Rutledge outlined key areas Charter expects to focus on in the next few years:

  • Charter will complete the all-digital transition at Time Warner Cable and Bright House over the next two years, but it will resemble the kind of service legacy Charter customers get today, not TWC Maxx;
  • Over the next five years or so, with relatively small infrastructure investments, Charter plans to implement DOCSIS 3.1 which will be able to deliver symmetrical multi-gigabit speeds to all 50 million homes and businesses in their service area;
  • Charter plans to aggressively market and grow its services for commercial customers, targeting businesses large and small, at prices that more closely resemble residential service pricing, instead of the price premium Time Warner Cable has traditionally charged its commercial customers;
  • Charter is activating its MVNO agreement with Verizon, which will allow Charter to create and market its own wireless/cellular service using Verizon’s nationwide network. The company is also exploring using millimeter-wave (5G) service to offer better broadband coverage in large commercial spaces like malls and rural properties currently not wired for cable service. Expect the company to create its own wireless/cellular bundle first, because it will rely entirely on Verizon’s network, keeping Charter’s costs low.

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