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WOW Goes Public; At High Risk of Acquisition as Cable Industry Consolidates

Phillip Dampier May 16, 2017 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News, WOW! 1 Comment

WideOpenWest, better known to subscribers as WOW!, has filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission to become a publicly traded company as it seeks to raise funding and make itself an attractive proposition for investors and potential buyers.

The company will initially remain under the control of Avista Capital Partners (44%), which has been an investor in WOW! from the beginning, joined by Crestview Partners (29%), which invested $125 million in the cable company in 2015.

WOW! is currently the sixth largest cable operator in the United States and an attractive takeover target for cable operators like Altice USA, Charter Communications or Comcast. In fact, WOW! provides direct cable competition for Charter and Comcast in the midwest and southeastern United States. Should either of those operators acquire WOW!, that competition will cease. The most likely buyer, however, is Altice USA, which is expected to offer its own IPO to raise funds specifically to acquire American cable companies. Altice currently owns Cablevision and Suddenlink.

WOW! has 772,300 subscribers, but is available to up to three million homes.

The cable company has also ditched its traditional logo and adopted a new one:

Old Logo

Old Logo

New Logo

WOW! is known for high quality customer service and aggressive service plans. Here is their current broadband offer:

America’s Best Three Internet Providers: EPB, Sonic, and Google Fiber

Phillip Dampier March 27, 2017 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News No Comments

Consumer Reports is having a hard time handing out high scores to America’s cable and phone companies after its recent editorial overhaul that replaces simple numeric-only scores with a simpler color code that ranks good companies in green, fair companies in yellow, and downright lousy ones in red.

In its most recent rankings (subscription required), only three internet providers managed to win green ratings: a publicly owned municipal utility in Chattanooga, Tenn., a private ISP serving northern California communities in and around San Francisco, and Google Fiber, which shows every sign of stopping further expansion of its fiber to the home network.

EPB Fiber is the runaway winner of Consumer Reports’ ongoing ratings of America’s top telecom providers, scoring 92 and getting excellent ratings for value, reliability and speed. Sonic, which still primarily offers DSL service, achieved second place despite being limited in selling higher speeds available over AT&T’s wireline telephone network. Google Fiber made third place and is a regular favorite for offering affordable gigabit speeds for around $70 a month, not much more expensive than what some ISPs charge for 60Mbps for less.

The fact a public utility like EPB offers America’s best broadband service must give fits to the telecom giants like Comcast, Charter, and AT&T that only dream of achieving similar scores and have a history of opposing public broadband and in some cases have financed lobbying efforts seeking to ban it.

Providers achieving “yellow” ratings were almost exclusively small, regional independent cable operators and overbuilders like WOW and RCN. Verizon and Frontier’s versions of FiOS also made the cut, although it seems both suffered ratings drops attributable to decreased scores for value and customer service. Both companies have eliminated some of their most aggressive promotions that used to lure customers with a very low price for service.

The list of lousy-scoring companies is larger than ever, and encompass all the familiar large operators most Americans have to do business with. Since Stop the Cap! started in 2008, Mediacom is still rated the lousiest of the lousy cable companies, achieving a score of just 51. Only HughesNet, a satellite internet provider, scored worse, and not by much — achieving a 47 score.

DSL providers other than Sonic performed dismally as well: FairPoint (52), Windstream (53), Frontier (53), Verizon DSL (54), TDS (55), AT&T DSL (55), CenturyLink (57), and Cincinnati Bell DSL (57).

Cable companies also live in the ratings basement – Comcast/XFINITY (54), Charter/Time Warner Cable (55), GCI (60), Comporium (60), and Atlantic Broadband (60). Charter Communications just barely made it out of the red section with a score of (61), also shared by Cox and Cable ONE. Altice’s Cablevision, AT&T U-verse, Blue Ridge Communications, and Consolidated Cable managed scores of just 63. Charter/Bright House and Service Electric got a 64, and Altice’s Suddenlink managed a surprising 66.

The consumer magazine’s conclusion – most Americans still loathe their cable and phone companies, their prices, their bundles, and are greatly dissatisfied with the state of competition. That is unlikely to change considering the industry’s current trend of consolidation, which further reduces customer choice.

Altice End Runs Around Connecticut TV Station’s Blackout By Sending Customers to CBS All Access

“Of course you know this means war.”

Altice USA has found a way to use CBS’ All Access online streaming service against a Connecticut CBS affiliate that blacked out its signal for some Connecticut Cablevision customers.

Meredith-owned CBS affiliate WFSB-TV in Hartford has been off the Optimum television lineup in two dozen Connecticut towns as of 5pm Friday, Jan. 13 after negotiations between Iowa-based Meredith and Altice USA broke down over the price of renewing a retransmission consent contract that Altice claims is 800% more expensive than before.

That means Optimum customers in Litchfield County no longer have access to CBS programming. Or do they? Optimum’s website is redirecting affected customers to WFSB’s network — CBS — and offering a week’s free trial of CBS’ All Access, which allows viewers online access to all CBS programming on demand.

Optimum’s previously negotiated distribution deal with CBS for the All Access platform has been in place since the summer of 2015, which means CBS cannot pull the offer down from Altice’s website. That effectively means CBS is being used to undercut its own affiliate’s most important leverage — taking away popular programming until a provider finally capitulates and signs a renewal contract.

Matt Polka, president of the American Cable Association, which represents small and independent cable companies, loves it.

“Local broadcasters cannibalized by their own network!” Polka tweeted.

Altice USA has promised investors it will hold the line on programming costs even if it means finding alternatives for customers. This seems to be an example at work.

Will CBS All Access weaken Meredith’s position on WFSB to force price concessions? The New Haven Register isn’t sure, reporting there are years of “bad blood” between Cablevision and Meredith over carriage contracts:

During the last retransmission agreement negotiations in 2014, Cablevision Systems called on the Federal Communications Commission to investigate whether Meredith Corp. was meeting public interest obligations that are an important component of all television station licenses. Cablevision also sued Meredith in Connecticut’s court system under the Unfair Trade Practices Act.

The latest dispute has attracted the attention of both of Connecticut’s U.S. senators.

“I typically don’t get involved because it’s not for me to dictate the terms of a dispute between a cable company and a network,” Sen. Chris Murphy said in a statement issued Friday night. “But I haven’t been pleased with Altice’s commitment to Connecticut since it bought Cablevision.”

FierceCable reported the area’s congressional delegation isn’t happy with either company:

Connecticut’s two Democratic U.S. Senators, Richard Blumenthal and Christopher Murphy, sent a letter addressed to both Meredith Corp. CEO Stephen Lacy and Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei.

“While we respect the private negotiations being conducted by Optimum and WFSB and make no representations as to the merits of either side’s position, we believe that the current impasse does a disservice to Connecticut families and we urge you to negotiate in good faith to bring an end to this blackout,” the Senators wrote.

Altice, meanwhile, said in its own statement, “We have been negotiating in good faith for weeks and made multiple offers to Meredith even though their initial request was for more than 800% over what we currently pay.”

Siren Song: Altice USA CEO Asks Workers to Trust Him Despite Ruthless Cost-Cutting Reputation

Goei

The CEO of Altice USA took time away from his luxurious homes in Switzerland and New York this week to sit down with concerned middle and working-class Cablevision employees at a meeting held at an unassuming company garage in the Bronx.

Dexter Goei has worries of an organized workforce on his mind. A recording of the meeting provided to Stop the Cap!, showed Goei spent most of his time trying to convince employees they could trust him to protect their future employment at the cable operator.

Since Altice acquired Cablevision in the U.S., the French media have criticized the ‘naiveté of American regulators’ that largely accepted the promises and commitments of the rapidly growing international cable and wireless company at the same time Altice was regularly accused of reneging on the promises it made to regulators in Europe, especially in France. The company has been fined at least twice for breaking those commitments.

Altice’s entrance into the United States began with the acquisitions of Suddenlink, a relatively small cable company serving forgotten small cities in states like Texas and West Virginia and the should-have-been-acquired-by-Comcast-or-Time-Warner-Cable-years-ago oddity Cablevision, which made money for its founding family the Dolans for decades, selling cable mostly in suburban downstate New York.

In America, those acquiring a rival operator are usually asked to show how a deal is “in the public interest” while also submitting to a review to ensure the transaction does not irreparably harm competition. For Suddenlink customers, almost anything Altice could do would be an improvement for a cable company run by a guy who admitted on national television that the days of big investments by cable companies in service improvements were over. It was time to reap the profits, to paraphrase then-CEO Jerry Kent. And so they did, coming up with innovative usage caps and overlimit penalties for customers who dared to use the cable company’s internet service to circumvent a costly cable television package.

Cablevision, in contrast, was usually better regarded than the cable giants that surrounded it. Although technologically aggressive, Comcast canceled most of the goodwill earned for its service improvements by treating customers like patrons of an S&M club. Time Warner Cable was also loathed for its “last to do anything” upgrades, disengaged customer service, and reliable rate hikes, but at least they learned from earlier customer service mishaps and generally relied on a policy of being nicer to customers that threatened to leave.

Cablevision innovated on ways to keep customer loyalty after Verizon FiOS arrived to compete in large sections of its service area. The company spent millions on a major Wi-Fi network for the benefit of its commuting customers, launched broadband speed upgrades earlier than most, and after one embarrassing episode with the FCC showing their speed claims were not met by reality, they have usually overachieved ever since.

Drahi

In 2016, almost everything except Comcast changed. Time Warner Cable was successfully sold to Charter Communications and a self-styled ‘Baron of the Stock Exchange‘ — Patrick Drahi, managed to invade the United States and successfully acquire the two cable operators, despite admitting he would gut spending and wring hundreds of millions in savings out of the transactions for the benefit of his investors.

Mr. Drahi’s penchant for ruthless cost-cutting isn’t new, and he’s been dubbed “The Slasher” in Europe since decimating the budget at his French wireless and broadband company SFR-Numericable. French unions hate him, and not just those representing workers at his telecom businesses. Since the Altice Media Group took control of several major print publications in France, independent photographers have complained Altice slowed payments to a crawl, leading to an open letter to the French government from several press photography agencies demanding action. To date, Altice owes more than a half million dollars in outstanding licensing payments.

Critics contend this is nothing new for Altice, often denounced for not paying vendors (or paying them only after they agree to provide discounts) or alienating employees with radical cost cutting and cutbacks. Customers don’t like what they see either, with more than a million dropping SFR for other providers.

But that was not a story Goei was prepared to share with Cablevision workers in the Bronx.

Instead, Mr. Goei told employees he turned his back on a lucrative career on Wall Street after the great financial meltdown of 2008 and saw more potential running cable companies in Europe and the United States. Goei told the workers Altice’s business plan is to acquire cable and telecom companies and reinvest the profits in improved customer service and better technology for customers. Actual customers of Altice’s cable companies in Europe are still waiting for those improvements.

The French loathe SFR-Numericable, giving it one out of five stars in reviews.

SFR-Numericable, which Goei claimed this week won acclaim from French regulators for being the most reliable in the country, gets scathing reviews criticizing the company for its very frequent service outages, tricky marketing, and incoherent customer service. “Legalized banditry,” claimed one customer. Another described the offshore customer care center as “the Moroccan nightmare,” with more than a few call center workers demonstrating less-than-capable comprehension of French. Service outages are rampant and represent the single biggest reason customers have canceled service.

Goei complained that acquisitions and upgrades have been complicated in Europe by former managers grabbing their golden parachutes and abandoning the acquired companies (without mentioning Altice’s well-known reputation for draconian salary cuts and downsizing) and slowdowns from underperforming suppliers (despite the fact some vendors in France complained their invoices went unpaid for weeks or months, leading to complaints to government regulators).

Forthcoming upgrades are one of the reasons Goei was in the Bronx to sell employees on the merits of Altice Technical Services (ATS), a spinoff entity expected to eventually manage all of Altice’s technical infrastructure and the technicians that will care for it.

“We don’t want to contract out,” explained Goei, who aspires to manage Altice’s forthcoming upgrades effectively in-house through ATS instead of going to outside contractors. To manage this, Goei needs to convince Altice USA’s technical employees to leave Altice and join ATS.

Will ATS protect workers and customers or simply help Altice rid itself of regulator-imposed conditions for its acquisitions?

Goei’s statements seemed to suggest that most will need to make that transition if they want to remain a part of Altice for more than five years, hinting ATS will increasingly manage more and more of Altice’s technical needs, eventually making Altice USA employees potentially redundant.

Goei also hinted ATS might perform work for more than just Altice, which underlined concerns for union organizers that ATS is being established as an independent contracting entity that would not be subject to any regulatory job protection conditions that came with the approval of Altice’s acquisition of Cablevision.

Altice’s plans to rip out and replace coaxial cable with an all-fiber network will likely provide work for the next 7-10 years, notwithstanding the ambitious five-year timeline Altice gave for the fiber upgrade. But employees peppered Goei with questions about job security, benefits like vacation pay, and exactly who will be running ATS and what their opportunities for advancement are.

The transition to ATS might effectively be in name only, because Goei claimed ATS will have full access to employees’ files and work history with Altice and Cablevision, and if managers make the transition to ATS, employees could report to the same manager or supervisor they did under Altice.

“We’re not bringing in some Mexican guy” to run things Goei said to nervous laughter and raised eyebrows from the almost all-minority audience.

Goei’s question and answer session is unlikely to assuage concerns ATS could evolve into little more than Altice’s version of an independent subcontractor with enhanced loyalty to Altice USA. Despite assurances Altice is not looking for excuses to radically trim its workforce, Altice’s history shows job cuts are an integral part of what the French business press calls “The Drahi Method.”

At France’s SFR, Drahi made clear he is looking to cut at least 5,000 paid positions, reducing the workforce from 14,700 to 9,000, starting in July. Observers suspect Altice’s reliance on ATS to act as an umbrella technical department for all of Altice’s North American acquisitions guarantees workforce reductions, if only to eliminate redundancy. Altice has already shown a willingness to lay off employees at its Cablevision and Suddenlink call centers.

But there is one area where Altice is willing to spend.

Le Temps reports Drahi is opening the checkbook to beef up its Geneva executive headquarters in Switzerland, increasing the workforce tenfold and centralizing business operations for the Altice empire. The office is packed with ex-Wall Street bankers and businessmen with a reputation for ruthlessness. Goei’s office is in the building, as is the company’s director — Michel Combes. Combes was notoriously hired away from Alcatel right after demonstrating a talent for swinging the job cutting ax. They are joined by Burkhard Koep, a former Morgan Stanley investment banker in charge of mergers and acquisitions.

The top shelf executives have moved themselves and their families from London, New York, Paris, Tel Aviv and Lisbon to the posh neighborhoods around suburban Geneva, where homes are more likely to be called estates.

The Geneva office conducts business through heavy reliance on videoconferencing and racking up frequent flier miles traveling abroad. Often absent is Drahi himself, who prefers to conduct business from his Zermatt-based luxury cottages. As much as executives spend their time pondering the next acquisition, Le Temps reports they also spend their weekends trying to renegotiate the company’s enormous debt load by seeking refinancing at lower interest rates.

“They play a bank against each other by saying: we will refinance to 6% the debt you loaned us at 7%,” reported the news outlet.

But Altice’s Geneva headquarters did not come for free. Drahi recently introduced a new franchise fee obligating each cable or telecom unit to pay 2-3% of their revenue to Mr. Drahi’s Switzerland office. In the first year that is expected to raise at least $550 million dollars. While popular with Swiss tax authorities, the substantial royalty payments are expected to reduce available cash for upgrades and debt service. Nobody is sure where the money will ultimately end up.

AT&T Launching 100+ Channel Cable-TV Streaming Alternative: DirecTV Now ($35/Mo)

att directvAT&T will launch its anticipated DirecTV Now all-streaming cable television alternative next month at an unprecedented price of $35 a month for more than 100 channels, viewable for free without counting against your AT&T smartphone or tablet usage allowance.

Targeting cord-cutters, the new service will not require a satellite dish or expensive equipment — just a reasonably fast internet connection.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson used the announcement at a Wall Street Journal-sponsored event to claim the new service was an example of how AT&T won’t increase prices as a result of its proposed merger with Time Warner, Inc.

“That’s not a medium for raising prices,” Stephenson said, referring to AT&T’s new service. “Anybody who characterizes this as a means to raise prices is ignoring the basic premise of what we’re trying to do here.”

AT&T and Time Warner’s respective CEOs appeared together at the event as part of a week-long press blitz to promote their $85.4 billion merger deal, which is getting considerable blowback from politicians, consumer groups, and Wall Street.

Stephenson and Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes claim they are re-inventing the cable television business model and forcing innovation.

“If there was ever an environment that was begging for innovation, it was this environment,” Stephenson said. Bewkes added: “We would say and we’ve been saying it since 1995, every channel in the country should look like HBO or Netflix—there’s no reason we can’t.”

AT&T defends its $35 price point, which is half the price many cable companies charge for cable television, claiming it can afford to charge those prices by doing away with service calls, equipment, satellites, and infrastructure that traditional cable operators have to cover. DirecTV Now will rely on smartphone and desktop apps, and presumably third-party set-top boxes like Roku and Apple TV to provide its lineup.

AT&T hasn’t announced an official channel list for the service, but AT&T has been in serious negotiations with most of the major content conglomerates, so the lineup is likely to cover all the major cable networks, presumably local stations, and include an on-demand library. Customers may not get some of the secondary cable networks most cable systems bury on three or four digit channel numbers in Channel Siberia, but few viewers are expected to miss channels that attract fewer than 50,000 viewers nationwide.

Stephenson promised that future programming cost increases would be offset by developing “new ad models” that will cover most of the price increases.

One impediment to AT&T and Time Warner’s grand plan is the pervasive issue of data caps and usage-based billing, which could prove a lethal deterrent to customers ditching traditional cable TV in favor of online alternatives. AT&T itself imposes data caps on its DSL service, and has an unenforced cap on U-verse. Comcast continues to charge overlimit fees for customers exceeding 1TB of usage per month and smaller cable operators often include even smaller usage allowances.

Customers are highly skeptical of DirecTV Now because AT&T is involved. David Hill shared his prediction:

Undoubtedly you will get a $35 rate… for 6 months.  Then because you have been a good, paying customer, they will raise it to $75 a month.  But of course, new customers, can still get the $35 deal plus a $400 Amazon gift card.

When you call customer support (if you can actually get through to a living person) and ask for the same $35 rate the new guys get, why you will be told that you cannot get that rate because, well, you already ARE a customer.  So eat dirt.

Then when you work your way via the endless menu items to cancel the service about 2 weeks later and for years after you will be flooded with endless postcards and letters BEGGING you to come back.  You were a GREAT customer and WE want YOU BACK.  Right now!

Is this a stupid marketing policy or not?  In my MBA classes we were somehow mislead into believing exiting customers were your top A, number one priority.  Yet these internet companies cannot be bothered with keeping you.  Jerks, plain and simple.

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said the company’s deal with Time Warner will result in a new TV service that will offer more than 100 premium channels for $35 per month. He sat down with Time Warner’s Jeff Bewkes and WSJ’s Rebecca Blumenstein at the WSJDLive conference in Laguna Beach, Calif. (5:05)

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