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“On a Razor’s Edge:” Charter’s Deal With Time Warner Financed With Junk Bond Debt

Charter will be among America's top junk bond issuers. (Image: Bloomberg News)

Charter will be among America’s top junk bond issuers. (Image: Bloomberg News)

The attempted $55 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable will saddle buyer Charter Communications with so much debt, it will make the cable operator one of the nation’s largest junk bond borrowers.

Bloomberg News reports investors are concerned about the size and scope of the financing packages Charter is working on to acquire the much-larger Time Warner Cable. Total debt financing this year has already reached $18.2 billion and one of Charter’s holding companies is signaling plans to add another $10.5 billion in unsecured debt. Bloomberg reports the total value of Charter’s combined debt from existing operations and its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks may reach as high as $66 billion.

Ironically, Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus used Charter’s penchant for heavily debt-financed acquisitions as one of the reasons he opposed Charter’s first attempted takeover of Time Warner in January 2014.

The New York Times suggested Marcus seemed to be looking out for shareholders when he called the offer “grossly inadequate” and demanded more cash and special protections, known as “collars,” to protect stockholders against any swings in the value of Charter stock used to cover part of the deal.

charter twc bhThe Marcus-led opposition campaign against Charter gave Comcast just the time it needed to mount a competing bid — all in Comcast stock, then worth around $159 a share. Comcast also offered Marcus an $80 million golden parachute if the deal succeeded.

Marcus’ concerns for shareholders suddenly seemed less robust. Gone was any demand for cash to go with an all-stock deal — Comcast stock was good enough for him. Most blockbuster mergers of this size and complexity also contain provisions for a breakup fee payable by the buyer if a deal falls apart. Marcus never asked for one, a decision the newspaper called “foolish,” considering regulators eventually killed the deal, leaving Time Warner Cable with nothing except bills from their lobbyists and lawyers.

After the Comcast deal failed to impress regulators, Charter returned to bid for Time Warner Cable once again. This time, Charter offered nearly $196 a share — nine times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization. (They offered about seven times earnings in 2014.) Marcus will now get the $100 a share in cash he wanted from Charter the first time, but shareholders are realizing that cash will be a lower proportion of the overall higher amount of the second offer.

Marcus has also said little about the enormous amount of borrowing Charter will undertake to seal its deal with Time Warner Cable. Nor has he said much about a revisited and newly revised golden parachute package offered to him by Charter, expected to be worth north of $100 million.

Marcus

Marcus

But others did notice Charter raised $15.5 billion selling bonds on July 9, many winning the lowest possible investment grade rating from independent ratings services. Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings bottom-rated part of Charter’s debt offering and Moody’s classified that portion as Ba1 — junk grade.

Charter traveled down a similar road six years ago, overwhelmed with more than $21 billion in debt to cover its aggressive acquisitions. Charter declared bankruptcy in 2009. The cable company has survived this time, so far, because of the Federal Reserve’s low-interest rates and very low corporate borrowing costs.

“Charter is walking on a razor’s edge,” warned Chris Ucko, a New York-based analyst at CreditSights.

Not so fast, responds Charter.

“The combined company will” reduce debt quickly, Francois Claude, a spokesman for Stamford, Conn.-based Charter said in a statement to Bloomberg News.

One likely source of funds to help pay down that debt will come from customers as the company seeks to drive higher-cost products and services into subscriber homes. Some of that revenue may come from selling higher speed broadband, a service customers are unlikely to cancel and may find difficult to get from telephone companies that have not kept up with the speed race. If cord cutting continues, and online video competition increases, that could result in customers dropping cable television packages at a growing rate, negatively impacting Charter’s revenue.

Time Warner Cable’s bondholders are already counting their losses. Their “investment grade” securities have already lost 9.3 percent of their value this year, compared with 0.58% losses in the broader high-grade debt market, according to Bank of America/Merrill Lynch. If increased competition does arrive or the FCC continues its pro-consumer advocacy policies, there is a big risk Charter’s revenue expectations may never materialize.

Comcast Loses 69,000 Subscribers; Internet Customer Additions Down 12%, But Revenue Higher

Phillip Dampier July 23, 2015 Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News No Comments

Comcast-LogoNEW YORK (Reuters) – Comcast Corp, the largest U.S. cable operator, posted in-line second-quarter results, as its high-speed Internet and NBC Universal businesses grew amid a drop in pay-TV subscriber departures.

Comcast, also the No.1 U.S. high-speed Internet provider, said on Thursday total revenue rose 11.3 percent to $18.74 billion in the second quarter ended June 30. Analysts on average had forecast revenue of $18.14 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Net income attributable to Comcast rose 7.3 percent to $2.14 billion, or 84 cents per share, from a year earlier.

Profit was up 10 percent from a year ago to 84 cents per share after excluding items such as investments and acquisition-related items, matching Wall Street estimates.

The company, which lost 8,000 video customers last quarter, reigned in subscriber losses in the second quarter compared to a year ago. It said 69,000 subscribers departed from April through June, but it was less than the 144,000 users who left a year earlier.

cablecordWall Street keeps a close watch on the number of new video subscribers as pay TV operators fight to keep customers amidst intense competition from streaming video services such as Dish Corp’s Sling TV.

Earlier this month, Comcast said it is beta testing a new cable streaming service called Stream, which will broadcast live TV from HBO and about a dozen other networks for $15 per month. The new service lets Comcast’s Xfinity Internet customers stream live TV over phones, tablets and laptops.

Comcast’s high-speed Internet customer additions dropped 12 percent to 180,000, but revenue from the business rose about 10 percent to $3.1 billion.

Business services revenue increased 20.4 percent to $1.16 billion.

At NBC Universal, revenue rose 20.2 percent to $7.23 billion from a year earlier.

Revenue at the film studio rose 93 percent from a year earlier to $2.3 billion, bolstered by its summer blockbusters “Furious 7″ and “Jurassic World.”

The Universal theme park business, with its popular “Harry Potter” attraction in Florida, saw revenue rise 26 percent to $773 million.

Advertising revenue at cable networks fell 3 percent in the quarter to $917 million amid a decline in ratings that has hit networks across the TV industry. The NBC broadcast network’s ad revenue rose a modest 0.3 percent to $1.25 billion.

Shares of Comcast, which abandoned its proposed $45 billion merger with Time Warner Cable Inc in late April, closed at $64.50 on Wednesday on the Nasdaq.

(By Malathi Nayak; Editing by Bernard Orr)

CRTC Orders Phone and Cable Companies to Open Their Fiber Networks to Competitors

CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais

CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais

Independent Internet Service Providers are hailing a decision by telecommunications regulators that will force big phone and cable companies to open their fiber optic networks to competitors, suggesting Canadian consumers will benefit from lower prices, fewer usage caps, and higher-speed Internet.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission on Wednesday ordered companies like Bell/BCE, Telus, Rogers, Shaw, and others to sell wholesale access to their growing fiber optic networks, despite industry protests giving that access would harm future investment in fiber technology just as it is on the cusp of spreading across the country.

“We’re an evidence-based body, so we heard all of the positions of the various parties and we balanced those off through what we heard in our deliberations afterwards,” said CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais. “In this particular case, we are concerned about the future of broadband in the country so we have to make sure we have a sustainable and competitive marketplace. It’s a wholesale decision that says Canadians can expect a better competitive marketplace because we are going to require incumbent cable and telephone companies to make their high-speed facilities available to competitors.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/BNN Breaking News CRTC Decision Fiber 7-22-15.flv

BNN broke into regular programming with this Special Report on the CRTC decision that will grant independent ISPs access to large telecom companies’ fiber optic networks. (3:13)

Large phone companies, including Bell, warned regulators in a hearing last fall that forcing them to open their networks to third parties would deter investment in fiber expansion. Canadian telecom companies now provide about three million homes with either fiber to the home or fiber to the neighborhood service. Blais, along with representatives of independent ISPs have rejected Bell’s arguments, arguing competition from cable operators was forcing telephone companies to upgrade their networks regardless of the wholesale access debate.

crtc“Our view is the incumbent telcos have a market reason to invest in improving their plant through the investment in fiber,” Blais said. “That’s what Canadians expect and because of market conditions they have to do that investment. So we’re quite confident that’s going to happen.”

Canadian telecommunications companies have done well selling Internet and television services in a highly concentrated telecommunications and media marketplace. For example, BCE, the parent company of Bell Canada, Bell Media, and Bell TV owns a wireless carrier, a satellite TV provider, the CTV television network and many of its local affiliates, dozens of radio stations, more than two dozen cable networks, a landline telephone company, an Internet Service Provider, and ownership interests in sports teams like the Montreal Canadiens as well as a part interest in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s unofficial newspaper of record.

Companies like Rogers, Shaw, Vidéotron, Telus, and Bell have dominated the market for Internet access. But regulators began requiring these companies to sell access to their networks on a wholesale basis to smaller competitors to foster additional retail competition. Today, there are over 500 independent ISPs selling service in Canada, including well-known companies like TekSavvy, Primus, and Distributel. In the past few years, Internet enthusiasts have flocked to these alternative providers to escape a regime of usage caps and usage-based billing of Internet service common among most incumbent cable and phone companies. Competition from the independents, which offer more generous usage allowances or sell unlimited access, has forced some phone and cable companies to offer cap-free Internet service as well.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/BNN CRTC Decision Interview with Jean Pierre Blais 7-22-15.flv

BNN interviewed CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais about the commission’s decision to open up wholesale access to Canada’s fiber optic networks. (5:26)

bellDespite the competition, the majority of Canadians still do business with BCE, Rogers Communications, Quebecor (Vidéotron), Shaw Communications, or Telus, that collectively captured 75 percent of telecom revenue in 2013.

Although competitors have been able to purchase wholesale access to cable broadband and DSL service, nothing in the CRTC rules required big cable and phone companies to sell access to next generation fiber networks. That gap threatened the viability of independent ISPs, left with offering customers access to older cable/copper technology only. This week’s CRTC decision is the first step to grant access to fiber networks as well, although some ISPs are cautious about the impact of the decision until the CRTC provides pricing guidance.

“The commission took a great step today in favor of competition,” Matt Stein, CEO of Distributel Communications Ltd., told The Globe and Mail. “In giving us access to fiber to the premise, they have ensured that as speeds and demands increase, we’re going to continue to be able to provide service that customers want. It’s definitely going to be some time before these products make it to market. There’s going to be the costing and the implementation, and reasonably it could be a year or even longer before the products are actually out the door. But the heavy lifting? Today that was done.”

Bram Abramson, chief legal and regulatory officer for TekSavvy Solutions Inc., added some caution.

Distributel, an independent ISP, made a name for itself offering usage-cap free Internet access to Canadians.

Distributel, an independent ISP, made a name for itself offering usage-cap free Internet access to Canadians.

“The devil really is in the details on this,” Abramson told the newspaper. “That’s why I say we like the direction, because there are a million ways in which this could become unworkable if implemented wrong. For example, what rates are we going to pay? We won’t know until those tariffs are done and settled.”

Other so-called “wireline incumbents” like Manitoba Telecom and SaskTel will also be required to make their fiber optic networks available to competitors.

Last fall, Bell warned the CRTC of the consequences of letting TekSavvy, Distributel, and others resell access to their fiber networks.

“We are not suggesting that mandated access will immediately grind investment to a halt in every location in Canada, but it is a question of balance and it will have an impact,” Mirko Bibic, chief legal and regulatory officer for BCE/Bell told CRTC commissioners at a hearing.

Bibic cautioned if the CRTC granted competitive access it could affect how the company allocated its capital investments and could lead it to shift spending to other areas instead.

“What we’re saying is a mandated access rule will affect the pace of deployment and the breadth of deployment,” Bibic said.

Bibic

Bibic

Specifically, Bibic claimed Bell may call it quits on fiber expansion beyond the fiber-to-the-neighborhood service Bell sells under the Fibe brand in 80% of its service area in Ontario and Quebec. Bell had envisioned upgrading the network to straight fiber-to-the-home service, eliminating the rest of the legacy copper still in its network. But perhaps not anymore.

“If the commission forces the incumbent telephone operators to open access to fiber-to-the-home, BCE might not prioritize building that final leg in some communities,” Bibic warned. “The point is, with 80% of our territory covered […] we can hold and do really well with fiber-to-the-node for longer than we otherwise might.”

Nonsense, independent ISPs told the CRTC, pointing to the cable industry’s preparations to introduce DOCSIS 3.1 cable broadband and vastly increase broadband speeds well in excess of what a fiber-to-the-neighborhood network can offer.

“First of all, [telephone companies] have a natural incentive to build wherever there is a cable carrier, because otherwise the cable carrier will eat their lunch,” said Chris Tacit, counsel to the Canadian Network Operators Consortium, which represents the interests of independent ISPs. “There’s a reason that they’re sinking all that money into [fiber-to-the-home], it’s because they have to keep up. Now, I don’t believe for a minute that they are going to stop investing if they have to grant access.”

Regulators in the United States have traditionally sided with large telecommunications companies and have largely allowed phone and cable companies to keep access to their advanced broadband networks to themselves. Republicans have largely defended the industry position that regulation and forced open access would deter private investment and competitors should construct networks of their own. In some cases, they have. Google Fiber is now the most prominent overbuilder, but several dozen independent providers are also slowly wiring fiber optics in communities already served by cable and telephone company-provided broadband. Whether it is better to inspire new entrants to build their own networks or grant them access to existing ones is an ongoing political debate.

But the CRTC has not given independent ISPs a free ride. The commission announced it will begin moving towards “disaggregated” network availability for smaller ISPs, which will require them to invest in network equipment to connect with incumbent networks on a more local level, starting in Ontario and Quebec.

The CRTC under Blais’ leadership is gaining a reputation of being pro-consumer, a departure from the CRTC’s often-industry-friendly past. Blais has presided over rulings to regulate wholesale wireless roaming fees to lower consumer costs and forced pay television providers to unbundle their huge TV channel packages so consumers can get rid of scores of channels they don’t watch.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/The Globe and Mail Internet competitors welcome CRTC decision on broadband access 7-23-15.flv

Canadian Press spoke with independent ISPs about their reaction to the wholesale access decision. (1:18)

Wall Street Analyst Tells Congress Broadband Needs to Be More Than Just “Profitable” to Spur Investment

greedUnless a broadband provider can deliver the same kind of profitability earned by U.S. cable operators, don’t expect significant private investment in broadband expansion even if the company can easily turn a profit.

That was the argument brought to a House hearing on funding broadband infrastructure expansion by Craig Moffett, a Wall Street analyst at Moffett Nathanson.

“Infrastructure deployment requires the expectation of a healthy return on capital,” Moffett told the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee in a hearing this afternoon. “That should be taken as a given, but all too often, in my experience, the issue of return on capital is either ignored or misunderstood in policy forums. It is not a matter of whether a business is or isn’t profitable, it is instead a matter of whether it is sufficiently profitable to warrant the high levels of capital investment required for the deployment of infrastructure.”

Moffett pointed to the massive profits earned by cable operators Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter and Cablevision, all of which earned returns well in excess of their cost of capital, ranging from 13-33 percent. Moffett argued Wall Street has come to expect those kinds of returns, and investors will take a hard look at companies deploying new expensive networks against those that have largely paid back much of the capital costs incurred when their networks were built decades ago.

Moffett continued to criticize the broadband expansion being undertaken by large incumbent telephone companies that he claims does not earn attractive returns for their wireline businesses, even as they have introduced new services like faster broadband and television.

“For example, a decade after first undertaking their FiOS fiber-to-the-home buildout to 18 million homes, Verizon has not yet come close to earning a return in excess of their cost of capital,” said Moffett. “In 2014 their aggregate wired telecommunications business earned a paltry 1.2% return, against a cost of capital of roughly 5%. For the non-financial types in the room, that’s the equivalent of borrowing money at 5% interest in order to earn interest of 1%. That’s a good way to go bankrupt.”

analysisMoffett was also critical of AT&T’s planned expansion of gigabit fiber broadband.

“AT&T has committed to the FCC to make fiber available to a total of 11.7 million locations in their footprint in order to make their acquisition of DirecTV more palatable to policy-makers, but it is hard to be optimistic that they will do much better this time around,” Moffett argued.

Moffett believes competition is bad for the profitable broadband business.

Moffett

Moffett

“The broader take-away here is that the returns to be had from overbuilding – that is, being the second or third broadband provider in a given market – are generally poor,” Moffett said. “Let that sink in for a moment. Stated simply, it means that market forces are unlikely to yield a competitive broadband market. Neither, by the way, does wireless appear to offer the promise of imminent competition for incumbent broadband providers. Wireless networks simply aren’t engineered for the kind of sustained throughput required for a wired-broadband-replacement service.”

As a result, investors prefer that the broadband marketplace remain a monopoly or duopoly to guarantee the kinds of healthy returns they have earned for years, especially from the cable stocks Moffett has always favored in reports to his clients. Additional competition drives prices down, reducing profits, which in turn discourages investors who have high expectations their money will make them a lot more money.

Moffett’s arguments are largely based on broadband being a for-profit private enterprise, not a public infrastructure effort. But it does explain why there is a willingness to compete in large cities where network construction costs are lower and rural communities remain relatively unserved. As with electrification 100 years ago, investor-owned utilities were willing to wire large communities while ignoring rural farms and communities. Only after electricity was deemed a necessary utility did alternative means of funding, including member-owned co-ops and community-owned utilities finish electrifying areas private capital ignored.

Moffett’s guide to better broadband is based entirely on profitability — delivering enough profits and other returns to attract investors that will look elsewhere if costs become too high. Community-owned broadband avoids this dilemma by advocating for break-even or modestly profitable networks that focus on service, not investor-attractive profits.

Several members of Congress commented Moffett’s vision of broadband was discouraging, even depressing, because it seemed to be locked in a for-profit, private sector model that had few answers to offer for communities left behind. Moffett even warned against oversight and regulation of incumbent cable and phone companies, claiming it would further drive away private investment.

But broadband customers, Moffett admitted, will still pay the price for investor expectations.

comcast cartoon“As everyone understands, the cable video business is facing unprecedented pressure,” Moffett testified. “Cord cutting has been talked about for years but is finally starting to show up in a meaningful way in the numbers. And soaring programming costs are eating away at video profit margins. From a cable operator’s perspective, the video business and the broadband business are opposite sides of the same coin. It is, after all, all one infrastructure. Pressure on the video profit pool will therefore naturally trigger a pricing response in broadband, where cable operators will have greater pricing leverage.”

Moffett said the kinds of rate hikes consumers used to pay for cable television now increasingly transferred to broadband customers is nothing nefarious. To keep investors happy, the kind of returns once earned from cable television will now have be delivered on the backs of broadband customers if Congress expects cable companies to continue upgrading and expanding their networks.

“All else being equal, that will mean that even new builds of broadband will become increasingly economically challenged and therefore will become less and less likely,” said Moffett. “Or they will simply have to sharply raise broadband prices.”

Moffett’s comments do come with some baggage, however. His clients pay for his advice and Moffett has been a long-time supporter of cable industry stocks. He has been a strong and natural advocate for a cable industry that faces only token opposition. He has browbeaten executives to start broadband usage caps and usage-based billing to further boost broadband profits, slammed telephone company competition in the cable business as financially reckless and unwarranted, and dismissed Google Fiber as a project designed to help Google’s public policy aims more than earn the search giant profits from the broadband business.

But Moffett has also been wrong in the past, particularly with respect to cord-cutting which he used to downplay as an urban legend and on the ease cable companies would be able to acquire and merge with each other.

Beyond all that, Moffett and his clients have a proverbial dog in the fight. After years of pumping cable stocks, suggestions that more competition for the cable industry is a good thing would simply be bad for business.

Cable’s Fiber Fears: Broadband Market Share Drops to 40% or Less When Fiber Competition Arrives

The magic of fiber

The magic of fiber

Ever wonder why Comcast, one of the strongest defenders of classic coaxial-based cable technology, is suddenly getting on board the fiber-to-the-home bandwagon? New research suggests if they don’t, their market share could fall to 40% or less if a serious fiber competitor arrives.

“There’s some sort of magic associated with fiber,” John Caezza, president of Arris’s Access Technologies division, told Multichannel News. “Everyone thinks it’s better than [cable technology].”

The risks to the cable industry are clear: be prepared to upgrade or face customer losses.

Craig Moffett of Moffett Nathanson has never been a cheerleader for fiber to the home service. In 2008, Moffett vilified Verizon for its investment in a major fiber upgrade we know today as FiOS to replace its aging copper infrastructure, complaining it was too expensive and was overkill for most residential customers. He was more tolerant of AT&T’s less-costly fiber to the neighborhood approach, dubbed U-verse, that still used traditional telephone lines to deliver service into the home. Because U-verse did not need AT&T to replace wiring at each customer location, the cost savings were considerable. But the cost-capability compromise left AT&T with a less robust platform, with broadband speeds initially limited to a maximum of around 24Mbps.

While phone companies like AT&T and Verizon were saddled with the enormous cost of tearing out decades-old obsolete phone wiring to varying degrees, the cable industry seemed well positioned with a mature, yet still recent hybrid fiber-coaxial (HFC) platform that was upgraded in the 1990s in many cities. While still partly reliant on the same RG-6 and RG-11 coaxial cable used since the first days of cable television, cable companies also invested in fiber optics to bring services from distant headends to each town, removing some of the copper from their networks without the huge expense of bringing fiber all the way to customer homes.

For Moffett, it was the cable industry that had the network with room to grow without spending huge amounts of capital on upgrades. He has touted cable stocks ever since.

Moffett

Moffett

What worries Moffett now isn’t Google, Frontier, CenturyLink, or even Verizon. He’s concerned about AT&T.

As part of its commitment to win approval of its merger with DirecTV, AT&T promised regulators in June it would expand AT&T U-verse with GigaPower — AT&T’s gigabit fiber to the home upgrade — to at least 11.7 million homes, nine million more than it has ever promised before. Comcast has a 32% overlap with AT&T U-verse, compared to Time Warner Cable (26%), Charter Communications (32%), Bright House Networks (25%) and Cox Communications (25%). Comcast had promised faster broadband with the advent of DOCSIS 3.1 beginning as early as next year. But the company isn’t willing to wait around to watch AT&T and others steal its speed-craving customers. This spring, it promised 2Gbps Gigabit Pro fiber to the home service to customers living within 1/3rd of a mile of the nearest Comcast fiber line.

Some in the cable industry complain Google’s huge marketing operation has saddled cable broadband with a bad rap — ‘it’s yesterday’s news, with Google Fiber representing the future.’ The marketing war has been largely won by Google, they say, leaving consumers convinced fiber is the better and more reliable technology, and they need it more than the cable company.

Cable’s defense is to consider some marketing changes of its own — including the idea of dropping the name “cable” from the business altogether, because it implies older technology. But despite any name change, most cable companies will continue to rely on HFC infrastructure for at least several more years, despite claims they are bringing their own middle mile fiber networks closer to customers than ever. Cable operators now serve an average of 400 homes from each cable node. Some cable companies like Comcast plan to cut the number of customers sharing a node to around 100-125 homes, which means fewer customers will share the same broadband connection. But in the end, that will make cable comparable at best to a fiber to the neighborhood network, still hampered to some degree by the presence of legacy coaxial copper cable. The industry believes most consumers will never see the limitations, and for those that do, a limited fiber buildout with a steep installation fee may keep costs (and demand) down to those who need the fastest possible speeds and are willing to pay to get them.

CableLabs_TaglineThat philosophy may still cost cable companies customers if a fiber competitor doesn’t have to compromise speed and performance and can afford to charge less.

The top 10 U.S. cable companies currently account for 60% of the residential broadband market and 86% of all broadband net additions in the first quarter of 2015, says Leichtman Research Group.

Moffett predicts cable broadband will only capture 40% of share in markets where it faces a fiber to the home competitor (Google, EPB, Greenlight, Verizon FiOS), 55% in markets served by a fiber to the neighborhood competitor (U-verse, Prism), and 60% where the competition only sells DSL (most Frontier, Windstream service areas). Nationwide, AT&T’s newest gigabit fiber commitment could cost the cable industry 2.4% of the whole residential broadband market, Moffett said.

Phil McKinney, president and CEO of CableLabs, believes DOCSIS 3.1 — the next standard for cable broadband — can easily stand toe to toe with fiber to the home providers.

McKinney

McKinney

“I think it [HFC] has tremendous life, and we are going to be riding it all day long,” Werner said. DOCSIS 3.1 “is definitely going to be our go-to animal. Due to ubiquity, we can go out and virtually serve all of our [customers] very quickly.”

Cable companies claim their speed increases reach all of their customers in a given area at the same time without playing games with “fiberhoods” or waiting for incremental service upgrades common with Google Fiber or AT&T’s U-verse. Customers, the industry says, also appreciate DOCSIS upgrades bring no service disruption and nobody has to come to the home to install or upgrade service.

“The cable industry has more fiber in the ground than each fiber provider in the world,” McKinney argues. “If you look at total fiber strand miles, there’s more fiber under management and under control of the [cable] operators than anybody else combined.”

That may be true, but Moffett thinks it is only natural shareholders may eventually punish the stocks of cable operators that will face competition from AT&T’s U-verse with GigaPower. There is precedent. Cablevision serves customers in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey and faces fierce competition from Verizon FiOS in most of its service areas. That competition has been brutal, occasionally made worse in periodic price wars. What may be protecting cable stocks so far is the fact AT&T competition will only affect, at most, 32% of the impacted cable operators’ service areas.

AT&T’s gigabit network has also proved itself to be more press release than performance, with very limited availability in the cities where it claims to be available. Verizon FiOS, in contrast, is widely available in most of Cablevision’s service area.

Still, Comcast is hoping it can hang on to premium customers who demand the very fastest speeds and performance with targeted fiber.

“Gigabit Pro is really for those customers who have got extreme needs,” said Tony Werner, Comcast’s executive vice president and chief technology officer.

Comcast’s New $15/Mo ‘Sling TV Killer’ Stream Video Package Likely Exempt from Its Usage Cap

streamComcast will challenge cord cutting and entice cord-nevers with an online video package of about a dozen television channels it will sell for $15 a month and likely exempt from its usage cap.

“Stream” will offer about 12 channels — almost all over the air stations including NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, Fox, The CW, Telemundo, Univision — and HBO to Comcast’s broadband customers and deliver the package over Comcast’s privately managed IP network, which it considers separate from the public Internet. That will also allow Comcast to offer on-demand programming, cloud DVR storage and access to Streampix, Comcast’s movies-on-demand feature it largely abandoned a few years ago.

Comcast’s new no-contract video service will begin in Boston by the end of summer, quickly followed by launches in Chicago and Seattle. Comcast plans to expand the service nationwide by early 2016.

Stream will target millennials and others that have turned their backs on traditional cable television. It will also directly take aim at competing Sling TV, which sells streaming cable TV channels for about $20 a month.

But at first glance, Comcast may have one up on its competition.

Comcast-LogoComcast will deliver Stream over the same network it uses for content delivery to game consoles that does not count against Comcast’s trialed usage caps. Watching competitor Sling TV does count against your Comcast usage allowance because it is delivered over the public Internet.

That advantage alone may not help Comcast overcome some of the harsh restrictions it will impose on Stream customers that could prove major turn-offs:

  • Viewing must be done from a web browser, tablet, or phone. Stream will not be available on TV-connected platforms like Roku or Apple TV;
  • Viewers must stay inside the home to access live streamed content;
  • Customers must subscribe to Comcast High Speed Internet service to buy Stream;
  • Only Comcast customers inside a Comcast service area can subscribe;
  • There are no cable networks offered, except HBO, for now.

Customers will be able to sign up for Stream (and cancel it) over the web with no service technician visit needed. Customers can cancel anytime.

The Netherlands Wakes Up to a Broadband Duopoly: ‘Two Wired Providers Are Not Enough’

Phillip Dampier July 7, 2015 Competition, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

logo-acm-enA Dutch telecommunications regulator is warning mergers and acquisitions rarely turn out well for competition or consumers, and admits mistakes were made when regulators allowed John Malone to create an effective cable monopoly in Holland.

Chris Fonteijn, board chairman of the Netherland’s Authority for Consumers and Market (ACM) told fellow regulators at a conference in London that two wired broadband providers are not enough to foster real competition, because the competitors are likely to collude on pricing and have a built-in incentive to limit costly upgrades.

Fonteijn

Fonteijn

“Two telecom companies [in an area] is not sufficient to ensure that consumers get the best deals on price and quality,” Fonteijn said. “Two dominant operators can lead to coordination between the main players and less investment and innovation, disadvantaging consumers.”

Fonteijn confessed ACM may have made a mistake allowing John Malone’s UPC — a European cable conglomerate — to acquire its larger competitor Ziggo, establishing an effective monopoly in cable broadband in most parts of Holland. The merger has left most Dutch broadband users with two choices for broadband: telephone company KPN or  cable company Ziggo.

After the merger, Fonteijn believes the two companies reduced investment and innovation. Dutch regulators required KPN to open its network to wholesale customers who resell services over the telephone network. But UPC/Ziggo escaped any wholesale access requirement, further limiting potential competition. Fonteijn said ACM was revisiting that discrepancy and may force Ziggo to open up its cable system.

At the very least, Fonteijn suggests multiple wired operators competing with at least three nationwide mobile carriers to protect competition and innovation.

More than 25 Companies Rushing Fiber to the Home Service Across South Africa

TelkomSAMore than two dozen independent broadband providers are busily wiring parts of the Republic of South Africa with fiber to the home service in a rush to relegate telephone company giant Telkom’s DSL offerings into the dustbin of irrelevance.

The pace of fiber broadband expansion is happening so rapidly, Telkom CEO Sipho Maseko has had to warn investors the phone company’s continued dependence on its copper infrastructure could threaten the company’s future. Consumers and businesses are demanding better broadband in a country that has languished under Telkom’s insistence on sticking with copper infrastructure that has delivered slow Internet speeds and stingy data caps for more than a decade.

The Sunday Times notes South Africa’s fiber revolution is delivering speeds up to 1,000Mbps on a network that literally sells itself. Fiber providers deliver speeds 250 times faster than ADSL and are helping make usage caps and usage-based billing a part of South Africa’s past. New fiber builds are announced in neighborhoods, towns, and cities almost weekly, many driven by residents in neighborhoods pooling together to attract competition. Independent contractors are winning a large share of the broadband deployment business, able to string fiber cables less expensively than Telkom and its bureaucracy.

VUMA is a fiber service provider in South Africa, following Google Fiber's "fiberhood" example to expand service.

VUMA is a fiber service provider in South Africa, following Google Fiber’s “fiberhood” example to expand service.

“The rate at which con­sumers are turn­ing to al­ter­na­tives to Telkom to build these net­works is re­mark­able,” the Times editorial states. “Un­til a year ago, [Telkom’s] ab­so­lute dom­i­nance over the ‘last mile’ into homes and busi­nesses seemed set to last for years. No more. Telkom’s core busi­ness is sud­denly threat­ened.”

Maseko

Maseko

The projects are large and small. Sea Point in Capetown, Blair­gowrie in Jo­han­nes­burg, Kloof and Hill­crest in Dur­ban are all working with start-up providers instead of Telkom. Many are convinced Telkom management is either incompetent or has been more interested in the welfare of its executives than its customers, and more than a few are voting with their feet.

The most aggressive stampede to fiber broadband is occurring in rich suburbs and gated communities prevalent in affluent areas. These are the customers Telkom cannot afford to lose and many are unlikely to ever return to what used to be the state-owned telephone company. The Times argues the longer Telkom pretends it still has a monopoly, the worse things are going to be for a company in for a rude shock.

“For the first time, the lum­ber­ing in­cum­bent, which once held an ab­so­lute mo­nop­oly over fixed lines, is hav­ing to com­pete for con­sumers’ at­ten­tion with a range of nim­ble start-ups that prom­ise su­perb broad­band at de­cent prices, and of­ten on an ‘open ac­cess’ ba­sis — mean­ing con­sumers are free to choose Internet Service Providers, and ser­vice providers can get di­rect ac­cess to the infrastructure,” the newspaper writes.

The newspaper scoffed at Telkom’s wasted opportunities and poor management decisions that now threaten its future viability.

Among Telkom’s biggest failures was a $815 million investment beginning in 2007 on an “ill-fated adventure” in the Nigerian wireless marketplace. Telkom said it was “misled” by several Nigerian businessmen into bleeding billions of South African Rand into a wireless company that used CDMA technology in a country dominated by cheap GSM providers. A shaky network of cellular dealers incapable of attracting new customers only made things worse. The venture’s losses were so huge, it attracted the attention of South African legislators who questioned the wisdom of Telkom investing in Nigeria while allowing South African broadband to stagnate from inadequate investment.

When two dozen fiber to the home competitors began installing fiber to the home service in South Africa, Telkom grudgingly has started to compete with fiber builds of their own.

When two dozen fiber to the home competitors began installing fiber to the home service in South Africa, Telkom grudgingly has started to compete with fiber builds of their own. They are likely to face two new national fiber competitors, in addition to the independents, within months.

A year earlier, Telkom also proved less than competent when it entered South Africa’s pay television business. In 2006, Telkom earmarked more than $600 million to be spent on a venture unlikely to win enough customers from dominant MultiChoice to be sustainable. By 2009, Telkom decided to sell most of its stake in the venture at fire sale prices and still found few interested buyers.

Telkom’s management has been accused of gross incompetence, particularly for spending resources on poorly researched business ventures where it lacked experience. The Times asked readers to ponder what South African telecommunications would look like today if Telkom instead spent its almost $2 billion dollars in Nigerian and pay television losses on fiber broadband upgrades inside the country. Since 2006, Telkom preferred to spend as little as possible on network upgrades while trying to convince South Africans to stick with copper-delivered DSL and its variant VDSL, available only in very limited areas. Telkom’s business decisions today still leave most of its customers with no better than 4Mbps DSL.

The question South African business observers are asking is whether Telkom’s new interest in fiber is too little, too late. Mobile operators Vodacom and MTN are planning to build their own competing national fiber to the home networks to compete with Telkom as well.

The ISP Defense Squad Attacks Guardian Story on Internet Slowdowns

Phillip "Speaking as a Customer" Dampier

Phillip “Speaking as a Customer” Dampier

Two defenders of large Internet Service Providers are coming to the defense of the broadband industry by questioning a Guardian article that reported major Internet Service Providers were intentionally allowing a degradation in performance of Content Delivery Networks and other high volume Internet traffic in a dispute over money.

Richard Bennett and Dan Rayburn today both published articles attempting to discredit Battle for the Net’s effort highlighting the impact interconnection disputes can have on consumers.

Rayburn:

On Monday The Guardian ran a story with a headline stating that major Internet providers are slowing traffic speeds for thousands of consumers in North America. While that’s a title that’s going to get a lot of people’s attention, it’s not accurate. Even worse, other news outlets like Network World picked up on the story, re-hashed everything The Guardian said, but then mentioned they could not find the “study” that The Guardian is talking about. The reason they can’t find the report is because it does not exist.

[…] Even if The Guardian article was trying to use data collected via the BattlefortheNet website, they don’t understand what data is actually being collected. That data is specific to problems at interconnection points, not inside the last mile networks. So if there isn’t enough capacity at an interconnection point, saying ISPs are “slowing traffic speeds” is not accurate. No ISP is slowing down the speed of the consumers’ connection to the Internet as that all takes place inside the last mile, which is outside of the interconnection points. Even the Free Press isn’t quoted as saying ISPs are “slowing” down access speed, but rather access to enough capacity at connection points.

Bennett:

In summary, it appears that Battle for the Net may have cooked up some dubious tests to support their predetermined conclusion that ISPs are engaging in evil, extortionate behavior.

It may well be the case that they want to, but AT&T, Verizon, Charter Cable, Time Warner Cable, Brighthouse, and several others have merger business and spectrum auction business pending before the FCC. If they were manipulating customer experience in such a malicious way during the pendency of the their critical business, that would constitute executive ineptitude on an enormous scale. The alleged behavior doesn’t make customers stick around either.

I doubt the ISPs are stupid enough to do what the Guardian says they’re doing, and a careful examination of the available test data says that Battle for the Net is actually cooking the books. There is no way a long haul bandwidth and latency test says a thing about CDN performance. Now it could be that Battle for the Net has as a secret test that actually measures CDNs, but if so it’s certainly a well-kept one. Stay tuned.

The higher line measures speeds received by Comcast customers. The lower line represents speeds endured by AT&T customers, as measured by MLab.

The higher line measures speeds received by Comcast customers connecting to websites handled by GTT in Atlanta. The lower line represents speeds endured by AT&T customers, as measured by MLab.

Stop the Cap! was peripherally mentioned in Rayburn’s piece because we originally referenced one of the affected providers as a Content Delivery Network (CDN). In fact, GTT is a Tier 1 IP Network, providing service to CDNs, among others — a point we made in a correction prompted by one of our readers yesterday.

Both Rayburn and Bennett scoff at Battle for the Net’s methodology, results, and conclusion your Internet Service Provider might care more about money than keeping customers satisfied with decent Internet speeds. Bennett alludes to the five groups backing the Battle for the Net campaign as “comrades” and Rayburn comes close to suggesting the Guardian piece represented journalistic malpractice.

Much was made of the missing “study” that the Guardian referenced in its original piece. Stop the Cap! told readers in our original story we did not have a copy to share either, but would update the story once it became available.

We published our own story because we were able to find, without much difficulty, plenty of raw data collected by MLab from consumers conducting voluntary Internet Health Tests, on which Battle for the Net drew its conclusions about network performance. A review of that data independently confirmed all the performance assertions made in the Guardian story, with or without a report. There are obvious and undeniable significant differences in performance between certain Internet Service Providers and traffic distribution networks like GTT.

So let’s take a closer look at the issues Rayburn and Bennett either dispute or attempt to explain away:

  1. MLab today confirmed there is a measurable and clear problem with ISPs serving around 75% of Americans that apparently involves under-provisioned interconnection capacity. That means the connection your ISP has with some content distributors is inadequate to handle the amount of traffic requested by customers. Some very large content distributors like Netflix increasingly use their own Content Delivery Networks, while others rely on third-party distributors to move that content for them. But the problem affects more than just high traffic video websites. If Stop the Cap! happens to reach you through one of these congested traffic networks and your ISP won’t upgrade that connection without compensation, not only will video traffic suffer slowdowns and buffering, but so will traffic from every other website, including ours, that happens to be sent through that same connection.

MLab: "Customers of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon all saw degraded performance [in NYC] during peak use hours when connecting across transit ISPs GTT and Tata. These patterns were most dramatic for customers of Comcast and Verizon when connecting to GTT, with a low speed of near 1 Mbps during peak hours in May. None of the three experienced similar problems when connecting with other transit providers, such as Internap and Zayo, and Cablevision did not experience the same extent of problems."

MLab: “Customers of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon all saw degraded performance [in NYC] during peak use hours when connecting across transit ISPs GTT and Tata. These patterns were most dramatic for customers of Comcast and Verizon when connecting to GTT, with a low-speed of near 1 Mbps during peak hours in May. None of the three experienced similar problems when connecting with other transit providers, such as Internap and Zayo, and Cablevision did not experience the same extent of problems.”

MLab:

Our initial findings show persistent performance degradation experienced by customers of a number of major access ISPs across the United States during the first half of 2015. While the ISPs involved differ, the symptoms and patterns of degradation are similar to those detailed in last year’s Interconnections study: decreased download throughput, increased latency and increased packet loss compared to the performance through different access ISPs in the same region. In nearly all cases degradation was worse during peak use hours. In last year’s technical report, we found that peak-hour degradation was an indicator of under-provisioned interconnection capacity whose shortcomings are only felt when traffic grows beyond a certain threshold.

Patterns of degraded performance occurred across the United States, impacting customers of various access ISPs when connecting to measurement points hosted within a number of transit ISPs in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. Many of these access-transit ISP pairs have not previously been available for study using M-Lab data. In September, 2014, several measurement points were added in transit networks across the United States, making it possible to measure more access-transit ISP interconnection points. It is important to note that while we are able to observe and record these episodes of performance degradation, nothing in the data allows us to draw conclusions about who is responsible for the performance degradation. We leave determining the underlying cause of the degradation to others, and focus solely on the data, which tells us about consumer conditions irrespective of cause.

Rayburn attempts to go to town highlighting MLab’s statement that the data does not allow it to draw conclusions about who is responsible for the traffic jam. But any effort to extend that to a broader conclusion the Guardian article is “bogus” is folly. MLab’s findings clearly state there is a problem affecting the consumer’s Internet experience. To be fair, Rayburn’s view generally accepts there are disputes involving interconnection agreements, but he defends the current system that requires IP networks sending more traffic than they return to pay the ISP for a better connection.

Rayburn's website refers to him as "the voice of industry."

Rayburn’s website refers to him as “the voice of industry.”

  1. Rayburn comes to the debate with a different perspective than ours. Rayburn’s website highlights the fact he is the “voice of the industry.” He also helped launch the industry trade group Streaming Video Alliance, which counts Comcast as one of its members. Anyone able to afford the dues for sponsor/founding member ($25,000 annually); full member ($12,500); or supporting member ($5,500) can join.

Stop the Cap! unreservedly speaks only for consumers. In these disputes, paying customers are the undeniable collateral damage when Internet slowdowns occur and more than a few are frequently inconvenienced by congestion-related slowdowns.

It is our view that allowing paying customers to be caught in the middle of these disputes is a symptom of the monopoly/duopoly marketplace broadband providers enjoy. In any industry where competition demands a provider deliver an excellent customer experience, few would ever allow these kinds of disputes to alienate customers. In Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Chicago, for example, AT&T has evidently made a business decision to allow its connections with GTT to degrade to just a fraction of the performance achieved by other providers. Nothing else explains consistent slowdowns that have affected AT&T U-verse and DSL customers for months on end that involve GTT while Comcast customers experience none of those problems.

We also know why this is happening because AT&T and GTT have both confirmed it to Ars Technica, which covered this specific slowdown back in March. As is always the case about these disputes, it’s all about the money:

AT&T is seeking money from network operators and won’t upgrade capacity until it gets paid. Under its peering policy, AT&T demands payment when a network sends more than twice as much traffic as it receives.

“Some providers are sending significantly more than twice as much traffic as they are receiving at specific interconnection points, which violates our peering policy that has been in place for years,” AT&T told Ars. “We are engaged in commercial-agreement discussions, as is typical in such situations, with several ISPs and Internet providers regarding this imbalanced traffic and possible solutions for augmenting capacity.”

competitionMissing from this discussion are AT&T customers directly affected by slowdowns. AT&T’s attitude seems uninterested in the customer experience and the company feels safe stonewalling GTT until it gets a check in the mail. It matters less that AT&T customers have paid $40, 50, even 70 a month for high quality Internet service they are not getting.

In a more competitive marketplace, we believe no ISP would ever allow these disputes to impact paying subscribers, because a dissatisfied customer can cancel service and switch providers. That is much less likely if you are an AT&T DSL customer with no cable competition or if your only other choice cannot offer the Internet speed you need.

  1. Consolidating the telecommunications industry will only guarantee these problems will get worse. If AT&T is allowed to merge with DirecTV and expand Internet service to more customers in rural areas where cable broadband does not reach, does that not strengthen AT&T’s ability to further stonewall content providers? Of course it does. In fact, even a company the size of Netflix eventually relented and wrote a check to Comcast to clear up major congestion problems experienced by Comcast customers in 2014. Comcast could have solved the problem itself for the benefit of its paying customers, but refused. The day Netflix’s check arrived, problems with Netflix magically disappeared.

More mergers and more consolidation does not enhance competition. It entrenches big ISPs to play more aggressive hardball with content providers at the expense of consumers.

Even Rayburn concedes these disputes are “not about ‘fairness,’ it’s business,” he writes. “Some pay based on various business terms, others might not. There is no law against it, no rule that prohibits it.”

Battle for the Net’s point may be that there should be.

So Much for Competition: Rogers to Buy Independent Mobilicity to Use in Tax Savings Scheme

mobilicityMobilicity, a struggling independent wireless carrier serving some of Canada’s largest cities, will end its efforts to compete with larger wireless companies if a court approves its sale to Rogers Communications, Canada’s largest mobile operator.

Late this afternoon, sources told The Globe and Mail Mobilicity accepted an offer from Rogers in excess of $400 million to acquire the wireless company’s assets and transfer some of its wireless spectrum to Wind Mobile Corp., one of the last remaining Canadian independent carriers, to appease regulators, who could still block a deal with Rogers.

The federal government’s wireless telecom policy has stressed the importance of having at least four wireless providers competing in every region. Wind has managed to achieve that in Ontario, B.C. and Alberta, but lacks enough coverage elsewhere. Mobilicity landed itself in financial trouble soon after launch, finding the costs of network construction high for a company with below-expected customer numbers.

rogers logoMobilicity has been under creditor protection since September 2013 and has only managed to keep 157,000 active customers on its discount cellular network. Rogers is said to be interested in Mobilicity primarily as part of a tax write-off strategy. Mobilicity had non-capital loss carry forwards of $567-million by the end of 2013, which offers Rogers a reduction in its tax bill of about 25 to 30% of that amount.

Observers predict Mobilicity could continue for a time, if in name only, as part of Rogers’ larger portfolio of wireless brands. Rogers already controls two other Canadian wireless brands: Fido and Chatr.

As late as yesterday, Rogers and Telus were both fighting to acquire Mobilicity after it became clear there would be no “white knight” for Mobilicity that would satisfy competition regulators or creditors. Telus attempted an acquisition twice, only to be rebuffed by the Competition Bureau. A last-ditch effort by Wind Mobile to acquire its comparatively sized competitor was a flop with creditors who expected a higher bid.

Mobilicity’s network coverage was always one of its biggest challenges. The company only managed to offer direct coverage in parts of the Greater Toronto Area, Ottawa/Gatineau, Calgary, Edmonton, and Greater Vancouver. Mobilicity’s network also relied on very high frequencies that had a challenging time penetrating buildings, and its lack of network densification led to complaints about dropped calls and poor coverage overall.

The disposition of an earlier plan submitted by employees and Mobilicity’s founder to transform the company into an MVNO — providing independent wireless service using its acquirer’s network, isn’t known at press time.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/BNN Clock ticking on Rogers and Telus to conclude Mobilicity takeover 6-22-15.flv

As late as yesterday, BNN was reporting Telus and Rogers were both competing to acquire Mobilicity. It appears Rogers has won. (2:23)

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