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Big Red Verizon Really Wants to Own a Cable Company – Charter or Comcast Will Do Nicely

Shhh… Don’t tell anyone except the newspapers, trade journals, everyone else….

Well-placed sources inside Verizon are leaking like a sieve to the media about the phone giant’s ambition to own and operate a large cable company.

In what may be a trial balloon to test the waters with the incoming Trump Administration, at least two “well-placed sources” have told the New York Post Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam is seriously contemplating countering AT&T’s buy of DirecTV and its attempted acquisition of content company Time Warner, Inc., with the buyout of a major national cable operator.

Verizon’s primary interest, according to multiple sources, is expanding available content to fill its current and future wireless platforms, especially 5G. Acquiring a cable operator would make content deals easier and more affordable because of volume discounting. It would also allow Verizon to directly sell cable products and services without investing in further FiOS expansion.

The CEO told friends at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas that he “wants to buy into cable.”

The most likely targets would have to be large cable operators with a national footprint, and a source told the tabloid two companies qualified: Charter or Comcast.

“Altice is too small,” the source speculated. That would also count out other medium-sized companies like Cox and Mediacom, because they have too limited a service area to be of much use to Verizon.

No final decision has been made, the newspaper notes, adding no talks are underway between Verizon and any cable company at present. Should Mr. Trump repeat the earlier objections to the AT&T-Time Warner, Inc., merger he made last October, any marriage of Verizon with a cable operator would be unlikely. Trump cited unchecked media consolidation as his primary reason for opposing AT&T’s latest acquisition deal, but he has not repeated those objections recently. Last week Trump met with AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson in New York.

McAdam originally planned to use Verizon’s acquisition of Yahoo! as a way to broaden the phone company’s content library, but that yet-to-be-finished deal has been in turbulence since media reports exposed major security breaches of Yahoo’s e-mail and portal sites.

A deal with Charter is more likely than a buyout of Comcast because Charter’s most significant shareholder – John Malone, has no allegiance to keeping Charter Communications independent. Charter also lacks the kind of complications that an acquisition of Comcast could bring – notably Comcast’s ownership of NBC and its dozen owned-and-operated TV stations.

Malone has a long history of dispassionately buying and selling large telecom assets, including the cable company Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) he helped build from a handful of cable systems into what used to be the nation’s largest cable operator. In 1999, TCI was sold and rebranded as AT&T Broadband and Internet Services. Three years later, most of those cable systems were again sold to their present owner Comcast.

Verizon may argue it has already divested significant amounts of its FiOS service to Frontier Communications in the Pacific Northwest, Indiana, Texas, California, and Florida, limiting antitrust concerns. But state regulators, particularly in New York, are likely to raise serious objections if Verizon, already the dominant telephone company in New York (except Rochester) attempts to acquire Charter, the only significant cable operator in upstate New York and Manhattan. That would leave the vast majority of New York with a classic telecom monopoly, with only one provider for landline and broadband service.

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.

Altice’s Cablevision Scrapping Hybrid Fiber-Coax for New Fiber to the Home Service

Altice, the new owner of Cablevision, is not following the rest of the U.S. cable industry by rolling out the next generation of cable broadband — DOCSIS 3.1 — and will instead scrap coaxial cable entirely in favor of a new, all-fiber network.

The cable industry has depended on some form of coaxial cable to offer its service since about 1950, when the first mom and pop operators set up shop offering community antenna television service in areas that could not easily receive over the air TV stations. Most American cable systems today still use the coaxial cable installed in millions of homes starting in the 1970s, supplemented by outdoor coaxial cable that is often 10-20 years old, supported by a more recent fiber backbone network that improves system reliability and maintenance.

Cable systems were originally designed to deliver analog cable television signals, but over the years bandwidth has been set aside to offer ancillary services like video game products, home security and alarm monitoring, digital radio/music, telephone, and broadband. Because of the billions of dollars invested in existing cable networks, the idea of scrapping existing wiring in favor of fiber optics has been largely rejected by the industry as too costly. As broadband service increasingly becomes cable’s most important service, network engineers have instead worked to realign bandwidth to support faster internet speeds, most commonly by upgrading to more efficient cable broadband transmission standards and by removing space hogs like analog television channels from the lineup.

Regardless of what the cable industry does to increase the efficiency of its hybrid coaxial-fiber networks (known as ‘HFC’), they will never achieve the capacity and robustness of all-fiber networks, which may be why Altice is seeking to stop investing in old technology in favor of something new and better.

Altice’s management is legendary in its zeal to cut costs, so an expensive deployment of fiber to the home service to 8.3 million Cablevision/Optimum and Suddenlink customers would seem contrary to the company’s promise to wring out about $900 million in cost savings for the benefit of shareholders after acquiring Cablevision. DOCSIS 3.1 is clearly a cheaper alternative than rewiring millions of homes for all-fiber service. Last summer, Liberty Global CEO Mike Fries estimated that Liberty Global’s costs to deploy the cheaper DOCSIS 3.1 option in Europe would bring gigabit speeds to customers for about $21 per home — a fraction of the cost of tearing out coaxial cable and replacing it with fiber, estimated to cost about $500 a customer.

But Altice wants to future-proof its network with fiber technology that can support profitable next-generation services that may need speed in excess of a gigabit. Dexter Goei, Altice USA’s chairman and CEO, told Multichannel News Altice was not interested in undertaking incremental upgrades every few years trying to keep up with the internet speed demands of its customers:

Goei

Going with a DOCSIS 3.1 game plan “felt to us as one step forward but not a step forward enough relative to what we see as the future of continued connectivity and higher bandwidth usage,” Dexter Goei, Altice USA’s chairman and CEO, said in an interview, noting that the operator has reached an “inflection point” as it sees a disproportionate number of gross broadband subscriber additions taking higher and higher Internet speed tiers.

“We’re big believers in this trend continuing, and we really are moving toward a 10-gig world,” Goei said. “And to sit around and do this in multiple steps doesn’t make any sense [so we decided] to skip over DOCSIS 3.1 and get straight to the point.”

The cable industry may also be exaggerating the cost of fiber upgrades, especially when they cite the financial challenges experienced by Verizon (FiOS) and AT&T (U-verse) as both built out their respective fiber and fiber-copper networks from the ground up. Cablevision and Suddenlink will not have to build fiber networks from end to end because a significant part of their networks already include a substantial amount of fiber optics. Altice would simply extend the amount of fiber in its network to reach each customer.

Fiber to the home upgrades for Cablevision and Suddenlink customers.

Wall Street remains concerned about where the money to build the project, dubbed “Generation Gigaspeed,” is coming from. The Communications Workers of America is also afraid the money will come, in part, from significant downsizing and salary cuts.

Earlier this week, Altice announced it was spinning off its engineering and technical workers to a new independent entity — Altice Technical Services (ATS). When the spinoff is complete, it will employ as many as 4,500 of Altice’s current workforce of 17,000 employees nationwide, and will eventually manage Cablevision and Suddenlink service calls, outdoor network plant design, construction and maintenance, and house all of Altice’s employees servicing commercial accounts.

Although details remain murky, the union is concerned Altice could be engineering an end run around the New York Public Service Commission’s order approving the buyout of Cablevision if Altice did not lay off any New York workers for the next four years.

“We’re very concerned,” CWA District 1 assistant to the vice president Robert Master said. “But we haven’t fully unpacked it yet. We don’t know what they have in mind.”

CWA District 1 organizer Tim Dubnau was more blunt, telling Multichannel News: “We definitely smell a rat.”

Assuming ATS is configured as an independent entity, it will not be required to adhere to the NY PSC order prohibiting reductions of Cablevision’s customer-facing workforce in New York State, which theoretically could allow Altice to dramatically downsize.

Outside of New York, Altice’s cost cutting has followed a long established pattern company executives have followed in Europe for years, where Altice also offers service. In France, battles over toiletries and office supplies resulted in workers bringing their own toilet tissue to work. Downsizing, despite regulatory orders prohibiting layoffs, went ahead in France as company officials thumbed their noses at regulators. In the United States, a familiar pattern is emerging, charges Altice’s critics. Almost 600 call center workers were terminated in November in Connecticut, and other cutbacks have taken place in North Carolina and other states.

Late last week, the NY Post reported Cablevision employees are now complaining about an increasingly miserable office life as they endure penny-penching from their bosses. In New York, top management reportedly ordered the removal of many office printers to reduce the expense of replacement ink cartridges. Office cleaning expenses have also been reportedly slashed by increasing the length of time between cleanings. Even the cost of an ice machine for a break room has come under intense scrutiny, as cost management specialists demand better deals and less costly equipment. Much of the removed equipment provides one last service to Altice – a tax write-off after being removed from service and donated to charities.

Employees report unprecedented intensity of cost cutting and lengthy scrutiny of almost every expense. Some claim to have resorted to buying certain equipment and supplies out of pocket just to avoid drawing management scrutiny. Employee morale is reportedly low — especially at Cablevision, where reduced pay packages predominate under Altice ownership. Management has told employees to hold out for a planned IPO, which could allow them to reap some of the benefits of a Wall Street-fueled cash-raising exercise likely to be put to work buying up other cable operators in 2017.

The pain of cost-cutting isn’t exactly reaching the top level executive suites, however. Despite a very public dispensing of Cablevision’s lush Dolan family corporate jet immediately after Altice took ownership of Cablevision, a replacement nearly identical to the original was quietly been put into service for the benefit of Altice’s management, according to the newspaper.

Assuming Altice can raise the money to pay for its fiber upgrade, it is expected to be completed within five years for all Cablevision and most, but not all Suddenlink customers.

Charter/Spectrum Relocating Northeast Regional HQ to Rochester, N.Y.

Artist rendition of Charter's new regional headquarters in Rochester, N.Y.

Artist rendition of Charter’s new regional headquarters in Rochester, N.Y.

The northeast region of Charter/Spectrum, encompassing six states, will soon be managed from a new regional headquarters office to be opened in Rochester, N.Y.

Elected officials across western New York joined Gov. Andrew Cuomo to congratulate Charter Communications for its decision to locate its new headquarters in suburban Rochester, where the cable company is expected to add 228 new full-time jobs.

Gov. Cuomo announced Charter will invest more than $2.9 million to renovate its existing offices on Mount Hope Avenue in downtown Rochester and its new 46,000 square-foot facility in Henrietta, which will house regional executives, call center workers, and technicians. New York taxpayers will cover $2.5 million of those costs through the Empire State Development Corporation, a public-benefit corporation that offers tax credits in return for job creation commitments.

“This expansion of one of the nation’s leading cable providers in the Finger Lakes is a clear signal that our economic strategy is driving innovation and transforming the local economy,” Gov. Cuomo said. “Cutting-edge companies are betting on this region like never before and are growing their businesses and creating-good paying jobs in the process. By incentivizing private sector growth, we are generating momentum and strengthening the economy in Monroe County and beyond.”

Cuomo

Cuomo

“By early next year, this beautifully restored facility will allow us to bring together our field operations leadership and vital support functions under one roof,” said Charter executive vice president of field operations Tom Adams. “Through our partnership with the New York State Economic Development Corporation, the Rochester area benefits from an influx of high-paying technical jobs, while our customers across Upstate New York and throughout New England benefit from improved communication, collaboration and efficiency in our operations.”

Time Warner Cable employed 460 workers at its existing office in downtown Rochester. Charter’s new regional headquarters will add 230 workers.

Gov. Cuomo has heavily promoted New York as a new corporate-friendly state to create jobs and grow businesses. The “Finger Lakes Forward” initiative has already spent $3.4 billion in the region since 2012 to invest in and attract key industries like photonics, agriculture/food production, and advanced manufacturing. The plan has seen some success for the key regions of Rochester (photonics), Batavia (milk/yogurt production), and Canandaigua (mixed manufacturing), but has not been as successful keeping jobs when businesses have downsizing on their mind.

For Rochester, Charter’s announcement will still result in a net job loss of more than 300 jobs in the telecommunications sector because of Verizon Wireless’ announced closure of its Rochester call center, which will eliminate 645 jobs in the area when the facility closes Jan. 27, 2017. The governor’s office called Verizon’s job cuts “an egregious example of corporate abuse.”

Charter/Spectrum Only Sells Up to 100Mbps in Time Warner Cable Territories

charter-spectrumAlthough existing Time Warner Cable Maxx customers will be able to keep their broadband speed upgrades up to 300Mbps, new customers and those switching to a Charter Spectrum plan will find Spectrum’s advertised broadband options reduced to just one: 100Mbps in TWC Maxx cities like New York and 60Mbps in territories never upgraded to Maxx service.

Charter Spectrum has soft launched their new plans in the New York City market and will begin heavily promoting them later this month. But customers will find their choices dramatically limited, except for television service.

Spectrum is marketing just three triple play plans on its revamped website in the NYC area, varying only with respect to the number of channels included in the TV package:

spectrum-nyc

When we selected internet-only service, we were presented with only one option in New York City: 100Mbps

spectrum-internet

Time Warner Cable plans are no longer promoted in areas switched to Charter Spectrum service.

TWC plans are no longer promoted in areas offered Charter Spectrum service.

At least the modem rental is included in the promotional price, which incidentally rises in the second and third year until it reaches $60 for 60Mbps service, and $100 for 100Mbps service, assuming your promotion has expired.

The promotional prices are not too bad if you are a devotee of cable television, and the broadband price is affordable as well, at least for the first year. After the first 12 months, prices rise and company officials have already warned they will be far more stingy about offering customers repeat retention pricing than Time Warner Cable was.

Charter has announced it will continue to roll out Spectrum packages across the Time Warner Cable and Bright House service areas until the conversion is complete early next year. New York City and Florida are the next targeted markets, but it is clear Charter has already begun offering Spectrum plans instead of continuing to market Time Warner Cable plans that customers can still buy upstate.

Customers will be able to keep their existing Time Warner Cable plans, but any promotional pricing deals will not likely be renewed when they expire, causing your Time Warner Cable bill to spike dramatically in some cases.

We are unsure if existing TWC Maxx customers will be forced to give up their 300Mbps TWC Maxx plan if they switch to a Spectrum plan. There may be several non-publicized plans for these customers. Time will tell.

Editor’s Note: These prices/packages were obtained from timewarnercable.com using a residential street address on W 72nd St, New York, NY, 10023

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