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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.

Australia’s Netflix Anxiety Attack Exposes Weakness of Broadband Upgrades on the Cheap

netflix-ausWith video streaming now accounting for at least 64 percent of all Internet traffic, it should have come as no surprise to Australia’s ISPs that as data caps are eased and popular online video services like Netflix arrive, traffic spikes would occur on their networks as well.

It surprised them anyway.

Telecom analyst Paul Budde told the WAToday newspaper “video streaming requires our ISPs to have robust infrastructure, and to use it in more sophisticated ways, and that largely caught Australia off guard. I think it’s fair to say everybody underestimated the effect of Netflix.”

Not everybody.

Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) was originally envisioned by the then Labor government as a fiber-to-the-home network capable of enormous capacity and gigabit speed. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed buying out the country’s existing copper phone wire infrastructure from telecom giant Telstra to scrap it. Instead of DSL and a limited number of cable broadband providers, the national fiber to the home network would provide service to the majority of Australians, with exceptionally rural residents served by wireless and/or satellite.

Conservative critics slammed the NBN as a fiscal “white elephant” that would duplicate or overrun private investment and saddle taxpayers with the construction costs. In the run up to the federal election of 2013, critics proposed to scale back the NBN as a provider of last resort that would only offer service where others did not. Others suggested a scaled-down network would be more fiscally responsible. After the votes were counted, a Coalition government was formed, run by the conservative Liberal and National parties. Within weeks, they downsized the NBN and replaced most of its governing board.

Netflix's launch increased traffic passing through Australia's ISPs by 50 percent, from 30 to 50Gbps in just one week, and growing.

Netflix’s launch increased traffic passing through Australia’s ISPs by 50 percent, from 30 to 50Gbps in just one week, and growing.

Plans for a national fiber to the home network similar to Verizon FiOS were dropped, replaced with fiber to the neighborhood technology somewhat comparable to AT&T U-verse or Bell Fibe. Instead of gigabit fiber, Australians would rely on a motley mix of technologies including wireless broadband, DSL, VDSL, cable, and in areas where the work had begun under the earlier government, a limited amount of fiber.

In hindsight, the penny wise-pound foolish approach to broadband upgrades has begun to haunt the conservatives, who have already broken several commitments regarding the promised performance of the downsized network and are likely to break several more, forcing more costly upgrades that would have been unnecessary if the government remained focused on an all-fiber network.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has admitted the new NBN will not be able to deliver 25Mbps service to all Australians by 2016. Only 43 percent of the country will get that speed, partly because of technical compromises engineers have been forced to make to accommodate the legacy copper network that isn’t going anywhere.

Think Broadband called the fiber to the neighborhood NBN “a farce” that has led to lowest common denominator broadband. A need to co-exist with ADSL2+ technology already offered to Australians has constrained any speed benefits available from offering faster DSL variants like VDSL2. Customers qualified for VDSL2 broadband speeds will be limited to a maximum of 12Mbps to avoid interfering with existing ADSL2+ services already deployed to other customers. Only multi-dwelling units escape this limitation because those buildings typically host their own DSLAM, which provides service to each customer inside the building. In those cases, customers are limited to a maximum of 25Mbps, not exactly broadband nirvana. The NBN is predicting it will take at least a year to take the bandwidth limits off VDSL2.

nbnThe need for further upgrades as a result of traffic growth breaks another firm commitment from the conservative government.

NBN executive chairman Ziggy Switkowski told reporters in 2013 that technology used in the NBN would not need to be upgraded for at least five years after construction.

“The NBN would not need to upgraded sooner than five years of construction of the first access technology,” Switkowski said. “It is economically more efficient to upgrade over time rather than build a future-proof technology in a field where fast-changing technology is the norm.”

Since Switkowski made that statement two years ago, other providers around the world have gravitated towards fiber optics, believing its capacity and upgradability makes it the best future-proof technology available to handle the kind of traffic growth also now being seen in Australia. At the start of 2015, 315,000 Australians were signed up for online video services. Today, more than two million subscribe, with Netflix adding more than a million customers in less than four months after it launched down under.

Many ISPs offer larger data caps or remove them altogether for “preferred partner” streaming services like Netflix. With usage caps in place, some customers would have used up an entire month’s allowance after just one night watching Netflix.

But the online viewing has created problems for several ISPs, especially during peak usage times. iiNet reports up to 25% of all its network traffic now comes from Netflix. As a result iiNet is accelerating network upgrades.

Customers still reliant on the NBN’s partial copper network are also reporting slowdowns, especially in the evening. The NBN will have to upgrade its backbone connection as well as the last mile connection it maintains with customers who often share access through a DSLAM. The more customers use their connections for Netflix, the greater the likelihood of congestion slowdowns until capacity upgrades are completed.

Hackett

Hackett

Optus worries its customers have extended Internet peak time usage by almost 90 minutes each night as they watch online streaming instead of free-to-air TV. Telstra adds it also faces a strain from “well over half” of the traffic on its network now consisting of video content.

This may explain why Internet entrepreneur and NBN co-board director Simon Hackett wishes the fiber to the neighborhood technology would disappear and be replaced by true fiber to the home service.

“It sucks,” Hackett told an audience at the Rewind/Fast Forward event in Sydney in March, referring to the fiber to the neighborhood technology. His mission is to try and make the government’s priority for cheaper broadband infrastructure “as least worse as possible.”

“Fiber-to the-[neighborhood] is the least-exciting part of the current policy, no arguments,” he added. “If I could wave a wand, it’s the bit I’d erase.”

Another cost of the Coalition government’s slimmed-down Internet expansion is already clear.

According to Netflix’s own ISP speed index, which ranks providers on the quality of streaming Netflix on their networks, Australia lags well behind the top speeds of dozens of other developed nations, including Mexico and Argentina.

But even those anemic speeds come at a high cost to ISPs, charged a connectivity virtual circuit charge (CVC) by NBN costing $12.91 per 1Mbps. The fee is designed to help recoup network construction and upgrade costs. But the fee was set before the online video wave reached Australia. iiNet boss David Buckingham worries he will have to charge customers a “Netflix tax” of $19.18 a month for moderate Netflix viewing to recoup enough money to pay the CVC fees. If a viewer wants to watch a 4K video stream, Buckingham predicts ISPs will have to place a surcharge of $44.26 a month on occasional 4K viewing, if customers can even sustain such a video on NBN’s often anemic broadband connections.

Some experts fear costs will continue to rise as the government eventually recognizes its budget-priced NBN is saddled with obsolete technology that will need expensive upgrades sooner than most think.

Instead of staying focused on fiber optics, technology the former Rudd government suggested would offer Australians gigabit speeds almost immediately and would have plenty of capacity for traffic, the conservative, constrained, “more affordable” NBN is leaving many customers with no better than 12Mbps with a future promise to deliver 50Mbps some day. There is little value for money from that.

Local TV Stations Live Streaming Newscasts in Effort to Reach New Audiences; NewsOn Coming This Fall

newsonLOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Local TV stations are plugging one of the last major holes in mobile video: streaming their news to phones and tablets. The move presents yet another challenge to cable and satellite providers, which are grappling with the widespread online availability of content.

This fall, 112 U.S. stations will begin streaming live newscasts through an app called NewsOn, one of several planned “over-the-top” offerings delivered online without a pay TV subscription.

And Verizon Digital Media Services, which offers technology that enables streaming on a wide variety of screens, is in talks with owners of more than 300 affiliates that want to supply programing directly to consumers over the Internet, Ralf Jacob, chief revenue officer, told Reuters. Stations could use the technology to stream news or other local programing.

Local broadcasters, like cable networks, are trying to adapt to the changing preferences of viewers, who increasingly want to watch programs on their own schedules. The challenge for local news programs will be to satisfy demand for mobile video without undermining audience numbers for traditional broadcasts, which generate hefty fees from cable operators as well as higher ad rates than online programing.

After years of isolated experiments with mobile news, a critical mass of the local TV industry is seizing on the idea. If they are successful, they could both increase viewing by current consumers and attract new ones, especially a younger generation of viewers who prefer watching television programing on mobile devices. But if current viewers “cut the cord,” or drop pay TV service, broadcast stations and cable operators could both suffer.

Broadcasters are eager to follow audiences who are looking outside the television for news and entertainment, said Emily Barr, president and CEO of Graham Media Group, which owns five broadcast stations and is experimenting with mobile apps for newscasts.

abc7Pay TV still reaches 100 million households, but the industry lost 0.5 percent of its customers in the 12 months through March, according to MoffettNathanson analysts. Distributors have countered by offering customers their own apps with broadcast and cable networks.

“It’s a hedge of where the marketplace is going,” said Justin Nielson, senior research analyst at SNL Kagan.

Local broadcasters receive fees from pay TV providers based on the number of subscribers, amounting to $6.3 billion in 2015, SNL Kagan predicts. Returns from advertising are forecast to reach $21.1 billion this year.

One illustration of the risks of getting it wrong is in Britain, where the British Broadcasting Corporation recently announced job cuts because viewers have moved from TV viewing to tablets and mobile devices, which cut its TV license fees.

NEWS LEADS CHANGE

Until recently, local U.S. programing was limited in over-the-top video, since the rights to much of what local stations run is held by other parties.

Local newscasts, however, are owned by the stations themselves, so they don’t need to negotiate streaming rights.

NewsOn, which will run ads, will offer live local newscasts from 84 U.S. markets, including eight of the top 10. The five station groups that have signed up are the ABC Owned Television Station Group, Cox Media Group, Hearst Television, Media General and Raycom Media.

Other stations plan to offer more news on their own apps or expand them to more devices.

RaycomIn Cincinnati, E.W. Scripps sells a subscription for ABC-affiliated station WCPO with additional stories not seen on TV, as well as free movie screenings and other perks. It has an on-demand news app in Phoenix on Microsoft’s Xbox and Apple Inc’s set-top box.

Tegna, the broadcast and digital company spun off from Gannett, is considering streaming local entertainment programing such as video of a morning radio show. Stations can now reach viewers any time of day, said Dave Lougee, president of Tegna’s broadcasting division, and “we want to be ubiquitous.”

BIG PARTNERSHIPS

Local affiliates also are trying to join streaming video packages, but they don’t own all the rights to stream shows they broadcast.

CBS has signed up more than 100,000 for its $6-a-month CBS All Access online video subscription, with more than 100 local stations. But during NFL football, viewers get a message that says the game “is not yet available for live stream.”

Fox, CBS and NBC stations are on Sony Corp’s PlayStation Vue, a streaming package launched this year in five markets.

Satellite TV provider Dish Network Corp wants local broadcasters on Sling TV, an online service it launched in February, but needs to work out programing rights with dozens of affiliates.

Sling TV CEO Roger Lynch said he expects to work on sorting that out over the next twelve months. “Over time you’ll see us launching something local,” he said.

(By Lisa Richwine; Reporting by Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Malathi Nayak in New York; Editing by Peter Henderson and Sue Horton)

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.

Fine Print Fun: Sprint Backs Off From Throttling All Wireless Video Traffic to 600kbps

sprint all inSprint’s all-new “All-In” wireless plan was supposed to simplify wireless pricing for consumers by bundling a leased phone, unlimited voice, data, and texting for a flat $80 a month, but customers slogging through the fine print discovered speed throttling and roaming punishments were silent passengers along for the ride:

To improve data experience for the majority of users, throughput may be limited, varied or reduced on the network. Streaming video speeds will be limited to 600Kbps at all times, which may impact quality. Sprint may terminate service if off-network roaming usage in a month exceeds: (1) 800 min. or a majority of min.; or (2) 100MB or a majority of KB. Prohibited network use rules apply—see sprint.com/termsandconditions.

Although many smaller wireless carriers also have limits on off-network roaming usage, none have proposed to permanently throttle web videos to a frustratingly slow 600kbps. At those speeds, Sprint customers could expect buffering delays or degraded HD video.

Many customers contemplating switching to the All-In plan considered the speed throttle a deal-breaker and let Sprint know through its social media accounts. Even websites friendly to Sprint were very critical of the plan:

Sprint 4G Rollout Updates:

We just aren’t seeing the new and innovative thing with All In. You already have plans that price out the same way as All In (some even less expensive). It appears as a marketing gimmick that is disguising a desperate move to limit streaming. This is not popular with your current customers and your new customers are likely going to hate you for it. After they find out.
.
Marcelo, it’s really bad that David Beckham touts unlimited movie watching and you reference unlimited watching videos in your Press Release. 600kbps video streaming can hardly run any YouTube or Netflix streaming. It will buffer significantly even with the lowest resolution settings. 600kbps is insufficient for most moderate quality video streaming on a smartphone screen.

Claure

Claure

Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure got the message and announced late yesterday the video speed throttle was gone, but general network management would remain.

“At Sprint, we strive to provide customers a great experience when using our network,” said Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure. “We heard you loud and clear, and we are removing the 600 kbps limitation on streaming video. During certain times, like other wireless carriers, we might have to manage the network in order to reduce congestion and provide a better customer experience for the majority of our customers.”

Claure has been hinting the days of unlimited data from Sprint may be coming to an end sometime in the near future. Sprint is among the last carriers that offer a truly unlimited experience, and some customers have used Sprint as a home broadband replacement and have created congestion issues as they consume hundreds of gigabytes of wireless data, which can slow Sprint’s network to a crawl in some areas. T-Mobile experienced similar issues and recently updated their terms and conditions to apply a speed throttle after 21GB of usage during a billing cycle.

Unlimited 4G LTE customers who use more than 21 GB of data in a bill cycle will have their data usage de-prioritized compared to other customers for that bill cycle at locations and times when competing network demands occur, resulting in relatively slower speeds. See t-mobile.com/OpenInternet for details.

Customers report in high volume areas speeds drop well below 1Mbps if they are temporarily sentenced to “speed jail.”

Many of those attempting to use a wireless carrier as their primary home broadband connection do not do so because of convenience or selfishness. Often, they have no other choice because they are bypassed by cable operators and not served by DSL. But it does not take too many customers to start creating problems for wireless carriers if a nearby cell tower becomes congested. Online video is probably the most bandwidth intensive application for wireless companies, especially HD video streaming. The growth of video traffic also raises questions about whether AT&T and Verizon’s efforts to move rural customers to an all-wireless phone and data platform will work well for the companies or customers.

Premium Hulu Customers Can Buy Showtime at a Discount: $8.99/Month

Phillip Dampier June 24, 2015 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video, Video 1 Comment

showtimeCustomers paying $7.99 a month for what used to be called Hulu Plus will be able to add Showtime to their Hulu subscription for an extra $8.99 a month — two dollars less than what Showtime will charge Apple TV and other online video customers.

Showtime Networks’ online streaming service will launch in early July for $10.99 a month, $4 less than HBO Now, which charges $14.99. But Hulu customers will get an extra 18 percent discount if they bundle Showtime with Hulu’s premium option.

huluTM_355Hulu customers who subscribe to Showtime will have access to every Showtime original series ever produced along with Showtime’s full catalog of the same movies, documentaries, specials and sports programming available to cable television customers. Hulu will also carry the east and west coast feeds of Showtime’s primary channel for those who want to watch live events.

The partnership is designed to strengthen Hulu’s competitive position against Netflix and Amazon’s video services.

Showtime CEO Matt Blank doubts Showtime’s online streaming service will cannibalize its existing subscriber base, although most satellite and cable providers charge at least $5 more per month for the premium movie channel ($13.99-16.99 through most cable/telco/satellite providers).

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Showtime CEO Broadband-Only Customers Are an Opportunity 6-4-15.flv

Showtime CEO Matt Blank explains to Bloomberg News why selling Showtime online for $10.99 a month ($8.99 for premium Hulu customers) will not hurt existing distributors like cable and satellite providers. (4:22)

Sling TV CEO Fears Providers Will Jack Up Broadband Prices to Kill Online Video

DishLogo-RedIn the last three years, several Wall Street analysts have called on cable and telephone companies to raise the price of broadband service to make up for declining profits selling cable TV. As shareholders pressure executives to keep profits high and costs low, dramatic price changes may be coming for broadband and television service that will boost profits and likely eliminate one of their biggest potential competitors — Sling TV.

For more than 20 years, the most expensive part of the cable package has been television service. Cable One CEO Thomas Might acknowledged that in 2005, despite growing revenue from broadband, cable television still provided most the profits. That year, 64% of Cable One’s profits came from video. Three years from now, only 30% will come from selling cable TV.

While broadband prices remained generally stable from the late 1990’s into the early 2000’s, cable companies were still raising cable television prices once, sometimes twice annually to support very healthy profit margins on a service found in most American homes no matter its cost. Despite customer complaints about rate hikes, as long as they stayed connected, few providers cared to listen. With little competition, pricing power was tightly held in the industry’s hands. The only significant challenge to that power came from programmers demanding (and consistently winning) a bigger share of cable’s profit pie.

The retransmission consent wars had begun. Local broadcast stations, popular cable networks, and even the major networks all had hands out for increased subscriber fees.

Rogers

Rogers

In the past, cable companies simply passed those costs along, blaming “increased programming costs” in rate hike notifications without mentioning the amount was also designed to keep their healthy margins intact. Only the arrival of The Great Recession changed that. New housing numbers headed downwards as children delayed leaving to rent their own apartment or buy a house. Many income-challenged families decided their budgets no longer allowed for the luxury of cable television and TV service was dropped. Even companies that managed to hang on to subscribers recognized there was now a limit on the amount customers would tolerate and the pace of cable TV rate hikes has slowed.

For a company like Cable One, the impact of de facto profit-sharing on cable television service was easy to see. Ten years ago, only about $30 of a $70 video subscription was handed over to programmers. This year, a record $45.85 of each $81 cable TV subscription is paid to programmers. The $35.50 or so remaining does not count as profit. Cable One reported only $10.61 was left after indirect costs per customer were managed, and after paying for system upgrades and other expenses, it got to keep just $0.96 a month in profit.

To combat the attack on the traditional video subscription model, Cable One raised prices in lesser amounts and began playing hardball with programmers. It permanently dropped Viacom-owned cable networks to show programmers it meant business. Subscribers were livid. More than 103,000 of Cable One’s customers across the country canceled TV service, leaving the cable company with just over 421,000 video customers nationwide.

Some on Wall Street believe conducting a war to preserve video profits need not be fought.

Prices already rising even before "re-pricing" broadband.

U.S. broadband providers already deliver some of the world’s most expensive Internet access.

Analysts told cable companies that the era of fat profits selling bloated TV packages is over, but the days of selling overpriced broadband service to customers that will not cancel regardless of the price are just beginning.

Cablevision CEO James Dolan admitted the real money was already in broadband, telling investors Cablevision’s broadband profit margins now exceed its video margins by at least seven to one.

The time to raise broadband prices even higher has apparently arrived.

new street research“Our work suggests that cable companies have room to take up broadband pricing significantly and we believe regulators should not oppose the re-pricing (it is good for competition & investment),” wrote New Street Research’s Jonathan Chaplin in a recent note to investors. The Wall Street firm sells its advice to telecom companies. “The companies will undoubtedly have to take pay-TV pricing down to help ‘fund’ the price increase for broadband, but this is a good thing for the business. Post re-pricing, [online video] competition would cease to be a threat and the companies would grow revenue and free cash flow at a far faster rate than they would otherwise.”

If you are already a triple play cable television, broadband, and phone customer, you may not notice much change if this comes to pass, at least not at first. To combat cord-cutting and other threats to video revenue, some advisers are calling on cable companies like Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter to re-price the components of their package. Under one scenario, the cost of cable television would be cut up to $30 a month while the price of Internet access would increase by $30 or more a month above current prices. Only customers who subscribe to one service or the other, but not both, would see a major change. A cable TV-only subscriber would happily welcome a $50 monthly bill. A broadband-only customer charged $80, 90, or even 100 for basic broadband service would not.

broadband pricesNeither would Sling CEO Roger Lynch, who has a package of 23 cable channels to sell broadband-only customers for $20 a month.

“They have their dominant — in many cases monopolies — in their market for broadband, especially high-speed broadband,” Sling CEO Roger Lynch told Business Insider in an interview, adding that some cable companies already make it cheaper for people to subscribe to TV and broadband from a cable company than just subscribe to broadband.

A typical Sling customers would be confronted with paying up to $100 a month just for broadband service before paying Sling its $20 a month. Coincidentally, that customer’s broadband provider is likely already selling cable TV and will target promotions at Sling’s customers offering ten times the number of channels for as little as a few dollars more a month on top of what they currently pay for Internet access.

Such a pricing change would damage, if not destroy, Sling TV’s business model. Lynch is convinced providers are seriously contemplating it to use “their dominant position to try to thwart over the top services.”

At least 75% of the country would be held captive by any cable re-pricing tactic, because those Americans have just one choice in providers capable of meeting the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband.

Even more worrying, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler may be responsible for leading the industry to the re-pricing road map by repeatedly reassuring providers the FCC will have nothing to do with price regulation, which opens the door to broadband pricing abuses that cannot be easily countered by market forces.

Lynch has called on the FCC to “protect consumers” and “make sure there’s innovation and competition in video.”

Unfortunately, Wheeler may have something else to prove to his critics who argued Net Neutrality and Title II oversight of broadband would lead to rampant price regulation. Wheeler has hinted repeatedly he is waiting to prove what he says — an allusion to hoping for a formal rate complaint to arrive at the FCC just so he can shoot it down.

Pay Television in Denial: Linear TV is on Life Support; Do You Still Watch Live Television?

Phillip Dampier June 9, 2015 Editorial & Site News, Online Video 5 Comments
acura

Ranger

While fast-forwarding through the 5,000th time I’ve briefly endured the mangling of Blondie’s “Rapture,” in those 2015 Acura RDX ads, I concluded two things:

  • I will never buy an Acura RDX, if only to deliver the message that grating ads first thing in the morning will not win you any sale from me;
  • I have not watched a commercial (on purpose) since 2011.

Ironically, the young woman behind the wheel of the aforementioned Acura is none other than Chelsea Ranger, who became a YouTube sensation after her husband recorded his wife rapping in the car to Salt-n-Pepa’s “None of Your Business,” itself an irony. Ranger’s singing was viewed by 17 million people watching a recorded YouTube video instead of cable television. Like popcorn, nobody quits after just one. YouTube is a confirmed time wormhole, where hours can disappear in what seemed like just a few minutes. This phenomena can also be experienced with Netflix, Amazon, or a myriad of other multimedia websites where on-demand entertainment is always on. How can it be 2am already? Darn, it’s too late to watch Anthony Bourdain and 18 minutes of ads on CNN now.

tv-ad-load-versus-video-ad-load-2014-augustine-fou-1-638Advertisers wondering how many viewers actually spend time watching their commercials are right to be worried. Some have tried to cover their bases by spreading ad budgets around to include online video advertising. But when the online ads become meddlesome (Hulu, anyone?), here comes ad blocking software. No more Geico ads on YouTube, but the experience is less fulfilling watching a blank screen for a few minutes on certain other services. You might actually have to talk to the person sitting next to you.

What cannot be found online can be recorded with a DVR, if only to build up enough buffered video to blow right past those ad breaks. Others collect entire seasons of favorite shows, reserved for binge viewing later. All of this after-the-fact viewing is conditioning you (like a gateway drug) for a future life without linear/live television. You started just to be rid of the advertising, but now you seriously toy with getting rid of cable TV if you can find enough to watch online.

There are exceptions, of course. News and sports junkies are often uncomfortable watching recordings of in-the-moment events. Others cannot imagine losing sports aired on ESPN or CNN for breaking news. But beyond these groups, the chains that hold us to the linear 500-channel pay television universe are rusting.

Phillip "Ad nauseum" Dampier

Phillip “Ad nauseum” Dampier

Getting off the cable television drug is easiest if you never started. That is why Millennials, often cable-nevers, are among the least likely to buy a cable television package. They don’t miss what they never watched, preferring the personalized viewing of their mobile device or tablet over the family television. For those that grew up with the cable box and have never been without it, there was always suspicion that the stories from brave souls who canceled service and never regretted it come from closeted book-reading Luddites.

But consider for a moment you may already be watching less cable television than you think. Spend a week and take note of how much time you spend with the cable box. Then compare it with how many hours you watch Roku, YouTube, Apple TV, Netflix, or any other non-linear television experience. If you can find more to watch on YouTube than on cable, ditching pay TV may not be as hard as you think.

The cable industry’s response to the challenge of online video has been to shoot itself in the foot. Despite the constant complaints that cable programming costs are rising out of control, there is always room for more networks customers did not ask to receive. Navigating cumbersome set-top box software means many customers won’t find those new channels anyway. But they will pay for them.

The higher the price of cable television, the less value many place on it.

People-skipping-the-Preroll-adsCable operator (and network) greed has effectively ruined the industry’s best chance to prove continued value in an increasingly on-demand viewing world. TV Everywhere was supposed to make the 500 channel universe accessible online and on-demand for authenticated paying customers.

Some networks want customers to watch on their websites, others deliver shows on-demand from a set-top box. Instead of envisioning a TV Everywhere model to compete with online video, most cable companies are turning it into the equivalent of a DVR viewing experience with the fast-forward button disabled.

Comcast and Time Warner Cable make enormous amounts of free video available to customers. At the beginning, programmers used an informal honor system. In return for a quick pre-show advertisement and limited commercial interruptions, viewers wouldn’t bother ad-skipping if it meant they could watch a one-hour show in less than 50 minutes. Start inserting five 30 second commercials in every ad break and viewers will start looking for the remote control.

The challenge: should cable companies side with their customers and deliver a compelling TV Everywhere experience or with their bean counters, cramming ads into every available spot. Many are choosing the money. When customers rebelled and began to fast forward through the ads, the cable company retaliated by disabling that option (sometimes, it must be admitted, at the behest of a cable or broadcast network).

But it has gotten worse. For absolutely no reason other than to torture customers, Comcast is notorious for running a very small number of ads aired over and over and over again. Nothing makes television less fun than the same car ad repeated 10-15 times in a single one-hour show. Less is more is not a concept known to the cable industry. As a result, they will now have fewer television customers.

There is nothing about this quest for cash that has not been repeated in other forms of entertainment. Corporate commercial radio with 10 minute ad breaks drove listeners to Sirius XM or MP3 players. Running three minutes of ads to a captive movie theater audience that just paid $10 for a seat will not bring a theater chain any fans. The traditional 30-second ad is increasingly dead in the online world and advertisers and the companies that show them should adopt to the new reality instead of trying to force compliance to the “old ways.”

The cable industry earned its bad reputation by not listening to customers. Now that those customers have a choice to watch something else, the $80 cable TV bill is increasingly expendable as viewers cut the cord and never look back.

Is your linear TV experience not what it used to be? How often are you watching non-news/sports shows live? When the commercials start, do you reflexively reach for the remote control? Are you spending time with cable’s TV Everywhere on demand services? Share your thoughts in the comment section.

Competition Works: América Móvil Plans $50 Billion Fiber to the Home Network in Mexico

infinitum-telmexWith AT&T’s arrival in the Mexican wireless marketplace with its purchase of Iusacell and Nextel, América Móvil is responding with plans to build a new state-of-the-art $50 billion fiber-to-the-home network for Mexican consumers.

According to El Economista, América Móvil has a five-year plan to construct a 311,000 mile fiber network that will offer phone, broadband, and television service. The move comes in response to media reports AT&T is exploring delivering a video package over its acquired wireless networks within the next two years. The network will support broadband speeds that are faster than what most Americans along the border with Mexico can receive from AT&T and CenturyLink’s prevalent DSL services.

In comparison, U.S. phone companies like Verizon have stopped expanding its FiOS fiber to the home network and AT&T largely relies on a less-capable hybrid fiber/copper network for its U-verse service.

Competition in Mexico has forced providers to upgrade their networks to compete for customers while those in the United States tend to match each other’s prices or advocate for industry consolidation to maximize revenue and keep their costs as low as possible.

América Móvil’s broadband service Infinitum Telmex has already attracted 22.3 million broadband customers — a number likely to rise once it can enhance its online video streaming service Clarovideo.

Wireless Bills are Rising: Prices Up More than 50% Since 2007 and Will Head Even Higher When 5G Arrives

Phillip Dampier June 1, 2015 Broadband "Shortage" 1 Comment

attverizonWithout dramatic changes in wireless pricing and more careful usage, owning a smartphone will cost an average of $119 a month per phone by the year 2019.

Ever since the largest players in the wireless industry decided to monetize wireless data usage by ending unlimited use data plans, the average monthly phone bills of smartphone users have been on the increase. In 2013, the average cell phone bill was $76 a month, according to Bureau of Labor statistics. That’s up 50% from the $51 a month customers paid in 2007, the first year the iconic Apple iPhone was offered for sale.

Although wireless companies claim their current 4G (largely LTE) networks are robust enough to sustain the growing demand for wireless data until more spectrum becomes available, the transition to next generation 5G technology will dramatically increase the efficiency of wireless data transmission, delivering up to 40 times the speed of existing 4G networks. But if providers are not willing to slash prices on 5G data plans, average usage and customers’ phone bills are likely to soar to new all-time highs, costing a family of four smartphone owners an average of $476 a month.

A study by Wafa Elmannai and Khaled Elleithy at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Bridgeport found wireless carriers have given up on monetizing voice and texting services, including unlimited minutes and text messages as part of most basic service plans. The real money is made from wireless data plans which traditionally cost customers between $10.79-16.72 per gigabyte, depending on the carrier and whatever fees, surcharges and required add-ons are necessary to get the service.

4g-5gWireless carriers defend their pricing, claiming they have cut prices on certain data plans while granting some customers extra gigabytes of usage at no extra cost. Some evidence shows that carriers have indeed reduced the asking price of delivering a megabyte of data by 50 percent annually. But their costs to deliver that data have dropped even faster, particularly as networks shift traffic away from older 3G networks to 4G technology, which is vastly more efficient than its predecessor.

The end of unlimited data plans by AT&T and Verizon Wireless was key to shifting the industry towards monetizing data usage. The more a customer consumes, the more revenue a carrier earns. But as web pages and applications become more complex and bandwidth intensive, customers will naturally consume more and more data each month, forcing regular usage plan upgrades to avoid confronting overlimit fees. Unless providers pass along more of their savings on traffic costs to consumers, bills will rise.

At current usage estimates from Cisco, the average customer will consume at least 57% more wireless data by 2019 than they do today. To sustain that usage, wireless providers are bidding for additional spectrum rights and are working towards upgrading to next generation 5G technology. But some carriers, including AT&T and Verizon, are also investing in new applications for their networks that include in-car telematics, home security and automation, and online video. Using some of these technologies guarantees an even greater amount of data usage, particularly for online video. Unless customers are careful about their usage and avoid high-bandwidth applications, they are in for a much bigger bill in the future, much to the delight of wireless providers.

While most analysts expect wireless companies will choose to give customers a larger data allowance instead of resorting to fire sale pricing, Elmannai and Elleithy expect that will not be enough to keep cell phone bills stable.

“We will need to reduce the bit rate to (1/1000th) of today’s level in order to receive x1000 of data capacity [at the] same cost [we see today],” the authors conclude. That would mean a low end 1GB data plan on a 4G network would cost just $0.03. Larger allowance plans would cost less than one cent per gigabyte.

The authors of the study expect carriers to price 5G data plans more or less the same as 4G plans, but will probably boost usage allowances to deliver a perception of greater value. But as web applications continue to gravitate towards higher data usage, bills will continue to rise, assuring providers of growing returns even with modest to moderate levels of competition.

At the moment, despite some evidence of price competition, some carriers are still raising prices. Verizon increased the price of its 10GB plan by $20 to $100 a month and T-Mobile raised the price of its unlimited data plan by $10 a month last year.

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