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Altice Abandons Fiber to the Home Network Upgrade in France as Major Cost Cuts Loom

In a sign that could spell trouble for Altice’s ambitious plans to scrap Cablevision’s coaxial cable network in favor of fiber to the home service, Altice has announced it is ending its plan to build its own fiber to the home network by 2025 across France.

Instead of building its own network, Alain Weill, head of Altice’s SFR Group said the company would lease space on the government’s own public fiber network now under construction instead.

“With Patrick Drahi… we’ve recently decided to go for a more traditional model… and a collaboration with local authorities,” Weill told surprised French officials.

France considers its forthcoming national fiber network a national priority to help the country achieve the ability to fully compete in the 21st century digital economy. France is treating fiber broadband like roads and bridges — a public infrastructure project necessary to maintain the country’s standing in the global economy. France had relied on private providers like Altice to construct telecommunications networks and as a result fell to the bottom of EU rankings for superfast broadband.

President Emmanuel Macron said relying on the private free market to stimulate France’s digital economy was inadequate because the companies answered to shareholders, not the country. The European Union is on track to bump North America to third place behind Asia and Europe in fiber speed broadband.

Wave Broadband Offers Unlimited Gigabit Broadband for $80 in Wash., Ore., and Calif.

Phillip Dampier November 20, 2017 Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Data Caps, Wave Broadband No Comments

Wave Broadband, an independent cable operator providing service in the Pacific Northwest, has announced it now offers gigabit broadband service across its three state footprint of Washington, Oregon, and northern California.

Wave has been testing gigabit service in select multi-dwelling units in Seattle, Portland, and portions of greater San Francisco, but has now expanded service to all of its residential and business customers.

“We are thrilled to launch gigabit speeds throughout our coverage areas in Washington, Oregon, and California,” said Harold Zeitz, Wave president and chief operating officer. “During the past several years, Wave has focused on growing our fiber network specifically to accommodate gigabit and faster connections for our customers. The demand for fast, reliable internet connections at an affordable price is growing, and our Gig Speed Internet is the ideal solution for both residential and business customers.”

Details:

Wave Fiber 1000: 1,000/10Mbps for $80/mo year one, $99/mo thereafter. Unlimited data included (on slower plans, it costs an extra $20/mo).

In contract, Wave also offers a 100/5Mbps plan that includes a 400GB data cap for $50 a month. Doubling the cap to 800GB costs an extra $10 a month. Removing the cap entirely costs an extra $20 a month. That means customers seeking an unlimited experience can spend $10 more to move from 100Mbps to 1,000Mbps service.

Wave currently serves 673,000 homes in communities bypassed by Comcast, the region’s dominant cable operator.

Altice’s World Comes Crashing Down; No More Acquisitions Until Massive Debt Reduced

Drahi’s World

Shareholders have shaken Patrick Drahi’s dreams of being the next king of telecom in the United States by plunging Altice’s share price by more than a third in a single week, forcing Drahi to announce he won’t be making any additional acquisitions until the company’s staggering $59 billion debt is repaid.

Investors were also given a sacrificial lamb from the very sudden departure of Michel Combes, the ruthless cost-cutter that also served as titular operations leader of Altice’s European operations. Combes paid the ultimate price for the continued mediocre financial results at SFR-Numericable, which provides wireless and cable service in France and is Altice’s largest holding. That departure comes only two months after Michel Paulin, Drahi’s right-hand man at SFR, was also shown the door.

Drahi made it clear that he is formally taking back control of Altice, although observers have claimed he has always been in charge. European business analysts have uniformly described Altice as a company mired in crisis management, as European investors lose trust in Drahi’s business philosophy, which depends heavily on acquiring companies with other people’s money.

Drahi’s prominence in France came with his acquisition of SFR-Numericable just three years ago. SFR is France’s fourth largest wireless carrier and the company also has a prominent place in the wired telecom market, providing cable television, phone and internet service. Drahi has attracted investors with promises to wring every possible concession out of the companies he acquires. For financial markets, Drahi’s best trait is his ruthless cost-cutting and employee reductions. In France, employees have reported providing their own copy paper and toner cartridges for empty office printers, occasionally supply their own toiletries, and take turns mopping floors and vacuuming offices.

Employees of Altice-owned Suddenlink have been forced to take requests for replacement coffee machines for break rooms to skeptical company committees that review virtually every transaction. More recently, Cablevision technicians are complaining Altice eliminated their winter apparel budget, leaving workers without coats, bibs, overalls, or rain gear for the upcoming winter. Technicians will have to pay for their unsupplied winter gear out-of-pocket.

While shareholders and financial analysts bid up Altice stock on the premise that cost cutting would deliver better results, the fact France has a highly competitive telecom market brought unintended consequences for Altice and its shareholders: customers fled as cost cuts took their toll on service quality and support.

Competition Matters

Between the end of 2014 and mid-2017, SFR lost 514,000 subscribers in wired internet and 1.7 million mobile customers, delighting Altice’s competitors Orange, Free, and Bouygues Telecom. SFR’s internet problems are well-known across France. Altice’s attempt to offer a “one-box” solution for internet and television service has been of dubious value. Its equipment is notorious for failures, has compatibility problems with online games, and has high support costs. Altice is starting to bring similar equipment to the United States to supply its Cablevision customers, and technicians report many of the same problems are occurring in the U.S., adding they are skeptical Altice’s Le Box, known here as Altice One, will perform well for customers.

The biggest enemy of Altice in Europe is robust competition, which has allowed dissatisfied customers to switch providers in droves. SFR-Numericable, despite promises of fiber-fast speeds, has endured complaints about slow and uneven speeds and persistent service outages. Drahi’s original business plan was to upgrade broadband speeds and performance to win over France’s remaining DSL customers. That worked for a time, according to the French newspaper Libération, but not for long.

Paulin, who used to run the division responsible for Altice’s wired broadband, complained bitterly competitors have “polluted” his marketing campaign by advertising their 100% fiber optic networks, educating customers that Altice isn’t selling that. That ruined Drahi’s plans to slowly upgrade services with the belief customers are more captive to their broadband provider and wouldn’t switch providers if Altice took its time.

A competitor put it this way: “SFR’s remaining DSL customers have indeed migrated at the encouragement of SFR-Numericable… to Orange or Free’s 100% fiber optic network offerings.”

Accusations about service problems and slow upgrades were readily believed by customers because Altice drew headlines for its ruthless efforts to save money.

“First, the restructuring – cuts in spending and pressure on suppliers – has shaped its image as a bad payer,” notes the newspaper. “At the end of 2015, SFR was fined $400,000 for its late payments. Second, package price increases, imposed discreetly and justified by the addition of exclusive video content, annoyed customers when they found extra charges on their bills. Finally, recurring network problems have undermined user trust. The new satisfaction survey of UFC-Que declared SFR was in last place among operators.”

Altice’s one-box solution for TV and internet has proven troublesome for customers in Europe.

Altice blamed most of SFR’s problems on its previous owner, Vivendi, who it claimed underinvested in its network for years. But customers were in no mood to stick around waiting for upgrades. Throughout 2015 and 2016, customers fled, finally forcing Drahi to embark on costly upgrades of SFR’s wireless and broadband networks. Drahi’s investments in SFR amounted to only $2 billion in 2014 and $2.12 billion in 2015, but dramatically increased to $2.71 billion in 2016. By the beginning of 2017, the upgrades stemmed some of the customer losses as independent tests showed SFR’s 4G LTE service finally became competitive with France’s top two providers. SFR commissioned 5,221 new 4G cell sites over the last 12 months, beating 4,333 for Bouygues Telecom, 3,543 for Orange and a distant 2,010 for low-cost carrier Free.

Drahi also made headlines last summer by announcing SFR-Numericable was completely scrapping its coaxial cable networks in France (as well as in Cablevision territory in the United States) to move entirely to optical fiber technology, even in the most rural service areas. But the fiber upgrades are not being financed with cash on hand at Altice. Libération reports the $1.78 billion Altice will need to spend on fiber upgrades for France alone will be financed by more bank loans. Drahi hopes to eventually offer bonds to investors to internally finance fiber upgrades.

The Suddenlink/Cablevision Cash Machine

Drahi was banking on his ability to manage Altice’s debt and boost revenue by milking U.S. cable customers. Unlike in France, where competition and regulation have kept cable television and broadband prices much lower than in North America, Drahi saw enormous potential from the U.S. telecom market, where Americans routinely pay double or even triple the price many Europeans pay for television and internet access. Drahi sold investors on the prospects of slashing costs, initiating employee cutbacks, and raising prices for acquired U.S. cable companies. Suddenlink customers are particularly captive to cable broadband because the only alternative in many Suddenlink markets is slow speed DSL. Cablevision faces fierce competition from Verizon FiOS, but Verizon has sought to ease revenue-eating promotions that the company has offered in prior years. Both U.S. cable operators have raised prices since Altice acquired them.

Altice’s investors demand short-term results more than long-term prospects, and Altice’s heavy reliance on bank loans at a time when interest rates are gradually rising could spell peril in the future. Drahi used to promote a 38% profit margin to his investors with predictions of 45% in the future. Altice recently removed all predictions of its margins going forward, a sign Altice is being forced to spend more money than it planned on network upgrades and expensive exclusive content deals for French cable television customers that might otherwise switch providers to secure a better deal.

Increasing costs and decreasing customers pushed Altice’s net profit in the red in 2016. The company also faces a lump sum loan payment of $4.72 billion in 2022. For now, Drahi will continue to refinance his portfolio of loans to secure lower interest rates and better repayment terms, but investors no longer believe Altice can continue to carry, much less increase its debt load.

That has forced Drahi to declare he is suspending further acquisitions at Altice and will instead spend resources on paying down its current debts. If he doesn’t, any recession could spell doom for Altice if his bankers are no longer willing to offer favorable credit terms.

Finding The Truth About West Virginia’s Bad Broadband; Here’s How You Can Help

If advertised claims of lightning fast DSL internet don’t match reality, it never hurts to bring evidence to the table if you want to prove your state’s biggest telecom company is lying through its teeth.

West Virginia’s Broadband Council wants to understand just how awful broadband is in the state, despite glowing rhetoric from cable and phone companies that promise fast connections that rarely deliver to beleaguered broadband users. The Council has created its own Speed Test Portal for the state’s broadband users to test their internet speed. The results will also provide data about real world broadband performance to generate a new statewide broadband map that will clearly identify where broadband performs, where it doesn’t, and where it doesn’t exist.

“The speed test is really important,” Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher said. “This is one of those things where before you know where you’re going to go, you have to know where you are. So we’re trying to identify what type of broadband service we have. That’s what the speed tests do for us. We want people to take the speed test, send it in and from there, we will create a map of where we are in the state of West Virginia and identify where our priorities should be. From that, we can identify where we are strong and where we are weak. We can identify where to prioritize areas to put funding and resources to generate broadband connectivity.”

The Council wants residents to test early, test often, and test on every computer they can find to make the data as meaningful as possible.

“With this information, the Broadband Council will work with local governments to help bring affordable broadband service to underserved and unserved areas of the state,” Council Chairman Robert Hinton said in a recent Department of Commerce news release.

One of the responsibilities of the Council is determining whether providers are delivering the speeds they advertise to state residents. West Virginia is ranked 48th worst out of the 50 states for the percentage of residents without access to broadband service. The state’s incumbent phone company, Frontier Communications, controls virtually all the state’s telephone lines. Its DSL service is not well regarded by customers and its poor performance led to a $150 million settlement with West Virginia’s Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in 2015 for deceptive claims about its DSL service.

Behind the scenes, the Broadband Council is also attempting to build an evidentiary record of “discrepancies between the service the incumbent has claimed to provide and the service the incumbent has actually provided.” If the Council can show Frontier is failing to meet its service requirements, it is hoping the FCC will open broadband funding to other providers in unserved and underserved areas in the state, some potentially offering fiber optic broadband. That would, they argue, be a better use of limited Connect America Fund resources than funding further expansion of Frontier’s DSL service.

In a filing with the FCC in response, Frontier said the Council’s solution is “misplaced and inappropriate.” It asked the FCC to reject the proposal and instead increase funding available to Frontier for rural broadband expansion in West Virginia. For Frontier, the metric that matters the most is that the company “well ahead of schedule” to meet the federal program’s requirements.

“Because Frontier is often alone in undertaking the challenge of providing any landline internet service to the most rural and remote areas in the state, Frontier is often the brunt of dissatisfaction, as expressed in the Council’s letter, with the available speeds and technologies in those areas,” Frontier said.

In October, Frontier waived away a demand to return $4.7 million in funds an inspector general claimed were the result of padded invoices with phony extra charges and improper reimbursements for “unreasonable and unallowable” fees.

In a letter to West Virginia Chief Technology Officer John Dunlap, Frontier made it clear that West Virginia taxpayers were effectively on the hook for the money, noting any funds the state might return to the federal government “are, of course, not recoverable from Frontier.”

Unfair Tax Policies Disadvantage New Fiber Competitors, Harm Broadband Expansion

Providers attempting to wire rural communities to offer broadband service or a competitive alternative to cable and phone companies face unfair tax and pole attachment fees that often give the advantage to existing companies and deter would-be competitors.

Those differences have a meaningful impact on rural broadband providers in states like New York, where wiring rural upstate communities is being made difficult by bureaucratic pole attachment fee policies and wide differences in property taxation that give an edge to existing cable giants like Charter Communications while hampering small start-ups with costly and confusing tax policies that slow down broadband rollouts.

The Watertown Daily Times recently published an in-depth special report on the broadband challenges impacting northern New York, where fast internet access has evaded some communities for more than two decades. That lack of access is becoming a critical problem for a growing number of employers who are now considering exiting those communities because companies like Verizon, Frontier Communications and Charter/Spectrum are refusing to provide 21st century broadband service in rural upstate communities.

One example is Tupper Lake Hardware in Tupper Lake, N.Y., which wanted to expand, but considered exiting the area instead after being stuck using satellite internet access because no phone or cable company offered broadband service in the area.

“It came to the point where if you are going to make a $1 million investment, we actually talked about this, we said ‘do we put our money into this place or do we just pick up and move?’” general manager Chris Dewyea told the newspaper. “It is real. It sounds dramatic, but that is the way it goes. The connectivity speed that we had with satellite internet was not good enough, so that is when we started on our journey to get high-speed here.”

Calling Verizon, Frontier, or Spectrum was fruitless, so the company picked up the phone and called… the Empire State Forest Products Association, a group that has tangled with internet connectivity problems in upstate New York before. The group pointed the company to Slic Network Solutions, owned by the independent Nicholville Telephone Company, which has spent the last several years slowly expanding the reach of its fiber optic network in the north country. Slic currently provides service to about 10,000 homes in small communities like Belmont, Lake Placid, Schroon Lake, and Titus Mountain.

Like many fiber overbuilders operating in New York, Slic has to plan its network expansion carefully, as it lacks the financial resources and staff of a company like Verizon or Charter. Slic’s fiber service is in very high demand, because the alternatives are almost always satellite internet access or appallingly slow DSL service from Verizon or Frontier, neither of which have shown much interest in delivering the FCC’s 25Mbps definition of broadband. Charter’s Spectrum service is available only in larger concentrated communities that can meet the cable company’s return on investment property density test. Many rural upstate communities don’t.

“In most of the places, there really was the option of satellite. Some places had DSL but it was usually pretty marginal,” said Kevin Lynch, vice president of technical operations & chief operations officer of Slic Network Solutions. “There are a few areas, but very limited, that might have had Spectrum.”

Slic is one of several small fiber providers operating in New York, each trying to cover territories larger phone and cable companies have ignored for years. Cooperation in commonplace among some companies operating in similar regional areas to keep construction and operating costs down. Some providers share their networks to extend their reach. Most target commercial or institutional users but will lease out their networks for residential providers. Some of the state’s middle mile fiber networks were built with economic stimulus money or through other grant or government programs. Others are privately funded. Many are underutilized but lack the funds to expand.

Westelcom, based in Watertown, counts Slic as one of its partners. Westelcom currently limits its business to commercial accounts in its six county service area, which includes Watertown, Malone, Clayton, Elizabethtown, Ticonderoga and Plattsburgh. But it is willing to provide wholesale access to third-party companies that want to serve residential customers.

One of the biggest and most surprising impediments to serving “last-mile” residential customers isn’t the cost of construction or the return on investment. It’s New York’s tax laws. Current tax policy requires fiber providers to pay taxes on the value of the infrastructure being used, regardless of revenue. At present, that tax rate can cost between $25,000 and $30,000 per fiber route mile. If it takes five miles of fiber to reach only a half-dozen homes, the provider would owe New York over $100,000 in taxes alone, making it impossible to recoup costs and drain the provider’s finances.

The National Conference of State Legislatures, a bi-partisan group, published Property Taxation on Communications Providers: A Primer for State Legislatures in 2015, outlining a legacy of inconsistent and often outdated state and local taxation policies across the United States that treat communications providers differently on issues like property tax. The group points out New York’s tax authorities treat cable and phone companies very differently than upstart fiber providers. Mobile phone companies are taxed differently as well:

The taxation of communications property varies widely in New York. There are several types of property taxes that are applied in varying ways to the communications sector. While New York does not generally tax tangible personal property, the state considers lines, wires, poles, electrical conductors, fiber optic equipment, and related equipment to be real property. Landline companies and cable companies are subject to a real property tax on “Special Franchise” property which is centrally administered and assessed using the reproduction cost method by the Office of Real Property Tax Services (ORPTS). The Special Franchise property tax applies to equipment located on public property. In addition, Nassau County and New York City have a “split roll” which  requires higher taxes on the “utility” class which includes landline telephone companies. Wireless companies and cable companies are assessed locally for their real property (land and buildings,  e.g., towers)

In plainer English, Lynch points out Slic is taxed about $465 per mile per year in St. Lawrence County, which is “significantly higher” than what cable companies like Charter pay, because they are taxed differently.

In the college town of Potsdam, Slic pays more than double the school and property taxes paid by Charter Communications, even though it serves fewer customers and earns much less. That disparity forces providers to target their networks in more dense areas like inside towns and villages, which means more customers per fiber route mile, reducing the bite of the tax man.

“Broadband infrastructure is considered real property, so it is taxed just like a house when it is in the right of way. So when we attach to these poles which are in the public right-of-way, we pay taxes on it and it is based on construction costs,” Lynch added. “There are a certain number of customers we have just to break even on those two operational costs and that does not include any of the other overhead and the content, the electronics and all that.”

After paying New York, Slic then faces the bureaucratic challenge of pole attachment permitting and fees. Every pole on which Slic attaches its fiber wiring is owned by someone else, typically utility companies like National Grid, Verizon, or Frontier. Some poles are jointly owned and maintained by the phone and electric company in the area. Fees and procedures vary in different parts of the state. There is generally a very costly pole attachment application fee and ongoing pole rental fees, which in this part of New York can run $400 a mile, per year.

Lynch said the costs of pole attachment fees alone can account for up to 40 percent of Slic’s expansion budget, and those initial fees can run between $10,000-14,000 per mile. This is why fiber overbuilders frequently decide on coverage areas based on customer commitments to sign up for service if it becomes available. This allows companies like Slic to secure the financing required to provision the service. But money alone doesn’t buy instant access.

“We apply to National Grid or whoever the pole owner is and say, ‘We would like to attach to these 30 poles on this road,’ and do a pole application and pay a fee,” Mr. Lynch explained to the newspaper. “They come out, they look at each pole and they determine if there is space on the pole, do they need to rearrange the electrical wires so they are in compliance with the electrical code, do they need to move down the phone lines. A lot of times these poles are jointly owned. It will be National Grid and Verizon, so they have to coordinate and then there might be a section that has Spectrum on it, so you have three or four companies that have to coordinate this effort.”

The state adds its own layer of bureaucracy with different Department of Transportation regions, regional economic regions, and Department of Environmental Conservation regions, each with its own rules and procedures. It is common for fiber projects to cross from one region into another, requiring additional paperwork and likely delays. If a project has to cross into the Adirondack Park, the rules and permits required to manage that are byzantine.

The result of all this is usually a significant delay in getting started, but once the paperwork is complete and fees are paid, the work can go faster than many realize.

“In these areas where we are constructing right now, Schroon Lake and Belmont and Lyon Mountain, we are building three to five miles of fiber per week. Our next group of projects that has been funded by New York state is 300-plus miles of fiber,” Lynch said. “And when I say three to five miles per week, that is per area.”

Fiber providers would like to see tax fairness and a lot less bureaucracy. The rules in states like New York may eventually leave fiber to the home service at a distinct disadvantage, because wireless networks don’t face pole attachment complications and pay lower taxes because their real property is generally a cell tower and the fiber line that connects to it. As it stands, some internet providers may gravitate towards wireless internet solutions in rural areas instead of fiber just to avoid excessive taxes and the pole attachment bureaucracy. Most homes and businesses prefer fiber optic service when given a choice, but without some changes to tax laws and a more centralized, less bureaucratic approach to pole attachments, fiber optics may never make financial sense in rural upstate New York.

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