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N.Y. Public Service Commission to Charter/Time Warner Cable: Hope You Are Not in a Hurry

dpsThe New York State Public Service Commission today notified Charter Communications its merger application with Time Warner Cable will require a “more detailed review of the petition,” which means a final decision is unlikely before the end of this year or more likely 2016:

We have received the petition of Time Warner Cable Inc. and Charter Communications, Inc. dated July 2, 2015 seeking authority, pursuant to Public Service Law Sections 100, 101, and 222, to transfer a controlling interest in certain Time Warner Cable telephone systems, cable systems, franchises and assets to Charter and to issue debt. On July 10, 2015, a Supplement was received seeking further approval under PSL § 99(2) for a transfer of Time Warner Cable’s telephone franchises.

According to Sections 99 and 100 of the Public Service Law, such an application is deemed approved after ninety (90) days of filing unless the Commission or its designee notifies the petitioner in writing, within the time period, that the public interest requires the Commission’s review and its written order.

[…] A preliminary review indicates that the public interest requires a more detailed review of the petition. Therefore, pursuant to Public Service Law Sections 99,100, and 101 we are informing you that the Commission will review your petition and will issue a written response in this proceeding.

charter twc bhThe PSC has set a deadline for comments on the merger of Sept. 16 with reply comments due two weeks after that. But on-the-record regional forums will also be held across the state to gather more comments from consumers and stakeholders. Locations of the forums have not yet been announced.

As with Comcast’s merger proposal, a significant review period is expected as the merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable will have profound implications on the entire state. Outside of Long Island and a few boroughs in New York City, Time Warner Cable is by far the most dominant provider serving every major population center in New York.

Two letters have already been added to the record about the merger.

The Rochester Business Alliance filed this letter in “strong support” of the proposed deal, quoting almost entirely from press releases and merger advocacy documents issued by Charter Communications. Time Warner Cable is a “partner member” of the group, better known as the Regional Chamber of Commerce.

RBAlogo“The Rochester Business Alliance advocates for an environment that will promote the success of its members and the local economy,” the group writes on its website. “We help our member companies and their employees stay connected to the issues as well as to the people who can make a difference.”

Michael Kaplan is the first consumer to weigh in on the merger, and he is opposed.

“Just like the Comcast we now have to write to you to ask that you reject this merger,” Kaplan writes. “The only people who benefit from this are the three or four people who will get very rich from it. The rest of the people you are supposed to be protecting? We get much higher cable/Internet rates because they are taking on so much debt that it’s obvious they will have to raise rates significantly. How does this help New York State?”

Kaplan also doesn’t believe Charter’s promise not to usage cap its broadband customers because the commitment expires after three years:

They also promised not to cap or throttle broadband users for three years. Is that a joke?

Time Warner has (due to public backlash) never capped or throttled their Internet. They have not placed data caps on their service which everyone knows is a cash grab.

If you are politically forced into doing this than at the very least Charter MUST keep the current arrangement Time Warner Cable has forever. FOREVER. No data caps, no overage fees, no throttling. Never.

Robert Marcus stands to make over 90 million dollars from the sale of Time Warner. Since his inception as CEO his mission has been to sell the company so he can cash out. He should improve service, equipment, work for us.

We the people are getting sick and tired of it and we are especially of a CEO who is only thinking of his end. What he will personally make. He doesn’t care on how every single person in NY State will get screwed.

Charter Asks FCC to Approve Time Warner Cable/Bright House Merger; Stop the Cap! Urges Changes

charter twc bhCharter Communications last week filed its 362 page redacted Public Interest Statement laying out its case to win approval of its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, to be run under the Charter banner.

“Charter may not be a household name for all Americans, but it has developed into an industry leader by implementing customer and Internet-friendly business practices,” its statement reads.

The sprawling document is effectively a sales pitch to federal regulators to accept Charter’s contention the merger is in the public interest, and the company promises a range of voluntary and committed service upgrades it says will improve the customer experience for those becoming a part of what will be America’s second largest cable operator.

Charter’s proposed upgrades fall under several categories of direct interest to consumers:

Broadband: Charter will commit to upgrade customers to 60Mbps broadband within 30 months (about 2.5 years) after the deal is approved. That could mean some Time Warner Cable customers will still be serviced with standard speeds of 15Mbps as late as 2018. Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade program will be effectively frozen in place and will continue in only those areas “consistent with Time Warner Cable’s existing deployment plans.” That will leave out a large sections of the country not on the upgrade list. Charter has committed to impose no data caps, usage-based pricing or modem fees, but only for three years, after which it will be free to change those policies at will.

Wi-Fi: Charter promises to build on Time Warner’s 100,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, most in just a few cities, and Bright House’s denser network of 45,000 hotspots with a commitment to build at least 300,000 new hotspots across Charter’s expanded service area within four years. Charter will also evaluate deploying cable modems that also act as public Wi-Fi hotspots. Comcast already offers over 500,000 hotspots with plans for many more, making Charter’s wireless commitment less ambitious than what Comcast today offers customers.

Cable-TV: Charter has committed to moving all Time Warner and Bright House systems to all-digital service within 30 months. Customers will need to lease set-top boxes designed to handle Charter’s encryption system for all cable connected televisions. Among those boxes includes Charter’s new, IP-capable Worldbox CPE and cloud-based Spectrum Guide user interface system.

Video on the Go: Charter will adopt Time Warner Cable’s streaming platform and apps to provide 300 streaming television channels to customers watching from inside their homes (a small fraction of those channels are available while outside of the home). Customers will not be able to watch on-demand recorded DVR shows from portable devices, but can program their DVRs from apps or the website.

Discount Internet for the Poor: Charter references the fact its minimum entry-level broadband speed is 60Mbps so that does not bode well for Time Warner Cable’s Everyday Low Priced Internet $14.99 slow-speed Internet plan. Instead Charter will build upon Bright House Networks’ mysterious broadband program for low-income consumers.

Based on Charter’s initial proposal, Stop the Cap! will urge state and federal regulators to require changes of these terms before approving any merger. Among them:

  1. All existing Time Warner Cable and Bright House service areas should be upgraded to meet or exceed the levels of service offered by Time Warner Cable’s Maxx program within 30 months. It is not acceptable to upgrade some customers while others are left with a much more modest upgrade program proposed by Charter;
  2. Charter must commit to Net Neutrality principles without an expiration date;
  3. Regardless of any usage-cap or usage-based pricing plans Charter may introduce after its three-year “no caps” commitment expires, Charter must permanently continue to offer unlimited, flat rate Internet service at a reasonable price as an alternative to usage-priced plans;
  4. Customers must be given the option of opting out of any leased/provided-modem Wi-Fi hotspot plan that offers a wireless connection to outside users without the customer’s consent;
  5. Charter must commit to a more specific Wi-Fi hotspot program that details towns and cities to be serviced and proposed pricing for non-customers;
  6. Charter must allow customers to use their own set-top equipment (eg. Roku, Apple TV, etc.) to receive cable television service without compulsory equipment/rental fees. The company must also commit to offering discount alternatives such as DTAs for secondary televisions and provide an option for income-challenged customers compelled to accept new equipment to continue receiving cable television service;
  7. Charter must retain Time Warner Cable’s Everyday Low Priced $14.99 Internet plan regardless of any other low-income discount program it offers. If it chooses to adopt Bright House’s program, it must broaden it to accept applications year-round, simplify the application process and eliminate any waiting periods;
  8. Charter must commit to independent verification of customer quality and service standards and adhere to any regulatory guidelines imposed by state or federal regulators as a condition of approval.
  9. Charter must commit to expansion of its cable network into a reasonable number of adjacent, unserved areas by committing a significant percentage (to be determined) of measurable financial benefits of the merger to the company or its executives towards this effort.

Stop the Cap! will closely monitor the proceedings and intends to participate on both the state (New York) and federal level to guarantee any merger provides consumers with an equitable share of the benefits. We will also be examining the impact of the merger on existing Time Warner Cable and Bright House employees and will promote merger conditions that protect jobs and limit outsourcing, especially overseas.

Some Time Warner Cable Customers Get a Small Speed Boost Thanks to Overprovisioning

Phillip Dampier June 29, 2015 Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Time Warner Cable 6 Comments

timewarner twcTime Warner Cable customers in parts of the northeast have noticed their broadband speeds increased slightly over the last several days.

Stop the Cap! reader Howard Goldberg was among those who noticed Time Warner’s broadband performance in upstate New York has improved, at least for upper tiers.

“Over the past 24 hours, Speedtest.net (against the TWC site in Syracuse, and many others) is reporting 60-62Mbps down and 6.0-6.2Mbps up, an increase from 55/5.5Mbps we have had over the past few years,” Goldberg notes. He is subscribed to Time Warner Cable Ultimate, marketed in upstate New York as 50/5Mbps service.

We noticed the same thing late last week here in Rochester as speed test results now consistently top 60Mbps when using a Time Warner Cable-based server. The upstream speed increase was less visible, but still measurable.

Goldberg also reports ping times have dropped from the 18-22ms range to 13-15ms when using the Syracuse, N.Y. test site, which could also point to a more responsive Internet connection overall.

Cable companies occasionally deliver speeds that are actually faster than what they sell, known as overprovisioning, to improve customer satisfaction and boost their performance in the Federal Communications Commission’s ongoing national speed test program, designed to verify if providers are actually providing the speeds they are marketing to customers.

Are Time Warner customers in other areas seeing similar results? Report your findings in the comment section.

FCC Likely to Toss First Formal Net Neutrality Complaint Against Time Warner Cable

The nation’s first Net Neutrality complaint filed with the Federal Communications Commission accuses Time Warner Cable of refusing to provide the best possible path for its broadband customers to watch a series of high-definition webcams covering San Diego Bay.

sundiego_banner

Commercial Network Services’ CEO Barry Bahrami wrote the FCC that Time Warner Cable is degrading its ability to exercise free expression by choosing which Internet traffic providers it directly peers with and which it does not:

I am writing to initiate an informal complaint against Time Warner Cable (TWC) for violating the “No Paid Prioritization” and “No Throttling” sections of the new Net Neutrality rules for failure to fulfill their obligations to their BIAS consumers by opting to exchange Internet traffic over higher latency (and often more congested) transit routes instead of directly to the edge provider over lower latency peering routes freely available to them through their presence on public Internet exchanges, unless a payment is made to TWC by the edge provider. These violations are occurring on industry recognized public Internet peering exchanges where both autonomous systems maintain a presence to exchange Internet traffic, but are unable to due to the management policy of TWC. As you know, there is no management policy exception to the No Paid Prioritization rule.

By refusing to accept the freely available direct route to the edge-provider of the consumers’ choosing, TWC is unnecessarily increasing latency and congestion between the consumer and the edge provider by instead sending traffic through higher latency and routinely congested transit routes. This is a default on their promise to the BIAS consumer to deliver to the edge and make arrangements as necessary to do that.

The website responsible for initiating the complaint shows live webcam footage of the San Diego Bay.

The website responsible for initiating the complaint shows live webcam footage of the San Diego Bay.

Bahrami’s complaint deals with interconnection issues, which are not explicitly covered by the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules that prohibit intentional degradation or paid prioritization of network traffic. For years, ISPs have agreed to “settlement-free peering” arrangements with bandwidth providers that exchange traffic in roughly equal amounts with one another. To qualify for this kind of free interconnection arrangement, CNS’ webcams must be hosted by a company that receives about as much traffic from Time Warner Cable customers as it sends back to them — an unlikely prospect.

As bandwidth intensive content knocks traffic figures out of balance, ISPs have started demanding financial compensation from content producers if they want performance guarantees. This is what led Comcast, Verizon and AT&T to insist on paid interconnection agreements with the traffic monster Netflix.

Time Warner Cable is calling on the FCC to dismiss Bahrami’s letter on the grounds it is not a valid Net Neutrality complaint.

“[The FCC should] reject any complaint that is premised on the notion that every edge provider around the globe is entitled to enter into a settlement-free peering arrangement,” Time Warner Cable responds. That is a nice way of telling CNS it doesn’t get a premium pathway to Time Warner Cable customers for free just because of Net Neutrality rules.

CNS250X87Bahrami responds Time Warner’s attitude is based on a distinction without much difference because he is effectively being told CNS must pay extra for a suitable connection with Time Warner to guarantee his web visitors will have a good experience.

“This is not a valid complaint, and there is no way the FCC is going to side with them,” Dan Rayburn, a telecom analyst at Frost & Sullivan and the founding member of the Streaming Video Alliance told Motherboard. “The rules say you can’t block or throttle, but there’s no rule that says Time Warner Cable has to give CNS settlement-free peering. I don’t see how the FCC could possibly say there’s a violation here.”

The FCC made it clear in its Net Neutrality policy it intends “to watch, learn, and act as required, but not intervene now, especially not with prescriptive rules” with respect to interconnection matters.

That makes it likely Bahrami’s complaint will either be tossed out on grounds it is not a Net Neutrality violation or more likely dismissed but kept in what will likely be a growing file of future cases of interconnection disputes between ISPs and content producers. If that file grows too large too quickly, the FCC may be compelled to act.

Hometown Newspaper of Charter Communications Warns Time Warner Deal Not in the Public Interest

Editor’s Note: This editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is reprinted in its entirety. It comes from a newspaper that has covered Charter Communications since its inception. The Post-Dispatch reporters are also some of Charter’s subscribers — the cable company serves all of metropolitan St. Louis. Charter has never been received particularly well in St. Louis and in other cities where it provides generally mediocre service. Communities across Missouri that have endured poor cable and broadband service have recently taken a serious look at doing something about this by building their own public broadband networks as an alternative. But big money telecom interests, especially AT&T, have found it considerably less expensive to lobby to ban these networks from ever getting off the ground than spending the money to upgrade networks to compete.

charter twc bhOn May 15, the last day of this year’s session of the Missouri Legislature, House Bill 437 finally was assigned to a committee, where it promptly died. Given the power of the American Legislative Exchange Council, it may well be back next year.

HB 437, sponsored by Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark, was full of gobbledygook about “municipal competitive services,” but its effect would have been to condemn Missourians to ever-higher prices for broadband Internet service. Cities would have been forbidden from establishing their own broadband services to compete with private operators, thus holding down prices.

ALEC, which wines and dines state lawmakers and then gets them to pass pro-business “model legislation” in their states, had succeeded in getting restrictions on public Internet providers in 20 states. But in February, the Federal Communications Commission struck down North Carolina’s ALEC-inspired law, so the future of other such laws is uncertain.

About 22 percent of Missourians are still regarded as “underserved,” having no reliable access to broadband service of at least 25 megabits per second — what’s needed to stream video without lags. About 1 in 6 Missourians have only one wired access provider to choose from. More than 400,000 Missourians have no wired broadband at all.

Missouri is ranked 38th “most connected” in the nation by the federal-state Broadband Now initiative. In the 21st century, this is like being underserved by railroads in the 19th century or power lines in the early 20th. In parts of rural Missouri, it’s hard to do business, which helps explain why HB 437 died in committee.

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

The basic question is whether companies that invest in high-speed Internet infrastructure should be able to charge whatever they can get away with, or whether broadband service should be treated as a public utility. If it’s the latter, as the FCC determined in February, then government must make sure it’s affordable.

Which brings us to Charter Communications proposed $56 billion takeover of Time Warner Cable and its $10.4 billion acquisition of Bright House Networks. Both deals were announced May 26; both will need approval from the FCC and the Justice Department’s antitrust regulators.

In St. Louis, we have a love-hate relationship with Charter, a homegrown company built atop what was once Cencom Cable. It has dominated the cable TV market here almost as long as there’s been a cable market.

Charter customers endured years of poor service, its bankruptcy, its legal challenges, its ownership and management changes. Just when it got itself together, in 2012, the headquarters was moved from Des Peres to Stamford, Conn., though it retains a significant presence here.

Today our little Charter is a big fish; the Time Warner and Bright House deals would make it the nation’s second-largest cable company, with 24 million customers, behind only Philadelphia-based Comcast, with 27 million.

But cable TV no longer drives cable TV. Internet-based video services, like YouTube and Netflix, have revolutionized the way people, particularly younger people, watch TV. When cable companies first started connecting customers to the Internet through the same cables that delivered TV programming, it was regarded as a nice add-on business. Now broadband delivery is seen as a far bigger part of the future than providing TV programs.

missouriIndeed, when Comcast tried to acquire Time Warner last year, the dominance (nearly 60 percent of the market) that the combined company would have had over broadband service caused federal regulators to look askance. Comcast abandoned its bid in April.

By contrast, a Charter-Time Warner-Bright House combination (it will do business as Spectrum) will control 30 percent of the broadband market. Charter Spectrum will have 20 million broadband subscribers, compared with 22 million for Comcast.

So what can customers expect? Charter’s CEO Tom Rutledge has promised “faster Internet speeds, state-of-the-art video experiences and fully featured voice products, at highly competitive prices.”

This begs the question, competitive with whom? Comcast? Mom-and-pop operations that can’t afford the infrastructure? Municipal service providers who are being ALEC’d out of business?

Neither Charter nor Time Warner has particularly good customer service ratings (though to be fair, Charter is miles ahead of where it used to be, at least in St. Louis). Still, Charter will take on lots of debt to finance the deal, much of it in high-yield junk bonds. The broadband business provides leverage. As analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson told the Wall Street Journal: “Broadband pricing is almost an insurance policy for cable operators, in that if all else fails, you’ve always got the option to raise broadband rates.”

America wouldn’t let a private operator own 30 percent of its roads and highways. It wouldn’t allow two of them to control half the electricity. If broadband Internet service is a public utility, it must be regulated strictly.

The lesson is old as the hills: The free-marketeers who talk most passionately about competition are generally in the business of trying to eliminate it. Charter and Time Warner are both members of ALEC.

The Charter-Time Warner deal clearly is not in the public interest. The upside for shareholders is huge. The upside for Charter executives is even bigger. But it’s hard to see how Charter’s customers would see much benefit at all.

Time Warner Cable Expands Wi-Fi; Dallas Metroplex Gets Outdoor Access

timewarner twcTime Warner Cable is launching a new network of outdoor hotspots in the Dallas Metroplex, giving their customers free unlimited access at popular outdoor destinations and retail stores.

The Dallas Business Journal reports Time Warner will be switching on nearly 500 outdoor hotspots starting today, available to customers and non-customers until June 8. After that date, only Time Warner Cable (and certain other cable companies) broadband customers will be able to get free access.

“We believe Wi-Fi both in your home an outside is really important to our customer,” said Mike Roudi, senior vice president and general manager of broadband services. “We’re spending millions and millions of dollars. It’s a brand new network we’re building.”

Time Warner Cable has launched outdoor Wi-Fi in about 12 of its markets around the country, most scheduled for or already getting TWC Maxx upgrades.

dallas metroBut Time Warner Cable customers elsewhere will also find a quickly growing network of indoor hotspots hosted by businesses that subscribe to Time Warner’s commercial broadband service. As part of their broadband package, businesses are encouraged to host TWC Wi-Fi Passpoint access, which allows TWC customers to automatically connect to any participating Wi-Fi hotspot without having to ask the business for a password.

Customers can use the TWC Wi-Fi app to find hotspots and authenticate wireless access.

Customers of other cable operators, including Comcast, can usually also get access through Time Warner’s network partners program.

In Dallas-Fort Worth, here are the locations of the new outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots with more to follow:

  • Oak Lawn/Turtle Creek (including Reverchon Park)
  • Uptown
  • Deep Ellum/Baylor University Medical Center
  • University Park
  • Highland Park
  • Galleria area
  • Downtown/central Plano
  • Downtown/central Arlington

Time Warner Cable customers can also access free Wi-Fi at more than 100 Boingo locations, including Dallas Love Field and 24 other U.S. airports.

Time Warner Cable Enhanced DVRs Start Showing Up in Non Maxx-Upgraded Areas

Phillip Dampier June 3, 2015 Consumer News, Time Warner Cable 2 Comments

twcGreenTime Warner Cable announced last week that its Enhanced DVR product allowing users to record up to six programs at once is now available in Ohio, including the markets of Columbus and Chillicothe.

The upgraded DVR also has up to six times more storage than Time Warner’s old DVR, capable of storing 150 hours of HD programming. The device has built-in “whole house” capability as well, which gives up to four other HD set-top boxes in the home access to the DVR at the same time.

The Enhanced DVR has usually only been available in areas upgraded to TWC Maxx, but evidently the company now has enough units available to begin offering it elsewhere. If your area can get one, let us know in the comments section.

Just remember if you choose to upgrade, there is no way to transfer any shows recorded on your current DVR to the upgraded model.

The Economist: Charter Communications’ Buyout of Time Warner Cable Structured So It Will Pay No Taxes for Years

Malone

Malone

The Economist reports Charter Communications’ acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks has been structured so that “it should pay no tax for several years, at least.”

The merger deal, which intimately involves John Malone, the boss of Liberty Media — a cable and media conglomerate, has all the hallmarks of a classic Malone-inspired deal: complex ownership structures, high debt levels, assiduous tax planning and a refusal to overpay.

Unlike many other dealmakers, Malone seems to want to avoid the spotlight. His firm Liberty Media is Charter’s biggest single investor and will kick in at least $5 billion in Charter stock purchases to help consummate the transaction, which will be handled primarily by Charter’s management.

The deal comes at Malone’s insistence the American cable landscape must be consolidated into just 2-3 large companies. For now, he is content standing aside while the public faces of the merger are Charter’s CEO Thomas Rutledge and Time Warner Cable’s Rob Marcus. (Bright House Networks is also a part of the transaction but has been completely overshadowed by its larger deal partners.)

While coverage of the transaction has been relegated to the Business section of newspapers and has evoked shrugs from American reporters, The Economist calls it nothing short of an extraordinary landmark.

Liberty Global logo 2012“The boss of Liberty, a cable and media conglomerate, he has struck more deals than perhaps any other tycoon in the world—buying and selling hundreds of firms worth over $100 billion since the 1970s, often negotiating on his own, using calculations that fit on a napkin,” said the publication. “Unusually for an empire-builder he has made his investors a ton of money, and has little interest in the public eye.”

While Malone is hardly a household name, he could soon be at the center of the sixth largest corporate takeover in U.S. history and make him the world’s unparalleled media baron, controlling an empire three times the size of Rupert Murdoch’s media ventures. While Comcast will remain America’s largest single cable operator, Malone’s Liberty Media will dwarf Comcast globally with more than 75 million cable customers around the world.

charter twc bhMalone does not share the concerns of some Time Warner Cable and Charter investors that the merger will generate a “staggering” $66 billion in debt from day one, initially loaned from Wall Street investment banks. The Economist notes Malone seems to be violating his own rule to never overpay in a deal. In the British financial press, Charter’s deal for Time Warner Cable and Bright House does not pass Malone’s own smell test.

“At 9.1 times gross operating profits he is paying at least a fifth more for TWC than he typically does,” says the newspaper. “He is offering 23% more for it than Comcast did in its bid last year, which was scuppered by antitrust regulators. Based on last year’s cash-flow figures the deal will make a pitiful 5.6% return on capital, assuming no tax is paid. Like most cable firms TWC has a stagnant top line, with growing broadband sales being offset by declining TV and telephony revenues. So fast growth will not bail out Mr Malone.”

So where does The Economist believe John Malone will make his killing? From captive customers and suppliers, of course.

“The most obvious explanation is that Mr. Malone thinks the world has not changed much since the 1990s and that the cable industry remains a collection of local monopolies from which ever more juicy profits can be squeezed,” says The Economist. “America’s cable firms have poor service and high prices: the average Charter customer pays at least 50% more per month than one of Mr Malone’s customers in Britain or the Netherlands. In Europe cable firms face tough competition in broadband from telecoms operators; in America the telecoms firms have rolled out fixed-line broadband to perhaps just half of homes or fewer.”

The Economist suspects Malone’s new cable empire will follow Europe and be less dependent on flogging costly bundles of unwanted television channels to reluctant punters. Instead, it’s all about broadband and the platform it represents to obtain a range of video services that replace traditional cable television. But Malone’s future vision almost certainly includes a wireless mobile component, which means Americans should not be surprised to see the tycoon attempt to acquire a large mobile company, even one as large as AT&T, on which he can sell video and other telecom services. That is precisely what he is doing today in Europe.

“The French Slasher” Patrick Drahi/Altice Likely to Target Cablevision, Cox, Mediacom Next for Quick Buyouts

THE FRENCH SLASHER: Patrick Drahi's cost-cutting methods are legendary in Europe. He could soon be bringing his style of cost management to America.

THE FRENCH SLASHER: Patrick Drahi’s cost-cutting methods are legendary in Europe. He could soon be bringing his style of cost management to America.

Patrick Drahi and his Luxembourg-based Altice SA appears to be out of the running to buy Time Warner Cable, but are likely to quickly turn their attention to acquiring several of America’s remaining medium-sized cable companies: Cablevision, Cox, and Mediacom.

“While it is still possible that Altice counters on TWC, we do not believe that it can match Charter [and backer John Malone’s] funding firepower and will ultimately lose out,” wrote Macquarie Capital’s Kevin Smithen. “In our opinion, Altice is more likely to turn its attention to Cablevision or privately held Cox or Mediacom, in an effort to gain more fixed-line scale in order to compete against Charter and Comcast.”

Last week, cable analysts were surprised when Drahi swooped in to acquire Suddenlink, one of America’s medium-sized cable operators.

“Altice’s decision to buy Suddenlink (at an unsupportably high price) creates even more uncertainty in an industry where virtually every element of the story is now in flux,” said MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett.

Cablevision recently seemed to signal it was willing to talk a merger deal with Time Warner Cable, but that now seems unlikely with the Charter acquisition heading to regulator review. Drahi met last week with Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus about a possible deal with the second largest cable company in the U.S., which seems to indicate he is serious about his plans to enter the U.S. cable market.

“On paper, Cablevision was already overvalued,” Moffett said. “And Altice’s acquisition of Suddenlink, which has no overlap with Verizon FiOS, would suggest that they are quite cognizant of the appeal of a carrier without excessive fiber competition. The spike in Cablevision’s shares only makes that overvaluation worse. Then again, if Altice is willing to overpay for one investment, might they not be willing to overpay for another?”

Drahi has been topic number one for the French telecom press for months after his aggressive acquisition and cost-cutting strategies left a long trail of unpaid vendors and suppliers, as well as employees forced to bring their own toilet tissue to work. Customers have also started leaving his French cable company after service suffered as a result of his investment cuts.

As a new wave of cable consolidation is now on the minds of cable executives, several Wall Street analysts have begun to call on the cable industry to consolidate the wireless space as well, buying out one or more wireless companies like Sprint or T-Mobile to combine wired and wireless broadband.

“Unlike Europe, we continue to believe that the U.S. is not yet a ‘converged’ market for wireless and wireline broadband services but that this trend is inevitable in the U.S. due to increasing need for small cells, fiber backhaul and mobile video content caching closer to the end user. In our view, Altice believes in convergence and so mobile will be a strategic objective in the long-term,” Smithen wrote.

Other Wall Street analyst/helpers have pointed out there are other cable targets ripe for acquisition: WideOpenWest Holding Cos (a/k/a WOW!) and Cable One have a combined 1.92 million video subscribers.

Analysis: Charter Communications Will Acquire Time Warner Cable/Bright House – What It Means for You

charter twc bhAs expected, Charter Communications formally announced its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks in a deal worth, including debt, $78.7 billion.

The deal brings Dr. John Malone, a cable magnate during the 80s and 90s, back into the top echelon of cable providers. Malone orchestrated today’s deal as part of his plan to dramatically consolidate the American cable industry. Malone’s Liberty Broadband Corp. assisted in pushing the deal across the finish line with an extra $5 billion (supplied by three hedge funds) in Charter stock purchases.

The companies expect to win regulator approval and close the deal by the end of 2015.

“No one has ever had a better sense of the multichannel world than John [Malone],” Leo Hindery, a veteran cable-industry executive, told the Wall Street Journal. “Obviously he sees in Charter and Time Warner Cable a way to perpetuate a legacy that is unrivaled.”

But the man who may have made today’s deal ultimately possible was FCC chairman Tom Wheeler. Last week, he personally called cable executives at Charter and Time Warner Cable to reassure them the FCC was not against all cable mergers just because it rejected one involving Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

But Wheeler warned he would only approve deals that were in the public interest.

“In applying the public interest test, an absence of harm is not sufficient,” Mr. Wheeler said.

Consumer groups are wary.

“The cable platform is quickly becoming America’s local monopoly broadband infrastructure,” said Free Press Research Director S. Derek Turner. “Charter will have a tough time making a credible argument that consolidating local monopoly power on a nationwide basis will benefit consumers. Indeed, the issue of the cable industry’s power to harm online video competition, which is what ultimately sank Comcast’s consolidation plans, are very much at play in this deal.”

“Ultimately, this merger is yet another example of the poor incentives Wall Street’s quarterly-result mentality creates,” Turner added. “Charter would rather take on an enormous amount of debt to pay a premium for Time Warner Cable than build fiber infrastructure, improve service for its existing customers or bring competition into new communities.”

new charter

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Inside the Charter Plan to Buy Time Warner Cable 5-26-15.flv

A panel of Wall Street analysts discusses the chances for Charter’s plan to buy Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Some analysts continue to frame regulator approval over video programming costs, while others argue broadband is the key issue the FCC and Justice Department will consider when reviewing the merger. From Bloomberg TV. (5:36)

A heavily indebted Charter Communications will not own the combined entity free and clear. At the close of the deal, Time Warner Cable shareholders will own up to 44% of the new company, Liberty Broadband up to 20%, Advance/Newhouse (Bright House) up to 14%. Charter itself will own just 22%, but will be able to leverage voting control over the entity with the help of Malone’s Liberty, which will get almost 25% of the voting power. That will give Charter just enough of a combined edge to control the destiny of “New Charter.”

As with the aborted deal with Comcast, lucrative golden parachutes are expected for Time Warner’s top executives who will be departing if the deal wins approval. In their place will be Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge and a board compromised of 13 directors (including Rutledge himself). Seven directors will be appointed by independent directors serving on Charter’s board, two designated by Advance/Newhouse and three from Liberty Broadband, again giving Rutledge and Malone effective control.

Current Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers will see major changes if Charter follows through on its commitment to bring Charter’s way of doing business to both operators.

No More Analog Television

all digitalCharter told investors at today’s merger announcement it will accelerate the removal of all analog television signals on TWC and Bright House cable TV lineups to free capacity for faster Internet products, more HD channels, and “other advanced products.”

Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus told investors earlier this month TWC was already well-positioned with excess spectrum from moving lesser-watched analog channels to digital service and using “Switched Digital Video,” a technology that conserves bandwidth by only sending certain cable channels into neighborhoods where customers are actively watching them. This allowed Time Warner Cable customers to avoid renting a cable box for lesser-watched, cable-connected televisions in the home.

Charter’s plan requires a cable box on every connected television, at an added cost. The standard lease rate for the digital decoder box is $6.99 per month, and those customers on the lowest basic tier will likely receive at least two devices for up to two years for free, or five years for customers on Medicaid. Customers who subscribe to higher tiers of service or premium channels may receive only one device for free for one year before the monthly lease rate applies. For a home with an average of three connected televisions, this will eventually cost an extra $21 a month. DVR boxes cost considerably more.

No More Modem Lease Fee, But Only Two Choices for Internet Service

The good news is Charter does not apply any modem lease fees and there is a good chance if you already purchased your own modem, Charter will continue to let you use it. The bad news is that if you were used to sticking with a lower-speed broadband tier to save money, those days are likely coming to an end. Charter’s “simplified” menu of broadband options cuts Time Warner’s six choices and Bright House’s five options to just two:

  • 60/4Mbps for Spectrum Internet ($59.99)
  • 100/5Mbps for Internet Ultra ($109.99)

Charter_Spectrum_Mobile_Internet-finalThis is likely to be a red flag for regulators concerned about broadband affordability. Although it is likely Charter may offer concessions by grandfathering existing Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers under their current plans, Charter has nothing comparable to Time Warner’s “Everyday Low Price Internet” for $14.99 a month or a 6Mbps Basic broadband alternative far less expensive than Charter’s entry-level Internet tier. Bright House customers are not likely to experience something similar. The entry-level 15Mbps broadband-only plan is $65 a month without a promotion, according to Bright House.

Charter is rumored to be testing speed boosts for those two tiers for deployment in areas where they face fiber competitors. The first phase would raise Spectrum speeds to 100/25Mbps and Ultra to 300/50Mbps with plans to further increase speeds when DOCSIS 3.1 arrives — likely to 300/50Mbps for Spectrum and 500/300 for Ultra, at least where Google Fiber, U-verse with GigaPower, and Verizon FiOS offers competition.

Recently, Charter has followed Time Warner Cable’s marketing script and is actively promoting the fact the company has no data caps on broadband service, but Charter had a history of loosely enforced “soft caps” for several years in the recent past, so we’re not convinced data caps are gone for good at Charter.

Pricing & Service

billCharter enjoys a higher rate of revenue per customer than either Time Warner or Bright House, which is a sign customers are paying more. It is likely Charter’s reduced menu of choices is responsible for this. Although customers do get a better advertised level of service, they are paying a higher price for it, with no downgrade options. Ancillary equipment rental fees for television set-top boxes are also a likely culprit.

Charter also tells investors its merger with Time Warner and Bright House will bring “manageable promotional rate step-ups and rate discipline” to both companies. That means Charter will likely be less generous offering promotions to new and existing customers. Like Time Warner and Bright House, Charter will gradually raise rates on customers coming off a promotion until they eventually reset a customer’s rates to the regular price. But while Time Warner, in particular, was receptive to putting complaining customers back on aggressively priced promotions after an old promotion ended, Charter is not.

Charter customers tell us the company’s customer service department is notoriously inconsistent and promotional rates and offers can vary wildly. For some, Charter only got aggressive on price after they turned in their cable equipment and closed their accounts.

As far as service is concerned, CEO Thomas Rutledge has managed significant improvements while at Charter. What used to rival Mediacom in Consumer Reports’ annual ranking of the worst cable companies in America is now ranked number nine (Bright House took fourth place, Time Warner Cable: 12th).

But the presence of Malone in this deal, even peripherally, is a major concern. Malone-run cable companies are notorious for massive rate increases and poor customer service. Sen. Al Gore routinely called his leadership style of Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), since sold to Comcast, the Darth Vader of a cable Cosa Nostra and Sen. Daniel Inouye from Hawaii once remarked in a Senate oversight hearing that Malone’s executives were a “bunch of thugs.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Charter CEO Comfortable With Price Paid for Time Warner 5-26-15.flv

Watch Charter Communications CEO Thomas Rutledge stumble his way through an answer to a simple question: What are the public benefits of your merger with Time Warner Cable that the deal with Comcast didn’t offer? Did you like his answer? (5:28)

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