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Wall Street Hissyfit: Raise Broadband Prices to $90/Month Immediately! (Or Else)

If the average customer isn’t paying $90 a month for broadband service, they are paying too little and that needs to stop.

That is the view of persistent rate hike advocate Jonathan Chaplin, a Wall Street analyst with New Street Research, who has advocated for sweeping broadband rate increases for years.

“We have argued that broadband is underpriced, given that pricing has barely increased over the past decade while broadband utility has exploded,” Chaplin wrote in a note to investors. “Our analysis suggested a ‘utility-adjusted’ ARPU target of ~$90. Comcast recently increased standalone broadband to $90 with a modem, paving the way for faster ARPU growth as the mix shifts in favor of broadband-only households. Charter will likely follow, once they are through the integration of Time Warner Cable.”

Companies that fail to raise prices risk being downgraded by analysts with views like these, which can have a direct impact on a stock’s share price and the executive compensation and bonus packages that are often tied to the company’s performance.

But there is a dilemma and disagreement between some cable industry analysts about how much companies can charge their customers. Companies like Cable ONE have been aggressively raising broadband prices to unprecedented levels in some of the poorest communities in the country, which worries fellow Wall Street analyst Craig Moffett from MoffettNathanson LLC.

“Never mind that the per capita income in Cable ONE’s footprint is the lowest (by far) of the companies we [Moffett’s firm] cover, or that the percentage of customers living below the poverty line is the highest (also by far),” Moffett told his investor subscribers. “What matters is that there is very little competition in Cable ONE’s footprint. If you want high-speed broadband, where else are you going to go? The unspoken fear among their larger peers is that over-reliance on broadband pricing invites regulatory intervention, not just for Cable ONE, but for everyone.”

Chaplin thinks the risk from gouging broadband customers is next to zero. With cable TV becoming less profitable every day, all the big profits that can be made will be made from broadband, where cable operators often enjoy a monopoly on high-speed service.

According to Chaplin, if customers value internet access, they will pay the higher prices cable companies charge. So what are companies waiting for? Raise those prices!

Wall Street’s Sprint/T-Mobile Merger Drum Circle

Wall Street wants a deal between T-Mobile and Sprint rich with fees and “synergies,” but nobody counting the money cares whether consumers will actually get better service or lower prices as a result of another wireless industry merger.

Recently, more players have entered the T-Mo/Sprint Drum Circle, seeming in favor of the merger of America’s third and fourth largest wireless carriers. Moody’s Investor Service wouldn’t go as far as Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure in playing up the deal’s “synergy savings” won from cutting duplicate costs (especially jobs) after the merger, but was willing to say the combination of the two companies could cut their combined costs by $3 billion or more annually. Based on earlier mergers, most savings would come from eliminating redundant cell sites, winning better volume pricing on handsets, dramatic cuts in employees and back office operations, and spectrum sharing.

“Imagine if you had a supercharged maverick now going after AT&T and Verizon to stop this duopoly,” Claure told an audience in Miami.

Wells Fargo called Sprint’s large spectrum holdings in the 2.5GHz band undervalued, and could be an important part of any transaction.

Sprint has more high-band spectrum than any other carrier in the U.S. Much maligned for its inability to penetrate well indoors and for its reduced coverage area, most carriers have not prioritized use of these frequencies. But forthcoming 5G networks, likely to offer a wireless alternative to wired home broadband, will dominate high frequency spectrum, leaving Sprint in excellent condition to participate in the 5G splash yet to come.

Wall Street banks can expect a small fortune in fees advising both companies on a merger deal and to assist in arranging its financing. Any deal will likely be worth more than the $39 billion AT&T was willing to pay for T-Mobile back in 2011. With that kind of money at stake, any merger announcement will likely be followed by millions in spending to lobby for its approval. Washington regulators ultimately rejected AT&T’s 2011 buyout, arguing it was anti-competitive. Reducing the U.S. marketplace to three national cellular networks is likely to again raise concerns that reduced competition will lead to higher prices.

A merger is also likely to be disruptive to customers, particularly because Sprint and T-Mobile run very different operations and systems. Moody’s predicted it could take up to five years for any merger to fully consummate, giving AT&T and Verizon considerable lead time to bolster their networks and offerings. Moody’s notes Sprint also has a history with bad merger deals, notably its acquisition of Nextel, which proved to be a distracting nightmare.

“If [another merger] stalls or is derailed by operational missteps, the downside is catastrophic,” Moody’s noted.

Viacom, Booted Off Some Basic TV Tiers, Plans Own $10-20 Non-Sports TV Package

Viacom, which owns cable networks including Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, MTV, BET, and TV Land, will launch a cheap non-sports bundle of entertainment cable networks viewable online for $10-20 a month this year.

Viacom has lost basic cable viewers at an accelerating rate as cable operators drop their networks or repackage them in more expensive basic tiers as Viacom raises wholesale rates cable companies pay to carry the channels.

Viacom CEO Bob Bakish talked about the new service this morning at the J.P. Morgan Global Technology, Media and Telecom Conference in Boston. Bakish said most of the current “skinny cable TV” bundles were priced at around $40 a month, which is too expensive to attract “cord-never millennials” that frequently don’t subscribe to cable television.

“The transformational opportunity is to bring in a new entry segment at a much lower price point,” Bakish said. The cable industry needs “a path to bring in someone who wants high-quality entertainment” but has no interest in expensive sports networks.

That is why Bakish wants to create a cheap entertainment-oriented bundle of networks that omits sports-related channels. But Bakish has also repeatedly stressed he has no intention of giving consumers a comprehensive online alternative to traditional cable TV, telling investors Viacom is “not creating inexpensive opportunities to serve as an alternative.”

Bloomberg News reported Viacom was talking to Discovery and AMC Networks about participating in the new service. The only complication may be a backlash from sports programmers like Walt Disney’s ESPN and 21st Century Fox, Inc., which have contracts requiring providers to include the sports networks in their most popular bundles. Some contracts even limit how many customers are permitted to sign up for a sports-free TV package, according to Michael Nathanson, an analyst at MoffettNathanson LLC.

“It’s meant to dissuade distributors from doing something like this,” Nathanson told Bloomberg. “The issue is how many subscribers they can have before the legal questions appear.”

Bakish may also be trying to remind cable and satellite companies that Viacom can always go direct-to-consumers if operators banish Viacom’s networks off the cable dial or move them to a more expensive tier, although there is no guarantee the new service will bundle all of Viacom’s networks.

Viacom has seen its relationships with cable and satellite providers deteriorate over the last few years under prior management. Some smaller cable companies including Cable One dropped Viacom channels from their cable systems over cost issues in 2014, and many more subscribers have seen Viacom networks temporarily dropped as a result of contract renewal disputes. Bakish has made repairing relations with cable and satellite customers a priority since taking over as CEO in December, but he still has a way to go.

Recently, Charter Communications moved Viacom networks out of its Select basic cable TV package and moved them to its most expensive Gold package for new customers. With only a minority of customers signed up for Gold service, Viacom networks could eventually lose millions of viewers as Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers adopt Spectrum packages in the next few years. If those customers do not subscribe to Gold or refuse to pay extra for a “digipak” of Gold’s basic channels without the premium networks, they will lose access to Viacom channels when they change TV plans.

That issue also concerns Wall Street analysts who believe it could eventually erode Viacom’s viewer base. Bakish made certain to tell investors Viacom was not surrendering to Charter’s “re-tiering.”

“We firmly don’t believe they have the rights to do that,” Bakish said. “We’ve been in discussions with them. We’ve got to get that resolved.”

If it is resolved, those networks may again be available to Select TV customers.

Viacom, AMC, and Discovery are partnering up to offer a $10-20 entertainment-only package on streaming basic cable networks for consumers, as this Bloomberg News story reports. (2:58)

Wall Street Analyst: Cable Monopoly Will Double Your Broadband Bill

Thought paying $65 a month for broadband service is too much? Just wait a few years when one Wall Street analyst predicts you will be paying twice that rate for internet access, all because the cable industry is gradually achieving a high-speed broadband monopoly.

Jonathan Chaplin, New Street Research analyst, predicts as a result of cord-cutting and the retreat of phone companies from offering high-speed internet service competition, the cable industry will win as much as 72.2% of the broadband market by the year 2020. With it, they also win the power to raise prices both fast and furiously.

In a note to investors, Chapin wrote the number of Americans left to sign up for broadband service for the first time has dwindled, and most of the rest of new customer additions will come at the expense of phone companies, especially those still selling nothing better than DSL.

“Our long-term penetration forecast is predicated on cable increasing its market share, given a strong network advantage in 70% of the country (this assumes that telco fiber deployment increases from 16% of the country today to close to 30% five years from now),” Chaplin wrote.

Cable companies already control 65% of the U.S. broadband market as of late last year. Chaplin points out large cable operators have largely given up on slapping usage caps and usage pricing on broadband service to replace revenue lost from TV cord-cutting, so now they are likely going to raise general broadband pricing on everyone.

“Comcast and Charter have given up on usage-based pricing for now; however, we expect them to continue annual price increases,” Chaplin said. “As the primary source of value to households shifts increasingly from pay-TV to broadband, we would expect the cable companies to reflect more of the annual rate increases they push through on their bundles to be reflected in broadband than in the past. Interestingly, Comcast is now pricing standalone broadband at $85 for their flagship product, which is a $20 premium to the rack rate bundled price.”

Chaplin himself regularly cheerleads cable operators to do exactly as he predicts: raise prices. Back in late 2015, Chaplin pestered then CEO Robert Marcus of Time Warner Cable about why TWC was avoiding data caps, and in June of that year, Chaplin sent a note to investors claiming broadband was too cheap.

“Our analysis suggests that broadband as a product is underpriced,” Chaplin wrote. 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).”

“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,” Chaplin added. “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.”

Spectrum Auction: T-Mobile Runaway Winner, But Dish Buy Puzzles Investors

T-Mobile’s 600MHz coverage map — assuming it builds out its full spectrum purchase.

One of the most consequential and visible spectrum auctions ever is over, and it will have a significant impact on broadcasters, wireless carriers, and the future competitive landscape of the wireless industry.

The world’s first “incentive auction” paid television stations to voluntarily vacate or move their assigned channels to make room for the wireless industry’s desire for more spectrum to power wireless data services. Up for bid was 70MHz of spectrum currently used by UHF television stations. A total of 50 winning wireless bidders collectively agreed to pay $19.8 billion to acquire that space. The biggest winner was T-Mobile USA, which is paying almost half the amount of total proceeds to acquire 45% of the spectrum available in the current auction. T-Mobile managed to acquire enough spectrum to cover 100% of the United States and Puerto Rico with an average of 31MHz of available spectrum nationwide, quadrupling its current inventory of important “low-band” spectrum, which is excellent for covering rural areas and inside buildings.

Consumers are likely to benefit as early as later this year when T-Mobile begins lighting up cellular service utilizing the newly available spectrum. Unfortunately, customers will have to buy new devices compatible with the new bands of frequencies.

Having the spectrum alone is not enough to beef up T-Mobile’s network. The company will have to invest in a large number of new cell sites, particularly in outlying areas, to eventually rival the coverage of AT&T and Verizon Wireless. But with an ample supply of 600MHz spectrum, T-Mobile could soon challenge AT&T and Verizon Wireless’ perceived network and coverage superiority. After this auction, AT&T continues to hold the largest portfolio of <1GHz spectrum — 70.5MHz. Verizon is second with 46.2MHz and T-Mobile has moved up in its third place position with 41.1MHz.

Although the FCC claims the current auction was among the highest grossing ever conducted by the FCC, industry observers claim companies got the new frequencies at a bargain price. A 2015 spectrum auction attracted $44.9 billion in bids, more than double the amount bid this year. The average price wireless companies paid per megahertz per person this year was just shy of 90¢, compared with $2.72 in 2015.

Where bargains are to be had, Charles Ergen and his Dish Network satellite company are sure to follow.

Few companies have as much unused wireless spectrum in their portfolio as Dish. Ergen loves to bid in auctions and has also picked up excess spectrum available on the cheap from other satellite companies that have since gone dark or bankrupt. Dish spent $6.2 billion on spectrum during the latest auction, puzzling investors who drove Dish’s share price down wondering what the company intends to do with the frequencies.

Investors were hoping Dish would eventually sell its spectrum portfolio at a profit, something that could still happen if other wireless carriers see a deal to be made. But some Wall Street analysts fear Dish might actually build a large wireless network of its own to offer wireless broadband service. Wall Street dislikes big spending projects and the competition it could bring to the marketplace, potentially driving down prices.

The other possibility is that Dish is making itself look more attractive to a possible buyer like Verizon, which could acquire the satellite company to win cheaper cable programming prices for its FiOS TV and an attractive amount of wireless spectrum for Verizon Wireless. The nation’s biggest wireless carrier notably did not participate in this spectrum auction.

Another unusual bidder was Comcast. Craig Moffett from Wall Street firm MoffettNathanson called Comcast’s $1.7 billion bid “half-hearted” and said it was unlikely to be enough spectrum for the company to begin offering its own wireless service. Comcast plans to rely on Verizon Wireless to power its wireless service, at least initially.

Comcast targeted its bids only in cities where it already provides cable service, which also nixes the theory Comcast and Charter might have been working together to form a cellular joint venture. Moffett expected Comcast would seek at least 20MHz of spectrum across most of the country. It ended up with 10MHz and only in select cities. Moffett thinks that may signal Comcast’s interest in buying an existing wireless carrier is still on the table.

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  • Matthew H Mosher: Sure, but it's pretty easy to crap on NY when my wife a d I pays these ridiculous tax rates so that MY KIDS can't get broadband. Meanwhile it runs fib...
  • Lee: It would be interesting to see the age cohort distribution of stock owners this analyst champions. I suspect the majority are not in the 20 to 30 rang...
  • Josh: Ugh. If I used Comcast for TV I'd be using it with my TiVo...never with their box. And I always figured the "Xfinity" thing was just to trick people...
  • Josh: LOL! Sounds like basically "we're a huge corporation, so you should do this for us for free". At least hopefully they'll pay now... Of course this ...
  • FredH: Like cable company CEOs need to be told to raise prices by some a-hole Wall Street analyst....
  • Roger W: Go ahead. Raise it to $90. I dare you. I guarantee you it will be the last day I subscribe to cable service. That'll be your loss....
  • FredH: Charter/Spectrum is rapidly catching Comcast in the "race to the bottom"....
  • Phillip Dampier: Yeah, because Charter is hurting so much it cannot afford to extend service itself so it wants welfare to do it. Keep in mind most techs have no clue...
  • Matthew H Mosher: Guaranteed. "BROADBAND FOR ALL (that matter)"...
  • Matthew H Mosher: I spoke with a Time Warner/Spectrum tech today, a very nice guy by the way. (Some background - I am the only house on my road without cable) I had s...
  • Matthew H Mosher: Give me a minute while I pick my jaw up off the floor....
  • JayS: Another of the Mentally Indigent self-identifies by spouting-off all of the tiresome Looney-Tunes, the sky-is-falling, end of the world, " the worst...

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