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The Many Lies of Ajit Pai About Net Neutrality

Pai

I’ve done a LOT of interviews and talk shows on the issue of Net Neutrality over the last two weeks. After listening to the talking point-festooned “experts” and show hosts with a political agenda, your listeners, readers, and I will not be gaslighted by the exceptionally ridiculous condescension campaign now underway by Net Neutrality opponents.

For those who don’t know, “gaslighting” refers to manipulating someone into questioning or second-guessing their beliefs by distorting facts, attempting to delegitimize evidence with falsehoods, confusing the issues, and suggesting one lacks credibility to speak or write on an issue… because they said so.

Fortunately, when these “facts” come from a cable/telco bought-and-paid-for policy institute or lobbyist, it is easy to identify these campaigns and debunk them. It is also entertaining to turn the tables by questioning the source of their talking points and the agendas in play. We always ask these individuals where the money comes from for their “policy institute” and the answers are always not revealing. For the record, Stop the Cap! doesn’t accept corporate donations, period. We accept contributions exclusively from individuals. It takes just a few seconds to explain our funding while the other side takes minutes tap-dancing around the corporate dark money that funds their efforts.

Phillip Dampier: Don’t gaslight me, bro!

Thankfully, there have been a lot of newspaper reporters taking time to understand the issues and have shown professionalism in their reporting. But some radio talk show hosts unfortunately don’t do as well and rely on short-sighted political positioning, “rescue” their cornered allies with convenient commercial breaks, interrupt, or change the subject with baited questions when the facts don’t go their way. Net Neutrality is NOT a conservative or liberal issue, but some attempt to make it one by injecting President Barack Obama’s name into the debate or claim Net Neutrality represents government control of the internet.

Speaking of facts, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s latest arguments for his Christmas gift repeal of Net Neutrality for the telecom industry uses similar gaslighting and false talking points that distract from a fact-based debate on these issues.

As millions of consumers express outrage over Pai’s unbending agenda to allow internet service providers to create an unlevel internet playing field and paid prioritization fast lanes that favor some content over others (as long as they disclose it), Pai and his staff are now resorting to calling Americans who favor the current free and open internet “desperate” or ignorant about how the internet works.

But you know more than you think, reminded each month (when the bill arrives) of the special ability of companies like Comcast to abuse the customer relationship with skyrocketing rates, data caps, and unhelpful customer service. Giving companies like this more ways to charge you more for the same service has never worked to your advantage.

Net Neutrality is one of only a few tools available to the FCC to keep ISPs in check. Banning data caps and zero rating schemes would be another great way to protect consumers from Wall Street’s insatiable demand for companies to extract more revenue from consumers. Investors know full well in a monopoly/duopoly marketplace there is every incentive to gouge and very little risk of losing customers doing so.

Our friends at Free Press did considerable research to debunk some of Mr. Pai’s talking points in a long series of tweets we thought would be illuminating:

Wall Street Uneasy About Future 5G Broadband Competition; Ponders Idea of 5G Monopolies

Super monopoly?

Some Wall Street analysts are pondering ideas on how to limit forthcoming 5G wireless home broadband, suggesting providers might want to set up local monopolies, keeping competition to a minimum and profits to a maximum.

Verizon’s presentation at its annual Analyst Day meeting drew little praise from analysts and investors in attendance, “landing like a thud” to quote one person at the event.

The issue concerning Wall Street is what impact 5G wireless broadband will have on the internet access marketplace, which is currently a comfortable monopoly or duopoly in most American cities. That may radically change if the country’s four wireless companies each launch their own 5G services, designed to replace wired home broadband services from the cable and phone companies.

This week Verizon formally announced Sacramento would be the first city in the country to get its forthcoming 5G service, with an additional four of five unnamed cities to follow sometime next year.

Verizon will advertise 1,000Mbps service that will be “priced competitively” with current internet providers in the market. But Verizon intends to market itself as “a premium provider,” which means pricing is likely to be higher than one might expect. Verizon claims they intend to roll out 5G service to 30 million households — 25-30% of the country, making Verizon a prominent provider of fixed wireless home broadband service.

But analysts panned Verizon’s presentation for raising more questions than the company was prepared to answer. Barron’s shared the views of several analysts who were underwhelmed.

Notably, Craig Moffett from Moffett-Nathanson was particularly concerned about how to rate 5G service for his investor clients, and more importantly to them, how to forecast revenue and profit.

Moffett

The biggest problem for Moffett is the prospect of additional competition, and what that will do to each current (and future) provider’s share of customers and its revenue. If every major wireless carrier enters the 5G home broadband business, that will raise the prospective number of ISPs available to consumers to six or more — four wireless carriers competing with the phone and cable company. That is potentially very dangerous to big profits, especially if a competitive price war emerges.

“Let’s assume that AT&T is just as aggressive about this opportunity as Verizon,” Moffett told his investor clients. “Will they enter the same markets as Verizon, or different ones? […] If multiple players enter each market, all targeting the same 25-30% [where 5G service will be sold]. Well, what then? Let’s suppose the 30% market share estimate is right. Wouldn’t it be now shared among two, three, or even four [5G fixed wireless broadband] providers?”

Moffett gently proposes a concept where this profit-bruising competition can be abated by following the cable television model — companies agree to stay out of each others’ markets, giving consumers a choice of just one 5G provider in each city instead of four.

“There’s a completely different future where each operator targets different markets […] Let’s say that AT&T decides to skip Sacramento. After all, Verizon will have gotten there first,” Moffett suggests. “If the required share of the [fixed wireless] market is close to Verizon’s estimated 30%, then there is only room for one provider. So AT&T decides to do Stockton, about 40 miles to the south. Verizon would then skip Stockton, but might do Modesto, twenty miles further south… and then AT&T would then skip Modesto and instead target Fresno… unless Sprint or T-Mobile got there first.”

But Moffett is thinking even further ahead, by suggesting wireless carriers might be able to stop spending billions on building and expanding their competing 4G LTE networks when they could all share a single provider’s network in each city. That idea could work if providers agreed to creating local monopolies.

“That would create a truly bizarre market dynamic that is almost unimaginable today, where each operator ‘owned’ different cities, not just for [5G] but also for 4G LTE. If this kind of patchwork were to come to pass, the only viable solution might then be for companies to reciprocally wholesale their networks. You can use mine in Modesto if I can use yours in Fresno. To state the obvious, there is almost no imaginable path to that kind of an outcome today.”

The reason providers have not attempted this kind of “one provider” model in the past is because former FCC commissioners would have never supported the idea of retiring wireless competition and creating a cable monopoly-like model for wireless service. But things have changed dramatically with the advent of Chairman Ajit Pai, who potentially could be sold on the idea of granting local monopolies on the theory it will “speed 5G deployment” to a large number of different cities. Just as independent wireless providers lease access on the four largest carriers today (MVNO agreements), AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint could sell wholesale access to their networks to each other, allowing massive cost savings, which may or may not be passed on to customers.

But it would also bring an end to network redundancy, create capacity problems, and require every carrier to be certain their networks were interoperable with other wireless companies. The federal government’s emergency first responder program also increasingly depends on a wireless network AT&T is building that would give them first priority access to wireless services. How that would work in a city “designated” to get service from Verizon is unclear.

Restricting competition would protect profits and sharing networks would slash expenses. But such prospects were not enough to assuage Wall Street’s insatiable hunger for maximum profits. That is why analysts were unimpressed with Verizon’s presentation, which “lacked the financials” — precise numbers that explain how much the network will cost, how quickly it will be paid off, and how much revenue it can earn for investors.

A small cell attached to a light pole.

Verizon did sell investors on the idea 5G will put an end to having to wire fiber optics to every home. The service will also keep costs to a minimum by selling retail activation kits customers will install themselves — avoiding expensive truck rolls. Billing and account activation will also be self-service.

Verizon also announced a new compact 4G/5G combined antenna, which means 5G service can be supplied through existing macro/small cell 4G equipment. Verizon will be able to supplement that network by adding new 5G nodes where it becomes necessary.

Investor expectations are that 5G will cost substantially less than fiber to the home service, will not cost massive amounts of new investment dollars to deploy in addition to maintaining existing 4G services, will not substantially undercut existing providers, and will allow Verizon to market 21st century broadband speeds to its customers bypassed for FiOS fiber service. It will also threaten rural phone companies, where customers could easily replace slow speed DSL in favor of what Verizon claims will be “gigabit wireless.”

Despite that, Instinet’s Jeffrey Kvaal was not wowed by Verizon’s look to the future.

“Verizon’s initial fixed wireless implementation seems clunky and it withheld its pricing strategy,” Kvaal told his clients. He believes fixed wireless broadband will cost Verizon an enormous amount of money he feels would be better spent on Verizon’s mobile network. “Verizon glossed over 5-10x LTE upgrades that are already offering ~100Mbps of fully mobile service at current prices to current phones without line of sight. A better 5G story might be to free up sufficient LTE capacity to boost the unlimited cap from 25GB to 100GB for, say, a $25 premium. The ‘cut the cord’ concept was successful in voice, in video, and should be in broadband.”

Jangling Shiny Keys of Distraction: Pai Claims Twitter, Edge Providers are the Real Threat to Open Internet

Pai

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has gone all out to defend internet service providers and his plan to jettison Net Neutrality, claiming companies like Twitter and other “edge providers” that offer a platform to a diversity of voices are a much bigger threat to an open internet than companies like AT&T and Comcast.

Speaking at the Future of Internet Freedom conference in Washington, Pai faced down the torrent of criticism that has been expressed about his plans to roll back Title II enforcement of ISPs and Net Neutrality rules that protect internet content from discriminatory behavior. In remarks to the audience, Pai used partisan framing to criticize companies like Twitter that he claims have targeted bans on conservative users who violate its terms and conditions and removes tweets for political reasons.

“Now look, I love Twitter, and I use it all the time,” Pai said. “But let’s not kid ourselves; when it comes to an open internet, Twitter is part of the problem. The company has a viewpoint and uses that viewpoint to discriminate. As just one of many examples, two months ago, Twitter blocked Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) from advertising her Senate campaign launch video because it featured a pro-life message. Before that, during the so-called Day of Action [to preserve Net Neutrality], Twitter warned users that a link to a statement by one company on the topic of internet regulation ‘may be unsafe.’  And to say the least, the company appears to have a double standard when it comes to suspending or de-verifying conservative users’ accounts as opposed to those of liberal users.  This conduct is many things, but it isn’t fighting for an open internet.”

Pai also used additional examples of “edge provider” censorship that he claims targets conservatives far more often than liberals:

  • Apple’s app store bars apps from cigar aficionados as promoting tobacco use
  • YouTube “restricts videos from the likes of conservative commentator Dennis Prager on subjects he considers ‘important to understanding American values.'”
  • Mysterious algorithms target content to specific users but without transparency and disclosure
  • Edge providers champion their own free speech while supporting online censorship at the behest of foreign governments for business reasons.

But Pai’s own statements lacked transparency:

  1. Twitter blocked, then rescinded its block, on one sponsored Tweet from Blackburn that claimed in the ad she ‘stopped the sale of baby body parts.’ Twitter declared the ad was inflammatory and violated Twitter’s advertising standards. Other media fact-checkers were less polite, calling her claim false advertising. “No investigation ever found proof of actual tissue sales. The only criminal charges stemming from the videos were filed against antiabortion activist David Daleiden and another activist in California for violations of privacy. Yet to this day, ‘baby body parts’ remain a rallying cry in conservative and antiabortion circles,” according to a Washington Post story. Twitter’s advertising standards differ from its general code of user conduct.
  2. Apple’s app store does indeed block apps promoting products deemed harmful to users. There is no financial incentive to block these apps, however. The specific language: “Apps that encourage consumption of tobacco products, illegal drugs, or excessive amounts of alcohol are not permitted on the App Store. Apps that encourage minors to consume any of these substances will be rejected. Facilitating the sale of marijuana, tobacco, or controlled substances (except for licensed pharmacies) isn’t allowed.”
  3. Pai suggests YouTube is unfairly restricting Mr. Prager’s videos, but in fact it is only placing advisories on some of his more inflammatory content warning the video may not be suitable for some audiences. YouTube also demonetized certain videos, making them ineligible for pre-roll advertisements, primarily because advertisers do not want to be associated with inflammatory content. But no videos have been censored, blocked, or removed. Anyone can view them by acknowledging the content advisory. Members of the LGBTQ community have also been upset with YouTube for similar actions, so there is scant evidence YouTube’s motives are political and target conservatives.
  4. Pai’s ‘mysterious algorithms’ have existed across the internet for years, including Verizon’s “super cookie” and AT&T that extracted more money from customers to switch off its monitoring and tracking software following customers’ internet usage. Pai was highly instrumental in blocking internet privacy regulations that would have forced the kind of disclosure of practices he suddenly objects to now.
  5. Pai’s claims about American companies caving in to foreign governments’ censorship policies seem to echo his similar 2015 claim that Net Neutrality also helps authoritarian regimes, as long as one interprets Net Neutrality as a “government takeover” of the internet. “If in the United States we adopt regulations that assert more government control over how the internet operates… it becomes a lot more difficult for us to go on the international stage and tell governments: ‘Look, we want you to keep your hands off the internet. Even if the ideas aren’t completely identical, you can appreciate the optical difficult[y] in trying to make that case,” Pai said. But that argument distorts like a fun house mirror. Pai’s declaration that Net Neutrality is a bad thing is based on his premise it would hand the keys to information control to the government to act as gatekeeper. He prefers trusting private companies to be more reliable and safer gatekeepers than the FCC or the Trump Administration. But that argument puts Pai at war with himself, considering his attacks on edge providers — private companies — for bias and censorship. Incidentally and ironically, he raised many of his 2015 objections on RT — the external television service of Russian State Television.

Pai reserved much of his remarks to attack Hollywood celebrities that occasionally inelegantly promote Net Neutrality with inexact language Pai loves to exploit. Among his targets were Mark Ruffalo, who played Hulk, Cher, and George “Sulu” Takei.

Takei

Pai called out Mr. Takei for his suggestion eliminating Net Neutrality would allow internet companies to further monetize the internet by selling additional packages of services to access certain internet content.

“The complaint by Mr. Takei and others doesn’t hold water. They’re arguing that if the plan is adopted, Internet Service Providers would suddenly start doing something that Net Neutrality rules already allow them to do. But the reason that Internet service providers aren’t offering such packages now, and likely won’t offer such packages in the future, is that American consumers by and large don’t want them.”

But of course that didn’t prevent ISPs like Comcast and AT&T to impose data caps on their customers with scant evidence of their necessity and with purely arbitrary allowances. From this regime of data caps, Wall Street analysts push providers to further monetize internet usage to raise revenue to return to shareholders. What customers want has not had much impact on Comcast’s business decisions, as the record on data caps illustrates. The threat of regulation like Net Neutrality enforcement has cooled enthusiasm for these pricing schemes, however, until recently. In April, after Mr. Pai introduced his Net Neutrality repeal plan, Comcast quietly repealed its self-ban on paid prioritization — internet fast lanes.

In a barely competitive marketplace, what customers want may not count for much if they have few, if any alternatives.

Chip Pickering, CEO of INCOMPAS, which includes as member major Silicon Valley edge providers, called Pai’s speech a diversion from the real issues.

“Chairman Pai’s attack on Twitter is like a boxer losing a fight and taking wild and erratic swings,” Pickering said. “Preventing hate speech and bullying behavior online is not the same thing as allowing cable companies to block, throttle and extort money from consumers and the websites they love. Twitter is an amazing platform for left, right and center. Donald Trump might not be President without it, and Chairman Pai’s plan to kill Net Neutrality will put Comcast and AT&T in charge of his Twitter account.”

The Great Telecom Merger Carousel: Altice <-> Sprint <-> T-Mobile <-> Charter

A last-ditch effort last weekend by executives of SoftBank and Deutsche Telekom to overcome their differences in merging Sprint with T-Mobile USA ended in failure, killing Wall Street’s hopes combining the two scrappiest wireless carriers would end a bruising price war that had heated up competition and hurt profits at all four of America’s leading wireless companies.

Now Wall Street, hungry for a consolidation deal, is strategizing what will come next.

Sprint/T-Mobile Merger

In the end, SoftBank’s chairman, Masayoshi Son, simply did not want to give up control of Sprint to Deutsche Telekom, especially considering Sprint’s vast wireless spectrum holdings suitable for future 5G wireless services.

The failure caused Sprint Corp. shares and bonds to plummet, and spooked investors are worried Sprint’s decade-long inability to earn a profit won’t end anytime soon. Sprint’s 2010 Network Vision Plan, which promised better coverage and network performance, also helped to load the company with debt, nearly half of which Sprint has to pay back over the next four years before it becomes due. Sprint’s perpetual upgrades have not tremendously improved its network coverage or performance, and its poor performance ratings have caused many customers to look elsewhere for wireless service.

Investors are also concerned Sprint will struggle to pay its current debts at the same time it faces new ones from investments in next generation 5G wireless technology. Scared shareholders have been comforted this morning by both Son and Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure in an all-out damage control campaign.

Son has promised the now-orphaned Sprint will benefit from an increased stake in the company by SoftBank — a signal to investors SoftBank is tying itself closer to Sprint. Son has also promised additional investments to launch yet another wave of network upgrades for Sprint’s fourth place network. But nothing is expected to change very quickly for customers, who may be in for a rough ride for the immediate future. Son has already said his commitment to raise Sprint’s capital expenditures from the current $3.5-4 billion to $5-6 billion annually will not begin this year. Analysts claim Sprint needs at least $5-6 billion annually to invest in network improvements if it ever hopes to catch up to T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon Wireless.

Masayoshi Son, chairman of SoftBank Group

“Even if the next three-four years will be a tough battle, five to 10 years later it will be clear that this is a strategically invaluable business,’’ Son said, lamenting losing control of that business in a deal with T-Mobile was simply impossible. “There was just a line we couldn’t cross, and that’s how we arrived at the conclusion.”

During a call with analysts on Monday, Sprint’s chief financial officer Tarek Robbiati acknowledged investors’ disappointment.

Investors were hoping for an end to deep discounting and perks given to attract new business. T-Mobile’s giveaways and discounting have reduced the company’s profitability. Sprint’s latest promotions, including giving away service for up to a year, were seen by analysts as desperate.

Son’s own vision plan doesn’t dwell on the short-term, mapping out SoftBank’s progress over the next 300 years. But for now, Son is concerned with supporting the investments already made in the $100 billion Vision Fund Son has built with Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth-fueled Public Investment Fund. Its goal is to lead in the field of next generation wireless communications networks. Sprint is expected to be a springboard for those investments in the United States, supported by the wireless company’s huge 2.5GHz spectrum holdings, which may be perfect for 5G wireless networks.

But Son’s own failures are also responsible for Sprint’s current plight. Son attempted to cover his losses in Sprint by pursuing a merger with T-Mobile in 2014, but the merger fell apart when it became clear the Obama Administration’s regulators were unlikely to approve the deal. After that deal fell apart, Son has allowed T-Mobile to overtake Sprint’s third place position in the wireless market. While T-Mobile grew from 53 million customers to 70.7 million today, Sprint lost one million customers, dropping to fourth place with around 54 million current customers.

Son’s answer to the new competition was to change top management. Incoming Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure promptly launched a massive cost-cutting program and layoffs, and upgrade-oriented investments in Sprint’s network stagnated, causing speeds and performance to decline.

Claure tweetstormed damage control messages about the merger’s collapse, switching from promoting the merger’s benefits to claims of relief the merger collapsed:

  • “Jointly stopping merger talks was right move.”
  • Sprint is a vital part of a larger SoftBank strategy involving the Vision Fund, Arm, OneWeb and other strategic investments.”
  • “Excited about Sprint’s future as a standalone. I’m confident this is right decision for our shareholders, customers & employees.”
  • “Sprint added over 1 million customers last year – we have gone from losing to winning.”
  • “Last quarter we delivered an estimated 22% of industry postpaid phone gross additions, our highest share ever.”
  • “Sprint network performance is at best ever levels – 33% improvement in nationwide data speeds year over year.”
  • “We are planning significant investments to the Sprint network this year and the years to come.”
  • “In the last 3 years we’ve reduced our costs by over $5 billion.”
  • “Sprint’s results are the best we’ve achieved in a decade and we will continue getting better every day.”

In Saturday’s joint announcement, Claure said that “while we couldn’t reach an agreement to combine our companies, we certainly recognize the benefits of scale through a potential combination. However, we have agreed that it is best to move forward on our own. We know we have significant assets, including our rich spectrum holdings, and are accelerating significant investments in our network to ensure our continued growth.”

“They need to spend (more) money on the network,” said William Ho, an analyst at 556 Ventures LLC.

CNBC reports Sprint’s end of its T-Mobile merger deal has hammered the company’s stock. What does Sprint do now? (1:30)

Sprint/Altice Partnership

Sprint executives hurried out word on ‘Damage Control’ Monday that Altice USA would partner with Sprint to resell wireless service under the Altice brand. In return for the partnership, Sprint will be able to use Altice’s fiber network in Cablevision’s service area in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut for its cell towers and future 5G small cells. The deal closely aligns to Comcast and Charter’s deal with Verizon allowing those cable operators to create their own cellular brands powered by Verizon Wireless’ network.

An analyst at Cowen & Co., suspected the Altice deal may be a trial to test the waters with Sprint before Altice commits to a future merger between the two companies. Altice is hungry for expansion, currently owning Cablevision and Suddenlink cable operators in the U.S. But Altice has a very small footprint in the U.S., leading some analysts to believe a more lucrative merger might be possible elsewhere.

Sprint/Charter Merger

Charter Communications Logo. (PRNewsFoto/Charter Communications, Inc.)

Charter Communications stock was up more than 7% in early Monday morning trading as a result of speculation SoftBank and Charter Communications were restarting merger talks after a deal with T-Mobile collapsed.

CNBC reported that Mr. Son was willing to resume talks with Charter executives about a merger between the cable operator and Sprint. Charter executives have shown little interest in the deal, still distracted trying to merge their acquisitions Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks into Charter’s current operation. Charter’s entry into wireless has been more tentative, following Comcast with a partnership with Verizon Wireless to resell that considerably stronger network under the Charter brand beginning sometime in 2018.

According to CNBC, John Malone’s Liberty Media, which owns a 27% stake in Charter, is now in favor of a deal, while Charter’s top executives are still opposed.

CNBC reports Charter and Sprint may soon be talking again about a merger between the two. (6:33)

Dish Networks <-> T-Mobile USA

Wall Street’s merger-focused analysts are hungry for a deal now that the Sprint/T-Mobile merger has collapsed. Pivotal Research Group is predicting good things are possible for shareholders of Dish Network, and upgraded the stock to a “buy” recommendation this morning.

Jeff Wlodarczak, Pivotal’s CEO and senior media analyst, theorizes that Sprint’s merger collapse could be good news for Dish, sitting on a large amount of unused wireless spectrum suitable for 5G wireless networks. Those licenses, estimated to be worth $10 billion, are likely to rise in value as wireless companies look for suitable spectrum to deploy next generation 5G networks.

Multichannel News quotes Wlodarczak’s note to investors:

“In our opinion, post the T-Mobile-Sprint deal failure there is a reasonable chance that T-Mobile could make a play for Dish or Dish spectrum as it would immediately vault the most disruptive U.S. wireless player into the leading U.S. spectrum position (w/ substantially more spectrum than underpins Verizon’s “best in class” network),” Wlodarczak wrote. “This possible move could force Verizon to counter-bid for Dish spectrum (or possibly the entire company) as Dish spectrum is ideally suited for Verizon and to keep it out of T-Mobile’s hands.”

AT&T/DirecTV Buyout of Dish Network

Wlodarczak has also advised clients he believes the deregulation-friendly Trump Administration would not block the creation of a satellite TV monopoly, meaning AT&T should consider pairing its DirecTV service with an acquisition of Dish Networks’ satellite TV business, even if it forgoes Dish’s valuable wireless spectrum.

“AT&T, post their Time Warner deal, could (and frankly should) be interested in purchasing Dish’s core DBS business taking advantage of a potentially more laissez faire regulatory climate/emergence of V-MVPD’s, to significantly bolster their DirecTV business (and help to justify the original questionable DirecTV deal) by creating a SatTV monopoly in ~10-15M US households, increased programming scale and massive synergies at a likely very attractive price.”

Such a transaction would likely resemble the regulatory approval granted to merge XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio into SiriusXM Satellite Radio in 2008. Despite the merger, just months after its approval, the combined company neared bankruptcy until it was bailed out with a $530 million loan from John Malone’s Liberty Media in February 2009. Liberty Media maintains an active interest in the satellite radio company to this day.

Cable Listens to Wall Street: Standalone Broadband Pricing Heading for $80/Month

Phillip Dampier October 18, 2017 Competition, Consumer News 13 Comments

Cable operators that have watched their stocks get pounded after warning their third quarter earnings would reflect an undeniable trend towards cord-cutting are considering dramatically raising broadband-only pricing to $80 or more to protect profits.

Comcast is among the largest cable companies responding to repeated calls from Wall Street analysts to boost broadband pricing, hiking broadband-only rates to around $65 a month after a customer’s $40 promotional pricing offer expires. Charter Communications also hiked prices earlier this year to $65 a month for its entry-level 60 or 100Mbps package, with further rate increases expected in early 2018. But those incremental rate hikes are not enough to satisfy analysts who fear cable’s video earnings losses are already higher than the revenue gained from charging more for broadband service.

In a note to investors, Morgan Stanley said the cable industry’s efforts to jack up prices for those dropping video service have made some progress, noting most companies raised prices by 12% in 2017, establishing a new beachhead rate of $65 a month — the rate broadband-only customers should now expect to pay.

“As video revenue growth is increasingly pressured, leaning on data pricing is tempting to sustain earnings,” said Benjamin Swinburne, a Morgan Stanley analyst in a report.

But recent rate hikes don’t go far enough for some. Prices must rise at least another $15 a month to satisfy Jeffries analyst Mike McCormack and restore industry profits lost from cord-cutting. McCormack notes customers who have not canceled cable television are being insulated from the most dramatic rate hikes impacting cord-cutters, pointing out the average customer with a bundle of services now pays around $49 a month for broadband service — $16 less.

“Cable companies are likely to raise stand-alone broadband pricing in order to combat the EBITDA declines from downsizing,” said McCormack in a report. “This practice is already evident and justified given the lack of a bundling discount. Based on our analysis, we estimate Comcast would need to raise stand-alone pricing to roughly $80 in order to break even from a profitability perspective.”

Swinburne

Jonathan Chaplin, an analyst for New Street Research who has called on the cable industry to double broadband pricing for more than a year, thinks the marketplace is ripe for sweeping rate increases.

“We have argued that broadband is underpriced, given that pricing has barely increased over the past decade while broadband utility has exploded,” New Street said. “Our analysis suggested a ‘utility-adjusted’ ARPU target of ~$90. Comcast recently increased standalone broadband to $90 (including 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.”

Wall Street analysts typically use code language that avoids portraying the marketplace as a monopoly or barely-competitive duopoly, instead preferring to note there is little risk or headwind to prevent operators from boosting prices or using their large market share to their advantage. Chaplin argues that cable television is no longer to profit center it used to be — broadband is.

“In fact, the [free cash flow] lost from subs dropping pay-TV is generally recovered through higher [broadband] pricing,” said Chaplin.

Many analysts also argue that most of the proceeds collected from charging higher broadband prices should be used to buy back shares of stock or returned to shareholders, not used to upgrade or expand service. In fact, Wall Street is currently punishing Altice USA, sending its initial stock price from $30 a share to just $24.49 this week. One of the reasons for the fall is the money its Cablevision unit is spending to replace its coaxial cable network with fiber optics. AT&T’s stock has also suffered as the company continues to spend money on expanding its AT&T Fiber service while combating cord cutting with its U-verse and DirecTV services.

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