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

Drahi’s World

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

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

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

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

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

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

Competition Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Suddenlink/Cablevision Cash Machine

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

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

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

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

Comcast Boosting Speeds Across Central U.S.; Most Will Get 25-100Mbps Service

Phillip Dampier November 15, 2017 Broadband Speed, Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News 4 Comments

Comcast is raising broadband speeds across its expansive Central Division, which covers customers in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

  • Performance Starter (10Mbps) increases to 25Mbps;
  • Performance (25Mbps) will now be 60Mbps;
  • XFINITY Blast! (75Mbps) rises to 100Mbps.

Customers subscribed to the Performance tier will see the biggest speed jump, rising by more than double the current speed.

The new speeds are gradually rolling out to customers in these states from mid-November until mid-December. In some cases, customers will need to briefly unplug their cable modems to get the free speed upgrade.

 

Charter Signs Agreement With Viacom Restoring Its Cable Networks to Spectrum Select

Phillip Dampier November 15, 2017 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Online Video 1 Comment

Viacom and Charter Communications today announced a multi-year renewal of a carriage agreement that will bring back Viacom’s cable networks to almost all Spectrum cable television customers.

As part of the agreement, Charter has agreed to return Nickelodeon, BET, MTV, Comedy Central, Spike (Paramount Network), VH1, TV Land and CMT to Spectrum Select, Charter’s entry-level cable television tier. In 2016, Charter began moving Viacom’s cable networks to its most expensive tiers, Spectrum Silver or Gold, to protest Viacom’s high carriage prices. Most existing customers never realized the networks were moved because the company grandfathered current customers to keep the channels from disappearing. But as Bright House Networks and Time Warner Cable customers migrated to Spectrum packages, many were annoyed to learn Viacom’s networks were missing from the lineup of Spectrum’s most popular cable television tier. Customers had to pay at least $11 a month extra to get many of those networks back.

Charter indicated its agreement allows Spectrum to keep other Viacom-owned networks not mentioned above on its Silver or Gold tiers. The agreement also grants Charter customers access to Viacom networks’ on-demand programming through set-top boxes or mobile apps.

Viacom and Charter have also entered into a partnership for co-production of new original content that will exclusively premiere for subscribers on Charter’s platform in the U.S. Under the agreement, Viacom’s Paramount Television and Charter will jointly produce programming. Viacom will distribute the co-produced programming internationally, as well as in additional domestic markets, including potentially on Viacom Networks, after Charter’s premiere period.

Viacom has also agreed to collaborate on Charter’s forthcoming effort to crackdown on unauthorized password sharing, allowing non-cable subscribers access to programming using a friend or family member’s Spectrum account details.

FCC Approves GCI Acquisition By John Malone’s Liberty Interactive With No Conditions

The Federal Communications Commission has quietly approved the acquisition of Alaska’s largest cable operator by John Malone’s Liberty Interactive with no deal conditions or consumer protections, despite fears the merger will lead to monopoly abuse.

The purchase of Alaska’s General Communications Inc. (GCI) in an all-stock deal valued at $1.12 billion was announced in April 2017. GCI currently offers cable TV and broadband service to 108,000 customers across Alaska, and runs a wireless company.

“We conclude that granting the applications serves the public interest,” the FCC wrote. “After thoroughly reviewing the proposed transaction and the record in this proceeding, we conclude that applicants are fully qualified to transfer control of the licenses and authorizations […] and that the transaction is unlikely to result in public interest harms.”

Various groups and Alaska’s largest phone company petitioned the FCC to deny the merger, claiming GCI’s existing predatory and discriminatory business practices would “continue and worsen upon consummation of the deal.”

Malone

Those objecting to the merger claimed GCI already has monopoly control over broadband-capable middle-mile facilities in “many locations in rural Alaska” and that GCI has refused to allow other service providers wholesale access to that network on “reasonable” terms. They also claimed GCI received substantial taxpayer funds to offer service in Alaska, but in turn charges monopoly rates to schools, libraries, and rural health care providers, as well as residential customers.

Essentially quoting from Liberty’s arguments countering the accusations, the FCC completely dismissed opponents’ claims, noting that Liberty does not provide service in Alaska, meaning there are no horizontal competitive effects that would allow GCI Liberty to control access to more facilities than it does now. On the contrary, the FCC ruled, the merger with a larger company meant the acquisition was good for Alaska.

“Rather than eliminating a potential competitor from the marketplace or combining adjacent entities in a manner that increases their ability to resist third-party competition, […] [this] transaction results in GCI becoming part of a diversified parent entity that will provide more resources for its existing Alaska operations.”

The FCC also rejected claims GCI engages in monopolistic, anti-competitive behavior, ruling that past claims of charging above-market prices are “not a basis for denying the proposed transaction because the allegations are non transaction-specific.”

“Although ACS [Alaska’s largest telephone company] claims that the transaction will exacerbate the behavior it finds objectionable, we see no reason to assume that GCI will have greater ability or incentive to discriminate against rivals in Alaska simply because it has access to more financial resources,” the FCC ruled. “To the contrary, the Commission has generally found that a transaction that could result in a licensee having access to greater resources from a larger company promotes competition, potentially resulting in greater innovation and reduced prices for consumers.”

GCI’s current internet plans are considered more expensive and usage capped than other providers.

In almost every instance, the FCC order approving the merger was in full and complete agreement with the arguments raised by Liberty Interactive in favor of the deal. This also allowed the FCC to reject in full any deal conditions that would have resulted in open access to GCI’s network on fair terms and a requirement to charge public institutions the same rates GCI charges its own employees and internal businesses.

The FCC also accepted at face value Liberty’s arguments that as a larger, more diversified company, it can invest in and operate GCI more reliably than its existing owners can.

“We find that this is likely to provide some benefit to consumers,” the FCC ruled. But the agency also noted that because Liberty executives did not specify that the deal will result in specific, additional deal commitments, “the amount of anticipated service improvements that are likely to result from the […] transaction are difficult to quantify.”

The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission earlier approved the merger deal. Most analysts expect the new company, GCI Liberty, exists only to allow Malone to structure the merger with little or no owed tax. Most anticipate that after the merger is complete, the company will be eventually turned over to Charter Communications, where it will operate under the Spectrum brand.

AT&T CEO Denies Anyone in Government Asked Him to Sell CNN

Stephenson

AT&T’s top executive has found himself uncomfortably caught in a political fracas pitting Trump loyalists who want to punish CNN, career staffers that claim they are genuinely concerned about the media concentration that would result from AT&T’s multi-billion dollar acquisition of Time Warner, Inc., and Trump critics rushing to defend whatever they perceive the administration is against.

A frustrated Randall Stephenson, AT&T chairman and CEO, appeared at The New York Times Dealbook Conference in New York Thursday to talk about his astonishment that the company’s merger has become a public political hot potato that theorizes on President Donald Trump’s active dislike of CNN and opponents of the president who suspect the Trump Administration is attempting to punish the news media for its negative coverage of the president.

“I have never been told that the price of getting the deal done was selling CNN, period. And likewise I have never offered to sell CNN,” Stephenson said, refuting rumors that emerged in a Financial Times piece on Wednesday that claimed AT&T would have to dump CNN to get its merger deal approved. “There is absolutely no intention that we would ever sell CNN.”

While repeatedly stressing his conversations with the Department of Justice were strictly confidential, Stephenson was willing to publicly deny that CNN was ever discussed as part of the merger review. Stephenson was not so willing to comment on rumors the DoJ was seeking a divestiture of DirecTV, which AT&T acquired for $48.5 billion in 2014.

Stephenson declared it “makes no sense” to sell CNN or Turner Broadcasting, the Time Warner-owned division that runs TBS, CNN, Headline News, TNT and other cable channels.

“There is a lot of information and data that we think can be used to stand up a new advertising business,” Stephenson said. “Pairing that with the Turner advertising inventory is a really powerful thing, we believe. That is what we aspire to do. Selling CNN makes no sense in that context.”

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson: ‘I have never been told that the price of getting a deal done was selling CNN’ from CNBC. (2:19)

The political backlash that has since emerged may actually help AT&T’s PR effort to win approval of the deal as Trump critics now rush to defend AT&T as a victim of presidential authoritarianism.

Bloomberg News published an editorial this afternoon calling for the merger to be approved just to stick it to the Trump Administration:

You don’t have to be a fan of the merger to realize that there is something seriously wrong here. As others have noted, the merger appears to be in trouble for a worrisome reason: President Donald Trump hates CNN and wants to inflict some punishment.

That Trump has long opposed the merger is hardly a secret. During his campaign, he said that if AT&T and Time Warner were allowed to combine it would “destroy democracy.” He put out a campaign statement vowing to “break up the new media conglomerate oligopolies” that “are attempting to unduly influence America’s political process.”

As for his antipathy towards CNN, it’s been a running subplot ever since he decided to run for president. He bashed the station all through the campaign and hasn’t let up as president, accusing it of being one of the media outlets that trafficks in “fake news.” A few months ago, he shockingly tweeted an image of a train running over a CNN reporter.

Trump has every right to oppose the deal and to criticize CNN; as they say, it’s a free country. But he doesn’t have the right to bend the Justice Department to his will. Yet that appears to be what is happening. That antitrust expert who said last year that the deal didn’t pose any problems? Makan Delrahim is now the head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division. And wouldn’t you know it: He’s suddenly had a change of heart about the antitrust implications of the deal.

[…] It is appalling that the Justice Department’s antitrust department appears poised to do Trump’s bidding. The good news is that AT&T has vowed to go to court if the government tries to block the merger. So far, the judiciary has been the branch of government that has stood up to the president’s authoritarian impulses. I never thought I would be rooting for two very big companies to combine into one giant company, but I am. If the AT&T-Time Warner merger goes through, it will mean that the rule of law has won. At least for now.

AT&T couldn’t be luckier if the deal becomes a referendum on whether the Trump Administration is opposing the deal as part of a personal political dispute. Suggesting it is “good news” for AT&T to go to court to win its merger may make AT&T feel better, but ordinary consumers and ratepayers are once again forgotten in the debate over media consolidation.

AT&T CEO Randal Stephenson: Sale of CNN never came up with Department of Justice from CNBC. (5:45)

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