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Sprint Admits Its Network Not Fit for Purpose, Struggles to Keep Up With Competitors

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Executives from Sprint Corp testified on Monday that the U.S. wireless carrier has struggled to improve its network, hindering its growth and underscoring the need to merge with larger rival T-Mobile US Inc.

U.S. state attorneys general, led by New York and California, are suing to stop the merger.

The states seek to prove in Manhattan federal court that the deal between the No. 3 and No. 4 wireless carriers would raise prices, particularly for users on prepaid plans. The state attorneys general, all Democrats, asked Judge Victor Marrero to order the companies to abandon the deal.

Sprint Chief Marketing Officer Roger Solé testified that the company’s strategy for enticing customers from competitors included slashing prices.

But he said the promotion’s “early success faded away pretty soon” due to customers having a negative experience with Sprint’s network quality.

In an effort to show how competition lowered prices, the states presented evidence that when Sprint introduced an aggressive promotion in 2016 to offer phone plans comparable to those of Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, T-Mobile’s MetroPCS prepaid brand immediately lowered prices on its plans.

The evidence is central to the states’ argument that Sprint and T-Mobile as standalone companies force competition between carriers, providing the best deal for consumers.

Solé

Solé

Lawyers for the states also presented evidence suggesting Sprint wanted a deal so more money could be earned from each customer.

In WhatsApp messages from 2017 between Solé and Marcelo Claure, who was then CEO of Sprint, Solé suggested a merger with T-Mobile could raise Sprint’s average revenue per user by $5.

In his deposition before the trial, Solé said he was simply offering a thought that price increases could happen “very far down the road.”

The companies argue that the stronger T-Mobile that would result from the proposed $26.5 billion takeover would be better able to innovate and compete to reduce wireless prices. The case represents a break with the usual process of states coordinating with the federal government in reviewing mergers and generally coming to a joint conclusion.

The deal had been contemplated in 2014 during the Obama administration, but the Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission urged the companies to drop it, which they did.

The Trump administration signed off on it after the companies agreed to sell Sprint’s prepaid businesses, popular with people with poor credit, to satellite television company Dish Network Corp.

But setting up DISH as a wireless carrier is “patently insufficient to mitigate the merger’s competitive harm,” the states argued in a court filing.

Deutsche Telekom CEO Timotheus Höttges, whose company is the largest shareholder of T-Mobile, will testify on Tuesday.

Reporting by Diane Bartz and Sheila Dang; Additional reporting by Brendan Pierson; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Nick Zieminski and Dan Grebler

China Well Ahead of U.S. in Fiber Deployment; Lack of U.S. Competition Responsible for Lag

China is outpacing the U.S. in fiber broadband expansion. (Image: Broadband Now)

At least 86% of China now has access to fiber broadband connectivity after six years of aggressive fiber optic network expansion, putting the United States at a significant disadvantage.

Only 25% of the United States is served by fiber service, creating a giant digital divide that leaves most Americans without fiber high speed broadband. That is the finding of Broadband Now, which summarized the results of its investigation in an article published this week, blaming the country’s reliance on deregulated monopoly/duopoly telecom companies for much of the problem.

“While America continues to suffer from an immense digital divide, China’s government has made incredible progress building out a state-sponsored super network of fiber optic connections. This infrastructure will allow the country to take early advantage of some of the most impactful applications resulting from the fourth industrial revolution,” Broadband Now reports.

Chinese state policy has emphasized the importance of deploying modern telecommunications networks, including fiber-to-the-home and 5G wireless service. The Chinese central government is spending billions to build a core public broadband network, which providers can lease to offer service to their customers. U.S. providers rely on private investment that depends on a financial formula to determine if fiber upgrades will deliver a competitive advantage or a potential for robust profits.

Broadband Now notes that most U.S. providers face little significant competition — “a difficult proposition to justify installing robust fiber networks, especially in less populous areas of the U.S.”

The “return on investment” formula is also responsible for the lack of rural broadband access, a problem the Chinese government solved by directly subsidizing the construction of fiber networks across the country, deeming high speed connectivity a national priority. As a result, 96% of rural Chinese villages now have access to fast internet service.

Broadband Now advocates for more aggressive fiber broadband deployment in the United States, including policies that promote fiber expansion and reduce deployment costs. For example, Broadband Now believes that a national “dig once” policy that would require fiber optic conduit to be installed wherever roadway projects are undertaken could allow providers quick and inexpensive access to deploy fiber technology. The group estimates that nationwide fiber expansion costs could be reduced from $140 billion to $14 billion if dig once policies were the national standard.

Chinese fiber deployment has already laid a foundation for China to outpace the United States in the race to deploy 5G wireless networks. Fiber connections are required to power gigabit speed small cells integral to millimeter wave 5G services. With China well ahead of the U.S. in fiber deployment, the country is poised to rapidly expand 5G wireless service.

Hulu + Live TV Hiking Rates $10/Mo; Most Customers Will Pay $55 a Month for Live TV Streaming

Phillip Dampier November 18, 2019 Competition, Consumer News, Hulu, Online Video No Comments

Hulu + Live TV is celebrating its successful signup of over an estimated 2.7 million customers with a major rate increase the company says reflects the service’s true value in the marketplace.

Most customers will see their subscription price increase by $10 a month, from $45 to $55 a month.

“Today, we’re letting customers know that the monthly base price of Hulu + Live TV will increase to $54.99, beginning December 18,” the company wrote in a blog post. “The new price better reflects the substantial value of Hulu + Live TV and allows us to continue offering all of the popular live news, sports and entertainment programming included in the plan.”

Craig Moffett, a chief analyst at MoffettNathanson, told readers of his Cord Cutting Monitor quarterly newsletter that Hulu + Live TV, which combines Hulu’s on demand plan with a selection of about 60 streaming live TV networks, is likely America’s largest cable TV replacement service, topping Sling TV’s estimated 2.686 million customers.

Moffett also reported that cord cutting is becoming a more costly proposition.

“Eighteen months ago, the cheapest video packages for vMVPDs were clustered around $30 to $35 per month,” Moffett wrote. “Eighteen months later, most are in the $45 to $50 per month range, an increase of roughly 50%.”

Cable One’s Costly Internet Service Helps Cable Company Achieve Record Profits

Phillip Dampier November 12, 2019 Cable One, Competition, Consumer News, Data Caps 1 Comment

Using a combination of lack of competition, high-priced service plans, and data caps, Cable One is once again the nation’s most profitable cable broadband provider, charging residential customers a record-breaking average of $72.09 a month.

Late last week, the country’s fifth largest cable company reported excellent results to its shareholders, as the company collected the proceeds from increasing rates on broadband service while shedding unprofitable cable television customers.

Cable One serves small and mid-sized cities, mostly in the mid-south, Rockies, New Mexico and Arizona. It has grown larger with the acquisition of NewWave and Fidelity Communications, and told investors on a quarterly results conference call the company would take some of its recent gains and move towards further acquisitions in the near future. NewWave customers will now face Cable One’s stiff data caps, rolling out across legacy NewWave service areas in November and December. NewWave customers have already found their cable television package pruned back to match the current Cable One package, which omits Viacom-owned networks. The same will hold true for Fidelity’s customers once the two companies merge systems.

 

Laulis

Revenues for the third quarter were $285 million compared to $268.3 million at the same time last year, representing a 6.2% increase. Even with the high cost of service, the number of Cable One internet customers is increasing, primarily because competing phone companies typically offer little beyond DSL. In the last quarter, Cable One added 7,400 new internet customers and boosted broadband revenue by 8.2%.

“Cable One still has one of the industry’s lowest broadband penetration of homes passed at just 32.2% and, with limited fiber-based competition, their ceiling is arguably one of the highest in the industry,” Moffett Nathanson analyst Craig Moffett told investors. “They are at last growing the broadband business at a rate fast enough to drive meaningfully higher penetration.”

Cable One makes no secret it now calls itself a broadband company and has been de-emphasizing cable television service over the last few years. In fact, customers who cut the cord are doing Cable One a favor because broadband-only customers boost their overall profit margins. Unlike cable television, where licensing expenses are growing, the cost to provide and support broadband service is dropping — even as Cable One raises internet pricing and constrains customer usage with industry-low data caps. That forces customers to upgrade to more costly, higher speed service plans to get a larger data allowance. Cable One also offers a $40/mo add-on that restores unlimited service, which is popular with their premium customers. Once a customer uses more than 5 TB, their speed is throttled.

“I think the interesting thing that I took note of is that the higher [the] speed that our consumer takes the higher the percentage of unlimited [plan] selling. So that is to say if you take our gig service the percentage of customers that take unlimited there is the highest of any consumer group,” noted Cable One CEO Julia M. Laulis.

Pricing is expected to rise further unless phone companies compete with fiber broadband, an unlikely scenario in the rural and exurban areas Cable One serves.

Analyst Predicts More Streaming TV Providers Will Close as Programming Prices Soar

The era of fierce competition among live streamed video providers that has fueled cord-cutting will face new challenges as providers cope with rising programming costs and some may exit the business.

Last week, Sony’s PlayStation Vue announced it was planning to cease service in early 2020 because it was not profitable for the game console manufacturer. But Cowen analyst Gregory Williams believes it won’t be the last to close its doors.

Williams told Multichannel News that despite the growing phenomenon of cord-cutting, new streaming subscriptions are slowing down as subscribers choose between a half-dozen major services that are all raising prices, including AT&T TV Now, fuboTV, Hulu Live TV, Philo, Sling TV, and YouTube TV. Williams called the current marketplace for streaming services irrational in the business sense, because providers are at the mercy of programmers that are continuing to raise wholesale prices.

Another serious problem is price disparity. Programmers offer huge volume discounts to large cable, satellite, and telco TV providers, charging smaller streaming services considerably more. That could eventually bring streaming subscription prices to parity with the same traditional cable and satellite providers many consumers left looking for a better deal.

Most streaming TV providers have built business models on slimmed-down packages of channels, rejecting the difficult-to-negotiate a-la-carte “choose your own channels” model many customers have been asking for since the days of 100 channel cable TV lineups. As a result, consumers are still paying for lots of channels they do not watch or want, and as subscription costs advance beyond the $50 a month many services are now charging for a healthy package of most popular cable and broadcast networks, some subscribers may end up going back to their old providers.

Ironically, one of the few a-la-carte providers available is a very large cable company you may already know. Charter’s Spectrum has been quietly selling TV Choice, a package of 10 ‘you-pick’ networks (mostly a part of Spectrum’s Standard TV package) combined with C-SPAN, public, educational, and government access channels, home shopping, and local over-the-air stations, to its internet-only customers for $24.95 a month (not including a $6/mo Broadcast TV Fee and an extra $4.95 a month for a cloud-based DVR service). The resulting bill of around $35-40 a month is at least $10 less than many streaming service providers that may not offer the exact channel lineup you are looking for.

The closest alternative is Sling TV, which has very slim packages of networks in three different configurations, ranging from $15-25 a month. But chances are, some channels you watch won’t be included.

Williams predicts that just three to five services will survive the consolidation wave or exit that is expected to be triggered by Sony’s decision to leave the marketplace. The services most vulnerable are likely those lacking a deep-pocketed, healthy corporate backer or those with the least market share.

An executive for one of PlayStation Vue’s rivals told Multichannel News Sony faced platform costs that “were simply too high.” Sony paid broadcast retransmission consent fees to local stations in every market the service was offered and also licensed popular, but very expensive regional sports channels. Sony also outsourced its streaming technology to Disney-owned BAMTech, among the more expensive platform providers.

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