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AT&T Reportedly Looking for a Buyer for DirecTV, But Some Are Skeptical a Deal Can Be Done

Just five years after buying DirecTV for $49 billion, AT&T is looking to sell the satellite TV service after losing over 10 million customers because of repeated price hikes, network blackouts, and the ongoing shift to streaming online video.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that AT&T was in talks with private equity firms, potentially including Apollo Global Management and Platinum Equity about the possibility of acquiring DirecTV and taking the service private.

Regardless of who buys the service, AT&T might lose $30 billion on the five-year-old venture, buying high and selling low at a price that could drop below $20 billion. AT&T is rapidly losing its television customers. More than six million people have dropped TV packages from AT&T’s U-verse TV and satellite provider DirecTV in the last two years. Craig Moffett, an analyst with MoffettNathanson, told the New York Post even at a rumored discount sale price of $20 billion, AT&T may have “overvalued” the “albatross.”

Moffett is skeptical buyers will close a deal, considering AT&T’s remaining 17.7 million television customers are still in the mood to cancel, with an “astounding” 18% of customers leaving each year.

But even with the customer losses, DirecTV moves a lot of money through its operations, making it at least look attractive on certain buyers’ books. DirecTV’s cash flow helped AT&T’s own unimpressive earnings, adding $22 billion to AT&T’s balance sheet since buying the satellite company. A buyout by a private equity firm could further slowly drain DirecTV by saddling it with debt, secured in part by its still healthy cash flow. A buyer could also attract investors by borrowing even more to pay out handsome dividend bonuses. That could leave DirecTV hopelessly hobbled in debt, leaving DirecTV in an “inevitable” position of having to merge with its chief competitor, Dish Network, or face eventual bankruptcy. If that were to happen, rural Americans could face a satellite TV monopoly as their only choice for live video entertainment.

DirecTV customers report innovation at the satellite service seems to have disappeared since AT&T took over. Very little has changed with the service in the past few years, except for AT&T raising prices and getting stingier with promotions. Many rural DirecTV customers still depend on satellite television because of a lack of over the air reception or broadband service. For these customers, saving money on television service means having to bounce back and forth between Dish Network and DirecTV, trying to keep a discounted promotion active on their account. If the two satellite services eventually merge, that will cease.

After AT&T acquired Time Warner (Entertainment), insiders report many of AT&T’s legacy businesses, including DirecTV and U-verse, have become afterthoughts. AT&T’s bigger priorities now lie with its new 5G wireless service and HBO Max, its new online video service. But the company’s most profitable businesses continue to be cell phone service and selling wired broadband internet access, which together now earns the company over $180 billion annually.

Cable Companies Slowing Down Upgrades; DOCSIS 3.1 Now ‘Good Enough for Most of Decade’

The standard is ready, but cable operators looking to cut costs and network investments are not.

Although major cable operators will gradually begin buying more advanced DOCSIS 4.0-compatible equipment to power their hybrid fiber-coaxial cable networks, some cable engineers are predicting no big hurry for the next cable broadband upgrade, suggesting the existing DOCSIS 3.1 standard is probably good enough for most of this decade.

A favorable regulatory climate under the Trump Administration has given cable companies a reprieve from pressure from Washington regulators and politicians pushing for more upgrades and competition. Cable operators have successfully slowed investment and upgrade schedules, convinced they are likely not going to face traffic congestion or serious threats from new competitors anytime soon.

DOCSIS 4.0 would double the maximum internet speed available from current cable broadband platforms to 10,000 Mbps download and 5,000 Mbps upload speed. The new standard would also dramatically cut network latency, an important factor for applications like video games. But equipment manufacturers and some cable operators don’t see a big hurry for upgrades on the horizon.

Tom Cloonan, chief technology officer of network solutions at CommScope told an audience at the Light Reading-hosted two-day virtual event: Cable Next-Gen Technologies & Strategies, DOCSIS 3.1 is adequate enough for cable operators to stick with through most of this decade, but “it will eventually run out of gas.”

Jeff Finkelstein, executive director of advanced technologies at Cox Communications, agreed, claiming DOCSIS 3.1’s useful life at Cox is at least five to seven years — up to a decade on certain more advanced cable systems equipped to devote more spectrum for upstream traffic.

Until cable operators decide customers need more broadband capacity and faster speeds, many will stick with DOCSIS 3.1 while they gradually upgrade portions of their network to be DOCSIS 4.0 ready. The key factor that will eventually push most operators to upgrade to DOCSIS 4.0 is internet traffic demand. If providers continue to see exponential traffic growth similar to the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, upgrades will have to come in the next few years. If internet traffic growth can be slowed down, operators can stall upgrades until after 2025. Slowing upgrades will save operators money and DOCSIS 4.0 is designed to be launched at a relatively low cost, especially if network prerequisites can be gradually put into place.

It is also clear most major cable operators with the exception of Altice USA see at least a decade or more of useful life left in their existing hybrid fiber-copper coaxial cable networks. After that, some may elect to begin a move towards fiber to the home service.

Digital TV Upgrade Will Make Room for a New Over-the-Air Slimmed Down Pay TV Package

Phillip Dampier August 25, 2020 Competition, Consumer News, Evoca, Online Video, Video No Comments

The forthcoming conversion of digital over-the-air TV stations from ATSC 1 to ATSC 3.0 will open up space for a new pay TV service that will bundle dozens of local and national channels with a video on demand service selling for as little as $20 a month.

Evoca is launching a consumer trial of its new service in Boise, Ida. in September, with plans to gradually expand service to small and medium-sized communities around the country.

Parent company Edge Networks is still negotiating with programmers, but will eventually sell a package of over 80 channels at a price it claims will be “less than half the cost of cable” TV. New customers will be offered a temporary promotional rate of $20 a month, but the service will eventually cost $49.95 a month. How can it afford to charge less? By offering customers a receiver that combines free, over the air local channels with a lineup of pay cable networks and, eventually, streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. Evoca won’t have to pay local station retransmission fees since customers will be watching those channels directly over the air.

About half of Evoca’s lineup will be delivered over two existing ATSC 3.0 low power TV stations owned by Cocola Broadcasting and leased to Evoca in Boise, compressing 20 encrypted digital channels on each station (KBSE-LD on Channel 33 and KCBB-LD on Channel 34). Boise is located in the Treasure Valley, an optimal place to receive unobstructed low power television signals. Evoca’s set-top box has a connection for a UHF-TV antenna. A basic indoor antenna is offered by the service. ATSC 3.0 signals are expected to be more reliable in fringe reception zones than the existing ATSC 1 standard, which gives Evoca confidence it can supply quality reception. Evoca will also carefully identify which zip codes are likely to receive good reception from the two stations and will not sell the service in areas that cannot get good reception.

The rest of Evoca’s lineup will be delivered over the customer’s home internet connection (at least 5 Mbps recommended). An included set-top box integrates everything together, so customers won’t know or care if they are watching a standard over the air signal, one of Evoca’s compressed and encrypted ATSC 3.0 channels, or a video stream from the internet.  Evoca claims to support both HD and 4K video, where available.

Evoca’s launch market of Boise was not chosen randomly. The company is based in Boise. It will seek to offer the service in cities where cable companies have either given up on selling television packages or charges above average rates for a below average lineup. Most Boise residents are currently served by Sparklight, formerly Cable One, which was among the first to deprioritize selling television service. Sparklight’s still available TV package is costly and many subscribers have dropped it.

Evoca also has an edge attracting older viewers because it will bundle dozens of digital networks like Cozi and Me-TV that favor classic TV shows and movies. These digital over the air channels are often not included on cable lineups.

Evoca TV Trial for Boise Residents

If you live in Boise, you could be among the 200 customers selected for “early access” to Evoca when it launches September 1. Early adopters will receive a free receiver (a $100 value), free antenna, an Evoca t-shirt, and a preview package of 60+ channels for $20 a month until the end of 2021. On January 1, 2022 the price will increase to $49/month. For more information, visit the Evoca website. At the moment, the most compelling channels are those already provided over the air for free, and there are a handful of on-demand services to fill some sizeable gaps in the current lineup. Evoca claims it is close to reaching deals with more familiar cable networks and will bring those to the lineup in the coming months. A cloud based DVR service is also planned for sometime in the future.

Assuming the service achieves success in Boise, expect it to expand to other cities in Idaho and Montana first, then Nevada and Utah, and finally parts of Texas and Oklahoma. The company claims it is interested in providing nationwide service, but that will highly depend on its ability to lease at least two low power television stations in each market it intends to serve. Considering the fact many low power stations are owned by hedge funds or other investors that have parked home shopping or other free-to-air networks on their stations hoping to monetize them later (or offer to close them down so the spectrum can be used by cell phone companies), Evoca may not have too much trouble finding other partners to support an expansion. But reception of low power signals can vary widely, especially in difficult terrain areas.

Evoca produced this video demonstrating how to set up the service. (1:30)

Where is the Lavish Spending on Small Cell 5G? Upgrades-to-the-Press-Release, Apparently

Phillip Dampier August 19, 2020 Competition, Consumer News, Wireless Broadband No Comments

Despite an avalanche of press releases promising a flood of new small cells to manage America’s growing 5G networks, the vendors responsible for equipment, siting, and connectivity report small cell deployment is moving much slower than expected.

Cowen, a Wall Street analyst, noted communications infrastructure provider Zayo’s CEO Dan Caruso told investors the 5G small cell business is playing out differently than expected.

“Specifically, carrier activity is more tempered than their messaging five years ago, and the lease-up of second tenants has been slower,” Cowen noted.

Light Reading noted that suppliers and capacity providers have been boosting investments and manufacturing capacity to manage expected orders for millimeter wave 5G equipment that so far are not materializing. Cell tower management company Crown Castle increased its spending dramatically to support Verizon’s claim it would install hundreds of thousands of small cells nationwide. Crown Castle will likely provide a significant amount of the leased space for wireless providers’ small cells. Not only can Crown Castle earn significant revenue from leasing space to Verizon, it can make more selling AT&T and T-Mobile access to those same locations for their own respective small cells. But so far, business has been slow.

To build a nationwide 5G network capable of what the press releases claim, operators will need to lay millions of miles of fiber optic cables, construct 80,000 new cell towers for lower frequency 5G networks, and at least 130,000 locations this year for highly localized millimeter wave 5G small cells.

Analysts note much of the slowdown seems to be disproportionately affecting U.S. mobile networks, with much less of a slowdown among global operators moving rapidly to construct their own 5G infrastructure. Some analysts speculate operators are reducing investments because of a lack of competitive demand, while others suspect providers are now hoarding cash to bid on forthcoming “C” band spectrum that is expected to be auctioned off soon. AT&T, in particular, has also been winding down its own spending programs for fiber buildouts and the government-funded FirstNet first responder mobile network. AT&T’s stock price has been anemic for much of 2020 as investors question AT&T’s lavish spending, especially on its HBO Max and AT&T TV businesses.

Early Speed Tests of SpaceX’s Starlink Are Underwhelming; Alpha Testers Leaking Info Protected by NDAs

SpaceX’s Starlink service is unlikely to compete in the same arena as fiber and cable internet service providers, if leaked early speed test results are an accurate indication of the service’s performance.

A sub-Reddit for Starlink, the low earth orbiting (LEO) satellite internet service, is buzzing with activity after one or more anonymous users in Washington State shared speed test results in a public forum, in apparent violation of the non-disclosure agreement SpaceX insists alpha testers sign.

Starlink’s current alpha test, open to rural areas in Washington State only, will give SpaceX data on how well the platform performs in the marketplace. As beta tests begin later this year, testers will be required to have an unobstructed view of the northern sky, live within 44 and 52 degrees latitude, be willing and able to complete multiple surveys about the service over a two-month period, and agree to receive and properly install the equipment. All alpha and beta testers will receive the service for free, but will be asked to pay $1 to test Starlink’s billing system.

Testers are supposed to keep information about their Starlink experiences private, as per a detailed non-disclosure agreement that each tester must sign. But anonymous leaks about the service, along with ‘telling’ questions, have frequently appeared in a public forum about the satellite service, frustrating SpaceX. The satellite provider has reportedly issued multiple “takedown requests” to remove violating content.

Last week, Starlink began requesting more detailed information from those seeking to enroll in future beta tests, a sign it is gearing up to test the service more widely soon.

So far, Starlink testers in Washington State willing to leak their experiences are reporting download speeds no better than 60 Mbps, with upload speed averaging between 10-15 Mbps. Latency, a constant problem with satellite internet, was a more impressive 50 ms on average, but can vary between 31-94 ms.

Only a small number of people in Washington State are estimated to be taking part in current trials, which started before SpaceX’s entire satellite fleet is in orbit. SpaceX previously claimed the service was designed to deliver “blazing fast speeds” up to 1,000 Mbps. That clearly is not happening at the moment. Some testers have been told that speed will increase as more satellites are placed into orbit, but others are wondering if early results are good enough, especially considering they are conducted on satellite infrastructure that currently has a light load with almost no users.

Starlink’s speed and performance will be crucial indicators of how the broadband industry will respond to the emerging market of LEO-based satellite internet. If 60/10 Mbps service is what many users can expect to get, that might deflate SpaceX’s boasts that its Starlink platform could be a competitive game-changer. Cable and fiber providers will likely dismiss Starlink as a serious competitor in the urban and suburban markets they serve, noting wired internet performance is already considerably faster. Still, the project could provide much-needed internet service in exurban and rural areas bypassed by cable companies, leaving consumers with a current choice of <10 Mbps DSL from the phone company or no service at all.

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