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Stop the Cap Asks New York PSC for Clarification About Charter’s Internet Speed Obligations

 

 

July 15, 2019

Mr. John C. Rhodes
Chief Executive Officer, NY State Dept. of Public Service
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223-1350

Re: 15-01446/15-M-0388 Settlement Agreement: Joint Petition of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable for Approval of a Transfer of Control of Subsidiaries and Franchises, Pro Forma Reorganization, and Certain Financing

cc: Hon. Kathleen Burgess

Dear Mr. Rhodes,

We are writing to receive clarification regarding the “Order Adopting 2019 Settlement Agreement and Reconsidering Other Related Actions” (issued and effective July 11, 2019).

On page 28 of that document, the Commission comments on Stop the Cap’s recommendation that Spectrum customers in New York State benefit from an immediate upgrade in download speed to 200 Mbps, which is presently available in approximately half of Charter Communications’ national footprint.

The Commission rejected our recommendation, commenting in response:

“Moreover, its request for internet speed upgrades are also beyond the scope of the 2019 Settlement agreement, but the Commission notes that Charter is already required to increase its network speed to 300 Mbps by the end of 2019.”

That response suggests the Public Service Commission considers Charter’s original merger obligations not yet achieved, because the current speed received by most Spectrum customers is 100 Mbps, not 300 Mbps.

However, Charter Communications considers its speed obligations to New York complete, and ahead of the scheduled deadline, as noted in its May 20, 2019 “Annual Update” to the PSC[1]:

“Moreover, under Condition I.A.2, by December 31, 2018, Charter was required to offer broadband service with download speeds up to 100 Mbps to all customers served in New York (including Columbia County) and speed levels up to 300 Mbps by the end of 2019. Charter has far exceeded these conditions, through its Spectrum Internet Gig service offering, which provides all customers throughout New York access to download speeds of up to 940 Mbps. Accordingly, Charter is pleased to report that its implementation of network modernization and broadband speed increases have been completed ahead of the specified the Merger Condition deadlines.”

We are writing to receive clarification about the Commission’s interpretation of the Merger Order and its definition of “network speed.”

The Commission made it a requirement that Charter “increase its network speed” to 300 Mbps by the end of 2019. We would like to know what the Commission considers “network speed.” Does that refer to speed a cable system is capable of optionally providing customers (that presumably choose to pay more for a premium service tier) or was that to be the defined minimum base speed of Spectrum’s entry-level residential broadband product (excluding Spectrum Internet Assist)?

Charter has interpreted the Merger Order to mean “download speeds up to 100 Mbps” for all customers and “speed levels up to” 300 Mbps, but only optionally, by the end of 2019.

Time Warner Cable operated cable systems in New York City, Central New York, and parts of the Hudson Valley and Capitol District that were already capable of offering customers the option of 300 Mbps service before the merger between Charter and Time Warner Cable was announced[2].

Does the Commission accept Charter’s interpretation of the Merger Order or does it believe Charter has a yet unfinished obligation to raise the base internet speed to all New York customers to at least 300 Mbps by the end of 2019?

We would greatly appreciate receiving clarification on this point, because it is apparent Charter is currently disadvantaging New York broadband customers with broadband service at half the speed offered in other states.

Very truly yours,

Phillip M. Dampier
President and Founder

[1] Charter Communications, Inc. Annual Update 2019, May 20, 2019 p. 3

[2] https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20150714005039/en/Time-Warner-Cable-Announces-Expansion-%E2%80%98TWC-Maxx%E2%80%99 (July 14, 2015)

Republican FCC Overrides San Francisco Pro-Competition Wiring Ordinance

It’s a good day to be AT&T or Comcast in San Francisco. The Republican majority on the FCC today voted to protect their monopoly control of existing building wiring, claiming it would inspire competitors to wire buildings separately..

In a 3-2 Republican majority vote, the FCC today decided to pre-empt a San Francisco city ordinance that required multi-dwelling apartment, condo, and office space owners to allow competing service providers to share building-owned wiring if a customer sought to change providers.

“Required sharing of in-use wiring deters broadband deployment, undercuts the Commission’s rules regarding control of cable wiring in residential [multi-dwelling units], and threatens the Commission’s framework to protect the technical integrity of cable systems for the benefit of viewers,” according a news release issued by the FCC.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was joined by the two other Republicans on the Commission to block the San Francisco ordinance, which will allow dominant cable and phone companies like AT&T and Comcast to continue reserving exclusive use of building wiring, forcing would-be competitors to place costly redundant wiring in each building before offering service.

Pai said the city’s ordinance chilled competition because it encouraged competitors to re-use existing wiring instead of providing their own. That could harm the business plans of incumbent monopoly providers that depend on deterring or locking out would-be competitors by prohibiting them from using existing building wiring to reach customers. Pai called the ordinance an “outlier” and declared the city went beyond its legal authority by allowing a competitor to re-use building-owned wiring used by one provider to switch a customer to another. Pai added he had no objection to sharing unused wiring.

“By taking steps to ensure competitive access for broadband providers to [multi-dwelling homes and shared offices] while at the same time cracking down on local laws that go beyond the bounds of federal rules, our decision can help bring affordable and reliable broadband to more consumers,” echoed Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr.

But critics contend the FCC’s decision to disallow required shared use of wiring will likely deter new competitors from entering existing buildings, because of the cost of installing redundant wiring. Others object to the FCC regulating the use of wiring owned and installed independently by building owners, not telecom companies. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat who voted against the pre-emption, was unimpressed.

“We stop efforts in California designed to encourage competition in multi-tenant environments,” Rosenworcel told her fellow commissioners. “Specifically, we say to the city of San Francisco—where more than half of the population rents their housing, often in multi-tenant units—that they cannot encourage broadband competition. This is crazy.”

The FCC press release trumpeting the Republican majority vote to prohibit the shared use of existing building wiring was sympathetic to incumbent telecom giants AT&T and Comcast, which now dominate as service providers in multi-tenant buildings:

Nearly 30% of the U.S. population lives in condominiums and apartments, and millions more work in office buildings. The FCC must address the needs of those living and working in these buildings to close the digital divide for all Americans. However, broadband deployment in [multi-tenant buildings or ‘MTEs’] poses unique challenges. To provide service, broadband providers must have access to potential customers in the building. But when broadband providers know that they will have to share the communications facilities that they deploy with their competitors, they are less likely to invest in deployment in the first place. For decades, Congress and the FCC have encouraged facilities-based competition by broadly promoting access to customers and infrastructure—including MTEs and their tenants—while avoiding overly burdensome sharing mandates that reduce incentives to invest.

Stop the Cap’s Comments on the Proposed Settlement Between Charter Spectrum and NY PSC

July 8, 2019

Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess
Secretary to the Commission
New York State Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223-1350

Re: 15-01446/15-M-0388 Joint Petition of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable for Approval of a Transfer of Control of Subsidiaries and Franchises, Pro Forma Reorganization, and Certain Financing Arrangements – Settlement Proposal

Dear Secretary Burgess,

Stop the Cap!, a party in this proceeding that has regularly contributed to the record since the original application by Charter Communications to transfer control of cable systems formerly owned and operated by Time Warner Cable, is pleased to provide our comments regarding the April 19, 2019 proposed settlement between the Department of Public Service/Public Service Commission and Charter Communications, Inc.

Our organization and our members remain actively interested and engaged on this transaction and the impact it has had on consumers and businesses in New York State. We believe that all New Yorkers were harmed as a result of Charter’s lack of compliance with the 2016 Merger Order.

Stop the Cap! believes the existing settlement proposal lacks adequate compensation for the millions of New Yorkers that are now paying higher prices for internet service, receiving compromised service in the New York City area due to an ongoing, unsettled strike action, rural residents still waiting for Charter to meet its commitments to expand its network, and those low income New Yorkers that have been disadvantaged by the difficulty of obtaining affordable internet service. At the time of this submission, nearly half of Charter’s national footprint provides twice the internet speed New Yorkers now receive, making a mockery of the claim that Spectrum provides best-in-class service in this state.

Therefore, we believe the current settlement proposal as offered is insufficient and does not provide adequate compensation to New York consumers and businesses.

Cost Concerns and Charter’s Impact on New York’s Digital Divide

Stop the Cap! objected to the 2016 merger because of our fears it would result in higher prices for internet service for consumers in New York, exacerbating the digital divide. We believe there is now strong evidence to back our concerns.

Since the DPS/PSC issued the original 2016 Merger Order, New Yorkers now pay substantially more for internet service than was the case with Time Warner Cable. Although Charter has significantly raised broadband speeds in New York State, it has also reduced the number of budget-priced options ordinary customers have for broadband service.

In 2016, prior to the Merger Order, Time Warner Cable charged customers as follows (rates applicable to customers in Rochester, N.Y.)[1]:

  • Everyday Low Price Internet ($14.99)
  • Basic Internet ($49.99)
  • Standard Internet ($59.99)
  • Turbo ($69.99)
  • Extreme ($79.99)
  • Ultimate ($109.99)

In 2019, Spectrum offers faster speeds than Time Warner Cable, but at a higher cost[2]:

  • Spectrum Internet ($65.99)
  • Spectrum Ultra ($90.99)
  • Spectrum Gig ($125.99)

The broadband options for low-income New Yorkers have been drastically reduced by Spectrum. Faster speed is of little concern to low income residents that cannot afford the service. New Yorkers saw their cable bills rise as a direct result of this merger, as we predicted. The minimum cost for standalone broadband service from Spectrum for the majority of consumers is now $65.99 a month, and the company has become far more reticent about negotiating customer retention deals that discount the cost of service than its predecessor Time Warner Cable. In fact, Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge made a point of promising to end the “Turkish bazaar” of pricing promotions at Time Warner Cable after the merger[3]. Customers are now subjected to “take it or leave it” pricing[4].

Spectrum’s concern for low income customers in New York is dubious. Stop the Cap! recommended, and the PSC adopted a condition in the 2016 Merger Order temporarily extending the availability of Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 “Everyday Low Price Internet” (ELP) tier of service, available on a standalone basis to any consumer without pre-qualification. However, after Spectrum announced its own plans and pricing, the company never significantly marketed the option of ELP service to its New York customers. In fact, while the company heavily promoted its own conditional Spectrum Internet Assist (SIA) package, consumers informed us they could not subscribe to ELP in New York because Charter customer service representatives misinformed them the service was no longer available, or they confused it with SIA and told them they were not qualified for discounted internet service. It is our testimony that only the most persistent and well-informed customers were likely to successfully sign up for the ELP program, often requiring multiple attempts to do so[5].

The differences between ELP and SIA are stark. ELP required no pre-qualification and customers could keep the package as long as they liked. SIA is limited to customers that qualify for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the Community Eligibility Provision of the NSLP, or seniors 65 and over that qualify for Supplemental Security Income[6]. Customers must re-qualify at set intervals to continue eligibility, leaving out low income households without school-age children or seniors on limited incomes but lack SSI eligibility. More importantly, Charter protects its revenue stream by denying eligibility to all customers with pre-existing Spectrum internet service. To qualify, a customer would have to disconnect internet service for at least 30 days, have no outstanding debt with Charter within one year prior to applying for service, and once an SIA customer be sure not to have any outstanding debt with Charter subject to Charter’s “ordinary debt collection procedures.”[7] ELP service, in contrast, was available as an option at any time, to anyone.

Charter’s Speed Gap

New York residents do not uniformly benefit from the best in class service available from Charter Communications. Nearly half of Charter’s footprint outside of New York now offers customers entry-level download speeds of 200 Mbps at the same price most New Yorkers pay for 100 Mbps[8].

Failure to Comply With Rural Broadband Buildout Obligations

The PSC’s decision to rescind approval of the 2016 Merger Order between Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications was done after substantial evidence showed Charter had failed to meet the important obligations to rural New Yorkers required of it to make the merger meet the public interest test.

These failures were systemic and have compromised our rural economies by delaying much-needed internet access. It is for this reason that much of the settlement must be focused on correcting these deficiencies and, as a penalty for underperformance, broaden the number of required passings to deliver service to an even greater number of residents and businesses.

We welcome the settlement proposal to target penalties to help fund further broadband expansion. After years of talking to rural New York residents, it is clear New York’s rural broadband problem will continue after the conclusion of the state’s own broadband expansion program. We have heard from New Yorkers that are deeply concerned because the providers originally designated to serve their rural addresses have now refused to offer service or wrongly claim it will be made available by another provider. There is significant confusion and we fear many rural addresses are likely to “fall through the cracks” and end up serviced by no one.

Therefore, guaranteeing that rural New Yorkers have access to 21st century broadband service should be of the highest priority.

More than 78,000 New Yorkers have been assigned inferior internet access through HughesNet, a satellite internet provider[9]. HughesNet will allow those New Yorkers designated for satellite service through the Broadband Program Office (BPO) to use up to 100 GB of data per month before throttling service speeds to 1-3 Mbps for the balance of the billing period[10]. HughesNet also cannot guarantee to meet the FCC’s minimum speed definition of 25 Mbps and more importantly, provides an inadequate usage allowance[11].

Spectrum does not cap data usage or utilize speed throttles, while HughesNet severely throttles internet speeds of customers exceeding a data allowance we consider paltry. Recent research reports the average U.S. household now consumes 282.1 GB per month in areas where flat-rate internet service is offered. This leaves addresses designated for satellite service at a significant disadvantage[12].

The BPO has indicated that addresses assigned to the HughesNet program came as a result of a lack of suitable bids to service those addresses with traditional wireline service. There is clear evidence that providers are dissuaded from serving these high cost areas as a result of a lack of return on investment. Therefore, incentivizing Charter Communications to consider servicing as many of these addresses as practical is in the best interests of New Yorkers.

It is our view that cable broadband service is far superior to many current wireless, satellite, and copper-based DSL services, and we believe that technological capability should be a factor in considering whether to credit Charter for an overlapping new passing. We strongly recommend that Charter be encouraged in every way possible to extend service to as many customers currently designated for satellite internet service as possible. Although the proposed settlement does not punish Charter for extending service into these areas, it is reasonable to assume that the company would not otherwise extend service to these locations without receiving some direct or indirect financial benefit or subsidy. Therefore, we argue that Charter should be credited for any and all new passings in satellite-designated areas, without limit. However, we also believe the 30,000 minimum passing requirement is too low, as is the allowed designation of “substantial compliance” after passing 28,500 homes.

The exceptional amount of confidentiality surrounding Plans of Record among the different providers, including Charter, is not in the public interest and prevents impacted New Yorkers from fully participating in this important process. Since these areas have been historically underserved or unserved, there is little, if any, competitive risk by divulging the Plans of Record publicly. Charter’s rural buildout plans and progress reports should be publicly available. As it stands today, we remain unclear about how many already-passed or planned-to-be-passed homes are a part of the 30,000 the Commission proposes to count. Having that information is crucial to offering informed views about the proposed settlement.

With respect to wireline service overlap, we believe that consumers should benefit from the best possible service provider. We recognize that with limited funds available, duplicative service should be avoided. However, if Charter overlaps with another provider, and if the broadband speed Spectrum offers is superior to what is available from the incumbent wireline provider, it should receive credit for that passing even if in excess of 9,400 addresses, so long as that area is designated as rural and underserved.

Incremental Build Commitment

Stop the Cap! strongly approves of the settlement recommendation to establish a fund for supplementary broadband expansion beyond the original commitments defined in the 2016 Merger Order.

However, we offer some recommendations that we believe will make the fund’s purpose more practical to address the real-life experiences rural New Yorkers encounter when requesting that Charter extend service to a presently unserved address.

Charter Communications, like all cable companies, has a confidential formula to determine a reasonable return on investment when considering whether or not to expand service to a currently unserved address. Cable operators designate an amount the company is willing to pay out of pocket to cover construction/expansion costs. That number is often different for residential and commercial subscribers.

The proposed ceiling of $10,000 is very low in our opinion. Rural New York residents seeking Spectrum cable service are frequently quoted prices far in excess of this amount to extend service from a nearby served location. We believe this ceiling should be at least doubled to $20,000 and should be separate from the amount of money Charter routinely self-funds for qualified buildouts. For example, if Charter is traditionally willing to self-fund up to $2,500 of the cost of supplying service to a new residential or commercial customer, a project budget up to $22,500 would be acceptable to proceed, with $2,500 in funds coming from Charter and the remaining $20,000 coming from the Incremental Build Account.

We also recommend that any address rejected for consideration for service expansion for cost reasons be formally notified and offered an opportunity to participate in the process and permitted to optionally finance any cost in excess of the ceiling amount. The current proposal lacks any provision for the participation of residents and businesses in this process. At least some might choose to voluntarily participate in a cost-sharing opportunity to extend cable broadband service to their address.

Impact of Ongoing Strike in the New York City Area

For more than two years, at least 1,500 Spectrum employees affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3 have been on strike in the New York City area. As a result, Spectrum customers have been subjected to a declining level of service as highly-qualified technicians remain off the job[13]. Charter Communications’ merger with Time Warner Cable was only approved in New York if it met a public interest test, and there is significant evidence New York City customers are not getting the level of service they would otherwise receive if there was no strike action[14].

As a result, the PSC should carefully study the impact of the strike on New York City customers and find any means available to compel a fair settlement and end this historically long labor dispute. Customers are caught in the middle, and there is evidence Charter may not be employing an entirely local workforce to service its customers in the New York City area. This strike would likely have not occurred had Time Warner Cable still been the incumbent cable provider.

Stop the Cap!’s Recommendations for a Revised Settlement Between Charter Communications and the Department of Public Service/Public Service Commission

  1. In recognition of the fact Charter has exacerbated the digital divide by pricing internet service higher than its predecessor, Charter must agree to further extend the availability of its Everyday Low Price Internet ($14.99/month) service to new customers for an additional five year period, reset existing New York customer pricing for this package to $14.99 for the same period, and publish a regular notice in bill statements about the availability of this tier, including the fact it is available to all customers on a standalone basis.
  2. In recognition of the fact Charter places unreasonable restrictions on qualifying for its Spectrum Internet Assist program, the settlement agreement should require that for the next five years Charter remove the restriction preventing New York customers from enrolling in the SIA program if they already have Spectrum internet service.
  3. In recognition of the fact Charter is not supplying all New York residents with best-in-class service, Charter must immediately boost the download speed of its basic Spectrum Internet package from the current 100 Mbps to 200 Mbps in all service areas in New York State, which matches the speed offered in nearly half of its national footprint. For a period of not less than five years, Charter must agree to provide New York State customers with access to any other speed improvements or upgrades as soon as they become available in any other state serviced by Charter.
  4. In recognition of the fact Charter has failed to meet its obligations to expand service to rural New York locations, the Commission should move forward with the revised buildout plan that includes additional new passings beyond what was specified in the 2016 Merger Order, and establish the proposed Incremental Build requirement and associated Spectrum-funded Build Account of not less than $6 million.
  5. In recognition of the fact New York addresses designated to receive HughesNet satellite internet service will be at a substantial disadvantage because of slower internet speeds and a usage allowance of 100 GB, well below the national data consumption average, the DPS/PSC do everything possible to compel and/or encourage Charter Communications to extend its service to overlap satellite-designated areas and receive credit towards its buildout requirement for doing so.
  6. In recognition of the fact some wireline providers offer superior internet service over others, any formula counting the number of homes provided overlapping wireline internet coverage from Spectrum and an existing incumbent wireline provider should consider the capabilities of both providers. If Spectrum offers superior internet speeds, it should be counted as a new passing. If the incumbent matches or exceeds Spectrum’s available speeds, Spectrum’s new overlapped passing should not be counted.
  7. In recognition of the fact that rural consumers and businesses have been left in the dark about the status of their designated internet provider, Plans of Record from Charter Communications under this settlement, as well as other BPO-fund recipients should be made public, including the name and contact information of the designated provider and estimated date of service availability.
  8. In recognition of the fact cable companies designate a maximum amount they are willing to pay out of pocket to establish service at a new address/location, that amount should continue to be paid out of pocket by Charter, with additional expenses above that amount, up to $20,000, covered by the Incremental Build Account if designated as an incremental buildout project. Any address considered for a new passing must be notified in advance if the proposal would otherwise be rejected because the estimated cost to extend service is beyond the $20,000 ceiling and the amount Charter would typically pay out of pocket. That resident or business would then be offered the opportunity to optionally pay the specified excess amount within a reasonable period of time to allow the project to move forward.
  9. In recognition of the fact that Charter technicians and employees in the New York City area have been on strike for over two years, potentially impacting the quality of service Spectrum customers receive in the area, the DPS/PSC should study the impact of the strike on service quality and do all it can to encourage Charter to settle the strike at the earliest opportunity.

We appreciate the Commission and its staff’s hard work on this matter, and hope you will seriously consider our input and ideas, demonstrating once again that the New York Public Service Commission takes its obligations to the citizens of New York seriously.

Very truly yours,

Phillip M. Dampier

President and Founder

Stop the Cap!

 

[1] http://stopthecap.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/twc-2016-rate-card-rochester.jpg

[2] http://stopthecap.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Charter-Spectrum-2019-Rate-Card-Information.pdf

[3] https://www.fiercevideo.com/cable/charter-s-rutledge-pre-merger-twc-offered-a-turkish-bazaar-promo-offers

[4] https://www.syracuse.com/news/2017/05/thousands_of_time_warner_cable_video_customers_flee_spectrums_higher_prices.html

[5] https://www.reddit.com/r/Spectrum/comments/ab02cu/spectrum_deceiving_customers_about_everyday_low/

[6] https://www.spectrum.com/browse/content/spectrum-internet-assist.html

[7] https://www.spectrum.com/browse/content/spectrum-internet-assist.html

[8] https://newsroom.charter.com/news-views/2018-twas-the-year-of-gig-50-million-locations-and-counting/

[9] https://nysbroadband.ny.gov/new-ny-broadband-program/phase-3-awards

[10] https://www.hughesnet.com/node/102201

[11] http://legal.hughesnet.com/SubAgree-03-16-17.cfm

[12] https://www.telecompetitor.com/report-u-s-household-broadband-data-consumption-hit-268-7-gigabytes-in-2018/

[13] http://amsterdamnews.com/news/2017/aug/10/spectrum-strike-affects-us-all/

[14] https://www.pressconnects.com/story/money/2018/08/08/charter-spectrum-cable-new-york-consumers/898780002/

Have a Happy Independence Day

Phillip Dampier July 3, 2019 Editorial & Site News No Comments

We’re taking a week off to do research, prepare some testimony for the Charter-New York State settlement with the Public Service Commission, and clean and organize the office.

Enjoy the Independence Day holiday and we’ll be back on Monday with more news and features!

Remember, you can find us on Twitter (@stopthecap) with comments and links to stories we don’t have time to cover here.

Wall Street Hates CenturyLink’s Dividend Cut; Company Punished for Upgrade Spending

CenturyLink’s stock is being pummeled after the company announced a cut in divided payouts to shareholders earlier this year, preferring to keep the money in-house to reduce debt and increase spending on necessary broadband upgrades.

Last fall, CenturyLink stock was trading for over $23 a share. By January, rumors that CenturyLink was going to cut its dividend put the stock on a downward trajectory, falling to an all-time-low below $11 this month. Company officials argued that with tightening credit opportunities and increasing interest rates, the company needed to devote money normally paid back to shareholders towards paying down its $35.5 billion long-term debt and provide better service to its customers.

A half billion dollars of that money will also be spent on upgrading CenturyLink’s broadband service, particularly in rural areas where the company is receiving Connect America Fund (CAF) dollars from the federal government.

“Our plan for 2019 includes investing to improve the trajectory of the business increasing CapEx by roughly $500 million,” Jeff Storey, president and CEO of CenturyLink said on a January analyst conference call. “As I mentioned earlier those investments include expanding the fiber network, adding new buildings throughout our footprint, enhancing our enterprise product portfolio, continuing our investments in CAF-II, and transforming our customer and employee experience.”

Investors were not impressed with those plans, and CenturyLink’s share price cratered.

Independent phone companies have traditionally attracted investors with handsome dividend payouts, but the realities of their aging infrastructure and the inability to compete effectively with cable companies on lucrative broadband services have left companies like CenturyLink, Windstream, and Frontier Communications in a quandary. Shareholders do not perceive value investing in fiber optic network upgrades and punish companies that announce dramatic increases in network investments. Customers left on slow-speed ADSL networks are increasingly dissatisfied with their internet experience and seek alternative providers — usually the local cable company. As Frontier Communications has discovered, attempting to win back ex-customers has been exceedingly difficult, often only possible with lucrative promotional offers that undercut the cable company. But such offers attract customers with above-average price sensitivity, making it difficult to extract increased revenue from them going forward.

CenturyLink’s stock price has dropped to an all-time low over the last six months.

Investors are also increasingly concerned about the financial viability of investor-owned phone companies that are stuck between leveraging their old networks and facing down shareholders when upgrades become essential. AT&T and Verizon have wireless units responsible for much of the revenue earned by those two Baby Bells. Traditional phone companies have had less luck trying to sell ancillary support services like Frontier’s “Peace of Mind” technical support service, or bundling satellite TV service into packages.

CenturyLink’s Local Service Territory (Source: CenturyLink)

CenturyLink is increasingly depending on its enterprise and wholesale businesses to earn revenue. That fact has prompted some shareholders to ask why the company hasn’t spun off or sold off its traditional landline network and consumer businesses, which currently account for only 25% of its revenue. In May, CenturyLink seemed determined to placate those investors with an announcement it was exploring “strategic options” for its consumer business. Investors theorize that CenturyLink could “unlock value” from its legacy landline networks in such a sale or spinoff that would benefit shareholder value. It would also be much cheaper than investing in that network to upgrade it.

The chorus for a sale increased after Frontier Communications announced it was spinning off its landline territories in the Pacific Northwest to a company specializing in upgrading legacy networks to support better broadband. Frontier, mired in debt and facing a concerning due date for some of its bonds, made the sale to give a boost to its balance sheet. Frontier had also been facing increasing scrutiny about a potential Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. Windstream declared bankruptcy earlier this year, reminding investors that a trip to bankruptcy court could quickly wipe out all shareholder value.

MoffettNathanson, a Wall Street analyst firm that specializes in telecommunications, finds little to like about CenturyLink shedding its own landline operations. Frontier’s sale benefited from the fact a significant part of its Pacific Northwest territory was built from an acquisition from Verizon, which had already installed its FiOS fiber to the home network in parts of Washington and Oregon. About 30% of the territory Frontier is selling is fiber-enabled. In comparison, CenturyLink has installed fiber to the home service in only about 10% of its territory, dramatically reducing any potential sale price. Much of CenturyLink’s core fiber network powers its enterprise and wholesale operations — businesses CenturyLink would likely keep for itself.

MoffettNathanson also sees little value from the proposition a buyer could leverage CenturyLink’s network to provide backhaul fiber capacity for future 5G services, because CenturyLink provides service mostly in smaller communities likely to be bypassed by 5G, at least for the near term.

Wall Street’s idea of a win-win strategy for CenturyLink is to keep its consumer business and expand its broadband service footprint and capability, if the federal government offers to cover much of the cost through more rounds of CAF subsidies. Taxpayers would subsidize broadband expansion while CenturyLink and shareholders share all the profits.

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