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Windstream Declares Bankruptcy; Another Legacy Telco Falters

Phillip Dampier February 25, 2019 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Windstream 3 Comments

Windstream Holdings, Inc. filed bankruptcy this afternoon, citing its inability to cover $5.8 billion in outstanding debt.

The independent phone company, which provides legacy landline and broadband service to around 1.4 million customers in 18 states, filed voluntary to reorganize under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, citing a judge’s decision almost two weeks ago that the company defaulted on its obligations.

“Following a comprehensive review of our options, including an appeal, the Board of Directors and management team determined that filing for voluntary Chapter 11 protection is a necessary step to address the financial impact of Judge Furman’s decision and the impact it would have on consumers and businesses across the states in which we operate,” said Tony Thomas, president and chief executive officer of Windstream. “Taking this proactive step will ensure that Windstream has access to the capital and resources we need to continue building on Windstream’s strong operational momentum while we engage in constructive discussions with our creditors regarding the terms of a consensual plan of reorganization.”

Windstream received a commitment from Citigroup Global Markets Inc. for $1 billion in debtor-in-possession (“DIP”) financing. Assuming a bankruptcy judge approves of the arrangement, Windstream claims this stop-gap financing will allow it to run its current business as usual.

Windstream provides residential service in 18 states including: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas.

The company claims it was forced into bankruptcy after a judge found Windstream’s attempt in 2015 to shift its valuable fiber optic network assets off its own books into a sheltered real estate investment trust (REIT) named Uniti Group violated the rights of bondholders which hold some of Windstream’s debt. Those debts are backed, in part, by the valuable fiber optic assets Windstream had  spun them off to a new entity. In fact, Uniti’s fiber optic assets are essential to Windstream’s viability. The phone company has the exclusive right to use Uniti’s fiber assets and two-thirds of Uniti’s revenue comes from Windstream, making the two companies inseparable.

Windstream’s bankruptcy is a concern to investors of both companies because it will allow Windstream to renegotiate the terms of its contract with its fiber partner. Windstream customers are equally concerned because the phone company needs Uniti’s network to manage its broadband service.

The judge’s decision on Feb. 15 to declare the arrangement inappropriate was reportedly a shock to the investor community, which has made money buying repackaged corporate debt in the form of bonds for years. Corporations have issued bonds to retire older debt, while giving investors a piece of the action. Since investors are making money, they typically do not complain too loudly about the persistence of corporate debt, frequently repackaged in new bonds. As a result, companies can hold onto more cash used to pay shareholder dividends and executive compensation instead of permanently retiring debt.

Aurelius, a hedge fund, is making some of its money scrutinizing these arrangements looking for contract violations such as the Uniti spinoff. When it finds one, it takes a stake in the company and then threatens to sue as a harmed investor. Based on the judge’s decision, Aurelius won a judgment that will effectively empty the pockets of many of the bondholders and investors that could lose a lot of their investments because of the bankruptcy. If the hedge fund is going to actively seek other questionable arrangements or violations of bondholders’ rights at other companies, it could cause an earthquake in an investment community that has quietly conspired with companies to generate transactions that enrich investors while allowing companies to carry more debt.

Customers could end up covering some of the costs of today’s bankruptcy filing if Windstream files a plan with the Bankruptcy Court promising to raise prices to help it demonstrate ongoing viability.

Windstream’s Thomas complained the phone company is little more than a victim of a predatory hedge fund out to enrich itself at the expense of others.

“The company believes that Aurelius engaged in predatory market manipulation to advance its own financial position through credit default swaps at the expense of many thousands of shareholders, lenders, employees, customers, vendors and business partners,” Thomas said. “Windstream stands by its decision to defend itself and try to block Aurelius’ tactics in court. The time is well-past for regulators to carefully examine the ramifications of an unregulated credit default swap marketplace.”

FCC’s Ajit Pai Takes Credit for America’s Alleged Broadband Wonderland

Santa Broadband: Ajit Pai’s magical world of broadband

God bless deregulation and your local phone and cable companies for making American Broadband Great Again.

That’s the message FCC Chairman Ajit Pai hopes will be the take away in the forthcoming 2019 Broadband Deployment Report — a highly dubious and over optimistic assessment of America’s rural broadband landscape.

“For the past two years, closing the digital divide has been the FCC’s top priority,” Chairman Pai said. “We’ve been tackling this problem by removing barriers to infrastructure investment, promoting competition, and providing efficient, effective support for rural broadband expansion through our Connect America Fund. This report shows that our approach is working. But we won’t rest until all Americans can have access to broadband and the 21st century opportunities it provides to communities everywhere.”

Except closing the rural-urban broadband gap has been a FCC priority for more than two years, and was a particularly high priority for the previous administration, which devoted a large amount of controversial stimulus funding after the Great Recession to internet expansion during the Obama Administration. In fact, Chairman Pai repeatedly claimed credit for broadband expansion projects that were funded by the previous administration, while at the same time criticizing the FCC under former Chairman Thomas Wheeler for harming investment in broadband with the enforcement of net neutrality.

The FCC continues to rely on dubious and flawed data to produce its reports — unverified data typically volunteered by the country’s phone and cable companies. The FCC has been frequently criticized for relying on inaccurate broadband availability maps, taking providers at their word on broadband speeds that fail to materialize in the real world, and reporting expansion projects that do not directly benefit consumers.

Pai’s office this week released a press release attempting to conflate broadband gains to his deregulatory policies and the banishment of net neutrality.

“The private sector has responded to FCC reforms by deploying fiber to 5.9 million new homes in 2018, the largest number ever recorded. And overall, capital expenditures by broadband providers increased in 2017, reversing declines that occurred in both 2015 and 2016.”

But Pai does not offer any evidence to back up those claims. In fact, as Stop the Cap! has reported, many of the country’s largest telecom companies have been cutting capital expenditures, many initiated as part of system upgrades to convert to digital cable television or to increase the amount of fiber optics to increase cable system reliability — neither relevant to the debate about net neutrality. This year, Charter Communications has announced a dramatic drop in spending (despite the repeal of net neutrality) because their long-planned system upgrades surrounding the retirement of analog cable television are now complete. Charter also had its merger agreement with Time Warner Cable revoked in New York for failing to meet its rural broadband commitments in that state.

Comcast cut spending by 3% because it bought fewer set-top TV boxes in light of cord-cutting customer losses. Verizon, which has been aggressively promoting its forthcoming 5G millimeter wave wireless network, slashed spending from $17.2 billion in 2017 to between $16.6-17 billion last year, and a significant sum of that money was earmarked for 5G buildouts in urban areas, not expanding rural internet. AT&T’s capital expenditures for 2019 are not expected to move much, placed in the $23 billion range for 2019, just a little more than last year. But AT&T is expecting to be reimbursed $1.6 billion by the federal government for AT&T’s FirstNet public safety network buildout, and much of its other spending is targeting its wireless business, including a plan to launch 5G services in 19 cities this year. That means less money for AT&T’s wireline network, including fiber broadband for homes and businesses.

Pai’s claims about the increased availability of broadband, at higher speeds, comes largely at similar incremental rates to progress under the Obama Administration. In New York, which is seeking to approach near universal broadband coverage, what moved the needle the most was a large sum of funding available to subsidize rural broadband expansion. The availability of substantial financial assistance from the state government, which some described as corporate welfare, appeared to be the most effective broadband expansion motivator for an industry Pai praised in his press release, not deregulation or the repeal of net neutrality.

Stop the Cap! Urges N.Y. Public Service Commission to Come Clean on Charter Talks

Stop the Cap! today filed comments with the N.Y. Public Service Commission urging the regulators to publicly disclose the nature of their ongoing discussions with Charter Communications.

“Since last July’s vote revoking Charter/Spectrum’s merger approval with Time Warner Cable, the PSC has been engaged in secret talks with the cable company in what we now believe was actually an enforcement bludgeon to get the cable company to meet its commitments,” said Stop the Cap! president Phillip M. Dampier. “We suspect Charter got the message to either clean up its act and follow through on its original merger obligations, or the regulator would make good on its threat to boot the company out of New York. If Charter behaves, the Revocation Order exiling Charter from the state will probably disappear in a final settlement.”

Stop the Cap! agrees with the PSC that Charter should be held to all the merger obligations it originally agreed to, but by keeping the talks secret, consumers and lawmakers have no idea what is happening and cannot intelligently participate in the discussions.

“After multiple extensions, enough is enough,” Dampier said. “Charter also hides from public view almost all the details about its progress in reports to the Commission, making it impossible for rural New Yorkers to know when they might expect to get wired for service.”

Dampier

Stop the Cap! recommends the PSC take the discussions public and let all New Yorkers have their say about what happens next. The consumer group also reminded the PSC that there are other matters that should be considered in the discussions, including a long-lasting strike of Charter’s workers in the New York City area that is impacting the quality of service for customers.

“Anyone who has had a service problem with Spectrum knows the more experienced a technician you get, the better,” Dampier said. “Using replacement workers or third-party outsourced technicians reduces customer satisfaction and often leaves problems unresolved.”

Stop the Cap! also repeated its recommendation that any assessed penalties or fines that come from any settlement should be targeted to improving broadband service in the state.

“There are more than 75,000 New York homes and businesses that have been thrown under the bus by the New York State Broadband for All program, which assigned slightly subsidized satellite internet access for those locations, making it harder than ever for future funding opportunities for wired broadband to reach these rural residents,” Dampier said. “Most funding programs exclude areas already provided with broadband expansion funds or served by another provider, regardless of how well that provider serves their customers.”

Stop the Cap! suggests that Charter be required to expand its rural broadband commitment to reach as many of the 75,000 stranded rural locations as economically feasible.

“It is about the only solution that can cut through the red tape at this point, because these locations are usually scattered across the state, making it unlikely another provider will ever show much interest,” Dampier said. “I know it isn’t ideal to stick these homes and businesses with a cable company with a poor customer satisfaction score, but when I hear from rural unserved New Yorkers, they are desperate and cannot wait 5-10 years for something else to come along, especially if it turns out to be low-speed DSL.”

Dampier also worries about the reputation of the PSC if it suddenly announces a settlement that allows Charter/Spectrum to stay.

“Last summer, every newspaper in the state reported Charter was being thrown out of New York. Many consumers were thrilled. Then things went quiet as the public learned about extension after extension, delay after delay” Dampier said. “If the Commission suddenly announces the case is settled and Charter can stay without explaining why that is the right decision, a lot of New Yorkers are going to accuse the Commission of selling them out. Comments like that are already appearing in the docket from fed up New Yorkers who have run out of patience.”

The full text of the Stop the Cap! letter follows:

 

February 19, 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.

Dear Secretary Burgess,

Please share our comments with Chairman John B. Rhodes and Commissioners Gregg C. Sayre, Diane Burman, and James S. Alesi.

As a party in the proceeding whose views and recommendations were recognized by the Commission and its staff in drafting a final Merger Order granting Charter Communications its request to merge with Time Warner Cable, we remain actively interested and engaged in this transaction on behalf of consumers in New York.

As you know, most Upstate New Yorkers have just one choice for a telecommunications supplier capable of achieving the FCC’s broadband speed benchmark of 25/3 Mbps. That company is generally Charter Communications. Wireline phone companies in much of western, central, and northern New York offer DSL service to many of their customers, often at speeds well below the FCC’s definition of broadband. At our location, incumbent local exchange carrier Frontier Communications only offers up to 3.1 Mbps, a speed few consumers would consider acceptable in 2019. As a result, whatever cable company offers service in large parts of Upstate and Western N.Y. enjoys a de facto monopoly on broadband service in most of these areas.

In July, 2018 the Commission rightly found that despite multiple warnings, Charter Communications flagrantly failed to meet its obligations to New York as part of the Commission’s Merger Order. Charter Communications has failed to challenge that decision in court or offer credible evidence to rebut your conclusions. In fact, the company has largely relied on selective interpretations of the Merger Order to renege on its rural broadband expansion commitments – a key condition that was necessary for this merger to be in the public interest. While counting new passings in the urban New York City area, the company was also running television ads promoting its rural broadband expansion that we believe misled customers about Charter’s true performance of meeting its commitments to New York.

However, nearly seven months after the Commission voted to effectively expel Charter Communications from New York, the Commission and/or its staff has instead entered into in-camera negotiations with the cable company in what we can only suspect is an effort to enforce Charter’s compliance with the original Merger Order in return for a settlement eventually dispensing with the July 2018 Revocation order.

While we have no objection to the Commission’s actions seeking Charter’s compliance with its merger obligations, we remain concerned that these ongoing negotiations have remained secret for over half a year, with little ability for public interest groups, consumers, and others to provide informed input in those discussions or track their progress. Virtually all of the compliance reports submitted by Charter since the Revocation Order are also heavily redacted, leaving the public and lawmakers in the dark.

A growing number of New Yorkers are now questioning the credibility of the Commission in public comments in the docket. For example, Matt Stern on Nov. 26, 2018 (Comment 572) opined:

“Negotiations done in secret with never ending extensions are not in the best interest of the people of NYS. […] Charter has made little or no line extensions in my town in 20 years. 2 full decades. Many of us live less than 1 mile from the existing infrastructure. This is the same all over upstate NY. We are tired of excuses. If you are unable to secure these necessary infrastructure expansions then resign immediately. We are done waiting.”

Wayne Martin offered in comment 576 (Dec. 15, 2018):

“Surprise, surprise, surprise, another extension granted. The (non)actions of this commission are a slap in the face to the taxpayers of New York.”

On Dec. 18, 2018, Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi (Comment #580) asked the Commission to cease granting extensions to Charter:

“It is simply unacceptable to keep delaying Charter’s exit from New York State if they cannot meet their obligations to customers. While the company keeps getting extensions granted, I am hearing on a daily basis from Charter customers experiencing poor service and increased rates. […] The PSC’s November 23, 2018 order granting Charter an extension until January 11, 2019 to present its exit plan reads, in part, “The Compliance and Revocation Orders were designed to deal with very serious consumer issues presented by Charter’s conduct related to the company’s network expansion.” This is exactly the problem. Charter has had since July to prepare an exit strategy and delaying it any further is not in the best interests of its customers, many of whom rely on cable and internet service for their job, or to communicate with family members.”

On Feb. 6, 2019, Adam Nash complained about the Commission’s repeated extensions in Comment 614:

“[…] I’m concerned with constant extensions Time Warner has been given since July, 2018, so far they’ve been given 5. If this commission was serious on this matter there wouldn’t be this many extensions. It was stated in a article done by the Times Union News in Oct, 2018 that, “Staff believes that the commission should direct that any request granted in response to Charter’s most recent filing be final in form and that any additional time allowed must either result in a settlement agreement being presented to the commission or the cessation of settlement talks,” PSC acting general counsel John Sipos wrote in response to Charter’s request.” This statement was made when it was at its 3rd extension, NYS is at its 5th currently.”

We believe it is long past time for the Commission to publicly disclose the nature of the ongoing negotiations, specific details about the progress that has been made, and the ultimate goal of these discussions. The Commission’s July 2018 Revocation Order provoked shock headlines in the media across the state, and consumers have the expectation Charter will be leaving the state. If that ultimately does not happen, the Commission should be prepared to explain why.[1]

Our group’s view is that Charter Communications must meet each and every obligation in the Commission’s Merger Order if it wants to do business in New York and that a significant penalty is now due for failing to meet those obligations on a timely basis.

We also believe a long-standing labor dispute between the company and its unionized workforce is having an ongoing detrimental impact on the quality of service received by customers in the New York City area. We recommend the Commission undertake an investigation to see how this dispute is impacting customers.

We recommend you review our submission (item #278) of Apr. 5, 2018 recommending specific penalties against Charter that would, among other things, expand the company’s rural broadband expansion commitment even further (either in lieu of, or in addition to, financial penalties) to assist at least some of the 75,000+ unserved New York locations that are being offered substandard satellite internet access[2] from Hughes Network Systems, LLC. These locations lack wired broadband because no provider bid for financial assistance to undertake a buildout during the last round of the New NY Broadband Program, administered by the New York Broadband Program Office.[3]

These addresses are effectively stranded because programs offering public subsidy funding usually disqualify locations already provided with subsidies as duplicative.[4] But satellite internet providers cannot guarantee the speeds required to qualify as broadband, leaving those locations as a distinct disadvantage and less likely to ever get suitable broadband.[5] HughesNet also includes a very low data cap ranging from 10-50 GB.[6] In 2018, the average internet-connected home used 268 GB of data per month.[7] A penalty that includes an incentive or requirement for a private company like Charter to wire many of those locations offers a unique opportunity to resolve this serious problem. Charter offers customers at least 100 Mbps of speed and no data caps.

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

[1] “New York Moves to Kick Spectrum Out of State,” New York Times (Jul. 27, 2018) (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/27/nyregion/new-york-spectrum-charter-cable-broadband.html), “NY State Regulators Move to Order Charter Out of New York Over Alleged Broadband Woes,” WNBC-TV/NBC News (Jul. 27, 2018) (https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/NY-PSC-Charter-New-York-489356141.html), “New York’s order kicking Spectrum cable out of state ‘pretty radical’,” The Post-Standard (Syracuse), (Jul. 27, 2018) (https://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2018/07/new_yorks_move_to_kick_spectrum_cable_out_of_state_pretty_radical.html), “PSC Orders Cable Giant Charter Out of NY,” (Albany) Times-Union, (Jul. 27, 2018)  (https://www.timesunion.com/business/article/PSC-holding-special-meeting-on-Charter-Friday-13109921.php), “New York tells Spectrum Cable to get out of the state,” The Buffalo News, (Jul. 27, 2018) (https://buffalonews.com/2018/07/27/psc-wants-spectrum-cables-owner-to-get-out-of-new-york/)

[2] Satellite Broadband Remains Inferior to Wireline Broadband (VantagePoint) (Sept., 2017) (https://www.vantagepnt.com/wp-content/uploads/dlm_uploads/2018/04/vps-satellite-broadband-remains-inferior-to-wireline-broadband-090717.pdf)

[3] “Broadband Delays Prompt Frustration in Rural NY” Lockport Union-Sun & Journal (Apr. 2, 2018) (http://www.govtech.com/network/Broadband-Delays-Prompt-Frustration-in-Rural-New-York.html)

[4] “While the first round NOFA was silent on the eligibility of such overlapping projects, the second round NOFA specifically stated that areas already served by a RUS incumbent service provider were not eligible for subsequent funding.” (Selected passage from USDA’s “Broadband Initiatives Program – Pre Approval Controls Audit Report 09703-0001-32”) (March, 2013) (https://www.usda.gov/oig/webdocs/09703-0001-32.pdf)

[5] “HughesNet service is available in the contiguous U.S., Alaska and Puerto Rico. Stated speeds and uninterrupted use of service are not guaranteed. Actual speeds will likely be lower than the maximum speeds during peak hours.” (HughesNet Subscriber Agreement last revised March 10, 2017 — PART I – KEY PROVISIONS – 1.1 SPEED CLAIMS AND DISCLAIMERS.) (http://legal.hughesnet.com/SubAgree-03-16-17.cfm)

[6] “HughesNet Gen5 Fair Access Policy for the 10 GB, 20 GB, 30 GB and 50 GB Service Plans” (http://legal.hughesnet.com/FairAccessPolicyGen5.cfm)

[7] “OpenVault U.S. Household Broadband Data Consumption” (Jan. 22, 2019) (http://openvault.com/openvault-broad-based-broadband-usage-acceleration-in-2018-1tb-power-users-double-to-4-12-of-all-households/)

Charter Shareholders Love Spectrum’s 20% Broadcast TV Fee Increase; Second Rate Hike in 4 Months

Phillip Dampier February 14, 2019 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 2 Comments

Although Spectrum Cable customers will face higher cable TV bills starting next month, the company’s shareholders are delighted, boosting Charter’s stock price more than $50 a share on the news.

Spectrum’s latest increase (the second in four months) of its Broadcast TV Surcharge will set a uniform national fee of $11.99 a month for all of its cable television customers.

In 2018, customers paid an average of $8.75 a month in local TV surcharges. But last November, Charter raised the surcharge to $9.95 a month. Now, just a few months into 2019, Spectrum wants another $2 a month — a 20% increase — to watch local television signals that are available for free to those with an antenna. That’s a steep increase for what began as a $2 surcharge for some customers starting in 2015.

Charter’s investors reacted positively to the latest rate hike, jumping the stock price from $289.91 a share to $340.95 — a $51.04 boost after the fee increase was first reported by the Los Angeles Times.

The new surcharge will be reflected on customer bills beginning as early as Feb. 21.

Charter blamed broadcasters for the “rapidly rising cost” of including local TV stations on the cable lineup. In a letter to some state telecommunications regulators, the cable operator claimed it would be inefficient to not raise prices.

Charter’s share price shot up on the news it was increasing its Broadcast TV Surcharge by 20% just four months after the last increase.

“Containing costs and efficiently managing our operations are critical to providing customers with the best value possible,” wrote Melinda Kinney, Charter’s senior director of government affairs for Charter’s Northeast Division. “Like every business, Charter faces rising costs that require occasional price adjustments.”

But many customers, especially those in marginal reception areas, are loudly complaining that Charter is raising its Broadcast TV Fee even as it drops regional over the air stations from its cable lineup. In 2017, Spectrum customers in western Massachusetts reported a gradual exodus of local TV stations from their lineup, starting with WWLP, the NBC affiliate in Springfield with strong local news coverage of the western half of the state. Today, Spectrum only provides western Massachusetts with a single NBC station — WNYT in Albany, N.Y., which keeps viewers up to date with the latest political machinations of the New York State legislature.

Next to go was Boston’s ABC affiliate, WCVB — airing the strongest coverage of local and state news of any ABC affiliate in the state. In its place, viewers now receive WTEN, the ABC station in Albany, which is covering Sen. Jim Tedisco’s support for splitting New York into two separate states — a ‘crucial’ issue for subscribers living in the Berkshires and beyond.

Other states facing “out of market” channel losses include Connecticut, California, Nevada, and Nebraska. Many of the affected stations were dropped as Charter upgraded its cable systems to all-digital television, perhaps counting on subscriber confusion amidst other changes to the cable system.

Barrett on Charter: “Greed”

The loss of local stations while rapidly increasing the surcharge for those stations has some people calling foul.

Massachusetts State Rep. John Barrett III (D-North Adams) called it “greed.” Charter mandates the Broadcast TV Fee be paid by all video customers, including those on “price locked” promotions. By breaking the fee out of the cost of the cable television package, Charter Spectrum gets to advertise packages to new and returning customers at a low cost, only to deliver bill shock when customers discover the surcharge, along with equipment and franchise fees, that collectively increases their total monthly bill.

As the second largest cable company in the country, Charter is estimated to be collecting an extra $211 million annually from its first increase in November 2018 and $391 million annually from the latest increase now taking effect. Together, that amounts to $602 million annually in new revenue starting in March. Charter will not disclose exactly how much of this money is paid to each local television station.

Charter also has a habit of boosting its set-top box equipment fees about $1 a month per box each year — an increase we are likely to see later this year, and the company already slightly increased prices for internet service late last year.

Charter executives told shareholders on its most recent quarterly results conference call that the company’s revenue increased 4.9% in 2018 to $43.6 billion. Combining that extra revenue with a $1.9 billion cut in upgrades for 2019 will allow the company to focus on additional share buybacks, increased payouts to Charter shareholders, and debt reduction.

Kagan: Cable Company Wireless Is Designed to Trap You in a Bundle, Not Compete in Wireless Business

Comcast and Charter Communications have no real interest in competing head-to-head in wireless with AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, or Sprint. Instead, the two cable companies hope to trap you in a bundled package of services too inconvenient to cancel.

Jeff Kagan, a longstanding telecommunications analyst specializing in the cable industry, believes Comcast, Charter, and other cable operators entering the wireless business have no intention of being a serious competitor to the country’s four largest mobile companies.

“The goal of XFINITY Mobile [from Comcast] is to offer their customers another service and to create a sticky bundle,” Kagan said. “It’s not to lead the wireless wars. It’s not to increase their market share for traditional reasons. It is simply to create a sticky bundle to stabilize and grow their customer base.”

Kagan

XFINITY Mobile and Spectrum Mobile (from Charter), both require customers to be signed up for their respective internet services. If a customer cancels internet service, they will lose their mobile service. That could prove to be a major hassle for wireless customers, because they will have to properly port out their existing phone number(s) to another provider before dropping broadband.

Kagan believes cable operators will use mobile service to further strengthen their bundle by tying discounts to the number of services each customer takes through the cable company.

“Customers who use one service find it easy to switch away to a competitor,” Kagan said. “However, when they use multiple services and get a discount for the bundle, they become sticky and generally stay put. And the more services a customer uses, the larger the discount, the stickier they get and the less likely they are to wander.”

That is also likely to be true with Altice, which operates Optimum (Cablevision) and SuddenLink and has partnered with Sprint to offer cell service.

Sprint and T-Mobile, which are planning to merge, have repeatedly argued cable operators will be aggressive new players in the mobile business, giving the potentially combined carrier fierce new competitors. But Kagan doubts that will prove true.

“The problem is, the sticky bundle is not a low-cost solution,” Kagan offered. “With that said, the higher cost to the cable television companies is less than that of losing their customer base. So, the cost makes sense as simply a cost of doing business.”

The challenge cable operators face is that none plan to own and operate their own traditional cellular network. Comcast and Charter have partnered with Verizon Wireless to resell access to its 4G LTE network and Altice will rely on Sprint. Leasing access on an ongoing basis is likely to be more expensive that relying on your own network, but beyond offering Wi-Fi calling and experimental access to future 5G-type services in the emerging CBRS band, cable operators will remain almost completely dependent on their wireless provider partners, limiting their effective ability to compete.

Kagan believes the goals of the two industries are different. Wireless operators are trying to monetize their networks through usage, while cable operators are trying to find new services that will keep customers loyal and are willing to ignore monetizing their wireless side businesses to achieve that goal.

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