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Cable Infrastructure Suppliers Hurting After Cable Industry Slashes Investment, CapEx Spending

Despite claims from Republican FCC commissioners that cable companies are boosting investment in their networks as a result of the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality, cable infrastructure suppliers reported first quarter 2019 revenues nosedived 38%, reflecting an “extreme” cutback in cable industry spending not seen in over five years.

ARRIS/CommScope and Casa Systems, two major suppliers of cable system infrastructure, saw a broad decline in orders starting this year as companies like Comcast and Charter Communications slashed investment in broadband upgrades. Executives at both cable companies informed investors they expected significant spending cutbacks after completing their DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades, which have made gigabit download speeds available in large portions of the country. Comcast and Charter executives also told investors that large-scale spending is not planned in the near future.

The spending cuts were acknowledged by CommScope CEO Eddie Edwards in a conference call with investors.

“The ARRIS business is off to a challenging start to the year, driven largely by the significant reduction in CapEx spend by certain large cable companies, many of whom have commented publicly on 2019 network and capital priorities,” Edwards said.

The nation’s top two cable operators spent $1.1 billion in the third quarter and $1.4 billion in the fourth quarter of 2018 on system upgrades and investments. But during the first quarter of this year, spending plummeted to $600 million. Jeff Heynen, Dell’Oro’s research director, told Light Reading he has not seen revenues in the cable access network sector drop to such a low level since 2013.

“We’re talking about a significant decline sequentially just for CapEx for two of the largest cable operators in the world,” Heynen told the trade journal. “But this isn’t just one or two operators cutting their CapEx. It’s quite a few of them, and the big ones, too. This was bound to have a significant impact on the infrastructure market.”

Analysts expect cable industry spending will remain sluggish for much of 2019, with a possible turnaround sometime late this year, but more likely in 2020.

‘Drive-By Pai’ Takes Out Consumer Interests by Favoring T-Mobile/Sprint Merger

Pai

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai found a lot to like about the proposed merger of T-Mobile and Sprint and has recommended his fellow commissioners approve the transaction after the companies offered new commitments to ease anti-competitive and anti-trust concerns.

That typically means the FCC’s 3-2 Republican majority will quickly approve the deal in a forthcoming vote, with three Republicans in favor and two Democrats opposed, if tradition holds.

Pai’s support for the merger is hardly surprising. Since joining the FCC as a commissioner in the second half of the Obama Administration, Pai has consistently opposed every pro-consumer item on the FCC’s docket. He loves industry-consolidating mergers, hates telecom companies being forced to open their businesses to competition on things like set-top boxes, and considers almost all pro-consumer protection policies from net neutrality to merger deal conditions examples of “overregulation” that he argues are harmful to the free market and investment.

The troubled merger, which would create what we will call T-Sprint, has remained under review for months, recently stalled over revelations the two companies tailored the transaction to appeal to President Trump. T-Mobile executives spent $195,000 repeatedly renting rooms at the Trump International Hotel in Washington and spent large sums hiring Trump-connected “advisors” including Reince Priebus and Corey Lewandowski. The merger pitch was changed to emphasize its impact on rapidly growing 5G networks, a talking point favorite of President Trump, who wants to beat the Chinese over the development of next generation wireless networks.

The merger must win approval from both the FCC and the Justice Department. The latter is said to be troubled about the anti-competitive impact of reducing the number of national wireless carriers from four to three. Such a consolidation would likely permanently change the wireless competition paradigm, because there has been no interest among new entrants to construct multi-billion dollar national cellular networks to compete with established wireless companies.

On Monday, T-Mobile and Sprint delivered additional concessions which seem to have won the approval of Mr. Pai.

“Two of the FCC’s top priorities are closing the digital divide in rural America and advancing United States leadership in 5G, the next generation of wireless connectivity,” Pai said in a statement Monday. “The commitments made today by T-Mobile and Sprint would substantially advance each of these critical objectives.”

But a closer examination of “T-Sprint’s concessions” shows there is remarkably little there to protect competition and consumers:

  • A proposed spin off of prepaid Boost Mobile, which relies on the weaker Sprint network, is hardly much of a concession considering it will likely be impacted by the decommissioning of Sprint’s network, requiring at least some customers to buy new equipment that works on T-Mobile’s network. T-Sprint would also continue to control Boost competitors Virgin Mobile and MetroPCS, putting Boost at a distinct disadvantage.
  • The “nationwide” 5G network promised by T-Sprint is replete with fine print. The company will not be formally assessed on its expansion progress for three years, has demanded that T-Mobile’s own employees be allowed to conduct network performance tests — a conflict of interest, and that if it fails to meet its own proposed metrics, the FCC must forego the use of its regulatory forfeiture powers. Instead, the company agrees to pay “voluntary” fines if it fails coverage expansion commitments that are open to wide interpretation and litigation.
  • T-Sprint agreed to expand its “5G” coverage, but will rely heavily on existing macro cell towers and low and mid-band spectrum, shared by a much larger number of users than millimeter wave/small cell technology. That will probably deliver a more modest, incremental upgrade over existing 4G LTE technology, not a game-changer that can deliver gigabit speeds to wireless customers. Nothing precludes AT&T and Verizon from deploying similar upgrades without a competition-crushing merger between the third and fourth largest competitors.
  • T-Sprint’s proposed wireless home broadband replacement does not include a commitment to provide unlimited service. In fact, vague language in the commitment letter suggests T-Sprint will offer the service with a performance and usage expectation akin to other fixed wireless networks. That likely means customers will endure a data cap and speeds that are not comparable to wired technology. Once the company has signed up 9.5 million home broadband customers, any commitments offered to regulators about that service automatically expire.
  • The FCC is expected to give up much of its regulatory authority in return for T-Sprint’s commitments. If T-Sprint walks away from its commitments and not invest billions on its network expansion, it can pay a much smaller fine and have its merger obligations disappear. The FCC will not be able to use its more effective compliance power: forfeiture penalties.

T-Sprint’s argument is that this transaction will accelerate the deployment of 5G technology in a war for 5G supremacy with China. But exactly what technology is deployed, on what spectrum, using small cells or macro cell towers, makes a lot of difference. China’s wireless companies are owned and controlled by the Chinese government, which is also underwriting some of the costs. America’s networks are financed with private capital (and customer bills). T-Sprint’s 5G plans are also far less ambitious than those from AT&T and Verizon, and the cost to long-term competition is too high. The FCC should know that.

Congress has noticed that this merger has been rejected before during the Obama Administration for being anti competitive. Nothing has changed with respect to that. But T-Mobile’s lobbying sure has — this time trying to appeal to the Trump Administration for approval. Pai is certainly on board, and that could cost American consumers plenty.

Most telling of all is Wall Street’s reaction to today’s news. A merger that is being sold as as an AT&T/Verizon killer appears to be anything but. Verizon stock rose by 4.2% and AT&T by 4%. Investors recognize that consolidation can mean only one thing: higher prices. It means the end of the wireless price war that had Sprint and T-Mobile taking potshots at their larger rivals, forcing them to cut prices and bring back unlimited data plans.

It would be ruinous for T-Sprint to continue slashing prices and taunting AT&T and Verizon with costly promotions and giveaways. AT&T and Verizon expect T-Sprint will join their comfortable cartel with suspiciously similar plans and pricing, while firing up to 30,000 redundant workers and decommissioning Sprint’s wireless network. That last fact is well known on Wall Street, too. Cellphone tower owners took a beating in the stock market on the news they could lose Sprint as a customer. American Tower was down 1.9%, Crown Castle fell 3.2% and SBA Communications Corp. dropped as much as 4.5%.

The deal still must pass muster with the Justice Department, and attorneys general from multiple U.S. states are also opposing the deal on the state level. But the Republican members of the FCC joining up to support the deal make it more likely that it will eventually get approved.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s Claims Aren’t Worth the Mug He Drinks From

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai drinking from his oversized mug.

Last fall, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai trumpeted claims that as a result of his successful efforts to rid the United States of net neutrality, the days of reduced investment from the nation’s cable and phone companies were over.

“Since my first day on the job, this agency has been focused on cutting through the regulatory red tape and increasing broadband investment, most importantly in rural America where the digital divide remains all too real,” Pai said in October 2018. “Today’s report confirms that the FCC’s policies to promote broadband deployment are working. After internet service providers reduced new investments in 2015 and 2016 under the prior Administration’s regulatory approach [ie. net neutrality], broadband investment increased in 2017 by $1.5 billion over the previous year. That’s real progress for American consumers, and another step toward better, faster, and cheaper broadband for all Americans.”

Of course, his claims were false last fall. Top executives at the nation’s largest telecom companies have repeatedly admitted that net neutrality had little, if any bearing on their spending plans. Much of the increased spending was, in fact, attributable to:

  • AT&T’s required expansion of its fiber to the home network to meet its obligations from the acquisition of DirecTV.
  • Charter Communications’ committed upgrades as part of its acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, including switching off analog video and deploying DOCSIS 3.1.
  • Comcast’s increased spending on DOCSIS 3.1 and pushing fiber optics deeper into its hybrid fiber-coax network.
  • Wireless carrier investment in further 4G LTE deployments and network densification.

In the past six months, many of these companies have signaled investors the days of big spending are over, despite the fact the so-called regulatory shackles of net neutrality and other reform measures have been abolished under the Republican-led FCC.

Today, Comcast delivered the ultimate truth blow to Pai’s worthless promises, showing the lowest investment intensity in years. In fact, Comcast reported a huge 19.4% drop in capital expenditures, while achieving a 40.1% EBITDA margin — a signal the company is earning even bigger profits than ever, while at the same time literally slashing investment. One thing that did not decrease was Comcast’s total free cash flow, which rose to $4.592 billion dollars in the last quarter.

House Democrats Lead Charge in 232-190 Vote to Restore Net Neutrality; GOP Senate Leader Promises Bill is “DOA”

Phillip Dampier April 10, 2019 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

The House on Wednesday approved a bill on a 232 to 190 vote along party lines to restore net neutrality protections first adopted in 2015, but repealed in 2018 by the Republican majority serving the Trump Administration’s Federal Communications Commission under the leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai.

All 231 voting Democrats voted in favor of the net neutrality measure while all but one Republican (Rep. Bill Posey of Florida) opposed it.

While the measure would never have passed a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Democrats still face an uphill battle to get the measure through the Republican-controlled Senate and on to the White House.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday the bill would be “dead on arrival” in the Senate, and McConnell was unlikely to even consent to bring the bill to the floor for a debate and vote. Separately, aides to the president strongly urged him to veto the measure should it ever reach his desk for a signature.

Republicans have defended the nation’s largest internet service providers and policies which have largely deregulated their business practices and rates, claiming it has stimulated investment and expansion by ISPs willing to spend money in a favorable business climate. Critics contend spending policies at the nation’s largest providers are based on business priorities, not government policy on internet openness.

Pai

Minutes after the House vote ended, Pai attacked the results: “This legislation is a big-government solution in search of a problem. The internet is free and open, while faster broadband is being deployed across America. This bill should not and will not become law.”

Under the current rules, ISPs are allowed to block, throttle, or charge extra for content accessed over their broadband pipes, as long as a company informs its customers it is doing so. Democrats like Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, one of the chief proponents for net neutrality restoration, compared the FCC’s repeal with firing a police force in a high crime area.

“Today, nobody is enforcing any rules. There’s no cop on the beat,” Doyle said. “You need a cop on the beat. These rules wouldn’t have been put into place if there was never this kind of behavior on the part of ISPs. We didn’t just dream all this up.”

Rep. Doyle

Three years into the Trump Administration, Doyle complains, the FCC has still done little to protect consumers from abusive ISPs.

“They’ve done nothing, nada, zip, crickets. They did nothing,” Doyle said. “It’s the wild, wild west. Let the ISPs do anything they want and consumers be damned.”

Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr disagrees.

“The U.S. has turned the page on the failed broadband policies of the Obama Administration,” Carr said in a statement criticizing the net neutrality measure as threatening to turn back the clock on the telecom industry’s progress.

Many Republicans claimed they supported measures that would prohibit ISPs from interfering with content, but were opposed to Democrats tying regulatory authority to redefining ISPs as telecommunications providers. Republicans claim that could lead to a government power grab by officials seeking rate controls and service quality regulations. Some Republicans also claim the measure would expose the internet to new taxes.

Democrats are now lobbying to get Senate Leader McConnell to schedule a Senate vote for the measure.

Democrats Unveil New Net Neutrality Bill Restoring 2015 Openness Rules

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with fellow Senate Democrats and FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (upper left corner), speaks at the announcement of a new bill that would codify net neutrality as federal law.

Democrats in Congress this morning unveiled a new bill that would effectively reinstate the 2015 Open Internet rules repealed under the Trump Administration’s Republican-dominated Federal Communications Commission.

The new bill, “Save the Internet Act of 2019,” was hailed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as a “pillar of economic opportunity” for the digital 21st century information economy and a bill that will stop internet service providers from raising broadband prices even higher.

“A full 86% of Americans oppose the Trump assault on net neutrality including 82% of Republicans,” Pelosi said at an announcement ceremony held in Washington this morning. “With the Save the Internet Act, Democrats are honoring the will of the people and restore the protections that do this — stop unjust discriminatory practices by ISPs that try to throttle the public’s browsing speed, block your internet access, and increase your costs. This is about freedom, this is about cost.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced his intention to repeal net neutrality in 2017, and despite tens of millions of letters protesting that decision, Pai began rolling back net neutrality rules last year.

The three-page bill was co-sponsored by 46 Democrats in the U.S. Senate. It codifies the language from the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet rules as a standalone federal law, no longer subject to reinterpretation or dismissal by the FCC. A companion bill is expected to be introduced in the House on Friday.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) implored Senate Republicans to get on board with Democrats to support the re-establishment of a level playing field on the internet, criticizing their lack of support during last year’s effort to resurrect net neutrality.

“Unfortunately, all but three Senate Republicans voted on behalf of the special interests,” Schumer said, noting the measure still passed the Senate in 2018 but ultimately was shelved by the then-Republican controlled House. “So now we have a Democratic House, and Republicans will have a second chance — there are second chances — to right the Trump Administration’s wrong.”

Net neutrality has faced multiple legal challenges and intense lobbying by the telecommunications industry, especially by large cable and phone companies that generally oppose the concept, claiming it would impede management of their networks and block the creation of new innovative services that could deliver extra bandwidth on demand. Telecom companies also complain content providers like Netflix unfairly utilize their networks without fair compensation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Senate Democrats introduce the Save the Internet Act of 2019, a bill re-establishing net neutrality as federal law. (31:35)

 

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