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FCC Moves to Make Cable TV Franchise Fee Rules More Cable Industry Friendly

Phillip Dampier August 7, 2019 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Reuters No Comments

WASHINGTON, Aug 1 (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last week voted 3-2 to tighten rules governing the franchise fees paid by cable companies to local authorities, a move that cities warn could result in public access channels going off the air or in municipalities losing free service.

Congress previously capped the franchise fees that cable operators pay for using public property, among other factors, at 5% of gross revenue on cable bills. The FCC vote requires non-financial “in kind” contributions made by cable operators must be assigned a value and counted against the cap.

Those costs that now must be counted against the cap include contributions for public, educational, and government access channels, institutional networks and other services like free cable for municipal buildings.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said “every dollar paid in excessive fees is a dollar that by definition cannot and will not be invested in upgrading and expanding networks.”

Cable operators pay roughly $3 billion annually in franchise fees to state and local governments.

New York told the FCC all city fire stations get free cable and internet service from cable providers.

“There are no viable alternative services available to the city. The only potential long-term solution would be to build a parallel network which will take years and cost a massive amount of money,” the city said in a July 25 letter.

Milton, Massachusetts, which noted it uses an institutional network for police and school security cameras and municipal internet access, said it could lose government access channel programming.

Pai

The FCC also voted Thursday to bar municipalities from regulating or imposing fees on most non-cable services, including broadband Internet service.

NCTA – the Internet & Television Association representing major cable companies like Comcast Corp, Charter Communications Inc and Cox Communications Inc – said the vote “will help promote broadband investment, deployment, and innovation, to the benefit of all Americans.”

FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said “free or discounted service to cash-strapped schools, provision of critical (institutional network service), discounts to vulnerable communities … are a small imposition given the value received by providers.”

He added it “risks causing grave harm to local communities.”

Republicans commissioners point out that cable companies have been forced to fund other events like ice cream socials or offer free service for government-owned golf courses.

Local communities including Atlanta, Boston, Dallas and Los Angeles told the FCC in a joint statement local governments will “be forced to make difficult decisions about reductions in service (i.e., coverage of governmental meetings, community media, and broadband to schools) or increases in local revenue sources.”

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Bernadette Baum

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.

Altice Struggles With Video Programming Costs That Eat 67% of Video Revenue

The reason why many cable companies are no longer willing to cut deals on cable television with customers looking for a better one is that the profit margin enjoyed by cable operators on television service is shrinking fast.

Researcher Cowen found that smaller cable operators are particularly vulnerable to the high costs of cable programming because they do not get the volume discounts larger operators like Comcast, Charter, DirecTV, and Dish are getting.

Researcher Cowen found that programming costs are increasing fast at smaller cable companies. (Image: Cowen/Multichannel News)

Altice USA, which divides about 3.3 million cable TV subscribers between Optimum/Cablevision and Suddenlink, says it paid $682.4 million for cable TV programming during the first quarter of 2019. That amounts to 67% of the company’s total video revenue. If Altice offered complaining customers a 40-50% break on cable television, it would lose money. Cable operators already temporarily give up a significant chunk of video revenue from new customer promotions, which discount offerings for the first year or two of service. Many operators consider any video promotion to be a loss leader these days, because programming costs are exploding, particularly for some local, over-the-air network affiliated stations that are now commanding as much as $3-5 a month per subscriber for each station.

Comcast, the nation’s largest cable operator, unsurprisingly also gets the best programming prices. With volume discounts, Comcast reports its programming costs consume about 60% of revenue. Charter Spectrum and Dish report about 65% of their video revenue is eaten by programming costs. Both are seeing dramatic declines in video subscribers as cord-cutting continues. The more customers a company loses, the less of a discount they will command going forward.

According to Cowen, just three years ago Comcast gave up 53% of video revenue to cover programming costs. With programming rate inflation increasing, many smaller cable companies are considering exiting the cable TV business altogether to focus on more profitable broadband service instead.

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.

The Downside to Modem Fees: Customers Hold On to Legacy Owned Modems Forever

Arris/Motorola’s SB6121 SURFboard DOCSIS 3.0 Cable Modem used to be considered “eXtreme,” but now most cable companies consider it obsolete.

The legacy of the hated modem rental fee is coming back to bite providers that charge $10 a month or more for a device that likely cost the company well under $100.

To opt out of the fee, a growing percentage of customers buy their own equipment, but now many of those modems are becoming functionally obsolete and customers are wary of efforts by providers to convince them to accept a newer, company-supplied modem.

With the arrival of DOCSIS 3.1 and faster speeds, the problem is only getting worse for companies like Comcast, Charter Spectrum, and Cox. With an installed base of hundreds of thousands of obsolete modems, customers frequently can no longer get the internet speed they pay for, and the equipment’s limitations can cause congestion on cable broadband networks, because older modems cannot take advantage of the exponential increase in available “channels” that help share the load on the neighborhood network.

“Some customers have cable modems that are incompatible (such as DOCSIS 2.0 and DOCSIS 3.0 4×4 modems) with the current class of service or internet speed that they’re receiving. As a result, these customers may not be experiencing the full range of available bandwidth that they’re paying for,” Comcast informs their customers. “If a device is no longer supported by Comcast or has reached its end-of-life (EOL), this essentially means that we will no longer install the device, either as a new or replacement device. In addition, we will no longer recommend that customers purchase the device, whether new or used.”

But many Comcast customers do not realize their equipment is effectively obsolete until they visit mydeviceinfo.xfinity.com and sign in to their account or enter a device make and model in the search bar on the homepage or hear directly from the company. Comcast will send online alerts to customers verified to still be using outdated equipment and occasionally send notifications through the mail. Customers can order new equipment online or swap out old equipment in a cable store. Comcast prefers its customers rent its Xfinity xFi Wireless Gateway ($13/mo) or xFi Advanced Gateway ($15/mo). As an incentive, Comcast is testing offering free unlimited data in some central U.S. markets to those choosing its more costly Advanced Gateway.

Charter Spectrum sold its merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks partly on its argument that modem fees would no longer be charged. Despite that, many former Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers still use their own modems, which has been a problem for a company that raised the standard internet speed available to residential customers from 15 Mbps to 100 Mbps (200 Mbps in some markets, mostly those also served by AT&T). Older modems often cannot achieve those speeds. Spectrum notifies affected customers in periodic campaigns, offering to replace their obsolete equipment, but many customers suspect hidden fees may be lurking in such offers and discard them.

“Some modems that were issued years ago have become outdated. If you have a modem that was issued by us and hasn’t been swapped in the last six years, it might need to be replaced,” Spectrum tells customers. “To get a replacement modem, contact us or visit a Spectrum store. Please recycle your old modem or bring it to a Spectrum store for proper disposal. If you do a modem swap with us, you’ll receive a mail return label in your package, which can be used to return your old modem.”

Cox is also in a similar predicament. It runs seasonal checks on its network to identify customers using older DOCSIS modems, often DOCSIS 3.0 4×4 modems, which can only support four download channels. When it finds customers eligible for an upgrade, it mails postcards offering a “free modem upgrade,” usually supplying a SB6183 or SB8200 modem that can arrive in 24-48 hours. But many Cox customers suspect trickery from Cox as well, or run into poorly trained customer service representatives that reject the postcards, claiming the customer is ineligible.

“DOCSIS 3.0 8×4 or higher (or a DOCSIS 3.1) devices are required for all new Cox High Speed Internet customers,” Cox tells their internet customers. “Current Cox customers should ensure they have a minimum of a DOCSIS 3.0 device in order to consistently receive optimal speeds. Additionally, Ultimate customers are required to have a minimum of a DOCSIS 3.0 device with a minimum of 16×4 or higher channel bonding to achieve package speeds.”

In fact, most modem upgrade offers from your provider are likely genuine, but customers need to pay attention to any fine print.

Customers can also purchase their own upgraded modem if they want to avoid Comcast’s Gateway fee. Cox does not charge customers for modems sent as part of a free upgrade offer, but watch for erroneous charges on your bill and report them at once if they do appear. Charter Spectrum has recently introduced a $9.99 modem activation fee, applicable to new customer-owned or company-supplied cable modems. We do not know if that fee would apply in cases of an obsolete modem upgrade. Be sure to ask, and if the answer is no, make a note of the representative’s name in case a dispute arises later on.

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  • Paul Houle: Funny but I noticed that FTR was doing some work on the lines between my house and the CO. When I took a closer look I saw that they ran a fiber opti...
  • Phillip Dampier: I would definitely suggest people who do not like this change call, complain, and threaten to cancel Comcast unless they offer you a better deal. This...
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