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Charter Communications Slashing Investments in Its Cable Systems by $1.9 Billion in 2019

Spending less, charging more in 2019.

Despite repeated claims from some in Washington that eliminating net neutrality would stimulate U.S. telecommunications companies to invest more in their networks, Charter Communications has announced a dramatic $1.9 billion cut in capital expenditures (CapEx) spending on its Spectrum cable systems for 2019.

Charter posted 2018 revenue of $43.6 billion (up 4.9 percent over 2017), with especially healthy returns for its internet service, which grew 7.1%. Charter earned $11.2 billion in revenue, up 5.9% in the fourth quarter of 2018 alone, partly from rate increases, reduced costs, and additional broadband customers.

Republican FCC commissioners have repeatedly argued that deregulating the internet by sweeping away net neutrality would stimulate companies to invest more in their networks. But it now appears the reverse is true. In 2017, Charter spent $8.7 billion on network investments; in 2018 the company spent $9.1 billion. But this year, with net neutrality no longer the law of the land, the cable company is planning to dramatically cut investments in 2019 to just $7 billion. The combined company, which now includes Time Warner Cable (TWC) and Bright House Networks (BH), has never spent this little on capital expenditures. The 2016 merger between Charter and TWC and BH forced a 189.4% spike in spending after the deal was completed, as Charter began a cable system overhaul and upgrade.

Charter is expecting it can distribute more of its revenue to shareholders, share buybacks, and debt payments as a result of the completion of its all-digital conversion project, which eliminated analog television signals from cable systems to make more room for revenue-enhancing internet service. The company also gets to lease more set-top boxes to customers seeking to view digital television signals on older analog TV sets.

Charter also reports it has successfully completed its DOCSIS 3.1 internet upgrade to more than 99% of its cable systems, allowing the introduction of premium-priced gigabit internet speed.

Charter executives signaled investors earlier this month Charter expects to post greater revenue and profits as a result of the spending reductions, but these new-found gains will have no effect on the company’s ongoing plans to continue mildly aggressive rate increases in 2019.

Charter has not disclosed how much it plans to spend on its new mobile business in 2019. The company is marketing its mobile phone service more aggressively this year as it prepares to accept customers bringing existing phones to its cellular service, powered by Charter’s in-home and in-business Wi-Fi and Verizon Wireless’ 4G LTE network.

AT&T: “2019 is the Money Year” – Company Plans Big Rate Hikes, Makes It Tough to Disconnect

Phillip Dampier January 29, 2019 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, DirecTV, Online Video 5 Comments

AT&T shareholders are frustrated. They are not getting the dividend payouts and shareholder value they expected after AT&T put itself $170 billion in debt last year — the highest debt load of any non-financial American corporation.

As AT&T has bet big in recent years on video-related acquisitions, including DirecTV and Time Warner (Entertainment), investors are skeptical AT&T can properly monetize its video business. Many have sold shares after criticizing company executives over the company’s strategy and high debt, driving AT&T’s market capitalization down to around $225 billion, comparable with considerably smaller Verizon Communications.

But no worries, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, has reassured. AT&T expects those investments to yield results this year, helped by forthcoming broad price hikes for AT&T’s consumer services.

“2019 candidly is the money year,” Stephenson said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “This is a year when we get everything rationalized.”

According to AT&T, customers are irrationally paying too little for AT&T’s video-related services, which include DirecTV (~19 million customers) and DirecTV Now — the two-year old streaming service that has attracted nearly two million subscribers.

Stephenson

Although DirecTV has recently been extremely aggressive about offering deep discounts to convince satellite customers to stay, AT&T plans to pull back on those discounts as two million DirecTV customers see their two-year contracts end this year. Instead of granting renewed discounts for signing another contract, AT&T plans to deliver significant rate increases.

“As those customers come due, we’ll get closer to market pricing,” AT&T’s John Donovan told investors at a November investor conference. “We’ll be respectful of our customers, but [prices] will move up.”

That may prove a difficult sell for DirecTV satellite customers, who have recently been abandoning the satellite platform in favor of cheaper streaming TV alternatives. Even with package discounts, DirecTV is the pay television industry’s most expensive provider, collecting an average of $120.36 a month for its TV packages. In contrast, Dish Networks gets an average of $103.99, Charter Spectrum earns $91.14 and Comcast, $84.50.

DirecTV defections, largely over price, have been growing at an accelerated rate, with 1.4 million customers turning their back on the satellite provider over the last two years. Analysts expect AT&T will report 300,000 more lost subscribers in the last three months alone. At that rate, AT&T will lose at least $1 billion in operating profits in 2019 from its declining satellite TV unit alone.

(Image courtesy: WSJ)

DirecTV Now customers, who already absorbed a $5 rate hike last summer, and will face even more rate increases and channel reductions in 2019. Stephenson expects DirecTV Now’s price point to be in the $50-60 range, which means many customers will likely face an average of $10 in rate hikes this year. For AT&T, that would deliver “the right price” and gets the service “to where it is profitable,” according to Stephenson.

But customers are likely to balk if AT&T reduces channel lineups at the same time it raises prices. AT&T has already faced substantial DirecTV Now customer defections after last summer’s rate increase, and the company has also reduced new customer sign-ups by cutting back on new subscriber promotions, which often included a free set-top streaming device. Waiting to pick up exiled streaming and satellite customers are AT&T’s competitors, especially Google. YouTube TV has proved to be a DirecTV Now killer, now charging $40 a month for 60+ channels. It also comes with an unlimited cloud DVR feature and a complete lineup of local channels across most of the country. YouTube TV is reportedly still growing, attracting more than one million customers so far. AT&T executives claim the service is popular only because Google is suspected of subsidizing what they believe to be an unprofitable venture by around $9 a month.

Investors are also unhappy about customers slimming down their TV packages, because average revenue per customer is cut in the process, sometimes dramatically. Wall Street was accustomed to video packages bringing in at least $100 a month. In many cases, that revenue is cut in half after a customer switches to a streaming provider. AT&T hopes investor pressure on those new ventures and ongoing wholesale programming rate increases will both conspire to bring back familiar annual rate hikes for streaming services as well. Programming cost inflation almost feeds itself. As programmers set new wholesale rate records for their networks, other programmers believe there is now room to raise their wholesale rates as well.

Programming costs are not just important for consumers, either. Wholesale programming rate inflation was one of the reasons AT&T spent $49 billion to acquire DirecTV. Volume discounts for DirecTV meant the satellite provider was paying an estimated $20 a month less on programming than AT&T’s own U-verse unit, which had a much smaller customer base. AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner, which owns several popular cable networks, was also a hedge against programming rate increases because AT&T would effectively pay any increases to itself.

(Image courtesy: WSJ)

The Journal reports AT&T executives were unprepared for the speed cord-cutting has taken hold. Most most under-30 have abandoned the concept of paying for live, linear cable television at any price, preferring a combination of on-demand streaming from Netflix, Hulu, and other video streaming services with an over the air antenna to watch local stations for free. Older Americans are gradually following suit.

According to the Journal, AT&T’s latest tactic to slow down customer departures is to make cancellation as difficult as possible:

“There’s no way that we could make the numbers we were told to make,” said Altrina Grant, former manager of a Chicago-area AT&T call center. She said some agents would promise to call back a customer about a request to drop service rather than immediately disconnecting, which would count against their compensation. Irate customers would later call another employee to ask why their request wasn’t honored, she said.

“These reps were getting thousands of dollars because they knew how to manipulate the system,” Ms. Grant said.

Cyrus Evans, a former call-center manager in Waco, Texas, said employees’ pay could swing between $50,000 and $80,000 a year depending on their performance, which was often influenced by how many disconnection requests they could deflect. Mr. Evans said employees often got angry calls from customers who had been promised their service would end, only to receive a bill the next month. He said the incentive structure rewarded bad behavior.

Former AT&T workers said the company launched a new audit team in 2017 to crack down on support staffers making promises they couldn’t keep. Ms. Grant said this initiative led the company to fire some workers but several customer-care executives are still in their jobs.

AT&T disputes these allegations, claiming false promises to customers violate AT&T’s Code of Business Conduct and are “extremely rare.”

Conservative Business Group Sues to Toss Pro-Consumer Time Warner/Charter Merger Conditions

A corporate-funded business advocacy group backed by the telecom industry and the Koch Brothers is pursuing a lawsuit asking the D.C. Court of Appeals to toss pro-consumer deal conditions imposed by the Federal Communications Commission in return for granting its 2016 approval of the acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks by Charter Communications.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute filed an initial petition with the FCC asking the agency to rescind its own deal conditions shortly after the merger was completed. CEI argued the agency imposed “harmful merger conditions on Charter that had nothing to do with the merger itself,” and that the FCC did not have the authority to put corporate merger deal conditions in place.

CEI specifically targeted its objections to the FCC’s seven-year ban on Charter Spectrum data caps and consumption billing, arguing the ban raised broadband pricing for all Spectrum customers and prevented the cable company from offering discounts to low usage customers. It also claimed that Charter had to increase pricing for all customers because the FCC required Spectrum to raise broadband speeds, introduce a discounted internet program for low-income customers, and expand service to at least two million new households not presently served by Spectrum.

The FCC ultimately rejected CEI’s petition in 2018, claiming the group had no standing to challenge the merger transaction or deal conditions. The group called the FCC’s decision wrong, claiming consumers will “have to foot the bill for an overreaching federal agency” and that “the FCC has no authority to micromanage the internet at the public’s expense.”

This week, it filed an opening brief appealing the FCC’s decision to the D.C. Court of Appeals, which oversees the legality of the FCC’s regulatory decisions.

The 101-page filing maintains the FCC overreached by imposing any deal conditions on the 2016 multi-billion dollar merger deal, especially those that might require the merged company to spend money to improve service to customers. CEI argued such conditions were “arbitrary and capricious” and had no place as part of approving a business merger transaction.

The group submitted evidence from four individuals who attested to their belief that the deal conditions “probably contributed” to price increases after customers abandoned their legacy Bright House and Time Warner Cable plans in favor of Spectrum plans and pricing. The customers reported rate hikes ranging from $4 a month to $20 a month “for the same services,” but did not attach copies of their bills allowing a court to ascertain whether those rate increases involved cable television or broadband service or both.

No evidence was provided to prove CEI’s assertion that rate increases were directly tied to merger conditions other than a declaration from Robert W. Crandall, an economist and nonresident senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Crandall argued any deal conditions requiring a cable company to spend money to expand, improve, or discount services would likely impact subscriber rates.

No disclosure was made regarding any fees paid to Crandall to conduct research on behalf of CEI. The Technology Policy Institute is financially backed almost entirely by the Koch Brothers and corporate interests including AT&T, Charter Communications, Comcast, and Verizon.

CEI’s legal brief depends on assertions made by then-minority Republican members of the FCC, notably then-Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, who objected to the FCC’s merger conditions. CEI ignored the views of the then-Democratic majority on the Commission, who voted to approve the merger with deal conditions. Then Chairman Thomas Wheeler and Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel were not mentioned anywhere in CEI’s brief. Today the Commission has a Republican majority, with Pai now serving as chairman.

The FCC in 2016 (from left to right): Commissioners Ajit Pai, Mignon Clyburn, Chairman Tom Wheeler, and Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Michael O’Rielly

CEI’s argument follows a similar pattern to arguments made against net neutrality — namely, the FCC has no authority to regulate broadband services or the pricing and policies of the companies providing it. Charter Communications has occasionally argued the same point with the New York State Public Service Commission, which imposed deal conditions of its own in return for approval of the merger.

Charter has consistently reserved the right to object to deal conditions requiring it to build out service to rural areas, as well as any deal conditions that go beyond the authority of state regulators to oversee broadband service. In Charter’s view, state regulators have no such authority. In the state’s view, the PSC has the right to consider a myriad of factors because its regulatory mandate  requires approving or rejecting a merger based on the public interest. Its 2016 merger order found the transaction was not in the public interest unless the parties agreed to certain deal conditions, which closely resembled those required by the FCC. When Charter allegedly failed to meet the conditions it agreed to, the New York regulator could not directly compel Charter Spectrum into compliance, but it could and did decertify the merger itself.

Should the D.C. Court of Appeals find in favor of CEI, the deal conditions imposed by the FCC would be revoked, although Charter could continue to honor those conditions voluntarily. Separate legal cases would have to be brought in state courts to invalidate deal conditions imposed by state regulators.

Netflix Announces Biggest Price Hike Ever: Most Will Pay $12.99 a Month

Phillip Dampier January 15, 2019 Competition, Consumer News, Online Video No Comments

Like cable companies, streaming services are not immune to raising rates, and the country’s biggest and most popular streaming service — Netflix — this morning announced its largest rate hike ever.

Most Netflix subscribers will see their monthly rate increase by $2 a month.

Netflix’s rate card effective January 15, 2019 (for new subscribers).

The rate hike will raise at least $100 million a month in revenue and will apply first to new subscribers, and will gradually apply to all 58 million current U.S. subscribers over the next three months, as well as those in Latin America where subscriptions are paid in U.S. dollars (except in Mexico and Brazil, where rates remain unchanged). Rates for the 78 million Netflix subscribers outside of the U.S. are not expected to change immediately, partly due to ongoing promotional spending and marketing efforts to boost subscriber numbers overseas.

Wall Street had been increasingly pessimistic about Netflix’s revenue and profit projections because of ongoing increases in spending to finance an avalanche of original Netflix productions. The company’s stock price dropped by 21 percent, from a peak of $423.21 last June to $332.94 just before the market opened this morning. Netflix’s chief content officer told the media last spring about 85% of the company’s estimated $8 billion in content spending for 2018 was for original TV shows, movies, and other productions. By summer, Netflix had $12 billion in debt before borrowing another $2 billion in October. But that debt never changed Netflix’s plans to premiere 1,000 new movies and TV series in 2018, with an even larger number of productions scheduled for 2019.

Netflix has been pushed towards producing its own content as movie studios and studio-owned television production companies raise contract renewal prices on Netflix or end those contracts altogether, bringing content back to those studios as they prepare to launch paid streaming services of their own. WarnerMedia, Disney, and NBCUniversal are all planning launches over the next 24 months, while other existing services like CBS All Access and Hulu continue to beef up their own viewing menus, often with shows that were formerly found on Netflix.

Netflix is also depending on a growing international audience for its offerings, and has expanded original productions in many languages to find that global audience. Netflix usually benefits from much lower production costs for shows filmed overseas, and English language subscribers have surprisingly embraced dubbed and/or subtitled content at levels beyond Netflix’s expectations. Back in North America, the massive increase in demand for original content by Netflix and its competitors has made it possible for production companies, directors, writers, and talent to command dramatically higher salaries, raising Netflix’s expenses.

Investors cheered today’s price increase, causing its stock price to rise at least 6% in early trading. Wall Street believes Netflix is now nearly immune to cancellations over its price, which is still below the monthly retail price of HBO. But this morning’s announcement does represent the largest rate increase ever for the 12-year old streaming service.

Netflix will also use some of the additional revenue from the rate hike to pay down its substantial debt. Few expect any backlash reminiscent of Netflix’s 2011 decision to raise prices and unbundle its DVD-rental-by-mail service from video streaming, which resulted in a 60 percent rate increase for customers seeking both streaming and mail rental options. Netflix lost 600,000 subscribers after that announcement, initially making the company more cautious about future rate increases.

Canadian Netflix Rate Increase: Up $3 to $13.99/Month for Standard Plan

Phillip Dampier November 29, 2018 Canada, Competition, Consumer News, Online Video No Comments

Canadian Netflix subscribers will pay up to $3 more a month in the coming weeks for streaming video as the company raises prices to produce more original Canadian content.

The latest rate increase is the largest ever for the service in Canada.

New Rates for Netflix Canada

  • Netflix Basic increases $1 to $9.99 a month. No 4K video and one-stream only
  • Netflix Standard increases $3 to $13.99 a month. No 4K video and up to two streams at a time viewing
  • Netflix Premium increases $3 to $16.99 a month. Includes 4K ultra HD video and up to four streams at a time viewing

The new rates take effect today for new customers. Existing customers will be notified by e-mail about the rate increase and when exactly it will be applied to their account.

Netflix Canada has taken over distribution of the long running mockumentary filmed in Nova Scotia.

The last rate increase in 2016 raised the price of Netflix by $1.

Netflix Canada spent $3.3 billion on original content in 2017. That is more than any of Canada’s English language commercial networks or broadcasters spent on scripted productions. Netflix also films many of its original productions in Canada, which is less expensive than many American filming locations.

Netflix Canada appears to have found a formula that works for the streaming service: participating in co-productions with entities like the CBC (at least for English productions) and asking subscribers to pay more to cover the company’s costs. This has spared Netflix from having its service subject to the federal GST, which would come out of subscribers’ pockets.

The company has had a much more difficult time dealing with the provincial government in Quebec, which protested loudly that Netflix Canada failed to make specific French language content commitments. As a result, Quebec has slapped its 9.975% sales tax on Netflix and all other streaming services.

Canada is gradually catching up to the United States in cord-cutting options. Netflix Canada’s offering is just a few hundred titles behind Netflix’s catalogs in the United States and Japan.

Other services have entered Canada in the last year or so, including CBS’ All Access, Acorn TV, and BritBox.

In response, Canadian broadcasters and telecom companies are beefing up their own services, which include CTV Movies/CTV Vault and Citytv Now/FX Now (which are only for authenticated cable/satellite subscribers) and Bell’s Crave TV (which just launched CraveTV+, offering more movies and original HBO shows).

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