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Spectrum: Go Ahead and Cancel Cable TV, We’ll Make a Fortune Selling You $70 Broadband Instead

Phillip Dampier September 3, 2019 Charter Spectrum, Competition, Consumer News 15 Comments

Charter Communications has set the stage for a Wall Street-pleasing boost in average revenue per user (ARPU) with a major broadband rate hike planned for this fall.

The rate of U.S. broadband subscriber growth slowed significantly in the second quarter of 2019, as the marketplace for internet access remains saturated and current customers are largely staying with the provider they know.

A MoffettNathanson report to investors shared by Light Reading reported subscriber growth is down from 3% during the first three months of 2019 to 2.8% over the late spring and early summer. In total, cable and phone companies added 438,000 new broadband customers in the second quarter, a significant drop from the 570,000 they added at the same time last year.

The number of new household formations continues to decline in the United States, presumably because younger Americans saddled with student loan debt are having a tougher time buying property or justifying high rent payments. Providers also believe the ongoing shift away from copper telco DSL service to cable broadband has slowed to a trickle, with those still loyal to DSL not concerned about internet speed, are happy with lower cost service, or do not have any other option. Craig Moffett, chief analyst for MoffettNathanson believes much of the growth in cable broadband at this point is coming from customers switching from services like AT&T U-verse, which still offers top speeds of under 30 Mbps in some areas. Other phone companies still relying on fiber-to-the-neighborhood service are likely also seeing customer departures triggered by recent discontinuation of video service. In most areas, cable operators are still the largest beneficiaries of provider changes. Phone companies relying on DSL continue to report broadband subscriber losses. Last year during the second quarter, phone companies lost 127,000 subscribers (a 1.1% decline). This summer, they lost 172,000 subscribers (a 1.3% decline).

With slowing cable broadband growth, companies are still under pressure to report positive quarterly results to shareholders. Without a significant number of new customers, Moffett believes operators will raise broadband prices to deliver higher revenue, especially in light of ongoing video cord-cutting. Moffett points to Charter Communications’ Spectrum in particular. Spectrum has one of the cable industry’s lowest ARPU numbers, because it does not impose cable modem rental fees or usage caps. That may explain the company’s plans to hike general internet pricing 6% starting in October, soon collecting $69.99 for Standard 100 (or 200 Mbps) service and $75.99 a month for customers bundling Standard Internet with Wi-Fi.

“The broadband increases alone would suggest significant upside to Charter ARPU estimates,” Moffett said. He also noted Charter’s plan to dramatically increase video pricing also “underscores their recent pivot towards ‘letting’ video customers leave if they want, and repricing those who remain for profitability.”

That means customers outraged by Spectrum’s cable TV rate hikes will not get much sympathy from customer retention agents. Moffett believes customers will be invited to cancel cable television service, because Charter does not make as much profit on the service as it used to, and customers will probably still keep their Spectrum internet service, which is enormously profitable for the cable operator. Customers will also pay an even higher price for standalone internet service once they stop bundling television service, increasing Charter’s profits even more.

Ironically, the more Spectrum customers drop cable TV packages, the more profit Charter can report to shareholders. Those keeping cable television won’t hurt Charter’s bottom line either. Customers that readily agree to pay more with each cable TV rate hike are statistically the least likely to complain or cancel.

Charter Spectrum Planning Major Fall Rate Increase: $70 Internet, $94 Cable TV

Phillip Dampier August 26, 2019 Charter Spectrum, Competition, Consumer News 4 Comments

Charter Spectrum TV customers will pay at least $94 a month for cable television starting this October, thanks to a sweeping rate increase that will hike the cost of TV packages, internet service, equipment, and fees. Internet customers will soon face a base price for internet service of just under $70 a month.

Cord Cutters News quotes an anonymous source that claims the rate increases will begin in October, and will impact just about every plan except phone service.

The most striking increase is the Broadcast TV Fee, charged to recover the costs imposed by local TV channels. After increasing the price by $2 earlier this year to $11.99, Spectrum customers will now be required to pay $13.50 a month — almost $1.50 more. The Broadcast TV Fee alone will soon amount to $162 a year, just to watch TV stations you can receive over the air for free. Just a year ago, the average Spectrum customer paid a Broadcast TV Fee of $8.75 a month.

A Spectrum receiver is considered required by most customers, and starting this fall, it will cost $7.99 a month to lease one (up about $0.50 a month).

Cable TV packages are also getting more expensive:

  • Spectrum TV Select: $72.49 a month (was $64.99 a month)
  • Spectrum TV Silver: $92.49 (was $84.99)
  • Spectrum TV Gold: $112.49 (was $104.99)

Internet customers will not escape Charter’s rate hikes either. The entry-level package — Spectrum Standard Internet (100 or 200 Mbps in some areas), will increase $4 a month to $69.99. If you use Spectrum’s equipment for Wi-Fi service, your price is increasing $5 a month to $75.99.

Although the rate increases are significant, they are not outlandish when compared with the regular internet-only prices charged by other cable providers:

  • Comcast: 150 Mbps (a 1 TB cap applied in most areas) costs $80 plus $13 gateway rental fee = $93/mo
  • Cox:  150 Mbps (a 1 TB cap applies in most areas) is priced at $84 a month plus $11 modem rental fee = $95/mo
  • Mediacom: 100 Mbps (a 1 TB cap applies) costs $95 a month plus $11.50 modem rental fee = $106.50/mo

Note: Gateway/Modem Rental Fee can be waived if you purchase your own equipment. Prices are lower when bundling, and you may get a better deal threatening to cancel or agreeing to a term plan.

One Wall Street analyst, New Street’s Jonathan Chaplin, predicted in 2017 that the cable industry would use its market power to nearly double rates consumers paid just a few years ago, which for most would mean an internet bill of at least $100 a month.

“We have argued that broadband is underpriced, given that pricing has barely increased over the past decade while broadband utility has exploded,” the researcher said in 2017.

Customers should watch their September bills for Charter Spectrum’s official rate increase notification. Customers on promotional or retention plans are exempt from increases except the Broadcast TV Fee and equipment charges until their promotion expires.

Customers that bundle multiple services will pay slightly lower prices as a result of bundling discounts, but the overall price increase will still be noticeable to most customers.

Cord-cutting is likely to accelerate dramatically because of Spectrum’s TV rate hikes, as customers reassess the value of a basic cable television package that is nearing $100 a month.

Netflix Loses 130,000 U.S. Customers After Raising Its Price to $12.99/Month

Phillip Dampier July 17, 2019 Competition, Consumer News, Netflix, Online Video, Video No Comments

Netflix stock lost over 11% of its value late today after the company reported second quarter results that underwhelmed Wall Street, including a surprising loss of 130,000 U.S. customers that left the streaming service during the last three months.

Netflix added 2.7 million customers in the second quarter, a much smaller number than the 6 million it added during the same period last year. As of the end of June, Netflix now has 151.6 million customers worldwide. Wall Street expected between 153-156 million by that time. The $2/month U.S. rate increase during the first quarter for Netflix’s popular two-concurrent stream plan (was $10.99, now $12.99 in the U.S.) helped keep company revenue up 26%, to $4.92 billion for the quarter. But analysts expected $4.93 billion. Profits also declined to $270 million, compared with $384 million a year ago during the same quarter.

The company blamed the lackluster results on the lack of compelling content during the second quarter. In a letter to shareholders, Netflix claimed the recent price increase slowed growth, but the real problem was overheated growth during the first quarter and not a lot of blockbuster movies and shows to watch.

“We think [the second quarter’s] content slate drove less growth in paid net adds than we anticipated,” Netflix executives said.

The company also noted it is raising prices in several European countries including the United Kingdom, Spain, Ireland, France and Germany.

Netflix does not believe competition with other streaming services had a material impact on its subscriber numbers during the quarter, but analysts suggest Netflix should be concerned about forthcoming streaming competition from AT&T/WarnerMedia (HBO Max) and Walt Disney (Disney+). As more services become available, consumers are likely to take a hard look at the streaming services they are watching and ditch those they are not.

Netflix also declared it will not introduce a cheaper, ad-supported version, despite increasing speculation it would.

“We believe we will have a more valuable business in the long term by staying out of competing for ad revenue and instead entirely focusing on competing for viewer satisfaction.” Netflix told shareholders.

The Wall Street Journal reviews the many challenges to Netflix from forthcoming contenders in the streaming wars. (4:36)

The Drumbeat for Netflix to Start Running Ads Grows Louder

Phillip Dampier July 10, 2019 Competition, Consumer News, Netflix, Online Video 2 Comments

Could this be the Netflix of the future?

Investors concerned about the increasing costs of developing new original content for Netflix have caused a drumbeat for the world’s largest on-demand video streaming company to start running advertising inside TV shows and movies.

A new study finds that almost one-third of Netflix customers claim they would not mind seeing advertising if it meant paying a lower price for Netflix.

The Diffusion Group, based in Los Angeles, asked 1,292 current Netflix subscribers if they would switch to a new, lower-priced Netflix tier that included commercial advertising. Nearly 32% of respondents expressed confidence they would make that switch, with 49% opposed and 20% undecided.

A recent streaming conference in Europe seems to have stoked interest in the concept of an ad-supported Netflix, although the company has repeatedly claimed it has no plans for an advertiser-supported tier, dismissing the idea as a concept dreamed up by their competitors, notably Comcast/NBC and Hulu.

TDG Research president Michael Greeson believes advertising on Netflix is inevitable however, driven by a backlash from Wall Street over how much Netflix is spending on content as it continues to lose access to some of its most popular licensed content, being pulled off Netflix by its competitors Disney and AT&T/WarnerMedia.

“Given the rising costs of programming and growing debt, so goes the argument, it is just a matter of time before the company makes a move,” TDG said in its report.

Netflix’s early days of streaming depended on a deep library of popular movies and TV shows that were readily licensed to the company by major Hollywood studios. But in the last five years, those studios have demanded dramatically higher licensing fees, and in the last year they have ended some contract renewals altogether to reserve content for the launch of their own affiliated streaming services, including Disney+ and HBO Max.

“Netflix’s response to its thinning third-party library is to spend more on originals, which it’s gambling will keep subscribers from jumping ship,” Greeson said. “But with half or more of its most-viewed shows being owned by three studios, each of which is launching their own direct-to-consumer services, how long can you convince 55+ million US consumers that your service is worth paying a premium price, especially compared with Hulu (offers an ad-based option), Amazon Prime Video (free with Prime), and Disney+ (coming in a $6.99/month)?”

Greeson

Netflix has faced growing pressure from investors to reduce the level of debt it has accumulated financing those original productions, including pushes for rate increases and advertising. Netflix raised prices, but has publicly opposed advertising. Some investors now want another rate increase, which Greeson warns would be perilous for Netflix’s subscriber count, because their research found the last price increase “strained the limit of the service’s value.” That research was done before subscribers start to discover their favorite shows will increasingly be pulled off the platform. Greeson believes another rate increase will cause at least some customers to flee, stalling Netflix’s growth.

The happy medium in Greeson’s view is the introduction of an ad-supported tier for price-sensitive subscribers, and he predicts Netflix will introduce it in the next 18 months.

“Ads will become an important part of a comprehensive tiering strategy that helps bullet-proof Netflix for years to come,” Greeson said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CenturyLink’s Local Service Territory (Source: CenturyLink)

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

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

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

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

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

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