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Telecom Industry Slashes Investments for 2020-2021; Focus on Profit Margins New Priority

Telecom companies are cutting investment in their networks despite promises by Republican members of the FCC that repeal of net neutrality would inspire increased investment.

Charter, Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon have surprised Wall Street with dramatic cutbacks in spending and investment in their networks, with one provider admitting improving profit margins are now a bigger priority.

As a result, Wall Street analysts are revising down capital expenditure (Capex) estimates in reports to their investor clients.

“Comcast and Charter missed [third quarter] expectations for Capex and guided 2019 lower than previously planned,” reported Nomura in a note to investors. “We have lowered our combined 2019 Capex forecast for Comcast and Charter from $14.6 billion to $14.2 billion.”

AT&T’s drop in network spending was the most dramatic among the country’s top telecom companies. AT&T has declared an end to fiber broadband expansion and slashed spending forecasts from the $23 billion the company spent this year to as little as $20 billion next year, despite claiming it would dramatically expand its 5G service to over two dozen cities over the next 12 months.

In a recent conference call with investors, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said “now it’s time to reap the rewards of what we’ve been doing [and] begin to reward to shareholders these investments that we’ve been making over the last few years.”

Over the next three years, AT&T will pay shareholders $45 billion in dividends and spend $30 billion on buying back shares of AT&T stock to retire debt racked up buying Time Warner (Entertainment). In fact, AT&T will devote 50-75% of its free cash flow exclusively on retiring shares of AT&T stock, which is expected to benefit shareholders.

Verizon reported spending $4.4 billion in the third quarter on network upgrades, approximately $100 million less than expected. That is a concern because Verizon is trying to expand its costly 5G network, but is not devoting the investment dollars required to make such an upgrade happen without cutting investments elsewhere in the company. Verizon has told Wall Street analysts to expect stable Capex spending of $17-18 billion annually for 2019-2021. That will either mean Verizon’s 5G expansion will be modest or the phone company will have to slash investments in other areas, such as wireline, fiber to the home, or business services.

Many analysts expect 5G will be a top spending priority for AT&T and Verizon over the next several years, leaving little room in budgets for upkeep of the company’s legacy landline networks or its other products. Charter and Comcast have effectively stopped spending on large upgrade projects, also as part of improved profit-taking.

The spending realities are in direct conflict with the promises made by Republican members of the FCC. Trump-picked FCC Chairman Ajit Pai repeatedly claimed that banishing net neutrality would lead to significant increases in investment by the nation’s top telecom companies. In fact, the opposite has happened.

Shocking Revelation: Big Telecom Companies Treating You Like Trash Turns Out to Be a Mistake

Jeff Kagan is a name familiar to anyone that follows the cable industry. For over 30 years, Kagan has been tracking consumer perceptions about the telecom industry and offering insight into the challenges these and other businesses were likely to face in the future.More recently, Kagan has been fretting about the growing trend of retail businesses paying more attention to cultivating their relationships with Wall Street while targeting their customers for abuse.

“I have been noticing how in recent years, retail is becoming increasingly unfriendly to the customer. This is a mistake,” Kagan offers in a new opinion piece on Equities.com. “New technologies and new ideas may be good for the bottom line in the short-term. They may solve problems like shoplifting, and that may make investors happy today. However, in the long-term, these customer unfriendly trends will take their toll as customers will shop where they feel appreciated, respected and wanted. Customers shop at stores they love. Love is an emotion. So, we must think of winning the customer with emotion. This is difficult for most businesspeople to understand.”

‘My way or the highway’-type attitudes from retailers come from all sorts of businesses. Warehouse clubs make you pay for the honor of shopping there. Chains like Walmart are beefing up security teams and in some places now demand to see receipts from customers exiting the store. But nobody has abused customers better and longer than the telecom industry. Not even the cattle car-like airlines.

Kagan

After literally decades of almost bragging about their “don’t care” customer service while throwing attitude and intransigence at customers unhappy with service or pricing, the nation’s biggest cable and phone companies are now experiencing long-overdue customer revenge. Kagan notes that cord-cutting is not just about switching to a competitor for service. Many customers are literally thrilled to see the back end of their long hated provider.

Decades of monopoly service made abusing customers a risk-free and very profitable strategy for companies like Comcast, AT&T, Charter, Cox, Mediacom, and Verizon. In fact, someone turned the concept of the “cable guy” into a horror movie. Did you stay home from work to wait for a service call that never materialized? Tough luck. Don’t like yet another rate increase? Too bad.

“The reason they did this was, they had no competition in their market area. That meant the customer could not leave them,” Kagan noted.

After years of getting a bad reputation, only two things threatened to scare telecom companies straight — the fear of imminent regulation, such as what happened in 1992 when reregulation of cable companies turned out to be the only bill that year to be vetoed by President George H. W. Bush and overridden by the U.S. Senate to become law.

The other, much more scary fear is competition. In the mid-1990s, the nation’s biggest phone companies including what we now know as AT&T and Verizon were contemplating getting into the video business. This proved far more threatening than the much smaller home satellite dish business, which attracted around three million Americans at the time. The cable industry spent years taking shots at satellite competitors, including sticking dishowners with the cost of buying a $300 descrambler box up front, and charging as much (or even more) for programming than cable customers paid, despite the fact homeowners had to purchase and service their own dish, often 6-12 feet wide and not cheap to install.

The cable industry feared phone companies would charge ratepayers to subsidize their entry into the television business and sought protective legislation prohibiting the same cross-subsidization the cable industry would later rely on to introduce broadband and phone service.

More recently, after the country reached “peak cable” — the year the highest number of us subscribed to cable TV, the industry recognized it was likely all downhill from there. Comcast, in particular, specialized in empty lip service gestures to improve the customer service experience. For years, it promised to do better, only to do worse. The company even attempted to shed its bad reputation by changing the brand of its products from Comcast to “XFINITY.” Customers were not fooled, but that did not stop Charter from following Comcast’s lead, introducing the “Spectrum” brand to its products and almost burying its corporate name, which it barely references these days.

Kagan notes not following through on the customer service experience made cable companies ripe for stunning customer losses as new competitors for video service emerged. Comcast and Charter are among the biggest losers of cable TV customers, but their bad attitudes persist. Their latest ideas? Keep raising prices, rely on tricky Broadcast TV surcharges that are soaring in cost, end customer retention offers for dissatisfied video customers, and make up the difference in lost revenue by jacking up the price of broadband service, which is already nearly all-profit.

“The bottom line for any business is always focus on the customer. If they are happy, your business will remain strong and growing,” Kagan warned.

At some point, customers will get more choices for broadband service. Community owned broadband solutions have been very successful in communities that have experienced the worst abuse AT&T, Comcast, and Charter can deliver. In the future, fixed 5G wireless may provide perfectly respectable internet service if it is not data capped. Next generation satellite providers, interloping independent fiber to the home providers, and mesh wireless providers may offer consumers a number of options that can deliver suitable service and perhaps finally put cable and phone companies in their place.

Frontier Urgently Trying to Restructure $17 Billion Debt as Chapter 11 Looms

Frontier Communications is preparing a detailed plan for bondholders explaining how the company hopes to cut its $17 billion in debt before it faces the possibility of bankruptcy.

The Wall Street Journal reports Frontier is ready to begin formal negotiations with those holding its debt to create a new payback plan before it faces the first of several repayment deadlines for bonds running into the billions, starting in 2022. But the strategy is risky because if any of the company’s major bondholders disagree, it could put Frontier on a fast track to Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.

Frontier’s debt problems are a consequence of its decision to expand its wireline footprint through acquisitions of castoff copper landline networks being sold primarily by Verizon Communications and AT&T. Critics have repeatedly called out Frontier for bungling network transitions with extended service outages, billing problems, and other customer service-related failures that left customers and some state regulators frustrated and alienated. The company is still facing regulatory review in states like Connecticut, where it failed to properly manage a customer cutover from AT&T’s systems to its own, and in Utah, West Virginia, California, and Florida where similar cutovers from Verizon Communications left more than a few customers without service and months of billing problems.

As a result, Frontier lost many of the customers it acquired, with many unwilling to consider doing business with the phone company ever again.

Although Frontier’s latest acquisitions of Verizon landline customers in California, Texas, and Florida included large Verizon FiOS fiber to the home territories, Frontier customers continue to disconnect service at a greater pace than the phone company’s chief cable competitors — Comcast and Charter Spectrum. Customer defections are even worse in large sections of Frontier’s stagnant “legacy” markets — service areas that have been managed by Frontier or its predecessor Citizens Communications for decades. That is because almost all of those legacy markets are still serviced by decades-old copper wire networks, many capable only of providing low speed DSL internet access.

Frontier’s large debt load is cited as the principal reason the company cannot embark on upgrade efforts to replace existing copper wiring with optical fiber. In fact, virtually all of Frontier’s fiber service areas have been acquired from AT&T or Verizon. Frontier executives have attempted to placate shareholders by promising to aggressively manage costs. But promises of dramatic savings have proved elusive and frequent media reports have emerged covering extensive service outages, poor network maintenance, ongoing billing and customer service issues, and inadequate staffing to address a growing number of service outages and problems. In several states, repeated 911 outages have triggered regulator investigations with the prospect of stiff fines.

Three Frontier insiders have privately shared their insights with Stop the Cap! about ongoing frustrations with the company and the most recent developments.

“Upper management has no comprehension that in many of our markets, customers have choices and they abandon us when all we can sell is DSL service at speeds often less than 12 Mbps,” one senior regional executive told us. “Our retention efforts are so poor these days, representatives are not really expected to rescue accounts because in most cases there is no legitimate reason to do business with us. In some states where there are high mandated surcharges, we cost more than our cable competitors.”

Another mid-level executive in one of Frontier’s largest legacy markets — Rochester, N.Y., said morale is low and a growing number of colleagues believe the days to bankruptcy are short.

Frontier Communications debt load.

“Our loyal customers are literally dying off, as their adult children disconnect decades-old landline accounts,” said an executive who wished to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak with the media. “The customer numbers have been ugly for a long time and are getting worse. Our recently retired customers who have had DSL and voice service with us since the 1990s are disconnecting because some have gone with Spectrum and others are moving out of the area. Some of these customers hate Spectrum and won’t do business with them no matter the price, but we are losing their business anyway when they move out of state.”

The Rochester executive noted Frontier has an impossible job trying to sell its internet and voice products against Charter Spectrum.

“Their offers are $40 a month for 100 Mbps internet and $10 for unlimited local and long-distance calls,” the executive noted. “Ours costs nearly $30 just for the phone line after taxes and fees, and how can you sell someone DSL that delivers less than 6 Mbps to many parts of a market still served by copper trunk lines to a central office several miles away? They also find out they have to lease our modem at an additional fee and there are other fees in the contract many customers have learned to look for. Answer: you can’t.”

A Frontier executive in Ohio shared a similar story.

“We hold our own in our rural markets where we can offer a customer better than dial-up internet, and our service is very good if you live in an area where we expanded broadband thanks to FCC subsidies. Some of these new areas are even served by fiber,” the executive explained. “The problem with this is fewer people live in rural areas and these places cost a lot more to maintain when we dispatch service crews or have to run new cable. For Frontier to be truly successful, we have to get better internet service into our larger older markets, but that means pulling copper off poles and putting up fiber and there is just no interest from the higher ups to spend the money to do this. So instead the company bought new territories to keep revenue numbers up, but we are also quickly losing many of those customers to cable too. I really don’t know what we will do when wireless companies offer 5G internet.”

Some Frontier bondholders recognize Frontier must reduce its debt to have the financial resources to expand fiber service. Others want the company to shed its legacy copper service areas (while keeping FiOS/U-verse enabled markets) either to regional companies willing to invest in upgrades or to hedge funds that would likely ring whatever remaining value still exists out of these abandoned service areas. Some suspect these hedge funds would also load up the spinoff companies with even greater debt to facilitate dividend payouts and other investor-friendly rewards.

It will be up to state and federal regulators to protect Frontier’s customers as the two emerging groups of conflicting bondholders angle to protect their investments, perhaps at the risk of reliable phone and internet service.

The Wall Street Journal:

One, including Elliott Management and Franklin Resources, pushed for an exchange of their bonds at a discount to their face value for new secured debt that would be paid before unsecured debt in a potential bankruptcy.

Still, bondholders including GoldenTree Asset Management have warned the company against doing such a swap since 2018, arguing it violated the terms of their bonds.

The company this week reached out to Houlihan Lokey, which represents a group of bondholders that includes GoldenTree—as well as JPMorgan Chase & Co., Oaktree Capital Management and Brigade Capital Management—to sign up to view a confidential restructuring proposal, a person familiar with the matter said. That group has yet to gather enough holders to form a majority, people familiar with the matter said.

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 16 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 31 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.

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