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Frontier’s Inner Secrets Revealed: ‘We Underinvested for Years’

Frontier Communications has revealed to investors what many probably realized long ago — the independent phone company chronically underinvested in network upgrades and repairs for years, giving customers an excuse to switch providers.

Remarkably, the phone company did not just underperform for its remaining voice and DSL internet customers. In a sprawling confidential “Presentation to Unsecured Bondholders” report produced by Frontier’s top executives, the company admits it was even unable to achieve significant growth in its fiber territories, where Frontier-acquired high-speed FiOS and U-verse fiber networks held out a promise to deliver urgently needed revenue.

Frontier’s bondholders were told the company’s ongoing losses and poor overall performance were unsustainable, despite years of executive “happy talk” about Frontier’s various rescue and upgrade plans. In sobering language, Frontier admitted its capital structure and efforts to deleverage the company’s massive debts were likely to cut the company off from future borrowing opportunities and deter future investment.

The presentation found multiple points of weakness in Frontier’s current business plan:

Voice landline service remains in perpetual decline. Like other companies, Frontier’s residential landline customers left first, but now business customers are also increasingly disconnecting traditional phone service.

About 51% of Frontier’s revenue comes from its residential customers. That number has been declining about 5% annually, year over year as customers leave. Frontier’s internet products are now crucial to the company’s ability to stay in business. Less than 30% of Frontier’s revenue comes from selling home phone lines. For Frontier to remain viable, the company must attract and keep internet customers. For the last several years, it has failed to do either.

Frontier customers are disconnecting the company’s low-speed DSL service in growing numbers, usually leaving for its biggest residential competitor: Charter Spectrum. Frontier remains saddled with a massive and rapidly deteriorating copper wire network. The company disclosed that 79% of its footprint is still served with copper-based DSL. Only 21% of Frontier’s service area is served by fiber optics, after more than a decade of promised upgrades. Frontier’s own numbers prove that where the company still relies on selling DSL, it is losing ground fast. Only its fiber service areas stand a chance. Just consider these numbers:

  • Out of 11 million homes in Frontier’s DSL service area, only 1.5 million customers subscribe. That’s a market share of just 13 percent, and that number declines every quarter.
  • Where Frontier customers can sign up for fiber to the home service, 1.2 million customers have done so, delivering Frontier a respectable 40 percent market share.

Frontier has been promising DSL speed upgrades for over a decade, but the company’s own numbers show a consistent failure to deliver speeds that can meet the FCC’s definition of “broadband,” currently 25 Mbps.

At least 30% of Frontier DSL customers receive between 0-12 Mbps download speed. Another 35% receive between 13-24 Mbps. Only 6% of Frontier customers get the “fast” DSL capable of exceeding 24 Mbps that is touted repeatedly by Frontier executives on quarterly conference calls.

Despite the obvious case for fiber to the home service, Frontier systematically “under-invested in fiber upgrades” in copper service areas at the same time consumers were upgrading broadband to acquire more download speed. Frontier’s report discloses that nearly 40% of consumers in its service area subscribe to internet plans offering 100 Mbps or faster service. Another 40% subscribe to plans offering 25-100 Mbps. In copper service areas, Frontier is speed-competitive in just 6% of its footprint. That leaves most speed-craving customers with only one path to faster speed: switching to another provider, typically the local cable company.

So why would a company like Frontier not immediately hit the upgrade button and start a massive copper retirement-fiber upgrade plan to keep the company in the black? In short, Frontier has survived chronic underinvestment because of a lack of broadband competition. Nearly two million Frontier customers have only one choice for internet access: Frontier. For another 11.3 million, there is only one other choice – a cable company that many detest. Frontier has enjoyed its broadband monopoly/duopoly for at least two decades. So long as its customers have fewer options, Frontier is under less pressure to invest in upgrades.

For years Frontier’s stock was primarily known for its generous dividend payouts to shareholders — money that could have been spent on network upgrades. But what hurt Frontier even more was an aggressive merger and acquisition strategy that acquired castoff landline customers from Verizon and AT&T in several states. In its most recent multi-billion dollar acquisition of Verizon customers in California, Texas, and Florida, Frontier did not achieve the desired financial results after alienating customers with persistent service and billing problems. The longer term legacy of these acquisitions is a huge amount of unpaid debt.

Frontier’s notorious customer service problems are now legendary. Frontier’s new CEO Bernie Han promises that customer service improvements are among his top four priorities. Improving the morale of employees that have been forced to disappoint customers on an ongoing basis is another.

Frontier executives are proposing to fix the company by deleveraging the company’s debt and restructuring it, freeing up capital that can be spent on long overdue network upgrades. Executives claim the first priority will be to scrap more of Frontier’s copper wire network in favor of fiber upgrades. That would be measurable progress for Frontier, which has traditionally relied on acquiring fiber networks from other companies instead of building their own.

But the company will also continue to benefit from a chronic lack of competition and Wall Street’s inherent dislike of large capital spending projects. The proposal does not come close to advocating the scrapping of all of Frontier’s copper service in favor of fiber. In fact, a rebooted Frontier would only incrementally spend $1.4 billion on fiber upgrades until 2024, $1.9 billion in all over the next decade. That would bring fiber to only three million additional Frontier customers, those the company is confident would bring the highest revenue returns. The remaining eight million copper customers would be stuck relying on Frontier’s existing DSL or potentially be sold off to another company.

Frontier seems more attracted to the prospect of introducing or upgrading service to approximately one million unserved or underserved rural customers where it can leverage broadband subsidy funding from the U.S. government. To quote from the presentation: Frontier plans to “invest in areas that are most appropriate and profitable and limit or cease investments in areas that are not.”

Another chronic problem for Frontier’s current business is its cable TV product, sold to fiber customers.

“High content/acquisition costs have made adding new customers to the Company’s video product no longer a profitable exercise,” the company presentation admits. If the company cannot raise prices on its video packages or successfully renegotiate expensive video contracts to a lower price, customers can expect a slimmed down video package, likely dispensing with regional sports networks and other high cost channels. Frontier may even eventually scrap its video packages altogether.

To successfully achieve its goals, Frontier is likely to put itself into Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization no later than April 14, 2020. The company’s earlier plans may have been impacted by the current economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, so the exact date of a bankruptcy declaration is not yet known.

Trump Pardons Junk Bond King Michael Milken, Financier of America’s Cable Monopoly

Phillip Dampier February 19, 2020 Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Milken in the 1980s (Image: The Gentleman’s Journal)

President Donald Trump granted clemency on Tuesday to Michael Milken, the so-called “junk bond king” who violated scores of securities and insider trading laws and was instrumental in helping finance the creation of America’s cable monopoly.

Milken used his position at the now-defunct Drexel Burnham Lambert to run its “high-yield bond unit.” More commonly known as “junk bonds,” these high-risk securities are typically issued by companies to finance mergers and acquisitions, often to strip assets or put competing companies out of business.

As a result, a new era of media and telecommunications tycoons emerged. Many successfully gained control of other companies and consolidated them into business empires, significantly reducing or eliminating serious competitors. Most of those companies still hold dominant positions today or have since merged with even larger companies. President Trump credited Milken for helping “create entire industries, such as wireless communications and cable television.”

By the late 1980s, Milken had advised scores of firms to rely on leveraged junk bond financing of corporate takeovers, a practice that endures to this day. Milken financed Rupert Murdoch’s ambitions to turn what was once a small newspaper chain into News Corp., which today still dominates in broadcasting, cable news channels like Fox News, and newspapers including the Wall Street Journal.

Milken also helped arrange financing for Craig McCaw, an early pioneer in cellular communications that leveraged cellular licenses McCaw borrowed heavily to obtain into one of the country’s first major wireless companies. But McCaw found bigger riches buying and selling mobile companies, first acquiring MCI’s cellular division in 1986 and selling his family’s cable operations to what would later become Comcast. By 1990, McCaw was the country’s highest paid CEO. Four years later, he sold McCaw Cellular to AT&T for $11.5 billion. AT&T sold that wireless company to Cingular in 2004 and then acquired Cingular itself some years later. McCaw would later plow $1.1 billion of family and borrowed money to take control of Nextel in 1995, only to sell it 11 years later to Sprint for $6.5 billion.

Malone

The country’s first cable giant, Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) would not have been possible without Milken’s junk bond financing scheme. Cable tycoon John Malone acquired hundreds of regional cable operators to create a cable empire that was often loathed by subscribers. TCI leveraged its position as a de facto monopoly, scaring off competitors, raising prices, and often delivering horrendous service. Vice President Al Gore would later characterize the Milken-financed emerging cable industry as a “cable Cosa Nostra,” and Malone himself as “Darth Vader.”

Time Warner’s cable division was also created as a result of a wave of consolidation that snapped up countless locally owned cable operators and smaller operators run by various media companies. Ted Turner also depended on Milken’s junk bond financing to create Turner Broadcasting, turning what was originally a single UHF independent TV station in Atlanta, Ga., into a superstation seen around the country and the launch of Cable News Network, better known as CNN.

Sometimes Milken’s clients benefited from his advice, sometimes they became targets themselves. Years after Turner Broadcasting was a major powerhouse in the cable programming business, Time Warner relied on a similar acquisition strategy to acquire Turner Broadcasting itself. Milken reportedly received a $50 million bonus for “advising” on the transaction, despite being in jail at the time. Years later, TBS founder Ted Turner would regret the buyout, which took CNN and TNT out of his hands.

Turner

Other household names from the past and present that expanded as a result of Milken’s financial advice include Viacom (now a part of CBS), MCI (embroiled in one of the country’s largest fraud schemes before being quietly sold off to Verizon), Telemundo (now effectively owned by Comcast), and Metromedia (which sold its network of popular independent TV stations to News Corp., which rechristened them FOX television network affiliates).

Milken quickly attracted the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which took years to build a case against the Wall Street star. It took arbitrageur Ivan Boesky to help bring Milken down after pleading guilty to securities fraud and insider trading. He ‘ratted out’ Milken, which prompted a major investigation of him and the investment firm he worked for.

Milken was eventually indicted for racketeering and securities fraud in 1989 and through a plea bargain, pleaded guilty to securities and reporting violations, which won him a reduced sentence. He was supposed to serve 10 years in jail, but was released after just 22 months for good behavior. He was also fined $600 million (later apparently reduced to $200 million), a fraction of his reported net worth of nearly $4 billion. Although Milken was permanently barred from the securities industry, he still received compensation from certain transactions after that ban, which raised eyebrows.

Critics claim Milken’s legacy emboldened Wall Street to engage in riskier behavior and to innovate new leveraging schemes. Some claim that eventually helped create the conditions leading to the 2008 Great Recession.

The president offered nothing but praise for Milken in his pardoning statement and claimed prosecutors were overzealous in pursuing Milken. The president received an earful of advice in favor of a presidential pardon from his Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, who is a close person friend of Milken and has flown on his private plane. Many Trump allies, including conservative powerhouse donors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson and property developer Richard LeFrak also lobbied the president on Milken’s behalf. So did the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who ironically helped prosecute Milken in the 1980s. Some benefactors of Milken’s financial advice were also in favor of a pardon, including Rupert Murdoch.

Milken’s fans have been persistently seeking pardon relief for years. They failed to win a presidential pardon from former president Bill Clinton in 2001, after a joint letter strenuously objecting to the idea was sent from the SEC and U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York. The letter said pardoning Milken would “send the wrong message to Wall Street.”

Streaming Services Are Monitoring Customers for Signs of Password Sharing

Large media companies and streaming services are on to many of you.

If you are among the two-thirds of subscribers that have reportedly shared your Netflix, HBO GO, Hulu, or Disney+ password with friends and family, your provider probably already knows about it.

A recent report from HUB Entertainment Research found that at least 64% of 13-24-year-olds have shared a password to a streaming service with someone else, with 31% of consumers admitting they are sharing passwords with people outside of their home.

The reason many people share passwords is to save money on the cost of signing up for multiple streaming services. Many trade a Netflix password in return for a Hulu password, or hand over an HBO GO password in exchange for access to your Disney+ account. Research firm Park Associates claims that streamers lost an estimated $9.1 billion in revenue from password sharing, and can expect to lose nearly $12.5 billion by 2024 if password sharing is not curtailed.

Oddly, most streaming services are well aware of password sharing and the lost revenue that results from sharing accounts, and most care little, at least for now.

Marketplace notes a lot of the complaints about password sharing are coming from cable industry executives, shareholders, and Wall Street analysts, but for now most streaming services are just monitoring the situation instead of controlling it.

“I think we continue to monitor it,” said Gregory K. Peters, Netflix’s chief product officer, on the 2019 third quarter earnings call. “We’ll see those consumer-friendly ways to push on the edges of that, but I think we’ve got no big plans to announce at this point in time in terms of doing something differently there.”

Netflix sells different tiers of service that limit the number of concurrent streams to one, two, or four streams at a time. The company believes that if customers that share accounts bump into the stream limits, many will upgrade to a higher level of service which will result in more revenue.

Newcomer Disney+ not only recognizes password sharing is going on, it almost embraces it.

“We’re setting up a service that is very family friendly. We expect families to consume it,” Disney CEO Bob Iger said in an interview with CNBC. “We will be monitoring [password sharing] with the various tools that we have.”

The biggest tool Disney has to monitor account sharing is Charter Spectrum, which is aggressively encouraging streaming services to crack down hard on password sharing. Spectrum internet customers who watch Disney+ are now tracked by Spectrum, recording each IP address that accesses Disney+ content over Spectrum’s broadband service. When multiple people at different IP addresses access Disney+ content on a single account at the same time, Spectrum can flag those customers as potential password sharers.

Synamedia, a streaming provider security firm, uses geolocation tools to determine who is watching streaming services from where. If someone is watching one stream from one address and another person is watching from another city at the same time, password sharing is the likely culprit. For now, most companies are quietly collecting data to learn just how big a problem password sharing is and are not using that information to crack down on customers.

Streaming providers are more interested in stopping the pervasive sale of stolen account credentials on services like eBay and shutting down stolen accounts used to harvest content for unauthorized resale. But as sharing grows, so will calls from stakeholders to curtail the practice. Those in favor of vigorous crackdowns on password sharing argue billions of dollars of lost revenue will be lost. If a service like Netflix blocked password sharing, that could lead to dramatic increases in account sign-ups. But less established brands like Disney+ seem more concerned about losing the unofficial extra viewers that are watching and buzzing about shows on its new streaming platform.

Cable companies are frustrated about losing scores of cable TV customers to competitors that may be effectively giving away service for free. That has raised tempers at companies like Charter Communications.

“Pricing and lack of security continue to be the main problems contributing to the challenges of paid video growth,” Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge said in recent prepared remarks with Wall Street analysts. “The traditional bundle … is very expensive, and the actual unit rate of that product continues to rise, and that’s priced a lot of people out of the market. And it’s free to a lot of consumers who have friends with passwords. So our ability to sell that product is ultimately constrained by our relationship with content [companies], and we have to manage that in terms of the kinds of power that the content companies have.”

Charter’s power comes from its willingness to distribute cable networks like The Disney Channel to tens of millions of homes around the country. That forces Disney to listen to Charter’s concerns about piracy and password sharing and the issue is even documented in the latest carriage contract between the two companies.

Cable industry executives believe a crackdown on password sharing is inevitable, eventually. Just as the cable industry was forced to combat cable pirates during its formative years, streaming providers that welcome extra viewers today may lament the lost revenue those subscribers don’t bring to the table tomorrow.

 

Marketplace reports on the growing issue of streaming service password sharing. (2:19)

Cable Companies See Big Growth in Broadband and Wireless, Big Losses in TV

Most analysts are predicting this past year will be the worst yet for video customer losses, with nearly two million cable TV customers cutting the cord in 2019, up from 1.26 million in 2018. Business is even worse for satellite TV operators, which lost 1.2 million customers in 2018 and are expected to have shed another 3.25 million customers in 2019 — mostly because of mass customer defections at AT&T’s DirecTV. Altogether, over five million Americans are estimated to have cut the cord over the past year.

Investors have largely stopped worrying about video subscriber losses, and cable operators have boldly told Wall Street they have stopped chasing video customers threatening to cancel service, claiming many are no longer profitable enough to keep. Their key competitors, online streaming video services like Sling TV, AT&T TV Now, and Hulu with Live TV are also seeing subscriber gains slowing, most likely because of price increases. One analyst predicted these online cable TV replacements would add a combined 804,000 customers in 2019, less than half of the 2.3 million they added in 2018.

Cable companies seem unfazed, in part because of record-breaking gains they are expected to have made in internet and wireless customers in the last year. One analyst suggests that most of those gains are coming directly at the expense of phone companies.

Comcast and Charter are the two largest cable companies in the United States.

“Cable’s clear speed advantage in roughly half the U.S. is driving continued strong share performance,” Jayant told clients in a research note. Jayant expects some of the biggest gains will come from ex-DSL customers in Comcast and Charter Spectrum’s service areas.

Nationwide, cable operators likely added 3.1 million new broadband customers in 2019, up 15% over last year. Phone companies are predicted to have lost at least 402,000 internet customers, up from 342,000 in 2018. Most of those departing customers are not served by fiber broadband.

Both Comcast and Charter Spectrum are also successfully attracting a growing number of mobile customers, as is Altice USA. Charter and Comcast offer their broadband customers the option of signing up for wireless mobile service, powered by Verizon Wireless. Altice USA resells Sprint service at cut-rate prices.

Comcast is estimated to have added 778,000 wireless customers in 2019 and analysts predict that the company will add another 909,000 in 2020. Charter Spectrum is expected to have gained 923,000 wireless customers in 2019, with another 1.04 million likely to sign up in 2020. Altice USA’s deal with Sprint in its Cablevision/Optimum service area has already attracted about 80,000 customers, with 550,000 more likely to follow in 2020.

The Final Frontier: Phone Company Plans Bankruptcy Reorganization by March

Phillip Dampier January 20, 2020 Consumer News, Frontier 3 Comments

Frontier Communications will file Chapter 11 bankruptcy by March, according to a report by Bloomberg News citing unnamed sources, leading to a major reorganization of a struggling phone company that has been losing customers for years.

Bernie Han, Frontier’s new CEO, reportedly met with creditors and Wall Street advisors late last week to negotiate a bankruptcy filing and proposed turnaround plan to be unveiled before Frontier faces a repayment deadline of $356 million in debt on March 15.

If creditors agree, Frontier would continue operations after filing bankruptcy and renegotiate its debts, while potentially jettisoning retiree pension benefits, stiffing shareholders, and winning the freedom to exit certain long term contractual agreements related to its legacy properties and services.

Frontier serves around 3.5 million broadband customers in 29 states, providing service mostly to rural communities ignored by former Bell Operating Companies and in acquired service areas once controlled by Verizon or AT&T. Frontier’s acquisitions have contributed to the company’s $17+ billion in debt and have ultimately not met expectations. Many Frontier legacy customers have fled to other providers because of poor or inadequate service and a lack of network upgrades to offer acceptable internet service. Frontier has largely avoided undertaking major fiber optic upgrades in its legacy service territories, where the company still sells slow DSL service over a deteriorating copper wire network that is often decades old.

Most of Frontier’s fiber-to-the-home territories were acquired by the company, hoping such acquisitions would deliver a much-needed revenue boost. But some analysts say Frontier overpaid to acquire those service areas, and in several cases botched a conversion to Frontier’s billing and service platform, alienating customers.

The company’s stock has been in free fall for months, starting its steep decline after abandoning a popular dividend payout plan. As of this afternoon, shares are priced below 65 cents.

To stabilize the business, Frontier has entertained selling off portions of its network. In May 2019, Frontier announced it was selling 350,000 of its customers in the Pacific Northwest states of Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho to raise $1.35 billion to pay down its debts, but that was not enough to appease investors. Many believe former CEO Dan McCarthy was forced out of the company late last year after failing to improve the business. Frontier’s newest CEO has apparently decided reorganization through bankruptcy is now the best last resort.

Such news pleases activist investment funds including Elliot Management, which have pushed for reorganization for nearly a year. Elliot has been very vocal, demanding better results from several large telecom companies, including AT&T and Windstream. Elliott Management and Franklin Resources now hold nearly 50 percent of Frontier’s bonds. Another group of creditors includes GoldenTree Asset Management. The activist investors have been primarily fighting over the $5.8 billion in high-coupon debt bonds Frontier issued to cover its acquisition of former Verizon customers in California, Texas, and Florida. Frontier met fierce investor objections after considering refinancing that costly debt, because bondholders feared that would put them last in line to recoup their investments if Frontier went bankrupt.

A bankruptcy would not immediately impact Frontier’s customers and operations would continue. But Frontier would likely stall upgrades and future spending until the company exits bankruptcy. Some customers may also have to wait for refunds, at least initially, subject to court approval. Retirees and employees may also eventually face changes to their benefits packages.

For Frontier to be successful, the company will have to shed debt and begin making much larger investments to modernize its network to compete for lucrative broadband customers. It will also have to improve its image with better customer and repair service and fewer “gotcha” billing policies and fine print.

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