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Kagan: Cable Company Wireless Is Designed to Trap You in a Bundle, Not Compete in Wireless Business

Comcast and Charter Communications have no real interest in competing head-to-head in wireless with AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, or Sprint. Instead, the two cable companies hope to trap you in a bundled package of services too inconvenient to cancel.

Jeff Kagan, a longstanding telecommunications analyst specializing in the cable industry, believes Comcast, Charter, and other cable operators entering the wireless business have no intention of being a serious competitor to the country’s four largest mobile companies.

“The goal of XFINITY Mobile [from Comcast] is to offer their customers another service and to create a sticky bundle,” Kagan said. “It’s not to lead the wireless wars. It’s not to increase their market share for traditional reasons. It is simply to create a sticky bundle to stabilize and grow their customer base.”

Kagan

XFINITY Mobile and Spectrum Mobile (from Charter), both require customers to be signed up for their respective internet services. If a customer cancels internet service, they will lose their mobile service. That could prove to be a major hassle for wireless customers, because they will have to properly port out their existing phone number(s) to another provider before dropping broadband.

Kagan believes cable operators will use mobile service to further strengthen their bundle by tying discounts to the number of services each customer takes through the cable company.

“Customers who use one service find it easy to switch away to a competitor,” Kagan said. “However, when they use multiple services and get a discount for the bundle, they become sticky and generally stay put. And the more services a customer uses, the larger the discount, the stickier they get and the less likely they are to wander.”

That is also likely to be true with Altice, which operates Optimum (Cablevision) and SuddenLink and has partnered with Sprint to offer cell service.

Sprint and T-Mobile, which are planning to merge, have repeatedly argued cable operators will be aggressive new players in the mobile business, giving the potentially combined carrier fierce new competitors. But Kagan doubts that will prove true.

“The problem is, the sticky bundle is not a low-cost solution,” Kagan offered. “With that said, the higher cost to the cable television companies is less than that of losing their customer base. So, the cost makes sense as simply a cost of doing business.”

The challenge cable operators face is that none plan to own and operate their own traditional cellular network. Comcast and Charter have partnered with Verizon Wireless to resell access to its 4G LTE network and Altice will rely on Sprint. Leasing access on an ongoing basis is likely to be more expensive that relying on your own network, but beyond offering Wi-Fi calling and experimental access to future 5G-type services in the emerging CBRS band, cable operators will remain almost completely dependent on their wireless provider partners, limiting their effective ability to compete.

Kagan believes the goals of the two industries are different. Wireless operators are trying to monetize their networks through usage, while cable operators are trying to find new services that will keep customers loyal and are willing to ignore monetizing their wireless side businesses to achieve that goal.

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.

Windstream Relying on Government Funding to Double 100 Mbps Availability in 2019

Windstream is relying on the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund to double the areas where it will offer 100 Mbps broadband service, expected to reach 30% of the company’s 18-state local service area by the end of the first quarter of 2019.

“Windstream understands that premium internet speeds are critical to families and businesses in rural America, and we are systematically enhancing our network to meet that urgent demand,” said Jeff Small, president of consumer and small and medium-sized business services. “Network upgrades are expensive, especially in rural areas where there are relatively few customers, so Windstream is using a combination of its own capital and crucial support from the FCC’s Connect America Fund to make faster speeds more widely available. Without support from the Connect America Fund, many of these projects simply would not be economically feasible.”

Thomas told attendees at the Citi 2019 TMT West Conference Windstream’s legacy copper wire telephone network is not up to the job of handling the kinds of internet speeds more modern technologies can manage.

In urban and larger service areas, Windstream is most likely to deploy fiber to the home service in new housing developments and select gentrified neighborhoods where a business case exists to invest in fiber upgrades. The company also typically replaces its copper wireline infrastructure with fiber where road construction projects or damage forces the company to replace or relocate its lines. Suburban and more densely populated rural areas are likely to receive an upgraded version of Windstream’s DSL service that can manage up to 50 or 100 Mbps. In Windstream’s significant rural service area, the phone company is increasingly turning to fixed wireless technology, especially in flat midwestern states like Nebraska and Iowa where it plans to offer a combination of 3.5 GHz “CBRS” and 5G millimeter wave fixed wireless broadband capable of delivering up to 1,000 Mbps.

Windstream’s service area

“[We are deploying wireless internet] probably at a larger scale than a lot of the larger wireless companies,” Thomas said, especially in flatter areas where wireless signals go a long way.

Because most current broadband expansion fund programs require companies to commit to at least 25/3 Mbps service, simply expanding basic ADSL technology has proven inadequate to meet the government’s speed requirements. But wiring fiber to the home service to get faster speeds in rural areas does not meet the Return On Investment requirements Windstream’s shareholders demand. Windstream claims fixed wireless can solve both problems.

“You can get 100 Mbps out there very cost-effectively,” Thomas claimed. “You are really blowing away copper infrastructure and making it irrelevant because you’re embracing this 100 Mbps technology.”

As of early 2019, Windstream claims that 60% of its customers can get at least 25 Mbps service, 40% can receive at least 50 Mbps service. By the end of March, 30% will be able to receive 100 Mbps service.

 

A satisfied Windstream customer talks about his upgrade to 50/8 Mbps, which replaces his old 6 Mbps DSL service. (6:03)

Verizon, Samsung Will Release 5G Smartphones in 2019

Verizon and Samsung on Monday confirmed long-held industry expectations they would seek to steal a march on Apple by launching U.S. 5G smartphones in the first half of 2019.

The two companies said in a statement they would unveil a prototype, using Qualcomm modem chips, at the chipmaker’s annual Snapdragon Technology Summit in Maui, Hawaii this week.

While Verizon is leading the charge to trial 5G in some cities next year, industry analysts say the higher-speed networks are unlikely to be widely available until the middle of the next decade.

Apple is engaged in a legal battle with Qualcomm that has led it to stop using its modem chips, and the Cupertino, California company is widely expected instead to use Intel modems, which will not be ready for production until late 2019.

Citing sources familiar with the matter, Bloomberg reported on Monday that Apple would wait until at least 2020 to release its first 5G iPhones.

The delay could make it easier for Samsung and Verizon to win customers who are eager to connect to 5G networks, which will provide a leap forward in mobile data speeds, up to 50 or 100 times faster than current 4G networks.

Qualcomm has also partnered with other smartphone makers who have committed to 5G phones for next year.

U.S. wireless carrier Sprint is also working with LG Electronics USA to launch a 5G smartphone in the U.S. in the first half of 2019.

Verizon launched its first commercial 5G service in October when its 5G Home offering went live in Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Sacramento.

Verizon Chief Financial Officer Matthew Ellis said last month that the company plans to target a broader audience for its 5G home broadband product following the adoption of global standards for the technology.

(Reuters) Reporting by Sayanti Chakraborty in Bengaluru; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta

Wireless Companies Bid $336 Million and Counting for 28 GHz 5G/Small Cell Spectrum

Forty companies, including hedge funds, phone companies, and wireless carriers have collectively bid $336,265,480 so far for about 2,500 28 GHz licenses (out of 3,072 available) that will be a part of the buildout of 5G millimeter wave wireless service.

The FCC is currently auctioning off spectrum in the 27.5–28.35 GHz (28 GHz) band — a very large chunk of frequencies which can offer bidders the opportunity to launch a wide bandwidth cellular data service capable of very fast internet speed. But because the frequencies involved are line-of-sight, the winning bidders will have to invest in large networks of small cell antennas that will be required to reach customers.

Citigroup analysts reviewing the auction results so far told clients they suspect there are “two outsized bidders” winning many of the available licenses, including Verizon. This is not a surprise, considering Verizon already has significant spectrum holdings in the 28 GHz band. Verizon’s current 5G service relies on this millimeter wave spectrum, but is available so far only in a handful of markets. The identity of the second major bidder remains a mystery. The spectrum licenses getting no bids are mostly in rural areas with low population density.

All the other major wireless operators — AT&T, T-Mobile, and U.S. Cellular — are also bidders. Only Sprint, currently in a merger deal with T-Mobile, is missing. AT&T has not shown much interest in offering its customers millimeter wave 5G service, and T-Mobile is planning to use 5G’s technology upgrade to bolster its existing network with more capacity and speed. Dish Network, which already controls a substantial portfolio of unused spectrum, is also a bidder and could be seeking to stockpile 5G spectrum for a future venture or sales deal with one of the other wireless companies.

The qualified bidders:

8538 Green Street LLC MetaLINK Technologies, Inc.
Arctic Slope Telephone Association Cooperative NEIT Services, LLC
Aries Wireless LLC Nemont Communications, Inc.
AT&T Spectrum Frontiers LLC Northern Valley Communications, LLC
BDCIH Wireless, LLC Nsight Spectrum, LLC
Beyerle, David E Nuvera Communications, Inc.
BroadBand One of the Midwest, Inc Panhandle Telephone Cooperative, Inc.
Cellco Partnership d/b/a Verizon Wireless Pine Belt Cellular, Inc.
Central Broadband 24/28 GHz Consortium Rock Port Telephone Company
Cityfront Wireless LLC SANN Consortium
Cordova Telephone Cooperative, Inc. T-Mobile License LLC
Crestone Wireless L.L.C. TelAlaska Cellular, Inc.
Day Management Corporation Townes 5G, LLC
Frontier Communications Corporation Trace Fiber Networks, LLC
FTC Management Group, Inc. Tradewinds Wireless Holdings, LLC
High Band License Co LLC Union Telephone Company
Horry Telephone Cooperative, Inc. United States Cellular Corporation
Inland Cellular LLC Universal Electrical Contractors
LICT Wireless Broadband Company, LLC Western Independent Networks, Inc
Mark Twain Communications Company Windstream Services, LLC

Bidding starts at $200 per available county, and many rural licenses could be won for precisely that amount, with only one interested bidder offering the minimum bid.

The highest bids are just over $10,000,000 each for two licenses in the Honolulu, Hawaii market. Bids in excess of $2 million are currently on the table in these counties:

California: Kern
Colorado: El Paso
Florida: Volusia
Illinois: Winnebago
Iowa: Linn
Louisiana: East Baton Rouge
Maine: Cumberland
Missouri: Greene
Nebraska: Lancaster
Nevada: Washoe
Oregon: Jackson
Pennsylvania: Lancaster, Berks, York, Lehigh, Luzerne, Northampton, Dauphin
Texas: Cameron, Hidalgo
Wisconsin: Dane

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