In a recent interview given to Diana Goovaerts of FierceTelecom, Chris Sambar, the AT&T EVP of Technology Operations said that the company is not worried about competition from cable companies. He said that AT&T’s fiber technology, which is capable of symmetrical 10-gigabit speeds is far beyond the capability of the cable companies.
He rightfully identified that cable companies must spend a lot on DOCSIS 4.0 to come close to catching up with fiber. What he didn’t mention is that the new cable technology is probably five years away from being market-ready. His zinger in the interview was when he said, “I almost feel bad for them (the cable companies)”.
This is interesting because we haven’t seen any real trash-talking between telcos and cable companies in decades. There was a lot of noise when DSL and cable modems both had 1 Mbps download capabilities, and then again when Verizon first launched FiOS. This quote is going to be talked about in every cable company board room in the coming months because it encapsulates an industry of fiber providers that are not afraid of tackling the cable companies head-on.
The cable companies have had an unprecedented run of clobbering DSL in the market and becoming near-monopolies in most urban markets. My firm hasn’t done a survey in several years where the cable company hasn’t captured at least two-thirds of broadband customers in an urban market.
But as AT&T and other telcos undertake an aggressive fiber overbuilding program, the industry is about to change. AT&T alone plans to pass an additional 15 million homes and businesses by the end of 2025. We also see aggressive buildouts planned by Verizon, Frontier, Windstream, Consolidated, and many others.
AT&T’s CEO John Stankey was quoted last year saying that the company believes that it will gain at least a 50% market share within three years after building fiber in a neighborhood. Some of those customers will be AT&T DSL customers converted to fiber, but a lot of the customers are going to be coming from the cable companies.
If the broadband world only consisted of the cable companies and the big telcos, we could pass off this latest episode as posturing by two industries that intend to continue to share duopoly market power. Telcos will win back customers with fiber, but if the two big incumbents were the only competitors in markets, then after a few years, we’d see a new equilibrium with telcos bigger than today. That’s what we’ve seen in the Northeast in the years since Verizon built its FiOS fiber – Verizon and the cable companies reached an equilibrium where each enjoys high prices and where both are profitable.
But the world is changing around the two big sets of incumbents. There are other competitors edging into urban broadband markets. For example, in the fourth quarter of 2021, T-Mobile added 224,000 customers to its fixed cellular home broadband. While this is being offered in rural areas, T-Mobile says most of its gains are coming from suburban and urban markets where the product offering of decent 100 Mbps speeds and low prices is peeling customers from both the cable companies and the telcos. While 224,000 new customers may not sound like a lot, the whole rest of the broadband industry only added 632,000 net customers in the third quarter of last year. T-Mobile has quickly grown to 646,000 total home broadband customers and will soon break into the top ten list of ISPs.
If T-Mobile was the only competitor, there still wouldn’t be much concern from the big companies. But both AT&T and Verizon are getting ready to unleash a nationwide rollout of a fixed wireless product similar to T-Mobile’s. We’re also seeing the rudimentary beginnings of other wireless providers like Starry, which said it plans to grow to 1.4 million customers by 2026. As mentioned earlier, there are millions of lines of fiber being built each year by Frontier, Windstream, Consolidated, TDS, and many other smaller players – all of these ISPs have the cable companies in their crosshairs.
AT&T has thrown down the gauntlet for the cable companies. The cable companies can watch customers erode while waiting for DOCSIS 4.0. Or the cable industry could follow the lead of smaller cable companies like Altice and start converting to fiber now. But unlike AT&T, which will get new revenues to help pay for fiber, the cable companies already have a large majority of customers in most markets. Building fiber will be harder to justify for the cable companies if they are losing customers.
Comcast and Charter still see the lion’s share of the growth of cable customers each quarter. We’ll really know the cable companies are in trouble when we see that metric slip. If everything AT&T says comes to pass, we ought to see cable companies losing customers a few years from now.