A majority of my clients compete against one of the big cable companies, so they are always watching anything that affects the prices, technology, or performance of these companies. After a decade of unending success, 2022 has been a rough year for cable companies.
The statistic that probably matters the most to these companies is that stock prices are way down for the year. As I write this blog, Comcast has dropped 39%, Charter 46%, Altice 72%, and Cable One 61%. Stock prices are down for a lot of companies this year, but these large drops show that Wall Street has lost faith in the cable company earnings model, where the companies gained customers quarter after quarter and raised rates a healthy amount each year. For many years it wasn’t hard to predict that the cable companies were going to have a good year.
The cable companies have been losing cable customers at a rapid pace in recent years and collectively lost 2.7 million cable customers in 2021. But losses of cable subscribers were more than offset by the growth of higher-margin broadband customers. In 2021, the big cable companies collectively gained 2.8 million broadband customers as they continued to take customers away from DSL while benefitting from the surge in home broadband subscriptions during the pandemic.
But the growth in broadband customers was slowing, and in the fourth quarter of 2021, the cable companies collectively added 445,000 customers and another 482,000 in the first quarter of this year. But then the wheels came off, and the big cable companies collectively lost 60,000 customers in the second quarter of this year. While that’s a mere blip for companies that collectively have 75.6 million broadband customers, it feels like a watershed event in the broadband industry. It looks like cable is no longer the automatic king of broadband in attracting and keeping customers.
It’s not all bad news for cable companies since the biggest ones are aggressively pursuing cellular customers. It seems like this is being done to make customers stickier and less likely to churn. But at some point, the cellular business ought to add to the bottom line for the cable companies as they shift from pure cellular resale to carrying more of the cellular traffic on their own spectrum.
All of this obviously has the big cable companies examining their future. We’ve all been wondering how the cable companies would react to this accumulated bad news. We got at least one inkling of their strategy when Charter recently raised the price of standard broadband by $5 per month. It first seemed gutsy to raise prices when subscribers have stopped growing until you realize that the cable companies are not losing customers but have just stopped growing for now. A $5 increase in broadband price means over $1.8 billion in new revenue for Charter. The company would have to start bleeding customers to put a dent in that much new bottom line. I think this tells us that price increases are still on the table – the stock prices will tumble even further without the new bottom line from a price increase.
Interestingly, Charter also announced a new discount program called SpectrumOne, where the company is bundling broadband, a modem, and one line of unlimited mobile for one year. The price is $49.99 per month (for 12 months) with 300 Mbps broadband and $69.99 per month with 500 Mbps broadband. I saw a few articles pointing this out as Charter’s reaction to its lack of growth, but I see this differently. This is a one-year special only, and prices will return to normal at the end of the year. Charter has always had special promotions, and this promotion is not aimed at adding broadband customers – instead, the company is giving away cellular for a year to hook new wireless customers who have been reluctant to trust the cable company for cellular service.
There are several takeaways for ISPs competing against Charter. First, broadband prices will probably continue to rise, giving hope to competitors who follow suit with higher prices. Charter’s real push for a competitive edge is to hook a lot more folks on its cellular service, making it inconvenient for customers to break the bundle. We’ll still have to wait to see if Comcast and the other big cable companies adopt a similar tactic – but it’s one that makes a lot of sense for the bottom line.