Small Fiber Builders Making an Impact

The research firm RVA, LLC conducted a study for the Fiber Broadband Association looking at the number of homes and businesses that are now passed and/or served with fiber. The numbers show that smaller fiber providers are collectively having a big impact on the industry.

RVA found that as of September 2018 there were 18.4 million homes with fiber, up from 15 million a year earlier. To put that into perspective, at the end of 2017 there was just over 126 million US households, meaning that fiber has now made it into over 14% of US homes. What’s most impressive, though, about that finding is that 2.7% of homes got fiber in that one-year period. The number of fiber households has been creeping up slowly over the decade, but the speed of deployment is accelerating.

RVA also looked at passings and says that 39.2 million or 31% of homes are now passed with fiber. Comparing the 18.4 million fiber customers to the 39.2 million passings shows a fiber penetration rate of 47%. RVA also says that there are 1.6 million homes that are passed by two fiber providers – no doubt in the markets like Kansas City, Austin and the Research Triangle in North Carolina where Google and the incumbents both built fiber. RVA shows that when accounting for homes that have no broadband that fiber networks are achieving a 60% penetration rate.

Small fiber providers are collectively having a big impact on the industry. RVA says there are over 1,000 smaller fiber providers in the country. They quantify the overall market share of these providers as follows: smaller telcos (10.3%), fiber overbuilders (6.4%), cable companies (5.5%), municipalities (3.7%), real estate development integrators (1.1%) and electric cooperatives (0.5%).

In 2018 the small providers built to 29% of the new homes passed with the rest built by four Tier one providers. RVA didn’t identify these big providers, but clearly the biggest fiber builder right now is AT&T. The company has built fiber to over 10 million passings in the past four years and says they will reach about 14 million passings by mid-2019. A lot of the AT&T fiber passings come from an aggressive plan to build to MDUs (apartments and condominium complexes). However, the company is also making fiber available to homes within close range of its numerous existing neighborhood fiber POPs that are near to existing larger AT&T fiber customers.

The other biggest fiber builder right now is Altice. They announced a little over a year ago that they are planning to build fiber across their footprints from the Cable Vision and Suddenlink acquisitions – nearly 8 million passings. The company seems to be fulfilling that promise with a flurry of press releases in 2018 talking about active fiber deployments. Altice is currently trying to sell off some of its European fiber networks to lighten debt load and assumedly raise the cash needed to complete the US fiber build.

Most other large providers have more modest fiber plans. We know that the CenturyLink fiber expansion that was hot news just two years ago is likely now dead. Verizon is now putting its effort into fixed 5G wireless. The big cable companies all build fiber in new subdivisions but have all committed to DOCSIS 3.1 on their existing cable networks.

Looking forward a few years and most of the new fiber is likely to come from smaller providers. AT&T hasn’t announced any plans past the 2019 schedule and by then will have effectively passed all of the low-hanging fruit within range of its existing fiber network. Altice says it will take until at least 2022 to finish its fiber construction. There are no other big companies with announced plans to build fiber.

All of this is good news for the US households lucky enough to get fiber. It’s always been industry wisdom that the industry wouldn’t develop gigabit applications until there are enough fiber households to make it economically viable. While most customers on fiber probably are subscribing to speeds less than a gigabit, there ought to finally be enough gigabit fiber customers nationwide to create a gigabit market.

 

Cable TV Number 2Q 2017

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You can’t read an article about the cable industry without hearing about the erosion of customers due to cord cutting. So I thought I would take a look at the cable customers claimed by the largest cable companies at the end of the second quarters of 2016 and 2017.

2Q 2016 2Q 2017 Change
Comcast 22,396,000 22,516,000 120,000 0.5%
DirecTV 20,454,000 20,856,000 402,000 2.0%
Charter 17,312,000 17,071,000 (241,000) -1.4%
Dish 13,593,000 11,892,000 (1,701,000) -12.5%
AT&T 4,869,000 4,666,000 (203,000) -4.2%
Verizon 4,637,000 3,853,000 (784,000) -16.9%
Cox 4,330,000 4,245,000 (85,000) -2.0%
Altice 3,639,000 3,463,000 (176,000) -4.8%
Frontier 1,340,000 1,007,000 (333,000) -24.9%
Mediacom 842,000 829,000 (13,000) -1.5%
WOW 524,300 458,200 (66,100) -12.6%
Cable ONE 338,974 297,990 (40,984) -12.1%
94,275,274 91,154,190 (3,121,084) -3.3%

These companies represent more than 95% of the whole TV market. According to Leichtman Research these companies together lost around 655,000 cable customers in the second quarter of this year.

What’s most striking about the above table is that the companies in aggregate lost 3.3% or over 3.1 million customers in the last year. One has to only go back two years to see the first instance of the industry losing customers, so these losses are recent. This is reminiscent to me to what happened to telephone landlines. The losses started very slowly, but then the rate of the decline picked up year after year. There is no way to know if cable will take the same path or if the drop in customers will be slower. But I think everybody in the industry from programmers to Wall Street is concerned about losses of this magnitude.

Interestingly, for now the big cable companies are largely maintaining earnings due to rate increases for the remaining cable customers plus continued growth in broadband customers. I’ll have a blog next week looking at the state of broadband.

There are a few interesting things to note in these numbers:

  • The losses in the second quarter of 2017 are actually smaller than the losses from that same quarter of 2016. But the year-over-year losses are significantly more now than they were in the year ending with 2Q 2016.
  • Satellite TV is getting clobbered. While DirecTV is higher, it’s offset to some extent by the loss of customers at parent AT&T which is shifting customers to the satellite platform. Dish networks is the big loser. Much of their customer losses have been offset by Sling TV adding over a million customers during the last year. But it’s rumored in the industry that Sling TV is operating at almost no margin.
  • Comcast continues to buck the rest of the industry and saw a tiny gain of customers over the last year.
  • When looking at these numbers you always must remember that the industry lost customers while there were around 1.5 million new residential living units build last year (homes and apartments). The gains that these companies got from those new homes, probably at least 1 million new customers is masked by the other losses, meaning that the industry lost over 4 million customers during the last year.
  • We know that the cable companies are continuing to take broadband customers from the telcos and there has to be some of that going on in these numbers.

 

Merger Madness

The last year was a busy one for mergers in the industry. We saw Charter gobble up Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. We saw CenturyLink buy Level 3 Communications. But those mergers were nothing like we see on the horizon right now. I can barely read industry news these days without reading about some rumored gigantic acquisitions.

There have always been mergers in the industry, but I can’t remember a time when there was this level of merger talk happening. This might be due in part to an administration that says it won’t oppose megamergers. It’s also being driven by Wall Street that makes a lot of money when they find the financing for a big merger. Here are just a few of the mergers being talked discussed seriously in the financial press:

Crown Castle and Lightower. This merger is already underway with Crown Castle paying $7.1 billion for Lightower. It matches up two huge fiber networks along with tower assets to make the new company the major player in the small cell deployment space, particularly in the northeast.

Discovery and Scripps. Discovery Communications announced a deal to buy Scripps Networks for about $11.9 billion. This reduces the already-small number of major programmers and Discovery will be picking up networks like the Food Network, HGTV, Travel Channel, the Cooking Channel and Great American Country.

Comcast, Altice and Charter. Citigroup issued a report that speculates that Comcast and Altice would together buy Charter and split the assets. Comcast would gain the former Time Warner cable systems with the rest going to Altice. There is also talk of Altice trying to finance the purchase of Charter on its own. But with Charter valued at about $120 billion while also carrying around $63 billion in debt that seems like a huge number to finance. This would be an amazing merger with the ink not yet dry on Charter’s merger with Time Warner.

Amazon and Dish Network. This makes sense because Amazon could finally help Dish capitalize on its 700 E-block and AWS-4 spectrum licenses. This network could be leveraged by Amazon to track trucks and packages, monitor the IoT and to control drones.

T-Mobile and Sprint. Deutsche Telecom currently owns 63% of T-Mobile and Softbank owns 82% of Sprint. A straight cashless merger would create an instantly larger company and gain major operational advantages. The FCC and the Justice Department nixed a merger between T-Mobile and AT&T a few years back, but in an environment where the cellular companies are getting into the wireless business this might sail through a lot easier today. Sprint has also been having negotiations for either a merger or some sort of partnership with Comcast and Charter.

Comcast and Verizon. There is also Wall Street speculation about Comcast buying Verizon. The big advantage would be to merge the Comcast networks with the Verizon Wireless assets. Comcast has a history of buying companies in distress and Verizon’s stock price has dipped 17% already this year. But this would still be a gigantic merger worth as much as $215 billion. There are also some major regulatory hurdles to overcome with the big overlap in the northeast between Comcast and the Verizon FiOS networks.

Industry Shorts, June 2017

Following are some topics I found of interest but which don’t justify a whole blog.

Amazon Bringing Alexa to Settop Boxes. Amazon has created a develop kit that would allow any settop box maker to integrate their voice service Alexa. The Alexa voice platform is currently supporting the popular Echo home assistant device. It’s also being integrated into some new vehicles and Amazon has made it available for integration into a whole range of home automation devices. The Amazon Alexa platform is currently ahead of the competitors at Apple, Google and Microsoft mostly due to having made the product open to developers who have already created over 10,000 applications that will work on the platform. Adding Alexa to a settop box could make it a lot easier to use the settop box as the hub for a smart home.

Comcast Tried to Shut Down anti-Comcast Website. LookingGlass Cyber Security Center, a vendor for Comcast, sent a cease-and-desist letter to the advocacy group Fight for the Future. This group is operating a website called comcastroturf.com. The advocacy group claims that Comcast has used bots to generate over a half million fake filings to the FCC in the network neutrality docket. These comments were all in favor of killing net neutrality and the group claims that Comcast used real people’s names to sign the filings, but without their permission. The website allows people to see if their name has been used. The cease-and-desist order was withdrawn after news of it got a lot of coverage in social media.

Net Neutrality Wins in Court. Not that it probably makes much difference now that the FCC is trying to undo Title II regulation, but the challenge filed by Verizon and other large ISPs against the FCC’s net neutrality decision was rejected at appeal. This affirms the ability of the FCC to use Title II rules for regulating broadband. The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld an earlier court ruling that affirmed the FCC had the needed authority to implement the net neutrality decision.

Altice Buys Ad-Tech Company. Altice joins other big ISPs that want to take advantage of the end of the new FCC rules that allows ISPs to monetize customer’s private data. Altice, which is now the fourth largest US cable company after the acquisition of Cablevision, now joins the other big ISPs who have added the expertise to slice and dice customer data. Altice paid $300 million for Teads, a company specializing in targeting advertising based upon customer specific data.

Other large ISPs are already poised to take advantage of the new opportunity. For example, Verizon’s purchase of AOL and Yahoo brings this same expertise in-house. It has been widely speculated that the ISPs have been gathering customer data for many years and so are sitting on a huge treasure trove detailing customers web browsing usage, on-line purchasing habits, email and text information, and for the wireless ISPs the location data of cellphones.

Charter Rejects $100 Billion offer from Verizon. The New York Post reported that Charter rejected a purchase offer from Verizon. The Post reports that Charter thought the offer wasn’t high enough. It also came with some tax implications that would complicate the deal. Whether this particular offer is real or not, it points to the continuing consolidation of the industry ISPs, cable providers and cellular companies. The current administration is reportedly not against large mergers, so there’s no telling what other megadeals we might see over the next few years.

Top 7 Media CEOs made $343.8 Million in 2016. The CEOs of CBS, Comcast, Discovery Communications, Disney, Fox, Time Warner and Viacom collectively made a record salary last year, up 21.1% from 2015. It’s interesting in a time when the viewership of specific cable networks is dropping rapidly that the industry would be rewarding their leaders so handsomely. But all of these companies are compensating for losses of customers with continuing rate hikes for programming and most are having banner earnings.

Frontier Lays Off WV Senate President. Frontier just laid off Mitch Carmichael, the President of the Senate in West Virginia. This occurred right after the Senate passed a broadband infrastructure bill that was aimed at bringing more broadband competition to the state. The bill allows individuals or communities to create broadband cooperatives to build broadband infrastructure in areas with poor broadband coverage. Frontier is the predominant ISP in the state after its purchase of the Verizon property there. The West Virginia legislature is a part-time job that pays $20,000 per year and most legislators hold other jobs. West Virginia is at or near the bottom in most statistics concerning broadband speeds and customer penetration rates.

The Beginning of the End for HFC?

coax cablesWe’ve spent the last few years watching the slow death of telephone copper networks. Rural telcos all over the country are rapidly replacing their copper with fiber. AT&T has made it clear that they would like to get out of the copper business and tear down their old copper networks. Verizon has expressed the same but decided to sell a lot of their copper networks rather than be the ones to tear them down. And CenturyLink has started the long process of replacing copper with fiber and passed a million homes with fiber in urban areas in 2016.

Very oddly, the dying copper technology got a boost when the FCC decided to award money to the big rural copper owners like Frontier, CenturyLink and Windstream. These companies are now using CAF II money to try to squeeze one more generation of life out of clearly old and obsolete copper. Without that CAF II money we’d be seeing a lot more copper replacement.

I’ve been in the telco industry long enough to remember significant new telco copper construction. While a lot of the copper network is old and dates back to the 50s and 60s, there was still some new copper construction as recently as a decade ago, with major new construction before that. But nobody is building new telco copper networks these days, which is probably the best way to define that the technology is dead – although it’s going to take decades for the copper on poles to die.

This set me to thinking about the hybrid coaxial networks (HFC) operated by the cable companies. Most of these networks were built in the 60s and 70s when cable companies sprang up in urban areas across the country. There are rural HFC networks stretching back into the 50s. It struck me that nobody I know of is building new HFC networks. Sure, some cable companies are still using HFC technology to reach a new subdivision, but nobody would invest in HFC for a major new build. All of the big cable companies have quietly switched to fiber technology when they build any sizable new subdivision.

If telco copper networks started their decline when companies stopped building new copper networks, then we have probably now reached that same turning point with HFC. Nobody is building new HFC networks. What’s hanging on poles today is going to last for a while, but HFC networks will eventually take the same path into decline as copper networks.

There will be a lot of work and money poured into keeping HFC networks alive. Cable companies everywhere are looking at upgrades to DOCSIS 3.1 as a way to get more speeds out of the technology – much in the same way that DSL prolonged copper networks. The big cable companies, in particular, don’t want to spend the capital dollars needed to replace HFC with fiber – Wall Street will punish any cable company that tries to do so.

Cable networks have a few characteristics that give them a better life than telephone copper. Having the one giant wire in an HFC network is superior to having large numbers of tiny wires in a copper network which go bad one-by-one over time.

But cable networks also have one big downside compared to copper networks – they leak interference into the world and are harder to maintain. The HFC technology uses radio waves inside the coaxial cable as the method to transmit signal. Unfortunately, these radio waves can leak out into the outside world at any place where there is a break in the cable. And there are huge numbers of breaks in an HFC network – one at every place where a tap is placed to bring a drop to a customer. Each of the taps and other splices in a cable network are sources of potential frequency leakage. Cable companies spend a lot every year cleaning up the most egregious leaks – and as networks get older they leak more.

Certainly HFC networks are going to be around for a long time to come. But we will slowly start seeing them replaced with fiber. Altice is the first cable company to say they will be replacing their HFC network with fiber over the next few years. I really don’t expect the larger cable companies to follow suit and in future years we will be deriding the networks used by Comcast and Charter in the same way we do old copper networks today. But I think that somewhere in the last year or two we saw the peak of HFC, and from that point forward the technology is beginning the slow slide into obsolescence.

Is Altice Really Bringing FTTP?

suddenlink-truckLate last week Altice released a press announcement that said they are going to bring fiber-to-the-home to all of their newly acquired US properties within five years. For those not familiar with Altice, the company is now the fourth biggest cable company in the US and was created through the recent acquisitions of Suddenlink Communications for $9.1 billion and of Cablevision for $17.7 billion. These acquisitions bring the company about 4.6 million customers.

But there are parts of the press release that have me scratching my head. The headlines announce ‘A full-scale fiber-to-the-home network investment plan’ which will bring ‘large scale fiber-to-the-home deployment across its footprint.’ That sure sounds like the company will give everybody FTTP.

But deeper in the press release are several statements that have me wondering what the company is really planning to do. For example, they say they will ‘drive fiber deeper into our infrastructure.’ Deeper into the infrastructure is not necessarily the same as providing fiber the whole way to the home. That is the same kind of language that Comcast used when they announced their mostly-imaginary 2 gigabit broadband product.

Even more puzzling is the statement that “the new architecture will result in a more efficient and robust network with a significant reduction in energy consumption. Altice expects to reinvest efficiency savings to support the buildout without a material change in its overall capital budget.’ If Altice has 4.6 million customers then they must have around 6 million passings. They will be able to build a lot of the needed network by overlashing fiber onto existing coaxial cable. But even that will probably cost in the range of $500 per passing, meaning an outlay of $3 billion. And to bring fiber into the home costs in the range of $600 to $800 per customer. Add to that the core FTTP electronics of at least $200 per customer and the cost to converting existing customers to the fiber could cost another $3.7 to $4.6 billion, for a total outlay of at least $6.7 billion to $7.6 billion.

The energy savings they are talking about would be due to shutting down the existing hybrid fiber-coaxial cable network. To achieve that savings they would have to convert every customer to fiber – since it take as much electricity to run a network for a handful of customers as it does to run it for everybody. But I have a hard time believing they can save enough in power costs to pay for an expensive new fiber network without having to increase capital budgets. I have a number of clients operating HFC networks and they do not have gigantic power bills of anywhere the magnitude needed to produce that kind of savings.

This FTTP plan also has to be compared back to Altice’s promises to their shareholders. They promised to bring significant cost savings after the acquisition of Suddenlink and Cablevision and it’s already hard to see how they are going to do that. For example, their largest property is in New York and they promised the PUC there not to eliminate any customer-facing jobs (technicians and customers service reps) for five years.

They also talk about their fiber rollouts in Portugal and France. In Portugal fiber is being deployed mostly due to heavy subsidies from the government which is hoping that fiber will boost a poor economy. And in France their business plan is different than the US and Altice benefits greatly from a quad play that includes cellular service. My quick analysis of their financial performance shows that wireless drives a big piece of their profitability there, and it’s unlikely they are going to figure out a profitable wireless play here in the US.

Finally, the company seems to have spent heavily this past year on upgrading existing HFC cable networks. I’ve read a dozen local press releases in Suddenlink markets that talk about completing digital conversions and upping data speeds to as much as a gigabit using DOCSIS 3.0. It’s curious they would pour that much money into their HFC networks if they are getting ready to abandon them for fiber.

I hope I am wrong about this and I hope they bring fiber everywhere. That would certainly highlight Comcast and Charter’s decision to milk their HFC networks for decades to come. But the press-release as a whole sets off my radar and is reminiscent of similar press releases in recent years from AT&T and Comcast talking about gigabit deployments. There are just too many parts of this press release that don’t add up.