Broadband Price Increases

Back in late 2017 Wall Street analyst Jonathan Chaplin of New Street predicted that ISPs would begin flexing their market power and within three or four years would raise broadband rates to $100. His prediction was a little aggressive, but not by much. He also predicted that we’re going to start seeing perpetual annual broadband rate increases.

Stop the Cap! reports that Charter will be raising rates in September, only ten months aftertheir last rate increase in November 2018. The company will be increasing the price of unbundled broadband by $4 per month from $65.99 to $69.99.  Charter is also increasing the cost of using their WiFi modem from $5.00 to $7.99. This brings their total cost of standalone broadband for their base product (between 100 – 200 Mbps) with WiFi to $78.98, up from $70.99. Charter also announced substantial price increases for cable TV.

Even with this rate increase Charter still has the lowest prices for standalone broadband among the major cable companies. Stop the Cap! reports that the base standalone broadband product plus WiFi costs $93 with Comcast, $95 with Cox and $106.50 with Mediacom.

Of course, not everybody pays those full standalone prices. In most markets we’ve studied, around 70% of customers bundle products and get bundling discounts. However, the latest industry statistics show that millions of customers are now cutting the cord annually and will be losing those discounts and will face the standalone broadband prices.

MoffettNathenson LLC, the leading analysts in the industry, recently compared the average revenue per user (ARPU) for four large cable companies – Comcast, Charter, Altice and Cable ONE. The most recent ARPU for the four companies are: Comcast ($60.86), Charter ($56.57), Altice ($64.58), and Cable One ($71.80). You might wonder why the ARPU is so much lower than the price of standalone broadband. Some of the difference is from bundling and promotional discounts. There are also customers on older, slower, and cheaper broadband products who are hanging on to their old bargain prices.

The four companies have seen broadband revenue growth over the last two years between 8.1% and 12%. The reason for the revenue growth varies by company. A lot of the revenue growth at Comcast and Charter still comes from broadband customer growth and both companies added over 200,000 new customers in the second quarter of this year. In the second quarter, Comcast grew at an annualized rate of 3.2% and Charter grew at 4%. This contrasts with the smaller growth at Altice (1.2%) and Cable ONE (2%), and the rest of the cable industry.

The ARPU for these companies increased for several reasons beyond customer growth. Each of the four companies has had at least one rate increase during the last two years. Some of the ARPU growth comes from cord cutters who lose their bundling discount.

For the four cable companies:

  • Comcast revenues grew by 9.4% over the two years and that came from a 4.4% growth in ARPU and 5% due to subscriber growth.
  • Charter broadband revenues grew by 8.1% over two years. That came from a 3.2% increase in ARPU and 4.9% due to subscriber growth.
  • Altice saw a 12% growth in broadband revenues over two years that comes from a 9.8% growth in ARPU and 2.2% due to customer growth.
  • Cable ONE saw a 9.7% growth in broadband revenues over two years due to a 7.5% growth in ARPU and 2.2% increase due to customer growth.

Altice’s story is perhaps the most interesting and offers a lesson for the rest of the industry. The company says that it persuades 80% of new cord cutters to upgrade to a faster broadband product. This tells us that homes cutting the cord believe they’ll use more broadband and are open to the idea of buying a more robust broadband product. This is something I hope all of my clients reading this blog will notice.

Cable ONE took a different approach. They have been purposefully raising cable cable prices for the last few years and do nothing to try to save customers from dropping the cable product. The company is benefitting largely from the increases due to customers who are giving up their bundling discount.

MoffettNathanson also interprets these numbers to indicate that we will be seeing more rate increases in the future. Broadband growth is slowing for the whole industry, including Comcast and Charter. This means that for most cable companies, the only way to continue to grow revenues and margins will be by broadband rate increases. After seeing this analysis, I expect more companies will put effort into upselling cord cutters to faster broadband, but ultimately these large companies will have to raise broadband rates annually to meet Wall Street earnings expectations.

The End of the Bundle?

There are a few signs in the industry that we are edging away from the traditional triple play bundle or telephone, cable TV and broadband. The bundle was instrumental in the cable company’s success. Back in the day when DSL and cable modems had essentially the same download speed the cable companies introduced bundles to entice customers to use their broadband. The lure of getting a discount for cable TV due to buying broadband was attractive and gave the cable companies an edge in the broadband marketing battle.

Over time the cable companies became secure in their market share and they created mandatory bundles, meaning they would not sell standalone broadband. Over time this spit the broadband market in cities – the cable company got customers who could afford bundles and the telco with DSL got everybody else. Many of the cable companies became so smug about their bundles that they forced customers to buy cable TV just to get their broadband. I’ve noticed over the last year that most of the mandatory bundles have died.

The bundle lost a little luster when the Julia Laulis, the CEO of CableOne, told her investors in February on the 4Q 2018 earnings call that the company no longer cares about the bundle. She said what I’m sure that many other cable companies are discussing internally, which is that the bundle doesn’t have any impact in attracting customers to buy broadband. On that call she said, “We don’t see bundling as the savior for churn. I know that we don’t put time and resources into pretty much anything having to do with video because of what it nets us and our shareholders in the long run. We pivoted to a data-centric model over five, six years ago, and we’ve seen nothing to derail us from that path.”

Her announcement raises two important issues that probably spell the eventual end of bundling. First, there is no real margin on cable TV. The fully loaded cost of the product has increased to the point where the bottom line of the company is not improved by selling cable. The only two big cable providers who might see some margin from cable TV are Comcast and AT&T since they own some of the programming but for everybody else the margins on cable TV have shrunk to nothing, or might even be negative.

I’ve had a number of clients take a stab at calculating the true cost of providing cable TV. The obvious big cost of the product is the programming fees. But my clients tell me that a huge percentage of their operational costs come from cable TV. They say most of the calls to customer service are about picture quality. They say that they do far more truck rolls due to cable issues than for any other product. By the time you account for those extra costs it’s likely that cable TV is a net loser for most small ISPs – as it obviously is for CableOne, the seventh largest cable company.

The other issue is cable rates. High programming rates keep forcing cable providers to raise the price of the TV product every year. We know that high cable prices are the number one issue cited by cord cutters. Perhaps more importantly, it’s the number one issue driving customer dissatisfaction with the cable company.

I have to wonder how many other big cable companies have come to the same conclusion but just aren’t talking about it. Interestingly, one of the metrics used by analysts to track the cable industry is average revenue per user (ARPU). If cable companies bail on the bundle and lose cable customers their ARPU will drop – yet margins might stay the same or even get a little better. If there is a new deemphasis on bundles and cable TV subscription the industry will need to drop the ARPU comparison.

It’s not going to be easy for a big cable company to back out of the cable TV business. Today there is still a penalty for customers who drop a bundle – dropping cable TV raises the price for the remaining products. We’ll know that the cable companies are serious about deemphasizing cable TV when that penalty disappears.

“Dumb Pipe” versus Full-Service Provider

Broadband and cable TV companies have been looking at their long-term strategy and they are going to have to decide if they are going to be what we at CCG call either a “dumb pipe” provider or a full-service provider.

A “dumb pipe” provider is a broadband company that sells a very fast Internet connection as its primary product and not much of anything else. A perfect example of this is what Google is doing in Kansas City. Google is selling a 1 Gbps Internet connection there for $70 per month. That is far more speed than is possible from the competition, but it is also more expensive. The only other product available from Google is one cable TV package that is bundled with the data for $120. Google only offers one other data package for low-income homes. Google doesn’t offer different size cable packages. They don’t offer voice. They don’t offer security, or cloud services or any of the panoply of new services that can be provided over fiber.

In my opinion Google has looked into the future and they believe that most of the other services that they could be selling will be available to customers over the very fast Internet connection that Google is selling them. One of the primary advantages to Google of the dumb pipe strategy is that they have a very simple product mix to sell. Fewer products means less staff needed to market, sell, provision and support customers.

The downside to the dumb pipe provider is that they will have a much lower average revenue per user (ARPU) than the full service provider. But both types of providers have a very similar cost of the network. And this is at the heart of the discussion that many of my clients are having about the long-term trends in the industry.

Most providers in the industry today are full-service providers. They support the full residential triple-play, have multiple options for cable TV, have multiple options for voice. They also sell a wide range of other products and their marketing strategy is aimed at getting the highest ARPU from customers they can.

But the full-service providers are worried when they look at some of the trends in the industry. They have already seen a lot of voice customers drop off the network. They are starting to see cable customers leave the network and they look ten years down the road and see a very different cable market. And so full-service providers are faced with figuring out how to go from where they are today to where they think they must be in the future.

I am starting to see evidence of the shift in the strategy of full-service providers. In the last year I have seen data prices being increased all over the country for the first time. And this is not because the cost of providing data is growing, because the margins on data have grown steadily each year over the last decade and are still growing. I think the service  providers have embarked on a long-term upward shift in data prices so that they will be getting more revenue from the one product that is likely to survive into the future.

The companies with the biggest dilemma are these just entering the market for the first time. Do they make the leap straight to being a dumb pipe provider, like Google, or do they become a full-service provider and enjoy the remaining years of high ARPU before voice and cable TV losses pull those numbers downward? It is a hard decision and a conversation I am now having with every new service provider.