The Quiet Growth of the Quad Play

A few years ago, some of the largest cable companies announced they were getting into the cellular business. At the time, this got a tiny amount of press but overall the press didn’t take these companies seriously or consider them to be potential major players in the cellular business.

Comcast Charter and Altice have quietly been adding cellular customers over the last three years.

  • Comcast recently reported that the company added 216,000 cellular lines during the first quarter of 2020, bringing their total lines to 2.3 million.
  • Charter added 290,000 customers in the first quarter, bringing the company to 1.4 million mobile lines.
  • Altice added 41,000 customers in the first quarter, bringing them to 110,000 mobile lines.

These growth and total customer numbers may not sound spectacular but consider that in the first quarter saw AT&T add a small number of net customers and Verizon lose a small number of net customers. These three cable companies are definitely eating into the market growth of the big carriers. Craig Moffett, the leading analyst for the communications sector declared last December that the cable companies must be considered as serious players in the cellular space.

For now, all three companies are acting as MVNOs and are purchasing wholesale cellular minutes and data from the big cellular carriers. But that won’t last forever. Comcast has made it clear that the company is in the wireless game for the long-haul. The company purchased $1.7 billion in white space spectrum in the Philadelphia market in 2017 and said that it will be bidding in the upcoming CMRS auction.

A company like Comcast doesn’t need to worry about rolling out a big national network like Dish Networks is tackling. Comcast can improve margins on the cellular business by selectively deploying cell sites in parts of markets where they have the highest traffic volumes. Comcast should be able to deploy small cells selectively in their major urban markets and be able to peel a lot of minutes off the MVNO arrangements where it makes sense. That would significantly increase their margins.

The cable companies have something in their favor that the cellular companies can’t match – the ability to bundle inexpensive cellular service in with products that customers value like home broadband. Each of the three cable companies is only offering cellular to existing customers.

Consider the Comcast plan. It’s only available to Comcast broadband customers. Customers have a choice of four data plans 1 GB for $15 per month, 3 GB for $30 per month, $10 GB for $60 per month, or unlimited data for $45 per phone. All of these plans include unlimited calling and texting. A customer can add up to 5 devices for a plan, and that can include phones for multiple family members, tablets, etc.

I have a friend who bought the Comcast plan when it first came out and it cut her family’s cellphone bills in half. The quality is as good as when they were AT&T subscribers, and their usage is likely still riding the AT&T network.

The big cellular companies have stopped growing. They’ve seen cellular prices drop over the last two years and their revenue per customer is dropping. AT&T and Verizon will start feeling real pain if the cellular companies continue to take more than half a million customers per quarter. The two companies are faced with T-Mobile greatly expanding its number of cell sites to meet the terms of the merger with Sprint. And both companies have to worried about seeing Dish Networks hit the market in two years or so with the most modern 5G network that will be software-driven.

Americans love bundles and it’s likely that the word will continue to spread that cable companies can save them money on their cellular plan. As word of mouth continues to spread that the cable companies are in the business to stay, these companies are likely to accelerate customer acquisition. The FCC was worried about losing Sprint from the market and made the T-Mobile merger contingent upon having Dish enter the cellular business. I’m guessing they didn’t take the competition from the cable companies seriously – but over time we are likely to see real competition for our cellular business.

Who Owns Your Connected Device?

It’s been clear for years that IoT companies gather a large amount of data from customers. Everything from a smart thermometer to your new car gathers and reports data back to the cloud. California has tried to tackle customer data privacy through the California Consumer Privacy Act that went into effect on January 1.

Web companies must provide California consumers the ability to opt-out from having their personal information sold to others. Consumers must be given the option to have their data deleted from the site. Consumers must be provided the opportunity to view the data collected about them. Consumers also must be shown the identity of third parties that have purchased their data. The new law defines personal data broadly to include things like name, address, online identifiers, IP addresses, email addresses, purchasing history, geolocation data, audio/video data, biometric data, or any effort made to classify customers by personality type or trends.

However, there is one area that the new law doesn’t cover. There are examples over the last few years of IoT companies making devices obsolete and nonfunctional. Two examples that got a lot press involve Charter security systems and Sonos smart speakers.

When Charter purchased Time Warner Cable, the company decided that it didn’t want to support the home security business it had inherited. Charter ended its security business line earlier this year and advised customers that the company would no longer provide alarm monitoring. Unfortunately for customers, this means their security devices become non-functional. Customers probably felt safe in choosing Time Warner Cable as a security company because the company touted that they were using off-the-shelf electronics like Ring cameras and Abode security devices – two of the most common brands of DIY smart devices.

Unfortunately for customers, most of the devices won’t work without being connected to the Charter cloud because the company modified the software to only work in a Charter environment. Customers can connect some of the smart devices like smart thermostats and lights to a different hub, but customers can’t repurpose the security devices, which are the most expensive parts of most systems. When the Charter service ended, homeowners were left with security systems that can’t connect to a monitoring service or law enforcement. Charter’s decision to exit the security business turned the devices into bricks.

In a similar situation, Sonos notified owners of older smart speakers that it will no longer support the devices, meaning no more software upgrades or security upgrades. The older speakers will continue to function but can become vulnerable to hackers. Sonos offered owners of the older speakers a 30% discount on newer speakers.

It’s not unusual for older electronics to become obsolete and to no longer be serviced by the manufacturer – it’s something we’re familiar with in the telecom industry. What is unusual is that Sonos told customers that they cannot sell their older speakers without permission from the company. Sonos has this ability because the speakers communicate with the Sonos cloud. Sonos is not going to allow the old speakers to be registered by somebody else. If I was a Sonos customer I would also assume this to mean that the company is likely to eventually block old speakers from their cloud. The company’s notification told customers that their speakers are essentially a worthless brick. This is a shock to folks who spent a lot of money on top-of-the-line speakers.

There are numerous examples of similar incidents in the smart device industry. Google shut down the Revolv smart hub in 2016, making the device unusable. John Deere has the ability to shut off farm equipment costing hundreds of thousands of dollars if farmers use somebody other than John Deere for service. My HP printer gave me warnings that the printer would stop working if I didn’t purchase an HP ink-replacement plan.

This raises the question if consumers really own a device if the manufacturer or some partner of the manufacturer has the ability at some future time to shut the device down. Unfortunately, when consumers buy smart devices they never get any warning of the rights of the manufacturer to kill the devices in the future.

I’m sure the buyers of the Sonos speakers feel betrayed. People likely expect decent speakers to last for decades. I have a hard time imagining somebody taking Sonos up on the offer to buy new speakers at a discount to replace the old ones because in a few years the company is likely to obsolete the new speakers as well. We all have gotten used to the idea of planned obsolescence. Microsoft stops supporting older versions of Windows and users continue to use the older software at their risk. But Microsoft doesn’t shut down computers running old versions of Windows as Charter is doing. Microsoft doesn’t stop a customer from selling a computer loaded with Windows 5 to somebody else, as Sonos is doing.

These two examples provide a warning to consumers that smart devices might come with an expiration date. Any device that continues to interface with the original manufacturer through the cloud can be shut down. It would be an interesting lawsuit if a Sonos customer sues the company for essentially stealing their device.

It’s inevitable that devices grow obsolete over time. Sonos says the older speakers don’t contain enough memory to accept software updates. That’s probably true, but the company went way over the line when they decided to kill old speakers rather than let somebody sell them. Their actions tell customers that they were only renting the speakers and that they always belonged to Sonos.

COVID-19 Boosts 1Q 2020 Broadband Subscribers

Leichtman Research Group recently released the broadband customer statistics for the end of the first quarter of 2020 for the largest cable and telephone companies. Leichtman compiles most of these numbers from the statistics provided to stockholders other than Cox, which is estimated. Leichtman says this group of companies represents 96% of all US landline broadband customers.

The big news is that additions in the first quarter were up nearly 85% over the number of customers added in the fourth quarter of 2019.  For the quarter, these large ISPs collectively saw growth that annualizes to 4.8%. This was the biggest quarterly overall subscriber growth since early 2015.

3/31/20 1Q Change % Change 4Q 19 Adds
Comcast 29,106,000 477,000 1.7% 443,000
Charter 27,246,000 582,000 2.2% 339.000
AT&T 15,315,000 (74,000) -0.5% (186,000)
Verizon 6,982,000 26,000 0.4% (5,000)
Cox 5,230,000 60,000 1.2% 25,000
CenturyLink 4,667,000 (11,000) -0.2% (36,000)
Altice 4,237,300 50,100 1.2% 7,000
Frontier 3,480,000 (33,000) -0.9% (55,000)
Mediacom 1,349,000 21,000 1.6% 12,000
Windstream 1,067,300 18,000 1.7% 9,300
WOW 797,600 16,100 2.1% 7,600
Cable ONE 793,000 20,000 2.6% 83,862
Consolidated 786,125 1,960 0.2% 14
TDS 460,000 4,800 1.1% 17,500
Atlantic Broadband 457,233 5,770 1.3% 5,326
Cincinnati Bell 427,500 1,800 0.4% 1,600
Total 102,401,158 1,166,530 1.2% 669,788
Total Cable 69,216,233 1,231,970 1.8% 922,788
Total Telco 33,184,925 (65,440) -0.2% (253,586)

We know that a lot of the growth was due to COVID-19, which drove employees and students to work from homes. A lot of homes likely purchased broadband for this purpose. These big ISPs also pledged to the FCC that they wouldn’t disconnect customers for non-payment during the pandemic. However, the real impact of that policy won’t show up until the second quarter.

Comcast and Charter continue to dominate the rest of industry, and accounted for 86% of total net growth for the quarter. The large cable companies collectively gained over 922,000 subscribers, which their biggest quarterly growth since 2007. The telcos collectively still lost customers for the quarter, but losses are significantly less than in 2019. The biggest telco loser was AT&T which lost 186,000 customers for the quarter. Frontier continued to lose the biggest percentage of its customer base and lost nearly 1% of its broadband customer base during the quarter.

This growth is impressive, and much of the boost has to be due to an increased need for home broadband. We’ll have to wait until later in the year to see the impact of having over 36 million people file for unemployment and for potentially millions of small businesses to close. There has been a long-running debate in the industry about whether broadband is recession-proof. Arguments can be made that homes out of work will hang onto broadband as long as they can in the hopes it can help them find work. In a few quarters, we’ll find out.

Cable Customers Plummet in 2019

The final numbers are in for 2019 and the largest cable providers collectively lost over 5.9 million customers for the year – a loss of almost 7% of customers. The numbers below come from Leichtman Research Group which compiles these numbers from reports made to investors, except for Cox which is estimated. The numbers reported are for the largest cable providers, and Leichtman estimates that these companies represent 95% of all cable customers in the country.

Following is a comparison of the end of 2018 and 2019:

4Q 2019 4Q 2018 Change % Change
Comcast 21,254,000 21,986,000 (732,000) -3.3%
Charter 16,144,000 16,606,000 (462,000) -2.9%
DirecTV 16,033,000 19,222,000 (3,189,000) -16.6%
Dish TV 9,394,000 9,905,000 (511,000) -5.2%
Verizon 4,229,000 4,451,000 (222,000) -5.0%
Cox 3,865,000 4,015,000 (150,000) -3.7%
AT&T U-verse 3,440,000 3,704,000 (264,000) -7.1%
Altice 3,179,200 3,286,100 (106,900) -3.3%
Mediacom 710,000 776,000 (66,000) -8.5%
Frontier 660,000 838,000 (178,000) -21.2%
Cable ONE 314,000 318,061 (4,061) -1.3%
Atlantic Broadband 308,638 347,638 (39,000) -11.2%
Total 79,530,838 85,454,799 (5,923,961) -6.9%
Total Cable 45,774,838 47,334,799 (1,559,961) -3.3%
Total Satellite 25,427,000 29,127,000 (3,700,000 -12.7%
Total Telco 8,639,000 8,993,000 (664,000) -7.4%

These losses were offset a bit as the combination of Hulu Live, Sling TV and AT&T TV collectively added just over 1 million customers. Leichtman doesn’t have subscriber numbers for YouTube TV and a few others that are not publicly reported.

Some observations of the numbers:

  • The overall loss of nearly 7% of customers represents a free fall of traditional cable TV. At the worst of the downside, landlines dropped about 5% of market share per year.
  • The big loser is AT&T, which lost nearly 4.1 million video customers between DirecTV and AT&T U-verse, and AT&T TV. The losses were so large at DirecTV that Charter moved up to become the second largest cable provider.
  • The big percentage loser is Frontier that lost 21% of its cable customers for the year.
  • The cable big companies fared the best, but this is partially due to the fact that Comcast and Charter each added 1.4 million broadband customers for the year – and added cable customers as part of that growth.
  • Cable ONE’s losses are small due to the 2019 acquisition of Fidelity.

As large as these losses are, the losses for 2020 are likely to be a lot larger. The primary reason household still give for cutting the cord is the high price of traditional cable TV. My guess is that the uncertainty of household incomes this year are going to drive many more homes to save money by migrating to lower-cost entertainment alternatives.

Ho, Ho, Holy Rate Increase!

It’s that time of year when customers get an unwanted Christmas present from cable companies in the form of a rate increase. The largest providers – Comcast, Charter, and AT&T have all announced rate increases. A few others like Cox and Mediacom generally announce price hikes in January. Altice typically raises rates in June.

The cycle of raising rates routinely has gone on for so many years that it feels routine. To give some credit to the cable companies, programmers continue to increase the cost of buying content every year. In fact, most programming contracts last 3 – 5 years and annual rate hikes are usually baked into the contracts.

What’s becoming mystifying is why the programmers and cable companies can’t sit down and find a way to control costs. The rate of cord cutting is climbing at a dizzying rate and with each rate increase, the industry is losing millions of customers.

Comcast

Comcast is raising rates on Basic cable, their smallest packages from $30 to $35, a 17% rate increase. The company is also raising the broadcast TV fee from $10 to $14.95 per month, a 50% increase.

Comcast is also raising the rate of Internet access by $3. I’ve been warning for a few years that annual broadband rate increases will become routine, even though there is no underlying cost of offering broadband that can be pointed to in the same manner. The big cable companies are raising broadband rates to increase earnings to satisfy Wall Street. A $3 rate increase may not seem like a lot, but for a company with over 28 million broadband customers, $3 translates to $1 billion to the bottom line.

Comcast also made changes to other fees. For example, the fee for a returned payment (bad check or credit card number) went from $10 to $30.

Charter

The Charter rate increases already went into effect in November. Charter raised the rates on the three most popular tiers of cable TV – Spectrum Select, TV Silver, and TV Gold by $7.50 per month. Charter also raised the rate for the broadcast fee by from $12.00 to $13.50. The company raised the rate on a settop box by 50 cents, from $7.50 to $8.00. A customer with one settop box saw an overall increase of $9.50 per month.

Charter raised the price of its basic Internet package (100 Mbps – 200 Mbps) from $65 to $70.

AT&T   

AT&T announced rate increases that take effect in January. AT&T raised cable rates for customers using U-verse by $3 to $7 per month. The U-family package increases by $3 while the largest U400 package increases by $7. The broadcast TV fee will increase up to $2, depending upon the market. AT&T also will increase the Federal Regulatory Recovery Fee by $0.07, and for the life of me, I have no idea what this is. I’m not aware of any FCC charges on cable TV and this is something AT&T pockets.

AT&T raised rates on DirecTV customers yet again, after having a rate increase in August. The new increases range from $1 per month for basic choice up to $8 per month for the Premier package. AT&T is also raising the regional sports fees by as much as $2, depending upon the market.

The largest rate increase at AT&T went unannounced as the company has decided to cut back and not renew promotional rates. As promotional plans have ended, AT&T is moving customers to full rates. In just the third quarter of this year, DirecTV lost almost 1.1 million customers as customers have balked at paying full rates.

Cable Customers Continue to Plummet – 3Q 2019

The number of traditional cable TV subscribers continued to plummet in the third quarter of 2019. The numbers below come from Leichtman Research Group which compiles these numbers from reports made to investors, except for Cox which is estimated.

The numbers reported are for the largest cable providers and Leichtman estimates that these companies represent 93% of all cable customers in the country.

For the quarter, the large cable companies lost 2.1% of subscribers which would equate to a trend of losing 8.4% for the year. However, that number needs to be put into context. The biggest drop of customers came from AT&T / DirectTV which lost nearly 1.3 million customers in the quarter, and 2.6 million customers so far this year. Much of AT&T’s loss comes from the decision to end discount plans to customers and has been letting customers go who won’t agree to pay full price at the end of previously given discount plans. The company says they are glad to be rid of customers who were not contributing to the bottom line of the company. All of the other providers collectively lost 0.9% of market share for the quarter, or a pace of 3.8% annualized. It appears the many of the lost DirecTV customers didn’t reappear at another cable provider and are gone from the industry, and so AT&T seems to be pushing households to cut the cord perhaps earlier than they might have otherwise. The nearly 1.8 million customer loss for the quarter sets a new record for cord-cutting.

Following is a comparison of the second and third quarters of this year:

3Q 2019 2Q 2019 Change % Change
Comcast 21,403,000 21,641,000 (238,000) -1.1%
DirecTV 16,828,000 17,901,000 (1,073,000) -6.0%
Charter 16,245,000 16,320,000 (75,000) -0.5%
Dish TV 9,494,000 9,560,000 (66,000) -0.7%
Verizon 4,280,000 4,346,000 (66,000) -1.5%
Cox 3,900,000 3,940,000 (40,000) -1.0%
AT&T U-verse 3,600,000 3,704,000 (104,000) -2.8%
Altice 3,223,400 3,255,300 (31,900) -1.0%
Mediacom 729,000 747,000 (18,000) -2.4%
Frontier 698,000 738,000 (40,000) -5.4%
Atlantic Broadband 312,555 307,261 5,294 1.7%
Cable ONE 298,063 308,493 (10,430) -3.4%
Total 81,011,018 82,768,054 (1,757,036) -2.1%

Some other observations:

  • Frontier continues to bleed and lost 5.4% of its cable customers along with 71,000 broadband customers in the second quarter.
  • Several other companies – Mediacom, and Cable One lost more than 2% of their cable customer base in the quarter.
  • The rate of loss for Dish Networks continues to shrink, and this might be due to picking up customers that are leaving DirecTV.

I haven’t seen anybody tracking the quarterly performance of all of the online cable equivalent providers – the companies that carry a full line-up online. It seems unlikely from the numbers I have seen that these companies are picking up a lot of the customers leaving traditional cable TV. For example, Leichtman reports that Sling TV picked up 214,000 customers in the third quarter while DirecTV Now lost 195,000 customers.

I have to wonder at what point the cable industry will start to implode? Cord cutting is accelerating. The popular press and social media are full of advice telling people to cut the cord. There are major new online content platforms like Disney+, HBO Plus, and Apple + that are providing additional justification to cut the cord. Advertising revenues are starting to drop along with subscriber revenues.

There must be drastic changes in industry practices if the traditional cable business is to survive. Continued price increases are pushing cable TV out of the range of affordability for most homes. To survive, the cable companies and the programmers would have to get together to reform the industry with affordable products people are willing to buy. At least for now, that possibility seems remote.

Broadband Still Growing – 3Q 2019

Leichtman Research Group recently released the broadband customer statistics for the third quarter of 2019 for the largest cable and telephone companies. Leichtman compiles most of these numbers from the statistics provided to stockholders other than Cox, which is estimated.

The numbers provided to investors are lower than broadband customers these same companies report to the FCC, and I think that most of the difference is due to the way many of these companies count broadband to apartment buildings. If they provide a gigabit pipe to serve an apartment building, they might that as 1 customer, whereas for FCC reporting they likely count the number of apartment units served.

Following are the broadband customer counts for the third quarter and a comparison to the second quarter of this year.

3Q 2019 Added % Change
Comcast 28,186,000 379,000 1.4%
Charter 26,325,000 380,000 1.5%
AT&T 15,575,000 (123,000) -0.8%
Verizon 6,961,000 (7,000) -0.1%
Cox 5,145,000 25,000 0.5%
CenturyLink 4,714,000 (36,000) -0.8%
Altice 4,180,300 14,900 0.4%
Frontier 3,555,000 (71,000) -2.0%
Mediacom 1,316,000 13,000 1.0%
Windstream 1,040,000 5,700 0.6%
Consolidated 784,151 1,143 0.1%
WOW 773,900 10,420 1.3%
Cable ONE 689,138 7,376 1.1%
Atlantic Broadband 446,137 2,441 0.6%
TDS 437,700 4,300 1.0%
Cincinnati Bell 425,100 (400) -0.1%
100,553,426 605,660 0.6%

Leichtman says this group of companies represents 96% of all US broadband customers. I’m not sure how they calculated that percentage. That implies that there are only about 4 million broadband customers for companies not on this list, and that feels a little low to me.

For the quarter, these companies collectively saw growth that annualizes to 2.4%. This is a significant uptick over the second quarter of 2019 that saw an annualized growth rate of 1.7%.

On an annualized basis the third quarter of 2019 added about the same number of customers that were added for the calendar year of 2018. However, the cable companies are performing better this year while the losses continue to accelerate for the big telcos. The big telco losers for the quarter are Frontier, which lost 2% of its customer base, and AT&T and CenturyLink which each lost 0.8% of their customer base. Following are the annualized changes in customers in 2018 and 2019:

‘                                          2018                2019

Cable Companies        2,987,721        3,317,904

Telcos                            ( 472,124)        ( 895,564)

Total                              2,425,597        2,422,640

Both Comcast and Charter had spectacular quarters and continue to account for most of the growth in broadband, as each company added around 380,000 customers for the quarter. It would be interesting to understand what is driving that growth. Some of that comes from providing broadband to new homes. Some comes from customers converting away from DSL. And some comes from expansion – I know of examples where both companies are building new network around the fringes of their service areas.

Hidden Fees Adding Up

Consumer Reports recently published a special report titled “What’s the Fee?: How Cable Companies Use Hidden Fees to Raise Prices and Disguise the True Cost of Service”. Cable companies have advertised prices for many years that are significantly lower than the actual bills customers see – but the CR report shows that the size of the fees has grown significantly over the last few years.

The report lists several specific examples. For example, the broadcast fee and the regional sports fees at Comcast increased from $2.50 in 2015 to $18.25 currently. The broadcast fee supposedly covers the cost of buying local network channels – ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC. The regional sports fee can cover the cost of channels carrying regional college and pro sports. In both cases, the cable companies never disclose the actual fees they pay that are covered by these fees.

The report shows that Charter increased its broadcast fee three times in the last year, starting at $8.85 in October 2019 to reach $13.50 per month in October 2019.

It’s not hard to understand why customers are confused by the many fees. The report points out that some cable bills have more than a dozen line items, which are a mix of rates for products, external taxes and fees, and these various ‘hidden’ fees – meaning they are usually not disclosed when advertising the products.

In addition to the Broadcast TV fee and the Regional sports fees the report lists the following other fees:

  • Settop box rental fee. This is to recover the cost of the settop box hardware. For many years this fee was around $5 monthly for most cable providers, but this is an area that has also seen big price increases in recent years and the highest rate I’ve seen was $12 per month. This is to recover a settop box, which for small ISPs costs a little over $100, and must cost less for the big cable companies.
  • Cable Modem / WiFi Router. This is the fee with perhaps the biggest range of pricing – some ISPs don’t charge for this while others are charging more than $10 per month.
  • HD Technology Fee. This fee used to be charged by almost every cable company back when they started offering HD channels (a decade ago many channels were offered in both an HD and an analog format). Now that the whole industry has largely gone to digital programming, CR reports the only company still charging this fee is Comcast.
  • Internet Service Fees. This is a relatively new fee that gets billed to anybody buying Internet Access. The report highlights the fees charged by RCN and Frontier.
  • Administrative and Other Fees. These are often fees under various names that don’t cover any specific costs. However, some fees are specific – I just read an article describing a $7 fee to business customers by AT&T in California to recover property taxes.

Consumer Reports collected a number of sample bills from customers and reports that the average monthly company-imposed fees for the bills they analyzed averaged to $22.96 for AT&T U-verse, $31.28 for Charter, $39.59 for Comcast, $40.16 for Cox, and $43.79 for Verizon FiOS. They estimate that these fees could total to at least $28 billion per year nationwide.

To be fair to the cable providers, these fees are not all profits. The companies pay out substantial retransmission fees for local content and pay a lot for sports programming. However, some of the fees like settop box and modem rentals are highly profitable, generating revenues far above the cost of the hardware. Some of the fees like administrative fees are 100% margin for the companies.

Consumer Reports advocates for legislation that would force cable companies and ISPs to fully disclose everything on bills, similar to what happened with the airline industry in 2011 with the Full Fare Advertising Rule. CR believes that the FCC has the authority to require such transparency without legislation.

Do Cable Companies Have a Wireless Advantage?

The big wireless companies have been wrangling for years with the issues associated with placing small cells on poles. Even with new FCC rules in their favor, they are still getting a lot of resistance from communities. Maybe the future of urban/suburban wireless lies with the big cable companies. Cable companies have a few major cost advantages over the wireless companies including the ability to bypass the pole issue.

The first advantage is the ability to deploy mid-span cellular small cells. These are cylindrical devices that can be placed along the coaxial cable between poles. I could not find a picture of these devices and the picture accompanying this article is of a strand-mounted fiber splice box – but it’s s good analogy since the size and shape of the strand-mounted small cell device is approximately the same size and shape.

Strand-mounted small cells provide a cable company with a huge advantage. First, they don’t need to go through the hassle of getting access to poles and they avoid paying the annual fees to rent space on poles. They also avoid the issue of fiber backhaul since each unit can get broadband using a DOCSIS 3.1 modem connection. The cellular companies don’t talk about backhaul a lot when they discuss small cells, but since they don’t own fiber everywhere, they will be paying a lot of money to other parties to transport broadband to the many small cells they are deploying.

The cable companies also benefit because they could quickly deploy small cells anywhere they have coaxial cable on poles. In the future when wireless networks might need to be very dense the cable companies could deploy a small cell between every pair of poles. If the revenue benefits of providing small cells is great enough, this could even prompt the cable companies to expand the coaxial network to nearby neighborhoods that might not otherwise meet their density tests, which for most cable companies is to only build where there are at least 15 to 20 potential customers per linear mile of cable.

The cable companies have another advantage over the cellular carriers in that they have already deployed a vast WiFi network comprised of customer WiFi modems. Comcast claims to have 19 million WiFi hotspots. Charter has a much smaller 500,000 hotspots but could expand that count quickly if needed. Altice is reportedly investing in WiFi hotspots as well. The big advantage of WiFi hotspots is that the broadband capacity of the hotspots can be tapped to act as landline backhaul for cellular data and even voice calls.

The biggest cable companies are already benefitting from WiFi backhaul today. Comcast just reported to investors that they added 204,000 wireless customers in the third quarter of 2019 and now have almost 1.8 million wireless customers. Charter is newer to the wireless business and added 276,000 wireless customers in the third quarter and now has almost 800,000 wireless customers.

Both companies are buying wholesale cellular capacity from Verizon under an MVNO contract. Any cellular minute or cellular data they can backhaul with WiFi doesn’t have to be purchased from Verizon. If the companies build small cells, they would further free themselves from the MVNO arrangement – another cost savings.

A final advantage for the cable companies is that they are deploying small cell networks where they already have a workforce to maintain the network. Bother AT&T and Verizon have laid off huge numbers of workers over the last few years and no longer have the fleets of technicians in all of the markets where they need to deploy cellular networks. These companies are faced with adding technicians where their network is expanding from a few big-tower cell sites to vast networks of small cells.

The cable companies don’t have nearly as much spectrum as they wireless companies, but they might not need it. The cable companies will likely buy spectrum in the upcoming CBRS auction and the other mid-range spectrum auctions over the next few years. They can use the 80 MHz of free CBRS spectrum that’s available everywhere.

These advantages equate to a big cost advantage for the cable companies. They save on speed to market and avoid paying for pole-mounted small cells. Their networks can provide the needed backhaul for practically free. They can offload a lot of cellular data through the customer WiFi hotspots. And the cable companies already have a staff to maintain the small cell sites. At least in the places that have aerial coaxial networks, the cellular companies should have higher margins than the cellular companies and should be formidable competitors.

How Smart are Promotional Rates?

I think the big ISPs are recognizing the impact that special promotion rates have on their bottom line. Promotional pricing is the low rates that cable companies offer to new customers to pry them away from the competition. Over the years promotional rates have also become the tool that cable companies use to retain customers. Most customers understand that they have to call the cable company periodically to renegotiate rates – and the big ISPs have routinely given customers a discount to keep them happy.

We’re finally seeing some changes with this practice. When Charter bought Time Warner Cable they found that Time Warner had over 90,000 ‘special’ pricing plans – they routinely negotiated separately with customers when they bought new service or renegotiated prices. Charter decided to end the practice and told most former Time Warner customers that they had to pay the full price at the end of their current contract period.

We’ve seen the same thing with AT&T and DirecTV. The company decided last year to eliminate the special discount on DirecTV and DirecTV Now. When the discount period ends for those products the company moves rates to the full list price and refuses to renegotiate. The practice cost AT&T almost a million customers just in the first quarter of this year. But AT&T says that they are glad to be rid of customers that are not contributing to the bottom line of the company. I’ve seen where the CEOs or other big ISPs like Comcast have said that they are considering changes in these practices.

At CCG we routinely examine customer bills from incumbent ISPs as part of the market research of helping ISPs entering new markets. While our examination of customer bills has never reached the level of equating to a statistically valid sample, I can report that the vast majority of bills we see have at least some level of discount. In some markets it’s rare to find a customer bill with no discount.

The discounts must accumulate to a huge loss of revenue for the big ISPs. The big ISPs all know that one of the only ways they are going to be profitable in the future is to raise broadband rates every year. The growth of broadband customers overall is slowing nationwide since most homes have broadband, although Charter and Comcast are still enjoying the migration of customers off DSL. The ISPs are continuing to lose revenues and margins as they lose cable and landline voice customers. Most US markets are seeing increased competition in broadband services for businesses and large MDUs. There’s not much left other than to raise residential broadband rates if the big ISPs want to satisfy the revenue growth expected by Wall Street.

If the big ISPs phased out promotional discounts it would probably equate to a 5% to 10% revenue increase. This is something that is becoming easier for a cable company to do. Many of them have already come to grips with cord cutting, and many are no longer fighting to keep cable customers. Cable companies are also less worried over time about customers leaving them to go back to DSL – a choice that is harder for consumers to make as the household need for broadband continues to climb.

Most ISPs won’t make a loud splash about killing discounts but will just quietly change policies. After a few years, I would expect customer expectations will reset after they realize that they can no longer extract discounts by threatening to drop service.

I’ve always advised my fiber overbuilder customers to not play this game. I ask clients if they really want to fight hard to win that slice of the market of customers that will change ISPs for a discount. Such customers flop back and forth between ISPs every two years, and in my opinion, companies are better off without such customers. Churn is expensive, and it’s even more expensive if an ISP provides a substantial discount to stop a customer from churning. Not all of my client agree with this philosophy, but if the big ISPs stop providing promotional discounts, then over time the need to do this for competitors will lessen.

This is certainly a practice I’d love to see slip into history. I’ve never liked it as a customer because I despise the idea of having to play the game of renegotiating with an ISP every few years. I’ve also hated this as a consultant. Too many times I’ve seen clients give away a huge amount of margin through these practices, giving away revenue that is needed to meet their forecasts and budgets. It’s dangerous to let marketing folks determine the bottom line because they’ve never met a discount they don’t like – particularly if they can make a bonus for selling or retaining customers.