Cord Cutting Continues in Q2 2020

The largest traditional cable providers collectively lost over 1.5 million customers in the second quarter of 2020 – an overall loss of 2.0% of customers. This is the smaller than the loss in the first quarter of 1.7 million net customers. To put the quarter’s loss into perspective, the big cable providers lost 16,700 cable customers per day throughout the quarter.

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 second quarter subscriber numbers compared to the end of the first quarter of 2020:

1Q 2020 2Q 2019 Change % Change
Comcast 20,367,000 20,845,000 (478,000) -2.3%
Charter 16,168,000 16,074,000 94,000 0.6%
DirecTV 14,290,000 15,136,000 (846,000) -5.6%
Dish TV 9,017,000 9,057,000 (40,000) -0.4%
Verizon 4,062,000 4,145,000 (83,000) -2.0%
Cox 3,770,000 3,820,000 (50,000) -1.3%
AT&T U-verse 3,400,000 3,440,000 (40,000) -1.2%
Altice 3,102,900 3,137,500 (34,600) -1.1%
Mediacom 676,000 693,000 (17,000) -2.5%
Frontier 560,000 594,000 (34,000) -5.7%
Atlantic Broadband 311,845 314,645 (2,800) -0.9%
Cable One 290,000 303,000 (13,000) -4.3%
     
Total 76,014,745 77,559,145 (1,544,400) -2.0%
Total Cable 44,685,745 45,187,145 (501,400) -1.1%
Total Satellite 23,307,000 24,193,000 (886,000) -3.7%
Total Telco 8,022,000 8,179,000 (157,000) -1.9%

Some observations about the numbers:

  • The big loser is AT&T, which lost 886,000 traditional video customers between DirecTV and AT&T U-verse. For many quarters AT&T claimed losses were due to the company eliminating low-margin customers. It seems losses are more likely now due to price increases.
  • The big percentage loser is Frontier that lost almost 6% of its cable customers in the quarter. The Frontier numbers have been lowered for both quarters to reflect the sale of its property in the Pacific northwest.
  • While DirecTV continues to bleed customers, Dish Networks has seemed to have stemmed losses.
  • The most interesting story is for Charter that gained customers during the quarter. The company credits the gains to offering a lower-price package and also to a marketing campaign that is giving two months free of broadband. 329,000 customers took that offer in the second quarter and nearly half of those customers elected to add on cable TV and/or cellular service, both of which were for pay, and not free. Charter has been beating the industry as a whole for cable subscribers every quarter since Q3 2018.

The losses of cable companies continue to mount at dizzying levels for the industry. This is the sixth consecutive quarter where the industry lost over one million cable subscribers. The big providers collectively have lost 3.2 million customers this year, from a starting point of 79.3 million customers at the end of 2019.

It’s especially worth noting that these losses happened during a quarter when the biggest ISPs gained over 1.2 million customers for the quarter.

We’re likely going to have to wait to understand exactly what is happening in the cable industry. For example, a recent large survey from TiVO showed that 25% of US homes have downgraded to less expensive cable packages (cord-shaving). That would mean total revenue losses over and above what would be expected by just net customer losses.

Interestingly, homes don’t seem to be fleeing traditional cable for the online equivalents. Leichtman also tracks Hulu Live, Sling TV, and DirecTV Now and those three companies collectively lost 24,000 customers for the quarter.

CBRS Auction Winners

The FCC held a recent auction for the  3.5GHz Citizens Band Radio Spectrum (CBRS). The auction went for 76 rounds and raised over $4.5 billion for the FCC. This auction was unique in that spectrum was licensed at the county-level awarding up to seven licensed 10 MHz channels in each county. Each PAL (Priority Access License) is good for 10 years.

CBRS spectrum can be used in several applications. The spectrum has good field operating parameters and falls in the middle between the two existing blocks of spectrum used for WiFi. This makes the spectrum ideal for rural point-to-multipoint fixed wireless broadband since it can carry a decent amount of bandwidth for a decent distance. The best aspect of this spectrum is that it’s licensed and will largely be free from interference. For the same reasons, this is also a good spectrum for cellular data.

The biggest winner in the auction was Verizon which spent $1.89 billion on the spectrum. The company landed 557 PALs licenses in 57 counties. The company needed this spectrum to fill-in mid-range spectrum for 5G. Verizon has also recently announced a fixed cellular broadband product for rural homes and this spectrum could provide an interference-free way to deliver that product from rural cell sites.

As expected, Dish networks was also a big winner and will be paying $913 million for CBRS spectrum. As the newest nationwide cellular carrier, the company needed this spectrum to fill in the holes in the cellular spectrum it already controls. The other traditional cellular companies were a no-show. AT&T didn’t buy any of the CBRS spectrum. T-Mobile only purchased 8 PALs licenses in six counties.

The largest cable companies scored big in the auction. Charter bought $464 million of spectrum, Comcast is paying $458 million for spectrum, and Cox purchased $212 million of spectrum. As the newest entrants in the cellular business, Comcast and Charter have been buying wholesale cellular broadband from Verizon – this spectrum will let them shift to their own cell sites for a lot of cellular traffic. There is also speculation that cable companies might be planning on using the new spectrum to launch a fixed-wireless product in the rural areas surrounding their cable properties. Both Charter and Cox have entered the upcoming RDOF auction that is awarding $16.4 billion for rural broadband and the companies might be planning on using this spectrum to cover any areas they can win in that reverse auction.

One of the smaller cable companies, Midcontinent Communications, spent over $8.8 million for PALs licenses. Midco already won sizable rural grants to deploy 100 Mbps broadband in Minnesota and the Dakotas. This spectrum will help the company meet those grant pledges and perhaps allow it to pursue RDOF grants.

There were a few other large bidders. One was Nextlink which provides fixed wireless broadband today in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois. Windstream purchased over 1,000 PALs and the traditional telco is likely going to replace aging rural copper with wireless service, while also possibly be expanding into new service territories with fixed wireless. SAL Spectrum LLC won 1,569 PALs. This company owns numerous other blocks of spectrum and it’s not clear who the user of this new spectrum might be.

The biggest news is that the auction allowed smaller bidders to win licensed spectrum. There were 228 different winners in the auction, most of which are small WISPs, telcos, and electric cooperatives. These entities benefited by the FCC’s willingness to auction the spectrum at the county level. Most previous wireless spectrum was allocated using much larger footprints, which kept small bidders from acquiring spectrum.

Who’s Chasing RDOF Grants?

There is a veritable Who’s Who of big companies that have registered for the upcoming RDOF auction. All of the hundreds of small potential bidders to the auction have to be a bit nervous seeing the list of companies they could end up bidding against.

As a reminder, RDOF stands for Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and is an auction that starts in October that will award up to $16.4 billion in broadband funding. The money will be awarded by reverse auction in a process that favors faster technologies, but also favors those willing to take the lowest amount of grant per customer. The areas that are eligible for the funding are among the most remote places in the country, which is why the list of potential large bidders is puzzling.

There are some big cable companies on the list: Altice, Charter Communications, Cox Communications, Atlantic Broadband, Midco, and Mediacom Communications. These companies serve many of the county seats or other nearby towns to many of the RDOF areas. One has to wonder what these companies have in mind. The only one that has chased any significant federal grants in the past is Midco in Minnesota and North Dakota. Midco has been using grant money to extend fiber backhaul to connect its smallest markets, to build last-mile broadband in some tiny towns, and to build fixed wireless in rural areas surrounding its cable markets.

One has to wonder if the other cable companies have a similar plan. It’s incredibly inefficient to build traditional hybrid coaxial-fiber networks in rural areas, so it’s unlikely that the cable companies will be extending their existing networks. The RDOF auction is being done by Census blocks, which in rural areas can cover a large area. The winner of the auction for a given Census block must offer service to everybody in that block. I also have a hard time envisioning all of these big cable companies getting into the wireless business like Midco is doing, so their presence in the auction is a bit of a mystery.

Then there are the traditional large telcos including Frontier, Windstream, Consolidated Communications, and CenturyLink. These companies already serve many of the areas that are covered by the reverse auction. These are the rural areas where these companies have largely neglected the old copper wiring and either offer no broadband or dreadfully slow DSL. The minimum technology allowed to enter the auction must deliver 25/3 Mbps broadband. It’s almost painful to think that these companies would chase the funding and promise to upgrade DSL to 25/3 Mbps after these companies largely botched an upgrade to 10/1 Mbps DSL in the just-ending CAF II grants. The cynic in me says they are willing to pretend to upgrade DSL all over again if that means substantial grant money. I have to think that some of these companies are considering deploying fixed wireless. To the extent any of these companies is willing to take on new debt or use equity, they could also build fiber. None of these companies has built a substantial amount of fiber to truly rural places, but may these grants are the inducement they were waiting for.

Verizon and U.S. Cellular have registered for the auction. You have to think the cellular carriers will be deploying fixed cellular broadband like the 4G FWA product that Verizon just announced recently. These companies already have equipment on towers in many of the RDOF grant areas and would love to grab a subsidy to roll out a product they might be selling in these areas anyway.

Then there are the satellite companies SpaceX, Hughes Network Systems, and Viasat. Viasat has won federal grant money before for selling broadband from its high-altitude satellites. SpaceX is the wildcard since nobody knows anything about the pricing or real speeds they can provide. We know that Elon Musk has been lobbying the FCC to let him have a shot at the billions up for grabs in this auction.

There is another interesting wildcard with Starry. Their business plan is currently selling fixed wireless to large apartment buildings in center cities and they’ve developed a proprietary technology that’s perfect for that application. They must have something else in mind in chasing grant money in remote areas that are 180 degrees different than their normal business model. Starry founder Chet Kanojia is incredibly creative, so he probably has a new technology in mind if he wins auction funding.

There may be other big players in the auction as well since many of the registered bidders are participating under partnerships or corporations that are disguising their identity for now. I think one thing is clear and some of the rural ISPs and cooperative who think nobody else is interested in their markets will get a surprise early in the auction. These big companies didn’t register for the grant auction to sit on the sidelines.

Is Online Programming Too Expensive?

I’ve read several articles recently that conjecture that online programming services that mimic cable company TV are in trouble because they are too expensive. This matters when trying to understand the cord-cutting trend because homes are less likely to bolt traditional cable if they have to spend as much elsewhere to get the networks they still want to watch. I haven’t looked a while, so I thought I’d make a new comparison. My local cable company is Charter Spectrum, so I compared the price of Charter cable TV to the online alternatives.

Charter’s base TV plan is called TV Select, and a new Charter subscriber gets a 12-month special price as follows:

$49.99 – 12-month advertised promotional price

$16.45 – Broadcast TV charge

$  6.99 – Settop box

$73.43 – 12-month promotion total price

After 12 months the base price for Select TV goes from $49.99 to $73.99, a $24 increase – and the full monthly fee jumps to $97.43 after the end of the one-year promotion. I’m a sports fan, and to get all of the channels I want I’d have to subscribe to Charter’s TV Silver plan. That package is $20 more expensive than the select plan, or $93.43 for 12 months, and then $117.43 after the end of the promotion period.

Charter’s Broadcast TV Charge has been widely labeled as a hidden fee in that Charter never mentions the fee in any advertising about the cable product. Charter just raised the fee to $16.45 in August, up from $13.50, making it the highest such fee among the big cable companies. But Comcast is not far behind at $14.95 per month and that fee is likely to increase soon. This fee is where the big cable companies are aggregating the charges for local programming from network affiliates of ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC.

Comcast, AT&T, and some other big cable companies also charge a Regional Sports Fee, but so far Charter is covering this in their base cable costs. The bottom line is that for a Charter customer, my cheapest alternative that includes a full array of network cable channels will cost $73.43 for a year and then go up by $24.

How does this compare with the online alternatives?

  • The cheapest online alternative might be Sling TV. They have two basic small packages that cost $25 each or both for $45. Sling TV has a balanced number of sports and non-sports channels, but in my case doesn’t carry every sports network I want to see. There are also $5 add-on packages that can drive the cost up to $60 to see the network channels most homes probably want to watch. Sling TV doesn’t carry a full array of local network affiliates.
  • Next up in price is Fubo TV, priced at $54.99 per month. This is a sports-centric network that is especially attractive to soccer fans since the network carries a wide array of international sports. Strangely, Fubo TV doesn’t carry ESPN (meaning they also don’t carry ABC or Disney).
  • At the same price of $54.99 is Hulu + Live TV. They carry all of the sports networks I am looking for and a wide array of other network channels. They also carry the local network affiliate channels for most major markets. For $60.99 you can get this service without commercials, which requires downloading shows to watch the commercial-free versions. Hulu + Live TV also lets families and friends network together to watch shows at the same time.
  • YouTube TV is perhaps the closest online product to compare to Charters cable TV plans. This is priced at $64.99 per month. As a sports fan, the YouTube TV lineup provides all of the channels I want to follow my Maryland Terrapins. YouTube TV carries the same local network affiliates for my market that are available on Charter.

All of the online TV options allow subscribers to drop or add the service easily at any time, although none of them give a refund for time already paid. This means no contracts and no term commitment.

It’s easy to see why homes think that online program is too expensive, particularly since Charter falsely advertises their cable product at $49.99. But it costs almost $20 per month more to buy TV from Charter, even with the 12-month promotional price, and then $42 more poor month at the end of the promotion period. It still mystifies me why homes with decent broadband don’t do the math and leave Charter for Hulu or YouTube TV.

Customers Still Flock to Promotional Rates

FierceVideo and others recently reported on a survey done in June by the research firm Cowen that looked at consumer use of promotional rates.

Cowen found that 20% of big ISP subscribers are on Internet plans that have promotional rates that will expire within the next 12 months. Another 13% of subscribers are on promotional plans that will expire in a time frame longer than 12 months. Surprisingly, 10% of subscribers have price-for-life guarantees. This leaves just 57% of subscribers paying full price for ISP services.

Promotional pricing is a sensitive topic for the industry and none of the big cable companies or telcos disclose the volume or amounts of discounts they give to customers. The big ISPs are all under a lot of pressure from Wall Street, and one of the key metrics used by analysts to track the big companies is ARPU – average revenue per user. ISPs have hard decisions to make. Giving too many discounts can kill ARPU, but not offering discounts can lose customers and revenues.

Some big ISPs have been working to curtail promotional pricing. AT&T has lost nearly three million video customers in the last year and claims that the losses mostly are due to tightening the promotional pricing that was given in the past by DirecTV. It’s also been reported that Charter has been tightening its policies on promotional prices, and in particular was ending a huge volume of promotional pricing they inherited through the acquisition of Time Warner Cable.

The Cowen report highlighted the difference in discount philosophy varies by ISP. For example, the report said that 45% of Altice customers have a promotional package, Comcast has 42%, and Charter is at 32%.

The big ISPs dole out promotional discounts in a few different ways. All of the incumbent ISPs offer low prices on the web to attract new customers. These new customer discounts generally last for 12 to 24 months before customers are moved to normal pricing. The other big category of promotional discounts is discounts that are negotiated with customers, often when customers threaten to leave an ISP.

The Cowen study confirmed something that we’ve always seen in the market. The promotional prices tend to go to younger subscribers, and older customers tend to pay full price for services. It takes real effort to either change ISPs or to renegotiate pricing every year or two, and only consumers willing to go through that hassle end up with a repetitive series of promotional deals.

The statistic that surprised me was that 10% of respondents in the survey said they had lifetime rates. ISPs have been somewhat leery of using the ‘lifetime rate’ words, but over the years as ISPs increased speeds and prices on their networks they have often allowed customers to stick with slower and less expensive broadband – generally with the caveat that a customer with a grandfathered plan can make no changes without being moved to newer pricing. In my mind, there is a significant difference between grandfathering an existing plan that offers slower speeds than other customers compared to new lifetime sales promotions that offer such deals to new customers. One of the biggest advantages to the ISPs of grandfathered plans is that customers keep these plans for years, meaning no churn.

Small ISPs struggle with promotional rates. Some small ISPs that still offer video offer guaranteed bundled rates for customers who buy cable TV. But I know a number of small ISPs that have ceased offering bundled discounts since the margins on cable TV are too small to afford them.

Small ISPs also generally don’t like the hassle of always having to negotiate rates with customers seeking a discount. Negotiating with customers changes the culture in a call center and adds a lot of pressure to customer service reps – and is probably the number one reason why the public dislikes big ISP customer service.

Many small ISPs have also given up on the idea of having residential service contracts. It’s a major pain to collect from somebody who breaks a contract and drops service. Most of the small ISPs I know feel that their quality of service is superior to the competition and they don’t want to fight to keep unhappy customers.

Regulating Cable TV versus OTT

Regulation often makes no sense, particularly in times when technology is transforming an industry. There is no better example of this than the way we regulate cable TV today.

Traditional cable TV is heavily regulated at the federal, state, and local levels. The FCC website has a nice summary of the history of federal cable regulation. The industry is less heavily regulated today than it was forty years ago, but there are still a lot of federal regulations that apply to cable TV. At the local level, franchise taxes levied on cable service are a huge revenue source for local government.

The FCC website includes a definition of cable television as follows: “Cable television is a video delivery service provided by a cable operator to subscribers via a coaxial cable or fiber optics.  Programming delivered without a wire via satellite or other facilities is not “cable television” under the Commission’s definitions.”

All of the federal cable regulations are aimed at cable TV signal that enters the home via a coaxial or fiber wire. Satellite or wireless delivery of television signal is not considered to be traditional cable TV, although the FCC does regulate satellite TV under a different set of rules.

The FCC has chosen to ignore its own definition of cable TV for programming that is delivered over the web. I’ve subscribed to the online cable alternatives Sling TV, Playstation Vue, and YouTube TV. Over time those services have come to look more and more like traditional cable TV. My subscription to Playstation Vue (before it folded) included all of the same local channels that I would receive from a traditional cable subscription. The service included a channel guide, and from a functional perspective, it was impossible to make any meaningful distinction between the Playstation Vue product and the same product I might buy from a cable company.

From a technical perspective it’s hard to see the difference between the online programming and traditional cable. Both come into the home over coaxial or fiber cables. Both offer a line-up of local channels and a similar mix of national programming. Both services offer options like DVR service to record programming to watch later. If you were to show both services to somebody who had never seen TV before, they’d probably not see any difference in the two services.

But there is a huge regulatory difference between traditional cable TV and online programming, particularly at the local level. Franchise fees of up to 5% are levied onto traditional cable TV from Charter, Comcast, or AT&T – but no franchise fees are levied against Sling TV or YouTube TV. Cable companies are arguing that this difference alone gives online programming a competitive edge – and it’s hard to disagree with them.

To make matters even more confusing, there are now cable products that sit somewhere in between traditional TV and online TV. ISPs are no longer building cable headends to download cable signal from satellites. Instead they are buying cable channels wholesale. The entire channel line-up is pumped into an ISP on a big broadband connection. The channel line-ups look a lot like both traditional cable channels and online cable line-ups like YouTube TV. In the newest cable wholesale products the ISP doesn’t even need a traditional setup box and can deliver straight to smart TVs or use something like a Roku stick.

For now, most ISPs that are reselling the wholesale TV are registering as cable providers and are collecting franchise fees. But I won’t be surprised if an ISP challenges this and argues that wholesale cable service is not the same as traditional cable TV.e

From a regulatory perspective, our current treatment of cable service is closely analogous to the difference between traditional telephone service and voice over IP (VoIP). ISPs successful fought to define VoIP as a non-regulated service, although there is no functional difference between the two products at the customer level. There is no discernible difference between a telephone line provided by AT&T over telephone wires and telephone service provided by Comcast over cable wires – but the products get a drastically difference regulatory treatment. It’s hard to think that we aren’t going to soon see legal challenges by cable companies trying to avoid collecting franchise fees – and I think there is a decent chance that courts will side with them.

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.