Hidden Unserved Locations

There is a mountain of complaints to be made about the new FCC maps. In some parts of the country there are a lot of missing rural locations, including entire subdivisions. Various ISPs have continued to exaggerate both coverage areas and broadband speeds. But even with all of the flaws there is a lot of interesting information in the new maps.

I live in Asheville, North Carolina. In the previous version of the FCC mapping the whole city and a lot of the surrounding areas were shown as having broadband available from Charter. There is also parts of the city that have fiber provided from AT&T. As you might imagine, the old maps didn’t tell the real story. The FCC mapping protocol showed an entire Census block covered by a given ISP that has even one customer in the Census block. It’s mostly this mapping rule that showed everybody here able to buy broadband from Charter.

The new maps are far more granular. If you search the map throughout the city you can find homes, businesses, and whole streets where Charter doesn’t claim to offer broadband. The AT&T coverage on the new maps shows how AT&T typically builds small fiber networks that cover only a few blocks in a given area.

Close analysis of the map shows what folks in the broadband world have always known, but were unable to prove, that the big cable companies and telcos don’t cover everybody. It is these unserved folks in the middle of cities that I call the hidden unserved locations. Such locations cannot buy the same broadband as nearby neighbors.

These little pockets came about for a variety of reasons. Some are costly to serve and the cable company decided not to reach them when the initial network was built. The cable company might not have been unable to obtain the needed rights-of-way for some reason. A house might be sitting inside of a park or other land that makes it complicated to pursue an easement. ISPs also don’t always automatically build to reach newly constructed homes, which can be a real shock to the new tenants.

In many of these cases where the cost to connect a drop is high, and an ISP often refuses to connect the location unless the customer pays for the cost of the connection. Everybody in the industry has heard the horror stories where an ISP quotes a cost of thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars to make a connection, even inside of a city. Many homes and businesses in this situation cannot afford the big connection fee.

It’s not always the ISPs fault that the broadband isn’t available. It’s not unusual for the owners of privately-owned road not to give permission to an ISP or others to dig up the streets. There are apartment buildings where the owner decided not to allow a given ISP into the building. There are homes where the owner doesn’t want a connection and refuses to provide an easement.

In looking around Asheville I found a surprising number of such locations. I found individual homes or pockets of homes that are not claimed as served by Charter. But the real surprises came when looking at the outer portions of the city. There are parts of neighborhoods that have been bypassed for some reason, even though homes further outside of the city have service. It also looks like neighborhoods with large lots and long driveways have been selectively bypassed.

This version of the FCC maps likely still has a lot of reporting errors. Some of the homes shown as not being served might have a connection available, while some homes shown as having broadband might not be able to get it. Over time it’s hopeful that a lot of these local issues will be resolved as people use the FCC map challenge to fix the maps. But I think a lot of these situations are real. It’s not worth the effort yet with this first iteration of the maps to dig too deeply. But cities are going to be able at some point to make an inventory of locations that don’t have good broadband. At that point cities will be able to work to close the gap of the hidden unserved locations.

Broadband Pricing Disparities in L.A.

Now that digital equity has become a hot topic. I’m starting to see studies from around the country looking at the inequities in the way that large ISPs treat customers.

One of the latest studies comes from the California Community Foundation, which looked at rates being offered to new customers in different parts of Los Angeles. Los Angeles is an odd broadband market in that Charter is a monopoly in much of the market. Charter claims to provide service in almost 96% of Census blocks, while AT&T and Frontier each only serve about a fifth of the market. Fourth is Cox, with a tiny market share. This means that a majority of customers in Los Angeles can only buy broadband from Charter, with no other landline option.

The study concentrated on Charter since they are the ubiquitous ISP, but there are findings about the other two ISPs as well. The study was done by looking at broadband products and rates that are advertised to homes scattered across the 88 separate communities in the LA area. ISPs today make offers online to customers looking to connect to broadband, and the study looked at specific offers made in different communities.

The study instantly found that the products and prices offered to residents vary widely by neighborhood. You might think that the products available online from a big ISP like Charter would be the same for the whole market or even the whole country, but there is a dramatic difference in some cases with the products and prices that are offered online.

For example, the base broadband product offered by Charter online seems to be Internet Ultra, which provides a download speed of 500 Mbps. This is the only product that was offered at every address in the study. About three-quarters of addresses were offered the 300 Mbps download product. Only about one-fourth of homes were offered the 100 Mbps broadband product.

The biggest finding from the study is that Charter offers better pricing along with better terms and conditions to wealthier neighborhoods. That is counterintuitive, and basic economics 101 says that businesses should be expected to get the highest prices out of customers who can afford it.

The examples listed in the report are devastating. In one case, Charter offered an address in Willowbrook (where the poverty rate is 8%) a 2-year special rate of $30 per month for a new subscriber to the Internet Ultra product. A home just two miles away in Watts, where the poverty rate is 31%, was offered the same product for a 1-year deal at $70 per month. In both cases, the product reverts to the $95 list price at the end of the term. This is a gigantic difference. The home in Willowbrook was offered 500 Mbps for a two-year cost of $720, while the home in Watts was offered a package that would cost $1,980 over two years.

Charter called the report misleading and said that promotional rates change all of the time. But the study was done across the city at the same time, meaning there was no big timing difference where promos had changed. Charter’s defense is that everybody eventually pays the full price.

There is no easy way for Charter to defend this. It’s obvious that somebody at the company is uploading different specials into the online portal by address or neighborhood. This can’t be random, and that means that somebody in the Charter marketing department (or, more likely, some piece of software) is making these determinations based on what others are willing to pay in each neighborhood. This feels like broadband pricing set by a sophisticated pricing algorithm like what is used for airline seats.

Charter has broken no laws, but this is still a black eye for the big ISP. The big cable companies might wonder why a fiber overbuilder does so well in new neighborhoods – but they need to look no further than the findings from this study to know why customers don’t like or trust them.

The Outlook for Cable Company Broadband

A majority of my clients compete against one of the big cable companies, so they are always watching anything that affects the prices, technology, or performance of these companies. After a decade of unending success, 2022 has been a rough year for cable companies.

The statistic that probably matters the most to these companies is that stock prices are way down for the year. As I write this blog, Comcast has dropped 39%, Charter 46%, Altice 72%, and Cable One 61%. Stock prices are down for a lot of companies this year, but these large drops show that Wall Street has lost faith in the cable company earnings model, where the companies gained customers quarter after quarter and raised rates a healthy amount each year. For many years it wasn’t hard to predict that the cable companies were going to have a good year.

The cable companies have been losing cable customers at a rapid pace in recent years and collectively lost 2.7 million cable customers in 2021. But losses of cable subscribers were more than offset by the growth of higher-margin broadband customers. In 2021, the big cable companies collectively gained 2.8 million broadband customers as they continued to take customers away from DSL while benefitting from the surge in home broadband subscriptions during the pandemic.

But the growth in broadband customers was slowing, and in the fourth quarter of 2021, the cable companies collectively added 445,000 customers and another 482,000 in the first quarter of this year. But then the wheels came off, and the big cable companies collectively lost 60,000 customers in the second quarter of this year. While that’s a mere blip for companies that collectively have 75.6 million broadband customers, it feels like a watershed event in the broadband industry. It looks like cable is no longer the automatic king of broadband in attracting and keeping customers.

It’s not all bad news for cable companies since the biggest ones are aggressively pursuing cellular customers. It seems like this is being done to make customers stickier and less likely to churn. But at some point, the cellular business ought to add to the bottom line for the cable companies as they shift from pure cellular resale to carrying more of the cellular traffic on their own spectrum.

All of this obviously has the big cable companies examining their future. We’ve all been wondering how the cable companies would react to this accumulated bad news. We got at least one inkling of their strategy when Charter recently raised the price of standard broadband by $5 per month. It first seemed gutsy to raise prices when subscribers have stopped growing until you realize that the cable companies are not losing customers but have just stopped growing for now. A $5 increase in broadband price means over $1.8 billion in new revenue for Charter. The company would have to start bleeding customers to put a dent in that much new bottom line. I think this tells us that price increases are still on the table – the stock prices will tumble even further without the new bottom line from a price increase.

Interestingly, Charter also announced a new discount program called SpectrumOne, where the company is bundling broadband, a modem, and one line of unlimited mobile for one year. The price is $49.99 per month (for 12 months) with 300 Mbps broadband and $69.99 per month with 500 Mbps broadband. I saw a few articles pointing this out as Charter’s reaction to its lack of growth, but I see this differently. This is a one-year special only, and prices will return to normal at the end of the year. Charter has always had special promotions, and this promotion is not aimed at adding broadband customers – instead, the company is giving away cellular for a year to hook new wireless customers who have been reluctant to trust the cable company for cellular service.

There are several takeaways for ISPs competing against Charter. First, broadband prices will probably continue to rise, giving hope to competitors who follow suit with higher prices. Charter’s real push for a competitive edge is to hook a lot more folks on its cellular service, making it inconvenient for customers to break the bundle. We’ll still have to wait to see if Comcast and the other big cable companies adopt a similar tactic – but it’s one that makes a lot of sense for the bottom line.

ISP Liability

Charter was recently ordered to pay over $1.1 billion to the estate of the family of an 83-year-old Charter customer that was murdered by a Spectrum technician in 2019. A jury had originally ordered Charter to pay $337 million in compensation plus $7 billion in punitive damages. The judge lowered the punitive damages to be more in line with comparable punitive damage calculations.

This was a case that should concern all ISPs. The technician, Roy Holden, was seemingly a good technician. He had completed over 1,000 service calls with no customer complaints. It turns out that the technician had stolen credit cards and checks from a few elderly customers, but this wasn’t discovered until after the murder. Charter had done a routine background check when he was hired that showed no arrests, convictions, or other criminal behavior. There was nothing about Roy Holden that made him look any different on paper than the many technicians hired by other ISPs.

It’s likely that the award was so large due to Charter being such a large and profitable company. But even the base award of $337 million would ruin all but the largest ISPs in the country.

This is obviously a pretty rare event and, as Charter argued in court, was totally unforeseeable. How can any ISP know when it has a rogue or unbalanced technician? Unless an employee is acting erratically, it’s impossible to think that an ISP, or the many other kinds of companies that do in-home customer service calls can protect against this kind of event.

ISPs have no financial backstop for this kind of large court award. Most of my clients carry general business insurance in the range of perhaps $5 million. That level of coverage won’t come close to covering the damages awarded in this case. I don’t know many ISPs that could survive a lower award – even $20 – $50 million would ruin most of my clients.

This kind of event is rare, and I can’t imagine that insurance can be purchased to protect against it. If there is such a policy, it would have to be extraordinarily expensive, and ISPs would have a hard time justifying the premiums due to the low risk of ever having such an event.

Facility-based ISPs generally don’t carry a large amount of insurance. It’s not feasible to insure expensive networks against things like storm damage. Instead, ISPs rely on big storm damage to be covered by FEMA along with other infrastructure that is damaged in big natural disasters like storms, fires, and floods.

I suspect this award will send some ISPs to talk to their insurance agent – and they will find that there is no practical way to insure against this kind of event. But that doesn’t make ISPs any different than companies that install appliances, countertops, or air conditioners. I think this is one of those things that ISPs shouldn’t think too hard about. I’ve read articles on the issue that suggest that ISPs need a more vigorous vetting process for new employees. But realistically, that probably makes almost no difference, although it might convince a jury to set a smaller award.

Cable Company Cellular Growing

Cable companies are starting to quietly build a significant cellular business to bundle with broadband and other products. Consider the most recent customer count from the eight largest U.S. cellular carriers:

Verizon 143.0 M
T-Mobile 110.2 M
AT&T 101.6 M
Dish 8.5 M
US Cellular 4.9 M
Comcast 4.6 M
Charter 4.3 M
C-Spire 1.2 M

It’s worth noting that AT&T has over 200 million cellular customers worldwide, which makes them the eleventh largest cellular carrier in the world, with China Mobile first with over 851 million customers.

Comcast’s Xfinity Mobile added 317,000 customers in the second quarter of this year to bring the company to a total of 4.6 million customers. Comcast mostly uses the Verizon network to complete calls. However, Comcast demonstrates the major benefit of a cable company being in the cellular business since the company is able to offload a large portion of its outgoing mobile traffic to its WiFi network. Comcast has been experimenting with the use of 600 MHz spectrum to carry some of its cellular traffic. The company purchased $1.7 billion of spectrum in the 2017 incentive auction that freed up spectrum formerly used by television channels. Comcast also purchased $458 million of CBRS spectrum in 2020. The company says it may selectively offload traffic onto licensed spectrum in places where that is cheaper than buying wholesale minutes.

Charter’s Spectrum Mobile added 344,000 mobile customers in the second quarter of the year to bring the company to 4.3 million customers. Spectrum also uses the Verizon network. Charter purchased $464 million of PAL licenses in the CBRS spectrum in 2020. Charter says it intends to place its own radios in high-traffic areas where that will save money. Charter’s CEO Brian Roberts said a few months ago that Charter saw $700 million in new revenues from cellular over the past twelve months.

Altice has been selling mobile services branded as Optimum Mobile for several years and added 33,000 customers in the second quarter, bringing the company to 231,000 total mobile customers. Altice uses the T-Mobile network.

Cox announced the launch of a mobile pilot program on August 29, launching Cox Mobile in Hampton Roads, Virginia, Omaha, Nebraska, and Las Vegas.

All of these companies have a huge potential upside. For example, the mobile customer penetration rate for both Comcast and Charter is under 10%, and both companies believe they can become major mobile players in their markets.

The cable companies face an unusual marketing challenge since each cable company is only in selected urban markets, meaning that a lot of nationwide advertising goes to waste.

The primary reason that Comcast first entered the mobile market was to develop another product that would create a stickier bundle. Comcast figured it would be hard for a customer to leave if that meant finding a new cellular carrier along with a new ISP. Cable companies are still only selling to their own broadband customers, which is a good indication bundling is still a key reason for doing this. It’s also less costly to sell cellular to households that can offload cellular traffic to the cable company broadband network.

The big three cellular carriers have continued to grow in recent years, but the cable companies have definitely made a dent in the market with almost ten million retail mobile customers. The real test for the cellular industry is going to come when Dish finally gets its act together and offers low-cost mobile service in most markets. That’s going to put price pressure on everybody else. If Dish starts a price war, as promised, we’re going to see a real shake-up.



What’s The Trend for Broadband Prices?

For years, cable companies have been raising broadband prices every year. These annual rate increases meant a huge boost the earnings of the largest cable companies like Comcast and Charter. Most of the annual price increases of $3 to $5 went straight to the bottom line. While price increases don’t hit every customer immediately because of customers on term contracts, every price increase reaches every customer eventually.

It’s going to be really interesting to see if Comcast, Charter, and the other big cable companies raise prices later this year. The industry has changed, and it doesn’t seem as obvious as in the past that cable companies can raise rates and that customers will just begrudgingly go along with it.

First, the cable companies have stopped growing, and in the second quarter of this year, both Comcast and Charter experienced a tiny loss of customers. This seems to be for a variety of reasons. First, the FWA fixed cellular carriers are thriving. In the second quarter of this year, T-Mobile and Verizon added 816,000 new FWA broadband customers using 5G frequencies. The product is not as robust as cable broadband, with download speeds of roughly 100 Mbps, but FWA has faster upload speeds than cable. What’s making FWA attractive is the price of $50 – $60 for unlimited broadband – far below the prices charged by cable companies.

The cable companies have to be feeling some sting also from the large telcos and others who are building and selling fiber in cable company markets. There must be a few million customers moving to fiber annually at this point – a number that is going to grow.

The big question is if cable companies will keep raising rates in the face of customer stagnation. This can’t be an easy decision for cable companies. New revenues from raising rates go straight to the bottom line, and it is the annual rate increases that have sustained the earning growth and stock prices for cable companies. Comcast has over 32 million customers, and Charter has over 30 million, so forgoing a rate increase would mean forgoing a lot of new cash and earnings.

The strategic question is if the cable companies are willing to accelerate customer losses for the extra earnings from higher rates. Households getting a rate increase notice are going to be prompted to look around for alternatives, and many of them will find one. The time when cable companies are a monopoly in many cities is starting to come to an end.

The rest of the industry is going to watch this issue closely because it’s going to be easier to compete against the cable companies if they continue to raise rates. Higher cable broadband prices let other ISPs creep up rates and still stay competitive.

It’s interesting that almost no ISP has raised rates during this year when inflation is a major topic of conversation. One thing this shows is that there are big margins on broadband, and there is real cash pressure to raise rates to stay whole. But this also means that the big ISPs are absorbing higher labor, materials, and operating costs without charging more – and without increasing revenues through customer growth.

The biggest cable companies have other sources of revenue. Comcast and Charter both have a growing cellular business, but many analysts are speculating that it’s not generating a big profit. However, as the cable companies start utilizing licensed spectrum it might become quite profitable.

This is a really interesting time for the industry. The biggest cable companies have been the king of the hill for a decade and could do almost anything they wanted. They’ve been converting DSL customers by the millions annually while also raising rates – meaning getting doubly more profitable. Comcast and Charter are so large that they are not going to stop being the largest ISPs for a long time to come – but they are starting to show some market vulnerability, and there are plenty of ISPs willing to pounce on their markets.

Traditional Cable in Less than Half of Households

Leichtman Research Group recently released the cable customer counts for the largest providers of traditional cable service at the end of the second quarter of 2022. LRG compiles most of these numbers from the statistics provided to stockholders, except for Cox, which is privately held and estimated. Leichtman says this group of companies represents 96% of all traditional U.S. cable customers.

The traditional cable providers continue to lose customers at a torrid pace, losing over 1.65 million customers in the second quarter, up from 1.4 million customers the previous quarter. Overall, the traditional cable providers lost almost 18,200 customers every day during the quarter.

The big news for the quarter is that traditional cable providers are now in less than half of homes and have collectively dropped to a 49% market penetration. The industry has lost almost seventeen million customers since the end of 2017, when traditional cable was in over 73% of homes.

2Q 2022 Change Change
Comcast 17,144,000 (520,000) -2.9%
Charter 15,495,000 (226,000) -1.4%
DirecTV 13,900,000 (400,000) -2.8%
Dish Network 7,791,000 (202,000) -2.5%
Verizon 3,479,000 (87,000) -2.4%
Cox 3,230,000 (80,000) -2.4%
Altice 2,574,200 (84,500) -3.2%
Mediacom 540,000 (15,000) -2.7%
Frontier 343,000 (20,000) -5.5%
Breezeline 332,312 (6,709) -2.0%
Cable ONE 221,000 (17,000) -7.1%
   Total 65,049,512 (1,658,209) -2.5%
Hulu Live 4,000,000 (100,000) -2.4%
Sling TV 2,197,000 (55,000) -2.4%
FuboTV 946,735 (109,510) -10.4%
Total Cable 39,536,512 (949,209) -2.3%
Total Telco / Satellite 25,513,000 (709,000) -2.7%
Total vMvPD 7,143,735 (264,510) -3.6%

It doesn’t look like people are replacing traditional cable with an online alternative like Hulu and Sling TV – which collectively lost 264,000 customers in the quarter. A few major online alternatives like YouTube TV aren’t on the list, but the loss in traditional cable far surpasses any possible net gain for the online cable alternatives.

Charter is still losing customers at a slower rate than everybody else in the industry and has for the past several years – although Charter’s losses are starting to climb. Charter CEO Tom Rutledge says that Charter actively points out to customers that the online alternatives cost more. The rest of the industry seems resigned to letting cable customers go.

The biggest percentage losers continue to be Frontier and Cable ONE.

Is Cable Broadband Equal to Fiber?

As I have blogged over the years, I have to give kudos to the folks at the big ISPs who have steadily provided controversial quotes that are worth writing about. The latest comes in an article by Linda Hardest at FierceTelecom. She quotes Charter’s CEO Tom Rutledge talking about the comparison of cable broadband to fiber. She quotes Rutledge as saying, “The idea that this technology [fiber] is transformative and superior is just dead wrong. It’s just another form of transmission.”

As the CEO of a giant cable company, he really can’t say anything else. It would be a terrible idea for him to admit that fiber delivers better broadband than a cable network. But there are mountains of facts that say that Rutledge is wrong.

First, Charter is expanding its network around the country either through self-funding to reach areas just outside of the traditional cable territories, or by pursuing grants and subsidies, such as with the $1.2 billion that Charter claimed in the 2020 RDOF reverse auction. It looks like Charter is building fiber to all of these new locations.

Other big cable companies are doing the same. Altice says it will convert 70% of its footprint to fiber by 2025. Cox is undertaking upgrades to fiber in several of its larger markets. Midcontinent says it’s going to convert all of its markets to fiber. These cable companies (including Charter) clearly think fiber is a superior technology for moving forward. And every other big cable company is using fiber technology for expansions or building into new opportunities like a new subdivision. The engineers at cable companies have clearly decided that the only technology that makes sense moving forward is fiber – and that clearly says that fiber is superior to coaxial cable.

Then there is also the 800-pound gorilla in the corner of the room that none of the cable executives will acknowledge – upload speeds. The vast majority of complaints that cable broadband customers had during the pandemic can be pinned on the slow upload speeds delivered on the technology. OpenVault recently demonstrated that millions of households upgraded to faster broadband packages during the pandemic, trying to find broadband that would work for them. Huge numbers of them were disappointed when faster download speeds didn’t mean better upload speeds.

The other issue that doesn’t get talked about enough is jitter. This is the variance in the broadband signal. The broadband signal on many coaxial networks spikes wildly up and down. Jitter is what kicks people off Zoom calls when they have enough bandwidth – the bandwidth temporarily drops and is not enough to sustain the Zoom connection. Fiber networks have comparatively tiny jitter, with most of the jitter coming from the open Internet and not from the local fiber network.

We also know that fiber overbuilders are starting to chip away at cable’s dominance of the broadband industry. AT&T claims it added a million customers on fiber in the fourth quarter of last year – and many of those had to come from cable companies. I have to think that all of the frenetic nationwide fiber construction is going to result in upcoming customer gains for the telco sector, and a corresponding slowdown and eventually loss in customers at cable companies.

It’s worth noting that the comment was made at a conference attended by Wall Street and media folks, and it’s likely that he got a question about competing with fiber. Any cable executively would have likely answered the same way, but perhaps in a less quotable manner. There are plenty of customers who are satisfied with the broadband they are receiving from the big cable companies. But the cable companies are failing customers who need steadier connections or faster upload speeds. At least some of Charter’s customers would tell him that he is dead wrong.

Update on DOCSIS 4.0

LightReading recently reported on a showcase at CableLabs where Charter and Comcast demonstrated the companies’ progress in testing the concepts behind DOCSIS 4.0. This is the big cable upgrade that will allow the cable companies to deploy fast upload speeds – the one area where they have a major disadvantage compared to fiber.

Both companies demonstrated hardware and software that could deliver a lot of speed. But the demos also showed that the cable industry is probably still four to five years away from having a commercially viable product that cable companies can use to upgrade networks. That’s a long time to wait to get better upload speeds.

Charter’s demonstration was able to use frequencies within the coaxial cables up to 1.8 GHz. That’s a big leap up from today’s maximum frequency utilization of 1.2 GHz. As a reminder, a cable network operates as a giant radio system that is captive inside of the coaxial copper wires. Increasing the range of spectrums used means opening up a big range of additional bandwidth capacity inside of the transmission. These new breakthroughs are akin to the creation of G.Fast which harnesses higher frequencies inside the telephone copper wires. While engineers can theoretically guess how the higher frequencies will behave, the reason for these early tests is to find all of the unexpected quirks of how the various frequencies interact inside of the coaxial network in real-life conditions. A coaxial cable is not a sealed environment and allows interference from the outside world that can interfere unexpectedly with parts of the transmission path.

Charter used equipment supplied by Vicma for the node, Teleste for amplifiers, and ATX Networks for taps. The node is the electronics that sit in a neighborhood and converts the signal from fiber onto the coaxial network. Amplifiers are needed because the signals in a coaxial system don’t travel very far without having to be amplified and refreshed. Taps are the devices that peel signals from the coaxial distribution network to feed into homes. A cable company will have to replace all of these components, plus install new modems, to upgrade to a higher frequency network – which means the DOCSIS 4.0 upgrade will be expensive.

One of the impressive changes from the Charter demo was that the company said it could overlay the new DOCSIS system over top of an existing cable network without respacing. That’s a big deal because respacing would mean moving existing channels to make room for the new bandwidth allocation.

Charter was able to achieve a download speed of 8.9 Gbps download and 6.2 Gbps upload. They feel confident they will be able to get this over 10 Gbps. Comcast achieved speeds on its test of 8.2 Gbps download and 5.1 Gbps upload. In addition to researching DOCSIS 4.0, Comcast is also looking for ways to use the new technology to beef up existing DOCSIS 3.1 networks to provide faster upload speeds earlier.

Both companies face a market dilemma. They are both under pressure to provide faster upload speeds today. If they don’t find ways to do that soon, they will lose customers to fiber overbuilders and even the FWA wireless ISPs. It’s going to be devastating news for cable stock prices in the first quarter after Charter or Comcast loses broadband customers – but the current market trajectory shows that’s likely to happen.

Both companies are still working on lab demos and are using a breadboard chip designed specifically for this test. The normal lab development process means fiddling with the chip and trying new versions until the scientists are satisfied. That process always takes a lot longer than executives want but is necessary to roll out a product that works right. But I have to wonder if cable executives are in a big hurry to make an expensive upgrade to DOCSIS 4.0 so soon after upgrading to DOCSIS 3.1.

Stock Buybacks

All of the big ISPs brag to the public about how much they spend on their networks. There is barely a press release when they don’t remind the public how much money they are pouring back into making their networks better. Even at the local level, it’s rare to ask a big ISP to a local government meeting where they don’t open the conversation by reminding local politicians how much money they have spent in a given town or county.

The story is often just the opposite when problems with networks are pointed out, and communities ask the ISPs to beef up networks and improve service. That’s when we hear that money for capital spending is tight, but an ISP will make upgrades a priority in the future.

What’s never heard in conversation about capital spending is how much big ISPs spend to buy back shares of their own stock. This is a practice where big ISPs (and many other large corporations) use profits to purchase and retire stock. The transaction reduces the number of shares of outstanding stock and consequently nudges up the announced earnings per share. The first time I encountered the practice, I was flabbergasted.

Let’s consider the Comcast stock buybacks. Comcast paused stock buybacks in 2019, but in 2021 repurchased 73.2 million shares of stock for $4 billion. The company has over 4.5 billion outstanding shares of stock, so the buyback reduced the shares of outstanding stock by 1.6%. Comcast earnings for 2021 were announced as $3.06 per share for the year. Without the stock buyback, the earnings would have been $3.01.

The theory is this small nudge is good for investors. But it’s hard to envision a worse use for cash. Comcast could have gotten a far better return for investors from using that money to extend networks around their current markets, upgrading older networks to keep customers loyal, or marketing to add new customers. Those kinds of changes would result in long-term value gain for shareholders. Comcast recently announced that it is increasing the stock buyback in 2022 to $10 billion. To put that into perspective, Comcast’s capital spending for the last two years was $11.6 and $12.1 billion.

ISPs vary in the amount put towards stock buybacks according to their current cash situation and Board philosophy. Here are a few other stock buyback plans for large ISPs.

  • Charter has actively been buying back its stock. The company repurchased $15.4 billion of its own stock in 2021 and $11.2 billion in 2020.
  • T-Mobile has plans to really step up stock buybacks and plans to repurchase $60 billion of its own stock between 2023 and 2025.
  • AT&T is not currently buying back stock and only repurchased $104 million of stock in 2021.
  • Verizon told investors it would buy back 100 million shares of stock in 2022 – the stock is currently trading at $54 per share.
  • The one that is hardest to understand is Lumen. The company generated $700 million in free cash flow in 2021 and spent $1 billion to buy back its stock. That probably demonstrates the pressure that Wall Street is exerting for stock buybacks.

This makes me wonder if corporations that are engaging in stock buybacks should be allowed to get federal grants. For example, should we have allowed a company like Charter to get $1.2 billion in RDOF funding in 2020 at a time when the company was spending $11 billion to buy back its own stock? Did Charter really need a federal subsidy, or does grant funding just allow a company to even further increase stock buybacks? I don’t have an answer for that other than it just doesn’t feel right.