Broken Promises by Big ISPs

One of the most frustrating things for regulators has to be when giant ISPs renege on regulatory deals they’ve negotiated and don’t follow through with their promises. Books could be written listing all of the times when big ISPs have promised to do something and then never did it.

I am reminded of one such deal when I read that New York City is suing Verizon over its broken promise to bring FiOS fiber to the city. The lawsuit states that almost a million households are still unable to get FiOS, although the company had promised full coverage when they got a franchise from the city in 2008. In that agreement Verizon promised to bring fiber service to the whole city by 2014. The agreement with the city required that Verizon bring fiber, in conduit, directly in front of, behind, or otherwise adjacent to every residential building in the City.

Verizon had a similar longstanding dispute with the State of Pennsylvania. Back in 2002 the company made a promise to bring DSL service to cover 80% of the state as a prerequisite for the company being relieved of a lot of regulatory oversight by the state. But Verizon never completed a lot of the needed upgrades and huge parts of rural Pennsylvania still didn’t have DSL a decade later.

I wrote a blog a few months back about Charter in New York. There the state had found that the cable modems deployed by the company were not technically capable of delivering anything close to the speeds that the company was advertising. Charter agreed to fix the problem, but five years later had made almost no upgrades and was recently sued by the State.

I could list more examples all day long and there have been disputes all across the country with major telcos and cable companies that have made deals with regulators and then either ignored the agreements or only implemented them in a half-hearted manner.

The problem is that there are really no regulatory penalties that are big enough to penalize an ISP for not doing what it promised. There have been fines levied, but those fines are never nearly as big as the profits or savings realized by the ISPs for ignoring the agreements with regulators. For example, it’s unlikely that lawsuits or penalties will be able to force Verizon to finish the FiOS build in New York City. I am sure the company built to the parts of NYC that made economic sense and decided, for whatever reason, that there is not sufficient payback to justify building to the remaining parts of the city.

And that’s what regulators fail to recognize – big ISPs make decisions based upon the anticipated return for stockholders. I think it’s likely that in many of these cases that the big ISPs had no intention of complying with their agreements from the start. The cynical side of me says that they are often willing to take the upsides associated with these kinds of deals – be that decreased regulation or the ability to complete a merger – while knowing up front that they are unlikely to ever complete whatever they have agreed to do.

I think we are likely to see another round of broken promises in a few years as we start moving towards the end of the FCC’s CAF II program. The big telcos accepted over $9 billion over six years to improve rural broadband to speeds of at least 10 Mbps. I’ve been getting feedback from a lot of areas in the country that those deployments seem to be behind schedule. It will certainly come as no surprise if one or more of the big telcos spends the CAF II funding without bringing broadband to the promised households, or else will deliver speeds under the promised levels. The FCC recently issued a warning to carriers telling them that it expects them to fulfill the CAF II commitments – and I suspect that warning is due to the same kind of rumblings I’ve been hearing.

But ultimately the FCC doesn’t really have any way to make these telcos complete the builds. They might withhold future funding from the telcos, but as the FCC keeps eliminating regulation it is going to have very little ability to enforce the original CAF II agreements or to take any steps to really penalize the telcos.

The saddest part of these various broken promises is that millions of real people get hurt. It’s been reported that there are significant pockets of residents in urban areas like New York City that still don’t have even one broadband provider. There are huge rural swaths of the country that are desperate for any kind of broadband, which is what CAF II is supposed to deliver for the first time. But I think we need to be realistic in that big ISPs often do not meet their promises – whether deliberately or not. And perhaps it’s finally time to stop making these big deals with companies that have a history of broken promises.

Quad Bundling

Since Comcast and Charter are now embarking in the cellular business we are soon going to find out if there is any marketing power in a quad bundle. Verizon, and to a smaller degree AT&T, has had the ability to create bundles including cellular service, but they never really pushed this in the marketplace in the way that Comcast is considering.

Comcast has said that the number one reason they are entering the cellular business is to make customers “stickier” and to reduce churn. And that implies offering cellular service cheaper than competitors like Verizon, or to at least create bundles that give the illusion of big savings on cellular. For now, the preliminary pricing Comcast has announced doesn’t seem to be low enough to take the industry by storm. But I expect as they gain customers that the company will find more creative ways to bundle it.

The Comcast pricing announced so far shows only a few options. Comcast is offering a $45 per month ‘unlimited’ cell plan (capped at 20 GB of data per month), that is significantly less expensive than any current unlimited plan from Verizon or AT&T. But this low price is only available now for customers who buy one of the full expensive Comcast triple play bundles. The alternative to this is a $65 per month unlimited plan that is $5 per month lower than the equivalent Verizon plan. Comcast also plans to offer family plans that sell a gigabyte of data for $12 that can be used for any phone in the plan – for many families this might be the best bargain.

One interesting feature of the Comcast plan is that it will automatically offload data traffic to the company’s WiFi network. Comcast has a huge WiFi network with over 16 million hotspots. This includes a few million outdoor hotspots but also a huge network of home WiFi routers that also act as a public hotspot. That means that customers sitting in a restaurant or visiting a home that has a Comcast WiFi connection will automatically use those connections instead of using more expensive cellular data. Depending on where a person lives or works this could significantly lower how much a consumer uses 4G data.

There are still technical issues to be worked out to allow for seamless WiFi-to-WiFi handoffs. Comcast has provided the ability for a few years for customers to connect to their WiFi hotspots. I used to live in a neighborhood that had a lot of the Comcast home hotspots. When walking my dog it was extremely frustrating if I let my cellphone use the Comcast WiFi network because as I went in and out of hotspots my data connections would be interrupted and generally reinitiated. I always had to turn off WiFi when walking to use only cellular data. It will be interesting to see how, and if Comcast has overcome this issue.

A recent survey done by the investment bank Jeffries has to be of concern to the big four cellular companies. In that survey 41% of respondents said that they would be ‘very likely’ to consider a quad play cable bundle that includes cellular. Probably even scarier for the cellular companies was the finding that 76% of respondents who were planning on shopping for a new cell plan within the next year said they would be open to trying a cellular product from a cable company.

I wrote recently about how the cellular business has entered the phase of the business where cellular products are becoming a commodity. Competition between the four cellular companies is already resulting in lower prices and more generous data plans. But when the cable companies enter the fray in all of the major metropolitan areas the competition is going to ratchet up another notch.

The cable companies will be a novelty at first and many customers might give them a try. But it won’t take long for people to think of them as just another cellular provider. One thing that other surveys have shown is that people have a higher expectation for good customer service from a cellular provider than they do for the cable companies. If Comcast is going to retain cellular customers then they are either going to have to make the bundling discounts so enticing that customers can’t afford to leave, or they are going to have to improve their customer service experience.

Even if Comcast and Charter have only modest success with cellular, say a 10% market share, they will hurt the other cellular companies. The number one driver of profits in the cellular business is economy of scale – something you can see by looking at the bottom line of Sprint or T-Mobile compared to Verizon or AT&T. If Comcast is willing to truly use cellular to help hang on to other customers, and if that means they don’t expect huge profits from the product line, then they are probably going to do very well with a quad play product.

And of course, any landline ISP competing against Comcast or Charter has to be wary. If the cellular products work as Comcast hopes then it’s going to mean it will be that much harder to compete against these companies for broadband. Bundled prices have always made it hard for customers to peel away just one product and the cable companies will heavily penalize any customers that want to take only their data product elsewhere.

Industry Shorts, June 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Latest Industry Statistics

The statistics are out for the biggest cable TV and data providers for the first quarter of the year and they show an industry that is still undergoing big changes. Broadband keeps growing and cable TV is starting to take some serious hits.

Perhaps the most relevant statistic of all is that there are now more broadband customers in the country than cable TV customers. The crossover happened sometime during the last quarter. This happened a little sooner than predicted due to plunging cable subscribers.

For the quarter the cable companies continued to clobber the telcos in terms of broadband customers. Led by big growth in broadband customers at Comcast and Charter the cable companies collectively added a little over 1 million new broadband customers for the quarter. Charter led the growth with 458,000 new broadband subscribers with Comcast a close second at 430,000 new customers.

Led by Frontier’s loss of 107,000 broadband customers for the quarter the telcos collectively lost 45,000 net customers for the quarter. Most of Frontier’s losses stem from the botched acquisition of Verizon FiOS properties. Verizon lost 27,000 customers for the quarter while AT&T U-verse was the only success among telcos adding 90,000 new customers for the quarter.

Looking back over the last year the telcos together lost 727,000 broadband customers while the cable companies together gained 3.11 million customers during the same period. The cable companies now control 63.2% of the broadband market, up from 61.5% of the market a year ago.

Overall the broadband market grew by 2.38 million new broadband subscribers for over the last year ending March 31. It’s a market controlled largely by the giant ISPs and the largest cable companies and telcos together account for 93.9 million broadband subscribers.

Cable TV shows a very different picture. The largest seven cable providers collectively lost 487,000 video subscribers for the quarter. That includes AT&T losing 233,000, Charter losing 100,000, Dish Networks losing 143,000, Verizon losing 13,000, Cox losing 4,000 and Altice losing 35,000. The only company to gain cable subscribers was Comcast, which gained 41,000.

Total industry cable subscriber losses were 762,000 for the quarter as smaller cable companies and telcos are also losing customers. That is five times larger than the industry losses of 141,000 in the first quarter of last year. This industry is now losing 2.4% of the market per year, but that r is clearly accelerating and will probably grow larger. The annual rate of decline is already significantly higher than last year’s rate of 1.8%.

At this point it’s clear that cord cutting is picking up steam and this was the worst performance ever by the industry.

The biggest losers have stories about their poor performance. Charter says it is doing better among its own historic customers but is losing a lot of customers from the Time Warner acquisition as Charter raises rates and does away with Time Warner promotional discounts. AT&T has been phasing out of cable TV over its U-Verse network. This is a DSL service that has speeds as high as 45 Mbps, but which is proving to be inadequate to carry both cable TV and broadband together. Dish Networks has been bogged down in numerous carriage and retransmission fights with programmers and has had a number of channels taken off the air.

But even considering all of these stories it’s clear that customers are leaving the big companies. Surveys of cord cutters show that very few of them come back to traditional cable after cutting the cord after they get used to getting programming in a different way.

What is probably most strikingly different about the numbers is that for years the first quarter has performed the best for the cable industry, which in recent years has still seen customer gains even while other quarters were trending downward. We’ll have to see what this terrible first quarter means for the rest of 2017.

 

 

The End of Data Privacy?

Congress just passed a law that reverses the privacy rules that were ordered by the prior FCC. Those rules were recently put on hold by the current FCC and this new laws makes sure the privacy rules never go into effect. Congress did this to ensure that a future FCC cannot implement privacy rules without Congressional approval. It’s important to note that this law applies equally to both terrestrial and cellular broadband.

On paper this law doesn’t change anything since the FCC privacy rules never went into effect. However, even before the prior FCC adopted the privacy rules they had been confronting ISPs over privacy issues which kept the biggest ISPs from going too far with using customer data. Just the threat of regulation has curbed the worst abuses.

How will the big ISPs be likely to now use customer data? We don’t have to speculate too hard because some of them have already used customer data in various ways in the recent past, all of which seem to be allowable under this new law.

Selling Data to Marketers. This is the number one opportunity for big ISPs. Companies like Facebook and Google have been mining customer data, but they can only do that when somebody is inside their platforms – they have no idea what else you do outside their domains. But your ISP can know every keystroke you make, every email your write, every website you visit, and with a cellphone, every place you’ve been. With deep data mining ISPs can know everything about your on-line life.

We know some of the big ISPs have already been mining customer data. For example, last year AT&T offered to sell connections that were not monitored for a premium price. AT&T also has a product that has been selling masses of customer phone and data usage to federal and local law enforcement. Probably other ISPs have been doing this as well, but this has been a well-guarded secret.

Inserting Ads. This is another big revenue opportunity for the ISPs. The companies will be able to create detailed profiles of customers and then sell targeted advertising to reach specific customers. Today Google and a few other large advertising companies dominate the online advertising business of inserting ads into web sites. With the constraints off, the big ISPs can enter this business since they will have better customer profiles than anybody else. We know that both AT&T and Charter have already been doing this.

Hijacking Customer Searches. Back in 2011 a bunch of large ISPs like Charter, Frontier and others were caught hijacking customer DNS searches. When customers would hit buttons on web sites or on embedded links in articles the ISPs would sometimes send users to a different web site than the one they thought they were selecting. The FCC told these companies to stop the practice then, but the new law probably allows the practice again.

Inserting Supercookies. Verizon Wireless inserted Supercookies on cellphones back in 2014. AT&T started to do this as well but quickly backed off when the FCC came down hard on Verizon. These were undetectable and undeletable cookies that allowed the company to track customer behavior. The advantage of the supercookies is that they bypass most security schemes since they grab customer info before it can be encrypted or sent through a secure connection. For example, this let the company easily track customers with iPhones.

Pre-installing Tracking Software on Cellphones. And even better than supercookies is putting software on all new phones that directly snags data before it can be encrypted. AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint all did this in the past – just using a different approach than supercookies. The pre-installed software would log things like every website visited and sent the data back to the cellular carriers.

The State of New York vs. Charter

Scale_of_justice_2_newEvery once in a while in this industry you come across a story about one of the big cable companies that just makes you shake your head. There is such a story right now where the New York State attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, has sued Charter on behalf of its 2.5 million data customers in the state.

The issue goes back to 2012 when the company was still Time Warner Cable. At that time there were a lot of complaints from customers saying that they were not getting the data speeds they were paying for. In 2013, in association with Internet speed tests conducted by the FCC, it was determined that Time Warner had widely deployed cable modems and WiFi routers that were not capable of delivering speeds of even 20 Mbps.

In July of 2013, Time Warner promised the FCC that it would replace and upgrade all customer modems in the state and would also make other system upgrades that would increase speeds, such as reducing the size of the neighborhood nodes.

Here is where the puzzling part comes in. The FCC never retested, which is normal, and instead relied on Time Warner’s promise that they would fix the problems and increase speeds. But it turns out that Time Warner didn’t make any of the promised upgrades. They didn’t replace customer modems. In fact, they routinely recycled the bad modems back into service when they were returned by customers.

Since then Time Warner (and now Charter) has advertised even faster speeds, yet none of the customer modems are able to deliver the speeds that the company is selling. The lawsuit says there are now over 250,000 customers who are paying for speeds between 200 Mbps and 300 Mbps, but who still have the old inadequate modems that get speeds under 20 Mbps.

To add insult to injury, the company has been charging $10 per month to customers to lease the old modems (at least that’s the current lease rate). Considering that these modems don’t generally cost the cable company even $100, these customers have paid enough to have replaced these modems multiple times since the problem was first caught.

Time Warner is also being accused in the lawsuit of manipulating the FCC speed tests in 2013 to show faster results. They did this by taking speed tests at times when there was not much demand on their networks, like the middle of the night.

Finally, the company has been accused of purposefully providing inadequate backbone so that Internet traffic was delayed and slowed down getting onto their network. This means they did not provide big enough data connections to the outside world for things like Netflix or for general Internet access.

Here is the lawsuit filing. It’s an interesting and easy read and is not overly technical. I know that big companies hate to spend capital dollars that they don’t think are necessary. But in this case they got caught providing old and inadequate modems five years ago and since then did nothing to fix the problems. We know from experience that even when companies are caught like this that they don’t usually undertake a crash repair program. But if Time Warner would have implemented some reasonable plan to upgrade the network and to replace the bad modems over time there probably would not be this big lawsuit today. What’s puzzling is how the whole management chain at the company decided to do nothing. They denied a direct FCC order and also continued to get piles of customer complaints.

The lawsuit does not name a specific amount of damages, but one has to think it’s going to be a big number. The lawsuit asks for ‘injunctive and equitable relief’, meaning the return of customer payments, as well as civil penalties, meaning extra damages. If Charter has the same kind of customer penetrations we see elsewhere with cable companies – 60% to 70% of the market – it’s going to be interesting to see how they find a jury for this trial.

Cable Industry Shorts – February 2017

television-sony-en-casa-de-mis-padresHere are a few industry shorts, each not quite long enough to justify a full blog:

New York Takes on Charter. On February 1 the Attorney General of New York sued Time Warner Cable (which is now Charter Spectrum) for delivering inferior products that don’t match what was being advertised to customers.

The specific issue is that the majority of the cable modems provided to customers in the state are not capable of delivering the speeds being sold to customers. For example, in 2013 it was demonstrated that ¾ of the modems sold to supply 20 Mbps service were unable to process that much speed. And it appears that most of those modems still have not been upgraded. The lawsuit accuses the company of never notifying customers that they had inferior modems, and also of recycling inferior modems back to new data customers.

Charter says that the law suit isn’t needed because they have been making improvements since purchasing Time Warner. But the lawsuit alleges that the old practices are still widespread. The lawsuit is asking for significant refunds to affected customers.

Comcast Charging for Roku Boxes. In perhaps the best demonstration of why Comcast is rated so poorly by customers, Comcast says they will still charge customers if they use a Roku box to watch TV rather than a Comcast settop box.

Comcast currently has one of the highest settop box charges around at $9.95 per month, per box.  They also then charge $7.45 for each additional TV in the home using an ‘additional outlet charge.” Comcast hasn’t announced the rate for using a Roku box, but speculation is it will be at the $7.45 rate. This is clearly a case of a cable company charging for something for which they are providing zero value. Perhaps the company has already been emboldened by an FCC and Congress that say they will be reducing regulations.

For a customer to use the XFINITY TV app on a Roku box they must currently subscribe to Comcast cable TV and broadband service. They must have and pay for at least one settop box and also have a cablecard and a compatible IP gateway in the home.

Esquire Channel Disappearing. There is a lot of pressure by the big cable companies to cut back on the number of channels, and the expectations are that less popular networks are going to start disappearing.

The latest network that will vanish from cable line-ups is the Esquire channel. It’s a low-rated channel with content aimed at upscale men that is rated at 82 out of the 105 major cable networks. It was just launched in 2013 and had grown to 60 million subscribers. But last month AT&T and its DirecTV subsidiary decided to drop the channel, cutting 15 million subscribers. Charter is also considering dropping the channel, so NBC, the owner of Esquire, decided to kill the channel for cable systems. Some remnants of it will remain on-line.

Esquire joins the millennial channel Pivot and NBC’s Universal Sports as channels that disappeared in the last year. There are likely more to come and there are 23 networks with lower ratings than Esquire including Fox Business, Great American Country, Chiller and the Golf Channel.

Cable Companies Stop Sending Piracy Warnings. Just about every large cable company and telco has stopped forwarding messages to customers about piracy that were sent through the Copyright Alert System (CAS). These alerts were sent to customers who made illegal downloads of movies or music. The main purpose of these alerts was to warn customers that they were violating copyright laws. The content industry has always pressured ISPs to somehow punish habitual content pirates, but that has never happened to any significant degree.

Groups like the RIAA which were pushing ISPs for compliance have said they will look for an alternative. They said for now that they will probably back off from suing end user customers – a tactic that never seemed to make much difference. This is another case where technology outstripped the law. The CAS launched at the heyday of peer-to-peer file sharing, and while that still exists, it’s not the way that most copyrighted material is shared these days. We now live in a more nuanced world where there is copyrighted material on sites like YouTube sitting right next to mountains of non-copyrighted material, and it’s a lot harder to pinpoint copyright violations.

A Year of Changes

fast fiberI can’t recall a time when there were so many rumors of gigantic changes in the telecom industry swirling around at the same time. If even half of what is being rumored comes to pass this might be one of the most momentous years in the history of telecom. Consider the following:

Massive Remake of the FCC.  Ajat Pai has been named as the interim head of the FCC, but it’s been said that the president is already referring to him as the Chairman. We know that Pai was against almost every initiative of the Wheeler FCC and there are expectations that things like net neutrality and the new privacy rules will be reversed or greatly modified.

There are also strong rumors in the industry that the new administration is going to follow the advice of the transition telecom team of Jeff Eisenach, Roslyn Layton and Mark Jamison. That team has proposed the following:

  • A reapportionment of ‘duplicative’ functions at the FCC. Functions like fostering competition and consumer protection, for example would be moved the Federal Trade Commission.
  • A remake of telecom rules to remove ‘silos.’ For as long as I can remember we’ve had separate rules for telcos, cable companies, wireless companies and programmers. That probably made sense when these were separate industries, but today we see all of these business lines about to converge within the same corporation like Comcast or AT&T. The transition team says it’s time to change the rules to reflect the reality of technology and the marketplace.

At this point I’ve not seen any specific proposals on what those streamlined rules might be. And Congress will have to take an active role in any changes since the current FCC responsibilities are the results of several major telecom and cable acts.

Verizon Looking to Buy a Cable Company. It’s been reported that Lowell McAdams, the CEO of Verizon, has told friends that the company will be looking for a cable acquisition to boost demand for its wireless data. McAdams also talked to analysts in December and described how Charter might be a natural fit with Verizon. There is also speculation on Wall Street that Comcast could be the target for Verizon.

Mergers of this size are unprecedented in the industry. Charter has over 20 million residential data customers and is second behind Comcast’s 23 million data customers. And both companies now have a significant portfolio of business customers.

I remember a decade ago when AT&T started buying back some of the RBOCs that had splintered off during divestiture back in 1984. We all joked that they were slowly putting Ma Bell back together. But I don’t think anybody ever contemplated that the biggest telcos would ever merge with the cable companies. That would remove the last pretense that there is any competition for broadband in urban areas.

More Merger Mania. At one point it looked like the new administration would be against the AT&T and Time Warner merger. But Wall Street now seems to be convinced the merger will happen. The merger will likely come with the typical list of conditions, but we know from past experience that such conditions are only given lip service. AT&T has already taken a strong position that the merger doesn’t need FCC approval. That would mean that most of the government analysis would come from the Justice Department. Just like with the rumored Verizon acquisitions, this merger would create a giant company that operates in all of the FCC-controlled silos. We don’t really have an effective way today to regulate such giant companies.

Verizon might need to hurry if it wants to buy a giant cable company since there is a rumor that Comcast, Charter and Cox plan to go together and buy T-Mobile. That makes a lot more sense than for those companies to launch a wireless company using the Verizon or AT&T platform. Such an arbitrage arrangement would always allow the wireless companies to dictate the terms of using their networks.

Cable TV Rates

eyeballTrying to get your arms around industry trends for cable TV isn’t easy. There are a number of different entities that track various cable statistics and they are often not in synch. This week I saw a new press release from Leichtman Research that said that the average rate increase in cable rates this year has been around 4%.

I keep an eye on these kinds of statistics because most of my clients compete against the bigger cable companies. Leichtman says that the average monthly spending on pay-cable TV is now $103.10, which is 4% higher than 2015. This is an eye opener because household spending on cable increased from $73.63 in 2011, or an average increase since then of 7.7% per year. For the increases to finally drop to 4% is big news.

But like anything in the cable industry, there are a lot of moving parts in trying to see the future trend of cable rates. Consider all of the following, which have some bearing on current average nationwide cable spending:

  • There was a press release in January where Comcast said that their average cable bills would go up by 3.9% this year, right in line with this latest report. But in addition to raising cable rates the company also had a $2 increase in its ‘broadcast TV fee’ of $2 which affected every cable customer. All of the big cable companies now have these fees, which are just another piece of the cable rate, but which are not often counted as such. These fees let companies like Comcast hold down their advertised rates which increases overall cable rates.
  • Charter and Time Warner seem to have had a much lower annual increase than average due to the merger that was pending during the normal January rate-increase period. But one would have to think that now that the merger is over that these companies will make up lost ground. I’ve seen predictions that Time Warner customers could see a jump in their 2017 bills as large as $10.
  • Both satellite companies had one of the largest rate increases we’ve seen from them in years. DirecTV raised package rates from $1 – $9 and DISH Networks raised rates from $2 – $8.
  • Cablevision didn’t raise their rates at all at the beginning of the year due to their expected merger with Altice.
  • We know that there is a lot of cord-shaving going on, which would have a downward pressure on average cable bills. The large cable companies don’t report customers by size of package, but we have a lot of evidence of cord shaving due to networks like ESPN losing millions of customers since 2015. If the industry is not losing as many customers as ESPN then only cord shaving – people moving to a smaller package – can explain their customer losses. If lots of people buy smaller cable packages the average bill will drop.
  • Finally, with the big cable companies it’s getting really hard to distinguish cable increases from other price increases. I’ve seen estimates that most of the large cable companies have around 70% of customers in some kind of a bundle. Most people with bundles don’t know what they pay for any specific component of the bundle. But this also means that the cable companies can be arbitrary when separating the bundles into the component cable, data and telephone revenues. This means the reported ‘cable’ revenues from the big cable companies can be fudged to meet reporting goals or any other purpose.
  • In this last year we are starting to see increases in broadband rates from many of the cable companies. For example, Cox just recently increased various data rates from $2 to $7 per month. But for customers in a bundle these revenues fall into the same muddy bundled price along with the cable rates. Do customer in a bundle really care which piece of their bundle increased?

One thing I see external to these big industry statistics is that my smaller clients are not seeing any drop-off in increasing programming and other cable expenses. If anything, because of the continuing big increases in retransmission costs they are seeing as large or larger increases in underlying cable costs as ever. Smaller cable providers will really feel the squeeze if they compete with somebody like Time Warner that barely raised rates in 2015.

While it’s not really good news, it appears that it’s likely that the ‘smaller’ rate increases from the bigger cables for 2015 are probably an anomaly and that these companies will be back to larger increases in 2016. But it’s anybody’s guess going forward if the annual increases are going to be in cable rates, broadband rates or something else. Like everything in our industry it’s getting a little muddier to predict.

Big ISPs and Everyone Else

Comcast truckMost of the news about our industry is about the largest ISPs – Comcast, Charter, AT&T, and Verizon. It’s easy to think that the things that happen to these big companies are going to happen to the rest of the industry, but on a smaller scale. Certainly in the past, small ISPs had a lot in common with the big companies. But I think we are now at a time when these big companies are pulling away from the rest of the industry to the point where they have become something very different. Let me look at Comcast as an example of this, but I could make a similar case for the other large ISPs. Consider this list of ways of how Comcast is already different than the smaller ISPs in the industry:

Content. Comcast is as much of a media company as they are a cable company. In fact, their stock prices now change more from the performance of their content than it does from the cable business. Comcast owns a lot of programming content. They own NBC Universal that operates the various NBC stations including MSNBC, CNBC. USA Network, E!, Bravo, Syfy, Sprout and others. They own Telemundo and a suite of Spanish language networks. They own 25% of the Weather Channel. They also own overseas content such as Movies 24 and the Style Network. The company is also in the movie business. They own Universal Studios which has already released fifteen new films in 2016. They recently brought Dreamworks. And Comcast owns 27 local NBC stations and affiliates in major markets like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington CD, Dallas and Miami.

Sports. Comcast owns the Philadelphia Flyers including the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. They own the rights to broadcast the Olympics in the US. They own Comcast SportsNet which has rights to professional and college sports in a number of large cities. They own the Golf channel and are part owners of the NHL Network and the MLB Network. NBC Sports also has broadcast rights for football and other major sports.

Other Assets. They own Universals Studios theme parks in Hollywood and Orlando as well as the real estate venture at Universal Orlando Resort. They own the ticket service Fandango. They operate Comcast Spotlight which produces and sells advertising for their cable company and many others.

OTT. Comcast is hedging their bets on cord cutting by being the largest owner of Hulu – which also broadcasts a lot of Comcast content. They also produce and distribute content through Comcast Interactive Media.

Cellular. The company has announced recently that they have major plans to become a big player in the cellular market. This business will also benefit from Comcast’s 9 million+ public WiFi hotspots.

Research and Development. One of the hidden gems for the company is Comcast Labs. The company recently bragged that the company could develop solutions in days that would take months by any other company. They also benefit from their role in the non-profit CableLabs. The company has used this research to develop proprietary software and hardware not available to the rest of the industry.

Security and Smart Home. In 2015 the company reported having over 500,000 customers to its Xfinity Home security and smart home platform. They will have the scale to make this a profitable business line where smaller companies will struggle.

Comcast and these other large ISPs are no longer like the rest of the industry. For example, while other companies suffer from shrinking profits on cable TV, Comcast buys a lot of content from their own subsidiaries and is more profitable than anybody else. And they have the luxury of being able to bundle cable customers with their many other product lines like Xfinity Home and the upcoming cellular product.

It was not too many years ago when the bigger cable companies were just bigger versions of smaller cable companies and mostly differed by scale. But for these large IPSs the landline business has just become one of their many other product lines – a luxury that smaller companies don’t have.