Categories
Technology

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.

Categories
The Industry

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.

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Uncategorized

An Easier Way to Define Broadband

Our broadband policies always seem to lag the market. If and when the FCC seats the fifth Commissioner, it’s expected that the agency will raise the definition of broadband from 25/3 Mbps to 100/20 Mbps. That change will have big repercussions in the market because it will mean that anybody that can’t buy broadband speeds of at least 100/20 Mbps would not have broadband. That’s how an official broadband definition works – you either have broadband, or you don’t.

The definition of broadband matters for several reasons. First, it makes areas that don’t have broadband eligible for federal grants – although many of the current round of big grants did not wait for the FCC to change the definition of broadband. It also matters in how we count the number of people without broadband. That has supposedly been one of the major purposes of the FCC broadband maps, and they failed badly in identifying homes that can’t buy 25/3 broadband. But on the day that the FCC changes the definition of broadband, millions of homes will be officially declared to not be able to buy real broadband.

I’ve always hated these arbitrary hard lines defined by speeds. Anybody who has ever done speed tests at their home knows that the broadband speed delivered varies from second to second, minute to minute, and hour by hour. It’s not unusual at my desk to see speeds vary by more than 50% during the course of the day.

The original purpose for having a definition of broadband was established by Congress, which directed the FCC to have plans to bring rural broadband into parity with urban broadband. The folks that wrote that law in 1996 could never have envisioned that we’d grow from having dial-up Internet to gigabit capabilities in urban America in 2022.

If the goal is still to create parity between urban and rural broadband, there is a much easier way to define broadband. The cable companies have regularly increased the speeds of their minimum broadband products, and in my mind, when they do so, they set a new standard target for parity between rural and urban areas.

Recently both Charter and Cable One increased the minimum speeds of basic broadband to 200 Mbps (with no mention of upload speeds). Charter is increasing speeds automatically with no rate changes. Cable One’s change seems like more of a quiet rate increase since it will charge customers $5 more per month to automatically move them from 100 Mbps to 200 Mbps.

Charter has always led the industry in this. I think they were a leader in moving to 30 Mbps, 60 Mbps, 100 Mbps, and now 200 Mbps. The rest of the cable industry generally matches Charter in this increases within a year or so.

The one exception is Comcast Xfinity. The company still has a 50Mbps and a 100 Mbps product. However, if you go to the web, all they are pushing is a new 300 Mbps product. I expect it’s not easy for a new customer to buy the 50 Mbps product.

When the big cable companies voluntarily raise the speed bar by increasing speeds across the board, they have, by definition, redefined urban broadband. Can parity mean anything other than residents in a rural area should be able to buy broadband as fast as is available to a basic broadband customer in an urban area?

Maybe I’m being too simplistic, but if the FCC finally raises the definition of broadband this year to 100/20 Mbps, it will already be lagging behind the urban broadband market with that definition.

Of course, the download speed question is only half of the speed equation. You have to dig deep on cable company websites to find any mention of upload speeds. The cable companies lobbied extremely hard during the passage of broadband grant legislation to make certain that the upload speed definition for grant purposes didn’t go higher than 20 Mbps. When cable companies talk to customers, they are moot on upload speeds since few urban cable products actually deliver 20 Mbps.

I probably have written too many blogs about the definition of broadband. But it’s a topic that keeps having real-life implications. It’s ludicrous that there are still federal grants that award more money for serving areas with broadband speeds under 25/3 Mbps. If the real goal of the federal government is to have parity between rural and urban broadband speeds, then Charter and Cable One just provided us with a new definition of broadband. If somebody uses federal grant money to build a rural market with 100 Mbps download technology, it’s already out of parity in 2022, and it’s hard to imagine how far it will be out of parity by the time the grant-funded network is built and operational.

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Uncategorized

National Broadband Growth is Slowing

Leichtman Research recently released the broadband customer statistics for the end of the fourth quarter of 2021. The numbers show that broadband growth has slowed significantly for the sixteen largest ISPs tracked by the company. LRG compiles these statistics from customer counts provided to stockholders, except for Cox which is privately owned.

Net customer additions sank each quarter during the year.  The first quarter of 2021 saw over 1 million net new broadband customers. That dropped to just under 900,000 in the second quarter, 630,000 in the third quarter, and now 423,000 in the fourth quarter. The statistics for all of 2021 and for the fourth quarter are as follows:

Annual % 4Q %
4Q 2021 Change Change Change Change
Comcast 30,574,000 1,327,000 4.3% 213,000 0.7%
Charter 28,879,000 1,210,000 4.2% 190,000 0.6%
AT&T 15,384,000 120,000 0.8% (6,000) 0.0%
Verizon 7,129,000 236,000 3.3% 28,000 0.4%
Cox 5,380,000 150,000 2.8% 20,000 0.4%
CenturyLink 4,767,000 (248,000) -5.2% (70,000) -1.5%
Altice 4,389,600 (3,400) -0.1% (1,900) 0.0%
Frontier 2,834,000 (35,000) -1.2% 10,000 0.4%
Mediacom 1,438,000 25,000 1.7% (3,000) -0.2%
Windstream 1,109,300 55,200 5.0% 17,500 1.5%
Cable ONE 992,000 63,000 6.4% 25,000 2.4%
Atlantic Broadband 698,000 18,778 2.7% (222) 0.0%
WOW! 498,800 12,900 2.6% 2,200 0.4%
TDS 493,300 32,700 6.6% 3,200 0.6%
Cincinnati Bell 436,100 3,900 0.9% 1,000 0.2%
Consolidated 401,357 (16,793) -4.2% (6,097) -1.6%
Total 105,403,457 2,951,285 2.8% 422,681 0.4%
Cable 72,849,400 2,803,278 3.8% 445,078 0.6%
Telco 32,554,057 148,007 0.5% (22,397) -0.1%
           
Fixed Wireless 874,000 719,000 82.3%    

There are a few interesting things to keep an eye on in the future. The growth for Comcast and Charter have slowed significantly and my prediction is that there will come a quarter within a year where one or both of them will lose net customers. For several years running, Frontier has been bleeding customers but seems to be turning it around. The big loser is now CenturyLink.

For some reason, LRG is leaving out fixed cellular customers. At the end of 2021, T-Mobile reported 646,000 fixed cellular customers, with 546,000 added in 2021. Verizon is up to 228,000 fixed cellular customers, up by 173,000 during 2021. The two companies, along with AT&T, are making a major push in this market and expect to add millions of customers in 2022 – many at the expense of the other ISPs on the list. It’s an odd choice to exclude these customers since the speeds on fixed cellular are faster than the DSL delivered by the telcos on the list. Also missing are other big providers that are probably larger than Consolidated, like a few of the largest WISPs and fiber overbuilders like Google Fiber.

But even after counting the growth of fixed cellular broadband, it’s obvious that the broadband market growth has cooled. The burst of new customers in 2020 and the first half of 2021 were clearly fueled by homes buying broadband during the pandemic.

It’s also worth noting that the numbers for WOW! and Atlantic Broadband (now Breezeline) have been adjusted for the sale of customers by WOW!.

Categories
The Industry

Truth in Broadband Advertising

We’re all used to crazy advertising about telecom products that make industry folks shake their heads – many of the ads about 5G come to mind. Most people don’t realize that carriers in the industry routinely challenge the claims made by competitors to force them to modify or drop deceptive ads.

Most of the largest corporations in the country belong to the National Advertising Division (NAD), which is part of the BBB National Programs and arbitrates disputes about advertising between participants in the plan. Participation is voluntary, but corporations join the effort because the arbitration process through NAD is far cheaper than using the courts to settle disputes. Corporations almost always comply with the recommendations of NAD. The NAD monitors national advertising campaigns in all media and tries to enforce standards of truth and accuracy – a high standard for advertising.

Charter recently challenged advertising that claimed AT&T’s business broadband services on fiber are better than business broadband services provided by cable companies. It was an interesting challenge because Charter disputed a number of the claims made by AT&T in the ads.

In the first dispute, AT&T claimed it was ‘up to 20 times faster’ than cable broadband. NAB agreed that the upload speeds on AT&T’s gigabit product are up to 20 times faster than a gigabit product from the cable companies but found that AT&T’s wording of the claim made it sound like all AT&T products are 20 times faster than the equivalent cable company broadband products.

AT&T also claimed that its prices are half the price of cable broadband. The NAB found that the prices for AT&T’s top business products are half the price of the equivalent products from the cable companies but again sided with Charter because it said that the AT&T ad made it sound like all AT&T broadband products are half the price of cable company broadband.

The AT&T ads made the claim that AT&T’s fiber broadband is superior to cable company broadband. NAB found that while there was a big difference in upload speeds between the two products that the download speeds from both technologies are equivalent. NAB felt that most business customers care more about download speed than upload speed and sided against AT&T’s claim that its broadband is superior.

AT&T ads claimed that the upload speeds of cable companies are insufficient to support video conference, surging, streaming, and gaming and the NAB said there was not enough evidence to support that claim. NAD did support AT&T’s claim that fiber is superior for uploading large files.

In the ruling that will rile fiber fans, the NAD said the record did not substantiate a claim that AT&T fiber provides ‘better internet’ than cable broadband. But the NAD supported AT&T’s claim that it provides a consistent speed, even at peak times.

AT&T told the NAD that it respectfully disagreed with all of the negative findings, but the company agreed to stop using the disputed claims. I would guess that AT&T will continue to make many of these claims but will be more specific and less generic.

Many of you might not realize that the big ISPs also often challenge advertising claims made by municipal and other smaller ISPs. Such complaints generally come from counsel for the big ISPs and demand that a smaller ISP stop the disputed advertising. The process is threatening since small ISPs don’t want to engage in expensive legal disputes. I’ve known a few small ISPs that ignored such claims and were never sued, but I don’t know that there is any way to know the motivation of a big ISP in a given complaint. One of my clients who ignored such a claim said that fighting with the big ISP in the papers over an issue was the best advertising he could ever have wished for.

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The Industry

Cable Companies Converting to Fiber

I wrote a recent blog discussing comments from Chris Sambar, AT&T’s EVP of Technology Operations who was quoted as saying that he almost feels sorry for cable companies that compete against AT&T fiber. AT&T is convinced that building fiber is a winning strategy and that the first company that builds fiber in a market will win the majority of broadband customers.

While it’s not yet a giant movement, we do see cable companies that are converting to fiber. One example comes from an announcement by Cox that it will be undertaking a project in the Hampton Roads area to upgrade its networks to 10-gigabit fiber. The build will start this year in Norfolk and will extend over time to the rest of this rapidly-growing area.

Atlantic Broadband recently announced plans to extend fiber to 70,000 passings in New England and West Virginia. This will include the communities of Concord, Dover, Somerset, Durham, and Madbury in New Hampshire and Westover, Morgantown, Granville, and Star City in West Virginia.

Altice recently renewed its pledge to convert all of its 4.4 million customers to fiber. The Chairman of Altice, Patrick Drahi, announced he would convert the company to fiber in 2015 when the company acquired Suddenlink and Cable vision. However, the conversion to fiber slowed and has only covered about one-eighth of the company’s 9.2 million passings. Altice is back in the news with an announcement that it will expand fiber to 1 million new locations in 2022, mostly in the northeast.

We can’t forget Charter, which is planning to build fiber in the suburban and rural areas surrounding its current markets. The company won bids in the RDOF reverse auction for a million rural passings. The company is expected to chase state and federal grants to fill in the pockets won in the RDOF auction.

All of these fiber plans still only represent a relatively small share of the 75.2 million broadband customers served by the eight largest cable companies. But this start of a trend towards fiber raises some interesting questions. It’s hard to tell as someone who works inside the industry, but my sense is that the general public has become convinced that fiber is the superior technology. That perception bodes well for AT&T and anybody that builds fiber to compete against a cable company.

More importantly, a preference for fiber bodes poorly in the long run for any cable company that doesn’t have plans to get faster. Converting to fiber is a tough strategic decision for a cable company to face. Many have been putting their hopes on DOCSIS 4.0 and thought they had plenty of time to make that transition. But the pandemic seems to have moved up the timeline drastically by highlighting the weakness of cable company upload speeds. In the surveys my firm has done in the last two years, we’ve consistently seen 30% of cable customers complaining that they had problems working and schooling from home. That’s a lot of people who are deciding they’d rather have somebody other than the cable companies as an ISP.

Categories
The Industry

U.S. Broadband Prices – High or Low?

Over the years, I’ve seen a number of studies that ask how U.S. broadband prices stack up against the rest of the world. Interestingly, in 2021 I saw reports at both ends of the spectrum. One report says that U.S. broadband prices are among the most expensive in the world. At the other extreme is a report that claims that U.S. broadband prices are low and that prices are falling.

Let’s start with the high price claim. The most recent look comes from CompareTheMarket that claims that the average U.S. residential price for broadband is $66.13 and is the ninth most expensive in the world. The study compares a broadband product in each country that offers unlimited bandwidth and that delivers speeds of at least 60 Mbps download. According to this report, the only places with higher prices than the U.S. are Ethiopia, UAE, Qatar, Zimbabwe, Oman, Honduras, Saudi Arabia, and Iceland.

The calculated $66.13 price seems realistic to me and is similar to numbers I’ve been gathering all year through surveys. The CompareTheMarket price is only for broadband and doesn’t include a WiFi modem. I’ve been seeing average prices that include the WiFi modem generally range between $70 and $75 per month. It’s worth noting that the big ISPs have been quietly burying the cost of broadband in the modem fee, with one of the highest fees being the $14 monthly fee from Comcast.

There is another report that claims that U.S. Broadband prices are not only affordable but are falling from year to year. This comes from the 2021 Broadband Pricing Index Report published by USTelecom, the lobbying arm of the biggest ISPs in the country. That report makes some outrageous claims. For example, it claims that the price of the most popular tier of broadband declined by 7.5% between 2020 and 2021 – something that’s impossible to believe when Comcast and Charter, which together are half of the broadband industry, each had a significant rate increase during that period.

It’s impossible to understand what USTelecom is comparing since there are zero statistics cited to back up its numbers. It seems to be relying on the fact that the price per megabit has been decreasing – which I don’t think anybody disputes.  It’s clear that consumer broadband speeds have risen at a faster pace than prices. But that’s not what the report is implying – a casual reader would have to assume the report means that out-of-pocket prices to customers are dropping.

USTelecom puts out this report every year, and I always find it rankling. There is no consumer in the U.S. who thinks their ISP is cutting broadband prices. Some ISPs still negotiate with customers that ask for lower rates, but overall, broadband prices from the big cable companies that control most of the market keep rising year after year.

Comcast just announced an overall 3% price increase across the board for January 2022, but I haven’t yet seen this expressed in specific product prices. This comes on top of the basic broadband at Comcast that I calculate to cost $90. That’s $76 for the basic standalone broadband package (100 Mbps or 200 Mbps in most markets), plus $14 for the WiFi modem. The rate increase would put the new price at around $93.

I have to think that the USTelecom report is aimed at providing cover for politicians that support the big ISPs. There are no consumers who feel like broadband prices are dropping – unless perhaps they are in a market where a new competitor showed up during the last year. But USTelecom and the big ISPs want politicians to think the ISPs are looking out for the public during the pandemic.

I know I shouldn’t get worked up over these kinds of shenanigans from the big ISPs. But it’s aggravating to see them peddle such blather since the purpose behind these untruths is to lobby policymakers. This is a story the ISPs want legislators to hear to tell at a time when the big ISPs know that the FCC is likely to reintroduce broadband regulation. The message from the big ISPs is clear, “Why regulate us? Look how well we’re taking care of the public without regulation”. Tell that to the families paying $90 per month for Comcast broadband – assuming they don’t exceed Comcast’s data cap and pay even more.

Categories
The Industry

Incumbents Fight Broadband Improvement

There was a recent article in the Bangor Daily News about Charter fighting a move by small towns in Maine to bring fiber broadband. To anybody who has been in the business for a while, this is nothing new. The big cable companies and telcos have fought municipal broadband for decades.

The article highlights a recent public meeting in the small town of Leeds, a town of under 2,300. The town was hoping to partner with Axiom Technologies, a nearby ISP, to provide fiber broadband. This would be financed with a $2.2 million bond, which Axiom would repay.

Charter used a tactic that has been seen in many places over the years – prior to the public meeting on the issue, an organization called Maine Civic Action hand-delivered slick double-sided colored pamphlets to everybody in the town. The pamphlet described the attempt to build better broadband as a boondoggle that would lead to higher taxes and questionable service. An investigation showed that Maine Civic Action was created by funding from Charter given to the Maine Policy Institute, a conservative advocacy group from Portland, Maine. Charter was quoted as saying that the donation to the Maine Policy Institute was nothing more than charity, akin to a donation made to Girl’s Day at the state capital. Maine Policy Institute admitted that the Maine Civic Action organization was created strictly to fight municipal broadband.

The incumbents undertake this kind of behind-the-scenes lobbying because they know it works. Charter wouldn’t get the same reaction if it directly lobbied the public under its own name. Similar efforts were taken to defeat recent fiber initiatives in the nearby towns of Hampden and China. The lobbying effort didn’t work in this case, and the bond issue in Leeds was approved.

Small towns and cities often feel like captives of the big ISPs. The telcos stopped supporting DSL in town a decade or more ago. Cable networks in smaller towns are often of far lesser quality than what is provided in larger cities. The ISPs closed local and regional business offices years ago and over time have reduced the number of technicians working in smaller markets. Outages often last for a day in smaller markets. Small town residents can see that service is bad and getting worse.

Small towns also look around and see that rural locations around them are getting in line to get fiber broadband through grants – and the towns feel left behind. The incumbents have been successful in keeping federal grant money away from towns like Leeds. However, Congress gave communities a one-time shot in the arm to consider better broadband with the local grants awarded in the American Recovery Plan Act. This is local money that cities, towns, and counties can use as they see fit, as long as towns can justify the expenditures to fix some problem that was apparent during the pandemic.

Almost every community I’ve talked to feels that broadband was unsatisfactory during the pandemic. Students struggled tackling school from home, and employees struggled with connecting to the office from home. The hardest hit were homes that had multiple family members trying to use broadband at the same time. The pandemic uncovered the weaknesses in the cable company networks, while towns also discovered that some neighborhoods have worse broadband than others. People everywhere learned about the importance of good upload broadband.

The actions of Charter are intended to warn other small towns not to mess with the huge monopoly. I would guess there are more than one hundred towns around the country having the same conversation about broadband as Leeds. Charter and other big ISPs don’t want local governments to even think about improving broadband. Whenever there is a public outcry, ISPs like Charter always promise communities they’ll do better, but nothing ever changes once the risk of a vote is over. It’s intimidating for a small town like Leeds to experience a confrontation from a giant cable company that will be making billions in profits this year. It’s not hard for Charter to divert a little bit of that profit to fight off competition. It’s a shame they don’t instead take some of that money to make the broadband better in Leeds so that the folks there don’t have to look for an alternative.

Note: I was contacted by Jacob Posik of the Maine Policy Institute who says that Maine Public and the Bangor Daily News have issued a correction to say that Maine Civic Action was created in 2018 and was not specifically created to fight municipal broadband. 

Categories
The Industry

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.

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Current News The Industry

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.

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