Who Wins with Cable Deregulation?

There has been a lot of press lately discussing what might happen if the FCC does away with Title II regulation of broadband. But broadband isn’t the only battle to be fought and we are also in for big changes in the cable industry. Since our new FCC is clearly anti-regulation I think the future of cable TV is largely going to be won by whoever best copes with a deregulated cable world.

Cable companies today are governed by arcane rules that rigidly define how to provide terrestrial cable TV. These rules, for example, define the three tiers of cable service – basic, expanded basic and premium – and it is these rules that have led us to the big channel line-ups that are quickly falling out of favor. Most households watch a dozen or so different channels regularly and even big cable users rarely watch more than 30 channels – but yet we have all been sucked into paying for 150 – 300 channel line-ups.

It’s likely that the existing rules governing cable will either be relaxed or ignored by the FCC. A lot of the cable rules were defined by Congress in bills like the Telecommunications Act of 1996, so only Congress can change those rules. But the FCC can achieve deregulation by inaction. Already today we see some of the big cable providers violating the letter of those rules. For example, Verizon has a ‘skinny’ package that does not fit into the defined FCC definition of the structure of cable tiers. The FCC has turned a blind eye to these kinds of changes, and if they are more overt about this then we can expect cable providers everywhere to start offering line-ups people want to watch – and at more affordable prices if the cable companies can avoid paying for networks they don’t want to carry.

The cable companies are now in a battle with the OTT providers like Netflix, Sling TV and others. It’s clear to the cable companies that if they don’t fight back that they are going to bleed customers faster and faster, similar to what happened to landline voice.

One way cable companies can fight back is to introduce programming packages that are similar to what the OTT providers are offering. This is going to require a change in philosophy at cable companies because the larger companies have taken to nickel and diming customer to death in the last few years. They sell a package at a low advertised price and then load on a $10 settop box fee, a number of other fees that are made to look like taxes, and the actual price ends up $20 higher than advertised. That’s not going to work when competing head-to-head with an OTT competitor that doesn’t add any fees.

The cable companies are also going to have to get nimble. I can currently connect and disconnect from a web service like Sling TV at will. Two or three clicks and I can disconnect. And if I come back they make it easy to reconnect. The cable companies have a long way to go to get to this level of customer ease.

Of course, the big ISPs can fight back in other ways. For example, I’ve seen speculation that they will try to get taxes levied on OTT services to become more price competitive. Certainly the big ISPs have a powerful lobbying influence in Washington and might be able to pull that off.

There is also speculation that the big ISPs might try to charge ‘access fees’ to OTT providers. They might try to charge somebody like Netflix to get to their customers, much in the same manner that the big telcos charge long distance carriers for using their networks. That might not be possible without Congressional action, but in today’s political world something like this is conceivable.

Another tactic the cable companies could take would be to reintroduce low data caps. If the FCC eliminates Title II regulation that is a possibility. The cable companies could make it costly for homes that want to watch a lot of OTT content.

And perhaps the best way for the cable companies to fight back against OTT is to join them. Just last week Comcast announced that it will be introducing its own OTT product. The cable companies already have the programming relationships – this is what made it relatively easy for Dish Network to launch Sling TV.

It’s impossible to predict where this might all go. But it seems likely that we are headed towards a time of more competition – which is good for consumers. But some of these tactics could harm competition and make it hard for OTT providers to be profitable. Whichever way it goes it’s going to be an interesting battle to watch.

OTT News, March 2017

There is a lot of activity going on with web-based video. There are offerings that are starting to look like serious contenders to traditional cable packages.

Comcast Integrates YouTube. Comcast has made a deal with Google to integrate YouTube into the Comcast X1 settop box. This follows last year’s announcement that Comcast is also integrating Netflix. Comcast also says they are working to integrate other SVOD platforms.

Comcast is making a lot of moves to keep themselves relevant for customers and to make the X1 box a key piece of electronics in the home. The box also acts as the hub for their smart home product, Xfinity Home.

One has to think that Comcast has worked out some sort of revenue sharing arrangements with Google and Netflix, although all details of these arrangements have not been reported. The most customer-friendly aspect of these integrations is that the Comcast X1 box is now voice-activated and customers can surf Netflix and YouTube by talking to the box.

Sling TV Adds More Sports. Sling TV has made another move that will make it attractive to more customers by adding the Comcast regional sports networks (RSNs) to their line-up. This includes CSN California, CSN Bay Area, CSN Chicago and CSN Mid-Atlantic. These networks carry a lot of unique sports content that is not easily available anywhere else on-line today. The networks carry pro basketball, pro baseball and a number of college sports. For example, CSN Bay Area is the home station for the popular Golden state Warriors. CSN Mid-Atlantic is the home station for the Baltimore Orioles.

I know in talking to my sports-centric friends that the narrow sports content on-line is the number one issue holding them back from switching to an OTT package. There are still other networks that Sling TV would need to add, like the Big Ten Network and the NFL Channel, to be a totally rounded sports provider. But they have already added a credible sports line-up that includes all the ESPN channels, the SEC Network, the ACC Network, NBA TV, the NHL Channel, the PAC12 Network and a few other sports networks like Univision TDN.

YouTube Launching an OTT Line-up. Cable TV just got another new OTT competitor. The new service is called YouTube TV and brings a fourth major OTT competitor along with Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, and DirecTV Now. The platform is going to launch sometime in the next few months, with no firm release date yet. The basic product will be $35 per month and allows customers to turn the service off and on at will.

YouTube TV will carry the typical network channels as well as ESPN, Disney, Bravo and Fox News – a line-up that sounds similar to its competition. The service will come with unlimited cloud DVR storage. It will allow 3 simultaneous streams per account and 6 user profiles per account. They will first launch in a few major urban markets (probably due to the availability of the local channels for various network channels).

If YouTube has any advantage in the marketplace it’s that they are becoming the preferred content choice for a lot of millennials. The company says they now are delivering over a billion hours per day of content. Millennials are leading the trend of cord cutters (and even more so of cord nevers), and if YouTube can tap that market they should do great.

Dish Network Predicts OTT will Replace Traditional TV. For the first time, Dish Networks Chairman and CEO said he thought that OTT programming is the real future of video. Until now the company, which owns Sling TV, has said that their product was aimed at bringing video to cord cutters.

But Sling TV and the other OTT products are getting a lot better. Sling TV now has over 100 channels that provide a wide set of options for customers. And these channels are not packed into a giant must-take line-up like traditional cable packages, and instead provide a number of smaller packages that a customer can add to the Sling TV base package. Sling TV and the other providers also make it easy for customers to add or subtract packages or come and go from the whole platform at will – something that can’t be done with cable companies.

Certainly Sling TV has made a difference for Dish. The company has been bleeding satellite customers and had customer losses for the last ten quarters. But the company had a small customer gain of 28,000 customers in the fourth quarter due to the popularity of Sling TV. The company does not report customers by satellite and OTT, so we don’t know the specific numbers.

Who Will Win the Telecom Battle?

facebookNow that Google has pulled back with expansion of Google Fiber it’s easy to see that the cable companies and telcos think they have won the broadband war. But I think if you look a little closer this might not really be the case.

Tech companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon are still focused on making sure that people have enough bandwidth to take advantage of the many products these giant companies offer or plan to offer in the future. And all three companies are growing in importance as content providers.

Consider first the strength of these companies as content providers. Google owns YouTube which is becoming the most important video destination for the younger generation – and those kids are growing up. We’ve seen young millennial households largely reject traditional cable TV offerings. While Amazon Prime is not nearly as big as Netflix it is a strong second and is continuing to grow. Amazon is also reported to be pouring big money into producing original content for its platform. Facebook is on a trajectory to become the preferred source of news and information. And their Facebook Live is also quickly becoming a huge content platform.

But content isn’t everything. Consider that these companies have amassed an enormous private fiber network. Google doesn’t talk about it’s network, but way back in 2013 it was reported that Google had assembled a network consisting of 100,000 miles of dark fiber. We also don’t know the size of the networks, but both Amazon and Facebook have also built large private networks. We know that Google and Facebook have partnered to build a massive undersea fiber to China and are looking at other undersea fiber routes. Amazon has built a huge network to support its cloud services business. It would not be surprising if these companies have already together amassed a larger fiber network than the telcos and cable companies. If they are not bigger yet, they are on a trajectory to get there soon. With these networks the tech companies could hurt the big ISPs where it most hurts – by taking a huge bite out of their special access and transport businesses.

These companies are also not done with the ISP business. Google Fiber has retracted from expanding FTTH networks for now, but they acquired Webpass and are looking to expand as an ISP using wireless last mile. And we saw in Huntsville that Google is not afraid to use somebody else’s fiber network – something we have never seen any of the telcos or cable companies consider. It would not be surprising to see Google make deals with other private networks to expand its ISP business to avoid spending the upfront capital. But perhaps Google’s biggest foray into providing data services is Google Fi, their service that provides unlimited cellular data using WiFi first rather than cellular. It’s been rumored that Google is looking for partnerships to expand WiFi access in many markets. And it’s been reported that Amazon is strongly considering becoming an ISP. I’ve not heard any details about how they might do this, but the company has shown the ability to succeed in everything it’s tackled – so it’s an intriguing possibility.

It’s a gigantic task to take on companies like AT&T and Comcast head on. I think Google Fiber learned this the hard way. But at the end of the day content is still king. As these companies continue to grow in influence as content providers they present a real challenge to traditional programmers. But they also are a growing threat to the big ISPs. If these tech companies decide that their best strategy is to directly deliver their content to subscribers they have a big enough marketing position to pull along a huge number of customers. It’s clear that consumers like these tech companies far more than they like the big ISPs, and in the end the accumulated animus with customers might be their undoing.

This kind of industry shift won’t happen overnight. But it’s already quietly going on behind the scenes. We may not be as far away as you might imagine when these companies provide more content than the traditional programmers and also carry more bandwidth on their own networks than the big ISPs. From my perspective that looks a lot like winning the battle.

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.

The Beginning of the End for HFC?

coax cablesWe’ve spent the last few years watching the slow death of telephone copper networks. Rural telcos all over the country are rapidly replacing their copper with fiber. AT&T has made it clear that they would like to get out of the copper business and tear down their old copper networks. Verizon has expressed the same but decided to sell a lot of their copper networks rather than be the ones to tear them down. And CenturyLink has started the long process of replacing copper with fiber and passed a million homes with fiber in urban areas in 2016.

Very oddly, the dying copper technology got a boost when the FCC decided to award money to the big rural copper owners like Frontier, CenturyLink and Windstream. These companies are now using CAF II money to try to squeeze one more generation of life out of clearly old and obsolete copper. Without that CAF II money we’d be seeing a lot more copper replacement.

I’ve been in the telco industry long enough to remember significant new telco copper construction. While a lot of the copper network is old and dates back to the 50s and 60s, there was still some new copper construction as recently as a decade ago, with major new construction before that. But nobody is building new telco copper networks these days, which is probably the best way to define that the technology is dead – although it’s going to take decades for the copper on poles to die.

This set me to thinking about the hybrid coaxial networks (HFC) operated by the cable companies. Most of these networks were built in the 60s and 70s when cable companies sprang up in urban areas across the country. There are rural HFC networks stretching back into the 50s. It struck me that nobody I know of is building new HFC networks. Sure, some cable companies are still using HFC technology to reach a new subdivision, but nobody would invest in HFC for a major new build. All of the big cable companies have quietly switched to fiber technology when they build any sizable new subdivision.

If telco copper networks started their decline when companies stopped building new copper networks, then we have probably now reached that same turning point with HFC. Nobody is building new HFC networks. What’s hanging on poles today is going to last for a while, but HFC networks will eventually take the same path into decline as copper networks.

There will be a lot of work and money poured into keeping HFC networks alive. Cable companies everywhere are looking at upgrades to DOCSIS 3.1 as a way to get more speeds out of the technology – much in the same way that DSL prolonged copper networks. The big cable companies, in particular, don’t want to spend the capital dollars needed to replace HFC with fiber – Wall Street will punish any cable company that tries to do so.

Cable networks have a few characteristics that give them a better life than telephone copper. Having the one giant wire in an HFC network is superior to having large numbers of tiny wires in a copper network which go bad one-by-one over time.

But cable networks also have one big downside compared to copper networks – they leak interference into the world and are harder to maintain. The HFC technology uses radio waves inside the coaxial cable as the method to transmit signal. Unfortunately, these radio waves can leak out into the outside world at any place where there is a break in the cable. And there are huge numbers of breaks in an HFC network – one at every place where a tap is placed to bring a drop to a customer. Each of the taps and other splices in a cable network are sources of potential frequency leakage. Cable companies spend a lot every year cleaning up the most egregious leaks – and as networks get older they leak more.

Certainly HFC networks are going to be around for a long time to come. But we will slowly start seeing them replaced with fiber. Altice is the first cable company to say they will be replacing their HFC network with fiber over the next few years. I really don’t expect the larger cable companies to follow suit and in future years we will be deriding the networks used by Comcast and Charter in the same way we do old copper networks today. But I think that somewhere in the last year or two we saw the peak of HFC, and from that point forward the technology is beginning the slow slide into obsolescence.

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.

A Year of Mergers

Bell_logo_1969Our industry has seen many mergers over the years between the biggest companies in the sector. But for the most part big mergers that change the face of the industry have been sporadic. We had AOL buying Time Warner in 2000, Alcatel buying Lucent in 2006 and CenturyLink buying Qwest in 2011.

But now it seems like I can’t read industry news without seeing discussions of a new merger. During the last year or so we saw AT&T gobble up DirecTV, saw Alcatel-Lucent grabbed by Nokia and saw Charter buy Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. And we are now watching the regulators sorting out mergers with Verizon trying to buy both XO Communications and Yahoo, with CenturyLink wanting to buy Level 3 Communications and AT&T wanting to acquire Time Warner.

From reading Wall Street speculation it seems like the current merger mania in our industry is not over. The rumors are strong that CBS and Viacom will soon announce a merger. There is rampant speculation that several companies might try to outbid CenturyLink for Level 3. There are rumors that Comcast, Charter and Altice are interested in buying T-Mobile or Sprint. There are continuing rumors that Verizon wants to buy Dish Networks to get permanent access to the huge swatch of spectrum they own. And there have been rumors for the last year that somebody ought to buy Netflix.

And these giant mergers aren’t just happening in telecom. We see Bayer buying Monsanto, Microsoft buying Linked-In, Marriott buying Starwood, Tyco buying Johnson Control, Protection 1 buying ADT, Sherwin-Williams buying Valspar and Fortis buying ITC Holdings.

It’s really hard in the telecom world to know if mergers are good or bad for the industry. Some mergers are clearly bad because they eliminate competition and create oligopolies at the top of the market. The rumored merger between CBS and Viacom is one such merger. Today there are only five major programmers in the country and this reduces that to four. A lot of the woes in the industry today are due to the greed of programmers and consolidation at the top of the industry can’t mean anything good.

But other mergers might be beneficial. Consider the impact of Comcast or Charter buying T-Mobile or Sprint. I just saw an article this week that showed that the wireless operations of AT&T and Verizon are still showing a gross margin of over 50%. It’s been clear to every consumer that cellular service is overpriced due to lack of meaningful competition. Perhaps one of the big cable companies could drive down cellular prices in an attempt to grab market share.

But on the flip side, letting these huge cable companies develop a quad play product is bad for anybody else that tries to compete with them for broadband. A new fiber overbuilder in a city would have an even bigger challenge if they try to displace a cable competitor that offers cellphone service bundled with their broadband. It’s been clear for a long time that lack of broadband competition is bad for consumers.

The underlying theme driving all of these mergers is that Wall Street has a never-ending appetite for increased earnings. That alone is often a good thing. Many times the companies being acquired are underperforming for some reason and mergers sometimes wake them up to do better. Many mergers promise improvement earnings due to the effects of consolidation and a reduction in the management and overhead drags.

But consider what mega-mergers in the telecom space more often mean. They mean that fewer and fewer companies control the vast majority of the market. And those giant companies are driven by Wall Street to increase earnings quarter after quarter forever – and at a pace and level that exceeds general inflation. You only have to do the math on that basic concept to realize that this means price increases for residential and business customers year after year to keep meeting higher earnings targets.

Years ago we had Ma Bell that controlled 95% of the phone business in the country. AT&T would have acted like any other commercial company except for the fact that their prices were heavily restricted by regulators. But stockholders of these big companies today do just the opposite and they pressure management to increase profits no matter the consequences. It is the chase for bigger earnings that has seen programming costs and cable TV rates climb much faster than inflation for the last decade to the point where the cable TV product costs more than many households are willing to pay.

I doubt we will see the end to these mergers, but if we don’t find a way to curb them the inevitable results will be a tiny number of companies controlling the whole sector, but with none of the restrictions in the past that were put on companies like Ma Bell. It scares me sometimes to think that broadband rates are going to increase in the same manner that cable rates increased in the past. But when you look at what the big ISPs have to sell it’s hard to not picture a scenario where earnings pressures are going to do the same thing to broadband that has been done to cable rates. That is going to do great harm the country to the benefit of the stockholders of a few big companies.

An Argument for Data Caps

slow-downA few weeks ago Mediacom sent a letter to the FCC as part of Docket 16-245 that defended data rate caps. The letter was signed by Joseph E. Young, the Senior Vice President, General Counsel, and Secretary of the company.

Mr. Young lays forth probably the best argument for data caps I have seen. This is from his letter:

Imagine you are out for a walk and experience a sudden, irresistible craving for Oreo® cookies.  You only want to spend two dollars, which means that you will be able to buy a two-pack or maybe even a four-pack but for sure you cannot get the family size of over 40 cookies.  For that many, you have to spend more. Of course, it would be nice if your two dollars bought you the right to eat an unlimited number of cookies, but you know that is not the way our economy works. It is the same for the Starbucks latte you might want to drink with your cookies and for socks, gasoline and just about every single one of the thousands of other products and services that are for sale in the United States, including essentials like water and electricity. 

In the case of virtually everything you buy, the fact that your cost goes up as you consume more will neither surprise you nor set you off on a passionate crusade to get the government to force producers to sell an unlimited quantity at a fixed price. We all know this to be the way things work in our economy and understand at some level that there are valid reasons for why that is so. . . . Remarkably, the only exception to this truism we can think of is bandwidth.

He goes on to say that what ISPs are doing is not greed, but just trying to put broadband on the same basis as other products. He laments that ISPs are thought of as greedy when trying to price their product like everything else in the economy. You have to admit that at least on the surface this sounds reasonable.

However his argument lost a little steam when he went on to say that, “A fair number of otherwise intelligent people vociferously complain about ISPs imposing a “cap” on bandwidth usage.” He basically called everyone who is against data caps stupid, and this probably won’t go well at the FCC, where a lot of staff are against data caps.

But to counter the Mediacom argument you only have to look back to see how Comcast implemented their data caps earlier this year to see how data caps are really just all about greed and greater revenues. Comcast had a data cap of 250 GB for many years, although it was rarely enforced. The company raised the cap to 300 GB and then starting enforcing it in various trials around the country. They offered two options to customers that exceeded the cap: either pay $30 more per month to get unlimited data or else pay $10 for every 50 GB over the cap.

Both of those options increased revenues for Comcast significantly. And that’s where the greed came to bear. If this was not about making more money Comcast could have implemented data caps with a rate rebalancing. As an example, they could have lowered all data plan rates by $10, so that people who don’t use a lot of data would save money. Only customers who exceeded the caps would pay more. If the rate rebalancing was done right, then Comcast would keep the same revenues as before and customers would be paying more in line with their usage. To use Mr. Young’s analogy, if Comcast wanted to get prices right they should have started out by first right-pricing the small pack of Oreos. Instead Comcast was satisfied that the small pack of Oreos cost as much as the large pack, and they then jacked up the price of the large pack.

This was clearly a money-making scheme for Comcast, and the public outcry was so big that it got a lot of attention from the FCC. Comcast backed down and unilaterally raised the data cap on most plans to one terabyte. But new last week show that they want to impose the same pricing scheme on the 1 terabyte limit. This won’t affect many users today, but within a decade it will affect a significant percentage of Comcast’s users.

If Comcast had rebalanced rates they would have been lauded instead of vilified. While those that paid more might be yelling, the millions who paying less would largely offset that. But instead Comcast went straight for the money grab and to their chagrin, everybody was watching.

The other thing that Comcast missed is that, for most products we buy, the prices charged have some semblance to their costs. It certainly costs more to make a big pack of Oreos than a small one. But the public gets upset when prices greatly exceed costs – just look at the recent outcry about the EpiPen. Comcast’s big problem is that the public understands that there is very little difference in cost between most Internet users. Yes, those who use huge amounts of data cost an ISP more money, but there is very little difference in cost to Comcast between a household using 200 GB and one using 500 GB in a month. There is no gigabyte spigot at Comcast that is equivalent to a gas pump that would justify a big price differential between these two households. There would have been a lot less public outrage had the overage charges been $5 rather than $30.

As a big user I am obviously not nuts about the idea of paying more for broadband. But I wouldn’t have great qualms if a rate rebalancing brought very cheap prices to my mother (who barely uses any bandwidth) while I am charged more. But that’s not what we are seeing with price caps in the market. Instead we have low bandwidth products that are overpriced and the ISPs wanting to charge even more to somebody who actually uses what they have purchased.

Two Approaches to Low-Income Broadband

slow-downLarge ISPs are taking different approaches to bringing broadband to low-income households. Consider recent news about Comcast and AT&T:

Comcast has a program called Internet Essentials that provides broadband to low-income households. Comcast delivers 10 Mbps download speeds to qualifying households for $10 per month. The program was created as a condition by the FCC for the purchase of NBC Universal in 2011. For a long time the program was very low key and the company barely advertised it to customers. But over the years the company added 600,000 to the program.

Now that the FCC has created a federal Lifeline subsidy for broadband the company has become more vigorous in seeking customers and reported recently that it now has over 3 million customers in the program. The qualifying requirement for Internet Essentials has been to have at least one child in a household eligible for free or reduced price lunches. But recently Comcast has allowed households without children to apply for the program.

AT&T was also required to provide low-cost broadband as the result of its purchase of DirecTV. AT&T uses a different requirement for eligibility and will provide assistance to customers who take part in the SNAP (food stamp) program. Since there are about 21 million households in the country in the SNAP program there are a lot of eligible households in the AT&T footprint.

The FCC conditions from the DirecTV merger required that AT&T would provide broadband at different prices according to the technology they have available in different neighborhoods. The program has several tiers: 10 Mbps download for $10 per month, 5 Mbps download for $10 per month and 3 Mbps download for $5 per month. The company is supposed to provide the fastest of these speeds available in a given area.

But AT&T is now in hot water at the FCC because they are denying the program to a lot of households by using the argument that they have many neighborhoods where they can’t deliver the 3 Mbps speed required for the lowest tier. In such neighborhoods they are not offering the program.

Ironically, in neighborhoods where the fastest speed is 1.5 Mbps they will still sell that broadband for more than $50 per month, but they won’t offer the same product for the reduced price. AT&T is basing the refusal to offer low-income prices on language in the merger agreement that said they would only have to offer subsidized broadband ‘where technically feasible’ – and they are arguing that they are technically unable to deliver the lowest 3 Mbps speeds required by the program.

This is not an isolated problem. For example, the FCC’s broadband mapping system shows that 21% of the census blocks in Detroit can’t get broadband speeds greater than 1.5 Mbps. These large swaths of old and slow DSL are a result of the company’s decision over the years to not invest in faster DSL in poor neighborhoods.

It’s easy to think of very slow broadband as a rural issue. But the FCC’s records make it clear that there are a lot of neighborhoods in urban areas that have been bypassed by ISPs. These are families that connect with old first generation DSL equipment and who live in homes or apartments that are not connected to the cable TV networks.

For many years Comcast fought against the agreement they had made with the FCC to offer low-income broadband. It’s good to see them finally embrace the plan, and I’m sure that has a lot to do with the federal Lifeline program that will provide $9.25 per month to Comcast for every qualifying customer. Added to what they are getting from customers the product should be profitable. This would be even better if the company would offer real broadband at 25 Mbps for the same low price.

It’s hard to understand why AT&T is weaseling out of their obligation. One would think that this program would generate a lot of revenue from copper that has been paid for generations ago. It can’t cost the company very much to provide a broadband connection at any of the speeds they offer in these neighborhoods, particularly those with the 1.5 Mbps speeds. AT&T freely agreed to offer low-income broadband when they bought DirecTV and it’s hard to think of a valid reason for them to renege. The only reason I can think of for their position is that perhaps they have plans to start tearing down copper in these neighborhoods and don’t want a lot of customers using the 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.