Cable Company Cellular Growing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Faster Speeds for Comcast

Comcast held a press release on September 8 that announced the introduction of a 2-gigabit download broadband product. The product is already available in Colorado Springs, CO, Augusta, GA, Panama City Beach, FL, and in the Comcast headquarters market of Philadelphia. I can’t find any mention yet of the price.

Along with the announcement of faster download speeds, the company is claiming new upload speeds of as much as 200 Mbps – at least for the 2 Gbps plan. The press release made it sound like all upload speeds would be increased by five to ten times the existing speeds, and today’s blog looks at what it would take for a cable company to increase upload speeds across the board.

Interestingly, the same press announcement said that Comcast would be introducing DOCSIS 4.0 in 2023, at least for some business customers. That’s an announcement that has me scratching my head. Comcast just announced a successful test for DOCSIS 4.0 in January of this year. To be able to go from a lab prototype to production units in less than two years would be extraordinary. The normal time to market for a major new technology is five or six years. I’m skeptical about the announcement and wonder if this is aimed at Wall Street more than any actual technology plan. The company has been asked non-stop about DOCSIS 4.0 for several years, and maybe this announcement is taking advantage of that hype. Comcast could hold a field trial of the new technology next year and still meet this promise.

But cable companies have another option to get faster upload speeds. A cable network is essentially a captive radio network inside of the coaxial cable. Cable networks don’t all have the same total bandwidth, and most of the big cable company networks have total bandwidth of either 1 GHz or 1.2 GHz. The total bandwidth has to be shared between video channels and broadband.

Most existing cable companies have allocated bandwidth between download and upload using something called the sub-split. This assigns a relatively small amount of frequency between 5 MHz and 42 MHz for upload. On top of being a small swath of throughput, this is also the part of the spectrum that suffers from external interference. This combination results in both relatively slow upload speeds and also variable speeds due to interference – something most cable customers are aware of.

There are two additional configurations for allocating upload speeds. A mid-split configuration uses the spectrum between 5 MHz to 85 MHz for upstream. In a high-split, the upload is enhanced by using the spectrum up to 204 MHz. DOCSIS 4.0 will provides multiple options for upload bandwidth with possible spits at 300 MHz, 396 MHz, 492 MHz, and 684 MHz.

If Comcast is going to improve bandwidth in the near future, it will have to implement one of the larger DOCSIS 3.1 splits. There is a cost for moving to a different split. There must first be enough room available for video channels and download bandwidth. It can be expensive if the entire bandwidth of the network must be increased. That can mean replacing amplifiers and other outside electronics, and even some coax. In most cases, the existing customer modems would need to be replaced unless already configured to accept the different split.

At the recent SCTE Cable-Tec Expo, CommScope, Vecima, and CableLabs said there are plans for a different upgrade path for the DOCSIS 3.1 higher splits. They are claiming new ‘turbocharged’ modems that will add more effective upload bandwidth capability. I’ve not heard of any field trials of the new modems, and perhaps this is what Comcast has in mind by the end of 2023.

Cable companies are sensitive about the marketing advantage that faster upload speeds give to fiber and even to slower technologies like FWA cellular wireless. It’s hard to know if the Comcast announcement foreshadows big improvements next year or was just a way to signal to Wall Street that cable companies are working towards improved bandwidth. It’s inevitable that faster upload bandwidth is coming – the big questions are when and how much faster.

What’s The Trend for Broadband Prices?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When There is No Broadband

Jon Brodkin wrote a recent article in Ars Technica that highlights a Seattle couple who bought a house in Seattle and found it doesn’t have broadband. The house was built in 1964, but the new homebuyers found that the Comcast network was never extended to the house, although all six neighbors are connected to Comcast.

When the new homeowners couldn’t get service from Comcast, they found out that the only two options for broadband are CenturyLink DSL with a 3 Mbps download or a cellular hotspot. This is a real dilemma for a couple who both work from home.

Comcast largely ignored requests from the homeowners to connect service, and it eventually took pressure from a City Council member to get Comcast’s attention. That’s when the bad news came that Comcast wanted a $27,000 construction fee to bring service. This was to build underground cable to cross 181 feet.

https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2022/06/couple-bought-home-in-seattle-then-learned-comcast-internet-would-cost-27000/

This particular home is unusual since it has a lot with no easy street access and would require access through an easement across a neighbor’s lot. At some point, somebody at Comcast told the homeowners that the actual cost to reach the property is $80,000 since construction includes the easement and boring under a street  – a number that is hard to believe.

Comcast bought this cable network from AT&T, but the original cable company was probably TCI. It’s likely in the 1970s that the local construction crew elected to bypass this lot because it was hard to reach. The original cable company probably had a franchise agreement that required it to offer cable TV to every household. But as is often the case, the cable company decided to avoid a high-cost property like this one. There are likely other properties in high-cost situations around the city that aren’t connected to the Comcast network.

This particular house is news because the house is in a neighborhood of single-family homes deep inside a city where all of the other neighbors are connected. Being bypassed is a common story for folks who live on the fringe of the big cities where cable companies often quote similar high costs to get connected to the network. Most stories about urban homes that aren’t connected are in low-income neighborhoods that the original cable network deliberately bypassed.

The industry term for the construction fee that Comcast offered the couple is aid-to-construction. This is where a customer pays the cost of extending an existing fiber, electric, or water service to reach a new location. Anybody who has built a new rural home outside of a subdivision has probably run into this situation.

I regularly hear about cases where a rural farmer is willing to pay a fee of $25,000 to $50,000 to bring fiber to the farm – it’s obviously worth that much to them to get the broadband needed to operate a modern farming business. But the $27,000 fee is one of the highest fees I’ve heard in a city.

Not all ISPs do this. I have plenty of ISP clients that would have bored 181 feet to reach this property for a minimal fee or even no charge. They would have used their own construction crew, and the cost would have been nowhere near Comcast’s quoted fee. Good ISPs would write off this situation as the cost of doing business and to pick up a new and likely permanent customer.

 

Comcast and Charter Losing Broadband Customers

It’s big news that both Comcast and Charter lost broadband customers in the second quarter of this year. Both companies have steadily gained customers every quarter over the last decade. It was not a surprise to me to see this happen, but it happened sooner than I would have guessed.

Comcast lost 10,000 broadband customers for the quarter, a minuscule loss for a company with over 32.1 million broadband customers. To show how surprising this loss is, the company gained 262,000 customers in the first quarter of 2022, more than 1.3 million in 2021, and almost 2 million in 2020.

Charter lost 21,000 customers in the second quarter, again a small fraction of its 30.1 million broadband customers. But the loss is a big turnaround compared to the 185,000 broadband customers the company gained in the first quarter of this year, the 1.2 million customers gained in 2021, and the 2.2 million customers gained in 2020.

Comcast blames the customer loss on two factors. One is the end of the pandemic, which implies that households are now dropping broadband since the pandemic has cooled. This is the first time I’ve heard anybody make that claim. I’d love to hear if any ISPs that read this blog are seeing that same thing. Comcast also blamed the drop on the fact that fewer people than normal moved into new homes and apartments during the second quarter. That’s another claim that we’ll be able to check when the folks who track housing release statistics.

Charter blames the loss of customers on the change in the federal subsidy for low-income homes. Charter said it lost 59,000 customers when the subsidy changed from $50 under the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program to the $30 discount on the Affordable Connectivity Plan (ACP). That’s interesting, if true, and it provides evidence that many low-income households need a substantial discount in order to afford broadband. I’d also love to hear from any ISPs that are seeing this same customer trend. But I think Charter is being disingenuous to blame the drop on the low-income programs. The math doesn’t add up, and losing 59,000 in a quarter would not drive the company into having a net loss of customers.

There was something that both companies conspicuously didn’t claim – that the customer losses are due to competition. They are apparently not ready to make that claim yet because it makes them seem vulnerable. But it has been clear for some time that competition is nipping at the heels of the big cable companies. Telcos and other ISPs are furiously building fiber in urban areas in direct competition with cable companies. It’s hard to know fact from fiction, but fiber-based ISPs have high expectations – for example, AT&T says it plans to get a 50% penetration rate on fiber in a new neighborhood after three years.

Both companies are not acknowledging competition from the cellular carriers, which are selling unlimited 100 Mbps FWA broadband at an affordable price. Both cable companies have recently said they don’t fear competition from the FWA product. It’s too early to know how much of a threat wireless broadband will be – and it will take some time before we can see if the cellular networks can handle a lot of simultaneous broadband users and still maintain speeds. But for now, Verizon and T-Mobile are picking up a lot of new customers  – together, the two companies gained half of all new broadband customers nationwide in the first quarter of this year.

The stock prices of both cable companies have benefitted for years from continuous growth since analysts could count on each company growing both customers and revenues year after year. It’s going to be interesting to see what a loss of customers means to the long-term stock prices.

This new trend might change a lot of dynamics in the industry. I’ve said for years that the cable companies were on a steady march to have $100 broadband – and they still might be. It might be that raising rates is now the only path for them to increase the bottom line. But will these companies be able to raise rates in an increasingly competitive market? It seems unlikely that they will be able to keep increasing the price for the basic products, but the companies might be hoping for a continuation of the trend of customers upgrading to faster products. Both cable companies are aggressively selling cellular services, and each gained over 300,000 new cellular customers in the second quarter. But we don’t know how much margin the cellular business adds to their bottom lines.

Charter might have an easier path than Comcast to curtail losses and possibly grow again. Charter is aggressively seeking grant funding to expand into the rural areas around existing markets. These are areas that have had poor rural broadband, and Charter is building fiber in these markets – much to the annoyance of its urban customers who are not getting upgraded to Charter fiber. But this expansion should add a lot of new customers over the next four or five years. I think Charter realizes that in these markets, they will benefit by being the only provider of fast broadband – the first time the company will be operating in areas where it will largely be a monopoly.

The fact that the two biggest ISPs lost customers is a bellwether event that shows that the broadband market is now up for grabs. Who will be the big winners that fill the void if Comcast and Charter are not grabbing most of the new customers each quarter?

Here Comes FWA

Broadband industry statistics have been compiled by the Leichtman Research Group which provides an interesting new narrative for the industry. The biggest ISPs added just over one million new broadband customers in the first quarter of 2022, but half of the new customers went to the FWA products from Verizon and T-Mobile.

FWA stands for Fixed Wireless Access and is home broadband delivered using cellular frequencies. T-Mobile and Verizon are aggressively marketing the product, which is touted to have download speeds over 100 Mbps. The market is going to get hotter when Dish gets its launch underway soon. AT&T has also been promising a major new marketing effort to sell the product.

 1Q 2022 1Q Change % Change
Comcast 32,163,000 262,000 0.8%
Charter 30,274,000 185,000 0.6%
AT&T 15,533,000 29,000 0.2%
Verizon 7,400,000 35,000 0.5%
Cox 5,560,000 30,000 0.5%
Lumen 4,470,000 (49,000) -1.1%
Altice 4,373,200 (13,000) -0.3%
Frontier 2,819,000 20,000 0.7%
Mediacom 1,468,000 5,000 0.3%
Windstream 1,176,000 11,300 1.0%
Cable ONE 1,057,000 11,000 1.1%
T-Mobile FWA 984,000 338,000 52.3%
Breezeline 719,608 2,830 0.4%
TDS 495,200 4,900 1.0%
Verizon FWA 433,000 194,000 81.2%
Consolidated 380,150 (850) -0.2%
   Total 109,305,158 1,065,180 1.0%
Total Cable 75,614,808 482,830 0.6%
Total Telco 32,273,350 50,350 0.2%
FWA 1,417,000 532,000 60.1%

FWA was originally touted as the replacement for rural DSL. However, both T-Mobile and Verizon report having success selling the product in urban areas and competing with cable companies. This means that FWA success is going to bring down customer counts for other ISPs.

Over the past several years, Comcast and Charter have been accounting for most of the growth in broadband customers. In the first quarter, the two FWA providers and Comcast and Charter together account for 92% of net increases in broadband customers.

There are some interesting numbers inside this report.

  • Frontier has clearly turned it around after steady losses for several years and saw growth of 0.7% for the quarter.
  • The big loser is now Lumen, which lost over 1% of its broadband customers in the quarter.
  • We know that AT&T has been selling fiber connections at a hot pace but is still seeing significant losses of DSL customers to net out at a small positive growth.
  • The biggest percentage gainer among landline companies for the quarter is CABLE ONE, with quarterly growth of 1.1%.
  • Altice continues to struggle and lost broadband customers for the quarter.

Update on DOCSIS 4.0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stock Buybacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comcast Busts on FWA

One of the best ways to know when a new technology is a threat is when one of the big telcos or cable companies begins talking badly about it. The most recent case in point comes from a recent conference covered by LightReading where Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said that Comcast is not worried about competition from FWA (cellular wireless) technology. He was quoted as saying that FWA is an “inferior technology” that will not remain viable for the long term.

Realistically, Comcast and the other big ISPs have to be concerned about FWA technology. T-Mobile added 546,000 customers to the product in 2021, and Verizon added 173,000 – with most of the additions coming near the end of the year. MoffettNathanson says that FWA broadband accounted for 38% of all broadband customer gains in the fourth quarter. Bloomberg says that FWA accounted for 22% of all new broadband customers for the whole year of 2021. T-Mobile said that much of its growth came from urban and suburban customers formerly served by cable companies.

The FWA market is just getting started. T-Mobile says it has a target of serving seven to eight million homes by the end of 2026. Verizon says it is already passing 15 million homes with the technology and plans to be passing 30 million homes by the end of 2023. We don’t know the specific goals for Dish, but the newest big cellular carrier will start hitting the market this summer, and the company says it plans to have aggressive pricing.

Roberts is right in that FWA bandwidth cannot compete with the speeds of cable broadband. Comcast has increased its download speeds to a minimum of 200 Mbps for a new broadband connection and has a top speed of 1.2 Gbps. But that misses the point. FWA is targeting those households that have modest broadband needs or who want to save money. If a Comcast customer isn’t getting any discounts, the cost of basic broadband is over $90 when adding in the $14 charge to get a broadband modem. FWA products are priced between $50 and $60, and Dish is likely to be even lower. The FWA companies are competing for the households that care about price more than speed.

However, many houses will find the FWA product to be fast enough. Ookla speed test results for February 2022 show the nationwide average download speed for FWA at 146 Mbps, with the average upload at almost 21 Mbps. It’s worth noting that the FWA upload speeds are faster than the average speeds I’ve seen in any market for cable companies – which typically is closer to 15 Mbps.

It’s somewhat ironic for a cable company to say that the FWA technology is inferior because the cable companies have spent the last year lobbying hard not to set the definition of broadband to be any faster than 100/20 Mbps. That means Comcast believes that what FWA service is broadband.

Roberts’s major objection is that FWA is not a future-looking technology. That sounds like a valid point since the growth in broadband demand will probably mean that a decade from now we’ll think that 150/20 Mbps will feel like a slow broadband product. I’m not sure that carriers a lot of legs for customers who want to save money today.

But what Roberts is failing to acknowledge is the pending upgrade in six or seven years to real 5G. That technology will be able to right-size broadband connections for each customer according to the demand, and it’s likely that 5G speeds might eventually climb to as much as a gigabit – although that’s going to require the cellular companies to dump a lot of broadband into each neighborhood small cell site. But speeds on FWA will certainly be much faster a decade from now. In my mind, that’s the real threat of FWA to cable companies.

Of more immediate concern for cellular companies will be maintaining the 150/20 Mbps speeds recently measured by Ookla. These FWA products are being delivered by the same cell sites that deliver voice and data to cellphones, and the cellular carriers have all said that their cellular customers will get first priority at cell sites. If the cellular carriers sell too many FWA customers from a given cell site, there is a good chance that those customers will collectively drag down the overall speeds at a cell site. As long as this service is using 4G LTE technology, there are absolute caps on the amount of broadband a given cell site can deliver at a given time. Cellular carriers can make sure this is not a problem by not selling too many FWA customers in a given neighborhood. But that would require restraint, and I can’t think of a time when any big ISP ever restricted sales.

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!.