Hidden Fees Adding Up

Consumer Reports recently published a special report titled “What’s the Fee?: How Cable Companies Use Hidden Fees to Raise Prices and Disguise the True Cost of Service”. Cable companies have advertised prices for many years that are significantly lower than the actual bills customers see – but the CR report shows that the size of the fees has grown significantly over the last few years.

The report lists several specific examples. For example, the broadcast fee and the regional sports fees at Comcast increased from $2.50 in 2015 to $18.25 currently. The broadcast fee supposedly covers the cost of buying local network channels – ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC. The regional sports fee can cover the cost of channels carrying regional college and pro sports. In both cases, the cable companies never disclose the actual fees they pay that are covered by these fees.

The report shows that Charter increased its broadcast fee three times in the last year, starting at $8.85 in October 2019 to reach $13.50 per month in October 2019.

It’s not hard to understand why customers are confused by the many fees. The report points out that some cable bills have more than a dozen line items, which are a mix of rates for products, external taxes and fees, and these various ‘hidden’ fees – meaning they are usually not disclosed when advertising the products.

In addition to the Broadcast TV fee and the Regional sports fees the report lists the following other fees:

  • Settop box rental fee. This is to recover the cost of the settop box hardware. For many years this fee was around $5 monthly for most cable providers, but this is an area that has also seen big price increases in recent years and the highest rate I’ve seen was $12 per month. This is to recover a settop box, which for small ISPs costs a little over $100, and must cost less for the big cable companies.
  • Cable Modem / WiFi Router. This is the fee with perhaps the biggest range of pricing – some ISPs don’t charge for this while others are charging more than $10 per month.
  • HD Technology Fee. This fee used to be charged by almost every cable company back when they started offering HD channels (a decade ago many channels were offered in both an HD and an analog format). Now that the whole industry has largely gone to digital programming, CR reports the only company still charging this fee is Comcast.
  • Internet Service Fees. This is a relatively new fee that gets billed to anybody buying Internet Access. The report highlights the fees charged by RCN and Frontier.
  • Administrative and Other Fees. These are often fees under various names that don’t cover any specific costs. However, some fees are specific – I just read an article describing a $7 fee to business customers by AT&T in California to recover property taxes.

Consumer Reports collected a number of sample bills from customers and reports that the average monthly company-imposed fees for the bills they analyzed averaged to $22.96 for AT&T U-verse, $31.28 for Charter, $39.59 for Comcast, $40.16 for Cox, and $43.79 for Verizon FiOS. They estimate that these fees could total to at least $28 billion per year nationwide.

To be fair to the cable providers, these fees are not all profits. The companies pay out substantial retransmission fees for local content and pay a lot for sports programming. However, some of the fees like settop box and modem rentals are highly profitable, generating revenues far above the cost of the hardware. Some of the fees like administrative fees are 100% margin for the companies.

Consumer Reports advocates for legislation that would force cable companies and ISPs to fully disclose everything on bills, similar to what happened with the airline industry in 2011 with the Full Fare Advertising Rule. CR believes that the FCC has the authority to require such transparency without legislation.

Do Cable Companies Have a Wireless Advantage?

The big wireless companies have been wrangling for years with the issues associated with placing small cells on poles. Even with new FCC rules in their favor, they are still getting a lot of resistance from communities. Maybe the future of urban/suburban wireless lies with the big cable companies. Cable companies have a few major cost advantages over the wireless companies including the ability to bypass the pole issue.

The first advantage is the ability to deploy mid-span cellular small cells. These are cylindrical devices that can be placed along the coaxial cable between poles. I could not find a picture of these devices and the picture accompanying this article is of a strand-mounted fiber splice box – but it’s s good analogy since the size and shape of the strand-mounted small cell device is approximately the same size and shape.

Strand-mounted small cells provide a cable company with a huge advantage. First, they don’t need to go through the hassle of getting access to poles and they avoid paying the annual fees to rent space on poles. They also avoid the issue of fiber backhaul since each unit can get broadband using a DOCSIS 3.1 modem connection. The cellular companies don’t talk about backhaul a lot when they discuss small cells, but since they don’t own fiber everywhere, they will be paying a lot of money to other parties to transport broadband to the many small cells they are deploying.

The cable companies also benefit because they could quickly deploy small cells anywhere they have coaxial cable on poles. In the future when wireless networks might need to be very dense the cable companies could deploy a small cell between every pair of poles. If the revenue benefits of providing small cells is great enough, this could even prompt the cable companies to expand the coaxial network to nearby neighborhoods that might not otherwise meet their density tests, which for most cable companies is to only build where there are at least 15 to 20 potential customers per linear mile of cable.

The cable companies have another advantage over the cellular carriers in that they have already deployed a vast WiFi network comprised of customer WiFi modems. Comcast claims to have 19 million WiFi hotspots. Charter has a much smaller 500,000 hotspots but could expand that count quickly if needed. Altice is reportedly investing in WiFi hotspots as well. The big advantage of WiFi hotspots is that the broadband capacity of the hotspots can be tapped to act as landline backhaul for cellular data and even voice calls.

The biggest cable companies are already benefitting from WiFi backhaul today. Comcast just reported to investors that they added 204,000 wireless customers in the third quarter of 2019 and now have almost 1.8 million wireless customers. Charter is newer to the wireless business and added 276,000 wireless customers in the third quarter and now has almost 800,000 wireless customers.

Both companies are buying wholesale cellular capacity from Verizon under an MVNO contract. Any cellular minute or cellular data they can backhaul with WiFi doesn’t have to be purchased from Verizon. If the companies build small cells, they would further free themselves from the MVNO arrangement – another cost savings.

A final advantage for the cable companies is that they are deploying small cell networks where they already have a workforce to maintain the network. Bother AT&T and Verizon have laid off huge numbers of workers over the last few years and no longer have the fleets of technicians in all of the markets where they need to deploy cellular networks. These companies are faced with adding technicians where their network is expanding from a few big-tower cell sites to vast networks of small cells.

The cable companies don’t have nearly as much spectrum as they wireless companies, but they might not need it. The cable companies will likely buy spectrum in the upcoming CBRS auction and the other mid-range spectrum auctions over the next few years. They can use the 80 MHz of free CBRS spectrum that’s available everywhere.

These advantages equate to a big cost advantage for the cable companies. They save on speed to market and avoid paying for pole-mounted small cells. Their networks can provide the needed backhaul for practically free. They can offload a lot of cellular data through the customer WiFi hotspots. And the cable companies already have a staff to maintain the small cell sites. At least in the places that have aerial coaxial networks, the cellular companies should have higher margins than the cellular companies and should be formidable competitors.

Comcast Breaks Promise of Lifetime Prices

Barely a month goes by when I don’t read about a colossal failure of customer service by one of the big ISPs. The latest comes from Comcast, and the company seems to have broken a major promise made to customers.

When Google Fiber announced in 2016 that they were coming to Salt Lake City, Comcast decided to compete against Google Fiber by offering ‘lifetime’ prices for various bundles. For example, there was a triple play bundle at $120 per month plan that included broadband, cable TV and a telephone line. In anticipation of Google coming to the market, Comcast engaged in a door-to-door sales campaign that marketed the lifetime special and other discounts on Comcast products in an attempt to lock down customers before Google Fiber hit the market. Ironically, Google Fiber changed their mind and never made any significant investment in the market.

The lawsuit alleges that Comcast doorknockers promised customers the lifetime product and backed this up in writing that their price would be good for as long as the customer kept the plan. Customers were assured at each step of the process that they were buying a lifeline plan and that rates would never be increased. For example, Comcast customer service reps on the phone repeated the assurance that the prices would be good forever. The lawsuit asserts that as many as 20% of the 200,000 upgrades sold during the sales campaign in Utah were sold as lifetime plans.

As you might expect from the title of this blog, after a few years Comcast raised the prices on the lifetime plans. At that point, Comcast customer service denied any knowledge that these were lifetime rates and said they had never heard of such a plan. Comcast enforced the rate increases, some of which were substantial.

It’s hard to imagine that any company would sell a guaranteed lifetime price for a bundle that includes cable TV. The cost of buying wholesale programming has been increasing at 10% – 15% annually for many years. In a decade, any lifetime plan would be massively underwater. Additionally, Comcast is now in the mode of annually increasing broadband prices – but that’s not something that was probably discussed inside of the company in 2016.

It’s not hard to figure out how this could happen in a big corporation. I’m just speculating, but I expect the marketing campaign included an outside sales team. These sales teams get most of their compensation from completed sales and are famous in the industry for making outrageous claims to customers. I always caution my clients about hiring sales companies that bring entire sales teams in from out of state. While these companies will get sales, the worst of them often leave a trail of unhappy customers behind them. I would expect that this sales staff had some role in choosing the message of lifetime rates – something they know they can sell.

However, it had to be more than a rogue sales team that pushed the lifetime rates. Comcast customer service at the time was also telling the customers that the plans were lifetime rates. I’ve talked to several Comcast customer service reps over the years and they describe the customer care process at the company as chaotic. From what they’ve described it’s not hard to imagine the specific customer care group supporting the sales campaign also supported this effort because they also could make sales commissions. Many of the horror stories coming out Comcast customer care over the years have involved employees engaging in bad behavior to chase sales commissions.

But there also had to be local management buy-in of the plan. I’m sure we’ll never know, but it would be interesting to know if this was strictly a local management decision in Salt Lake City or if there was corporate buy-in. Comcast seems to have overreacted to Google Fiber elsewhere and it’s possible that this was a corporate plan.

This lawsuit highlights the difficulty in operating a huge ISP. Many big companies have seen sales commission plans gone awry. Inevitably, some employees find ways to maximize bonuses through bad behavior. We saw something similar from Wells Fargo bank last year and it’s hard for any giant corporation to strenuously push sales campaigns while also policing that employees don’t take advantage of the plans.

This story offers a few lessons for other ISPs. I am a huge believer in the efficacy of door-to-door sales plans done well. But there are unscrupulous outside firms that will sell anything for a high-enough commission. The best sales plan involves local people trained and managed by an ISP directly. The other lesson is that sales commission plans for non-salespeople must be carefully designed to not promote bad behavior.

The Market Uses for CBRS Spectrum

Spencer Kurn, an analyst for New Street Research recently reported on how various market players plan to use the 3.5 GHz CBRS spectrum recently approved by the FCC. I described the FCC’s order in this recent blog. As a quick refresher, this is a large swath of spectrum and the FCC has approved 80 MHz of spectrum for public use and will be auctioning 70 MHz of the spectrum in 2020.

Cellular Bandwidth. Kurn notes that Verizon plans to use the new spectrum to beef up 4G bandwidth now and eventually 5G. Verizon plans to use the spectrum in dense markets and mostly outdoors. Cable companies like Comcast and Charter that have entered the wireless business are also likely to use the spectrum in this manner.

I’ve been writing for a while about the crisis faced by cellular network. In urban areas they are seeing broadband usage double almost every two years and keeping up with that growth is a huge challenge. It’s going to require the combination of new spectrum, more cell sites (mostly small cells), and the improvements that come with 5G, mostly the frequency slicing.

It’s interesting that Verizon only sees this as an outdoor solution, but that makes sense because this spectrum is close in characteristics as the existing WiFi bands and will lose most of its strength in passing through a wall. It also makes sense that Verizon will only do this in metro areas where there is enough outdoor traffic for the spectrum to make a difference. I’ve seen several studies that say that the vast majority of cellular usage is done indoors in homes, businesses, and schools. But this spectrum still becomes one more piece of the solution to help relieve the pressure on urban cell sites.

For this to be of use the spectrum has to be built into cellular handsets. Apple recently announced that they are building the ability to receive Band 48 of CBRS into their new models. They join the Samsung Galaxy S10 and the Google Pixel 3 with the ability to use the spectrum. Over time it’s likely to be built into many phones, although handset manufacturers are always cautious because adding new spectrum bands to a handset increases the draw on the batteries.

Point-to-Multipoint Broadband. Numerous WISPs and other rural ISPs have been lobbying for the use of the spectrum since it can beef up point-to-multipoint broadband networks. These are networks that put a transmitter on a tower and then beam broadband to a dish on a subscriber premise. This technology is already widely in use mostly using the 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz WiFi spectrum. Layering on CBRS will beef up the broadband that can be delivered over a customer link.

It will be interesting to see how that works in a crowded competitive environment. I am aware of counties today where there are half a dozen WISPs all using WiFi spectrum and the interference degrades network performance for everybody. There are five SAS Administrators named by the FCC that will monitor bandwidth usage and who also will monitor interference. The FCC rules don’t allow for indiscriminate deployment of public CBRS spectrum and we’ll have to see how interference problems are dealt with.

One interesting player in the space will be AT&T who intends to layer the frequency onto their fixed wireless product. AT&T widely used the technology to meet their CAF II buildout requirements and mostly has used PCS spectrum to meet the FCC requirement to deliver at least 10/1 Mbps speeds to customers. Adding the new spectrum should significantly increase rural customer speeds – at least for those with a few miles of AT&T towers.

Cable Company Edge-out. The most interesting new players considering the market are the cable companies. Kurn believes that the big cable companies will use the spectrum to edge out to serve rural customers with fixed wireless around their existing cable networks. He says the cable networks could theoretically pass 6 – 7 million new homes if this is deployed everywhere. This is an ideal application for a cable company because they typically have fiber fairly close the edge of their service areas. The point-to-point wireless product operates best when the radios are fiber-fed and cable companies could deliver a product in the 50-100 Mbps range where they have line-of-sight to customers.

We’ve already seen one cable company tackle this business plan. Midco was awarded $38.9 million in the CAF II reverse auctions to deploy 100 Mbps broadband in Minnesota and the Dakotas. Midco is going to need this spectrum, and probably even more to deliver 100 Mbps to every customer. Their deployment is not really an edge-out, and the company plans to build networks that will cover entire rural counties with fixed wireless broadband.

Maine Legislates a la Carte Programming

The Maine legislature passed a law that would create a la carte cable TV programming in the state. Titled “An Act to Expand Options for Consumers of Cable Television in Purchasing Individual Channels and Programs”, the act would require cable companies to offer individual channels to consumers starting September 19.

Comcast, and many of the primary programmers like A&E, C-Span, CBS, Discovery, Disney, Fox, Viacom, and New England Sports Network recently went to court to try to stop implementation of the law.

Consumers have been asking for a la carte programming for decades. People don’t like the idea of having to pay for channels they don’t watch. The cost of a cable subscription is the number one issue mentioned by the majority of the several million cord cutters that are now dropping cable every year.

It’s hard to think that the law can stand up to a legal challenge. There is a question of jurisdiction since Congress has enacted numerous laws governing cable TV that are still on the books and still enforced by the FCC. Those laws require cable companies to offer several tiers of programming for cable companies that have enough capacity to carry a lot of channels. The courts will have to decide if the Maine legislature can override federal law.

Probably more salient are the contracts between programmers and cable companies. Those contracts are extremely specific about how the cable companies must carry their content. Any cable company that tries to enforce the law will be in direct conflict with those contracts. Laws often preempt contracts, but I find it likely that the programmers would yank programming from Maine cable companies rather than see a la carte programming go into effect. If this law is allowed to stand in Maine it would likely quickly appear in other states as well.

The next problem is technical. Cable companies would find it difficult to deliver only those channels a customer wants. Cable TV networks act like a big radio system and every channel on a cable system is broadcast to every home on the network. A cable company uses filters to block channels that a customer doesn’t subscribe to. This is fairly easily done today because channels are delivered in large blocks. If a customer doesn’t want to pay for a digital programming tier the cable company blocks that whole tier. From my understanding, the blocking software used today doesn’t provide the ability to establish a custom blocking screen for each customer. This could probably be made to work with some assistance from the manufacturers of headend and from Cable Labs, but nobody has ever created the software to allow for custom blocking down to the individual channel level – it’s never been needed.

Individual channels are more easily delivered by companies that deliver cable TV on an all-digital network like fiber or DSL. This technology for delivering cable TV on these technologies is IPTV, and with this technology the cable provider only broadcasts one channel at a time for whatever customers want to watch. But even IPTV providers would need to buy modified software to give each customer a custom choice of channels.

It’s worth noting that idea has been tried in a controlled way. Last year Charter offered what they call Spectrum TV Choice where customers can pick ten channels out of a list of 65 choices and bundle them with local channels. This package is priced at $25. Charter is able to provide this product because they step outside of their normal network topology and deliver the channels over the customer broadband connection using a Roku box at the customer end. Charter has not reported on the success of this package and I’ve not seen it advertised for a while.

The final issue to consider is the price. Even if a cable company unbundles channels, they would likely charge a lot per channel. Are consumers going to be better off if they buy a dozen unbundled channels priced at $5 each for $60 or get a 150-channel bundle of channels for that same price? I believe that the cable companies would make buying single channels a costly endeavor.

It’s easy to understand why Maine legislators crafted this law. Cable programming has been increasing in price for years and is growing out of the range of affordability for many homes. Many homes don’t have sufficient broadband to cut the cord and feel trapped by the expensive cable options available to them. Surveys have also shown that the average home watched a dozen or fewer channels. My bet is that the legislation won’t survive a legal challenge, but I guess that’s why they have lawsuits.

Broadband Price Increases

Back in late 2017 Wall Street analyst Jonathan Chaplin of New Street predicted that ISPs would begin flexing their market power and within three or four years would raise broadband rates to $100. His prediction was a little aggressive, but not by much. He also predicted that we’re going to start seeing perpetual annual broadband rate increases.

Stop the Cap! reports that Charter will be raising rates in September, only ten months aftertheir last rate increase in November 2018. The company will be increasing the price of unbundled broadband by $4 per month from $65.99 to $69.99.  Charter is also increasing the cost of using their WiFi modem from $5.00 to $7.99. This brings their total cost of standalone broadband for their base product (between 100 – 200 Mbps) with WiFi to $78.98, up from $70.99. Charter also announced substantial price increases for cable TV.

Even with this rate increase Charter still has the lowest prices for standalone broadband among the major cable companies. Stop the Cap! reports that the base standalone broadband product plus WiFi costs $93 with Comcast, $95 with Cox and $106.50 with Mediacom.

Of course, not everybody pays those full standalone prices. In most markets we’ve studied, around 70% of customers bundle products and get bundling discounts. However, the latest industry statistics show that millions of customers are now cutting the cord annually and will be losing those discounts and will face the standalone broadband prices.

MoffettNathenson LLC, the leading analysts in the industry, recently compared the average revenue per user (ARPU) for four large cable companies – Comcast, Charter, Altice and Cable ONE. The most recent ARPU for the four companies are: Comcast ($60.86), Charter ($56.57), Altice ($64.58), and Cable One ($71.80). You might wonder why the ARPU is so much lower than the price of standalone broadband. Some of the difference is from bundling and promotional discounts. There are also customers on older, slower, and cheaper broadband products who are hanging on to their old bargain prices.

The four companies have seen broadband revenue growth over the last two years between 8.1% and 12%. The reason for the revenue growth varies by company. A lot of the revenue growth at Comcast and Charter still comes from broadband customer growth and both companies added over 200,000 new customers in the second quarter of this year. In the second quarter, Comcast grew at an annualized rate of 3.2% and Charter grew at 4%. This contrasts with the smaller growth at Altice (1.2%) and Cable ONE (2%), and the rest of the cable industry.

The ARPU for these companies increased for several reasons beyond customer growth. Each of the four companies has had at least one rate increase during the last two years. Some of the ARPU growth comes from cord cutters who lose their bundling discount.

For the four cable companies:

  • Comcast revenues grew by 9.4% over the two years and that came from a 4.4% growth in ARPU and 5% due to subscriber growth.
  • Charter broadband revenues grew by 8.1% over two years. That came from a 3.2% increase in ARPU and 4.9% due to subscriber growth.
  • Altice saw a 12% growth in broadband revenues over two years that comes from a 9.8% growth in ARPU and 2.2% due to customer growth.
  • Cable ONE saw a 9.7% growth in broadband revenues over two years due to a 7.5% growth in ARPU and 2.2% increase due to customer growth.

Altice’s story is perhaps the most interesting and offers a lesson for the rest of the industry. The company says that it persuades 80% of new cord cutters to upgrade to a faster broadband product. This tells us that homes cutting the cord believe they’ll use more broadband and are open to the idea of buying a more robust broadband product. This is something I hope all of my clients reading this blog will notice.

Cable ONE took a different approach. They have been purposefully raising cable cable prices for the last few years and do nothing to try to save customers from dropping the cable product. The company is benefitting largely from the increases due to customers who are giving up their bundling discount.

MoffettNathanson also interprets these numbers to indicate that we will be seeing more rate increases in the future. Broadband growth is slowing for the whole industry, including Comcast and Charter. This means that for most cable companies, the only way to continue to grow revenues and margins will be by broadband rate increases. After seeing this analysis, I expect more companies will put effort into upselling cord cutters to faster broadband, but ultimately these large companies will have to raise broadband rates annually to meet Wall Street earnings expectations.

Cord Cutting Picking Up Steam

Cord cutting continued to pick up speed in the second quarter of this year. The numbers below come from Leichtman Research Group which compiles these numbers from reports made to investors.

The numbers reported are for the largest cable providers and Leichtman estimates that these companies represent 93% of all cable customers in the country.

The overall penetration rate of households buying traditional cable has dropped to 67.4% at the end of the second quarter of the year. The penetration rate had dropped just under 70% at the end of 2018.

For the quarter the cable companies lost 1.7% of subscribers which would equate to a trend of losing 6.7% for the year. However, that number needs to be put into context. The biggest drop of customers came from AT&T / DirectTV which lost over 1.3 million customers so far this year. The company decided to end discount plans to customers and has been letting customers go who won’t agree to pay full price after the end of discount plans. The company says they are glad to be rid of customers who are not contributing to the bottom line of the company. At some point soon that purge should end, and the company should return to a more normal trajectory. Normalizing for AT&T, the whole industry is probably still losing customer currently at a rate between 4% and 5% of total market share annually.

4Q 2018 2Q 2019 1Q Change 2Q Change 2Q
Comcast 21,986,000 21,641,000 (121,000) (224,000) -1.0%
AT&T / DirecTV 22,926,000 21,605,000 (543,000) (778,000) -3.5%
Charter 16,606,000 16,320,000 (145,000) (141,000) -0.9%
Dish TV 9,905,000 9,560,000 (266,000) (79,000) -0.8%
Verizon 4,451,000 4,346,000 (53,000) (52,000) -1.2%
Cox 4,015,000 3,940,000 (35,000) (40,000) -1.0%
Altice 3,307,500 3,276,500 (10,200) (20,800) -0.6%
Mediacom 776,000 747,000 (12,000) (17,000) -2.2%
Frontier 838,000 738,000 (54,000) (46,000) -5.9%
Cable ONE 326,423 308,493 (5,812) (12,118) -3.8%
Total 85,136,923 82,481,993 (1,245,012) (1,409,918) -1.7%

These same companies have lost over 5 million traditional cable subscribers since the end of the second quarter in 2018.

Some other observations:

  • This is the first time that Comcast has lost 1% of cable customers in a quarter. Until recently the company was holding steady with cable customer counts due to the fact that the company has continued to add new broadband customers, many who bought cable TV.
  • Frontier is bleeding both cable customers and broadband customers, and the company lost 71,000 broadband customers in the second quarter to go with the loss of 46,000 cable customers.
  • The only other companies that lost more than 2% of their cable customer base in the quarter are Mediacom and Cable ONE.
  • The loss of 79,000 customers is the smallest quarterly loss for Dish Networks since 2014.

The biggest losers in the industry are likely the programmers. They are losing millions of monthly subscriptions that were paying for their programming. A few networks are recovering some of these losses by selling programming to providers like SlingTV or PlayStation Now – but overall the programmers are losing a mountain of paying households.

The big question for the industry is if there is some predictable path for cord cutting. Will it continue to accelerate and kill the industry in a few years or will losses be slow and steady like happened with landline telephones?

A New Cellular Carrier?

One of the most interesting aspects of the proposed merger of Sprint and T-Mobile is that the agreement now includes selling some of Sprint’s spectrum to Dish Networks to enable them to become a 5G cellular provider. This arrangement is part of the compromise required by the Department of Justice to preserve industry competition when the major wireless carriers shrink from four to three.

This agreement would have Dish Networks paying $5 billion for the spectrum assets, which complement the spectrum already owned by Dish. The agreement also includes an MVNO agreement between Dish Networks and T-Mobile that would let Dish enter the cellular market immediately before having to build any network. As part of that arrangement, Dish would purchase Boost Mobile from T-Mobile for $1.4 billion, providing them with an immediate base of cellular customers.

Dish already owns spectrum valued at several billion dollars. The company has been under pressure from the FCC to deploy that spectrum, and Dish recently began building a nationwide narrowband network to support IoT sensors. The company admits they are not happy with the IoT sensor business plan but didn’t want to lose their spectrum. Perhaps the best aspect of this deal from Dish’s perspective is that they are being given a new time clock to use existing spectrum in a more profitable way.

This deal has plenty of critics who don’t believe that Dish can turn into a viable competitor. This includes numerous consumer groups as well as a group of state Attorney Generals who have filed to block the merger. The merger is far from a done deal and is going to court, although it has crossed the major hurdles of getting DOJ approval and informal approval from the FCC.

Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen says the company is ready to become the fourth facility-based cellular carrier in the market. He thinks that launching with a new 5G network will provide some advantages over carriers that will be upgrading older networks. The company faces some significant challenges such as gaining access to tower space in crowded markets. The other cellular carriers have also been busy and have invested significant amounts of capital in building fiber to support cellular small cell sites.

The challenge of building a new nationwide cellular network from scratch is intimidating. As a satellite provider, the company does not already operate an extensive landline network. The logistics of hiring the needed talent and constructing the core network infrastructure is a major challenge. A few years ago Dish had estimated the cost to build a nationwide cellular network at $10 billion. The company says they have already released an RFI and an RFP to start the process of hiring contractors to build the new network.

Ergen says the company could build the core network in 2020 and could construct a network to cover 70% of the homes in the country by 2023. As far as being competitive, Dish says they would enter the market with ‘disruptive’ pricing to capture market share.

Dish needs something like this if it is to survive. The company lost over 1.1 million satellite TV customers last year, a little over 10% of its customer base. It looks like cord cutting is accelerating this year and one has to wonder how long they will remain as a viable business.

Interestingly, Dish won’t be the only new competitor in the cellular market. Comcast recently spent over $1.7 billion on spectrum. The company has been reselling cellular service and offering low-price broadband as part of its bundle for the last few years. The company reporting hitting 1.2 million cellular customers at the beginning of this year. While Comcast is not likely to tackle building a nationwide network, they could become a formidable competitor in the urban markets where they are already the cable provider. Other cellular companies like Charter and Altice are considering a similar path.

Broadband Subscriptions Continue to Grow

According to the Leichtman Research Group, the biggest ISPs added 945,000 broadband customers in the first quarter of 2019. If sustained that would be an annual growth rate of 4% for the year. That contrasts drastically with the largest cable providers that are now losing cable customers at a rate of 6% annually.

The table below shows the changes in broadband customers for the largest ISPs for the quarter.

4Q 2018 Added % Change
Comcast 27,597,000 375,000 1.4%
Charter 25,687,000 428,000 1.7%
AT&T 15,737,000 36,000 0.2%
Verizon 6,973,000 12,000 0.2%
Cox 5,100,000 40,000 0.8%
CenturyLink 4,806,000 (6,000) -0.1%
Altice 4,155,000 36,900 0.9%
Frontier 3,697,000 (38,000) -1.0%
Mediacom 1,288,000 24,000 1.9%
Windstream 1,032,400 11,400 1.1%
Consolidated 780,720 1,750 0.2%
WOW 765,900 6,300 0.8%
Cable ONE 678,385 15,311 2.3%
Cincinnati Bell 426,700 1,100 0.3%
98,724,105 943,761 1.0%

The two biggest cable companies, Charter and Comcast are growing furiously and added 85% of all of the net industry additions, with Charter growing at an annual growth rate of almost 7%. Mediacom and Cable ONE grew even faster for the quarter.

The cable companies continue to dominate the telcos. As a whole, the big cable companies added over 925,000 customers at an annual growth rate of 5.75%. By contrast, the big telcos collectively added 18,250 customers, an annual growth rate of only 0.2%. We know that telcos are continuing to lose DSL customers, so a slight gain as a group means they are finding new customers to replace lost DSL connections.

The overall net gains for the first quarter of 2018 was 815,000. The increases are larger this year due to smaller losses by the telcos rather than faster growth for the cable companies. Perhaps a few of the telcos are finally seeing some upside by the rural CAF II builds.

The surprising statistic is how much Comcast and Charter continue to grow. They are obviously winning the broadband battle in the major cities and continue to take customers away from telco DSL on copper.

There has to be something else behind this kind of growth. A few years ago, there were analysts that predicted that the broadband market was topping out. It seemed like everybody who wanted broadband had it and that there were not a lot of potential customers left in the market. In the last two years we’ve seen continued growth similar to this last quarter.

It’s always hard to identify trends when looking at a nationwide trend, but one of the few ways to explain this continued growth is that more households are deciding that they must have broadband. That might mean homes with occupants older than 65, since that demographic always trailed other demographics in broadband acceptance. It might mean more houses with low incomes are finding a way to buy broadband because they’ve decided it is a necessity. At least some of this growth is coming by the effort to extend broadband into rural America, although that effort is largely being done by ISPs that are not on the above list.

The Metrics of Offering Cable TV

Cable TV is a big topic with my clients. New ISPs struggle with the question of adding a cable TV product to their product mix. They do surveys that show that a lot of households still want cable TV bundled with broadband. My clients that offer cable TV wonder if they should drop it as a product.

Some interesting data was recently reported by the Wall Street research firm Cowan. They were looking at cable TV margins among bigger cable companies and concluded that it’s hard for anybody but the largest cable companies to be profitable with cable.

Consider Altice, a cable company with almost 3.3 million customers. Cowan calculates that Altice spends about 80% of cable revenues to buy the underlying programming – for 2018 that was cable revenues of $813 million and programming costs of $683 million. That means a gross operating margin of only 20% even before considering any of the costs of selling, billing and maintaining the product.

The really large cable companies do better. Comcast has around 21.8 million customers and Cowan calculates that programming only costs them 60% of cable revenues. The other big cable companies like Charter and Dish Networks pay about 65% of cable revenues for programming.

This raises the interesting question if anybody who doesn’t have millions of customers can make any money at cable TV? It’s unimaginable that Altice makes money in cable with a 20% gross operating margin. ISPs all tell me that the cable TV product is the big eater of staff time. Most of the calls to customer service are about cable signal quality. Cable issues cause the majority of truck rolls. When you look at the full effort required to support cable TV there is no way that it can be done inside of a 20% operating margin.

The bigger companies are a different story. You can see why Comcast still works hard to win and keep cable customers. At a 40% operating margin, each cable customer still has significant bottom-line value to the business.

Comcast must be dismayed at finally starting to lose customers to cord cutting, having lost 120,000 in the first quarter of this year. The company has done better than any other cable company in retaining customers. They’ve got the state-of-the-art settop box that continually updates with new features. They’ve pushed TV everywhere to allow TV on any device. And yet, even Comcast is seeing the inevitable declines from cord cutting as a result of high cable prices and the lure of online alternatives.

These numbers ought to show any smaller company that there is no sensible business plan for investing in a cable TV headend. I can’t imagine why anybody would buy a new cable headend today. It’s hard to imagine covering the cost of new electronics when the margins from cable barely cover operating expenses.

I’ve done the math and if a small ISP is honest with the evaluation, it’s hard to think that cable TV for a smaller company has any net operating margin after operating expenses. This puts companies in an uncomfortable position. The national average cable penetration is still 70%, although now dropping at 6% of market annually. That still means that a lot of customers want to buy traditional cable TV and they are going to buy it from the ISP who offers cable and broadband together. All of the surveys we’ve done at CCG show that there is still a sizable portion of the residential market who won’t buy broadband without cable TV.

I hear about ISPs exiting the cable business every month. That’s the ultimate in cord cutting when the ISP drops the cable product before the customers disappear on their own.