Who’s On First?

I saw a short article in Business Wire that said that Comcast Business had landed a project to provide a private wireless network for the guests of The Sound Hotel Seattle Belltown. This is an example of the continuing convergence in the industry where the big cable companies, ISPs, and wireless carriers are freely competing on each other’s turf. For decades we’ve neatly categorized companies as telcos, cable companies, or wireless carriers, but this convenient categorization is starting to fray around the edges, and its getting a lot harder to distinguish between the big industry players.

If we look back ten or fifteen years, the distinctions between these companies were clearly defined. The big telcos served residences and small businesses using DSL. The big telcos were clearly structured in silos. There was practically no interface between the wireless companies at Verizon and AT&T and the broadband business. Verizon went so far as to set up Verizon FiOS, its fiber business, separately in every aspect from the copper and DSL business.

The cable companies had faster broadband than DSL after the upgrades were made to DOCSIS 3.0. Speeds up to 300-400 Mbps blew away the capabilities of DSL. Once those upgrades were completed, the cable companies took market share in cities from the telcos year after year until the cable companies had a near-monopoly in many markets.

The market with more balanced competition has been the large business market. This is the market where fiber quickly became king. At one point the telcos controlled most of this market, with their fiercest competition coming from a handful of big CLECs. Verizon responded to this competition by buying MCI, XO, and others in the northeast. CenturyLink become one of the nationwide market leaders through the acquisition of Qwest and then Level 3. The big cable companies cautiously launched fiber ventures for this market twenty years ago and have picked up a decent market share.

But those simple explanations of the business plans of the big ISPs is now history. As the Business Wire announcement showed, the big companies are crossing technology barriers in new ways. Comcast

Providing a private wireless network for a large hotel is emblematic of a new trend in competition. In doing this, Comcast is crossing technical lines that it would never have considered years ago. From a business perspective, Comcast is going after the full suite of services for businesses like this hotel, not just the wireless network. The newest word in the competitive market is stickiness, and Comcast is likely tying down this hotel as a customer for a long time, assuming it does a great job.

These crossovers are even more evident in the residential and small business markets. Comcast, Charter, and other cable companies are bundling cellular service with broadband and the triple play, something that the telcos have never managed to pull off. Telcos have decided to reclaim urban market share by building huge amounts of fiber. And the cable companies are reacting to that threat by rushing some early versions of DOCSIS 4.0 to the market in order to fix the upload bandwidth issues. The big wireless companies have joined the fray with the FWA cellular wireless broadband products. While these products can’t compete with the bandwidth on fiber or cable networks, the product is still adequate for many homes and hits the market at a much lower price.

This has to be confusing to the average residential consumer. Consumers who abandoned DSL years ago are being lured back by to the telcos by fiber. Folks who have been paying far too much for cellular service are moving to the more affordable cable company wireless service. And people who can’t afford the high price of cable broadband are seemingly flocking to the more affordable FWA wireless. I have to imagine that the customer service desks at the various ISPs are being flooded by customers canceling service to try something different.

Markets always eventually reach an equilibrium. But for now, both the residential and business markets in many cities are seeing a fresh new marketing efforts. A decade from now, it’s likely that we’ll reach a predicable mix of the various technologies. We know this from having watched the markets where Verizon FiOS battled with the cable companies for several decades. But much of the country is just now entering the era of refreshed competition.

Unfortunately, this new competition isn’t everywhere. There is already evidence that new investments are not being made at the same pace in lower-income neighborhoods. Some cities are seeing widespread fiber construction while others are seeing almost none. There will still be a lot of work to do to make sure that everybody gets a shot at the best broadband – but the obvious convergence in the industry shows that we’re headed in the right direction.

Competing Against Big Cable Companies

I’m asked at least twenty times a year how a small ISP can compete against the big cable companies. The question comes from several sources – a newly-formed ISP that is nervous about competing against a giant company, a rural ISP that is entering a larger market to compete, or investors thinking of funding a new ISP. These folks are rightfully nervous about competing against the big cable companies. Comcast and Charter together have roughly 55% of all broadband customers in the country, so the assumption is that they are formidable competitors.

It’s more realistic to say that they are decent competitors. They have slick marketing materials to try to lure customers. They have persuasive online marketing campaigns to snag the attention of new customers. They have good win-back programs to try to keep customers from leaving them.

But the two big cable companies have one obvious weakness – their prices are significantly higher than everybody else in their markets. Every marketing push by these companies involves giving temporary low special prices to lure customers – but those prices eventually revert to much higher list prices.

There is a great example of this in the market today. Both Verizon and T-Mobile have been adding large numbers of broadband customers to their fixed wireless FWA products that deliver home broadband using cellular spectrum. The two cellular companies have been highly successful in the marketplace, adding over 2.6 million new broadband customers through the first three quarters of 2022, while Comcast and Charter added about half a million customers during that same time period – mostly at the start of the year.

The FWA wireless product is clearly competing on price. The FWA broadband is not as fast or robust as cable company broadband, but the prices are attractive to a lot of consumers. For example, T-Mobile offers 100 Mbps broadband for a $50 monthly fee for customers willing to use autopay – a price T-Mobile says will never increase. This is far below the prices of the cable companies, which are in the range of $90 per month for standalone broadband.

I thought I’d take a look at how Comcast is competing against the lower-price FWA products. Comcast has two special offers in January 2023 for standalone broadband.

  • In a special offer that ends February 1, Comcast will provide 400 Mbps broadband for $30 per month, which requires autopay. The special price is under a contract for one year, but the special price extends for two years (meaning that if a customer terminates during the first year they have to pay for the remaining months of the contract). The special price for this product was higher in the past and likely has been lowered to compete against FWA.
  • The other offer is ongoing and doesn’t end on February 1. Comcast will provide 800 Mbps download speeds for $60 per month, which requires autopay. This is also a two-year term, with the first year under a contract.

Comcast then adds hidden fees to the special price. Unless a customer brings their own modem, Comcast charges $15 per month for a WiFi modem, a price that was increase by $1 this month. In many markets, Comcast also has data caps, and customers that exceed 1.2 terabytes of usage per month are charged $10 for each additional 50 gigabytes of data used in a month.

For the 400 Mbps product, a customer who brings a modem and who doesn’t exceed the data caps will pay $30 per month if using a bank debit and $35 per month with a credit card debit. Using the Comcast WiFi modem (which most customers do), raises the monthly price to $45 or $50 – right in line with the T-Mobile FWA product. But the kicker comes at the end of the term when the price, before a cable modem, jumps to $92 per month, and $107 with the modem. The result at the end of the 800 Mbps special is similar, with the price rising to $97 per month before a WiFi modem. Anybody buying the special today must also worry about whatever rate increases Comcast adds to the base broadband price by 2025.

The special prices offered by the big cable companies are alluring – customers can get a significant discount for a year or two. But inevitably, the prices will skyrocket – and in the case of the 400 Mbps special will more than double at the end of the discounted special.

ISPs that compete against the big cable companies have learned that all they have to do to compete is to offer fair prices and wait out the specials. Over time, customers who get tired of the pricing yoyo will come around. ISPs with fiber tell me that customers that come to them from a cable company almost never go back to cable. Customers appreciate fair pricing with no games and a reliable broadband product that delivers the promised speeds – that’s how you compete against the big ISPs.

The Outlook for Cable Company Broadband

A majority of my clients compete against one of the big cable companies, so they are always watching anything that affects the prices, technology, or performance of these companies. After a decade of unending success, 2022 has been a rough year for cable companies.

The statistic that probably matters the most to these companies is that stock prices are way down for the year. As I write this blog, Comcast has dropped 39%, Charter 46%, Altice 72%, and Cable One 61%. Stock prices are down for a lot of companies this year, but these large drops show that Wall Street has lost faith in the cable company earnings model, where the companies gained customers quarter after quarter and raised rates a healthy amount each year. For many years it wasn’t hard to predict that the cable companies were going to have a good year.

The cable companies have been losing cable customers at a rapid pace in recent years and collectively lost 2.7 million cable customers in 2021. But losses of cable subscribers were more than offset by the growth of higher-margin broadband customers. In 2021, the big cable companies collectively gained 2.8 million broadband customers as they continued to take customers away from DSL while benefitting from the surge in home broadband subscriptions during the pandemic.

But the growth in broadband customers was slowing, and in the fourth quarter of 2021, the cable companies collectively added 445,000 customers and another 482,000 in the first quarter of this year. But then the wheels came off, and the big cable companies collectively lost 60,000 customers in the second quarter of this year. While that’s a mere blip for companies that collectively have 75.6 million broadband customers, it feels like a watershed event in the broadband industry. It looks like cable is no longer the automatic king of broadband in attracting and keeping customers.

It’s not all bad news for cable companies since the biggest ones are aggressively pursuing cellular customers. It seems like this is being done to make customers stickier and less likely to churn. But at some point, the cellular business ought to add to the bottom line for the cable companies as they shift from pure cellular resale to carrying more of the cellular traffic on their own spectrum.

All of this obviously has the big cable companies examining their future. We’ve all been wondering how the cable companies would react to this accumulated bad news. We got at least one inkling of their strategy when Charter recently raised the price of standard broadband by $5 per month. It first seemed gutsy to raise prices when subscribers have stopped growing until you realize that the cable companies are not losing customers but have just stopped growing for now. A $5 increase in broadband price means over $1.8 billion in new revenue for Charter. The company would have to start bleeding customers to put a dent in that much new bottom line. I think this tells us that price increases are still on the table – the stock prices will tumble even further without the new bottom line from a price increase.

Interestingly, Charter also announced a new discount program called SpectrumOne, where the company is bundling broadband, a modem, and one line of unlimited mobile for one year. The price is $49.99 per month (for 12 months) with 300 Mbps broadband and $69.99 per month with 500 Mbps broadband. I saw a few articles pointing this out as Charter’s reaction to its lack of growth, but I see this differently. This is a one-year special only, and prices will return to normal at the end of the year. Charter has always had special promotions, and this promotion is not aimed at adding broadband customers – instead, the company is giving away cellular for a year to hook new wireless customers who have been reluctant to trust the cable company for cellular service.

There are several takeaways for ISPs competing against Charter. First, broadband prices will probably continue to rise, giving hope to competitors who follow suit with higher prices. Charter’s real push for a competitive edge is to hook a lot more folks on its cellular service, making it inconvenient for customers to break the bundle. We’ll still have to wait to see if Comcast and the other big cable companies adopt a similar tactic – but it’s one that makes a lot of sense for the bottom line.

The Price for Faster Upload Speeds

I’ve always been impressed by the marketing folks at the big cable companies. They are masters of extracting money from customers willing to pay for better broadband. The latest example comes from Comcast. The company is introducing a new product in the Northeast that offers faster upload speeds – for a price.

Comcast knows that its biggest weakness is upload speeds. The current upload speeds for products with download speeds up to 300 are only at 10 Mbps. The upload speeds for the current 600 Mbps and 800 Mbps products are at 20 Mbps.

Comcast is increasing download speeds across the board for no extra charge – this will catch the Northeast up to much of the rest of the country where speeds have already been increased.  But rather than highlight the deficiency of the technology, Comcast has created a new ‘premium’ product labeled as xFi to bring faster upload speeds. Comcast will charge $25 per month to upgrade the upload speeds to as fast as 100 Mbps.

The following chart shows the download speeds today and the speeds after the automatic speed upgrade. The chart also shows the associated upload speeds – both the current speeds and what will be provided by customers willing to spend an extra $25 per month. Existing gigabit customers won’t see a download speed increase but will be able to buy faster upload speeds for the $25 price.

Download Upload
Current Upgraded Current xFi
50 Mbps 75 Mbps 10 Mbps 75 Mbps
100 Mbps 200 Mbps 10 Mbps 100 Mbps
300 Mbps 400 Mbps 10 Mbps 100 Mbps
600 Mbps 800 Mbps 20 Mbps 100 Mbps
800 Mbps 1 Gbps 20 Mbps 100 Mbps
1.2 Gbps 35 Mbps 100 Mbps
2 Gbps 100 Mbps 200 Mbps

The upgrades in download speeds are supposed to happen over the next few months. The upload upgrades will come at some unspecified time next year.

To make it even more expensive, the xFi upgrade will only be available to customers who are also leasing a Comcast Wi-Fi 6E modem that costs $14 per month. The faster upload speeds won’t work on customer-owned modems. That brings the total cost to get faster upload speeds to $39 extra per month.

For years I’ve been saying that the big cable companies are going to be charging $100 for basic broadband. It looks like Comcast has gotten there sooner than I predicted with this upgrade – at least for customers willing to buy broadband that works.

The Comcast price today for the standalone basic 100 Mbps broadband product is $80. Customers who want to get faster upload speeds with xFi will now be paying $105, plus another $14 for the mandatory modem to get the faster upload – a total of $119. You have to give Comcast credit for being audacious and going for the big price increase all at once. Of course, many Comcast customers get a bundling discount, and new customers get promotional discounts – but with xFi, even those prices are likely to be at $100 or more.

This is just speculation, but I’m guessing that Comcast can’t give everybody faster upload speeds due to network limitations. Rather than admit a network deficiency, the Comcast marketing folks have prettied this up as a premium product. Doling this out only for those willing to spend more will extract the highest new revenues possible without bogging down the network.

One thing that is not being mentioned is that giving some customers faster upload speeds probably means a little slower uploads for everybody else – which will drive even more folks to pony up the extra money.

There is an easy way to get faster upload speeds without paying extra. Many homes in the Northeast can already get symmetrical broadband speeds on Verizon FiOS, and anybody thinking of paying extra to Comcast ought to consider that switch. But for customers in non-FiOS areas, this upgrade is probably the only way to get an upload link that works for a family with multiple broadband users. This new pricing is crying out for new fiber competition. An ISP can build fiber, charge $80 or $90 for symmetrical gigabit, and still bring savings to customers. I always expected that to happen, but not this soon.

It’s likely that Comcast will roll out this product in the rest of the country, and the other Comcast areas have the added burden of paying for data caps. Comcast never put data caps into the Northeast because of Verizon FiOS, but in the rest of the country, any consumers that use more than a terabyte of data in a month pay even more.

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.