What’s the Future for CenturyLink?

I don’t know how many of you watch industry stock prices. I’m certainly not a stock analyst, but I’ve always tracked the stock prices of the big ISPs as another way to try to understand the industry. The stock prices for big ISPs are hard to compare because every big ISP operates multiple lines of business these days. AT&T and Verizon are judged more as cellular companies than as ISPs. AT&T and Comcast stock prices reflect that both are major media companies.

With that said, the stock price for CenturyLink has performed far worse than other big ISPs over the last year. A year ago a share of CenturyLink stock was at $19.24. By the end of the year the stock price was down to $15.44. As I wrote this blog the price was down to $10.89. That’s a 43% drop in share price over the last year and a 30% drop since the first of the year. For comparison, following are the stock prices of the other big ISPs and also trends in broadband customers:

Stock Price 1 Year Ago Stock Price Now % Change 2018 Change in Broadband Customers
CenturyLink $19.24 $10.89 -43.4% -262,000
Comcast $32.14 $43.15 34.3% 1,353,000
Charter $272.84 $377.89 38.5% 1,271,000
AT&T $32.19 $30.62 -4.9% -18,000
Verizon $48.49 $56.91 17.4% 2,000

As a point of comparison to the overall market, the Dow Jones Industrial average was up 4% over this same 1-year period. The above chart is not trying to make a correlation between stock prices and broadband customers since that is just one of dozens of factors that affect the performance of these companies.

Again, I’ve never fully understood how Wall Street values any given company. In reading analyst reports on CenturyLink it seems that the primary reason for the drop in stock price is that all of the company’s business units are trending downward. In the recently released 1Q 2019 results the company showed a year-over-year drop in results for the international, enterprise, small and medium business, wholesale, and consumer business units. It seems that analysts had hoped that the merger with Level 3 would reverse some of the downward trends. Stock prices also dropped when the company surprised the market by cutting its dividend payment in half in February.

CenturyLink faces the same trends as all big ISPs – traditional business lines like landline telephone and cable TV are in decline. Perhaps the most important trend affecting the company is the continued migration of broadband customers from copper-based DSL to cable company broadband. CenturyLink is not replacing the DSL broadband customers it’s losing. In 2018 CenturyLink lost a lot of broadband customers with speeds under 20 Mbps, but had a net gain of customers using more than 20 Mbps. CenturyLink undertook a big fiber-to-the-home expansion in 2017 and built fiber to pass 900,000 homes and businesses – but currently almost all expansion of last-mile networks is on hold.

It’s interesting to compare CenturyLink as an ISP with the big cable companies. The obvious big difference is the trend in broadband customers and revenues. Where CenturyLink lost 262,000 broadband customers in 2018, the two biggest cable companies each added more than a million new broadband customers for the year. CenturyLink and other telcos are losing the battle of DSL versus cable modems with customers migrating to cable companies as they seek faster speeds.

It’s also interesting to compare CenturyLink to the other big telcos. From the perspective of being an ISP, AT&T and Verizon are hanging on to total broadband customers. Both companies are also losing the DSL battle with the cable companies, but each is adding fiber customers to compensate for those losses. Both big telcos are building a lot of new fiber, mostly to provide direct connectivity to their own cell sites, but secondarily to then take advantage of other fiber opportunities around each fiber node.

Verizon has converted over a hundred telephone exchanges in the northeast to fiber-only and is getting out of the copper business in urban areas. Verizon has been quietly filling in its FiOS fiber network to cover the copper it’s abandoning. While nobody knows yet if it’s real, Verizon also has been declaring big plans to to expand into new broadband markets markets using 5G wireless loops.

AT&T was late to the fiber game but has been quietly yet steadily adding residential and business fiber customers over the last few years. They have adopted a strategy of chasing pockets of customers anywhere they own fiber.

CenturyLink had started down the path to replace DSL customers when they built a lot of fiber-to-the-home in 2017. Continuing with fiber construction would have positioned the company to take back a lot of the broadband market in the many large cities it serves. It’s clear that the new CenturyLink CEO doesn’t like the slow returns from investing in last-mile infrastructure and it appears that any hopes to grow the telco part of the business are off the table.

Everything I read says that CenturyLink is facing a corporate crisis. Diving stock prices always put strain on a company. CenturyLink faces more pressure since the activist investors group Southeastern Asset Management holds more than a 6% stake in CenturyLink and made an SEC filing that that the company’s fiber assets are undervalued.

The company has underperformed compared to its peers ever since it was spun off from AT&T as US West. The company then had what turned out to be a disastrous merger with Qwest. There was hope a few years back that the merger with CenturyLink would help to right the company. Most recently has been the merger with Level 3, and at least for now that’s not made a big difference. It’s been reported that CenturyLink has hired advisors to consider if they should sell or spin off the telco business unit. That analysis has just begun, but it won’t be surprising to hear about a major restructuring of the company.

Broadband Statistics 4Q 2018

The Leichtman Research Group has published the statistics of broadband subscribers for the largest ISPs for the year ending December 31, 2018. Following compares the end of 2018 to the end of 2017.

 4Q 2018 4Q 2017 Change
Comcast 27,222,000 25,869,000 1,353,000 5.2%
Charter 25,259,000 23,988,000 1,271,000 5.3%
AT&T 15,701,000 15,719,000 (18,000) -0.1%
Verizon 6,961,000 6,959,000  2,000 0.0%
CenturyLink 5,400,000 5,662,000 (262,000) -4.6%
Cox 5,060,000 4,960,000 100,000 2.0%
Altice 4,118,100 4,046,000 71,900 1.8%
Frontier 3,735,000 3,938,000 (203,000) -5.2%
Mediacom 1,260,000 1,209,000 55,000 4.5%
Windstream 1,015,000 1,006,600 8,400 0.8%
Consolidated 778,970 780,794 (1,824) -0.2%
WOW! 759,600 732,700 26,900 3.7%
Cable ONE 663,074 643,153 19,921 3.1%
Cincinnati Bell 311,000 308,700 2,300 0.7%
98,247,744 95,822,147 2,425,597 2.5%

The large ISPs in the table control over 95% of the broadband market in the country. Not included in these numbers are the broadband customers served by the smaller ISPs – the telcos, WISPs, fiber overbuilders and municipalities.

The biggest cable companies continue to dominate the broadband market and now have 64.3 million customers compared to 33.9 million customers for the big telcos. During 2018 the big cable companies collectively added 2.9 million customers while the big telcos collectively lost 472,000 customers.

What is perhaps most astounding is that Comcast and Charter added 2.6 million customers for the year while the total broadband market for the biggest ISPs grew by only 2.5 million. For years it’s been obvious that the big cable companies are approaching monopoly status in metropolitan areas and these statistics demonstrate how Comcast and Charter, in particular, have a stranglehold over competition in their markets.

CenturyLink and Frontier are continuing to bleed DSL customers. Together the two companies lost 465,000 broadband customers in 2018, up from a loss for the two of 343,000 in 2017.

It’s always hard to understand all of the market forces behind these changes. For example, all of the big cable companies are seeing at least some competition from fiber overbuilders in some of their markets. It would be interesting to know how many customers each is losing to fiber competition.

I’d also love to know more about how the big companies are faring in different markets. I suspect that the trends for urban areas are significantly different than in smaller markets. I know that deep data analysis of the FCC’s 477 data might tell that story. (hint, hint in case anybody out there wants to do that analysis!)

I’m also curious if the cable companies are seeing enough bottom-line improvement to justify the expensive upgrades to DOCSIS 3.1. Aside from Comcast and Charter I wonder how companies like Cox, Mediacom and Cable ONE justify the upgrade costs. While those companies are seeing modest growth in broadband customers, each is also losing cable customers, and I’d love to understand if the upgrades are cost-justified.

If there is any one takeaway from these statistics it’s that we still haven’t reached the top of the broadband market. I see articles from time to time that predict that younger households are going to bail on landline broadband in favor of cellular broadband. But seeing that over 2.4 million households added broadband in the last year seems to be telling a different story.

Comcast the ISP

Occasionally I see a statistic that really surprises me. I just read a quote from Dave Watson, the President of Comcast Cable where he told investors that Comcast has an overall 47% broadband market penetration rate, meaning that 47% of the households in their footprint buy broadband from Comcast. I would have guessed that their market penetration rate was higher. He did say that they have markets where they exceed a 60% market share.

There are a few reasons why their overall market share isn’t higher. For one thing, the company overlaps a lot of the same big markets where Verizon competes with fiber-based FiOS. The company also competes with fiber overbuilders like US Internet in Minneapolis and Sonic in the Bay Area that are chipping away at broadband customers. The company is also competing against a few municipal fiber overbuilders like in Chattanooga where the city-based fiber ISP has won the lion’s share of the market. It’s clear that fiber is a formidable competitor for any cable company.

Comcast also faces significant competition in the MDU market where there are numerous companies vying to serve large apartment buildings and complexes. For example, a big percentage of AT&T’s fiber expansion goal to pass 12 potential customers has been achieved through building fiber to large MDUs all around the country. There are also a number of successful ISPs that compete nationwide in the large MDU market.

Comcast, like all of the big cable companies, was a latecomer in competing for the business market. Historically the cable companies didn’t build their network in business districts and the telcos and CLECs gained early control of this market. Comcast and other cable companies now compete vigorously in the business market, but this is the one market segment that is competitive almost everywhere.

It is clear that Comcast is winning the battle against DSL. Comcast added 1.35 million broadband customers in 2018, while the telcos collectively lost nearly half a million customers.

I believe that the secret to the recent Comcast success is from offering faster broadband speeds. The company has upgraded to DOCSIS 3.1 and now offers gigabit broadband speeds. More importantly, the company has unilaterally increased speeds across-the-board several times to give them a significant speed advantage over DSL. The most recent speed increase last year increased base product speeds to 200 Mbps. It’s now an easy marketing advantage for the company to contrast this with the top DSL speed of 50 Mbps. Comcast is betting that speed wins and looking at the trend of their customers versus the telcos they seem to be right.

Comcast is also benefitting from the fact that many homes now find themselves bumping against the speed limits on slower products. Many homes that use multiple devices simultaneously are starting to find that a broadband speed of even 50 Mbps isn’t adequate for the way they want to use broadband. We are finally reaching the point where even the best DSL is becoming obsolete for many families. This trend is certainly accelerating and we saw 3.5 million new cord-cutting households last year who now watch all video online.

Even knowing all of the above market trends I was still surprised by the 47% market share. My firm does broadband surveys and we’ve never seen a Comcast or Charter market share below 60% in the markets we’ve studied. Of course, our experience is biased by the fact that we are only studying markets where somebody is thinking about building fiber, and there are undoubtedly Comcast markets that are considerably higher or lower than the 47% average market share.

I expect the Comcast market share to keep climbing. I think they have now won the war with DSL and in those markets where they aren’t facing a fiber competitor they will continue to pick up customers who realize they need more speed. As the household demand for broadband continues to double every three years, the migration from DSL to cable broadband is likely to accelerate.

I think it’s likely that telcos with copper networks are starting to lose steam. As the telcos keep losing DSL customers one has to wonder how much money the telcos will spend on advertising to support a sinking market. Just like I’m always surprised when I find out that there are still a few million dial-up customers remaining across the country, I think we have reached the tipping point on DSL, and DSL will start to be considered as a dead and dying technology. It might take another decade for DSL to finally die, but that slow death is finally underway.

Cord Cutting is For Real

It’s obvious in looking at the performance of cable companies in 2018 that cord cutting is now for real. The fourth quarter count of cable customers for the largest providers was recently reported by the Leichtman Research Group. These companies represent roughly 95% of the national cable market.

4Q 2018 4Q 2017 Change
Comcast 21,986,000 22,357,000 (371,000) -1.7%
DirecTV 19,222,000 20,458,000 (1,236,000) -6.0%
Charter 16,606,000 16,850,000 (244,000) -1.4%
Dish 9,905,000 11,030,000 (1,125,000) -10.2%
Verizon 4,451,000 4,619,000 (168,000) -3.6%
Cox 4,015,000 4,130,000 (115,000) -2.8%
AT&T 3,704,000 3,657,000 47,000  1.3%
Altice 3,307,500 3,405,500 (98,000) -2.9%
Frontier 838,000    961,000 (123,000) -12.8%
Mediacom 776,000    821,000 (45,000) -5.5%
Cable ONE 326,423    363,888 (37,465) -10.3%
  Total 85,136,923 88,652,388 (3,515,465) -4.0%

I’m thinking back to 2017 when most analysts were predicting perhaps a 2% drop in 2018 in total market share due to cord cutting. Since 2018 is only the second year with real evidence of cord cutting, the 4% loss of total market share demonstrates big changes in customer sentiment.

The big losers are the satellite companies which lost 2,361,000 customers in 2018. These losses are offset a little bit since the satellite companies also have the largest online video services. Dish’s Sling TV added 205,000 customers in 2018 and AT&T’s DirecTV Now added 436,000 – but the net customer loss for these companies is still 1.7 million for the year.

In 2018 Comcast and Charter didn’t fare as poorly as the rest of the industry. However, their smaller loss of cable customers is probably due to the fact that both companies saw more than 5% growth of new broadband customers (2.6 million in total) in 2018, and those new customers undoubtedly are shielding cord cutting losses by older subscribers.

It’s still too early to make any real predictions about the future trajectory for cord cutting. We know that price is a large factor in cord cutting and cable providers are still facing huge price increases in buying programming. That will continue to drive cable prices higher. The big cable companies have done their best to disguise recent price increases by shoving rate increases into local programming or sports programming ‘fees’. However, the public is catching onto that scheme and also can still see that their overall monthly payments are increasing.

It’s starting to look like online programming might cost as much as traditional cable TV. For the last few years there have been alternatives like DirecTV Now, Playstation Vue and Sling TV that have offered the most-watched networks for bargain prices. But the recent big rate increase from DirecTV Now is probably signaling that the days of subsidized online programming are over.

Further, the online programming world continues to splinter as each owner of programming rolls out their own online products. The cost of replacing what people most want to watch online might soon be higher even than traditional cable TV if it requires separate subscriptions to Disney, CBS, NBC and the many other new standalone packages that a cord cutter must cobble together. A family that really wants to save money on TV has to settle for some subset of the online alternatives, and the big question will be if households are willing to do that.

But at least for now it looks like cord cutting is roaring ahead. The average loss of traditional cable customers in 2018 is almost 300,000 per month, and the rate of loss is accelerating. At least for now, the industry is seeing a rout, and that has to be scaring boards rooms everywhere.

ISPs Are Violating the Old Net Neutrality Rules

It’s been just over a year since the FCC repealed net neutrality. The FCC’s case is being appealed and oral arguments are underway in the appeal as I write this blog. One would have to assume that until that appeal is finished that the big ISPs will be on their best behavior. Even so, the press has covered a number of ISP actions during the last year that would have violated net neutrality if the old rules were still in place.

It’s not surprising that the cellular carriers were the first ones to violate the old net neutrality rules. This is the most competitive part of the industry and the cellular carriers are not going to miss any opportunity to gain a marketing edge.

AT&T is openly advertising that cellular customers can stream the company’s DirecTV Now product without it counting against monthly data caps. Meanwhile, all of the competing video services like Sling TV, Paystation Vue, YouTube TV, Netflix or Amazon Prime count against AT&T data caps – and video can quickly kill a monthly data plan download allotment. AT&T’s behavior is almost a pure textbook example of why net neutrality rules were put into place – to stop ISPs from putting competitor’s products at an automatic disadvantage. AT&T is the biggest cellular provider in the country and this creates a huge advantage for DirecTV Now. All of the major cellular carriers are doing something similar in allowing some video to not count against the monthly data cap, but AT&T is the only one pushing their own video product.

In November a large study of 100,000 cellphone users by Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts showed that Sprint was throttling Skype. This is not something that the carrier announced, but it’s a clear case of pushing web traffic to the ‘Internet slow lane’. We can only speculate why Sprint would do this, but regardless of their motivation this is clearly a violation of net neutrality.

This same study showed numerous incidents where all of the major cellular carriers throttled video services at times. YouTube was the number one target of throttling, followed by Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the NBC Sports app. This throttling wasn’t as widespread as Sprint’s throttling of Skype, but the carriers must have algorithms in their network that throttles specific video traffic when cell sites get busy. In contrast to the big carriers, the smaller independent cellular carrier C.Spire had almost no instances of differentiation among video streams.

Practices that might violate net neutrality were not limited to cellular carriers. For example, Verizon FiOS recently began giving free Netflix for a year to new broadband customers. AT&T also started giving out free HBO to new customers last year. This practice is more subtle than the cellular carrier practice of blocking or throttling content. One of the purposes of net neutrality was for ISPs to not discriminate against web traffic. By giving away free video services the landline broadband companies are promoting specific web services over competitors.

This doesn’t sound harmful, but the discussions in the net neutrality order warned about a future where the biggest ISPs would partner with a handful of big web services like Facebook or Netflix to the detriment of all smaller and start-up web services. A new video service will have a much harder time gaining customers if the biggest ISPs are giving away their competitors for free.

There are probably more bad practices going on that we don’t know about. We wouldn’t have known about the cellular throttling of services without the big study. A lot of discrimination can be done through the network routing practices of the ISPs, which are hard to prove. For example, I’ve been seeing a growing number of complaints from consumers recently who are having trouble with streaming video services. If you recall, net neutrality first gained traction when it became known that the big ISPs like Comcast were blatantly interfering with Netflix streaming. There is nothing today to stop the big ISPs from implementing network practices that degrade certain kinds of traffic. There is also nothing stopping them from demanding payments from web services like Netflix so that their product is delivered cleanly.

Interestingly, most of the big ISPs made a public pledge to not violate the spirit of net neutrality even if the rules were abolished. That seems to be a hollow promise that was to soothe the public that worried about the end if net neutrality. The FCC implemented net neutrality to protect the open Internet. The biggest ISPs have virtual monopolies in most markets and public opinion is rarely going to change an ISP behavior if the ISP decides that the monetary gain is worth the public unhappiness. Broadband customers don’t have a lot of options to change providers and Cable broadband is becoming a near-monopoly in urban areas. There is no way for a consumer to avoid the bad practices of the cellular companies if they all engage in the same bad practices.

There is at least some chance that the courts will overturn the FCC repeal of net neutrality, but that seems unlikely to me. If the ISPs win in court and start blocking traffic and discriminating against web traffic it does seem likely that some future FCC or Congress will reinstitute net neutrality and starts the fight all over again. Regardless of the court’s decision, I think we are a long way from hearing the last about net neutrality.

Why Big ISPs Screw Up

I was recently joking with a colleague about some of the really dumb things that some of the big ISPs do – those things that get negative press or that make customers permanently dislike them. But after thinking about it a bit, it struck me that bad behavior by the big companies is almost inevitable – it’s a challenge for a big company to not behave badly. I can think of a number of reasons for the poor decisions that big ISPs seem to repeatedly make.

Good Intentions but Bad Policies. Some of the ugliest stories in the press from our industry have come from Comcast customer service. Customers have recorded customer service representatives saying some of the most awful things. Comcast executives have often been quoted as saying that they want to do a better job of customer service and the company has thrown big bucks at the issue over the last decade to try to improve.

But Comcast has corporate policies that undo all of their good intentions. Some of the most memorable press stories came from customer service reps who are compensated for stopping customers from disconnecting service or for upselling additional services to customers. Win-back programs and upselling are good for the Comcast bottom line, but they tempt poorly paid customer service reps into saying anything to stop a customer from disconnecting or entice a customer service rep to sneak unwanted products onto a customer’s bill. The bottom line is that policies that promote good behavior go out the window when employees are compensated for bad behavior.

Decentralized Management. I remember reading last year about the big push at Verizon to bring all of their fiber assets under one regime. The company built fiber over the years under a lot of different business units and there has been no centralized fiber inventory. This has to have cost Verizon a fortune over the years with lost revenue opportunities on fiber that already exists. An outsider like me looks at this and wonders why something this common sense wasn’t done fifteen years ago. Unfortunately, the poor communications inside the company is a natural consequence of operating different business units, each in silos. The FiOS folks never knew what the enterprise or the cellular folks were doing, and so the company frittered away the huge synergies that could have been gained by making all fiber available to all business units. We’ve seen attempts at the big ISPs to make the kind of consolidation Verizon is doing, but if they aren’t careful, in time they’ll slip back to the old bad practices.

No Emphasis on Being Good Corporate Citizens. I worked at Southwestern Bell pre-divestiture. There were some negative sides from being a giant monopoly,  but the company also put a lot of effort into instilling the message internally that the company had a nationwide mandate to do a good job. The company constantly extolled its accomplishments to employees and effectively indoctrinated them into being good citizens. I happened to sit close to the person who took ‘executive’ complaints – complaints from customers that had escalated to upper management. The company made a legitimate effort to deal with every problem that made it that high in the company. Employees were rewarded for loyalty and good behavior with lifetime jobs – phone company people were joked to have bell-shaped heads.

Big ISPs no longer promise jobs for life and working at a big ISP today is just a job. I know a mountain of people who currently work for the big ISPs and none of them have that same esprit de corps that was normal at Ma Bell.

Quarterly Profit-Driven. A lot of the problems I see from the big ISPs come from the modern emphasis on quarterly earnings. This emphasis permeates down into the ranks of management at an ISP. For example, a department head might decide to not make a major repair or upgrade if it causes a blip in the department’s budget. The constant drive for quarterly earnings improvements drives ISPs to lay-off needed technicians to meet an earnings goal. It drives companies to raise rates even when they haven’t increased costs. It makes companies chase new shiny ideas like 5G even if the technology is half-baked and premature. Unfortunately, Wall Street matters more than both employees and customers – and it shows.

Comcast’s Quiet Expansion

It’s been conventional wisdom in the industry that cable companies stick to their historic cable system boundaries and don’t really expand much. In much of the country, this is well understood and everybody can point to customers that have lived for decades just a house or two past the end of the coaxial cable network.

However, not all cable companies have stuck with this historic entrenchment. A good case in point is Comcast, which passed 53.8 million homes in 2013 but had grown that to 57.5 million passings by the end of 2017. A few of the new 3.7 million new passings came from the purchase of small cable systems, but most came through the growth of the Comcast network.

Many of the new passings came about as the result of the continued growth of urban America. As a country we’re still seeing rural residents migrate to urban centers – which are growing while rural America is mostly stagnant or even shrinking. Recent years have seen some of the largest ever growth in new housing construction – 1.5 million new living units over the last year – and Comcast gets its share of these opportunities in its franchise areas.

But the company is also expanding outward from its core cable franchise areas where that makes sense. This has mostly been done quietly with a street added here, a small neighborhood added there, and new subdivisions always pursued; Comcast is obviously looking around for growth when it can be done affordably.

The most surprising source of Comcast growth comes from expansion into areas served by other cable companies. Historically there was a gentleman’s agreement in the cable industry to not poach on neighboring franchises, but Comcast is no longer sticking to that industry norm. Over the last few years, Comcast has gotten franchises to operate in communities already served by other cable companies.

In 2017 Comcast got a franchise in Rochester, New Hampshire in an area already served by Atlantic Broadband. In 2018 Comcast got franchises in Waterford and New London, Connecticut in areas also served by Atlantic Broadband. Last year Comcast also got franchises to operate in five communities in Pennsylvania operated by Blue Ridge Cable – Warwick Township, Warwick Borough, Ephrata Township, Ephrata Borough and Lititz.

Incumbent cable companies have rarely competed with each other. One of the few exceptions was Midcontinent that overbuilt CableONE in Fargo, North Dakota in 2013. There are also two overbuilders that have built competing cable networks – RCN and WideOpenWest – but these companies started as overbuilders and were not incumbent providers.

For now, it looks like Comcast might be going after these markets to get lucrative business customers. For instance, New London, Connecticut is the home to two colleges and the Coast Guard Academy. There are some large businesses and medical centers in some of the towns in Pennsylvania. Even if Comcast only goes after large businesses that can be a big blow to the smaller cable companies already serving these markets. When I create business plans I always refer to the revenues from the few biggest customers in a community as ‘home-run’ revenues because just a few customers can make or break a business plan. Comcast will do great harm to its neighbors if they pick off their home-run customers.

Comcast has gotten so large that they probably don’t care any longer about the historic gentleman’s agreements that put a fence around a franchise area. Comcast is under constant pressure to grow revenues and profits and it’s almost inevitable that they’ll chase anything they view as low-hanging fruit. This is one of the characteristics of companies that become virtual monopolies – they almost can’t stop themselves from engaging in business practices that make money. A company as big as Comcast doesn’t make all of the decisions at the corporate level – rather, they give revenue and earnings targets to differrent parts of the company and those business units often decide to chase revenues in ways the parent might not have dictated. In many big corporations it is the bonus structure that often drives local decisions rather than corporate policy.

It will be interesting to see how this might change the nature of cable company cooperation. The cable companies have been incredibly effective in having a unified message across the country in terms of lobbying at the federal, state and local levels – what was good for one was good for all. But that’s no longer the case if Comcast starts competing with smaller neighboring cable companies. We saw this same phenomenon a few decades ago in the telephone industry and the small telcos all started lobbying separately from the big companies. The small and large telcos still sometimes agree on issues, but often they do not. It’s almost inevitable that the unified voice of the cable industry can’t survive competition between cable companies – but I also suspect Comcast doesn’t care about that.

Can Cable Fight 5G?

The big cable companies are clearly worried about 5G. They look at the recently introduced Verizon 5G product and they understand that they are going to see something similar over time in all of their metropolitan markets. Verizon is selling 5G broadband – currently at 300 Mbps second, but promised to get faster in the future – for $70 standalone or for $50 for those with Verizon cellular.

This is the nightmare scenario for them because they have finally grown to the point where they are approaching a near monopoly in most markets. They have successfully competed with DSL and quarter after quarter have been taking DSL customers from the telcos. In possibly the last death knell for DSL, both Comcast and Charter recently increased speeds of their base products to at least 200 Mbps. Those speeds makes it hard for anybody to justify buying DSL at 50 Mbps or slower.

The big cable companies have started to raise broadband rates to take advantage of their near-monopoly situation. Charter just recently raised bundled broadband prices by $5 per month – the biggest broadband price increase I can remember in a decade or more. Last year a major Wall Street analyst advised Comcast that their basic broadband price ought to be $90.

But now comes fixed 5G. It’s possible that Verizon has found a better bundle than the cable companies because of the number of households that already have cellphones. It’s got to be tempting to homes to buy fast broadband for only $50 per month in a bundle.

This fixed 5G competition won’t come over night. Verizon is launching 5G in urban markets where they already have fiber. Nobody knows how fast they will really implement the product, due mostly to distrust of a string of other Verizon hype about 5G. But over time the fixed 5G will hit markets. Assuming Verizon is successful, then others will follow them into the market. I’m already seeing some places where companies American Tower are building 5G ‘hotels’ at poles, which are vaults large enough to accommodate several 5G providers at the same location.

We got a clue recently about how the cable companies might fight back against 5G. A number of big cable companies like Comcast, Charter, Cox and Midco announced that they will be implementing the new 10 Gbps technology upgrade from CableLabs. These cable companies just recently introduced gigabit service using DOCSIS 3.1. It looks like the cable companies will fight against 5G with speed. It sounds like they will advertise speeds far faster than the 5G speeds and try to win the speed war.

But there is a problem with that strategy. Cable systems with the DOCSIS 3.1 upgrade can clearly offer gigabit speeds, but in reality cable company networks aren’t ready or able to deliver that much speed to everybody. Fiber networks can easily deliver a gigabit to every customer, and with an electronics upgrade can offer 10 Gbps to everybody, as is happening in parts of South Korea. But cable networks have an inherent weakness that makes gigabit speed problematical.

Cable networks are still shared networks and all of the customers in a node share the bandwidth. Most cable nodes are still large with 150 – 300 customers in each neighborhood node, and some with many more. If even a few customers start really use gigabit speeds then the speed for everybody else in the node will deteriorate. That’s the issue that caused cable networks to bog done in the evenings a decade ago. Cable companies fixed the problem then by ‘splitting’ the nodes, meaning that they build more fiber to reduce the number of homes in each node. If the cable companies want to really start pushing gigabit broadband, and even faster speeds, then they are faced with that same dilemma again and they will need another round, or even two rounds of node splits.

For now I have serious doubts about whether Comcast and Charter are even serious about their gigabit products. Comcast gigabit today costs $140 plus $10 for the modem. The prices are lower in markets where the company is competing against fiber, and customers can also negotiate contract deals to get the gigabit price closer to $100. Charter has similar pricing – in Oahu where there is competition they offer a gigabit for $105, and their price elsewhere seem to be around $125.

Both of these companies are setting gigabit prices far above Google’s Fiber’s $70 gigabit. The current cable company gigabit is not a serious competitor to Verizon’s $50 – $70 price for 300 Mbps. I have a hard time thinking the cable companies can compete on speed alone – it’s got to be a combination of speed and price. The cable companies can compete well against 5G if they are willing to price a gigabit at the $70 Verizon 5G price and then use their current $100+ price for 10 Gbps. That pricing strategy will cost them a lot of money in node upgrades, but they would be smart to consider it. The biggest cable companies have already admitted that their ultimate network needs to be fiber – but they’ve been hoping to milk the existing coaxial networks for another decade or two. Any work they do today to reduce node size would be one more step towards an eventual all-fiber network – and could help to stave off 5G.

It’s going to be an interesting battle to watch, because if we’ve learned anything in this industry it’s that it’s hard to win customers back after you lose them. The cable companies currently have most of the urban broadband customers and they need to act now to fight 5G – not wait until they have lost 30% of the market.

Minnesota Sues Comcast

Lori Swanson, the Attorney General of Minnesota sued Comcast on December 21 seeking refunds to all customers who were harmed by the company’s alleged violation of the state’s Prevention of Consumer Fraud Act and Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The complaint details the sort of practices that we’ve come to expect from most of the big cable companies – and hopefully this serves as a warning to smaller ISPs that might be following similar practices. It’s an interesting read.

The most significant dollar complaint is that Comcast has defrauded customers about the true nature of two fees – the ‘Regional Sports Network Fee’ and the ‘Broadcast TV’ fee. These two fees now total $18.25 per month. These fees are both a part of every cable package and are not optional to customers, but Comcast does not mention them when advertising the cable products. Further, Comcast customer service has repeatedly told the public that these fees are mandated by the government and are some a tax that is not set by Comcast.

Comcast only started charging separately for these two fees in 2014, but the size of these line items has skyrocketed on bills. In recent years the company has put a lot of the annual rate increases into these fees, allowing the company to continue to advertise low prices. The Regional Sports fee passes along the cost of Fox Sports North, and perhaps other regional sports. The Broadcast TV fee includes the amounts that Comcast pays local affiliate stations for ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC.

Interestingly, Comcast was previously sued over this same issue and settled the case without a verdict. As part of that suit the company promised to fix the problems, but they continued into 2017. In a pleading that is sure to displease company employees, Comcast threw its customer service reps under the bus and blame the issue on them. Comcast argues that breaking out these fees makes it easier for customers to know what they are paying for – but there are numerous examples cited in the complaint where new customers were surprised at the size of the first bill they receive from the company.

The complaint also says that the company often misrepresents the fees for equipment rental such as cable settop boxes, digital adapters and broadband modems. The complaint says that for some packages these fees add 30% to the cost of the product and are not fully disclosed to customers.

The complaint also says that Comcast routinely adds unwanted fees to customer bills. Customers that are visited by Comcast field technicians, who visit a business office or who buy from a Comcast door-to-door salesperson are often surprised to see additional products added to their bill. The complaint blames this on the practice of paying commissions to employees for sales.

The complaint notes that Comcast is well aware of these issues. The company settled an FCC complaint about the same issues in 2016 and late last year made refunds to more than 20,000 customers in Massachusetts over these same issues.

It’s not hard to verify some of the issue. If you go to the Comcast website you’ll find that it’s almost impossible to find the real cost of their cable and broadband products. The company constantly advertises low-priced specials that don’t mention the extra programming fees or the equipment fees.

This is a cautionary tale for smaller ISPs that compete with Comcast or other large cable companies. It’s always tempting to advertise cheap special prices in response to big cable company advertising. I know many smaller cable providers that have also separated out the sports and broadcast fees and who are not always fully forthcoming about equipment charges and other fees. It’s hard to watch customers leave who are lured by falsely advertised low prices – but most small ISPs have elected to deal with customers fairly as a way to differentiate themselves from the big companies.

Telecom Predictions for 2019

It’s that time of year when I look forward at what the next year might bring to the industry. I see the following as the biggest telecom trends for 2019:

5G Will Not Save the World (or the Industry). This will be the year when we will finally stop seeing headlines about how 5G will transform society. There will be almost no actual introduction of 5G in networks, but we’ll still see numerous press releases by the big ISPs crowing about fictional 5G achievements.

CAF II Buildout Nearly Complete, but Few Notice. The CAF II upgrades will not have the impact hoped for by the FCC. Many areas that should have gotten speed increases to at least 10/1 Mbps will get something less, but nobody will officially monitor or note it. Households that buy the upgrades to 10/1 will still feel massively underserved since those speeds are already seriously obsolete.

People Will Wonder Why They Bought 5G Cellphones and 802.11ax Routers. The wireless carriers will begin charging premium prices for 5G-capable cellular phone yet there will be no 5G cell sites deployed. Households will upgrade to 802.11ax WiFi routers without realizing that there are no compatible devices in the home. Both sets of customers will feel cheated since there will be zero improvement in performance. Yet we’ll still see a few articles raving about the performance of each technology.

FCC Will Continue to Work Themselves out of the Regulatory Business. The current FCC will continue on the path to deregulate the large carriers to the fullest extent possible. They will continue to slant every decision in the direction of the big ISPs while claiming that every decision helps rural broadband.

Rural America Will Realize that Nobody is Coming to Help. I predict that hundreds of rural communities will finally realize that nobody is bringing them broadband. I expect many more communities to begin offering money for public/private partnerships as they try desperately to not fall on the wrong side of the broadband divide.

Broadband Prices Start to Climb. 2019 will be the first year that the world will notice the big ISP strategy to significantly increase broadband prices. We saw the first indication in November when Charter increased bundled broadband prices by $5 per month – the biggest broadband price increase in my memory. All the big ISPs are hoping to have broadband prices to $90 within 5 – 7 years.

Corporate Lobbyists Will Drive Policy. In 2018 there were numerous FCC decisions that came straight from the pens of telecom lobbyists. In 2019 those lobbyists will drive state and federal telecom legislation and FCC decisions.

Comcast and Charter Continue to Eat into Cellular Market. These two cable companies will quietly, yet significantly begin eating into the cellular markets in urban areas. I still don’t expect a major reaction by the cellar companies, but by 2020 we should start seeing cellular prices take another tumble.

Household Bandwidth Usage Will Continue to Grow. There will be no slowdown in the growth of household broadband as homes add many more bandwidth-capable devices to their homes. Another few million customers will cut the cable TV cord and ratchet up bandwidth usage. Online programming will routinely first offer 4K video and we’ll see the first commercial 8K video online.

We’ll See First Significant Launches of LEO Satellites. There will be little public notice since the early market entries will not be selling rural broadband but will be supporting corporate WANs, cellular transport and the development of outer space networks between satellites.

25 New Online Programmers Emerge. There will be a flood of new online programming options as numerous companies jump into the market. We won’t see many, and possibly no failures this year, but within a few years the market reality will drive out companies that can’t gain enough market share.

Transport Price Pressure Tightens. Anybody selling transport to cellular companies will see big pressure to lower prices. Those who ignore the pressure will find out that the carriers are willing to build fiber to bypass high costs.

Big Companies Will Get Most New Spectrum. The biggest ISPs and cellular carriers will still gobble up the majority of new spectrum, meaning improved spectrum utilization for urban markets while rural America will see nearly zero benefits.