The Onslaught of New Content

As if cord cutting isn’t bad enough, online OTT programming is exploding with numerous new options. One has to think that these many options will lure a lot more homes to ditch traditional cable TV.

Disney+. This service is hitting the streets with huge fanfare. It’s priced at $6.99 per month or $5.83 per month with an annual subscription. Disney+ will contain the content provided by Disney, Marvel, Lucasfilm, Pixar, and National Geographic. Disney owns the Star Wars franchise and is planning a lot of new Star Wars content. There will be new content created only for the Disney+ service like a series produced by the Jim Henson Company. Disney also owns most of Hulu and will be offering a bundled package of Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ for $12.99 per month.

Apple TV+. The service launched November 1 with a monthly fee of $4.99. It’s being offered for free to customers that buy an expensive Apple product like an iPhone, iPad, Mac, or Apple TV.  The company has set a goal of having 100 million customers within 3-4 years and will launch in over 100 countries. Apple is also offering new content created just for the service. They have announced partnerships for content from Oprah Winfrey, from Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine production company, and from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin TV. While not yet announced, Wall Street expects Apple to accumulate a library of older content. For now, the service doesn’t work on Amazon Fire and Roku devices, but should in the future.

HBO Max.  This is being offered by AT&T and slated for launch sometime in the spring of 2020. The company is offering this at $14.99 per month, the same price as HBO Now – which is the current online HBO offering that only carries the library of HBO content. Customers subscribing to HBO on a cable system might get the new service for free. The company will likely migrate HBO Plus customers to the new service. HBO Max brings in the vast library of content owned by Warner Media. There will be a curated revolving list of classic movies. They’ve also bought the rights to shows like Friends. The company hopes to have 50 million paying customers by 2025. This is the only online service that doesn’t care if customers buy their prime HBO content online or from a cable company.

Peacock. This is owned by Comcast and is scheduled to launch in April 2020. The service is named for the NBC peacock logo. The service will provide new content including shows from Alec Baldwin and Demi Moore. It will carry the vast library of NBC’s programming. The new offering will also tie into Olympic coverage. For now, Comcast is thinking of giving this free to every Comcast customer and may make it free to everybody.

Quibi. This is a new service created by Jeffery Katzenberg of DreamWorks. It will launch in early 2020 and contains a lot of new content. The unique thing about the service is that it will consist of short-duration content and will only be available on smartphones. The company is working with over 30 partners to create content that is aimed at younger views. The typical content will be 7-10 minutes in length. It’s attracted big names like Steven Spielberg, Kevin Hart, Tyra Banks, and Jennifer Lopez. There are plans for vignettes from traditional series like Punk’d, Varsity Blues, Vikings, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.

Bloomberg. Just to show that all new content isn’t entertainment related, Bloomberg is also planning a new online offering. It will be subscription-based and will offer all of Bloomberg’s current business content plus new content. For example, there are plans for a series, Moon Shot that looks at major scientific breakthroughs. Accelerate will look at test-driving cars of the future. Prognosis will look at cutting edge medicine.

The question faced by customers of traditional cable TV is if they want to continue to pay the big monthly bills for traditional TV and also subscribe to some of this new content. There are a lot of households that are going to want to watch the Disney catalog of programming or see the new content on Apple TV+ or HBO Max. It seems likely that this flood of new content is going to convince more homes to cut the cord.

Is OTT Service Effective Competition for Cable TV?

The FCC made an interesting ruling recently that signals the end of regulation of basic cable TV. Charter Communications had petitioned the FCC for properties in Massachusetts claiming that the properties have ‘effective competition’ for cable TV due to competition from OTT providers – in this case, due to AT&T DirecTV Now, a service that offers a full range of local and traditional cable channels.

The term effective communications is a very specific regulatory term and once a market reaches that status a cable company can change rates at will for basic cable. – the tiers that include local network stations.

The FCC agreed with Charter and said that the markets are competitive and granted Charter the deregulated status. This designation in the past has been granted in markets that have a high concentration of satellite TV or else that have a lot of alternative TV offered by a fiber or DSL overbuilder that has gained a significant share of the market.

In making this ruling the FCC effectively deregulated cable everywhere since there is no market today that doesn’t have a substantial amount of OTT content competing with cable companies. Cable providers will still have to go through the process of asking to deregulate specific markets, but it’s hard to think that after this ruling that the FCC can say no to any other petition.

From a regulatory perspective, this is probably the right ruling. Traditional cable is getting clobbered and it looks like the industry as a whole might lose 5-6 full percentage of market share this year and end up under a 65% national penetration rate. While we are in only the third year where cord cutting became a measurable trend, the cable industry customer losses are nearly identical to the market losses for landline telephone at the peak of that market decline.

There are two consequences for consumers in a market that is declared to be effectively competitive. First, it frees cable companies from the last vestiges of basic cable rate regulation. This is not a huge benefit because cable companies have been free for years to raise rates in higher tiers of service. In a competitive market, a cable provider is also no longer required to carry local network channels in the basic tier – although very few cable systems have elected this option.

I’ve seen several articles discussing this ruling that assume that this will result in an instant rate increase in these markets – and they might be right. It’s a headscratcher watching cable companies raising rates lately when higher rates are driving households to become cord cutters. But cable executives don’t seem to be able to resist the ability to raise rates, and each time they do, the overall revenue of a cable system increases locally, even with customer defections.

It’s possible that this ruling represents nothing more than the current FCC’s desire to deregulate as many things as possible. One interesting aspect of this ruling is that the FCC has never declared OTT services like SlingTV or DirecTV Now to be MVDPs (multichannel video program distributors) – a ruling that would pull these services into the cable TV regulatory regime. From a purely regulatory viewpoint, it’s hard to see how a non-MVDP service can meet the technical requirements of effective competition. However, from a practical perspective, it’s not hard to perceive the competition.

Interestingly, customers are not leaving traditional cable TV and flocking to the OTT services that emulate regular cable TV service. Those services have recently grown to become expensive and most households seem to be happy cobbling together packages of content from OTT providers like Netflix and Amazon Prime that don’t carry a full range of traditional channels. From that market perspective, one has to wonder how much of a competitor DirecTV Now was in the specific markets, or even how Charter was able to quantify the level of competition from a specific OTT service.

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.

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?

How Smart are Promotional Rates?

I think the big ISPs are recognizing the impact that special promotion rates have on their bottom line. Promotional pricing is the low rates that cable companies offer to new customers to pry them away from the competition. Over the years promotional rates have also become the tool that cable companies use to retain customers. Most customers understand that they have to call the cable company periodically to renegotiate rates – and the big ISPs have routinely given customers a discount to keep them happy.

We’re finally seeing some changes with this practice. When Charter bought Time Warner Cable they found that Time Warner had over 90,000 ‘special’ pricing plans – they routinely negotiated separately with customers when they bought new service or renegotiated prices. Charter decided to end the practice and told most former Time Warner customers that they had to pay the full price at the end of their current contract period.

We’ve seen the same thing with AT&T and DirecTV. The company decided last year to eliminate the special discount on DirecTV and DirecTV Now. When the discount period ends for those products the company moves rates to the full list price and refuses to renegotiate. The practice cost AT&T almost a million customers just in the first quarter of this year. But AT&T says that they are glad to be rid of customers that are not contributing to the bottom line of the company. I’ve seen where the CEOs or other big ISPs like Comcast have said that they are considering changes in these practices.

At CCG we routinely examine customer bills from incumbent ISPs as part of the market research of helping ISPs entering new markets. While our examination of customer bills has never reached the level of equating to a statistically valid sample, I can report that the vast majority of bills we see have at least some level of discount. In some markets it’s rare to find a customer bill with no discount.

The discounts must accumulate to a huge loss of revenue for the big ISPs. The big ISPs all know that one of the only ways they are going to be profitable in the future is to raise broadband rates every year. The growth of broadband customers overall is slowing nationwide since most homes have broadband, although Charter and Comcast are still enjoying the migration of customers off DSL. The ISPs are continuing to lose revenues and margins as they lose cable and landline voice customers. Most US markets are seeing increased competition in broadband services for businesses and large MDUs. There’s not much left other than to raise residential broadband rates if the big ISPs want to satisfy the revenue growth expected by Wall Street.

If the big ISPs phased out promotional discounts it would probably equate to a 5% to 10% revenue increase. This is something that is becoming easier for a cable company to do. Many of them have already come to grips with cord cutting, and many are no longer fighting to keep cable customers. Cable companies are also less worried over time about customers leaving them to go back to DSL – a choice that is harder for consumers to make as the household need for broadband continues to climb.

Most ISPs won’t make a loud splash about killing discounts but will just quietly change policies. After a few years, I would expect customer expectations will reset after they realize that they can no longer extract discounts by threatening to drop service.

I’ve always advised my fiber overbuilder customers to not play this game. I ask clients if they really want to fight hard to win that slice of the market of customers that will change ISPs for a discount. Such customers flop back and forth between ISPs every two years, and in my opinion, companies are better off without such customers. Churn is expensive, and it’s even more expensive if an ISP provides a substantial discount to stop a customer from churning. Not all of my client agree with this philosophy, but if the big ISPs stop providing promotional discounts, then over time the need to do this for competitors will lessen.

This is certainly a practice I’d love to see slip into history. I’ve never liked it as a customer because I despise the idea of having to play the game of renegotiating with an ISP every few years. I’ve also hated this as a consultant. Too many times I’ve seen clients give away a huge amount of margin through these practices, giving away revenue that is needed to meet their forecasts and budgets. It’s dangerous to let marketing folks determine the bottom line because they’ve never met a discount they don’t like – particularly if they can make a bonus for selling or retaining customers.

The End of the Bundle?

There are a few signs in the industry that we are edging away from the traditional triple play bundle or telephone, cable TV and broadband. The bundle was instrumental in the cable company’s success. Back in the day when DSL and cable modems had essentially the same download speed the cable companies introduced bundles to entice customers to use their broadband. The lure of getting a discount for cable TV due to buying broadband was attractive and gave the cable companies an edge in the broadband marketing battle.

Over time the cable companies became secure in their market share and they created mandatory bundles, meaning they would not sell standalone broadband. Over time this spit the broadband market in cities – the cable company got customers who could afford bundles and the telco with DSL got everybody else. Many of the cable companies became so smug about their bundles that they forced customers to buy cable TV just to get their broadband. I’ve noticed over the last year that most of the mandatory bundles have died.

The bundle lost a little luster when the Julia Laulis, the CEO of CableOne, told her investors in February on the 4Q 2018 earnings call that the company no longer cares about the bundle. She said what I’m sure that many other cable companies are discussing internally, which is that the bundle doesn’t have any impact in attracting customers to buy broadband. On that call she said, “We don’t see bundling as the savior for churn. I know that we don’t put time and resources into pretty much anything having to do with video because of what it nets us and our shareholders in the long run. We pivoted to a data-centric model over five, six years ago, and we’ve seen nothing to derail us from that path.”

Her announcement raises two important issues that probably spell the eventual end of bundling. First, there is no real margin on cable TV. The fully loaded cost of the product has increased to the point where the bottom line of the company is not improved by selling cable. The only two big cable providers who might see some margin from cable TV are Comcast and AT&T since they own some of the programming but for everybody else the margins on cable TV have shrunk to nothing, or might even be negative.

I’ve had a number of clients take a stab at calculating the true cost of providing cable TV. The obvious big cost of the product is the programming fees. But my clients tell me that a huge percentage of their operational costs come from cable TV. They say most of the calls to customer service are about picture quality. They say that they do far more truck rolls due to cable issues than for any other product. By the time you account for those extra costs it’s likely that cable TV is a net loser for most small ISPs – as it obviously is for CableOne, the seventh largest cable company.

The other issue is cable rates. High programming rates keep forcing cable providers to raise the price of the TV product every year. We know that high cable prices are the number one issue cited by cord cutters. Perhaps more importantly, it’s the number one issue driving customer dissatisfaction with the cable company.

I have to wonder how many other big cable companies have come to the same conclusion but just aren’t talking about it. Interestingly, one of the metrics used by analysts to track the cable industry is average revenue per user (ARPU). If cable companies bail on the bundle and lose cable customers their ARPU will drop – yet margins might stay the same or even get a little better. If there is a new deemphasis on bundles and cable TV subscription the industry will need to drop the ARPU comparison.

It’s not going to be easy for a big cable company to back out of the cable TV business. Today there is still a penalty for customers who drop a bundle – dropping cable TV raises the price for the remaining products. We’ll know that the cable companies are serious about deemphasizing cable TV when that penalty disappears.

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.

Forecasting the Future of Video

I recently saw several interesting forecasts about the cable industry. The research firm SNL Kagan predicts that broadband-only homes in the US – those that don’t subscribe to traditional linear cable TV – will increase from 23.3 million in 2018 to 40.8 million by 2023. In another forecast Parks Associates predicts that the number of worldwide OTT subscribers – households that subscribe to at least one online video service – will grow to 310 million by 2024.

These kinds of forecasts have always intrigued me. I doubt that there is anybody in the industry that doesn’t think that cord cutting won’t keep growing or that the market for services like Netflix won’t keep growing. What I find most interesting about these total-market forecasts is the specificity of the predictions, such as when Kagan predicts the 40.8 million number of broadband-only homes. I suspect if we did deeper into what Kagan says that they have probably predicted a range of possible future outcomes and were not that specific. But I also understand that sometimes putting a number on things is the best way to make a point in a press release.

What I’ve always found interesting about future predictions is how hard it is to predict where a whole industry is going. If I look back ten years I could find a dozen experts predicting the death of traditional landline telephones, and yet not one of them would have believed that by 2019 that landline penetration rates would still be around 40%. I imagine every one of them would have bet against that possibility. It’s easy to understand the trajectory of an industry, but it’s another thing to predict specifically where an industry will land in the future. It wasn’t hard ten years ago to predict the trajectory of the landline business, but it was nearly impossible to know how many landlines would still be around after ten years.

That doesn’t mean that somebody doesn’t have to try to make these predictions. There are huge dollars riding on the future of every telecom industry segment. Companies that invest in these industries want outside opinions on the direction of an industry. If I was developing a new OTT product like Apple is doing, I’d want some feel for the potential of my new investment. I’d want to gather as many different predictions about the future of the OTT market as possible. The above two predictions were announced publicly, but corporations regularly pay for private market assessments that never see the light of day.

To show how hard it is to make such predictions, I want to look a little more closely at the Kagan prediction. They are predicting that in five years there will be 17.5 million more homes that buy broadband and don’t buy a traditional TV product. There a number of factors and trends that would feed into that number:

  • It looks like first-time households of millennials and generation Z don’t subscribe to cable TV at nearly the same levels as their parents. Some portion of the increase in broadband-only homes will come from these new households.
  • While final numbers are still not in for 2018 it appears that there will be around 2 million homes that cut the cord last year and dropped cable TV. Is the future pace of cord cutting going to be faster, slow or stay the same? Obviously, predicting the future of cord cutting is a huge piece of the prediction.
  • It’s becoming a lot more complicated for a household to replace traditional cable. It looks like every major owner of content wants to put their unique content into a separate OTT service like CBS All Access did with the Star Trek franchise. The cost of subscribing to multiple OTT services is already getting expensive and is likely to get even costlier over time. Surveys have shown that households cut the cord to save money, so how will cord cutting be impacted if there are no savings from cutting the cord?
  • The big cable companies are creating new video products aimed at keeping subscribers. For instance, Comcast is bundling in Netflix and other OTT products and is also rolling out smaller and cheaper bundles of traditional programming. They are also allowing customers to view the content on any device, so buying a small bundle from Comcast doesn’t feel much different to the consumer than buying Sling TV. What impact will these countermeasures from the cable companies have on cord cutting?

I’m sure there are other factors that go into predicting the number of future homes without traditional cable TV and these few popped into my mind. I know that companies like Kagan and Parks have detailed current statistics on the industry that are not available to most of us. But statistics only take you so far, and anybody looking out past the end of 2019 is entering crystal ball territory. Five years is forever in a market that is as dynamic as cable TV and OTT content.

We aso know from past experience that there will be big changes in these industries that will change the paridigm. For example, the content owners might all decide that there is no profit in the OTT market and could kill their own OTT products and cause an OTT market contraction. Or a new entrant like Apple might become a major new competitor for Netflix and the demand for OTT services might explode even faster than expected. I don’t know how any prediction can anticipate big market events that might disrupt the whole industry.

Understand that I am not busting on these two predictions – I don’t know enough to have the slightest idea if these predictions are good are bad. These companies are paid to make their best guess and I’m glad that there are firms that do that. For example, Cisco has been making predictions annually for many years about the trajectory of broadband usage and that information is a valuable piece of the puzzle for a network engineer designing a new network. However, predicting how all of the different trends that affect video subscriptions over five years sounds like an unsolvable puzzle. Maybe if I’m still writing this blog five years from now I can check to see how these predictions fared.  One thing I know is that I’m not ready to take any five-year forecast of the cable industry to the bank.

The End of Satellite TV?

DirecTV launched their most recent satellite in May of 2015. The company has launched 16 satellites in its history, and with twelve remaining in service is the largest commercial satellite company in the world. AT&T, the owner of DirecTV announced at the end of last year that there would be no more future satellite launches. Satellites don’t last forever, and that announcement marks the beginning of the death of DirecTV. The satellites launched before 2000 are now defunct and the satellites launch after that will start going dark over time.

AT&T is instead going to concentrate of terrestrial cable service delivered over the web. They are now pushing customers to subscribe to DirecTV Now or WatchTV rather than the satellite service. We’ve already seen evidence of this shift and DirecTV was down to 19.6 million customers, having lost a net of 883,000 customers for the first three quarters of 2018. The other satellite company, Dish Networks lost 744,000 customers in the same 9-month period.

DirecTV is still the second largest cable provider, now 2.5 million customers smaller than Comcast, but 3 million customers larger than Charter. It can lose a few million customers per year and still remain as a major cable provider for a long time.

In much of rural America, the two satellite companies are the only TV option for millions of customers. Households without good broadband don’t have the option of going online. I was at a meeting with rural folks last week who were describing their painful attempts to stream even a single SD-quality stream over Netflix.

For many years the satellite providers competed on price and were able to keep prices low since they didn’t have to maintain a landline network and the associated technician fleet. However, both satellite providers looked to have abandoned that philosophy. DirecTV just announced rate increase that range from $3 to $8 per month for various packages. They also raised the price for regional sports networks by $1. Dish just announced rate increases that average $6 per month for its packages. These are the two largest rate increases in the history of these companies and will shrink the difference between satellite and terrestrial cable prices.

These rate increases will make it easier for rural cable providers to compete. Many of them have tried to keep rates within a reasonable range of the satellite providers, and these rate increases will shrink the differences in rates.

In the long run the consequences of not having the satellite option will create even more change in a fast-changing industry. For years the satellite companies have been the biggest competitor of the big cable companies – and they don’t just serve in rural America. I recently did a survey in a community of 20,000 where almost half of the households use satellite TV. As the satellite companies drop subscribers, some of them will revert to traditional cable providers. The recent price increases ought to accelerate that shift.

Nobody has a crystal ball for the cable industry. Just a year ago it seemed like industry-wide consensus that we were going to see a rapid acceleration of cord cutting. While cord cutting gets a lot of headlines, it hasn’t yet grown to nearly the same magnitude of change that we saw with households dropping telephone landlines. Surprisingly, even after nearly a decade of landline losses there are still around 40% of homes with a landline. Will we see the same thing with traditional cable TV, or will the providers push customers online?

Recently I’ve seen a spate of articles talking about how it’s becoming as expensive to buy online programming as it is to stick with cable companies, and if this becomes the public perception, we might see a slowdown in the pace of cord cutting. It’s possible that traditional cable will be around for a long time. The satellite cable companies lost money for many years, mostly due to low prices. It’s possible that after a few more big rate increases that these companies might become profitable and reconsider their future.

Remember the Dumb Pipe?

I recently read an article that warned that the big ISPS need to embrace artificial intelligence, software defined networks and cloud infrastructure if they don’t want to become a ‘dumb pipe’ provider. It reminded me that the small ISP industry heard this same warning a decade ago. Small telcos and cable companies were all warned by numerous industry experts that they were fated to just become dumb pipes.

After a couple of years the dumb pipe phrase passed out of our conversations, but the issues that led to that warning were all still in play. Even a decade ago we knew that services other than broadband had a dim long-term future.

A decade ago we saw landline penetrations dip below 90% from a high of around 98%. There were dire warnings everywhere that voice would soon be dead and that voice margins would evaporate. Since then we’ve seen a steady market decline of about 5% of total market share annually, but that means that even after a decade that landlines still have a nationwide penetration rate of about 40%. The decline hasn’t been spread evenly and I have clients with voice penetration rates ranging between 20% and 55%.

We also knew a decade ago that cable TV was going to be in trouble. Netflix had just gone online with pay-per-view movies in 2007, but nobody understood then how powerful online video would become. The real concern then was that small video providers were already seeing annual programming rate increases that neared double-digits and everybody feared that the public would not tolerate large annual rate increases forever. For most small providers this was the first time they had ever had to annually raise rates for a product and nobody was comfortable. But the lure of programming is strong, and even after a decade of rate increases that have easily doubled cable TV prices the national penetration rate is around 68% for traditional cable TV – not drastically below the 75% penetration of a decade ago. It turns out that the public still likes the programming more than they hate the rate increases.

The real fear of becoming a dumb pipe a decade ago was that small ISPs would have to survive on nothing but broadband revenues. A decade ago small ISPs had broadband penetration rates in the 40% to 50% range and when they did the math they didn’t foresee that as enough revenue to replace the shrinking landline and video revenues. Many small telcos were so sure about the downfall of the small ISP industry that of them sold their businesses, fearing they’d never see a higher valuation.

However, since then we’ve seen broadband penetration rates continue to grow and roughly 84% of homes nationwide now pay for a broadband connection. Rising broadband penetration rates settled the fears of many small ISPs who are still in business.

Interestingly, many small ISPs have not raised broadband rates since a decade ago. It’s been hard to justify raising rates when the big ISPs also didn’t raise rates. Urban broadband that was overpriced a decade ago looks like more of a bargain after a decade of steady rates.

The good news for small ISPs is that the big ISPs are now poised to significantly raise broadband rates. In November we just saw Charter raise the broadband price for bundled customers by $5 per month – an increase that is unprecedented in the industry. Wall street analysts are telling the big cable companies that the market can bear broadband rates as high as $90, and they seem to be listening. As the big ISPs raise broadband rates, small ISPs will be able to ride the coattails and edge rates higher – knowing that for them that rate increases will go straight to the bottom line.

I don’t see any small ISPs who are worried about becoming the dumb pipe – because most of them are already there. If they still offer cable TV, they do so for customer convenience because the product has no margin. Small ISPs continue to lose landline customers, but they now understand that they can survive on broadband and related products like managed WiFi.

The main issue facing small ISPs these days is economy of scale. It’s clear that when broadband represents most of the margin of an ISP that profits come by controlling costs. The best way to control costs is not by tightening the belt, but by gaining customers to better spread existing costs. I see many small ISPs doing the math and aggressively pursuing new broadband customers. Far from fearing being a dumb pope provider, I see small ISPs enthusiastically embracing that role and growing their customers and their margins.