The Regulatory Struggle to Maintain Copper Networks

The California Public Utilities Commission has been investigating the quality of service performance on the telco networks operated by AT&T and Frontier. The agency hired the consulting firm Economics and Technology, Inc. to investigate numerous consumer complaints made against the two telcos. Thanks go to Steve Blum for following this issue in his blog.

Anybody who still has service on the two carriers will not be surprised by the findings. The full study findings have not yet been released by the CPUC, but the portions that have been made public are mostly what would be expected.

For example, the report shows a correlation between household incomes in neighborhoods and the quality of service. As an example, the average household incomes are higher in neighborhoods where AT&T has replaced copper with fiber. More striking is a correlation between service calls and household income. The annual frequency of repair calls is double for neighborhoods where the average household income is $42,000 per year or less compared to neighborhoods with household incomes of $88,000 or more.

Part of that difference is likely because more high-income neighborhoods have fiber, which has fewer problems and generally requires less maintenance. But there are also hints in the report that this might be due to economic redlining where higher-income neighborhoods get a higher priority from AT&T.

This is not the first time that AT&T has been accused of redlining. I wrote a blog a few years ago about a detailed study made in Dallas, Texas that showed a direct correlation between the technology being delivered and household incomes. That study followed up on a similar report from Cleveland, Ohio, and the same things could likely be said for the older telco networks in almost every big city.

The big telcos are in a rough spot. The older copper networks have largely outlived their economic lives and are full of problems. Over the years copper pairs of wire in the outdoor cables have gone bad and the remaining number of working copper pairs decreases each year. The electronics used to deliver older versions of DSL are long out of production by the telco vendors.

I’m not defending the big telcos, because the telcos caused a lot of their own problems. The telcos have deemphasized copper maintenance for decades. The copper networks would be in bad shape today even had they been maintained perfectly. But purposefully neglected maintenance has hastened the deterioration of copper networks. Additionally, the big telcos have also been laying off copper-based technicians over the last decade and the folks who knew how to best diagnose problems on copper networks are long gone from the companies. Consumers have painfully learned that the most important factor in getting a repair made for DSL or copper is the knowledge of the technician that shows up to investigate an issue.

The California Commission is likely at some point to threaten the big telcos with penalties or sanctions, as been done in the past and also by regulators in other states. But the regulators have little power to effect improvements in the situation. Regulators can’t force the telcos to upgrade to fiber. And no amount of documentation and complaining is going to make the obsolete copper networks function any better. AT&T just announced that on October 1 that it is not longer going to add new customers to the DSL network – that’s likely to really rile the California Commission.

I’m not sure exactly how it will happen, but the day is going to come, likely during the coming decade when telcos will just throw up their hands and declare they are walking away from copper, with zero pretenses that they are going to replace it with something else.  Regulators will rant and rave, but I can’t see any ways that they can stop the inevitable – copper networks at some point won’t work well enough to be worth pretending otherwise.

Cord Cutting Continues in Q2 2020

The largest traditional cable providers collectively lost over 1.5 million customers in the second quarter of 2020 – an overall loss of 2.0% of customers. This is the smaller than the loss in the first quarter of 1.7 million net customers. To put the quarter’s loss into perspective, the big cable providers lost 16,700 cable customers per day throughout the quarter.

The numbers below come from Leichtman Research Group which compiles these numbers from reports made to investors, except for Cox which is estimated. The numbers reported are for the largest cable providers, and Leichtman estimates that these companies represent 95% of all cable customers in the country.

Following is a comparison of the second quarter subscriber numbers compared to the end of the first quarter of 2020:

1Q 2020 2Q 2019 Change % Change
Comcast 20,367,000 20,845,000 (478,000) -2.3%
Charter 16,168,000 16,074,000 94,000 0.6%
DirecTV 14,290,000 15,136,000 (846,000) -5.6%
Dish TV 9,017,000 9,057,000 (40,000) -0.4%
Verizon 4,062,000 4,145,000 (83,000) -2.0%
Cox 3,770,000 3,820,000 (50,000) -1.3%
AT&T U-verse 3,400,000 3,440,000 (40,000) -1.2%
Altice 3,102,900 3,137,500 (34,600) -1.1%
Mediacom 676,000 693,000 (17,000) -2.5%
Frontier 560,000 594,000 (34,000) -5.7%
Atlantic Broadband 311,845 314,645 (2,800) -0.9%
Cable One 290,000 303,000 (13,000) -4.3%
     
Total 76,014,745 77,559,145 (1,544,400) -2.0%
Total Cable 44,685,745 45,187,145 (501,400) -1.1%
Total Satellite 23,307,000 24,193,000 (886,000) -3.7%
Total Telco 8,022,000 8,179,000 (157,000) -1.9%

Some observations about the numbers:

  • The big loser is AT&T, which lost 886,000 traditional video customers between DirecTV and AT&T U-verse. For many quarters AT&T claimed losses were due to the company eliminating low-margin customers. It seems losses are more likely now due to price increases.
  • The big percentage loser is Frontier that lost almost 6% of its cable customers in the quarter. The Frontier numbers have been lowered for both quarters to reflect the sale of its property in the Pacific northwest.
  • While DirecTV continues to bleed customers, Dish Networks has seemed to have stemmed losses.
  • The most interesting story is for Charter that gained customers during the quarter. The company credits the gains to offering a lower-price package and also to a marketing campaign that is giving two months free of broadband. 329,000 customers took that offer in the second quarter and nearly half of those customers elected to add on cable TV and/or cellular service, both of which were for pay, and not free. Charter has been beating the industry as a whole for cable subscribers every quarter since Q3 2018.

The losses of cable companies continue to mount at dizzying levels for the industry. This is the sixth consecutive quarter where the industry lost over one million cable subscribers. The big providers collectively have lost 3.2 million customers this year, from a starting point of 79.3 million customers at the end of 2019.

It’s especially worth noting that these losses happened during a quarter when the biggest ISPs gained over 1.2 million customers for the quarter.

We’re likely going to have to wait to understand exactly what is happening in the cable industry. For example, a recent large survey from TiVO showed that 25% of US homes have downgraded to less expensive cable packages (cord-shaving). That would mean total revenue losses over and above what would be expected by just net customer losses.

Interestingly, homes don’t seem to be fleeing traditional cable for the online equivalents. Leichtman also tracks Hulu Live, Sling TV, and DirecTV Now and those three companies collectively lost 24,000 customers for the quarter.

Loving to Hate Our Big ISPs

The American Customer Satisfaction Survey (ACSI) was released earlier this summer that ranks hundreds of companies that provide services for consumers. Historically cable companies and ISPs have fared poorly in these rankings compared to other businesses in the country. The running joke reported in numerous articles about this survey is that people like the IRS more than they like their cable company (and that is still true this year).

But something interesting happened in this year’s survey and the ranking for cable companies collectively improved by 3% and consumer confidence in ISPs climbed 5%. There is no easy way to understand a national satisfaction survey, but those trends are interesting to contemplate.

Let’s start by looking at the numbers. Consumers still rank cable TV providers as the least liked group of companies in the country across all industries, joined at the bottom by ISPs. The ACSI ranks each company and each industry segment on a scale of 1 to 100. The top-rated industries are breweries (84%), personal care and cleaning products (82), soft drinks (82), and food manufacturing (81).

By contrast, cable providers are ranked the lowest at 64 followed closely by ISPs at 65. Joining these companies at the bottom are local governments (65.5), video-on-demand providers (68), and the federal government (68.1).

The overall ranking for cable providers grew from a 62 in 2019 to a 64 in 2020. I can only speculate why people like cable companies a little more this year. This could be due in part to huge growth in cord-cutters who no longer watch traditional cable TV and who might perhaps no longer rate a product they don’t use. Or perhaps folks have come to appreciate the cable product more during the pandemic when people are going out less, and likely watching TV more.

The cable providers at the bottom of the rankings continue to get low satisfaction ratings, with Suddenlink (56), Frontier (58), and Mediacom (60). Just above these companies are two of the largest cable providers – Charter (60) and Cox (61). But all of these companies had a slightly improved satisfaction ranking over 2019. The highest-ranked cable providers continue to be Verizon FiOS (70) and AT&T U-verse (70), now relabeled as AT&T TV.

ISPs didn’t fare much better. It’s worth noting that this list contains many of the same companies on the cable provider list, but consumers are asked to rank cable services separately from broadband services. The overall satisfaction for ISPs grew from a 62 in 2019 to a 65 in 2020. The same three providers are at the bottom – Frontier (55), Suddenlink (57), and Mediacom (59). At the top are the same two providers – Verizon FiOS (73) and AT&T Internet (68).

Part of the explanation of the change in approval ratings for the industries might be little more than statistical variance within the range of sampling. The rankings of individual ISPs vary from year to year. Consider Charter, ranked as an ISP. The company was ranked highest in 2013 and 2017 at a 65 ranking and lowest in 2015 (57) and 2019 (59). This year’s increase might just be variance within the expected range of sampling results.

What matters a lot more is that our cable companies and ISPs are generally consumer’s least favorite companies. This has always benefited smaller ISPs that compete against the big companies. One of the most common forms of advertising for smaller ISPs is, “We are not them”.

People don’t rate cable companies and ISPs so low due because they deliver technical products. Other technology sectors have much higher satisfaction ratings such as landline telephones (70), cellphones (74), computer software (78), internet search engines (76), and social media (70). Consumers are also like electric utilities a lot more than cable companies and ISPs – electric coops (73), and investor-owned and muni electric companies (72).

It’s always been somewhat disheartening to work in an industry that folks love to hate. But I’ve always been comforted by the fact that my smaller ISP and cable clients generally fare extremely well when competing against the big ISPs and cable companies. I have to assume this means people like small ISPs more than the big ones – or perhaps hate them a little less. That’s something every small ISP should periodically consider.

Who’s Chasing RDOF Grants?

There is a veritable Who’s Who of big companies that have registered for the upcoming RDOF auction. All of the hundreds of small potential bidders to the auction have to be a bit nervous seeing the list of companies they could end up bidding against.

As a reminder, RDOF stands for Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and is an auction that starts in October that will award up to $16.4 billion in broadband funding. The money will be awarded by reverse auction in a process that favors faster technologies, but also favors those willing to take the lowest amount of grant per customer. The areas that are eligible for the funding are among the most remote places in the country, which is why the list of potential large bidders is puzzling.

There are some big cable companies on the list: Altice, Charter Communications, Cox Communications, Atlantic Broadband, Midco, and Mediacom Communications. These companies serve many of the county seats or other nearby towns to many of the RDOF areas. One has to wonder what these companies have in mind. The only one that has chased any significant federal grants in the past is Midco in Minnesota and North Dakota. Midco has been using grant money to extend fiber backhaul to connect its smallest markets, to build last-mile broadband in some tiny towns, and to build fixed wireless in rural areas surrounding its cable markets.

One has to wonder if the other cable companies have a similar plan. It’s incredibly inefficient to build traditional hybrid coaxial-fiber networks in rural areas, so it’s unlikely that the cable companies will be extending their existing networks. The RDOF auction is being done by Census blocks, which in rural areas can cover a large area. The winner of the auction for a given Census block must offer service to everybody in that block. I also have a hard time envisioning all of these big cable companies getting into the wireless business like Midco is doing, so their presence in the auction is a bit of a mystery.

Then there are the traditional large telcos including Frontier, Windstream, Consolidated Communications, and CenturyLink. These companies already serve many of the areas that are covered by the reverse auction. These are the rural areas where these companies have largely neglected the old copper wiring and either offer no broadband or dreadfully slow DSL. The minimum technology allowed to enter the auction must deliver 25/3 Mbps broadband. It’s almost painful to think that these companies would chase the funding and promise to upgrade DSL to 25/3 Mbps after these companies largely botched an upgrade to 10/1 Mbps DSL in the just-ending CAF II grants. The cynic in me says they are willing to pretend to upgrade DSL all over again if that means substantial grant money. I have to think that some of these companies are considering deploying fixed wireless. To the extent any of these companies is willing to take on new debt or use equity, they could also build fiber. None of these companies has built a substantial amount of fiber to truly rural places, but may these grants are the inducement they were waiting for.

Verizon and U.S. Cellular have registered for the auction. You have to think the cellular carriers will be deploying fixed cellular broadband like the 4G FWA product that Verizon just announced recently. These companies already have equipment on towers in many of the RDOF grant areas and would love to grab a subsidy to roll out a product they might be selling in these areas anyway.

Then there are the satellite companies SpaceX, Hughes Network Systems, and Viasat. Viasat has won federal grant money before for selling broadband from its high-altitude satellites. SpaceX is the wildcard since nobody knows anything about the pricing or real speeds they can provide. We know that Elon Musk has been lobbying the FCC to let him have a shot at the billions up for grabs in this auction.

There is another interesting wildcard with Starry. Their business plan is currently selling fixed wireless to large apartment buildings in center cities and they’ve developed a proprietary technology that’s perfect for that application. They must have something else in mind in chasing grant money in remote areas that are 180 degrees different than their normal business model. Starry founder Chet Kanojia is incredibly creative, so he probably has a new technology in mind if he wins auction funding.

There may be other big players in the auction as well since many of the registered bidders are participating under partnerships or corporations that are disguising their identity for now. I think one thing is clear and some of the rural ISPs and cooperative who think nobody else is interested in their markets will get a surprise early in the auction. These big companies didn’t register for the grant auction to sit on the sidelines.

Our Uneven Regulatory Environment

I think everybody would agree that broadband is a far more important part of the American economy than landline telephone service. While something in the range of 35% of homes still have a landline, almost every home has or wants a broadband connection. If you knew nothing about our regulatory history in the U.S., you would guess that the FCC would be far more involved with broadband issues than landline telephone issues – but they’re not. Consider some of the recent regulatory actions at the FCC as evidence of how regulation is now unbalanced and mostly looks at voice issues.

Recently the FCC took action against Magic Jack VocalTec Ltd. The FCC reached a settlement with MagicJack to pay $5 million in contributions to the Universal Service Fund. MagicJack also agreed to implement a regulatory compliance plan to stay in compliance with FCC rules.

The contributions to the Universal Service Fund come from a whopping 26.5% tax on the interstate portion of telephone service, and MagicJack has refused for years to make these payments. MagicJack has been skirting FCC rules for years – which is what allows them to offer low-price telephone service.

The FCC also recently came down hard on telcos that are making a lot of money by billing excessive access charges for calls to service like Free Conference Calling.com and chat lines. These services made arrangements with LECs that are remote and that bill access on a lot of miles of fiber transport. The FCC ruled that these LECs were ‘access stimulators’ and that the long-distance companies and their customers were unfairly subsidizing free conference calling. In one of the fastest FCC reactions I can recall, just a few months after the initial ruling the FCC also published orders denying appeals to that order.

From a regulatory perspective, these kinds of actions are exactly the sort of activity one would expect out of a regulatory agency. These two examples are just a few out of a few dozen actions the FCC has taken in the last few years in their regulation of landline telephone service. The agency has been a little less busy, but also looked at cable TV issues over the last year.

Contrast this with broadband, which any person on the street would think would be the FCC’s primary area of regulation. After all, broadband is the far most important communications service and affects far more homes and businesses than telephone service or cable TV service.  But the regulatory record shows a real dearth of action in the area of broadband regulation.

In December 2019 Congress passed the Television Viewer Protection Act that prohibits ISPs and cable companies from billing customers for devices that the customer owns. It’s odd that a law would even be needed for something so commonsense, but Frontier and some cable companies have been billing customers for devices that were sold previously to customers. In one example that has gotten a lot of press, Frontier has been billing customers a $10 fee for a router that customers purchased from Verizon before Frontier bought the property.

Frontier appealed the immediate implementation of the new law to the FCC. The telco said that due to COVID-19 the company is too busy to change its practices and asked to be able to continue the overbilling until the end of this year. In a brave regulatory move in April, the FCC agreed with Frontier and will allow them to continue to overbill customers for such devices until the end of 2020.

I was puzzled by this ruling for several reasons. From a practical perspective, the regulators in the U.S. have normally corrected carrier wrongs by ordering refunds. It’s impossible to believe that Frontier couldn’t make this billing change, with or without COVID. But even if it takes them a long time to implement it, the normal regulatory remedy is to give customers back money that was billed incorrectly. Instead, the FCC told Frontier and cable companies that they could continue to rip off customers until the end of the year, in violation of the intent of the law written by Congress.

A more puzzling concern is why the FCC even ruled on this issue. When the agency killed Title II regulation, they also openly announced that they have no regulatory authority over broadband. My first thought when reading this order was to wonder if the FCC even has jurisdiction any longer to rule on issues like data modems. However, in this case, the Congress gave them the narrow authority to rule on issues related to this specific law. As hard as the FCC tries, these little nagging broadband issues keep landing in their lap – because there is no other place for them to go.

In this case, the FCC dipped briefly into a broadband issue and got it 100% wrong. Rather than rule for the customers who were being billed fraudulent charges, and going against the intent of Congress that passed the law clarifying the issue – the FCC bought into the story that Frontier couldn’t fix their billing systems until a year after the law was passed. And for some reason, even after buying the story, the FCC didn’t order a full refund of past overbilling.

If we actually had light-touch broadband regulation, then the FCC would be able to weigh in when industry actors act badly, like happened in the two telephone dockets listed above. But our light-touch regulation is really no-touch regulation and the FCC has no jurisdiction over broadband except in snippets where Congress gives them a specific task. The FCC ruling is puzzling. We know they favor the big ISPs, but siding with Frontier’s decision to openly rip off customers seems like an odd place to make a pro-ISP stand. As much as I’ve complained about this FCC giving up their broadband regulatory authority – perhaps we don’t want this to be fixed until we get regulators who will apply the same standards to broadband as they are applying to telephone service.

Cord Cutting Accelerates in 1Q 2020

The largest traditional cable providers collectively lost over 1.7 million customers in the first quarter of 2020 – an overall loss of 2.2% in customers. This is the biggest overall drop in customers ever in a quarter. To put this loss into perspective, the big cable providers lost 18,800 customers every day.

The numbers below come from Leichtman Research Group which compiles these numbers from reports made to investors, except for Cox which is estimated. The numbers reported are for the largest cable providers, and Leichtman estimates that these companies represent 95% of all cable customers in the country.

Following is a comparison of the first quarter subscriber numbers compared to the end of 2019:

1Q 2020 4Q 2019 Change % Change
Comcast 20,845,000 21,254,000 (409,000) -1.9%
Charter 16,074,000 16,144,000 (70,000) -0.4%
DirecTV 15,136,000 16,033,000 (897,000) -5.6%
Dish Networks 9,012,000 9,144,000 (132,000) -1.4%
Verizon 4,145,000 4,229,000 (84,000) -2.0%
Cox 3,820,000 3,865,000 (45,000) -1.2%
AT&T U-verse 3,440,000 3,440,000 0 0.0%
Altice 3,137,500 3,179,200 (41,700) -1.3%
Mediacom 693,000 710,000 (17,000) -2.4%
Frontier 621,000 660,000 (39,000) -5.9%
Atlantic Broadband 306,252 308,638 (2,386) -0.8%
Cable One 303,000 314,000 (11,000) -3.5%
Total 77,532,752 79,280,838 (1,748,086) -2.2%
Total Cable 45,178,752 45,774,838 (596,086) -1.3%
Total Satellite 24,148,000 25,427,000 (1,029,000 -4.1%
Total Telco 8,206,000 8,639,000 (123,000) -1.5%

Some observations of the numbers:

  • Note that AT&T no longer reports customers by division, so Leichtman has reflected all of their losses as DirecTV and shown no losses for AT&T U-verse.
  • The big loser is AT&T, which lost nearly 897,000 traditional video customers between DirecTV and AT&T U-verse.
  • The big percentage loser is Frontier that lost almost 6% of its cable customers in the quarter.
  • The big cable companies fared the best, but still lost 1.3% of their customer base in the quarter.
  • Satellite TV continues to dive and lost more than 4% of customers in the quarter.

Leitchman speculated that the magnitude of the losses could be due to the impact of COVID-19. However, the story seems to be a bit more complex than that. Several of the big companies reported about the same level of disconnects as in recent quarters but saw a big drop-off in new customers buying service. It’s worth noting that the above losses were experienced even while these same companies saw an increase of over 1 million new broadband customers in the same quarter- the best growth in broadband since 2015.

The full impact of COVID-19 will likely be seen in the next quarter. There has to be an impact from over 23 million newly unemployed people this year, as of mid-May. Cutting cable is one of the most obvious ways for a household to save money.

There may be evidence that COVID-19 had an impact by the end of March. Leichtman also tracks the subscribers of the online TV services that are owned by the above companies. Collectively, there was a loss of 319,000 customers by Hulu Live, Sling TV, and DirecTV Now. Additionally, Paystation Vue exited the market in the first quarter. However, YouTube TV is reported to be growing and had over 2 million customers by the end of February.

Losses of this magnitude have to be rolling downhill in the industry. These losses mean a lot lower revenues for cable TV networks. It means a lot less franchise revenues for local governments. It means lower advertising revenues from loss of eyeballs.

Cable Customers Plummet in 2019

The final numbers are in for 2019 and the largest cable providers collectively lost over 5.9 million customers for the year – a loss of almost 7% of customers. The numbers below come from Leichtman Research Group which compiles these numbers from reports made to investors, except for Cox which is estimated. The numbers reported are for the largest cable providers, and Leichtman estimates that these companies represent 95% of all cable customers in the country.

Following is a comparison of the end of 2018 and 2019:

4Q 2019 4Q 2018 Change % Change
Comcast 21,254,000 21,986,000 (732,000) -3.3%
Charter 16,144,000 16,606,000 (462,000) -2.9%
DirecTV 16,033,000 19,222,000 (3,189,000) -16.6%
Dish TV 9,394,000 9,905,000 (511,000) -5.2%
Verizon 4,229,000 4,451,000 (222,000) -5.0%
Cox 3,865,000 4,015,000 (150,000) -3.7%
AT&T U-verse 3,440,000 3,704,000 (264,000) -7.1%
Altice 3,179,200 3,286,100 (106,900) -3.3%
Mediacom 710,000 776,000 (66,000) -8.5%
Frontier 660,000 838,000 (178,000) -21.2%
Cable ONE 314,000 318,061 (4,061) -1.3%
Atlantic Broadband 308,638 347,638 (39,000) -11.2%
Total 79,530,838 85,454,799 (5,923,961) -6.9%
Total Cable 45,774,838 47,334,799 (1,559,961) -3.3%
Total Satellite 25,427,000 29,127,000 (3,700,000 -12.7%
Total Telco 8,639,000 8,993,000 (664,000) -7.4%

These losses were offset a bit as the combination of Hulu Live, Sling TV and AT&T TV collectively added just over 1 million customers. Leichtman doesn’t have subscriber numbers for YouTube TV and a few others that are not publicly reported.

Some observations of the numbers:

  • The overall loss of nearly 7% of customers represents a free fall of traditional cable TV. At the worst of the downside, landlines dropped about 5% of market share per year.
  • The big loser is AT&T, which lost nearly 4.1 million video customers between DirecTV and AT&T U-verse, and AT&T TV. The losses were so large at DirecTV that Charter moved up to become the second largest cable provider.
  • The big percentage loser is Frontier that lost 21% of its cable customers for the year.
  • The cable big companies fared the best, but this is partially due to the fact that Comcast and Charter each added 1.4 million broadband customers for the year – and added cable customers as part of that growth.
  • Cable ONE’s losses are small due to the 2019 acquisition of Fidelity.

As large as these losses are, the losses for 2020 are likely to be a lot larger. The primary reason household still give for cutting the cord is the high price of traditional cable TV. My guess is that the uncertainty of household incomes this year are going to drive many more homes to save money by migrating to lower-cost entertainment alternatives.

Broadband Stats for 2019

Leichtman Research Group recently released the broadband customer statistics for the end of 2019 for the largest cable and telephone companies. Leichtman compiles most of these numbers from the statistics provided to stockholders other than Cox, which is estimated.

The numbers are lower than broadband customers these same companies report to the FCC, and I think that most of the difference is due to the way many of these companies count broadband to apartment buildings. If they provide a gigabit pipe to serve an apartment building, they might count that as 1 customer, whereas for FCC reporting they are likely to count the number of apartment units served.

4Q 2019 2019 Change % Change
Comcast 28,629,000 1,407,000 5.2%
Charter 26,664,000 1,405,000 5.6%
AT&T 15,389,000 (312,000) -2.0%
Verizon 6,956,000 (5,000) -0.1%
Cox 5,170,000 110,000 2.2%
CenturyLink 4,678,000 (134,000) -2.8%
Altice 4,187,300 71,900 1.7%
Frontier 3,500,000 (235,000) -6.3%
Mediacom 1,328,000 64,000 5.1%
Windstream 1,049,300 28,300 2.8%
Consolidated 784,165 5,195 0.7%
WOW 781,500 21,900 2.9%
Cable ONE 773,000 39,000 5.3%
TDS 455,200 31,800 7.5%
Atlantic Broadband 451,463 25,857 6.1%
Cincinnati Bell 426,700 1,100 0.3%
101,222,628 2,525,052 2.6%

Leichtman says this group of companies represents 96% of all US broadband customers. For the year these large ISPs collectively saw growth that annualizes to 2.6%.

The customer additions for 2019 for these large ISPs are just slightly higher than customers additions for 2018. The cable companies performed a little better in 2019 while the losses continue to accelerate for the big telcos. The big telco losers for the year are Frontier, which lost 6.3% of its customer base, AT&T (lost 2.0 %) and CenturyLink (lost 2.8%). AT&T claims to have added 1.1 million customers to fiber for the year, so they are still losing a lot of customers on DSL. Frontier is a total disaster and there may be no recovery for the company if they keep losing broadband customers at a pace of over 6% annually.

‘                                        2018                 2019

Cable Companies        2,987,721        3,144,657

Telcos                           ( 472,124)        ( 619,605)

Total                             2,425,597        2,525,052

The two best-performing companies were again Comcast and Charter, which each added over 1.4 million customers for the year while the rest of the ISPs, including cable companies, collectively lost half a million customers.

One note on the above numbers – the TDS and Cable One numbers include adjustments due to small acquisitions).

Will the Big Telcos Pursue RDOF Grants?

One of the most intriguing questions concerning the upcoming $16.4 billion RDOF grant program is if the big telcos are going to participate. I’ve asked the question around the industry and I’ve talked to folks who think the big telcos will fully wade into the reverse auctions, while others think they’ll barely play. We’re not likely to know until the auctions begin.

The big telcos were the full beneficiaries of the original CAF II program when the FCC surprisingly decided to unilaterally award the big telcos the full $9 billion in funding. In that grant program, CenturyLink received over $3 billion, AT&T almost $2.6 billion, Frontier nearly $2 billion, and Windstream over $1 billion. The telcos were supposed to upgrade much of their most rural properties to receive broadband speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps.

CenturyLink and Frontier both recently told the FCC that they are behind in the CAF II build out and didn’t meet their obligation at the end of 2019 to be 80% finished with the upgrades. From what I hear from rural communities, I think the problem is a lot more severe than just the telcos being late. Communities across the country have been telling me that their residents aren’t seeing faster speeds and I think we’re going to eventually find out that a lot of the upgrades aren’t being made.

Regardless of the problems with the original CAF II, the FCC is now offering the $16.4 billion RDOF grant program to cover much of the same areas covered by CAF II. The big telcos are faced with several dilemmas. If they don’t participate, then others are going to get federal assistance to overbuild the traditional big telco service territories. If the big telcos do participate, they have to promise to upgrade to meet the minimum speed obligations of the RDOF of 25/3 Mbps.

Interestingly, the upgrades needed to raise DSL speeds on copper to 25/3 Mbps are not drastically different than the upgrades needed to reach 10/1 Mbps. The upgrades require building fiber deeper into last-mile networks and installing DSL transmitters (DSLAMs) in the field to be within a few miles of subscribers. Fiber must be a little closer to the customer to achieve a speed of 25/3 Mbps rather than 10/1 Mbps – but not drastically closer.

I think the big telcos encountered two problems with the CAF II DSL upgrades. First, they needed to build a lot more fiber than was being funded by CAF II to get fiber within a few miles of every customer. Second, the condition of their rural copper is dreadful and much of it probably won’t support DSL speeds. The big telcos have ignored their rural copper for decades and found themselves unable to coax faster DSL speeds from the old and mistreated copper.

This begs the question of what it even means if the big telcos decide to chase RDOF funding. Throwing more money at their lousy copper is not going to make it perform any better. If they were unable to get 10/1 speeds out of their network, then they are surely going to be unable to get speeds upgraded to 25/3 Mbps.

We can’t ignore that the big telcos have a natural advantage in the RDOF auction. They can file for the money everywhere, and any place where a faster competitor isn’t vying for the money, the big telcos will have a good chance of winning the reverse auction. There are bound to be plenty of places where nobody else bids on RDOF funding, particularly in places like Appalachia where the cost is so high to build, even with grant funding.

It would be a travesty to see any more federal grant money spent to upgrade rural DSL particularly since the FCC already spent $9 billion trying to upgrade the same copper networks. The copper networks everywhere are past their expected useful lives, and the networks operated by the big telcos are in the worst shape. I’ve known many smaller telcos that tried in the past to upgrade to 25/3 on rural DSL and failed – and those companies had networks that were well-maintained and in good condition. It would be impossible to believe the big telcos if they say they can upgrade the most remote homes in the country to 25/3 Mbps speeds. Unfortunately, with the way I read the RDOF rules, there is nothing to stop the big telcos from joining the auction and from taking big chunks of the grant money and then failing again like they did with the original CAF II.

Broadband Still Growing – 3Q 2019

Leichtman Research Group recently released the broadband customer statistics for the third quarter of 2019 for the largest cable and telephone companies. Leichtman compiles most of these numbers from the statistics provided to stockholders other than Cox, which is estimated.

The numbers provided to investors are lower than broadband customers these same companies report to the FCC, and I think that most of the difference is due to the way many of these companies count broadband to apartment buildings. If they provide a gigabit pipe to serve an apartment building, they might that as 1 customer, whereas for FCC reporting they likely count the number of apartment units served.

Following are the broadband customer counts for the third quarter and a comparison to the second quarter of this year.

3Q 2019 Added % Change
Comcast 28,186,000 379,000 1.4%
Charter 26,325,000 380,000 1.5%
AT&T 15,575,000 (123,000) -0.8%
Verizon 6,961,000 (7,000) -0.1%
Cox 5,145,000 25,000 0.5%
CenturyLink 4,714,000 (36,000) -0.8%
Altice 4,180,300 14,900 0.4%
Frontier 3,555,000 (71,000) -2.0%
Mediacom 1,316,000 13,000 1.0%
Windstream 1,040,000 5,700 0.6%
Consolidated 784,151 1,143 0.1%
WOW 773,900 10,420 1.3%
Cable ONE 689,138 7,376 1.1%
Atlantic Broadband 446,137 2,441 0.6%
TDS 437,700 4,300 1.0%
Cincinnati Bell 425,100 (400) -0.1%
100,553,426 605,660 0.6%

Leichtman says this group of companies represents 96% of all US broadband customers. I’m not sure how they calculated that percentage. That implies that there are only about 4 million broadband customers for companies not on this list, and that feels a little low to me.

For the quarter, these companies collectively saw growth that annualizes to 2.4%. This is a significant uptick over the second quarter of 2019 that saw an annualized growth rate of 1.7%.

On an annualized basis the third quarter of 2019 added about the same number of customers that were added for the calendar year of 2018. However, the cable companies are performing better this year while the losses continue to accelerate for the big telcos. The big telco losers for the quarter are Frontier, which lost 2% of its customer base, and AT&T and CenturyLink which each lost 0.8% of their customer base. Following are the annualized changes in customers in 2018 and 2019:

‘                                          2018                2019

Cable Companies        2,987,721        3,317,904

Telcos                            ( 472,124)        ( 895,564)

Total                              2,425,597        2,422,640

Both Comcast and Charter had spectacular quarters and continue to account for most of the growth in broadband, as each company added around 380,000 customers for the quarter. It would be interesting to understand what is driving that growth. Some of that comes from providing broadband to new homes. Some comes from customers converting away from DSL. And some comes from expansion – I know of examples where both companies are building new network around the fringes of their service areas.