Leichtman Research Group recently released the cable customer counts for the largest providers of traditional cable service in the second quarter of 2023. LRG compiles most of these numbers from the statistics provided to stockholders, except for Cox and Mediacom – they now combine an estimate for both companies. Leichtman says this group of companies represents 96% of all traditional U.S. cable customers.
The traditional cable providers continue to lose customers at a torrid pace, losing over 1.6 million customers in the second quarter, slightly fewer losses than the second quarter of 2022. Overall, the traditional cable providers lost over 17,700 customers every day during the quarter. The overall penetration of traditional cable TV is now around 46% of all households, down from 73% at the end of 2017.
Cox & Mediacom
Total Cable Company
Total Telco / Satellite
It doesn’t look like people are replacing traditional cable with an online alternative like YouTube and Hulu Live – which collectively lost 115,000 customers in the quarter.
Charter is still losing customers at a slower rate than other traditional cable companies. At current trends, Charter ought to have the most cable customers soon – something that could not have been imagined only three or four years ago.
The biggest news is that Comcast is one of the biggest percentage losers, and the biggest overall loser, down 543,000 cable customers in the quarter. The biggest percentage losers continue to be Frontier and Cable ONE.
CEO Nick Jeffery of Frontier said at a recent investor conference that the company believes it will be out of the copper business within five years. The company is facing the same dilemma as the other big copper owners like AT&T, Lumen, Verizon, and Windstream.
The company has an interesting path ahead to get rid of copper. At the end of the first quarter of this year, Frontier still had 9.9 million copper passings compared to 5.5 million fiber passings. But that oddly doesn’t translate into a greater number of copper customers, with 1.6 million fiber customers compared to just under 1 million copper customers.
This demonstrates the extent to which Frontier has lost DSL customers over the last decade. For much of the last decade, Frontier was the biggest percentage loser of broadband customers almost every year and quarter. At the end of 2017, the company had over 3.9 million broadband customers compared to 2.6 million now. Frontier shed some customers in the asset sale in the Northwest to Ziply, but most of the customer losses are from DSL customers fleeing to some other technology.
The company announced a goal last year to reach 10 million fiber passings by the end of 2025, so it will continue to overbuild copper areas with fiber. That should cover about half of the remaining copper passings. When Jeffery talks about getting out of the copper business, he’s talking about eventually walking away from the remaining 4 – 5 million copper passings.
But that may not turn out to be as drastic as that sounds. Many of Frontier’s copper passings will be overbuilt with fiber or some other technology as a result of the BEAD and other federal and state grant programs. Frontier will likely be participating in many of these grants to reach it’s goal of 10 million total fiber passings.
The other technology that has to be putting a big dent in DSL is FWA wireless from cellular companies. The pricing is similar to DSL pricing, but the speeds are faster. The cellular companies are marketing to the same demographic that has stayed with DSL even where cable broadband is available – households for whom price is more important than broadband speed. Verizon and T-Mobile have sprung from nowhere to gain 4.1 million FWA customers nationwide over the last year or so – and a lot of those customers must be switching from DSL.
My guess is that Frontier won’t have to cut many DSL customers dead in five years. Between their own fiber expansion, the many grant programs, and FWA cellular wireless, it seems likely that most of Frontier’s remaining DSL customers will be off copper by then. But there will inevitably be some unlucky remaining customers who will get the notice that their copper will be going dead with no offered replacement. My best guess is that Frontier’s exit from copper might be relatively easier than if the company tried to kill copper today, as is being done by AT&T and Verizon. Those two telcos are taking a lot of grief when they discontinue active copper customers. But in five years it’s likely that very few people will even be interested in the remaining Frontier copper. My guess is that market forces will get the company out of the copper business without too much pain.
The latest Customer Satisfaction Index is out from ACSI, which measures the public satisfaction of a wide range of U.S. industries and institutions. The survey this year continued to show that the public has a poor opinion of ISPs. As a group, ISPs had an average ACSI annual rating of 68. The only industry with a lower rating is gas stations at 65. Subscription TV had an average rating of 69, and the U.S. Post Office had a rating of 70.
But there is some interesting good news for some ISPs. Companies serving customers with fiber rated higher with the public than other ISPs, including cable companies using coaxial networks. Consider the following table that shows the 2023 ranking for fiber and non-fiber ISPs.
For companies that offer both fiber and another technology, customers served by fiber liked an ISP more than non-fiber customers. CenturyLink has the biggest difference in satisfaction (78 for fiber and 62 for non-fiber). Frontier also has a dramatic difference (74 fiber and 61 non-fiber). The only cable company ranked for both technologies also has a sizeable difference, and Comcast has a ranking of 73 for its fiber network versus 68 for the coaxial network.
Customer satisfaction involves many other factors than just technology, but the differences for the companies that offer multiple technologies have to be mostly related to fiber. However, there are other factors in play. For example, it seems likely that CenturyLink and Frontier provide better customer service and faster repairs for fiber customers than for DSL customers.
Cable companies have to be noticing this giant difference as part of any consideration of how to upgrade their networks. The big cable companies are all at the beginning of the upgrades to improve upload speeds on coaxial networks, and they must be hoping that customers like them more after the upgrades. But there is a chance that the public has come to think of fiber as a superior technology and will not rank a coaxial system as highly even after speed increases. There is still a noticeable difference in latency and jitter between cable and fiber networks, and customers who see both in action believe fiber is better.
There is still a noticeable range of ISP rankings within each list. Non-fiber customers rate T-Mobile and AT&T the highest and rank Altice and Frontier DSL as the worst ISPs. It’s interesting to see Charter near the bottom of the rankings.
Fiber customers clearly rate AT&T as the best and Comcast Fiber as the lowest. Fiber technical performance should be consistent regardless of the ISP, so the difference in rankings between fiber providers has to be related to customer service and the other non-technical aspects of being an ISP.
Bruce has been arguing eloquently for years that the big telcos like Verizon, AT&T, and CenturyLink caused the rural digital divide by extracting profits from the regulated telephone and broadband businesses in rural and low-income areas while neglecting maintenance and not using any of the profits to modernize the technology. According to Bruce, the only reason we need massive federal grant programs today is to make the investments that the big telcos refused to make for the last several decades.
He argues that the NTIA should require states to investigate how the digital divide was created in rural areas and center cities. He uses the two examples of New Jersey and Los Angeles to make his point. He’s been tracking the promises made by Verizon to the State of New Jersey for the last thirty years. Verizon repeatedly sought regulatory relief through deregulation along with rate increases that were supposed to fund modernizing the network in the State – upgrades that were never done. When Verizon finally upgraded to fiber, it did so only in neighborhoods with the lowest costs, avoiding rural areas and most low-income neighborhoods.
I’ve been tracking this issue during my career as well. Consider West Virginia. I remember when Verizon was looking for a buyer of the telco network there as far back as the early 1990s. When big companies are trying to sell a property, they do what valuation folks call ‘dressing up the pig”. This means cutting expenses to make the property look more profitable. The cuts are usually deep, and drop maintenance below the level needed to keep up with routine repairs and maintenance.
Verizon didn’t end up selling the West Virginia network until the sale to Frontier in 2010. By then, the networks had been neglected for more than fifteen years. Frontier made only minimal upgrades to the properties they purchased – but it’s hard for an outsider to know if this was due to an intention to continue to milk cash flow out of the acquired network like Verizon had done or due to a lack of the capital and impact of the heavy debt used to buy the property. In any case, the West Virginia network continued to degrade under Frontier’s ownership.
For years, Bruce has made the point that there has not been any financial or regulatory cost to the big telcos for their bad behavior. They’ve repeatedly broken promises made to states. They’ve routinely milked profits out of networks while ignoring customers as the properties deteriorate.
In fact, we’ve seen the opposite of penalties. For example, the big telcos were rewarded with over $10 billion of CAF-II subsidies to support dying and neglected rural DSL networks. That money was supposed to be used to increase rural data speeds to 10/1 Mbps at a time when that speed was already obsolete. We’ve seen far too many places where even that basic upgrade was not made.
Bruce’s conclusion is that it would be ludicrous to give grant funding now to the companies that caused the digital divide in the first place. That would be using public money to upgrade the networks for these companies when profits should have been used over the decades to do so. He makes a solid argument that giving money to these same companies will not solve the digital divide since there is no reason to think the big telcos won’t turn around and do it all over again.
The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission recently ordered a series of public hearings to investigate the quality of service on the CenturyLink copper networks. The hearings were prompted by a complaint filed by the Communications Workers of America (CWA). The complaint listed the failures of CenturyLink to meet state service standards due to the deterioration of the copper network. CWA also noted that CenturyLink is planning to eliminate half of the remaining technicians who work on copper.
Similar inquiries by other state regulators have been instituted in the last few years against CenturyLink and Frontier. I feel sorry for any customers left on deteriorating copper networks, but proceedings like this one feel like the last gasp of regulators trying to score points by beating up on the telcos that still operate copper networks.
Not that CenturyLink doesn’t deserve a lot of criticism. Its copper networks are in dreadful condition and are in the process of dying. The poor condition of the networks is due in large part to the decades-long lack of maintenance and repairs. We know this is the case because copper networks of a similar age are still operating much better in Europe. The big telcos like CenturyLink, Frontier, Verizon, and AT&T stopped caring about copper networks back in the 1990s, and the networks have been in a steady decline since then.
But U.S. copper networks are truly near the end of life. It’s impossible to neglect maintenance for over twenty years and somehow suddenly make the networks perform better. It’s hard to fathom the intentions of having regional hearings on the topic for any purpose other than letting people vent their frustration with CenturyLink. It’s hard to imagine anything changing as a result of these hearings that will improve service. There might be new fines levied on CenturyLink, but that’s less costly for the company than trying to make the copper work.
Some big telcos are working to convert copper networks to fiber. Frontier and Windstream are building a lot of fiber – and I assume they are overlashing the new fiber wires on the old copper. AT&T and Verizon are selectively expanding fiber in neighborhoods where the cost of construction meets some internally set cost test – but these two companies are quietly moving most copper customers onto cellular connections.
CenturyLink has been up and down on the decision to overbuild residential fiber. It currently looks like the company is only building ‘strategic’ fiber, which I interpret to mean business districts and large apartment complexes. It seems unlikely that CenturyLink will overbuild much more of its residential copper in Minnesota or elsewhere with fiber.
I would bet that if CenturyLink could wave a magic wand and be rid of copper, it would do so. It’s harder each year to maintain copper networks, and a move to eliminate half of the remaining copper technicians shows that the company is finally throwing in the towel. But giving up on copper still means walking away from a lot of revenue.
There are still plenty of customers who want to keep using the copper networks. Say what you want about the inadequacies of DSL, but in most urban markets where my firm does surveys, we still find 10% to 20% of households are still using DSL. These are households for whom the price is more important than broadband speed.
CenturyLink and the other big telcos have recaptured the cost of the copper networks many times over and decided many years ago not to reinvest profits back into new and upgraded networks. We’re now reduced to watching the last death throes of copper networks, and it’s not pretty.
The traditional cable companies lost over 6.25 million cable subscribers in 2022, up from 5.6 million in 2021. That means that almost one in every twenty homes in the country dropped traditional cable TV during the last year.
These numbers come from Leichtman Research Group, which compiles most of these numbers from the statistics provided to stockholders, except for Cox, which is privately held and estimated. Leichtman says this group of companies represents 96% of all traditional U.S. cable customers.
The losses are fairly even across the industry, with most cable providers seeing around a 10% drop in cable customers during the year. The exceptions were Charter, which lost only 4.3%, Frontier that lost almost 20%, and Cable One (Sparklight) that lost over 30% of customers. If these trends continue for another year, Charter will pass Comcast and become the largest traditional cable provider.
The magnitude of the losses are staggering, with Comcast losing over 2 million cable customers during the year and DirecTV losing 1.5 million.
To put the loss of cable customers into context, these same large companies had over 85 million cable customers at the end of 2018 and are now down to under 62 million customers.
In the fourth quarter, the three online cable alternatives that LRG tracks gained 371,000 new customers for the year, A few major online alternatives, like YouTube TV aren’t on the list since they don’t announce customer counts.
In a recent article in LightReading, Mike Dano cites data from industry analyst Cowan that shows that some of the largest fiber builders in the country have already trimmed back their construction plans for 2023.
AT&T has the largest retrenchment and is trimming 2023 plans from 3.5 to 4 million passings back to 2 to 2.5 million. The company says that it is not changing its long-term goal to reach 30 million passings with fiber, but a cutback of this size means it won’t likely reach that target in 2025.
Lumen’s new CEO Kate Johnson said the company is taking a pause while it rethinks its path forward. In doing so, the company trimmed 2023 fiber expansion plans from 1.75 million passings to something under 1 million.
Cowen says other big ISPs will also trim plans a bit. Frontier is probably trimming 2023 plans from 1.6 million to 1.4 million passings. Altice is cutting expectations back from 1.6 million to 1.5 million. Consolidated is reducing 400,000 planned new passings to 350,000.
There are other fiber builders that don’t seem to be cutting plans. Brightspeed, Metronet, and others still seem to be on track for their 2023 plans.
But cutbacks of the size of the AT&T and Lumen plans raise some questions about the trajectory of fiber overbuilding. If construction plans announced two years ago had held steady, there was a massive push to build fiber networks to compete with cable companies. Do these cuts mean that fiber competition won’t materialize as planned?
There have been big external changes affecting the entire industry. Fiber material costs are up, as evidenced by the recent price hike announced by Corning. Prices of fiber components are up across the board for everything from conduit, handholes, drop wires, etc. A bigger cost impact is the cost of labor, with technicians labor rates rising across the industry.
Fiber construction is also not immune from interest rate increases. I already have some clients thinking of shelving fiber expansion projects until interest rates come back to earth.
All of this adds up to a lower return for fiber builders. I was always a bit mystified by the frenetic planned pace of fiber expansion craze in cities since the returns have never been spectacular. I’ve always assumed the push to build fiber has been more of a land grab as big ISPs see other fiber builders encroach on areas they want as markets. I think much of the fiber construction craze has been about either building now or getting locked out of markets in the future.
Any level of cutbacks is good news for cable companies, since the above cutbacks mean several million fewer fiber passings to compete with by the end of 2023. Any relaxing of the competitive pressure gives cable companies more time to upgrade upload speeds over the next three years. I have to wonder if the cable company’s plans to increase upload speeds play into any of the decisions to cut back on fiber expansion. It would be really interesting to sit inside the Board rooms as the big ISPs debate these strategies. The broadband environment is getting more complex by the day.
Diana Goovaerts recently wrote an article that quotes Frontier’s Consumer EVP John Harrobin as saying that Frontier expects to become the ‘un-cable” option in the market. He says that Frontier is doing this by simplifying its product lines to eliminate behavior that customers hate.
One of the biggest changes is to get rid of special pricing, where a customer signs with an ISP due to a low-price special, only to see the rates jump up at the end of the special period. This is the one characteristic of big ISPs that customers dislike the most. For years I’ve been advising smaller ISPs to avoid the practice and to offer a fair price all of the time.
I have ISP clients who sometimes panic when they see big ISPs offering special prices as they enter a new market. The specials work to some degree, and the big ISPs lure some customers with the special prices. But small ISPs have learned that after a year or two, when the special pricing ends, they have a good chance to win most of these customers. Small ISPs have learned that when they treat customers fairly that those customers don’t bite on new pricing offers. In the long run, the best way to reduce churn is to treat customers fairly and with transparency.
The interview didn’t mention it, but if Frontier is going to be an un-cable ISP, it also will have to eliminate hidden fees. These are the fees that are not included in advertising but appear on the first customer bill, usually as an unpleasant surprise. The biggest hidden fees are for cable TV service where ISPs hide programming and sports fees and settop box fees – and where a first bill can be $30 higher than the advertised price. But big ISPs do the same thing and don’t mention expensive modem fees in advertising – and customers are instantly unhappy when they get a first bill where the actual price is $10 or $15 higher than the price they expected.
Frontier has announced plans to build fiber to pass 10 million homes and businesses. The company was getting creamed by competition as long as it primarily offered DSL. In 2018, Frontier lost over 200,000 broadband customers. In 2019 the losses grew to 235,000, and in 2020 the company lost 400,000 broadband customers. But by 2021, Frontier started turning the ship around and only lost 35,000 customers for the year as fiber additions started to outnumber DSL losses.
Frontier has a long way to go to have its customer base come to trust it. The company was guilty of all of the same sins as other big rural telcos. It cut back on maintenance to the point where customers might be out for a week or two before they heard from a technician. In many cases, the company would disconnect a customer that had a problem rather than fix it. The company accepted federal CAF II funding, but many customers saw little or no improvements. Frontier has a long way to go to regain the trust of customers that it largely abandoned for many years.
Building fiber is a huge start to regaining customer trust since delivering broadband that actually works is essential to have customers want to stay with any ISP. But Frontier is still going to have to demonstrate to customers that it cares about them when there is a problem. Most small ISPs try to clear customer problems within a day of a trouble report and will work extra hours to do so. If Frontier really wants to be the un-cable company it will mean adding maintenance staff. Folks have become so reliant on broadband that they are annoyed if they lose service for an hour – they won’t forgive an ISP that puts them out of service for a day or longer.
Frontier has also been embroiled in a few overbilling controversies in recent years, and being the un-cable ISP means taking the attitude that the customer is right, even if that costs the company a few bucks.
It’s going to be interesting to see if Frontier’s practices live up to the public relations hype. There is one sign that perhaps the company has started to turn the ship. In the 2022 American Customer Satisfaction Index, the consumer rating of Frontier jumped from 57 to 61 in one year. In 2020, the only ISP with a worse customer rating was Suddenlink. Within a year, the company bypassed the rating for MediaCom and CenturyLink. A 60 rating still means that Frontier (and most other ISPs) is still the most disliked companies among 45 different major business sectors. But if Frontier can sustain being an un-cable ISP, then over time, customers will begin to trust the company again.
Broadband industry statistics have been compiled by the Leichtman Research Group which provides an interesting new narrative for the industry. The biggest ISPs added just over one million new broadband customers in the first quarter of 2022, but half of the new customers went to the FWA products from Verizon and T-Mobile.
FWA stands for Fixed Wireless Access and is home broadband delivered using cellular frequencies. T-Mobile and Verizon are aggressively marketing the product, which is touted to have download speeds over 100 Mbps. The market is going to get hotter when Dish gets its launch underway soon. AT&T has also been promising a major new marketing effort to sell the product.
FWA was originally touted as the replacement for rural DSL. However, both T-Mobile and Verizon report having success selling the product in urban areas and competing with cable companies. This means that FWA success is going to bring down customer counts for other ISPs.
Over the past several years, Comcast and Charter have been accounting for most of the growth in broadband customers. In the first quarter, the two FWA providers and Comcast and Charter together account for 92% of net increases in broadband customers.
There are some interesting numbers inside this report.
Frontier has clearly turned it around after steady losses for several years and saw growth of 0.7% for the quarter.
The big loser is now Lumen, which lost over 1% of its broadband customers in the quarter.
We know that AT&T has been selling fiber connections at a hot pace but is still seeing significant losses of DSL customers to net out at a small positive growth.
The biggest percentage gainer among landline companies for the quarter is CABLE ONE, with quarterly growth of 1.1%.
Altice continues to struggle and lost broadband customers for the quarter.
Leichtman Research recently released the broadband customer statistics for the end of the fourth quarter of 2021. The numbers show that broadband growth has slowed significantly for the sixteen largest ISPs tracked by the company. LRG compiles these statistics from customer counts provided to stockholders, except for Cox which is privately owned.
Net customer additions sank each quarter during the year. The first quarter of 2021 saw over 1 million net new broadband customers. That dropped to just under 900,000 in the second quarter, 630,000 in the third quarter, and now 423,000 in the fourth quarter. The statistics for all of 2021 and for the fourth quarter are as follows:
There are a few interesting things to keep an eye on in the future. The growth for Comcast and Charter have slowed significantly and my prediction is that there will come a quarter within a year where one or both of them will lose net customers. For several years running, Frontier has been bleeding customers but seems to be turning it around. The big loser is now CenturyLink.
For some reason, LRG is leaving out fixed cellular customers. At the end of 2021, T-Mobile reported 646,000 fixed cellular customers, with 546,000 added in 2021. Verizon is up to 228,000 fixed cellular customers, up by 173,000 during 2021. The two companies, along with AT&T, are making a major push in this market and expect to add millions of customers in 2022 – many at the expense of the other ISPs on the list. It’s an odd choice to exclude these customers since the speeds on fixed cellular are faster than the DSL delivered by the telcos on the list. Also missing are other big providers that are probably larger than Consolidated, like a few of the largest WISPs and fiber overbuilders like Google Fiber.
But even after counting the growth of fixed cellular broadband, it’s obvious that the broadband market growth has cooled. The burst of new customers in 2020 and the first half of 2021 were clearly fueled by homes buying broadband during the pandemic.
It’s also worth noting that the numbers for WOW! and Atlantic Broadband (now Breezeline) have been adjusted for the sale of customers by WOW!.