Tag Archives: charter

FCC bases big decisions on small facts spooned out by big telecoms companies

The Federal Communications Commission jumped in on the side of Charter Communications in a dispute with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. The case was bumped to a federal appeals court – the MPUC lost the first round – and now the FCC has moved in to protect its turf.

The question is whether Minnesota can regulate voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) phone service the same way it does old style analog service. There’s a great article by Jon Brodkin in ArsTechnica that goes through the details of the case, so I won’t repeat it here.

My interest is in the insight I think the FCC’s arguments give into its thinking on whether or not broadband should be classified as a common carrier service, and if not, how does it regulate it, if at all?

The FCC says it hasn’t decided once and for all if VoIP is a common carrier service, but its skidding rationalisations in the Minnesota case and its draft decision rolling back restrictions on when telcos can replace copper service with wireless indicate that it’s happy to zero in on a microscopically literal interpretation of narrow circumstances when it suits a pre-determined outcome, and wave away any annoying facts to the contrary.

In the draft decision on wireline deployment the FCC would abandon what it calls the “functional test” – the practical and overall impact – when assessing infrastructure rollbacks, in favor of a far more narrow standard based on a provider’s own service descriptions. Extending that line of reasoning to VoIP, it doesn’t matter that it’s functionally indistinguishable from legacy service. What’s important is what Charter, in this case, says it is.

It’s a leap, but not an impossible one, to take it one step further and imagine the FCC applying that logic, such as it is, to broadband service.

The core function of broadband service is to transport bits between two points, as determined by the users on both ends. Internet service providers do that “without change in the form or content of the information as sent or received”, as the statutory definition of telecommunications service puts it. It should be a clear cut decision.

But in its draft wireline decision and its court filing in the Charter appeal, the FCC prefers to ignore a common sense reading of the facts in favor of swallowing the marketing claims of big telecoms companies hook, line and sinker. If there was any doubt as to whether the FCC will scrap broadband’s status as common carrier service, it’s gone now.

New York fines Charter $13 million for stalled upgrades

The New York State State Public Service Commission has slapped a $13 million fine on Charter Communications, as punishment for missing broadband expansion requirements attached to regulatory approval of its purchase of Time Warner Cable systems last year. According to a story by Kendra Chamberlain in FierceCable, Charter’s build out in New York fell far short…

The agreement included statewide speed upgrades reaching 100 Mbps by 2018 and 300 Mbps by 2019, and a timeline for building out its broadband network in chunks of over 36,000 new residents and businesses per year, to be completed by 2020.

Charter was able to upgrade broadband service speeds to 100 Mbps across New York ahead of the 2018 deadline set by its agreement, but has been slow to roll out service to new households and businesses. In its first year, Charter passed just over 15,000 new premises, less than half of what it promised.

Charter has similar obligations here in California, albeit without annual targets. The California Public Utilities Commission required Charter to upgrade all remaining analog systems to “an all-digital platform with download speeds of not less than 60 Mbps” within two and a half years, with a bump to 100 Mbps in three years, as well as extending lines to 80,000 new homes and, specifically, to convert its systems in the City of Gonzales and elsewhere in Monterey County to full digital capabilities.

Charter has already upgraded some systems in San Bernardino County, ahead of a threatened fiber to the home project, and already has construction crews in the field in Monterey County. Whether it’s performing to the same level in parts of California where there’s no pressure from competitive providers or motivated local governments is an open question. The first deadline doesn’t come until next year, and the CPUC isn’t likely to begin any enforcement action – or, perhaps, even a due diligence process – on its own before then.

I assisted the City of Gonzales with its efforts at the CPUC and its negotiations with Charter. I am not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Big telecoms mergers could test Trump’s anti-trust chops

There’s a lot of sniffing around telecoms companies in these dog days of summer. Softbank, Japanese tech investment giant which owns Sprint, is reported to be sniffing around T-Mobile, with a merger in mind. If it happened – if regulators allow it to happen – it would take the U.S. mobile telecom sector down to three companies, from the current four.

Charter Communications is getting a lot of attention, too. Softbank first tried to engineer a merger, and when that failed began talking about buying the company outright. But if it’s really in the hunt for T-Mobile, a second mega-deal with Charter becomes unlikely.

But it has company. According to a story on CNBC, Altice is looking at adding Charter to its U.S. kennel, which so far includes Suddenlink and Cablevision. It’s not much of a powerhouse in the U.S., yet, but the France-based company is a major player in Europe. If it wants to buy Charter, it has to entice controlling owner Liberty Media and its big dog, John Malone. The question, according to CNBC, is whether Altice’s track record of boosting the value of acquired cable companies by slashing operating expenses will do the trick…

In its short time operating in the U.S. market, Altice has shown a unique ability to cut costs and generate substantially higher margins, before taxes and other costs, than predecessor managements. But Liberty is still wary of taking Altice paper in the belief that it is too early to tell whether those gains are sustainable…

Charter, with $60 billion in debt and an expected purchase price that could reach or exceed $500 a share would represent an enterprise value of almost $200 billion.

Altice’s U.S. holdings may be small enough to avoid triggering a fatal anti-trust response from the federal justice department. In past times, a T-Mobile-Sprint combination probably would set off alarm bells – similar mergers did – but things might be different now. Conventional wisdom is that the Trump administration wouldn’t be so worried about increased telecoms market concentration, concerns about its treatment of the AT&T – Time Warner deal notwithstanding. We might know soon if that’s a good assumption.

Charter moves fast where fiber competition looms


But is it fast enough?

If you want to steer telco and cable company capital investment toward your community, apply competitive pressure, preferably with a full scale fiber to the home project. Once again, that lesson has been learned as the simple and reliable mechanics of microeconomic theory have pushed a major cable company to accelerate spending in an area it has long ignored.

Charter Communications is required to upgrade the antique analog cable systems it has long maintained in redlined communities. That’s one of the conditions attached to the California Public Utilities Commission’s approval of its purchase of Time Warner and Bright House cable systems in the state. Charter’s deadlines for doing so range from two to three years, with most of its territory in California due for digital service within two and half years of the merger’s approval. That happened nearly a year ago, so the time remaining is more like one to two years.

So who goes to the top of Charter’s priority list? According to claims it has filed with the CPUC regarding where broadband subsidy dollars should be spent, the community on Charter’s fast track is one in San Bernardino County that’s been targeted by a competitor…

Charter agreed to rebuild its broadband footprint in both Phelan and Prunedale/Aromas/Salinas—two of the priority areas identified in the White Paper. In Phelan, Charter completed its rebuild in December 2016, revitalizing its plant and improving broadband services available in 250 census blocks identified in the White Paper as high impact. Similarly, Charter is scheduled to complete the rebuild of its plant in Prunedale/Aromas/Salinas no later than May 2019.

Phelan, where Race Communications is in the hunt for a California Advanced Services Fund subsidy for an FTTH system, was upgraded within months of the CPUC’s order taking effect. In the northern Monterey County neighborhoods around Prunedale and Aromas, Charter is happy to wait the full three years.

It’s uncertain whether Charter’s plans are enough to knock Monterey County off of the CPUC’s bang for the buck list. But it is crystal clear that the faster build happened in the community where Charter faces the bigger competitor.

Cable companies will double broadband prices because they can

Source: New Street Research, via *FierceCable*

In a competitive market, pricing is dynamic – you can’t reliably plan more than one or two moves ahead. But in a de facto monopoly – either a single seller or a duopoly with a weak second banana – you can lay out a long term roadmap and follow it relentlessly.

That’s what one noted financial analyst thinks the two big U.S. cable companies are doing. According to a story in FierceCable, Jonathan Chaplin, an analyst at New Street Research, thinks cable broadband prices will double in the coming years…

“Comcast and Charter have given up on usage-based pricing for now; however, we expect them to continue annual price increases,” Chaplin said. “As the primary source of value to households shifts increasingly from pay-TV to broadband, we would expect the Cable companies to reflect more of the annual rate increases they push through on their bundles to be reflected in broadband than in the past. Interestingly, Comcast is now pricing standalone broadband at $85 for their flagship product, which is a $20 premium to the rack rate bundled price.”

Chaplin estimates that cable companies have 65% of U.S. broadband customers now, and that share will grow to 72% over the next three years.

That kind of market dominance is something that cable companies want to keep out of the public eye. It’s why they push back hard against raising broadband standards: if, say, California adopted the Federal Communication Commission’s 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speed standard as the minimum necessary to participate fully in the digital economy, then cable companies would have an effective, and easily documented, monopoly on broadband service. That would invite regulation, which is something that cable companies aggressively – and rationally – lobby to avoid.

But government-set standards are a poor substitute for market realities. If cable operators have gained a controlling market share by being the only option for the service levels that consumers demand, then it’s game over. They will have – do have, as Chaplin implies – the power to set rent-extracting prices without regard for troublesome competitors.

Verizon could close a big competitive gap with Charter’s fiber

Verizon needs to build more than 100,000 new cell sites and add more fiber connectivity to close a capacity gap with its U.S. competitors, according to a report from New Street Research. And, the report concludes, buying Charter Communications – as rumors say it might – could help solve some of Verizon’s problems. It wouldn’t be much benefit to Charter, though.

The report estimates that when the number of cell sites and the amount of spectrum used is taken into consideration, Verizon has a bit more than half of the capacity per subscriber that AT&T and T-Mobile have. In order to catch up, Verizon would have to build 69,000 new macro – traditional, big – cell sites, or 138,000 or more small cell sites. New Street estimates that if small cells are properly located to reach high concentrations of subscribers, it would only take two to replace a big cell site. To fully cover the same geographic area, though, the ratio is more like ten to one.

Those sites would all need back haul, of course, which is where Charter comes in. Verizon still has some wireline assets of its own, but Charter’s footprint is much bigger and U.S. cable companies have more fiber – and more easily accessed fiber – than telcos. “Cable has much greater fiber density than their wireline competitors”, the report says. “To put this in perspective, the Cable industry has 320,000 nodes today, the vast majority of which are fed with fiber. By contrast, telecom carriers have 23,000 fiber fed central offices”.

So a cable acquisition would be an advantage for Verizon. From Charter’s perspective, the benefits aren’t clear. New Street discounts speculation that a cable-mobile merger would reduce churn, concluding that Verizon’s is a low as it can go and there’s no hard evidence that it would have much more than a marginal impact on Charter’s.

The report makes several other good points about the cable and mobile sectors, and telecoms in general, and is worth reading. New Street’s top line conclusion is that an acquisition is less likely than originally thought, and “our working hypothesis is that it will be very tough for Verizon to structure a deal that Charter will find compelling”.

Charter is ripping off Internet subscribers, says NY attorney general

Time Warner Cable executives deliberately under provisioned and over promised Internet service to its subscribers in the State of New York and Charter Communications is allowing the practice to continue, claims New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman in a lawsuit filed earlier this week. It’s a follow on to an investigation kicked off in 2015.

Charter purchased TWC in May 2016. It took over operation of systems and customer equipment that couldn’t delivered speeds that were advertised or that customers purchased and “even now, [Charter] continues to offer Internet speeds that we found they cannot reliably deliver”, Schneiderman alleges. TWC went so far as to rig speed tests run by the Federal Communications Commission, according to the lawsuit

[Time Warner Cable] leased older-generation modems to over 900,000 subscribers in New York State…However, [Time Warner Cable] knew that, in practice, these older-generation modems were incapable of achieving the Internet speeds its subscribers were led to believe they were paying for…

[Time Warner Cable] managed its cable network in a way that did not deliver the promised Internet speeds over any type of connection. It cut corners by packing too many subscribers in the same service group, which resulted in slower speeds for subscribers, especially during peak hours. It also failed to add more channels for each service group, which similarly resulted in slower speeds for subscribers…
[Time Warner Cable] further deceived the FCC by manipulating the average Internet speed results in the FCC’s speed tests. The company inflated the average speed results by providing increased Internet speeds when service groups were less utilized to offset (and conceal) test results showing slower speeds when the service groups had heavier usage. By gaming the FCC speed tests in this manner, [Time Warner Cable] concealed the fact that it failed to consistently deliver the promised speeds to its subscribers under actual network conditions.

Charter’s response to an enquiry from Ars Technica blamed TWC but stopped short of admitting there was actually a problem or promising that it would actually fix anything.

Haven’t seen the facts about AT&T, Time Warner merger, Trump says

Translation: never mind.

Donald Trump is backing off from his stated opposition to the AT&T – Time Warner transaction. According to the Axios blog, Trump said in an interview

“I have been on the record in the past of saying it’s too big and we have to keep competition. So, but other than that, I haven’t, you know, I haven’t seen any of the facts, yet. I’m sure that will be presented to me and to the people within government.”

Wall Street’s optimism about a kinder attitude toward big mergers in Washington, DC appears to be a safer bet.

Yuge telecoms companies expect to get yuger

Big money is leaning in the direction of a permissive, rather than populist, Trump presidency, at least when it comes to big telecoms mergers. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson met with Trump last week. Although both AT&T and Trump’s team insist that the pending acquisition of Time Warner wasn’t discussed, Stephenson continues to project optimism that federal regulators – the justice department’s anti-trust unit and, possibly, the Federal Communications Commission – will allow it to go forward. That’s despite Trump’s initial – and probably knee jerk – public opposition to it.

Now comes word that Verizon wants to buy Comcast or Charter. That’s a much different beast. According to a story in the New York Post, Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam is on the prowl for a big cable company

The CEO told friends at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month that he wants to buy into cable, one source said.

“They need it for 5G,” said a second source, confirming McAdam’s interest.

The most likely targets would be “Charter or Comcast,” the source noted.

“Altice is too small,” the source speculated.

To be sure, Verizon is not in talks with any cable company and may not ever make such a move.

A vertical integration play, like AT&T and Time Warner, is one thing. The Obama administration allowed Comcast to vertically integrate with its acquisition of NBC-Universal. But up until now, there’s been a limit on large scale horizontal combinations – Comcast wasn’t allowed to buy Time Warner Cable (although Charter, a smaller company, was) and neither Sprint nor AT&T gained permission to hook up with T-Mobile.

In addition to the Verizon rumor, there’s renewed speculation about another try at a T-Mobile and Sprint combo, or maybe even a three-way Comcast-Charter-Cox takeover of T-Mobile. The mere fact that the possibility is taken seriously says that Wall Street analysts and big company CEOs – arguably the people who know Trump best – see him as the deal maker he’s always been rather than the anti-establishment candidate he became.

Update: Trump is backing off from his stated opposition to the AT&T-Time Warner transaction. According to the Axios blog, Trump said in an interview

“I have been on the record in the past of saying it’s too big and we have to keep competition. So, but other than that, I haven’t, you know, I haven’t seen any of the facts, yet. I’m sure that will be presented to me and to the people within government.”

Battle for broadband in California’s public housing heats up


Would you like some pay-per-view with that?

The cable industry is continuing its assault on low cost broadband designed for people who live in publicly subsidised housing. Cox Communications is the latest company to ask the California Public Utilities Commission to nullify broadband improvement grants given to public housing operators in their territory. The cable companies object because they also sell broadband service, along with very profitable television packages, to some of these communities.

The problem, though, is that residents aren’t subscribing to those services. The California Emerging Technology Fund also jumped into the dispute, challenging Charter Communications’ and, now, Cox’s false claim that the grants are illegal.

The real problem, according to the CETF brief, is that on average only about a quarter of public housing residents can afford market rate broadband service offered by cable companies and that the discount programs for low income households that they brag about are in fact designed to fail. Cable companies have such a poor track in public housing because, according to CETF

(1) residents cannot afford the market price, typically $30-$65 in the state;
(2) discounted Internet programs have narrow eligibility, such as Comcast Internet Essentials, which is primarily offered only to low-income families with K-12 aged children in the free or reduced national free lunch program;
(3) the application process is difficult for low-income families to navigate to qualify for low–cost broadband offers, establish eligibility, and actually hook up the necessary equipment to provide the service;
(4) low-income households often cannot afford the lack of equipment such as a computing device, printer or wireless router; and
(5) distrust of corporate broadband providers by [public housing] residents, who are concerned about being upsold plans they cannot afford.

The Internet access enabled by the subsidies, which only pay for installation of facilities and not the service itself, is generally slower and more problematic than cable modem service. In other words, residents are being offered a distinctly different choice. Which is what infuriates the California cable industry: it doesn’t want low income people to have any choice at all.