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Greetings from Charlotte, North Carolina (picture is, from left, Frank Cairon, formerly of Verizon Wireless and Ryan Barker, currently with Verizon Wireless enjoying some good Mexican food on Friday in the Queen City with yours truly).
This week’s TSB examines the short-term dynamics that could impact wireless growth in the third quarter and through the end of the year. At the end of this week’s TSB we will also briefly examine the current state of litigations and investigations active and pending (T-Mobile/ Sprint, Facebook, and Google).
Follow-up to Last Week’s CBRS article
Before diving into earnings drivers, a quick shout out to Federated Wireless, who raised $51 million this week in a mammoth C Round financing (full announcement here). Existing investors American Tower, Allied Minds, and GIC (Singapore sovereign wealth fund) all participated in the round, and Pennant Investors (Tim McDonald, formerly of Eagle River (Craig McCaw), will be joining the Federated board) and SBA joined with fresh cash. Kudos to Federated CEO Iyad Tarazi for his continued leadership and perseverance. With $51 million in additional cash, spectrum sharing gets a global boost.
In addition to this news, the FCC also has placed the approval and scheduling of the Private Access License auction (this is the dedicated band that gets priority over the General Authorized Access band) on the docket for June 2020 (FCC Commissioner Pai’s blog post is here). It’s generally assumed that this means a C-Band auction will come at the end of 2020/ beginning of 2021 (although this week’s news that Eutelsat has withdrawn from the C-Band Alliance has some believing that there may be a side deal afoot). The PAL auction timeline is in line with expectations, and it’s likely participants will include some new(ish) entrants.
Third Quarter Earnings – What Could Dislodge Wireless?
Speaking of expectations, there’re not a lot of dramatic changes expected in the wireless arena. Consensus has T-Mobile leading the postpaid phone net additions race (no surprise), with Sprint struggling to keep pace, AT&T in the 0-300K range for postpaid phone thanks in large part to FirstNet gains, and Verizon, excluding cable MVNO revenues, growing their retail postpaid phone base only slightly. With the exception of FirstNet (and a few quarters of decent Verizon growth), this is a pretty consistent story dating back to early 2017. What events could change the equation and dislodge the current structure?
- More rapid AT&T postpaid phone net additions led by FirstNet. Here’s how AT&T CFO John Stephens summarized the relationship between spectrum rollout and FirstNet deployments at an investor conference in early August:
We had some AWS-3 and some WCS spectrum that we had, so to speak, in the warehouse that we hadn’t deployed. We had 700 spectrum, Band 14 from FirstNet, which the government was requiring us to deploy. And then we got a whole new set of technologies that were coming out, 256 QAM and 4-way MIMO and carrier aggregation. They were particularly important to us because of our diverse spectrum portfolio. So we got the FirstNet contract and we had to touch a tower, have to go out on the network. And we decided, with this contract, now is the time to, so to speak, do everything. Put all the spectrum in service, that’s the 60 megahertz. In some towers, it’s 50, some towers, it’s 60, but it’s 60 megahertz of new spectrum that was generally unused that we’re putting in.
This has the effect of increased costs, but also improved network performance. With 350,000 net additions already from FirstNet (Stephens disclosed this in the same conference), it’s entirely possible that they could post a 100K net add surprise due to increased coverage and deployments. In turn, improved wireless bandwidth, while driving up costs, should lower churn in areas like Detroit (RootMetrics overall winner in a tie with Verizon – first since 2012), and Boston (first RootMetrics overall win in Bean Town since 2017).
- Faster cable MVNO growth. While this week’s news was on Altice’s aggressive $20 unlimited price point for existing customers (great analysis on their strategy here), both Charter and Comcast see a lot of mover activity in the third quarter. This would seem to be a very good time to present their wireless offer. Here’s a chart of net additions by both Charter and Comcast for the past two years:
While the two largest cable providers accounted for ~390K growth in 2Q (and over 1.3 million net additions growth over the last four quarters), there’s a strong likelihood that this figure could grow even greater as the attractiveness of the wireless bundle pricing takes effect. Both Spectrum and Comcast are maturing their service assurance processes, and those efforts should lower churn.
Comcast also made a number of changes to their “By the Gig” plans which encourage this option for multi-line plans that use 2-6 Gigabytes per line per month (and therefore use a lot of Xfinity Wi-Fi services). It basically amounts to a prepayment for overage services, but could be attractive for certain segments/ demographics (full details on these offer changes are here). Charter did not follow the Comcast changes described in the link and their “By the Gig” pricing continues to be $2/ mo / gigabyte higher.
Both Comcast and Charter are running into Apple iPhone announcement headwinds if next week’s headlines meet expectations (no 5G, no CBRS, no special financing deals, better camera). If the changes do not increase willingness to upgrade/ change to an iPhone, it’s going to be very difficult to craft a cable plan (even $20/ mo.) that will buck the trend. The upgrade cycle will be extended to 4Q 2020, when both the carriers and Comcast/ Charter will have full access to 5G.
Our prediction is that Charter and Comcast will have 475-500K net additions in the third quarter thanks to a combination of lower churn and higher gross additions (led by increased moving activity). Altice’s offer will add another 70K net additions in September, with those gains coming from Sprint retail and, to a lesser extent, T-Mobile retail and wholesale (Tracfone).
- T-Mobile’s 600 MHz coverage (and gross add) improvements. As T-Mobile, Sprint, and the state Attorneys General try to find a resolution to their quagmire, T-Mobile keeps on deploying 600 MHz spectrum. Here’re their reported (through Q2 2019) and estimated (Q3/Q4) progress:
Every new device on the T-Mobile.com website (and every T-Mobile store) is 600 MHz/ LTE Band 71 capable. Many older devices are not, however, and that is preventing greater market share gains in secondary and tertiary geographies (many/ most BYOD Android devices from AT&T, for example, will have the 700 MHz but not have the 600 MHz band). The expected Apple announcement represents a slight headwind for T-Mobile as well.
There’s a natural gross add/ upgrade path that follows 145 million coverage growth over a 12-month period. Assuming T-Mobile keeps their churn rate at 0.8%/ month over 3Q (2.4% of the ending branded postpaid 2Q base would be ~1.07 million disconnections), they have grown their 600 MHz marketable base by 20 million from Q1 to Q2 and by another 50 million from Q2 to Q3. If they just grew their penetration in the 600 MHz band by 1.5% for Q1-Q3 incremental POPs (or 0.5% penetration for the entire estimated 3Q 2019 footprint), they would negate the entire estimated branded postpaid churn for the rest of the country. This ex-urban/ rural growth opportunity is unique to T-Mobile and would at the expense of AT&T and Verizon.
Offsetting the 600MHz growth is small cell progress. T-Mobile committed at the beginning of the year to deploy 20,000 incremental small cells in 2019, but that guidance was withdrawn in their Q2 Factbook with H1 growth of only 1,000. That leaves a very large backlog of in-process capital (excluding capitalized interest, total capital spending was $3.48 billion vs an estimated spending range at the high end of $5.4 – $5.7 billion). T-Mobile should spend at least $2.2 billion in capital spending in the second half of 2019 on 5G, 600 MHz, and other initiatives and will undoubtedly be left with a lot of in-process small cell deployments.
- Sprint’s prepaid and postpaid churn. There’re a lot of headwinds for Sprint in the third quarter – overall 2Q churn trends are higher than previous year’s, and no one expects the seasonal respite to last long. It’s likely that 3Q postpaid churn could exceed 1.85%, led by postpaid phone churn of a similar level (look for late September promotional activity).
Prepaid churn is a bit tougher to forecast and will also be tracked closely. If the postpaid churn comes in below 2Q levels, check the prepaid recategorizations to postpaid (they were 116K in Q2 and 129K in Q1). Both prepaid and reclassified postpaid accounts will be transferred to Dish assuming the merger goes through, but it makes the postpaid headline number more palatable.
The 30-day guarantee promotion, according to most reports, has been an ineffective switching tool. (Sprint’s 5G rollout success has been much more impactful). Expect Sprint to say very little until there is clarity on the litigation, and to post greater than expected losses in prepaid subscribers as they preserve their marketing dollars for a post-merger world.
Litigation Tracker: Why the Facebook, Google, and T-Mobile/ Sprint cases are not all the same
Speaking of litigation and investigation, we were very dismayed that media sources are choosing to lump the New York-led Facebook investigation announced Friday, the to be announced Texas-led Google investigation, and the on-going T-Mobile/ Sprint (TMUS/S) litigation into one mega-story. While there are some similarities, the upcoming Google action is broader than Facebook and more bipartisan than the TMUS/S complaint.
As most of you who are following the TMUS/S suit know, the states of Oregon and Illinois recently joined the original 14 states and the District of Columbia to block the merger. (As an aside, Fox Business is reporting that the state AG group is focusing on the inexperience and shaky financial condition of Dish Networks as opposed to what would have been an uphill market concentration battle). In fact, in the original TSB concerning the lawsuit (here), we were surprised by the absence of Illinois. The figure below shows who is involved in what (underlined states are named in the Facebook litigation):
To recap, there are 40 states + the District of Columbia named in the National Association of Attorneys General comment letter to the FTC (filing here), and at least 30 of them are joining a Texas-led lawsuit against Google to be announced early this week.
The makeup of the states in the FTC letter is very bipartisan: 14 Republican and 26 Democrat attorneys general. All of the states involved in the TMUS/S litigation are also named in the FTC comment letter. To contrast, of the 17 states in the TMUS/S litigation, only Texas (AT&T HQ) is Republican and the other 16 are Democrat.
As we stated in the TSB on the AG lawsuit, very few sparsely-populated states, regardless of political affiliation, are participating in the T-Mobile/ Sprint litigation. Fourteen of the fifteen least densely populated states in the US (data here) are named in the Google/ FTC letter. However, only two of the fourteen (Colorado, Oregon) are participating in the TMUS/S litigation. The promise of a rural solution outweighs the benefits of a fourth carrier in metropolitan and suburban areas.
The Facebook investigation is also widely bipartisan with five Democrats and four Republican states represented. Florida is involved in the Facebook investigation but none of the other two legal activities. In addition, there are nine states (including New Jersey, a Democrat stronghold) that are not currently participating in any legal activity.
Bottom Line: Concerns about Google’s anti-competitive practices are supported by a large number of state Attorneys General and are very bipartisan. A subsegment of Democrat AGs (and TX) is also a part of the T-Mobile/ Sprint lawsuit. And an even smaller subsegment plus Florida is a part of the recently announced Facebook investigation.
Next week, we will highlight some wireline trends and talk about overall profitability across the telecommunications sector. Until then, if you have friends who would like to be on the email distribution, please have them send an email to email@example.com and we will include them on the list.
Have a terrific week… and GO CHIEFS!
Greetings from Charlotte, North Carolina (Uptown signpost pictured). We will attempt to answer the question “Do the state Attorneys General have a case?” by summarizing and analyzing their case (find a copy of the complaint here – see point 7).
Following the ebullience of DOJ approval and a very strong earnings report from T-Mobile, investors digested Verizon’s (generally strong for wireless, and weak relative to AT&T for wireline) and Sprint’s (generally weak, Free Cash Flow negative) earnings. We will weave some recent earnings results into this week’s TSB, but, if you want all the details and analysis, look to the Deeper post we will have on the website related to “State Attorneys General Make Their Case”
Let’s dig into the basics of the case by understanding the plaintiffs, the nature of the complaint, and possible remedies/ compromises.
Who is Suing?
For those of you who are not following recent events closely, fourteen states and the District of Columbia are filing suit to permanently block the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint. Those states are as follows:
There is a very good balance of incumbent telcos represented by the suing states and DC. In fact, outside of Texas (let no one forget it’s the HQ of AT&T), there’s really no representation of the former Bell South or Southwestern Bell territories. It is interesting that 11 out of the 15 states or territories have a population density that is higher than the national average (the promise of rural buildout is less attractive in these areas than in Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Oklahoma or the Dakotas). And there are some notable dense areas that are missing: New Jersey, Rhode Island, Delaware and Florida all have high population densities but have not joined the group. Florida and New Jersey split cable coverage between Comcast and Spectrum.
While the plaintiffs in the lawsuit make an argument that competition will raise prices and reduce choices for lower-income Americans, it’s interesting to note that 11 out of the 15 states have high median household income (with 7 of the top 10 household income states represented). In fact, 12 out of the lowest 13 per household income states are not party to the complaint.
The head-scratcher on this list is Colorado, home to Dish (admittedly not as much in the picture when the lawsuit was filed in mid-June) and a relatively less dense area. But it also happens to be home to a significant and growing base of Comcast, Spectrum, and CableLabs employees and is one of the fastest growing states in the country. And, as the nearby chart shows, Colorado has a Democrat Attorney General (profile here).
What isn’t a surprise is that 11 out of 15 states have a strong Comcast presence. Admittedly, Comcast is pretty much everywhere (see map from Broadband Now here), and Illinois
(Comcast is primary provider to Chicago), Washington (Seattle, Tacoma), Georgia (Atlanta), Florida (Miami) and Pennsylvania (Comcast’s home state as well as provider in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) are not currently represented in the legal action. But if we see others join the lawsuit next week, don’t be surprised if they are one of the five mentioned above (Washington would be a particular blow to T-Mobile whose HQ are in Bellevue).
Bottom line: There are 26 states with a Democrat Attorney General, and half of them have joined together to block the T-Mobile/ Sprint merger. The one Republican state that recently joined the lawsuit happens to be home to T-Mobile’s former proposed merger partner and current competitor, AT&T. While there is no clear pattern beyond political affiliation, it is interesting to note that Comcast/ Xfinity Mobile has a major presence in many of the suing states.
What’s Their Case?
The case is best summed up in the last section (104) of the complaint: “Unless enjoined, the Merger likely will have the following effects in retail mobile wireless telecommunications services across the nation, among others:
- “Actual and potential competition between Sprint and T-Mobile will be eliminated;
- “Competition in retail mobile wireless telecommunications will be lessened substantially;
- “Prices for retail mobile wireless telecommunications services are likely to be higher than they otherwise would be;
- “The quality and quantity of mobile wireless telecommunications services are likely to be less than they otherwise would; and
- “Innovation will likely be reduced.”
Simply put, the telecom marketplace is better off with the current four-company structure, warts and all, then it would be with a three-company structure and Dish as a new entrant (with Sprint’s 800 MHz spectrum). The complaint contends that prices would rise 17-20% as the new T-Mobile would exercise their dominant position in major metropolitan areas such as New York and Los Angeles to keep prices (particularly prepaid) high. It also contends that fewer MVNOs would emerge and current MVNOs like Tracfone/ Straight Talk (20 million total customers) would struggle because neither the new T-Mobile nor Dish would make 4G or 5G capacity available at attractive prices. Finally, they contend that the consequences for the new T-Mobile failing to fulfill their deployment promises to the FCC are too weak.
While the actual market shares are redacted in the complaint, the Herfindahl Index information and the disclosure that the new T-Mobile would have more than 50% market share in the New York and Los Angeles CMAs (see sections 48 and 49 in the complaint) is astounding (full map of the FCC CMAs and RSAs here). CMA 1 and 2 are not small geographic areas, and, as we discussed last week, Dish owns some additional 600 MHz spectrum covering CMA 1. The greater question is “If true, what have AT&T and Verizon been doing in these markets for the last seven years? Have they been retreating to the Connecticut and New Jersey suburbs (as Long Island is covered by CMA 1)?” The disclosure is damning to Verizon and AT&T as it represents their two largest facilities-based (incumbent telco) footprints.
As for the argument that low-income subscribers would be disproportionately impacted, let’s have a look at the map of “mobile phone shops” in Paterson, NJ (I had the opportunity to tour every one of these and a few more as a part of my MVNO education in 2017). As you can see from the nearby picture, there are 17 stores within a 12 square block radius selling every major carrier. There’s a Boost City and two Boost Mobile stores. There’s a Total Wireless (Tracfone MVNO served exclusively by Verizon) and AT&T, Verizon FiOS, T-Mobile and Sprint retail stores in the mall at the bottom of the picture. There are traditional bodega-style shops selling H2O (AT&T MVNO), Ready Mobile (Tracfone MVNO served by T-Mobile), Ultra Mobile (T-Mobile MVNO) and several other brands.
Competition would suffer if T-Mobile eliminated their MVNO business entirely, but there’s absolutely no indication that they would ever throw Tracfone to the curb (their recent earnings call language backs it up). But if they did, AT&T (Cricket) and Verizon (Total Wireless, Xfinity Mobile, Spectrum Mobile) would gladly take their customers.
If space permitted, there’s an argument to be made that if Apple’s new credit card is successful (see latest Bloomberg article here), the concept of device financing through a traditional carrier will be a thing of the past in several years and we will be ordering iPhones with Mint Mobile-like online plans. Traditional carrier stores will go the way of bank branches (minus the need for an ATM).
Bottom line: The case sounds strong, but there’s plenty of contrary evidence indicating that the new T-Mobile would not behave like AT&T and Verizon just because it is bigger. The Herfindahl Index results highlight the metro retreat of the larger established brands more than the growing domination of their smaller rivals.
Let’s Make a Deal!
If a settlement can be achieved, it could include the following:
- Additional wireless subscriber divestitures in high-concentration markets to Dish. That’s a “sleeves off the vest” give on the part of new T-Mobile if they believe that they can win those customers back (T-Mobile’s postpaid monthly phone churn was extremely low this quarter at 0.78%). It may be easier to divest existing Sprint subscribers.
- Force a better MVNO deal for Dish (which would likely delay their construction of a replacement network).
- Mandate “cost plus” roaming rates T-Mobile offers to other carriers who wish to use the new T-Mobile network in rural areas (another “sleeves off the vest” argument which would improve scale for T-Mobile).
- Accelerate the Dish network deployment timeline (which would need to happen separately as Dish is not a party to the state Attorney’s General complaint) with additional penalties for non-compliance.
- Providing Dish (or near-Dish) terms to any new or existing MVNO that wishes to use the new T-Mobile network for the next 7 years (including the ability for any MVNO to exercise core control as outlined in the complaint). This would increase T-Mobile’s overall scale but not improve Dish’s overall competitiveness.
- Significantly higher penalties should T-Mobile not comply with the FCC conditions.
- Additional commitments (including cash payments) to the states. These might include requiring all new devices sold by new T-Mobile to be compatible with all other carriers, establishing a neutral-party run device compatibility database that would allow current and prospective customers to determine whether their current device could deliver a better network experience, and tools to make it easier to bring all text messages and voicemails to carriers should the customer leave the new T-Mobile.
Rather than focusing on the higher market share that the new T-Mobile will have (which has changed dramatically since 2012), the Attorneys General should focus on how to provide incentives to Verizon and AT&T to reestablish their presence in urban areas.
Bottom line: There’s a deal to be made. Rather than run the court through 5G cost models and timelines, the new T-Mobile executives and state officials should create a framework which will result in greater citywide competition and hasten the deployment of tomorrow’s network.
Next week’s issue will summarize 2Q earnings and look at Verizon’s new unlimited pricing plans. If you would like a copy of either the Top 10 Trends or the IoT Basic presentation discussed in last week’s TSB, please let us know at the email below and we’ll get you a copy.
Until then, if you have friends who would like to be on the email distribution, please have them send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and will include them on the list.
Have a terrific week!
Tax Day greetings from Washington DC (where I chaired a terrific discussion at INCOMPAS), Chicago, Charlotte, and Dallas. Thanks to everyone who showed up at the panel and participated – all of the speakers on Monday were great, including Chairman Tom Wheeler (pictured).
This week, we continue to chronicle the developments of the Set Top Box saga as the Obama administration weighed in through the NTIA with comments. We’ll also weigh in on the controversial “Ghettogate” ad. First, however, we’ll look at a study of balance sheets across the telecom industry which was released last week by Craig Moffett.
Redefining Leverage Ratios
With continued densification (smaller cell sites in more places), spectrum acquisition, and competition, many investors turn to leverage ratios to benchmark long-term financial health and viability. These ratios are not the first thing that companies highlight in their press releases, but many calculate and discuss their net debt to EBITDA metric. Here’s that definition according to Investopedia:
The net debt to EBITDA ratio is a measurement of leverage, calculated as a company’s interest-bearing liabilities minus cash or cash equivalents, divided by its EBITDA. The net debt to EBITDA ratio is a debt ratio that shows how many years it would take for a company to pay back its debt if net debt and EBITDA are held constant. If a company has more cash than debt, the ratio can be negative.
Using that standard definition, communications company metrics would look like this:
From a first glance, this looks as expected to most who follow the telecom industry. Verizon and AT&T maintain low leverage ratios and as a result are afforded low interest rates. Cablevision, Dish, Sprint, and Charter have historically been able to use high-yield debt markets to finance operations, spectrum purchases, stock buybacks, and other investments. T-Mobile and Time Warner Cable lie somewhere in between.
Telecom is not a typical industry, however. With Equipment Installment Plans (which entails moving away from subsidy and into subscriber-paid devices) and phone leasing proliferating, more “debt” is being created and sold to third parties at growing rates. Operating leases create pressure on EBITDA but also frequently mean long and non-cancelable commitments for telecommunications carriers. And pension obligations represent a promise to employees that rarely enters into leverage discussion dialogue.
MoffettNathanson’s adjusted leverage ratio schedule is shown to the right. In this view, the relative health of each carrier is different than what was previously reported. Verizon and AT&T look more like Cablevision and Charter thanks to large pension liabilities, even when the undiscounted size of the pension contribution tax credit is considered. Comcast appears to be the healthiest of the industry with Time Warner a distant second. Sprint’s revised ratio is a whopping 7.9x driven in large part by the reversing of the leasing construct. While it should be emphasized that nothing is truly “real” in the accounting world, this analysis provides some insights into the high-yield market’s reluctance to lend the company money at reasonable rates.
Craig Moffett did a Bloomberg interview on the topic (see here) and his detailed analysis is only available to MoffettNathanson clients. However, if you can get a copy of their work, it’s worth digesting and is on par with the seminal analysis on telecom affordability Craig did in his Bernstein days.
President Obama and the Set Top Box Kerfuffle
Since our article analyzing the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was written (see here), there has been a lot of discussion across many constituencies as to who would benefit and suffer the most. In the Sunday Brief devoted to the topic, we mentioned how this is pitting entrepreneurs against established programmers. It’s also pitting Democrat Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (California), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology against Democrat Senator Bill Nelson (Florida), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee. Representative Eshoo is a supporter of the FCC’s initiative while Senator Nelson wants to study the implications of opening up the Set Top Box market in greater detail (Nelson is supported by the National Urban League, the National Action Network, and the Rainbow/ PUSH Coalition).
To make matters more complex for policymakers, President Obama decided to weigh in on Friday, devoting his weekly radio address to the set top box issue. Here’s the situation assessment according to the White House (full blog address here):
… the set-top box is the mascot for a new initiative we’re launching today. That box is a stand-in for what happens when you don’t have the choice to go elsewhere—for all the parts of our economy where competition could do more.
Across our economy, too many consumers are dealing with inferior or overpriced products, too many workers aren’t getting the wage increases they deserve, too many entrepreneurs and small businesses are getting squeezed out unfairly by their bigger competitors, and overall we are not seeing the level of innovative growth we would like to see. And a big piece of why that happens is anti-competitive behavior—companies stacking the deck against their competitors and their workers. We’ve got to fix that, by doing everything we can to make sure that consumers, middle-class and working families, and entrepreneurs are getting a fair deal.
If that weren’t enough, the President’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) filed supportive comments with the FCC (read more about them here). For those of you who are new to the process, the NTIA is managed under the Department of Commerce and the administrator of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), one of the biggest boondoggles of the past decade (see New York Times article on BTOP titled “Waste is Seen in Program to Give Internet Access to Rural U.S.” here).
As we saw with the President’s actions on Net Neutrality (his YouTube message following the 2014 election is here), this administration is not afraid to use the power of the bully pulpit to influence the FCC. Without rehashing the previous article, and to continue in the spirit of problem-solving, here’s a few questions I would suggest the FCC carefully consider:
- Will the ruling require Google to open up the Google TV Box? In other words, could the Xbox connect to a Google Fiber coax cable and allow customers to launch a Bing or Cortana query to pull up the latest in Google TV programming? If not, why not? (Note: while it is substantially less, Google TV charges a $5/ mo. lease for every TV after the first box).
- Will the new Electronic Programming Guide (EPG) providers be required to show consumers what information they are collecting on customers? How will consumers access this information as well as any other sources that are being used to drive channel selection. For example, if I am shown the Kansas City Royals game as my first option and I have a Google EPG, will Google be required to show me that they recommended this because I have the MLB At Bat application on my Google Android phone?
- Can each customer of the new EPG service opt out of data collection? Will this selection process be easy for customers to access and install? See the previous Sunday Brief here for more detail.
- With the replacement of a relatively simple, channel-driven search process (using up and down arrow keys on a specially designed remote control) with a more sophisticated algorithm-driven process as the likely decision, how can the Commission state that the process will not alter advertising rates (see Wired article here)? Won’t customers bid (and Google profit) from paying for higher page rankings on EPG search results? If so, then what will prevent Black Entertainment Television (BET) from outbidding their apparent competition? As Roza Mendoza, the Executive Director of the Hispanic Technology & Telecommunications Partnership stated in the aforementioned Wired article “They’re asking us to trust Google? All of us know about their diversity record. The only people that are going to benefit from this are Silicon Valley companies.”
Let’s keep the recommendation very simple:
- Require all Multichannel Video Programming Distributors (MVPD) to provide the same set top box on-line and through distribution channels such as WalMart, just as they do with cable modems (see Time Warner Cable disclosure above).
- Require all MVPDs publish a list of boxes that they support (according to the Tivo Bolt FAQ page, all of their devices are compatible with every major cable provider in the US as well as FiOS. Chairman Wheeler carefully omits Tivo’s competitive offer in this Washington Post interview when he says “Today there is no competition in set-top boxes, and therefore the incentive to innovate and come up with all kinds of new alternatives is somewhat limited”).
- If the set-top box order is enacted, require opt-in consent and on-demand publication of how search results are being determined. Allow opt-out capabilities at any time and for any reason with no corresponding financial penalty (including termination penalties on the equipment).
- If the set-top box order is enacted, allow cable companies five years to comply with the decision.
No one can defend the current state of the Electronic Programming Guide (with the exception of the Xfinity X1/X2 and the Tivo Bolt). But to state that there is no set-top box competition when Tivo clearly positions itself as an alternative for digital cable providers is deceptive. And to fail to acknowledge that Google will financially benefit from search result rankings, and that entrepreneurs will have to pay up to achieve a top page ranking, is equally deceptive. The transition of value from cable companies to Google, Apple and Microsoft is apparent to anyone who digs deeper, and should receive the same bright spotlight that communications service providers have received throughout the entire Open Internet process.
Sprint’s Controversial (?) Ad
More than a few heads turned when Sprint released (and subsequently retracted) the following ad:
Lead statement: Real questions. Honest answers. Actual Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T customers. No actors.
Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure, talking to focus group but specifically addressing woman sitting to his right: “I’m going to tell you the carrier name, and I want you to basically tell me what comes to your mind. T-Mobile. When I say T-Mobile to you, just a couple of words.”
Woman sitting to Claure’s right: “Oh my God, the first word that came into my head was ghetto (laughter, Claure nods and smiles in approval). That sounds like terrible. Oh my God, I don’t know. Like, I just felt like that there’s always like three carriers. It’s AT&T, Sprint and Verizon. And people who have T-Mobile, it’s like “Why do you have T-Mobile?” I don’t know.
Claure taps her shoulder in approval. Sprint logo appears. End of ad.
For those of you who are struggling with the definition of ghetto, here’s the version from dictionary.com: a section of a city, especially a thickly populated slum area, inhabited predominantly by members of an ethnic or other minority group, often as a result of social or economic restrictions, pressures, or hardships.
Sprint had the sense to pull the ad, and Claure apologized, but his Twitter posts triggered intense reaction from many of Claure’s followers. Interestingly, John Legere, T-Mobile’s CEO, declined to comment other than the exchange nearby.
This is probably an innocent mistake, a miss due to personnel changes occurring within Sprint’s marketing department. Or perhaps Claure did not understand the racial undertones of the word ghetto. Regardless, it provided some unneeded attention this week for the struggling carrier, and Sprint (and Boost) customers can rest assured that it will not occur again.
Thanks for your readership and continued support of this column. Next week, we’ll dive into Verizon’s earnings as well as the Open Internet Order ruling if it is released. Until then, please invite one of your colleagues to become a regular Sunday Brief reader by having them drop a quick note to email@example.com. We’ll subscribe them as soon as we can (and they can go to www.mysundaybrief.com for the full archive). Thanks again for your readership, and Go Royals and Sporting KC!
Greetings from the Southland where, contrary to popular belief, business is booming and growth opportunities are expanding. Pictured is half of the bourbon wall from Louisville-based El Toro, one of the fastest-growing start-ups in Kentucky (their current offices are in a restored distillery).
This week, we will take a look at the last quarterly earnings call from Frontier prior to their acquisition of Verizon’s California, Texas, and Florida properties, and also highlight a series of announcements made during February which point to a resurgence in wireline interest.
Before doing this, our thoughts go out to Level3 CEO Jeff Storey and his family as he continues to recover from recent unplanned heart surgery. There are many Level3 readers who are regular readers of The Sunday Brief who were equally surprised by Monday’s announcement. Fortunately, Sunit Patel, Level3’s current CFO and now interim CEO, has the deep understanding and operating experience to continue Level3’s transformation into an enterprise-focused provider. We wish Jeff a speedy recovery and look forward to his return in a few short months.
Frontier’s “To Do” List
- Close the Verizon CA, FL, TX market transaction with as few issues as possible
- Identify and implement $600 million in planned synergies as a result of the VZ transaction starting at transaction close (while minimizing customer-facing impacts)
- Expand current video products to 3-4 million additional homes in 40 markets over the next 3 years. Clearly demonstrate that video growth will be profitable and the best use of incremental capital expenditures
- Translate additional broadband capacity improvements in CT into lower customer churn and improved Average Revenue per Residential Customer
- Manage promotions to grow revenue, increase the customer experience, and reduce the impact of post-promotion churn
- Continue to translate Connect America Fund (CAF) deployments into incremental customer relationships, especially for the 100,000 additional homes planned for 2016
- Translate improved bundle capabilities into lower residential voice churn
- Grow and demonstrate the value of self-service tools
- Improve business (SMB) competitiveness as a result of the Verizon properties acquisition
- Maintain or improve leverage and dividend payout ratios. Use increased cash flow to clean up some of the debt maturities on the balance sheet
Frontier Communications reported decent earnings this week as they prepare to double their size with the acquisition of Verizon properties in California, Texas, and Florida (full earnings report is here and their presentation is here).
Included is a map that management used in their first quarter earnings report describing the company’s footprint evolution (remember, the pending acquisition doubles the company’s size). This map tells us a lot about where Frontier is headed.
First, they are following the general population and moving south and west. Los Angeles and Dallas suburbs are growing faster than West Virginia and Upstate New York (see census data here). More moving equals more (and less costly) choices than overthrowing the incumbent at existing households. Any near term upside in subscriber growth will likely come from this secular trend.
Second, Frontier’s overall footprint density is going to improve with the Verizon transaction. There are real operational and capital cost improvements from this change. Trucks have to travel less, there are more Multi-Dwelling(MDU) / Multi-Tenant Units (MTU), and lower network unit costs are possible. MTUs present a double-edged sword, because this also means that business/ enterprise offerings need to be robust and competition (not only from cable but from fiber-based CLECs such as Alpheus in Texas) will be intense. How Verizon Enterprise supports and grows these legacy connections will be one of the interesting dynamics of a post-close Frontier.
Finally, they set the stage for further clustering. Frontier’s model to date has been “buy and manage” – they have done little if any trading of properties (common in the cable industry after large transactions such as Adelphia Communications acquisition by Comcast and Time Warner Cable). It’s interesting to think about the potential for Central Florida, the Great Lakes region, and Texas from a few transactions. Texas consolidation is especially ripe for this opportunity with Windstream and CenturyLink under-indexed in their exchange presence.
As if these three dynamics were not enough, their cable competition is also involved in a large three-way merger (Tampa is largely served by Bright House Networks, who is being acquired by Charter Communications; Texas and California properties have a decent overlap with Time Warner Cable, who is also being acquired by Charter Communications). Because Bright House and Time Warner Cable are performing quite well (see TWC’s Top 10 list here), it’s unlikely that Charter will make the kinds of dramatic changes that would open up the door for Frontier. Stranger things have happened, however, and the Charter/ TWC/ Bright House transaction is still awaiting California and federal approvals.
Bottom Line: Frontier has managed to do something that other ILECs have not – grow the high speed subscriber base in the middle of speed and technology transitions. The acquisition of selected Verizon properties will improve their customer density, network competitiveness, and product diversity (particularly in the business arena). They should use this opportunity to demonstrate their operating effectiveness and to re-cluster/ re-concentrate their footprint.
Cablevision’s “To Do” List
- Get the Altice transaction approved by the end of 2Q 2016 without compromising the overall terms
- Continue to grow the quantity (2.8 million) and quality (monthly RPC = $155.88) of High Speed Data customers (Cablevision serves 3.2 million customers overall)
- Reduce customer service expenses through fewer trouble calls (down 33% in 2015) and truck rolls (down 23%)
- Improve number of Optimum Wi-Fi users (currently only 1 million or 36% of the HSD base) as well as the quantity consumed (9 GB/ month)
- Maintain competitive positioning and operating cash flows at Cablevision Lightpath (fiber-based business division)
- Respond to market need of “skinnier” video bundles while minimizing revenue write-downs
- Continue to manage capital expenditures to an $800-840 million range
- Keep churn at record-leading levels (4Q represented the lowest voluntary churn in six years)
- Improve cash burn at “other” business units (Newsday, News 12, etc.)
- Get the Altice transaction approved by the end of 2Q 2016 without compromising the overall terms
The headline said a lot more about the economic improvements in their service area than the company overall: Cablevision delivers organic customer growth for the first time since 2008. While this is a great sign, there are plenty of headwinds facing the Bethpage, NY, company. Two of their three primary products are under heavy substitution threats (current video packages from smaller, more selective varieties; home phone service from wireless substitutes), and there’s an opportunity for wireless 5G services to threaten High Speed Data by the end of this decade.
Regardless of when/ if the transaction with Altice NV is approved, Cablevision needs to continue to grow and innovate. Their out-of-home Wi-Fi footprint is the benchmark for their cable peers (see more here), and their overall revenue per customer for High Speed Data is $44.70, among the best in the industry (TWC led the fourth quarter with $48.20/ mo in Average Revenue per High Speed Data customer; Comcast close behind with $47.15/ mo.). Cablevision has historically had strong customer service/ experience metrics compared to their peers but continues to lag behind FiOS, according to last September’s JD Power survey.
Bottom Line: Cablevision is in many respects a victim of their own success. They are maintaining high product penetration in an increasingly competitive environment. And, once the Frontier transaction closes, Verizon will be squarely focused on improving operating metrics in the Northeast. Increased speeds and sponsored data opportunities represent new growth frontiers for the company or their successor. Cablevision is in danger of losing their pioneering reputation, however, because of the Altice transaction uncertainty.
Wireline is Cool Again
I never thought I would be able to use the words “wireline” and “cool” in the same sentence again. But, after AT&T’s announcement that they would be spending $10 billion in 2016 to support enterprise wireline activities (much of this for wireless fiber backhaul in Mexico), and after Verizon’s surprise purchase of XO Communications for $1.8 billion, wireline has gone from a footnote to a headline (XO network map is pictured nearby).
This is the push and pull of the dramatic rise of data consumption from today’s world: If the server is not sitting next to the tower serving the customer, some amount of transport/ backhaul/ longhaul is required. Verizon estimates in the announcement above that they can save $1.5 billion from the transaction in synergies – this is likely only the fiber leverage opportunity, and does not include Verizon’s replacement cost for the aging MCI network (XO leverages the Level3 network – see more from this recent Sunday Brief).
Without a doubt, servers are moving closer to customers (see EdgeConneX for a great example of how this is minimizing friction between cable providers and Netflix). At the same time, however, connectivity to highly-scaled cloud servers for business are increasing the need for reliable national and international connectivity.
Overcapacity was an issue for the wireline industry… in 2002. Thanks to increased DOCSIS, DSL, and Fiber deployments since then to support hundreds of millions of video-hungry broadband and wireless customers, most inter-city capacity has been absorbed. Regional capacity continues to be built out (see companies like Lightower/ Fibertech for a good example in the Northeast), but independent national backbones are largely the same as existed a decade ago: Level3, 360Networks (now owned by Zayo), and XO Communications (now owned by Verizon).
Bottom line: Wireline is cool again, as it should be. More investments will be required.
Next week, we’ll comb through additional headlines and also dive into the set top box debate. Until then, please invite one of your colleagues to become a regular Sunday Brief reader by having them drop a quick note to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll subscribe them as soon as we can (and they can go to www.mysundaybrief.com for the full archive). Thanks again for your readership, and Go Davidson Wildcats!