Comcast reported Q1 2017 results this morning, and in keeping with past trends, the numbers were generally good. It saw another rise in TV subscribers as the cable companies continue to take share from the telcos, despite the overall trend of cord cutting, and it also saw strong growth in broadband subscribers, which now significantly outnumber its TV subs. Interestingly, it also began placing more emphasis on its home automation and security business this quarter, and reported that it has almost a million subscribers, or around 4% of its broadband base. The big theme that’s emerging from this quarter’s earnings reports from these providers is bundling – Comcast continues to see the percentage of customers taking more than one product rise over time (it’s now reached 71%), while AT&T suffered precisely because it can’t offer broadband/TV bundles to DirecTV customers. The wireless-TV bundles it can offer aren’t the ones consumers are looking for, which makes Comcast’s push into wireless somewhat questionable too. At NBCU, we’re seeing many of the same trends we’ve seen before too – subscriber numbers and viewing are down, but contractual rate increases with MVPDs are driving revenue growth anyway (of course those rate increases are rising costs on the cable side). Ad revenue was down in the cable networks business but up slightly in the broadcast business despite lower ratings because prices have been rising, though my analysis across the TV industry suggests the rate of price increases is slowing dramatically. Comcast continues to be a powerhouse across the categories where it competes (which also includes movies through Universal) but it’s facing some significant headwinds in the form of cord cutting, ratings declines, and rising content costs, which are going to take an increasing toll over the long term.
Note: you can see all my earnings posts or all Q1 2017 earnings posts specifically by clicking on the relevant tags below.
After years waiting for Google Fiber, KC residents get cancellation e-mails – Ars Technica (Mar 20, 2017)
In some ways, this story is far from surprising – Google has publicly announced a scaling back of its Fiber activities, supposedly in favor of new technologies. However, in theory it’s also still committed to the small number of markets where it’s actually rolled out service, including Kansas City. And indeed a statement towards the end of this piece suggests Google is still rolling out fiber in new areas. What I suspect is happening here is that Google is cherrypicking the most attractive neighborhoods while scaling back on others, just as other providers have done (just in the past two weeks, I’ve commented on stories relating to AT&T and Verizon around this very problem). Selectivity about where to roll out was always a facet of Google’s Fiber strategy, and for every provider who does this that’s based on a calculus on how much rollout will cost, what percentage of households will buy the service, and how much they’ll spend on average. That then leads to a determination about which houses are worth serving based on some pre-determined threshold for profitability over a certain period of time. I’m guessing that what’s happened here is Google has just raised that threshold by another notch, putting some homes that once made the cut out of the running now, hence these cancelations. Which would make it another symbol of increased financial discipline and belt-tightening at Alphabet.
via Ars Technica
1 million NYC homes can’t get Verizon FiOS, so the city just sued Verizon – Ars Technica (Mar 14, 2017)
This is a long-running dispute between Verizon and the city of New York over whether or not Verizon has lived up to a 2008 agreement that required it to “pass” all the households in NYC by 2014. Verizon says it has done so, because the definition of passing a building is to run fiber close enough that it could be hooked up to homes if building owners give permission, while the city is arguing that passing means actually hooking up the homes. The disconnect here is that most of New York is made up of apartment buildings where landlords and not tenants get to determine whether or not a telco or cable company can run fiber into the building to connect individual apartments. In many cases, landlords have existing exclusive agreements with another provider or simply don’t want the disruption of a new fiber build, so they resist. Verizon says it can’t be held responsible for not providing fiber in those situations and has asked the city to help persuade landlords to open up their buildings. The reality is likely somewhere in the middle – yes, Verizon has struggled to get landlords to agree to Fios installations, but it probably also hasn’t tried as hard as it might and likely also has some other buildings where it could hook up service but hasn’t. This is the flip side of the AT&T story I covered the other day – either cities don’t require any specific commitment to connect households and then there are complaints about favoring wealthier neighborhoods, or they do extract those commitments and then end up fighting over whether they’ve been met.
via Ars Technica
Depending on your perspective, this is either the broadband industry’s dirty little secret, or a natural consequence of the investment characteristics of fiber broadband. What’s happening here is that broadband providers like AT&T tend to invest the most in broadband infrastructure in areas where they’re likeliest to see a return on that investment, in other words those areas where takeup is likely to be highest, which in turn are disproportionately going to be more affluent. In the past, some cities have required universal coverage as part of franchise agreements to avoid this kind of redlining, but that has changed in recent years, at least in part because of Google Fiber. Google’s big innovation in deploying fiber was to encourage municipalities to bend over backwards to get the service, which turned the usual model of cities extracting concessions from providers on its head. AT&T then said to the same cities that it was happy to deploy fiber on the same basis if it was offered the same inducements and benefits, thus enabling its rapid deployment of fiber-to-the-home infrastructure in recent years. This FTTN infrastructure predates that model, but we’re going to see a lot more of this redlining in the years to come, and cities only have themselves to blame if they allow companies to operate in this way. Meanwhile, this ability to redline is the single biggest driver of faster broadband deployment in the US today, even if access to that faster broadband remains very uneven.
Google Fiber and Alphabet’s broader Access unit within which it sits has been somewhat in limbo since late last year, when it lost its leader and canceled all its expansion plans. The story the company told then – and still seems to be telling today – is that it intends to pursue the same goals in new ways, principally through wireless. The fact that a new head has actually been appointed means that it’s at least somewhat serious about that goal, and isn’t just going to sell off or shut down the whole business, but it’s still possible that it might sell its fiber assets even if it pursues wireless technologies in future. Meanwhile, I still don’t think there’s a good reason for Google to be in the access business at all at this point.
I continue to be really skeptical on this deal or anything like it – the only way it could be approved is if Verizon or Charter sold or spun off their operations where the two companies compete, and even then I’m not sure there’s appetite for another mega merger between broadband and TV providers. I see the rationale – the TV business in particular is all about scale, and AT&T and Comcast tower over the rest of the market (even the new Charter has almost 6 million fewer TV subs than Comcast, and over 8m fewer than AT&T-DirecTV). Combining Verizon and Charter’s subs would approach Comcast’s scale in video, while adding wireless, which Comcast is about to add through a partnership with Verizon. But there would be massive challenges here – combining incompatible technologies for delivering voice and data services to homes, along with the cultures of a telco and cableco. And of course regulators would be likely to be very skeptical at the outset (though this administration will certainly view it more favorably than the last). I’m just not convinced this is the right way for Verizon or Charter to go, and there’s no sign that Charter is even interested.
Why Google Might Sell Its Fiber Business — The Information (Dec 28, 2016)
Alphabet has been tightening its belt as regards the Other Bets ever since Ruth Porat came onboard as CFO. Fiber has already been pared back and its expansion plans put on hold, but this article suggests it will be spun or sold off entirely, which seems entirely plausible. There’s never been much synergy between Fiber and the rest of Google/Alphabet, and it’s arguably served its purpose.