AT&T Expansion and DirecTV Merger

AT&T and Direct TV Logos

In 2014 AT&T and DirecTV announced a merger worth almost $50 billion dollars. While this proposed deal would provide a new way for AT&T to expand its footprint, the process had been stuck in the approval phase for months, although after FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler recommended last week that the deal move ahead, industry experts now believe that it will be approved formally within ten days. It appears that the main sticking point had been ensuring that AT&T adheres to the new FCC rules pertaining to broadband speeds. While this impasse persisted, AT&T was forced to file for two extensions to close the deal, the most recent only a few weeks ago.

When the deal does receive final approval, it will make AT&T the largest TV provider in the nation and will give DirecTV customers access to broadband services. Two recent filings to the FCC detail parts of AT&T’s plan to address the Department of Justice’s concerns that the merger may create a TV and broadband monopoly. The first filling stipulates that lower and middle income families will have access to DSL services, if available, at discounted prices. Upon further review of the filling, however, there are major limitations on this provision. In particular, the program will continue for only four years and for the more remote locations, will only provide speeds of 1.5 Mbps, which is too slow to support streaming services like Hulu Plus or Netflix. This low speed option has caused experts to speculate this is a different tactic in video slowdown and wonder if AT&T will be in full compliance with the Net Neutrality ruling if they do not improve this aspect of their proposal. Prices for this service would range from $5 to $10 per month, while a higher tier with speeds up to 5 Mbps would cost $10 to $20 per month.

The second filing to the FCC also addresses coverage issues, but deals with fiber internet customers. As part of its proposed merger, AT&T has promised that it will extend its 1 Gbps fiber footprint to almost 12 million businesses and homes within the next four years. This announcement comes on the heels of one made in April 2015 that AT&T was looking at nearly 100 cities where they might roll out fiber service, including Chicago, San Francisco, and Atlanta. As mentioned in the new FCC filing, AT&T has now added a new focus on the state of Florida, in particular the cities of Miami and Fort Lauderdale. The company will draw on its recent successful expansion in the state of Texas, particularly around Dallas and Austin, to implement an efficiency plan to bring its GigaPower fiber service to the Sunshine State by the middle of 2016. Whether or not these efforts are enough to alleviate any lingering concerns still held by the Department of Justice should become clear by the middle of August 2015.

 

T-Mobile Expands Offerings as Customer Totals Increase

T-Mobile coverage map showing all of North America

Over the first six months of 2015, T-Mobile has seen an increase in overall customer totals that was higher than industry analysts expected. During the recent release of subscriber figures, during the second quarter of the year the company added over 2 million new customers across pre- and post-paid accounts. This growth brings the company’s customer total to just under 60 million which, despite the increase, maintains T-Mobile as the fourth largest carrier behind Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint. Commentators in the wireless industry believe that this growth will continue throughout the remainder of the year, although long-term forecasts suggest the promotions T-Mobile has used to elevate its presence in the market will not be sustainable.

In an effort to preempt the predictions that it will not be able to sustain its growth beyond this year, T-Mobile has announced the extension of existing promotions and new ones that it hopes will allow the company to enjoy a larger footprint, both domestically and internationally. One of its most ambitious plans was the offer for any Verizon customer to try T-Mobile for two weeks, absolutely free. The latest reports indicate that this plan was successful during the first quarter but has tapered off during the second quarter, although similar programs for AT&T and Sprint transfer customers have not seen any signs of slowing down.

Similarly, T-Mobile has expanded its two most popular data plan packages. These packages both cost $100 per month, but one includes two phone numbers with unlimited LTE data, while the other offers four phone numbers with 2.5 GB of data per line. Having satisfied its customers by providing an unlimited data plan, T-Mobile is now turning its attention to the part of its consumer base that wants to upgrade phones on a frequent basis. With a new program titled Jump on Demand, for a monthly fee of $10, T-Mobile customers will have the option to upgrade their phone three times per twelve months.

As innovative as the program is to allow multiple phone upgrades annually, T-Mobile’s plan to offer coverage throughout North America, including Mexico and Canada, without roaming fees is being heralded as a game changer. In particular, this plan is attracting attention because it will be available to customers sooner than the plan proposed by AT&T months ago, which will offer similar perks. Under T-Mobile’s plan, subscribers will be able to text, call, and use web services, like email and GPS applications, while in Mexico or Canada without incurring any additional fees. The plan will go live by the start of August 2015.

Verizon FiOS Growth and Verizon’s Streaming Video Service

Combined Verizon and AOL logos.

Analysts remain conflicted over the potential growth of Verizon FiOS as 2015 continues. New subscriber projections suggest there will only be around 90,000 additions during the second quarter, which are 25,000 fewer than had been anticipated. To put these totals in perspective, for the same period of time in 2014, FiOS subscribers increased by over 135,000. However, despite these underperforming totals, the expansion of Verizon FiOS, especially in parts of New York, Texas, and New Jersey, is expected to increase substantially over the next eighteenth months.

 

Even if FiOS numbers remain down, one of the reasons that observers are optimistic about Verizon’s financial growth over the long haul is that it plans to release its own video streaming service by September 2015. Over the past few months, Verizon has reached agreements with a number of content providers and is continuing talks with even more. While the initial target is to provide around 25 channels to subscribers, including content from Comedy Central, MTV, Food Network, HGTV, and the Travel Channel, the yet-unnamed service will also include video shorts produced by AwesomenessTV, a subsidiary of DreamWorks. While these offerings will whet the appetite of many consumers, Verizon has made clear that it is especially interested in a younger demographic. As a result of this focus, it has established agreements with ESPN, the ACC Network, CBS Sports, and 120 Sports. Content from these networks will include some NFL, college basketball, and college football games, but broadcast restrictions will apply.

 

Although complete details of the Over the Top (OTT) streaming service have not yet been announced, it is clear that Verizon plans to have an ad-based model, similar to what Hulu Plus does, compared to the pure subscription model used by Netflix. While Hulu Plus has not enjoyed the same subscriber growth as Netflix, Verizon hopes to change this by benefiting from its recent purchase of AOL. Since its days of providing users dial-up internet access, AOL has transformed itself into a leader in online advertising. Survey results produced by the advertising industry have shown that AOL is successful in reaching a target audience more than 55% of the time, a figure that is the envy of all advertisers besides Google. Another aspect tied to the success of the ads on the new Verizon service is that the company hopes users will enjoy the content not only at home, but also on their mobile devices. This means streaming over Verizon’s existing wireless network while consuming a lot of data. However, realizing that the threat of data overage fees may turn off some consumers, Verizon has established an agreement in which the advertisers will help subsidize part of the cost for data used while viewing video content.

 

Time Warner Cable Mergers and Net Neutrality Expectations for Charter

Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable logos combined.

A little over two months ago a proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable (TWC) was called off. Almost no time passed before Charter Communications entered into an agreement to purchase TWC for roughly $57 billion. As the calendar turns to July, there remains a certain level of uncertainty surrounding the details of this proposed purchase, as well as how the FCC will respond to the bid.

 

Early after its announcement in 2014, the bid by Comcast to purchase TWC was considered a long shot. Claims from within the broadband community, consumer advocate groups, and the public all made it clear that they were concerned with the creation of what would have been the largest TV operator in the United States. Even the Chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, expressed his opposition to the merger. Wheeler’s main point of contention, however, was that if the purchase were allowed to proceed, it would create an unfair competitive advantage for Comcast in the broadband market. In particular, the company would have enjoyed a controlling share of almost 60% among broadband providers. Ultimately it was this near monopoly, coupled with the lack of any penalty fee for ending the agreement, which caused Comcast to back out of the deal.

 

Drawing lessons from the failed deal between Comcast and TWC, Charter has begun to promote how its proposed purchase of TWC will not alter the television or broadband playing field on the national stage. The CEO of Charter, Tom Rutledge, has stressed that even if his company is successful in acquiring TWC and Bright House, the newly expanded company will still be only the second largest provider of cable and high speed internet services behind Comcast. At most, Charter would supply about 20% of all TV customers and 29% of all broadband customers. Another issue that Charter does not need to address is that unlike Comcast, which has a financial interest in Hulu, there is no concern that Charter may regulate speeds for video streaming services, such as Netflix or Amazon Prime.

 

Charter is also drawing on the FCC ruling which made broadband a Title II utility as a reason for why its proposed merger should be approved. Rutledge made clear that the footprint of the expanded company would not overlap geographically and that there would remain competition for broadband services offering 25 Mbps in all of its coverage areas. Additionally, he stated that since the majority of the company’s investment is in broadband, not television, it would encourage the expansion of Over the Top (OTT) streaming video services and not impose any sort of data cap on customers. Indeed, subscribers with the new Charter, if the merger is approved, could see significant savings on their broadband subscriptions as their speeds are tripled while their monthly bill is lowered.

 

While the merger works its way through regulatory checks, industry analysts appear confident that the deal will occur. The latest suggestions are that there is a 75% chance that the deal is approved. The FCC has announced that they hope to have this process decided, in favor or opposition of the merger, by the end of 2015.