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Cable Technology Feature Article

February 01, 2014

Cable Technology Week in Review

By Tara Seals, TMCnet Contributor

The cable MSO space was red-hot this week for news, thanks to it being earnings season—and apparently M&A season too.

For one, as Charter Communications (News - Alert) continues its takeover pursuit of the company, Time Warner Cable, the No. 2 cable MSO, saw miserable subscriber numbers for the fourth quarter of 2013. It lost 217,000 residential video customers in Q4, compared with the 129,000 it lost a year earlier. The company also gained only 39,000 Internet customers, down from 75,000 added one year ago, and a paltry 1,000 residential voice subscribers, compared to 34,000 additions a year earlier. For the full year, TWC shed 833,000 video customers in 2013.

Nonetheless, a 5.6 percent decline in video revenue was offset by 14 percent higher broadband revenue, largely from pricing increases. Overall, residential customer revenue declined just 0.1 percent to $4.58 billion. reported 5.3 percent year-over-year higher net income for the fourth quarter of 2013 to reach $540 million, on 1.7 percent higher revenue. The bleak subscriber numbers could help Charter in its case to acquire the company however.

In stark contrast, No. 1 U.S. cable MSO Comcast has added video subscribers for the first time in more than six years, inking 43,000 of them into the roll books for the fourth quarter of 2013. The additions broke a 26-quarter losing streak (it lost 7,000 video customers in the prior-year quarter) and spurred Comcast to a 26 percent jump in profit. As of the end of the year, Comcast had 21.690 million video customers (still down 1.4 percent year over year). It also had 20.662 million broadband customers (up 6.3 percent year over year) and 10.723 million voice subs (up 7.2 percent year over year).

The stemming of the subscriber drain—an ongoing story in the cable TV segment even as satellite and IPTV continue to grow—can be attributed to new approaches to the market like the X1 cloud-enabled DVR system and next-gen user interfaces, analysts said.

Comcast is an anomaly though. In North America, video subscribers are declining at a pace of 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent annually—and most of the losses are coming from the cable sector. In the first half of 2013, telco-based IPTV and satellite revenue rose as these competitors leveraged new user experiences to create stickier services. When it comes to protecting their bread-and-butter video business propositions, cable MSOs ostensibly face a number of competitive challenges, from the over-the-top (OTT) streamers of the world to smart TVs to pay-TV rivals like IPTV and satellite. Slowly, all of these market entrants have been chipping away at their ascendancy. But next-gen set-top and cloud-based DVR approaches offer a fresh differentiator for many of these companies—if they can roll them out quickly enough.

While the Time Warner and Charter acquisition is making headlines, Liberty Global (News - Alert), the company owned by John Malone, has agreed to purchase Dutch cable company Ziggo (News - Alert) for $13.6 billion. Once the acquisition goes through Liberty Global will have a stronger foothold in the Dutch market when it integrates with its wholly owned cable operator in the country, UPC.

The company has been steadily acquiring valuable assets around the world, including the $16 billion purchase of Virgin Media last year. Liberty Global is now the largest international cable company, active in 14 countries, including 12 in Europe. Malone's company already owns 28.5 percent of Ziggo, and the deal to acquire the company was initiated in August, concluding this Monday with a cash and stock deal valued at $15 per share. The deal should close by the second half of 2014 pending regulatory approvals from the European Commission.

Incidentally, large providers are facing some stiff broadband competition. A new analysis by Dr. George S. Ford, Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies chief economist, has found that triple-play offerings sold by municipal systems in Bristol, Va., Chattanooga, Tenn., and Lafayette, La. cost “substantially more” than sold by private sector triple-play providers like cable MSOs. One study suggests BVU, the municipal provider in Bristol, sells a triple-play service for $54.39 a month. Charter Communications, which competes with BVA, sells a triple-play service for $99.97, a difference of about $45. Other comparisons can be found here.

Among the complicating issues is that triple-play services increasingly are the way most consumers buy their Internet access. Under such conditions, it can be challenging to estimate what Internet access actually costs, even if speeds and other terms and conditions are roughly equivalent. But to be sure, some will discount the findings, since large ISPs have economies of scale where it comes to providing video entertainment services, for example.

Turning to the broadcast world, Los Angeles television stations KLCS and KJLA are kicking off a pilot to test the feasibility of sharing a single channel to host both of their over-the-air digital broadcast feeds. The idea behind the channel-sharing is to reduce the amount of airwaves needed for TV, thus freeing up more spectrum that the stations could auction off in the FCC’s (News - Alert) upcoming incentive auction, aimed at making more airwaves available for advanced mobile services. The two TV affiliates are working with CTIA on the pilot, in hopes of sweetening the pot for broadcasters considering participation in the double-sided auction, to kick off likely in 2015. An incentive auction would allow broadcasters to voluntarily put up their airwaves for bidding on by the FCC, guaranteeing them compensation for the assets. Then, in a forward auction, the spectrum would be auctioned off to wireless operators.

And speaking of broadcast spectrum, as you might expect, application providers and tier one mobile service providers have different answers to the question of how newly-repurposed broadcast TV spectrum should be awarded. In an analysis, our writer notes that the same difference in thinking applies to many other spectrum assets, in other bands, especially in the 3.5 GHz area that is proposed for new forms of spectrum sharing in the U.S. market. Mobile service providers, as typically is the case, argue for licensing. Application providers tend to argue for an unlicensed approach, or when that is not politically possible, lightly licensed and “shared spectrum” approaches that are not exclusive, as preferred by mobile service providers. In principle, the whole idea behind spectrum sharing is that new spectrum can be found if there is no need to clear licensed users out of their existing bands, then make that spectrum available to other users. Instead, spectrum can be shared between existing licensees and new commercial users. What do you think?

In over-the-top (OTT) news, Apple is reportedly mulling some different technology reboots for the Apple TV device, which for now remains a standalone set-top box (STB) that streams iTunes content as well as content from other “iDevices (News - Alert)” via the Airplay capability. Now,  Apple is considering the integration of AirPort Express into Apple TV, including its own 802.11ac wireless router, as well as a built-in TV tuner component—presumably, for receiving over-the-air (OTA) signals from local broadcast stations along with cable QAM channels. This would make it into an all-in-one cord-cutting kit of course—setting it up to take on pay-TV providers head-on.

And speaking of OTT, are U.S. consumers substituting online streaming services such as Netflix for TV? Research says yes, but which parts of the ecosystem are the most affected is murky. Premium subscription video channels such as HBO, Showtime and Starz say they have grown their subscriber bases over the last year. But NPD Group suggests subscriptions to HBO, Showtime, and other premium TV services have declined over the past two years, as Netflix and other subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) services have gained in popularity. And meanwhile, a recent TV Dailies poll conducted by Ipsos MediaCT surveying prime-time viewers’ subscription service behavior suggests that 64 percent of prime-time viewers aged 18 to 49 are what the study calls “Cord Lovers.” Those are customers who maintained or added to their cable or satellite services in the past six months. About 27 percent of viewers 18 to 49 are “Cord Shavers” who had cut back on the level of services in the past six months, while only two percent of polled consumers had cancelled completely.

And finally, on the content front, Latino media powerhouse Cisneros has formed a strategic partnership with Bungalow Media + Entertainment to develop Spanish- and English-language series and content geared toward Hispanic audiences. The two will also work together to identify and channel key strategic relationships, and build advertiser and branded-content partnerships. Bungalow, a private integrated entertainment and media company recently founded by media and entertainment executive Robert Friedman, will collaborate with Cisneros business units across multiple platforms including television, digital media and live events, working in conjunction with top creative agencies, independent producers, cable networks and global media companies for all regions of the world.

The partnership is an opportunity to find new areas of growth for Cisneros, which reaches nearly 550 million viewers in more than 100 countries with television, digital, music and consumer products focused on the Hispanic and Latin markets in the Americas, Europe and Asia.

To check out more details on all of this and more, visit our homepage. And have a great weekend!

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