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Barclays Downgrades Comcast, Charter as Fixed Wireless Threat Looms

Stephouse Networks
(Image credit: Stephouse Networks)

Barclays Group media analyst Kannan Venkateshwar downgraded his ratings on Comcast and Charter Monday in the wake of disappointing Q2 broadband performance, adding that the rapid growth of fixed wireless service from telcos may end up being more of a threat than cable operators think.

Barclays lowered the rating on Comcast to “Equal Weight” from “Overweight” and on Charter to “Underweight” from “Equal Weight,” citing their poor Q2 performance. In addition to non-existent broadband growth in Q2, video subscriber losses at both companies rose significantly during the period -- to 521,000 and 266,000 respectively -- reigniting fears of accelerated cord-cutting for traditional cable. While mobile subscriber growth for both Comcast and Charter exceeded analysts’ consensus estimates for the period, Venkateshwar split from his peers, doubting that wireless will be able to take up the slack. 

Broadband Forecasts Lowered Again

Venkateshwar noted that he now expects Comcast to add about 300,000 broadband customers this year, down from 1.4 million in 2021, and Charter to add about 200,000, down from 1.2 million additions in 2021. He said the debate has shifted to whether or not cable broadband subscribers will actually decline in 2023 and beyond.

The broadband slowdown has weighed on cable stocks for months. So far this year, Comcast stock is down 24%, Charter down 34%, Altice USA fell 35% and Cable One is down 22%. The sector probably will fall even further after Altice USA reports Q2 results on August 3. 

Most analysts have reduced their forecasts for cable broadband subscriber growth again in light of the Q2 results, with Wells Fargo Securities media analyst Steven Cahall cutting his estimates for Comcast and Charter nearly in half. 

Prior to the Q2 results, Cahall had estimated Comcast would add 688,000 broadband customers in 2022 and another 630,000 in 2023. Now, his estimates call for 298,000 residential additions in 2022 and 300,000 in 2023. For Charter, Cahall had estimated residential broadband growth of 499,000 in 2022 and 549,000 additions in 2023. Those predictions have been revised to 152,000 customer additions in 2022 and 295,000 in 2023. 

Fixed Wireless Threat 

 

The analysts pointed to the potential threat of fixed wireless -- T-Mobile USA added 560,000 fixed wireless subscribers in Q2, far exceeding consensus expectations -- and Comcast’s and Charter’s seeming indifference to that competition. In conference calls with analysts to discuss Q2 results, both Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts and Charter chairman and CEO Tom Rutledge said they believe fixed wireless isn’t much of a threat. 

Roberts called the fixed wireless access Q2 performance a fluke, as excess capacity created a “temporary opportunity targeted at value-oriented customers.” And while he said FWA isn’t having any “discernible impact” on churn, he did acknowledge it was a factor in Comcast’s flat Q2 performance. Not exactly an admission of a threat, but close, even though he added that performance and capacity restraints will likely limit FWA’s overall penetration.

On the call, Rutledge appeared to dismiss the long-term impact of fixed wireless while admitting that it is “an issue affecting growth at the moment.”  

Rutledge said fixed wireless access’s impact is small when compared to Charter’s overall footprint. He said activity levels were the major driver for subscriber losses. And he said that there are other economic factors at play, including low housing occupancy and new construction because of supply chain issues.

“And so we're pretty optimistic, relatively speaking, that as the post-pandemic market activity levels return and normalize, that our share of broadband growth will rise,” Rutledge said on the call. 

Also: Analyst Says Telcos Better Positioned to Chip Away at Cable’s Broadband Lead  

But Venkateshwar warned that fixed wireless could become a factor very quickly, adding that if T-Mobile meets its guidance of 500,000-plus additions each quarter, it will be larger than Altice USA (the fourth largest cable operator in the country) by the end of next year.

Also: Broadband Slowdown Hasn’t Hit Bottom Yet, Analyst Says 

“It is tough to see this not impacting cable structurally when cable [broadband] net adds overall have been [about] 3 million in normal years and T-Mobile and Verizon alone could add 2 million to 2.5 million FWA subs a year,” Venkateshwar wrote. “This is even before the existing DSL base converts to fiber driven by government funding and AT&T’s fiber expansion, which we estimate will result in an additional 20% of cable footprint having fiber overlap.” 

Blame Game

 

Cable operators have mainly blamed the broadband growth slowdown on lower household moves, an excuse that the Barclays analyst is not buying.

“[T]his is a market share argument and it is not clear why this would drag growth down for the industry as a whole,” Venkateshwar said of slower housing moves. “While cable has gained share vs DSL over time and therefore lower moves would impact growth rates, it is mathematically impossible to get to negative growth as seen last quarter, purely on account of lower move activity. In addition, the decline in move activity is not new and has been going on for years and tends to worsen during recessions. Even if move activity recovers, there are new elements that are likely to reduce cable’s share of gross adds given fiber and FWA entrants.”

Going Mobile 

 

Other analysts have seemed to side, partly, with cable operators' view on fixed wireless access. In a research note Friday, MoffettNathanson senior analyst Craig Moffett said that while investors will likely focus on broadband performance for a while going forward, they will eventually come around to the thesis that wireless is the new growth engine for cable. According to Moffett, if video was Act I for cable operators and broadband was Act II, wireless is poised to be the industry’s third Act..

Charter added 340,000 wireless customers in Q2, ending the period with 4.3 million customers. Mobile now accounts for 5.5% of Charter’s total revenue. Though the segment isn’t profitable yet, once Charter’s CBRS offload initiatives are completed in the next few years, it will be more profitable than most could imagine, according to Moffett.

The same holds true for Comcast. The largest cable operator in the country added 317,000 wireless customers in Q2, ending with 4.6 million customers. Wireless makes up about 4.9% of Comcast’s total cable revenue and is growing at a 30% annual rate.

“[W]e believe wireless growth remains underappreciated,” Moffett wrote. 

Wells Fargo Securities' Cahall said the jury was still out on mobile valuations, and while unit economics are positive, they don’t yet exceed the cost of service. On the other hand, increased capital spending on wireless could make operators less  reliant on MVNO partnerships and more competitive with telcos. 

“Add it all up, and it's a very logical strategy, but we think the value is too uncertain at flattish adjusted EBITDA margins to offset the [broadband and capex] challenges,” Cahall wrote.

Venkateshwar also was impressed by cable’s wireless performance, but he added that any war between cable wireless and telco FWA will be won by the telcos. 

“Telecom operators have their own issues but their narrative around new revenue sources like FWA is more feasible, at least over the short term, because it is backed by significant capital investments in a fixed cost infrastructure that should provide operating leverage over time,” Venkateshwar wrote. “Cable companies on the other hand have no plans to invest in a full infrastructure based offering, but still believe they can do better with an MVNO model than operators elsewhere in the world have managed. This strategy makes sense to test out the market and launch a service, but to anchor [a] long term strategic pivot of the scale that cable companies are attempting on someone else’s network is not viable in our view.” ■

Mike Farrell is senior content producer, finance for Multichannel News/B+C, covering finance, operations and M&A at cable operators and networks across the industry. He joined Multichannel News in September 1998 and has written about major deals and top players in the business ever since. He also writes the On The Money blog, offering deeper dives into a wide variety of topics including, retransmission consent, regional sports networks,and streaming video. In 2015 he won the Jesse H. Neal Award for Best Profile, an in-depth look at the Syfy Network’s Sharknado franchise and its impact on the industry.