Cable’s Broadband Slowdown Hasn’t Hit Bottom Yet, Analyst Says

Stephouse Networks
(Image credit: Stephouse Networks)

With the second-quarter earnings season almost upon us, cable investors should prepare themselves for an even steeper falloff in broadband subscriber growth, according to Barclays Group media analyst Kannan Venkateshwar.

Comcast is expected to kick off the Q2 earnings season on July 28, followed by Charter Communications on July 29. But in a research report Thursday, Venkateshwar wrote that there is little hope that the months-long slowdown in broadband growth is nearing an end.

It’s been almost a full year since analysts began bracing for cable broadband additions to slow, and it seems like every quarter there is another call that the impact could be even greater than expected. Analysts have already modified their forecasts for the bigger operators, with some expecting full-year 2022 additions to be nearly one-third of those of the peak year of 2020. Now, with the added pressure of increased fiber buildouts by telcos like AT&T and Verizon Communications, aggressive pricing, the near disappearance of digital subscriber line customers — once a top feeding ground for cable broadband — and sluggish new household formation, that impact could be even worse.

On the telco side, Venkateshwar believes that fixed wireless offerings from Verizon and T-Mobile could have greater unit growth “than the entire cable industry” during the quarter. 

Charter Communications chief financial officer Jessica Fischer pointed to another potential pitfall for cable at the Credit Suisse Communications conference in June, telling the audience that about 60,000 to 70,000 broadband subscribers that had been part of the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Broadband Benefit program did not make the transition to the fed’s new broadband subsidy offering, the Affordable Connectivity Program. While Fischer said she believes broadband is a growth business and still expects Charter to add subscribers in Q2, it has caused analysts some pause. 

Venkateshwar, who had earlier predicted Charter would add about 100,000 broadband customers in Q2, now believes they will add none, adding that the gap between it and No 1 cable operator Comcast could be bigger than usual. 

In his note, Venkateshwar wrote that while Q2 is generally seasonal as students leave college and residents move to summer homes, “the slowdown being seen intra quarter goes beyond seasonality impacts.” 

“Charter talked down broadband sub growth for Q2 due to the impact of the rollover from old subsidy programs into new programs in late Q1, and the company’s consumer broadband net adds may tip into negative growth in the quarter,” Venkateshwar wrote. “This is difficult to explain without assuming continued structural impacts on gross adds due to competition as well as broader market saturation.”

The Barclays analyst expects Comcast to add about 74,000 broadband customers in the quarter (down from 354,000 last year), while Altice USA should lose about 20,000 high-speed internet subscribers in the period, compared to zero additions in the same period last year.

While telcos seem to have an advantage given their increased fiber deployment, Venkateshwar wrote that their efforts have been largely tactical, adding that there isn’t much visibility as to the long-term trends. And any big dropoff in cable broadband could lead operators to focus more heavily on wireless, which wouldn’t be good news for telcos. 

“Longer-term, it is tough to see how either industry ends up benefiting from the ongoing convergence in wireless/wireline offerings,” Venkateshwar wrote. “The end state of this process is likely to be potentially more M&A; however, with capital costs rising and a tougher regulatory environment, this may not be available as a solution for a while.” ▪️

Mike Farrell

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.