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Fixed Wireless Will Temper Q1 Broadband Slowdown, Analyst Says

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(Image credit: Carlos. E. Serrano/Getty Images)

With the start of the first-quarter earnings season about 10 days away, J.P. Morgan media and telecom analyst Phil Cusick expects total broadband customer additions to continue to slow, but said a boost from some fixed wireless access providers will make what could have been a really bad quarter a little better.

Comcast is expected to kick off the 2022 earnings season on April 28,  when it reports Q1 results, followed by Charter Communications on April 29.  

In a research note, Cusick estimated total broadband additions of about 674,000 in Q1, a 32% decline from the prior year. But the analyst noted it could have been worse -- his Q1 estimates include 274,000 fixed wireless access (FWA) additions from T-Mobile. Without those FWA customers, total broadband additions would be down 56% in the period. 

Cusick blamed the overall broadband slowdown on sluggish cable growth, weak housing growth (moves are down 17% for the year, according to U.S. Postal Service data), and the loss of about 5 million consumers with access via the Keep Americans Connected COVID-19 program since 2020.  

Cable operators will continue to see sluggish broadband growth in Q1. Cusick estimates that total cable broadband additions will fall 51% to 445,000 in the period from 910,000 in Q1 2021. For the full year, he expects cable operators to add about 1.78 million broadband customers, down from 2.64 million additions in 2021.

Overall, Cusick expects total broadband additions of 2.94 million, a 4% decrease from 3.07 million additions in 2021. Fixed wireless is expected to add about 1.77 million new customers in 2022, down from 2.55 million in the prior year.

But Cusick still expects cable to attract about 66% of new broadband additions -- FWA is in second place with 39% -- mainly because in many areas, cable is the best choice for reliable high-speed connection.

Comcast and Charter are expected to add about 180,000 residential broadband subscribers each, compared to the 448,000 and 334,000 broadband customers, respectively, they added in Q1 2021. 

Analyst: No Sign of a Cable Slump

In his research note, Cusick explained that he hasn’t taken down his overall cable broadband estimates -- unlike some of his colleagues -- not because he believes cable MSOs will do better, but because he hasn’t seen any evidence they will do much worse. 

“Typical seasonality would be for 1Q to be stronger, and most cable commentary in 4Q was that the business improved through 4Q until omicron hit,” Cusick wrote “[W]ith no useful commentary from the companies, aside from consistently denying that FWA is impacting, we prefer to leave our estimates unchanged than reflexively lower the bar due to bullish FWA commentary from [T-Mobile and Verizon].”

Low housing moves and increased pricing will also most likely help boost cable margins, the analyst continued, adding that Charter repurchased about $3.7 billion of its shares during Q1, usually an indication of strong cash-flow growth despite slower subscriber additions. 

For other operators, Cusick sees flat broadband subscriber adds at Altice USA in Q1, and about 11,000 additions at Cable One.

On the telco side, Cusick predicted AT&T would lose about 10,000 broadband customers (15,000 IP additions offset by 25,000 digital subscriber line losses). Verizon Communications should add about 45,000 consumer wireline broadband subscribers (65,000 Fios Internet additions offset by 20,000 DSL losses), he said. Frontier Communications, which emerged from bankruptcy last year and has an aggressive fiber buildout strategy underway, should be well-positioned for growth, according to Cusick. The analyst predicted that Frontier will add 15,000 broadband customers in Q1 (46,000 fiber adds offset by 32,000 DSL losses).

Legacy video losses are expected to be about 1.5 million in Q1, down from 1.67 million in the prior year, but the improvement is more due to waning satellite TV losses. Cusick expects DirecTV/Dish to shed a collective 575,000 customers in Q1 (compared to losses of 750,000 in Q1 2021), while he predicts cable operators to lose 872,000 video subscribers, 5% worse than the prior year. 

Comcast’s video losses are expected to rise to 435,000 from 404,000 in the prior year, mainly because of a price increase that took effect in January. Charter’s video losses are expected to be slightly better in the quarter -- 150,000 compared to 156,000 in Q1 2021 -- reflecting slowing move activity. For the full year, legacy video losses are expected to be 5.3 million, better than the 5.8 million shed in 2021. 

Virtual multichannel video programming distributors (vMVPDs) such as Hulu Plus Live TV, YouTube TV and Sling TV are expected to add about 23,000 customers in Q1 (better than a loss of 92,000 subscribers in Q1 2021). For the year, vMVPDs should add about 1.4 million video customers, about even with the prior year. ▪️

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.