Cable stocks fell hard for the second time in three days, this time after Verizon Communications introduced a new pricing plan that offers its Fios broadband service for just $25 per month when coupled with its 5G wireless product.
To some analysts, the new Verizon plan isn’t as much a ploy to gain Fios broadband customers as it appears to be a move to beat back competition from cable broadband, MoffettNathanson senior analyst Craig Moffett said in an email message. But he fears the price drop — less than half the $50 to $60 per month cable operators charge for broadband — will be bad news for all involved.
“It’s bad for everyone, most obviously Altice, but it’s also a bad sign for Verizon itself,” Moffett said of the Fios price drop in an email message. “I suspect it’s not so much to sell more Fios — Fios is doing fine — but instead to try to protect against wireless losses versus the cable bundle. It’s bad for cable because Verizon had been talking about RAISING Fios pricing as recently as May, but it’s also probably a sign that their wireless business is just continuing to get worse … and worse … and worse.”
Investors suspected the same. While Verizon was relatively flat — it closed at $48.34 each, down less than 1%, cable stocks fell hard on Thursday. Altice USA, the cable company with the most exposure to Fios, dropped the most: Its shares traded as low as $7.58 (down 17.6%, or $1.62 each) on Thursday, a new 52-week low, before rallying slightly to close at $7.88 per share, down 14.4%.
Other cable stocks weren’t hit as hard, but a combination of market forces — the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed Thursday down 740 points — and continued fears of a broadband slowdown put pressure on shares. Charter Communications finished the day at $415.35, down 7.5%, while Cable One closed at $1,171.52, down 5.6% and Comcast closed Thursday at $37.91, down 5.5% each.
Cable wireless has been gaining steady ground over the past several quarters, with Comcast and Charter combining for more than 7 million customers. Altice USA has had less luck on the wireless side — Optimum Mobile added just 12,000 customers in Q1 and has a total of 198,000 subscribers as of March 31. But the company has been aggressive with discounts. It began offering unlimited data at $30 per line recently and has offered steep discounts on phones, and is in the midst of a massive rebranding effort.
There is little doubt that Verizon is going after cable companies with its newest wireless plan. According to the plan, new customers would get Verizon’s entry-level Fios 300 Megabit per second home service, basic 5G Home and LTE Home service, but only if they also subscribe to one of three ultimate mobile plans — 5G Play More, 5G Do More or 5G Get More mobile plans — which cost about $50 per month.
“At a time when the cost of almost everything seems to be going up, Verizon is offering home internet at a price you'll love,” the company said in a press release. “With this new offering, the price is the price, guaranteed. So, ditch cable and switch to Verizon Home Internet with absolutely no regrets.”
While Verizon is urging consumers to ditch cable, it looks like the slowdown in broadband subscribers could start to pick up some speed in Q2.
Charter chief financial officer Jessica Fischer, speaking Wednesday at the Credit Suisse Communications conference, said that a “small portion” of customers that had been part of the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Broadband Benefit program have not made the transition to its Affordable Connectivity Program.
The EBB was launched last May, a $3.2 billion program established by Congress as part of a larger COVID-19 aid package. The EBB offered eligible households a subsidy of up to $50 per month ($75 per month on tribal lands) for broadband service and a one-time award of up to $100 for a computer or tablet.
The ACP was launched in January, part of the Biden administration’s infrastructure package, offering a subsidy of up to $30 per month ($75 on tribal lands) for broadband service and $100 toward purchase of a laptop, desktop or tablet computer.
But according to Fischer, not as many EBB customers made the transition to ACP, either because they failed to opt in to continue service or didn’t meet qualifications, particularly the one that required them to use the service each month. As a result, Fischer said that between 60,000 and 70,000 former EBB customers will be removed from Charter's subscriber rolls.
Fischer said Charter still expects to add broadband customers in Q2, even with fewer EBB customers, and that the outlook is that broadband is “absolutely still a growth business.”
Whether other cable companies will see the same effect from the ACP transition remains to be seen. But it is yet another uncertainty in what has been a year of uncertainties for the sector. ■
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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.