23 May 2014

DirecTV Is to AT&T as HITS Was to TCI?

AT&T's U-Verse versus Verizon's FiOS is an interesting study in contrasts and those differences might be behind AT&T's recent offer to purchase DirecTV.
Both U-Verse and FiOS run fiber down the middle of your street. Fiber is the highest capacity wires for communications of any sort and, if new wires need to be run, they are always fiber. Cable operators also run fiber down the middle of the street for the same reason. The cost of running wires into each individual home is an incredibly costly endeavor and that cost is the labor to install it -- the wire itself, even fiber, is cheap.

Verizon's FiOS built a state-of-the-art fiber-to-the-home (FTTH, also known as FTTP for "premises") network, using the latest technology available and at a princely price. Specifically, this means that Verizon ran fiber from the middle of the street into the house of each FiOS subscriber. The alternative would have been to use its existing wiring into the home, the thin, low-capacity copper wires known as "twisted pair". (Cable operators, in contrast, run coaxial cable into the home, which has less capacity than fiber, but far, far more than twisted pair).  

Historically (and culturally) Verizon is used to competing on the quality of its network. This is the positioning that has made it a leader in the cellphone market. Verizon's wireless business represents a far greater portion of its value than its wireline business (comprised of the not-profitable FiOS and the declining twisted-pair business). It is perhaps not a coincidence that Verizon operates in the densely populated East Coast. The economics of building these networks are far less attractive when the population density is low.

Verizon deployed FiOS before AT&T launched U-Verse and, by going early, chose to deploy its video service using QAM, the same technology as cable uses, rather than the still-developing video-over-IP, the way that Internet video is delivered. I don't think this is a matter of vision, everyone probably saw that IP video was coming, but, again, an issue of quality. Everyone knew that QAM worked; Verizon didn't want to take the risk that it would build this state-of-the-art network and not be able to deliver top-notch service.

AT&T took a different approach and used its twisted pair wires into the home. The advantages of this approach is a much lower cost of deployment and a quicker deployment, since new wires do not need to be run.

At the time of its launch, there were skeptics that AT&T's approach would work -- that is, provide service of an acceptable quality. One of the limitations of U-Verse via twisted pair was that it could only deliver 3 HD signals into a house simultaneously. Another is that Internet speeds for its fastest level of service are 24 Mbits/sec, modest compared to the gigabit speeds that cable can deliver and Google Fiber is delivering but perfectly competitive versus today's average cable modem offerings.

AT&T didn't build U-Verse for the future, they built it for the present. If demand for faster Internet speeds (or more HD) didn't materialize, they were fine. When demand did materialize perhaps they would be saved by some superior compression technology (that could squeeze more bits through the twisted pair) or they would actually run fiber-to-the-home then or some hybrid system using wireless spectrum or...something else.

Perhaps DirecTV is the something else.

So here's the potential magic of AT&T's DirecTV purchase. If AT&T can take video off of U-Verse, then there is more capacity for broadband Internet traffic on that plant. Because U-Verse is IPTV, it is not a simple as saying that the capacity devoted to video could be redeployed to provide faster Internet service. To the extent that U-Verse is not providing video service, presumably all the bandwidth would be available for Internet access 24/7. Currently, even if the bandwidth is dynamically allocated between TV and Internet access, since the TV is on so many hours of the day, presumably the bandwidth being used to deliver ESPN HD live while recording AMC HD and HBO HD is coming at the cost of less-than-screaming Internet service. Of course, this is the exact opposite of what AT&T needs to say (and is saying) to get regulatory approval for the deal. Regulators do not look favorably upon removing a choice from the marketplace (see AT&T's failed acquisition of T-Mobile which, given T-Mobile's revival regulators must see as a success). Bear in mind, migrating U-Verse video subs to DirecTV would be a 5-years-out strategic move, not a near-term strategic move. (AT&T CFO John Stephens "This transaction is not based on freeing up any of the wired capacity.")

This is why buying DirecTV is may be a good strategy for AT&T, but buying Dish may not be necessary or desirable for Verizon.

This break seems analogous to one-time cable giant Tele-Communications, Inc., better known as TCI, and its decision two decades ago to start the Headend in the Sky (HITS, now part of the Comcast Media Center) to be able to provide hundreds of digital channels cheaply on its scores of small rural cable systems where there would be no positive returns on the capital required to rebuild them to the standards used in more densely populated urban and suburban areas (known as HFC for "hybrid fiber coax"). HITS was a cheaper alternative to a rebuild.

19 May 2014

AT&T Buys DirecTV: Some Macro and Micro Thoughts

A few thoughts on the day after the big merger announcement:

Unlike the Comcast-Time Warner Cable-Charter proposed deal, AT&T's purchase of DirecTV "would eliminate a choice for pay-TV customers in some markets." In those areas where AT&T offers U-Verse service, a consumer likely has a choice of four competitive providers: the incumbent cable operator, Dish Network, DirecTV, and AT&T. If this merger goes through, the four choices go down to three and the new company includes one of the giant providers (as opposed to a combination of two of the smaller ones). While antitrust is far from my area of expertise, it appears that this is exactly the same outcome that doomed AT&T's attempted acquisition of T-Mobile.
While having AT&T and DirecTV under the same ownership would appear to facilitate bundling services for consumers (e.g., in non-U-Verse areas the combined company could offer phone plus DSL plus DBS plus cellphone), unless the DirecTV brand goes away, it would still appear to be the sort of shot-gun marriage that all current and prior telco-DBS "synthetic bundles" are and have been. It's not an elegant solution and "people are abandoning DSL in droves, and buying cable broadband".

When I've read of DirecTV's strong cash flow, but otherwise difficult strategic position (a TV-only provider in an increasingly bundled bustiness) and how AT&T could really use the DirecTV cash to fund its dividend, the story sounded suspiciously like Viacom's 1994 acquisition of Blockbuster to fund the acquisition it really wanted, Paramount Pictures. How did that one work out? Not that well.

Would AT&T apply the DirecTV brand to U-Verse video offering? Maybe that's a better idea. As AT&T's press release on the deal states: DirecTV is "the premier pay TV brand with the best content". The U-Verse brand is probably meaningless. Why anyone has a brand with a hyphen in it is beyond me. It is clunky and not web-friendly (the URL for the service is uverseonline.att.net, although u-verse.com does redirect to it -- why have consumers wonder if they include the hyphen or not. DirecTV's URL is simply directv.com).

This deal should seem like a homecoming for Dan York, DirecTV's chief content acquisition executive. It was just 2 years ago that he left that same role at AT&T.

Programming savings will not be as easy to come by as they are in a typical cable acquisition. DirecTV's distribution rights may be limited to its single DBS system and, if that's the case, would not have the right to simply add AT&T's systems to its affiliation agreements (and take advantage of DirecTV's greater purchasing power). Comcast, by comparison, would very likely have the right to do exactly that with the Time Warner Cable systems. It is always simpler if one does not have to negotiate. DirecTV already has relatively low programming costs as it is a giant pay-TV distributor; the programming cost savings would largely come for the much smaller base of AT&T U-Verse customers.

Could the NFL allow DirecTV to sell Sunday Ticket on U-Verse as well as DBS, but not provide it to other distributors? That could be interesting, but it would have to be negotiated. It is very unlikely that DirecTV would have the right to extend Sunday Ticket to additional platforms under its current (and expiring) deal. Would give U-Verse a leg up that it has never had before, but only a limited footprint in which it could take advantage of it. It would be an odd decision for the NFL: Sunday Ticket would be available from two providers in a minority of the country and one provider in the vast majority of the country. That's not an obvious thing to explain to consumers.

NFL Sunday Ticket is clearly on AT&T's mind. From its 8K filing about the deal: "The parties also have agreed that in the event that DIRECTV’s agreement for the 'NFL Sunday Ticket' service is not renewed substantially on the terms discussed between the parties, the Company may elect not to consummate the Merger, but the Company will not have a damages claim arising out of such failure so long as DIRECTV used its reasonable best efforts to obtain such renewal."

Packaging differences: Would DirecTV try to make the DBS and U-Verse packages of services more similar. Or would the combined company enjoy the dealmaking flexibility of having good-better-best on 2 different platforms and now have more ways to split the baby. In any event, the companies say they don't plan any large packaging changes.

Other perspectives: