Will the Fight Between Scripps and Cablevision Break Cable's Back?

Retransmission fights between cable companies and station owners is not a rare thing, but networks actually disappearing from the line-up isn’t common at all. It’s been almost a week since Scripps pulled their channels, including Food Network and HGTV, from Cablevision, leaving many New York City customers without access to these stations. Even more remarkable, they’ve chosen to get popular programs, such as Iron Chef, to customers by partnering with local over-the-air stations. Have the catfights between cable and programmers finally reached a level where cable just can’t cut it anymore?

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Will the Comcast-NBC merger mean stepped-up anti-piracy efforts?

If regulators sign off on it, the nation’s largest cable company will end up with a significant foothold in both the broadcast media and movie industries. Overnight, a content distributor becomes a content producer. Pre-merger, Comcast had little incentive to play along with the copyright cop ambitions of the RIAA and MPAA. This merger could change everything, driving Comcast into policing not just the distribution of its own wares but those of fellow studios.

Given how Time Warner Cable would regularly roll over for MPAA requests to disconnect service, both before and after being spun off from parent company Time Warner, this is a legitimate and pressing concern. The MPAA spends a lot of time trying to track down pirates and they often get the wrong person.  The MPAA has also pushed hard for restricting what DVRs can record, locking down digital media to the point of near-uselessness, and wiping out net neutrality so that peer-to-peer programs can be blocked on a whim. None of these proposals are good for Comcast data or video customers and I do not think Comcast wants to unnecessarily restrict what customers can and cannot do with their connection.

That said, what will they do when Universal Pictures, a division of the merged company, has a competing interest? Which part of the company has their interests heard first? Will Comcast give Universal special access to routers and logs to track down pirates? Will they start using deep packet inspection? What can the falsely accused do about it?

This is why we should be very, very scared of the continued integration of media and telecommunications companies. The verticial monopoly of wholesale and retail telecom is bad enough, but when they control the content going over the pipe as well, it can get really ugly really fast.

Some Thoughts on the Future of the SAA

Now that the SAA has been approved in Brigham City and construction can start, we can expect that the same model will be executed in other member cities to help build out the infrastructure. Even neighborhoods not in member cities could get in on the action if they were so inclined. Even with how successful it was overall, I still have some reservations.

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Clarifying UTOPIA's Financing Models

While I was on KVNU’s For the People tonight,  a caller expressed concerns about how UTOPIA is financed. It became clear to me that this caller had confused the various funding models and bonds UTOPIA has been and is currently using. I thought I should clarify how exactly UTOPIA got its money and who is on the hook for what. There’s a lot of confusion about how UTOPIA is backed and financed and this is because there have been two rounds of bonding under one financial model and new potential rounds of bonds under a new financial model.

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An Evaluation of the Broadweave/Veracity Merger

I’ve spent the last week rolling over the proposed merger of Veracity and Broadweave as well as their proposal to Provo City upon which it is contingent. I’ve gotten  more information from Veracity and Broadweave on their position and talked to other people who’ve been keeping an eye on things. I’m still not sure if the deal is in the city’s best interests, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily rotten or the only option either.

Veracity’s proposal to the city is, for all intents and purposes, a loan of $1.5M over the next 18 months to reduce the bond payments to be paid back over the seven years following that at 5.1% interest. (Ironically, this is the amount Provo City would have paid on the bond had they kept the network.) Veracity has said it has pursued private financing for the deal and has been unable to secure it, though I imagine the terms were also not as favorable as what’s being proposed to the city. Under the proposal, Provo would use the energy reserve fund to make the payments, money that would have been earning 1% interest. Taxes wouldn’t increase to finance it nor would other budgets be cut into.

So why does Veracity want a loan to reduce the payments? They’re looking to buy time to move their Provo customers onto iProvo to slash costs and improve operating efficiencies. Not only does that cut Qwest transport out of the picture, but they can also sell services that would not have been easy to provide given the wholesale rates that Qwest charges. Moving those customers will cost a fair amount of money, so Veracity needs time to get it done.

Given Veracity’s financial state, I have my doubts as to whether or not they could secure private financing for this deal. They reportedly operate debt-free with a very healthy cash flow and I would hope that they presented the council with scenarios under which they use private financing combined with current revenues to accomplish the same ends. They have been opening the books to the city council and some staff for their review, but there also needs to be a Plan B. Right now, the proposal feels very “take it or leave it”.

This isn’t to say that I doubt Veracity’s capability. They’re an exceptional company offering exceptional service that I use in my job every day. Their management team is full of smart people and Broadweave has done a much-needed sweep of almost all of its management team. My reservations hinge on asking the city to extend their role in the financing of the sale.

So what’s the alternative? Broadweave is fast-approaching the date where the network will have to be returned to the city since investors aren’t willing to put any more money into it. If that happens, Provo will have several months of the reserve to use for paying off the bond while they regroup. It sounds like a worst-case doomsday scenario, but I don’t think it’s quite as dire as even I would have once predicted. Provo will still have a couple of options at their disposal.

The first option would be to resume control of the wholesale side and allow Broadweave to continue as the main retail provider. This option would only work if, after being relieved of the wholesale obligations, Broadweave would have sufficient funds to find new customers and finance install costs. There’s also the problems of re-staffing the NOC as a city department and relocating Broadweave to another office. It may also be very difficult for a single retailer to secure enough customers to cover the wholesale side of the operation

The second option would be to bring in new retail providers to compete with (or replace) Broadweave. If Provo entered into some kind of reciprocity agreement with UTOPIA that allowed a provider from one network to participate on the other, it would secure the residential contract on UTOPIA that Broadweave wouldn’t mind having and bring in a half-dozen new providers to Provo to scoop up new customers. This would also mean that at least two different head-ends on both networks would be competing for customers, a win-win for served residents. New providers, however, may be leery of making a deal with Provo after the way that they threw Mstar under the bus. Granted, Mstar wasn’t paying its bills and didn’t have much goodwill to cash in, but they were also bullied into the deal they got. In either scenario, Provo would have several months of lead time to figure out what to do and find a way to make the payments once again.

Provo isn’t necessarily locked into the merger option. If the council still wants to get out of the business, they believe that Veracity is good for the money, and they don’t have qualms about extending some more financing, they can go with the merger. If they want city money to result in a city asset, don’t have heartburn about doing the work to fix iProvo (now that we’ve seen that a private company wasn’t able to), and don’t think this is the last time they’ll be asked to extend their risk, there’s options for taking the network back.

No matter what happens, this should be an example of how difficult it is to try and undo the decision to get into the business of telecommunications. We’ve seen that a private company operating a closed network is not necessarily any more successful than a public entity operating an open network when in an overbuild scenario. We’ve also seen that self-financing means you aren’t really out of the business until the last red cent of the bond has been paid off. Any city thinking about jumping ship would do well to consider that it’s not an easy way out like the Reason Foundation and Utah Taxpayers Association claim it is.

The Over-the-top Genie is out of the bottle. Now what?

Capt. Video and I had a discussion a few weeks ago about how service providers handle over-the-top providers such as Vonage. Service providers are in a sticky situation as many of these services may compete with their existing products. Vonage and Skype take away phone customers. Hulu and iTunes take away video customers. So what should a service provider do about it? I see only three options open to them.

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Unlimited Calling, Limited Price: Google Voice Unlocks the Gates of Cheap Unlimited

I’m telecommuting this week and next and forced to use my own phone line for all of my business-related calls. My cell phone plan includes only 550 minutes of airtime per month. My Vonage line, which I took with me, includes just 500. So why aren’t I sweating about using up all of my minutes?

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FUD Alert: Utah Taxpayers Association Continues to Bend and Cherry-Pick the Truth

It shouldn’t be any surprise that the Utah “Taxpayers” Association can’t quite bring themselves to stick to facts, instead resorting to the time-tested tools of fear, uncertainty, and doubt to prop up their weak cases. In the July newsletter, the UTA decides once again to lay into UTOPIA and directly address some of my points on defining UTOPIA’s success. Unsurprisingly, they very much missed the mark yet again.

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Defining UTOPIA's Success

One of UTOPIA’s biggest mindshare issues is defining how it is successful. We seem all too eager to jump immediately to the bottom line of if it is or is not producing revenues above and beyond operating expenses plus debt service while ignoring many other important metrics. Even when focusing on the financial aspects, we make the same mistakes that Provo made in not considering the entire net financial effects of the network rather than just the balance sheet. I think we all need to take a step back and redefine what “success” really means for UTOPIA.

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A More Detailed Explanation of UTOPIA's Bond Situation

I had the opportunity to go down to UTOPIA’s office today to get updated on what’s going on down there. I walked away with a much better feel of what’s going on and a better understanding of what has caused the situation with the bonds. They also comitted to do a better job of keeping me up to speed on what’s happening. Here’s the lowdown on why the bonds are being called.

The bond situation they are in is complex, ugly, and not at all their fault. UTOPIA was required by the financing bank to use variable rate bonds instead of fixed rate bonds. Variable rate bonds obviously create a lot of issues with financial planning since you can end up with drastic and sudden rate changes. As a hedge against this, UTOPIA opted to create sort of a hedge against this volatility using a second type of bond. (If I screw up this explanation, someone send Kirt Sudweeks in to fix my explanation.)

The gist of it is that UTOPIA makes payments on a bond at a fixed 5.65% in exchange for receiving revenues on a type of variable-rate bond that has, historically, been withing 14 basis points (0.14%) of the type of bond they are using for financing. Because the bonds paid to them have historically been about the same as the bonds they are paying, it should, in theory, ensure that they pay no more than 5.65% on the outstanding debt.

The problem, though, is that the short-term bond market has gone completely haywire in a way without precedent. Instead of these two bonds being very close to each other in interest rate, they have instead created a delta as big as 6%. UTOPIA’s capitalized interest for making bond payments was burned very quickly as a result and the bond rates still haven’t normalized again. Another complication is that the bank that underwrote UTOPIA’s bonds had its rating downgraded and the interest rate was driven even higher.

While I couldn’t get confirmation as to what the total shortfall will be and what it would have been had bond rates not flipped out, I’m confident that this is a temporary situation. I can’t really discuss specifics, but suffice to say that after being let in as to what they are doing and what’s being worked on, they are on an upward trend that should resolve itself in a few years and they will only need to call a very small portion of the pledges. As it stands right now, they gave the cities a year’s advance notice of their intent to call and will draw from monies that have already been set aside. In effect, pledging cities have up to two years of breathing room before new money must be made available and it will be nowhere remotely close to the full pledge amount. Another positive effect is that when they go cash-positive, they can bond against subscriber revenue instead of the cities’ tax pledges, thus absolving the cities of any liability.

So here’s the take-away in a nutshell:

  • Nobody saw what was coming in the bond market because it had never happened before.
  • UTOPIA is covering operating expenses and a significant amount of the bond and will only need a fraction of the pledges for a limited period of time.
  • There’s a strong upward trend in revenues that will bring UTOPIA cash-positive within a few years and remove substantive risk from the cities when the bond is no longer secured with sales tax pledges.

What this proves is that the “free lunch” financing model requiring little-to-no upfront capital is not tenable and will not result in ubiquitous coverage. It also proves that the artificial financing limits in place by the legislature are causing a lot more harm than good. So yes, there is short-term pain, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.