By Jim Gallagher
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Charter Communications’ bid to buy Time Warner Cable comes at a time of sharp and rising competition in the broadband Internet and pay-TV business. For the consumer, that promises faster and faster Internet speeds and more and more high-definition channels.
It means further advances toward the concept of “TV everywhere,” with consumers watching pay channels on their smartphones and tablets far from home.
But it doesn’t mean lower prices, analysts say.
Competition has cable, phone and satellite companies scrambling to sign up customers with cheap initial prices that last a year or so. Companies hook customers, then hope they hang around when the prices jump.
Jump they do. A typical Charter introductory package of phone, Internet and TV starts at $110 a month, climbs to $130 after a year and $150 after two years, according to a Charter Communications Inc. presentation to analysts.
But the battle hasn’t had much effect on the full retail prices that long-term customers pay, analysts say. Instead, there’s been an upward creep in bills around the country.
“Prices have been rising 5 or 6 percent a year, and consumers now pay about double what they did 10 years ago,” said Jeff Kagan, an independent telecommunications analyst in Atlanta.
Meanwhile, the recent court decision striking down what is called “net neutrality” raises the possibility of higher prices for over-the-Internet competitors such as Netflix and Hulu.
Such services let customers bypass the cable to watch shows on demand, and they have prompted some to cancel their cable TV subscription.
“The cable TV industry is in transition. It’s under threat from new competitors,” Kagan said. “There is new technology, exciting new companies and new ways to watch TV.”
Charter and AT&T are in a technological arms race. Charter has announced plans to move all its customers to digital service. That means a cable box or TiVo-like device on all but the most advanced TVs.
The switch eliminates analog service, which for most customers meant plugging the cable directly into the back of the TV. A single analog channel takes as much capacity as 14 digital stations. So digital means that Charter can move much more through its cable “pipe.”
Charter says it will use that space to double the speed of its standard residential service to 60 megabits per second, or mbps, from 30 later this year at the same price. It also plans to add 79 HD TV channels, catching up to AT&T’s offerings on its U-verse service.
AT&T’s broadband service is a “small step under” Charter’s service today, said Ian Olgeirson, analyst at SNL Kagan. The race is on to close the gap.
AT&T says it plans to double its U-verse Internet speeds by the end of next year. The company offers up to 45 mbps in many areas, the company says, although in many others the limits are a fraction of that speed. The company plans to move to 100 mbps eventually.
That is a lot of speed. By comparison, an HD-quality Netflix movie requires about 5 mbps.
In Kansas City, another tech company, Google, is experimenting with fiber-based Internet service at 1,000 mbps. “It’s set a new bar,” said Alan Breznick, video-cable practice leader at Light Reading, a telecom news and research service.
Few think Google will move nationwide with such service, but it has competitors worried. “Customers finally have choice, but not all customers and not in all markets,” Kagan said. “Where we have choice, the traditional cable TV companies have had to quickly get better.”
Nationally, phone companies have about 10 percent of the market for pay TV, compared to 55 percent for cable. That’s because the phone company geographical footprint is still much smaller than the cable companies for fast Internet and TV.
Meanwhile, DirectTV and the Dish Network are selling satellite TV to people who don’t like the cable and phone companies.
An arms race isn’t cheap. Charter says it has spent more than $2 billion on upgrades. AT&T calls its U-verse expansion a “multibillion-dollar three-year project.”