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Charter Sets All-Digital Path for Video

Jeff Baumgartner
LR Cable News Analysis
Jeff Baumgartner

As Charter Communications Inc. continues to execute the Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC) playbook under new President and CEO Tom Rutledge, an all-digital video migration appears to be near the top of the operator's agenda. (See Can Charter Repeat the Video Feat? and Ex-Cablevision COO Becomes Charter CEO.)

"We intend to progressively move to an all-digital platform over the next two years, starting with seeding the market with boxes today," Rutledge said on the company's third-quarter earnings call Tuesday. That migration will put Charter on the way to reclaiming precious bandwidth "and eventually switching off inferior analog product altogether."

The early phase of this set-top seeding process caused Charter's capex to spike to $488 million in the quarter, versus the $412 million expected by analysts. Rutledge hopes those costs will go down as baseline set-top functionality goes inside tablets, TVs and other connected devices.

Part of Rutledge's thinking while at Cablevision was that he could keep set-top costs down by using a network-based DVR rather than relying on more expensive set-tops with local DVRs. But that's a longer-term play at Charter. "I wouldn't say that we have an immediate capability at Charter to go to network DVR or other cloud-based services like it," Rutledge said. (See Charter Keeps RS-DVR on Sidelines.)

Rutledge did not say precisely how Charter will seed the market with boxes ahead of the switchover. Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), for example, has deployed millions of low-cost Digital Terminal Adapter (DTA) devices to power its analog reclamation strategy. (See Comcast's $1B Bandwidth Plan .)

Charter, however, hinted in a waiver request filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) late last week that it intends to use the sort of software-based security system that Cablevision -- Rutledge's former company -- put into play for its all-digital strategy. While at Cablevision, Rutledge envisioned that boxes based on that system could eventually be had for about $50 each. So far, Samsung Corp. is the only box maker that Cablevision has deployed with the new security system. (See Charter Video Plan Good News for Cisco, Samsung and Cablevision Eyes $50 Set-Top.)

"We have a strategy of buying CPE from world-class vendors and trying to get ... in a position where we can buy CPE from multiple providers and therefore get competitive pricing," Rutledge said.

Going all-digital is just one component of a larger strategy Rutledge is using to change Charter's operational model, with the hope of generating a higher rate of cash flow per home passed. That strategy also includes the centralizing of Charter's network operations, and simplifying the pricing and packaging of its video and broadband products.

Financial update
Charter's strategy is the early phases and the results haven't shown up yet in earnings.

Charter posted a third quarter loss of $87 million (87 cents per share) on revenues of $1.88 billion, up 3.9 percent. Analysts were expecting a loss of 44 cents per share and revenues of $1.84 billion.

Charter also lost 73,000 video subscribers, of which 56,000 were basic TV customers. The MSO gained 69,000 cable modem customers and 52,000 voice subs.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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