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Cable/Video

Video strategies vary widely among indie operators

As is true for the nation's largest cable operators, there is no one-size-fits-all pay-TV and video strategy among smaller and midsized MSOs as they grapple with changing consumer habits, cord-cutting and skyrocketing programming rates.

It's clear that those strategies are far from uniform and are instead being set on an operator-by-operator basis, according to the responses from several top cable operator execs who participated in a wide-ranging opening session for a virtual form of The Independent Show being hosted this week by the National Cable Television Cooperative (NCTC) and ACA Connects.

Ziply Fiber, the take-over brand for the former northwest operations of Frontier Communications acquired by WaveDivision Capital earlier this year, is happy to focus on broadband, extract itself from pay-TV, and essentially cede the video piece to the market's various OTT service providers.

"We think of ourselves as a broadband data provider that enables our customers to get whatever content that they want," Harold Zeitz, Ziply Fiber's CEO, said. "We don't want to be put in the middle of what content providers are doing."

That, Zeitz said, will ensure that Ziply doesn't have to concern itself with striking and renewing programming deals amid constant rate increase.

Vast Broadband still provides video and intends to keep offering a pay-TV product that can be bundled with broadband. "We believe there's a large number of customers that still want a linear video connection," Jim Gleason, president and CEO of Vast Broadband, said. "We've got to have one."

But expect Vast Broadband to think long and hard about how (and if) it might renew programming deals in years to come. Gleason said Vast intends to renew most of its deals this year, but wonders if the service provider will end up renewing a "minority of them" within three years.

Stratus IQ , meanwhile, is seeing opportunities to provide pay-TV (using TiVo products and integrated apps) in areas where it is taking on DSL with fiber-to-the-premises technology. Customers in those areas have felt "trapped" by satellite TV services, Ben Kley, president and GM of Stratus IQ, said.

WideOpenWest is taking a multi-faceted approach with a new IP-based service, called WOW tv+, that employs Android TV boxes with voice navigation capabilities, and by partnering with a handful of virtual MVPDs (YouTube TV, fuboTV, Sling TV and Philo).

However, WOW is seeing an influx of broadband customers going with streaming options, so "we're embracing it," Teresa Elder, WOW's CEO, said.

EPB, meanwhile, has taken advantage of the NCTC's partnership with MobiTV to deliver a next-gen pay-TV service and has seen new video customers come in at a "good clip," according to Katie Espeseth, VP of new products at EPB.

Facing down new broadband threats
The exec roundtable also dug into how independent operators are preparing for broadband competition on the horizon from 5G, along with new satellite-delivered services powered by constellations of low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites.

For MCTV, new PON-based services are opening up opportunities, particularly with customers that require more upload speeds than the company can provide on DOCSIS today, according to MCTV President Katherine Gessner.

Zeitz views new competition as an opportunity. "We don't fear competition. We actually think competition is a good thing," he said, noting that all of these new entrants need fiber to some location and, with respect to 5G, to many locations. "We have the benefit of having fiber, which they need and they will pay for," he noted.

Execs also discussed how their businesses have changed – and quickly ramped up, in some instances – during the pandemic.

Vyve Broadband rapidly hit its broadband goals for 2020 as people hunkered down at home to work and go to school.

"By the end of April, we had already hooked up our entire annual HSD [high-speed data] goal for the entire year," Phil Spencer, president and CEO of Vyve, said. "It's been obviously a struggle, but from a business standpoint, as anyone out there knows, broadband has probably been the most essential service … That's been a big positive for us."

Staying well ahead of data demands by continually investing in capacity paid off, Julie Laulis, Cable One's president and CEO, said.

"We knew the time would come, not because of a pandemic – we assumed it would be products and services where people would need that reliable high-speed broadband connection," Laulis said. "The lesson of [network] investment is the one we can't forget about."

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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