Altice Amps Up US Capex for FTTH, New Box

As it keeps moving to disentangle itself from its debt-plagued European parent, Altice USA is planning to go on a capital spending binge this year to beef up its networks and product offerings.

Altice USA , the fourth-largest cable operator in the US with 4.9 million customers, disclosed on its fourth-quarter earnings call late Tuesday that it intends to shell out about $1.3 billion on capex in 2018. That represents roughly a 30% increase from the $991 million that it spent on capex last year and the $966 million that it spent in 2016. And the big increase comes after the MSO spent much of the past two years wringing savings out of both its capex and opex budgets by cutting staff, eliminating "non-core projects," striking better deals with key vendors and achieving other cost synergies.

Speaking on the company earnings call, Altice USA executives did not break down exactly how the larger capital budget will be spent this year. But they cited the three major initiatives that the company has recently launched -- fiber-to-the-home networks, a new home entertainment hub and a full mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) agreement with Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) -- as the main drivers for more capital spending on network infrastructure and consumer premises equipment over the rest of the year.

Going through these initiatives one by one, Altice USA Chairman & CEO Dexter Goei said the MSO plans to accelerate its FTTH build over the next few months and "commercialize" the network by offering the first services over it later this year. Under this ambitious construction program, Altice USA intends to extend fiber lines to nearly all its 8.6 million homes passed in the former Cablevision Systems and Suddenlink territories over the next few years, starting with more than 150,000 homes that have already been passed in the New York metro area. Last month the company set a goal of passing 1 million households with fiber by the end of this year. (See Altice USA Begins Fiber Buildout.)

"We're probably a couple of quarters behind, which I think in my almost ten years with Altice is probably the least we have been behind when we start something off," Goei said. "So we always know that it takes a little bit of growing pains to get the machine moving, getting the right pieces in place, getting the permits in place, getting all the processes, getting the trucks, all those things. Now we are moving at a very nice pace."

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Altice USA executives said they will also step up the rollout of their much ballyhooed home communications hub, Altice One, throughout its regions. The souped-up box -- which combines the functions of a TV set-top, cable modem and wireless router -- was unveiled on Long Island last fall and has since been introduced throughout the New York region. Altice plans to deploy it in the former Suddenlink areas during the second and third quarters. (See Altice USA Plows Ahead With Hubs & Fiber.)

"You can see that we began in 2017 to increase investment in network infrastructure related to our new FTTH rollout," said Charlie Stewart, co-president and CFO of Altice USA. "CPE spend will also increase further in 2018 to support the Altice One rollout, although our average cost of CPE per home connected will be slightly lower as we're consolidating a lot of the legacy equipment into just one box now."

As for the Sprint MVNO, Goei said Altice USA is now moving forward by developing the core network for its planned wireless service. He said the company expects to launch the service by the beginning of 2019. We'll have more on Altice USA's next-gen tech plans in an upcoming story. (See Altice & Sprint Ink MVNO Deal.)

Despite the much higher capital spending levels this year, Altice USA officials said the company will continue to de-leverage and boost its liquidity through continued revenue growth, margin expansion and cash-flow growth. On the revenue front, for instance, the company reported growth of nearly 2% to $9.3 billion in 2017 and projects 2.5% to 3.0% growth this year.

Over the past two years, Altice USA – which also raised $2.2 billion in an IPO last summer -- has impressed Wall Street by reducing its ratio of net debt to earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) from 7.7x to 5.6x on its Cablevision systems and from 6.8x to 5.3x on its Suddenlink properties. It plans to cut the company's overall 5.5x leverage ratio further to its target range of 4.5x to 5.0x by the end of this year.

The 2018 capex surge comes as Altice USA is still struggling to free itself from the shadow of its European parent, Altice NV. Goei said he hopes to complete the planned spin-off of Altice USA from Altice NV, which will be renamed Altice Europe, by sometime in June. (See Altice USA Embraces Home-Alone Strategy.)

Altice USA's stock price, which has been falling along with its parent company's stock price over the past month, shot up early Wednesday morning before stating to settle down. At 10:30 a.m. ET today, the stock traded at $18.85, up 2%.

— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading

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