In a potentially game-changing shift for the cable industry, US MSOs will soon have more broadband subscribers than video subscribers for the first time in the industry's 65-year history.
In a new report issued last week, Moody's Investors Service predicts that US cable operators will amass more high-speed data customers than pay TV customers by next year, as they keep gaining more broadband users and shedding video viewers. In fact, the debt-rating agency calculates that the crossover point is already occurring, with both services now boasting about 50 million subscribers.
Several major US MSOs already have more broadband customers than video customers, or are closing in on the crossover point. Both Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) and Charter Communications Inc. -- the second- and fourth-largest US MSOs, respectively -- now have more broadband than video customers, while Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC) may well have reached the crossover point at the end of the second quarter. (See Cable Leaves Telcos in Broadband Dust.)
Broadband replacing video as the anchor product for the industry could have both positive and negative effects for cable companies, according to Moody's. On the positive side, the rating agency notes, fewer video customers will lower cable operators' programming costs, which have been sharply rising for years. In turn, operators' profit margins should improve, because high-speed data is a higher-margin product than TV.
On the other hand, the Moody's report points out, "an eroding subscriber base for video also poses risks" for cable providers. That's because their economies of scale may suffer for such areas as technical and customer service, driving up costs per customer. In addition, cable operators that seem to be giving up their video base easily may see their brands suffer, as well.
Given these factors, the report suggests that it may make sense for some cable providers to unbundle their broadband and video offerings, and put greater emphasis on broadband, especially in less-competitive markets. The report stresses that such small and midsized cable operators and overbuilders as RCN Corp. , Grande Communications , and Wave Broadband have all built "sustainable" businesses with relatively low video penetration rates but much higher broadband adoption rates.
However, Moody's contends that cable operators in more competitive markets will likely need to maintain strong video offerings because of the danger of losing double-play and triple-play subscribers to telcos. In particular, the agency warns that such MSOs as TW Cable, Cablevision, and Cox Communications Inc. could struggle because their regions have significant overlap with the fiber buildouts of Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ)'s FiOS and AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)'s U-verse networks.
"Cable providers' largely upgraded networks and high-speed capabilities can make them the first call for consumers seeking fast Internet connections," said Karen Berckmann, vice president and senior analyst for Moody's. "But if cable companies want to sell their video product as well, the onus is on them to provide a compelling video experience at an attractive price."
— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading