How Comcast's Growing Broadband Monopoly Is Helping It Temporarily Fend Off The TV Cord Cutting Threat
from the innovation-through-monopoly dept
Comcast's earnings report this week indicated that the company managed to add 80,000 basic video subscribers during the fourth quarter, and 161,000 net video customers for the full year. And while news outlets were quick to proclaim that Comcast had magically bucked the cord cutting trend, you'd be hard pressed to find a single outlet that could be bothered to actually explain how. When an explanation is given, it's usually just regurgitation of Comcast's claim that the cable giant's fending off cord cutting thanks to the company's incredible innovation in the set top box market:
"The turnaround in the cable business helped Comcast beat profit estimates for the fourth quarter. Executives attribute the momentum in their cable-TV business largely to their new video platform, called X1, which makes it easier to search for shows and movies on TV and on Netflix from their cable set-top box."
Except it's not cable box innovation that's helping Comcast fend off cord cutting, it's the company's growing monopoly over the broadband last mile.
In countless markets Comcast competes solely with AT&T and Verizon, who have made it abundantly clear they're no longer interested in the fixed-line residential broadband business. Both companies have made slinging ads and content at Millennials their primary focus, as evident by Verizon's acquisition of AOL and Yahoo and focus on creative new snoopvertising technologies. As a result, these telcos are quite literally trying to drive many of these customers away with a combination of apathy and price hikes. If these users want broadband connections any faster than 3-6 Mbps, their only option is, increasingly, Comcast.
When these users arrive at the nation's biggest cable giant, they discover that signing up for TV and broadband is notably cheaper than just signing up for broadband alone. The problem is: while many have claimed that Comcast's "bucking cord cutting," there's no evidence that many of these users are even watching the cable connections they pay for, nor that they'll stick around as a traditional television viewer long term. Many just signed up because having television was actually less expensive than getting rid of it.
But should they try and get rid of it Comcast's got that angle covered too: the company's growing monopoly means less broadband competition than ever in many of its markets, allowing it to impose draconian and unnecessary usage caps on the company's customers. Caps that apply to competing streaming services, but not Comcast's own content. All told, between bundling and usage caps, Comcast's broadband monopoly means it simply doesn't feel the pain a company would feel in the face of real competition, which is why it has little to no incentive to fix its historically bad customer service.
Often Comcast obfuscates its growing monopoly over broadband and its ham-fisted implementation of usage caps with creative claims of incredible new innovation that gets gobbled up by the press. Like the company's announcement this week that it will soon be letting customers watch Comcast cable TV on Roku devices. This new beta is Comcast's attempt to quiet criticism that emerged during the FCC's failed attempt to bring competition to the monopolized cable box. And, in obedient fashion, the press was quick to highlight the partnership as a surefire example of Comcast's incredible innovation.
But upon closer inspection the service comes with a number of caveats, including the fact that users must subscribe to Comcast cable TV and Comcast broadband, and must pay Comcast an extra fee just to use Roku hardware they already own. Also buried in the FAQ for Comcast's new Roku beta is the proclamation that this service also won't count against Comcast's usage caps:
"Will the XFINITY TV Beta app use data from my XFINITY Internet Data Usage Plan?
No. The XFINITY TV service delivered through the XFINITY TV Beta app is not an Internet service and does not touch or use the Internet. Rather, it is a Title VI cable service delivered solely over Comcast's private, managed cable network, so it will not count toward your XFINITY Internet Data Usage Plan. Usage of any other apps on Roku devices, including any TV Everywhere apps accessible with your XFINITY TV credentials, do use the Internet and will count against your XFINITY Internet Data Usage Plan.
Comcast is effectively arguing that this isn't a net neutrality violation (for whatever that's worth with the rules about to be deep sixed by a duopoly-adoring Congress) because the data doesn't travel over the common internet. Still, the function of these added restrictions cumulatively remains the same: to tilt the playing field and keep customers in house and away from competing services. With a growing cable monopoly and the rise of rubber-stamping regulators under Trump, Comcast will soon face less pressure than ever before to shore up its miserable customer service or to lower prices.
That's great news if you're a Comcast executive or investor, but less stellar if you're one of the countless millions of consumers or competitors already bored to tears by several decades of Comcast's anti-competitive behavior and overall dysfunction.