AT&T Aims to Break Up Cable's Triple Play - TheStreet

Cable operators have high hopes for advanced services, but a pair of telephone companies reminded them this week that they don't have the luxury of operating in a vacuum.


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said Monday that it is expanding a combined telephone and video service package to Florida and Texas, bringing the bundle to a total of eight states. Separately,


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said it would introduce a voice-over-Internet-protocol-based phone service to customers in New Jersey, the first step of a planned nationwide VoIP rollout.

The two plans erect another hurdle in front of big cable operators such as

Time Warner




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, which are intent on bolstering their slow-growing core cable franchises with a growing array of services.

Verizon's offer -- in conjunction with the



home satellite service -- represents yet another source of competition for cable's core multichannel video business, which has been showing minimal growth over the past few years. Meanwhile AT&T's product, which requires a high-speed Internet connection, adds an established, name-brand competitor to the telephone service that major cable operators are in various stages of rolling out. It thus poses one more threat to one of the several revenue streams that operators are looking to to counter the anemic basic business.

Fast Forward

Cable companies could feel the pinch soon. Verizon's launch of the DirecTV bundle -- making it available to an estimated 14 million residential access lines since its February debut -- could, along with a similar deal between telco



and satellite operator


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, have an impact as early as the second quarter, says Credit Suisse First Boston analyst Lara Warner.

"We believe that Verizon's ramping rollout of its video bundle in March," Warner wrote in a Tuesday note, "represents a further escalation of the competitive battle between cable operators and the RBOCs," or regional Bell operating companies.

The degree of threat that the telecom-satellite bundles pose to cable, however, is under debate. In theory, combining multichannel video from a satellite service with telephone service and high-speed Internet access from a local telephone company directly challenges the video-Internet-telephony "triple-play" bundle that operators such as



(using older telelphone technology) say increases per-household revenue and cuts customer defections.

Cable operators, however, say that the reality never lives up to the theory, since it's harder for two companies to coordinate the marketing, technology and customer service functions necessary to create a seamless offering.

Verizon, in its announcement Monday, said customers would initally receive bundling discounts in separate Verizon and DirecTV bills. The companies hope to combine their billing on Verizon bills later this year.

Verizon says its bundled price for unlimited calling (locally, regionally and nationally), Internet access and a single DirecTV set-top box beats by $5 to $20 a month the prices of similar packages from major cable companies.

Tense Standoff

Warner notes that unlike SBC, Verizon isn't emphasizing wireless in its video bundle, because wireless hasn't been as successful a part of a video bundle as have wire-line voice and data services. That's important, she says, because cable operators can't offer wireless service without a third-party agreement of their own. (Warner's firm has done recent investment banking for both Verizon and AT&T; she has neutral ratings on AT&T, Cox, SBC and DirecTV, and an outperform rating on Verizon.)

AT&T's entry into VoIP, meanwhile, spotlights increased competition for unlimited local and domestic calling -- the types of packages cable operators are offering. AT&T, notably, is offering a special introductory rate to early subscribers of $19.99 a month for six months, a 50% discount to the evenutal price for the service.

UBS analyst Aryeh Bourkoff notes that Cablevision charges $34.95 per month for its VoIP offering, while Time Warner charges $39.95.

"We believe that AT&T's initial VoIP launch represents the beginning of the competitive battle between larger VoIP operators and the RBOCs for local voice market share," wrote Warner. "We believe the competitive environment for local service will continue to intensify over at least the next several years as VoIP-based competitors ramp their service offerings."