Why a Massive New Gigabit Upgrade, Instead of DirecTV Acquisition, Made No Sense

Two years ago, when DirecTV was acquired by AT&T, it would have been easy to find detractors arguing that AT&T should have spent that money investing in fiber to home infrastructure. With linear video cord cutting possibly accelerating, the new version of that story is being heard again.

So what should AT&T have done with $67 billion, assuming a 4.6 percent cost of capital? Cost of capital is the annualized return a borrower or equity issuer (paying a dividend) incurs simply to cover the cost of borrowing.

In AT&T’s case, the breakeven rate is 4.6 percent, which is the cost of borrowing itself. To earn an actual return, AT&T has to generate new revenue above 4.6 percent.

First of all, AT&T would not have borrowed $67 billion if it needed to add about three million new fiber to home locations per year. Assume that was all incremental capital, above and beyond what AT&T normally spends for new and rehab access facilities.

Assume that for logistical reasons, AT&T really can only build about three million locations each year, gets a 25-percent initial take rate, spends $700 to pass a location and then $500 to activate a customer location. Assume account revenue is $80 a month.

AT&T would spend about $2.1 billion to build three million new FTTH locations. At a 25-percent initial take rate, AT&T spends about $525 million to provide service to new accounts. So annual cost is about $2.65 billion, to earn about $720 million in new revenue (not all of which is incremental, as some of the new FTTH customers are upgrading from DSL).

The simple point is that building three million new FTTH locations per year, and selling $80 in services to a quarter of those locations, immediately,  does not recover the cost of capital.

The DirecTV acquisition, on the other hand, boosted AT&T cash flow about 40 percent.

Basically, even if AT&T had not purchased DirecTV, and began a new program adding three million new gigabit passings per year, those investments would not increase AT&T cash flow in the near term, and possibly never would do so.

The same logic applies to the Time Warner acquisition, which not only moves AT&T into new segments of the content ecosystem, but also boosts cash flow and profit margins.

But the linear video business is declining, many obviously will note. All true. But linear assets create the foundation for over-the-top assets, which also come with lower operating cost (much lower fulfillment and provisioning, for example).

Also, no matter what the long-term impact might be, a huge boost in free cash flow still matters, as markets evolve.

The point is that the alternative of plowing capital into faster gigabit upgrades sounds reasonable, but simply fails to move the needle on cash flow.


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