Cable Company Broadband Subscribers Now Outnumber Pay TV Subscribers

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It had to happen sometime, but the cable guys probably didn’t expect it to happen so soon. The top U.S. cable companies now claim 49.915 million broadband subscribers compared with 49.910 million cable TV subscribers. That marks the first time that broadband subscribers have outnumbered pay TV subscribers at the country’s cable providers.

With the addition of 385,000 new subscribers in the second quarter of 2014, the 17 largest cable and telephone companies in the U.S account for 85.9 million subscribers. The top cable companies account for about 50.7 million of the subscribers and the top phone companies get about 35.2 million of the total.

According to data from Leichtman Research Group Inc., Comcast Corp. (NASDAQ: CMCSA) added 203,000 broadband internet subscribers in the second quarter, and with 21.27 million total broadband subscribers has a substantial lead on second-place Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) which has about 12 million total broadband subscribers.

AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) notched about 16.5 million broadband subscribers in the second quarter and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) claimed just over 9 million. The difference is that AT&T lost some 55,000 subscribers in the quarter while Verizon added 46,000.

As Leichtman’s founder and president notes, “With the addition of more than 30 million broadband subscribers over the past decade, cable providers have clearly expanded well beyond their roots in cable TV service.”

The implications for subscribers are more significant than the 5,000-subscriber broadband lead might have you believe. If the Comcast merger with Time Warner Cable is approved, more than 33 million broadband subscribers (more than 37% of all broadband subscribers and nearly equal to the total number of phone company broadband subscribers) will be controlled by one company. How will that company treat over-the-top services like Netflix Inc. (NASDAQ: NFLX), Inc.’s (NASDAQ: AMZN) Instant Video, and Hulu Plus? A research report from Leichtman in June noted that 47% of U.S. households have at least one of those streaming video services.

Will the cable/broadband companies force the same kind of programming packages on subscribers that they have historically forced on cable TV subscribers? Will the cable/broadband companies squeeze Netflix and Amazon for more payments in exchange for higher speeds? What happens to net neutrality anyway?

We’ll look back on the second quarter of 2014 someday as the beginning of a sea change in the cable and broadband business. Whether that’s a fond memory or a bad one remains unknown.

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