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Pandemic provided a shot in the arm for US fixed broadband

The biggest broadband providers in the US added almost twice as many fixed subscribers in 2020 as they did the previous year, largely due to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to new analyst research.

However, it was not good news for all of the big players; some made significantly bigger gains than others.

The top 16 providers – eight from the cable space and eight telcos – representing 96% of the market, together recorded 4.86 million fixed broadband customer additions last year, up from around 2.55 million in 2019, Leichtman Research Group reported. Those net adds figures were the highest for some time.

“With the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, there were more net broadband additions in 2020 than in any year since 2008,” said Bruce Leichtman, president and principal analyst for Leichtman Research Group, in a statement. In fact, last year’s figures were only a whisker shy of the combined net adds for 2018 and 2019, which came in at 5.1 million, he added.

The figures look very positive, but the biggest benefits were felt by the cable players and not the telcos.

Comcast and Charter accounted for 4.19 million, or 86%, of the total number of net additions, with the other six cablecos’ adds coming in significantly lower, ranging from 210,000 for Cox to just under 38,000 for Atlantic Broadband.

It was a different story on the telco side, where the strongest performance came from Verizon, which added a fairly respectable 173,000 fixed broadband customers, but three of the eight posted net customer losses. CenturyLink and Frontier both lost well over 100,000 customers, while market leader – in overall customer terms, that is – AT&T’s net broadband losses came in at 5,000.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been monitoring AT&T’s performance in recent quarters, but seeing the figures laid out by an analyst firm serves to highlight the extent of the challenge the telco is facing. On a related note, Leichtman Research also produced figures on the US pay TV market that show an overall market loss of more than 5 million customers, with AT&T’s DirecTV accounting for more than 3 million. We already knew this, based on the telcos’ own reporting, but the pandemic is not stopping the cord-cutting in the US TV space.

But back to broadband. Despite AT&T and others letting the side down, the telcos together added 39,535 wireline broadband customers last year. While that is a drop in the ocean compared with their cable rivals, it’s a significant improvement on 2019, when the telecoms players recorded a loss of around 590,000 subscribers.

Leichtman Research did not go into detail on the previous set of figures, but a quick trawl through the archives shows that the three names above were responsible for most of the 2019 losses too (and Verizon also turned in a small loss), with AT&T shedding customers in big numbers.

In fact, the 2020 was the first year since 2014 that the big telcos reported positive annual broadband additions, the analyst firm said. So while they might not be keeping pace with the cable guys, there is something to be celebrated in these numbers.

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