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Cable's numbers don't add up for metered billing

Comcast and Time Warner are still making money in spite of a weak economy and increasing bandwidth demand, which they claim strains their network resources.

For an industry that's supposedly struggling to keep up with customer demand for more bandwidth, the nation's two largest cable operators seem to be doing pretty well.

This week Comcast and Time Warner Cable each reported strong earnings, in spite of the fact that Time Warner has said recently that it needs a new business model to handle growing broadband demand.

Comcast beat analysts' expectations and increased profits 5.4 percent to $778 million. Time Warner Cable's profits fell 32 percent, but this was mostly due to costs associated with the split from its former parent company, Time Warner. The company's revenue was actually up 5 percent to $4.4 billion when compared to the same quarter a year ago.

Comcast also increased revenue by about 5.3 percent to $8.4 billion.

Meanwhile, both companies reduced capital spending. Comcast cut capital expenditures by 19 percent to $1.16 billion. And Time Warner Cable cut its spending by 18 percent to $33 million. For broadband specifically, Time Warner increased revenues 11 percent to $1.1 billion.

The companies also increased subscribers. Time Warner added 225,000 new broadband users and 166,000 new voice-over-IP customers during the quarter. Comcast added 328,613 high-speed Internet customers, down 33 percent from the previous year, and it added 298,433 digital phone customers, also down about 53 percent.

Even though Comcast isn't adding new customers as quickly as it did a year ago and Time Warner's profits aren't as high as they were a year ago, the companies are still adding new subscribers and making money. And yet they are also cutting capital spending.

This financial reality is very different from the one Time Warner Cable has been touting recently, as it tries to explain why it wants to start billing customers based on how much bandwidth they use. Outraged consumers mounted loud protests when the company said it would expand trials of the new billing system. Time Warner backed off the plan for now. But the company still argues that it must do something because the current business model is "not viable."

Time Warner's views are shared throughout the industry. Kyle McSlarrow, president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, supported Time Warner Cable's trials in a blog post stating that they "may serve the vast majority of their customers better by reflecting the growing reality that some consumers utilize far more high speed bandwidth than others."

Smaller cable operators are already starting to meter bandwidth, according to a recent article by the Web site Broadcasting & Cable. Sunflower Broadband in Northern Kansas has been using metered pricing for the past four years. And Wave Broadband, which provides service in Oregon and Washington, is about to launch metered billing on its network.

The chief operating officer of Sunflower Broadband, Patrick Knorr, says bandwidth-based billing is the only way to manage infrastructure, the B&C article said. He believes that with all the high-definition content being downloaded that there is no way a cable company could keep up with demand at current flat rate prices. And like Time Warner's CFO, Landel Hobbs, Knorr says that consumption-based billing is "unsustainable."

But when cable operators add customers and cut capital spending on infrastructure, it doesn't seem as though they are even attempting to keep up with customer demand for more bandwidth. And the fact that they are still making profits also shows that they have the money to spend. So for consumers--who already feel they pay too much for broadband services compared to people living in other countries--Time Warner's argument that it has no choice but to meter traffic is a hard to pill to swallow, especially in this economy when so many people are financially strapped.