Both the Advertiser and the Advocate have articles today on last night’s council meeting and LUS’ revised budget. The big news was that LUS will not meet its own revenue projections; in fact they are off by about half…a disturbing shortfall.
Huval’s explanation cites two factors: the lack of initial marketing and defensive budgeting that was designed to make sure that a worse case scenario of having too many customers wouldn’t “break” the budget.
This is one of those cases where the Advertiser has the better quote:
“We made projections based on the most optimistic approach,” LUS Director Terry Huval said. “We didn’t want to get into a situation where we might have budgeted too conservatively and we don’t have the materials and supplies for the customers.”
To understand what Huval is worrying about requires some background. LUS is in the odd position of having a brand new service that needs to be cautious about growing too fast. Hooking up and initially provisioning each household is a VERY large expense. The labor and materials costs — especially the set of three boxes that sit on the side of the house and the set top box inside the house—are all very costly. It will, in many cases, take several years to recover that initial investment. While the profit margin is good, even with LUS’ reduced prices, you have to invest substantially in each customer. On the books you will typically lose money for a time on every new customer you bring on. As a consequence you might have to look at borrowing more money. For most businesses this would not be something to worry about very much. Any bank could see that you were a better risk for capturing a larger share of your market than you initially anticipated. You’d get your “float” loan.
But LUS is not like other businesses. LUS cannot, practically, go back and get a bridging loan. They have borrowed all their money upfront in the form of bonded indebtedness. Budgeting in this situation is, in part, a way of projecting the “draw” the business will be making against that loan. What Huval is saying is that they originally projected the most “optimistic” draw against the loan so that they would be sure that they had enough money at the ready to buy the equipment they needed to complete the budgetary period without going back to well…So budgeting for the most extreme case was, in this case, “conservative” budgeting. A typical business would typically borrow for its most optimistic realistic case in order to have a little reserve and to avoid having to go back and borrow money again—usually at higher rates. This maneuver is LUS’ equivalent.
The tendency to be conservative here is aggravated by a state law that shapes the way LUS has to assess the risks to its business. And we have Cox and AT&T to that for that: Long-time readers will recall my inveighing against the (un)Fair Competition Act. This is one of the places where that incumbent-written law comes into play. One of the provisions of that law is that LUS is forbidden to loose money for any year. If they do, the law mandates a fire sale of the business. Given that law, you’ll notice that once you understand that LUS is actually investing in each customer that it is entirely possible to be successful too quickly. Suppose LUS took 50% of the market in a single four month period…and then, having saturated the local market it would have to endure a year or two or three of losing money just to pay off that initial investment before the income from the bulge of new customers turned positive. It is far safer to grow at a steady rate as long as you get above the break-even point before the bond money runs out. Losing money too fast is always a problem. But the (un)Fair Act makes being successful too fast a problem too. State lawmakers piously claim that they are just protecting the citizens of Lafayette from losing money. This case makes it obvious that the people that wrote the bill, AT&T and Cox, are the ones being protected. Lafayette doesn’t need or want Baton Rouge’s protection.
LUS also acknowledges that it hasn’t run much of a marketing campaign, saying that it doesn’t make sense to gear up a large and expensive campaign if you aren’t yet ready to sell your product to all the people you’re paying to reach. From the Advocate:
Revenues for LUS Fiber this year might have been more in line with the initial projections had the city pushed a more-aggressive marketing campaign, Huval said.
But he said the decision was made to hold back on intensive marketing of the service until it was available to most residents, so as to get the most out of the marketing dollars.
That does make a certain amount of sense. But that excuse is already effectively over—LUS is currently finishing off its build-out. The vast majority of the citizenry is now ready to receive service. So we should now begin to see a much more aggressive campaign. —Though, of course, not sooo aggressive as to run afoul of the (un)Fair Act’s penalty on gaining customer share too quickly. (sigh)
In all fairness, LUS also has another reason not to want to sell too much of its cable product too soon. also been wrestling with the set top box software—the initial software was simply not up to snuff…it provided the fundamental functions in that it would change channels and record material but the interface was outdated and it was clumsily designed. It was even worse than most cable providers interface and that is saying something. With the new Microsoft Mediaroom LUS has come out on the other side–the interface is very slick, it works well and there are obvious hooks left for the development of innovative features. But until that mess was settled and LUS knew that Alcatel was going to step up and make good on its promises LUS Fiber was looking at a situation in which it very strongly suspected that each and every video customer was going to upgraded to a new box and software platform in the very near future. They had little desire to put the whole city on a solution that they would have to turn around and dump.
The most reassuring part of the story is that the Advocate reports that Huval is saying that they are making their break-even rate—that is, they are getting the 23% of the population they need to win over to break-even and pay back the dedicated bonds. That, frankly, is the only important number—
[Huval] said that even though LUS Fiber is not meeting the early revenue projections, he feels confident the venture is building a solid foundation and will be successful.
LUS Fiber can break even with a 23 percent market penetration, Huval said, and that percentage has been “handily” reached in most areas where the service has been available for more than a few months.
What’s interesting is that while LUS will doubtless get some flack for not meeting its defensive budget estimates nobody is asking what LUS achieving its break-even rate means for the other actors in this little drama: Cox and ATT. Leaving aside ATT for the moment since it is not selling a cable product let’s look at Cox. Nationally the take-rate for cable video is supposed to be about 50%. I don’t have any reason to think Lafayette would be much different. If LUS is taking more than 23% of the local market “after a few months” that would imply that in just a few months—without a very credible set top box arrangement and with very little marketing—LUS can take about half of Cox’s well-established cable video market. That makes LUS, by any reasonable assessment, a very successful competitor.