DOJ Opposes AT&T / Time Warner Merger

The US Department of Justice filed an antitrust lawsuit against AT&T opposing the upcoming merger with Time Warner. The filing was surprising since it came so late in the merger process with the proposed merger on the table for much of 2017.

There are those saying that the DOJ objections are political, but the DOJ objections are all legitimate. Some of the major concerns of the DOJ include:

  • The merger could disadvantage AT&T rivals like Comcast and Charter by forcing them to pay hundreds of millions more for access to Time Warner programming.
  • The merger will slow the industry transition to online video through OTT and MVPD providers.
  • The vertical integration of last-mile network and programming gives AT&T the ability to create an unfair advantage over competitors.

I don’t think AT&T or anybody can dispute these objections with a straight face, and in fact, these findings are exactly what AT&T has in mind. AT&T already has major synergies between its various business lines. For example, the latest expansion of the AT&T FTTP network is largely taking advantage of fiber routes that are already in place to support the cellular network. It’s something that AT&T probably should have taken advantage of long before now. AT&T also is starting to take advantage of the synergies between its large acquired DirecTV customer base and its cellular products. It’s also the existing programming contracts of DirecTV that have enabled the successful launch of the MVPD offering DirecTV Now.

What this DOJ suit does not acknowledge is that AT&T is just trying to keep pace with Comcast. Comcast has already integrated programming with a last-mile network when the DOJ and FCC let the company buy NBC Universal in 2009. And now that Comcast is entering the cellular business I have a hard time seeing any real difference between what Comcast has today and what AT&T is trying to become with this merger.

The question that must be asked is if the DOJ is going to block the AT&T merger, then shouldn’t their next step be to ask for the divestiture of the Comcast business lines? If they are not going to pursue that, then this filing is largely political. But if the concern is monopoly abuse, as the DOJ document indicates, then they should pursue the only fully-integrated monopoly like the one that AT&T is asking to create.  In fact, Comcast has already gone far past where AT&T is headed and also bundles in smart home, security and even solar panels with other telecom services.

There is no question that Comcast, and AT&T, if they are able to complete the merger, will have a competitive advantage over any other last-mile network provider. Any other ISP that wants to offer video will have to pay significant amount of money to these two companies as part of competing with them. It can be argued that Comcast cable also has to buy the various Comcast programming – but the fact is that when calculating earnings all intercompany purchases cancel out, so whatever Comcast pays itself for programing is largely funny money. And this gives these big conglomerates an instant $5 / $10 advantage per month in costs over any rival.

It’s an interesting filing, and if the DOJ sticks to its guns this is likely to end up at the Supreme Court. My gut tells me that the courts are going to have a hard time saying no to AT&T for trying to create the same synergies that their primary rival Comcast already has.

We haven’t even seen the full power of the new Comcast bundle yet. The company has so many possible ways to tie down a customer and make it hard to break the bundle. Once Comcast has millions of cellular customers and millions of smart home customers they are going to be a fierce competitor against any newcomer. Combine this with the fact that they will soon have gigabit broadband available everywhere and they can match broadband speeds in any market (while keeping prices higher in non-competitive markets). That is the real power of the big conglomerate ISPs – the ability to compete unfairly in any one market by charging more elsewhere.

I doubt that the DOJ petition will hold up. We don’t really need another company with the same market power as Comcast – but stopping the second big conglomerate is already too late.

Comcast and Competition

comcast-truck-cmcsa-cmcsk_largeThere was a short interview in Fortune recently with Comcast CEO Brian Roberts about Comcast’s views on competition. Roberts’ responses are a very good summary of the state of cable competition in the country in general.

First, when asked about competition today Roberts said that Comcast feels competitive pressure every minute and that he thinks the market is getting increasingly competitive. That’s an interesting comment. There are certainly markets where people are building fiber to compete against Comcast. We see CenturyLink building fiber in a number of large cities. Verizon has announced that it’s going to expand FiOS in Boston. Google is slowly building fiber, although not yet in many Comcast markets. And there are a tiny number of municipal fiber builds, mostly in more rural markets.

But to offset those new fiber competitors it’s obvious that Comcast is crushing DSL in its many markets. The older DSL equipment is just becoming too slow and DSL customers are finally upgrading to faster cable modem service. Overall Comcast added a net of almost 1.4 million new broadband customers in 2015. So for every customer they might have lost to fiber they have picked up many more from competing with DSL. Because Comcast’s cable modems are so superior to DSL, in the vast majority of its markets Comcast now has a virtual monopoly on real broadband.

Roberts was also asked about the company’s interest in competing outside of Comcast’s cable service territories. Unsurprisingly Roberts said that the company has no plans to expand its footprint. The FCC has been bringing the pressure on cable companies to become more competitive. But I am not aware of an example where one of the major cable companies has ever competed against one of their neighboring cable providers. In other places like Europe and Canada there are markets where cable companies compete against each other – but in this country there is an obvious tacit agreement among the cable companies to not step on each other’s monopoly turf.

Finally, Roberts was asked about current news that Comcast might be thinking about offering a competitive cellular product. The company tried this a few years ago together with some other cable companies but then ditched the attempt. Roberts says that the company is exploring the concept (something they probably have been doing for a decade) but that – unless the company can find some unique value proposition – they probably won’t enter the cellular market. Interestingly, one of the values of the merger between Charter and Time Warner is that it gives Charter the contracts that allow the company to offer an MVNO cellular product. We’ll have to watch to see if anything comes of that possibility.

In summary, Comcast says they see competition everywhere. It’s an interesting perspective because the company is overall as close to a monopoly as any company can be in the telecom space in this country. There is a lot of public relations and regulatory benefit for Comcast by acting besieged by competition. If Comcast was instead touting their monopoly advantage they would probably come more under the crosshairs at the FCC and at state regulatory bodies.

But I have a hard time seeing where competition is hurting the company. They are still adding customers like crazy. Revenues and profits are up. The company has made big headway in rolling out new security and home automation products. And in a large percentage of its markets the company is becoming a virtual monopoly.

Is the FCC Squelching Web Innovation?

FCC_New_LogoI am always intrigued when politics enters the telecom realm, because the vast majority of issues we wrangle with are still handled in the traditional way. Engineers innovate and regulators regulate and generally, in the telecom world, the best technical solutions have always made it to the top and good ideas have generally won their way to the market.

Recently there was a guest editorial written for Forbes by Senator Steve Daines of Montana and FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly. This editorial took the FCC to task for squelching innovation by creating what they called a ‘permissionless culture’ of overregulation that is stopping innovation from happening on the web. The editorial goes on to talk about how web innovation has created a trillion dollar annual economy in the US and praises such ventures as Uber, Facebook and the iPhone. They go on to talk about how companies like GroupMe didn’t require any regulatory approval to try new ideas.

What seems to have them incensed is that the FCC recently called in Comcast, AT&T and T-Mobile to talk about each of their zero-rating schemes where they favor certain content by not making it part of their data caps. And this is where their analogy starts to break apart. It starts looking like a stretch to me to call Comcast or AT&T innovators. Comcast and the other large cable companies are very close to being broadband monopolists in the vast majority of their markets, and are at best a duopolist in other markets. AT&T and T-Mobile are two of only four wireless companies with any national reach in a market that is clearly an oligopoly.

If the FCC isn’t supposed to regulate the monopolists, duopolists and oligopolists then who are they supposed to regulate? It’s clear these two guys don’t like net neutrality, and probably not regulation in general. It also seems a bit extraordinary to me to see a sitting FCC Commissioner so heavily lobbying against his own agency in public.

The key accusation they have made is that the FCC is somehow stopping innovation by discussing net neutrality with these three large carriers. Is there any chance that they are?

I think it’s a huge stretch to compare Comcast and AT&T to GroupMe and the iPhone. The particular issues that prompted the editorial are essentially billing issues and these carriers aren’t being innovative and haven’t created anything new with zero-rating.

The huge number of filed comments in the net neutrality case made it very clear that the innovators in Silicon Valley are worried about the power of carriers like Comcast and AT&T. They fear that those companies who act as the ISP for most Americans can pick winners and losers among the GroupMe’s of the world by favoring a handful of large established web companies over everybody else. Those comments made it clear that the people who are the actual innovators want the FCC to insure that new web companies and new ideas be given a fair chance in the marketplace.

And so this is where politics enters the argument. Probably one of the oldest techniques used in politics is to call something the opposite of what it really is. Do that loudly enough and often enough and many people will start believing the opposite of what is really true.

In this case the FCC is doing exactly what it is supposed to do. They haven’t taken any actions yet, but they might. They are looking into whether the various zero-rating schemes of these three companies are anti-competitive. There is no guarantee on what they will decide since the three companies are trying different ideas. But what is clear is that companies like these three have the power to pick winners and losers among web content providers.

I find it disingenuous to be calling the FCC anti-competitive and accusing them of squelching competition when the FCC is investigating companies that actually have the power to do exactly that. I guess these kinds of editorials are written to stir up people outside of the telecom industry, because I suspect most industry insiders understand the issue clearly and just shake their heads when politics enters our universe.