TIME technology

Comcast, AT&T Say They’re Not Big Enough Yet

Comcast
The Comcast Corp. logo is seen as Brian Roberts, chairman and chief executive officer of Comcast Corp., right, speaks during a news conference at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) Cable Show in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, June 11, 2013. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

At a Senate hearing ahead of major merger melees

Two of the biggest players in the telecom industry faced off against a public interest group, a trade group and a satellite company at a Senate hearing Wednesday in a debate that will help set the stage for upcoming battles over the future of broadband, television and streaming video.

The hearing comes just as federal regulators are staffing up to review two mammoth mergers: One between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and another between AT&T and DirecTV. To some degree, the hearing was only ceremonial: Congress won’t have any direct say over whether federal regulators approve or deny the mergers. But political winds in Washington can affect regulators’ moods, and the back-and-forth gave members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation a chance to publicly speak their minds on the mergers.

While the discussion at the hearing was unflaggingly respectful, it touched, just below the surface, on what has become a fiercely ideological war with regard to the future of TV, with each side presenting a vision incompatible with the other’s.

Comcast and AT&T argued that massive consolidation in the telecom industry is good for consumers, good for innovation, and good for the free market. They warned that if the government does not allow the mergers to go through, incumbent telecom companies would no longer be able to invest in basic Internet infrastructure, leaving consumers to pay more for fewer Internet and TV options.

Representatives from advocacy group Public Knowledge, a TV writer’s guild, and satellite TV company Dish made the opposite case. They said that recent consolidation in the telecom industry has been terrible for consumers, driven up prices and driven down the quality of customer service. They also said the lack of competition has squashed innovation and investment in broadband infrastructure.

At the center of the discussion was Americans’ shifting TV-viewing habits. When Americans want to watch TV, they’re increasingly bypassing traditional set-top boxes, instead opting for their smartphones, tablets, and laptops. Online video consumption grew by 71% in the U.S. between 2012 and 2013, according to Nielsen.

That trend has been the driving force behind skyrocketing broadband subscriptions—a major cash cow for cable companies and for telecom companies that offer services faster than DSL. AT&T’s revenue from its U-Verse high-speed broadband business was up 29% from last year according to a recent quarterly report, for example. Comcast, which already has more than 21 million broadband subscribers, says the broadband business is one of its fastest-growing offerings.

That so many Americans are streaming more video online has also made online TV and video content companies, like Netflix, YouTube and Vimeo, fundamentally dependent on telecom companies’ pipes to reach customers. Public Knowledge’s Gene Kimmelman argued that no online video streaming company can exist without going through broadband providers like AT&T and Comcast, whose services are necessary to deliver streaming content to consumers. That sets up a potential problem, as Comcast could be incentivized not to carry Netflix or YouTube content as quickly as its own video offerings (Comcast owns NBCUniversal, a major content production company).

“Everyone who wants to make the online video system works needs to make a deal with Comcast,” he said.

Also addressed during the hearing was many Americans’ frustration at having to pay large bills for pay-TV—bills that have risen faster than inflation—to receive hundreds of channels. The non-profit consumers rights group, Consumers Union, has said that at least two-thirds of pay-TV customers [PDF] would prefer to pay less for a handful of programs that they actually watch. The disconnect between these two methods—known as “bundling” versus “a al carte”—is at the heart of the future of online video.

“The younger generation doesn’t want to spend $120 for 500 channels,” said Jeffrey Blum, a senior vice president of Dish, the second-largest satellite company in the country after DirecTV. But fixing the problem, he said, requires going up against incumbent telecom companies, like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon, which rely on bundling to underwrite their pay TV services, and would lose out if most Americans simply cut their pay-TV bill and began streaming shows online. Popular networks like ESPN would also lose out; in the current system, the telecom companies pay them large fees to redistribute their content.

Still, Blum said, there is already “too much power in the hands of too few” in the broadband space. A combined Comcast-Time Warner Cable “will have the incentive and ability to stifle competition,” he said.

Both Cohen and AT&T’s senior executive VP John Stankey dismissed concerns about anticompetitive behavior. In previous testimony before Congress, Comcast’s executive VP David Cohen has said that the merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable will not affect competition since the companies do not currently compete in any geographic region, and that Comcast has “only to gain” from more people streaming video online. The more demand there is for online video, “the more demand there is for our broadband service,” he said at a previous hearing.

In February, Comcast made a bid to buy Time Warner Cable for $45 billion; in May, AT&T’s bid for DirecTV was worth $48.5 billion. Neither deal has yet to pass regulatory muster.

Both Cohen and Stankey also reiterated their companies’ commitment to the Federal Communication Commission’s now-defunct rules on “net neutrality,” the notion that broadband providers treat all content that passes over their pipes equally. While both expressed their opposition to some public interest groups’ hopes that the telecom industry would be recategorized as a “Title II” industry, giving the FCC much more regulatory control over broadband, they said they supported the FCC’s newly proposed net neutrality rules.

Those rules have come under fire because they allow broadband companies to redirect some content to a “fast lane,” while relegating most content to a slower, regular lane. Cohen said that while he “didn’t understand” what “fast lanes and slow lanes” even were, he said it was a non-issue. “We don’t have any,” he said. “We don’t have any plans to develop any.”

MONEY Customer Service

How To Break Up with Your Cable Company

140716_EM_cable_1
Getty Images

...or at Least Drive a Hard Bargain

If your relationship with your cable provider is driving you mad like this man, brace yourself. It’s only going to get worse.

The average monthly cable TV bill is rising 6% a year. It’s projected to hit $123 a month next year and top $200 by 2020, according to market research group NPD. To be fair, part of the surge is because the cost cable providers pay to license shows is getting steeper. But the near-monopoly that cable TV companies have in many places is to blame, too.

Most areas have just one or two pay-TV providers. And even if you’re lucky enough to have more choice, that will probably change if the Time Warner Cable-Comcast and AT&T-DirecTV deals are approved. And less choice means that the providers that remain don’t have to go above and beyond on customer service. As if they did already.

Can’t live without your favorite programs but fed up with the bill? Here are four moves you can make to cut the cost—and not all require you to cut the cord.

Downsize. How many of the 700+ channels that you get do you actually watch? A growing number of pay-TV providers are offering pared-down packages. Verizon recently rolled out its Select HD no-sports package that’s $15 a month cheaper than its $65 a month standard Prime package. Last year, Time Warner Cable launched Starter TV, a bundle of 20 premium channels plus HBO for $29.99 a month—40% less than its 200-channel, no-HBO option. And Cox Communication’s TV Starter is $24.99 a month for 155 channels vs. $49.99 for its Advanced package of 220 channels.

Play hardball. Despite their dominance, pay-TV providers are still loathe to lose customers, says digital media analyst Dan Rayburn. Call the cancellation department to talk with a retention specialist trained to hang on to customers. Ask about promotions or a discount if you’re a long-time customer. They’ll try hard to keep you, but if they don’t give, you can likely get a better deal as a new subscriber if you have a satellite dish or cable competitor where you live.

Go a la carte. Even though the Aero service that delivers low-cost broadcast TV via Internet shut down thanks to the recent Supreme Court ruling, there are still plenty of other lower cost alternatives for those who want to cut the cord, says technology industry analyst Jeff Kagan. Hulu Plus costs just $7.99 a month and shows many current programs the day after they air. If you can wait a season or two to catch up with your favorite shows, Netflix is $7.99 a month (though will go up $1 or $2 for new subscribers). Amazon Prime Instant Video, which comes with Amazon’s $99 a year Prime membership, gives you unlimited streaming movies and TV shows.

NetFlix, Hulu and Amazon are also spending millions on high quality original content. In May, Hulu announced that it would be tripling its budget for exclusive programs and launching six new shows this year, including the much-buzzed-about reality show parody Hotwives of Orlando, which premiers tonight.

Get an antenna. Today’s antennas aren’t the rabbit ears of your parents’ generation. An HD antenna for your roof or TV set top will cost you about $30 to $100,and you can get local TV channels for free. You won’t get cable programs, but you’ll pick up more than 30 broadcast networks (such as ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, FOX). And picture quality is even better than cable, says Kagan.

TIME mergers

Dish Network Slams Potential Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

Dish Network
A satellite television system is installed at a residence in Denver, Colorado, on Aug. 6, 2013. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Satellite operator Dish Network has come out against the proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Updated July 9, 4:45 p.m.

Satellite operator Dish Network has come out against the proposed merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable. The pay-TV giant voiced its concerns with the pending merger in a meeting with the Federal Communications Commission earlier this week, according to a filing released Wednesday.

“The pending Comcast/Time Warner Cable (“TWC”) merger presents serious competitive concerns for the broadband and video marketplaces and therefore should be denied,” Dish wrote in its filing. “There do not appear to be any conditions that would remedy the harms that would result from the merger.”

Specifically, Dish said that a merged Comcast-Time Warner Cable would be able to undermine over-the-top video services such as Netflix by altering streaming speeds either on the so-called “last mile” of the Internet delivered into people’s homes or at interconnection points where video content is transferred among various Internet providers. Dish also argued that the merged company would be able to leverage its size in anti-competitive ways by forcing programmers to offer content at a lower cost. Smaller providers such as Dish would end up being forced to pay more to make up for networks’ lost revenue, the company argued.

In a response, Comcast Vice President of Government Communications Sena Fitzmaurice said Dish not wanting stronger competitors wasn’t surprising or new. “Dish has long been one of our most vigorous competitors, and unlike us has a national footprint available in tens of millions of more homes than a combined Comcast –Time Warner Cable,” she said in an email. “Any issues regarding NBCUniversal programming and other video services, whether they be traditional or over the top are already amply covered by pre-existing FCC rules and deal conditions.” (As part of the terms of its deal to purchase NBCUniversal, Comcast agreed to adhere to certain net neutrality principles until 2018).

Dish is one of the odd men out at a moment of mass consolidation in the pay-TV industry. In addition to the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal, AT&T and DirecTV are also seeking regulatory approval to merge. Dish said that merger also presented “competitive concerns” because the combined company would be able to leverage programming content to the detriment of customers.

TIME mergers

Mega-Mergers Are Killing Innovation

The latest mega-merger in the telecommunications sector, that of AT&T and DirecTV, would be the fourth largest in history, and it comes only months after the nation’s largest cable operator Comcast announced that it was buying Time Warner Cable, the second largest cable operator. Nor is telecommunications the only sector to see such acquisitiveness. Microsoft purchased the devices and services business of Nokia for $7.2 billion late last year, Google snapped up Nest for $3.2 billion in January, and Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion in February.

Such consolidation can be good for consumers as bigger companies have the resources to innovate and provide new products and services which might otherwise never materialize. However, the vertical integration of the telecommunications and technology sectors can also restrict innovation due to decreased competition and the limitation of research to specific technologies that support existing business lines.

Take, for example, the acquisition of WhatsApp. Facebook’s primary reason for acquiring the company is to utilize the chat technology on its social media platform to bolster its existing messaging application, which currently lags WhatsApp in the smartphone market. Beyond that, Facebook will no doubt try to leverage WhatsApp’s own user base, currently more than half a billion, to promote its social media offering. But either way, the integration of Facebook with WhatsApp is the main goal and driver of value instead of some trailblazing technological development in the chat space itself.

Similarly, Comcast’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable enables the company to enter complementary markets without actually having to build new infrastructure in those markets or to innovate in any way. Such plug-and-play growth engenders laziness and deprives the U.S. of necessary infrastructure improvement and development. The U.S. is currently ranked a pitiable 35th in the world in broadband capacity according to the World Economic Forum, with even smaller nations outpacing us in cutting edge telecommunications.

Even when it comes to ‘pure’ or fundamental science that can form the basis of future technology, the relentless drive for commercialization limits its destiny to whatever fuels profits in the short term and can impede future research that does not support that. True, third parties could conduct research for other applications but the ironclad patents that major corporations hold on their technology can make such efforts unprofitable. In other words, the acquisition of promising technologies by major corporations can actually limit them by forcing them along proscribed lines in the future.

Some of the greatest scientific discoveries that have fueled mankind’s advancement were made in the vacuum of human curiosity without the profit motive that has now become the norm. Today, unless the process of discovery is sponsored by some major corporation or has an obvious application to industry at the outset, there is little motive to pursue it. Even research institutions, which have historically been neutral havens for such discoveries, now require corporate money to survive and are bound by corporate rules. This is a loss for the spirit of innovation that drives human achievement.

That is not to say that all acquisitions are bad or that our biggest companies don’t move us forward technologically, but if the pace of consolidation by major players continues, it could shrink the playing field to such a degree that innovation will become the sole domain of a handful of companies who, for the most part, will only finance targeted research that promotes their own bottom line, and use patents to prevent others from advancing that technology in other directions. That may be a win for commerce but not necessarily for the type of unexpected discoveries that could improve our world in the future.

Sanjay Sanghoee is a political and business commentator. He has worked at investment banks Lazard Freres and Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, as well as at hedge fund Ramius. Sanghoee sits on the Board of Davidson Media Group, a mid-market radio station operator. He has an MBA from Columbia Business School and is also the author of two thriller novels. Follow him @sanghoee.

TIME directv

How the NFL Could Blow Up the AT&T-DirecTV Merger

Direct TV
Reed Saxon—AP

Forget the federal regulators—it’s actually NFL commissioner Roger Goodell who could have final say in whether AT&T’s proposed $48.5 billion acquisition of DirecTV comes to pass.

AT&T is trying to swallow up the satellite television provider to get access to its 20 million U.S. subscribers, large international footprint and healthy cash flow. But those American customers may start jumping ship if DirecTV fails to keep hold of its most valuable exclusive property, the National Football League’s all-you-can-watch Sunday Ticket package. DirecTV’s contract with the NFL for Sunday Ticket, which offers live coverage of every out-of-market game each Sunday, expires at the end of next season. In an SEC filing, AT&T revealed that if the deal is not renewed, it reserves the right to back out of the merger. DirecTV won’t be on the hook to pay AT&T damages for the botched deal as long as the company uses “reasonable best efforts” to woo the NFL.

For now, the merging companies say NFL negotiations are on the right track. On a conference call with investors Monday morning, DirecTV CEO Mike White said both he and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson had already talked to Goodell and that negotiations for NFL Sunday Ticket should be completed by the end of the year. “I am still highly confident that we are going to get our deal done,” he said.

DirecTV pays about $1 billion per year for Sunday Ticket, which has around 2 million subscribers. The fact that football has been placed at the crux of this mega-merger will give Goodell significant leverage to ask for even more money at the negotiating table. The cost for Sunday Ticket could rise by as much as 40 percent to $1.4 billion, according to the Los Angeles Times.

TIME The Brief

AT&T Dials Up DirecTv

Welcome to #theBrief, the four stories to know about right now—from the editors of TIME

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Here are the stories TIME is watching this Monday, May 19:

  • AT&T will buy DirecTV for $48.5 billion in an attempt to keep up with Comcast.
  • The United States formally charged Chinese military officials of economic espionage. This marks the first time the U.S. has charged state actors for explicitly acting at the behest of a foreign government in cyber crimes.
  • Flooding in the Balkans continues with heavy rains threatening to unearth buried land mines.
  • A holographic Michael Jackson came back from beyond the grave to perform at the Billboard Music Awards.

The Brief is published daily on weekdays.

TIME media consolidation

Critics Are Mercilessly Slamming the AT&T-DirecTV Deal

Public interest groups argue that none of the proposed mega-deals will benefit consumers

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Prominent public interest groups criticized AT&T’s plan to buy satellite giant DirectTV in a deal worth about $48.5 billion, calling it an example of out-of-control media consolidation that will do little to benefit consumers.

AT&T’s proposed purchase of DirecTV comes as U.S. broadband leader Comcast is trying to convince federal regulators to let it buy Time Warner Cable in a $45 billion deal. That merger would combine the two largest U.S. cable companies.

“AT&T’s takeover of DirecTV is just the latest attempt at consolidation in a marketplace where consumers are already saddled with lousy service and price hikes,” Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, said in an emailed statement. “The rush is on for some of the biggest industry players to get even bigger, with consumers left on the losing end.”

AT&T will add its five million U-verse television subscribers to DirecTV’s 20 million satellite customers, in a deal that will “redefine the video entertainment industry and create a company able to offer new bundles and deliver content to consumers across multiple screens – mobile devices, TVs, laptops, cars and even airplanes,” AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said in a statement.

“The captains of our communications industry have clearly run out of ideas,” Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press said in a statement. “Instead of innovating and investing in their networks, companies like AT&T and Comcast are simply buying up the competition.”

Both mergers will face intense scrutiny from the Justice Department, which is charged with ensuring the deal doesn’t violate antitrust laws, and the Federal Communications Commission, which must ensure that the tie-ups don’t harm the public interest.

DirecTV has the second largest pay-TV subscriber base in the country but lacks a competitive broadband Internet offering. AT&T is forging ahead with its own broadband plans but wants DirecTV’s satellite-TV business. “The industry needs more competition, not more mergers,” John Bergmayer, senior staff sttorney at Public Knowledge, said in a statement “The burden is on AT&T and DirecTV to show otherwise.”

Taking a page out of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable playbook, AT&T said it would abide by the FCC’s now-defunct 2010 Open Internet order for three years, in a concession aimed at winning over federal regulators. But that pledge rang hollow for some open Internet supporters.

“I don’t think the open Internet should come with an expiration date,” says Josh Stearns, a veteran public interest advocate. Interestingly, AT&T said it will use the merger to build and enhance high-speed broadband service to 15 million customer locations, in an effort “to be completed within four years after close.”

A combined AT&T-DirecTV would hold a vast swath of wireless spectrum — the public radio signals that make smartphones and tablets work — and would also be better positioned to compete against Comcast, the industry giant.

“AT&T already has overwhelming spectrum holdings relative to most of the wireless industry,” says Bergemeyer. “AT&T will need to explain how this merger wouldn’t harm wireless competition, and how whatever new services it plans to offer by combining with DirecTV would offset any harms to wireless and video competition.”

TIME mergers

AT&T’s $50 Billion DirecTV Buy Is Risky, Probably Not Great for You

The telecom giant will pay $48.5 billion in stock and cash as it looks to keep up with rival Comcast, but it's a risky deal that may not benefit consumers

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I’m as guilty as anyone: Readers of business news hunger for big numbers. The bigger, the better. On that front, the $48.5 billion that AT&T said Sunday it will pay to buy DirecTV did not disappoint. Eat your heart out, Mark Zuckerberg.

In its announcement of the deal, AT&T threw out even more mega numbers. Toss in DirecTV’s net debt and the deal’s value rises to $67.1 billion. The combined company will have 26 million customers in the US and 18 million in the growing market of Latin America. AT&T even said it expects “cost synergies to exceed $1.6 billion on an annual run rate basis by year three”—whatever that means, but it has a ten-digit number in it, so it sounds impressive.

But there’s something about AT&T’s big numbers that grow stale quickly. The problem with big spending is, if you don’t put it toward something worthwhile, it’s just a waste. Time’s Sam Gustin noted on Twitter that the sum AT&T is spending on DirecTV could deploy a hell of a lot of gigabit-fiber service to homes that want it. Instead, it’s going to buy one more aging incumbent in the fast-changing TV market.

So once the transitory buzz of the large numbers ebbs, the strategy behind the deal will start to be scrutinized a bit more. And so far, the strategy seems to be: Well, Comcast has gotten big, so AT&T needs to get bigger too. This isn’t AT&T’s only recent big-ticket bid. In 2011, the company tried to buy T-Mobile USA from Deutsche Telekom for $39 billion, but that deal fell through after the Justice Department intervened.

Why is AT&T so keen to buy its way into growth? Because no matter how much blood the company tries to squeeze from its customers, the stock can’t break out of the flatline it’s been in for a while. As this graph shows, AT&T’s stock has risen less than 10% in the past two years. The S&P 500, during the same period, has risen more than four times as much.

Screen Shot 2014-05-18 at 7.20.45 PM

Some people have taken a look at the strategy behind the DirecTV purchase and not been kind in their conclusions. When rumors surfaced last week of a possible acquisition, analyst Craig Moffett suggested that the acquisition could be a distraction from an inevitable decline in AT&T’s growth. “When DirecTV begins to shrink, then the price paid will no longer matter,” Moffett wrote. “It will merely be another liability that AT&T will need to offset by growth somewhere else.”

Aging companies often make big acquisitions when facing a decline in their own businesses. In the best case scenario, the acquired company is snapped up at a discount and revives overall growth for years to come. More commonly, the big buyouts are merely attempts to buy time. Integrating incompatible operations for a couple of years, and providing excuses for large-scale layoffs. The smoke and mirrors works only for so long. Then another expensive deal is required to keep the ruse going.

The DirecTV deal is looking like it will fall into the latter camp–an expensive gambit that may at best offer growth and cost-savings in the short-term. Pay-TV has an uncertain future in an era where over-the-top offerings like Netflix and video consumption on mobile devices are seeing much stronger growth. DirecTV’s stock has quadrupled in the past five years, but there’s little reason to think growth will continue at anything close to that rate.

Moffett, who was a top-ranked analyst at Sanford C Bernstein & Co. before setting up his own research firm, put it more severely. “Like skid row junkies in the final wretched tremens of downward spiral, telecom/cable/satellite investors now appear to need a deal fix almost daily to stave off the messy crisis of incontinence that comes with the inevitable withdrawal.”

Other analysts speculated about AT&T’s motives for the deal, but few of them shared the sunny interpretations of the acquirer. The timing, coming after Comcast’s plans to buy Time Warner Cable, could be an attempt to piggyback on another telecom deal, one likely to win regulator approval. Or maybe Comcast sparked a merger mania in the telecom industry, with DirecTV the first to be snapped up. Sprint may be prompted to buy T-Mobile. Dish Network could also be in play soon.

In other words, no matter how you slice it, this deal has little to do with helping the consumer. Yet in announcing the deal, AT&T referred to the consumers who are its customers (19 times) nearly twice as often as it did its shareholders (10 times).

So far, the consensus is that DirecTV is unlikely to draw the regulatory criticism that T-Mobile did for AT&T. But AT&T isn’t taking any chances. The company took a $4 billion writedown after the T-Mobile deal fell through, most of it related to breakup fees. AT&T made clear today it wouldn’t pay a fee to DirecTV should regulators foil the deal this time.

That’s good for AT&T, but it adds an air of desperation to DirecTV. Another sign DirecTV wanted to sell quickly: Rumors of the deal last week put the price at $100 a share, but the actual deal is only $95 a share. DirecTV’s stock only rose as high as $86.90 on the $100-per-share rumor, reflecting the Street’s skepticism on the price. Some of that skepticism, it seems, was warranted.

For consumers, the bigger question is, when will these telecom mega-mergers end? Benefits from mergers are usually passed on to shareholders in the form of share repurchases or higher dividends. They rarely benefit customers—in fact, reduced competition in telecom has historically meant higher fees.

That’s why consumers should be wary of these big-ticket mergers. Don’t be too dazzled by the big, flashing numbers of the headlines. The more and the merrier the mergers grow, the more the consumer becomes an afterthought.

TIME Companies

AT&T is Buying DirecTV in $48.5 Billion Deal

The company confirmed that it will pay roughly $95-per-share in a stock-and-cash transaction based on AT&T's Friday closing price and officially acquire DirecTV in a deal worth approximately $48.5 billion

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AT&T officially will acquire satellite broadcast provider DirecTV in a deal worth approximately $48.5 billion, the company confirmed Sunday, after weeks of rumors about an impending purchase.

AT&T will pay roughly $95-per-share in a stock-and-cash transaction based on AT&T’s Friday closing price, the company said in a release.

The deal will add DirecTV’s 20 million subscribers to the 5 million already signed up to AT&T’s U-verse television service, setting the buyer up to compete with television giants like Comcast. AT&T could also move its existing U-verse subscribers to DirecTV’s satellite network, freeing up precious spectrum for broadband Internet service.

The AT&T-DirecTV deal is sure to get a close look from regulators at the Federal Communications Commission, which would be concerned by media consolidation issues, and the Department of Justice, for antitrust matters.

This announcement comes as AT&T rival Comcast is trying to convince the very same regulators to allow it to buy Time Warner Cable in a $45 billion deal that critics call a blow to competition and consumer choice.

AT&T, however, reportedly plans to cozy up to regulators by framing its DirecTV buy as a move to expand Internet access in underserved areas, a longtime technology policy goal of the Obama administration.

TIME deals

AT&T Aiming at Comcast With Planned $50-Billion DirecTV Merger

A view shows the AT&T store sign in Broomfield, Colorado
Rick Wilking / REUTERS

AT&T wants DirecTV but the proposed $50 billion telecom deal, which would be the largest in years and reshape the television business at a time of rapid change in the industry, would pose headaches for regulators already mulling a Comcast merger with Time Warner Cable

AT&T, the deep-pocketed national telecom giant watching policymakers gnash teeth about the proposed $42-billion merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, is close to sealing the deal on a big corporate marriage of its own. It’s soon-to-be partner, according to multiple reports Monday: satellite giant DirectTV

The proposed $50-billion merger between the two tech titans—which would be the largest telecom deal in years—is not unexpected, but multiple reports indicate a deal is closer than ever, perhaps just weeks away. AT&T and DirecTV are aiming to reshape the TV business at a time of rapid change in the industry. The deal would be another example of the decades-long consolidation of the telecom and cable industries.

The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources familiar with the matter, reports the two companies are discussing a deal that would involve a mix of cash and AT&T stock. Executives hope to hammer out an agreement in the next few weeks. DirecTV shares shot up nearly 6% in early trading Tuesday on the deal talk.

DirecTV has the second largest pay-TV subscriber base in the country but lacks a competitive broadband-Internet offering of its own. AT&T is moving ahead with its own broadband plans, but DirecTV’s satellite-TV business would be a major prize. AT&T, which is currently worth $185 billion, can definitely afford the deal.

A combined AT&T-DirecTV would hold a vast swath of wireless spectrum—the public radio signals that make smartphones and tablets work—and would also be better positioned to compete against Comcast, the industry Goliath.

U.S. broadband leader Comcast is currently trying to persuade regulators to let it buy Time Warner Cable in a $42 billion deal. That review will extend into next year, as would a review of a AT&T-DirecTV merger. Comcast’s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable, its smaller rival, already faces intense scrutiny from the Justice Department over competition concerns, not to mention the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which must ensure the deal advances the public interest. An AT&T merger with DirecTV would face equally intense scrutiny.

If AT&T and DirecTV join forces, the deal could complicate the review of Comcast’s bid for Time Warner Cable, because antitrust regulators might want to consider both deals simultaneously, the New York Times reports. That might throw a screwball into the notoriously understaffed FCC office.

The Times also suggests the deal might be a strategic move to rattle Dish honcho Charlie Ergen, the legendary media operator who is also on the prowl for acquisitions. Industry watchers have been speculating about a Dish-DirecTV merger for years, but most analysts believe U.S. antitrust regulators would not allow the nation’s two largest satellite-TV firms to become one company.

That’s why AT&T wants to buy DirecTV.

AT&T also appears to be taking advantage of the simmering furor about “Net neutrality“—the principle that all Internet users should have open access to the Internet—as well as the Comcast–Time Warner deal, to float a $50 billion deal of its own.

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