Time Warner acquisition resistance could turn ugly for Trump

President Donald Trump’s administration certainly has been a different shade of politics for the Oval Office, though actions and alleged prejudice could come back to haunt the Commander in Chief.

Despite being proclaimed a resounding victory for the Republicans, the mid-term elections could have gone a hell of a lot better. With the House of Representatives swinging back into the hands of the Democrats, not only will Trump find passing his questionable legislation more difficult, but his actions over the first two years of the Presidency could be called into question.

In an interview with Axios, California Congressman Adam Schiff, who is also the Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee, suggested an investigation into the President would now be able to make a material impact because of the swing of power across the aisle. The President’s tax records will once again become a topic of conversation, though the appropriateness of his objections to AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner will also come under scrutiny, as will his seemingly personal vendetta against Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

While the President’s actions have constantly been condemned by critics and political opponents, there has been little opportunity to do anything considering Trump’s political foundations. With majorities in both Houses of Congress, the Republican party have been able to block, or at least stifle, any investigations. However, with last week’s mid-term elections swinging the House of Representatives into a Democrat majority things might be about to change.

Trump’s opposition to the AT&T and Time Warner deal has been widely publicised, dating back to the Presidential campaign trail. Some have suggested his hatred for Time Warner owned CNN is the reasoning behind the probes and appeals against the acquisition, though this will come under question through the investigations.

“We don’t know, for example, whether the effort to hold up the merger of the parent of CNN was a concern over antitrust or whether this was an effort merely to punish CNN,” said Schiff.

While the deal has been greenlight by District Court for the District of Columbia Judge Richard Leon, the Department of Justice is appealing the decision, suggesting Judge Leon is ignorant to the facts and the economic implications of the deal. It has been reported the Trump administration has been pressuring the DoJ to pursue the appeal and attempt to derail the acquisition.

Looking at the spat with Jeff Bezos, this has been tackled on several fronts. Not only has President Trump constantly berated the excellent reporting by the Washington Post, privately owned by Bezos, Trump has been targeting the tax activities of Amazon. Back in March, Trump tweeted he would be tackling the tax set-up at Amazon, sending share price down 2%, while he has also been reportedly pressuring the Post Office to charge Amazon more, despite the eCommerce revolution seemingly saving the service with the vast increases in package delivery.

These are just two examples relevant to the telecoms and technology industry, but the Democrats are seemingly going for the throat. Tax records will be called into question, as well as reports the President blocked the FBI from moving its headquarters because it would negatively impact business as one of his hotels, located opposite the bureau’s offices.

For the moment, this seems to be nothing more than political posturing, as while the statements might appease those in opposition to Trump, they are nothing more than statements. The Democrats will not assume their majority in the House of Representatives for two months, a long-time in the lightly-principled world of politics. Much could change during this period.

What the change in political landscape could mean more than anything else is a bit more stability. President Trump has been praised by his supporters as a man of action, though actions are of questionable benefit to business executives who crave legislative, regulatory and policy consistency. Only with the promise of consistency can businesses made long-term strategies to conquer the world, but with Twitter a constant threat of change it is understandable some are nervous.

With the Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, Trump will find it much more difficult to force through any controversial or overly aggressive policies, though there is also the threat of legislative standstill. The US political landscape has certainly been an interesting one over the last two years, though it could become even more interesting over the next two for completely different reasons.

AT&T suggests Dish and DoJ are collaborating

With AT&T’s WarnerMedia and Dish arguing over a distribution deal, one AT&T executive has suggested Dish and the Department of Justice are collaborating to reverse the green light on the Time Warner acquisition.

The conspiracy theory is hitting new highs here. AT&T is effectively accusing Dish of actively working to create a no-deal situation in negotiations with WarnerMedia over rights to air HBO content. Although having HBO and Cinemax channels go dark on the Dish service would have a negative impact on business, it does coincidentally work well for the Justice Departments case appeal against the Time Warner merger.

WarnerMedia have been in negotiations over the right to air content, with it claiming it offered to extend the previous contract while negotiating but Dish declined. As a result, HBO content has disappeared from the Dish service.

“Dish’s proposals and actions made it clear they never intended to seriously negotiate an agreement,” said Simon Sutton, HBO President and Chief Revenue Officer, in a statement to Reuters.

With the appeal based on the grounds the AT&T acquisition of Time Warner would offer it undue control and influence in the industry, stagnant negotiations certainly add credibility to the objections from the Department of Justice. Manipulating the playing field however, as AT&T is accusing Dish of, is a serious no-no when it comes to the courts.

“This behaviour, unfortunately, is consistent with what the Department of Justice predicted would result from the merger,” said a representative of the Department of Justice. “We are hopeful the Court of Appeals will correct the errors of the District Court.”

“The Department of Justice collaborated closely with Dish in its unsuccessful lawsuit to block our merger,” WarnerMedia responded. “That collaboration continues to this day with Dish’s tactical decision to drop HBO – not the other way around. DOJ failed to prove its claims about HBO at trial and then abandoned them on appeal.”

The $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner proved to be a messy affair for AT&T. While some would have expected some resistance from the industry, the objections of President Trump seems to have encouraged the Department of Justice to chase down every lead, and make life as difficult as possible. The Department of Justice’s appeal against the approval of the deal, is effectively built on the assumption Judge Richard Leon didn’t know what he was talking about.

Publicity stunt? Monopolistic ambition? Nefarious schemes? Whatever the basis of this story, more fuel has been added onto one of the longest running sagas in the telco industry.

AT&T will launch Netflix competitor next year

In an SEC filing, AT&T has confirmed it will launch a new streaming service focused around HBO content to challenge the dominance of Netflix and Amazon Prime.

While details are relatively thin for the moment, though AT&T Entertainment boss John Stankey formally announced the new offering at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit in Los Angeles confirming the Time Warner assets would form the foundation of the streaming platform, with some third-party content building out the breadth and depth.

“On October 10, 2018, we announced plans to launch a new direct-to-consumer (D2C) streaming service in the fourth quarter of 2019,” the SEC filing states.

“This is another benefit of the AT&T/Time Warner merger, and we are committed to launching a compelling and competitive product that will serve as a complement to our existing businesses and help us to expand our reach by offering a new choice for entertainment with the WarnerMedia collection of films, television series, libraries, documentaries and animation loved by consumers around the world. We expect to create such a compelling product that it will help distributors increase consumer penetration of their current packages and help us successfully reach more customers.”

HBO, Turner and Warner Bros content will create an interesting proposition, though this of course relies on a successful merger with Time Warner. As it stands, District Court for the District of Columbia Judge Richard Leon has given the green light for the deal, though the Department of Justice is appealing the decision, suggesting Judge Leon did not appropriately consider the implications of the merger. It looks to be a done deal, though the DoJ is being as awkward as possible.

The question which remains is whether the Time Warner content will be enough, even with its library of titles and additional third-party content. Netflix and Amazon Prime are surging ahead of the competition in terms of subscriptions, 130 million and 100 million respectively, though Disney’s new streaming service could be an interesting offer with the 21st Century Fox programming assets. Hulu might not be on the same scale as these three, but with 20 million subscribers it is certainly a platform worth considering. AT&T is entering a very competitive market.

What this does also offer AT&T is potential entry to the international content market. This is where Netflix is targeting future growth, suggesting at IBC 2018 competitiveness in the US market won’t bring the growth figures investors consider appropriate.

The Time Warner acquisition has been one of the biggest talking points of the industry for the last 18 months, though one of the big questions is whether AT&T can effectively manage a business in such a different vertical. The traditional telco approach to risk and expansion will not work here, for this venture to be a success AT&T will have to be a lot more aggressive and embrace the concept of the fail-fast business model.

With the cards now laid out on the table, it won’t be long before we find out whether AT&T has the capability to effectively diversify outside of the traditional telco battlefield.

AT&T crowns itself the 5G King of the World

Following a trip to the White House last week, AT&T has decided this meeting has confirmed the US as the best, and since it is the best in the US, AT&T is the logically the 5G King of the World.

The meeting at the White House progressed largely as you would expect with the message very clear. The US is winning the race for leadership in the 5G era but it needs to continue to gather momentum. Countries in Asia are moving forward at a steady pace, while certain European states are making moves as well. But little of this seems to worry the US.

“The race to 5G is a sprint not a marathon,” said Congressman Greg Walden, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

“The race has begun, and if we’re going to lead it and get to gigabit speeds, low latency and connection to a tremendous number of devices, we have to take the right steps and put the right policies in place,” said Senator John Thune, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet.

“But it is a race we need to win and by many accounts we are already behind China, and other nations in key areas. But here’s what’s at stake; 5G is expected to deliver $275 billion in new investment in our economy, expected to create $500 billion in economic growth and three million new jobs. Make no mistake, we have the technology. The technology is created by American industries and including those who are represented today, and it is the best around. It leads the world in next generation mobile communications. But that technology is only part of the equation.”

According to the politicians, the US is winning the race to 5G, and with various administration changes being forced through, new FCC rules on small cells are a prime example, the road is being newly paved for acceleration.

“Industry is not asking us for money, its asking us to cut the red tape,” said Congressman Walden.

It has the money, the technology companies, spectrum and, pretty soon, the regulatory environment to win the race to 5G. Clearly buoyed by this meeting, AT&T Assistant Vice President of Global Public Policy Chris Boyer has found confidence when penning a blog post entitled “AT&T is Leading the US and the World on Mobile 5G”.

Never mind Telia’s hand is hovering over the on-switch, or that Deloitte declared China is winning owing to a continued focus on network infrastructure, or its own domestic rival has already launched a 5G service (admittedly an incredibly limited one), AT&T is winning.

“For its part, AT&T will launch mobile 5G in 2018. We’ll be the first company to introduce mobile 5G service based on industry standards,” said Boyer. “We plan to introduce mobile 5G in parts of 12 cities this year – with seven additional cities lined up for early 2019.”

So there, you are. AT&T is in the lead because it can offer mobile 5G services without the devices to make use of it. Despite the confidence oozing out of every crevice, this is still a race which is wide open. The US is in a good position, but so is Korea, Japan and China.

AT&T launches online advertising marketplace Xandr

Two multi-billion dollar acquisitions and a funny name later, the AT&T content business vision starts to become a bit clearer.

AT&T has announced the launch of Xandr, its new content business unit which will combine current capabilities (e.g. AT&T AdWork and ATT.net), the Time Warner and AppNexus acquisitions, as well as distribution partnerships with Altice USA and Frontier Communications into a notable advertising entity. While the initial plan is to capture a slice of the digital advertising bonanza which has been fuelling the monstrous growth at Facebook and Google, long-term ambitions are a lot grander.

“Xandr is a name that draws inspiration from AT&T’s rich history, including its founder Alexander Graham Bell, while imagining how to innovate and solve new challenges for the future of advertising,” said CEO Brian Lesser. “Our purpose is to Make Advertising Matter and to connect people with the brands and content they care about. Throughout AT&T’s 142-year history, it has innovated with data and technology, making its customers’ lives better. Xandr will bring that spirit of innovation to the advertising industry.”

In the first instance, Xandr will combine the distribution and data capabilities of AT&T, with content catalogues from Time Warner, Frontier and Altice USA and the technology platform of AppNexus to make a more complete advertising offering. With its 170 million subscriber base of mobile, broadband and OTT products, and the data collected on these customers, AT&T believes it can offer a hyper-targeted advertising solution and more effective ROI, to rival the likes of Facebook and Google.

But this is only the first step of the business. In the long-run, AT&T hopes there will be an opportunity for advertisers to bring their own data, augment this with the AT&T customer insight to provide an even more targeted and efficient proposition. These are the foundations of what the business hopes will eventually become an advertising marketplace, where all distributors, content owners and advertisers can combine. AT&T will enrich these offerings with its own data, and even offer tie-ins to Insight Strategy Group and Advertiser Perceptions in order to understand the dynamics between consumer sentiment and the advertising experience. We might have been waiting a while for this move in the content space, but it certainly is an in-depth one.

The partnerships with Insight Strategy Group and Advertiser Perceptions are certainly interesting ones as well. Understanding the dynamics between sentiment and advertising can aid advertisers in placing the right type of advert, in front of the right consumer, at the right time. Its a science which leans on art, but has the potential to be very useful.

The AppNexus acquisition was only completed in August for $1.6 billion, having announced the intention to buy the business in June. Through AppNexus, AT&T has been able to bolster its capabilities with an advertising marketplace, which provides enterprise products for digital advertising, serving publishers, agencies and advertisers. With AT&T’s first-party data, content and distribution the offering becomes more complete, as the focus turns to creating a platform that makes linear TV buying more automated and data-driven. Of course, part of this deal relies on the successful acquisition of Time Warner, which is proving to be more difficult business.

That said, while this is a good idea from AT&T to provide additional value to the content ecosystem, there will be complications. AT&T will have to convince competitor media companies to put their premium inventory on its network, while regulation could prove to be a hurdle as well. With data privacy a hot topic in the technology world right now, shifting around sensitive information and augmenting in such a marketplace might raise some concerns from privacy advocates.

Some have questioned whether AT&T’s venture into the content world, but this does look like to be a comprehensive strategy, incorporating several promised aspects of the digital economy. There are of course significant hurdles for the business to overcome, but it is a creative idea, perhaps one which would have been more likely to emerge from other segments of the technology world. More importantly, it is an opportunity for AT&T to provide value above connectivity.

The telcos will always have an important place in the digital economy, providing the connectivity cornerstone, though this runs the risk of utilitisation, slipping down the value chain. Using data for the purposes of advertising has always been a sensitive issue, though should AT&T be able to negotiate the red-tape maze, Xandr will enable AT&T to secure ‘UnTelco’ revenue. This is a case of a telco using what it has to add value to a parallel segment, as opposing to disruption and attempting to steal a limited amount of revenue. Its creating additional revenue streams and value.

AT&T and Verizon compete for yet more 5G ‘firsts’

US carriers AT&T and Verizon have completed what they both claim to be the world’s first data transfer to a smartphone form factor device over mmWave 5G live networks.

If we put together all the 5G ‘firsts’ claimed by the industry players it would make a long read, especially if we included cases where similar firsts have been claimed by different companies. In this most recent case, both AT&T and Verizon called themselves the world’s first to successfully transfer data over live 5G networks to purpose-built mobile devices, in Texas and Minnesota respectively.

Temporally, AT&T might have stolen a step ahead of its competitor. The AT&T test took place “over the weekend”, while news coming out of Verizon on Monday declared the success happened yesterday, but they were essentially the same kind of tests. Probably the most intriguing part of the story is that both carriers used Qualcomm’s terminals on networks supplied by Ericsson.

Even the technical details disclosed look very similar. Both tests were using smartphone form factor test devices from Qualcomm integrating the latter’s Snapdragon X50 5G modem and RF subsystem (see the picture), both were going through Ericsson 5G-NR capable radios connected to 3x virtual core networks.

These announcements followed hot on the heels of a couple of other 5G firsts in the last few days: last week Verizon and Nokia claimed to have completed the first over-the-air data transmission on a commercial 5G NR network in Washington DC, though the receiving end was not exactly a smartphone-like device. On Monday Nokia announced its demo with Sprint to conduct the first (in the US though) 5G NR connection over Massive MIMO.

Ericsson and Qualcomm claimed to have completed the first 5G NR ‘call’ to a smartphone-like device (which was pretty similar to the ones used in the AT&T and Verizon tests). That announcement itself came a couple of days after Ericsson announced another similar test with Intel. These two slightly earlier tests were conducted in lab environment while the latest AT&T and Verizon cases were done over live networks, or as AT&T emphatically stressed, “Not a lab. Not preproduction hardware. Not emulators.”

We understand the marketing departments of these companies must be busy generating as big a buzz as possible in the run-up to the Mobile World Congress America (starting tomorrow). Meanwhile we cannot discount that tests and announcements (and claims) like these do show the wider world 5G potentials when the commercial networks roll out in the coming months and years, though at the moment all these firsts still do not mean anything for consumers as no 5G terminals are available yet.

Another interesting angle to look at these tests is how active the US carriers are in pushing ahead 5G on mmWave, which contrast with how slow the European operators and regulators are moving. The European Commission launched a project to look into the feasibility of using mmWave for 5G deployment in the EU. A reporting session was organised in Brussels in June this year. The views were divided, and conclusions elusive. The main doubt from the industry looked to be the lack of compelling business case and the wrangling between the telecom industry and the satellite industry on the utilisation of the lower mmWave spectrum, hence the lack of contiguous bands for 5G buildout.

It may be a worthy reminder that we can never tell with full confidence what new technologies can do. Andre Fuetsch, AT&T Communications’ CTO was bang on when he said “… yet to be discovered experiences will grow up on tomorrow’s 5G networks. Much like 4G introduced the world to the gig economy, mobile 5G will jumpstart the next wave of unforeseen innovation.”

AT&T faces $224 million legal battle over cryptocurrency theft

Precedent means a lot in the legal world, and with large segments of cryptocurrency still unexplored, there might be a few keeping an eye on AT&T’s progress in this interesting case.

In a filing made to the US District Court in Los Angeles, cryptocurrency investor Michael Terpin is suing AT&T for $224 million following the theft of $23.8 million in cryptocurrency tokens. While AT&T did nothing directly associated with the theft, Terpin is holding the telco accountable for SIM swap fraud.

“Somebody needed to sue AT&T for fraud & gross negligence in letting criminals SIM swap. I just did,” Terpin said on Twitter.

SIM swap fraud allows nefarious individuals to trick service providers into transferring a subscriber’s phone number to a SIM card which is in that persons possession. Once the fraudster has access to the SIM, the new device can be used to reset passwords and access online accounts. With some services still reliant on phone-based authentication, it can be a very effective way to drain accounts or move assets.

The practise involves a lot of research, as security questions asked on the phone can defeat this scheme, though considering the questions are usually quite obvious it isn’t fool proof. With so much of our lives online, enough Googling on an individual would certainly build a profile. In this case, as the founder of BitAngels Terpin would have been interviewed numerous times and had countless articles written about him. The profile could have been bulked out further.

Once this profile has been built, the fraudster would call the service provider claiming a lost phone and asking the account be transferred to a new SIM in that persons possession. Assuming the security questions could be answered, the fraudster would then effectively have free reign over the victims virtual identity.

In this case the end result was the loss of cryptocurrency tokens. Alongside recovering the $23.8 million, Terpin is also seeking $200 million in punitive damages. The complaint details AT&T had been previously contacted about such instances of fraud, and since not enough has been done to prevent fraud, it should be held accountable.

The dangers of online identities have been well-publicised, but as there have been few major, real-world examples of the dangers, many ignore the risks. In truth, we do not know how dangerous it can be to freely publicise such vast quantities of personal information online for anyone to see. This is just one example, but as fraudsters probe for weaknesses, we suspect such stories will become more common.

The issue here is about negligence and indirect contribution to the scheme. This is the position AT&T finds itself in. For the telco world, it could be viewed as critical for AT&T to win this case and set precedent.

As this is one of the first mainstream cases, judges in the future will use this as an example to make rulings in the future. If AT&T finds itself on the losing side, telcos throughout the US may find themselves much more exposed to the nefarious activities in the dark corners of the internet.

The internet offers wonderful opportunities for many around the world, but every now and then it is worth being reminded there are dangers in the un-explored regions of the web.

DoJ appeals AT&T/Time Warner deal on grounds of ignorance

The Department of Justice has attacked a trial judges approach and methods when reviewing AT&T’s much debated acquisition of Time Warner, in it’s against the greenlight for the deal.

AT&T closed it’s $108 billion acquisition of Time Warner two days after District Court for the District of Columbia Judge Richard Leon gave his seal of approval, though the Department of Justice is not done yet. An appeal has been launchedx      , arguing competition would be distorted in the pay TV market as a result as AT&T would have a bargaining advantage over rivals, with the main focus of the appeal seemingly being directed at the Judge Leon.

“The district court held otherwise, but only by erroneously ignoring fundamental principles of economics and common sense,” the appeal document states. “These errors distorted its view of the evidence and rendered its factual findings clearly erroneous, and they are the subject of this appeal.

As you can see from the statement above, the Department of Justice seems to be claiming Judge Leon was not able to consider the long-term economic impact of the acquisition of competition, but also has found issue with the court made the ‘vast majority’ of its evidentiary rulings during sealed bench conferences and declined to release the transcripts of these conferences to anyone during the trial.

“The district court substantially constrained the government’s presentation of evidence showing that the merged entity would have greater bargaining leverage,” the appeal reads.

Part of these discussions included evidence which the government would have wanted access to, AT&T’s own analysis of the potential competitive impact of the acquisition for example, but also that Judge Leon dismissed public FCC filings made by AT&T and DirecTV explaining the potential competitive harm from vertical integration, refusing to treat the documents as relevant submissions. The Department of Justice also argues it was not given enough air-time to question economic experts or evidence presented by AT&T.

The implication seems to lean on the idea of bias. Although it has not been directly said, the Department of Justice seems to be hinting Judge Leon favoured AT&T and was not able to offer an independent evaluation of the saga.

While this is a massive acquisition, vertical deals are not unusual in the technology industry, in fact, some might suggest it is the norm for growth. With big ticket acquisitions becoming more common in the industry, some might suggest the Department of Justice’s opposition to the deal might be more political than economical. President Trump’s distain for Time Warner owned brands are no secret, a public hatred which might be fuelling the theories.

US operators Q2 2018: Verizon does a bit better than AT&T

Both giant US operators announced their Q2 2018 numbers recently with Verizon exceeding expectations but AT&T not so much.

Verizon managed higher revenues and profits than analysts were expecting and also beat expectations with 398,000 postpaid smartphone net adds. AT&T’s revenues, meanwhile, were a bit below what the street anticipated, but earnings per share were better so it’s swings and roundabouts at the end of the day, or something like that.

“Verizon is extremely well-positioned for the future,” said soon-to-be-replaced Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam. “Our financial and operating results for the first half of 2018 were strong, as evidenced by service revenue, earnings and operating cash flow growth delivered in a highly competitive marketplace.”

“It was an exciting quarter for AT&T as we completed the acquisition of Time Warner on June 14 and created a modern media company built around premium content, 170 million direct-to-customer relationships, advertising technology and high-speed networks,” said Randall Stephenson, AT&T CEO.

“Time Warner joins us coming off an impressive second-quarter. Turner turned in solid subscription and advertising revenue growth, Warner Bros. is in high gear with a record number of series in production, and HBO delivered strong subscriber revenue growth.

“Since we closed the Time Warner deal, we’ve also announced an agreement to acquire ad-tech leader AppNexus, which will be an important step to strengthen our leadership in advanced TV advertising. Our goal is to reshape the way media and entertainment work for consumers, and you will see us continue to do exactly that.”

The respective shares prices initially went in opposite directions, with Verizon up and AT&T down, but then everyone seemed to take the numbers with a pinch of salt and there was not a lot to choose between them at time of writing. McAdam had some stuff to say about the merits of being a major content owner on the analyst call, which Light Reading reported on. Here are the financial tables if you’re into that sort of thing.

Verizon

Verizon Q2 2018

AT&T

AT&T Q2 2018

 

A view from the States: No summer slowdown here

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece strategic advisor Whitey Bluestein explores how recent developments on the other side of the pond are redefining the mobile landscape and blurring lines between telecoms and entertainment.

Hope you’re not waiting for a summer slowdown, at least in telecoms. In the last three months, several developments are redefining the mobile landscape and blurring lines between telecoms and entertainment. These include:

  • The AT&T-Time Warner merger was approved by a federal judge over the opposition of the Justice Department in mid-June, and the deal closed a few days later. AT&T’s $85 billion acquisition includes HBO, Cinemax, Turner Entertainment, CNN, Warner Brothers and much more. AT&T acquired DirecTV less than three years ago. (A few weeks after the trial court’s decision and merger closing, the Justice Department appealed, but most observers expect the deal to stand.)
  • Shortly after acquiring Time-Warner (now WarnerMedia), AT&T made a deal to buy AppNexus, an ad tech platform that will give advertisers an alternative to Google and Facebook for ad spending and data analytics;
  • T-Mobile and Sprint announced plans in late-April to merge the #3 and #4 wireless carriers, respectively, in a $26 billion deal which, if approved, would make the merged company the second largest U.S. wireless operator, behind Verizon;
  • 21st Century Fox accepted Disney’s $71.3 billion cash and stock acquisition offer over Comcast’s $65 billion offer in late June. Disney, which owns ABC and ESPN, among other assets, would acquire Fox’s film and production assets (but not Fox Broadcasting, Fox News or Fox Sports), global TV channels such as National Geographic and two major satellite distributors, Sky in Europe and Star in India.

The latter two deals still must be approved by regulators, but the AT&T green light increased confidence that the other deals will clear. Telecoms and entertainment are clearly converging, and mobile is increasingly the preferred viewing device.

Consolidation

The recent federal court approval of the AT&T-Time Warner merger without conditions means market consolidation is likely to continue or even intensify. Now all eyes are turned to the T-Mobile and Sprint deal. T-Mobile (including MetroPCS) and Sprint (with Virgin and Boost) have attacked the U.S. market with aggressive pricing and promotions, particularly in the no contract space.

With these two companies merging, many project a more stable, less cut-throat market; any price stability would presumably be good for MVNOs, who still buy data by the megabyte and must closely manage users’ data consumption in order to compete with unlimited carrier plans. The merger is also good for the industry; Morgan Stanley sees the “return to wireless industry service revenue growth for the first time since 2014, as competitive intensity has moderated.”

On the down side, since Sprint and T-Mobile both have hosted traditional (voice, data and messaging) MVNOs over the years, there will be one less operator offering traditional wholesale services and thus fewer carrier options for MVNOs going forward. (All four of the big operators have moved aggressively in the IoT space and have robust wholesale programs for IoT/M2M/connected devices; this is where the market is going and growing. Further, all of the operators are aggressively pursuing new business in the IoT/M2M and connected device segment.)

The Justice Department, which can ask the courts to block acquisitions and mergers deemed anticompetitive, nixed a merger of the same companies less than four years ago — and an earlier AT&T/T-Mobile deal as well. Much has now changed. Then, Sprint and T-Mobile were near equals. In the last four years though, T-Mobile’s “Un-Carrier” campaign has made it the industry’s fastest growing player, while Sprint has continued to struggle. The T-Mobile/Sprint deal is a merger of two direct competitors, thus raising very different issues than AT&T’s acquisitions of Time-Warner or DirecTV, both of which were “vertical” diversification into the entertainment space.

Still, traditional antitrust criteria for mergers suggest that a “3-4” merger in a concentrated market is not sustainable, due to risks of tacit collusion and decreased price competition post-closing. In the aftermath of their embarrassing AT&T-Time Warner loss, the Justice Department could challenge the proposed merger. T-Mobile and Sprint are keenly aware of this risk. In their application to the FCC, which also must sign off on the deal under a more government-favorable “public interest” test, the companies said, “T-Mobile and Sprint are merging to beat Verizon and AT&T, not to be like them.” Given the success of the Un-Carrier campaign, this is smart (and credible) positioning. AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile are each pursuing different business strategies, and three strong competitors each moving in their own direction bring a growing range of choices and services. Some believe that the merger is critical just to keep up with AT&T and Verizon from a spectrum and technology standpoint. For all of these reasons, especially after the AT&T/Time-Warner approval, odds are up that in today’s changing wireless market, the T-Mobile-Sprint merger will go through, although there may be some conditions.

Enter the MSOs.

The two largest U.S. cable companies – Comcast and Charter – each launched MVNOs. Comcast’s Xfinity Mobile launched last May, and Charter’s Spectrum Mobile launched this month.

Xfinity’s first year of operations have gone well. With two pricing options – $45 per line for unlimited monthly LTE data or $12/GB for shared LTE – these two plans can be mixed and matched based on each user’s data consumption, allowing a family or group to average down per-line pricing to well below $45/line. Comcast, which has 22.5 million video subscribers, now has more than a half million mobile customers. New Street Research predicted that Xfinity Mobile could soon add two million customers per year. Although Charter just launched Spectrum Mobile, New Street predicted similar growth for Spectrum. Spectrum’s service, also on the Verizon network, is priced similarly to Xfinity on the unlimited plan, at $45/line, but at $14/GB for LTE data. Interestingly, New Street also concluded that Comcast pays Verizon $5/GB, the lowest reported wholesale LTE data rate in the U.S. This makes for a very good margin on per GB data customers but very thin margins on unlimited users, who reportedly use 15 percent more data than average customers. Much of the data is offloaded on Wi-Fi, which helps.

Comcast and Charter together cover about two-thirds of the U.S. population. Each has the key attributes of a successful virtual operator – a large existing customer base, deep pockets and the ability to bundle services in a single bill. Because these companies offer pay TV, Internet, phone service, and now mobile, they can cross-promote and discount other services to attract customers to their mobile offering. Coupled with a growing willingness among consumers to try lower-priced options like cable companies, this makes the analysts’ multi-million subscriber projections credible.

In April, Comcast and Charter announced a 50/50 operating platform partnership focused on development and design of backend systems to support their mobile services. They appear to be in it for the long run. Whether or not it makes sense to invest in and build all of the backend systems that they need (versus buying an existing solution) is the big question. Both launched with and are hosted by Arterra Mobility today. My experience informs me that in a build-or-buy scenario, companies often underestimate the costs, staffing and time-to-market required to build robust and scalable backend systems from the ground up. Further, integrating multiple vendors, even those with best-in-class components, always takes more time and money than expected. The risk is that they build a gold-plated backend that actually hampers their ability to compete.

Getting to market is one thing. Finding and retaining the specialized and operational talent it takes to be fast, flexible and smart enough to remain competitive in the fast-moving wireless world is extraordinarily challenging. It goes beyond retail wireless products and into IoT, campus/facility/building-based networks which could enable and may be necessary to serve the lucrative enterprise market, which will be more important as cord-cutters impact their residential base.

The more strategic question is whether and how Altice, a new Sprint-hosted full MVNO, and other MSOs become some part of that partnership, despite the fact that Comcast and Charter are on different mobile networks. The deals are strategic in that they involve some asset- and technology-sharing with their respective host operators, but the possibilities of expanding or creating a separate marketing partnership with a nationally branded mobile service could reduce marketing costs and result in a seamless mobile product nationwide, with the scale to keep carrier and other costs low. This makes the operating platform partnership more strategic and potentially far-reaching, if done right. The front-end marketing play to extend overall reach is far more important strategically than focusing on the back-end. Of course, it takes both, but effective marketing is key.

In the no-contract (prepaid) segment of the market, AT&T has Prepaid (formerly GoPhone) and Cricket, T-Mobile has its MetroPCS unit, and Sprint, through Boost and Virgin, all have very competitive prepaid offerings that are compelling from a price and value standpoint. But wait, there’s more.

Now there’s a new entrant to the operators’ branded plays. Verizon has entered the fray with Visible, a no-contract brand priced at $40/month for unlimited data, messages and minutes. While there’s no data cap for this low-priced option, there is a speed limit – up to 5 Mbps on the network, enough to stream video at 480p resolution. Verizon tag line is, “Exactly what you need. No fluff.” For now, while Verizon is “working a few things out,” it’s invitation only.

The MVNO space has been very active, too. Some interesting developments include:

  • Comcast and Charter launched, as described above, and have been successful by any measure, with Comcast now at more than half million subscribers and most expecting both to be multimillion subscriber players.
  • Multiplay is getting to be a “thing,” with one UK player, Smart, recognizing that there is strong interest in buying services from a single provider as a bundle, offering energy and insurance along with mobile. With the high cost of energy and insurance, they can package fantastic offers to attract subscribers without discounting mobile. Their “all in one” mobile App underpins a differentiated quint-play experience putting customers in control of their essential needs, allowing them to view bills, order services, obtain care and submit meter readings among other things.
  • Tracfone, the largest U.S. MVNO, with 22.1 million subs, lost SafeLink subscribers because of Lifeline rule changes, while its main brand, StraightTalk grew to nearly 9 million subs. The change in mix resulted in an ARPU increase to $25.
  • Ultra Mobile, one of the fastest growing MVNOs, launched Mint Mobile two years ago, positioning itself as the direct-to-consumer disruptor in the wireless category. Much like what Dollar Shave Club did to razors, Mint Mobile combines the direct-to-consumer business approach with warehouse pricing, where customers buy in bulk and save. Subscribers purchase service up-front, including data (2, 5 or 10GB) in bulk for 3, 6 or 12 months of service, with commensurate bulk savings, starting at $15/month. It’s no surprise that Mint has been growing dramatically, surpassing 200 percent growth year-over-year.
  • Kajeet, once an MVNO serving kids with sophisticated parental controls, has morphed into a six-carrier national mobility solution provider for the education market. With nearly 700 school district customers, including libraries, and expanding into school vehicle connectivity with its SmartBus™ offering, has expanded to Canada with Bell Mobility. Their parental controls now help schools, teachers, administrators and parents keep kids on task economically, and manage and analyse usage. Google recently hired them for their Rolling Study Hall project.
  • Newcomer Wing is focused on the higher end of the market, offering “stress-free” care, ease and value. As a result, nearly three-quarters of their customers come from a Big 4 carrier. Wing has digitalized the carrier experience similar to Amazon vs. Walmart. Customers are onboarded via text or call. Wing offers flexible plans that credit subs for unused data. Users track data, manage/change plans, and pay their bills via an app. Wing offers the same premium features as the Big 4 carriers, including international data roaming across 135+ countries at just $13/GB.
  • Lycamobile, with 15 million subs in 23 countries including the U.S., just launched Lycarewards in the UK. The loyalty program offers customers free data bundles and gift cards for viewing ads and special offers on the lock screen of their Android phone. The free service, delivered by app, uses an ad-funded model from U.S.-based AdFone, whose platform generates incremental monthly ARPU of up to $3 per user for its customers.

These are just a few of the more high-profile MVNOs. Of course, the IoT and connected device space includes many players providing value added services for which connectivity is an enabler rather than the raison d’etre. Many MVNOs and MVNEs are taking their connectivity experience and business relationships and extending them into the IoT space. This is the most exciting, innovative and fast-growing space in mobility.

 

Whitey BluesteinWhitey Bluestein advises young technology companies on mobile strategies and helping them win deals, as an advisor and as interim corporate development executive. His business is all referrals from clients, colleagues and the strong network of business and personal relationships built over his 35-year telecoms career. He works with young companies – mostly A and B Round startups – helping them navigate the mobile ecosystem and developing strategic relationships with mobile operators in North America, UK/Europe and AsiaPac. He’s also worked for big companies, including Disney, Google and Cisco, on new mobile initiatives. Current clients include Orion Labs and Payfone, among others. Recent clients are based in San Francisco, New York, Montreal, London and Paris. Whitey Bluestein is a regular speaker at the MVNOs Series events – including the MVNOs North America and MVNOs World Congress.