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Justice Dept. Staffers Warn T-Mobile/Sprint Merger Unlikely to Win Approval as Structured

Justice Department staffers have told T-Mobile and Sprint that their $26 billion merger is unlikely to win approval as presently structured, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

Unnamed sources familiar with the deal told the newspaper the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division is among the most skeptical of those reviewing the deal, questioning claims from the companies that the merger will create synergy and increased efficiency that could free up resources to dramatically expand the combined company’s wireless business.

At the core of the concern is the impact of combining the nation’s third and fourth largest wireless carriers, reducing competition to just three national postpaid companies — AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile. That could present an unacceptable threat to competition.

The Justice Department is not alone expressing concern over the merger deal. Multiple state attorneys general are still reviewing the deal and several have announced they are prepared to sue the companies involved to stop the merger if it manages to win approval on the federal level. The Federal Communications Commission is also said to be questioning some of the claims of the company about the merits of its promised 5G home broadband service and exactly how much consumers could save should they subscribe.

The Financial Times also published a story this afternoon essentially confirming the Journal story.

John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile USA, denied the premise of the Journal’s story in a tweet late this afternoon, calling it “simply untrue,” but refused further comment.

Any decision about the merger is not expected for several weeks, and any recommendations from the staff report on the deal can be overruled by the political appointees that run the Justice Department. The Times reports that the final decision will likely rest with Makan Delrahim, President Trump’s pick as chief of the antitrust division. With staff objections now leaked to the press, Delrahim could be in a politically difficult situation overruling his staff’s recommendations. In the meantime, company officials can offer concessions, such as selling off certain assets to overcome regulator objections.

Many Wall Street analysts feel the chances of the merger winning approval are reduced the longer the merger review remains underway in Washington. Many have placed the odds at less than 50% that the deal will ultimately be approved. If it is rejected, T-Mobile is expected to continue its business without any significant financial hurdles. Sprint may be a different matter, as its Japanese backer SoftBank has soured on the merits of pouring additional money into Sprint’s wireless business.

White House Refuses to Turn Over Documents on AT&T-Time Warner Merger

Phillip Dampier April 16, 2019 AT&T, Public Policy & Gov't, Reuters No Comments

(Reuters) – The White House has told two U.S. House Democrats it will not turn over documents that could show whether Republican President Donald Trump sought to intervene in the regulatory review of AT&T Inc’s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner Inc.

In March, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler and Representative David Cicilline, who chairs a panel overseeing antitrust issues, asked the White House and Justice Department to turn over records after The New Yorker magazine reported Trump directed then-National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn to use the Justice Department to block the deal.

The pair wrote that if accurate, Trump’s involvement would “constitute a grave abuse of power.” In February, a federal appeals court upheld a lower-court ruling rejecting a Justice Department challenge to the deal filed in November 2017.

Trump criticized the deal as a candidate in late 2016, saying it would concentrate too much media power in the hands of one owner, and later saying it would raise prices. He has also frequently attacked CNN, a Time Warner property now owned by AT&T, for what he sees as negative coverage of his campaign and administration.

In a letter dated Monday and released on Tuesday by Cicilline, White House counsel Pat Cipollone declined to release any documents, saying he would not provide “protected communications between the president and his senior advisers that are the very core of the executive branch’s confidentiality interests.”

Cipollone added that the Justice Department would be responding “in due course.”

The two Democrats responded in a joint statement that “the White House Counsel has made a blanket claim that all White House communications — regardless of whether they contain evidence of improper or even unlawful activities — are protected by a cone of secrecy,” adding they would “pursue this matter.”

Makan Delrahim, the head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, said in a 2018 declaration he had never received “orders, instructions, or directions relating” to the AT&T-Time Warner deal from Trump, Justice Department officials or White House officials.

The Justice Department said in February it would not seek further appeals to block the merger.

In February 2018, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon rejected AT&T’s request to see White House communications that might shed light on whether Trump pressured the Justice Department to try to block the deal.

AT&T lawyers said last year the deal may have been singled out for enforcement, citing as evidence statements by Trump as a candidate and as president that the deal was bad for consumers and the country. AT&T declined comment on Tuesday.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Peter Cooney

JPMorgan Pushing for Charter-Altice Merger to Bring Ruthless Cost-Cutting to Spectrum

JPMorgan “still believes in the potential of an eventual merger of Charter Communications with Altice USA, despite a cool-down in tie-up talk,” according to a short piece in Seeking Alpha.

The Wall Street bank favored a Charter merger with Altice, which owns Cablevision and Suddenlink, because Altice has proven its ability to ruthlessly cut costs out of the cable business, potentially bringing $2.7 billion in synergy savings from layoffs, outsourcing, and killing off employee perks.

JPMorgan analyst Philip Cusack believes the biggest merger prize would be a combination of Cablevision’s footprint in downstate New York, Connecticut and New Jersey with Charter-Spectrum, which serves almost all of New York State and already has a presence in Manhattan and other boroughs in New York City. Cusack also argues Cablevision’s Optimum business would be well served by a familiar executive. Rutledge was Cablevision’s chief operating officer before moving to Charter.

Two years ago, Altice considered acquiring Time Warner Cable, before investors forced Altice to pull back on further acquisitions that would result in even more debt for the European telecom company.

Among the likely challenges would be antitrust and regulatory roadblocks, particularly if Charter is the lead company. Charter is still in hot water with New York’s Public Service Commission and its own merger with Time Warner Cable was decertified by the regulator last summer. It could be a long leap from antagonizing New York’s telecom regulator and the attorney general to winning a green light for yet another cable merger.

DirecTV Now Preps Huge Rate Increase: Most Will Pay $10 More a Month

Phillip Dampier March 11, 2019 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, DirecTV, Online Video 9 Comments

AT&T’s merger with Time Warner (Entertainment) is now complete, and despite repeated promises to antitrust regulators AT&T would not use consolidation as an excuse to raise rates, the company is reportedly doing exactly that on its DirecTV Now online streaming service.

According to a report by Cord Cutters News, most current subscribers will be formally notified this week their rates are going up $10 a month and new customers will be offered only two choices for DirecTV Now packages going forward — a slimmed down Plus package of 40 channels and HBO for $50 a month and a slightly larger Max package with 50 channels bundled with HBO and Cinemax for $70 a month. Both represent fewer channels for more money.

News about big changes for AT&T’s streaming services were first announced by AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson in late 2018, telling investors he planned to wring more profit out of DirecTV Now by raising rates and slimming down the number of channels in the remaining packages.

Current customers can keep their current packages indefinitely, but they will pay more starting in April. The $10 rate increase comes on the heels of a $5 rate increase in the summer of 2018, and AT&T has made it clear more price hikes are forthcoming as needed.

AT&T also told Cord Cutters News that DirecTV’s satellite service will soon debut on its own streaming platform, but it won’t come discounted or cheap:

  • 65 channel DirecTV package: $93/month
  • 85 channel DirecTV package: $110/month
  • 105 channel DirecTV package: $124/month
  • 125 channel DirecTV package: $135/month

AT&T hopes its simplified menu of offerings for DirecTV Now will prove attractive to subscribers, in part because both packages bundle either AT&T-owned HBO or HBO and Cinemax. But subscribers are also likely to notice the dramatically smaller package of cable channels, now missing AMC, Viacom and Discovery-owned networks. They are also likely to be confused by the forthcoming introduction of DirecTV satellite streaming packages, which will be marketed separately from DirecTV Now. AT&T plans to eventually mothball its satellite fleet and move DirecTV entirely to an internet streaming platform, but will take several years before switching off the last satellite.

AT&T’s DirecTV Now will slim its packages down substantially as early as tomorrow, while raising prices.

An informal FAQ:

Q. When will AT&T make these changes?

A. AT&T is expected to email current customers on or about March 12, 2019 to inform them of the $10 rate hike. At the same time, AT&T is likely to stop signing up new customers for its current DirecTV Now packages and begin offering DirecTV Now Plus or DirecTV Now Max instead. Current customers can expect to see their first bill with the new rates in April.

Q. Will current customers be grandfathered?

A. AT&T plans to tell current customers they can keep their current packages as long as they do not make changes to their account (or cancel), but effective April 12, 2019, rates will increase $10 a month for those subscribed to: Live a Little, Just Right, Go Big, and Gotta Have It.

Q. If I subscribe today to the older packages, can I avoid some of the price increases and channel changes?

A. Yes and no. If AT&T’s schedule holds, today is the last day you will be able to signup for DirecTV Now’s old packages, and you will need to make a payment today and skip the free 7-day trial to lock in these packages or you could face choosing only between Plus and Max after your trial ends. You will pay existing rates for March, but the $10 rate increase will impact you starting in April.

Q. What about the prices for premium channels?

A. If the rumors are true, and we stress these are only rumors at this point, current DirecTV Now customers that already subscribe to premium networks like HBO or Cinemax prior to March 12, will be able to avoid planned rate increases on premium networks that are also supposed to be announced as early as tomorrow. If you sign up today and subscribe to HBO and/or Cinemax, you will pay $5 a month for each going forward. Showtime and/or Starz are also available for $8 a month each going forward. The rumor claims that starting tomorrow, HBO will triple in price to $15 each, with Cinemax, Showtime and Starz supposedly increasing to $11 a month each. These new prices would only apply to grandfathered customers on older packages that want to add a premium network on or after March 12 to their existing package. AT&T would use this new pricing to incentivize customers to abandon their old package in favor of Plus or Max, which bundles HBO and HBO and Cinemax into the base package price. So if you are thinking about subscribing to a premium network and want to keep your old package, you should subscribe today and lock in the current lower price.

Q. What happens to pricing for add-on international channels?

A. If you subscribe to international channels (Vietnamese – $20/mo, Brazilian Portuguese – $25/mo, or Korean – $30/mo) before March 12, your rates stay the same. If you add these channels on or after March 12, you will likely pay more to do so. If you are considering these channels, you may save a lot in the long run subscribing today for at least a month to lock it current prices. If the rate increase does not happen, you can drop the add-on after a month.

Q. What are the biggest differences between the old and new packages?

A. You are getting fewer channels for more money from the new Plus and Max package tiers. DirecTV Now is stripping out popular cable networks from AMC, Discovery-Scripps, and Viacom from the new packages, but bundles HBO in the new Plus package and both HBO and Cinemax in the new Max package. An unofficial new channel lineup of both new packages can be found here.

Q. Why are they raising rates like this?

A. AT&T shareholders have been increasingly critical about the company’s 2015 acquisition of DirecTV. Executives sold Wall Street on the acquisition on the theory that acquiring the country’s largest cable TV programming distributor with 21+ million customers would deliver AT&T’s much smaller U-verse TV (with 4-5 million customers) dramatically better volume discounts on cable TV programming. More importantly, it would help AT&T become a powerhouse in video entertainment and cut through the red tape of getting that programming on AT&T’s mobile products. If you are a cable network’s biggest customer, it helps in negotiations seeking streaming and platform distribution rights.

Stephenson

After the merger, AT&T began de-emphasizing its U-verse brand and even started selling DirecTV satellite service to video-only AT&T customers. DirecTV Now was AT&T’s response to cord-cutting, and its promotional pricing and strong package of channels was customer and regulator friendly. At the same time AT&T was seeking to win regulator approval of its acquisition of Time Warner (Entertainment), it did not hurt to argue AT&T’s prior acquisitions had not hurt the marketplace, and may have even enhanced it, pointing to the DirecTV Now offering in the cord-cutting marketplace.

But Wall Street analysts have often argued AT&T is losing money on DirectTV Now, because the wholesale programming costs plus the distribution and marketing expenses likely exceed the prices AT&T charges. Some analysts are even questioning the wisdom of acquiring DirecTV in the first place, especially as the era of cord-cutting has taken a particularly harsh toll on DirecTV’s satellite subscriber numbers. Just a few weeks after the Justice Department abandoned further court action to block the merger of AT&T and Time Warner, Stephenson followed through on his commitment to shareholders by preparing to prune back DirecTV Now’s packages and dramatically increases prices at the same time.

“We’re talking $50 to $60,” Stephenson told investors last December. “We’ve learned this product, we think we know this market really, really well. We built a two-million subscriber base. But we were asking this DirecTV Now product to do too much work. So we’re thinning out the content and getting the price point right; getting it to where it’s profitable.”

Stephenson fully expects DirecTV Now will soon shed a large percentage of ‘low value’ customers that subscribed only because they locked in a low price or promotion, telling investors he prefers to deal with high-value customers that appreciate AT&T’s brand and quality, and won’t cancel over price increases. He does not want to deal with customers that chase promotions.

AT&T is also using the changes to reset its video portfolio of products, and the audiences each will target. Those most sensitive to price will be marketed ultra-skinny bundles like AT&T Watch, which can also be used to try and get customers to switch to AT&T wireless. Middle ground customers partially sensitive to price, but want a channel lineup that better reflects what they actually watch will be pushed towards DirecTV Now, which will be marketed as cheaper than cable and a good option for cord-cutters. DirecTV’s forthcoming satellite streaming service will be the new home for customers that gravitated towards DirecTV Now’s higher end bundles. Marketing will focus on customers that want an alternative to cable television, but won’t sacrifice their favorite cable channels just to get a lower bill. These customers will be willing to pay a higher price to have a less-jarring transition from the traditional huge cable TV package to DirecTV’s alternative.

Q. What does AT&T risk doing this?

A. Hundreds of thousands of DirecTV Now subscribers are likely to cancel service as a result of this rate increase, which will leave DirecTV Now at a higher price than many of its competitors. AT&T’s loss will likely deliver a sudden spike of new customer signups for YouTube TV and Hulu Live TV, which are the closest equivalents. Other services like Philo, Vue, and even Sling TV are also likely to grab new customers, albeit in smaller numbers.

AT&T’s biggest threat may turn out to be cable operators — especially Charter Spectrum, which has launched its own response to cable TV cord cutting. Its slimmed down and pick-your-own-channels packages could be more attractive than other streaming services, and bundle all local channels.

More specifics about those options are ‘below the fold’:

… Continue Reading

NY City Hall to Charter: Where is Our $6 Million? 10 Days to Pay or Spectrum Shouldn’t Stay

Phillip Dampier March 7, 2019 Charter Spectrum, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Spectrum workers on strike during the 2017 Labor Day parade in New York City. (Image courtesy: IBEW/Local 3)

New York City officials are giving Charter Communications 10 days to send $6 million in unpaid franchise and royalty fees or make a strong and credible case for why it shouldn’t pay, with likely litigation and the possible non-renewal of Spectrum’s contract to supply cable service on the line if the mayor isn’t satisfied.

In a letter addressed to Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio accused the company of deliberately shorting the city’s share of revenue from Spectrum’s advertising sales, calculating the city’s cut based on the lower net amount collected after expenses, instead of on gross revenue, as the contract requires. The mayor also claims Charter is withholding royalty revenue from an ancillary business Charter partly owns.

“Charter Spectrum has proven time and time again that they’re unwilling to play by the rules,” the mayor told the Daily News. “This is money that can be reinvested in our communities instead of going into Charter’s coffers as they continue to hike rates for New Yorkers. [This latest] default is another thing we’ll take into consideration when their contract expires in 2020.”

Charter’s Endless Labor Problems Upset New York Officials

Charter is already in hot water with New York officials over its treatment of workers represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 3, which have been on strike since March 2017. The highly skilled technicians were incensed when they learned hard-fought benefits were being clawed back by Charter, even as the company paid its CEO a record-breaking $98 million in compensation.

Mayor de Blasio

Over 1,800 middle class workers represented by IBEW Local 3 have suffered greatly over the past two years, according to labor reports. Many have had to cash in retirement savings, some have lost their cars or homes to foreclosure, others face mounting medical bills, in addition to family pressure at home. The union argues it is one of the last bastions to protect all middle-income earners from a race to the bottom mentality that is reducing wages and benefits. When a union worker is replaced with a less-skilled contractor, the pay and benefits Charter offers are significantly lower. Those technicians, regardless of their intentions, are also often poorly trained and risk alienating customers when repairs are incomplete or fail.

Many politicians in New York City have sided with the union strikers and have deplored the seemingly endless strike. Time Warner Cable, in contrast, had reasonably good relations with its unionized workforce. Prior to the merger, the biggest cable vs. labor union friction in the city was between the Communications Workers of America and Cablevision, which began after the CWA started organizing workers in Brooklyn and the Bronx in 2012.

With the Charter dispute approaching its second anniversary, the cable company has been spending subscriber dollars on a slick effort to convince its replacement workers to team up with the cable company to vote for decertification of IBEW Local 3 with the National Labor Relations Board.

Ironically, the same company that has dragged its feet settling the dispute has sent email to replacement workers claiming the union has done a lousy and ineffective job… of wearing down Charter.

In a Jan. 31 internal email obtained by In These Times, Charter Communications regional vice president of New York City operations, John Quigley, told workers, “In my opinion, Local 3 has not earned the right to represent you. Over the past several years they have misled their members, led them out on a strike without a clear plan, mishandled almost every aspect of the strike, made it very clear what they think of employees who are working with us today, and continue to make empty threats about harming our business. We hope that you vote ‘no’ and give us a chance to continue to make Charter a great place to work together.”

Race to the Bottom for Workers, Higher Rates for You

If Charter is successful in organizing replacement workers to side with the cable company and vote in larger numbers than the strikers, the current union representation will essentially end, along with the strike, handing total victory to Charter Communications. The cable company will likely impose its own terms on workers shortly afterwards. Critics claim that should be a familiar story for Spectrum subscribers.

“The company is basically union busting in New York City, and they’ve come in, raised rates on people and set their own terms because they hold a monopoly right now and there’s really no one to stop them from doing what they’re doing,” Troy Walcott, a striking worker, told In These Times.

With ongoing controversies with Charter on both the state and local levels, the company is likely to face increased scrutiny if the cable operator applies for a franchise renewal with the city next year, assuming state regulators do not move to enforce their own July 2018 decision to effectively kick Charter Communications out of New York State.

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  • Ed: On the money that was just bragging rights. Later this year when 5G home equipment is released and in Q1 2020 when they roll out dynamic spectrum sha...
  • TJ: I called on 4/22/19 to cancel services because my bill was too high. They sent me to the cancellation department and the guy just said ok the service ...
  • Michelle D Loewy: No internet service at the home all day Tuesday and still none today. No reason given just that the Western North Carolina area is down. Has anything ...
  • william carter: got my spectrum bill yesterday. It went up $16 per month. I called CS and they said my 1 yr promotion is gone on my internet and i have to pay full ...
  • New Yorker: Sold a penny puppet-show to appease us (We The People) and then sold out for millions/billions. F**k this country already....
  • Dorairaj Isaac: I would like to return the products for a refund...
  • EJ: I hope they are ready to do this all over again when Charter does basically nothing again. Hopefully they will use this extension to come up with a Pl...
  • Phillip Dampier: Public Comments: http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Comments/PublicComments.aspx?MatterCaseNo=15-M-0388...
  • Phillip Dampier: The reason they are lumping the two together at this point is because there are not a lot of attractive territories left to bid on. Even when the stat...
  • Paul Houle: For me the $60,000 question is this: how do I submit comments to NYS about this plan? I went looking on the PSC web site and it wasn't clear at all....
  • Phillip Dampier: ELP is still being left intact by Spectrum, but they keep raising the price to discourage people from using it. Unfortunately, since the violations pe...
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