AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson told CNBC on Wednesday that the debate over net neutrality rules may end up in the Supreme Court.
It's the most important issue for the telecommunications industry in the United States, he said in a CNBC "Squawk Box" interview from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. "We need a neutral Internet. ... I think everyone agrees with that. Where everyone is getting stuck now is going beyond that."
In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama renewed his call for tough net neutrality rules—promising to protect a "free and open Internet." In November, the president called on the Federal Communications Commission to treat online broadband service like a public utility.
Whatever happens, Stephenson said, it's likely to trigger lawsuits, resulting in a period of uncertainty. Last year, AT&T said it would stop investing in new high-speed Internet connections in 100 U.S. cities until the Internet traffic rules were settled.
"If history is any indicator of what happens in the future," he said, "the lawsuits will go through the process, ultimately, probably resulting in a Supreme Court [action]."
But the net neutrality back-and-forth won't affect AT&T's $49 billion bid to buy DirecTV, he said. "Buying DirectTV does not change the broadband market in any way, shape or form. We're buying a company that's purely a standalone TV business."
If the FCC were to rule on net neutrality in the next couple of weeks, he said, that could possibly take away a complicating factor in the proposed $45 billion Comcast offer to purchase Time Warner Cable. The issue then wouldn't have to be dealt with in the context of a transaction, he said.
Last week, AT&T said it expects to record about $10 billion in noncash charges related to pension plans and to asset abandonment, but the telecommunications giant did say the charges would not affect its operating results.