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AT&T's massive $85 billion deal to acquire Time Warner has generated plenty of attention in the press, and it will have to weather a lot of scrutiny from federal regulators before it becomes official. Many have compared the deal to Comcast's acquisition of NBCUniversal, a deal which seems to have been good for the financial health of both companies, but has produced little of note for consumers. That's led to speculation that this deal is a vanity project for telecom executives, a way to diversify the business that doesn't actually have any meaningful synergies to exploit.
But there is one very clear opportunity for these two companies to work together: building a streaming video service that offers an alternative to traditional cable packages. In an interview Sunday AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson highlighted Time Warner, with it's rich collection of film and television, as the perfect partner for a streaming effort. "If you were ever going to do something like this, this is the content you'd like to use as an anchor tenant."
AT&T has a presence in the market for traditional pay TV through its U-verse business and its recent acquisition of Direct TV. But it has a much bigger business selling mobile service, claiming in a press release about the deal that its mobile network "covers more than 315 million people in the United States." It knows that consumers are increasingly cutting the cord and buying streaming services a la carte. So just as HBO went direct to consumer with HBO Now, AT&T is preparing a streaming package dubbed DirecTV Now, a slimmed-down version of the traditional bundle of channels you would find on cable, made accessible to any screen with an internet connection.
Potential pros for consumers
It's easy to imagine a couple ways this offering could be made attractive to consumers. By buying Time Warner, AT&T might effectively subsidize the cost of a more robust streaming package. For consumers, that would mean that instead of paying $14.99 a month for HBO Now or about $16 a month for NBA League Pass, they might get HBO, basketball from TNT, news from CNN, and a library of films from Warner Bros. for a single monthly fee.
AT&T could push things further by packaging this streaming bundle with its mobile service, offering its skinny bundle at a discount to anyone who uses AT&T as their mobile carrier. Finally, AT&T has also hinted it may find ways to use advertising to bring Time Warner's content to people in new ways. "Owning content will help AT&T innovate on new advertising options, which, combined with subscriptions, will help pay for the cost of content creation. This two-sided business model — advertising and subscription-based — gives customers the largest amount of premium content at the best value," the company wrote in its press release about the deal.
Whether any of the products AT&T produces will actually resonate with consumers remains to be seen. So far the company doesn't have much of a track record creating consumer-facing apps and services, at least not polished experiences on par with a Netflix, Hulu, or HBO Now. But again, if consumers who previously couldn't afford HBO can now access it on their mobile devices at reduced cost thanks to advertising, it's easy to imagine a big group of users who would be interested, and hard to argue that offering them that choice is bad for the overall market.
That's the glass-half-full version of how things could turn out for consumers. This new conglomerate of telecom and media finds a way to bring streaming video offerings to people who previously couldn't afford them, and that forces competitors like Verizon, Comcast, and Netflix to offer more in turn. "Ultimately, we think we'll be competing head to head with the cable companies with a wireless offer," said Stephenson. "We can hit those kind of price points, combine it with this kind of content, we think this is exciting."
Potential cons for consumers
The dark version of things is a world in which telecom companies continue buying up the major content creators and make it difficult to access that media on competitors' networks. Regulators would no doubt take a hard look at this, but mobile carriers are already testing the waters. Verizon has paid to bring its subscribers the NFL for free, and even prevents users on AT&T's network from accessing games they can authenticate with a cable subscription. We're also seeing this world emerge in the market for streaming music, where major artists are increasingly signing deals that make their music exclusive to Apple or Tidal.
Walled gardens of content tied to your mobile network is one nightmare scenario. The destruction of net neutrality in a world of mobile broadband is another. Right now T-Mobile uses the lure of free data, offering its subscribers the ability to listen to music without eating up any of their monthly data allowance. AT&T could do the same for people who want to stream HBO or CNN on their network.
It's easy to argue that locking certain content to certain networks hurts consumers. If AT&T made HBO available only on its mobile network, as Verizon did with the NFL in the example above, consumers would be angry and the FCC would likely get involved. It's more difficult to make the nuanced case that consumers are hurt by zero-rating gimmicks like T-Mobile's Music unlimited, or a world where AT&T provides unlimited access to HBO and CNN with your monthly mobile subscription.
That tactic provides immediate value to consumers, but puts other media companies, especially small startups, at a big disadvantage. A world in which new, independent creators don't reach a broad audience because they count against your data cap is ultimately far less interesting and diverse for consumers.
So far the FCC has not defined net neutrality on mobile to the degree it has on wired broadband. This merger, should it pass, will almost certainly force that agency to take a deeper look at how it wants to regulate the marriage of mobile network operators and media companies they manage. They will have some time to mull it over. While executives from both companies have already been selling Washington on the idea that the merger will bring greater innovation and speed to the world of mobile video, approval for the deal isn't expected until some time in late 2017.
Disclosure: Comcast is the owner of NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC and CNBC.com.