Taking a Consumer’s Look at the Proposed AT&T/Time Warner Merger

My Comcast Xfinity menu.

According to published reports, AT&T recently reached a deal to buy Time Warner in an estimated $85.4 billion deal. I have a real issue with this and I also have some issues with reports I’ve read and interviews I’ve listened to. SiriusXM Progress’ Nomiki Konst tried to make some sense of it during a segment on her show, The Filter, Monday evening. However, the segment didn’t quite go far enough, and Konst said during her show, and in a Tweet back to me, that there will be much more discussion.

There will have to be. Konst brought up very good points. The United States Department of Justice will be in on this and that there will be hearings. My Tweet to her mentioned that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would also have to weigh in.

How do I know this? Why do I care? I’m glad you asked.

120866345ivflsi_phThis proposed merger reminds me of Time Warner’s ill-fated acquisition of America Online (AOL). AOL had engaged in perhaps the greatest marketing campaign of the 20th Century. During the late 1990s, AOL put their install and dial-up discs in the hands of millions of people. They made addicts of those millions of people who quickly got hooked on the America Online experience.

AOL switched from their hourly model to a monthly flat fee in 1996.

By 2000, AOL was considered an Internet Service Provider (ISP) although they shoved their proprietary content and experience down everyone’s collective throat. AOL Instant Messenger had become an integral part of millions of people’s lives, even non-subscribers. Broadband had just started to take hold with competition developing between cable Internet providers and DSL. Cable Internet spawned from cable TV, and DSL sprang from the phone companies. DSL was a flawed concept and is dying a slow death.

Time Warner decided to purchase AOL in 2000. Recode.net agrees with me that the Time Warner acquisition of AOL will haunt this AT&T/Time Warner deal. What bothers me is that more people aren’t discussing this or AT&T’s history in this space.

Kara Swisher of Recode.net writes:

“It was a truly epic move, all predicated on the very big idea that distribution and content had to marry in the digital age and that whoever did that successfully would rule the next era of media and more.

It was also an epic failure, brought down by a toxic combination of timing and execution.”

Read the full story. What Steve Case, formerly of AOL, tells Swisher at the end of the piece is telling. He didn’t get it then, and he doesn’t get it now.

I have been touting convergence for at least 15 years. I have been an Internet professional for 16 years, going on 17, and a web developer of some variety for damn near 20. I believe the future of the content consumption is true internet-driven interactive TV. More on that some other time.

I knew in 2000 that the Time Warner acquisition of AOL was doomed to failure. And I have no reason to think this will be any different.

Here is what I remember and what I think I know. As much as Case wants to make the failed Time Warner/AOL marriage about the world not being ready for convergence of ISP and all types of content, it was a disaster for entirely different reasons.

Time Warner had developed a pretty robust broadband operation by this point. It was known as Roadrunner. I was living in Columbus, Ohio, in the late 1990s and my apartment building wasn’t wired for cable. Ameritech was the local phone company and DSL wasn’t available in Columbus yet. As I mentioned earlier, AOL was a de facto ISP, but featured a proprietary experience, including AOL’s exclusive e-mail client.

AOL was strictly a dial-up service. They had no broadband strategy. They didn’t own any cable lines, or phone lines for that matter. They didn’t own or lease any content delivery networks. I chose local Columbus provider Netwalk if that tells you anything.

As the merger went ahead, it was clear to me that the whole thing was a power play by AOL to get their hands on the Roadrunner broadband Internet service. Can’t develop your own broadband content delivery network? Buy one, or merge with one, or get bought by one.

AOL was sued in 2000 due to their software causing issues with third-party ISPs. This would turn out to be prophetic.

Enter the FCC and the FTC. As this merger was scrutinized and analyzed and vetted, the FTC and FCC ruled that a choice of ISP had to be provided to consumers. This meant that AOL could not use the Roadrunner platform to shove their proprietary experience down users’ throats.

I applauded the FTC and FCC for their wisdom. I am an Internet purist. Give me a browser and high-speed connection (Ethernet or WiFi) and I am a happy man.

You would think that when these two government agencies dropped this hammer, Time Warner would have killed the deal and AOL would have withered on the vine. But no, they went through with it and AOL would drag the company down for years as Comcast and Cox created robust broadband offerings, and Time Warner continued to sell Roadrunner (without foisting AOL on to their customers).

In 2009, Time Warner spun it off as an independent after years of AOL siphoning cash as the only Time Warner business unit that did not turn a profit (if memory serves). In 2015, Verizon acquired AOL. As of May 2015, AOL still had 2.1 million dial-up subscribers. DIAL-UP! Who the hell are these people?

Along a parallel track, I moved to California in 2000. I had a choice of ISP. AT&T Broadband (cable) or DSL through PacBell (later SBC Global), I don’t believe in DSL so I went with AT&T Broadband. In late 2001, Comcast merged with AT&T Broadband in the worst rebranding campaign I have ever seen. I have worked in public relations; I know what good rebranding looks like. (I moved and AT&T Broadband didn’t honor an install appointment because of their merger with Comcast and I ended up with DSL for awhile. Oh, the irony.)

In 2005, SBC bought AT&T and rebranded as AT&T. In 2006, AT&T launched U-Verse – an IPTV service delivered via fiber to compete with Comcast among others. Internet is delivered via the flawed DSL concept. In 2012 U-Verse had 7.1 million Internet customers. As of July 2015, Comcast reported 22.55 Internet customers. Full integration between AT&T and DirecTV is planned for later this year.

Earlier this year, Charter bought Time Warner and Bright House. Charter was supposed to strip away Time Warner and Bright House’s branding according to a CNN Money report. The merger was actually announced in 2015. The only thing that I can see that has changed is the ISP is now Spectrum (Charter’s service’s name) instead of Roadrunner. According to Time Warner’s web site, the whole thing is supposed to be Charter Communications, with the services marketed under the Spectrum brand name a la Comcast’s Xfinity brand.

Confused yet? I thought I had a handle on this when I had the idea to write this blog, but the further down the rabbit hole I go, the more convoluted this becomes.

Not that I have read them all, but I have yet to see any report mention Charter when the AT&T acquisition of Time Warner is discussed.

So, what does this mean? According to most published reports, the play here is mobile. AT&T owns DirecTV and has a DirecTV Now streaming service planned. By all accounts, it’s affordable and should offer consumers a robust package. As more and more people cut their cords, especially millenials, and move away from traditional content delivery systems and networks, something like DirecTV Now should be viable. An NPR.org article outlines and pros and cons of the merger.

I remain skeptical. The ink is still wet on Charter’s purchase of Time Warner and Bright House. AT&T failed as a broadband ISP and cable TV provider and sold the business off to Comcast. AT&T, after acquisition by SBC, re-entered the TV and high-speed Internet market with U-Verse, which has failed to gain traction. In light of Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner and Bright House, AT&T has the potential to purchase a customer base to rival or exceed Comcast. They are buying customers. This is what AOL tried to do 16 years ago.

NPR.org’s Alina Selyukh’s list of cons raises some serious concerns.

The executives can talk about “vertical mergers” all they like. This is about customer acquisition and nothing else. They can talk about convergence. They can talk about content. They can talk about cord-cutting and mobile. This is about acquiring a user base that they couldn’t grow themselves.

I’m going to further cut through it. AT&T is planning on consolidating its IPTV/video offering through DirecTV and blend its existing U-Verse DSL business with Charter/Time Warner/Bright House’s cable Internet subscriber base.

What this means for the consumer I have no idea. Higher prices? Who knows?

Hell, it may work out. Maybe it’ll be a good thing. I know nothing about big money, high-stakes mergers and acquisitions. What I do know is what I have seen with this kind of thing before as an Internet professional, a writer, a content creator, and a consumer. It was an ugly divorce.

This time, when the FTC and FCC throw a monkey wrench into the proceedings, maybe the principals involved ought to listen.

B-Boy Running Adventures 2016

The view overlooking part of my running path at the Opryland Resort in Nashville.

“City to city, I’m-a runnin’ my rhyme,” Beastie Boys

You may recall that I travel for work and since late last summer, I try to get a run in wherever I go on these business trips. Last year I made 10 trips and managed nine runs. I missed Detroit. Not because I forgot to pack the Kevlar body armor, but because I got sick on the flight. I came down with the flu or somesuch.

It’s 2016, it’s travel season and I have been running on the road again. No pun intended. I think running in cities across the country is a great way to take in the scenery and peep out the local gentry. Thanks to the luck of the draw I have gone running in Nashville three times in the last 10 months – last November, April and just over a week ago. Instead of waiting for this cycle to end and detail my travel running then, I thought I would catch you up now – especially after my lunacy this past weekend in Baltimore.

img_0034So, the 2016 on the road running began in Nashville in April. After a night of way too much Scotch, I went running with three colleagues and I brought up the rear. Unfortunately, I don’t see a record of this run on the Nike Running Club App – formerly known as Nike+ Running. Sidebar, I don’t know why Nike had to go and mess with this app. It was perfectly fine the way it was. Odd I didn’t post it on Facebook either. Regardless, it was just over three miles and painfully slow. It was on the edge of downtown Nashville and once around Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans, and pretty close to the same route I took last November. I’ll get to this year’s Nashville run in a minute.

I don’t mind running in some weather. I don’t mind heat usually. I keep wondering how many times I am going to go running in 85-90-degree heat. I don’t seem to learn my lesson. However, humidity is a weather classification unto itself. I live a fairly dry, temperate climate. Heat + humidity and I do not get along.

Part of the New Orleans Riverwalk path where I went running in September.

img_0035I went to New Orleans last month, one of my favorite places on Earth. After a late night on Bourbon Street (you don’t close Bourbon Street, Bourbon Street closes you), I ventured out for a run in the mist and light drizzle along the Riverwalk. Last August I ran in Minneapolis and crossed the Stone Arch Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River. This time, I ran along the mighty Mississip’ at the other end – kinda neat. I managed 3.05 miles in 32:42 in 85-degree heat, humidity and rain. Fog and the mist obscured the river, and some of the Riverwalk was blocked off because of renovations, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I earned my alligator sausage, gumbo, crawfish Étoufée at the Gumbo Store, and beignets and café au lait at Café Du Monde.

This fall’s trip to Nashville was interesting. I stayed at the Opryland Resort instead of downtown. I mapped a route, which I thought was the path of an Opryland 5K, but it was blocked off a half a mile in and I had to improvise on the fly. I barely left the hotel grounds but I still managed three miles in 31:13 in 86-degree heat, and yes, the dreaded humidity. Damn the southeast.

The most stunning Barnes & Noble bookstore I have ever visited – Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Last weekend was a bit more eventful. Baltimore. I stayed at the Marriott Inner Harbor at Camden Yards. I have always enjoyed Baltimore going back to my days writing for a rag newspaper covering the Canadian Football League’s Baltimore Stallions. I mapped a route out to Ft. McHenry, which would have been six miles round-trip. A bit ambitious and it would mark my longest road trip run. I usually stick to three-four miles. I am a bit skittish running unfamiliar routes.

img_0036I found Ft. McHenry just fine, although my route was exactly the one I had plotted. And, yes, it was raining. I asked Siri to plot a course back to my hotel and my iPhone just didn’t seem to want to find it or didn’t understand my voice commands. However, I was headed back in the right direction. I made sure to stay across the street from the biker bar/funeral parlor (funeral in progress) I almost blundered into on the way out to Ft. McHenry and got to a Marriott pretty much unmolested. I knew I was at the wrong one. I asked the concierge for some help and he pointed me in the right direction. By this point I had traveled six miles already. He said my hotel wasn’t far, only about a mile. I told him, “I have another mile in me.” Off I went. I got confused along the way and I stopped and divined the actual address for my hotel. I dropped into the maps app and finished my run strong, only stopping a few times for traffic. All told, I ran eight miles. Eight freaking miles. My previous long run was 6.6 miles not all that long ago.

I enjoyed running in Baltimore, I just hadn’t planned on such a distance. I ended up walking seven additional miles and I paid for it later. My stiff and sore body didn’t have trouble falling asleep. So, I accomplish the longest run of my life because I got lost. Figures.

This was supposed to be the halfway point of a six mile run, but no.

I ran eight miles and walked seven in one of America’s inner cities and I didn’t get shot. Go figure.

So far I have had the opportunity to run in two cities I have never run in before, and in three locations new to me. I have seven or eight more trips left this year, including a few cities I have yet to run in (plus a few repeats). My eight-mile run has me thinking about finally trying for that half-marathon I’d like to accomplish.

I am enjoying this endeavor, it’s a lot of fun. Now I just need to run with a bit more confidence and speed when I am gallivanting around the country.

I ran through the Federal Hill neighborhood in Baltimore, headed out Key Highway and ran to Ft. McHenry.