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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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  • AT&T-DirecTV Deal Seems Backward-Looking and Misses Broadband's Imperative

    From a strategic perspective, AT&T's deal to acquire DirecTV for $49 billion ($67 billion when debt is included) sure seems backward-looking, as it completely misses the imperative of broadband and online video in all of our lives.

    Broadband and online video have driven many of the recent deals in the headlines (e.g. Comcast-Time Warner Cable, Disney-Maker Studios, the rumored YouTube-Twitch deal, etc.). Smart companies are looking at the massive shifts in consumer behavior and technology and are scrambling to position themselves for future paradigms that look very different from those of the past.

    Except AT&T it seems. Instead of focusing on the future, it's doubling-down on pay-TV, a saturated business in the U.S. that while still very profitable, is under assault from all sides these days. DirecTV in particular, with its one-way satellite-delivery infrastructure, was already deficient in broadband since it could not provide a video/voice/broadband bundle to compete with cable. More recently, as cable operators have begun to offer slick new services via hybrid IP set-top boxes (like Comcast's X1), DirecTV's core video service itself has begun to look outmoded.

    The absence of wired broadband capability means DirecTV doesn't give AT&T any new growth opportunity in the U.S., nor any competitive response to the coming juggernaut of Comcast-TWC (a deal which IS predicated on the broadband future). Importantly, the lack of broadband means DirecTV doesn't give AT&T any hedge against the possibility that cord-cutting and cord-nevering accelerate.

    Absent a broadband strategy, the DirecTV deal seems to boil down to more of a financial play than anything else. Reading the smart Wall St. analysts' take on the deal, DirecTV gives AT&T extra cash flow to cover its $10 billion annual dividend, along with the vague possibility that, with a combined 26 million subscribers, it will be able to limit rate increases from programmers in the future.

    Maybe those justifications are sufficient, but it sure feels like if you're going to spend $49 billion, at least part of it should be centered on the most important industry trends and growth opportunities. Seeing the world around it changing fast, DirecTV logically concluded it was time to exit. But why AT&T chose to allocate so much resources to a business focused on the past is the key question its shareholders will need to consider.