Learning From AT&T's Blistering Hubris On T-Mobile Deal, Comcast Tries A Dash Of Subtlety
from the BS-can-only-take-you-so-far dept
While the assumption was that AT&T’s attempted takeover of T-Mobile was shuttered simply because it eliminated a needed competitor from the market, one of the biggest, under-stated reasons was simply AT&T’s immense, blistering hubris, forged by decades of being pampered by the government. AT&T didn’t just push for the T-Mobile merger, they lied aggressively and at every possible opportunity about the deal’s benefits, believing themselves to be impervious to repercussions. They lied in claiming the deal would create 100,000 jobs. They lied about needing to acquire T-Mobile or their network would implode from lack of spectrum. They lied in claiming that eliminating a competitor would somehow magically improve competition.
And they didn’t just lie — AT&T was loud about it. Via lobbyist, consultant, think tanker, and anyone else on the payroll, AT&T lied using every manner of lobbying trick in the book, from paying an army of third party groups to parrot merger support, to running an onslaught of constant full page advertisements repeating the same, easily-disproven lies ad nauseam. At the end of 2011, Cecilia Kang at the Washington Post penned what was essentially an obituary for the AT&T T-Mobile deal, with an overlooked paragraph that explained precisely why the deal became too much for regulators to swallow:
“The letters from third-party groups raised eyebrows at government agencies and on the Hill, where people began wondering why groups with no obvious ties to broadband were writing in. News reports emerged showing that many of the groups had financial ties to AT&T. Then there were the ads that staff members at the FCC said they couldn’t avoid when they opened a newspaper, fired up their iPads or watched TV — all touting the merger’s ability to put thousands of Americans to work. But who had ever heard of a big company merger creating rather than destroying jobs?”
The Post noted that instead of all this noise and fury helping to get approval, it actually caused regulators to take a closer look at claims where otherwise they wouldn’t have. The sheer volume of nonsense coming from AT&T actually worked to amplify media and political pressure where it might not have existed otherwise. The end result was regulators actually doing their jobs and digging into the promises more deeply, only to find AT&T’s arguments lacking:
“AT&T’s blitzkrieg of ads, which claimed that the promised expansion of broadband would create 100,000 jobs, wasn’t helping either. A deal’s impact on jobs is not typically part of an evaluation by antitrust officials, but this time regulators thought AT&T’s campaign had forced them to take a closer look. They found holes. For one, the company refused to divulge how many jobs it would eliminate in the merger.”
Enter Comcast, who is busy trying to get regulators to approve their $45 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable. Renata Hesse, who was the lead FCC antitrust official during the AT&T T-Mobile deal, will be overseeing the Comcast review at the DOJ. While Comcast is using many of the very same strategies AT&T employed (like paying minority groups to parrot merger support, and throwing money at everyone and everything) they seem to have learned a few lessons from the AT&T T-Mobile deal, and have dialed back the volume on their nonsense just enough so that it vaguely-resembles subtlety:
“Industry lobbyists familiar with both deals say they observe Comcast approaching this merger in a much quieter, more subtle way than AT&T did. Many of Comcas’s lobbyists are staying silent about the deal altogether, and not just around reporters. Even at social gatherings and business functions where it might seem obvious to mention the deal to lawmakers or administration officials as a way of smoothing the way forward, Comcast’s lobbyists have, in many instances, made nary a peep about it, according to sources. “The way Comcast is approaching this is very interesting,” said a veteran telecom lobbyist. “Everybody’s writing the easy story about how many lobbyists Comcast has, but the way they’re lobbying this, they’re being very inside baseball, very surgical.”
That’s not to say Comcast isn’t paying a ton of other people to make stupid, loud arguments for them, but they’re pretty clearly trying to tone down the rhetoric the public sees as having come from Comcast itself. Comcast’s steering clear of unsubstantiated job claims, and seems intent on keeping any promises they do make vague (like arguing the deal is simply “pro consumer“). Will a tiny bit of subtlety let Comcast fly under the regulatory M&A skepticism meter? Maybe. Comcast has proven pretty good at getting regulators to push for meaningless merger conditions (though AT&T was pretty good at that too). I’m going to bet you see deal approval; not because the deal is necessarily good, but primarily because AT&T taught Comcast an important lesson on the limits of bullshit.