AT&T recently defeated the DOJ’s challenge to their $86 billion merger with Time Warner thanks to a comically narrow reading of the markets by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon. At no point in his 172-page ruling (which approved the deal without a single condition) did Leon show the faintest understanding that AT&T intends to use vertical integration synergistically with the death of net neutrality to dominate smaller competitors.
In fact, net neutrality was never even mentioned by the DOJ at the multi-week trial. Likely in part because the DOJ didn’t want to highlight how the Trump FCC was screwing everybody over with one hand, while the Trump DOJ was allegedly suing AT&T to “protect consumers” with the other (some argue that Trump’s disdain for CNN and adoration of Rupert Murdoch were the more likely motivators). But if you ignore the fact that AT&T plans to use its monopoly over many broadband markets (from residential to cellular tower backhaul) combined with the death of net neutrality to make life difficult for consumers and competitors alike, you’re not paying any attention to history or to AT&T’s repeated nods in that general direction.
During the first trial, you’ll recall the DOJ and its hired economists repeatedly pointed out how AT&T’s vertical integration and ownership of “must have” content (like HBO) would provide the Dallas-based giant every incentive to raise TV rates. AT&T lawyers laughed those findings off, then immediately proceeded to…raise rates and hammer users with bogus new fees as it attempted to deal with the massive debt incurred from the merger. Those rate hikes were a major reason the DOJ decided it should try and appeal Leon’s initial ruling.
As the DOJ works on its appeal of Leon’s ruling, the government continues to point out in filings(pdf) that all of its economic models show that AT&T’s ownership of Time Warner and DirecTV will provide the company with endless opportunities to raise rates on competitors and consumers:
“The bargaining model is an accepted and reliable predictor of competitive effects in the pay-television industry, and Professor Shapiro used reasonable inputs to quantify the magnitude of cost increases that AT&T would impose on rivals through negotiations—and the consequent higher prices for consumers—separate and apart from the non-quantifiable harms of the merger, such as reduced choice and stymied innovation…Given the district court’s illogical conclusion that the merger will lead to no change in bargaining leverage, and its erroneous finding of no consumer harm, a remand is necessary.”
One of the major problems here is that lobbying has weakened antitrust enforcement so severely, government lawyers are now trapped within very narrow confines of economic theory to prove a point that should be common sense (especially if you’ve watched AT&T do business for more than five seconds): AT&T has a long history of behaving anti-competitively, and being even larger is going to make that even easier. There’s roughly a million examples out there showing how AT&T exploits and abuses its captive customers with an ocean of bad behaviors.
That this will get worse as AT&T grows larger and more powerful shouldn’t be a hard argument to make, even for lawyers trapped in the narrow hallways of accepted economic theory. And again, this is all before you even get to the fact that AT&T lobbyists just convinced the FCC to neuter itself on demand for no adult policy reason beyond it was what AT&T executives wanted.