AT&T CFO John Stephens: Telco Bullish On Time Warner Deal, DirecTV Now Growth

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AT&T CFO John Stephens began his keynote session at the UBS Global Media and Communications conference with the obvious: He reiterated the telco’s optimism about its legal fight with the U.S. Department of Justice over the pending takeover of Time Warner.

“We continue to feel strongly about the consumer benefits of the deal,” Stephens said.

With legal teams prepping for that epic court case, the UBS session quickly moved into other areas. One significant one was the quick start out of the gate and remaining upside for DirecTV Now, the company’s internet-delivered skinny bundle TV service. The company said earlier today that the offering has reached 1 million subscribers.

Stephens reminded the Wall Street audience that AT&T had recorded record profit margins in the third quarter. Asked about the margins of the DirecTV Now business, whose economics are markedly different from those of the company’s traditional cable and satellite distribution systems, he compared them to the company’s Cricket prepaid wireless unit.

“Will it reach the legacy levels?” he asked, meaning satellite and cable systems. “No. But will it get to very acceptable ROICs (returns on invested capital)? Yes.”

Unlike traditional distribution, he said, “DirecTV Now requires virtually no cap-ex” — meaning spending on infrastructure that is usually a dominant line-item for operators — ” and we don’t have to send a truck, pull out a ladder, climb the ladder and set up a dish on the side of your house.”

A new iteration of the service planned for 2018 will also offer, in addition to customer enhancements like 4K picture and cloud-based DVR, but also more potent advertising tools, which AT&T expects to open up new revenue opportunities.

Asked about the FCC’s Dec. 14 vote on a proposal to roll-back net neutrality rules, Stephens toed the same line as other execs on the same stage during the conference. He said AT&T “does not believe in blocking” access to certain websites or limiting internet access. (Opponents of the rule change say it will usher in an era of gatekeepers like AT&T or other broadband providers picking and choosing which online content customers can visit for free.)

“The customer should view it as no change,” Stephens said of the FCC decision. The main impact on the business side, he said, was that “the vote will bring back the opportunity for more investment.”

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