Does Higher Ed Have A Dog in the AT&T-Time Warner Merger Fight?

Are you talking about this proposed deal at EDUCAUSE?

October 25, 2016

Are the folks attending the EDUCAUSE Conference in Anaheim this week talking about the proposed AT&T-Time Warner merger?

Forget talking about SIS’s and LMS’s - cloud this and big data analytics that - what we should really be talking about is this $85.4 billion dollar deal.

But seriously.  Does higher ed - and higher ed technology - really have a stake in merger?

Should we care about the consolidation of content and platforms?

Should the various voices of higher ed - including our professional associations and public intellectuals - be saying anything about AT&T’s plan to acquire Time Warner?

My answer to all these questions is yes - and here’s why:

1 - Broadband:

There is little doubt (at least in my mind) that this deal will eventually receive regulatory approval.  In today’s world - horizontal tie-ups get blocked (such as T-Mobile and Sprint), but vertical mergers (such as Comcast’s acquisition of NBC Universal) almost always get approval.

However, the feds do have a history of putting conditions on mergers.  One area where higher ed should be advocating conditions on this deal is around broadband.  AT&T should be required to make significant commitments to expand their rural broadband program.  This may take the form of expanding their DSL footprint - or maybe even better a commitment to leverage the promised 5G coverage to underserved areas.

Our higher education industry should be doing everything that it can to advocate and agitate for expanded broadband coverage.  Those of us who live in rural New England know first-hand just how spotty broadband can be.  We are completely dependent on reliable, fast, and affordable broadband to grow our online learning footprint.  Tomorrow’s students and faculty will do much of their learning and teaching over the internet.  This proposed merger is a great opportunity to put pressure on AT&T to expand broadband, and to illuminate the current atrocious situation of broadband availability throughout much of the country.

2 - Media Concentration and Content / Platform Integration:

Higher ed is built on the open and free exchange of ideas.  We depend on our ability to freely share information.

The worry with AT&T buying Time Warner is that AT&T might privilege its own content.  AT&T subscribers might get cheaper and faster and more flexible access to HBO and CNN.  Or maybe AT&T would refuse to license its content to other cable / broadband / cellular providers - pushing consumers into the AT&T ecosystem.

Of course, AT&T is saying that they would never do this.  What is worrisome is a situation where the control of content is concentrated amongst one of the few companies that control the distribution of content.  This concentration gives the owner of the deliver platforms enormous potential power.

Those of us in higher ed should be playing a public role to guard against the concentration of control of information.  We should be finding opportunities to articulate the value of broad and open access to all sorts of media.  Higher ed should be confident that we should have a seat at the table in discussions of the dangers of media concentration, and of the integration of content creators and distribution platforms.

3 - Data and Privacy:

Why is AT&T offering to pay a 35 percent premium on Time Warner stock to acquire the company.  The answer can be found in a single word: data.

Owning HBO, Cinemax, TBS, and CNN - and then having that content delivered through AT&T distribution channels - will dramatically increase the amount and quality of the data that AT&T will be able to collect on viewers of these networks.  These data will enable targeted advertising and other monetization strategies at a scale and precision that today's media and technology companies now mostly only dream about.

Higher ed should have lots to say about data privacy.  We are in the middle of our own big data revolution.  Hopefully, our postsecondary institutions  are coming at this data opportunity with a commitment to align our actions with our values.  To prioritize the safeguarding of privacy.  To insist that our students should own their own data.  To be transparent about how we will use the data that we collect.

Higher ed, therefore, should have something to say about the future of data privacy in a world of media concentration and platform/content integration.  We should bring our experience and our values in dealign with digital user data to this discussion.

What dog do you think that higher ed should have in the coming fight around the proposed AT&T-Time Warner acquisition?

Are the folks at EDUCAUSE talking about this deal?


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