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Data Sheet—Behind AT&T’s Epic Battle Against Netflix, Disney and the Rest

May 21, 2019, 12:33 PM UTC
AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson Speaks At The Economic Club Of Washington DC
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 20: AT&T Chairman and CEO Randall Stephenson answers questions during a luncheon held by the Economic Club of Washington DC March 20, 2019 in Washington, DC. Stephenson discussed the state of technology, media and telecommunications, the development of 5G technology, net neutrality, and AT&T's recent merger with Time Warner during a question and answer session. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Win McNamee—Getty Images

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Twelve years ago, Netflix started offering movies streamed over the Internet. It was a herky-jerky, frustrating experience, and it took a visionary (Reed Hastings) to see what streaming would do to the movie business and its then-cash cow, the DVD.

Of that list, AT&T is the only company with initials for a name and also a corporate handle most likely to induce a yawn. For anyone with any memory of business history, AT&T is Ma Bell, the phone company, the most famous U.S. monopoly after Standard Oil to be broken up, and the standard-bearer for consistency and, long ago, innovation.

As Fortune’s prolific Geoff Colvin explains in his new feature on AT&T, the company under CEO Randall Stephenson is trying to do something few companies have ever done. It is combining powerful media brands (Warner, HBO, CNN) and distribution (DirecTV, phone lines, mobile phone lines) to form one giant digital conglomerate. Comcast, with its ownership of NBCUniversal and tens of millions of cable and Internet (and, now, also wireless phone) customers, may be its only peer.

AT&T had to do something. Its main business wasn’t growing. But by acquiring an entertainment and distribution colossus, AT&T also has taken on a pile of debt. And to succeed it will need for its streaming service to be one of the few that consumers choose.

Like the plot line in HBO’s just concluded Game of Thrones, it will be an epic battle.


Today in Fortune conferences (as my friend Dan Primack might say): Artificial intelligence is the inescapable topic in business today. It stands to reason, then, that we’re holding a new event called Brainstorm A.I. in Boston, Sept. 23-24, to discuss it. The goal of this conference is twofold: Explain through top experts in the field this paradigm-shifting technology and explore the stories of how various companies are implementing it. The agenda is just getting going, so write me if you’d like to participate. And by all means subscribe to our new weekly Eye on A.I. newsletter, too. The latest issue comes out later today.

Adam Lashinsky


That's not what I said. It was a day of back-and-forth news in some quarters on Monday. After the repercussions from the Trump administration's order limiting sales to Huawei took effect, stocks of companies that supply the Chinese telecom equipment giant took a hit. Then, suddenly, the U.S. Commerce Department granted Huawei a three-month "general license" to continue buying U.S. goods until mid-August.

That's not what I said, the sequel. The other two-steps-forward-one-step-back news came on the pending T-Mobile-Sprint merger. On Monday morning, Federal Communications Commission chair Ajit Pai and two of his four other colleagues announced they would support the deal given a spinoff of Sprint's prepaid Boost brand. Sprint stock shot up as much as 25%. Then in the afternoon came leaks that the Justice Department still was not on board. Still, Sprint finished up 19% at $7.34, its highest price since mid-2017, well before the merger was announced. Meanwhile, antitrust enforcers at the Federal Trade Commission didn't want to be left out of the headlines. They are "significantly broadening" their probe into possible misbehavior by Broadcom in the market for Wi-Fi chips. Broadcom shares lost 6%.

Squint. In old-is-new news, Google released an update to its augmented reality glasses product. The Google Glass Enterprise Edition 2 include an updated Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, a higher-resolution camera, and better battery life for a price of $1,000.

Sharing is caring. The latest privacy news from Facebook isn't good. Under a program called "Actionable Insights," the social network was apparently offering carriers and other partners a host of information about users, including past locations, social interests, and social groups, collected from its Instagram and Messenger apps as well as its main service.

First out of the gate. And in some actual new news, former Kleiner Perkins heavyweight Mary Meeker's new Bond Capital fund made its first announced investment, participating in a $70 million raise by Australian online design app startup Canva. The deal, which also included VC firm General Cataylst, valued the already-profitable startup at $2.5 billion.

Engine trouble. After some experiments and pivots, General Motors is sharply scaling back its Maven car sharing service. The company will close operations in eight of the 17 cities where it operates, including Boston and Chicago. At the same time, the U.S. Postal Service has started a new transport experiment, with a two-week pilot test of self-driving trucks on the Kessel Run. No, just kidding. On the 1,000 mile trip from Dallas to Phoenix.


Former head of retail at Apple, Angela Ahrendts, joined Airbnb's board of directors, as the home sharing startup heads towards an IPO...Gail Goodman, former CEO of email marketing firm Constant Contact, has joined women's business startup Pepperlane as co-founder and chief product officer. It's been about two years since Goodman led the $1 billion sale of Constant Contact to Endurance International...IonQ, a quantum computing startup backed by Alphabet's GV, hired Peter Chapman as CEO. Chapman had been engineering director at Amazon Prime...Snap promoted Derek Andersen, currently VP of finance, to fill its CFO position, left vacant when Tim Stone quit in January after just eight months on the job.


Moore's Law has slowed to a crawl and the processor chips for sale this year are only a bit speedier than those offered a few years ago. That's part of the reason why the tech industry is working so hard to develop quantum computers, devices that work in a wholly different manner than current computers–and with the potential to leapfrog the performance of current computers. Fortune's Robert Hackett has an excellent–and highly readable–deep dive into the drive to go quantum. The bizarre yet beautiful photographs of the machines are one reason to click through to the story. But stay for Hackett's assessment of the race. It's not a fast race, though:

As for timelines, Jim Clarke, the head of quantum hardware at Intel, draws an analogy to both the mission to put a man on the Moon and the development of modern electronic computers. Sputnik flew in 1957; Neil Armstrong touched down on the Moon in 1969. The first transistor came about in 1947; the first integrated circuit arrived in 1958. Such transformational leaps typically take a little over a decade, and the quantum computer will be no different, Clarke forecasts. “We’re not trying to meet some short-term, flashy goal, but we’re trying to build that rocket ship to the Moon,” he says. Nobody can quite agree on when the industry will see liftoff, but this could be the year scientists start the countdown.


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A little fantasy epic just finished its eight season run on HBO, you may have heard. But while Game of Thrones the TV show has ended its watch, there are still (at least) two more books due in the series from original author George R.R. Martin. I have to say I'm not optimistic we'll ever see them, but ole' George wrote on his blog on Monday that they're coming, eventually. Will the ending be the same disappointment we got from the TV show? "Well… yes. And no. And yes. And no. And yes. And no. And yes," writes Martin. That ought to clear things up.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.