AT&T finally bows to reality

Acquisition of T-Mobile met fierce resistance from the start

Unless an insider speaks up, we'll never know if AT&T executives truly were confident the wireless carrier's proposed $39 billion purchase of T-Mobile USA ultimately would be approved by antitrust regulators in Washington.

If so, it was a victory for wishful thinking and hubris over objectivity and sober judgment.

On Monday, though, AT&T bowed to the reality that over the past few months has become increasingly clear to everyone else -- the Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission were irrevocably convinced the carrier's acquisition of T-Mobile would hurt consumers and lead to a duopoly in which AT&T and Verizon controlled 80% of the U.S. wireless market. And they weren't going to allow it.

Walking away from the T-mobile deal is a bitter and expensive pill for AT&T to swallow. The company reportedly must pay T-mobile parent company Deutsche Telekom a total of $4 billion in deal break-up fees, including $3 billion in cash and another $1 billion in wireless spectrum. (And would it have killed T-Mobile to give back the engagement ring?)

AT&T tried to brazen its way through the regulatory process from the moment it announced the deal on March 20. In early May, CEO Randall Stephenson laid out to a skeptical Senate antitrust panel a glorious post-merger future in which wireless prices would fall, innovation would thrive and high-speed rollout would accelerate.

But already the U.S. Department of Justice was asking AT&T to provide it with detailed information about the merger that went beyond gauzy word pictures of a glorious new era for wireless customers.

Soon public opinion began to harden against what one antitrust expert called "the most brazen merger proposal in history."

And still AT&T pressed on with the charade, telling a U.S. House competition subcommittee that the reduction of major U.S. carriers to three from four was "about consumers."

By then the FCC was getting heavy with AT&T, asking for detailed information on its pricing, spectrum holdings and any alternatives it considered to solve its capacity constraints.

It got worse from there. In July, Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl, chairman of the U.S. Senate antitrust panel, urged the FCC and DoJ to reject the merger.

No doubt hearing from its Washington contacts that the DoJ was getting ready to sue to prevent the T-Mobile deal, AT&T played its most shameless card, promising to repatriate 5,000 call-center jobs it moved offshore in recent years when nobody was looking if only antitrust regulators would do the right thing and help create American jobs by approving this job-creating merger.

The DoJ proved uninterested in AT&T's offer to join hands in reducing the unemployment rate, filing a lawsuit on Aug. 31 to block the deal.

By September, AT&T was trying to unload spectrum and subscribers to regional competitors in a desperate bid to demonstrate that it really didn't want to take over the world.

There is, however, a level beyond desperate -- and that is pathetic. AT&T attained this status in mid-October, when it was reported that the company had been donating money to churches and charities, which in turn wrote to the FCC in support of the merger.

At this point, AT&T had become the Anthony Weiner of the corporate world, dwelling in a realm somewhere beyond shame.

AT&T withdrew its request to the FCC in late November in an effort to prevent the release of a damaging FCC staff analysis of the proposed merger. AT&T cried foul, but by then it was down to one option: Insisting that it intended to vigorously pursue and defend its acquisition of T-Mobile USA, the piddling objections of antitrust regulators be damned. AT&T would not relent!

On Monday, though, visitors to AT&T's landing page who clicked on "T-mobile Merger" along the top menu bar, are taken to the company's front page.

It's as if it were all just a bad dream.

ITWorld DealPost: The best in tech deals and discounts.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon