Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Make Versus Buy in Information, Communications and Entertainment –Comparing the Strategy of AT&T with Facebook, Google and Other Unicorns

            With ample lines of credit and a relaxed global monetary policy, AT&T can easily move up and down the ICE food chain with massive acquisitions.  Sensing opportunities presented by changing marketplace conditions and threats to legacy business lines, the company has opted to buy market share and expertise. Other major ICE ventures have opted to make new products and services, or to blend make and buy as appropriate. 

            I believe differences in strategy largely depends on the confidence a venture has in its ability to integrate acquisitions into the family by exploiting the skills, expertise and market share the acquired venture offers.  We hear how merged companies will exploit synergies and efficiencies, but doing this requires great finesse.  Can AT&T embrace people, plans and skills not invented from within?

            Consider what Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and other major firms have done on the make versus buy dichotomy for telecommunications transmission capacity.  These firms have opted to build undersea fiber optic transmission capacity rather than lease it from incumbent carriers on a cost plus, plus basis.

            Making content carriage instead of renting it makes absolute sense, because content companies can achieve savings in a major cost center, but one that is fungible. In other words, transmission capacity has substantial costs that content companies must incur, but transmission capacity does not significantly differ between carriers, or between a self-provisioning venture and one that leases capacity.

            Content does not have such fungible characteristics, because of a far wider range of good versus bad quality. Fiber optic transmission capacity matches, best practice, global standards, while content can be nation specific, idiosyncratic and quite risky to produce.  Perhaps Netflix has found ways to reduce risk of failure through data mining and a business plan where even large investments in single series will not threaten the ongoing viability of the company.  Generally speaking, even today, generating a winning content formula involves gut instinct, a long learning curve and many failures.  That explains why producers stick and copy with winning formulas resulting in countless sequels, prequels and duplicates.

            AT&T has ample funds to experiment, but with such a deep pocket the company risks buying at the top of a market and paying too great a premium over the stock price.  Consider its $48.5 billion DirecTV acquisition.  AT&T has bought a venture that has substantial recurring investment costs including the satellites with ten year useable lives and launch technology that historically has a one third probability of failure or live reducing anomaly.  Worse yet, AT&T did not get any internally generated content for its investment, at a time when consumers appear increasingly disinclined to pay for large and costly bundles of content, only a small portion of which they want to view.

            On the other hand, AT&T has grown and become a major powerhouse through successful acquisitions.  Only AT&T and Verizon remain from the seven divested Bell Companies.  Additionally AT&T knows how to bundle services and bill for it.

            Maybe AT&T can keep its acquisition success streak intact.  If it succeeds, it will have beaten stiff odds and proven its superior management skills, forecasting talent and business acumen.

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