With FCC Deadlock, AT&T Merger Remains in Limbo

AT&T may be forced to offer more concessions to help its US$82 billion merger with BellSouth win approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC remains deadlocked on the deal following the decision of a Republican Commissioner to abstain from voting.

Supporters of the merger had hoped to convince Republican FCC member Robert McDowell to vote in favor of the merger, breaking an impasse that has kept the deal from being finalized for more than two months since the Justice Department gave its seal of approval to the merger in October.

Conflict of Interest

On Monday, however, McDowell said he would abstain from voting on the merger approval, citing his past work as a consultant and lobbyist for the telecommunications industry as a source of conflict of interest.

McDowell noted that his conflict was known when he was appointed to the commission and was the main focus of his confirmation hearings before Congress. He also said he tried to convince other commissioners to “negotiate in good faith” on approving the merger without his vote.

“This state of affairs is personally disappointing to me. It appears that the lingering question of my involvement is being used as yet another excuse for delay and inaction,” he said.

Democrats on the FCC reportedly agree with competitors and consumer watchdogs who want more concessions from AT&T than the telecom giant has offered to date. Those concessions include guaranteed low-cost high-speed Internet service and a price freeze on wholesale rates charged to third parties sending data traffic across the company’s massive network.

AT&T has agreed to several concessions, but has reportedly balked at demands that it sell off some of BellSouth’s wireless holdings and extend the wholesale price freeze for as long as seven years.

Clock and Calendar

AT&T had hoped to have the deal closed by the end of the year, but that seems unlikely unless last-minute negotiations can clear the way for an FCC vote in the next few days.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said he respected McDowell’s decision but remained determined to bring the merger to a vote as soon as possible. The commission was set to vote at a meeting in early October, but postponed doing so at the last minute.

“My goal in recent weeks has been to ensure that the Commission acted on the transaction,” he said. “The Commission is responsible for making a determination in a timely fashion. With Commissioner McDowell having made his decision, I will continue to try to work with my colleagues to bring our consideration of this merger to conclusion.”

McDowell’s conflict stems from his time as senior vice president and assistant general counsel of Comptel, a trade association representing telecom companies, many of whom competed against both AT&T and BellSouth.

Comptel has stated its opposition to the merger, saying it would “enhance” AT&T’s “already prodigious market power,” undermine competition, thwart innovation and harm the nation’s economy.

Comptel CEO Earl Comstock said the sheer size of the merger raises the stakes in the decision and called for a vote.

“It is time to make a decision on this transaction,” he said. “Whether it is approved or is denied is now largely a function of AT&T’s willingness to address the legitimate public interest concerns raised by the largest telecom merger in history. We should know soon whether AT&T is serious about this merger or not.”

As recently as last week, McDowell said he was prepared to get up to speed quickly and cast a vote; however, he said that a memo from the commission’s attorneys regarding his conflict did not provide a clear answer on whether or not his conflict was significant enough to prevent him from voting.

McDowell went on to say that he worried his decision not to vote was being “used as a pawn by some to forgo meaningful and sincere negotiations. Now that I am removing that chess piece from the board, I hope that the twin pillars of sound negotiations are restored: good faith and sacrifice. The shareholders, employees and customers of the affected companies deserve speedy resolution of this matter. More importantly, so do the American people.”

Final Hurdle

Since it was announced in March, the value of the deal has ballooned from $67 billion to more than $80 billion thanks to stock price increases. The deal is the largest by far of a slew of recent telecom mergers.

Because of the deal’s size, consumer advocates had hoped to win some concessions for its approval from the Justice Department. That agency gave the green light to the merger in October with no significant conditions, however.

That decision reflected the new reality of the telecom landscape, independent telecom analyst Jeff Kagan told the E-Commerce Times.

“If just telecommunications companies are considered, consumer choice appears to be shrinking,” he said. “That’s not the case. Consumers can now get their voice and data access from cable companies, Web services firms and others. The entire landscape has changed.”

Still, the ability of AT&T to charge significantly higher rates for the right to carry data across its network has sparked concerns that a two-tiered Internet will develop, with AT&T relegating some content to a technological slow lane and giving users premium access to content as it sees fit.

Congress considered legislation earlier this year that would have outlawed such a practice, but so-called net neutrality bills failed to win broad support, despite heavy lobbying by Web companies such as Google.

A deal is likely that will clear the way for the merger to be finalized, according to Kagain. “AT&T wants to move on with integration and start to realize the cost savings that are driving the deal,” he explained, adding that a desire to have the deal done will provide a strong incentive to return to the negotiating table.

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

E-commerce Times Channels

Maintaining Global Compliance With Modern Data Privacy Laws

Data privacy laws are becoming a major focus globally as businesses scamper to meet new compliance obligations.

Privacy regulations generally bind any business or organization to store securely all data they collect or process. What they do with that data is strictly regulated.

Some 65% of the world’s population will have its personal data covered under modern privacy regulations by the end of next year, according to a Gartner report. Complying with these expanding regulations can be challenging.

Companies have had near free reign in harvesting personal data from electronic transactions and growing internet use over the last 20 years.

Many organizations involved with international commerce must alter their procedures to fall into line with new legislation. This is a priority for transactions and correspondence involving e-commerce and social media.

Expanding consumer mistrust, government action, and competition for customers pushed some governments to impose strict rules and regulations. The impact is changing the no-man’s land conditions that let both large companies and small businesses run rampant with peoples’ personal data.

“By far the biggest challenge that companies face is keeping up with the volume of data that they manage, which is also subject to ever-changing data privacy requirements,” Neil Jones, director of cybersecurity evangelism at Egnyte, told TechNewsWorld.

Assortment of Differing Demands

The EU has the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In the U.K. and Continental Europe, data privacy has generally been viewed as a fundamental human right, according to Jones. In the U.S. and Canada, businesses must navigate around a growing patchwork of state and provincial laws.

Data privacy legislation in the U.S. and Canada has traditionally been more fragmented than in the U.K. and Europe. Canada’s Quebec, and the United States’ Utah and Connecticut are among the latest to enact comprehensive data privacy laws, joining the U.S. states of California, Virginia, and Colorado.

By the end of 2023, 10% of states in the U.S. will be covered by data privacy legislation, noted Jones. This lack of a universal standard for data privacy has created an artificial layer of business complexity.

Add to that, today’s hybrid work environment has created new levels of risk which has complicated compliance with myriad privacy concerns.

What’s at Stake

To enhance productivity, organizations may need to ask employees detailed questions about their behavior and work-from-home arrangements. These types of questions can create their own unintended privacy impacts, according to Jones.

The recent convergence of personally identifiable information (PII) and protected health information (PHI) has also put highly-confidential data at risk. This includes workers’ compensation reports, employees’ and patients’ health records, and confidential test results like Covid-19 notifications.

“With 65% of the world’s population expected to have personal data covered under privacy regulations by next year, respecting data privacy has never been more critical,” said Jones.

Cloud Privacy Hurdles

Data privacy and security are top challenges for implementing a cloud strategy, according to a recent study by IDG, now rebranded as Foundry. In this study, data security’s role was a prominent concern.

When implementing a cloud strategy, IT decision-makers or ITDMs are running into challenges such as controlling cloud costs, data privacy and security challenges, and lack of cloud security skills/expertise.

With a more stringent focus on securing privacy data, that issue looms large as more organizations migrate to the cloud. The IDG study found that two chief hurdles were data privacy and security challenges, and a lack of cloud security skills/expertise.

Spending on cloud infrastructure is up by some $5 million this year, according to Foundry.

“Although enterprise businesses are leading the charge, SMBs are not far behind when it comes to cloud migration,” said Stacey Raap, marketing and research manager at Foundry when the report was released.

“As more organizations move toward fully being in the cloud, IT teams will need the proper talent and resources to manage their cloud infrastructure and overcome any security and privacy hurdles that come with being in the cloud,” she noted.

Achieving Compliance

Organizations can successfully prepare for data privacy legislation, but doing so requires making data privacy initiatives a “full-time job,” Jones maintained.

“Too many organizations view data privacy as a part-time project for their web teams, rather than a full-time business initiative that can significantly impact customer relations, employee morale, and brand reputation,” he offered.

Beyond that step comes establishing holistic data governance programs that provide more visibility into the company’s regulated and sensitive data. Added to that is working with trusted business and technology partners who understand the data privacy space and can help you prepare for rapidly evolving regulations.

Perhaps the most dynamic approach is to use an Advanced Privacy & Compliance (APC) solution, suggested Jones. This enables organizations to comply with global privacy regulations conveniently, in one place.

Specifically, APCs can help achieve compliance by:

  • Managing Data Subject Access Requests (DSARs) like individuals’ right to be informed about the personal data collected on them, the right to opt-out of personal information being sold to others, or the right to be forgotten by collecting organizations
  • Assessing a company’s compliance preparedness and scope with specific regulations (e.g., GDPR, CCPA)
  • Creating and reviewing third-party vendors’ technical assessments and evaluating potential risks to consumers’ data
  • Augmenting cookie consent capabilities like integration of cookie consent into compliance workflows

Proactive Diligence

It can be difficult for companies to understand today’s rapidly-evolving privacy landscape, as well as how specific regulations apply to them, Jones said. However, by taking proactive steps, organizations can stay on top of data privacy regulations in the future.

Those steps include these ongoing tasks:

  • Monitor the status of data privacy regulations in the countries, provinces, and states where the customer base lives
  • Create a data privacy task force that can improve organizational focus and enhance senior executive attention on privacy initiatives
  • Keep abreast of new federal data privacy legislation like the proposed American Data Privacy and Protection Act (ADPPA)

It is also important to note the additional long-term benefits of data privacy compliance. In particular is bolstering a company’s overall cybersecurity defenses.

Jack M. Germain

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

Related Stories
More by Jack M. Germain
More in Tech Law

5 Ways To Sustain an E-Commerce Business in a Recession

economic downturn recession

Talks of a possible global recession coming in the next months have been abound lately. Even if it’s not yet certain, the threat of a downturn is something that e-commerce business owners should prepare for.

In a recession, prices can soar. Supply chains can be disrupted. Customers will be buying less. How these would specifically affect your business can vary depending on the nature and niche your business operates in.

The 2008 recession should serve as a warning to entrepreneurs. Small businesses struggled during this period with many ending up shuttering their doors. As such, it’s important to strategize for sustainability in a harsher business environment.

Here are five ways to sustain an e-commerce business during a recession.

1. Prepare Cash Reserves

Having ready cash on hand provides the agility and flexibility to spend or invest when needed. But not all startups come with a stout war chest. Typically, this is where funding can come in.

“Funding isn’t just a hurdle at the start of an e-commerce business plan. Once your shop is up and running, you’ll need constant cash flow to order inventory, run effective advertising, optimize your supply chain, and innovate your products,” according to e-commerce funding firm 8fig.

A recession can compound this need. For instance, inventory and fulfillment costs typically rise during a downturn. Having extra cash can help absorb these price bumps readily.

The most straightforward way to shield a business against this is by saving to build up capital. Instead of spending profits on non-essentials, think about investing the money back into the business. Another idea is to sell some assets like machinery or equipment that may not be critical to operations at the moment. You can always repurchase them after things bounce back. Liquidate while you can.

Lastly, if external financing from investors or funding firms are available, consider those as long as you’re clear with the terms.

2. Adapt to Customers’ Needs

The pandemic emphasized how quickly businesses should adapt to the changes in customers’ buying behaviors and preferences. The lockdowns hit brick-and-mortar business hard. While many businesses failed to adjust, the ones that survived were the ones that were able to pivot quickly. Some changes were even quick to implement. For example, offering delivery services and curbside pickup options and accommodating digital payments.

“[T]he most adaptable marketers don’t do different things; they do things differently. In particular, they listen differently and they plan differently,” says Cassandra Nordlund, Director, Advisory, Gartner.

The same need for adaptability is true for e-commerce businesses. Put on your marketer’s hat and keep a close ear to what your customers are saying. Reach out and talk to them. Create a survey of what they would likely do or buy should the downturn happen. This should help to plan ahead.

For instance, a recession may compel customers to become more price conscious. If you’re in retail, you can tweak your catalog to feature and stock up on more budget items than luxury ones.

3. Become Lean and Mean in Operations

Aside from raising capital, you can also improve your finances by managing cash flow more carefully. Wasteful spending will chew away at your margins and capital.

It’s critical to streamline and optimize operations before the crunch hits. Review your business costs and see which areas you can trim. Some common sources of wasteful spending are uncontrolled use of office supplies, unnecessary technology (equipment and subscriptions), and unproductive workers. When making cuts, focus on these costs.

Keep in mind, however, that while you may be tempted to restrict spending entirely, this may become counterproductive. For instance, you may try to do away with some of the digital tools and subscriptions that you use to manage operational tasks. But if cutting them will seriously impact efficiency, it may be a bad idea to do so. Dive into the details to see how each line item benefits you before deciding whether to cut or retain it.

Remember that not all spending is bad. Opportunities may also arise even during turbulent times. Sudden market demand might make offering a new product or service profitable. If such chances do come up, consider taking the calculated risk. This is where having cash reserves also comes in handy.

4. Explore Ways To Deliver Added Value

Even with preparation, many e-commerce firms will likely still feel the brunt of a recession. A drop in sales can and should be expected as customers also tighten their purse strings.

When this happens, a common knee-jerk reaction for businesses is to compromise on price by offering discounts and price cut promotions to boost sales. However, be mindful that slashing prices can hurt margins and financial flexibility.

Warren Buffet once said about pricing, “If you’ve got the power to raise prices without losing business to a competitor, you’ve got a very good business. And if you have to have a prayer session before raising the price by 10 percent, then you’ve got a terrible business.”

Instead of slashing prices, consider other ways to offer value. Offer extended return windows or guarantees, free shipping, or loyalty points, and communicate these perks well to customers to justify your price.

But if you really need to attract the price-conscious, offer bundles rather than discounting per item. This way, you can promote your other products and services or move stagnant inventory while avoiding across-the-board price cuts.

5. Pivot the Business

Pivoting, or changing the direction of your business, can be a painful decision for entrepreneurs. But if things are looking grim, it may be a life-saving decision for your business.

For instance, many e-commerce entrepreneurs have made a killing using the drop-shipping business model. Drop shippers can keep operational costs down typically by not handling inventory and logistics. During a recession however, this might not hold true.

Without having a direct handle on stock, any supply chain disruption can easily stump drop shippers who are forced to reassure customers, when in reality they are at the mercy of their suppliers.

Foreign exchange rates can seriously impact the cost of goods. Transportation also will likely be affected. Both typically result in erratic prices and lengthy fulfillment times. Drop shippers would have very little control over these circumstances and could end up with dissatisfied customers.

Anticipating these changes, such businesses can reconsider their model and shift to one that will be more capable of delivering value to customers. Drop shippers can move toward more conventional retail e-commerce where the business acquires, stores, and handles stock. This action may require more capital — and work — but provides control and minimizes uncertainties involved in the drop-shipping model.

From Sustenance to Success

Building business resilience is critical during tough times. Making some sacrifices and tightening the belt in some respects should help weather the negative effects of a recession. What’s important is for a business to sustain itself so that it can live to fight another day.

Despite all this gloomy talk, recessions do end. Surviving a recession should put you in a better position to prosper in a better economic environment. Also, on the upside, e-commerce penetration is still seen to continue its rise globally. Shoppers are expected to continue preferring buying goods online.

Should the trend hold, opportunities in your market, niche, or locality can emerge despite the challenging times. A recession may even provide a chance for tremendous growth. Preparing well in advance can put you in a prime position to jump on such opportunities to thrive.

Ralph Tkatchuk

Ralph Tkatchuk is Founder and Operator at TK DataSec Consultancy, where he specializes in e-commerce data protection and prevention.

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

Related Stories