AT&T chief wants US antitrust case heard quickly

New York (AFP) –


The head of telecom giant AT&T's said Wednesday he is willing to make concessions to address the US government's "legitimate" concerns about the proposed takeover of Time Warner, but he wants the lawsuit resolved quickly.

However, AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson again stressed that he will refuse to entertain the possibility of selling all-news network CNN to resolve the Justice Department's lawsuit challenging the $85 billion acquisition.

The government litigation raised concerns of possible political influence, given President Donald Trump's constant criticism of CNN.

Stephenson declined to comment on the possible motivation behind the case, but said forcing the sale of CNN "begins to have hints of first amendment" concerns and will not be considered, referring to the constitutional amendment that protects freedom of the press.

"We have demonstrated a willingness to make reasonable concessions to address legitimate concerns the government may have," Stephenson said, speaking to an Economic Club of New York luncheon.

But, "If there are concerns they have that are not legitimate, those are the kind of things you litigate."

Stephenson defended the company's request for a US District Court to accelerate the legal proceedings, saying the Justice Department has been investigating the merger for 14 months and "should be ready to go to trial."

The company asked the court to begin hearing the case in February rather than May as the government has requested.

Some companies faced with lengthy litigation have elected to withdraw their proposed merger deals, but Stephenson declined to speculate on that possibility. However, he noted that the merger agreement is due to expire April 22.

The telecom giant, which seeks to acquire Time Warner's stash of premium content on HBO, Turner and other channels, has offered a compromise on its future dealings with cable TV operators, that would prevent them from being blacked out while negotiating a new contract.

That would guarantee those distributors of binding arbitration for seven years if they are unable to reach an agreement with Time Warner companies.

Stephenson said the proposal -- based on a compromise between the government and Comcast after its purchase of NBC Universal -- addressed criticism the Time Warner acquisition could harm consumers by boosting the new company's negotiating leverage with cable TV distributors.

Stephenson expressed surprise the Justice Department's decided to file suit, and said he has been one of "Trump's biggest defenders" because of his efforts to streamline excessive regulation and implement tax cuts.

"I've had a little curveball thrown here and I'm trying to process this," he said.