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The Watchdog: AT&T big enough, critics say

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Dave Lieber, The Dallas Morning News

"Thank you for keeping attention on AT&T," Doug Newby tells The Watchdog. "It is very therapeutic for me."

OK, Doug, lie down on my couch. Time for some therapy.

I rise as a small voice of dissent about AT&T's proposed merger/purchase of Time Warner.

If it's approved, AT&T will become the largest entertainment, communications and distribution company in the history of the world.

Does AT&T deserve this? Can AT&T be trusted to treat its customers right? Are we going to get even more junk mail?

As the unwitting middleman for hundreds of AT&T complaints for the past dozen years, I know the company has unsolved customer service issues (putting it mildly). But what's the likelihood of customer service issues playing into the government's final decision?

So this is a small voice, questioning why. Does it even matter? The $108 billion deal is like the proverbial runaway train. It's heading toward the train station of approval.

President Donald Trump possibly signaled his approval with praise the other day for AT&T CEO/chairman/president/Big Kahuna Randall Stephenson. As Stephenson sat beside the president at a White House tech conference, Trump said Stephenson is doing "really a top job."

Trump isn't who actually approves the deal, but his appointees at the Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission probably will. New Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says the FCC won't review the decision. Can you believe that?

AT&T already owns DirecTV. The deal would give AT&T control over Warner Bros., which owns DC Comics (AT&T would own the rights to Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) and the Harry Potter movies and merchandise. Other Time Warner properties: CNN, TNT, TBS, HBO and much more.

With hundreds of lobbyists spread in all the right places, AT&T is on a roll (even if some Democratic and Republican U.S. senators have come out against the merger or raised questions).

Time Warner shareholders approved the purchase. Internationally, the European Commission and the Canadian Competition Bureau approved the deal. Approval in Latin America and elsewhere is proceeding, the company tells me.

Justice Department approval is also pending.

In a statement, AT&T tells The Watchdog: "Our merger is about driving innovation and giving consumers more choices. Our DIRECTV NOW product is a small example of how we can provide consumers more control over the content they purchase, and how, where and when they view content."

In a detailed response to U.S. senators, AT&T says the new company will offer "more programming options at attractive prices."

"This deal will increase competition and accelerate the innovation/investment cycle, all to the benefit of American consumers."

The question is: Can a giant buy another giant? Time Warner is the nation's fourth-largest entertainment conglomerate. AT&T would become a giant giant.

So here's how The Watchdog is gonna bite. I went to the toughest critics I know and asked them if they approve of the merger. Who is this jury? The 15 AT&T customers whose complaint letters I sent to CEO Stephenson this past month. (Last year, I asked the Big Kahuna if he wanted me to send the complaints each month to the FCC or to him.)

To be fair, this is a skewed group, already angry enough at the company to come to me. Also to be fair, 15 complaints in one month about AT&T might be their (our) best month ever in a dozen years. That's low. But if you're in a fight with AT&T or have been, this will be like therapy.

Larry Gaston of Cleburne says, "I am currently living an AT&T nightmare." His opinion: "After all the problems AT&T has with its current customer base, I can't believe they would take on yet another company."

Amber Parker of Oak Leaf couldn't get online to pay her bill, then got penalized. She wrote the company about that and other charges, but her letter went unanswered, she says.

"AT&T already is a monopoly ... requiring bundling to get the best packages," she says. "Buying Time Warner would only increase AT&T's power."

Bill Lacy of Richardson complained about an elderly couple that went three weeks without a working phone line. "I am really not opposed to business mergers, but in this particular case, AT&T customer service is so bad I am not sure taking on another company will improve either of the businesses. I vote no."

Michele Bifano of Dallas: The company tells her "what your bill will be and then when it arrives, it's much more. I've called and called and called." Her opinion? "Oh, my word — no. They are already a big enough bully as it is."

Martha Tim of Fort Worth complained about a poor phone representative. "We should go back to breaking up monopolies, not fostering them."

Mike Stiles of Longview complained of an unwanted insurance charge on his bill. "The last thing the public needs is another mega media player in our marketplace. The feds should revisit the monopoly issues that broke up AT&T years ago because here we are again."

Le Moore of Fort Worth complained about my pet peeve — "a wide variety of incorrect answers to the same questions." She says, "They need to fix what is broken before they add more problems."

We're a biased group of critics, to be sure. Small voices of dissent standing up to a giant giant.

OK, Doug, time's up. Therapy session is over.

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

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