AT&T CFO Stephens: Blending media assets with network access is paying off

AT&T CFO John Stephens touted the carrier's vertically integrated approach for blending content with network access during an investor conference.

Stephens, who is retiring at the end of March, was asked during Tuesday's Citi Global TMT Conference how AT&T and Comcast's approach for blending content and broadband access stacked up against Charter and Verizon's focus on broadband access, including wireline and wireless.

In response to that question, Stephens reiterated that AT&T sees fiber as a three-fold revenue strategy for fiber-to-the-premise services for consumer customers, wireless backhaul and connectivity for business customers.

"So that integrated carrier approach clearly has value and clearly gives a better opportunity for utilization of assets," he said. "Secondly, when you think about our wireline business, it has done really well and continues to be very efficient and cost-efficient in maintaining its EBITDA.

"But it's really strong in selling wireless. And so those customer contacts on the business side that provide the big pipes and the fiber and the connectivity between retail locations or factory locations and headquarters, those are all very important, but they will also lead to connecting those employees to their businesses and to their lives. And so that integration there is proving very well."

The third pillar of AT&T's vertically integrated approach for content and access includes using that fiber, along with software, to more efficiently provision services such as HBO Max or AT&T TV.

"When you think about the wireless piece and the ability to combine wireless and broadband and HBO Max and other entertainment, we believe it's very valuable," Stephens said. "It adds to the quality of our offerings and the things that customers can get. The challenge is to make sure you give those customers that great value at a good price and you maximize those opportunities to grow those monthly subscriber relationships.

"We feel good about the strategy. We believe in it, and we just need to continue to do what we did. Continue the momentum that you saw in the second and third quarter, specifically the third quarter. We need to continue that momentum here in the fourth quarter and throughout 2021."

There's also a downside to owning media assets, which Stephens didn't mention. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, AT&T, Comcast and Verizon were hit particularly hard in their media sectors, which included closing down retail stores, a lack of sports-related revenues, shuttering theme parks, and losing movie release revenues. Charter, on the other hand, reeled in a large number of new broadband subscribers that out-paced the other three service providers.

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Stephens also said he expected the ongoing work-from-home environment would continue to provide a tailwind for AT&T's fiber-based broadband service this year. In the third quarter, AT&T added 357,000 AT&T Fiber subscribers, which Stephen thought was a record for subscriber adds for the fiber service.

With 15 million fiber-to-the premise locations there's a lot of runway left for the fiber service to take-off. Over the past five years, Stephens said AT&T has connected more than 1 million businesses with its fiber builds.

"What we've seen is a real demand for really the highest-quality service in the home, and that's fiber," Stephens said. "That's really high-quality, two-way download and upload speeds that have parity and can allow for things like we're doing right now with regard to having Zoom calls or other virtual conference-type activities. So what we've seen is that being a new focus of the home subscription model and that we are able to, because of what we built in the past, really lean into that.

"We still have a lot more to sell into, and we think that demand for that high-quality two-way communication, superior service makes sense. So we're going to continue to push on that. We think that's important. And it comes at a really good quality, (with) good revenues and ability to maintain that customer and grow that customer base."

From a capex perspective, Stephens said AT&T would expand its fiber footprint this year as it looks to add more subscribers. AT&T did say last year that it would no longer sell its DSL-based service to new customers in order to focus on its fiber-based offering.

"I feel really good about the business, where it's going," Stephens said when asked about AT&T's 2021 priorities. "I feel strong about our priorities, with 5G wireless and fiber going well. Our new software-based entertainment products, HBO Max and the other, AT&T TV, and the process, the momentum we've seen in those, and then really this relentless customer focus we have."