AT&T’s wireless chief silent on 5G but talks up video business

LOS ANGELES—AT&T’s David Christopher—who is in charge of the operator’s consumer wireless business—didn’t use his keynote appearance here at the MWC Americas trade show to talk about the operator’s pending launch of mobile 5G technology. He also didn’t talk about AT&T’s unlimited data service, or the company’s plans for the newest iPhone.

Instead, Christopher spent his keynote time outlining AT&T’s video business, including its DirectTV Now service.

That focus, of course, makes sense given the recent close of AT&T’s blockbuster acquisition of Time Warner’s vast video content business, which stretches from Turner Sports to Warner Bros. movies to HBO. It also reflects Christopher’s extensive corporate responsibilities, which stretch across all of AT&T’s consumer entertainment and connectivity services such as mobility, DirecTV Now, AT&T Fiber and Cricket Wireless.

But it’s nonetheless notable considering the focus of the MWC Americas trade show on the wireless business, as well as the AT&T’s rival Verizon’s shifting focus away from video offerings like Go90 and toward network services like in-home 5G services. Indeed, Christopher’s appearance on the MWC stage occurred just a day after Tim Armstrong announced his plans to leave the CEO position of Verizon’s Oath business, which covers operations including Yahoo’s video offerings.

During his keynote, Christopher argued that “the future of mobile is video, and the future of video is mobile.” That’s not a surprise, considering it’s the same statement AT&T executives made when the company first announced AT&T’s intent to purchase Time Warner.

But Christopher also offered insights into how AT&T is working to address that trend, arguing that video services today need to be “simple, social and real.” And he hinted at several DirecTV Now services that he said would align with those trends. For example, he demonstrated a service that would allow DirecTV Now customers to text with a digital assistance that would be able to record an upcoming show so that it would be available to that customer later in their video library. Christopher also showed a demonstration of a sharing service that allows DirecTV Now customers to select clips from TV show and share them with friends: “The big deal here is that this is premium entertainment,” Christopher said, pointing out that YouTube clips can easily be shared but the same is often not true for scripted, primetime TV shows.

Finally, Christopher said that AT&T is working to make its video and content offerings “real” by offering shows like “Summer Break” and “Guilty Party,” developed in part through AT&T’s partnership with Otter Media and its “Hello Lab” content operation. In those shows, Christopher said that characters often share their on-screen experiences first through social networks, thus creating direct engagement with fans.

“We’re testing, we’re learning and we’re reiterating,” Christopher said of AT&T’s efforts in the entertainment business.

Christopher’s decision to focus his comments on the operator’s entertainment business is noteworthy considering most companies here at the MWC Americas trade show are focused on the networking portion of the telecom industry. And it’s also worth pointing out that AT&T has not remained completely silent on the 5G front; the company earlier this week provided additional details about its mobile 5G launch plans, including naming its vendors and additional launch cities.

But Christopher’s focus on video also comes amid a lessening of interest in general in the core operations of the wireless business—all of the nation’s wireless operators offer unlimited services in roughly the same pricing and configuration, and all of them also offer essentially the same devices and services. Indeed, during a week when Apple announced a new iPhone, the device didn’t even warrant a mention by Christopher—that’s a major departure from previous years when iPhone announcements often overshadowed the wireless industry’s annual fall trade show.

Christopher’s focus on DirecTV Now is also interesting considering Verizon touted many of the same features—social sharing and premium content—in its Go90 video service. Verizon earlier this year shuttered Go90 and has largely exited the video and media industry, aside from its move into digital advertising and media through its Oath business.