David McCabe

AT&T and Time Warner defend deal to Democrats

Mike Mozart / Flickr Creative Commons

AT&T is trying to reassure Democrats skeptical of its proposed purchase of content powerhouse Time Warner.

The setup: In January, a group of 13 Democratic senators told the CEOs of both companies that because they will likely not face an FCC merger review they "will no longer have the legal burden of proving that the proposal would serve the public interest, and the public is left largely in the dark about how the deal would impact the affordability and quality of their phone, internet, and video services."

So they asked the companies to provide them with details on the public interest value of the deal by Friday. Here's the response::

  • Executives from both companies said that "this deal will increase competition and accelerate the innovation/investment cycle, all to the benefit of American consumers," according to excerpts provided by AT&T. It did not provide the full letter.
  • They defended the value of a Justice Department review for the deal, saying that "the competitive questions raised in your letter are precisely the issues under review by the Department of Justice, which Congress has entrusted with protecting competitive markets."
  • The letter reiterated the telco's argument that it would not be in its interest to keep Time Warner's content out of the hands of its competitors. The senators had expressed concerns that the deal could hurt competition.

What we're watching: A key antitrust official at the Department of Justice has yet to be named, but will send a signal about how the Trump administration plans to approach the issue. The president previously opposed the deal on the campaign trail.


AT&T expands unlimited data plan

Alan Diaz / AP

AT&T will now offer an unlimited plan to all of its wireless customers, not just those who purchase some of the company's video products. The plan clocks in at $180 per month for four lines. A single connection will run you $100 a month.

The catch: Customers who use more than 22 gigabytes of data might see their connection speeds slowed down "during periods of network congestion," the company said.

Why this matters: We are once again living in the age of the unlimited plan. AT&T is the last of the four major wireless carriers to offer a standalone unlimited option. Verizon announced its own this week.

Between the lines: AT&T and Verizon both dropped their unlimited offers years ago, even as smartphone usage became the norm. But the wireless industry's plans are becoming increasingly competitive to woo customers in the saturated U.S. market — with T-Mobile breathing down the neck of the two big carriers — so the unlimited plan is back on the table.


Sen. Hatch says he'll be “bridge” between Trump and tech

Alex Brandon/AP

Orrin Hatch — the octogenarian who chairs the Senate Republican High-Tech Task Force — says he can be tech's ambassador to a White House that has taken positions Silicon Valley hates:

"As one of the earliest senators to endorse President Trump, I can serve as a bridge between the president and the tech community."

His comments came as part of a larger introduction of his tech agenda for this Congress.


Airbnb makes Luxury Retreats deal official


Airbnb has purchased Canadian company Luxury Retreats — talks were rumored earlier this month — in a bid that ties into the company's growth ambitions.

The details:

  • A source close to the discussion said that the price of the deal was somewhere in the $200 million range.
  • Luxury Retreats' roughly 250 employees will go to work for Airbnb, and the company's CEO will be in charge of Airbnb's efforts in the high-end market. The company will keep its Montreal office.
  • Luxury Retreats will stay its own product — for now. "Over time, Luxury Retreats listings will be highlighted and integrated into the Airbnb community," Airbnb said in a release.

Why we're tracking: Luxury Retreats' high-end portfolio and its experience providing services to travelers could be a boost to Airbnb as it starts to think about a public offering.


Why tech shouldn’t celebrate an infrastructure bill just yet

Andrew Harnik / AP

I do not believe that we are going to have an infrastructure bill, to tell you the truth. — Senate Commerce Committee member Brian Schatz

The details: There is a lot of chatter about the White House's apparently willingness to move forward with a large infrastructure package. Schatz warned at a Wednesday tech conference that a package acceptable to Democrats could well alienate fiscal conservatives, and vice versa. He said said that he has "a hard time believing" that senators will get to the infrastructure issue in time, given everything else on their plate.

The tech angle: Internet providers — and the companies that use their pipes — stand to benefit from an infrastructure package that brings broadband to rural areas where it's hard to justify the cost of laying down infrastructure. Schatz said he thought there was a possibility that leaders on the Senate's Commerce Committee would find a way to move forward with broadband measures that are favorable to the tech industry.


Tech stakes out place in coming surveillance fight

A group of tech trade groups asked for protections when Congress takes up surveillance legislation this year.

Why now: Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act — which justifies the surveillance of foreign nationals who are outside the country — expires at the end of the year. Surveillance hawks could use Congress' review of the provision to try and make it permanent, privacy groups worry.

The key line:

"We urge your committees to ensure that any reauthorization includes meaningful safeguards for internet users' privacy and civil liberties, measures to ensure transparency and accountability, and a commitment to continued Congressional oversight."

Who signed: The letter to lawmakers at the helm of the House and Senate Judiciary and Intelligence Committees was signed by six trade groups that represent both internet companies like Google and Facebook and longtime players like Intel and IBM.


WhatsApp brings on new exec as it looks to make money

Tecnomovida Caracas / Flickr Creative Commons

Recode's Kurt Wagner reports — and the company confirms — that WhatsApp has picked up a new executive from parent company Facebook. Matt Idema will serve as the messaging platform's first-ever chief operating officer.

What's his deal: His last job at Facebook was a high-level marketing role.

Why it matters: WhatsApp has a large user base but hasn't yet figured out how to convert that into a thriving business. Recode reports that Idema will be working on monetizing the product, which Facebook purchased in 2014 for $22 billion. There are other signs that the company is focused on earning money from WhatsApp: last year, the platform announced that it would start sharing some user data with Facebook — a potentially valuable move for the digital ad powerhouse.


Tech companies want to make it easier to donate to favored candidates

Internet Association / Flickr

A Washington group that represents Google, Facebook and other internet giants — as well as some up-and-comers — is trying crowd funding for its favorite lawmakers. The plan was first reported by Politico on Monday night.

The platform the Internet Association opened Tuesday morning lets individuals donate to candidates highlighted by the organization. They will host live streamed "events for candidates of both political parties to discuss public policies affecting the internet economy and user community." The first lawmaker the organization is focusing on: Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican.

Why they say they're doing it: In a statement, Internet Association President Michael Beckerman said that they hoped the website would turn "a process traditionally characterized by exclusivity and an overall lack of transparency" into "a public forum that provides everyday internet voters with the ability to participate in a meaningful way."

Why this matters: How tech plays politics in the age of Trump is being closely watched. Executives and employees alike have proved willing to take on the White House over certain issues, but it remains to be seen whether they're going to regularly pick fights with Trump or if companies will deputize their users into their political activities.


Self-driving car companies tell Congress what keeps them up at night

Paul Sancya / AP

Traditional carmakers and Silicon Valley startups told Congress on Tuesday why they're worried about policies that could limit the nascent market for self-driving cars:

  • They say regulations shouldn't tie them down to one type of technology. "We wouldn't want to see government taking steps specify specific technology or a specific solution," said Mike Ableson, a General Motors executive.
  • They want congressional action to be carefully calibrated. "We would not like Congress to engage in traditional rulemaking because that would stifle development," said Volvo's Anders Karrberg. Joseph Okpaku, of Lyft, warned of "even ... the most well intended law inadvertently precluding or restricting potential innovation to make this technology even safer."

Why it matters: The success self-driving car plays at Alphabet and Uber, not to mention Detroit's automakers, is intimately tied to policymakers' handling of the new technology. The Obama administration released the first-ever guidelines for autonomous cars last year.

What's next: Companies developing self-driving cars may have concerns about certain type of federal action, but they still are supportive of moves that help them avoid a patchwork of state laws. Key lawmakers in both houses of Congress say they want to examine ways to encourage the development of self-driving technology.


Former FCC chair defends net neutrality rules

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, fresh off what he called "intensive margarita therapy" in Cabo, spoke at a telecom conference in Boulder on Monday to defend the net neutrality and privacy rules the FCC adopted when he was in charge.

  • He said that networks "must be truly open, not just regulatory doublespeak saying 'I've got net neutrality here but it's an empty basket'" and that they "must have a default of privacy."
  • And he offered a warning to his successor, Republican Ajit Pai. "Whether [Web] 3.0 is realized is going to depend on the behavior of the largely uncompetitive networks run by fewer than six companies," he said. "And if the Trump FCC allows further consolidation that story only becomes worse."

The bigger picture: There's a battle coming over Wheeler's net neutrality rules — adopted by a 2015 party-line vote. Pai doesn't agree with a key legal foundation for the rules. Progressive groups and their allies in Congress have promised to put up a fight if Pai looks to dismantle the regulations.