Competition among AT&T (T) - Get Report , Sprint (S) - Get Report , T-Mobile US (TMUS) - Get Report and Verizon (VZ) - Get Report for video content likely will intensify in 2017, after a recent decision from Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai.
The FCC dropped its investigation into the wireless carriers' zero-rating offerings, which allow subscribers to stream certain content without eating into their data plans. Pai said in early February that the FCC would focus on expanding broadband coverage and new services, rather than the video plans.
Zero-rating opens the door for vertical consolidation of wireless carriers and video producers, Macquarie analyst Amy Yong said.
"The fact that you get some regulatory clarity on how the FCC looks at zero-rating could help companies make a decision," Yong said. As wireless services have matured and networks have improved, she suggested, music and video are one of the few ways for the telecoms to differentiate themselves.
AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson has compared zero-rating to 1-800 numbers, which allowed a business to pick up the tab for a long-distance call. In this case the telecom or another business is paying for the data
"Like other carriers' sponsored-data programs, this program closely resembles free shipping for online commerce or 800-number toll-free dialing," AT&T argued in a white paper filed with the FCC in November. "Just as Holiday Inn covers toll charges when customers dial 1-800-HOLIDAY, participants in AT&T Sponsored Data cover data charges for the customers who consume their content on AT&T's mobile network."
The top online video properties in the U.S. are owned by Alphabet's (GOOGL) - Get Report Google, Facebook (FB) - Get Report , Yahoo! (YHOO) , Comcast (CMCSA) - Get Report , CBS (CBS) - Get Report and Microsoft (MSFT) - Get Report , according to comScore.
Pandora has a $3 billion market cap and reported 81 million active listeners at the end of the fourth quarter, down 100,000 from a year ago but a gain of 3.1 million from the third quarter.
With a roughly $100 billion market cap, Charter would be a much bigger bite. Charter has about 17 million video subscribers.
The largest of the private, independent online outlets is BroadbandTV of Vancouver, British Columbia, which develops content on topics ranging from music to video games, comedy and children's programming. In December, BroadbandTV's videos had 40.5 million unique viewers in the U.S, nearly 7 times AwesomenessTV's unique viewership, according to comScore. Globally, BroadbandTV's 290.4 million unique viewers was fourth, comScore said, behind Google, Facebook and native advertising group and video marketplace Teads.
Here's a look at some of the largest telecoms and their content plans.
Among the telecoms, AT&T has made the boldest bets on content. The company bought DirecTV for $67 billion in 2015 and is buying Time Warner (TWX) for $107 billion, both prices including assumed debt.
AT&T provides its DirecTV Now streaming TV service to subscribers willing to pay $35 or more per month. The carrier noted that other companies also can provide zero-rated content on its network. "Thus, if a university wants to sponsor an online course, or a short documentary filmmaker wants to encourage viewing of his new film, or ESPN seeks to sponsor viewing of a sporting event, they can all pay the same sponsored rate that DirecTV pays AT&T Mobility," the telecom informed the FCC.
Keep in mind that AT&T launched DirecTV under the Obama administration, which opposed zero-rating. "[Pai's decision] probably gives AT&T a little more ammunition to push that product a little more aggressively," Yong said.
Verizon unveiled a new unlimited plan over the weekend, suggesting it feels a competitive need to let subscribers consumer more content.
In the video M&A market, Verizon has made smaller deals than AT&T.
Last year, the telecom teamed with media conglomerate Hearst to invest in millennial-minded digital media companies AwesomenessTV and Complex Media, a publisher that caters to young bro culture.
In addition to video from AwesomnessTV and Complex Media, Verizon's go90 wireless app streams content from NFL and NBA games.
Acquiring or merging with Charter would bring Verizon's video subscriber count to 21.6 million, compared with AT&T's 25.3 million. Such a deal, however, would not bring Verizon content production firepower similar to that of AT&T after the purchase of Time Warner. Verizon could not immediately be reached for comment.
3. T-Mobile US
T-Mobile US CEO John Leger has been aggressive with video. The carrier's Binge On plan offers free streaming of Amazon (AMZN) - Get Report Prime Video, Google's YouTube, HBO Now, Netflix (NFLX) - Get Report and other services.
Last year, in a shot at AT&T, Legere added DirecTV to the list and offered to pay the $35 per month charge for DirecTV Now for customers who switched from AT&T to T-Mobile.
Sprint had a slow start in the content business, but bought a 33% stake in Jay Z-backed music streaming company Tidal in January.
Tidal is known primarily for music streaming. In December, 83,000 unique video viewers on desktop computers watched 247,000 videos, according to comScore. That's a little more than 1% of AwesomnessTV's nearly 6.1 million views.
Sprint said Tidal will develop exclusive content for its network, but the company declined to comment on its plans for zero-rated content.