While the rest of the US tech industry fulminates over the Donald's efforts to impose a travel ban, the telecom sector has been conspicuous by its silence. A legal challenge against Trump's move, aimed at preventing the citizens of several Middle Eastern countries from traveling to the US, has won support from nearly 100 companies. Signatories like Google and Facebook, whose facilities teem with foreign expertise, fret that visa restrictions will hinder business development. Yet not a single major telco has added its name to the list.
Their silence is perhaps not surprising. Telcos including AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and T-Mobile US Inc. have already spoken approvingly about some of Trump's other plans. Besides proposals for tax cuts, those include an overhaul of Internet rules that could make it easier for telcos to favor certain web services over others. Telecom sector executives seem unlikely to feel as warmly about the decree on immigration, which has hit opposition from US courts as well as other technology players. Yet none wants to risk upsetting the notoriously thin-skinned tweetaholic.
As well as hoping for tax breaks, and a business-boosting overhaul of "net neutrality," telcos have also been optimistic that Trump's administration will be prepared to wave though takeover deals that were previously blocked. Those could include the sale of T-Mobile US to Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) or one of the country's cable operators, whose bosses have also been tight-lipped on the ban. Last week, more than 1,000 employees of Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), the country's biggest cable company, took to the streets of Philadelphia in protest. But Comcast refuses to comment when asked about its response to the ban.
AT&T, meanwhile, is desperate to convince the new president that its $85 billion takeover of media giant Time Warner Inc. (NYSE: TWX) should be allowed. Trump had criticized the proposed deal during the presidential election campaign, describing the mooted tie-up as an example of "the power structure I'm fighting."
To the average telco, the benefits of tax breaks, lightweight net-neutrality regulation and industry consolidation far outweigh any concern about an immigration clampdown. In sharp contrast to some web players, telcos have not drawn a strong link between business success and unfettered access to overseas talent. That seems partly to do with their lack of international presence. With their domestic focus, many look parochial next to the likes of Facebook and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG).
Moreover, experience will have taught industry executives that any criticisms of Trump or his policies usually provoke a venomous reaction. Barely a week passes when the president's Twitter feed does not feature some invective about an individual or organization whose worldview differs from his own. And the travel ban, among other moves, proves that Trump is prepared to back up his rabble-rousing rhetoric with punitive measures. Like zookeepers entering a wild animal's enclosure, telcos may be treading very carefully.
If they have decided any resistance is futile, then operators should be fearful. Often depicted as antagonists, telcos and web players prefer to highlight their opportunities for collaboration, insisting they have a symbiotic relationship. If that is so, then what is bad for the web players can hardly be good for the telcos. Heralded as an anti-terrorist measure, the travel ban also hints at Trump's protectionist instincts. In the long term, the trade war he threatens to unleash could have dire consequences for US consumers, squeezing expenditure on telecom services. It could drive up the cost of critical telecom equipment, including the iPhones that have fueled a decade-long boom in the usage of mobile services. Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL), unsurprisingly, is one of the companies that have not been afraid to challenge Trump's travel ban.
By tiptoeing around the immigration issue, telcos are also drawing attention to the gulf that still exists between them and the rest of the technology industry. Despite wanting to emulate the success of the web players, and adopt their cultural norms, telcos are still operating along very different principles. But as software expertise and so-called "DevOps" capabilities become more important in the telecom industry -- as many executives insist they must -- telcos may come to share Google's outspoken concern that immigration controls will lock out valuable skills. They might eventually wish they had lent their considerable weight to the Trump opposition.
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading