AT&T is reported to be exploring strategic options for the DIRECTV television business it bought in 2015 for $48.5 billion, or over $67 including assumed debt. A deal with a private equity partner could unlock a combination with rival Dish Network, if competition concerns can be addressed.

In mid-2015 DIRECTV had 19.54 million television subscribers in the United States. By the end of 2016 that had risen to 21.01 million.

By early 2017, AT&T had 25.03 million premium television subscribers, including about 19.22 million DIRECTV subscribers and 3.68 million U-verse telco television subscribers.

That made it briefly the top service provider in the United States in terms of television subscribers, although it subsequently fell back behind Comcast.

Since then, AT&T has lost 7.3 million premium television subscribers, or 29% of its base, although it does not report how many of those are satellite customers.

ATT Premium TV subscribers 2020 Q2. Source: informitv Multiscreen Index

The company has been unenthusiastic about its satellite television business, considering that online video will be the future. It bought into media with an $80 billion acquisition of Time Warner, adding to its debt burden, now at over $150 billion.

Meanwhile, rival Dish Network has lost 1.82 million satellite television subscribers, or 16% of its base, over two years.

Dish Network subscribers 2020 Q2. Source: informitv Multiscreen Index

Charlie Ergan, the co-founder and chairman of Dish has described a merger of the two satellite companies as “probably inevitable”. The challenge is that it could be considered anti-competitive.

John Stankey took over as chief executive of AT&T in July and has said that the company should concentrate on its core communications competencies, with mobile services and fixed broadband accounting for more than half of its $180 billion in annual revenues.

If AT&T were to sell a majority stake of DIRECTV to a private equity buyer that could address regulatory concerns.

AT&T and its advisers at Goldman Sachs are reported to be in talks with private equity firms, although the outcome remains uncertain.