Pai gobbles up Sprint and T-Mobile US merger

After months of headaches and sleepless nights, the tides of favour seem to be turning for Sprint and T-Mobile US as the FCC chief gives his blessing for the union.

254 days into the 180 days the FCC gives itself to approve mergers, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has officially confirmed his position. It is still not quite 100% guaranteed for the two telcos, however with Pai’s recommendation, the future is looking very rosier.

“After one of the most exhaustive merger reviews in Commission history, the evidence conclusively demonstrates that this transaction will bring fast 5G wireless service to many more Americans and help close the digital divide in rural areas,” Pai said in a statement.

“Moreover, with the conditions included in this draft Order, the merger will promote robust competition in mobile broadband, put critical mid-band spectrum to use, and bring new competition to the fixed broadband market.”

Suggesting this was a protracted and painful process might be one of the biggest understatements of the year. However, it might have been necessary considering the significant impact a merger of this scale could potential have on competition, diversification and network deployment across the US.

Above all else, the US is a monstrous market with an incredibly small number of nationwide telcos. This does of course offer economy of scale to improve investment capabilities, though there is a risk of regional monopolies due to the sheer size and geographical variance across the country. Proposed mergers which would take the number of national telcos from four to three has been extinguished in the past, though this one has passed almost every test.

The greenlight from the FCC Chairman is an important step, adding momentum to positive news from the Department of Justice in the last few weeks. At the end of July, the DoJ’s antitrust division gave the thumbs up, assuming Sprint’s prepaid brand Boost is divested, and Pai has made the same demands.

This is one concession which many expected, but we have major issue with. Dish will acquire the Boost brand, allowing it to make use of its horde of valuable spectrum, satisfying the demands, though will this be enough to maintain the current levels of competition, the objective of both the FCC and DoJ? We do not believe so.

Firstly, instead of having four established telcos in the US, consumers will now have to choose from three telcos and a newbie with zero experience of effectively running a mobile business and network. Dish does not have the competence, experience, infrastructure, processes, billing systems or supply chain to run a mobile business, and it will take years to build these elements to the degree expected.

Secondly, Dish is now an MVNO. It will be able to make use of the T-Mobile network, but the FCC and DoJ has replaced a functional MNO with an MVNO and expects no-one to notice the difference. Both of these agencies expect Dish to have its own network up-and-running in a few years, but this is another ridiculous ambition.

As mentioned in the first point, this is a company which is not practiced in the dark arts of mobile. The three remaining traditional players took decades to rollout their own networks, and they are still not genuine nationwide telcos (there are still network gaps across the country). How is Dish expected to create a nationwide, 4G and 5G, network across a country of 9.8 million km2, with an incredibly variety of different urban densities, geographical landscapes and economic societies.

If anyone thinks Dish is going to be a replacement which can maintain the current status quo, they are quite frankly fooling themselves.

What is worth noting is that this is not the end of the road for Sprint and T-Mobile. It might have secured the relevant regulatory approval, but now it will have to combat the various legal challenges.

Led by New York Attorney General Letitia James, a coalition of State Attorney Generals have filed a lawsuit to block the proposed merger. The lawyers are arguing the merger would harm competition, and it should be blocked to maintain the status quo. As it stands, with four separate MNOs challenging each other, prices and mobile experience is improving for the consumer; the lawyers are arguing that the situation is not broken, it is in fact improving, so why should the FCC and DoJ try to fix an imaginary problem?

Although the approval process from the DoJ and FCC might have been considered a significant problem, the telcos will not have to face legal heavyweights from more than a dozen States. Lawyers have a way of being very difficult when they want to be, so there might well be a few more twists and turns in this saga.

Justice Department green-lights T-Mobile US/Sprint merger

This might sound like the end of the road for one of the most protracted merger processes in recent memory, but T-Mobile US and Sprint will still have to deal with the backlog of legal challenges.

Although this is certainly a win for the duo, it did look ominous for quite a while and there are still a few legal challenges which will have to be dealt with. That said, this is a victory for T-Mobile US and Sprint, and a positive step-forward in the ambition to tackle the market dominance of AT&T and Verizon.

“With this merger and accompanying divestiture, we are expanding output significantly by ensuring that large amounts of currently unused or underused spectrum are made available to American consumers in the form of high quality 5G networks,” said Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division.

“Today’s settlement will provide Dish with the assets and transitional services required to become a facilities-based mobile network operator that can provide a full range of mobile wireless services nationwide.”

In short, without the divestment of Sprint’s prepaid mobile business to Dish, the deal would not have gone ahead. What this announcement now creates is a merger player with a larger horde of spectrum ready to tackle the 5G era and a fourth player which can start to make use of the spectrum licenses it has been quietly accumulating over the last few years.

For Dish, deadlines were fast approaching. After securing various spectrum licenses in the mid- and high-band frequencies, authorities were starting to get a bit irate with the lack of action. Spectrum is a valuable resource in the digital economy and a threat had been made; make use of the assets or hand them back. The acquisition of the boost brand should allow Dish to make a run at the mobile world. It will now have seven years to make use of the T-Mobile/Sprint network while it deploys its own.

Of course, while the end is in sight there are still another couple of headaches to deal with.

Several State Attorney Generals have aired their grievances and filed a lawsuit opposing the deal. The primary concern here was the reduction of national telcos from four to three, though it seems they are still not happy with concessions made to create a fourth player in Dish.

“The promises made by Dish and T-Mobile in this deal are the kinds of promises only robust competition can guarantee,” said New York Attorney General Letitia James, who has led the opposition.

“We have serious concerns that cobbling together this new fourth mobile player, with the government picking winners and losers, will not address the merger’s harm to consumers, workers, and innovation.”

The coalition of State Attorney Generals have reaffirmed their opposition to the merger, questioning whether the formation of a new MNO which has no experience in managing a mobile network is a suitable replacement for Sprint. Elsewhere, the Rural Wireless Association is also opposing the approval.

“Expecting Dish, a start-up mobile carrier in its infancy, to be able to compete as a fourth nationwide network, with divested wireless assets from Sprint and T-Mobile and Boost MVNO customers, and subject only to a handful of requirements that will expire, spells disaster for American consumers,” the RWA said in a statement.

“Three years is not nearly enough time to launch a facilities-based network. Clearly, DOJ has no idea what it takes to build a competitive nationwide mobile network.”

Gaining approval from the Department of Justice might have been one of the more difficult tasks on this quest, but this is not the end of the road for T-Mobile US and Sprint.

DoJ doesn’t share FCC enthusiasm for T-Mobile/Sprint – report

The FCC might have a skip in its step after securing concessions from T-Mobile US and Sprint ahead of the proposed merger, but the Department of Justice is not convinced.

Following the approval from FCC Chairman Ajir Pai, and the vote of support from Commissioner Brendan Carr, Sprint share price rose almost 19%. The long-awaited merger to create a genuine challenger to AT&T and Verizon on a national scale looked to be heading in the right direction, only for the DoJ to be the fly in the ointment.

According to Bloomberg, the DoJ believes the concessions made by the pair do not go far enough. This is a move which breaks with tradition, generally the FCC and the DoJ sing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to acquisitions and mergers, though it appears antitrust investigators are still concerned over the threat to competition.

This is perhaps the nuance between the two departments. The DoJ, and various Attorney Generals throughout the US, are primarily concerned with competition, while the FCC rhetoric has been more focused on securing a more efficient and broader 5G rollout.

The concessions have taken the form of three commitments. Firstly, T-Mobile suggests 97% of the population could be covered by 5G within three years. Secondly, Sprint’s prepaid brand Boost would be sold to preserve competition. And finally, there would be no price increases while the 5G network is being deployed.

Of course, there is a very real risk to competition. Taking the number of national telcos from four down to three will mean less choice in the market. Less choice means less opportunity for disruption, even if the hatred from T-Mobile US CEO John Legere towards AT&T and Verizon is effectively teemed from his ears. There are too many examples through history of abuses when it comes to competition for some to be completely comfortable.

You also have to weigh up the current cost of mobile connectivity in the US. Although much has been done to help the consumer, ARPU is still notably more than in Europe, where competition is significantly higher. According to Moneysavingpro.com, the average postpaid contract in the US is as much as $80.25 compared to $30.06 in the UK. US consumers are already feeling the sharp end of the competition stick, and few would want to risk this difference to increase further.

The question is how much pain the consumer can tolerate in pursuit of leadership in the 5G race. Carr has spoken of his primary role at the FCC being focused on creating a leadership position for the US in the 5G era and part of this will depend on getting 5G in the hands of the consumer as quickly as possible. The sooner consumers have 5G, the sooner US firms can scale new services and products before assaulting the international markets. This is a playbook taken from the very successful 4G era.

With the US taking a leadership position in the 4G world, companies like Google, Amazon, Uber, AirBnB and Lyft thrived. These are companies which would have existed without the 4G euphoria, but success was compounded because of the connectivity gains. We are likely to see the same trend in the 5G world, with new products and services being designed for 5G connectivity. The question which remains is where they will call home.

This is the equation the FCC and the DoJ have to balance. The need to protect the consumer against the drive towards future economic success on the global stage. There is not going to be a perfect answer for this one, the US is gambling on the future success of the economy after all.