Leading opponents of President Trump have signed a letter to the FCC condemning the proposed T-Mobile US and Sprint merger, suggesting the threat of regionalised monopolies and sky-high bills.
Signed by the likes of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, all of whom are potential opponents of Trump in the 2020 race to the White House, the 19-page document offers a broad and deep range of reasons for the FCC to block the merger. Whether the Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai elects to read the letter is anybody’s guess, such is the state of US politics today.
“The two companies have proposed a four-to-three merger that is likely to raise prices for consumers, harm workers, reduce competition, exacerbate the digital divide and undermine innovation,” the letter states.
“Blocking this proposed combination is necessary to send a strong signal that our enforcement officials are vigorously protection Americans from harmful anticompetitive behaviour.”
Which way this decision will go is still very unclear, but the paperwork arguing against the merger is starting to stack up. These nine politicians are firmly standing in opposition of the transaction, while on the other side of the line, T-Mobile US and Sprint are struggling to muster support. It seems few people are pro-merger, though when has politics ever followed the glories of logic.
As many these transactions, the main crux of the argument seems to be focused around competition. The Senators not only fear there will be nefarious conversations behind closed doors to carve the US into regionalised monopolies between the three remaining players, but they also question this suggests the telcos don’t really care about poorer families and those who are living in the chasm of the digital divide.
One point which might strike a chord for those considering the proposed merger is the focus of the telcos on low- and medium-income families. The letter suggests the two parties has aggressively competed against each other for these demographics, while there is also evidence of a high diversion ratio between offerings. Combining the two would remove this market dynamic, as well as the driver to offer competitive tariffs for lower-income individuals.
Another factor to consider here would be the impact on competitiveness of the wholesale market, and the subsequent ability for MVNOs to remain competitive, another option for low income individuals.
“The proposed merger would permit the new T-Mobile to steadily racket up wholesale prices on MVNOs and block them out of the market,” the letter claims.
While screwing the poor is often considered a political no-no irrelevant as to where you are in the world, Pai is seemingly not built from the same clay. A few months back, the FCC Chairman attempted to rid the ‘Lifeline’ initiative from the books, a programme which was designed to help poorer families and communities bridge the digital divide. This is one of the reasons the House Committee on Energy and Commerce has promised to exercise more oversight on the FCC, suggesting in a letter last week, some of Pai’s actions are not in the ‘public interest’.
Another damning point to the proposed merger is that is being sold on false pretences. The T-Mobile and Sprint management teams have together been promising a newly merged business would allow scale and efficiencies to effectively deliver 5G, though the Senators argue that these are two businesses which have deployment plans which would work on a standalone basis also.
This should not be surprising, as any good business will have created a standalone 5G strategy should the merger be blocked, this is just common sense, though the Senators argue the merger would not necessarily speed up deployment or create a challenge to the leading pair of AT&T and Verizon. Back in 2011, AT&T argued it should be allowed to acquire T-Mobile as there was no feasible way the company could compete in the 4G market but fast-forward a couple of years and look at the result. The T-Mobile success might count against it from a precedent perspective.
On the investment side of things, the argument for the merger also falls apart a little. The merged business has promised to spend $40 billion over the next three years (or three years after the green light) to make 5G a reality. However, both telcos have said they spent $10 billion in CAPEX across 2018 separately. Doing basic maths, the $40 billion of the combined business would not exceed the CAPEX of the standalone business. Economics of scale and a larger network footprint would of course impact this number, but it is a point well made by the Senators.
While we are sure there are Senators who genuinely object to this merger, it is tough to look past the fact so many of these signatories are potential Presidential candidates. For T-Mobile and Sprint, this could quickly evolve into a nightmare.
The positions have been perfectly pitched here. These are Senators who are protecting the interests of the poor, fighting to for the benefits of those in rural communities and of course, battling to make life better for families. These are all political hot buttons and excellent rhetoric to win the favour of potential voters in the run up to the next election. These are arguably the demographics which pushed Trump over the line in 2016.
T-Mobile and Sprint might now be caught between a rock and a hard place. With such politically motivated opposition and few friendlies fighting their case for the greenlight, the path forward is becoming increasingly bumpy.