T-Mobile US won’t be rushed on TV proposition

The T-Mobile US TV launch has been anticipated for some time now, but we’ll have to wait until at least mid-2019 for this dream to become a reality.

After closing the Layer3 acquisition at the beginning of this year, it was assumed T-Mobile US would sharply enter the TV market with another ‘Uncarrier’ move. These disruptive plays have formed the foundation of T-Mobile US’ rise through the ranks in recent years, luring customers away from the still dominant duo of AT&T and Verizon.

But for those who were eagerly anticipating the launch of a TV service, don’t hold your breath. The launch has been kicked back, with no concrete commitments made. Why? Because CEO John Legere has high standards.

According to Bloomberg, people working on the project have suggested the wild-eyed CEO has set the bar so high, the team are struggling to meet expectations. This is not necessarily a bad thing and demonstrates Legere has the patience to produce a good product instead of being rushed to market due to the pressure of other players.

The first moments of life for this product could be the beginning and the end. Such is the competition in the ‘cord-cutter’ space, bringing a poor product to market could result in the venture failing before it has even started. If T-Mobile US wants to make a splash in this pond, he’ll have to meet consumer expectations, most of whom are dissatisfied at the moment.

While cable has had a place in the hearts of consumers for years, this trend is ending with the cord-cutting generation of today. Digital alternatives are wanted by the consumer, though with expensive and sub-standard options on the market as it stands, there is the opportunity for disruption. This is a perfect storm for Legere and the magenta army, but only if the proposition is right.

It’ll have to be cheap enough to attract interest, expensive enough to allow for future content investment, stylish enough to meet the visual and experience demands of the digital natives and have the content depth to attract a broad range of customers. This is a complicated equation to get right, but the rewards are potentially massive. We’re pleasantly surprised the team is taking its time and getting the proposition right.

Another factor to consider is the increased competitive threat from Disney. Disney has already shown its intention to go toe-to-toe with Netflix on the content battlefield, though should this entertainment heavyweight get its own OTT service right upon launch next year, the content gains for everyone else will get considerably smaller.

With a host of services already on the market, and more to come in 2019, T-Mobile US will have to make this Uncarrier move perfect if it wants to cash in on the content bonanza. Consumers are fickle and un-loyal enough to mean late-comers to the market can make a splash, so don’t expect Legere to be rushed with this challenge to the status quo.

T-Mobile/Sprint edge towards finish line following Huawei snub

T-Mobile US and Sprint are reportedly rubbing regulators the right way, in the continued effort to get the prolonged merger approved, by overtly shunning Chinese kit vendor Huawei.

The statement should be viewed as more symbolic than anything else, as considering the clauses which have been inserted into the Defense Authorization Act during August, it would have been highly unlikely the pair would have considered Huawei for any meaningful work in US networks. What this could be viewed as is a PR move from the pair, allowing the US to demonstrate to the world how serious it is about the espionage claims.

According to Reuters, Deutsche Telekom and Softbank, parent companies of T-Mobile US and Sprint respectively, have confirmed they will not be working with Huawei moving forward. Neither US telco currently has any Huawei kit in its network, though it is hoped this statement from the international telcos will have the bureaucrats hand edging closer to the green button for the $26 billion merger.

For the US government, this is somewhat of a PR win. The Trump administration has been incredibly aggressive in making moves against the Chinese, and this could be viewed as a medal credited to the crusade. Not only can the US government effect change in its own telcos and other governments around the world, it can also influence non-domestic private firms. The long arm of the Oval Office is tickling opinion in places it really shouldn’t be able to.

Unfortunately for the US, each incremental step taken in the trade war against China seems to question how dearly the White House holds principles and values. All of these individual circumstances are starting to look like pawns in President Trump’s game of chess against Beijing. Trump is living up to his reputation as a deal-maker, with the promise of aiding the battle against the Chinese enough for the President to make concessions elsewhere.

The evidence being stacked up against the T-Mobile/Sprint merger was starting to climb pretty high, though perhaps this might be enough of a ‘concession’ to twist the White House’s perspective on the transaction. Trump has already shown he is capable of looking at the big picture, with the recent arrest of Huawei’s CFO another excellent example.

Having been arrested in Canada while in transit back to China, Trump promised to intervene in the court case should it help his pursuit of a more favourable trade relationship with China. This statement from Trump makes somewhat of a mockery of the whole arrest and demonstrates how little he thinks of the Canadian judicial system. If there is a benefit to the US economy, Trump can talk to the right people and make the whole saga disappear. It questions the validity of the arrest in the first place, but also the credibility of the Canadian courts; why does Trump believe they can be convinced to drop the case so easily?

Trump is starting to show his heritage; anything for the deal. This is a businessman in control of the White House, and his ability to ignore small print give the impression of a wheeler-dealer.

T-Mobile/Sprint merger finds a new enemy in mysterious lobby group

A new non-profit organization called ‘Protect America’s Wireless’ has emerged, seemingly with the sole objective of hurling spanners at the T-Mobile US and Sprint merger.

Details on the group are relatively thin at the moment, it was only founded last month, though a press call introducing the group and its mission statement on the website both seem to give the same message; the T-Mobile US and Sprint merger will be bad for the national security of the US.

“We must protect our networks from foreign spying,” the team announces on the websites homepage. “Our greatest concern is the pending Sprint T-Mobile merger, which could give countries like Saudi Arabia, China, Germany, and Japan direct access to our networks through the use of foreign-made networking equipment and billions of foreign money. We call on President Trump, Congress, and the FCC to protect American national security by denying these foreign interests access to America’s wireless communications.”

On the press call, David Wade, Founder of Greenlight Strategies, suggested a merger of the two telcos would open up the US to a Chinese ecosystem, while also suggesting any business working closely with Chinese vendors would effectively handover data to the Chinese government. While it is true Sprint owner Softbank has collaborated closely with Huawei and ZTE in the 5G R&D journey, this seems to be taking the conspiracy theory up another level. Deutsche Telekom, parent company of T-Mobile US, also has ties to Chinese vendors, but there aren’t many telcos who don’t.

The theory here is a merger between the two telcos would be bad for national security, effectively handing China a key to the backdoor. There have certainly been objections from a competition perspective, but this is the first we’ve seen with this angle. It’s difficult not to be suspicious about who the puppet master actually is.

Interestingly enough, the group has declined to discuss where funding is emerging from. As a 501c4 non-profit, the team do not have to disclose funding or ownership details, though they are permitted to attempt to influence politics as long as it isn’t their main area of focus. While the groups attempt to tackle US security is a thinly veiled attempt to demonstrate ‘social welfare’, as long as the group isn’t spending more than half of its funds on political-related activities, it can continue to operate half-hidden by shadows.

Finding out who is funding this organization is key to figure out what the angle is and whether this is yet another example of propaganda, though it is not necessarily a simple task. 501c4 non-profits have to complete a Form 990 for the IRS, on which any donations above $5,000 have to be disclosed. Unfortunately, due to the efficiency of the IRS, there is usually a 12-18 month lag on this information being made publicly available.

Until the influencers and donors of this group have been identified, this could be a very dangerous source of misinformation. Statements being made might very well be true, but without transparency it would be safe to be suspicious.

T-Mobile US finds a new way to troll AT&T and Verizon

T-Mobile US is testing out a new way to mock AT&T and Verizon by inviting the duo to its own TEX Talks seminars and panels on how to improve customer service.

Taking place on 24-25 October at its Charleston customer experience centre, T-Mobile US will host various companies from around the US, offering advice on how to improve relationships with customers and reduce churn. Of course, never missing a chance to poke fun at AT&T and Verizon, CEO John Legere has made it clear they are invited to the event, even if they are currently ignoring his calls.

“As the Uncarrier, we’ve always been about changing this industry for good…with Team of Experts, we’ve done it again,” said Legere. “And we won’t stop with wireless. Customer service is utterly broken in this country – it’s a mechanized mess. We’ve completely changed the game for customers, and we hope every brand steps up to do the same.”

While Team of Experts might not be the most exciting of Uncarrier moves, it certainly seems to be having a notable impact on the business. T-Mobile US has stated Net Promoter Score (NPS) is up 60% since introducing the new focus on customer service, while asynchronous messaging with care is up 34% and churn of customer service staff is down 48%. It’s not the headline grabbing Uncarrier move of yesteryear, but goods things are happening.

Announced back in August, the aim of the Team of Experts Uncarrier move was to revamp customer services and improve loyalty. The industry has come to expect big things from wild-eyed Legere when launching new Uncarrier moves, though this is not exactly the blockbuster we’ve gotten used to. However, three months on, the ‘rock star treatment’ for customers does seem to be working.

It might not be the venture into the world of content many were expecting, though it is a welcome surprise. The telco industry is traditionally awful at customer services, choosing to lock in customers with long contracts and create a red-tape maze for those who want to leave. Loyalty was enforced by making churn so difficult as opposed to creating a proposition customers want to be a part of. This move seems to be challenging the status quo.

Customer services can be a differentiator moving forward as the price wars seem to have come to a conclusion. There will continue to be undercutting and promotions, though the telcos cannot go much lower on tariffs and maintain the profit margins desired by investors. T-Mobile US has done a great job of disrupting the industry and capturing subscriptions, but momentum will run low if the same message is played on repeat.

There has been signs across the world telcos are starting to care more about their customers, Vodafone is a great example in the UK with its own customer services initiatives, though these are still the exceptions not the rule. More work needs to be done to correct years of wrong-doing.

That said, Legere’s trolling is always a bit of fun.

Legere casts wild eyes over to the world of banking

SEC-filings have emerged suggesting T-Mobile US is looking into creating a banking product for its customers which could be launched in a matter of weeks.

The documents, which have been filed by Customers Bancorp, describe a partnership which has been in place since September 2016, with the two parties coming together to build the relevant technology and products since. Details are relatively thin on the ground as it stands, though in naming T-Mobile in the documents it is a pretty sure sign of diversification from the telco.

With more customers showing readiness to adopt mobile banking solutions the idea does make sense. T-Mobile US is constantly looking for new opportunities to laud over the ‘duopoly’, as CEO John Legere describes AT&T and Verizon, so it should come as no surprise the team are looking for new ways to engage customers.

Although T-Mobile US would not be considered a challenger brand in the same way as Iliad in Italy or Jio in India, the shake-up of the business under Legere’s leadership has created a similar disruption. T-Mobile US has continuously boasted of collecting new customers with ease quarter after quarter, but such momentum can only last so long; new ideas are needed.

In India, Jio has diversified into content and also hinted at an assault on the broadband market, though T-Mobile US has resisted such pleasures to date. The introduction of financial services is simply another tool in the shed for T-Mobile US to maintain its current course. The last few Uncarrier moves have not been the earth shakers of yesteryear, though this would certainly capture the attention of the masses.

With a huge customer base, 73 million subscribers, and a sound relationship with said customers, churn was 0.95% during the last quarter, the foundations are steady. However, the big question is whether the T-Mobile US brand, led by the eccentric and wild Legere, can present itself as a business in which consumers would be confident in dealing with for their finances.

Banks do not generally present themselves as fun or charismatic brands mainly because dealing with an individual’s money is a serious matter. People will want their cash handled by a man who looks like a stereotypical accountant, not a 40 year-old frat-boy. This is perhaps one of the issues T-Mobile US will have to assess, as Legere does not give the impression of the most trustworthy banker.

FCC drafts in external opinion to figure out the T-Mobile-Sprint conundrum

Perhaps realising the gravity of the situation, the FCC has drafted in outside help to assess the impact of the T-Mobile-Sprint merger on the US economy.

David Sibley will help the team as an outside consultant reporting into David Lawrence, who is leading the merger taskforce. This should not be seen as an unusual move from the FCC, though perhaps such external opinions should have been brought in earlier considering the impact this merger will have on the telco landscape and competition.

“We are fortunate that Professor Sibley is bringing his considerable economic experience and expertise to bear in this review,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “Rigorous economic analysis plays an important role in all of the Commission’s work and will be essential to a thorough investigation into whether approval of this transaction would be in the public interest.”

This is the big question. The merger will bring the number of national telcos down from four to three, but is this a good or bad move. There are arguments on both sides.

The bad side of the argument is a simple one. Removing one of the major telcos from the ecosystem will reduce competition and hurt the consumer through higher pricing due to a lack of choice. This is not a complicated point to make and a genuine concern, especially in a country like the US which where telcos do not operate everywhere. The risk of monopolies or duopolies in certain areas increases.

On the positive side, while the number of massive telcos decreases, competition increases as the merged entity would offer a more valid threat to AT&T and Verizon through the combined scale. T-Mobile US CEO John Legere often refers to AT&T and Verizon as the duopoly, and while this is an exaggeration, they are miles ahead of T-Mobile and Sprint in third and fourth place. T-Mobile and Sprint are not at the right scale to compete with the leaders individually, but together the merged organization would offer greater scale. The theory here is reducing competitors would make the market more competitive, therefore better for the consumer.

This is the conundrum which the FCC needs to decide on. Evidence and experts will be aplenty on both sides of the argument, though Sibley certainly adds some expertise to the team.

Sibley is currently the John Michael Stuart Centennial Professor of Economics at the University of Texas at Austin. Prior this role, Sibley worked Head of the Economics Research Group at Bell Communications Research, as well as the Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Economic Analysis in the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice. He also represented the US in OECD discussions.

As it stands, the merger shot clock is currently on pause, with the FCC deciding it does not want to be rushed. The approval or rejection of mergers and acquisitions are targeted to be completed within a 180-day window, though the FCC is offered the luxury of taking longer if it is a particularly complicated case. This is proving to be one, with the FCC requesting input from competitors of the pair recently, most notably from players outside the mobile ecosystem, suggesting it is investigating the impact on such segments as broadband.

T-Mobile gives prepaid customers the 5G luxury

T-Mobile has become the first US telco to commit the 5G euphoria to its prepaid customers, alongside unlimited plans which will feature Amazon Prime and Google One.

Previously known as MetroPCS, the prepaid brand has been shortened to Metro, and is the first service to commit to 5G as a prepaid offering. Starting from $30 a month and heading up to $60, the various plans are data-centric, aiming to appeal to teenagers and millennials.

“When we talk about 5G for All, it’s not just nationwide 5G service but it’s all shades of T-Mobile, Magenta and Purple,” said Neville Ray, CTO at T-Mobile. “5G is going to be huge. It’ll transform the wireless experience. Metro by T-Mobile customers deserve access to the latest technology, and we’ll make sure they get it.”

The new offers will be available to customers as soon as 5G-capable phones hit the market in mid-2019, though that hasn’t stopped the Magenta Army from preaching the benefits today. Prepaid services are often viewed with an air of distaste, though committing to 5G services certainly adds to the blur between prepaid and postpaid.

The basic difference between prepaid and postpaid is simply the billing function, though postpaid are more attractive to the telcos due to the lower risk of churn. With this enforced loyalty, benefits have traditionally been directed towards this segment, i.e. subsidised devices or value-adds such as free subscriptions, though the landscape does seem to be shifting. Benefits are being offered irrelevant of whether a customer is prepaid or postpaid.

Customers of the top two tiers of these tariffs will receive a free Google One 100 GB cloud storage account, while those selecting the top-tier will also get an Amazon Prime subscription. The 5G commitment from T-Mobile US is just another example.

“I couldn’t be more proud of today’s launch and what it means for our customers and potential customers,” said Tom Keys, President, Metro by T-Mobile. “Truly nationwide and unlimited service on the most advanced LTE network and now with Amazon Prime and Google One. There’s not a better value in wireless. And with a commitment to bring 5G to life in 2019, we’re making it crystal clear: Metro by T-Mobile customers aren’t making a compromise. They’re refusing to make a compromise.”

FCC says new material means it needs more time to assess TMUS/Sprint merger

The US Federal Communications Commissions has indefinitely extended the amount of time it will take to sign off the country’s operator mega-merger.

Referring to an ‘informal shot clock’ of 180 days in which to assess the pros and cons of T-Mobile US and Sprint permanently hooking up, the FCC announced in a letter that it is being paused. The only stated reason is the submission of new material from TMUS that significantly alters the criteria by which the FCC will make its assessment, thus requiring more time.

“Today we are pausing the Commission’s informal 180-day transaction shot clock in this proceeding,” opens the letter. “Additional time is necessary to allow for thorough staff and third-party review of newly submitted and anticipated modeling relied on by the Applicants.

“Each of three separate developments require more time. First, on September 5, 2018, the Applicants submitted a substantially revised network engineering model… The newly-provided network engineering model is significantly larger and more complex than the engineering submissions already in the record.

“Further, in an August 29, 2018 exparte meeting, T-Mobile executives Mike Sievert and Peter Ewens described T-Mobile’s reliance on a business model, titled Build 9,’ which apparently provides the financial basis for the projected new network buildout. The Commission did not receive Build 9, and third parties did not have access to it, until September 5. Build 9 therefore requires further review.

“Finally, T-Mobile recently disclosed that it intends to submit additional economic modeling in support of the Applications, beyond that strictly responsive to the various economic analyses in the Petitions to Deny. This new economic modeling will also require additional time for review.”

So, in essence, TMUS recently decided to offer up a bunch more material in support of the merger and the FCC needs more time to review it. Seems fair enough. “The clock will remain stopped until the Applicants have completed the record on which they intend to rely and a reasonable period of time has passed for staff and third-party review,” concludes the letter. How long that reasonable period of time will be is unclear.

T-Mobile US and Sprint finally get some support for merger

Budget MVNO Ting Mobile has come out in support of the proposed T-Mobile US and Sprint merger, standing pretty lonely opposite the waves of opposition.

In a letter to the FCC, Elliott Noss, CEO of parent company Tucows, has penned his support for the merger. While there certainly will be support for the transaction outside of the T-Mobile US and Sprint offices, Noss is creating a pretty lonely silhouette at the moment.

“In a general sense, we think the T-Mobile/Sprint merger makes strong business sense and will generally benefit most stakeholders,” Noss states. “For greater clarity, we view the group of stakeholders as customers, employees and investors, in that order.

“We believe customers will benefit from a more efficient, profitable company which will allow greater investment in building the current Sprint spectrum in particular. We are uncertain whether customers will benefit from lower prices as we have seen in Canada (with the most expensive mobile phone service in the world) that three competitors and no MVNO presence in the market leads to clear oligopolistic pricing and a minimum of competitive pricing pressures.”

While the queue opposing the merger has been growing over the last few days, T-Mobile US has apparently been lobbying MVNOs and customers to build its own legion of support. There there have been few public statements so far, this might well be the first, and although Tucows is not a massive player, having an established business will count for something.

For those who are not aware of Tucows and its Ting Mobile brand, the organization operates out of Ontario in Canada and Mississippi in the US, using both Sprint and T-Mobile US’ networks. The firm generated revenues of $81 million for the quarter ending August 8, with a net income of $3.6 million. This quarter demonstrated a 4% decline in revenues, though the firm is up 15% year-on-year for the first six months.

The general message here seems to be one which contradicts that of the bigger telco boys; light-touch regulation is the way forward and this merger will benefit US consumers and businesses.

Looking at the opposition, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union, satellite operator Dish and MVNO Altice USA were the latest to join. Dish and Altice USA have both stated the merger would make them reconsider entering the mobile race in the US, though Tucows clearly believes this is a lot of hot air. The merger would not prevent it from succeeding in the future.

“We had chosen Sprint and T-Mobile as our service providers originally for a variety of reasons, including price, device compatibility, territorial coverage, protocol coverage (CDMA and GSM), and MVNO-friendly policies and practices,” Noss states. “These factors were not the same for both companies. In some cases, Sprint is stronger than T-Mobile. In other cases, T-Mobile has advantages. Mostly, we chose to add T-Mobile as a second network in 2014 in order to have diversity of supply and to have some leverage with our suppliers in hopes of balancing an unequal bargaining position.

“In combination, a new Sprint/T-Mobile entity should continue to provide diverse support for geography, protocols, and device support. Sprint and T-Mobile, however, have different approaches to pricing and MVNO policies and support generally, and they have not announced which practices will prevail in a post-merger company.”

Noss believes a healthy MVNO sector can compensate for reduced competition as a result of the merger, and this ecosystem should be given more attention by the FCC. Neglecting the MVNO market would create the same sticky situation Canadians are facing in terms of competition, which would have more of a negative impact that the combination of Sprint and T-Mobile.

This is an opportunity for Noss to have a moan at regulators for neglecting the MVNO market to date, most notably the adoption of eSIMs, however it is fundamentally in support of the merger. Tucows might be a minnow on the US telco scene, but should the T-Mobile US lobbying efforts work, enough support from the MVNOs will have to be taken into consideration. Could this be the first of many…

CWA, Dish and Altice USA join the T-Mobile/Sprint opposition

With conflicting predictions on the outcome of the industry’s biggest will-they/won’t-they flying everywhere, opposition to the deal from a communications union, Dish and Altice has started to scrap for attention.

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) union, satellite operator Dish and MVNO Altice USA have all aired their grievances, as the industry seemingly turns against the prospects of reducing competition across the US. While we suspect politically-minded individuals actually care very little regarding the concerns of Joe Bloggs, enough resistance from corporations could certainly have an impact on the decision making process.

Mergers of this nature are particularly sensitive to authorities due to the direct impact on competition. The difficulty is focused around the idea of ‘public interest’, a loosely defined term which underpins opinion in a huge number of legal cases in the US. Unfortunately for the US and its citizens, the definition of ‘public interest’ can depend on numerous factors and is rarely 100% consistent.

Looking at the opposition raised in recent days, the focus seems to be around three themes; competition, national security and jobs. Competition is the main focus here, so will get the lion’s share of attention.

When looking to raise support for the transaction, T-Mobile and Sprint executives have pointed towards the idea of consolidated networks and more efficient supply chains to bridge the gap created by AT&T and Verizon at the top of the communications rankings. According to Dish and the CWA, this is nothing more than hot air, as neither organization needs the merger as a means to provide 5G services or could not exist without the deal. As 5G services would be brought without the proposed tie-up, the public interest aspect is questioned as why would it be logical to remove a fourth player.

Another interesting point is the spectrum screen. The FCC gets very fidgety when one telco controls more than 33% of available spectrum in a given region, though should the deal go through, this would be the case across 66% of the US, a landmass which acts as home to 92% of US citizens according to the CWA. Altice USA believes one of the conditions of the deal should be the divestment of spectrum which exceeds the screen, as well as the associated network infrastructure, to improve opportunities for MVNOs and smaller telcos.

But perhaps the most important assertion here is the prevention of competition. Dish has stated the tie up would possible prevent it entering the wireless market with its own offering, while Altice USA has expressed concerns over whether the new organization would honour its own MVNO agreement with Sprint. Altice USA has said it is on track to launch an offering in 2019, though there have been no guarantees its ability to compete would not impaired by the transaction.

Predictions on whether reducing the number of wireless operators from four to three vary quite considerably, though there will certainly be concern if MVNOs start rowing backwards due to the deal. Taking Sprint out of the equation is one problem, but MVNOs disappearing will have another painful impact on competition.

Dish argues customisation of radios, chipsets and devices by the new organization would prevent it from entering the 5G mobile voice/broadband market, or at the very least delay it. Altice USA has pointed to comments from T-Mobile US CEO John Legere, which it believes demonstrates hostility towards MVNOs. Finally, the CWA has suggested the removal of head-to-head competition between the pair would be detrimental, while each has a viable future in the 5G world as a standalone business.

Looking at the other arguments, there seem to be less credibility. On the jobs front, the CWA predicts under the proposed terms of the transaction, 28,000 jobs would be sacrificed. 12,600 would be in the postpaid business, 11,800 in the prepaid and 4,500 in head office roles. As with any merger, there will certainly be crossover and therefore redundancies, though considering the combined workforce of the two organizations is in the region of 80,000-90,000, we can’t imagine redundancies will be as high as 33%.

In terms of national security, the CWA suggests Softbank is too close to Huawei and ZTE. The union quotes Sprint executives, claiming they have praised the technology of the two vendors, though this is hardly a surprise; many telcos around the world have paid compliments to Huawei in particular for the excellence of products, customisation and account management capabilities. Huawei is the market leader for communications infrastructure for a reason.

The national security argument seems to be nothing more than a shallow attempt to rile paranoid politicians who already have a Chinese bee in their bonnet. The link appears to be a smear attempt, attributing comments which are far from uncommon to a single business. It is an underhanded move and undermines the credibility, assuming it has much, of the union.

Although we do not see much substance to the employment and national security arguments, the competition concerns from all three are somewhat justified. Authorities will certainly have some alternative ideas to consider and it tough to see how this merger will be approved within the 90-day targeted window.