Another petition appears to delay T-Mobile/Sprint merger

Nine organizations have come together to petition the FCC to delay any permissions to approve the T-Mobile US and Sprint merger until a fraud investigation has been completed.

The petition is focused on a Sprint probe, relating to alleged Lifeline fraud. The under-fire telco has been accused of collecting subsidies from the FCC even though many of the subscribers through the initiative were inactive and not using the service.

“Specifically, the public interest, rural wireless, and labor organizations ask the Commission to pause its review of the merger while important issues related to Sprint’s apparent Lifeline fraud are more fully investigated by the Commission, and also urge the Commission to seek public comment on the DISH waiver requests, the July 26 Dish commitments to the Commission, and related developments, including the DOJ Consent Decree,” the petition states.

The petition has been filed by the Rural Wireless Association, the Communications Workers of America union, Consumer Reports, The Greenlining Institute, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, New America’s Open-technology Institute, The Rural Broadband Association, the Open Markets Institute and Public Knowledge.

Should the FCC agree with the petitioners, the completion of the merger would be paused until the end of the investigation.

Although T-Mobile US and Sprint have been making progress towards completing the merger, there are still numerous hurdles which will have to be negotiated. The FCC and Department of Justice have green-lit the deal, with concessions to be fulfilled, though that does not mean the law suits will disappear.

Aside from this petition, 16 State-level Attorney Generals have banded together to file a lawsuit against the merger. Led by the ambitious New York Attorney General Letitia James, the lawsuit questions the validity of the merger on the ground of competition. James has argued that with the presence of four MNOs, tariffs are becoming less expensive and coverage is improving; connectivity is getting better for the consumer with the status quo, so why should this be changed?

The nine organizations filing this petition to the FCC are demanding the merger be delaying which the fraud investigation into Sprint is on-going.

The Lifeline Program is designed to offer subsidies to telcos to enable free tariffs for low-income consumers across the country. Participants receive $9.25 a month on average, though Sprint is accused of collecting the pay-out for 885,000 inactive Lifeline customers. This number represents 30% of the Lifeline subscribers Sprint supports.

“It’s outrageous that a company would claim millions of taxpayer dollars for doing nothing,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said at the time. “This shows a careless disregard for program rules and American taxpayers. I have asked our Enforcement Bureau to investigate this matter to determine the full extent of the problem and to propose an appropriate remedy.”

Under the rules of the programme, providers of the service may only be reimbursed for a Lifeline subscriber if that subscriber has used the service at least once in the past 30 days. The onus is placed on the telcos to de-enroll inactive subscribers, though it does appear something went very wrong at Sprint.

Considering the investigation is being powered by the FCC, the petitioners might find some joy with this latest effort to de-rail the merger. It might be nothing more than a pause on developments, but it does afford more opportunity for other opponents to gather momentum.

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.

Europe not happy about Czech network sharing arrangements

The Czech Republic’s two dominant mobile operators are sharing one network and the European Commission thinks this is taking things too far.

When the EC thinks something might be dodgy, but hasn’t totally decided yet, it likes to kick things off by sending a statement of objections to all concerned. This puts them on notice that it’s looking into the situation and initiates an investigation. Hence the network sharing arrangement between the Czech versions of O2 and T-Mobile is now under the EC microscope.

“Operators sharing networks generally benefits consumers in terms of faster roll out, cost savings and coverage in rural areas,” said Commissioner Margrethe Vestager. “However, when there are signs that co-operative agreements may be harmful to consumers, it is our role to investigate these and ensure that markets indeed remain competitive. In the present case, we have concerns that the network sharing agreement between the two major operators in Czechia reduces competition in the more densely populated areas of the country.”

This is an intriguing conundrum; how can something good suddenly become bad when it’s done too much? To be fair, between them T-Mobile and O2 account for almost three quarters of Czech subscribers. If the only other MNO of note – Vodafone – is frozen out of this arrangement that would appear to put it at a massive disadvantage. The EC is also concerned that their collective dominance means they have a disincentive to provide a decent service.

T-Mobile/Sprint merger approval is still hanging in the balance

The US DoJ’s anti-trust chief has not made up his mind on the T-Mobile/Sprint merger case, saying the deal must meet key criteria.

Speaking on CNBC (see below) Makan Delrahim, Assistant Attorney General for the US Departments of Justice’s Antitrust Division, said he has not made up his mind yet. Although he refused to comment on if his staff resisted the deal, as was reported by the media, Delrahim did allude to more data being requested from the two parties.

Delrahim also dismissed the notion that there is any magical number of competitors to deliver optimal competition in a regulated market like telecom. Any proposed deal needs to deliver efficiency, but the efficiency needs to be both merger specific, that is the efficiency cannot be achieved through other means, and verifiable.

With regard to the effects of the merger on consumers, Delrahim listed two items, price effect and coordinated effect. The first is related to the potential price move up or down after the merger. The second refers to if the merged company has the incentive to continue to compete with the existing competitors on price, in this case AT&T and Verizon. 5G will also factor in the DoJ’s decision making consideration, Delrahim said. But, instead of being positioned as a counteract against China, in this interview Delrahim was treating 5G in the framework of service offer to consumers, and the merger’s impact on it.

When being asked on the timeline, Delrahim said there is no deadline on the DoJ side, except that the deal cannot be completed before a certain date. This timeline can be extended if more deliberation is needed.

On the FCC front, another hurdle that the two carriers need to overcome before they can become one, they continued to play the offensive. Last week representatives from the two companies, including John Legere, the CEO of T-Mobile, and Marcelo Claure, Executive Chairman of Sprint, called on the FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and her Legal Advisor. The team presented the updated merger case, including their pledge to deploy home broadband, drive down prices, deliver more benefits to prepaid customers, and create, instead of cutting, jobs.

FCC’s unofficial 180-day consultation period was reopened early this month, after being halted three times, and is now on day 147.

Makan Delrahim’s CNBC interview is here:

 

 

AT&T will stick with 5GE after settling with Sprint

US operator Sprint has settled the case it brought against AT&T for unfair competition with the 5GE marketing gimmick with apparently little to show for it.

The legal trade publication Law360 reported that Sprint and AT&T have reached a settlement of the case Sprint brought to a federal court in New York in February. A short statement was mailed to the media, “The parties have amicably resolved this matter,” it said. A source told Law360 that AT&T will continue to use “5G Evolution” or 5GE in its marketing and ads materials. No details on the terms of settlement have been disclosed.

In the court case, Sprint complained that AT&T was conducting false advertising, therefore misleading consumers, and in turn, directly harming Sprint’s business interest. In addition to the law suit, Sprint also took out a full-page ad in the New York Times in March to warn consumers “Don’t be fooled. 5G Evolution isn’t new or true 5G. It is fake 5G.”

The other big US operators were not holding back from attacking AT&T’s antics either. Verizon’s CTO wrote an open letter calling on the industry “to commit to labeling something 5G only if new device hardware is connecting to the network using new radio technology to deliver new capabilities,” as well as promised that Verizon “won’t take an old phone and just change the software to turn the 4 in the status bar into a 5.” T-Mobile, on the other hand, in keeping with its CEO’s maverick spirit, uploaded a video showing someone taping over the LTE indicator on the phone with a sticker labelled “9G”.

Even the OEMs would not let go the chance to mock AT&T’s shenanigans. Xiaomi, when launching its 5G smartphone before MWC in Barcelona, pointedly highlighted the 5G network by Orange it used for the demo was real 5G, “not fake 5G”.

A few days before the announcement of settlement AT&T defended itself at the court that consumers were not fooled into believing the 5GE is actually 5G. On the other hand, for the purists like the EU-backed 5G Infrastructure Association or Qualcomm, none of the 5G networks launched so far in Korea and the US can be called “real 5G”.

T-Mobile Sprint merger cast into doubt once more

The US Department of Justice might not let the merger go through in its current form, according to reports.

The WSJ has the scoop, citing those handy people familiar with the matter once more, who also seem to have been chatting to Reuters. According to the latter, which isn’t paywalled, the DoJ has concerns about the deal as it’s currently structured. The news caused shares in both companies to fall and their respective CEOs to tweet coded dissent.

Both John Legere and Marcelo Claure said the article is, respectively, untrue and not accurate. While on the surface these might appear to be absolute rebuttals, it’s actually a bit more nuanced than that. Legere says the premise of the article is untrue without detailing what he thinks that premise is, while any small part of the piece could be inaccurate without the overall claim being so.

Here’s the opening paragraph of the WSJ story: “Justice Department antitrust enforcement staff have told T-Mobile US Inc. and Sprint Corp. that their planned merger is unlikely to be approved as currently structured, according to people familiar with the matter, casting doubt on the fate of the $26 billion deal.”

There’s not much else to say at this stage but the process certainly seems to be dragging on. Presumably there has been some discussions between the two companies and someone on the DoJ side decided to up the pressure on TMUS and Sprint to compromise via this mini-leak. Let’s see.

 

 

DoJ rumoured to be half-convinced by T-Mobile/Sprint 5G argument

The anti-trust chief in the Department of Justice is said to be receptive to T-Mobile and Sprint’s argument that the combined company will improve America’s competitiveness in 5G.

Fox Business reporter Charlie Gasparino claimed people close to Makan Delrahim, Assistant Attorney General for the DoJ’s Antitrust Division, have disclosed that the department is receptive to the argument that a third strong operator in the US will help the country compete better with China.

Gasparino first tweeted about his “Scoop sources” before he went on the screen:

As we reported earlier, the proposed merger still needs to overcome two barriers before it can be completed: the DoJ and the FCC. Gasparino explained that, unlike the FCC which needs a panel decision, the DoJ’s decision rests on Delrahim’s office alone. It looks that the argument for 5G competitiveness from the merger is outweighing his concerns for anti-trust consequences. Also significantly, Gasparino said, the FCC tends to follow the DoJ’s decision in cases like this.

5G has always been a central argument in the merger case. In its public interest statement published in June 2018, the companies stressed the investment commitment and the benefits the New T-Mobile would bring to America. $40 billion in the development of a nationwide 5G network and services will be made by 2024. “The New T-Mobile network will have approximately double the total capacity and triple the total 5G capacity of T-Mobile and Sprint combined, with 5G speeds four to six times what they could achieve on their own,” the companies said in the close to 700-page document.

The argument of competing with China on 5G with a third strong operator comes days after the companies claimed the merger would benefit up to 50 million Americans who currently do not have access to broadband, when T-Mobile launched its LTE FWA trial.

Meanwhile, the position of FCC is not getting clearer. On 7 March, for the third time, the agency put a hold on its 180-day countdown to gather feedback while ploughing through new information, which, FCC detailed, is related to the extension of a simulation model for the merger provided by the companies. The Commission will re-open the countdown at day 122 on 4 April.

The market was encouraged by the news. Both companies’ share prices grew following Gasparino’s tweet. T-Mobile closed the day up by 1.42%, and Sprint’s up by 1.75%.

T-Mobile uses FWA and digital divide as latest Sprint merger justification

T-Mobile US has announced the launch of an LTE Fixed Wireless Access service, which could address the connectivity needs of 50 million people, assuming the Sprint merger is approved of course.

It hasn’t been billed as an Uncarrier move from T-Mobile, however it has the potential to be quite disruptive. The team has pointed to statistics which suggest 61% of rural customers either have no or only one home broadband services available to them, offering a significant opportunity for CEO John Legere and his magenta army, if they can prove the concept works effectively.

In the first instance, T-Mobile plans to invite 50,000 customers to participate in the live trial, though should the bureaucrats approve the Sprint merger, the team would be able to open this up to 9.5 million customers by 2024. And thanks to 5G, T-Mobile is promising speeds “in excess” of 100 Mbps to 90% of the forecasted FWA footprint, also by 2024.

“Two weeks ago, I laid out our plans for home broadband with the New T-Mobile,” said Legere. “Now, we’re already hard at work building toward that future. We’re walking the walk and laying the foundation for a world where we can take the fight to Big Cable on behalf of consumers and offer real choice, competition and savings to Americans nationwide.”

Although FWA is not a long-term, realistic alternative to fibre, at least not on the current airwaves, T-Mobile could certainly craft a useful position here. Pricing the service at $50 per month, the team suggests customers could save $360 per year, assuming the average monthly cost of home broadband is $80.

For T-Mobile this is perfect timing to plug the benefits of the Sprint merger and gain the interest of influential politicians. With the 2020 Presidential Election machine beginning to crank into first gear, potential candidates and the President himself will be looking for soundbites to rollout to the Middle America rallies. The FWA service ticks two boxes here.

Firstly, with so many rural consumers (and potential voters) either unable to purchase a home broadband service, or only having a single option, T-Mobile is providing an answer. In most cases, the reason home broadband is not available is due to an inability for the telco to prove ROI or the geographical landscape makes it incredibly difficult. FWA addresses these problems.

Secondly, $360 is a lot of money. T-Mobile has a track record of undercutting rivals while delivering a service which is at least on par. This might well be an offering which will attract the interest of many.

Should any politician be involved in forcing the T-Mobile and Sprint merger through, it would be an excellent anecdote for the ambitious politicians to take to potential voters. Not only are they delivering Middle America the internet, they are doing it cheaper than what is available to everyone else around the country.

T-Mobile is promising the merged company will use a low-cost structure to aggressively capture market share by undercutting rivals. This strategy is not only a chance for Legere to further irritate AT&T and Verizon, but it is a massive plug for the merger. In an FCC document, T-Mobile suggests by “monetizing available spectrum and leveraging off of other deployed network assets, the in-home service will be profitable on its own”. The underlying message is quite clear; look what we can do once you greenlight the merger.

Interestingly enough, T-Mobile seems to be fighting the competition concerns in the wireless market, with the opportunity to enhance competition in the wireline market. Soon enough, the merger judges will have to decide what is more important; maintaining the four MNO balance or creating more competition in the home broadband arena.

“These pro-competitive and pro-consumer in-home broadband benefits are clearly merger-specific, verifiable, and compelling considerations to inform the Commission’s overall review of the merger’s effects on competition and the public interest,” the statement to the FCC reads.

Another point which will gain the attention of the pro-consumer politicians and bureaucrats is the promise of free hardware. T-Mobile is promising the LTE router will be provided and installed at no-cost to the consumer, and as soon as 5G is available in the area, the upgraded 5G router will be provided free of charge.

The merger is still hanging in the balance, but the promise of increased competition in the broadband world, especially with the prospect of a race to the bottom, might turn some heads. The pros and cons of the T-Mobile/Sprint merger are starting to become very interesting

Potential Presidential candidates line up to oppose T-Mobile/Sprint merger

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.

Legere and T-Mobile running riot again

He might be wild-eyed, egotistical and unconventional, but you can’t argue with the results T-Mobile US CEO John Legere is delivering shareholders.

Reporting 2018 full year financials, T-Mobile US has continued the rip-roaring success of the last few years. Total revenues for 2018 finished at $43.3 billion, up 7% year-on-year, alongside 7 million net customer additions, 4.5 million of which were in the lucrative branded postpaid segment.

“This never gets old,” Legere proclaimed. “T-Mobile finished another year with record breaking financials and our best-ever customer growth. Record revenues, strong net income, record Adjusted EBITDA, our lowest-ever Q4 postpaid phone churn that was better than AT&T for the very first time.

“T-Mobile is competing hard and winning customers – and we continue to deliver results beyond expectations. Our 2019 guidance shows that we expect our incredible standalone momentum to continue.”

All this, and the telco still hasn’t launched the much-anticipated TV offering.

When Legere first walked into the room as CEO in September 2012 investor jaws must have hit the floor. This is not a man who looks like a business leader in one of the most risk-adverse and stuffy industries on the planet, and when the first Uncarrier move was announced in 2013, a few must have been close to passing out.

Going against everything which everyone knew in the industry, March 2013 saw the introduction of the first Uncarrier offer. A new streamlined plan for customers which dropped contracts, subsidized phones, coverage fees for data, and early termination fees. This was certainly a break from the status quo and since this point numerous new Uncarrier moves have been introduced almost doubling revenues (2012 full year was $22.5 billion). It might not be traditional, but this is a success story like few others.

At the end of the three-month period, T-Mobile had a total of 79.6 million customers and a postpaid churn rate of 0.99%. This is still a company which should be considered a challenger, but T-Mobile US is making steady progress. It is not accelerating towards the leadership duo of Verizon and AT&T, but it certainly is not slowing up either. The big question is whether this momentum can be maintained.

With 5G on the horizon, the team certainly have the raw materials to create another few Uncarrier plays. Deployment of 600 MHz is setting the scene for a launch, with the team promising the network will be ready for the introduction of the first standards-based 5G smartphones in 2019. By the end of 2018, T-Mobile US claims to have cleared spectrum for approximately 135 million POPs and with the ambition to clear spectrum covering 272 million POPs by the end of 2019.

All this and the team still hasn’t done anything with the Layer123 purchase of December 2017. Alas, a TV Uncarrier move is just something we’ll have to look forward to over the next couple of months.