T-Mobile US merger with Sprint one step closer after FCC sign-off

Having secured a bunch of 5G network commitments, the US telecoms regulator has given its seal of approval to the merger of TMUS and Sprint.

The FCC had to make the usual judgment call when it comes to telecoms mergers of weighing up the reduction in competition with the increased investment power of the combined entity. As with apparently everything else in the US, the FCC is politicised and tribal. The three Republican Commissioners voted in favour, while the two republicans voted against.

To the winners go the spoils and the resulting announcement was heavy on the national benefits promised by ability of the combined entity to do a better job of rolling out a 5G network than the sum of its parts. The FCC (or at least the majority of it) is saying ‘the transaction will close the digital divide and promote the wide deployment of 5G services’. Let’s see.

“Specifically, T-Mobile and Sprint have committed within three years to deploy 5G service to cover 97% of the American people, and within six years to reach 99% of all Americans,” said the FCC announcement. “This commitment includes deploying 5G service to cover 85% of rural Americans within three years and 90% of rural Americans within six years.

“The parties also pledged that within six years, 90% of Americans would have access to mobile service with speeds of at least 100 Mbps and 99% of Americans would have access to speeds of at least 50 Mbps. This includes two-thirds of rural Americans having access to mobile service with speeds of at least 100 Mbps, and 90% of rural Americans having access to speeds of at least 50 Mbps.

“Compliance with these commitments will be verified by rigorous drive-testing, overseen by an independent third party and subject to Commission oversight, to ensure that the service Americans receive will be what the parties have promised. And in order to ensure that these commitments are met, the parties will be required to make payments that could reach over two billion dollars if they do not meet their commitments within six years. Moreover, the parties will be required to make additional payments until they have fulfilled their commitments.”

In their lengthy dissenting letter the two Democrat Commissioners stressed how little reassurance they take from these commitments. “The vague promise of 5G does not change what was true when this deal was first proposed and what remains true today—the benefits of this merger, if any, simply do not outweigh the harms,” wrote Commissioner Starks.

This still isn’t a done deal, however. It is the last of the federal obstacles but some individual states are pushing back and, by amazing coincidence, everyone involved seems to be of the Democrat persuasion. This is just how things work over there and the two companies will presumably need to dip further into the pork barrel to win those states over.

Having secured a bunch of 5G network commitments, the US telecoms regulator has given its seal of approval to the merger of TMUS and Sprint.

The FCC had to make the usual judgment call when it comes to telecoms mergers of weighing up the reduction in competition with the increased investment power of the combined entity. As with apparently everything else in the US, the FCC is politicised and tribal. The three Republican Commissioners voted in favour, while the two republicans voted against.

To the winners go the spoils and the resulting announcement was heavy on the national benefits promised by ability of the combined entity to do a better job of rolling out a 5G network than the sum of its parts. The FCC (or at least the majority of it) is saying ‘the transaction will close the digital divide and promote the wide deployment of 5G services’. Let’s see.

“Specifically, T-Mobile and Sprint have committed within three years to deploy 5G service to cover 97% of the American people, and within six years to reach 99% of all Americans,” said the FCC announcement. “This commitment includes deploying 5G service to cover 85% of rural Americans within three years and 90% of rural Americans within six years.

“The parties also pledged that within six years, 90% of Americans would have access to mobile service with speeds of at least 100 Mbps and 99% of Americans would have access to speeds of at least 50 Mbps. This includes two-thirds of rural Americans having access to mobile service with speeds of at least 100 Mbps, and 90% of rural Americans having access to speeds of at least 50 Mbps.

“Compliance with these commitments will be verified by rigorous drive-testing, overseen by an independent third party and subject to Commission oversight, to ensure that the service Americans receive will be what the parties have promised. And in order to ensure that these commitments are met, the parties will be required to make payments that could reach over two billion dollars if they do not meet their commitments within six years. Moreover, the parties will be required to make additional payments until they have fulfilled their commitments.”

In their lengthy dissenting letter the two Democrat Commissioners stressed how little reassurance they take from these commitments. “The vague promise of 5G does not change what was true when this deal was first proposed and what remains true today—the benefits of this merger, if any, simply do not outweigh the harms,” wrote Commissioner Starks.

This still isn’t a done deal, however. It is the last of the federal obstacles but some individual states are pushing back and, by amazing coincidence, everyone involved seems to be of the Democrat persuasion. This is just how things work over there and the two companies will presumably need to dip further into the pork barrel to win those states over. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

US operators collaborate in one more effort to make people care about RCS

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon have created the Cross Carrier Messaging Initiative to push the Rich Communications Service standard on Android.

RCS is championed by the GSMA, which has been banging on about it for over a decade. It’s positioned as the heir apparent to SMS, offering all sorts of ‘rich communications’ such as images, group chat. That all would have been pretty handy when it was first proposed, but since then there have been countless OTT messaging apps launched, such as WhatsApp, which seem to provide at least everything RCS does. So it’s hard to see what the point of RCS is in this day and age.

The US operators clearly disagree, however, hence this announcement. It’s easy to see why operators, and therefore their lobby group, would want to promote a messaging standard that they have greater control over. But what is less obvious is the incentives smartphone users would have to switch to it. Presumably most would reflect on their current messaging app portfolio and conclude that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

“People love text messaging for a reason,” said David Christopher, GM of AT&T Mobility. “Texting is trusted, reliable and readily available – which is why we’re using it to build the foundation of a simple, immersive messaging experience. This service will power new and innovative ways for customers to engage with each other and their favourite brands.”

“The CCMI will bring a consistent, engaging experience that makes it easy for consumers and businesses to interact in an environment they can trust,” said Michel Combes, CEO of Sprint. “As we have seen in Asia, messaging is poised to become the next significant digital platform. CCMI will make it easy for consumers to navigate their lives from a smartphone.”

“At the Un-carrier, customers drive everything we do, and that’s no different here,” said John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile. “Efforts like CCMI help move the entire industry forward so we can give customers more of what they want and roll out new messaging capabilities that work the same across providers and even across countries.”

“At Verizon, our customers depend on reliable text messaging to easily connect them to the people they care about most,” said Ronan Dunne, CEO of Verizon Consumer Group. “Yet, we can deliver even more working together as an industry. CCMI will create the foundation for an innovative digital platform that not only connects consumers with friends and family, but also offers a seamless experience for consumers to connect with businesses in a compelling and trusted environment.”

Here are the things the CCMI says RCS brings to the table:

  • Drive a robust business-to-consumer messaging ecosystem and accelerate the adoption of Rich Communications Services (RCS)
  • Enable an enhanced experience to privately send individual or group chats across carriers with high quality pictures and videos
  • Provide consumers with the ability to chat with their favourite brands, order a rideshare, pay bills or schedule appointments, and more
  • Create a single seamless, interoperable RCS experience across carriers, both in the U.S. and globally

Of these the B2B angle seems the most compelling. There is still a surprisingly vibrant business around automated application-to-person (A2P) messaging, which typically operators use to communicate with their customers. The switch to RCS would bring a lot more options to that business. And then there’s the fact that you don’t need to know whether someone has an OTT app installed in order to send that message, although it should be noted that Apple shows no sign of supporting it.

But there’s no getting around the fact that RCS is essentially a direct competitor to OTT messaging which, thanks to the inability of operators to act with any kind of urgency, now has a massive head start in the marketplace. Perhaps if more of them belatedly get their acts together as the US operators have they can start to build some momentum, but we’re not holding our breath.

T-Mobile US combines phones and tacos for some reason

Ever the disruptor, TMUS CEO John Legere has identified a combination so obvious that everyone else missed it: fusing mobile phones with tacos.

We’ve all been there, right? That listless, empty feeling while forlornly prodding our smartphone screen, just knowing there has to be more to it. But only now, thanks to T-Mobile US, do we realise that all we needed to do was nestle it in a warm, crispy taco shell and then slop spicy beef, salsa and guacamole all over it. Go on, give it a try, you’ll never look back.

Not really, but TMUS has genuinely teamed up with Tex Mex fast food chain Taco Bell to create some kind of hybrid store that will ‘…give the people even more of what they want: smartphones with a side of tacos.’ This is a bricks-and-mortar extension of come kind of promotional partnership the two organisations had previously.

“When we launched free tacos every week on T-Mobile Tuesdays, TacoBell.com had its highest online order day ever and T-Mobile Tuesdays was number one in the App Store,” said Legere. “Since then, Un-carrier customers have snagged more than 14 million free tacos from the app. People love tacos. And they love their phones. T-MoBell is the ultimate fusion of those two loves, and we can’t wait to show everyone what we’ve cooked up.”

They chose not to give whoever runs Taco Bell a canned quote in the press release, but it would presumably have followed similar lines. We would imagine Sprint is being lined up to run the delivery service while other rivals, having been caught flat footed by this bold move, must be scrambling to catch up. Expect to see Verizon 5G Guys and AT&FC before long.

 

Ericsson, T-Mobile and Qualcomm claim 600 MHz 5G first

A trio of telecoms trailblazers has claimed the world’s first low-band 5G data session on a commercial 5G modem.

T-Mobile US, Ericsson and Qualcomm were the operator, networking vendor and modem vendors involved, with T-Mobile chosen because the 600 MHz band forms a big part of its 5G plans. The demo was conducted at T-Mobile’s lab in Bellevue, Washington, using Ericsson’s Radio System and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X55 modem.

“This modem will power devices that tap into the 600 MHz low-band spectrum we’ll use to blanket the country with 5G.” said TMUS CTO Neville Ray. “And we’re not stopping there. If regulators approve our merger with Sprint, we’ll have the crucial mid-band spectrum and resources needed to supercharge our network and deliver broad AND deep, transformational 5G across the U.S.”

“Today’s data call marks a significant milestone in 5G’s ongoing rollout across the United States, paving the way for the launch of commercial networks and devices on low-band FDD spectrum,” said Cristiano Amon, Qualcomm President. “This call demonstrates the ability to dramatically increase 5G’s global footprint and we look forward to continuing our work with industry leaders like Ericsson and T-Mobile to unlock the full potential of 5G for consumers and new industries around the world.”

“Ericsson and Qualcomm Technologies have successfully tested and commercialized 5G globally across different spectrum bands, and together with T-Mobile we have now reached another major milestone as we are enabling 5G on low bands,” said Fredrik Jejdling, Head of Networks at Ericsson. “This shows that our industry is now ready for building wider 5G coverage that will enhance end user experience.”

That’s about it really, but it’s a Friday in the middle of Summer so news is thin on the ground, alright? As you can see from the canned quotes, ‘firsts’ like these largely exist to give the parties involved a bit of publicity and make them look ahead of the game. Someone had to do 5G over 600 MHz first, we guess, so well done chaps.

Sprint/T-Mobile US merger set for a $3 billion boost

It looks like Sprint could trouser up to three billion bucks when it flogs its prepaid subsidiary Boost in a bid to placate antitrust authorities.

The Sprint/T-Mobile US merger saga has been going on for so long that people are starting to not care, but a recent set of negotiated concessions were enough to convince the head of the FCC to wave the deal though. The DoJ isn’t so sure, but they might as well go ahead with the placatory measures in the hope that it comes around eventually.

One of the biggest concessions will be selling Boost, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sprint that specialises in prepaid contracts. TMUS is pretty hot on prepaid, so regulators concluded their combined efforts would take too much choice out of the prepaid market. Since this public commitment doesn’t put Sprint in the strongest negotiating position, the challenge is to get a decent price for Boost.

According to a Reuters report a company called Q Link Wireless is prepared to shell out somewhere between $1.8 billion to $3 billion for Boost. This is coming from the Q Link CEO, apparently, so we must assume it’s legit, but it also seems like a pretty broad range. What would make him pay almost double his lower figure? Some kind of bidding war presumably, so maybe he’s trying to scare off anyone not prepared to go to three bil.

The official line is that it depends on what he sees once he looks under the hood, with Sprint not yet having publicly disclosed key metrics such as churn, popular tariffs, etc. But FreedomPop is reportedly talking to private equity about getting involved and they would apparently be prepared to go up to four bil, so this has the feel of an auction carried out via the media.

FCC reveals glacial progress on the resale of location data by operators

US operators have been reselling the location data they accumulate about their subscribers and have been slow to deliver on promises to stop.

This practice was already well-known by the time it was highlighted in an expose at the start of this year. At the time operators were quick to stress that they’re pulling out all the stops to protect their customers’ personal data but Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel was apparently skeptical. Frustrated by their deafening silence on the matter she wrote to the four US MNOs at the start of the month to ask them what they were playing at.

Rosenworcel received relatively prompt responses from those operators and decided to publish them alongside a mea culpa that was probably directed more at other FCC Commissioners than herself. “The FCC has been totally silent about press reports that for a few hundred dollars shady middlemen can sell your location within a few hundred meters based on your wireless phone data. That’s unacceptable,” she said.

“I don’t recall consenting to this surveillance when I signed up for wireless service—and I bet neither do you. This is an issue that affects the privacy and security of every American with a wireless phone. It is chilling to think what a black market for this data could mean in the hands of criminals, stalkers, and those who wish to do us harm. I will continue to press this agency to make public what it knows about what happened. But I do not believe consumers should be kept in the dark. That is why I am making these letters available today.”

You can read the contrite and exculpatory responses here, but in case you can’t be bothered here’s a summary. AT&T said it started phasing out this sort of thing in June 2018, while still making location data available in emergencies. Additionally the letter attempted to distance AT&T from the reports in question and said it had stopped sharing and data with location aggregators and LBS providers on 29 March 2019.

Sprint said it current works with just one LBS (location based services) provider but will pack that in by the end of this month. T-Mobile said it had terminated all contracts with LBS types by 9 March 2019 and went on at considerable length to correct what it considers to be flawed reporting on how it used to handle this sort of thing. Verizon said it had terminated all location deals by the end of March 2019.

So that would appear to be that. All the operators have said they don’t deal with location data aggregators anymore and presumably Rosenworcel is a happy Commissioner. But the fact that they’ve only just stopped reselling their customer’s personal data, and even then only after persistent nagging and bad publicity, is a further illustration of how cavalier the tech industry has been with personal data to date.

US drives solid Deutsche Telekom numbers but German 5G auction is a drag

German operator group Deutsche Telekom has reported solid Q1 revenue growth, driven largely by T-Mobile US.

As you can see from the table below, revenues and EBITDA all grew nicely in Q1 2019. Profits, however, went in the opposite direction, apparently due to one-off things like the cost of trying to get the merger between TMUS and Sprint approved. Speaking of the US the second table shows just how much of the revenue growth is attributable to TMUS.

Q12019

millions of

Q12018

millions of

Change% FY
2018
millions of

Revenue 19,488 17,924 8.7 75,656
Proportion generated internationally in % 69.0 66.6 2.4p 67.8
EBITDA 6,461 5,269 22.6 21,836
Adjusted EBITDA 6,901 5,549 24.4 23,333
Adjusted EBITDA AL 5,940 5,487 8.3 23,074
Net profit 900 992 (9.3) 2,166
Adjusted net profit 1,183 1,190 (0.6) 4,545
Free cash flowa 2,370 1,382 71.5 6,250
Free cash flow ALa 1,557 1,318 18.1 6,051
Cash capexb 3,827 3,139 21.9 12,492
Cash capexb(before spectrum) 3,682 3,076 19.7 12,223
Net debtc 71,876 50,455 42.5 55,425
Number of employeesd 214,609 216,926 (1.1) 215,675

 

Q12019

millions of

Q12018

millions of

Change% FY
2018
millions of

Germany
Total revenue 5,357 5,325 0.6 21,700
EBITDA 1,946 1,915 1.6 8,012
Adjusted EBITDA 2,114 2,082 1.5 8,610
Adjusted EBITDA AL 2,108 2,058 2.4 8,516
Number of employeesa 62,358 64,695 (3.6) 62,621
United States
Total revenue 9,796 8,455 15.9 36,522
US-$ 11,124 10,394 7.0 43,063
EBITDA 3,210 2,360 36.0 9,928
Adjusted EBITDA 3,309 2,332 41.9 10,088
Adjusted EBITDA AL 2,679 2,331 14.9 10,084
US-$ 3,042 2,865 6.2 11,901
Europeb
Total revenue 2,891 2,811 2.8 11,885
EBITDA 1,035 905 14.4 3,757
Adjusted EBITDA 1,059 911 16.2 3,880
Adjusted EBITDA AL 945 898 5.2 3,813
Systems Solutions
Order entry 1,609 1,506 6.8 6,776
Total revenue 1,630 1,665 (2.1) 6,936
Adj. EBIT margin (%) (0.2) (2.3) 2.1p 0.5
EBITDA 79 19 n.a. 163
Adjusted EBITDA 125 57 n.a. 429
Adjusted EBITDA AL 92 60 53.3 442

“We got off to a successful start to the year,” said Tim Höttges, CEO of DT. “Deutsche Telekom has much more to offer than just our sensational success in the United States. We are seeing positive trends throughout the Group.”

Not included in his canned comments, but picked up by Reuters, was Höttges inevitable irritation at the amount of cash DT is having to drop on the interminable German 5G spectrum auction. We’re on round 305 of the bidding, believe it or not, and the total pledged has now reached €5,687,520,000. Expect to hear persistent muttering about how that’s money they can’t spend on infrastructure, etc, before long.