Stories about this on-again – off-again merger are rolling off the digital presses almost on a daily basis. As new developments emerge, such as the recent slew of suits by nearly a dozen states, one has to wonder just how this, coupled with the rest of the realities of 5G, this is going to play out in the ecosystem.
This saga, no matter how it plays out, will not likely have a direct impact on the rollout of 5G. However, the dance finale will certainly be something to behold, however it goes. For the record, I have been of the opinion that the merger will happen.
As if, the recent 5G “deployments” have not had enough disappointments. The one thing that the merger had going for it was the ability to marshal each organization’s strong suits into a really bleeding edge network. However, it is being discovered that what they’ve said they can do may be way overstated. That is why New York, and some other states, are crying foul.
Nevertheless, and all that aside, what are the real issues here. Is it a contraction of competition as the DoJ claims? I am not so sure of that. Why? Because there is no real evidence that three versus four major telecom players will change the competitive landscape all that much. While I have my opinions, as does everyone else, a recent post by an industry analyst, Kyung Mun of Mobile Experts, bring up some interesting observations. He talks about the “The Rule of Three and Four,” a business theory that hypothesizes that a competitive industry finds an equilibrium when the market shares of three competitors reach a ratio of 4:2:1. He wrote a very elegant thesis around this to make the case that the merger should happen and to explain competitive industry dynamics of why.
A year later, (a couple of weeks ago) as the T-Mo/Sprint saga drags on, he, again, wrote another elegant piece raising some very pertinent questions about why analytics sometime fail. While his missive is very well supported by analytics, I believe tried and true analytical models and algorithms, in this political environment, are not as rock solid as they once were. When you have the kind of political hip-shooting as exists in the present administration, one has to sit back and take a broader look at the ecosystem. There are peripheral factors at play in such an environment.
It appears that the DoJ, IMHO, has some political motivation behind its direction. I believe the litigating states do, as well. It is not about competition; it is about the administration’s desire to maintain the façade that it is about jobs. To wit, this is a statement made by New York’s Attorney General Letitia James. “This is exactly the sort of consumer-harming, job-killing megamerger our antitrust laws were designed to prevent.” She goes on to say that “When it comes to corporate power, bigger isn’t always better. The T-Mobile and Sprint merger would not only cause irreparable harm to mobile subscribers nationwide by cutting access to affordable, reliable wireless service for millions of Americans, but would particularly affect lower-income and minority communities here in New York and in urban areas across the country.”
Oh really? And where does she get her facts? No one knows, precisely, what the end result of the merger will be. Will there be job losses? – of course. However, there will also be new jobs created by the merger. The loss/gain scenario exists whenever companies merge. In addition, I wonder why she did not mention what will happen to Sprint jobs if it goes out of business – will there be no job losses? If one wants to talk about job loss, look to AI. While everyone treads lightly around AI killing jobs, it is a given that will happen. A quick search of the topic will find any number of articles supporting this case.
Next, let us talk about competition. As much visibility as the two companies will be under after the merger (and the other two, as well), it really seems like political suicide to raise prices for what already exists. 5G is another story but so far, no high-value use cases are showing up. Frankly, I believe that the melding of T-Mo and Sprint will bring a stronger player to the market, actually increasing price pressure on the other two.
One point that does have merit is that one of the attorneys general investigation into the merger found that many of the claimed benefits were unverifiable and were theoretical services yet to be developed. The reference is to speed and deploy-ability. However, that metric applies to all carriers so that should be a moot point. Every carrier is promising embellished services and exaggerated performance.
I am not the only one who does not understand this team blocking by the government (remember Trumps spat with Legere and Trump calling T-Mo service terrible). I believe this is more political than economic. For that matter, so does wireless analyst Mark Lowenstein. He says he cannot see the downside to this merger. He supports his position with a number of good arguments, none of which I have room to pen here but they are easy to find.
In addition, do not forget there are other players eyeing the wireless market. Charlie Ergen’s DISH Network has spent billions of dollars amassing spectrum and it owns enough of it to build a 5G network. Plus, there is Amazon, Google and others with skin in the game.
Finally, why all this attention to wireless? There are so many other industry segments that just scream antitrust – airlines, cable, online advertising, ticketing services…the list goes on. For some reason, this has become the Oprah show of the year. I think the DoJ and suing states need to go back and reexamine their motives, and come back apolitical.
Sprint will launch its commercial 5G network beginning in May with service spreading out to nine major U.S. cities in first half of 2019, covering more than 1,000 square miles. Sprint is currently testing and optimizing its deployment of standards-based 5G software and hardware in downtown Chicago using Massive MIMO radios from Samsung Electronics America.
Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and Kansas City are expected to be among the first cities to offer commercial 5G service; with Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Phoenix and Washington D.C. also slated to launch in the first half of 2019. The initial 5G coverage footprint will cover more than 1,000 square miles across all nine cities.
Sprint is using Samsung’s 5G New Radio (NR) to prepare for the launch. The 5G NR solution is enabled by adding Samsung software and a channel card to Samsung’s existing Massive MIMO technology, which has been providing enhanced 4G LTE service in U.S. markets on Sprint’s 2.5 GHz TDD network since last year. This allows both 4G LTE and 5G commercial service on Sprint’s network using the ‘split mode’ capabilities of Samsung’s MIMO solution, smoothing the transition to 5G. The solution is capable of achieving more than 1.5 Gbps throughput speeds.
Sprint has deployed hundreds of Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung 64T64R Massive MIMO radios.
There were plenty of warnings about the possible negative effects of the proposed merger of T-Mobile and Sprint on rates, rural coverage and jobs during the House Telecom subcommittee hearing, “Protecting Consumers and Competition: An Examination of the T-Mobile/Sprint Merger.” But T-Mobile CEO John Legere, not surprisingly, held his own.
Chris Shelton, president, Communications Workers of America (CWA), said the merger would “kill American jobs, lower wages, and raise prices.”
CWA estimated that the merger will eliminate an estimated 30,000 jobs, 25,500 of which would be in retail stores. The Roosevelt Institute and the Economic Policy Institute predicted a decline in annual earnings between $520 and $3,276 for workers, according to Phillip Berenbroick, senior policy council, Public Knowledge.
Shelton noted that T-Mobile’s 2018 acquisition of iWireless, a regional carrier in Iowa, led to the closure of more than 72 percent of iWireless corporate stores, more than 93 percent of authorized dealer stores and the call centers in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Shelton predicted harm would come to employees of the carriers not even involved in the merger. “When you decrease competition for labor, wages go down. That is what will happen throughout the wireless industry at all the wireless carriers if the merger takes place,” he said.
The merger will harm rural carriers by removing a nationwide roaming option, according to Carri Bonnet, general counsel, Rural Wireless Association. She also called Legere’s pledge to freeze prices for three years “cold comfort.”
Legere repeated with relish his mantra that competition will increase, and the number of jobs will rise, saying he would add 600 new retail stores and five new customer experience centers.
“The capacity and scale and the power of the network that this merger will give us will really let me take it to the [AT&T and Verizon] and bring competition in a way that it has not been seen before,” Legere said. “I’m salivating to take it to the cable carriers, as well. This is about creating scale and capacity to super-charge the uncarrier to bring the duopolists kicking and screaming to what they should be doing in 5G.”
The New T-Mobile will need 3,600 additional employees in its first year and more than 11,000 more employees by 2024 than the standalone companies, Legere said.
“This merger will be a tremendous jobs creator at New T-Mobile and across the country,” Legere said. “Our merger will be jobs positive from day one – and going forward. The build-out of our 5G network, investment in new customer care centers, and expansion into new businesses like video distribution, broadband, and enterprise services means thousands more jobs than the two standalone companies would have needed.”
Legere denied claims that synergies from the merger would come from job losses, saying that “a significant amount of the synergy” would come through the decommissioning of 35,000 cell sites. “Together, we will have 110,000 macro nodes. We will pick 75,000 of them, build 10,000 more and the decommissioning of 35,000 cell sites,” he said.
Marcelo Claure, executive chairman, Sprint, said, considering that his company lost $25 billion during the last decade and currently has $40 billion in total debt, the merger is necessary for Sprint to continue to be competitive.
The post-merger T-Mobile will continue to be innovative, because its share of the market will continue to be small compared with AT&T and Verizon.
California Representative Anna Eshoo, who has signed a letter in support of the merger, asserted that the four-carrier market is not currently competitive, because AT&T and Verizon control roughly two thirds of the market and have had the same market share for the last 15 or so years. Creating a strong third carrier could change that, she said.
“This is hardly a dynamic, competitive market. For all intents and purposes, we have a duopoly. Americans pay some of the highest prices for wireless services in the developed world, have the least choice, especially in the rural areas,” she said.
Both companies are missing ingredients to become serious competitors in the market, according to Eshoo.
“T-Mobile has a strong record as competitor. I think we can all agree to that, but it lacks critical mid-band spectrum to compete,” she said. “That is where Sprint comes in. Spectrum is gold and Sprint has it. But Sprint has a $40 billion debt and cannot make the investment needed to compete with AT&T and Verizon.”
Doug Brake, director of broadband and spectrum policy, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, spoke in favor of the merger, taking issue with those that want to preserve the four-carrier marketplace.
“The four-to-three lens ignores the rapidly differentiating business models in and adjacent to wireless services,” Brake said. “Raw connectivity is increasing commodified and wireless companies are looking to new revenue streams.”
The Sprint/T-Mobile merger had appeared to be sailing through judicial and FCC review. Now, however, with the Democrats taking over the House, Congress is exercising its oversight role. Energy and Commerce and Judiciary Committees plan to hold a joint hearing on the merger on Feb. 13 to exam the merger’s potential impacts on consumers, workers and the wireless industry.
“A merger between T-Mobile and Sprint would combine two of the four largest wireless carriers and the carriers with the largest numbers of low-income customers,” said Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ).
While the complete list of hearing participants is still being confirmed, T-Mobile CEO John Legere and Sprint Executive Chairman Marcelo Claure have both agreed to testify.
This will be the first merger review hearing before the Energy and Commerce Committee in more than eight years—the last time Democrats held the majority in the House of Representatives.
“As the committees with oversight of the FCC and Department of Justice, we must hold this hearing to examine the effects on important issues like jobs, costs to consumers, innovation and competition,” Pallone said. “We look forward to examining this merger from the perspective of what is in the best interest of consumers and hardworking people.”
The merger was expected to close at the end of the second quarter of this year with the completion of reviews by U.S. Department of Justice and the FCC. There certainly may be conditions placed not the merger by those two agencies, if they approve it.
“Regarding the Sprint/T-Mobile merger, one sticking point was Deutsche Telekom [owner of T-Mobile] punting on Huawei as a condition. Softbank is already replacing them in Japan. Not sure how real this issue was. If this is a must have and DT won’t play, then the deal may be shot down,” said Earl Lum, analyst, EJL Research. “Any hearing is never good if it goes south so will need to wait and see what they say or DON’T say. I have to assume some spectrum will be given back as part of the deal.”
Calls for Merger Hearing Echoed in the Senate
Hearings may also be held on the Senate side. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R- Miss.) and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) were urged schedule a hearing on the proposed merger in a letter by Senators Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), all members of the committee.
“The merger of T-Mobile and Sprint would reduce the number of nationwide wireless carriers from four to three,” according to the letter. “This reduction in competition raises a number of important questions that the committee should address.” The letter went on to note the possibility of harmful repercussions, such as “higher prices, fewer choices and less flexibility in switching carriers.”
The Senators went on to demand scrutiny of the 5G claims of T-Mobile and Sprint. “T-Mobile and Sprint have argued that their merger is necessary for successful deployment of a robust nationwide 5G network, despite previous individual assertions by each company made prior to the merger boasting of their own progress building towards 5G.”
T-Mobile, Sprint, if Joined, to Build 5 ‘Customer Experience Centers’
In what will certainly be a talking point during the hearings, T-Mobile and Sprint have announced that, upon the merger, they plan to build five new “Customer Experience Centers” around the United States, averaging 1,000 new jobs each.
The new centers will give customers more personalized support. Additionally, the companies plan to expand two existing T-Mobile Centers, cumulatively creating up to 5,600 additional American customer care jobs by 2021.
Overland Park, Kansas, will be the first of the five new locations. The Overland Park facility will be a new addition to the existing Sprint campus, which was previously announced as the New T-Mobile’s secondary headquarters.
Last week in a Bloomberg feed there was an article about Sprint throttling Microsoft’s Skype Service. According to a study by Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts, Sprint has been slowing traffic to Microsoft Corp.’s Internet-based video chat service Skype.
How did they find out? Well, as it turns out there is an app for that. It is called WeHe and it is designed specifically to determine if your ISP is throttling services. At present, it can test the streaming speeds of seven popular apps, YouTube, Amazon, NBC Sports, Netflix, Skype, Spotify, and Vimeo, and then tell you which of them are being artificially slowed down by your internet provider.
According to the Bloomberg report, more than 100,000 consumers have used the Wehe smartphone app to test internet connections. Information from those tests is then aggregated and analyzed by the researchers to check if data speeds are being slowed or throttled.
Interestingly, Sprint was the only one to throttle Skype, the study found. The throttling was detected in 34 percent of 1,968 full tests – defined as those in which a user ran two tests in a row – conducted between January 18 and October 15, 2018. It happened regularly and was spread geographically across the United States. Android phone users were more affected than owners of Apple’s iPhones.
What is interesting, and rather ironic is that Skype is in bed with Sprint. Seems Sprint is biting the hand that feeds it.
However, all analysis aside, this is the perfect example of why Net Neutrality (NN) should be reinstated and why such companies need babysitting. Of course, a spokesperson from Sprint said that Skype was not singled out, nor do they single out any particular content provider. Of course not. It was just all just a misunderstanding … right. They got caught with their hand in the cookie jar and true to unregulated corporate style, disclaimed any such practice.
The researchers bought a Sprint wireless plan to try to detect throttling of Skype in the lab but couldn’t replicate the experience of the Wehe app users. This is likely because it affects only certain subscription plans, but not the one the researchers purchased, they said.
And, as can be expected, Sprint is not the only provider that was found to practice throttling. Earlier this year, the same researchers found that most of the large American telecoms were throttling popular apps including Netflix and YouTube.
What I love about this is that the work of these researchers is funded by the National Science Foundation, Alphabet and ARCEP, the French telecom regulator. I can see why NSF and ARCEP would be interested in such a study; not sure why Alphabet (Google’s parent company) would be unless they are looking for some dirt on the other players.
In any event, another blatant, in your face, “we say one thing and do another.” I continue to be disappointed in the FCC with their refusals to come up with something to keep these telcos in line and protect the consumer. That is what they are there for, after all. It is again made clear that, without some sort of regulation, telcos will continue to go about their business, as usual, whether that business is moral and/or legal, or not, seems to not be much of a concern to them.
Fortunately, at least some of the states are realizing that the current administration has no interest, and apparently, concern in protecting the consumer so they are implementing their own rules on broadband providers.
Ajit Pai, the FCC’s Trump-retained chairman believes that it is not the federal government’s job to babysit telcos and content providers. OK, then why did they promptly sue California over its moving forward to implement its own version of NN? That has since been vacated by California, for the time being, in exchange for the Justice Department’s agreement to postpone its litigation against the state until a separate case directly involving the FCC runs its course.
The time has come to figure this out. Be it at a federal level, or lower, something needs to be done. This is the latest in a long line of similar instances. It is obvious that the broadband providers, telcos and others, will just continue the status quo unless they are babysat.