It’s not official, but it feels real. After months of speculation, Bloomberg Asia is reporting that Dish Network has agreed to buy wireless assets from T-Mobile and Sprint in a $5 billion deal creating a fourth carrier designed to convince the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) to bless the merger of the mobile phone carriers.
It’s not the final step before the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint becomes a reality, but it would appear to be a big one. The DoJ must still okay the merger and the states would have to withdraw their lawsuit. Then we can go back to the full-time task of wondering what Charlie Ergen will do next.
Dish would pay $1.5 billion to receive several prepaid mobile businesses and $3.5 billion for spectrum. In return, according to Bloomberg, the satellite TV provider would receive a seven-year wholesale agreement allowing it to sell T-Mobile wireless service under its brand and a three-year service agreement from T-Mobile to provide operational support.
Solving one of the final reported sticking points, Dish will not be allowed to sell the assets or hand over control of the agreement to a third party for three years, Bloomberg reported.
One of the reasons this year-plus roller coaster of negotiations feels like it is coming to an end stems from reports last week that the DoJ said it would oppose the merger, if T-Mobile and Sprint had did not finalize their deal with Dish within a week. A deadline! Who knew that would work?
New Street Research summarized what Dish will receive: 9 million prepaid subs, mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) status for 7 years, 14 megahertz of 800 MHz band spectrum and eSIM support. The firm also reported that there would be two payments: $1.4 billion now for prepaid subs and then $3.6 billion in three years for spectrum when it has been cleared.
What about Charter?
Adding another wrinkle to the story, Reuters reported that the Justice Department did not reply to Charter Communications’ proposal to buy the carriers’ telecom assets.
“The Justice Department’s lack of response to Charter could raise concerns among critics of the $26.5 billion merger of wireless carriers T-Mobile and Sprint that officials did not weigh all divestiture offers before deciding on a deal with Dish,” Reuters wrote.
And don’t forget about the lawsuit from several state attorneys general, which is attempting to block the T-Mobile/Sprint merger.
“The merger of T-Mobile and Sprint would stifle competition, cut jobs and harm vulnerable consumers from across the country, so unity among the states will be key in defending our citizens against this power-hungry corporate union,” said New York Attorney General Letitia James. It is not known whether the Dish deal would pacify the state attorney general.
Can Dish Make It as a National Carrier?
New Street Research has published analysis that shows Dish would be a disruptor in the wireless business.
“Dish has a path to an attractive wireless business on their own; one that would result in a value well above where the stock is trading today,” the analysis reads. “If they can secure a network hosting deal with T-Mobile, the business would be more valuable still. We worked with network engineers to determine what it would cost Dish to build and operate a new 5G network. We show that, once fully loaded, Dish would have a lower cost per unit of capacity than any of the four national carriers today. This gives Dish the ability to price aggressively, to fill the network swiftly, and to create tremendous value for themselves at the expense of the existing carriers.”
The news of the breakthrough that may advance the merger was welcome for the wireless industry, but unfortunately, it raises more questions than it answers. Will Dish continue to build out its license-saving internet-of-things network? The DoJ most likely will give it an extension to keep the millions of dollars of spectrum it has accrued.
“The broader question is what will they build and when will they build it?” asked Alex Gellman, CEO and cofounder of Vertical Bridge. “Will they build a 5G network and start transitioning the MVNO customers over? It makes sense if they have the freedom to figure out where most of the traffic is and can start picking off the hottest spots with their own proprietary infrastructure.” Comcast and Charter do not have the right to build their own cores as part of their MVNO deals with Verizon.
Perhaps the biggest questions that need to be answered, according to Gellman, is who does Dish partner with and when? “How quickly does Dish partner with someone to build the new network?” he asked. “Does that partner bring customers, capital or the ability to build? That is the wild card.”
But don’t hold your breath. Gellman said he believes Dish will take its time finding a partner and developing a build strategy. “They will take a measured approach,” he said. “They will get to know the Boost customers and they have seven years to use T-Mobile’s network. One thing is for sure, this deal cements the existence of a fourth carrier. Dish can no longer sell its spectrum to AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile.
Dish Network may be the lucky fourth carrier needed for U.S. Justice Department approval of the Sprint/T-Mobile merger, according reports by the Wall Street Journal and Reuters. The announcement may come as soon as this week. Charlie Ergen has spoken about the importance of being at the inflection point of a technology change. It appears that DISH may also be at the right place at the right time.
“Dish Network is leading the race to scoop up assets that the Justice Department says Sprint Corp. and T-Mobile US must sell to save their $26 billion merger,” according to the WSJ.
The Reuters news service based its report on meetings between Dish Network Corp executives and the DoJ and the FCC. Additionally, in a federal filing, Dish explained “the need for a minimum of four nationwide mobile network operators.”
Also in the running for role of fourth wireless competitor are Altice USA and Charter Communications.
States’ Complaint Still in Play
Remember the states’ lawsuit? Jennifer Fritzsche, Wells Fargo senior analyst, said, with the states worried about a loss in competition, a fourth carrier could impress them.
“Some believe that if the DoJ approves the deal – with significant concessions that may include the creation of new national carrier – this lessens (kills?) the States’ argument that this merger will hurt competition,” she wrote in an Equity Note.
Judge Victor Marrero, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, has been chosen to preside of the case. He doesn’t reportedly have a notable history of anti-trust opinions, Blair Levin, New Street Research, says he may be good for the states’ side.
“We think, however, that as a Clinton appointee, and as a person who worked in both local and state government, he is less likely to simply accept any argument from the Trump DOJ as gospel on antitrust economic analysis than other judges might,” Levin wrote in an NSR Policy note.
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.
T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray said he is very excited to see the FCC publicly support the proposed merger between T-Mobile and Sprint, but he admitted that two hurdles still exist. One is opposition at the Department of Justice and the other is a lawsuit by the State Attorneys General. Ray gave a keynote address at the Connectivity Expo yesterday in Orlando, Florida.
“We are delighted to see their support become public news. Obviously, we have work to do with DoJ and the State Attorneys General. We are very optimistic about the approval of this transaction,” Ray said.
In a prepared statement on May 20, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he would recommend to the other commissioners that the FCC approve the merger, in light of the commitments made by the carriers.
Ray defended the merger as being pro-competitive and good for 5G. Noting that the United States currently only has two “full scale” competitors, Ray said the merger would actually increase competition by adding a third. The merger will also not result in layoffs, he said, adding 11,000 jobs. T-Mobile will go from 100 megahertz up to 300 megahertz of spectrum (excluding millimeter wave). Through supply and demand economics, the huge combined Sprint/T-Mobile spectrum cache plus 5G spectral efficiency will quantumly increase its system capacity, which help the New T-Mobile lower prices.
“The capacity that Sprint and T-Mobile can provide today, by 2024, will see a multiplier of 5X. That massive volume of supply flowing into the market is what will allow the New T-Mobile to drive prices south,” Ray said. “That has been an important point as we have built our case with the DoJ and the FCC as to what happens to the U.S. consumer.”
Sprint and T-Mobile have given regulators assurances on networks speeds in the region of 100 megabits per second compared to 10s Mbps today. They also committed to deploying a 5G network that would cover 97 percent of the nation’s population within three years of the closing of the merger and 99 percent of Americans within six years, which seem to especially please Chairman Pai.
“Two of the FCC’s top priorities are closing the digital divide in rural America and advancing United States leadership in 5G, the next generation of wireless connectivity. The commitments made today by T- Mobile and Sprint would substantially advance each of these critical objectives,” he wrote.
The 5G network would reach 85 percent of rural Americans within three years and 90 percent within six years. Access to mobile broadband speeds of 100 Mbps would reach 90 percent of Americans and 99 percent would have access to speeds of at least 50 Mbps, according to the carriers’ commitments.
“We have made a very meaningful commitment to the regulatory authorities, backed up with real monetary penalties if we fail to meet our commitments,” Ray said.
The pairing of T-Mobile and Sprint will create a cache of spectrum assets in the low-band, mid-band and millimeter-wave band that other carriers cannot match, although he noted that high band spectrum still needs work.
“It is critical in 5G to have all these bands of spectrum,” Ray said. “Millimeter wave and high band spectrum for use in dense, urban environments are beginning to be launched. They are having a tough time right now. Millimeter wave has a lot of growth and potential, but the networks are not ready for prime time. I am building millimeter way, and I would not launch it for my customers right now. The experience is too spotty and too intermittent. We will bring millimeter wave to market, but it is a limited play.”
T-Mobile is currently rolling out its network in the 600 MHz band across the country. It has 40 megahertz of spectrum in many rural areas.
“We are building a four-lane 5G highway across the United States in low band. The speeds will be remarkable especially when paired with 4G spectrum,” Ray said.
Carriers in China, Korea and other places around world are are deploying 5G on mid-band spectrum, which provides more mobility than millimeter wave and greater capacity than low band.
“This is the issue that is facing the United States. They are building a depth of experience, helping them speed the pace of 5G deployment,” Ray said.
I have, for some time now, been writing about how one of the first and best use cases for 5G will be fixed wireless broadband. So far, that platform has not seen a lot of action. However, I do think that is about to change.
In recent missives, I have discussed why and how it has great potential, even return on investment. Carriers have stuck their toe in this water from time to time as well, but only skimming the surface. I really do not believe they have seen the possibilities…until now.
It appears that T-Mobile is about to get serious. They may see this as a vector that can give them an early edge while the others catch on or catch up. This was one of its main points in their latest FCC filing. T-Mobile’s Legere boasts that T-Mo can provide a “true alternative to fixed broadband.”
It sounds awesome. To be able to get consistent speeds up to, even beyond, 100 Mbps, reliably, would really put a dent in the encapsulated market owned by the few “cableopoly” ISPs like CenturyLink, Comcast, Cox, etc. Especially if T-Mo can do it cost-effectively. Their ultimate goal is to deliver those 100+ Mbps wireless broadband speeds to 90 percent of the population and in-home service to over half the country’s households by 2024.
T-Mo has the resources to do this. It is looking at its 2.5 GHz spectrum for deployment. Point-to-multipoint (PMP) should have very good propagation characteristics here. Make it 5G technology and the pot gets even more interesting. 5G will up the ante with multi-user MIMO (MuMIMO), frequency aggregation, beam forming, network slicing, and a few other goodies. Throw in self-organizing networks (SON) and the end result is almost too good to be true.
The only real issue is reliability. We all know that the higher in frequency we go, the more fragile the link. And 2.5 GHz propagation characteristics are much better that 5 GHz and up. If someone puts up a high-rise in your line of sight (LOS), unless the signal can be picked up as a bounce, with sufficient signal strength, you are up the, proverbial, creek without a paddle. That means a truck roll for the provider.
Secondly, signal strength becomes a concern. It is not like a cable or fiber pipe where every termination provides a -30 dB, or whatever signal level. We also know that signal strength is a function of distance. Therefore, if you are at the end of the practical propagation footprint, service can be touchy.
Fixed wireless is not a cure-all for every situation or population. However, there is a good argument as a primary case for fixed wireless in underserved, hardwired areas, aka, rural America. That moves some of the impedances out to the edge a bit. Most rural areas have fairly clean LOS’s. Even in tough terrain, once the sites are up and working, not much will change. Therefore, for this model, it is, definitely, a good solution. In fact, a recent 5G test conducted by the University of Sussex, and Plum, in the 3.5 GHz band, researchers modeled the complicated ways in which 5G signals will interact with buildings and trees. Despite these conditions, the test recorded data speeds that were as much as 100 times faster than average broadband (which is about 30-40 Gbps).
What will make or break this is the integration of advanced technologies. While RF hardware is much improved, making for better antennas, front-end sensitivities and selectivities, and such — the biggest challenge to FWA is bandwidth. While mmWave offers some relief, it brings other challenges with deployment metrics. That is one good reason to look at the lower bands, such as 2.5 GHz.
Densification is where the dollars are, but the more users on the band, the narrower each user’s pipe gets. It is the same with hardwires, but they start out with a much wider pipe so they have a lot more available bandwidth, up front. That is where these new 5G technologies and better specs will have to step in and work some magic.
In the end, there are many other options that will help make next-generation fixed wireless access (FWA) work. Frequency reuse and other manipulation technologies, and coverage area metrics, for example, offer flexibility in network design. This enables new capabilities that will allow all kinds of geographic footprints to be covered with multiple hardware sites using beam steering, adaptive power control, frequency manipulation and other technologies.
This next-generation is not your mother’s FWA. T-Mo may just be on the fast track with FWA as a, workable, business use case for 5G. However, we will have to wait and see how this takes shape after the merger (which will happen, eventually). It might get really interesting with the combined resources of Sprint and T-Mobile.