Apr 26, 2021 - Technology

T-Mobile, once an upstart, joins the giants

Illustration of multiple text speech bubbles on a screen

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

T-Mobile has long positioned itself as a disruptive underdog, but a year after the close of its purchase of Sprint, the "un-carrier" has fully joined Verizon and AT&T in the U.S. wireless-provider big league.

Why it matters: Nearly everyone in America has a cell phone, and most people send a significant chunk of change each month to one of the major carriers, making healthy competition in this market a must.

The big picture: During the heated debate over whether regulators should allow T-Mobile to buy Sprint, the key question was whether combining the two weaker players in the cellular business would help or stifle competition.

To get the deal through, T-Mobile had to convince federal and state regulators that the merger wouldn't harm competition.

  • The companies agreed to help set Dish Network up as a new participant in the wireless market.
  • They sold Sprint's Boost Mobile prepaid business to Dish, with T-Mobile providing network services for several years, while Dish builds a 5G network from scratch.

Today, T-Mobile is in a far stronger position than it was pre-merger.

  • It boasts the broadest 5G network and, thanks to Sprint's mid-band spectrum, has an advantage that rivals currently can't match.
  • With 102 million customers, it has actually passed AT&T to become the second largest wireless carrier.

Yes, but: The transformation leaves T-Mobile with something of an identity crisis.

  • T-Mobile maintains that consumers have gotten the best of both worlds with the company continuing its underdog "Un-carrier" mentality while offering a stronger network with enough scale to finally compete on quality as well as price.
  • Critics, including Dish, argue that T-Mobile is increasingly similar to its rivals, Verizon and AT&T. They also say T-Mobile has started to adopt some of the hardball tactics to foreclose competition.

Dish complained earlier this month in a letter to the FCC that T-Mobile is looking to squelch competition.

  • Dish argues that T-Mobile is rushing to shut down the older Sprint CDMA network by the beginning of next year in order to steal back the Boost Mobile prepaid customers who still rely on that network.
  • It also says that T-Mobile has changed its stance on rules for airwave auctions. Where the company used to support rules that encouraged smaller players, it has begun to back removing such restrictions now that it is one of the Big Three.

Our thought bubble: For now, the wireless business has gone from four players to three. Dish could someday be a true fourth national wireless player, but today it is a bit player, still highly reliant on T-Mobile to support the Boost Mobile customers it acquired.

  • Dish is in the process of building its own 5G network, starting with at least one city this year, but that effort will require sustained investment and take years to even approach being a real competitor.

What they're saying: T-Mobile has been trying to make the case that it has kept innovating, just at a larger scale.

  • "During this first amazing year, we’ve done exactly what we set out to do from the very beginning," CEO Mike Sievert said in a recent blog post. "Best of all, the scale and synergies from our merger allow us to grow and innovate as a business, achieve record financial results and ultimately pass that value on to our customers!"
  • Analyst Avi Greengart said that, on balance, it appears that the merger has benefited competition. "It is not a simple question to answer, since Dish is not contributing much to market competition today, and it is entirely unclear if it ever will. However, T-Mobile today is finally able to compete on equal (or better!) footing with Verizon and AT&T, and that wasn’t the case for either T-Mobile or Sprint individually."

What to watch: Prices are one of the clearest indicators of the current state of competition.

  • If prices remain where they are, then consumers are probably better off, with networks continuing to improve but costs remaining roughy flat
  • If the average monthly cell phone bill starts creeping up, that's a sign that consumers are paying a price for cellular provider consolidation.
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