May 31, 2017

How a T-Mobile-Sprint merger could jolt wireless

As Wall Street prepares for a possible frenzy of mergers thanks to the end of a federal airwaves auction, there's one that analysts expect could be announced any day: a proposed marriage of underdog carriers T-Mobile and Sprint.

Why it matters: Going from four nationwide carriers to three will reshape the wireless market, and opponents of the deal argue it would bring big change for consumers, such as higher prices. It would also force regulators to revisit the issue of whether three providers is enough to sustain a healthy market, three years after the Obama-era Justice Department and the FCC made clear that such a deal would be a tough sell.

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Potential benefits: The deal would allow the new company to compete with Verizon and AT&T. "I think the pricing efficiencies that they have seen in the last three or four years, those would probably continue," said Chetan Sharma, a wireless consultant.

Sharma said that he didn't think that the deal with have a major effect on consumers, other than that they "will notice if they have to write a check to a different provider or if all of a sudden a Sprint subscriber is starting to get a T-Mobile bill."

What opponents say: Less competition means higher prices for customers. "Ensuring that competition works to consumers' benefit makes policing mergers among competitors a priority that transcends party and politics," wrote Tom Wheeler and Bill Baer, who as the leaders of the FCC and the Justice Department's Antitrust Division scuttled a previous effort by the number 3 and number 4 national carriers to merge, in a recent op-ed. "Without it, you pay the price."

Opponents of a deal also argue that the stiff competition between four wireless carriers has forced them all to innovate, including re-introducing unlimited plans to keep up with each others' offerings.

The Washington angle: This is a complicated choice for regulators. The horizontal merger of two major wireless carriers that directly compete with each other would draw a ton of public attention (remember how vocal critics were of the failed attempt by AT&T to buy T-Mobile, for example) as it was being vetted by the government. Such a deal, if it comes to pass, would need approval from both the FCC and Justice Department, which are thought to be more open to the merger under the Trump administration. Still, no one is tipping their hand.

  • FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said last week: "As I said a couple of weeks ago, I don't see in the abstract any particular number of competitors or marketplace structure that is the sine qua non of a competitive marketplace. I view the facts as they exist, and make the appropriate judgement based on those facts."
  • Makan Delrahim, who President Trump has nominated to be the top antitrust enforcer at Justice: "I have not recently studied the state of competition in the wireless market and therefore do not have any particular impression regarding it's competitiveness at this time. If confirmed and presented the opportunity, I look forward to studying it."

The companies' perspective:

  • T-Mobile didn't respond to a request for comment, but CEO John Legere said on the company's most recent earnings call that he was "interested in looking at some of the possibilities" for mergers. Some have suggested it would make more sense for T-Mobile to pursue a vertical deal with, say, a cable or satellite company.
  • A Sprint spokeswoman declined to comment but pointed Axios to a comment from Masayoshi Son, the chief executive of Sprint parent SoftBank, that exploring a T-Mobile tie-up was a priority for the company. Sprint is also reportedly looking into other options for a potential deal.

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