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The Great Telecom Merger Carousel: Altice <-> Sprint <-> T-Mobile <-> Charter

A last-ditch effort last weekend by executives of SoftBank and Deutsche Telekom to overcome their differences in merging Sprint with T-Mobile USA ended in failure, killing Wall Street’s hopes combining the two scrappiest wireless carriers would end a bruising price war that had heated up competition and hurt profits at all four of America’s leading wireless companies.

Now Wall Street, hungry for a consolidation deal, is strategizing what will come next.

Sprint/T-Mobile Merger

In the end, SoftBank’s chairman, Masayoshi Son, simply did not want to give up control of Sprint to Deutsche Telekom, especially considering Sprint’s vast wireless spectrum holdings suitable for future 5G wireless services.

The failure caused Sprint Corp. shares and bonds to plummet, and spooked investors are worried Sprint’s decade-long inability to earn a profit won’t end anytime soon. Sprint’s 2010 Network Vision Plan, which promised better coverage and network performance, also helped to load the company with debt, nearly half of which Sprint has to pay back over the next four years before it becomes due. Sprint’s perpetual upgrades have not tremendously improved its network coverage or performance, and its poor performance ratings have caused many customers to look elsewhere for wireless service.

Investors are also concerned Sprint will struggle to pay its current debts at the same time it faces new ones from investments in next generation 5G wireless technology. Scared shareholders have been comforted this morning by both Son and Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure in an all-out damage control campaign.

Son has promised the now-orphaned Sprint will benefit from an increased stake in the company by SoftBank — a signal to investors SoftBank is tying itself closer to Sprint. Son has also promised additional investments to launch yet another wave of network upgrades for Sprint’s fourth place network. But nothing is expected to change very quickly for customers, who may be in for a rough ride for the immediate future. Son has already said his commitment to raise Sprint’s capital expenditures from the current $3.5-4 billion to $5-6 billion annually will not begin this year. Analysts claim Sprint needs at least $5-6 billion annually to invest in network improvements if it ever hopes to catch up to T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon Wireless.

Masayoshi Son, chairman of SoftBank Group

“Even if the next three-four years will be a tough battle, five to 10 years later it will be clear that this is a strategically invaluable business,’’ Son said, lamenting losing control of that business in a deal with T-Mobile was simply impossible. “There was just a line we couldn’t cross, and that’s how we arrived at the conclusion.”

During a call with analysts on Monday, Sprint’s chief financial officer Tarek Robbiati acknowledged investors’ disappointment.

Investors were hoping for an end to deep discounting and perks given to attract new business. T-Mobile’s giveaways and discounting have reduced the company’s profitability. Sprint’s latest promotions, including giving away service for up to a year, were seen by analysts as desperate.

Son’s own vision plan doesn’t dwell on the short-term, mapping out SoftBank’s progress over the next 300 years. But for now, Son is concerned with supporting the investments already made in the $100 billion Vision Fund Son has built with Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth-fueled Public Investment Fund. Its goal is to lead in the field of next generation wireless communications networks. Sprint is expected to be a springboard for those investments in the United States, supported by the wireless company’s huge 2.5GHz spectrum holdings, which may be perfect for 5G wireless networks.

But Son’s own failures are also responsible for Sprint’s current plight. Son attempted to cover his losses in Sprint by pursuing a merger with T-Mobile in 2014, but the merger fell apart when it became clear the Obama Administration’s regulators were unlikely to approve the deal. After that deal fell apart, Son has allowed T-Mobile to overtake Sprint’s third place position in the wireless market. While T-Mobile grew from 53 million customers to 70.7 million today, Sprint lost one million customers, dropping to fourth place with around 54 million current customers.

Son’s answer to the new competition was to change top management. Incoming Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure promptly launched a massive cost-cutting program and layoffs, and upgrade-oriented investments in Sprint’s network stagnated, causing speeds and performance to decline.

Claure tweetstormed damage control messages about the merger’s collapse, switching from promoting the merger’s benefits to claims of relief the merger collapsed:

  • “Jointly stopping merger talks was right move.”
  • Sprint is a vital part of a larger SoftBank strategy involving the Vision Fund, Arm, OneWeb and other strategic investments.”
  • “Excited about Sprint’s future as a standalone. I’m confident this is right decision for our shareholders, customers & employees.”
  • “Sprint added over 1 million customers last year – we have gone from losing to winning.”
  • “Last quarter we delivered an estimated 22% of industry postpaid phone gross additions, our highest share ever.”
  • “Sprint network performance is at best ever levels – 33% improvement in nationwide data speeds year over year.”
  • “We are planning significant investments to the Sprint network this year and the years to come.”
  • “In the last 3 years we’ve reduced our costs by over $5 billion.”
  • “Sprint’s results are the best we’ve achieved in a decade and we will continue getting better every day.”

In Saturday’s joint announcement, Claure said that “while we couldn’t reach an agreement to combine our companies, we certainly recognize the benefits of scale through a potential combination. However, we have agreed that it is best to move forward on our own. We know we have significant assets, including our rich spectrum holdings, and are accelerating significant investments in our network to ensure our continued growth.”

“They need to spend (more) money on the network,” said William Ho, an analyst at 556 Ventures LLC.

CNBC reports Sprint’s end of its T-Mobile merger deal has hammered the company’s stock. What does Sprint do now? (1:30)

Sprint/Altice Partnership

Sprint executives hurried out word on ‘Damage Control’ Monday that Altice USA would partner with Sprint to resell wireless service under the Altice brand. In return for the partnership, Sprint will be able to use Altice’s fiber network in Cablevision’s service area in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut for its cell towers and future 5G small cells. The deal closely aligns to Comcast and Charter’s deal with Verizon allowing those cable operators to create their own cellular brands powered by Verizon Wireless’ network.

An analyst at Cowen & Co., suspected the Altice deal may be a trial to test the waters with Sprint before Altice commits to a future merger between the two companies. Altice is hungry for expansion, currently owning Cablevision and Suddenlink cable operators in the U.S. But Altice has a very small footprint in the U.S., leading some analysts to believe a more lucrative merger might be possible elsewhere.

Sprint/Charter Merger

Charter Communications Logo. (PRNewsFoto/Charter Communications, Inc.)

Charter Communications stock was up more than 7% in early Monday morning trading as a result of speculation SoftBank and Charter Communications were restarting merger talks after a deal with T-Mobile collapsed.

CNBC reported that Mr. Son was willing to resume talks with Charter executives about a merger between the cable operator and Sprint. Charter executives have shown little interest in the deal, still distracted trying to merge their acquisitions Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks into Charter’s current operation. Charter’s entry into wireless has been more tentative, following Comcast with a partnership with Verizon Wireless to resell that considerably stronger network under the Charter brand beginning sometime in 2018.

According to CNBC, John Malone’s Liberty Media, which owns a 27% stake in Charter, is now in favor of a deal, while Charter’s top executives are still opposed.

CNBC reports Charter and Sprint may soon be talking again about a merger between the two. (6:33)

Dish Networks <-> T-Mobile USA

Wall Street’s merger-focused analysts are hungry for a deal now that the Sprint/T-Mobile merger has collapsed. Pivotal Research Group is predicting good things are possible for shareholders of Dish Network, and upgraded the stock to a “buy” recommendation this morning.

Jeff Wlodarczak, Pivotal’s CEO and senior media analyst, theorizes that Sprint’s merger collapse could be good news for Dish, sitting on a large amount of unused wireless spectrum suitable for 5G wireless networks. Those licenses, estimated to be worth $10 billion, are likely to rise in value as wireless companies look for suitable spectrum to deploy next generation 5G networks.

Multichannel News quotes Wlodarczak’s note to investors:

“In our opinion, post the T-Mobile-Sprint deal failure there is a reasonable chance that T-Mobile could make a play for Dish or Dish spectrum as it would immediately vault the most disruptive U.S. wireless player into the leading U.S. spectrum position (w/ substantially more spectrum than underpins Verizon’s “best in class” network),” Wlodarczak wrote. “This possible move could force Verizon to counter-bid for Dish spectrum (or possibly the entire company) as Dish spectrum is ideally suited for Verizon and to keep it out of T-Mobile’s hands.”

AT&T/DirecTV Buyout of Dish Network

Wlodarczak has also advised clients he believes the deregulation-friendly Trump Administration would not block the creation of a satellite TV monopoly, meaning AT&T should consider pairing its DirecTV service with an acquisition of Dish Networks’ satellite TV business, even if it forgoes Dish’s valuable wireless spectrum.

“AT&T, post their Time Warner deal, could (and frankly should) be interested in purchasing Dish’s core DBS business taking advantage of a potentially more laissez faire regulatory climate/emergence of V-MVPD’s, to significantly bolster their DirecTV business (and help to justify the original questionable DirecTV deal) by creating a SatTV monopoly in ~10-15M US households, increased programming scale and massive synergies at a likely very attractive price.”

Such a transaction would likely resemble the regulatory approval granted to merge XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio into SiriusXM Satellite Radio in 2008. Despite the merger, just months after its approval, the combined company neared bankruptcy until it was bailed out with a $530 million loan from John Malone’s Liberty Media in February 2009. Liberty Media maintains an active interest in the satellite radio company to this day.

Sprint/T-Mobile Merger is Dead

Phillip Dampier October 30, 2017 Competition, Consumer News, Sprint, T-Mobile, Wireless Broadband 2 Comments

After months of negotiations, it all came down to a matter of control.

Softbank Group Corp., owner of Sprint Corp., has abandoned a long-expected merger between Sprint and Deutsche Telekom’s T-Mobile USA, citing concerns about which company would have effective control of the combined wireless carrier.

At the 11th hour, Softbank’s board of directors in Japan expressed concern the merger would leave Deutsche Telekom with majority control of Sprint’s assets and network, leaving Softbank effectively out of the U.S. market at a time when companies like Sprint and T-Mobile are preparing for the future launch of 5G wireless networks that will likely be a backbone for the future multi-billion dollar Internet of Things (IoT) marketplace. Multiple sources have told both Japanese and American newspapers that SoftBank’s founder and CEO Masayoshi Son had always been reluctant to give up control of Sprint, but had not made the issue a potential deal breaker until the talks were nearly complete and final decisions had to be made.

Deutsche Telekom considered the issue practically non-negotiable, because the international telecommunications company has relied heavily on the financial performance of T-Mobile USA to brighten its financial reports. Deutsche Telekom subsidiaries in Europe have struggled financially as a result of competition and other factors and international accounting rules require DT to have control of assets it wishes to include in its financial reports. Had T-Mobile ceded control of the merged company to Softbank, it could not include its U.S. business in its financial reports.

T-Mobile USA is regarded as the stronger of the two companies, and its German parent is very happy with its U.S. subsidiary. Most analysts argue Sprint needs the merger with T-Mobile far more than T-Mobile needs Sprint, so there was reportedly little disappointment from Deutsche Telekom over the merger talks achieving an impasse. To calm nervous investors, Softbank plans to announce it will step up its investment in Sprint to improve its network and coverage. Sprint customers have heard such promises before, but the fourth largest wireless carrier has continued to lose market share, mostly to the benefit of T-Mobile. Independent tests have shown Sprint’s network often performs worse than its three major competitors in many areas.

4GCommunity’s Sprint-Powered 4G LTE Service Shutting Down

4GCommunity.org, a non-profit provider of unlimited 4G LTE wireless internet service, is ending the service by Nov. 30, 2017 for “circumstances beyond the organization’s control.”

The service cost $250 for the first year, which included a mobile hotspot device, and $168 each year thereafter, which means many subscribers that started in the past year may lose some or all of their annual fee as the service closes down.

The company e-mailed its members this morning:

Dear 4GCommunity.org Members,

We are saddened to inform you that due to circumstances beyond the organization’s control the Internet connectivity benefit of membership will be ceasing no later than November 30, 2017. It may be sooner, so please begin looking for other Internet connectivity options right away.

The member online support center will remain a resource through this time next year. Member and support team volunteers will be providing their general assistance through the online support center to assist with questions about basic home computing, networking, and related technologies. It can be accessed through the Support Center page of the website, or directly at: https://4gcommunityorg.happyfox.com/

Respectfully yours,

Support Team

Sprint was 4GCommunity’s 4G service provider, and was potentially not enthusiastic about the partnership.

4GCommunity.org is one of several non-profit groups that have taken advantage of an agreement made years earlier with Clearwire, a company acquired by Sprint in 2013.

Non-profit groups offering inexpensive 4G wireless internet service are exploiting a loophole in a 2006 contract agreement between Clear (now owned by Sprint) and Educational Broadband Service licensees.

In 2006, Clearwire reached an agreement to lease wireless spectrum earmarked for Educational Broadband Service (EBS) providers including Mobile Citizen and Mobile Beacon. In return for the use of those frequencies, Clearwire agreed to sell wireless internet service on its WiMAX network at rock bottom prices to those two providers, their non-profit affiliates and dues-paying members. As a result, more than 1,800 nonprofits, 429 schools, and 61 libraries signed up for service at prices averaging $10 a month. A few of those non-profits creatively exploited a loophole in the agreement which guaranteed access “as long as you are a user, recipient or beneficiary of a non-profit programs or services, but not thereafter.” That provision was interpreted to mean non-profit groups attached to either Mobile Citizen or Mobile Beacon could resell the service to their own members.

A groups have turned up, including 4GCommunity.org, typically offer access to unlimited 4G LTE data on Sprint’s network for an annual fee. 4GConnection effectively charged only $14 a month after the first year. The service has been especially popular with those within Sprint coverage areas, but outside of range for DSL or cable broadband. It also attracted a large number of RV owners and frequent travelers looking for portable internet access.

Sprint and other wireless companies have had experience with all kinds of resellers before. Historically, many of those providers offering unlimited data have been suddenly notified their contract to resell service was canceled or modified, usually after the carrier discovered a surge in traffic and usage it did not originally expect.

4GCommunity did not reveal the specific reasons for the decision to cancel its internet offering, but does suggest the termination is connected to Sprint. The decision is causing customers to scramble to find a new service provider. Selling low-cost internet plans that depend on one of the four major carriers has proven a risky business for providers and customers, because a carrier can put a provider under just by canceling a service agreement.

4GCommunity obviously understood the risks of having their provider drop them, placing this warning (emphasis theirs) in their service agreement:

You understand your support and membership in the organization is not a guarantee of any particular benefit for any duration of time.  You understand you are supporting an organization mission.  You understand we reserve the right to cancel any Internet connectivity Service as a member benefit at any time without notice, for any reason.  You understand that your membership charges may not be refunded or prorated if the Internet connectivity benefit is terminated or modified regardless of reason at any time.   

Customers may be less forgiving, especially if they recently paid several hundred dollars for a year of service that may not be refunded.

Similar resellers still appear to be offering service, but potential customers should be cautious and not assume other service provision contracts won’t be similarly canceled. A customer could be out up to $679 if a service later disappears.

  • Calyx Institute – Membership costs $500 the first year, which includes wireless mobile hotspot service. The renewal rate is $400.
  • Freedata.io – First year prices range from $449 – $679 for three different tiers of service offering different hotspot devices (currently showing as out of stock) and different options to access 3G service, which can be more reliable in rural/fringe reception areas. The service has also been battling with its small business payment processors, which suggests this is a very small operation.
  • PCs for People & Connectall.org – Provide service to those below the 200% poverty level or currently enrolled in an income-based government assistance program. Proof of income required.

One of the few remaining unlimited wireless data providers unlikely to be affected by these developments is Unlimitedville, which offers a variety of expensive plans that correspond to the carrier providing the service. The “Yellow” plan, powered by Sprint, is $99 a month. The “Pink” plan, powered by T-Mobile, is $149 a month. A “Blue” plan offering service from AT&T costs $199 a month, and a “Red” plan using Verizon’s network is $249 a month. All of the plans are free of caps and speed throttles and offer 4G LTE data without hotspot restrictions, but require a one-time $99 “membership fee.”

T-Mobile/Sprint Merger Approval May Depend on GOP Maintaining Majority in Congress

As the wireless industry awaits an announcement that T-Mobile and Sprint have an agreement to merge, some on Wall Street are skeptical the merger deal will win approval, especially if Republicans lose their majority in the House and Senate in the 2018 mid-term elections.

Matthew Niknam of Deutsche Bank has warned his clients any merger deal not approved by next November is more likely to fall apart if  Democrats take back control of Congress:

“There also may be greater incentive for both sides to evaluate a potential deal sooner rather than later, given the risk that deal approval may slip beyond mid-term elections in late 2018 (with the risk that more populist/less corporate-friendly sentiment may become more pervasive in D.C.) In fact, we note that the Democrats’ ‘Better Deal’ agenda (unveiled in July 2017, targeted towards 2018 elections) highlights ongoing corporate consolidation as a threat to U.S. consumers, and proposes sharper scrutiny of potential deals.”

Nikram writes there has not been a lot of interest by cable operators to acquire Softbank’s Sprint, which has been effectively up for sale or merger for at least a year.

Fierce Wireless notes Cowen & Company Equity Research last month suggested the chance of a merger between T-Mobile and Sprint was now 60-70%, down from 80-90% originally. The reason for the pessimism is their estimate that any deal’s chance of winning approval was only about 50%. The odds get even worse if the Democrats start to check the Trump Administration’s power.

Public policy groups and well-compensated industry opinion leaders are already preparing to wage a PR war over a deal that would reduce America’s major wireless carriers to just three.

Professor Daniel Lyons, well-known for writing pro-industry research reports defending almost anything on their corporate policy wish list, is hinting at a possible strategy by the merging carriers by suggesting neither could survive without a merger.

Most analysts predict that with just three national wireless carriers, the U.S. wireless marketplace would more closely resemble Canada — widely seen as more carrier-friendly and expensive.

Wall Street analysts are debating exactly how many tens of thousands of jobs will be lost in a merger, and the numbers are staggering.

Jonathan Chaplin of New Street Research predicts the merger would cost the country more jobs than now exist at Sprint.

He predicts “approximately 30,000 American jobs” will be permanently lost in a merger. Together the two companies currently employ 78,000 — 28,000 at Sprint and 50,000 at T-Mobile.

Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson Research was more conservative, predicting 20,000 job losses would come from a merger. But the impact would not be limited to just direct hire employees.

“We conservatively estimate that a total of 3,000 of Sprint and T-Mobile’s branded stores (or branded-equivalent stores) would eventually close,” Moffett’s report said.

Golden parachutes will make some executives at Sprint and T-Mobile very wealthy if a merger succeeds.

Many T-Mobile and Sprint stores are located in malls and retail “power centers” where maintaining both stores would be unnecessary. Also hard hit would be wireless tower owners and those employed to care for them. Most believe Sprint’s CDMA wireless network would eventually be decommissioned in a merger, and many of its cell sites would be mothballed. Sprint’s biggest asset is its currently unused trove of high frequency wireless spectrum it could use to deploy future 5G services, but those services would likely be provided from small cells mounted on utility poles and street lights.

The biggest winners in any deal will likely be top executives at Softbank, Sprint, and T-Mobile, Wall Street banks providing deal advisory services and financing, and shareholders, who can expect higher earnings from a less competitive marketplace. Fierce competition from T-Mobile and Sprint were both directly implicated for threatening revenues for all four wireless companies, who have had to respond to aggressive promotions by cutting prices and offering more services for less money.

The Trump Administration’s choices of Ajit Pai for Chairman of the FCC and Makan Delrahim as United States Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department are both widely seen as signals the White House is not going to crack down on competition-threatening merger deals. Mr. Pai has recently improved the foundation for a T-Mobile/Sprint merger by declaring the wireless industry to be suitably competitive, something required before seriously contemplating reducing the number of competitors.

Eight Democrats sent a letter to the FCC chairman last week calling on both the FCC and the Justice Department to begin an investigation into the possible merger as soon as possible, citing possible antitrust concerns.

The text of the letter:

Dear Chairman Pai and Assistant Attorney General Delrahim:

We write to ask you to begin investigating the impact of a merger between T-Mobile International and Sprint Corporation. According to Pew Research, over three-quarters of Americans now own smartphones, driven by a 12 percent increase in smartphone ownership among adults over age 65 and a 12 percent increase in smartphone ownership in households earning less than $30,000 a year since 2015. Today, smartphones are not really just phones at all. For many, they are the primary connection to the internet. An anticompetitive acquisition would increase prices, burdening American consumers, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet, or forcing them to forego their internet connection altogether. Neither outcome is acceptable.

We believe that an investigation is appropriate for three reasons. First, aggressive antitrust enforcement benefits consumers and competition in the wireless market. Second, a combination of T-Mobile and Sprint would raise significant antitrust issues and could dramatically harm consumers. Third, although a deal has not been announced, the two parties have made repeated attempts to merge, and current reports suggest they are close to an agreement. Your agencies should be in a position to fully – but expeditiously – investigate and analyze this deal should it occur.

Competition among wireless carriers has lowered prices, increased quality, and driven innovation

Consumers have benefited from competition among the four national carriers, and we have effective antitrust enforcement to thank for that competition. In the summer of 2011, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division filed suit to block AT&T’s proposed acquisition of T-Mobile despite claims that T-Mobile was a weak competitor and, without the deal, remaining options “won’t be pretty.”  The FCC likewise outlined its opposition to the deal that fall. The deal collapsed, but T-Mobile did not. It competed. It spent billions improving its network, and it offered better terms; for example, it eliminated two-year contracts and data overages. It enticed customers to switch providers by paying their termination fees. And, its competitors had to respond in kind. As William Baer, former head of DOJ’s Antitrust Division, has explained, consumers have enjoyed “much more favorable competitive conditions” since that transaction was blocked.  In May 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that cellphone plan prices were down 12.9 percent since April 2016, the largest decline in 16 years, and attributed the drop to “intense competition” among the top cell service providers: Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T.  Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, specifically suggested that it was caused by the “price war that has broken out among cell-phone service providers, with all the big providers now offering unlimited data plans at cheaper rates.”

Further, the fact that T-Mobile and Sprint appear to be each other’s primary competitor raises additional concerns about this potential horizontal merger. That direct competition has particularly benefited lower-income families and communities of color, many of whom rely on mobile broadband as their primary or only internet connection.  Sprint and T-Mobile have offered products and service options that are more appealing to lower-income consumers. For example, T-Mobile was the first major carrier to offer a no contract plan,  and both Sprint and T-Mobile have been leaders in offering prepaid and no credit check plans, which allow people who may have poor credit to obtain a cell plan and ultimately access the internet.

A combination of T-Mobile and Sprint would raise significant antitrust concerns

Not surprisingly, when T-Mobile and Sprint first discussed a merger in 2014, both of your predecessors expressed skepticism. William Baer stated that “[I]t’s going to be hard for someone to make a persuasive case that reducing four firms to three is actually going to improve competition for the benefit of American consumers.”  Similarly, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler simply explained, “[f]our national wireless providers are good for American consumers.”

What is surprising, however, is that a few years later the two companies have revived their merger talks. Whether one looks at cellphone competition as a national market or as numerous local markets, T-Mobile’s acquisition of Sprint would very likely be presumptively anticompetitive. We are concerned that this consolidation would increase prices, reduce incentives to offer new plans, and allow the remaining carriers to curtail their investment in their networks. Further, given both companies’ focus on competing for lower-income customers, the combination of Sprint and T-Mobile could disproportionately harm those consumers. In addition to potentially raising retail prices, the remaining carriers are also likely to increase prices to companies like Straight Talk, which buys bulk access to one or more of the four national carriers and advertises almost exclusively to lower-income communities.

T-Mobile and Sprint will no doubt claim that the merger will leave sufficient competition, increase cost savings, and spur investment. The agencies will need to examine these issues in depth and make the ultimate determination as to whether the effect of such a deal would be to undermine or promote competition. The very complexity of the issues only further justifies the need for the agencies to begin examining the markets and investigating the competitive dynamics sooner rather than later.

Initiating an investigation is appropriate

Although the antitrust agencies often wait for an official filing before opening an investigation, nothing requires this delay. For example, in May, the Antitrust Division announced an investigation of the possible acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times by the owner of the Chicago Tribune.  The two companies in question here have had a longstanding interest in combining, and, according to reports, an agreement between Sprint and T-Mobile may be weeks away.

Beginning an investigation into a merger of T-Mobile and Sprint now will allow your agencies to quickly, but fully, review the agreement if it is announced. Indeed, multiple news sources are reporting that the two parties are close to a deal in principle. The likelihood of the transaction occurring combined with the serious issues that it raises provide compelling reason for DOJ and the Federal Communication Commission to begin investigating the potential transaction.

For the reasons stated above, we urge you to begin to examine this potential transaction now. Competition among four major cell phone carriers has benefited consumers with lower prices, better service, and more innovation. We are concerned that consolidation will thwart those goals. Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)
Al Franken (D-Minn.)
Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)
Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)
Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)
Ed Markey (D-Mass.)
Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)

Puerto Ricans Giving Up on U.S. Cell Phone Providers; Mexico’s Claro Has Best Coverage

U.S. cell phone providers are facing increasing criticism they are dragging their feet on restoring cell service in Puerto Rico while Mexican-owned Claro has now successfully restored service in 28 of the territory’s 78 municipalities.

Claro Puerto Rico, owned by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim’s America Movil, has dramatically outpaced AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint in getting their damaged cell phone facilities back up and running. Claro is Puerto Rico’s second most popular cell company behind AT&T.

“Claro is the only one with service here,” Francisco Portales, 47, a customer of privately held Puerto Rico-based network provider Open Mobile told a Reuters reporter while waiting outside the Claro store in Fajardo hoping to buy a phone.

Looking for a signal.

The FCC’s latest update on Tuesday reported about 88% of Puerto Rico is still without cell service, but the agency does not break down network repairs by carrier, and American providers have declared their specific restoration plans to be confidential.

While AT&T complained the lack of commercial power remained its biggest problem, Claro said it had pre-positioned generators, diesel fuel, battery backups, and vehicles 72 hours before the hurricane hit, which appears to have made all the difference in restoring service.

Sprint said late last week its towers were still standing and “largely intact” although it gave no specific information on when service might be restored. T-Mobile was more frank, reporting “it’s going to be a long road to recovery.”

Claro is not taking advantage of its position as the island’s most reliable post-hurricane carrier, allowing customers of other providers to roam on its network where a signal is available. That may be all the good publicity Claro needs to win over new customers after the hurricane damage is repaired.

Claro’s repair trucks.

Mercedes Saldana, a 54-year-old school cafeteria worker and Sprint customer is just one of many now searching shops for a Claro prepaid phone.

“I don’t have any service, none,” she said. “We don’t know when Sprint’s going to be connected again.”

Customers unwilling to switch carriers and won’t roam may have long travel times ahead of them to find a signal. Luis Pacheco, 64, was planning to drive with his wife to Canovanas — 30 to 40 minutes west — in hopes of finding a cell signal to text his daughter in California. That is the nearest community where AT&T has a signal at the moment.

Before the storm, AT&T dominated Puerto Rico with a 34% market share, followed by Claro Puerto Rico with a 26% share. T-Mobile was third with 19%, Open Mobile has 11% and Sprint 10%. Verizon Wireless has no network facilities in Puerto Rico, but travelers with Verizon phones are granted roaming access on Claro’s network.

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