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T-Mobile/Sprint Merger Promises Fake 5G Initially; Only Slightly Better Than 4G LTE

The head of T-Mobile USA claims a merged T-Mobile and Sprint will be the best positioned to quickly deliver 5G wireless service to Americans, despite claims from industry insiders Legere’s claim is little more than vaporware.

“Only the new T-Mobile will have the network and spectrum capacity to quickly create a broad and deep 5G network in the first few years of the 5G innovation cycle, the years that will determine if American firms lead or follow in the 5G digital economy,” T-Mobile CEO John Legere claimed during the April 29th merger announcement.

But the 5G network Legere is referring to is little better than T-Mobile’s existing 4G LTE network, and won’t be capable of delivering gigabit speeds or an in-home broadband replacement.

Broadband expert Dave Burstein characterizes T-Mobile’s audacious 5G claims as part of a campaign to “bamboozle D.C.” to win merger approval.

It turns out T-Mobile is not talking about the same 5G technology under development at AT&T and Verizon, which both use millimeter wave networks and small cell antennas.

T-Mobile’s version of 5G is a already appearing elsewhere around the world — a new definition incremental upgrade for 4G LTE, “70-90 percent slower than the good stuff — millimeter wave,” claims Burstein.

“Folks building LTE-speed networks wanted to be called ‘5G’ and take advantage of the massive hype,” Burstein wrote. “So they made ‘New Definition 5G’ with a PR campaign and a minor software tweak, dubbed ‘NR’ for New Radio. 4G LTE networks [suddenly] became ‘5G.’ Every engineer in the business knows this is a scam.”

T-Mobile’s version of ‘5G’ is likely to appear on its spectrum in the 600 MHz range, easily deployed from existing cell towers and relatively cheap and easy to launch. It won’t deliver anything close to the speed or capacity improvements being claimed by Legere and a few others in the industry.

“Legere is swearing to Washington the T-Mobile 640 MHz 5G NR network will be many times faster than LTE,” Burstein said. “That isn’t true, of course. It’s far more likely to be only 25%-50% faster, or perhaps less. It may even be slower than the 500 MHz LTE/LAA T-Mobile already has in Manhattan.”

China claims to be ahead of the United States — another issue being pushed by T-Mobile merger supporters to “regain” America’s “lead” on 5G — by deploying its own version of 5G similar to the ‘new definition’ version of 5G Burstein talks about. The Trump Administration has even contemplated nationalizing America’s 5G network infrastructure to share benefits among all leading wireless carriers, if only to speed deployment and generate new demand for network equipment produced in the United States — not China.

But a closer look at China Mobile’s version of 5G finds the company installing approximately two million “mid-band” 5G cellular antennas that will work at 3.7 GHz. It isn’t the millimeter wave 5G technology contemplated by AT&T and Verizon, and won’t deliver much faster speeds than China Mobile’s existing 4G LTE infrastructure. Instead, it will help China Mobile better manage its bandwidth demand with a network at least twice as large as that of AT&T or Verizon.

Critics of ‘new definition 5G’ call the technology “evolutionary, not revolutionary.”

What makes millimeter wave 5G technology superior is the wide swath of dedicated spectrum typically available for wireless broadband. Some companies will have 400 to 800 MHz of frequencies available to support millimeter wave 5G, while the maximum spectrum for LTE is around 100 MHz. That extra millimeter wave spectrum has delivered up to 20 Gbps speeds in the lab, and Verizon is contemplating selling gigabit speed service to its fixed wireless customers using the technology sometime this year.

Despite Legere’s boastful claims, Burstein warns politicians and regulators they need to learn that T-Mobile’s type of “5G” is no longer “a big thing in most cases.” Even seasoned regulators like Jessica Rosenworcel and Ajit Pai at the FCC have incorrectly confused new definition 5G with millimeter wave 5G. Others, including Andrus Ansip at the EU and several Chinese leaders, have made similar mistakes as part of boastful claims about future network performance.

Burstein says it is a case of not listening to network engineers, who know the difference.

“They have engineers at the FCC,” Burstein said. “If they listen to the engineers, they will know the [merger] deal is not in the public interest.”

Strong Evidence T-Mobile/Sprint Merger Will Cause Prices to Rise, Innovation to Sink

Despite rosy predictions from Sprint and T-Mobile executives that the two companies joining forces will result in plentiful competition, lower prices, and more advanced service, the results of prior mergers in the wireless industry over the last 20 years delivered increasing prices, reduced innovation, and a lower customer service experience instead.

Few markets show the stark results of consolidation more than the telecom industry. Monopoly cable rates, barely competitive wireless domination by AT&T and Verizon — both with a long history of adjusting wireless rates and plans to closely match one another (usually to the detriment of the consumer), and politicians and regulators that acquiesce to the wishes of the telecom industry have been around even before Stop the Cap! got started in 2008.

When a market disruptor begins to challenge predictable and stable marketplaces, Wall Street and investors quickly get uncomfortable. So do company executives, whose compensation packages are often dependent on their ability to keep the company’s stock price rising. That is why T-Mobile USA’s “Uncarrier” campaign, which directly challenged long-established wireless industry practices, created considerable irritation for other wireless companies, especially AT&T and Verizon.

The two wireless industry giants initially ignored T-Mobile, suggesting CEO John Legere’s noisy and confrontational PR campaign had no material impact on AT&T and Verizon’s subscriber base and revenue. Ironically, Legere was named CEO one year after AT&T’s 2011 failed attempt to further consolidate the wireless industry with its acquisition of T-Mobile. A very generous deal breakup fee and accompanying wireless spectrum provided by AT&T after the deal collapsed gave T-Mobile some room to navigate and transform the company’s position — long the nation’s fourth largest national wireless carrier behind Sprint. It is now in third place, poaching customers from the other three, and has repeatedly forced other carriers to change their plans and pricing in response.

T-Mobile’s “Uncarrier” promotion.

T-Mobile invested in its network and delivered upgrades, but the real inroads for subscriber growth were made by throwing out the typical wireless carrier business plan. T-Mobile brought back unlimited data and made it a key feature of their wireless plans starting in 2016, a feature AT&T and Verizon had successfully banished, ended the traditional two-year contract, scrapped junk fees and surcharges that customers hated, and ran regular specials that dramatically cut family plan rates. If you lived in an area with solid T-Mobile coverage, the scrappy carrier quickly became a viable option among those contemplating ditching Verizon or AT&T. T-Mobile also benefited enormously from disaffected Sprint subscribers that spent years riding out frequent promises of an in improved network experience that frankly never matched the hype in many areas. Price conscious customers that could not afford a plan with AT&T or Verizon moved even more readily to T-Mobile’s network.

In contrast, AT&T and Verizon have spent the last 20 years consolidating the wireless industry by acquiring regional carriers that had a reputation for good service at a fair price, with the promise that the acquisition by a richer and larger competitor would accelerate network upgrades and improve service. But customers of long-gone or diminished carriers like Alltel, Leap Wireless’ Cricket, MetroPCS, and Centennial Wireless (there are others) that either no longer exist or remain alive only as a brand name on a larger company’s network, noticed higher bills and eliminated coveted features that helped them manage their data and voice plans and costs.

In Europe, recent industry consolidation in some countries has reduced major carriers from four to three, similar to what T-Mobile and Sprint would do in the United States. Pal Zarandy at Rewheel compared consolidated markets in Germany and Austria and discovered gigabyte data pricing where consumers had three options almost doubled in price in Germany and Austria. Austria was 30% less expensive than a control group of six neutral countries when it had three competitors. Today, with two, it is 74% more expensive than its European counterparts. In Germany, prices went from 60% more expensive to nearly triple the rates charged by control group countries.

The merger of Sprint and T-Mobile will dramatically reduce competition in several ways:

  1. It will end the pervasive price war for lower-income consumers on postpaid plans. Sprint and T-Mobile directly compete with each other to secure customers that skip AT&T and Verizon Wireless because of their more expensive plans and accompanying higher-standard credit check.
  2. Each of the four current national carriers have had to respond to aggressive price promotions for hardware (Sprint, T-Mobile), plans (T-Mobile, Sprint), and loyalty-building rewards (T-Mobile Tuesday). With a merger, those promotions can be scaled back.
  3. AT&T and Verizon have been forced to reintroduce unlimited data plans as a direct result of competition from Sprint and T-Mobile. Incidentally, Sprint and T-Mobile’s unlimited data features are different. T-Mobile offers zero rating of lower-resolution videos from selected websites while Sprint offers unlimited access to HD video. In fact, Sprint’s unlimited plan marketing campaign casts T-Mobile’s version in a negative light and was designed to beat T-Mobile’s plan to attract new customers.
  4. Since Sprint and T-Mobile are market disruptors, merging them means no new aggressive campaigns to out-disrupt each other to the consumer’s benefit. Instead, they will target the conservative plans of AT&T and Verizon, which requires less innovative marketing and less significant price cuts.

Sprint’s marketing points to differences between its plans and those from T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T.

In 2015, the OECD released a definitive study demonstrating the impact of consolidating telecom mergers among top industrialized countries, including the United States. The results were indisputable. If you reduce the number of national carriers to fewer than four, prices rise, service deteriorates — along with innovation and investment, and consumers are harmed. In Canada, where three national carriers dominate, the former Conservative government made finding a fourth national wireless competitor a national policy priority. While Americans gripe about their cell phone bills, many Canadians are envious because they often pay more and live with more restricted, less innovative plans.

This February, market research firm PwC published its own findings, “Commoditization in the wireless telecom industry,” showing that North America remained the most “comfortable” region in the world for wireless carriers looking for big revenue and profits, but that was starting to change because of disruptive marketplace changes by companies like T-Mobile and Sprint.

“In this zone, there is a greater than 50 percent spread in market share and ARPU between highest and lowest market players indicating that commoditization is far off,” PwC notes. For wireless carriers, “commoditization” is bad news. It means the amount of money a carrier can charge for its services is highly constrained because multiple competitors are ready to undercut another carrier’s prices or engage in all-out vicious price wars. In these areas, commoditization also means consumers treat each competitor as a viable player for their business.

In France, four national providers —  OrangeSFRBouygues Telecom and Free, have been in a price war for years, keeping France’s wireless prices shockingly low in comparison to North America. The price war in the United States is just beginning. PwC notes as the U.S. market becomes saturated — meaning everyone who wants a cellphone already has one — companies will have to compete more on price and service. T-Mobile and Sprint have been the most aggressive, and the effect is “meaningful competition.” In Canada, where three national carriers exist, competition is constrained by the domination of three large national companies and some regional players. Instead of cutting prices and expanding plan features, many Canadian providers are now trying to bundle their cable, phone, and wireless customers into a single package to “protect [market] share and increase stickiness.” In other words, Canadian wireless carriers are designing plans to hold the line on pricing while keeping customers loyal at the same time.

While average revenue per customer is now around $30 a month in North America, it is less than half that amount in virtually every other region in the world. PwC shows the direct impact of competition starting around 2014, when T-Mobile and Sprint got particularly aggressive about pricing. Wireless carrier ARPU was no longer a nearly flat line from 2009-2013. Now it is dropping faster than every other region in the world as AT&T and Verizon have to change their pricing to respond to competition pressures.

Sprint and T-Mobile’s CEOs launch their PR blitz. (Image: Cheddar)

While reports are likely to surface arguing the alleged pro-consumer benefits of the Sprint/T-Mobile merger, it will be critical to determine who or what entities funded that research. We expect a full-scale PR campaign to sell this merger, using industry-funded astroturf groups, industry-sponsored research, and industry-connected analysis and cheerleading.

In 2011, the Justice Department definitively crushed the proposed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile. It cited strong and convincing evidence that removing a competitor from the wireless market will lead to consumer harm from reduced competition and higher prices. If one substitutes Sprint for AT&T, the evidence still shows Sprint’s own aggressive marketing and promotions (and its competitors’ willingness to match or beat them) will be missing from a marketplace where Sprint no longer exists. That cannot and should not be allowed to happen.

T-Mobile and Sprint Announce $26.5 Billion Merger; New Company Will Keep T-Mobile Name

T-Mobile USA and Sprint have agreed to a $26.5 billion all-stock merger, creating the second largest wireless company in the country with 70 million customers, rivaled only by larger Verizon Wireless with 111 million customers and potentially-third-place AT&T with 78 million.

The merged company will keep the T-Mobile name and its maverick CEO, John Legere. The board will include SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son, who took control of Sprint several years ago but failed to change its status as the fourth largest carrier in the country.

“This combination will create a fierce competitor with the network scale to deliver more for consumers and businesses in the form of lower prices, more innovation, and a second-to-none network experience – and do it all so much faster than either company could on its own,” Legere said in the statement.

T-Mobile’s owner, Deutsche Telekom, will control 42% of the company, with SoftBank retaining a 27% ownership stake.

This is the third time Masayoshi has attempted a merger of Sprint and T-Mobile, first failing over regulators’ antitrust/anti-competition objections during the Obama Administration, and a second time over arguments about which company would ultimately control the merged operation.

Wall Street is likely to applaud the deal because of the major cost savings the merger would bring. Tens of thousands of job losses are likely at both companies, delivering significant savings.  Sprint has already slashed its workforce from 40,000 in 2011 to fewer than 28,000 today in a series of cost cutting moves. T-Mobile is bloated by comparison, with 50,000 employees as of 2017, leaving much room for layoffs. Overlapping coverage areas could also be consolidated to reduce equipment and cell tower expenses.

Investors are also concerned about the future rollout costs of 5G wireless technology. Reducing the number of competitors offering the service would allow for higher prices and faster return on investment. But company officials are promoting the merger with claims it will accelerate the deployment of 5G networks and attract new investment. Both companies have complained about profit-draining competition, so removing one competitor to leave just three national choices for wireless service will allow carriers to boost prices and ease price wars. Executives have also worried that as the wireless marketplace gets saturated with smartphones for everyone, growing the business in the future has become a major challenge.

Legere

Consumer groups are reading between the lines of the business case for the merger and argue the reduced competition that will result will lead to higher prices, less aggressive competition and upgrades, and big layoffs. Most observers expect activists will seek to block the merger on anti-competition grounds.

“Unlike good wine or a good movie, this long-rumored deal only gets worse with age and repeat viewings. No one but T-Mobile and Sprint executives and Wall Street brokers wants to see this merger go through. Greed and a desire to reach deeper into people’s wallets by taking away their choices are the only things motivating this deal,” said Free Press policy director Matt Wood. “What we know about the wireless market is that customers actually win when mergers are blocked. That market has been relatively competitive in recent years, but only because the FCC and DoJ signaled they would block AT&T’s attempted takeover of T-Mobile in 2011, along with T-Mobile and Sprint’s several previous attempts to combine.”

Wood notes that because of fierce competition from Sprint -and- T-Mobile, their larger rivals AT&T and Verizon have been forced to reintroduce popular unlimited data plans, cut prices, and get rid of onerous multi-year service contracts.

“The notion that this deal would produce better wireless services is a flat-out fiction. We’ve seen the results from the tax cuts and other destructive deregulation in the Trump era,” Wood added. “The combined entity here would just use this deal to line its own pockets, pay down the massive debt these companies carry, and reward shareholders with more stock buybacks. It would fund further acquisitions of content companies, too, as wireless carriers like Verizon and AT&T rush to join the race for targeted advertising revenues built on privacy abuses like those already built into Facebook’s and Google’s ad models.”

So far, the Trump Administration’s record on mergers is mixed. The Justice Department has shown surprising resistance to blockbuster corporate telecom mergers, and is currently suing AT&T and Time Warner, Inc. to unwind their merger proposal. But Trump’s FCC has bent over backwards in favor of mergers involving the administration’s political allies, notably Sinclair Broadcast Group’s local station acquisitions which have received favorable treatment from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

“The legal standard for approving giant horizontal mergers like this is not whether Wall Street or President Trump and his cronies likes it. Communications mergers must enhance competition and serve the public interest,” said Wood. “This deal would do just the opposite: It would destroy competition, eliminate jobs and harm the public in numerous irreversible ways. So unless Ajit Pai wants wants to add yet another blemish to his already disastrous tenure at the helm of the FCC, the chairman should speak out and show us he’s willing to do more than rubber stamp any harmful deal that crosses his desk.”

The merger is expected to get significant regulatory scrutiny.

Sprint and T-Mobile Rekindle Merger Talks (Again)

The Wall Street Journal today reported Sprint has rekindled merger talks with Deutsche Telekom’s T-Mobile USA, the third time such merger discussions have taken place in the last four years.

The newest round of preliminary discussions begin five months after earlier negotiations collapsed over the issue of which merger partner would ultimately control the combined company.

Analysts are uncertain if the latest round of talks will amount to anything, especially after watching the Trump Administration’s Justice Department aggressively fight the merger of AT&T and Time Warner, Inc., on antitrust grounds.

If Sprint and T-Mobile combine, it would create three large national carriers competing with each other and an assortment of smaller regional wireless carriers, possibly leading to price increases for consumers who have benefited from the last few years of aggressive sales and promotions launched by market disruptor T-Mobile USA and, to a lesser extent, Sprint.

A Sprint/T-Mobile combination would have nearly 100 million customers, making it America’s second largest wireless company just ahead of AT&T, which had 93 million U.S. subscribers at the end of 2017. Verizon Wireless would continue to be the nation’s largest wireless company with 116 million customers.

T-Mobile’s 2017 Christmas Cartoon Calls Out AT&T, Verizon for “Blizzard of BS”

Phillip Dampier December 21, 2017 Competition, T-Mobile, Video 3 Comments

T-Mobile CEO John Legere antagonizes AT&T and Verizon once again in his 2017 Christmas cartoon. Calling Verizon and AT&T’s business practices “bulls**t” in a two-minute cartoon featuring himself, an elf, reindeer and a snowman, Legere recounts how he took out the “misers” AT&T and Verizon that snowed customers with a “blizzard of BS.” Sprint goes unmentioned, which could be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective and its current relevance in the wireless marketplace. (2:11)

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