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Spectrum Auction: T-Mobile Runaway Winner, But Dish Buy Puzzles Investors

T-Mobile’s 600MHz coverage map — assuming it builds out its full spectrum purchase.

One of the most consequential and visible spectrum auctions ever is over, and it will have a significant impact on broadcasters, wireless carriers, and the future competitive landscape of the wireless industry.

The world’s first “incentive auction” paid television stations to voluntarily vacate or move their assigned channels to make room for the wireless industry’s desire for more spectrum to power wireless data services. Up for bid was 70MHz of spectrum currently used by UHF television stations. A total of 50 winning wireless bidders collectively agreed to pay $19.8 billion to acquire that space. The biggest winner was T-Mobile USA, which is paying almost half the amount of total proceeds to acquire 45% of the spectrum available in the current auction. T-Mobile managed to acquire enough spectrum to cover 100% of the United States and Puerto Rico with an average of 31MHz of available spectrum nationwide, quadrupling its current inventory of important “low-band” spectrum, which is excellent for covering rural areas and inside buildings.

Consumers are likely to benefit as early as later this year when T-Mobile begins lighting up cellular service utilizing the newly available spectrum. Unfortunately, customers will have to buy new devices compatible with the new bands of frequencies.

Having the spectrum alone is not enough to beef up T-Mobile’s network. The company will have to invest in a large number of new cell sites, particularly in outlying areas, to eventually rival the coverage of AT&T and Verizon Wireless. But with an ample supply of 600MHz spectrum, T-Mobile could soon challenge AT&T and Verizon Wireless’ perceived network and coverage superiority. After this auction, AT&T continues to hold the largest portfolio of <1GHz spectrum — 70.5MHz. Verizon is second with 46.2MHz and T-Mobile has moved up in its third place position with 41.1MHz.

Although the FCC claims the current auction was among the highest grossing ever conducted by the FCC, industry observers claim companies got the new frequencies at a bargain price. A 2015 spectrum auction attracted $44.9 billion in bids, more than double the amount bid this year. The average price wireless companies paid per megahertz per person this year was just shy of 90¢, compared with $2.72 in 2015.

Where bargains are to be had, Charles Ergen and his Dish Network satellite company are sure to follow.

Few companies have as much unused wireless spectrum in their portfolio as Dish. Ergen loves to bid in auctions and has also picked up excess spectrum available on the cheap from other satellite companies that have since gone dark or bankrupt. Dish spent $6.2 billion on spectrum during the latest auction, puzzling investors who drove Dish’s share price down wondering what the company intends to do with the frequencies.

Investors were hoping Dish would eventually sell its spectrum portfolio at a profit, something that could still happen if other wireless carriers see a deal to be made. But some Wall Street analysts fear Dish might actually build a large wireless network of its own to offer wireless broadband service. Wall Street dislikes big spending projects and the competition it could bring to the marketplace, potentially driving down prices.

The other possibility is that Dish is making itself look more attractive to a possible buyer like Verizon, which could acquire the satellite company to win cheaper cable programming prices for its FiOS TV and an attractive amount of wireless spectrum for Verizon Wireless. The nation’s biggest wireless carrier notably did not participate in this spectrum auction.

Another unusual bidder was Comcast. Craig Moffett from Wall Street firm MoffettNathanson called Comcast’s $1.7 billion bid “half-hearted” and said it was unlikely to be enough spectrum for the company to begin offering its own wireless service. Comcast plans to rely on Verizon Wireless to power its wireless service, at least initially.

Comcast targeted its bids only in cities where it already provides cable service, which also nixes the theory Comcast and Charter might have been working together to form a cellular joint venture. Moffett expected Comcast would seek at least 20MHz of spectrum across most of the country. It ended up with 10MHz and only in select cities. Moffett thinks that may signal Comcast’s interest in buying an existing wireless carrier is still on the table.

Sprint a Pawn in Masayoshi Son’s U.S. Investment Scheme

President Trump met with Softbank’s Masayoshi Son in December, 2016.

Japan’s Softbank has a deal tailor-made for President Donald Trump’s desire to inspire companies to invest more in the United States and hire more workers, and all the president has to do is get Washington regulators concerned with mergers, acquisitions, and competition out of Softbank’s way.

Softbank’s Masayoshi Son has delivered a lot of speeches and made a lot of promises since acquiring Sprint in 2013 for $21.6 billion, originally promising to rebuild the struggling wireless company into a potential competitive juggernaut, capable of beating Verizon and AT&T and even take on cable operators. Now he’s offering to invest another $50 billion in the U.S., and create 50,000 new jobs, assuming the business climate is right.

Before accepting such a deal, one should take a closer look at how Sprint is doing three years under Softbank’s ownership. Few would argue with the fact Sprint has languished and fallen to last place among the four national carriers, now behind T-Mobile. Despite Son’s commitment to Donald Trump to invest and hire, Sprint has severely cut investment by more than 60% between 2014 and 2016 and has laid off more than 4,000 employees, most in the United States. Customers continue to complain about the perpetual ‘massive upgrade’ undertaking the company embarked on years ago that never seems to be finished and hasn’t helped service quality as much as customers expected.

In January 2016, BusinessWeek reported SoftBank has “plowed more than $22 billion into Sprint, and yet all of Sprint is now valued at $11.8 billion. The company’s $2.2 billion in cash is about the same as its 2016 debt obligations.”

Ten years earlier, Sprint was worth $69 billion and was prepared to dominate the U.S. wireless industry, but drove customers off with very poor customer service and inadequate investment in its network, allowing competitors like AT&T and Verizon Wireless to leap ahead. Sprint also embarked on an executive-inspired fantasy: a disastrous merger with Nextel that preoccupied the company for years. Softbank taking the lead has done little to change customer perceptions, nor those of some Wall Street analysts who fear Sprint is a bottomless money pit that always promises better times and profits are coming, but never seems to get there.

“You’ve watched a once-great institution deteriorate to the point that it is now a badly, badly compromised asset,” said Craig Moffett, an analyst at MoffettNathanson. “They’ve been living from hand-to-mouth for years, constantly making short-term decisions in order to live to fight another day.”

It calls into question Softbank’s vision to use technology “to reduce loneliness and ease the sadness of people as much as possible.” There are a lot of sad Sprint customers, churning away into the arms of competitors like T-Mobile faster than Sprint can sign new customers up.

Son’s dream depended on his business plan that reduced the number of U.S. competitors to three by merging Sprint and T-Mobile together, something federal regulators under the Obama Administration failed to accept despite Son’s argument the combined resources of the two companies would theoretically make a super-sized Sprint more competitive with AT&T and Verizon.

In contrast to Son’s plan to consolidate the wireless industry to improve Sprint’s financial health, T-Mobile instead decided to boost investments in network upgrades and improved coverage to attract new customers. Ironically, some of the money to pay for those upgrades came from AT&T after it paid a reverse breakup fee of $3 billion in cash and $1–3 billion in wireless spectrum after its merger proposal with T-Mobile collapsed.

While Son promises he will invest billions in the United States, he is already spending much less on Sprint. In 2017, Verizon planned to spend $9.12 per subscriber (adjusted spending per monthly phone-equivalent subscriber), AT&T will spend $9.67 and T-Mobile will spend $9.04. Sprint will lag behind with $6.78 per subscriber in network investments. Moffett predicted of the $22 billion Verizon has committed for capital spending this year, about $11.3 billion will go toward wireless. By contrast, Sprint will spend $2.97 billion, excluding costs of leased phones. T-Mobile is spending just over $5 billion.

In the last two years, customers have delivered a new paradigm to wireless companies: bigger isn’t necessarily better. The only bright spot among all four national carriers in 2016 was the scrappy T-Mobile, once destined for a fire sale by owner Deutsche Telekom. But under the “Uncarrier” leadership of CEO John Legere, T-Mobile USA is worth pure gold in Deutsche Telekom’s global wireless portfolio. The turnaround came not from trying to consolidate the industry but rather giving customers what they have asked for — more data, unlimited data, better deals, and better service. T-Mobile’s network investments paid off, giving the company very competitive 4G LTE speeds and comparable urban and suburban coverage to its larger competitors. Legere has been so successful, the German owners of T-Mobile no longer seem to be interested in selling T-Mobile USA.

Softbank’s record of achievement with Sprint in the last two years has been much less of a success story.

Customer Gains and Losses by Carrier – 2016-Q4 Phone Activators

Investments by Sprint in its wireless network have plummeted 62.7% under the leadership of Softbank from 2014-2016. (Chart: Hal Singer)

In 2015, Sprint’s capex was $3.958 billion. Last year, it was $1.421 billion — less than half the previous year. Mr. Son seems reticent about maintaining the kind of investment necessary to grow Sprint’s network over the long term to keep up with customer demand, instead willing to compete short term on price and promotions. Sprint’s past reputation for poor customer service, a slow data network, dropped calls, and coverage dead zones makes attracting former customers back to Sprint a hard sell, especially considering T-Mobile exists as a credible alternative to Sprint for those seeking cheaper service plans.

Son’s argument to the new administration depends on President Trump and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai being more friendly to the idea of less competition than the Obama Administration. Son may have an uphill battle, considering the former Obama Administration’s opposition to earlier mergers, including T-Mobile and AT&T and T-Mobile and Sprint seems to have paid off for consumers in the form of today’s fiercer competition and a price war.

Convincing President Trump to loosen merger standards to allow Softbank a stronger position in the U.S. market in return for vague and illusory investment and job creation promises is ridiculous considering Mr. Son’s performance with Sprint has not been as rosy as his rhetoric. No president should agree to a de facto bailout deal for Softbank that reduces competition and guarantees higher prices. Mr. Son should instead direct some of the $50 billion he apparently has stashed in waiting to improve Sprint’s network to more effectively compete. If he cannot or will not, the entire country should not pay for his investment mistake by watching more wireless competition get eliminated in yet another merger.

T-Mobile Literally Giving Away Free Line of Service in Price War Bonanza

T-Mobile continues to raise the stakes against AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint with another improbable promotion that literally gives away an extra line of service for free.

“Today, I’m thanking customers by giving them one of the things they want the most – a way to connect more of their family or more of their devices all the time,” said John Legere, president and CEO of T-Mobile.  “That’s why we’re giving customers a free line to use any way they choose!”

The press release offers customers a variety of options:

Current T-Mobile customers with at least two voice lines can use that extra line however they want. Get an extra line of unlimited T-Mobile ONE. Or if you have Simple Choice, you’ll get an extra Simple Choice line with your same data plan. Or use your free line for a new tablet or smartwatch. Or turn your car into a 4G LTE hotspot and a lot more with SyncUp Drive. It’s your call!

The “2 Unlimited Lines for $100 All In” promotion that began this morning offers new or current customers a chance to score a free extra line of service (after bill credits). The discount continues indefinitely and is also good for customers with more than two lines on their T-Mobile account. Here are the details:

  • How do I get the free add a line promotion?
    • Starting March 1st, for a limited time only, anyone activating 2 unlimited lines on T-Mobile ONE, and existing customers with at least 2 voice lines on T-Mobile ONE or Simple Choice can get 1 additional line for FREE after bill credit.
    • All free lines must be activated during the promotional period and you can keep the promotional pricing as long as you maintain qualifying service and line count. Customers may take advantage of this offer in addition to other offers and promotions, including 2/$100 and Carrier Freedom.
  • Who’s eligible for this promotion?
    • New customers, current customers and employees are eligible to receive this offer as long as they are on a qualifying rate plan, have two paid voice lines, and an account in good standing.
    • Customers with one voice line will need to migrate to T-Mobile ONE and add a second paid voice line to qualify for the FREE Line. Qualifying new and existing @Work customers may add one additional qualifying line on us for a max of 12 lines total.
  • How does the offer work?
    • The free line will match your current paid voice line data, i.e. T-Mobile ONE customers will receive a FREE T-Mobile ONE line and similarly, Simple Choice customers will receive a FREE Simple Choice line.
    • If your lines have varying amounts of data, the free line will match the line with the least amount of data. Existing customers with two paid voice lines get a free line whether you’re adding a smartphone line, tablet line or wearable.
    • In most cases, you will see your free line credit on your first bill. If credit is not applied on the first bill, two credits will appear on the second bill.
    • For customer’s not on the new T-Mobile ONE taxes and fees included plan, taxes/fees may be applied to pre-bill credit price. A maximum of 1 free line can be added per account.
    • If you cancel service on one of your lines within 12 months or migrate to another plan, you will lose the monthly bill credit for the free line.
  • Where is this offer available?
    • Anywhere that T-Mobile offers new lines of service, including T-Mobile retail stores nationwide, and authorized postpaid dealers.

Legere

For most customers, signing up with a T-Mobile ONE plan with unlimited phone, texting, and data will offer the best value and simplify the promotion by matching the same kinds of service on all three (or more) lines. This also guarantees your new line will cost absolutely nothing because T-Mobile ONE bundles all taxes and fees into the cost of service, which in this case is free. On similar promotions at other carriers, customers are on the hook for up to $10 a month in taxes, fees, and various surcharges on that “free” line.

You can bring a device to this plan or buy one from T-Mobile. A new SIM card is required, and T-Mobile charges an outrageous $25 to get one through their website or in stores. But many customers report if you call T-Mobile customer service from a T-Mobile phone on 611, a discounted SIM card for 99 cents is usually available if you ask.

T-Mobile has not put an expiration date on the offer. Judging from customer buzz, there is considerably interest in this offer and a lot of disbelief it comes free of charge.

T-Mobile acknowledges there are some billing issues going on at the wireless carrier as it continues to add customers. At present, customers will see a charge for the service followed by a bill credit, which may take up to two bill cycles to appear (but is retroactive back to your signup date.). It appears T-Mobile bills customers for the free line of service several days before a corresponding credit is issued, which has confused some customers being billed for a service and credited for it on the following month’s invoice. But many on autopay say T-Mobile actually deducts the correct amount (with the credit applied) no matter what the bill indicates. Customer service is also on hand to issue on the spot credits for concerned customers, and T-Mobile claims it is working through this billing issue and should have it resolved.

To take advantage of this offer, customers must not have canceled a line after Jan. 1, 2017. T-Mobile wants this offer to encourage customers to add lines, not convert existing lines from one plan to another.

T-Mobile Slams Its Own Deal With DirecTV Now, Throws In Free Year of Hulu

Former AT&T customers who dumped their former carrier for T-Mobile in return for a free year of DirecTV Now are getting a sweeter deal with a free year of Hulu with Limited Commercials as well.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere had avoided criticism of the streaming television service from AT&T-owned DirecTV until customers began complaining it has never worked as advertised, making the T-Mobile’s promotion a “meh” experience.

Legere has been a frequent critic of AT&T in social media, so it isn’t too surprising Legere started taking shots at AT&T’s streaming effort as well this morning.

On Twitter, Legere slammed DirecTV Now and called AT&T executives “delusional” over claims the service exceeded their expectations.

“To make things right for those new T-Mobile customers, the Un-carrier is giving everyone who participated in this deal a free year of Hulu — an awesome streaming service that actually works — on top of their free year of DirecTV Now,” said the company in a statement.

Customers need not surrender their existing DirecTV Now service. Hulu’s limited commercials plan comes along for the ride for one year. T-Mobile will send affected customers a promotional code they can use to sign up over the next several weeks.

No word on if customers can also upgrade to the $11.99 no-commercial plan and receive a partial credit.

Wall Street Analyst Craig Moffett Unhappy “Unwelcome” Phone Subsidies Are Back

Moffett

Craig Moffett, a Wall Street analyst specializing in telecommunications stocks, has lowered his opinion of T-Mobile after the wireless company successfully topped analyst estimates of subscriber growth, in part by giving customers a better deal than its competition.

Moffett is concerned T-Mobile’s subsidized holiday price cuts on the latest Apple iPhone and a new flat rate plan delighted customers but threatened profits.

“[…]Even as the wireless stocks were rising in November and December, handset subsidies were quietly making their unwelcome return,” said Moffett in a report to his clients. “T-Mobile’s new ‘All-In’ pricing plan opens yet another front in the battle over service plan pricing, leaving us incrementally more cautious about ARPU (average revenue per user) forecasts for all operators, not least T-Mobile itself.”

T-Mobile has ditched promotions for all of its usage capped data plans and is now advertising T-Mobile One, an “unlimited” (but throttled for very heavy users) data, text, and calls for an all-inclusive price of $40 per line. Customers can still buy a limited data plan, but T-Mobile’s website strongly de-emphasizes that option.

While T-Mobile added 1.2 million postpaid customers in the fourth quarter, exceeding estimates, Moffett isn’t happy with the prices those customers are paying because it may force other carriers to reduce their pricing as well. That hurts everyone… on Wall Street.

T-Mobile USA John Legere has become a perennial and profane thorn in the side of his competitors.

That kind of marketplace disruption the wireless industry could do without, so analysts on Wall Street are taking bets on what company will acquire T-Mobile and get things back to business as usual. Moffett believes all signs point to an unprecedented wave of deregulation, lower corporate taxes, and money-fueled industry consolidation under the incoming Trump Administration.

Sprint is a rumored favorite to acquire T-Mobile, but then so is Comcast, which may seek to enter the wireless space through a large acquisition. Companies repatriating billions in excess funds stashed in overseas banks at the special low tax rate President-Elect Trump is proposing may be what drives the next buyout frenzy.

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