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The Bug is Back: AT&T’s Cricket Brand Launches New Ho-Hum Plans That Are More of the Same

Cricket has relaunched its website with a new logo and service plans as new owner AT&T merges its value-conscious Aio prepaid offering under the acquired Cricket brand name.

Targeting the credit-challenged, Cricket’s new service plans are not groundbreaking, basically copying Aio’s recent offers. Swept away are the low-cost “pay when you use” plans that only levy charges on the days you actually use the phone. Instead, Cricket is looking for a longer, committed relationship with month-long service plans and loyalty discounts:

cell plans

The relaunch of Cricket will bring changes for existing customers as AT&T begins to decommission Cricket’s freestanding CDMA 3G network in March 2015 in favor of AT&T’s GSM 4G LTE service. That means customers with current Cricket phones will need to eventually switch to a newer handset, a process being made easier with $50 rebates that can make some of Cricket’s smartphones available for free. Enroll in Cricket’s rewards program, stay with them a year, make your payments on time and you will also get a $50 device credit which can be used towards an upgrade next year.

cricket-logoCricket’s data plans do not carry automatic overlimit charges. Instead, your data connection is throttled to 128kbps until your billing period resets. Customers can buy an extra gigabyte of data at any time for $10.

There are several other changes that probably won’t affect the majority of Cricket customers:

  • There is a $5 discount for every month you are enrolled in Auto Pay to keep your phone active;
  • A family plan discount provides $10 off the monthly service charge of a second line, $20 off the third line, and $30 off the fourth and fifth line, for a maximum discount of $90 a month;
  • While you remain on your current Cricket service (on the CDMA network) you may keep paper billing. When you transition to the new Cricket (the 4G GSM network with nationwide coverage), you will no longer receive a paper bill;
  • Customers participating in the 5 for $100 promotion can continue with this rate plan only while on the Cricket CDMA network;
  • Cricket no longer offers military or friends & family discounts;
  • Cricket will transition out of the wireless Lifeline program. Current Lifeline customers can use Cricket’s CDMA network until it is shut down, after which they must choose a different provider;
http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Cricket Home New Cricket Merger Info.mp4

AT&T keeps its name and brand completely off the relaunched Cricket and Aio combined website. This introductory video explains the merger of the two wireless brands and what customers can expect. (1:44)

Goldman Sachs Suspected of Involvement in Suspicious Leap Wireless Stock Options Money Party

inside tradeBuying shares in a public company used to be straightforward and simple. Buyers instructed their broker to trade shares with the simple maxim: “buy low, sell high.”

These days, things are more complicated thanks to wealthy investment banks that have created Wall Street’s version of a Las Vegas casino. Today, buyers don’t even need to purchase shares in a company — they can make a killing just by betting whether they believe a share price will increase or decrease.

The Options Regulatory Surveillance Authority is now investigating a sudden surge in such option trading just before AT&T launched its $1.19 billion cash bid for Leap Wireless, owner of the Cricket-branded prepaid cell service.

The unnamed buyers included investment bank Goldman Sachs, that either traded options for themselves, on behalf of well-heeled clients, or simply processed the trades as part of doing business.

Those who purchased the call options were either clairvoyant, extremely lucky, or had inside knowledge of the yet-to-be-announced deal and were able to buy thousands of lucrative contracts that bet Leap stock would make a sudden recovery and increase in price. Nanex reports an explosive increase of 15,749 Leap “call contracts” trading hands that week, according to a report in USA Today. That well-surpassed that same week’s 1,384 Leap “put contracts” — investors making the safer bet that the always-anemic Leap stock would fall in price even further. That particular week, they were very wrong.

During the last 15 minutes of trading on July 12, 2,536 Leap contracts were executed, and nearly 80 percent of them gave buyers the right to purchase Leap shares for $9 each through Aug. 16, an amazing display of confidence in a stock that traded as low as $6.58 per share a few weeks earlier.

Leap into the big money pool.

Leap into the big money pool.

Other investors were left scratching their heads over the wisdom of that kind of trading until just after the market closed that day, when AT&T announced its intention to buy the prepaid carrier, boosting Leap’s stock price from $7.98 on July 12 to $17.23 on Monday, July 15.

“Did someone know something early in Leap Wireless?” asked Jon Najarian, co-founder of Option Monster, a provider of options-trading ideas, in a written commentary for TheStreet.com. “The question now is whether someone will end up in prison for insider trading.”

While the unnamed parties likely made a handsome and quick profit, the brokerages that sold the options took a beating.

“We, as market makers … sold these calls,” said Thomas Peterffy, head of Timber Hill and an affiliated group of brokerages. “When the news came out, we had an immediate loss of $1.5 million.”

Goldman $achs

Goldman $achs

Timber Hill promptly filed a request for an investigation into potential illegal insider trading with the Options Regulatory Surveillance Authority that has since responded it was reviewing the issue “to determine if any exchange or Securities and Exchange Commission rules may have been violated.”

A Nasdaq spokesperson did not respond to messages seeking comment. Goldman Sachs also declined to comment.

Peterffy told the newspaper securities regulators should pursue examples such as the Leap Wireless options trading, “where it’s very clear what happens.”

“This has been going on for 20 years. It happens all the time, happens about 20-30 times a year. And we’ve never seen a penny from this stuff,” said Peterffy.

AT&T’s Purchase of Cricket-Leap Wireless Wins Hundreds of Millions in Tax Writeoffs

cricketAnalysts were surprised at the premium price AT&T agreed to pay when it announced last month it was acquiring Leap Wireless — owner of the Cricket brand prepaid cell phone service — for $1.2 billion plus assuming $2.8 billion in net debt. But newly released documents show AT&T will win significant tax concessions allowing it to shelter hundreds of millions in revenue from the tax man.

In fact, the more Leap Wireless piles up debt and hemorrhages customers, the more AT&T’s taxes go down.

If AT&T wins approval for its deal to take over Cricket’s dwindling customer base, wireless spectrum, and the company’s existing wireless network, it will receive 20 years of tax savings from “pre-change” losses, offering AT&T a tax shelter worth $155 million in taxable income a year. That means AT&T will see at least a $60 million reduction in its tax bill each of the first five years after the deal is approved. Then the savings decrease somewhat for the next 15 years as AT&T gets to write off $35 million annually.

Despite Cricket’s efforts to promote its bundled music and prepaid cell services as an industry game-changer, customers did not agree.

On Thursday, Leap admitted Cricket lost $163 million, or $2.09 per share, on revenue of $731 million for the quarter ended June 30. The company also saw 18 percent of its customers leave over the past year, with 4.8 million remaining. Leap management admitted it was becoming increasingly difficult to compete because its network was smaller than its larger competitors and Cricket had trouble acquiring the hottest smartphones to sell to customers.

Leap has been peddling Cricket on the wireless market since 2009 with no takers, even after it began to slowly pursue a network upgrade to 4G LTE service that was more promise than reality. Recent disclosures show the company lacked the money to expand more quickly.

AT&T still showed little interest in the little carrier that couldn’t over the course of 2012.

att cricketIn May, as T-Mobile closed in on its takeover of similarly sized MetroPCS, things changed. AT&T ended up being the sole bidder for Cricket, offering $9.50 a share.

AT&T raised its offer to a whopping $15 a share after Leap executives promoted Cricket as a useful brand for AT&T to improve its standing in the prepaid market. But executives also sold AT&T on the fact Leap was lousy in debt, which opened up significant tax savings opportunities for AT&T.

BTIG Research’s Walter Piecyk thinks AT&T is shelling out a lot for Leap, even after considering the tax and spectrum benefits. But more than anything else, AT&T may have been willing to pay a premium for Cricket just to make sure none of its competitors, particularly T-Mobile, got there first.

The deal still requires approval by the Federal Communications Commission with a likely weigh-in from the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg ATT Buys Leap Wireless Who Wins 7-15-13.flv

Moffett Research senior research analyst Craig Moffett tells Bloomberg News AT&T’s acquisition of Leap Wireless sticks it to competitors, in particular T-Mobile. AT&T’s purchase blocks T-Mobile and other carriers from getting access to Cricket’s wireless spectrum. Moffett also talks about the trend towards wireless mergers and acquisitions and how Verizon and AT&T got stuck with unwanted, unsold iPhones that could cost the companies millions. (6 minutes)

Wireless Consolidation: AT&T Buying Leap Wireless/Cricket in $1.2 Billion Transaction

att cricketAT&T announced late Friday it was acquiring Leap Wireless for almost $1.2 billion — a premium of 88 percent over Leap’s stock price.

Creditors may be pleased. Leap Wireless had $2.8 billion of net debt which is expected to be retired by AT&T as part of the buyout.

The Cricket prepaid brand is expected to survive the acquisition, at least for now. Unlike many other prepaid providers, Leap Wireless owns and operates its own CDMA and LTE cell network in its “home service” areas. The Cricket brand is best known for its PCS prepaid service, which is targeted almost exclusively in urban areas. Leap has an extensive roaming agreement with Sprint to provide service where its own cell network does not reach.

AT&T has not said if it will eventually convert Leap’s CDMA network to the standard AT&T uses — GSM. It may not be as important in the future as LTE becomes available to five million Cricket customers. AT&T said the purchase would open Cricket users to roaming on AT&T’s cellular and data networks, which cover a larger service area than Sprint. The biggest impact may be felt by Cricket’s dealer network. AT&T is likely to move the Cricket brand “in-house” and market it within AT&T stores.

Both AT&T and Verizon Wireless have been strongly urging on consolidation in the wireless provider market. Executives at both companies and several Wall Street analysts predict America will eventually have three major carriers, presumably Verizon, AT&T, and a consolidated Sprint, which could eventually acquire T-Mobile. These predictions all assume federal regulators will accept the wireless industry’s premise that fierce competition will remain with fewer providers. A handful of small independent providers may continue to exist as outliers, but most do not believe they will have any significant impact on the market share of the top three.

leap-logoMany wireless industry observers believe AT&T is not interested in Leap/Cricket because of its business model. It is Leap’s spectrum holdings in large urban markets that makes it an attractive takeover target.

AT&T expects no problems with regulator approval and anticipates the acquisition will be complete by early 2014.

“The combined company will have the financial resources, scale and spectrum to better compete with other major national providers for customers interested in low-cost prepaid service,” AT&T said in a release on Friday.

Cricket Takes On AT&T/Verizon With Deceptive ‘Unlimited’ Plan With a Throttle After 1GB

cricket planCricket wants to convince you that paying AT&T or Verizon $90-120 a month for a cell plan with unlimited calling, texting and a 1-3GB data plan is too much, because it can sell you an “all-unlimited plan” for $45.

Cricket this week launched its “Half Is More” marketing campaign online, as well as in print and television advertisements.

“When we go out and talk to a lot of consumers, we hear a lot of angst from post-paid subscribers,” Cricket senior vice president Tyler Wallis told CNET. “They’re not happy with the service they’re getting and they’re feeling like they’re getting gouged.”

They also might not like finding out their “unlimited use” data plan actually comes with a barely disclosed speed throttle that kicks in after only 1GB of usage, reducing speeds to near dial-up for the rest of the billing cycle.

Cricket defends the claim they offer “unlimited” data service by stating they do not completely sever a customer’s data connection when they reach the limit, or charge them overlimit fees. They just slow the service down… a lot. Cricket customers tell Stop the Cap! Cricket’s wireless Internet becomes almost unusable once they are placed in the usage penalty box.

Cricket also depends heavily on Sprint for roaming coverage outside of the small number of home markets where Cricket owns and operates its own network. For many customers, that means frequent roaming on Sprint’s 3G network, which is not rated well for its speed and performance.

Once throttled, customers are stuck in the slow lane until their next billing cycle begins.

Customers with light data needs might find Cricket’s plan an option, assuming they have good coverage either from Cricket itself or roaming on Sprint’s network.

Cricket’s campaign noticeably avoids comparing their plan against T-Mobile, which offers a $70 monthly truly unlimited plan or for ten dollars less, a 2GB plan with unlimited calling and texting.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Cricket Ad Unlimited 5-13.mp4

How easy can you read the white fine print disclaimer on the white background in Cricket’s ad? Cricket advertises unlimited data but keeps its speed throttle mostly to itself. (1 minute)

Pushed Into a Corner: Sprint Left Behind As Wireless Consolidation Frenzy Resumes

An industry orphan?

Sprint CEO Dan Hesse probably rues the day his Board of Directors pulled the plug on a merger deal that would have combined MetroPCS and Sprint back in February. The merger was abandoned after board members openly worried the transaction would distract Sprint from its network improvement project — dubbed Network Vision — then just getting underway.

The deal with T-Mobile and MetroPCS may have limited Sprint’s takeover options, although analysts say a hostile counteroffer for MetroPCS could still take the small carrier away from T-Mobile.

Hesse himself is a proponent of additional wireless industry consolidation. He believes the current market has too many wireless carriers and the two dominant providers — AT&T and Verizon — enjoy economy of scale Sprint cannot hope to achieve in its current position.

Hesse

Wall Street was more pessimistic about Sprint after the T-Mobile/MetroPCS merger was announced, suggesting they may be an industry orphan, pushed into a corner and running out of options.

Shares of Leap Wireless, the owner of Cricket, rose as much as 17 percent after the T-Mobile deal was announced, signaling Cricket is likely an endangered species. Leap’s cellular network is similar in scope to MetroPCS, although the two companies largely serve different markets. Wall Street’s favorite dance card has Sprint and Leap Wireless as future partners, and Sprint may be forced to acquire the smaller carrier to save face. Leap operates its own modest network of cell towers and has plans to roll out LTE 4G service to its customers. That spectrum could become important to Sprint, especially in the larger urban areas Cricket targets.

An endangered species.

Some Wall Street analysts say deals with MetroPCS, Leap, and other small regional carriers are small potatoes. Many advocate for a much larger merger between Sprint and T-Mobile to more realistically confront the de-facto duopoly of AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

Regulators under the Obama Administration may take a dim view of a merger that combines the third and fourth largest nationwide carriers, but nobody expects much regulatory resistance approving mergers that wipe out MetroPCS and Cricket.

“The problems that Sprint and T-Mobile have are they are not as big as AT&T and Verizon,” Piper Jaffray’s Chris Larsen told Bloomberg News in a phone interview. “They don’t have the scale so therefore it is harder to compete. Increasing your size 25 percent, it helps. But when you are less than half as big as your rival, getting 25 percent bigger narrows the gap, but it does not close the gap.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNBC MetroPCS Down on Merger Reports 10-3-12.flv

CNBC reports the T-Mobile/MetroPCS deal reignites wireless consolidation and leaves Sprint in a potentially difficult position.  (5 minutes)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Sprint Left Behind as MetroPCS Joins T-Mobile 10-3-12.flv

Bloomberg News reports T-Mobile needs more subscribers, but some Wall Street analysts think the company is making a mistake focusing on the prepaid market.  (1 minute)

Largely Pointless ‘Radio Shack Mobile’ Simply Resells Cricket Service, Where Available

Phillip Dampier September 5, 2012 Competition, Consumer News, Cricket, Editorial & Site News, Wireless Broadband Comments Off

Another face in the crowd.

For customers uncomfortable being seen anywhere near a Cricket store, Radio Shack’s No-Contract Wireless may be just what you were waiting for.

The electronics chain today unveils two Cricket-powered mobile phones as part of their new “no-contract” prepaid wireless offering.

  • The Huawei Mercury Ice is exclusive to RadioShack for the next 30 days and appears to be a slight makeover of the original Huawei Mercury… in white. For $149.99, the Android 2.3 phone is powered by a 1.4 GHz processor, a scratch-resistant 4-inch FWVGA screen and 8MP camera. With Muve Music® included in the $50 a month unlimited data plan, the phone delivers unlimited song downloads, ringtones and ringback tones.
  • The $39.99 Huawei Pillar feature phone works with plans that start at $25 a month, includes a QWERTY keyboard, camera, and rudimentary mobile Web access.

Cricket’s own cell coverage is more limited than most carriers, and an extensive roaming agreement with Sprint covers the rest of the country where Sprint provides service. If Sprint does not cut it in your area, Cricket will not either. Cricket emphasizes its home coverage in urban and near-suburban areas and across major highways. Their rural coverage is extremely lacking.

Once you reach the specific data limit, Cricket throttles your connection speed to something comparable to dial-up.

Plan Details1 $25/mo. Feature $35/mo.Feature $50/mo.Smartphone $60/mo.Smartphone
Voice Minutes/Mo. 300 1,000 Unlimited Unlimited
Unlimited Text * * * *
Additional Calling Features2 * * * *
Unlimited Multimedia Text * * * *
Unlimited Music with Muve Music * *
Unlimited Web/Data * * * (1GB) * (2.5GB)
Tethering  N/A  N/A  N/A *
1 All monthly service plans include Voicemail and Caller ID. (*-feature included)
2 Additional Calling Features include: Call Waiting and 3-way calling.

Unfortunately, Radio Shack does not bring anything new to the deal except additional retail stores where customers can buy phones and activate the service. Cricket customers can choose these plans and a wider array of phones directly from Cricket, its website or one of its authorized dealers or resellers. But if your nearest Cricket store is in a sketchy neighborhood or you don’t want your friends to catch you walking out of one, Radio Shack offers a potentially safer alternative (although nobody under 40 probably shops at Radio Shack either).

That being said, Cricket offers respectable service when you live and travel in areas where it provides service. In suburban Rochester, N.Y., your author’s personal experience is that voice coverage is comparable to that offered by Sprint. Their 3G network performs better than Sprint, but falls far behind AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless. Data roaming over Sprint’s 3G network is painfully slow in this area.

Cricket is planning on upgrading to 4G LTE service in additional cities next year. Currently, its coverage map only shows LTE service in Tucson, Ariz.

PC Magazine Hands Out Fastest Wireless Data Awards, But Does It Matter?

Won first place nationally for the best 4G LTE network with the fastest overall speeds and best performance.

PC Magazine went to a lot of effort to test the data speeds of America’s wireless providers, traveling to 30 U.S. cities sampling both 3G and 4G wireless networks to see which carrier delivers the most consistent and fastest results.

After 240,000 lines of test data, the magazine declared the results a bit “muddy.”

They have a point.

Depending on which carrier’s flavor of “4G” is being utilized, where reception was strongest, how much spectrum was available in each tested city, and how many people were sharing the cell tower at the time of each test, PC Magazine was able to deliver the definitive results. And it was effectively a draw.

Verizon Wireless achieved victory in 19 cities, AT&T won in ten others, and T-Mobile came in pretty close behind, and that carrier does not even operate an LTE 4G network. But taking all factors into account, including upload and download speeds, whether or not test downloads actually completed, and whether streamed media was tolerable, Verizon Wireless won first prize nationwide.

But by how much?

Not enough to matter, if you are using Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile.

But the results do offer some things to think about.

  1. MetroPCS is a mess. Despite the fact this smaller carrier is building its own 4G LTE network, results were simply terrible. Either its backhaul network from cell towers offers lower capacity or its backbone network is screaming for an upgrade.
  2. Cricket was not willing to participate in the test. Their network, still 3G, delivers dependably “meh” results in the places where they actually provide coverage. The company has been reducing data allowances on their mobile broadband plans and raising prices on others. In one conference call with investors, company executives admitted they have been losing mobile broadband customers and expect that to continue at the prices they are charging.
  3. Sprint needs their forthcoming 4G LTE network more than ever. Their 3G data service turned in mediocre results and their 4G WiMAX network was yesterday’s news a year ago. Sprint’s 3G network is also notorious for dead-end downloads, a situation I have witnessed on friends’ phones for several months.
  4. Verizon Wireless remains far ahead of AT&T in covering more cities with their 4G LTE network. But more customers are also starting to use Verizon’s newer network, and the more customers piling on, the slower the speeds get for everyone. AT&T turned in some superior speed results in several cities, but those networks are often used less than the competition, for now.
  5. No network is good if you cannot afford to use it. As America’s wireless carriers keep raising prices and reducing usage allowances to keep data usage under control, there will be a breaking point where customers decide the money they spend for wireless data just is not worth it, especially if they live in a place where Wi-Fi is free and easy to find.
  6. What you test today will probably be different tomorrow. Wireless networks are constantly evolving and changing, with a wide range of factors contributing to their overall performance. Perhaps a more useful test would have been measuring how wireless carriers respond when their networks need upgrading and how long it takes them to respond to changing usage patterns. Verizon seems particularly aggressive, AT&T less so based on these results. The real surprise seems to be how well T-Mobile’s older technology is performing, and how quickly Sprint is now falling behind. On Cricket and MetroPCS, “you get what you pay for” seems to apply.

Wireless Telecom Roundup: The Big Get Bigger; Smaller Providers Feeling the Heat

Phillip Dampier February 21, 2012 AT&T, Consumer News, Cricket, MetroPCS, Sprint, Verizon, Wireless Broadband Comments Off

A summary of recent quarterly earnings reports from America’s wireless companies:

Verizon Wireless: Verizon has been uncompetitive in the prepaid market for the last several years, as it focused on its postpaid/contract customers.  No more.  Recent price cutting and the introduction of new contract-free plans that offer unlimited calling or packages of features comparable to contract plans are starting to win Verizon a bigger share of the prepaid market.  But Verizon also successfully picked up 1.2 million new contract customers as well, many switching from AT&T or smaller providers.  That’s the second best result the company has had in the last two years.  Verizon has a whopping 87.4 million people on two-year contracts and 21.3 million prepaid customers — 108.7 million total.  Verizon’s iPhone remains popular with 4.3 million activations last quarter.

AT&T: Growth at AT&T achieved its best results in the last quarter of the year, but the company continues to trail Verizon Wireless.  AT&T added 717,000 contract customers last quarter, and has been behind Verizon adding new customers for more than a year.  The company’s reputation for lousy service and policies that antagonize their customers have driven people to look elsewhere — mostly to Verizon.  But iPhone devotees are remaining loyal to AT&T, with one of every five new iPhone activations happening on AT&T’s network.  The company picked up 7.6 million new iPhone activations last quarter.

Sprint: The iPhone is killing Sprint’s balance sheet, but is bringing the company new contract customers.  Historically, Sprint’s most predictable growth has come from its resale agreements with third party providers and its various prepaid service divisions (Boost/Virgin Mobile).  But with the introduction of the Sprint iPhone (1.8 million new activations last quarter), customers looking for unlimited data or a cheaper plan are finding both at Sprint.  Unfortunately for the company, the wholesale cost of the iPhone is eating heavily into the company’s cash on hand.

Leap Wireless/Cricket and MetroPCS: Both companies are facing increasing challenges sustaining their prepaid service business models because of growing competition from larger providers.  Just about everyone who wants a two year contract-cell phone plan already has one, limiting new growth opportunities.  That is forcing AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile to turn their attention to the still-growing prepaid market, which is attractive for the credit-challenged, occasional users, travelers, and those with lower incomes.  Both Cricket and MetroPCS have traditionally targeted urban markets, where their networks are focused, to sell customers inexpensive service plans with convenient payment options.  But their networks don’t extend outside of suburban and urban areas, so roaming expenses can be higher for customers on the go.  Customers of both companies are increasingly looking to larger providers with more robust network coverage and increasingly aggressive pricing.

That has left Cricket with anemic, but acceptable growth, picking up 179,000 new customers in the fourth quarter.  MetroPCS, however, failed to meet expectations with just 197,410 new customers in the fourth quarter.  Existing MetroPCS subscribers are also leaving at a higher rate.

Verizon Buying Portion of Plateau Wireless’ New Mexico Operations

Plateau Wireless serves eastern New Mexico and portions of western Texas.

The consolidation of America’s wireless market continues with this week’s announcement Verizon Wireless intends to acquire a portion of Plateau Wireless’ network operations in southwest New Mexico.

Verizon will take over Plateau’s 259,000 mostly rural customers in portions of Roswell, Carlsbad, Artesia, Hobbs, and Ruidoso, N.M.

The acquisition covers a service territory of 26,100 square miles.

Plateau says the decision came down to money.  The wireless company needs the infusion of cash a Verizon purchase would bring to help finance high speed wireless upgrades.

The FCC will have to review the transaction before it can be approved.

Plateau will continue to service customers in Clovis, Portales, Tucumcari and parts of western Texas.

Moody’s Declares AT&T and Verizon the Winners — Sprint and T-Mobile Can “Never Catch Up”

Phillip Dampier February 15, 2012 AT&T, Competition, Cricket, MetroPCS, Public Policy & Gov't, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, Wireless Broadband Comments Off

Game over. In the championship of cell phone competition, Verizon Wireless and AT&T have won, and it is now too late for Sprint-Nextel or T-Mobile USA to catch up.

That is the conclusion of Moody’s Investors Service, who has determined competition in waning in the U.S. wireless marketplace.

“AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless have better network coverage, wider capabilities and wider profit margins which gives them a competitive advantage that smaller rivals just can’t match,” said Mark Stodden, a Moody’s analyst and author of the report. “It is too late for competitors to invest and catch up; Sprint has the willingness but not the ability, while T-Mobile’s parent Deutsche Telekom, is the opposite.”

Sprint’s ambitious plans for a new 4G LTE network have been suppressed by a lack of enthusiasm by Wall Street investors and bankers, who seem to prefer the much-larger AT&T and Verizon who can sustain increased pricing and are better credit risks.  T-Mobile USA has practically been abandoned by its parent owner Deutsche Telekom, which wants to focus its investments in larger markets in Europe.

Moody’s estimates AT&T and Verizon will account for 81 percent of industry earnings in 2011.  Wall Street has pressured Sprint and T-Mobile to seek consolidation to better withstand their larger competitors.  Before AT&T bid for T-Mobile, rumors of an acquisition of the German-owned company by Sprint-Nextel were common, although the two companies operate with different network technology.  Moody’s predicts troubled waters for Sprint if it should actually seek to acquire T-Mobile, because the FCC seems comfortable with a minimum of four national carriers.

Instead, Moody’s predicts Sprint will seek to acquire smaller regional carriers and prepaid providers like Leap Wireless’ Cricket and MetroPCS.  Neither acquisition would significantly improve Sprint’s service footprint, however, as both prepaid providers operate only in larger markets where they already co-exist with Sprint.

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