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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.

AT&T Ho-Hum About 5G Residential Broadband: Just Give Them Fiber to the Home

AT&T admitted this week it was not excited about delivering residential broadband over 5G wireless networks, calling arguments for wireless 5G in-home broadband “a very tricky business case.”

John Stephens, AT&T’s chief financial officer, told analysts in a quarterly conference call AT&T has tested 5G wireless technology and it works from a technological standpoint, but the company isn’t sure there is a compelling business case to sell 5G technology as a home wired broadband replacement.

“We’re not as excited about the business case. It’s not as compelling yet for us as it may be for some,” Stephens said, explaining companies planning to offer 5G service will need to find extensive, existing fiber networks or construct their own in residential neighborhoods to connect each small cell 5G antenna. Where AT&T provides local phone service, it is already expanding its own fiber network to replace existing copper wire facilities.

“Frankly, if we’ve got fiber there, it may be just as effective and maybe even a better quality product to give those customers fiber-to-the-home” instead of 5G wireless service, Stephens told Wall Street.

A Washington Post Columnist Channels Cable Industry Drivel About Cord-Cutting

Phillip Dampier April 18, 2018 Editorial & Site News, Online Video 2 Comments

The editorial and opinion page of The Washington Post has always been an uneven experience, especially when it comes to their views on the telecommunications business.

For years, the Post’s editorial page has been suspiciously cable-friendly. It favored Comcast’s failed 2014 acquisition of Time Warner Cable — a thought so horrible, readers were likely to spit out their morning coffee after seeing it. At first, one might have attributed the editorial board’s friendliness to the fact its corporate parent at the time also owned Cable One, a cable operator serving small and medium cities in places Comcast, Charter, and Cox forgot. But Cable One is now long gone — spun off as an independent entity. So perhaps laziness explains why reporters and columnists are frequently suckered by well-worn talking points from a cable industry on the defensive — celebrating every article proclaiming the impact of cord-cutting is muted, at best.

This morning’s shallow column by “right-leaning blogger” Megan McArdle, “You think you hate your cable bundle. You’re wrong,” is an excellent case in point. It’s a combination of cable industry folderol and misunderstanding of the economics of today’s cable business.

McArdle argues that recent subscriber growth by Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services should mean we can get rid of the hated cable television bundle. Only we don’t she says, because we “actually love bundles.”

Her argument runs into trouble almost immediately when attempting to conflate a-la-carte economics of the television business with the likely impact of that type of pricing on hotels, airlines, and restaurants:

When you book a hotel, you expect “complimentary” mattresses, sheets and towels, rather than renting each individually. When you go to a restaurant, you don’t pay extra to enjoy the use of a plate. And you get very testy indeed upon discovering that your bargain airline charges you to choose a seat or bring luggage.

Bundling, it turns out, is valuable. You aren’t willing to give up complimentary shampoo and towel service when you’re traveling, because that turns every shower into a financial decision. The hotel, meanwhile, would need more staff to field requests for trivia, raising the price of the room. Much better for everyone to sell you a bundle that we call a “hotel room” but that really includes a bunch of ancillary products you might like to use during your stay.

In 2014, the Washington Post editorial page endorsed the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger that eventually fell apart.

Value is in the eye of the beholder, and hundreds of thousands of cable customers are doing what was once unthinkable for the cable industry (and Ms. McArdle) — they are cutting the cord to their cable television package for good. That is a fact many cable executives are now willing to acknowledge. It is why CEO’s complain about the inflation rate of cable programming costs and the fact subscribers are no longer amenable to annual budget-busting rate hikes for cable television. Some cable companies now attempt to hide those growing costs in fine print surcharges for broadcast TV stations and sports programming. Others are offering new slimmed-down cable package options for customers no longer willing to pay for dozens of channels they will never watch. It’s a story we’ve covered for nine years, but one Ms. McArdle obviously missed.

Her analogies about an a-la-carte world for hotels and airlines isn’t a good one because nobody staying in a motel or flying complains about getting too much from either. As with all things, there is a general consensus about what one can expect staying in a Holiday Inn or flying Delta. You can find outliers like the seedy motel with hourly rates that charges for clean sheets or the airline that is now contemplating new seating arrangements that cram people even tighter into an almost-standing position. But when you signed up for cable television, you did not expect or ask for hundreds of channels — many added not because subscribers valued them but because of corporate contract decisions or launch bonuses. But you didn’t have much of a choice with “take it or leave it” lineups. McArdle’s argument falls into the industry’s favorite talking point of all — the value proposition. ‘Yes, your cable bill is now headed for $200 a month, but look at all the value we give you by bundling dozens of networks you’ve never heard of with a phone line you don’t want and an internet connection that we now target for our annual rate hikes.’

Bundled pricing is designed to trap you into their business model, and any attempt to claim we “love” those pricing plans is extremely misguided.

Take Spectrum’s misleading promotion for a year of their triple play bundle, marketed as: TV+Internet+Voice with a price of $29.99/mo each. Not a bad deal. One can take internet service and television, for example, and expect to pay just under $60 a month for both. That’s a fine price. But then you missed the fine print. It actually says “from $29,99/mo each for 12 months when bundled.” To actually get those services for $29.99 a month each you have to take all three. If you just want the aforementioned bundle of television and internet service, the promotional price for that is $59.99 a month for television, plus $29.99 a month for internet — which adds up to one cent more than Spectrum’s triple play promotion, which also includes a phone line.

Do subscribers “love the bundle” or traditionally take it because it is the only package on offer from the cable company that makes economic sense, given the options?

McArdle continues:

Bundling is especially valuable in businesses where fixed costs account for a disproportionate share of the total price. Once you’ve gone to the monstrous expense of building and staffing a hotel, providing extra amenities generates little additional cost while adding a great deal of value for the customer. And the same is true of cable. Much of the expense comes from laying and maintaining a wire to your house; adding another channel is relatively cheap.

Right now, cable companies sell you phone, Internet service and entertainment products, all of which share one wire, one maintenance operation and one customer service staff. Without those other services, the Internet division would have to cover all that overhead. So if you pay less for the entertainment, you’re probably going to have to pay more for connectivity.

The sunk costs of cable company infrastructure have been largely paid off for years. Today’s cable systems were largely designed and last significantly overhauled in the 1990s and early 2000s to make room for more television channels. Every service contemplated for sale by the cable industry, including broadband, was designed to work over a hybrid fiber-coax network design that has been in place for 20 years. Move analog television channels to digital, and one opens up room for more broadband. Need more bandwidth for broadband? Order a node split to further divide pools of users.

The cable industry itself rejects McArdle’s argument for the one-size-fits-all cable bundle. It is why companies have started to introduce slimmed down cable packages and sell new packages of over the top streaming cable TV channels to their broadband-only customers. The costs to deliver and support the broadband services cable companies now love to offer have been declining for years, even as rates increase. Ms. McArdle is obviously also unaware of the industry’s push to launch more self-service options for customers to cut down support calls and dramatically reduce the number of truck rolls to customer homes. She may also not realize the impetus to raise prices comes not out of necessity, but from Wall Street and investors’ revenue expectations.

As cable television programming prices increase, the profit margin on cable television goes further into decline. But the cable industry makes up the difference by raising broadband prices. That is one segment of its business that remains very strong. Losing video subscribers is not the disaster Ms. McArdle suggests it could be. In fact Moody’s recently noted that with broadband profit margins about three times more than for video, the economic loss from a departing video customer can be neutralized by growing broadband subscribers at a fraction of the video unit’s loss. The ratings agency estimates that a ratio of about two broadband subscribers added for every video customer loss should offset revenue losses, while a ratio of 0.67 times that takes care of profit declines as well. That is based on current prices. Therefore, as cable companies add broadband customers, they easily offset the financial impact of video customers departing with no actual need to raise rates.

McArdle finally falls into the trap of using today’s linear TV paradigm as the basis of her argument that if all cable television channels were sold a-la-carte, they would cost astronomically more than they do as part of a bundle. But if that were true, the slimmed down competitive offerings of DirecTV Now, Sling TV, and others would be substantially more expensive than they actually are. For many customers, the out-the-door price is what matters, even if they are paying more for each of the channels they are interested in watching. A $35 DirecTV Now bill is still a lot less than an $80 cable TV bill, which often does not include surcharges and equipment fees.

Wall Street analyst Richard Greenfield of BTIG Research is so skeptical of the future of today’s bloated bundles, he has a Twitter tag: #goodluckbundle that expresses his view that bundled, linear, live television itself is decreasing in importance as viewers turn to on-demand streaming services. Subscriber satisfaction with Netflix and Hulu is much higher than almost any cable company.

One of Stop the Cap!’s readers understands subscribing to a lot of streaming services can also cost a lot, but customer satisfaction matters even more:

“It still adds up when you subscribe to a lot of services, but my satisfaction has never been higher because I am getting services with a lot of things I want to watch instead of hundreds of channels I don’t,” said Jack Codon. “When you flip through the channels and run into Sanford & SonLaw and Order, home shopping, and terrible reality show trash, you just get angry because I was paying for all of it. Now I pay Netflix and they spend the money on making more shows I will probably want to watch, as opposed to reruns I don’t.”

McArdle is correct about one thing — we should expect streaming and internet prices to increase, but not because of what she wrote. The real reason for broadband rate hikes is the lack of competition, which allows companies to implement “because we can” rate increases. Netflix itself hinted it may also increase prices incrementally down the road, but not with the intention of rewarding executives and shareholders with fat bonuses and dividend payouts. Netflix wants to pour all it can into additional content development to give customers even more reason to watch Netflix and little, if anything else.

CenturyLink Ends Prism TV Service Expansion

Phillip Dampier April 10, 2018 CenturyLink, Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 1 Comment

CenturyLink’s Prism TV

CenturyLink has stopped expanding its cable TV alternative Prism TV, and will no longer promote the service to its customers.

“Due to emerging market trends in video content and delivery, we do not plan to expand our Prism TV service offering,” CenturyLink spokesperson Francie Dudrey told Fierce Cable, in a statement delivered at the NAB Show yesterday. “We will continue to provide service and support to our current Prism TV subscribers and make the service available to qualified customers who request it in the markets where we currently offer Prism TV.”

As Stop the Cap! reported last month, CenturyLink is planning to pull back on residential broadband upgrades and services it was expecting to sell on its improved internet platform after the company announced senior management changes. One key sign CenturyLink was moving away from Prism TV was the sudden retirement of Duane Ring on March 30. Ring, a 34-year veteran at CenturyLink had been recently promoted to help oversee CenturyLink’s residential broadband upgrades and was instrumental to the launch of Prism TV in 2005.

Wall Street and activist shareholders had pushed CenturyLink hard to replace long time CEO Glen Post III, who had recently turned bullish on costly residential broadband upgrades. Post’s replacement, former Level 3 CEO Jeff Storey, wants to refocus CenturyLink on its more profitable commercial customers.

Ironically, Level 3 was acquired by CenturyLink in 2016. Now some of Level 3’s top executives will firmly control CenturyLink itself. Shareholder activists were pleased with CenturyLink’s new direction under Storey’s leadership, arguing CenturyLink shouldn’t be devoting significant resources or funding to its legacy phone and copper broadband businesses. CenturyLink will now move away from home broadband services and towards commercial and enterprise broadband, metro ethernet, and cloud/backup services. About two-thirds of CenturyLink customers are commercial enterprises.

CenturyLink will now promote DirecTV to its residential customers instead of Prism TV.

Longer term, a growing number of analysts suspect CenturyLink’s new management will want to sell off some or all of CenturyLink’s residential customers to refocus the business entirely on its commercial customers. The company refused to discuss that issue at this time. CenturyLink may find a difficult market for would-be buyers. Frontier Communications, a regular buyer of wireline assets, is itself mired in debt and financial difficulties.

Investors continue to be skeptical of the merits of costly network upgrades for the nation’s copper wire phone networks. In areas where fiber-enabled phone companies compete directly with cable, price wars can develop, reducing profits and the incentive to invest.

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