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Justice Dept. Staffers Warn T-Mobile/Sprint Merger Unlikely to Win Approval as Structured

Justice Department staffers have told T-Mobile and Sprint that their $26 billion merger is unlikely to win approval as presently structured, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

Unnamed sources familiar with the deal told the newspaper the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division is among the most skeptical of those reviewing the deal, questioning claims from the companies that the merger will create synergy and increased efficiency that could free up resources to dramatically expand the combined company’s wireless business.

At the core of the concern is the impact of combining the nation’s third and fourth largest wireless carriers, reducing competition to just three national postpaid companies — AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile. That could present an unacceptable threat to competition.

The Justice Department is not alone expressing concern over the merger deal. Multiple state attorneys general are still reviewing the deal and several have announced they are prepared to sue the companies involved to stop the merger if it manages to win approval on the federal level. The Federal Communications Commission is also said to be questioning some of the claims of the company about the merits of its promised 5G home broadband service and exactly how much consumers could save should they subscribe.

The Financial Times also published a story this afternoon essentially confirming the Journal story.

John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile USA, denied the premise of the Journal’s story in a tweet late this afternoon, calling it “simply untrue,” but refused further comment.

Any decision about the merger is not expected for several weeks, and any recommendations from the staff report on the deal can be overruled by the political appointees that run the Justice Department. The Times reports that the final decision will likely rest with Makan Delrahim, President Trump’s pick as chief of the antitrust division. With staff objections now leaked to the press, Delrahim could be in a politically difficult situation overruling his staff’s recommendations. In the meantime, company officials can offer concessions, such as selling off certain assets to overcome regulator objections.

Many Wall Street analysts feel the chances of the merger winning approval are reduced the longer the merger review remains underway in Washington. Many have placed the odds at less than 50% that the deal will ultimately be approved. If it is rejected, T-Mobile is expected to continue its business without any significant financial hurdles. Sprint may be a different matter, as its Japanese backer SoftBank has soured on the merits of pouring additional money into Sprint’s wireless business.

Verizon’s Mobile 5G Network Launch Will Cover Only Tiny Parts of Chicago, Minneapolis

You may not want to hurry upgrading your devices to be ready for Verizon’s launch of its 5G mobile network this spring, because only a tiny portion of Chicago and Minneapolis are slated to initially get service.

A review of permits, publicity studied by PC, and reports from residents witnessing the installation of wireless equipment suggests Verizon’s mobile 5G launch will be focused on tourist, entertainment, and shopping areas inside the cities of Chicago and Minneapolis, and will be targeted to people spending time downtown.

Verizon (in red) and Sprint (in yellow) anticipated 5G coverage in Chicago.

Verizon’s 5G service will reach places like Union Station, Millennium Park, and the Chicago Theatre in Chicago, but not far beyond that. In contrast, Sprint’s forthcoming 2.5 GHz 5G network will reach west to East Garfield Park and south to Chinatown.

In Minneapolis, Verizon’s 5G network is likely to reach neighborhoods in the Downtown East, Elliot Park, Downtown West, Central Minneapolis, and the Waterfront area between West 2nd Avenue and 35W. It will also be available inside the Mall of America, the Minneapolis Convention Center, Central Library, and Target Center.

Verizon 5G coverage anticipated in Minneapolis.

Verizon’s network should be faster, but Sprint’s will cover a larger area. Carriers are prioritizing 5G coverage on dense urban areas that attract significant crowds, which can also strain wireless networks. Suburban areas in cities and suburbs are not a priority at this stage, and rural areas are ignored completely.

Verizon and Sprint 5G Coverage — Chicago and Minneapolis (Courtesy of PC). Use zoom controls to study anticipated coverage areas in both cities.

Don’t Be an Early Adopter of 5G-Capable Smartphones: Expensive and Speed-Limited

(Courtesy: Conor McGregor)

Buyers of new 5G capable smartphones in 2019 could pay as much as a $200-300 premium over existing 4G LTE devices and be forced to live with speeds no better than a few hundred megabits per second, because the first phones to arrive will lack support for standards capable of delivering a gigabit experience.Despite a huge wave of hype over 5G technology by wireless companies like AT&T and T-Mobile, chipset vendors and manufacturers will not be ready to deliver gigabit-capable portable smartphone devices until 2020.

Device manufacturers are rushing to get the first 5G-ready smartphones in stores for sale starting this spring. All will lack support for frequency duplex division (FDD) in the below-6 GHz bands that will be critical for AT&T and possibly T-Mobile customers. Those two companies plan to heavily deploy 5G service in the 600 MHz-1.8 GHz bands, which require FDD. Qualcomm has already told manufacturers it has nothing ready to support those lower frequency bands at this time, which means most customers will see service fall back to traditional 4G LTE in many 5G areas.

Demonstrations of 5G phone prototypes at some marketplace shows underwhelmed visitors. With LTE+ delivering maximum speeds of 500 Mbps on T-Mobile’s network, customers in most cities with early 5G deployments will likely get lower speeds than that, especially when compared to cities getting the latest iterations of 4G LTE.

Phone vendors are planning to tamp down customer expectations for their first 5G smartphones, claiming real world speeds will be at or slightly better than 4G LTE speeds in many markets and no better than a few hundred megabits from a barely used cell tower. The 5G technology being deployed to work with smartphones is different from the fixed 5G wireless experience some Verizon customers are getting with its wireless home broadband service.

Early adopters will also have to contend with antenna challenges in some early phones. Millimeter wave signals can be blocked just by holding the phone, so some manufacturers are planning to install antennas in the phone’s four corners, hoping 5G very high frequency signals get through.

Unlike its competitors, Verizon is currently focusing much of its attention on fixed wireless 5G deployments in the millimeter wave bands, and some real world testing proved to Verizon once again that lab conditions can differ significantly from deployments in the field that reach actual customers.

The latest findings reported by EE Times found Verizon surprised by the greater-than-expected reach of their millimeter wave network, but somewhat disappointed by real world speed results which are coming in well below the multi-gigabit potential they expected. Verizon hopes customers will still be satisfied by the speeds they are getting, which average around 300 Mbps. How many customers can share a small cell and how that will impact speed is still unknown except by Verizon engineers.

Verizon has been forthcoming about some of the surprising findings it has noted from its current 5G deployments. Millimeter wave small cells have proved adept at bouncing signals off buildings in ways that can reach customers ordinarily blocked from line-of-sight access. Signals also extend outwards better than upwards.

“We were assuming that if we mounted radios at a certain height on poles, we could reach a sixth-floor apartment with 28 GHz,” said Nicki Palmer, chief networking officer at Verizon in an interview. “It turned out we got close to the 19th floor, and when that came to light, that changed our thinking” about costs and deployments.

“Urban canyons that were a nightmare in sub-6[GHz] bands now are your friend,” said Gordon Mansfield, an AT&T vice president who helped set and oversee the carrier’s 5G plans. “Bank shots are very real and extend your coverage for millimeter wave.”

Several States Rubber-Stamping Approval of T-Mobile/Sprint Merger; N.Y. Isn’t One of Them

A dispute is emerging in New York between Sprint and T-Mobile and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and pro-consumer group the Public Utility Law Project (PULP) over the wireless companies’ attempt to argue for their merger deal in a partly secretive filing not open to review by the public.

In a joint letter signed by Richard Brodsky, on behalf of the CWA and Richard Berkley, on behalf of PULP, the two groups argue Sprint’s initial summer filing promoting its merger did not come close to meeting the state’s burden of proof that allowing the two companies to join forces would be good for New York consumers. But even worse, the two wireless companies are now trying to introduce new arguments in favor of their merger, while redacting them from public view and comment.

“The use of the public comment process to recast the Petition, to attempt to repair the fatal defects in the Petition, and to insulate this new information from public comment is fundamentally unfair,” the two men wrote. “This maneuver deprives Parties of the opportunity to respond to the full set of arguments and assertions made by the Joint Applicants; it undermines the usefulness and value of the public comment policies so fundamental to the Commissions’ history and values and the proper conduct of a rulemaking proceeding; it is not contemplated by Commission rules; and it sets a precedent for future misuse of comments to short-circuit full public analysis.”

The companies filed what they called “comments” on Nov. 16. Detailed information about how the merger will impact on New York consumers was left redacted:

Sprint and T-Mobile’s arguments regarding the consumer benefits of its merger for New Yorkers remain a public mystery. The companies redacted this submission to keep the prying eyes of average consumers from reading it.

The CWA and PULP are asking the Commission for an order that:

1) Requires the Joint Applicants to provide unredacted submissions or to withdraw any document relying on redactions; and/or
2) Convenes an evidentiary hearing permitting examination and testimony relating to the Petition and the submission; and/or
3) Grants our previous request for a formal Public Hearing on the Petition and the submission; and/or
4) Removes from the record the Joint Applicants’ November 16 submission from the record; and/or
5) Extends the deadline for Notice and Comment in the October 19 Order to December 15, 2018; and/or such other relief as the Commission may order.

The merger of the two wireless companies requires state and federal approval. Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and the District of Columbia have already essentially “rubber-stamped” approval of the merger deal with little comment. Pennsylvania regulators submitted a series of questions that the two companies answered earlier this week.

Sprint and T-Mobile are having a tougher time dealing with regulators in New York and New Jersey, however — the two most likely to either deny approval or impose significant deal conditions in approving the transaction. A review is pending in California, which routinely asks a lot of questions but rarely opposes telecommunications company mergers. Hawaii and Mississippi will also examine the merger in the near future, but neither are expected to oppose it.

New York regulators are likely to consider the impact of the merger on the availability of affordable cellphone plans, the Lifeline program that offers discounted phone service for the poor, and how the transaction will affect rural wireless service in upstate New York.

Optimum and Suddenlink Getting Speed Upgrades as Customers Demand More

Altice USA’s Optimum (formerly Cablevision) and Suddenlink are getting upgraded technology as the two cable companies face increasing demands for speed and broadband usage around the country.

“Over the last two years, the percentage of customers taking over 100 megabits of speed has risen to about 80% of our total customer base,” noted Dexter Goei, CEO of Altice USA. “Recently, we have shifted focus to growing the penetration of 200 Mbps services with about 80% of gross additions now taking these speeds or higher, reaching about half of our total customer base at the end of the third quarter, up from less than 5% two years ago.”

Goei noted that the average of all Optimum and Suddenlink broadband customers’ internet speeds has risen from 56 Mbps to 172 Mbps over the last 24 months, and this is increasing every quarter.

“Average data usage is now over 240 gigabytes per month per customer,” Goei added. “And this continues to grow over 20% per year.”

Goei

To meet growing demand, Altice USA is spending money upgrading its cable properties. The company is scrapping its coaxial cable network in the northeast and in selected parts of Suddenlink territory. In smaller communities that Suddenlink typically serves, the company will either bring fiber to the home service or upgrade the existing cable system to DOCSIS 3.1.

“The first objective is to have 1 Gbps broadband services available virtually everywhere,” Goei said. “For our legacy coax network in the Optimum footprint, we just need to do a Digital Switched Video upgrade now to move us to DOCSIS 3.1 and 1 Gbps speeds, which we can complete over the next few quarters. We just soft launched our fiber network in select areas of Long Island, and it is performing just as we expected so far, delivering a great 1 Gbps symmetrical single-play data service with the new advanced wireless gateway. The smart meshed Wi-Fi we’ve introduced is also doing extremely well.”

Goei says Optimum’s fiber network will be capable of delivering more than 10 Gbps speeds, as well as enhanced Wi-Fi, and improved system reliability.

“For the Suddenlink footprint, we already offer up to 1 Gbps services, so we will add further 1 Gbps capacity through some node splitting and CMTS upgrades,” Goei said. “We are also doing a QAM to IP migration on the cable plant to deliver future IP services. And with the move to DOCSIS 3.1, customers will have a uniform SSID across all of their devices, for an improved seamless Wi-Fi experience.”

The upgrades will mean Suddenlink customers will be more likely to receive 1 Gbps speeds even during peak usage times.

By transitioning video services away from the current QAM platform, IP video will free up additional bandwidth Suddenlink can devote to its internet customers.

Goei told investors on a quarterly results conference call that the five-year fiber upgrade project in the northeast may stretch into a sixth year due to permitting delays in some communities where Optimum provides service.

Some Wall Street analysts questioned Goei about the merits of a costly fiber upgrade, asking if it was necessary. Jonathan Chaplin of New Street Research suggested if cable systems were already capable of gigabit speed service under DOCSIS 3.1, any revenue benefits gained from offering gigabit service could already be realized without stringing fiber optic cable. Other Wall Street analysts wanted to know when Altice would deliver the next revenue-increasing rate hike on Optimum and Suddenlink customers.

The company acknowledged it lost customers after the last round of price increases last spring. Its biggest losses are coming from cord cutting. Altice saw 20,700 Optimum TV customers cancel service between July and September, with a total of 76,000 customers dropping service so far this year. But that won’t stop Altice from raising rates again. Goei anticipated the next rate hike will likely take place during the first half of 2019.

Altice USA is also working on its own cellphone service, which will be powered by its large Wi-Fi hotspot network in the northeast and rely on the services of Sprint to connect customers while away from Wi-Fi. The company did not release pricing or service information.

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