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N.Y. and California Head 10-State Lawsuit to Block T-Mobile/Sprint Merger

 James

New York Attorney General Letitia James and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra today filed an unusual multi-state lawsuit, along with eight other State Attorneys General to halt the proposed merger of telecom giants T-Mobile and Sprint, deciding not to wait for a decision from the Department of Justice, which is also reviewing the merger. The complaint, filed in the federal Southern District of New York court in coordination with Colorado, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Virginia, and Wisconsin alleges that the merger of two of the four largest national mobile network operators would deprive consumers of the benefits of competition and drive up prices for cellphone services.

“When it comes to corporate power, bigger isn’t always better,” said Attorney General Letitia James. “The T-Mobile and Sprint merger would not only cause irreparable harm to mobile subscribers nationwide by cutting access to affordable, reliable wireless service for millions of Americans, but would particularly affect lower-income and minority communities here in New York and in urban areas across the country. That’s why we are going to court to stop this merger and protect our consumers, because this is exactly the sort of consumer-harming, job-killing megamerger our antitrust laws were designed to prevent.”

“Although T-Mobile and Sprint may be promising faster, better, and cheaper service with this merger, the evidence weighs against it,” said Attorney General Xavier Becerra. “This merger would hurt the most vulnerable Californians and result in a compressed market with fewer choices and higher prices. Today, along with New York and eight other partner states, we’ve filed a lawsuit to block this merger and protect the residents of our state.”

The states departed from traditional courtesies in the case, deciding to launch a pre-emptive legal challenge to the transaction without providing Justice Department officials advance notice of their decision to sue. That decision may have come after FCC Chairman Ajit Pai gave his full support for the merger, with indications the Republican majority on the FCC would also vote in favor of approving the deal. Staffers in the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department object to the merger, and are recommending it be rejected. But the Justice Department’s unpredictability, and its poor track record trying to block the AT&T-Time Warner (Entertainment) merger in court may have pushed the state attorneys general to also act on their own.

T-Mobile USA and Sprint are the third and fourth largest mobile wireless networks in the U.S., and are the lower-cost carriers among the “Big Four” — with market leaders Verizon Wireless and AT&T controlling the larest share of the wireless market. Intense competition, spurred in particular by T-Mobile and Sprint, has delivered declining prices, increased coverage, and better quality for all mobile phone subscribers. According to the Labor Department, the average cost of mobile service has fallen by roughly 28 percent over the last decade, while mobile data consumption has grown rapidly. The merger, however, would put an end to that fierce competition, argue the attorneys general, which has delivered a great number of benefits to consumers.

States with large urban poor communities are particularly sensitive to the merger, because both T-Mobile and Sprint focus their coverage on urban areas. With the average U.S. household spending $1,100 annually on wireless phone service, even small rate increases can dramatically increase service suspensions or disconnections due to late or non-payment.

“Low-and moderate-income (LMI) New Yorkers put a greater share of their household income toward their phone bill, and when you are looking at a budget that is already stretched thin, every dollar counts,” said Mae Grote, CEO of the Financial Clinic. “Cellphones now not only give us the ability to communicate with friends and family, here and abroad, but are increasingly the way we engage with many critical services. Our customers use cellphone apps to access public information, send and receive money, manage their SNAP benefits, look for a job, and even communicate with their doctors, and maintaining competition in the market for this critical service ensures LMI consumers have the same access to quality, affordable service as the more financially secure. The Clinic is proud to advocate on behalf of the communities we serve to protect their inclusion in the modern economy.”

The attorneys general investigation laid bare many of the alleged merger benefits offered by T-Mobile and Sprint to win approval of the merger. The group found many of the claimed benefits were completely unverifiable and were likely to be delivered years into the future, if ever. But within weeks of approving such a merger, the companies would have an immediate incentive to raise prices and reduce service quality. Sprint’s network, in particular, was scheduled to be largely mothballed as a result of the merger, even though Sprint provides coverage in some areas that T-Mobile does not. Although the two companies could identify several self-serving deal efficiencies that would reduce their costs and staffing needs, there is no evidence the merger would deliver consumers lower prices and were outweighed by the merger’s immediate harm to competition and consumers.

Additionally, the merger would harm thousands of hard-working mobile wireless independent dealers in New York and across the nation. The ten states are concerned that further consolidation at the carrier level would lead to a substantial loss of retail jobs, as well as lower pay for these workers in the near future.

Becerra

“CWA applauds the Attorneys General and especially General Letitia James’ leadership in taking decisive action today to prevent T-Mobile and Sprint from gaining anti-competitive power at the expense of workers, customers, and communities,” added Chris Shelton, president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA). “Reducing the number of national wireless carriers from four to three would mean higher prices for consumers, job loss for retail wireless workers, and downward pressure on all wireless workers’ wages. The states’ action today is a welcome development for American workers and consumers, and a reminder that regulators must take labor market concerns seriously when evaluating mergers.”

Before filing suit, the states gave significant consideration to T-Mobile and Sprint’s claims of increased coverage in rural areas. However, T-Mobile has yet to provide plans to build any new cell sites in areas that would not otherwise be served by either T-Mobile or Sprint. As stated in the complaint, the U.S. previously won the “race to LTE” as a direct result of vigorous competition among wireless carriers. Finally, continued competition, not concentration, is most likely to spur rapid development of a nationwide 5G network and other innovations.

“This merger is bad for competition, and it is bad for consumers, especially those living in or traveling through rural areas, who will experience fewer choices, price increases, and substandard service,” stated Carri Bennet, general counsel for the Rural Wireless Association. “We are pleased that the New York Attorney General, along with nine states have filed their lawsuit to block the merger. The process at the FCC has not been transparent and the FCC appears to be blindly accepting New T-Mobile’s words as truth.”

The complaint was filed under seal, because it contains unredacted confidential information, in United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.  A redacted copy of the lawsuit is likely to be made available later.

T-Mobile currently has more than 79 million subscribers, and is a majority-owned subsidiary of Germany’s Deutsche Telekom AG. Sprint Corp. currently has more than 54 million subscribers, and is a majority-owned subsidiary of Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp.

Department of Justice Wants T-Mobile and Sprint to Create a New 4th National Wireless Carrier

Officials in the Justice Department are asking T-Mobile and Sprint to spin off a portion of their networks to lay the foundation to create a new national wireless carrier, with its own network, as a deal condition for approving their $26.5 billion merger.

Bloomberg News reports the launch of a new “fourth largest” U.S. wireless company would help win Justice Department approval for the merger deal, according to unnamed sources. Such a network could be created with the spinoff of Sprint’s Boost Mobile, a prepaid MVNO dependent on Sprint’s wireless network. Since a considerable percentage of Sprint’s existing network was expected to be scrapped after the merger won approval, Sprint could theoretically give up part of its network that would have been deemed redundant anyway to appease regulators. But Wall Street is unlikely to approve of the prospect of creating a new competitor, especially in a transaction designed to reduce the number of wireless competitors in the United States.

Boost Mobile, according to Reuters, could be worth $3 billion in a sale — potentially more if an already-built wireless network is included in the deal.

Critics wonder why the Justice Department would approve a deal merging T-Mobile and Sprint at all if officials were worried about reducing the number of wireless options for consumers. Industry observers suspect T-Mobile and Sprint would be unlikely to support such a network spinoff plan, and the resulting emergence of a new carrier likely to be even smaller than Sprint would leave it in a difficult position in a marketplace that would be dominated by three much larger national carriers planning to spend billions to develop 5G networks.

A source told Bloomberg News Justice Department antitrust chief Makan Delrahim “still wants four carriers” and remains unmoved by T-Mobile and Sprint’s arguments that combining operations would lead to more competition and lower prices for consumers. 

Many state attorneys general remain opposed to the merger, fearing that it will lead to less competition and higher prices.  They are waiting for the Justice Department to make its decision before contemplating lawsuits to block the merger if the deal wins approval in Washington.

Reuters Exclusive: T-Mobile, Sprint Could Sell Boost Prepaid for Up to $3 Billion, Potential Bidders Say

(Reuters) – A group of potential buyers are preparing bids for prepaid wireless brand Boost Mobile in an upcoming sale valuing the offshoot of U.S. wireless carriers T-Mobile US Inc and Sprint Corp at up to $3 billion, interested buyers told Reuters.

The $26 billion deal between T-Mobile and Sprint won approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission last week after the two carriers offered concessions. It included the sale of Boost to reduce the combined company’s market share in the prepaid wireless business, where customers pay for phone service at the beginning of the month and are not required to pass a credit check.

While the deal awaits a ruling from the U.S. Department of Justice, interested parties are already preparing bids. The sale process is expected to begin after the Justice Department’s review.

Q Link Wireless, a prepaid brand and the third-largest provider of federally assisted wireless plans, is putting together a package to bid for Boost with private equity backing and could pay between $1.8 billion to $3 billion, founder and Chief Executive Issa Asad told Reuters.

The price will depend on the quality of Boost’s customers, such as their level of churn, or the rate of customer cancellations, the devices they are using, and what type of phone plan they are on, none of which the companies have disclosed, he said.

This month, analysts at Cowen estimated Boost has 7 million to 8 million customers and a transaction could be valued at $4.5 billion if the deal included wireless spectrum, or the airwaves that carry data, and facilities. Sprint has not disclosed the number of Boost customers.

Stephen Stokols, chief executive officer of prepaid wireless company FreedomPop, said an undisclosed private equity group he is speaking with have placed Boost’s future value at about $4 billion, such as in an initial public offering.

While FreedomPop is not a bidder, Stokols said he is advising a private equity group preparing a bid. If that bid succeeds, he believes the group would combine their acquisition with FreedomPop and have him lead a combined company with the Boost assets.

Peter Adderton, founder of Boost Mobile who sold the U.S. business to Nextel in 2004, which was then acquired by Sprint, has also said he is interested in buying back Boost. He declined to comment on his valuation for the business.

Adderton said he and his lawyers have urged regulators to require T-Mobile and Sprint to also divest wireless spectrum to ensure Boost will be a viable competitor in the market.

Adderton added that regulators must also ensure the new T-Mobile does not employ anticompetitive practices to harm Boost, and the contract between the companies should be non-exclusive, which would allow Boost to buy network access from other carriers.

The current sale agreement is devoid of details, but with the right terms, “we can create a dynamic player that will compete in the market,” Adderton said of Boost.

T-Mobile and Sprint did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Reporting by Sheila Dang; Editing by Kenneth Li and Lisa Shumaker

DoJ Staffers Recommend Blocking the T-Mobile/Sprint Merger

Staffers working for the antitrust division of the Department of Justice have recommended the agency sue to block the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint, arguing it will reduce competition and raise prices for consumers.

Two sources familiar with the matter told CNBC staffers have been skeptical of the merger and recommended blocking it on antitrust grounds. But the final decision will rest with President Donald Trump’s political appointees, notably Makan Delrahim, who heads the antitrust division. Delrahim can agree, modify, or reject the staffers’ recommendations.

The disclosure hammered Sprint shares earlier this morning in pre-market trading. Wall Street analysts are likely experiencing significant headaches trying to predict where the deal will ultimately end up. Earlier this week, the FCC’s Republican majority signaled they were prepared to approve the merger, based on concessions including the spinoff of prepaid Boost Mobile, which resells Sprint service.

A final decision from the Justice Department is likely to be announced in June.

BREAKING: Department of Justice Leaning Against T-Mobile/Sprint Merger

Bloomberg News is reporting this afternoon that the Justice Department is leaning against the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint, because the proposed concessions offered by the two companies this morning do not resolve antitrust concerns, according to a person familiar with the review.

News of the reported opposition leaked out on the same day FCC Chairman Ajit Pai offered his support of the T-Mobile/Sprint merger, sparking media speculation Pai would not have issued his unqualified support unless the Justice Department was likely to follow suit.

If Bloomberg’s source is correct, the opposition on antitrust and competition grounds would be a major setback for the merger. Bloomberg reports that the fate of the deal now likely rests with Makan Delrahim, the head of the antitrust division of the Justice Department. Delrahim must weigh whether the merger would hurt competition and raise prices. If it would, he would likely seek to block the $26.5 billion deal.

The news has stemmed the telecom rally on Wall Street. Sprint was still trading up 14% at $7.08 at 2:44 p.m. in New York, but gave up half of its earlier gains. T-Mobile also has slowed and was up 2.9% to $77.52.

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