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Will Dish Wireless Actually Launch Its Own Network? Some Think Not

The merger of T-Mobile and Sprint would never have been approved by the Justice Department had Charles Ergen not promised to launch a new nationwide wireless competitor to protect competition. But now Ergen may be wavering over his commitment.

The founder of satellite TV company Dish Network had promised to spend nearly $10 billion to build a new 5G network capable of reaching 70 percent of the population by June 2023 as part of negotiations between T-Mobile, Sprint, and the federal government. But with the coronavirus pandemic shutting down the U.S. economy, the New York Post reports the company will have a difficult time finding the money to build that network.

“I think whatever rosy projections Charlie had are now very questionable,” said a source who expected to be part Dish’s lending group. “There is no financing to build a telecom network.”

Oddly, Ergen predicted just such a scenario in December when he testified to Dish’s ability to replace Sprint. In order to prove he was fit for the job, the 67-year-old media mogul showed off letters from three banks — Deutsche Bank, JPMorgan and Morgan Stanley — saying they would gladly fund his expensive network construction.

“Where the markets are today — if we don’t have another 9-11, God forbid — the banks are confident,” Ergen told the packed courtroom.

That testimony helped convince Manhattan federal judge Victor Marrero to approve T-Mobile’s $26 billion acquisition of Sprint, despite calls by a group of attorneys general, including Letitia James of New York, to block the deal, which they said would reduce competition and increase prices for consumers.

Ergen’s commitment to build a new fourth national wireless carrier was crucial for T-Mobile and Sprint to win regulatory approval of their $26 billion merger, which will reduce the number of national wireless competitors to three. That merger secretly received help from the country’s chief antitrust enforcer, Makan Delrahim. The Trump-appointed regulator, who serves as the head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, exchanged numerous text messages between himself and top executives of Sprint, T-Mobile, and Dish to help salvage a merger deal under heavy criticism from Democrats and consumer advocates. Delrahim signaled his approval of the merger if Dish promised to buy Sprint’s prepaid wireless brand Boost and was offered access to T-Mobile’s wireless network to help launch Dish Wireless as a new competitor. But executives from Sprint and T-Mobile repeatedly quarreled over the details of the merger with Ergen, forcing Delrahim to intervene and bring the parties together to smooth things over.

Several consumer advocates and state attorneys general questioned the merger and Ergen’s commitment and capacity to serve as a new competitor. Ergen has warehoused wireless spectrum for years and has yet to meaningfully deploy it, deal critics contend. Additionally, Dish Wireless will be unlikely to achieve the scale and size of Sprint, the wireless carrier absorbed by the merger. That could mean it would be unable to deter anti-competitive behavior by the three larger companies — AT&T, Verizon, and the New T-Mobile. The most skeptical suggest Ergen has no intention of constructing a network for Dish Wireless. Instead, they contend he quietly intends to sell the wireless operation and potentially sweeten the deal by including Dish’s satellite TV business, its existing portfolio of unused wireless spectrum, or both.

If Ergen cannot meet the 2023 deadline, regulators could fine his company $2 billion and force it to relinquish the $12 billion worth of wireless spectrum Dish Network has been warehousing for years.

To succeed, Ergen will need Wall Street banks to cooperate and continue extending Dish Wireless credit. He will also need to find capable engineers ready to place 5G infrastructure on thousands of cell towers at the same time other wireless providers are building 5G networks of their own. None of this will be possible until the coronavirus crisis abates and the economy recovers. Despite this, some analysts are willing to still give Ergen the benefit of the doubt.

“Two months of severe market uncertainty doesn’t really alter my view of a company to execute on a three-year plan,” Lightshed Partners Analyst Walt Piecyk told The Post, saying it is too soon to question if Ergen will meet the deadline.

Ergen may also be able to convince regulators to approve a delay, pushing out the deadline. Assuming Ergen closes the deal to acquire Boost Mobile, which currently relies on Sprint’s 4G network to service its prepaid wireless customers, Boost will likely be rechristened Dish Wireless and serve as Ergen’s contribution to a competitive wireless industry until his own network gets off the ground.

Audit Critical of NY Public Service Commission’s Performance Holding Telecom Companies Accountable

New York’s Public Service Commission (PSC) has come under fire in an audit by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli for “falling short” monitoring Charter Spectrum, Altice-Optimum, and Windstream, some of the state’s largest telecom companies.

“When New Yorkers flip on the lights, log in or make a call, they should be confident that someone is making sure these service providers are living up to their promises,” DiNapoli said. “My auditors found the state Public Service Commission was not doing enough to make sure utilities are holding up their end of the deal. PSC lacked critical equipment to do its job and rarely inflicted financial consequences when companies did not deliver. This has to change.”

The audit found that the regulator was often arbitrary in its orders, frequently failed to verify compliance of conditions imposed on providers, and quietly dropped compliance penalties including fines and merger revocation orders when the Commission faced pushback from companies.

Most of the audit’s criticism was directed at how the PSC managed the 2016 merger-acquisition of Time Warner Cable by Charter Communications (better known as Spectrum). The merger was approved after Charter agreed to ten deal conditions. But DiNapoli’s auditors found Charter failed to either complete four of these conditions or the PSC failed to verify they were completed. New York also lost the opportunity to collect $5 million from Charter’s failure to meet its rural broadband commitments. Instead, the PSC settled for $1 million and agreed to extend the deadline for Charter to expand its rural footprint, rewarding the company for its failure.

DiNapoli’s audit criticized the PSC’s verification procedures to determine if Charter adequately upgraded its cable systems to all-digital technology and raised broadband speeds by the end of 2018. Instead, the Comptroller found the Commission often took Charter’s word for it because it lacked the equipment and resources to independently verify Charter’s performance.

DiNapoli

The auditors also complained Charter offered scant evidence of compliance with two other terms of its merger approval agreement — wiring 50 community locations for free broadband service and investing at least $50 million to improve service quality for New York customers. The audit found no evidence Charter had wired any community locations for free broadband service, and the Commission failed to verify Charter made suitable investments in service improvements by its May 2018 deadline.

The Commission disagreed with several of the audit’s findings. The Commission claimed it held comprehensive proceedings to review the Charter acquisition of Time Warner Cable, imposed deadlines on the conditions, and eventually threatened to revoke Charter’s cable franchises for the company’s failure to comply with its orders.

“After pursuing escalating enforcement actions, the Commission in mid-2018, revoked the merger authorization,” the Commission responded. “This final enforcement action which revoked the company’s authorization to operate in in the state set an important precedent in New York — and across the nation — as this type of enforcement remedy had not been previously utilized in the regulatory community. Ultimately, the enforcement action was settled in a manner that resulted in a company commitment to expand its network entirely Upstate at an estimated cost of more than $600 million, more than twice the original estimate at the time of the merger approval, and $12 million paid by the company in lieu of penalty for additional network expansion work.”

The settlement effectively rendered the PSC’s fines against Charter for not meeting its rural broadband expansion deadlines moot. The Commission argued New Yorkers benefited more from Charter’s additional commitments to expand its cable footprint even further than originally envisioned.

“The Department utilizes penalty actions in a strategic manner to address violations,” the Commission explained. “It can be more beneficial to the state’s customers to obtain at shareholder expense expanded infrastructure, reductions in rates, or improvements in customer service rather than imposing financial penalties, and when that is the case, the [Commission] does indeed prefer the best response for customers.”

But DiNapoli’s audit noted that utilities are well aware of how to avoid paying fines by delaying their collection indefinitely through legal remedies. The audit slammed the PSC for walking away from collecting the fines owed, noting it “creates a lack of accountability and inspires little motivation to stay in compliance.” It also complained that regardless of what additional remedies the PSC extracted from Charter in a final settlement, tens of thousands of rural New Yorkers remain without the internet service they were promised, and will probably have to wait until as late as 2021 to get it.

“As it has been over three years since the merger was approved, network expansion should have already been provided to approximately 126,875 unserved or underserved premises based on the 2016 Commission Order approving the merger,” the audit found. “As of July 2019, Charter had only extended its network to 64,827 premises. Based on the original Order, 62,048 additional customers should have received access to these services. Charter now has until September 2021 to complete the network expansion of 145,000 premises previously scheduled to be completed by May 2020.”

The PSC also claimed it was distracted by legal actions it was taking surrounding the revocation of the merger’s approval, but after the case was settled, the Commission did undertake random speed testing to verify Charter had raised the broadband speeds as agreed in the merger agreement.

“Staff is confident that, in all areas field tested to date, the Charter network is capable of providing broadband service with download speed in excess of 300 Mbps, and the network itself has the potential to provide download speed beyond 1 Gbps. In fact, the company is marketing 1 Gbps service in much of the New York State service footprint,” the Commission argued.

The Commission confirmed Charter has not yet showed it is providing free broadband service to 50 community service locations, such as libraries, schools, or town halls. Charter initially refused to provide information about the service locations it selected for complimentary service “for privacy reasons.” But since the Commission placed no deadline on complying with this condition, it cannot penalize Charter for not meeting it on a timely basis.

“After multiple discussions, Charter finally provided a list of the 50 Anchor Institutions on July 17, 2019 and included bill copies and/or account screen shots demonstrating no charge for broadband service to these institutions,” the Commission responded. “Staff has been able to independently confirm that 33 of the 50 institutions are receiving broadband service from Charter at no charge. For the remaining institutions, Charter was asked to provide additional evidence that these institutions have been provided this complimentary service. If Charter cannot definitively demonstrate that the 17 institutions are receiving free service, Charter must select a replacement institution in order to fulfill this condition. Once Charter has provided this information, Staff will then begin its independent confirmation.”

The Commission also claims Charter met its obligation to invest at least $50 million in service improvements.

“In its May 2018 Annual Update, Charter provided a list of expenditures totaling over $90 million to comply with this condition. From that list, Staff identified completed projects totaling approximately $70 million that were dedicated to New York State. To verify these expenditures, Staff requested and analyzed actual invoices to determine whether the expenditures were made,” the Commission claimed.

The audit found some of these same issues also applied to two other telecom merger and acquisition deals impacting New York consumers. Altice’s acquisition of Cablevision’s Optimum cable service received approval with five deal conditions. The audit found the Commission failed to adequately verify compliance with three of those conditions, relating to internet speed and performance, free broadband service to 40 community institutions, and improvements to customer service requiring Altice to fix customer issues within two days. The Commission responded that its belated verification found no non-compliance, but the audit urged the Commission not to delay its verification procedures going forward.

FairPoint is now known under the name of its owner, Consolidated Communications.

FairPoint Communications offers telephone and internet service to 13,700 customers in a few rural communities in New York. Its new owner, Consolidated Communications, was required to implement eight deal conditions, and the audit found it failed to meet two of them. FairPoint was required to invest at least $4 million in network reliability and service quality improvements, including the expansion of internet access service to at least 300 additional locations. FairPoint submitted an expansion plan, and updated reports, including the number of locations completed which is claimed to be over 300.

But the audit found the Commission failed to verify these claims, citing inadequate staffing to visit FairPoint’s rural service areas to perform field inspections. The audit found the Commission didn’t bother to verify service improvements in any location. Another deal condition was designed to protect FairPoint’s “customer-facing” employees from layoffs. Soon after the merger, “FairPoint reclassified 9 of the 39 customer-facing positions and ultimately eliminated them, claiming they ‘duplicated work being performed in other work centers.'” The audit’s initial findings triggered an investigation by the PSC to determine if FairPoint violated the terms of its merger order. Ultimately, the Commission found it did not, but the audit warned the PSC was completely unaware of the employment changes until the audit discovered them.

The Comptroller’s Office made four recommendations the PSC should either implement or improve:

  1. Actively monitor all conditions listed in Orders to ensure all utilities are in compliance.
  2. Develop and issue Orders that include well-defined, measurable, and enforceable conditions. The Orders should also include the consequences for non-compliance, as appropriate.
  3. Verify the accuracy of data submitted by utilities that is used by the Commission or Department to evaluate or make decisions concerning the utilities. This includes data submitted for performance metrics, safety standards, and Utility Service Quality Reports.
  4. Develop policies and procedures that provide employees with standard monitoring steps to perform when overseeing compliance with merger or acquisition Orders, as well as steps addressing the auditing of data submitted in support of Utility Service Quality Reports.

Trump Pardons Junk Bond King Michael Milken, Financier of America’s Cable Monopoly

Phillip Dampier February 19, 2020 Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Milken in the 1980s (Image: The Gentleman’s Journal)

President Donald Trump granted clemency on Tuesday to Michael Milken, the so-called “junk bond king” who violated scores of securities and insider trading laws and was instrumental in helping finance the creation of America’s cable monopoly.

Milken used his position at the now-defunct Drexel Burnham Lambert to run its “high-yield bond unit.” More commonly known as “junk bonds,” these high-risk securities are typically issued by companies to finance mergers and acquisitions, often to strip assets or put competing companies out of business.

As a result, a new era of media and telecommunications tycoons emerged. Many successfully gained control of other companies and consolidated them into business empires, significantly reducing or eliminating serious competitors. Most of those companies still hold dominant positions today or have since merged with even larger companies. President Trump credited Milken for helping “create entire industries, such as wireless communications and cable television.”

By the late 1980s, Milken had advised scores of firms to rely on leveraged junk bond financing of corporate takeovers, a practice that endures to this day. Milken financed Rupert Murdoch’s ambitions to turn what was once a small newspaper chain into News Corp., which today still dominates in broadcasting, cable news channels like Fox News, and newspapers including the Wall Street Journal.

Milken also helped arrange financing for Craig McCaw, an early pioneer in cellular communications that leveraged cellular licenses McCaw borrowed heavily to obtain into one of the country’s first major wireless companies. But McCaw found bigger riches buying and selling mobile companies, first acquiring MCI’s cellular division in 1986 and selling his family’s cable operations to what would later become Comcast. By 1990, McCaw was the country’s highest paid CEO. Four years later, he sold McCaw Cellular to AT&T for $11.5 billion. AT&T sold that wireless company to Cingular in 2004 and then acquired Cingular itself some years later. McCaw would later plow $1.1 billion of family and borrowed money to take control of Nextel in 1995, only to sell it 11 years later to Sprint for $6.5 billion.

Malone

The country’s first cable giant, Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) would not have been possible without Milken’s junk bond financing scheme. Cable tycoon John Malone acquired hundreds of regional cable operators to create a cable empire that was often loathed by subscribers. TCI leveraged its position as a de facto monopoly, scaring off competitors, raising prices, and often delivering horrendous service. Vice President Al Gore would later characterize the Milken-financed emerging cable industry as a “cable Cosa Nostra,” and Malone himself as “Darth Vader.”

Time Warner’s cable division was also created as a result of a wave of consolidation that snapped up countless locally owned cable operators and smaller operators run by various media companies. Ted Turner also depended on Milken’s junk bond financing to create Turner Broadcasting, turning what was originally a single UHF independent TV station in Atlanta, Ga., into a superstation seen around the country and the launch of Cable News Network, better known as CNN.

Sometimes Milken’s clients benefited from his advice, sometimes they became targets themselves. Years after Turner Broadcasting was a major powerhouse in the cable programming business, Time Warner relied on a similar acquisition strategy to acquire Turner Broadcasting itself. Milken reportedly received a $50 million bonus for “advising” on the transaction, despite being in jail at the time. Years later, TBS founder Ted Turner would regret the buyout, which took CNN and TNT out of his hands.

Turner

Other household names from the past and present that expanded as a result of Milken’s financial advice include Viacom (now a part of CBS), MCI (embroiled in one of the country’s largest fraud schemes before being quietly sold off to Verizon), Telemundo (now effectively owned by Comcast), and Metromedia (which sold its network of popular independent TV stations to News Corp., which rechristened them FOX television network affiliates).

Milken quickly attracted the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which took years to build a case against the Wall Street star. It took arbitrageur Ivan Boesky to help bring Milken down after pleading guilty to securities fraud and insider trading. He ‘ratted out’ Milken, which prompted a major investigation of him and the investment firm he worked for.

Milken was eventually indicted for racketeering and securities fraud in 1989 and through a plea bargain, pleaded guilty to securities and reporting violations, which won him a reduced sentence. He was supposed to serve 10 years in jail, but was released after just 22 months for good behavior. He was also fined $600 million (later apparently reduced to $200 million), a fraction of his reported net worth of nearly $4 billion. Although Milken was permanently barred from the securities industry, he still received compensation from certain transactions after that ban, which raised eyebrows.

Critics claim Milken’s legacy emboldened Wall Street to engage in riskier behavior and to innovate new leveraging schemes. Some claim that eventually helped create the conditions leading to the 2008 Great Recession.

The president offered nothing but praise for Milken in his pardoning statement and claimed prosecutors were overzealous in pursuing Milken. The president received an earful of advice in favor of a presidential pardon from his Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, who is a close person friend of Milken and has flown on his private plane. Many Trump allies, including conservative powerhouse donors Sheldon and Miriam Adelson and property developer Richard LeFrak also lobbied the president on Milken’s behalf. So did the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who ironically helped prosecute Milken in the 1980s. Some benefactors of Milken’s financial advice were also in favor of a pardon, including Rupert Murdoch.

Milken’s fans have been persistently seeking pardon relief for years. They failed to win a presidential pardon from former president Bill Clinton in 2001, after a joint letter strenuously objecting to the idea was sent from the SEC and U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York. The letter said pardoning Milken would “send the wrong message to Wall Street.”

Sprint Shutting Down Virgin Mobile; Remaining Customers Being Switched to Boost Mobile

Phillip Dampier January 7, 2020 Boost Mobile, Sprint, Virgin Mobile 2 Comments

Sprint’s prepaid mobile division

Sprint will be closing down its prepaid Virgin Mobile service in February and will shift customers to its Boost Mobile brand instead and drop its standalone Mobile Broadband service.

The wireless company has virtually ignored Virgin Mobile at least as long as Sprint has been in negotiations to merge operations with T-Mobile USA. The Virgin Mobile website has also been neglected, with no media releases for almost two years and over two years of unchanged rates. Last October, Sprint dropped its last major retail arrangement with Walmart that allowed Virgin Mobile devices and airtime to be sold in Walmart stores. Best Buy and several grocery chains ended sales of Virgin Mobile devices even earlier. As of late last year, new customers could only sign up for Virgin Mobile through its own website, a sure sign Sprint was prepared to accept customer attrition and was likely to pull support for the prepaid brand.

Sprint inherited Boost Mobile after it acquired Nextel in 2005. Boost Mobile had offered its own prepaid service over Nextel’s push-to-talk network beginning in 2001. After Sprint shuttered Nextel’s network, it operated both Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile on Sprint’s network as competing prepaid wireless services. In the last two years, Sprint apparently decided it only needed to support a single brand, and quietly began shifting its marketing exclusively towards Boost.

This week, Sprint confirmed it was shutting down the Virgin Mobile brand in the U.S. in a prepared statement.

“We regularly examine our plans to ensure that we’re offering the best services in line with our customer needs. Beginning on the week of Feb. 2, we will be moving Virgin Mobile customer accounts to our sister brand Boost Mobile – consolidating the brands under one cohesive, efficient and effective prepaid team. In most circumstances, customers can keep their current phone and will receive a comparable or better Boost Mobile service plan with no extra cost.”

The transition will strand Virgin Mobile Broadband and Broadband2Go customers that use a standalone device for mobile broadband service, often used by RV-traveling customers or those in rural areas. Sprint has decided that Boost Mobile will not serve those customers, so mobile data service provided over standalone hotspot devices will end next month.

An FAQ on Virgin Mobile’s website provides some other insight:

Customers were notified in early January about the decision to discontinue Virgin Mobile USA service plans. At that time, we informed customers of the transfer to Boost Mobile. In most instances, your existing account will be transferred to Boost Mobile with your device, and a comparable or better Boost Mobile service plan at no extra cost to you. You will keep your phone number, and your monthly payment date will remain the same as long as you continue on time payments until the transfer to Boost Mobile is complete.

At this time, paying for your service through your PayPal account will not be supported on your new Boost Mobile account and therefore, Paypal will be removed as a registered payment vehicle 4-5 days prior to the migration date. Customers enrolled on a payment method or AutoPay with PayPal accounts will need to re-establish payment options and re-enroll in Autopay using a major credit/debit card. Boost Mobile also does not accept 45/90 Day Top Up Payment Option for service payments. Customers enrolled in 45/90 Day Top Up Payment option will need to re-establish payment option and re-enroll in a Low Balance Autopay option using a major credit/debit card prior to transition in order to avoid service interruption. If your account is impacted by either of these payment methods, we will notify you with instructions for how to make changes prior to transfer date in order to avoid service interruption. Please note the Texas LIDA credits will no longer be issued following transfer to Boost Mobile.

  • Taxes and fees will now be INCLUDED in your new Boost Mobile plan.
  • 6,800 Boost Mobile locations nationwide for your convenience.
  • 99% nationwide coverage with voice roaming.
  • Boost Perks, a reward program exclusive to Boost Mobile customers.

If you have a Mobile Broadband (MBB) device, this device and service will not transfer to Boost Mobile.

In order to avoid service interruption for your MBB, you will need to switch your service to a new provider. If you choose to consider Boost Mobile, please visit Boostmobile.com or your nearest Boost Mobile store for information and current promotions.

The wind down of Virgin Mobile may also serve as a bit of housekeeping as Sprint prepares to merge with T-Mobile. A condition of that merger is spinning off Sprint’s prepaid services including Boost Mobile service to DISH Network to create another viable national wireless carrier to protect competition. Dropping Virgin Mobile now is likely to provide an easier transition for DISH, which would launch operations with a combination of Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile customers.

Sprint Admits Its Network Not Fit for Purpose, Struggles to Keep Up With Competitors

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Executives from Sprint Corp testified on Monday that the U.S. wireless carrier has struggled to improve its network, hindering its growth and underscoring the need to merge with larger rival T-Mobile US Inc.

U.S. state attorneys general, led by New York and California, are suing to stop the merger.

The states seek to prove in Manhattan federal court that the deal between the No. 3 and No. 4 wireless carriers would raise prices, particularly for users on prepaid plans. The state attorneys general, all Democrats, asked Judge Victor Marrero to order the companies to abandon the deal.

Sprint Chief Marketing Officer Roger Solé testified that the company’s strategy for enticing customers from competitors included slashing prices.

But he said the promotion’s “early success faded away pretty soon” due to customers having a negative experience with Sprint’s network quality.

In an effort to show how competition lowered prices, the states presented evidence that when Sprint introduced an aggressive promotion in 2016 to offer phone plans comparable to those of Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, T-Mobile’s MetroPCS prepaid brand immediately lowered prices on its plans.

The evidence is central to the states’ argument that Sprint and T-Mobile as standalone companies force competition between carriers, providing the best deal for consumers.

Solé

Solé

Lawyers for the states also presented evidence suggesting Sprint wanted a deal so more money could be earned from each customer.

In WhatsApp messages from 2017 between Solé and Marcelo Claure, who was then CEO of Sprint, Solé suggested a merger with T-Mobile could raise Sprint’s average revenue per user by $5.

In his deposition before the trial, Solé said he was simply offering a thought that price increases could happen “very far down the road.”

The companies argue that the stronger T-Mobile that would result from the proposed $26.5 billion takeover would be better able to innovate and compete to reduce wireless prices. The case represents a break with the usual process of states coordinating with the federal government in reviewing mergers and generally coming to a joint conclusion.

The deal had been contemplated in 2014 during the Obama administration, but the Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission urged the companies to drop it, which they did.

The Trump administration signed off on it after the companies agreed to sell Sprint’s prepaid businesses, popular with people with poor credit, to satellite television company Dish Network Corp.

But setting up DISH as a wireless carrier is “patently insufficient to mitigate the merger’s competitive harm,” the states argued in a court filing.

Deutsche Telekom CEO Timotheus Höttges, whose company is the largest shareholder of T-Mobile, will testify on Tuesday.

Reporting by Diane Bartz and Sheila Dang; Additional reporting by Brendan Pierson; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Nick Zieminski and Dan Grebler

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