This weekend’s announcement of a proposed merger between T-Mobile and Sprint has been years in the making. In 2014, the companies bailed on a deal after concerns that Obama-era antitrust regulators would intervene, as the Federal Communications Commission also expressed skepticism of huge mergers. But the two telecoms seem to think that, despite some aborted attempts, their time has finally come.
What’s changed? For one thing, a new administration — and some new regulators — are in charge. While the $26 billion deal still has to face approval from the FCC and Justice Department, the telecoms seem to think they might receive a more sympathetic hearing this time around.
As the two smaller players in a wireless industry dominated by four companies, T-Mobile and Sprint argue that they need to link up to effectively challenge Verizon and AT&T, and the creation of a new wireless behemoth — with nearly 100 million customers — will allow them to build out a national 5G network. T-Mobile CEO John Legere has already raised the specter of Chinese competition on the next-generation network technology. And although that argument will be thoroughly questioned by critics, it’s one that could get some play in the Trump administration.
“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 a statement announcing the merger.
Consumer groups have questioned that line of argument. Shrinking the number of major carriers from four to three will only continue to limit choice, the groups counter. “Consumers would see no benefit to a marketplace where Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile call all of the shots,” the watchdog group Common Cause said in a statement. “Instead, consumers can expect to pay higher prices and see fewer competitive options in the marketplace.”
While T-Mobile has been widely credited with driving pro-consumer innovations in the wireless market, Phillip Berenbroick, senior policy counsel at Public Knowledge, questions whether the new, giant T-Mobile will be able to “steer clear of price wars” when it has a larger share of customers.
While the Obama-era FCC chairman Tom Wheeler also questioned the wisdom of similarly massive telecom deals, the current chairman, Ajit Pai, appointed to the post by President Trump, has seemed friendlier toward such proposals. “I don’t think any regulator who embraces regulatory humility and intellectual honesty about economics can say whether three or four or five [carriers] is the optimal number,” he told Recode last year. “What I do want to see is a competitive wireless marketplace.” Berenbroick says he see the FCC as “a much lower hurdle” compared to the Justice Department, which is “hurdle number one.”
“I think what you’re likely to see is that if the parties convince the Department of Justice, then this FCC will probably be willing to go along with it,” he says.
It’s not clear, though, how the Justice Department will act on the proposal. In 2011, the department and the FCC, under the Obama administration, scuttled an attempted merger between AT&T and T-Mobile, as the former paid a $4 billion “breakup fee” for its troubles.
Under Trump, the Justice Department intervened in a major telecom proposal this year: the deal between AT&T and Time Warner. That suggests the department will still be open to questioning the deal. “Nobody at the outset of the Trump administration thought that that was going to be the case,” Berenbroick says.
The department’s resulting lawsuit, which has argued that the deal will harm consumers, triggered a legal battle that’s currently unfolding in court, but whether the department’s antitrust team decides to jump into the fray this time isn’t obvious.
Shareholders don’t seem to be convinced: the two companies’ stock prices slid today over concerns about whether the government will intervene.
“We’re confident that, once regulators see the compelling benefits, they’ll agree this is the right move at the right time for consumers and the country,” Legere said in the announcement.