One of the big issues T-Mobile will have to fight back against if it wants to successfully merge with Sprint is market consolidation. If the two companies merge, the US will go from four major wireless service providers to three, therefore reducing competition. Given how aggressive (and successful) T-Mobile has been over the last several years — ever since its proposed merger with AT&T failed — you can see why this might be an issue.
But if you ask T-Mobile, that isn’t what’s happening at all. In its merger announcement, T-Mobile directly addresses the competition issue by arguing that, in fact, there are currently “at least seven or eight big competitors” in its industry. Sorry, what?
Conventional wisdom, as well as facts and history, say that there are four major US wireless carriers: Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint. This has basically been true for two decades, and it remains true today. If you want cellphone service in the US, you’re likely going to have to pay one of those four companies or their subsidiaries, which includes the brands Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile, and MetroPCS.
Comcast, Charter, and basically anyone else offering an internet connection
T-Mobile wants to add companies to its list of competitors that are just getting started in the wireless space. And those companies aren’t even really in the wireless space. Aside from the fact that their businesses are still nascent, none of them offer truly competitive products or have any road map to do so.
We’ve reached out to T-Mobile to see who specifically it believes are the other three or four major competitors in the wireless space (presumably, Verizon, AT&T, and through some careful wording, both Sprint and T-Mobile themselves make up the other four). We haven’t received an answer yet, but T-Mobile’s announcement mentions two other companies that are probably on the list and hints at who else might be.
The first is Comcast. One year ago, Comcast launched a wireless service called Xfinity Mobile. But it’s hardly fair to call it a competitor: the service is only offered to existing Comcast internet customers, so it isn’t available to the vast majority of the US. The service only works with a limited number of phones. And, more importantly, it’s barely even a cellular service. It primarily operates on Wi-Fi hot spots; it only jumps to wireless when there’s no Wi-Fi available, and that wireless service is provided by Verizon. (Disclosure: Comcast is an investor in Vox Media, The Verge’s parent company.)
T-Mobile also claims that Comcast has been inordinately successful already. In its press release, the company says “Comcast added more wireless phone customers last year than AT&T and Verizon combined,” which would indeed be amazing if it were remotely true. Comcast has a total of 577,000 subscribers on Xfinity Mobile. (That’s including the first quarter of 2018.) AT&T added 6.7 million US subscribers last year, and Verizon added 2.1 million.
Comcast and Charter are really just selling Verizon’s service
I’m not even sure how T-Mobile is fudging the numbers to make its claim work. T-Mobile CEO John Legere brought up the stat during a call with investors and clarified that it referred to postpaid phone net additions, which does get that number closer to being correct. If you only look at AT&T’s postpaid consumer wireless subscribers, it lost just over 1 million last year. And if you narrow Verizon down to just new postpaid smartphones, it only added 1.8 million. Combined, it comes out to around 769,000 subscribers, which is still more than Comcast’s 577,000 subscribers. I’ve reached out to T-Mobile for clarification on this, and I have yet to hear back.
The second company T-Mobile mentions as a competitor is Charter. This is a fun one because... Charter does not offer a wireless phone service. I don’t mean that in a “technically” it’s some other kind of phone service way. I mean that in a “Charter has not launched a wireless phone service” way. Now, it’s true that Charter does plan to launch one — its CEO has been talking it up for a while now — but it hasn’t launched yet and is still scheduled for an undetermined time later this year.
Plus, when it does launch, Charter’s service is going to be exactly the same as Comcast’s: it’ll rely on Wi-Fi, and when there’s none available, it’ll switch over to Verizon. Making this even more absurd is that both Charter and Comcast were, at least at one point, in talks with Sprint last year to piggyback off of its wireless coverage, too. If that came to pass, it would mean that the new T-Mobile wouldn’t even be a competitor but a partner.
T-Mobile appears to have a very broad definition of “competition”
Those are the only two companies that T-Mobile identifies as possible competitors. That leaves one or two others unnamed, but any company I can think of as a guess seems like a reach. T-Mobile could mean Google Fi, which piggybacks on both T-Mobile and Sprint and is therefore far from a threat. Or it could be adopting the view of FCC chairman Ajit Pai, that wireless now competes with wired internet service. That seems likely, since the company’s press release mentions that “wireless, broadband, and video markets are rapidly converging.”
That turns basically any internet provider into a competitor to T-Mobile. But, once again, it’s not a fair comparison: T-Mobile is already massive in size compared to broadband providers, which offer their service regionally. And, more importantly, wireless service isn’t even close to being a valid replacement for wired internet service. Wired connections are capable of reaching much faster speeds, and most of them don’t come with data caps or limits on video streaming resolution. The amount you’d have to pay to replace a wired home connection with a wireless home connection would be grossly unaffordable for any household with any semblance of a budget.
Taking such a broad view of what qualifies as “competition” is really the only way T-Mobile can claim that there are upward of eight major competitors in the space it’s in. These companies may all offer access to the internet, but their services have meaningfully different constraints and are used in meaningfully different ways by their subscribers. For those who can afford it, no one is canceling T-Mobile so that they can pay for wired broadband and Wi-Fi. Until that’s the case — if it ever is — it’s disingenuous to argue those services are real competition.