Some thoughts on the T-Mobile-Sprint merger

by on April 30, 2018 · 3 comments

Mobile broadband is a tough business in the US. There are four national carriers–Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint–but since about 2011, mergers have been contemplated (and attempted, but blocked). Recently, the competition has gotten fiercer. The higher data buckets and unlimited data plans have been great for consumers.

The FCC’s latest mobile competition report, citing UBS data, says that industry ARPU (basically, monthly revenue per subscriber), which had been pretty stable since 1998, declined significantly from 2013 to 2016 from about $46 to about $36. These revenue pressures seemed to fall hardest on Sprint, who in February, issued $1.5 billion of “junk bonds” to help fund its network investments. Analysts pointed out in 2016 that “Sprint has not reported full-year net profits since 2006.” Further, mobile TV watching is becoming a bigger business. AT&T and Verizon both plan to offer a TV bundle to their wireless customers this year, and T-Mobile’s purchase of Layer3 indicates an interest in offering a mobile TV service.

It’s these trends that probably pushed T-Mobile and Sprint to announce yesterday their intention to merge. All eyes will be on the DOJ and the FCC as their competition divisions consider whether to approve the merger.

The Core Arguments

Merger opponents’ primary argument is what’s been raised several times since the 2011 AT&T-T-Mobile aborted merger: this “4 to 3” merger significantly raises the prospect of “tacit collusion.” After the merger, the story goes, the 3 remaining mobile carriers won’t work as hard to lower prices or improve services. While outright collusion on prices is illegal, they have a point that tacit collusion is more difficult for regulators to prove, to prevent, and to prosecute.

The counterargument, that T-Mobile and Sprint are already making, is that “mobile” is not a distinct market anymore–technologies and services are converging. Therefore, tacit collusion won’t be feasible because mobile broadband is increasingly competing with landline broadband providers (like Comcast and Charter), and possibly even media companies (like Netflix and Disney). Further, they claim, T-Mobile and Sprint going it alone will each struggle to deploy a capex-intensive 5G network that can compete with AT&T, Verizon, Comcast-NBCU, and the rest, but the merged company will be a formidable competitor in TV and in consumer and enterprise broadband.

Competitive Review

Any prediction about whether the deal will be approved or denied is premature. This is a horizontal merger in a highly-visible industry and it will receive an intense antitrust review. (Rachel Barkow and Peter Huber have an informative 2001 law journal article about telecom mergers at the DOJ and FCC.) The DOJ and FCC will seek years of emails and financial records from Sprint and T-Mobile executives and attempt to ascertain the “real” motivation for the merger and its likely consumer effects.

T-Mobile and Sprint will likely lean on evidence that consumers view (or soon will view) mobile broadband and TV as a substitute for landline broadband and TV. Much like phone and TV went from “local markets with one or two competitors” years ago to a “national market with several competitors,” their story seems to be, broadband is following a similar trajectory and viewing this as a 4 to 3 merger misreads industry trends.

There’s preliminary evidence that mobile broadband will put competitive pressure on conventional, landline broadband. Census surveys indicate that in 2013, 10% of Internet-using households were mobile Internet only (no landline Internet). By 2015, about 20% of households were mobile-only, and the proportion of Internet users who had landline broadband actually fell from 82% to 75%. But this is still preliminary and I haven’t seen economic evidence yet that mobile is putting pricing pressure on landline TV and broadband.

FCC Review

Antitrust review is only one step, however. The FCC transaction review process is typically longer and harder to predict. The FCC has concurrent authority with the DOJ under the Clayton Act to review telecommunications mergers under Sections 7 and 11 of the Clayton Act but it has never used that authority. Instead, the FCC uses its spectrum transfer review authority as a hook to evaluate mergers using the Communication Act’s (vague) “public interest standard.” Unlike antitrust standards, which generally put the burden on regulators to show consumer and competitive harm, the public interest standard as currently interpreted puts the burden on merging companies to show social and competitive benefits.

Hopefully the FCC will hew to a more rigorous antitrust inquiry and reform the open-ended public interest inquiry. As Chris Koopman and I wrote for the law journal a few years ago, these FCC  “public interest” reviews are sometimes excessively long and advocates use the vague standards to force the FCC into ancillary concerns, like TV programming decisions and “net neutrality” compliance.

Part of the public interest inquiry is a complex “spectrum screen” analysis. Basically, transacting companies can’t have too much “good” spectrum in a single regional market. I doubt the spectrum screen analysis would be dispositive (much of the analysis in the past seemed pretty ad hoc), but I do wonder if it will be an issue since this was a major issue raised in the AT&T-T-Mobile attempted merger.

In any case, that’s where I see the core issues, though we’ll learn much more as the merger reviews commence.

  • TheBrett

    Therefore, tacit collusion won’t be feasible because mobile broadband is increasingly in competition with with landline broadband providers (like Comcast and Charter), and possibly even media companies (like Netflix and Disney).

    I’m skeptical of that argument. There’s obviously some overlap in terms of delivering content, but in general they provide pretty distinct services given the devices involved and it’s unlikely that the landline broadband providers are going to provide much competition for three dominant providers in a mobile market.

  • bskorup

    It’s a stretch today but these things change quickly. Mobile telephony became a substitute to ILEC telephony rather quickly. Mobile broadband requires a lot more spectrum, but I suspect it will be “good enough” for most Americans, just like mobile telephony was “good enough” even though it wasn’t as reliable as ILEC telephony.

  • yair_marx

    Mobile broadband is only being used as a replacement for fixed line broadband because 1. fixed line broadband is not available, or 2. It is, but good luck getting an internet only plan for a reasonable price (doesn’t exist thanks to lack of competition). I cant imagine someone has access to affordable home broadband, and is saying, “nah, I’ll just use my expensive capped mobile data plan instead.”

Previous post: