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Commentary: Where Are the Disruptors in the Wireless Industry?

May 1, 2018, 6:15 PM UTC

Back during the George W. Bush administration, the Federal Communications Commission relaxed its rules to allow more wireless companies to merge. By the end of the 2000s, America had gone from seven national providers down to four. The slide to further consolidation only stopped in 2011, when the Justice Department and FCC put their collective regulatory foot down.

Since then, despite high-profile efforts from companies such as Google, Dish Network, and Comcast, we remain at four national providers. To understand why, and why allowing T-Mobile to acquire Sprint would be a big problem for consumers, we need to understand what makes it so hard to for even giant, well-funded companies with recognized brand names to break into the wireless market.

Paying billions just to enter the game

To prevent wireless signals from interfering with each other, the FCC issues exclusive licenses to use the electromagnetic spectrum (usually just called the “spectrum”). To offer wireless services, a business must acquire a fair number of these spectrum licenses. Because the government limits the number of these, they go for billions of dollars. The last wireless auction back in 2016 cost the wireless industry approximately $20 billion dollars collectively. A single license for a major city such as New York or Los Angeles can cost close to $1 billion. To meet the bandwidth demand for a competitive smartphone service takes multiple licenses in every market in the country. That’s a multibillion-dollar price tag before the company even starts to build its network.

Building a network also takes billions of dollars, and a great deal of time. All this is before a business can even begin to find customers to start paying off all its debt, never mind start making a profit. Only after spending billions of dollars to enter the game can a company begin trying to attract customers. But even with steep discounts and quality service, it takes an awful lot to get a customer to go through the hassle of switching from one cell service to another—especially to a new wireless service of unknown quality and no track record.

Consider Comcast, which developed its own network and had a base of 23 million customers for its cable and broadband services before it even entered the wireless industry. Comcast started offering mobile service in May 2017. A year later, it has just over 500,000 subscribers. That sounds impressive, but combined, Sprint and T-Mobile gained approximately 1 million (post-paid) subscribers in the last quarter of 2017. Worse, Comcast spent an estimated $1,260 per customer acquisition. Not even Comcast can keep up that kind of spending to seriously compete with the 126 million subscribers of a joined T-Mobile/Sprint.

If Google and Comcast can’t compete in wireless, who can?

These barriers to entry are built into the way the wireless industry works. Over the years a list of potential new entrants has repeatedly tried to upend the economics of the industry to no avail. Whether scrappy entrepreneurial new entrants, regional providers trying to grow a national footprint, or even well-funded tech giants like Google, each one has run into the unforgiving economics of the wireless industry that make the emergence of a serious national competitor virtually impossible.

But what about the low-cost national providers and pre-paid providers, like Boost Mobile or TracPhone? These are either owned by one of the Big Four (Sprint owns Boost, for example), or lease capacity from one of the Big Four, most often Sprint or T-Mobile. Saying that these carriers compete with the national carriers is like saying that WhatsApp competes with its corporate parent, Facebook.

Letting T-Mobile buy Sprint means going from four competitors to three, a level of concentration the government has consistently said is bad for consumers. Based on the realities of the wireless industry, that isn’t going to change.

Harold Feld is the senior vice president at Public Knowledge.