As the regulatory review of Sprint and T-Mobile’s controversial merger nears its end, the wireless market may be experiencing some fevered dreams. But it’s still possible that consumers will come out the winners.
While a majority of the Federal Communications Commission was ready to allow the two smallest major wireless carriers to combine, staff in the Justice Department’s antitrust division still had concerns. They feared that reducing the wireless market to just three big players would mean less competition and higher prices. Those were the same concerns that waylaid AT&T’s (T) 2011 attempt to buy T-Mobile (TMUS) and quashed Sprint (S) and T-Mobile’s chances of merging in 2014.
So this time around, T-Mobile CEO John Legere and his team have been meeting with regulators in Washington, D.C., to try and hash out arrangements to address the staff concerns and protect consumers’ interests. Legere has promised not to raise prices for three years, to build out a nationwide 5G network quickly, and to spin off Sprint’s Boost prepaid wireless unit.
Those moves convinced the FCC–but not the Justice Department–to assent to the merger.
Then in the past 24 hours, reports have surfaced that Amazon (AMZN) might want to buy Sprint’s Boost prepaid wireless unit, creating a potentially potent new competitor in the market. And other news indicated that cable giants Comcast (CMCSA) and Charter Communications (CHTR), which entered the wireless market on their own last year, might want to buy Boost themselves or acquire some of Sprint’s airwave licenses.
The reports drove analysts a little bit crazy. “Every once in a while, a news item comes along that is so batshit crazy—sorry for the profanity, but your author is at a loss for a better word here—that one is simply brought up short,” 30-year cable industry analyst Craig Moffett wrote in a report on Friday. None of those deals made much sense to Moffett, leading him to conclude: “The conspiracy theorist in us wonders whether these stories are but a diversion.”
Stocks of all of the involved companies dropped on the news, as Wall Street investors saw the prospects of new, powerful players in wireless as likely good for consumers but bad for the various companies’ profits. They were also concerned about the costly prospect of Amazon or the cable companies needing to build out large, new wireless networks for the next few years. AT&T and Verizon (VZ) fell as much as 5% in morning trading on Friday, while Amazon, Comcast, and Charter each dropped as much as 2%. For the merger partners, Sprint lost as much as 5% and T-Mobile was down 4%.
That was before Comcast issued a midday statement saying that it had no interest in buying spectrum from Sprint and T-Mobile. The cable giant, which has attracted 1.4 million wireless phone subscribers while running a network on leased airwaves from Verizon, didn’t think the merger partners would be selling enough spectrum to make the deal worthwhile and saw little value in acquiring in Boost, according to sources in the industry. Charter and Amazon declined to comment.
If Amazon buys Boost or some of Sprint’s airwave licenses, it could quickly become even larger by buying more spectrum from Dish Network (DISH) or the prepaid wireless services owned by American Movil, TracFone and Straight Talk, adds analyst Walt Piecyk at BTIG Research. “An Amazon deal could be a disaster for the wireless industry,” Piecyk notes. “If Amazon came away with some hard assets it would cast a long shadow over the wireless industry, and possibly jump start movement by Amazon after the years of discussions and testing they have done in wireless.”
That leaves two most likely outcomes, at this point, former top FCC staffer and now analyst Blair Levin at New Street Research noted. Either one of the reluctant giants signs on to become a major wireless competitor or the Justice Department is likely to block the merger.
“It appears the DOJ thinks the deal hurts competition by reducing the number of competitors from four to three and that it should only move forward if the number essentially stays at four,” Levin wrote.
If that’s the case, wireless consumers should feel pretty good. Either you’ll soon be able to get wireless from the same company that you order everything else online from. Or you’ll benefit from the continued competition of the four current players in the market that have brought wireless prices down 28% in the past 10 years.
Maybe it really is a win-win.
(Update: This story was updated on June 1 with an additional analyst comment.)