ORLANDO, Fla.—Just as I was getting used to the humidity and the mini cheerleaders between the Rosen Centre Hotel and the Convention Center (seems there’s a competition going on here of another kind), along came this little whopper: AT&T plans to acquire T-Mobile USA from Deutsche Telekom for $39 billion.
OK. Suddenly my little mission to retrieve the keys for our press room at the convention center – the Wireless Week staff is producing the official print Show Daily for International CTIA Wireless 2011 this week – turned into something else. While waiting, I checked the news feed on the old BlackBerry, and there it was: AT&T buying T-Mobile. While this certainly makes sense, it was probably the last thing I expected to see today.
Most of us in the industry were obsessing over how T-Mobile would meld with Sprint, not AT&T. It was almost a bygone conclusion that the GSM tie-up wasn’t going to happen. I’m not sure why, since it makes the most technological sense. Whoever was doing the negotiating in this deal must have been following Apple’s example because they kept things under wraps, big time. Before this week, I was highly skeptical of a Sprint/T-Mobile/maybe Clearwire combination, but I was starting to believe some of the arguments in support of that. Now, we can forget about that tangled mess, at least for the moment.
It’s interesting that while the industry is getting behind a single standard that would eliminate a lot of these technology concerns, it’s still merging along those lines anyway, i.e., GSM being at the base of AT&T and T-Mobile. Presumably, everyone (even WiMAX, though it’s not a done deal) is going to LTE at some point, which was one argument in favor of the Sprint/T-Mobile linkage – when you boiled it down many layers. While LTE certainly plays a role and is no doubt a long-term driver in AT&T’s deal, you don’t have to point solely to LTE to make sense of it. AT&T says that besides improving its spectrum position, the deal (if/when it closes in 12 months) immediately gives it cell sites equivalent to what would have taken on average five years to build without the transaction, and double that in some markets.
While you can argue lessons learned from Sprint’s acquisition of Nextel and the iDEN debacle and use that to support a case for combining different technologies in the future, AT&T acquiring T-Mobile still seems like the path of least resistance. Oh, there will be resistance; that’s already clear in statements coming from those who believe there must be at least four dominant U.S. carriers. This would create two even bigger dominants, with Sprint trailing far behind.
Can Sprint find a way to get rolled into a Verizon Wireless play that would pass regulatory muster? Or find a third, stronger path with Clearwire in a way that hasn’t yet been tried and isn’t yet entirely clear? (No pun intended.) Clearwire’s interim CEO, John Stanton, will be on stage for Thursday’s keynote, and it will be interesting to hear what he has to say. It seems like Sprint needs to represent the “third way” in a big way.
No one wants to see fewer top competitors and definitely not a duopoly, which some argue currently exists, but you have to consider the alternatives. Regulators need to consider a multitude of issues. In their joint press release today, AT&T and Deutsche Telekom put forth the notion that the U.S. wireless industry is one of the most fiercely competitive markets in the world and “will remain so after this deal.” A majority of U.S. consumers can choose from five or more wireless providers in their local market, they say. New players like LightSquared are coming in with a wholesale model.
One question is how a deal like this gets structured so that it ends up being beneficial in some ways for newer entrants. Everyone pulls for the underdog and wants to see someone make a good business even in the face of stiff competition from the biggest, more entrenched players. Clearwire has had a tough go of it. Are there conditions, other than market divestitures, that regulators could apply that would be pro-competitive for all sides?