Well, looks like bratwurst will be on the menu at the AT&T reception at CTIA. In a rather surprising move, AT&T announced yesterday it was acquiring T-Mobile for $39 billion. This is the first in what is likely to be several major deals in defining what the next generation structure will look like for the communications industry.
Bottom line: a little less choice for a lot more network
On to the key questions.
1) Does this make sense? Yes. It shows how we're in the midst of a huge shift in wireless. The last wave of consolidation, circa 2005-2008, which resulted in the creation of AT&T redux out of SBC and BellSouth, the strengthening of Verizon through a number of corporate acquisitions - the largest of which being Alltel - and a spate of spectrum bolstering though (AWS, 700 MHz), was about creating national 3G networks, filling coverage and capacity gaps, and consolidating customer bases.
But this latest wave is about scale. The pace of device innovation and growth of connected mobile computing devices is putting enormous pressure on the operators to deliver ubiquitous, high-capacity mobile broadband networks. Real 4G, not "4G". Operators feel that they must marshal the maximum resources possible to meet the surging demand for mobile data. And, as I wrote last week, better to have 3-4 really good national mobile broadband networks than the more diluted scenario that would have resulted from the status quo industry structure.
Another, and somewhat overlooked factor, is cost. It still costs a wireless operator 7-10x to deliver a "bit" of data over a wireless network, compared to wireline (case study: FiOS vs. LTE pricing). Anything an operator can do to narrow that delta will benefit both them and consumers. It's sort of like the unfunded retiree pension and health care cost crisis that has been hitting the states. They look out three to five years and realize that on their current revenue track, there's no way they can meet their obligations under current contracts. Wireless operators look at the growth of wireless connected devices and data demand and wonder how they will continue to deliver data services profitably, and at reasonable prices.
Retail redundancy is another key factor. There are a lot of under-performing wireless operator "doors", especially as Apple, Best Buy, and other consumer electronics retailers are playing a more prominent role in retail distribution.
2) Why T-Mobile? What was once the Big Four had become the Big Two, Plus Two. Sure, some of the challenges at Sprint and T-Mobile are partially of their own making. But differentiation - in an over the top world, when you don't have a national 4G network or an iPhone - has become difficult. And T-Mobile, which for most of its existence was the "value" choice, focused on urban youth, has been facing enormous competition from Metro PCS, Leap Wireless, and the various brands of Tracfone, MVNOs, and other flank brands. It is ironic that in these frothiest of times for wireless, more operators than not have been finding it challenging going. Hmm.
3) Is This Good for Customers? Many will argue that customers will have less choice and will pay higher prices for service. They point to cable as the case study. Sure, there will, ultimately, be fewer facilities-based operators than there were at the "peak" of wireless competition. But consumers will benefit if we can get more quickly to a robust choice of ubiquitous, high capacity, speedy mobile broadband networks, versus the "there's Verizon and then everybody else" perception that has pervaded for several years. We might be moving toward an oligopoly in wireless services, but with flank brands, MVNOs, and the power of Best Buy, Apple, Wal-Mart, and other distributors, the wireless sector is still more competitive than landline phone, cable/satellite TV, utilities, and most types of insurance, to name a few.
4) Who Are the Winners and Losers? This one depends on who you're talking to. AT&T is a clear winner, if it can pull this off. It gets a faster and less expensive track to getting where it needs to be, network wise. It is also less reliant on the FCC's timetable for more spectrum. For T-Mobile, the picture is more mixed. With Sprint, it would have been a merger, and T-Mobile would have had a more vital role in determining what the future of that entity would look like. But it woulda been messy - corporately, financially, and networkally. LightSquared's path to market, from a regulatory perspective, is likely made smoother by the AT&T deal.
Another winner is Apple, which just gained 30 million potential iPhone customers without having to "ink" another carrier deal. Application developers are also winners, since mobile OS is following a similarly consolidating track, with operators becoming less central to their success. A consolidated operator landscape could enhance their distribution and help speed the rollout of enhanced capabilities, from carrier billing to speedier deployment of IP/IMS-based services. The operators also have a better shot to become more viable forces in areas such as mobile advertising and mobile commerce. ISIS' job just got a third easier.
I also think the enterprise market is a winner here. Their focus is more on harnessing the capabilities of these wonderful new devices, OSs, and app development platforms than shaving a few cents off their wireless pricing plan. They'd be happy with a little less choice in return for a lot more network. And T-Mobile has never been a major player in the enterprise.
Among the losers are certain vendors who sell exclusively to the operator community. AT & T-MO will spend less and deploy less than AT&T plus T-Mobile would have. There will be consolidation of facilities, which will hurt some network infrastructure vendors, tower companies, billing vendors, and others who ride on the coat-tails of these companies.
5) What About Sprint? Sprint, predictably, put out a statement that the deal is bad for consumer choice. Ironically however AT&T's taking T-Mobile out of the picture could strengthen Sprint's role as an important third national operator. It could also pick up some customers as part of the likely market-by-market concessions AT&T will have to make in order to appease regulators. It was difficult to see a world where Sprint and T-Mobile survived independently. However, Sprint's structure will have to evolve from what it is today in order to be competitive with Verizon and AT&T. The financing, ownership structure, and management of Clearwire becomes an even more urgent issue. LightSquared and Open Range are also waiting in the wings as either complements, or alternatives, to Clearwire, as part of a hybrid facilities-based and wholesale national 4G network.
Some have also postulated Verizon might acquire Sprint, in a modern-day mobile arms race with AT&T. I think this is unlikely. AT&T needs T-Mobile a lot more than Verizon needs Sprint. Verizon has an excellent spectrum position in most major markets. Sprint and all its financial entanglements and mishpocheh would be complex and redundant for Verizon and its 45% owner, Vodafone, to digest. More likely for Verizon: a series of smaller, more surgical moves. And, at some point, taking the remaining 55% of the company back from Vodafone.
Could a cable company such as Comcast acquire Sprint? Possibly, although cable initiatives in wireless have struck out three times - all with Sprint (latest case study: Clearwire).
This also makes things interesting for Metro PCS and Leap Wireless. Although AT&T's subsuming of T-Mobile removes a large competitor in the "value" segment of the market, I think they will ultimately combine, and/or be acquired by another operator, possibly Sprint or Verizon.
6) What About Antitrust? No doubt this deal will draw scrutiny. I'd advise the DOJ and FCC to start thinking really differently about the communications industry. Less regulating and more facilitating. We don't need the umpteenth "Report on Competitiveness in the Wireless Communications Industry". Rather, we need the "Report on What We Are Doing to Get the Best Fixed and Mobile Broadband Networks Out to as many Americans as Possible", to fully harness the transition from wireless communications to mobile computing. These fantastic new devices, incidentally, are based on OSs and chips developed primarily by U.S. corporations. In other words, focus less on whether consumers can choose from X or Y number of operators, and more on how we can achieve a leadership position in the availability and capacity of broadband networks, and how we can reduce cost of delivering all those bits given our vast geography and relatively low population density. Achieving those goals will lead to more competition and lower prices.