Sunday, March 20, 2011

Why the AT&T/T-Mobile deal may mean less than it seems

Earlier today, AT&T announced an agreement with Deutsche Telekom to acquire its U.S. T-Mobile operation for $39 billion in cash and stock. The timing of the announcement was very interesting: AT&T and T-Mobile chose to announce the deal on a Sunday, while Western forces are attacking Libya, the Japanese disaster continues and the U.S. college basketball championships are underway--in other words, when very few people are likely to pay attention to it.

Part of the companies' caution is due to the fact that the deal will undergo intensive investigation by the Federal Communications Commission, Federal Trade Commission and U.S. Department of Justice. There's an excellent chance that the deal will be challenged in court; it will add T-Mobile's 33.7 million subscribers to AT&T's 95.5 million, making the merged company the largest mobile operator in the U.S.

On the other hand, there's also a good chance that the deal will go through, at least in some form. T-Mobile is the Number 4 mobile operator in the U.S., the smallest of the four nationwide operators. It's struggling to come up with the capital to upgrade its network to the worldwide LTE standard, and despite its ads portraying its existing network as 4G, most consumers realize that it's not true. Both AT&T and T-Mobile use the same GSM transmission system (albeit at different frequencies), so integration of the two companies' networks will be much easier than if the rumored Sprint/T-Mobile merger had occurred.

AT&T is likely to argue that it's the most natural partner for T-Mobile, and that T-Mobile is unlikely to survive as a national operator in the long term if it stays independent, is acquired by a company with an incompatible infrastructure, or is acquired by a private equity investor that doesn't have extensive telecom experience.

The obvious concern is that an AT&T/T-Mobile merger will result in higher prices and poorer service for consumers, and given AT&T's prior track record with acquisitions, that's likely to be the case. Regulators may require the two brands to maintain separate identities, even if the infrastructure of the two companies is merged. My belief is that AT&T will continue to use T-Mobile as a "value" brand to compete with prepaid and lower-priced postpaid services from operators such as MetroPCS and Leap Wireless, but will migrate T-Mobile's most profitable customers to AT&T.

T-Mobile may not have much of a future in the U.S., whether or not the AT&T acquisition goes through. It's up to AT&T can convince regulators that the most likely outcome for an independent T-Mobile is, at best, to become a regional carrier without the scale to compete with AT&T, Verizon and Sprint.
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