Talk about an easy choice. I told you last Friday’s news about Sprint/T-Mobile would be the most important story of the week and nothing has stepped up to replace it.
The Most Important Story of the Week – Sprint & T-Mobile is Now Very Close
The merger of a German telecom giant’s US cellular operation (T-Mobile) with a Japanese tech-telecommunications giant US cellular operation (Sprint) is almost complete. It got the Federal government’s blessing via the antitrust division of the Department of Justice not moving to block it. This merger would fundamentally reshape cellular communications in the United States. Moreover, the deal would produce some strange winners and loses. But instead of recycling the “winners and losers” conceit, let’s try “who does this help, hurt or hinder?”
Help: AT&T and Verizon
And don’t let them tell you different. As the number of companies in an industry shifts, the amount of competition decreases and hence prices (and profits) rise. Eventually, if you get to one single company, well it becomes the monopolist pricing situation. In this situation, they extract all the value they can from customers. If you imagine this as a timeline of possible cell phone concentration, well we’re two notches from complete monopoly.
Even if AT&T and Verizon have a stronger new competitor (and don’t forget AT&T tried to buy T-Mobile this decade), going from four to three competitors is good for all the incumbents.
Help: Dish (and its new mobile provider)
Dish is probably in the most trouble of the MVPDs as they face declining video subscribers, but don’t have the ability–like cable companies–to just raise the prices on internet access. (Better margins on that business too for cable companies.) As a solution, Dish has been buying up wireless spectrum with the now revealed plan to launch their own cellular network. If this merger had been blocked, Dish would have lacked that pivot ability and would have had to spend much more to get in the cellular game. Whether Dish can truly pull this off remains to be seen, but this merger will help.
Read Bloomberg’s Tara Lachappelle for this one:
And that last sentence helps reinforce that this deal helps all the incumbents as well as Sprint/T-Mobile.
Hold: 5G Implementation
The biggest explanation for “why let them merge?” seems to be “for faster 5G implementation”. The challenge is that no matter what companies say to get approval for a merger, they don’t have to really do any of it. This line from Matt Yglesias’ article on the merger stuck with me, referencing Comcast’s merger with NBC-Universal:
Even if the company’s promise 5G implementation, if they fail and they’re already merged, what is the government going to do? Break them up? When was the last time that happened? Under an Elizabeth Warren administration, maybe her Department of Justice would. Under everyone else? Probably nothing would happen.
Meanwhile, the easiest way to advance giant infrastructure projects is government spending on infrastructure. If you want 5G, you just pay cellular phone companies to build it. We could debate the method (direct government spending, low interest loans, tax rebates) but government spending gets things built faster than the private sector using capital markets. This merger may accelerate 5G investment but could just as easily not because of the lack of a competition motive.
Hinder: Antitrust Enforcement
Antitrust enforcement in the Trump Presidency (and this isn’t political, but about forecasting) has been very uneven. The Department of Justice sued to stop AT&T’s merger, even though Disney’s merger with Fox was arguably larger. Then Trump’s DoJ supports the T-Mobile/Sprint merger, even as it launches investigations into big tech for monopoly power. Overall, there is just a level of incoherence that a lot of smart people have pointed out.
Hinder: Giant Tech Companies
More consolidation means more control over mobile access to the internet, with potential restrictions on the big players from Netflix to Amazon to Google, depending on the service and need to access the cloud. At least that’s my near term take. Longer term, I’m intrigued by the theory that 5G will strengthen the cloud based companies, which could benefit Amazon, Microsoft and Google. Still, consolidation in one industry increases that specific industry’s buying and selling power, which hurts the businesses that have to use that platform. Fortunately for them, the tech giants are huge.
Hinder: Regulatory Certainty
Before the Department of Justice blessed the merger, many state Attorney Generals had sued to block the merger. That lawsuit may not start until December. So this merger may go through, or may still be blocked or in limbo for years. That’s uncertainty for everyone which is bad for business.
Hurt: Either Hulu or Netflix
Both T-Mobile and Sprint have deals offering free Netflix and Hulu respectively to their customers. Invariably, this flood of subsidized customers helps boost overall subscriber numbers. Will the new T-Mobile keep both deals? Unlikely, so inevitably one side will lose those subscribers from the mobile deal.
Hurt: The Unaffiliated Streamers
Related to the subscribers is one of the next “carriage wars” I described a few weeks back. Even with 5G, mobile data and bandwidth will be a weapon mobile carriers can use against streaming companies. In other words, if you only have three mobile carriers, they can demand extra fees to carry your streaming content over it’s airwaves. In economics, that’s called rent seeking. Given their leverage, it’s hard for me to see how that doesn’t happen. Which leads to our last point…
I already told you this above, but some combination of increased prices or decreased quality is in the offing for customers. My most likely guess is a hypothetical roll out of 5G, but at much higher prices than in a competitive industry.
Other Contenders for Most Important Story
BritBox Plans to Launch in UK
Thanks to Twitter reader Jack Genovese for this suggestion. And even though I had Tweeted out the Axios Media newsletter on this last week, I somehow ignored it myself for last week’s column. The news is that BritBox, an ITV/BBC joint streaming platform that launched in North America will launch in the UK. Which feels slightly odd that the British are now in a territory where by definition all their shows are already, but in a cord-cutting world it all works out.
Tthe update this week is that all that good BBC back catalogue–the type of stuff that helped grow Netflix early on–is going to HBO Max. Which seems weird that it wouldn’t go to BritBox itself. My guess is that AT&T just had deeper pockets and is willing to spend a la Netflix in the early days. Meanwhile, Digiday says that while everyone goes Millennial, they’ve gone older to strong results.
CBS All-Access Surging in Dish Carriage Dispute