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FCC drafts in external opinion to figure out the T-Mobile-Sprint conundrum

Altice is keeping busy in the M&A space

Perhaps realising the gravity of the situation, the FCC has drafted in outside help to assess the impact of the T-Mobile-Sprint merger on the US economy.

David Sibley will help the team as an outside consultant reporting into David Lawrence, who is leading the merger taskforce. This should not be seen as an unusual move from the FCC, though perhaps such external opinions should have been brought in earlier considering the impact this merger will have on the telco landscape and competition.

“We are fortunate that Professor Sibley is bringing his considerable economic experience and expertise to bear in this review,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “Rigorous economic analysis plays an important role in all of the Commission’s work and will be essential to a thorough investigation into whether approval of this transaction would be in the public interest.”

This is the big question. The merger will bring the number of national telcos down from four to three, but is this a good or bad move. There are arguments on both sides.

The bad side of the argument is a simple one. Removing one of the major telcos from the ecosystem will reduce competition and hurt the consumer through higher pricing due to a lack of choice. This is not a complicated point to make and a genuine concern, especially in a country like the US which where telcos do not operate everywhere. The risk of monopolies or duopolies in certain areas increases.

On the positive side, while the number of massive telcos decreases, competition increases as the merged entity would offer a more valid threat to AT&T and Verizon through the combined scale. T-Mobile US CEO John Legere often refers to AT&T and Verizon as the duopoly, and while this is an exaggeration, they are miles ahead of T-Mobile and Sprint in third and fourth place. T-Mobile and Sprint are not at the right scale to compete with the leaders individually, but together the merged organization would offer greater scale. The theory here is reducing competitors would make the market more competitive, therefore better for the consumer.

This is the conundrum which the FCC needs to decide on. Evidence and experts will be aplenty on both sides of the argument, though Sibley certainly adds some expertise to the team.

Sibley is currently the John Michael Stuart Centennial Professor of Economics at the University of Texas at Austin. Prior this role, Sibley worked Head of the Economics Research Group at Bell Communications Research, as well as the Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Economic Analysis in the Antitrust Division of the US Department of Justice. He also represented the US in OECD discussions.

As it stands, the merger shot clock is currently on pause, with the FCC deciding it does not want to be rushed. The approval or rejection of mergers and acquisitions are targeted to be completed within a 180-day window, though the FCC is offered the luxury of taking longer if it is a particularly complicated case. This is proving to be one, with the FCC requesting input from competitors of the pair recently, most notably from players outside the mobile ecosystem, suggesting it is investigating the impact on such segments as broadband.


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