T-Mobile/Sprint merger may increase ARPU – what’s wrong with that?

On the first day of the TMUS/Sprinter merger antitrust trial it was revealed that a Sprint exec thinks the merged company will be able to raise prices.

Reuters reports that the prosecution presented WhatsApp messages from Roger Sole, Sprint’s CMO, to his former CEO Marcelo Claure, sent in 2017, that speculated Sprint’s ARPU (average revenue per user) could increase by five bucks after the merger. Sole is insisting this was just conjecture about some distant possible outcome, but it’s nonetheless being used as evidence against the merger.

The fundamental assumption underlying this is that consumers are always best served by lower prices, but is this necessarily the case? Sole also testified that even lowering prices had proven ineffective at luring and retaining new subscribers because as soon as they experienced how rubbish the Sprint network is, they left before you could say ‘churn’.

Sole is effectively highlighting the Catch-22 position MNOs always claim to be in when restricted by operators. If their ARPU is too low then they won’t have the cash to invest in the network, and then everyone loses out. Regulators will typically say ‘that’s your problem mate, we’re just worried about prices’, which is also a valid position, and one used to push back whenever consolidation threatens to take the number of MNOs in a given market below four.

There is little hard evidence, however, that three MNOs constitute insufficient competition and that a reduction from four to three necessarily increases prices. Moreover, the merger of the third and fourth players would presumably improve the network for customers of both, which could be viewed as justification for raising prices by itself.

As we’ve seen with the disappointing early showing from TMUS’s 5G network, MNOs will have to spend a lot of money to deliver on all the promises mad on behalf of 5G. That cash has to come from somewhere and it seems only fair that subscribers contribute. It is, of course, possible that any increase in ARPU just gets trousered by senior telco execs and investors, but that’s not reason enough to automatically oppose any attempt to do so.

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