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Dish Networks Gets a Bone in Sprint, T-Mobile Merger OK

As you’ve no doubt heard, the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) late last week finally cleared the way for T-Mobile’s $26 billion acquisition of Sprint. The decision will save Sprint from almost certain bankruptcy and offer businesses and consumers a third, and notably different, option for 5G services in the U.S. The biggest concessions involved Charles Ergen, executive chairman of Dish Networks, and his long-held ambitions in the wireless field and a curtsy to the unfounded notion that four nationwide wireless carriers is somehow a necessity (see my previous No Jitter post on this, “One Way or Another, Sprint Needs Out of Purgatory”).
 
The merger could be a major boon for enterprises in that they’ll now have a viable third option, and one with a different technology solution and more aggressive attitude toward innovation than “the majors” -- i.e., Verizon and AT&T -- assuming that T-Mobile’s management can competently execute the combination.
 
What The “New T-Mobile” Brings to The Table
A number of factors lay the foundation for a positive combination of Sprint and T-Mobile.
 
First is the combination of spectrum assets. T-Mobile has recently invested $7 billion in spectrum licenses in the 600-MHz band, frequencies that travel greater distances than available on the Sprint network and provide superior building penetration characteristics key for indoor coverage.
 
For its part, Sprint originally built its network on 1.9-GHz Personal Communications Service spectrum, but has extensive holdings in the 2.5-GHz band (Band 41) that it is only now working into its infrastructure. Those Sprint 2.5 GHz holdings average 90 MHz-to-100 MHz in all major markets- that’s a lot of good mid-band spectrum.
 
In the proposed merger plans, T-Mobile’s 600-MHz holding could provide an overall coverage blanket, hopefully extending farther into underserved rural areas, and Sprint’s 2.5 GHz could then be used for denser coverage in urban areas and potentially for indoor coverage. With its combination of spectrum holdings, the new T-Mobile would be able to achieve the 5G goal of network densification without having to rely on the as-yet largely untested millimeter wave bands (i.e., frequencies above 20 or 30 GHz).
 
Second, the merger is good news when it comes to the Internet of Things (IoT) and the low-power WAN (LPWAN) technologies. With its financially challenged outlook, Sprint hadn’t gotten beyond talking about deploying technologies like LTE Cat M1 or Narrowband IoT, or NB-IoT (see my related post, “IoT Starts with ‘Network’”). T-Mobile, on the other hand, has been rolling out both and has been in the forefront pushing those technologies.
 
Third, both companies have long track records of driving technological innovation in the cellular market. On the services front, Sprint deployed its unique (though not overly successful) Sprint Mobile Integration service almost a decade ago. The company also offers hosted Cisco and Microsoft UC&C services as well as innovative offerings like Business Wi-Fi.
 
To make hay on the consumer side, T-Mobile has unabashedly identified itself as the “un-carrier,” and pioneered integrated Wi-Fi/cellular voice services using Universal Mobile Access almost a decade ago. While unlimited talk and text plans have rendered that idea obsolete, T-Mobile keeps pushing the limits with network-based services like its DIGITS offering.
 
Lastly, Sprint has a wireline division, something T-Mobile sorely lacks. That division houses the hosted UC&C and other business-oriented offerings. From an integrated wired/wireless strategy standpoint, that would put the new T-Mobile on an equal footing with the majors.
 
Making Sausage
As I noted in my piece a few weeks back, without the T-Mobile hook-up, Sprint was likely on its way to bankruptcy and, possibly, dissolution -- not a good prospect for capital appreciation. As it stands, the regulators are stuck on the idea that the country needs four nationwide wireless carriers to encourage competition. However, there’s no basis in economics for this, and the only justification they presented was that four was a number greater than three. Despite its questionable foundation, a number of state attorneys general have adopted this view, vowing to fight the combination even if the deal were to receive DoJ approval (which it has).
 
The initial concession proposed that Sprint divest its two prepaid brands, Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile. That idea has carried on as part of the deal, and Dish Networks will acquire the two operators for $1.4 billion.
 
Nonetheless, we’d still only have three nationwide carriers. Unfortunately, you can’t simply spin up a nationwide wireless carrier, with tens of thousands of cell towers, mobile switching centers in each major operating area, backhaul facilities, retail locations, billing systems, and a customer service complex, out of thin air. The solution? Make believe you can!
 
A new plan started to form in May. As it became clear that the merger was in trouble, T-Mobile CEO John Legere made a call to Dish’s Ergen, according to The Wall Street Journal.
 
Ergen is quite a story himself. A former professional poker player, Ergen founded Dish against all odds and pioneered a number of interesting developments in the pay TV business. However, Ergen has long held ambitions and over the years had even attempted to acquire T-Mobile and Sprint (twice), as well as MetroPCS and Clearwire.
 
Ergen has amassed a minor spectrum trove, mostly in the 1.7-GHz/2.1-GHz AWS-4 band, valued at more than $20 billion. In 2018, Dish announced a $1 billion plan to build a 5G NB-IoT network by 2020, as it faced the potential that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) would take the spectrum back -- via the “use ‘em or lose ‘em” provision -- if they remained fallow. The deal between Sprint and T-Mobile opened the door for Ergen to take his wireless ambitions into the big time.
 
Now, why someone would want to get into the “low margin” end of the cellular business is something of a mystery. I guess Apple wasn’t available for the right price? Cellular is an infrastructure business in which the primary consumer market has reached saturation and competition has degraded to a virtual knife fight over who can give away the most service for the least money -- a structure that was driving Sprint into bankruptcy. That prospect had AT&T grab Time Warner and Verizon buy Yahoo. The only utility that might have worse prospects is, you guessed it, pay TV, particularly the satellite variety.
 
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