Opposition Seems Muted in Statements to FCC on T-Mobile-Sprint Merger

NEWS ANALYSIS: The fact that there is opposition is no surprise, but what is surprising is the list of companies that don’t oppose it along with the apparent support of the public.

Sprint T-Mobile

Every telecom merger has opponents. There are interest groups that oppose virtually all mergers as a matter of course. There are competitors who worry that a merger will hurt them and there are companies, including large customers, who think a merger might be bad, even if they can’t demonstrate why.

But what’s less common are comments filed with the Federal Communications Commission that don’t explicitly take a position, and filings by individuals who, on their own, write to the commission asking the agency to please let the merger happen. All of those show up in the over 500 filings in response to the T-Mobile–Sprint merger.

The letters from individual customers, who clearly aren’t being served well by their wireless carriers, may have a significant impact on the FCC. That’s not just because it’s relatively rare, but because such letters indicate that the people involved care deeply enough to write a letter and send it, that they get attention.

Of perhaps even greater significance, though is that major carriers such as Verizon and AT&T, as well as industry players such as giant Charter Communications have taking no position on the T-Mobile-Sprint merger, which is also sure to get the agency’s attention.

What’s less likely to sway the FCC are the legal filings from public interest groups that routinely file objections to anything that will bring changes. Likewise, companies that write in an attempt to pretend that their own self-interest is actually in the national interest likely won’t gain much traction.

Once such filing came from Dish Networks, which filed comments in opposition to the merger claiming that it might interfere with its plans to build a mobile network. The reasons it gives is that if the companies merge and successfully deploy 5G wireless as they say they will, the result might be to make it harder to buy components such as mobile communications components. In its filing, Dish points out that the first phase of its wireless network will be aimed at the internet of things.

“While DISH plans to aggressively upgrade and expand that network to full 5G in the future, the timing of the transition will crucially depend on, among other things, scarce inputs (e.g., radios, devices and chipsets) that the merger could make scarcer still,” Dish says in its filing.

The reason that comments like this are unlikely to produce much impact is that it ignores the fact that makers of those components will simply make more of them as demand rises. In addition, Dish has been using its plans for a wireless network as a bludgeon for years. But despite the claims in its opposition statement, and despite having tied up vast amounts of wireless spectrum, Dish has yet to light up a single cell site.

Other opponents, especially those in rural areas worry about what might happen if T-Mobile decides to shut down Sprint’s rural networks. In its filing, the Rural Wireless Association, which consists of a number of small regional carriers, notes that Sprint has long had a strong presence in rural areas, while T-Mobile has focused on urban areas.

“Sprint has historically worked with rural wireless carriers to ensure rural Americans have access to mobile wireless service,” the RWA said in its filing. “Sprint has offered rural carriers reciprocal, strategic roaming agreements at commercially reasonable rates.”

This is a legitimate concern, considering that T-Mobile has not been very strong in serving rural areas, and it’s clear that the association wants to make sure the needs of its members and the needs of rural wireless customers are kept in mind by the FCC.

While T-Mobile said in its merger filings that it intends to leverage Sprint’s frequencies and cell sites in rural areas and that it plans to build out its long-range 600 MHz capability to serve rural areas, the fact is that rural wireless users have missed out on a lot of the capabilities robust wireless service has to offer, and they have a reason to worry that 5G might pass them by as well.

If the FCC ends up approving the merger, it will likely address the rural Wireless Association concerns by imposing a condition on the merged company that it to continue to provide support to small carriers in rural areas, especially considering that such support would fit in with the FCC’s Rural Broadband initiative.

What’s also interesting are the filings from companies such as AT&T, which didn’t oppose the merger, but filed comments saying that 5G was not in danger in the U.S., and that the company was going to light up its first mobile 5G city—Indianapolis—later this year.

This amounts to using its statement to the FCC to brag about its own capabilities in the guise of commenting on another company’s plans. But it also affirms that it takes a big company to field 5G wireless in a hurry, which is something that T-Mobile and Sprint are also saying.

The number and type of comments regarding the T-Mobile–Sprint merger are in contrast to the wide and vocal opposition of the attempt by AT&T to take over T-Mobile in 2011. The reasons aren’t clear, but I suspect that AT&T and Verizon hope that a merger will make T-Mobile act more like a big carrier, and less like the upstart “UnCarrier” that T-Mobile claims to be now.

It’s unclear whether T-Mobile will cease its disruptive ways, but the lack of substantial opposition would indicate that the merger is on stronger ground now that it was initially, and even then it looked pretty strong.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...