AT&T’s announcement last week of a $4bn charge in respect of the $39bn take-over of T-Mobile USA indicates a high likelihood that the transaction will not go ahead. This is not necessarily good news for US consumers and shareholders.
Telecoms markets in developed countries are maturing and in some markets revenues are already declining. At this stage of the industry life cycle consolidation would be expected. If there is no further revenue growth the only way in which returns can be maintained without increasing prices is by taking costs out of a business. This is likely to have been the principal driver behind the proposed acquisition.
Much of the opposition to the merger is on grounds of the negative impact on competition at retail level. A solution could be for AT&T to acquire T-Mobile’s network assets but not the rest of its operation, effectively turning T-Mobile into an MVNO. After all, much of the passive infrastructure is probably already owned by tower companies who lease tower space to several mobile operators. Traditionally a very high proportion of a mobile operator’s assets were in the non-active infrastructure – it typically accounted for two thirds of the capital cost of a cell site. The next step would be to share the active RAN and even the whole network. If T-Mobile USA continues to operate as an MVNO this would not affect competition at retail level.
In persuading the US Department of Justice and the FCC to drop their objections to the deal, AT&T might consider introducing accounting separation between its mobile network operating business and its retail business. AT&T’s retail business would buy capacity from the network operating company at the same terms as T-Mobile USA.
The net effect may be positive for all stakeholders:
- One merged network will have lower operating costs than two networks, i.e. costs are taken out of the industry. This benefit is likely to be shared between consumers in the form of lower prices and shareholders.
- Although some spectrum may have to be divested, the merging of AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s spectrum assets would make it easier to refarm spectrum to LTE and deploy wide carriers earlier. This means existing spectrum will be used more efficiently in terms of bits per Hertz. With the growth of mobile broadband this yields an economic and societal benefit, as is well documented.
- There will be a number of further spectrum auctions. With one operator less bidding for spectrum, demand at auction is reduced and prices paid for spectrum are likely to be lower. This will benefit all players in the market.
Written by Stefan Zehle, CEO, Coleago Consulting