The FCC might have a skip in its step after securing concessions from T-Mobile US and Sprint ahead of the proposed merger, but the Department of Justice is not convinced.
Following the approval from FCC Chairman Ajir Pai, and the vote of support from Commissioner Brendan Carr, Sprint share price rose almost 19%. The long-awaited merger to create a genuine challenger to AT&T and Verizon on a national scale looked to be heading in the right direction, only for the DoJ to be the fly in the ointment.
According to Bloomberg, the DoJ believes the concessions made by the pair do not go far enough. This is a move which breaks with tradition, generally the FCC and the DoJ sing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to acquisitions and mergers, though it appears antitrust investigators are still concerned over the threat to competition.
This is perhaps the nuance between the two departments. The DoJ, and various Attorney Generals throughout the US, are primarily concerned with competition, while the FCC rhetoric has been more focused on securing a more efficient and broader 5G rollout.
The concessions have taken the form of three commitments. Firstly, T-Mobile suggests 97% of the population could be covered by 5G within three years. Secondly, Sprint’s prepaid brand Boost would be sold to preserve competition. And finally, there would be no price increases while the 5G network is being deployed.
Of course, there is a very real risk to competition. Taking the number of national telcos from four down to three will mean less choice in the market. Less choice means less opportunity for disruption, even if the hatred from T-Mobile US CEO John Legere towards AT&T and Verizon is effectively teemed from his ears. There are too many examples through history of abuses when it comes to competition for some to be completely comfortable.
You also have to weigh up the current cost of mobile connectivity in the US. Although much has been done to help the consumer, ARPU is still notably more than in Europe, where competition is significantly higher. According to Moneysavingpro.com, the average postpaid contract in the US is as much as $80.25 compared to $30.06 in the UK. US consumers are already feeling the sharp end of the competition stick, and few would want to risk this difference to increase further.
The question is how much pain the consumer can tolerate in pursuit of leadership in the 5G race. Carr has spoken of his primary role at the FCC being focused on creating a leadership position for the US in the 5G era and part of this will depend on getting 5G in the hands of the consumer as quickly as possible. The sooner consumers have 5G, the sooner US firms can scale new services and products before assaulting the international markets. This is a playbook taken from the very successful 4G era.
With the US taking a leadership position in the 4G world, companies like Google, Amazon, Uber, AirBnB and Lyft thrived. These are companies which would have existed without the 4G euphoria, but success was compounded because of the connectivity gains. We are likely to see the same trend in the 5G world, with new products and services being designed for 5G connectivity. The question which remains is where they will call home.
This is the equation the FCC and the DoJ have to balance. The need to protect the consumer against the drive towards future economic success on the global stage. There is not going to be a perfect answer for this one, the US is gambling on the future success of the economy after all.