By Karl Bode
Earlier this year the Bill Barr DOJ absolutely tripped over itself to approve T-Mobile’s controversial $26 billion merger with Sprint, despite a mountain of evidence that the deal would erode competition, raise prices, lower wages, and result in thousands of layoffs. It was so grotesquely corrupt, the approval process even involved “antitrust” DOJ boss Makan Delrahim literally helping guide T-Mobile through the proposal process using his personal phone and text message accounts.
The DOJ’s “fix” for the problematic deal also involved shoveling some spectrum from T-Mobile over to Dish Network, which (it was promised) would then spend the next seven years building a replacement fourth wireless carrier to help offset the competition lost by gobbling up Sprint.
As we noted at the time, the proposal was never likely to work. One, Dish has a long, long history of empty promises when it comes to wireless (just ask T-Mobile), hoovering up valuable spectrum, making ample promises, then failing to deliver. The proposal also requires an FCC and DOJ that are proud of being “hands off” (read: fecklessly obedient to industry giants), suddenly being forced to closely shepherd the deal to fruition. This despite the fact that FCC BFFs AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile are all incentivized to make sure this new fourth competitor never succeeds.
Not too surprisingly, none of this is going particularly well. T-Mobile has already started closing prepaid outlets and firing employees, something the US government and T-Mobile repeatedly promised wouldn’t happen. The pandemic is also making it harder for Dish to secure financing and begin the deployment of its promised 5G network. Even some of the basic aspects of the deal (like offloading T-Mobile prepaid brand Boost Mobile to Dish) have been mysteriously stuck in neutral:
As part of the government’s remedy in the T-Mobile/Sprint merger, Dish Network is supposed to buy Boost Mobile for $1.4 billion, but so far, that deal hasn’t closed. Analysts are asking: What’s up? And as usual when it comes to Dish and wireless, it’s complicated.
“We are unaware of why Dish has not closed the Boost deal,” wrote LightShed Partners analysts Walter Piecyk and Joe Galone in a blog post today. “It should have been done by June 1st. Something is up.”
Dish and T-Mobile have been unable to agree to terms on a 600 MHz spectrum lease as required by the DOJ judgement on T-Mobile’s acquisition of Sprint, and Dish hasn’t yet been able to explain why the Boost transition hasn’t happened. Again, keep in mind, T-Mobile is incentivized for Dish not to succeed, since they (like AT&T and Verizon) don’t actually want a viable fourth competitor to emerge from this process. And, not surprisingly, analysts state that Dish and T-Mobile have been more combative than cooperative:
“Among the questions: How will disputes between Dish and T-Mobile be resolved? “It is clear from recent filings that the momentary kumbaya relationship between DISH and TMUS during the final phase of the merger review has left and there has been a return to the more combative relationship that marked the first phase of the merger review,” wrote New Street policy analyst Blair Levin.”
Dish CEO Charlie Ergen is notoriously difficult to get along with. Now, as we’ve predicted, you’ve got the “hands off” DOJ and FCC tasked with nannying this deal through to completion, without any indication they have the motivation or competence to do so.
My assumption has always been that this entire merger “solution” has all been little more than elaborate theater.
Dish may simply want to hoard spectrum and then offload it down the road at a premium, dragging feckless regulators the entire way. T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon lobbyists and policymakers are all incentivized to make sure this added competition never takes root. And the DOJ and FCC, little more than glorified rubber stamps to industry at this point, are keen to create the illusion of strong ethical leadership, when in reality they rubber stamped a shitty merger (again, ignoring all objective data). And the US press, so eager to stenograph hype pre-merger, will likely be far less involved in documenting the real cost of merger mania as this paper mache proposal slowly falls apart, employees are laid off, and US consumers inevitably face even higher prices for mobile data in the years to come.