Sprint and T-Mobile last week went before Congress to literally argue that fewer competitors in the wireless space will magically result in... more competition in the wireless space. The two companies are trying to gain regulatory approval for their latest $23 billion merger attempt, the second time in four years this particular deal has been attempted.
The companies' previous merger attempt was blocked in 2014 after regulators noted that removing one of just four major carriers would result in a proportionally-lower incentive to actually compete on price, something that's really not debatable if you've paid attention to telecom and broadband industry history. That's especially true in Canada, where consolidation to just three players has resulted in some of the highest mobile data prices in the developed world. AT&T's attempt to acquire T-Mobile in 2011 was blocked for the same reason, a move that many forget resulted in T-mobile being more competitive than ever.
But while speaking before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee investigating the deal, T-Mobile and Sprint executives told Congress a decidedly different story. One in which the rules of competition, and mathematics, no longer apparently apply:
"This consolidation will lead to lower prices,” T-Mobile CEO John Legere told hearing attendees. "This is actually moving from two to three,” Legere claimed, insisting that joining forces with Sprint will make a more “viable competitor” for AT&T and Verizon.
But history has repeatedly shown in telecom that claims of competitive "synergies" never actually materialize. A major reason most ISPs are so hated is because they've spent decades prioritizing growth for growth's sake over anything else, and, more often than not, fail to scale things like customer service and support proportionally because that kind of growth erodes revenues. As a result you get an endless string of telecom mergers that, like Charter's recent acquisition of Time Warner Cable, simply result in higher prices and worse service than ever before.
Sprint and T-Mobile's central thesis in selling the merger (this time around) is that Sprint can't possibly survive without merging with T-Mobile. In fact, one of Sprint's recent filings with the FCC(pdf) comically tries to go out of its way to argue just how terrible the company currently is, in stark contrast to everything the company had been saying the last few years:
"Sprint’s standalone future will not be one that allows it to be an effective competitor to Verizon and AT&T on a nationwide basis. And though Sprint’s massive cost reductions have stabilized the company’s finances and yielded positive free cash flow for the first time in many years, the company achieved that result only by shrinking the company and reducing network investment to historically low levels."
But while Sprint does have a heavy debt load (which is not uncommon in the merger-obsessed telecom sector) and has struggled to find a real brand identity (which says more about leadership than finances), the threat of its imminent demise is being amplified for strategic effect. The company's balance sheet has been improving, with the company routinely propped up by deep-pocketed Japanese owner Softbank. Meanwhile there are numerous potential partners interested in the wireless industry that could have provided a meaningful partnership (Dish, Charter, Comcast) that wouldn't have reduced competition.
Of course claiming "fewer competitors improves competition and lowers prices" isn't the only falsehood being perpetuated by the company. They're also promising that the merger will be a boon for job creation, despite numerous Wall Street analyst estimates that the deal could eliminate up to 30,000 jobs as redundant positions (especially in retail and middle management) are inevitably eliminated.
For some reason, like Charlie Brown and his damn football, America doesn't seem to ever really learn any lessons from its love affair with mindless merger mania and our love of growth for growth's sake. These deals almost always exclusively only benefit shareholders and executives, a lesson we apparently love to ignore time and time again.
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