California kicks T-Mobile-Sprint deal to September. Or maybe much later

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tmobile san francisco 18may2019

The California Public Utilities Commission can’t act on T-Mobile’s request for permission to acquire Sprint until the middle of September, at the earliest. Yesterday was the deadline for any proposed decisions – in any proceeding, T-Mobile or not – to be placed on the commission’s 15 August 2019 meeting agenda. The next scheduled meeting after that is on 12 September, which means a draft decision would have to be released for the legally required 30-day public review period by 13 August.

Even that date is optimistic. There are two good reasons to doubt that the CPUC will be in any hurry to move ahead on a final decision for the next few months. First, no one knows what the T-Mobile/Sprint deal looks like yet. All the testimony and legal exchanges to date are predicated on the relatively straightforward purchase agreement the two companies announced a year ago. If a new agreement that satisfies the concerns of the federal justice department emerges, the organisations that have been fighting against the original deal at the CPUC will want a chance to review it. That process can be shortened, but even if it moves at lightning speed it will still require several weeks.

Then there’s California attorney general Xavier Becerra, who is one of several state AGs suing to block the merger. He’s gone to court to kill the deal, so it’s a reasonable guess that he hasn’t yet responded positively – or at all – to the CPUC’s request for an opinion, as required by the California Public Utilities Code. T-Mobile might settle its dispute with the state AGs out of court, but if it doesn’t it’s looking at a trial that could stretch into next year, particularly if the judge hearing the case grants the request for a delay made by the states on Monday.

The CPUC might let Becerra worry about the anti-competitive aspects of the deal, and move ahead with a decision regarding other issues such as the merger’s impact on services for low income Californians and infrastructure in rural areas. But the fluid nature of the deal raises the possibility that an early CPUC decision could get overtaken by substantive changes to the terms, which should have been considered. That would be a risky course to take, with little or no gain to the CPUC even if it turned out well.

Extra meetings can happen. The CPUC held one on an emergency basis earlier this year when PG&E filed for bankruptcy, and another is scheduled – with proper notice – for later this month. There are also provisions for waiving the 30-day review period under California law. Don’t expect T-Mobile to get that kind of accomodation, though. The possibility of the lights going out in northern California rates as an emergency; missing an arbitrary corporate deadline does not.