T-Mobile, Sprint combo is anti-competitive, but that’s the feds’ call

by Steve Blum • , , ,

The $26.5 billion dollar proposed purchase of Sprint by T-Mobile can’t go forward unless it’s given a pass by anti-trust watchdogs. As a practical matter, that means the federal justice department’s anti-trust unit sits on its hands and doesn’t challenge it in court, and the Federal Communications Commission signs off on the license transfers involved.

In theory, the California attorney general could jump in. In practice, that’s unlikely. So let’s set it aside for now. Unless there’s some obscure wireline telephone asset involved – anything is possible, but I don’t think so – the California Public Utilities Commission isn’t in the game either.

It’s down to the feds. And the likeliest source of opposition is the justice department’s anti-trust unit. It took on AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner, although its lawsuit appears to be on the ropes.

The question is whether combining T-Mobile and Sprint into one company makes the U.S. mobile telecoms market significantly less competitive. Right now, they are two of the four mobile carriers that are worth worrying about (the other two are AT&T and Verizon, but you knew that).

T-Mobile has 17% of the U.S. mobile broadband market; Sprint has 13%. Both are in the habit of making significant market gambles – unlimited data plans, for example – that the big boys, with roughly a third of the U.S. market each, are forced to match. That’s a significant benefit to consumers, even if it doesn’t warm shareholders’ hearts.

When you’re in imminent danger of falling off a market share cliff at any moment, you assess risk differently than someone with a comfortable third of the pie. Which is what the new T-Mobile would have. Allowing it that level of comfort would decrease the competitive pain of its new peers, as well as consumer’s competitive market pleasure. We’ll see if the federal justice department arrives at the same answer.