T-Mobile-Sprint merger gets a hard look in California this week

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

California’s review of the proposed merger of T-Mobile and Sprint goes into high gear on Wednesday. The California Public Utilities Commission will hold a hearing to allow lawyers for the two companies and the organisations that oppose the deal to cross examine experts, and others, who submitted written testimony about it. Three days have been blocked out, although it might not go that long.

The best supported and most coherent opposition to the merger comes from the CPUC’s in-house watchdog unit, the public advocates office (formerly known as the office of ratepayer advocates). It submitted lengthy arguments and a tall stack of data that shows why tipping the mobile broadband market into oligopoly status is a very bad idea

The Commission should deny the proposed transaction because of the irreparable damage to competition in the wireless market and the low-income customer markets as well as the absence of specific, measurable, and verifiable benefits to the merger. The loss of a competitive player in these markets would create significant risk of parallel conduct and higher pricing for consumers. This pricing risk is demonstrated by the two largest players in the wireless market today, AT&T and Verizon, which generally offer higher-priced plans than T-Mobile and Sprint. New T-Mobile would rival or exceed these companies in market share, creating a strong incentive for oligopolist behavior. New T-Mobile would also comprise nearly 60 percent of the wireless prepaid market that predominantly serves low-income customers, pacing excessive market power under the control of a single company and creating a virtual monopoly over these services. Because [T-Mobile and Sprint] are not under [traditional wireline telephone rate] regulation, protections cannot be implemented that are adequately enforceable and verifiable to address these risks.

Just so. The CPUC has little authority over mobile carriers, and none where mainstream consumer pricing is concerned. It can impose conditions on any approval of the merger – the public advocates office suggests some as a fall back position – but those would provide only temporary and limited protection to Californian consumers.

The best way – the only way in this case – to fix a problem is to not cause it in the first place.

Other groups with a stake in the outcome have also jumped in. The California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) and the Greenlining Institute expressed concern about the proposed merger’s impact on low income and minority communities, but didn’t particularly object to it so long as money and other benefits were required as mitigation. It’s worth noting that CETF’s primary source of funding is money extracted from companies that have had mergers or similar consolidations under review at the CPUC, and Greenlining relies on so called intervenor compensation from the CPUC, and companies appearing before it, as a reward for raising such issues.

The Communications Workers of America also has a dog in the fight. At this point, the union wants the merger blocked, claiming it would “would result in the loss of 3,432 jobs in California”, but it also left the door open to a settlement. In the past, CWA has opposed telecoms mergers, but then flipped and supported them once its needs were met.

T-Mobile and Sprint naturally objected to all these statements, filing detailed rebuttals, and scheduling time for cross examination at this week’s hearing. I intend to write a future post about those rebuttals, but if you want to read them yourself, you can find it all here:

Collected documents from the CPUC’s review of the proposed merger of Sprint and T-Mobile.