Tag Archives: monopoly

T-Mobile asks CPUC for permission to employ fewer people in California

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Sprint store

T-Mobile wants the California Public Utilities Commission to dial back some of the obligations it imposed when it approved the Sprint merger in April. A “petition for modification” of the CPUC’s decision asks for three changes:

  • Strike the order to add 1,000 new jobs in California. As it has consistently argued, T-Mobile says the CPUC doesn’t have that authority. Meanwhile, T-Mobile is offering hundreds of former Sprint employees the, um, opportunity to “consider a career change”.
  • Push back a deadline for “providing average speeds of 300 Mbps to 93% of California” by two years, to 2026. T-Mobile seems to think there was a misunderstanding. It says the clock on its voluntary commitment to reach that service level started running when the merger closed, not when it was first proposed in 2018.
  • Trust the Federal Communications Commission and the California Emerging Technology Fund, which is now on T-Mobile’s payroll to the tune of $7 million a year, to verify 5G coverage and speed promises. As it stands, T-Mobile has to prove its claims using the CPUC’s independent Calspeed testing program.

The modification request won’t have much, if any, of a direct effect on the CPUC’s decision allowing the Sprint merger and the long list of conditions it attached. The request for extra time to meet the 300 Mbps download benchmark might get some consideration, but T-Mobile’s appeal doesn’t say anything new about the requirements to add 1,000 jobs in California and to do speed testing the CPUC’s way.

The deal’s opponents will respond, of course, and the commission will take up T-Mobile’s petition and opponents pending request for a rehearing eventually. Minor tweaks aside, both are likely to be rejected. At that point, the CPUC’s lengthy – two years and counting – process will be complete, which clears the path to court challenges, at the state and federal level. That’s where the real action will happen.

Hundreds of layoffs are following in the wake of the T-Mobile/Sprint deal

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Sprint booth mwc la 2019 22oct2019

T-Mobile is laying off hundreds of former Sprint employees as it consolidates the operations of the two mobile carriers that merged in April. A story by Zack Whittaker and Brian Heater at Tech Crunch broke the news about Sprint employees on Tuesday…

In a conference call on Monday lasting under six minutes, T-Mobile vice president James Kirby told hundreds of Sprint employees that their services were no longer needed. He declined to answer his employees’ questions, citing the “personal” nature of employee feedback, and ended the call.

T-Mobile responded with a press release in which it claimed it would “add 5,000 new positions over the next year”, but for now it wanted to “focus” its resources…

This will result in additional career opportunities for many, as the company positions itself for long-term healthy growth. As part of this process, some employees who hold similar positions are being asked to consider a career change inside the company, and others will be supported in their efforts to find a new position outside the company.

Translation: yeah, we’re firing them.

These involuntary “career changes” should come as no surprise. During the California Public Utilities Commission’s review of the merger, T-Mobile promised on the one hand to keep its combined California workforce at the same level for the next three years, while on the other hand agreeing to open a new call center in Fresno County that would employ 1,000 people. Do the math.

The CPUC did the math, and required T-Mobile to make those 1,000 call center jobs a net addition to the combined T-Mobile/Sprint headcount as of the merger date. Whether or not that order has any teeth is unknown. T-Mobile has consistently maintained that the commission has no authority over its wireless business, and matched those words with deeds.

Even bigger job cuts are coming at AT&T. It’s primary union, the Communications Workers of America, says 3,400 AT&T employees are about to be out of work, and hundreds of wireless stores will close, according to a story in FierceWireless by Bevin Fletcher.

T-Mobile rejects Californian conditions on Sprint deal, tells CPUC it has “no jurisdiction”

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tmobile san francisco 18may2019

T-Mobile has chosen the path of regulatory defiance in California. It passed on yesterday’s deadline for challenging the California Public Utilities Commission’s decision to impose tough conditions on its acquisition of Sprint. That doesn’t mean it’s staying silent or that the matter is closed. Quite the contrary. T-Mobile responded to a procedural challenge from opponents of the deal with sharp words, and set itself up for a fight at the CPUC and in state and federal courts that will continue for years to come.

Earlier this month, opponents appealed the decision, asking for a rehearing because, well, the commission didn’t completely accept their arguments the first time around. Their request keeps the procedural ball rolling toward an inevitable jump to state and federal courts, but it doesn’t break new ground.

T-Mobile lashed out at the rehearing request in a response filed just before the three-day Memorial Day weekend. The fact that T-Mobile disagrees with its opponents isn’t surprising, or even particularly newsworthy. What’s interesting about the reply is the way T-Mobile dismisses the decision by saying, in effect, the CPUC doesn’t have the authority to tell us what to do, so we don’t care what they say

While [T-Mobile and Sprint] stand by their voluntary commitments made to this Commission, they submit – as they have from the outset of these proceedings – that the Commission has no jurisdiction to approve or deny the transfer of control of [Sprint’s wireless business], or to make its approval contingent on the imposition of mandatory conditions. Thus, the very premise of the [opponents’ rehearing reuqest], i.e., that the merger could be denied by the Commission but, failing that, should or could be subject to additional Commission-mandated conditions, is fatally flawed because the Commission lacks jurisdiction to do either…

The Commission lacks the authority to “approve” (or “deny”) the wireless transactions or to otherwise impose mandatory conditions on it. That power is reserved to the FCC under the plain language of the Communications Act and general principles of federal preemption. Thus, the Commission may not second-guess the FCC’s determination that the merger is in the public interest subject to the conditions it deemed appropriate or otherwise require additional mandatory conditions specific to California.

The response contains approving words for some of the California-specific requirements imposed by the CPUC, but in the context of refuting opponents’ claims that the commission’s decision lacks sufficient enforcement measures. Taken as a whole, T-Mobile’s stance is the same as it was when it started its CPUC odyssey nearly two years ago, as it was throughout the proceeding, and as it was when it defied the CPUC and completed the merger without permission. It doesn’t accept Californian authority over its mobile business and has only offered to “stand by” its “voluntary commitments”.

Sooner rather than later, T-Mobile will ignore one of the CPUC’s conditions or blow off requests to comply. That’ll trigger a (likely) lengthy enforcement process that T-Mobile will try to steer towards the “federal preemption” that it is counting on.

Links to arguments, exhibits and other paperwork filed at the CPUC and elsewhere are here.

My clients include California cities who do business with T-Mobile. I like to think that has no bearing on my commentary. Take it for what it’s worth.

Charter, Comcast two months free offers are cash bonanzas, not charity

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Printing money us treasury image

The covid–19 emergency is turning into a windfall for broadband companies, particularly Comcast and Charter Communications. As lockdowns came into effect in mid-March, people turned to broadband to stay connected, and for many that meant subscribing to service for the first time. It also meant running the gauntlet of high pressure sales pitches that steered many away from low cost standalone Internet deals and into expensive video packages that start billing immediately.

In its first quarter financial report, Comcast said it gained 509,000 new broadband subscribers between January and March, including 32,000 who signed up for the $10 per month standalone Internet service that the company offers to low income households, and that currently carries a first two months free promotion. The remaining 477,000 landed in market rate packages with payment due. It was the biggest quarterly broadband subscriber gain that Comcast booked in the past 12 years.

Charter had a more expansive first two months free promotion, applying it to all of its Internet packages for households with students. It did even better than Comcast, picking up 580,000 net new broadband subscribers. Of those, 120,000 came in during the promotion period and opted for the free introductory offer. Charter’s aggressive up selling paid off, according to the Seeking Alpha transcript of CEO Tom Rutledge’s first quarter earnings call with financial analysts…

Interestingly, and uniquely, about 50% of the customers who participated in the offer in March chose to order additional products with immediate billing. The vast majority of these customers are taking our flagship Internet product at 200 megabits per second or 100 megabits per second, and a small minority subscribe to our low-income offer or our ultra and 1 gigabit premium offerings.

Although both companies try to score political points by spinning their covid–19 offers as acts of good corporate citizenship, when they speak to Wall Street, they tell the truth: trolling free and/or discounted broadband service past low income households and then shamelessly up selling them is good business.

T-Mobile/Sprint deal opponents ask CPUC for a California do over, while T-Mobile sits it out for now

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The wrangling over T-Mobile’s take over of Sprint continues in California. Yesterday, three organisations that stood against the merger during the nearly two years that it was under review asked the California Public Utilities Commission to reconsider its 16 April 2020 approval. But T-Mobile didn’t.

The CPUC’s public advocates office, TURN (lately standing for The Utility Reform Network) and the Greenlining Institute filed a joint application for rehearing that rehashes the arguments and evidence they previously offered in their failed bid to kill the transaction. Commissioners will go through the motions of considering the request, but there’s little chance that they’ll change their mind.

But once the rehearing is denied, the final procedural box will be ticked at the CPUC, and opponents will be free to challenge the decision in a court – likely a Californian court. The legal basis for their appeal is a section of California public utilities law that tasks the CPUC with ensuring that mergers of public utilities are “in the public interest”, do not “adversely affect competition” and, if there are any “significant adverse consequences”, impose “mitigation measures” that fix the problem. It’s no surprise that opponents believe none of that happened, and that the CPUC’s decision “contains numerous inconsistent and contradictory statements and analysis that fail to support its findings of fact and conclusions of law”, another potential legal defect that an appeals court might consider.

Yesterday was a deadline for requesting a rehearing of the T-Mobile/Sprint deal, which T-Mobile seems to have ignored. That could mean a couple things. T-Mobile might want to make a point by waiting until the next deadline – 27 May 2020 – which is for requesting rehearings of matters that don’t involve mergers, since it never conceded that the CPUC has the jurisdiction to rule on the transaction. Or it’ll put off going to court until the CPUC tries to enforce some of the conditions it imposed, like telling T-Mobile to add 1,000 jobs to its newly combined Californian workforce.

One thing you can bet on: T-Mobile isn’t going to meekly submit to the State of California’s professed authority.

Links to arguments, exhibits and other paperwork filed at the CPUC and elsewhere are here.

My clients include California cities who do business with T-Mobile. I like to think that has no bearing on my commentary. Take it for what it’s worth.

Cable, satellite TV companies build business plans on fear and ignorance

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The future, if you want to call it that, of traditional, linear subscription television services will depend on customers who don’t understand, and consequently fear, online video services. Martin Peers, a reporter for The Information, looked at his mother-in-law’s Comcast bill and discovered a stack of add on fees and increasing monthly rates for services that can be had for less money via over-the-top video platforms.

The reason she’s writing unnecessarily high checks each month? “She’s nervous of changing what she’s got”, Peers writes, and that fear is at the base of the profit-maximising strategies adopted by Comcast, Charter Communications, DirecTv and DISH…

[Comcast chief financial officer Michael] Cavanagh acknowledged that recent price rises imposed by Comcast will drive an increased rate of subscriber losses this year. Comcast’s average customer bill rose 3.6% this year, a little more than last year…

Comcast is not alone in focusing more on customers willing to pony up for cable and letting others in search of budget solutions cancel. DirecTV’s owner, AT&T, has had fewer price promotions for the satellite TV service as it focuses on high-value customers. Charter, the third biggest cable service, has a similar philosophy. Comcast, Charter, DirecTV and Dish lost a combined 5.1 million subscribers in 2019, 71% higher than the losses of 2018.

It’s a classic case of haves and have nots. Consumers who feel comfortable navigating the online world can take advantage of competitive video pricing. Those who don’t share that awareness – a group that disproportionately includes low income and elderly people – get soaked for high monthly subscription fees that include a raft of services they don’t need or use.

That strategy is the driving motivation behind the scorched earth tactics cable companies use to defend their grasp on low income communities. Maintaining effective monopolies isn’t just about blocking competitive broadband providers. It’s also about keeping vulnerable customers fenced in.

CPUC tries to correct past merger mistakes as it approves T-Mobile/Sprint deal

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tmobile billboard

Two weeks after the fact, T-Mobile gained California’s blessing to take over Sprint yesterday, as the California Public Utilities Commission unanimously approved a decision that imposes a long list of requirements that the newly combined company is expected to meet in California.

Expected, but not guaranteed.

As he presented the decision, Clifford Rechtschaffen, the commissioner in charge of the CPUC’s review, said that “the applicants continue to dispute our jurisdiction to review wireless mergers. We very fundamentally disagree on this point and the decision rejects their challenge to our jurisdiction”. Unless one side or the other backs down – unlikely – that sets up a dispute that’ll land in federal court.

It’s something to worry about later, and it’s largely out of the CPUC’s hands. And it’s not the only problem with CPUC merger reviews that the decision addresses.

The chronic weakness of CPUC decisions of this sort is that enforcement of merger conditions ranges from non-existent to late and sporadic. Commissioner Martha Guzman-Aceves, who assisted Rechtschaffen with the review, said it was on their minds because the covid–19 emergency has highlighted how many merger promises haven’t been kept…

The merger agreements tend to be never monitored or enforced. We sit here today during the covid crisis, we see many of the merger commitments that were made in previous agreements, particularly regarding the affordable plan offerings that had been made under those agreements, to be not fully implemented…

Things like, you know, little elements like those that we’re facing today with the covid response of…verifying eligibility through these programs and how difficult some of the carriers are making this right now, or how easy some of the carriers have stepped up to make it right now.

The solution, at least for the T-Mobile/Sprint merger, is to define a process for enforcing requirements such as service coverage and speed, job creation and programs for low income Californians. It includes verification of T-Mobile’s progress reports through independent testing, hiring an outside monitor responsible to the CPUC at T-Mobile’s expense and issuing enforceable citations that’ll impose penalties if T-Mobile doesn’t perform, even on relatively minor matters. CPUC citations are appealable, but don’t involve the months – sometimes years – that formal enforcement procedures entail.

Unlike Frontier Communication’s purchase of Verizon’s wireline systems or Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner’s cable system, where the CPUC imposed conditions without defining oversight or enforcement responsibility, there’s reason to hope that T-Mobile can be held to account. Whether it will or not is all but certainly in the hands of federal judges.

Links to arguments, exhibits and other paperwork filed at the CPUC and elsewhere are here.

My clients include California cities who do business with T-Mobile. I like to think that has no bearing on my commentary. Take it for what it’s worth.

Belated approval of T-Mobile/Sprint deal, with a long and contested list of conditions, set for CPUC vote today

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

T-Mobile and Sprint will finally get permission to merge from the California Public Utilities Commission later today, assuming commissioners approve a revised draft decision that was posted yesterday. Nothing is guaranteed – the vote could be delayed, for example – but given that commissioners met in closed session to discuss it on Monday and yesterday’s revision is more of a refinement than a major change to the original draft, approval looks like a good bet.

The new draft sidesteps T-Mobile’s decision to close the deal without the CPUC’s blessing and Sprint’s attempt to duck out of the proceeding by abandoning its license to operate a wireline telephone business in California. The CPUC rejected Sprint’s request to cancel its certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN) on Tuesday and the new draft grants permission to transfer it to T-Mobile, albeit with a lot of conditions. If T-Mobile wants to get rid of the CPCN, it’ll have to go through a lengthy and formal process to do so.

No mention whatsoever is made of the 1 April 2020 transaction closing date, nor of the subsequent order issued by commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen that forbid any merger of the two companies’ Californian operations before the commission votes to allow it. That doesn’t mean all is forgiven. The companies might – I’d guess will – face CPUC disciplinary action later.

What the new draft does do is make it crystal clear that the CPUC believes it has jurisdiction over any telephone company operating in California, wired or wireless…

Wireless carriers are “telephone corporations” and therefore public utilities under Public Utilities Code Sections 216, 233 and 234. Both Joint Applicants, T-Mobile and Sprint, have California wireless subsidiaries that are public utility telephone corporations under state law, and subject to the jurisdiction of the Commission.

The revised draft certainly exercises that authority. It expands on T-Mobile’s responsibilities to the Lifeline program, which provides discounted service to low income households, and maintains a requirement for T-Mobile to add 1,000 net new jobs in California, over and above what the two companies together had before they merged.

Service obligations were tweaked. T-Mobile will have to be able to deliver 300 Mbps download speeds to 93% of Californians by 2024, but its obligation to serve rural communities will be capped at offering 50 Mbps download speeds to 94% of rural residents and 100 Mbps to 85% by 2026.

Testing and oversight requirements were tightened, with the job of defining and policing merger obligations more clearly assigned to the CPUC. A deal T-Mobile cut with the California Emerging Technology Fund that included a $35 million payoff and vague performance and build out obligations will have to be enforced by California courts, if at all.

This game may be over, but the series will drag on. As mentioned, there are penalties for the CPUC to consider as well as the status of Sprint’s CPCN. T-Mobile won’t head for the showers either. It has consistently rejected the CPUC’s claim of jurisdiction, and that dispute must eventually be resolved in federal court.

Proposed Decision Granting Application and Approving Wireless Transfer subject to conditions, Revision 1, 15 April 2020
Redlined version of Proposed Decision Granting Application and Approving Wireless Transfer subject to conditions, Revision 1, 15 April 2020

Links to arguments, exhibits and other paperwork filed at the CPUC and elsewhere are here.

My clients include California cities who do business with T-Mobile. I like to think that has no bearing on my commentary. Take it for what it’s worth.

CPUC takes up T-Mobile/Sprint merger behind closed doors as Thursday’s scheduled vote nears

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

The California Public Utilities Commission will hold a rare closed door meeting later this morning to discuss the T-Mobile/Sprint merger. The announcement was made on Friday morning, following the Thursday afternoon flurry of filings and weeks of lobbying by supporters and opponents of the deal.

Although the commission is careful to provide proper notice that a closed door “ratesetting deliberative meeting” might be held in this sort of case, it’s unusual. I don’t follow all the action everyday at the commission, so I won’t hazard a guess as to how often they do this, but I can’t recall it ever happening in a proceeding that I’ve been following. On the other hand, the bulk of the CPUC’s business involves utilities, such as energy and water, that I don’t spend a lot of time on and that are more directly involved with true ratesetting processes.

“Ratesetting”, by the way, is used as a catch-all category for matters that don’t fit neatly into the other three types: quasi-legislative, adjudicatory and catastrophic wildfire, the latter being a recent addition to the lexicon. The different types of proceedings run under different rules, particularly where lobbying and other ex parte communications with CPUC decision makers are concerned. The ratesetting procedural rules are, in effect, the default rules.

A closed door meeting provides an opportunity for commissioners to discuss a complicated case ahead of a formal vote. They’re not supposed to come to an agreement, or even a general consensus, regarding the outcome, but they can sort out the issues among themselves – the companies and their friends and foes won’t be there.

A draft decision approving the T-Mobile/Sprint merger with stiff conditions is still on Thursday’s “voting meeting” agenda, but events have overtaken it. The two companies completed their transaction without CPUC permission two weeks ago. T-Mobile said it would abide by an order to not begin merging the operations it acquired in California, but only until Thursday, and it’s threatened to pull back on what it considers to be optional commitments if the case isn’t closed then.

It’s going to be an interesting week.

Links to arguments, exhibits and other paperwork filed at the CPUC and elsewhere are here.

My clients include California cities who do business with T-Mobile. I like to think that has no bearing on my commentary. Take it for what it’s worth.

T-Mobile’s actions mean its California obligations “will be taken lightly” or “totally ignored”, CPUC told

by Steve Blum • , , , ,

Tmobile 5g small towns 6jan2020

A final flurry of rebuttals defending and attacking T-Mobile’s de facto takeover of Sprint landed at the California Public Utilities Commission yesterday. The bulk of the comments amount to what I said before. But there are some interesting bits amongst all that.

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) – the primary telecoms union in California – unearthed a U.S. congressional report from 1993, when the lines were drawn between state and federal jurisdiction over mobile carriers. As CWA relates it, that staff report specifically included “transfers of control” in the list of matters that fall under a state’s authority to regulate “the other conditions of commercial mobile service”, beyond the market entry and pricing issues that are reserved for the Federal Communications Commission.

There is support in past CPUC decisions and California public utilities law for the notion that the commission has the authority to approve or deny mergers between mobile companies, but the final battle over that position will be fought in a federal court where federal law rules.

The California Emerging Technology Fund submitted a letter from a T-Mobile lawyer who said the company “fully intends to honor” the $35 million payoff and other generally vague conditions it agreed to in exchange for CETF’s support, “provided of course that the CPUC Final Decision or other CPUC action – such as a prolonged duration of [the order from commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen halting the merger in California] do not substantially impact our ability to meet” those commitments.

Translation: if the CPUC jams us up, our intentions will change.

T-Mobile’s future good behavior is unlikely, according to the CPUC’s public advocates office (PAO). In its filing, the PAO concludes…

[T-Mobile’s and Sprint’s] statements and actions are further proof and a red flag that compliance with any merger decision or conditions will be taken lightly and ignored or challenged by the companies if the merger is approved or totally ignored if the merger is rejected; ultimately harming California consumers.

The draft decision that’s on next week’s CPUC agenda would approve the merger but impose a long of conditions. The game has changed, though, since it was published nearly a month ago. Draft decisions can change too, and in this case probably will to one extent or another. We should know for sure by the middle of next week.

Comments on the proposed decision of administrative law judge Karl Bemesderfer, 1 April 2020:
Joint Applicants (T-Mobile and Sprint)
CPUC Public Advocates Office
Communications Workers of America
TURN and Greenlining
California Emerging Technology Fund
CETF attachment A
CETF attachment B
CETF attachment C

Links to arguments, exhibits and other paperwork filed at the CPUC and elsewhere are here.

My clients include California cities who do business with T-Mobile. I like to think that has no bearing on my commentary. Take it for what it’s worth.