California approval of T-Mobile/Sprint deal could hinge on what Becerra, DISH tell CPUC

26 February 2020 by Steve Blum
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Responses from two key third party players – California attorney general Xavier Becerra and DISH – look like the final, and decisive, pieces of the puzzle as the California Public Utilities Commission wraps up its review of the proposed T-Mobile/Sprint merger. Both responses should address the impact the deal will have on the mobile broadband marketplace in California.

Because of confidentiality practices, it’s likely that we won’t know what Becerra and DISH have to say until a proposed decision is posted by Karl Bemesderfer, the CPUC administrative law judge managing the case. According to the schedule he published two days ago, that should happen by 13 March 2020.

The CPUC is legally obligated to ask Becerra for an opinion, but he can reply or not, as he chooses. The Politico Morning Tech newsletter reported yesterday that Becerra’s staff answered questions about his plans regarding an appeal of a federal judge’s approval of the merger by pointing to the CPUC’s review. As tea leaves go, that’s a clear message that Becerra has something to say, and so far he’s tried to kill the deal. Assuming he responds like his predecessor did, he’ll detail his opinion about the merger in a formal filing, which will be incorporated into the CPUC’s proposed decision. The CPUC will have to provide a reason, based on the evidence submitted, for accepting or rejecting Becerra’s advice.

Earlier this month, Bemesderfer ordered DISH to provide detailed answers to questions about its plans, or lack thereof, to build a competitive 5G mobile network in California. The fact that he did that this late in the game could indicate – I would bet does indicate – that the question of DISH’s 5G intentions and/or capabilities is on his mind and that previous testimony by a DISH staff lobbyist was something less than satisfactory.

T-Mobile’s claim that its acquisition of Sprint won’t harm mobile broadband competition is based on two arguments: its experts say it won’t, and even so DISH will fill the gap. It’s now up to DISH to convince the CPUC that it is a credible 5G competitor.

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.