T-Mobile USA Faces A Less-Than-Magenta Future

Whither T-Mobile USA, now that AT&T did the expected and dropped its $39 billion bid for the No. 4 U.S. wireless carrier?

“There’s no Plan B,” says Andreas Fuchs, a spokesman for Deutsche Telekom, the German company that owns and operates T-Mobile. “We’re back at the starting point.”

Says Deutsche Telekom CEO René Obermann: “Our first task is to operate the business the best we can with this new situation.”

There is bright side, in addition to$3 billion in breakup-fee cash AT&T is forced to shell out, to the new situation.T-Mobile USA is getting licenses to AT&T’s Advanced Wireless Solutions (AWS) spectrums in 128 Cellular Market Areas (CMAs), including 12 of the top 20 markets, Nathan Olivarez-Giles blogs in the Los Angeles Times. And a seven-year roaming deal with Deutsche Telekom expands its potential customer base from 230 to 280 million people.



 "Coverage will be extended to many regions of the U.S. in which T-Mobile USA previously had neither its own high-speed mobile communications network nor the associated roaming agreements," according to a Deutsche Telecom statement yesterday.

 And those who perceive themselves to be on the side of Truth (“this was a duopoly–in-the making”), Justice (Dept., whose fearsome hand was the ultimate deal killer) and the American way (“it’s about time we started protecting the little guy again”) hailed the decision.

“Two companies would control about 80% of the wireless market and that’s way, way too much,” Los Angeles Times consumer columnist David Lazarus proclaims in a YouTube video reaction to the news.

“Analysts say that T-Mobile customers will be just fine in the short term, and many will be pleased that they won’t be forced to switch wireless carriers,” writes MSNBC’s Marissa Taylor.

“Many of them chose T-Mobile in part because it wasn’t AT&T or Verizon,” says Forrester’s Charles Golvin. “Overall, more of those customers see this as good news rather than bad.”

But, and it’s a major BUT, it’s difficult to find someone predicting a rosy –- or even magenta –- future for T-Mobile on these shores.

As happy as some contrarian customers may be, T-Mobile USA lost 849,000 contract customers in the first nine months of the year, reportsBloomberg Businessweek’s Cornelius Rahn. Indeed, perhaps its future lies in cultivating prepaid customers, writes Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Robin Bienenstock.

“We think they will go back to the old-fashioned sort of plan -- run the business,” Bienenstock says in a note. “T-Mobile USA will compete for prepaid customers and hope that Sprint or someone else comes under enough strain they free up more spectrum.”

In a New York Times piece ominously titled “Few Options for Lagging T-Mobile,” Jenna Wortham and Brian X. Chen write that “the merger had been seen as a last-ditch effort to salvage T-Mobile’s weak finances and dwindling pool of subscribers” and that “industry analysts also could not predict a course for the company.”

“T-Mobile is probably going to be profoundly damaged by this,” M.G.I. Research senior analyst Tero Kuittinen tells them. “They should have done some strategic rethinking instead of chasing this mirage, this dream of a merger. Now they’ve lost a lot of time.”

Short of another merger deal –- speculation ranges as far and wide as Google and Amazon but more realistically centers on Sprint –- the company will have a hard time competing in the market, most analysts says.

“In our mind, Sprint and T-Mobile should ultimately combine to get the scale that’s really necessary to compete with what’s really becoming a duopoly here in the wireless sector in the United States, with Verizon and AT&T,” Oppenheimer & Co. analyst Timothy Horan told CNBC, according to MSNBC’s Taylor.

But Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Craig Moffet believes that “it’s unlikely that T-Mobile would enter into another merger in the U.S.” Plus, he says, the Justice Department “wants four competitors in this market, not three.”

Wall Street Journal reporter Christopher Lawton puts it this way: “The albatross that Deutsche Telekom AG thought it finally shed is back, heavier than ever.”

The carrier “lacks the wireless spectrum needed to keep up with data-hungry mobile-phone users,” Lawton points out, and “building a higher-speed network would also likely put Deutsche Telekom's traditionally high dividend at risk and trigger a revolt among investors.”

“They can't just turn around and say, 'This deal has failed so now we're going to pour a lot of money into the T-Mobile business,’” observes Michiel Plakman, a fund manager with Robeco NV of Rotterdam, adding Deutsche Telecom “will be severely punished" by investors if it invests too much money into the carrier.

What about that $3 billion in cash it’s getting, you ask?

 "Small change, compared to billions of dollars of investment that lie ahead," Informa PLC Thomas Wehmeier tells Lawton. But if it makes that investment and loses anyway, it will truly turn out to be chump change.

1 comment about "T-Mobile USA Faces A Less-Than-Magenta Future".
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  1. Richard Truesdell from Automotive Traveler, December 21, 2011 at 9:16 a.m.

    As someone who opposed the T-Mobile/AT&T merger as a former AT&T and current T-Mobile customer, I can say that I was very pleased that it failed, for the obvious, anti-competitive reasons. It would have concentrated 80% of the wireless business with just two carriers and we would have been at the mercy of Verizon and AT&T who would have little motivation to moderate pricing. This is especially true for data with the increasing popularity of smartphones that they heavily promote.

    Unfortunately, which the writer failed to mention is that Sprint and T-Mobile use two totally different systems, CDMA for Sprint (and its prepaid sub-brands Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile) and GSM for T-Mobile. If T-Mobile and AT&T (both GSM carriers) had merged, it was almost certain that Verizon and Sprint would have partnered as both are CDMA carriers. And we all know what that would have meant for pricing with just two national carriers, right?

    What this means for T-Mobile is not clear. Short term, they have $3 billion in cash, some spectrum they will get from AT&T, and a better roaming agreement for their customers. But it seems obvious that Deutsche Telecom wants to exit the US market. My thinking that it will be someone from left field, Amazon, Google, or possibly Apple (who certainly has the cash to invest) who will enter the picture. Google has already acquired Motorola's wireless handset assets to bolster its Android operating system and protect it from Apple patent claims. And Research In Motion is apparently being stalked by Amazon (http://bit.ly/scdeZE). Where does that leave Apple, who is selling handsets to the top three carriers but not T-Mobile?

    With the importance of mobile for publishers, how this plays out is important for all of us especially as the carriers with subsidized tablets, will be an important platform for publishers.

    Richard Truesdell
    Editorial Director, Automotive Traveler Magazine, AutomotiveTraveler.com

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