The two companies agreed to an all-stock merger on Sunday that, if allowed by antitrust enforcers, would leave the U.S. wireless market dominated by three national players, and comes after the telecommunication companies renewed M&A discussions earlier in April after thrice failing to complete a tie-up.
Speculation had previously mounted about a potential merger in September, months after Bloomberg originally reported “informal contact” between the two companies last May. But Japanese telecommunications firm SoftBank Group Corp., which owns more than 80% of Sprint’s shares, announced back in October that it would cease its efforts to merge the wireless carrier with T-Mobile. Before all that, discussions were on hold due to the government’s spectrum auction (where the government sells the rights for companies to transmit signals over certain bands of the electromagnetic spectrum).
The combined company, if the proposed $26 billion dollar deal is consummated, would have more than 127 million customers. Consequently, a combined T-Mobile-Sprint likely could usher in industrywide changes that would affect consumers of various carriers across the country, telecom analysts said. “It would be devastating for consumers in the long run,” said Chris Mills, news editor at BGR, a news website focused on mobile technology and consumer electronics. (Sprint and T-Mobile didn’t respond to request for comment.)
Here are some of the major ways that wireless customers could be hurt:
A merger could eliminate Sprint’s low-cost alternative
T-Mobile and Sprint were both in dire straits not too long ago, but have managed to make comebacks based on lower pricing and more attractive offers to potential customers, said Jeff Kagan, an industry analyst. In particular, Sprint has positioned itself as the lowest-cost carrier among the top 4 carriers (which also include Verizon VZ, +3.64% and AT&T T, -0.18% )
At Sprint, an unlimited plan for data, talk and text for four lines starts at $50 a month not including devices, according to wireless comparison site WhistleOut. Similar plans start at $60 a month from AT&T and $75 a month from T-Mobile and Verizon, not including upfront fees.
Had the number of major carriers shrunk from four to three, a low-cost option is unlikely to remain, Mills said, pointing to Canada as an example. “You’ll end up with three great carriers with expensive data plans,” he said.
In Canada, there are only three major wireless carriers—Bell, Rogers and Telus—and their plans are priced basically the same due to the reduced level of competition, according to mobile news website iMore.
And it was also improbable that a regional wireless carrier would be able to rise up and fill the hole left by Sprint. “If Sprint goes away, you’re starting from scratch trying to build out a network,” Mills said. “That’s really difficult because of spectrum licensing and the cost of building a network.”
Unlimited plans could be on the chopping block
Additionally, the future of unlimited plans won’t be guaranteed. Unlimited plans first came on the scene with the introduction of the smartphone, but eventually fell out of favor because network speeds were being slowed down. Recently though, these offerings re-emerged as a way to attract more new customers.
However, if competition is reduced as a result of a merger, customer acquisition would cease to be a priority for wireless carriers. Canada, again as an example, doesn’t have unlimited plans. And if just one of the three remaining major carriers were to eliminate their unlimited option it could cause a domino effect, Kagan said. “If other carriers pulled out, Verizon would definitely pull out,” he said.
Service could still improve for some consumers
Theoretically, Sprint customers would see a boost in network coverage as a result of the merger—as evidenced by the coverage maps put together by analytics firm RootMetrics. While the companies have a high degree of overlap in the areas they serve, the map would expand.
But expanding a wireless network isn’t merely a simple flip of the switch. Sprint and T-Mobile use different technology to power their 2G networks—Sprint uses CDMA technology (like Verizon) and T-Mobile uses GSM (like AT&T). The big difference between CDMA and GSM is that CDMA phones don’t have SIM cards—with the exception of newer LTE-enabled devices that need a SIM card. Nevertheless, the merged company would need to transition to one form of technology—GSM being most likely, experts said—so the change would take some time.
Besides slowing down the expansion of coverage, the switch to GSM technology would also mean that some Sprint customers would eventually find themselves without a compatible phone. “Sprint customers would be pushed to upgrade to something new just to stay on the network,” Mill said.
And even once the companies were combined, the merged entity would still pale in comparison to AT&T and Verizon. The latter companies continue to receive higher scores from RootMetric on reliability, speed, data and reception.
er carriers could feel the effects
If the merger goes through, Sprint customers who can no longer afford the higher cost of a plan from the merged company might turn to er carriers that offer prepaid plans for their wireless needs. But even these providers could be affected by a T-Mobile-Sprint deal.
Many of these carriers, such as MetroPCS, Boost Mobile and Cricket Wireless, are so-called mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). These wireless services providers essentially get access to the networks controlled by other companies—the big 4 wireless companies and regional company U.S. Cellular—at wholesale prices and then set their own retail rates for consumers.
Many MVNOs are also subsidiaries of the four major carriers, including T-Mobile and Sprint. Consequently, their customers could see coverage and data speeds improve as a result of the combined network postmerger. But they could also be exposed to some of the drawbacks of the merger, such as higher prices and the need to replace phones.
There’s a good chance the merger will fail
There’s a strong chance that regulators would have been wary of the merger, Kagan said. A similar deal between AT&T and T-Mobile fell through in 2011 after receiving pushback from the Obama administration due to antitrust concerns.
One big reason why regulators could block the deal is the role TV and internet services now play in the wireless market. As Kagan described, there’s a divide among the major carriers between those that offer bundled services including TV and internet (AT&T and Verizon) and those that don’t (Sprint and T-Mobile). Only having one company in the latter category could have caused prices to go up. “The regulators are going to look at what’s going to happen in the marketplace,” Kagan said. “If prices are going to go up, what’s the reason to approve?”
Plus, reports that the Justice Department is investigating AT&T and Verizon over collusion makes the deal’s likelihood somewhat lower, according to J.P. Morgan analyst Philip Cusick.
This story was updated on April 29, 2018.