News just hit the wires that AT-T, the once largest, sometimes and recently second largest telecommunications carrier in the US agreed to acquire T-Mobile, the 4th largest carrier with 33 million subscribers in a $39 billion dollar deal. This makes AT-T the definitive largest carrier by a big margin. It is early hours to speculate and confirm if the deal will pass the scrutiny of the antitrust folks but chances are the big telecom lobby will make sure it does. And when it does happen, it will mean 3 major carriers left standing (and one of them wobbly at that) and a bunch of fringe players whose valuation just jumped up at the prospect of Verizon scooping them. Metro PCS at less than $6 billion now seems a juicy target for Verizon. While the 8 million subscribers that Metro PCS offers is much less than the 33 million from T-Mobile that AT-T just picked up, it is still a first step for Verizon. The added bonus of having a LTE network rollout in progress will help the Metro PCS-Verizon Wireless marriage, if it were to happen. The speculation will start tomorrow and Metro PCS shareholders will definitely see the stock go up.
The implication of this event is significant. As recently as last week, rumors suggested that Sprint-Nextel, the third largest carrier with about 50 million subscribers was looking to merge or get acquired by T-Mobile to give the third and fourth place carriers some heft against AT-T and Verizon. This is particularly important in the era of exclusive handset agreements that can make or break multiple quarters for a carrier. The iPhone exclusivity is a case to point that effectively killed a lot of business for Sprint-Nextel and T-Mobile. The Verizon-Google-Motorola relationship was another. It made sense from a business standpoint for T-Mobile and Sprint-Nextel to merge although there were significant technological hurdles stemming from the completely different radio technologies used by the two (CDMA by Sprint and GSM by T-Mobile).
The synergies for AT-T and T-Mobile are much more than T-Mobile and Sprint-Nextel. Given that they have significant field test and operation presence out of Seattle and that they utilize similar wireless radio technologies, it makes for a relatively smoother transition. It also gives AT-T, extra spectrum for its LTE roll-out in the future. But where does that leave the consumer?. T-Mobile has been consistently rated as the best in customer service while AT-T often finds itself at the bottom of the pile. T-Mobile has a loyal set of customers who have benefited by excellent data and messaging plans often times cheaper than AT-T and Verizon. What T-Mobile has lacked is the killer smartphones that have fueled the rise of AT-T in recent years and also a larger coverage map thanks to AT-T’s legacy. This will change now with AT-T and Verizon primarily duking it out for the best smartphones while Sprint-Nextel watches from the sidelines with the occasional exclusive HTC phone. But consumers also have only one national GSM operator to pick making AT-T a bigger behemoth than what it was with a lot more muscle. This will affect the all critical data plans moving forward. On the bright side, with the expanded network, voice calls on AT-T will be better.
Day After Update:
Metro PCS stock is up 5% (PCS). Leap Wireless, a similar CDMA operator is up 12% (LEAP). As expected, this hurts Sprint the most, not just the stock price which is down 15% (S) but also their future prospects (here).
And yes, its all about LTE spectrum.