The announced merger of T-Mobile and Sprint, the third- and fourth-largest wireless carriers in the nation, answers many of the scale questions that have dogged the two companies over the past several years. But in creating a carrier with about 100 million customers and valued at a combined $146 billion, the deal bypasses what many had considered to be T-Mobile’s more perfect match: Dish Network.
With a large swath of wireless spectrum, 11 million satellite TV subscribers and 2.2 million customers for its over-the-top video service Sling TV, Dish was seen by many to be a logical target for T-Mobile. Combining the No. 3 wireless carrier, which has obvious video aspirations through its January purchase of Layer3 TV, with Dish would in many minds have created a strong competitor in the ongoing wireless-OTT-traditional video wars.
Investors apparently believed so too. Shares in Dish fell 3% ($1.19 each) to $33.55 per share on April 30, the first trading day after T-Mobile and Sprint announced their deal. The stock has continued to slip in subsequent trading, closing at $33.09 on May 3.
Video Plans ‘Ratchet Up’
On a conference call to discuss first-quarter results shortly after the Sprint deal was announced, T-Mobile chief financial officer Braxton Carter said the transaction “ratchets up” the wireless provider’s video plans by allowing the combined company to provide customers with an IPTV service via wireline and wireless broadband.
The combined company will be controlled by T-Mobile management: CEO John Legere will continue that role in the new entity, as will T-Mobile chief operating officer Mike Sievert. T-Mobile parent Deutsche Telekom will own 42% of the combined company, with Sprint parent Softbank owning 27% and the remaining 31% held by the public. The deal is expected to close in the first half of next year.
This is the two companies’ third time on the merger dance floor together. They scrapped talks in 2014 over regulatory concerns and in 2017 over control issues. While the two have managed to work out their control issues, some analysts are skeptical that the current deal will sail easily through the regulatory process.
BTIG telecom analyst Walt Piecyk gave the merger a less than 40% chance of passing regulatory muster, primarily because he didn’t believe the deal, which will reduce the number of wireless competitors to three from four, will pass the antitrust smell test.
“It doesn’t look like a competitive market right now, and that’s what the regulator may focus on,” Piecyk told CNBC.
Columbia Law professor Tim Wu wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times urging regulators to block the deal, adding that having four separate competitors has been most beneficial to wireless customers, leading to free unlimited data plans and lower prices. Transforming the wireless business into a “triopoly” like the airline business will only serve to raise prices and lower service.
“Competition has actually worked the way economists say it is supposed to, forcing firms to improve quality or face elimination,” Wu wrote in the Times. “But it takes competitors to compete, which is where blocking mergers comes in.”
Pivotal Research Group CEO and senior media & communications analyst Jeff Wlodarczak has said in research notes over the past year that pairing Dish and T-Mobile would “immediately vault the most disruptive U.S. wireless player into the leading U.S. spectrum position,” and at worst would force rival wireless company Verizon Communications to pay more for the satellite asset. For now, though, it looks like Dish will remain on its own. Other scenarios see the satellite company being acquired either by another wireless service provider, like Verizon, or even by the new T-Mobile. The latter scenario wouldn’t take place for at least another year. Dish has struggled over the past several quarters as the satellite business has dwindled. In the fourth quarter the company lost more than 100,000 satellite-TV subscribers and added 160,000 Sling TV customers.
Dish Misses Out on Buildout Relief
For Dish, a purchase by a wireless carrier would mean relief from its obligation to build its own wireless network. As a result of its success in bidding on spectrum in several of the government’s wireless auctions, Dish faces a March 2020 deadline to build out wireless service in 70% of the market territories it won.
Dish chair Charlie Ergen has said the company will spend about $1 billion on that initial phase, which will be more geared toward IoT services.
For T-Mobile, a Dish purchase would give it an instant video base through the satellite-TV offering, programming contracts with cable networks and the largest OTT service in the country, Sling TV.
But not all analysts believe that a T-Mobile-Dish deal is more palpable. In a research note in November, after T-Mobile and Sprint ended merger talks, MoffettNathanson principal and senior analyst Craig Moffett wrote that he never saw any synergies in combining those companies, other than as a source of additional spectrum.
The argument that the dissolution of the merger was bad news for Dish is equally compelling in that, if Dish does build its wireless network, it would become the fifth player in an already-crowded market, he added.
“However bad one might have imagined the ROI (Return on Investment) for network building, it has to be worse if the industry is more fragmented than expected,” Moffett wrote in November.
Dish’s Spectrum Yet to be Deployed:
Dish has quietly worked to cobble together a significant amount of spectrum via spectrum auctions and secondary-market transactions. The company’s first spectrum purchase was made through EchoStar’s relatively minor purchase of E Block licenses for $700 million in the FCC’s 700 MHz spectrum auction in 2008. But Dish in 2011 spent $2.77 billion to acquire 40 MHz of S-band satellite spectrum from bankrupt TerreStar and DBSD North America. Then, in 2014, Dish was the only bidder in the FCC’s H Block spectrum auction, essentially walking away uncontested with 10 MHz for around $1.6 billion. In 2015, Dish spent roughly $8 billion on AWS-3 spectrum licenses, and then just two years later it committed a whopping $6.2 billion to buy 486 licenses in the FCC’s 600 MHz incentive auction.
Dish recently outlined plans to build a NB-IoT network using its spectrum to provide connectivity to a wide range of devices other than traditional tablets and smartphones. Some analysts remain skeptical, though, believing that Dish plans to either sell or lease its spectrum, or partner with an existing service provider to join the wireless market.
Dish has to comply with Federal Communications Commission requirements that a network using the spectrum it owns be deployed by 2020, Josh Yatskowitz, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, said last November.
Sprint will increase its network capital expenditure by at least $1 billion for the coming year as promised on Friday morning’s earnings call. The #4 U.S. wireless carrier plans to deliver mobile 5G in the first half of 2019.
–>That’s 1 year before the IMT 2020 standards will be completed!
Sprint Corp talked about its mobile 5G plans: “We’re working with Qualcomm [and others] in order to deliver the first truly mobile 5G network in the US in the first half of 2019,” CEO Marcello Claure said on the call.
Mr Claure said that Sprint will be able to deploy mobile 5G nationwide on 2.5GHz band in 100MHz channels. “We have the spectrum to lead on 5G, and basically lead in a different way,” he noted. Claure said later in the question and answer session that Sprint had a commitment from a “leading Korean” device vendor that it will have a 5G device ready within its 2019 timeframe.
This implies an increase in capital expenditure spending for Sprint’s network for fiscal 2018, new CFO Michel Combes said. Sprint’s total capex spending for fiscal 2017 will be in the $3.5-$4 range. Capex will hit $5-$6 billion in fiscal 2018, which starts in April 2018.
Sprint will spend to increase the number macro cell sites by 20%, and support its 2.5GHz, 1900MHz, and 850MHz bands on nearly all of its existing macro sites. Currently, around half of its macro sites have tri-band support.
The CEO added that Sprint plans to deploy more than 40,000 outdoor small cells, and “more than 1 million Magic Boxes,” the wireless small cells that it uses to improve in-home coverage.
In the field, Sprint expects to update sites with multiple-antenna array hardware, or “Massive MIMO” in 2018. “Massive MIMO will serve as Sprint’s bridge to 5G,” Claure said. (See Sprint Says No to mmWave, Yes to Mobile 5G.)
This is because the MIMO hardware can be updated to 5G NR standard over-the-air, the CEO said.
Our strategy is predicated on creating on amazing customer-experience, offering customers the best products and services, while delivering superior financial results. First, we recognize that to be a truly great company we have to have a great product, which for us is our network. While our network is much improved, we believe our next-gen network will truly differentiate Sprint over the next couple of years, due to our strong spectrum assets that enables Sprint to be the leader in the true mobile 5G.
This is the biggest network capital program in many years. And I will share more details of our network strategy in a few moments. I cannot wait to, once and for all, be able to sell the product that is best in the industry with competitive coverage, the fastest speed and the highest capacity.
Second, we will continue to deliver the most compelling value proposition to our customers across all of our segments. We will continue to play from a position of strength by leveraging our spectrum holdings and continue to lead with the best-only net offering in the market. Data usage strength are projected to grow exponentially, especially with 5G.
By having the most spectrum, combined with new technology that massively increases our capacity, we’re certain that we’ll be best position for to support unlimited data in the future.
Third, we will continue to drive a smart distribution strategy, with over 1,000 new stores open year-to-date across our Sprint and Boost brand, and several hundred several hundred throughout next year. We have designed a dynamic distribution model that allows to continuously optimize the right balance of physical and distribution – and digital distribution.
Sprint will also leverage its partnerships with Altice and Cox Communications Inc. to expand its backhaul capabilities for LTE-Advanced and 5G. Sprint CTO John Saw chimed in briefly on the call to say that some of the capex spend could be on “dark fiber” for backhaul needs.
Against this backdrop, Claure said there would be continuing job cuts at Sprint, including at the executive level, aiming for “a leaner and more agile company across our non-customer-facing workforce.” Sprint has cut thousands of jobs during the past couple of years.
True to his reputation as a “turnaround specialist,” new CFO Michel Combes said he is looking at more ways to “decrease cost structures” at Sprint. He promised to reveal more details in the March quarter. (See Sprint Appoints Ex-AlcaLu Boss Combes as CFO.)
For the quarter, Sprint reported revenue of $8.24 billion, down from $8.55 billion a year ago. Net income for the quarter was $7.16 billion (or $1.76 per share) thanks almost entirely to tax reform gains of about $7.1 billion, compared with a net loss of $479 million a year ago.