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The Department of Justice announced it has approved the $26 billion T-Mobile/Sprint merger. Once completed, the deal will create a mobile carrier with around 136 million customers in the U.S., putting it just behind Verizon (158 million) and AT&T (156 million).

While all the relevant federal government agencies have now approved the merger, it still faces a legal challenge from state attorneys general. At the very least, this challenge is likely to delay the merger; if successful, it could scupper it. In this blog post, we evaluate the state AG’s claims (and find them wanting).

Four firms good, three firms bad?

The state AG’s opposition to the T-Mobile/Sprint merger is based on a claim that a competitive mobile market requires four national providers, as articulated in their redacted complaint:

The Big Four MNOs [mobile network operators] compete on many dimensions, including price, network quality, network coverage, and features. The aggressive competition between them has resulted in falling prices and improved quality. The competition that currently takes place across those dimensions, and others, among the Big Four MNOs would be negatively impacted if the Merger were consummated. The effects of the harm to competition on consumers will be significant because the Big Four MNOs have wireless service revenues of more than $160 billion.

. . . 

Market consolidation from four to three MNOs would also serve to increase the possibility of tacit collusion in the markets for retail mobile wireless telecommunications services.

But there are no economic grounds for the assertion that a four firm industry is on a competitive tipping point. Four is an arbitrary number, offered up in order to squelch any further concentration in the industry.

A proper assessment of this transaction—as well as any other telecom merger—requires accounting for the specific characteristics of the markets affected by the merger. The accounting would include, most importantly, the dynamic, fast-moving nature of competition and the key role played by high fixed costs of production and economies of scale. This is especially important given the expectation that the merger will facilitate the launch of a competitive, national 5G network.

Opponents claim this merger takes us from four to three national carriers. But Sprint was never a serious participant in the launch of 5G. Thus, in terms of future investment in general, and the roll-out of 5G in particular, a better characterization is that it this deal takes the U.S. from two to three national carriers investing to build out next-generation networks.

In the past, the capital expenditures made by AT&T and Verizon have dwarfed those of T-Mobile and Sprint. But a combined T-Mobile/Sprint would be in a far better position to make the kinds of large-scale investments necessary to develop a nationwide 5G network. As a result, it is likely that both the urban-rural digital divide and the rich-poor digital divide will decline following the merger. And this investment will drive competition with AT&T and Verizon, leading to innovation, improving service and–over time–lowering the cost of access.

Is prepaid a separate market?

The state AGs complain that the merger would disproportionately affect consumers of prepaid plans, which they claim constitutes a separate product market:

There are differences between prepaid and postpaid service, the most notable being that individuals who cannot pass a credit check and/or who do not have a history of bill payment with a MNO may not be eligible for postpaid service. Accordingly, it is informative to look at prepaid mobile wireless telecommunications services as a separate segment of the market for mobile wireless telecommunications services.

Claims that prepaid services constitute a separate market are questionable, at best. While at one time there might have been a fairly distinct divide between pre and postpaid markets, today the line between them is at least blurry, and may not even be a meaningful divide at all.

To begin with, the arguments regarding any expected monopolization in the prepaid market appear to assume that the postpaid market imposes no competitive constraint on the prepaid market. 

But that can’t literally be true. At the very least, postpaid plans put a ceiling on prepaid prices for many prepaid users. To be sure, there are some prepaid consumers who don’t have the credit history required to participate in the postpaid market at all. But these are inframarginal consumers, and they will benefit from the extent of competition at the margins unless operators can effectively price discriminate in ways they have not in the past, and which has not been demonstrated is possible or likely.

One source of this competition will come from Dish, which has been a vocal critic of the T-Mobile/Sprint merger. Under the deal with DOJ, T-Mobile and Sprint must spin-off Sprint’s prepaid businesses to Dish. The divested products include Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, and Sprint prepaid. Moreover the deal requires Dish be allowed to use T-Mobile’s network during a seven-year transition period. 

Will the merger harm low-income consumers?

While the states’ complaint alleges that low-income consumers will suffer, it pays little attention to the so-called “digital divide” separating urban and rural consumers. This seems curious given the attention it was given in submissions to the federal agencies. For example, the Communication Workers of America opined:

the data in the Applicants’ Public Interest Statement demonstrates that even six years after a T-Mobile/Sprint merger, “most of New T-Mobile’s rural customers would be forced to settle for a service that has significantly lower performance than the urban and suburban parts of the network.” The “digital divide” is likely to worsen, not improve, post-merger.

This is merely an assertion, and a misleading assertion. To the extent the “digital divide” would grow following the merger, it would be because urban access will improve more rapidly than rural access would improve. 

Indeed, there is no real suggestion that the merger will impede rural access relative to a world in which T-Mobile and Sprint do not merge. 

And yet, in the absence of a merger, Sprint would be less able to utilize its own spectrum in rural areas than would the merged T-Mobile/Sprint, because utilization of that spectrum would require substantial investment in new infrastructure and additional, different spectrum. And much of that infrastructure and spectrum is already owned by T-Mobile. 

It likely that the combined T-Mobile/Sprint will make that investment, given the cost savings that are expected to be realized through the merger. So, while it might be true that urban customers will benefit more from the merger, rural customers will also benefit. It is impossible to know, of course, by exactly how much each group will benefit. But, prima facie, the prospect of improvement in rural access seems a strong argument in favor of the merger from a public interest standpoint.

The merger is also likely to reduce another digital divide: that between wealthier and poorer consumers in more urban areas. The proportion of U.S. households with access to the Internet has for several years been rising faster among those with lower incomes than those with higher incomes, thereby narrowing this divide. Since 2011, access by households earning $25,000 or less has risen from 52% to 62%, while access among the U.S. population as a whole has risen only from 72% to 78%. In part, this has likely resulted from increased mobile access (a greater proportion of Americans now access the Internet from mobile devices than from laptops), which in turn is the result of widely available, low-cost smartphones and the declining cost of mobile data.

Concluding remarks

By enabling the creation of a true, third national mobile (phone and data) network, the merger will almost certainly drive competition and innovation that will lead to better services at lower prices, thereby expanding access for all and, if current trends hold, especially those on lower incomes. Beyond its effect on the “digital divide” per se, the merger is likely to have broadly positive effects on access more generally.

The debates over mobile spectrum aggregation and the auction rules for the FCC’s upcoming incentive auction — like all regulatory rent-seeking — can be farcical. One aspect of the debate in particular is worth highlighting, as it puts into stark relief the tendentiousness of self-interested companies making claims about the public interestedness of their preferred policies: The debate over how and whether to limit the buying and aggregating of lower frequency (in this case 600 MHz) spectrum.

A little technical background is in order. At its most basic, a signal carried in higher frequency spectrum doesn’t travel as well as a signal carried in lower frequency spectrum. The higher the frequency, the closer together cell towers need to be to maintain a good signal.

600MHz is relatively low frequency for wireless communications. In rural areas it is helpful in reducing infrastructure costs for wide area coverage because cell towers can be placed further apart and thus fewer towers must be built. But in cities, population density trumps frequency, and propagation range is essentially irrelevant for infrastructure costs. In other words, it doesn’t matter how far your signal will travel if congestion alleviation demands you build cell towers closer together than even the highest frequency spectrum requires anyway. The optimal — nay, the largest usable — cell radius in urban and suburban areas is considerably smaller than the sort of cell radius that low frequency spectrum allows for.

It is important to note, of course, that signal distance isn’t the only propagation characteristic imparting value to lower frequency spectrum; in particular, it is also valuable even in densely populated settings for its ability to travel through building walls. That said, however, the primary arguments made in favor of spreading the 600 MHz wealth — of effectively subsidizing its purchase by smaller carriers — are rooted in its value in offering more efficient coverage in less-populated areas. Thus the FCC has noted that while there may be significant infrastructure cost savings associated with deploying lower frequency networks in rural areas, this lower frequency spectrum provides little cost advantage in urban or suburban areas (even though, as noted, it has building-penetrating value there).

It is primarily because of these possible rural network cost advantages that certain entities (the Department of Justice, Free Press, the Competitive Carriers Association, e.g.) have proposed that AT&T and Verizon (both of whom have significant lower frequency spectrum holdings) should be restricted from winning “too much” spectrum in the FCC’s upcoming 600 MHz incentive auctions. The argument goes that, in order to ensure national competition — that is, to give other companies financial incentive to build out their networks into rural areas — the auction should be structured to favor Sprint and T-Mobile (both of whose spectrum holdings are mostly in the upper frequency bands) as awardees of this low-frequency spectrum, at commensurately lower cost.

Shockingly, T-Mobile and Sprint are on board with this plan.

So, to recap: 600MHz spectrum confers cost savings when used in rural areas. It has much less effect on infrastructure costs in urban and suburban areas. T-Mobile and Sprint don’t have much of it; AT&T and Verizon have lots. If we want T-Mobile and Sprint to create the competing national networks that the government seems dead set on engineering, we need to put a thumb on the scale in the 600MHz auctions. So they can compete in rural areas. Because that’s where 600MHz spectrum offers cost advantages. In rural areas.

So what does T-Mobile plan to do if it wins the spectrum lottery? Certainly not build in rural areas. As Craig Moffett notes, currently “T-Mobile’s U.S. network is fast…but coverage is not its strong suit, particularly outside of metro areas.” And for the future? T-mobile’s breakneck LTE coverage ramp up since the failed merger with AT&T is expected to top out at 225 million people, or the 71% of consumers living in the most-populated areas (it’s currently somewhere over 200 million). “Although sticking to a smaller network, T-Mobile plans to keep increasing the depth of its LTE coverage” (emphasis added). Depth. That means more bandwidth in high-density areas. It does not mean broader coverage. Obviously.

Sprint, meanwhile, is devoting all of its resources to playing LTE catch-up in the most-populated areas; it isn’t going to waste valuable spectrum resources on expanded rural build out anytime soon.

The kicker is that T-Mobile relies on AT&T’s network to provide its urban and suburban customers with coverage (3G) when they do roam into rural areas, taking advantage of a merger break-up provision that gives it roaming access to AT&T’s 3G network. In other words, T-Mobile’s national network is truly “national” only insofar as it piggybacks on AT&T’s broader coverage. And because AT&T will get the blame for congestion when T-Mobile’s customers roam onto its network, the cost to T-Mobile of hamstringing AT&T’s network is low.

The upshot is that T-Mobile seems not to need, nor does it intend to deploy, lower frequency spectrum to build out its network in less-populated areas. Defenders say that rigging the auction rules to benefit T-Mobile and Sprint will allow them to build out in rural areas to compete with AT&T’s and Verizon’s broader networks. But this is a red herring. They may get the spectrum, but they won’t use it to extend their coverage in rural areas; they’ll use it to add “depth” to their overloaded urban and suburban networks.

But for AT&T the need for additional spectrum is made more acute by the roaming deal, which requires it to serve its own customers and those of T-Mobile.

This makes clear the reason underlying T‑Mobile’s advocacy for rigging the 600 MHz auction – it is simply so that T‑Mobile can acquire this spectrum on the cheap to use in urban and suburban areas, not so that it can deploy a wide rural network. And the beauty of it is that by hamstringing AT&T’s ability to acquire this spectrum, it becomes more expensive for AT&T to serve T‑Mobile’s own customers!

Two birds, one stone: lower your costs, raise your competitor’s costs.

The lesson is this: If we want 600 MHz spectrum to be used efficiently to provide rural LTE service, we should assume that the highest bidder will make the most valuable use of the spectrum. The experience of the relatively unrestricted 700 MHz auction in 2008 confirms this. The purchase of 700 MHz spectrum by AT&T and Verizon led to the US becoming the world leader in LTE. Why mess with success?

[Cross-posted at RedState]