On Tuesday afternoon, the Federal Communications Commission gave its official blessing to the proposed merger of the country’s No. 3 wireless carrier, T-Mobile, with the No. 4 carrier, Sprint. The agency says that it believes the merger would be “in the public good.” It may be, if certain things happen that the FCC has no control over.
The main requirement is that T-Mobile’s John Legere, who T-Mobile says will be CEO of the combined company, sticks around and runs it like he’s run T-Mobile. Legere must resist the temptation to shape the combined company in the mold of Verizon and AT&T, which together own the vast majority of wireless subscribers in the U.S.
The whole idea behind the T-Mo and Sprint merger is to combine the two smaller national carriers so that the resulting larger company might have the resources to exert pressure on AT&T and Verizon. That pressure could mean wireless plans that combine lower cost with coverage that rivals that of the two giants. It could also mean pressure against onerous industry practices, such as AT&T’s unfair throttling of the wireless speeds of subscribers with unlimited plans.
Legere has a history of applying pressure to AT&T and Verizon and appearing to enjoy every minute of it. He has billed T-Mobile as the “Un-carrier” and proved that to be more than a marketing ploy. T-Mobile was the first mover that forced the wireless industry to stop the corporate shell game of subsidized phone contracts, for example. He’s also proved himself to be an un-executive, eschewing ties for a T-Mo pink T-shirt and a leather jacket. He’s made a regular pastime of trolling AT&T and Verizon on Twitter and YouTube.
And that style has flowed from Legere down into the culture at T-Mobile.
One wireless engineer told me that Legere has a business mindset that owes far more to Silicon Valley than to the telecom industry. Where AT&T is known among engineers as being “book smart,” conservative, and risk-averse, T-Mobile under Legere uses the “move fast and break things” approach. “At AT&T the first answer is always ‘No,'” the engineer told me. “The answer at T-Mobile is ‘Yes, go out and do it, and we’ll fix the problems later.'” For that reason, T-Mobile has been successful at attracting engineers from Verizon and AT&T.
It’s about 5G
T-Mobile has aggressively expanded its coverage and speeds over the past decade, but its coverage is not as complete as that of AT&T or Verizon, especially in suburbs and rural areas. But that dynamic could all change with the 5G race beginning. Sprint holds massive amounts of valuable wireless spectrum that can be used for 5G coverage.
T-Mobile and Sprint promised the FCC that they would deploy 5G service to cover 97% of the American people within three years, and within six years to reach 99% of all Americans. They pledged that 90% of Americans would have access to 100 Mbps mobile download speeds within six years of the merger, and that 99% of the population would get at least 50 Mbps.
A T-Mobile/Sprint merger could also encourage the whole industry to roll out new 5G wireless service faster, and to more areas and more people.
With a greatly enlarged subscriber base, the combined T-Mobile/Sprint might gain more bargaining power with handset makers and infrastructure gear suppliers. Together, T-Mo and Sprint could arrive as a very capable competitor to Verizon and AT&T just as 5G starts to become relevant.
The big question is whether Legere continues to act like Legere after the merger is done. Some fear that once he finds himself at the head of a top-tier U.S. carrier he might decide to dispense with his renegade image. He might decide that his company is now part of the Big Boys Club and start running things in accord. It’s also possible that T-Mobile’s parent, Deutsche Telekom, or Sprint’s parent, SoftBank, might pressure the leadership of the new entity to become more profit-driven and conservative about introducing new services, devices, or deals. If that happens, it could be bad news for the prices consumers pay.
As it stands now, both the Department of Justice and the FCC have given the merger a green light. The final roadblock is a group of state attorneys general who have pending legal actions to block the merger.
Legere has been a force for good in a bloated industry. He’s certainly a breath of fresh air compared to staid executives like AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. But for all of Legere’s antics, his insurgent instincts, and good intentions, he’s never really marshaled the resources to challenge the market supremacy of AT&T and Verizon. This merger will be his chance.