Can the 'New' T-Mobile Make America's Networks Great Again?

Dan Jones
4/30/2018
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Whatever you want to say about Sunday's unveiling of the $26.5 billion T-Mobile and Sprint merger, executives on the call announcing the deal certainly spelled out a strategy directly aimed at appeasing the concerns of the Trump administration.

By my count, making America the world's 5G leader and creating thousands of US jobs was stressed multiple times. Delivering jobs and technology to rural areas was cited at least twice, while T-Mobile's John Legere credited the Trump tax cuts with helping to facilitate the merger a couple of times. The multiple executives on the call hit their talking points hard, and repeatedly. (See T-Mobile & Sprint: Marriage Made in Hell.) Will it help the merger deal shimmy through the regulatory process without the operators giving up any significant assets? I don't know! I would be suspect of almost anyone who said they did at this stage. Nonetheless, if you were crafting a strategy to flatter the current administration over a telecoms merger, well, this would be the way to do it. (See Trump on 5G: It's a 'Gamechanger'.)

The thousands of new jobs promised would largely be more network installers, network engineers, call center operators and new store positions. T-Mobile's strategy focuses heavily on using domestic call centers, and it has promised to add lots of new stores. (See T-Mobile to Buy Sprint for $26.5B to Create US 5G Powerhouse.)

The operators have also pledged to maintain low prices for consumers. Yet, since they have been the carriers putting pressure on the Big 2 to push prices lower, that seems like a promise that could fade over time


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The merger could have short-term benefits for network vendors, with a promised 5G push from the pair if the merger closes in the first half of 2019 as proposed. But dropping from four to three major carriers will likely cut returns over time. Sprint and T-Mobile have Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) and Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) in common as 5G suppliers right now. (See 5G in the USA: A Post-MWC Update.)

"The "New T-Mobile" expects to reap $6 billion in synergies three years after closing, with just 7% coming from capex synergies -- not drastic in our view," writes Jefferies & Co. Inc. analyst George Notter in a research note.

Sharp-eyed readers may have noted that T-Mobile’s estimates for the speeds of its 5G network has bumped up somewhat with the addition of Sprint's 2.5GHz spectrum to its low- and mid-band mix. CTO Neville Ray suggested to me back in February that he "would love to see" a tripling of average 4G LTE speeds with the initial 600MHz 5G service. T-Mobile is pushing average 4G speeds of 30 Mbit/s now. The pre-Sprint T-Mobile 5G plan had been to deliver a nationwide 5G service as soon as possible with 600MHz and seed the market with 5G NR-compatible handsets. (See T-Mobile to Roll Out 5G in 30 US Cities in 2018.)

Now, CEO John Legere has suggested that the "new" T-Mobile will deliver 450-Mbit/s speeds on average over the network. The timing on this will be important. Given the coverage potential of the spectrum, I suspect 600MHz will be deployed first. If the merger gets approved as the parties hope, then adding 2.5GHz across current T-Mobile sites could start sometime in 2019. What this means is that the 450-Mbit/s figure is unlikely to be achieved on many sites until at least 2020, if not later.

Of course, one synergy (hate that term!) I haven't seen referenced yet is how T-Mobile and Sprint are likely to be able to cut rent on tower sites as they deploy the network. Both Sprint and T-Mobile rent towers from Crown Castle International Corp. (NYSE: CCI), as well as others.

I've been told that tower rents are genetally rising in cost, as service providers mount more antennas on the towers to support 4G and 5G services. But the "new" T-Mobile plans to slim down to 85,000 towers from the combined footprint of 110,000 now. Combining radio assets on the towers could further cut opex costs for the proposed carrier.

— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading

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