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The tide is turning against T-Mobile's 3G shutdown plans

Dish Network for months has been engaging in a very public campaign against T-Mobile's plan to shut down its 3G CDMA network at the beginning of next year.

Charlie Ergen, Dish's chairman, went so far as to call T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert the "Magenta Grinch." (Sievert recently responded by arguing that Ergen is just being cheap.)

But, according to some analysts, Dish's public relations campaign may be working. "Dish will benefit from some delay in T-Mobile's current plans," wrote the financial analysts at New Street Research in a note to investors over the weekend.

The tide started to turn against T-Mobile in July, when the acting assistant attorney general for the US Department of Justice (DoJ), Richard Powers, wrote that the agency's antitrust division is "left with grave concerns about the potential for a nationwide CDMA shutdown to leave a substantial proportion of Boost's customers without service."

However, the agency did not move against either Dish or T-Mobile on the issue, and instead urged both companies to work together on it.

At the heart of the issue is T-Mobile's plans to shutter the 3G CDMA network it acquired from Sprint, a move that Dish argues would affect an unspecified but "material" number of its Boost Mobile MVNO customers. T-Mobile has claimed the shutdown will allow it to improve its 5G network with spectrum currently used for 3G, and that Dish is simply dragging its feet in order to save money.

CPUC claims false statements, misleading assurances

While the DoJ took a mostly equanimous tone on the topic, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) did not. "The commission relied on the specific false statements, omissions, and/or misleading assurances T-Mobile gave regarding its use of the PCS spectrum [used for 3G CDMA] and its repeated references to a three-year customer migration period without a degraded experience," the CPUC wrote in a ruling Friday. "Further, it appears that these false statements, omissions and/or misleading assurances and the related time references were intended to induce the commission to approve the [Sprint/T-Mobile] merger."

The CPUC argued that T-Mobile did not previously indicate it would quickly re-farm its 3G PCS spectrum for 5G, and that it said it would operate its 3G CDMA network for three years after the close of its Sprint deal, which occurred in 2020. As a result, the agency ordered T-Mobile to explain itself during a hearing to be held next month.

The New Street analysts believe the CPUC's ruling could spell trouble for T-Mobile. The agency "brought a hammer to the issue and clearly indicated how it intended to use it," the analysts noted.

However, they declined to speculate on an outcome, noting only that "we have to await T-Mobile's response to California."

"We absolutely disagree with the ALJ action, which we believe is meritless and without basis in fact. We look forward to presenting evidence and setting the record straight through the upcoming process," T-Mobile said in a statement in response to the CPUC ruling. "For months, T-Mobile has been working aggressively to ensure no customer is left behind as we transition to technology that will better serve them into the future. We remain committed to that goal."

The issue is noteworthy considering Dish recently inked a new MVNO agreement with AT&T specifically to give the company an alternative to T-Mobile's network.

T-Mobile isn't the only company facing heat over plans to shutter 3G. For example, the Alarm Industry Communications Committee recently argued that there are fully 6 million alarms installed in homes and businesses around the US that rely in part on the 3G networks operated by AT&T and Verizon. The group recently told the FCC that the carriers' 3G shutdown plans will be "harmful, even deadly."

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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