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There's not much at stake in the Dish vs. T-Mobile fight – analysts

The fight between Dish Network and T-Mobile is "much ado about nothing," according to the financial analysts at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

Specifically, the firm estimated that T-Mobile's plan to shutter its CDMA network at the beginning of next year will only affect around 400,000 of the roughly 9 million Boost Mobile customers Dish purchased last year.

"These subs likely do not spend much on their phones and thus while the device subsidy offered by Dish will be high as a percentage of the phone's value, the actual dollars of subsidy are small," the analysts wrote in a note to inventors. "In our base case, the incremental cost to Dish is circa $30 million, and in the worst case $200 million."

Not so, argues Dish.

"The facts are that millions of Boost customers, the majority of whom are underserved and face income challenges, are at risk of being impacted by T-Mobile's heartless decision," wrote Stephen Stokols, EVP of Dish's Boost Mobile business, in response to questions from Light Reading.

"This issue is not just about devices, which are in limited supply due to global chip shortages and LG's exit from the market, or cost," Stokols continued. "As T-Mobile well knows, technology migrations take time to plan, implement and execute. Migrating prepaid customers is especially complex, as they are often the hardest consumers to reach. Verizon understands the amount of time necessary to ensure its CDMA customers (which now number less than 1%) are not harmed. The company has extended the shutdown of its CDMA network three times, now giving customers until the end of 2022. By contrast, T-Mobile is only giving Boost customers 256 days."

Verizon has delayed its CDMA network shutdown several times.

But the analysts at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. aren't buying it. They wrote that they believe Dish's argument is "an attempt to reduce Dish's burden to provide GSM-compatible devices."

In fact, the analysts argue that the cost of migrating Dish's Boost customers was already built into the $1.4 billion that Dish paid T-Mobile to purchase the Boost. The figure is far less than the $7 billion Verizon is putting up for TracFone's 21 million customers.

"Boost was purchased for $1.4 billion, 3.5x EBITDA [earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization] and $155 per subscriber," they wrote. "Conversely, Verizon's bid for Tracfone implies an 8.1x EBITDA multiple and $300 per subscriber. The CDMA network shutdown was not unexpected and so any additional cost should (and we think would) be reflected in the deal price."

Nonetheless, Dish is sticking by its argument. "T-Mobile should not turn its back on millions of customers simply to exercise its newly-obtained market power by shutting off service two years earlier than it promised to regulators under oath," Stokols wrote.

At issue is T-Mobile's decision to shut down Sprint's CDMA network by January 1, 2022. That decision is critical to Dish because its Boost customers are to remain on T-Mobile's network while Dish builds its own 5G network. Thus, Boost customers with a CDMA phone will need to get a new phone after January to remain connected.

Overall, the financial analysts at New Street Research argued that regulators might be somewhat sympathetic to Dish's argument. And that the issue will likely pick up steam.

"We think the current leadership at the Department of Justice and the FCC are going to be loath to enable a situation in which low-income consumers risk losing network access and that will likely affect their interpretation of any ambiguity in the precise terms of the merger agreement," they wrote in a note to investors. "We expect the fireworks between the two companies, long-time rivals who struck a temporary truce and who are now back to their traditional battles, are far from over."

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

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