One Holiday Gift We Can’t Return

Regulators say they gave consumers a holiday gift by putting a stop to the planned $39 billion merger of AT&T and T-Mobile. I wish they had included a return receipt.

After nine months, AT&T’s plan to acquire Deutsche Telekom-owned competitor T-Mobile came to an end last week, when AT&T (T) decided the costs of fighting regulators for approval of the deal were simply too high. Obstacles included the Justice Department suing to block the transaction and the Federal Communication Commission waging a separate war of attrition.

According to regulators, the deal had to be blocked to preserve competition in the wireless market. With T-Mobile out of the picture, only three major players would have been left on the field: a strengthened AT&T; its arch-nemesis Verizon Wireless; and the underdog Sprint. Those who have a positive outlook on the deal breakup argue that T-Mobile’s lower prices and continued independence will keep prices in check for all four carriers’ customers. T-Mobile’s monthly wireless plans are $15 to $50 cheaper than comparable AT&T plans, Bloomberg reported based on analysis by Consumer Reports.

But what opponents of the erstwhile deal failed to notice was that, even with the lowest prices around, T-Mobile has been failing to attract the most valuable customers. While it has managed to keep adding at least a small number of patrons, bringing in a net gain of 126,000 new subscribers in the third quarter of 2011, the bulk of T-Mobile’s new business is from prepaid subscribers. Meanwhile, the company has been losing the contract or postpaid customers who generate 80 percent of its revenue.

With its bargain basement prices, T-Mobile simply cannot afford to offer the cutting-edge services that better-paying customers demand. It is the only one of the top four providers that does not offer the iPhone, and it lacks the capital to roll out a national long term evolution (LTE) network, which is the forthcoming standard for high-end data service. As an individual consumer and a business owner, I choose to do my business with AT&T, not because I am unaware of T-Mobile’s lower prices or because I simply prefer to pay more, but because I think T-Mobile does not offer as good an overall value.

Even for consumers who are interested in what T-Mobile has to offer, the breakup of the deal is unlikely to do much good. Deutsche Telekom has made no secret of the fact that it is tired of dumping money into a North American enterprise that is quickly proving itself obsolete. To remain competitive in Europe, T-Mobile’s German parent needs to focus its energy and its resources on expanding its infrastructure there.

Now that it has lost the opportunity to sell T-Mobile to AT&T, Deutsche Telekom may resume the preliminary talks it started with Sprint. A merger between T-Mobile and Sprint is not likely to actually materialize, however, because of differences in the core technologies used by the two carriers. While AT&T and T-Mobile use Global System for Mobile (GSM) technology, Sprint, like Verizon, uses Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA). It wouldn’t be impossible to overcome this obstacle – there are already some dual-mode phones available – but it wouldn’t be easy, either. As an alternative, Deutsche Telekom might cut T-Mobile loose to sink or swim on its own. Sinking is the likelier conclusion. Regardless of what happens, it is clear that regulators will not achieve their goal of preserving four competitive national carriers.

While regulators’ interference did little to help current or potential T-Mobile customers, it did plenty to hurt AT&T’s 100 million subscribers, myself included. We customers will bear the cost of the $3 billion breakup fee AT&T now owes to Deutsche Telekom for calling off the deal. In addition to that upfront cash, AT&T will have to transfer radio spectrum and strike a more favorable network-sharing agreement with T-Mobile. This will hold back AT&T’s efforts to improve its own network, upon which customers like myself depend.

The long-term costs will run even deeper. AT&T was counting on the deal to give it spectrum and tower sites that it can use to boost its capacity to accommodate the data demands of today’s phones, tablets and other mobile devices. Now it will have to find alternatives to the original plan, which would have made better use of T-Mobile’s suboptimal infrastructure.

Another consequence of the deal’s failure is that the cost of AT&T’s future improvements will be spread among fewer customers than if the merger had gone forward. As a result, AT&T customers (again, this includes me) will pay more, not less, to get high-quality service. Thanks, Washington.

The only real winners are the other two major carriers, Verizon and Sprint. Regulators’ meddling gives them an unearned advantage by making AT&T a weaker competitor, which is a poor trade-off for keeping a limping T-Mobile in the wireless race. Verizon gets to keep its slot as number one in terms of number of subscribers, and Sprint gets to keep its spot as not last. The two will be able to continue largely ignoring T-Mobile as it lurches toward irrelevance. Not having to face a larger, more efficient competitor will give Sprint and Verizon greater leeway to keep prices high. In case regulators are confused, this is not supposed to be the outcome of an anti-trust action.

The ways in which regulators handled this transaction reflect deeper problems within the current administration. Rather than listening to what economic actors are actually saying with their wallets, the administration is intent on imposing its own idea of what’s best for everyone else. As a result, we now have the choice of an option that no one really wants to choose and one that Deutsche Telekom would rather not offer, as well as the fact that AT&T customers will likely be forced to wait longer for faster, cheaper service.

I realize not all readers will agree with me. If you are happy with the outcome of the deal, you might want to reward the public servants at the FCC and Justice Department with an equally thoughtful gift, perhaps a new phone from T-Mobile. You just have to hope they don’t want iPhones.

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About Larry M. Elkin 564 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

Visit: Palisades Hudson

6 Comments on One Holiday Gift We Can’t Return

  1. As a tmo user, I am glad the deal died, I did not want to have to change carriers, and there is no way in hell I was going to be a att user, and many tmo users were saying the same thing. If the deal was allowed, I would have jsut jumped ship and gone to verizon.

  2. Is this article a rant that T-Mobile doesn’t have the iPhone or a knock on the FCC or DOJ? There are several weak points made.. all of which are off base. The only thing rational is that Elkin has a choice today on carriers, as do the 30M T-Mobile customers.

    Elkin is out of touch with the majority of American’s who have cell service and… don’t have an iPhone. While many people want a Porsche or Escalade… financial reality and choice prevail. Paying over $100 a month to use an iPhone is absurd and/or out of the budget. The merger’a failure is good for the other 75% of consumers not on AT&T, including those on T-Mobile and iPhone users on the other carriers.

    The article fails to realize that a majority of consumers don’t qualify for 2 year contracts on the big 3 carriers to get that cheap iPhone.

    Monthly no contract service is where the industry is growing, contract revenue is projected to decline for all carriers in the coming years in voice and it’s only partially offset by data revenue. You will pay more and more for data to try to keep the carrier’s revenues growing. The big three will continue to try to raise or keep data revenue high.. check you stats and the market. Don’t you have access to this data working at the WSJ? Why is the article so against choice for consumers to pay a lower price?

    Okay I’ll throw in the towel… If T-Mobile fails then all the competitors can buy up the spectrum and continue to offer consumers choice.

    But how anyone can project T-Mobile failing in the near future when it turns in greater than $5B annual EBITDA in the US alone?

    Tough road ahead for TMO from a spectrum, but please. You’re kidding right?

  3. I dont agree with you. I am sorry that you feel AT&T needs to buy T-mobile to improve your quality of service. That is the AT&T kool-aid they been feeding you. AT&T has more then enough spectrum to improve your quality of service. They currently hold MORE spectrum then any US carrier to date. Do some research, has some good articles to read.

  4. Larry, If you’re upset at AT&T, I get it. They should’ve taken all of the iPhone money they received exclusively for the first 5 years and invested into their own network. But don’t blame the DOJ and FCC for doing what’s right. The failures of one company should not be the burden of all of it’s competitors.

  5. AT&T could do all of those fabulous extensions of their LTE services cheaper with the spectrum they already have, and cheaper than the $34 Billion they were trying to pay for T-Mobile. They even had the audacity to say that the merger would create jobs, which is entirely ludicrous. AT&T wanted to buy T-Mobile so their two other strong competitors couldn’t. It was a “dog in the manger” move from the beginning. T-Mobile now will have $4 Billion to work with to improve their network, and it’s probably likely they will be purchased by another non-US based telecom who wants into the US market, and wants to invest to get there (unlike Deutsch Telekom).

  6. I agree with all prior comments on this rant and the at&t’s attempt to strong arm their way into the lead. I’m aware of several large U.S. firms with significant at&t contracts who unwillingly signed-on as proponents of the merger, under threat of at&t pulling contract. Shame on at&t! I’m also aware of thousands of at&t “gifts” and lunches offered to DOJ and FCC employees, to buy their way through the red tape (unfortunately, a DC norm.) Again, shame on at&t! at&t even bought-off their own union, promising “nearly 96k new technology jobs”, when anyone familiar with large mergers knows that they always reduce employment reduncies after the “honeymoon”. And again, shame on at&t!

    For T-mobile, they’ve been losing customers simply because Deutsch Telekom has “given up” and taken their “eye off the ball” (their customers.) They’ve been pulling investment capital from T-mobile as fast as they can. Their network quality and customer service have waned, both significant churn drivers. So if T-mobile is losing customers, it’s not due to their inability to retain and grow; it’s because of Deutsch Telekom’ unwillingness to invest in the market. They simply cannot stand being 4th in the U.S. when accustomed to being “big stuff” in Europe. They could be viable in the U.S., they’re simply choosing not to play.

    A merger or purchase of T-mobile by others may make sense, just not by another wireless telecom. For reasons experienced by at&t, Verizon wouldn’t be allowed and Sprint has enough networks to manage not to take on one more (GSM.) Again, T-mobile is viable, just not under current management, but they could.

    So SHAME on at&t and SHAME on Deutsch Telekom for making a mess of their compaines and a mockery of what it right for the customer and the American public! Thank goodness for Sprint,, FCC, and DOJ to step up and fight for what is right! It was a “David vs. Goliath” scenario and David won with “a heart of right” on his side.

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