Friday, August 9, 2013

Some Shifting Spectrums in the US Cellular Industry

Although the radio waves are not physically realigning themselves, cellular companies have been to stead themselves for the future.

T-Mobile, which escaped from an AT andT acquisition by the FCC blocking the merger, grew by acquiring MetroPCS.  Although the “T-Metro” merger added 9 million subscribers to the  Deutsches Telekom holding company’s 34 million base, it remains the  fourth largest US cellular company.  But size isn’t everything.

T-Mobile did not acquire MetroPCS just to grow. T-Mobile wanted the MetroPCS spectrum.  

The 78%  acquisition of Sprint by Japanese Softbank for $21.6 billion  was delayed until this June 2013 to allow  Sprint completed its acquisition of the remaining 50% of Clearwire.  There was a clear synergy when Sprint’s 4G service was premised on Wimax like Clearwire.  But Sprint clearly wanted Clearwire’s spectrum.  Clearwire’s bankruptcy would have forced Clearwire to auction its large spectrum holdings and left its partner Sprint with worthless holdings.  


One might wonder why AT and T  was willing to pay $1.2 billion to acquire Leap Wireless subsidiary  Cricket Wireless?  AT and T  had just launched IO pre-paid phone subsidiary so it did not need another Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO).  Cricket only added 5 million subscribers to second largest US carrier’s 96 million subscriber base.  So why did AT and T  pay nearly a 90% premium for Leap Wireless stock?  Clearly, the answer is spectrum.  


Cellular consumer activists, such as Harold Feld of Public Knowledge, condemned the proposed AT and T acquisition of Cricket Wireless, claiming that AT and T already has enough wireless capacity and thinks that low-income and poor credit customers would be adversely effected.  Perhaps it should not be surprising in the class envy age of Obama when community organizers dictate when companies "have enough" and should pay "their fair share."  But such animus is disconnected from reality.

Carriers seek more spectrum to keep up with customer demands.  The cellular industry has shifted from stingily selling voice minutes to essentially making them ubiquitous, but carriers make their money on data.  Verizon Wireless hopes to shift all of its voice calls to VoLTE by the end of 2014 as it is a more efficient conveyance of voice calls and then use the freed up spectrum to meet data needs.


Even as the cellular industry figuratively shifts towards data spectrum, most consumers just care about getting a new handset and give little consideration to the details of a major household expense--their cellular bill.


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