The US Department of Justice blindsided the mobile industry Wednesday by filing an antitrust lawsuit intended to prevent AT&T from purchasing T-Mobile USA. The $39-billion deal would make AT&T the largest wireless provider in the United States — something the DOJ believes “would result in tens of millions of consumers all across the United States facing higher prices, fewer choices and lower quality products for mobile wireless services.”
While the lawsuit throws a wrench in the spokes, it doesn’t derail the deal entirely. The lawsuit will next go to trial. AT&T says it will “vigorously” fight the DOJ’s suit. And the Justice Department says it’s open for “remedies” to its complaints. But history shows us that the US government rarely loses these kinds of battles. So, at this point, it seems the smart money is on the acquisition going belly up. The consequences of such an outcome will be felt wide and far. Here, we take a look at some of the players who would be most affected if AT&T doesn’t get its way.
Arguably the biggest winner, if the AT&T/T-Mobile deal crumbles, is Sprint. Were the deal to go through, Sprint would be left so far behind Verizon and a new super-AT&T that the company may not be able to survive. With its future at stake, Sprint has been the most vocal opponent of the deal since it was first announced back in March, and the company has reportedly unloaded hefty bales of cash on Washington lobbyists in an attempt to block the acquisition’s approval. Money well spent, it seems, as Sprint’s stock price already popped as high as 8 percent this morning on news of the DoJ’s lawsuit. Sprint’s vice president of Washington lobbyists, Vonya B. McCann, touted the Justice’s suit as “a decisive victory for consumers, competition and our country.”
Also, with AT&T out of the picture, it’s entirely possible that Sprint would try to buy T-Mobile for itself, which would give it far more wireless spectrum and other resources to compete with AT&T and Verizon, and eliminate its most direct competitor in the process.
While many customers seemed unhappy with AT&T swallowing T-Mobile, the most widespread sentiment we saw in comments and online forums was helplessness: The big corporation would get what it wants; the US government wouldn’t do anything to stop it; the public be damned. By allowing the Justice Department to move strongly against AT&T, however, the Obama administration has proven that it’s not simply in the pockets of big business (as many believe), and has the will to enforce antitrust regulations and stand up for regular Americans (wireless customers). Now, we just have to see whether the DoJ can stand up to AT&T’s legal team, and not make this lawsuit seem like a giant public waste of everyone’s time.
Deutsche Telekom AG
Deutsche Telekom, which owns T-Mobile USA, is firmly against its deal with AT&T collapsing, and has made clear that it will help AT&T fight the DoJ in whatever way possible. That said, the company will still get between $3 billion and $6 billion dollars — $6 billion dollars! — in break-up fees from AT&T, within three business days, if the deal disintegrates. In other words, Deutsche Telekom would get paid a whole lot of money without selling anything. On top of that, Telekom can go and sell T-Mobile to somebody else. We can’t call this one a complete win, of course, but making $6 billion for doing basically nothing isn’t a bad deal, no matter how you shake it.
The AT&T/T-Mobile deal has long been criticized as a losing scenario for customers. With a near duopoly of AT&T and Verizon controlling more than 90 percent of the national wireless market, customers would have very few places to run if they became unhappy with their wireless service. And, because of the increased potential for collusion between AT&T and Verizon that the merger would bring, the business environment could result in higher prices for everybody. (These are two of the primary reasons antitrust laws exist in the first place.) So, as Harold Feld, legal director for citizen’s rights advocacy group Public Knowledge, says, the DOJ’s lawsuit is “undoubtedly the best Labor Day present the Department of Justice ever gave America.”
On a simpler note, T-Mobile customers simply don’t want to be forced to become AT&T customers. In fact, they’ve already begun to celebrate.
Of course, AT&T has the most to lose in this deal. Forget the $3 to $6 billion in fees it will be forced to pay; that’s chump change compared to the amount of business it would lose without T-Mobile (and its wireless spectrums) under its corporate umbrella. If AT&T is able to beat the Justice Department in the courtroom, and get this deal a stamp of approval, then it stands to become the largest wireless company in the nation, with 43 percent of all wireless customers paying into its coffers. With that kind of status, AT&T would have near limitless powers to enact its corporate will — especially since the wireless market is already highly unregulated, save the Justice Department’s sudden decision to pay close attention.
A lot of people stand to make a lot of money if this deal goes through. If it doesn’t, however, the Wall Street Journal estimates that the various banks involved in brokering the deal — Greenhill & Co., J.P. Morgan, Evercore Partners, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse and Citigroup — stand to lose as much as $150 million in fees and other costs. They would also lose the between $18 million and $36 million they stood to earn from the deal.
Already, AT&T investors have lost money. Following news of the DoJ suit, AT&T’s stock price dipped 6 percent (though it bounced back a bit, and closed 3.85 percent down). And the telecom market as a whole closed 1.25 percent down. In other words, investors want this deal to go through. (Unless, of course, you’re invested in Sprint.)
Yes, customers hate the AT&T/T-Mobile deal, and everybody says it’s bad for them. And, in a lot of ways, they’re right. But there are still some particularly tangible ways in which things would go their way.
Most importantly, AT&T has vowed to bring high-speed 4G LTE service to at least 95 percent of Americans, a feat that would give many rural customers access that they currently don’t have. In addition, AT&T would likely use the additional wireless radio spectrum it would acquire with T-Mobile to improve its notoriously bad service everywhere, including densely populated areas like New York City. That means everyone, from the cities to the farms, would get a wireless boost because of this deal.
The good news is, the DoJ’s lawsuit could actually give the Federal Communications Commission — which must also approve the deal for it to go through — greater bargaining power to require AT&T do even more for its customers. Still, we can’t help but feel that, no matter what happens, we the customers will end up getting screwed over in the end.