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One of the many questions raised by the proposed merger of T-Mobile US and Sprint is whether T-Mobile, which has been hugely successful over the last five years due to its Un-carrier strategy, can continue to succeed if it becomes more like the very thing it has long attacked – a US mega-carrier along the lines of Verizon and AT&T.
Not surprisingly, T-Mobile's answer to that question is yes. It argues that the merger with Sprint will create a much stronger and larger company that will "supercharge T-Mobile's Un-carrier strategy to disrupt the marketplace."
While that is certainly possible, it is also true that larger companies with more market share tend to be less disruptive than smaller companies, since larger companies are more likely to disrupt themselves as well as competitors. This could be particularly true in the mobile market, where T-Mobile US had 16.3% market share at end-2017, which when combined with Sprint's 12% market share would give the merged group 28.3% of US mobile subscriptions, according to Ovum's Forecaster Service Provider Markets database. While that is less than Verizon and AT&T, which had mobile market shares of 35.6% and 31.2% at end-2017, respectively, it is still approaching a third of the mobile market.
This helps to explain why regulators in general look closely at market concentration when evaluating mergers, and why US regulators in particular blocked previous attempts at significant additional consolidation in the US mobile market. That includes blocking AT&T's proposed acquisition of T-Mobile US – which sparked T-Mobile to launch its successful Un-carrier strategy – and blocking previous attempts by T-Mobile and Sprint to combine.
So why would T-Mobile and Sprint think a merger might get regulatory approval now when it couldn't before? First because the current US administration and regulators are seen as more pro-business and thus potentially more in favor of consolidation than previous administrations.
Second, T-Mobile and Sprint feel they have a strong story around 5G, in that the combined company – with its larger scale, deeper spectrum portfolio and bigger investment budget – will be in a better position to deploy a nationwide 5G network that will help drive innovation, disruption, and economic growth in the US. While T-Mobile and Sprint already had their own plans to deploy 5G, as do Verizon and AT&T, bigger can help lead to better when it comes to major network deployments.
But assuming for a moment that the merger is approved and completed, will bigger be better for T-Mobile, given the long run of success it's had attacking the biggest US carriers with its Un-carrier strategy? I certainly hope the answer is yes, but fear it will be no.
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