I want to give you some of the feedback on my recent column, “Thumbs Up or Down for AT&T + T-Mobile?” It is very interesting indeed. This merger is getting lots of attention. Arguments on both sides make sense, but only one side will win. Which side are you on, and why? Have you thought it through?
When reading this, please realize I am not saying this deal shouldn’t happen. What I am saying is that AT&T is only looking at the reasons for and not the reasons against — and that is creating a lot more pushback.
AT&T customers seem to like the idea. They like that this will give them better quality and reliability and service. This has been an increasing problem in recent years.
Customers of other carriers, if they have an opinion, seem to dislike it, because they say fewer competitors mean higher prices and less vibrant competition.
Execs from AT&T thought I was crazy for questioning the deal in my column. They think this is a good deal — not only for AT&T, but for the entire industry. They see no other side. They are singularly focused. Of course, they want the deal to happen. More on this later.
AT&T workers are more of a mixed bag. Some think it is a good idea, but many are also very worried about their jobs with all the new workers coming in. They have seen this before with the other mergers they have participated in. Bottom line: The efficiencies resulting from a merger typically mean the company doesn’t need all those workers. Many lose their jobs. In today’s jobs environment, that has many concerned.
Weighing the Competition
Execs from Sprint Nextel are against the merger. Sprint CEO Dan Hesse has been a very vocal adversary since the beginning. AT&T did not immediately answer his criticisms, but after a recent speech by Hesse, AT&T responded in a post on its public policy blog: Jim Cicconi, senior executive VP for external and legislative affairs, said Dan Hesse’s comments about the merger were “way off base.” Are they?
“Given that Sprint is a major competitor to AT&T in the hyper competitive wireless market Mr. Hesse describes, no one should be surprised that they would oppose this merger, but it is self-serving for them to argue that the highly competitive wireless market they cited only months ago is not threatened by the very type of transaction they seemed prepared to defend previously.”
I like Cicconi for his valiant effort, but I really don’t think he realizes that he is making Sprint’s point. If Sprint and T-Mobile got together, it would have made the three-way marketplace more even. Three more-equal competitors. Instead, this current deal will make AT&T that much bigger and farther ahead of Sprint Nextel. So you can’t consider these two mergers equal. They are not.
Sprint is now recovering from a very rough period and many years of losses. While this recovery looks good, it should not be used to say that Sprint is as strong and healthy as AT&T or Verizon. Sprint should not be pointed to by AT&T as vibrant competition. It is not. Not yet. Just look at the market share numbers.
I don’t know if Sprint expects to stop the merger or just to moderate the potential damage it could cause, but it is vocal about it. Sprint workers seem to agree. This is turning out to be a very interesting battle that is just starting.
Execs from Verizon have not really weighed in one way or the other. They express obvious concern with the many issues but don’t want to block the deal either. My impression is they have a problem with this merger but want to keep the pathway clear in case they have another acquisition in mind.
There are plenty of others — like Tracfone, MetroPCS, Cellular South and U.S. Cellular — that AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega points to as vibrant competitors. Sure, they are competitors, but they don’t sell enough to be real competitors. Not in this argument. Look at market share. In the new environment, AT&T and Verizon will have somewhere around 80 percent market share. All the other competitors have to split the rest.
I have also heard from equipment and network companies, and there are plenty. Very few, if any, like the idea. Most think this will have a negative impact on them and the industry in general.
For example, companies like Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent don’t seem happy about this merger. They would prefer a marketplace full of smaller and mid-size competitors, because they sell more gear. This deal means fewer sites. That may mean losses and layoffs in an industry sector very hard hit by previous mergers.
Tower companies, like American Tower, have taken an immediate hit in the stock market. American Tower CEO James Taiclet said in a CNBC interview that when similar mergers took place in the past, the company experienced an initial slowdown before continuing to grow. It sounds like he would prefer many companies as opposed to a few, but said his firm will make it either way.
I got a lot of phone calls and email and have read numerous articles with quotes from various executives, associations, customers and investors either complaining about the deal or loving it. There were plenty of both.
I had so many questions when this merger was announced. Now, after hearing from so many different interests, I have even more questions.
However, that was the point of my original column. AT&T wants this deal, but it is making things harder on itself with its current playbook.
Time to Get Real
This deal is clearly good for AT&T. This deal is also clearly bad for many others. For AT&T to ignore both valid sides will only hurt it.
I have watched Ralph de la Vega for 15 years, and I think he is a good man, but I think AT&T is making a mistake here in its approach. This is one of the last big deals and should be harder to get approved. Ignoring the arguments of the other side creates angst.
If AT&T takes a fair approach, it will make friends and have less pushback. If it stays on the current path, pushback will be strong the entire way.
AT&T customers have been complaining for a while about lousy service. This merger will help the company deliver better service. So there are reasons this makes sense.
On the other hand, we have seen many mergers in the past decade, and the results have been mixed. This time, we have to be smart and try to look into the future and design the best merger for everyone — customers, workers, investors, as well as the companies.
We need to think about the changing and growing industry. We have to realize the wireless industry changes every five years. Remember, five years ago, the words “iPhone” and “Android” did not even exist. Five years ago, RIM, with its BlackBerry, and Palm ruled the smaller smartphone space. Five years ago, we had a couple hundred apps, and today we have a few hundred thousand.
So, what will the wireless marketplace look like tomorrow? That is what we have to think about. That is what we have to address.
When all is said and done, I think this deal will be done — but AT&T should make several important concessions. I think it knows this but doesn’t want to move in that direction yet.
I like AT&T. Starting as SBC from San Antonio Texas, it is suddenly a very large company that is trying very hard to grow and please everyone. I also think it is having a dickens of a time doing so. It makes its share of mistakes, but it also makes many good moves and is a very innovative and creative company.
Let’s hope this merger benefits not just AT&T, but the industry overall. There is a long way to go before it gets there, and it would be very helpful if AT&T would take a more realistic stance on both the pros and cons, instead of looking at this deal like it is just positive for everyone, which it clearly is not.
For my Pick of the Week topic, I want you to think back and remember the good old advertising commercials AT&T ran in the 1980s and 1990s. The kind that made you feel good. During the last decade, we have not seen them. The good news is they are back.
Suddenly, AT&T is running a newer version of those same old wholesome feel-good messages that worked so well in the past, and this time they are called “Anthem.” I guess the company is hoping they will warm the hearts of the marketplace — and they just might.
Among other things, AT&T is talking about healthcare and putting your personal information in the cloud, so that when you are traveling, the doctors can see your medical history.
That is brilliant. AT&T understands the direction the industry is heading. It will play a role in this new industry going forward.
It is talking up a great story. Now it just has to make it a reality. This new world, with wireless health, mHealth and eHealth, is really starting to arrive. Let’s hope it has a faster growth curve than the videophone did from the 1964 World’s Fair. Has it hit the market yet?