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Trust me

Richard Beales 

AT&T/T-Mobile: AT&T is asking a $39 billion question. The US cellphone giant must think that it will get its massive deal to buy T-Mobile USA, unveiled on Sunday, past anti-trust and communications regulators. But before Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile’s owner, collects the money and breathes a sigh of relief, there’s a lot of persuading to do.

If it comes off, it will be worth the effort for Randall Stephenson, the AT&T boss. The mooted $3 billion or more in eventual annual synergies may not, as AT&T suggests, be worth more than the entire deal price. But they still add up to a big number, and probably an achievable one given AT&T has done this before, including when Cingular Wireless bought AT&T Wireless in 2004.

The proposed tie-up would create a behemoth with 130 million customers, leapfrogging Verizon Wireless to the number one spot among US cellphone carriers. But American regulators already have concerns about the dominance of Verizon and AT&T. In one decision last year allowing an upstart competitor to acquire transmission spectrum, the Federal Communications Commission conditioned its approval on the bandwidth not being made available to either of the top two players in the market. But AT&T argues that in local markets, most US cellphone users currently have a choice of five providers.

Because its technology matches T-Mobile’s, AT&T also says the merger would bring more efficient use of scarce mobile broadband spectrum, a bottleneck that Julius Genachowski, the FCC chairman, has identified. AT&T also talks about upping investment, especially in so-called 4G technology. Among other things, it would increase connectivity in rural areas. Though that would be conveniently attractive for policymakers, it could also benefit customers.

In its release on the deal, AT&T also appeals to a certain kind of politician with the remark that the transaction “makes T-Mobile USA, currently a German-owned US telecom network, part of a US-based company,” and to another sort by noting that AT&T is the only big US carrier with a union workforce.

Yet the argument that there is “intense competition” in the market does rather gloss over the dominance of the two largest players in the industry. And, though the cost of cellphone service has fallen over the years, in a high-tech business that could easily be despite a lack of competition, not because it’s fierce.

The stakes are high for everyone — not just AT&T. — the current number three ahead of T-Mobile in fourth — and other smaller carriers will no doubt be up in arms about the deal. Deutsche Telekom, which stands to receive $25 billion of the deal price in cash and get rid of a long-term problem, will be rooting for it to happen. But none of those involved should count their financial chickens until the antitrust issue is hatched.

First Published: Tue, March 22 2011. 00:25 IST