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May 13th, 2015 8:03 pm
The Two Faces of T-Mobile

The recent release of the Apple Watch was a momentous occasion that has become routine for American consumers: another breakthrough mobile product hitting the marketplace. Whether new devices or continuous improvements to smartphones and other devices on which we all rely, almost all of us use gadgets that just ten years ago would have been considered science fiction.

Less well known to consumers is the technical foundation of the entire ecosystem upon which such devises operate. Specifically, wireless spectrum is the invisible infrastructure that carries data between devices and to the broader Internet. Wireless companies compete fiercely for this resource so that they can provide good service for their customers.
 
That’s why – despite the fact that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is auctioning off coveted broadcast spectrum next year, an eternity in tech terms – the jockeying between potential bidders has already started. Two of the major players in particular, Sprint and T-Mobile, have been ceaselessly calling for the FCC to create auction rules that benefit them at the expense of their competitors. Their latest request is for a larger set-aside to limit the amount of spectrum on which competitors AT&T and Verizon can bid. 

This isn’t the first time the two companies have made such a request.  The FCC didn’t accept it last time, and it shouldn’t now as the only change is that Sprint and T-Mobile now are pushing their shared agenda through the recently (and conveniently) formed “Save Wireless Choice” coalition.

This is a terrible idea for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Sprint and T-Mobile are dynamic companies that compete fiercely in the wireless industry. Don’t just take our word for it. On a recent call with Wall Street analysts, T-Mobile CEO John Legere bragged that T-Mobile has “a great spectrum portfolio. That’s allowed us to be smart and opportunistic,” and claimed that the company was “off to an incredible start to 2015 with the best customer growth in the industry fueled by disruptive Un-carrier moves and the network that continues to be America’s fastest.”  Similarly, Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure asserted that he “couldn’t be more confident that now [Sprint has] the right plan to be successful” and acknowledged Sprint’s “rich spectrum portfolio.”
 
Legere and Claure’s comments to Wall Street make their plea to the FCC – that they cannot compete with AT&T and Verizon in the upcoming auction or in the industry long-term – completely disingenuous. Furthermore, Sprint chose to sit out of the recent AWS-3 auction, and it was DISH, not AT&T or Verizon, that outbid T-Mobile most on licenses it sought but didn’t win.
 
Indeed, it was DISH’s shady dealings during the AWS-3 auction that demonstrate the danger of rules that favor certain players over others in the marketplace. DISH used shell companies to take advantage of the FCC’s Designated Entity program, a program that is supposed to help small companies buy spectrum by giving them a discount.  That sleight of hand with DISH will cost taxpayers a stunning $3.3 billion unless the FCC investigates and rejects the taxpayer-funded discount.
 
At the end of the day, Sprint and T-Mobile are massive, competitive companies backed by large, foreign corporations, Softbank and Deutsch Telekom. Even if that were not the case, the recent experience with DISH should be a giant red flag about the unintended consequences of rules that favor certain companies.
 
In order for consumers to continue reaping the benefits of the wireless revolution, they need more spectrum to be allocated in the most efficient way possible. In the 2016 incentive auction, that means straightforward rules that treat all bidders equally. This principle has taken us to where we are right now, and it would be a mistake to jeopardize this progress by giving in to the self-serving pleading of two companies.

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