Industry Voices — Lowenstein: Strategic Priorities for The New T-Mobile

John Legere gets to ride off into the sunset with his $111 million windfall. (T-Mobile)
Mark Lowenstein

Now that it appears that the T-Mobile/Sprint deal will go through, the cliché phrase would traditionally be that ‘the hard work begins now.’ But this two-year saga involved plenty of hard slogging, plus gazillions of dollars in legal fees and too many (not good for the optics) nights at the White House dorm, aka the Trump International Washington Hotel, D.C. But I’m sure that T-Mobile execs are pleased to get going on the post-merger plans that have been gathering dust in the War Room since 2018, and that the folks in Kansas City are happy for some clarity after these two years of purgatory. To complete the picture, John gets to ride off into the sunset with his $111 million windfall, while Marcelo gets to enjoy 3 a.m. calls from Masayoshi Son while toiling to turn around SoftBank’s even-bigger-than-Sprint problem, WeWork. 

When the deal closes in April, as is expected, New T-Mobile will have three immediate, strategic priorities that will hit fast and furious: a tricky on-boarding process for Sprint customers, while also off-boarding Boost and Virgin subscribers to Dish; determining network priorities, with the additional dynamic of trying to decide the extent of participation in the 2020 PAL and C-Band auctions; and coming up with an invigorated plan to take on AT&T and Verizon, on this new, and supposedly more level playing field.

Job 1 will be honing the logistics, marketing and communications plan for Sprint’s ~40 million customers, about 8 million of whom are prepaid and will transfer to Dish. This is going to be a complicated juggling act. Owing to the MetroPCS and other acquisitions, T-Mobile has good experience transferring customers from a price plan/systems/billing perspective. But the more complex element here will be the historically incompatible networks and phones. T-Mobile will have to absorb some of the costs of right-phoning the Sprint customers whose devices will not work on T-Mobile’s network. There’s also the millions of Sprint customers who have newer, and more compatible phones that will work, but not optimally so, on TMO’s network, for example the fact that they don’t support 600 MHz. Any mis-steps by T-Mobile in this transition will provide opportunities for Verizon and AT&T to poach customers, much as TMO did to Sprint during the Nextel debacle.

Dealing with Dish is going to be another interesting dynamic. Working with the mercurial Charlie Ergen day-to-day might prove different than the experience of working with him on-paper-to-get-the-deal-done, with the DOJ as arbiter. But, wireless adults in the room Stephen Bye and Marc Rouanne should help the working teams get down to brass tacks. The deal calls for the 8 million Boost and Virgin pre-paid subscribers to transfer over to Dish. Making sure that this is a smooth process, that their network experience will be as good or better than it was on Sprint, and that they won’t lose their CBS or FOX, will prevent these customers from being ‘in play.’ Here’s an idea: launch a SlingPhone, with the Hopper feature to automatically skip over unwanted conversations, such as those with the IRS or your mother-in-law.

Job 2 will be determining the near-term network priorities. The lowest hanging fruit will be accelerating the 2.5 GHz buildout for 5G and bringing it into the T-Mobile fold. This is where New T-Mobile’s secret 5G sauce will be: complementing the 600 MHz coverage with the performance capabilities of 2.5 GHz. As the 2.5 GHz rollout gets to more of a critical mass over the next 12-18 months, TMO will be presented with yet another tricky marketing and financial dynamic: incentivizing customers to switch to phones that work in all the T-Mobile Plus Sprint spectrum bands.

Next will be a series of fairly imminent decisions regarding upcoming spectrum auctions. First is the CBRS PAL auction, scheduled for June. Until now, CBRS has not been a priority for T-Mobile, and my hunch is that the company was planning to sit out the PAL auction. New TMO, which will have to be more competitive in the enterprise, might need to revisit its thinking with regard to CBRS.

Then there’s the more consequential C-band auction, which is now scheduled to begin in December 2020. Absent the C-band, New TMO is in an enviable spectrum position, in terms of both breadth and depth. However, the whole 3.5 GHz (CBRS) to 4.2 GHz kit and caboodle is the bestest spectrum that’s going to be available in the medium-to-long term horizon. For both offensive and defensive reasons, it will be impossible for TMO to just sit on the sidelines.

RELATED: CBRS auction procedures head to vote

Finally on the network side, there are some interesting MVNO dynamics. The deal requires T-Mobile to allow Dish to use its network on a wholesale basis for seven years. Determining the economics of that should be interesting. TMO must offer a rate that allows Dish to be competitive, but not too competitive… And with all this newfound capacity, TMO has some interesting opportunities to court other MVNOs. The cable companies could come shopping, given their less than favorable terms from Verizon, and the fact that they’re looking at some sort of CBRS PAL/mid-band spending nugget in order to become less dependent on their ‘host’ mobile network.

Job 3 is the strategy now that they’re going to be on a [more than level] playing field with Verizon and AT&T. I’m sure that New TMO has all sorts of interesting New Un-Carrier pricing tricks up its sleeve, in order to, at the very least, assuage all the deal’s naysayers. But perhaps New TMO’s biggest challenge will be competing more effectively in the enterprise mobile market where historically, TMO hasn’t really been at the table. T-Mobile does inherit some enterprise business and some strong teams from Sprint, particularly some innovative things Sprint has done over the past couple of years on the IoT front. But New TMO is going to have to build a significant enterprise solutions team and an entirely new suite of capabilities. This is necessary to both compete with AT&T and Verizon and to get its share of the potentially significant incremental revenue opportunities from 5G that will come from the enterprise and industrial sectors. Given the number of other cylinders on which New TMO will have to fire — and quickly — I expect that the company will not go the enterprise route alone. There will be interesting opportunities to partner with SIs, Silicon Valley partners, and even some of their network suppliers such as Nokia that have been steadily building their enterprise capabilities.

T-Mobile was one of the major corporate turnaround stories of the 2010s. Its ability to execute on the above agenda will determine whether it can build on this success in the 2020s.

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is managing director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of the editorial board.