T-Mobile, Dish take CDMA showdown to CPUC court

The California PUC called on T-Mobile to explain statements its made to the regulatory agency before it approved the merger with Sprint in April 2020. (Pixabay)

To get an idea of how the Dish/T-Mobile case went in front of the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) last week, this one bit of testimony might, er, shed some light: They literally started to shut off the lights in the building before all was said and done.

If nothing else, the transcript (pdf) of the hearing, which became available Tuesday, shows it was a long and grueling day for most of the participants. It started about 10 a.m. and went just past 6 p.m. Pacific time. Some parts were deemed confidential and not shared publicly.  

At issue is whether T-Mobile lied about its intentions for the CDMA network that it inherited from Sprint. Dish contends that the plan called for T-Mobile to keep the CDMA network up and running for Boost Mobile customers for three years, during which time it would prepare customers for the transition off CDMA.  

T-Mobile contends it was never a three-year plan; its intentions all along were to get the migration done before that timeframe – within two years, even, if possible.

T-Mobile’s sole witness, President of Technology Neville Ray, stood by T-Mobile’s story that it wanted to complete the transition as quickly as possible, and part of its confidence came from the success T-Mobile had in integrating MetroPCS when that was acquired in 2013.  

Ray said he didn’t understand why Dish would be surprised that the migration period was something less than a three-year period. “That was never the intent and never the agreement,” he testified. T-Mobile has maintained that it’s up to Dish to make sure Boost customers have the necessary handsets or SIM cards so they’re not shut off from service come January 1, 2022.

Dish points out that Boost customers are often low-income, rural and transient customers who are difficult to get ahold of because they don’t use traditional snail mail addresses. Plus, Dish was under the impression they had more time to complete the transition.

The purpose of the hearing was to basically determine if the CPUC should penalize T-Mobile for lying to the commission about its obligations in the merger with Sprint. The CPUC approved the transaction in April 2020 with conditions. Prior to the approval, T-Mobile had pledged that no former Sprint customer would suffer any service degradation as a result of the merger.

“… Thus, it came as a surprise to the Commissioner when on/or about July 1st, 2021, T-Mobile announced that it would shut down the legacy CDMA network used by Boost subscribers at the end of this year,” said CPUC Administrative Law Judge Karl Bemesderfer in introductory remarks. “In response to this announcement, Dish advised the Commission that if the CMDA network is shut down at the end of this year, a substantial number of Boost customers will be left without wireless service. Whatever one’s definition of service degradation may be, a complete loss of service qualifies.”

A good share of questioning focused on what would happen “within three years of the merger’s closing,” and where exactly the "three years" applied. T-Mobile said it was to have three years to complete its work, but it was never under an obligation to maintain the CDMA network for three years "no matter what." 

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At one point during the session, Administrative Law Judge Bemesderfer addressed Ray: “This doesn’t relate to the spectrum.  It relates to the three-year discussion that you had at considerable length before. In reading through your testimony and your supplemental testimony, one of the things I note is that you almost always refer to completing customer migration or integration within three years. I know it's being nit-picky, but within three years could mean less than three years or not more than three years. And in context, I think it frequently reads as if it’s not more than three years. That’s just on observation that I make about the language.” 

Before all was said and done, the presiding judge laid out next steps. T-Mobile has a deadline of October 15 to submit a post-hearing brief, and Dish was given a deadline of October 29 to submit its reply.

Based on the timeline that T-Mobile is operating under, Dish has about 95 days to convert Boost customers, or they’ll be without service on January 1, 2022.