Now that AT&T (NYSE:T) has abandoned its proposed acquisition of T-Mobile (OTCQX:DTEGF), on Thursday the FCC approved its $1.925b purchase of Qualcomm’s (NASDAQ:QCOM) 700 MHz spectrum. This came almost exactly one year after the sale was announced, and a little more than four months after the FCC blocked the sale pending disposition of the T-Mobile acquisition.
AT&T desperately needed spectrum for LTE service, particularly after the fiasco of its iPhone network crashes and the recent (successful) efforts of Verizon (NYSE:VZ) to acquire new spectrum. In fact, spectrum was the nominal reason for buying T-Mobile. However, merger of the operators of the #2 and #4 largest US cellular networks always had serious antitrust concerns, which were realized when the Obama administration sued to block the sale.
AT&T's small market rivals had hoped to use both the Qualcomm spectrum sale and the T-Mobile acquisition to win favorable roaming agreements. Indeed, FCC commissioner Michael Copps dissented from Thursday’s 3-1 decision in favor of Qualcommm and AT&T, siding with the rural carriers:
This license transfer takes a pre-existing competitive problem—the lack of interoperability in the Lower 700MHz—and aggravates it by giving one of the two dominant carriers enhanced ability to ensure that interoperability doesn't happen without a regulatory requirement. I am encouraged there will be a rulemaking on interoperability, but such proceedings take precious time. Even assuming the Commission can propose rules early next year, we would be unlikely to see the benefits of such rules for quite a while after that.
The main issue is that we don’t know the endgame on the consolidation of US cellular carriers down to 3, where it is going for other countries and where the US will eventually end up.
- A merger of the #5 and #7 largest networks, MetroPCS (PCS) and Leap (LEAP), is inevitable, but has been fought for more than four years by the smaller Leap. Their roaming agreement and convergence of their 4G strategies may eventually accomplish integration in pieces rather than through a big acquisition. Metro at least is further along on LTE deployment than any carrier other than perhaps Verizon.
- Both MetroPCS and Leap once hoped to exit by being bought by Verizon (as Alltel was) but after the denial of AT&T, such an outcome seems next to impossible due to antitrust concerns.
- Sprint wouldn't have antitrust barriers to buy T-Mobile, but their incompatible networks make it unlikely to happen before at least 2015 (when presumably Sprint will have switched from WiMax and T-Mobile will eventually offer real 4G service)
- Both Metro and Leap are technologically compatible with Sprint, but the sickly #3 carrier hasn't been ready to buy anyone after losing more than $8.5 billion from 2008-2010.
Qualcomm is quite happy to finally get its $1.9b for the unused spectrum, as their press release made clear:
We are very pleased that the FCC has approved the sale of our spectrum licenses and look forward to working with AT&T to deploy supplemental downlink. This is a positive outcome for Qualcomm and our stakeholders," said Dr. Paul E. Jacobs, chairman and CEO of Qualcomm. "We would like to express our appreciation to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, his fellow FCC Commissioners and the FCC staff. The use of supplemental downlink will enable the efficient use of unpaired spectrum for mobile broadband in the U.S. and a richer, faster mobile experience for consumers.
Smartphone adoption is increasing demand for data services, Qualcomm chips, and its Snapdragon processors.