Some events leave a mark on your consciousness. It may sound silly to you but for me one of those events is the whole mess from about 5 years ago where Sprint, DISH, T-Mobile, Softbank, Clearwire, and a bunch of minor players all jockeyed to decide who bought whom. This blog had just relaunched when all the mess started and we reported on it obsessively… perhaps too obsessively.
And now it’s probably back.
We’re starting to hear rumors that Softbank, now the parent of Sprint, is interested in buying T-Mobile. There was talk of this three years ago but lucky for me it faded. Now it’s back again and once again it’s Bloomberg that is claiming that one way or another it’s going to happen. Time for me to refill my Zantac supply.
That same article also says that T-Mobile would be wise to play hard-to-get and personally I agree. There may be some benefit for John Legere and the management of T-Mobile but for the rest of us, it’s going to shred T-Mobile to bits and turn a worthy competitor into just another historical footnote.
Sprint’s commercials may be entertaining and to an extent they’re right — there’s not much difference in the coverage maps between Sprint, AT&T and Verizon. However, Sprint relies on a mix of antique technologies and non-standard broadcast technologies, transmitted on weird frequencies, to serve its customer base. It’s a technological cocktail that means that Sprint users often have to wait for the latest phones and when they get them they don’t work as well.
Make no mistake, regardless of the resemblance Sprint’s phones are quite a bit different than T-Mobile’s, because of the broadcast radios that are used. Merging the Sprint and T-Mobile network won’t be easy and it’s going to make today’s phones from one carrier or the other totally obsolete at some point. Of course most people trade in phones every few years so that’s not as big of a deal as you’d think. It’s just going to cost quite a lot of money to transfer over all those licenses and towers and get all new technology. In the meantime, you’ll probably lose T-Mobile subscribers who enjoy the company’s “corporate swashbuckler” image and Sprint subscribers who will once again be told that their devices are obsolete. There’s only so much of that you’re going to take before you bail.
I think a merger (or buyout) between Sprint and T-Mobile is a bad deal for customers of both services and it’s a bad deal for the T-Mobile brand in general. Assuming it’s Softbank’s money behind the deal, they’ll probably sunset the T-Mobile name because their corporate myopia makes them think that Sprint is the stronger brand. It isn’t, it simply isn’t. I think it’s a bad deal for consumers and a bad deal for the telecommunications infrastructure in general.
The only possible good that could come of it would be if Softbank chose, once and for all, to jettison all of Sprint’s weird technology and weird broadcast spectrum and move all its customers to the GSM technology and the designated frequencies used by T-Mobile. This would benefit customers in the long term and it might finally be possible for all the major carriers in the US to use the same broadcast technology, so the phones would be interchangeable. Verizon currently uses CDMA technology for voice, but uses LTE (which an evolution of the GSM standard) for data. The result is that in several years, once Verizon moves its customers to LTE and 5G, phones from AT&T and Verizon will be technologically identical. If Sprint gets rid of its TDMA, WiMax, and other weird tech, it could jump on that same bandwagon and finally you could buy an unlocked phone in this country that works with everything. That’s a luxury that other countries have enjoyed for years.
Or, just like pretty much everything else they’ve touched in the last decade, Sprint could turn this into a drama-filled mess. I’ll leave it to you to guess what they’re going to do. As for me… guess I picked the wrong week to quit drinking.