Justice makes the right decision on AT&T

By Felix Salmon
August 31, 2011
official complaint seeking to stop AT&T from taking over T-Mobile minces no words:

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The Justice Department’s official complaint seeking to stop AT&T from taking over T-Mobile minces no words:

T-Mobile in particular – a company with a self-described “challenger brand,” that historically has been a value provider, and that even within the past few months had been developing and deploying “disruptive pricing” plans – places important competitive pressure on its three larger rivals, particularly in terms of pricing, a critically important aspect of competition… unless this acquisition is enjoined, customers of mobile wireless telecommunications services likely will face higher prices, less product variety and innovation, and poorer quality services due to reduced incentives to invest than would exist absent the merger. Because AT&T’s acquisition of T-Mobile likely would substantially lessen competition in violation of Section 7 of the Clayton Act, 15 U.S.C. § 18, the Court should permanently enjoin this acquisition.

One thing which fascinates me is the way in which neither the complaint nor the press release makes any mention of the fact that the proposed deal would give the merged company substantially all of the market in GSM cellphones — the only ones which work in most of the rest of the world. Americans who travel internationally pretty much have to get their cellphone service from one of these two providers — and they’re highly sensitive to exorbitant international roaming fees. Which would almost certainly go up in the event of this merger.

The noises coming from the FCC in the wake of this suit are supportive, with FCC chairman Julius Genachowski saying that he too has “serious concerns about the impact of the proposed transaction on competition.” He adds for good measure that “vibrant competition in wireless services is vital to innovation, investment, economic growth and job creation, and to drive our global leadership in mobile.”

AT&T hasn’t officially given up, but I can’t see it winning this particular fight with the law. This, then, is a good day for the American consumer, not to mention a great day for Sprint and Verizon. AT&T and T-Mobile have both put enormous amounts of management time and shareholders’ money into putting this merger together, all of which will now be for naught. Rather than fight the inevitable, they should go back to fighting each other where it matters: in the marketplace.

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