With President Trump's deregulatory agenda kicking off, analysts expect more consolidation with the telecom industry, and deals between telecom and media companies.
As soon as the wireless spectrum auction is over at the end of March, the ban on merger talks lifts, which could spark some consolidation. There's reason for telecom companies to look for scale, and reasons to believe deals will get approved: FCC Chairman Ajit Pai took a stand in his decision not to review the proposed AT&T (NYSE: T) acquisition of Time Warner (NYSE: TWX).
Wireless carriers are looking for scale to offset limited growth potential, price wars pressuring margins, and rising costs as they invest in the next generation of technology. And the wireless carriers' TV distribution services — AT&T's DirecTV and Verizon (NYSE: VZ)'s FiOS — are facing growing competition from new over-the-top streaming services delivered over the internet. Adding unique media assets can offer valuable differentiation to their services.
Pai has made it clear that he sees sufficient competition, which should eliminate concern about anti-trust issues.
"The marketplace right now is extremely competitive, it's delivering unparalleled value to American consumers," Pai said in an interview last month. "And if you just look at the last couple weeks, some of the national carriers are vigorously competing against each other to give new or expanded unlimited data plans. That's something that's good for customers."
With AT&T's acquisition of Time Warner expected to go through, what could be next?
Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam said at the UBS Media & Communications conference in December that he's looking at a range of deals: "We'll look for opportunities… and put the money into an area where we think we can scale, because in our business your cost structure is absolutely critical to long term success."
McAdam has talked about potential benefits from a merger with Charter, though Liberty Media's Greg Maffei said Charter (NASDAQ: CHTR) doesn't necessarily need a Verizon deal. We could also see T-Mobile (NASDAQ: TMUS) re-examine a potential deal with Dish. Even the long-discussed T-Mobile-Sprint merger could emerge as an option again.
Telco analyst Craig Moffett says when it comes to these deals, the FCC won't stop them. "At a time of rapid technology change, the FCC will not pretend to "know more" than the market, and they will take a much more hands-off role as a result," says Moffett.
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