Analysts: AT&T, T-Mobile could face long review

In Washington, what's not said can be a powerful message. And when it comes to AT&T’s proposed acquisition of T-Mobile, a dull response by lawmakers and regulators about the deal has signaled to Wall Street and industry insiders that “an air of inevitability has settled,” according to tech policy analysts.

Rebecca Arbogast and David Kaut of Stifel Nicolaus investment house wrote in a research note that instead, a call by lawmakers for a careful and close review of the deal is really more code language for a protracted review.

They don’t rule out that the Justice Department or Federal Communications Commission will block the transaction. But they believe that after a one-year to 18-month review, regulators could approve the deal with a bevy of conditions.

“The deal couldn’t be won in a week, but could have been lost, and it wasn’t,” the analysts wrote.

Yes, an FCC official has said in reports that the companies will face an uphill battle. That’s what they said about Comcast’s joint venture with NBC Universal, too.

Here’s how the merger could affect the entire industry: conditions.

Divesting spectrum is widely expected as a condition. Data roaming, net neutrality, special access reforms are all wonky debates at the FCC that public interest groups want and will most definitely will try to slap onto any merger approval.

The end of exclusive handset deals, bill shock rules and early termination fees are the pocketbook consumer issues that consumer advocacy groups want the FCC to address and will say is imperative for a merged company with 130 million subscribers.

One important question Justice and the FCC will ask: How does the deal eliminate competition? They use a formula for calculating how much concentration a company has in a market with their spectrum holding. More is bad. But the analysis is a guideline, Arbogast and Kaut wrote. They are “merely triggers for additional, closer analysis, and should not be interpreted as setting a ceiling,” they said.

Related story:

NY Attorney General vows to probe AT&T, T-Mobile merger

Cecilia Kang is a senior technology correspondent for The Washington Post.

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