A new federal report affirms what many consumers have experienced for themselves: There's a functioning and competitive marketplace for cellular service.
Amid falling prices for wireless plans, the growing popularity of unlimited data and recent improvements in network quality and coverage, the wireless industry today is marked by effective competition, the Federal Communications Commission said Tuesday.
The finding is important because it sets the tone for policymaking at the nation's top telecom regulator. But as merger rumors continue to swirl around two of the country's four national providers, T-Mobile and Sprint, some are wondering whether this blissful period for consumers is destined to last.
“Like everyone else, I read reports of mergers waiting in the wings,” said FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. “So while this report celebrates the presence of four nationwide wireless providers, let's be mindful that a transaction may soon combine two of these four.”
Top Sprint executives have made no secret of their desire for a deal with T-Mobile. Consolidating could put the combined company in a better position to compete with larger rivals such as Verizon and AT&T — at least, that's been the argument from Sprint chairman Masayoshi Son ever since he first tried to sell regulators on the idea in 2014. T-Mobile and Sprint didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
But talks of a deal are coming at a sensitive time, as members of both political parties have expressed concern over the rising concentration of power in numerous industries, including the technology and telecommunications sectors. Whether a deal between Sprint and T-Moble would be more likely to benefit consumers or to hurt them is one question the FCC would be responsible for answering if the two companies sought to merge.
But Tuesday's report doesn't try to peer into the future; it's largely a snapshot of today's conditions. "Most reasonable people see a fiercely competitive marketplace," said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. "This is strong, incontrovertible evidence."
Asked about Rosenworcel's remarks, Pai said that Congress's mandate with the competition report was for the FCC to study the current state of wireless competition, not what it might be in the future. The FCC takes no position on how many national carriers there ought to be to preserve competition, he said.