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Brave New Whirled

By Ari Charney on March 17, 2017

Brace yourself: In just two weeks, the cable, media, and telecom landscape could change forever.

On March 30, the quiet period for participants in the government’s latest spectrum auction will end, and that’s when a flurry of dealmaking could begin.

Aside from the usual empire-building, intense competition and sweeping technological changes will drive the next round of consolidation. In other words, M&A is no longer optional—it’s becoming existential.

Indeed, Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) just launched the latest campaign in its ongoing price war with fellow wireless giants AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), T-Mobile US Inc. (NSDQ: TMUS), and Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S).

Pressure from would-be usurper T-Mobile pushed Verizon to reintroduce an unlimited data plan in February after abandoning it years ago. That move, in turn, prompted AT&T to cut the price on its unlimited data plan by 10%.

There’s been even more one-upmanship since then, as the various carriers jockey for position. But the bottom line is that Verizon clearly believes its vaunted network superiority is no longer enough to preserve market share against its smaller rivals.

However, unlimited data doesn’t come without operational consequences. For one, all that data will place a greater demand on Verizon’s networks, potentially undermining the quality of its coverage.  

The top telecom charges a premium for its services relative to Sprint and T-Mobile. If network quality declines due to unlimited data, then that could undermine Verizon’s argument for higher-priced plans.

As one analyst told Bloomberg, “An unlimited offer is dangerous [for Verizon]. If they sign up a lot of people, it will congest the network, and they run the risk of people saying, ‘The network sucks.’”

More important, unlimited data will also cut into profit margins, though Verizon has a bit more room than its peers in this regard. The No. 1 wireless company’s overall profit margin last year was 10.4%, well ahead of its rivals.

Even so, Verizon and its peers won’t be competing solely on price. We would expect Verizon and AT&T to feel compelled to make even greater investments in upgrading networks and securing crucial spectrum to ensure network coverage and reliability.

As such, it’s hard to ignore the warnings of former Verizon CFO Fran Shammo, who last fall said, “You cannot make money in an unlimited video world. You just can’t do it because you need to generate the cash flow to keep up with your demand.” Obviously, his successor feels otherwise.

To referee this dispute, let’s consult the dispassionate analysts at Moody’s Investors Service. Following Verizon’s announcement that it would be offering unlimited-data plans again, the credit rater revised its outlook for the U.S. telecom sector to “negative” from “stable.” Moody’s expects heightened competition to reverse the trend toward stronger cash-flow generation of the past two years.

Though the rating agency isn’t always a fan of leveraged transactions, in this case it believes intra-industry M&A could alleviate competitive pressures. However, if the cable giants enter the fray, then all bets are off.

Living in an Unlimited-Data World

The ripples from Verizon’s shockwave are also being felt outside the telecom industry. With unlimited data now the wireless industry standard, cable operators could see the secular trend toward cord-cutting accelerate since consumers will no longer depend on wires to satisfy their media demand.

Cable giants such as Comcast Corp. (NSDQ: CMCSA) were beginning to push into the wireless arena. But unlimited data could make such initiatives less attractive.

Unlimited data may also hurt cable operators in another way. It could reduce demand for broadband, which has been one of the industry’s main growth drivers in recent years. For instance, all the businesses that feel compelled to offer free WiFi to attract customers may be able to cut the cord in an unlimited-data world.

Consequently, the cable giants’ best bet may be to simply merge with a wireless company.

Meanwhile, as cable and telecoms increasingly become distributors of video content, they’ll inevitably want a bigger piece of the high-margin action.

So we would expect to see more deals that pursue vertical integration (i.e., content plus distribution), in addition to those that expand the means of distribution (i.e., cable plus wireless).

AT&T already opted for the former last October, with its pending $85.2 billion deal to acquire media powerhouse Time Warner Inc. (NYSE: TWX).

Then, of course, there’s also the cost of money. With the Federal Reserve expected to hike rates at least two more times this year, prospective acquirers will want to take advantage of cheap debt while interest rates remain near historic lows.

Put all these factors together and speculation is running rampant on which tie-ups might emerge.

Full Dance Cards

Let’s start with the most obvious ones first.

Sprint and T-Mobile tried to merge in 2014, but the deal was scuttled by the FCC. In the Trump era, we would expect federal regulators to be more favorably disposed to dealmaking, which means a potential Sprint/T-Mobile tie-up could be back on the table.

While Verizon’s pending acquisition of Yahoo has gotten all the headlines thanks to the Internet also-ran’s operating woes, the top wireless company has apparently made overtures to cable giant Charter Communications Inc. (NSDQ: CHTR).

Now let’s delve into the world of fantasy, where analysts and industry observers try to imagine the previously unimaginable.

In late February, Citi analysts tipped the possibility that Comcast could merge with Verizon. Previously, Comcast had been rumored to be considering a play for T-Mobile. So we wouldn’t be surprised to see the cable giant buy a wireless operator, rather than try to build a network of its own.

Along those same lines, Citi made the case for a merger between Charter and T-Mobile.

Satellite TV Operator Dish Network Corp. (NSDQ: DISH) could be in play as well, though not because of its core business. Dish owns licenses for a significant amount of wireless spectrum, which will prove to be increasingly valuable as wireless operators compete to provide unlimited data.

Furthermore, analysts note that Dish CEO and EchoStar Corp. (NSDQ: SATS) Chairman Charlie Ergen appears to be cleaning up his two companies (there was a recent asset swap between the two firms) to facilitate some sort of transformative M&A.

Lastly, we could finally end up seeing a deal between Netflix (NSDQ: NFLX) and Disney (NYSE: DIS).

With a Trump FCC, all things are possible.

But beyond this glib assertion, it’s worth noting that with the ascent of forward-thinking FCC Chair Ajit Pai, the cable, media, and telecom industries will no longer be hamstrung by a regulator that’s stuck in the 1970s.

And that’s critically important when it comes to the continued success of some of our favorite companies, especially in light of the aforementioned existential concerns.

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