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Will the T-Mobile Acquisition Topple AT&T?

Last month, AT&T announced it was buying T-Mobile from Deutsche Telekom AG for $39 billion in cash and stock. Deutsche Telekom AG shareholders were certainly pleased, as dumping T-Mobile rewarded the company with a 20 percent share price increase over the next month, though AT&T stock didn't fare badly either. Here's why this acquisition might be as devastating to AT&T as the iPhone was beneficial.

Parallels to Time Warner and AOL
I'll never forget the great piece Jason Zweig wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2009, entitled "You've Got Blackmail." This article recounted how agonizingly difficult AOL made it for him to cancel his account. Jason's experience hit close to home because I also went through similar tactics by AOL that I felt were downright unethical. The acquisition of AOL almost killed Time Warner and, today, Time Warner's stock is down 75 percent from its pre-acquisition price. Unfortunately, for AT&T, I see many parallels in the T-Mobile acquisition.

I was a consistently dissatisfied T-Mobile customer for nearly 11 years. The power of inertia, combined with the dread of making the transition to a new provider, kept me hanging on with cell service provider that only provided what I felt was horrible customer service, in return for a lower price point. I finally overcame that inertia when my new HTC MyTouch G4 Android phone started graying out, rendering it unusable.

Because it was new, I was entitled to a replacement. My attempt to get that replacement became a descent into customer service purgatory. I endured an hour and a half of the required "trouble shooting," which did not correct the trouble but did end up making me want to shoot myself. And after being passed from person to person like a hot potato, with one representative calling me a liar before hanging up on me when I asked for a manager, I finally hit the wall and drove over to Verizon to pick up an iPhone4.

In my opinion, T-Mobile had breached my contract by making it unreasonably difficult to get the replacement they were obligated to provide. Now once I had left T-Mobile, they suddenly became willing to replace my phone. But feeling as I did that I had finally escaped an abusive relationship, I had no intention of turning back, no matter how conciliatory the talk was now. See Dr. Phil? I was listening. I demanded a refund for my defective phone and requested a manager twice, and twice I was promised one would call me back. Of course, nobody called me back. T-Mobile retaliated for my departure by charging me an early termination fee. I later found out they had also denied the rebate my T-Mobile salesperson used to sell me this "free phone" in the first place.

Why T-Mobile is losing subscribers
In spite of having prices lower than rivals AT&T and Verizon, T-Mobile is losing subscribers and experiencing higher churn. CEO, Philipp Humm, blames the iPhone for the higher churn. I, on the other hand, blame Philipp Humm. The old adage that the quality of a company's customer service starts at the top couldn't be truer in this instance. Three calls to his office went unreturned. It was only by managing to get his email address that I received a call back from his office.

Mr. Humm's representative stated T-Mobile's position, which was: a) I hadn't adequately gone through trouble shooting, b) I would not get a refund for my phone, and c) I would be charged an early termination fee. Humm's assistant dismissed the need for T-Mobile to have a better understanding of the facts of the situation by listening to the recorded calls I had with customer service, or by having the phone examined. Just as she dismissed the need to explain why T-Mobile suddenly became willing to replace the phone when I canceled the account, or why two managers failed to call me back.

Humm's claim that the iPhone is responsible for T-Mobile's higher churn is inconsistent with Sprint's increase in subscribers without the iPhone. The service from Humm's office, however, was very consistent with the hellish customer service I put up with from T-Mobile for more years than I have a reasonable explanation for.

Turn the page to see how bad it might be for AT&T

How bad will it be for AT&T?
So Deutsche Telekom AG's loss will now be AT&T's gain though, if my experience is any indication, it's likely just the opposite. I certainly don't know if this will turn out as bad for AT& T as the AOL merger turned out to be for Time Warner. I do suspect that Humm was able to successfully sell the AT&T board on the premise that T-Mobile's churn was due to the lack of the iPhone, as well as convince them that T-Mobile is totally committed to customer service.

T-Mobile is now nothing more than 11 years of bad memories for me, but AT&T should look for some of these warning signs:

  • The $39 billion acquisition price was more than half Deutsche Telekom AG's market capitalization, and financial markets rewarded shareholders for dumping it.
  • According to The Wall Street Journal, AT&T failed to get enough synergies from a large prior acquisition - Bell South.
  • Most acquiring companies overpay in their efforts to build a larger empire.
I won't be buying AT&T stock, but that has more to do with me being a believer in indexing. Should this merger turn out as bad as I think it will, it still ends up being a bit of a wash as I'll make money on my international index funds and lose on my US index funds. And though I love my iPhone and iPad, I also won't be buying Apple and still don't think Apple will become the most valuable company on Earth.

I think Philipp Humm and Deutsche Telekom made the sale of the century. For AT&T to create value for their shareholders going forward, they will not only have to realize the sizable synergies from their networks, they will also have to do something much more difficult . . . they will have to change a culture.

Author's note: After contacting T-Mobile's media relations firm for this story, T-Mobile changed their position and refunded both the purchase price of the phone and early termination fee. When asked why they changed their position, their media relations firm responded "After thoroughly researching the matter, we determined the fairest resolution was to refund you for the device and not charge an early termination fee. We take great pride in our customer service, which is why we considered the issue from your perspective, and after evaluating all the factors we believe this is the right choice."
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