A customer browses Apple Inc. iPhones at an AT&T Inc. store in Newport Beach, California, U.S. (Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg)

AT&T, Verizon Probe Heralds New Era of Greater Telecom Scrutiny

(Bloomberg) -- The Department of Justice opened another front in its scrutiny of the U.S. telecom industry, signaling it’s set on maintaining a deeply competitive environment in a market where four major carriers are jostling for new subscribers.

Antitrust officials are investigating whether AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. colluded to make it tougher for consumers to change wireless carriers, people familiar with the matter said last week. Apple Inc., a pioneer in the so-called eSIM technology that makes switching easier, was among those to have complained about the practices, the people said.

The fresh probe suggests eliminating anti-competitive practices has moved up the agenda under the Donald Trump presidency. The government already is suing to block AT&T’s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner Inc., arguing the tie-up will hand AT&T undo bargaining leverage in programming negotiations and ultimately raise prices for subscribers.

“The very fact that the DOJ is looking into this sends a very strong signal to the industry: don’t even try it,” Harold Feld, senior vice president at the policy group Public Knowledge, said in an interview. Once these industry standards are set it’s “very hard to pull back” and underscores that the government will not “tolerate any kind of anti-competitive collusion.”

‘Difference of Opinion’

On Friday, Verizon spokesman Rich Young called it simply a “difference of opinion” with phone manufacturers on a standard for the switching technology, and AT&T said it’s continuing to work with the mobile carriers’ trade group. The Obama administration had looked at the topic in 2016 and decided to take no action.

“Any good government inquiry is looked at and ultimately decided on merit,” Young said on Sunday. “That was the case in 2016 and we are very confident the government will reach the same conclusion this time.”

The heightened pressure could also imperil efforts by Sprint Corp. and T-Mobile US Inc. to merge, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co. analysts, who noted the general deterioration in tone against mergers in the past year. The companies were said to have revived talks this month about a deal, after an attempt to combine fell apart in November.

“A DOJ view that carriers are colluding could mean that a potential Sprint + T-Mobile merger would face higher scrutiny, making us somewhat less optimistic about that deal,” the analysts led by Philip Cusick wrote in a report. Still, previous probes against fixed and wireless providers haven’t had substantial impact and “we would be surprised to see a painful outcome for carriers in this one,” they wrote in the note published Friday.

Stocks Recover

News of the probe rattled the companies’ shares. Verizon closed down 1.1 percent to $47.90 on Friday after losing as much as 2.5 percent, while AT&T fell 1.9 percent but recovered to close at $34.67, down 0.4 percent.

The shares continued to recover on Monday. Verizon was up 0.5 percent to $48.15 as of 9:57 a.m. in New York. AT&T gained 0.3 percent to $34.77.

Regulators have pressured the phone companies to make it easier for consumers to change carriers. The big four --Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile US and Sprint -- agreed in 2013 to let consumers use smartphones on other networks after contracts expire. The following year President Barack Obama signed legislation giving consumers the freedom to switch between wireless carriers without having to purchase a new phone.

Easy Switch

The technology in eSIM -- short for electronic subscriber identity module -- allows users to switch carriers via a settings menu directly from their phone or tablet. This makes it easy for consumers to swap without physically popping out the SIM card chip from a mobile device or contacting their wireless carrier.

Mobile industry standards group GSMA said it had put work developing the latest global standard for eSIM technology on hold, pending completion of the investigation, according to a website statement Saturday.

“The GSMA is cooperating fully with the Department of Justice in this matter,” the organization said in the statement. The group is working with leading mobile operators, device and SIM makers on the standard that will include the option for eSIM to be locked, provided consumers consent under the specific agreements with their mobile operator.

Ferras Vinh, the policy counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, says the watchdog group believes restricting portability conflicts with U.S. and Canadian law and copyright policies. He said his group has reached out to GSMA but had not gotten a response.

“Any step we can take to protect the consumer is a positive,” Vinh said.

Although carriers may not like eSIM technology because it allows consumers to switch more easily, “inserting a new SIM card is easy and often done by consumers or retail employees,” the JPMorgan analysts wrote. As such, they’re skeptical the probe of AT&T and Verizon will throw up much evidence of anti-competitive behavior.

“It seems hard to prove that AT&T and Verizon may have caused substantial consumer harm, much less that they colluded to do it,” the analysts wrote.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.