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Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure and T-Mobile CEO John Legere. (T-Mobile Photo)

After almost being acquired twice by its wireless rivals, T-Mobile is now the headline name in the blockbuster merger with Sprint that creates a $146 billion combined company to take on AT&T and Verizon, an indication of how far the self-proclaimed “Un-carrier” has come in recent years.

When the two companies announced Sunday that they finally came to terms on a merger for a reported $26.5 billion in stock, ending years of will-they-won’t-they speculation, we learned that the combined company will be named T-Mobile, with current T-Mobile CEO John Legere at the helm. T-Mobile parent company Deutsche Telekom will own 42 percent of the new company, and Sprint parent SoftBank Group will own about 27 percent after the acquisition.

This is quite the turnaround from previous talks. When negotiations first came to light about four years ago, reports indicated that Sprint, then recently acquired by SoftBank, would be the buyer. At the time, Sprint was the third largest carrier behind AT&T and Verizon, and T-Mobile was number four. Regulatory concerns eventually caused these talks to stall out.

When talks between T-Mobile and Sprint began anew last year, the roles were flipped, with T-Mobile and its parent ostensibly playing the role of buyer.

“The flip is indeed an interesting one,” Monica Paolini, president of wireless consulting firm Senza Fili told GeekWire. “It is a case in which innovation and creativity paid off, in the face of an initial skepticism to T-Mobile approach across the board.”

Sprint was actually option number two for T-Mobile for a buyer during that era. AT&T agreed to buy T-Mobile in 2011 for $39 billion, but just a few months later the U.S. Department of Justice stepped in to block the deal. T-Mobile walked away with $3 billion in cash and $1 billion in spectrum. About a year later, T-Mobile hired Legere, then CEO of Canadian telecommunications firm Global Crossing, and kicked off the Un-Carrier era.

With Legere at the wheel, T-Mobile charged ahead, passing Sprint in 2015 to become the third largest wireless company in the U.S. Its series of Un-carrier moves — like shedding wireless contracts, free international roaming and exempting streaming and music services from data usage — shook up the wireless industry.

“What made a difference is the T-Mobile tried to innovate by aggressively putting their customers at the center of the changes they introduced – instead of looking at the short-term financial benefit,” Paolini said. “In a market like the U.S., where competition is not as strong as other countries (both developed and developing), this is a welcome move.”

T-Mobile has been on fire recently, recording more than 1 million net customer additions 19 consecutive quarters, including 1.9 million subscribers in the fourth quarter of 2017. Together with Sprint, the companies would have about 127 million total retail and wholesale customers, compared with AT&T at 141 million and Verizon at 150 million, according to Strategy Analytics data reported by Fierce Wireless.

While T-Mobile and Sprint executives have been pumping up the deal all over the place, the response elsewhere has been a bit tepid. Some are worried about dropping from four major carriers down to three, citing comparisons to Canada and its three main carriers that haven’t made the kind of customer-friendly moves that vaulted T-Mobile ahead of Sprint.

Regulators twice stopped T-Mobile from getting acquired, and now there is skepticism that a T-Mobile/Sprint deal could clear regulatory hurdles. It was these concerns that led to drops in both T-Mobile and Sprint stock.

Reactions to the deal are starting to come in. Here are a few of the early thoughts:

The Verge’s Chaim Gartenberg explores what the deal means for the development of 5G, a major stated goal of the merger. Gartenberg reports that the companies are pitching the merger as a way to stay ahead of competition from other countries developing next-generation networks.

But the big question — and one that Sprint and T-Mobile will have to answer to regulators — remains: why should the two companies be allowed to pursue this kind of network together, instead of driving competition in the US cellular industry as separate companies?

Unfortunately, so far Sprint and T-Mobile are focusing less on what their combinations of 5G technologies can bring to the table from an innovation perspective, and more on the implied doom that could befall the greatness of American innovation if they aren’t allowed to merge.

Taking a look at T-Mobile and Sprint’s 5G site, you’ll find barely any mentions of what the combined 5G network will look like. Instead, there are pages about how the “U.S. MUST Repeat its Leadership of 4G” and how “Economic Leadership is on the Line!”, and an implication that the US adopting 4G early is the reason that companies like Lyft, Uber, Snapchat, Tinder, Venmo, Square, and Instagram exist. The two also push the idea that if Sprint and T-Mobile aren’t allowed to join together, the US might miss the next round of economic innovation to places like China or South Korea.

Recode’s Dan Frommer lays out why regulators might want to approve the deal, beyond T-Mobile’s arguments.

But here’s one that might ring true: Despite all of T-Mobile’s innovation and growth, it’s still much smaller than AT&T and Verizon, which dominate.

Even merging with Sprint — which has never really recovered from its disaster merger with Nextel in 2005, even with SoftBank’s recent attention — would keep it in third place. Meanwhile, T-Mobile and Sprint have been wasting a lot of money stealing customers from each other.

Would that effort be better spent trying to take on the real industry Goliaths? Can the new T-Mobile offer even better service, with even more innovative features, at even better prices? Will John Legere keep pushing? Those are the $26 billion questions.

PCMag’s Sascha Segan writes that the merger makes sense for technical purposes because the two companies’ spectrum assets match up well, but is bad for a host of other reasons.

This merger will likely lead to a clear-cutting of redundant mall stores, a reduction in call center jobs, and huge unemployment in Kansas City, where the merged company will kill off Sprint’s headquarters. DT is speaking out of both sides of its mouth on jobs, simultaneously promising regulators that it will increase employment while telling investors it will have radically lower costs.

No matter what T-Mobile’s execs say, the merger will probably drive up consumer prices as investors demand higher returns from the merged company, and a lack of Sprint as a challenger means T-Mobile will be able to raise its rates to AT&T’s and Verizon’s levels. The merged company will also have a huge amount of debt to deal with, which will siphon money away from the higher rates to disappear into the pockets of bondholders, with no benefit to consumers.

Kellen Barranger, founder of the Android-focused site Droid Life tries to make sense of the deal, and his takeaway is mixed, leaving him with a “shrug emoji” as his verdict.

I don’t know if this is a good idea or not. I wish I had the answer for you. In the short term, if this helps T-Mobile build a bigger, faster 5G network for us all to use, that’s got some benefits. There are also potential negatives there in the form of price increases as that happens. But look, creating thousands and thousands of jobs, assuming this merger does that, is never going to be something to complain about. If T-Mobile shows up in areas that it wasn’t previously available, that is a new choice for people and new choices are good. Of course, Sprint going away is the removal of another choice too.

So yeah, this is a tough one. There are some good things that could come of this, but the long-term future is what should have people worried. Will we be the next Canada or will T-Mobile stay the Un-Carrier and push Verizon and AT&T in the right direction as they have the past few years? Will Sprint not being there at the bottom as a possible check on T-Mobile turn T-Mobile into the two carriers it so despises?

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