There was never really much doubt, but the Federal Communications Commission today gave the go-ahead for the nation's number-four wireless carrier, T-Mobile, to acquire fifth-place MetroPCS. If approved by shareholders - and a couple of hedge-fund investors in MetroPCS are balking - the newly combined carrier would start with about 42 million subscribers, fewer than half the numbers claimed by both Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility.
The FCC, which had to find that the radio-license transfers underlying the deal were in the public interest, acknowledged that it was removing a competitor from the market - a company with special strength in concentrated urban markets such as Philadelphia. But it concluded that competition would be actually be strengthened by the deal - contrary to regulators' conclusions in 2011, when the Justice Department and then the FCC moved to block AT&T from swallowing up T-Mobile.
Since that merger collapsed, T-Mobile has begun a $4 billion upgrade of its nationwide network to the fourth-generation LTE standard used by the most up-to-date smartphones, such as Apple's iPhone 5. Through its innovative "bring-your-own-device" plan, T-Mobile has recently been adding about 100,000 unlocked iPhones to its network a month, and it says it expects to begin selling new Apple devices sometime this year - perhaps timed to Apple's expected rollout of a new iPhone.
In an email statement, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski praised the consolidation as pro-competitive. “With today’s approval, America’s mobile market continues to strengthen, moving toward robust competition and revitalized competitors," he said.