One bright spot amid Washington’s economic shutdown is that Bellevue-based T-Mobile US completed its merger with Sprint last week.
This strengthens and expands a cornerstone employer, with more than 7,500 employees in the Puget Sound region, that will help the state emerge from the virus shutdown. Policymakers should exploit the opportunities this presents as they look for ways to jump-start Washington’s economy after the shutdown ends.
T-Mobile is now a strong rival to dominant carriers AT&T and Verizon, just as all three are spending tens of billions on the fifth generation of wireless technology.
The wave of 5G investment may be slowed somewhat by the recession. But it’s still expected to spur development of new applications and companies for years, similar to the innovation that occurred as fast wireless became nearly ubiquitous during the 4G-LTE era.
Despite the shutdown, spending on wireless services is expected to be relatively steady. T-Mobile’s lower-price strategy may also give it an advantage as consumers look to reduce monthly expenses.
At the same time, it will be more difficult for T-Mobile to fulfill bold promises of job creation it made while seeking merger approval. The deal also creates uncertainty for employees across the combined companies as they consolidate.
T-Mobile’s desire to move quickly executing the merger must be tempered by hardship that would result from layoffs during this period of mass unemployment.
Longer term, the combined company is positioned to catalyze new regional ventures taking advantage of the improved connectivity that 5G promises. T-Mobile should look to partner with local assets, including community colleges and universities, as it resumes growth and builds the ecosystem of companies taking advantage of its new capabilities.
The city of Bellevue plays an important role. T-Mobile is in the process of upgrading its Factoria headquarters and also has spread into a cluster of leased buildings at Eastgate. Additional growth, including potentially a consolidated campus, and improved connections to downtown Bellevue and other employment and transit hubs should be anticipated.
This is a remarkable turn of events. As the state emerged from the last recession a decade ago, AT&T tried to acquire T-Mobile, casting doubt on the company’s local future. Then there was the possibility that Sprint could buy T-Mobile and consolidate at its campus near Kansas City. But T-Mobile surged, with disruptive low-cost offerings, and Sprint struggled and fell behind. T-Mobile moved to acquire Sprint in 2018, and the deal finally closed last week.
Executing on the merger presents challenges, particularly for workers who become redundant. The company must do everything it can to blunt those impacts and preserve jobs through the shutdown.
Looking ahead, the merger is a tremendous win and opportunity for the region and state. It should increase growth, encourage investment in new companies and help maintain the state’s global leadership in innovation.