MONEY Customer Service

How To Break Up with Your Cable Company

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Getty Images

...or at Least Drive a Hard Bargain

If your relationship with your cable provider is driving you mad like this man, brace yourself. It’s only going to get worse.

The average monthly cable TV bill is rising 6% a year. It’s projected to hit $123 a month next year and top $200 by 2020, according to market research group NPD. To be fair, part of the surge is because the cost cable providers pay to license shows is getting steeper. But the near-monopoly that cable TV companies have in many places is to blame, too.

Most areas have just one or two pay-TV providers. And even if you’re lucky enough to have more choice, that will probably change if the Time Warner Cable-Comcast and AT&T-DirecTV deals are approved. And less choice means that the providers that remain don’t have to go above and beyond on customer service. As if they did already.

Can’t live without your favorite programs but fed up with the bill? Here are four moves you can make to cut the cost—and not all require you to cut the cord.

Downsize. How many of the 700+ channels that you get do you actually watch? A growing number of pay-TV providers are offering pared-down packages. Verizon recently rolled out its Select HD no-sports package that’s $15 a month cheaper than its $65 a month standard Prime package. Last year, Time Warner Cable launched Starter TV, a bundle of 20 premium channels plus HBO for $29.99 a month—40% less than its 200-channel, no-HBO option. And Cox Communication’s TV Starter is $24.99 a month for 155 channels vs. $49.99 for its Advanced package of 220 channels.

Play hardball. Despite their dominance, pay-TV providers are still loathe to lose customers, says digital media analyst Dan Rayburn. Call the cancellation department to talk with a retention specialist trained to hang on to customers. Ask about promotions or a discount if you’re a long-time customer. They’ll try hard to keep you, but if they don’t give, you can likely get a better deal as a new subscriber if you have a satellite dish or cable competitor where you live.

Go a la carte. Even though the Aero service that delivers low-cost broadcast TV via Internet shut down thanks to the recent Supreme Court ruling, there are still plenty of other lower cost alternatives for those who want to cut the cord, says technology industry analyst Jeff Kagan. Hulu Plus costs just $7.99 a month and shows many current programs the day after they air. If you can wait a season or two to catch up with your favorite shows, Netflix is $7.99 a month (though will go up $1 or $2 for new subscribers). Amazon Prime Instant Video, which comes with Amazon’s $99 a year Prime membership, gives you unlimited streaming movies and TV shows.

NetFlix, Hulu and Amazon are also spending millions on high quality original content. In May, Hulu announced that it would be tripling its budget for exclusive programs and launching six new shows this year, including the much-buzzed-about reality show parody Hotwives of Orlando, which premiers tonight.

Get an antenna. Today’s antennas aren’t the rabbit ears of your parents’ generation. An HD antenna for your roof or TV set top will cost you about $30 to $100,and you can get local TV channels for free. You won’t get cable programs, but you’ll pick up more than 30 broadcast networks (such as ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, FOX). And picture quality is even better than cable, says Kagan.

MONEY Tech

QUIZ: What’s Your Perfect Cellphone Plan?

Fed up with your cellphone carrier? There's most likely a better, cheaper plan than the one you have today. Take our quiz to find the right one.

Check out all of MONEY’s Best Cellphone Plans of 2014. Thinking about switching cellphone carriers? Do these four things first.

MONEY Tech

The Best Cellphone Plans of 2014

No matter what type of cellphone user you are, MONEY found a mobile plan that's right for you.

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Paul Windle

Haven’t shopped for phone service recently? You’re in for a shock. “In the past year plans have changed more than in the previous five,” says ­Logan Abbott of comparison site Wirefly.com.

Forget choosing among the Big Four and their handful of offerings: Today’s market is made up of an overwhelming mob of carriers and options. And as if that isn’t confusing enough, the recent news that the Federal Trade Commission is accusing T-Mobile of “cramming,” or billing customers for unauthorized services, may have you wondering if your provider is ripping you off. (The short answer: It may have in the past, but these days, probably not. For more, read Time’s story on cramming and how to spot it.)

Perhaps the biggest change to the industry is the shift away from two-year service contracts. Now you can choose a contract plan, with a discounted phone and high monthly rates, or a cheaper option that requires you to pay upfront for a new phone or bring your own. (Phone compatibility varies.) We found that noncontract plans came out on top in nine of 10 categories. Plus, the longer you keep your phone on a noncontract option, the better the deal gets.

The rise of smaller carriers also looks like good news. These firms have finally become a viable option, with access to the newest phones and reliable coverage, thanks to arrangements that let them use big companies’ nationwide networks. One potential downside is that the larger firms usually prioritize their own users, so the little guys’ customers may have to contend with less coverage or slower data speeds, says Mike Dano of cell news publication Fierce Wireless. Unless you use a ton of data, though, it’s not much of an issue.

Overall, cell coverage has improved. Verizon and AT&T still generally have the broadest networks, though “everyone has gotten better in the last six to 12 months,” says Bill Moore, president of service-rating firm Root Metrics. To see which carriers’ networks have the best performance where you live, go to Rootmetrics.com and enter your address.

For cellphone users, this all boils down to one thing: There’s probably a better, cheaper plan than the one you have today.

To help you find it, MONEY parsed more than 75 options from a range of carriers. We started by grouping plans into categories based on features such as talk, text, and data packages. Next, we added up the price of two years of service, plus the cost of a 16GB iPhone 5s for each plan member for all 75+ option. We used the phone price offered by the carrier (full price for non­contract plans and subsidized prices for contract options), then sorted these results by price. Finally, we factored in phone choice, as well as network quality and customer service scores from Root Metrics and J.D. Power.

All family plans are for four people. We consider up to 1GB of data per person light use, 2GB to 3GB average, and 5GB or more heavy. All plans are chosen based on domestic use. For information about international use, read our story on using your cellphone abroad.

Best for Light Callers

If you only use your phone for calls, texts, and occasional web surfing, you likely don’t need more than 1GB of data. Cricket offers you the best price.

Individual Plan:
Cricket Basic
Family Plan:
Cricket Basic
Monthly bill $40* $100*
Two-year cost with phones $1,610* $5,000*
Can you bring a phone? Yes Yes
Minutes Unlimited Unlimited
Texts Unlimited Unlimited
Data 500MB 500MB per person
Data overage? Speed slows Speed slows
Network AT&T 4G LTE AT&T 4G LTE
Comment Smartphone options start at $50 Includes the option to
pay off new phones over time

Best Individual Plan: Cricket Basic

Sign up for auto bill pay, and this plan drops to $35. Cricket, now owned by AT&T, offers a range of phones, and, like many noncontract options, lets you bring your own. Go over your data limit? The carrier will slow your service rather than charge you extra.

Glitch: Cricket taps into AT&T’s network, but its data speed is slower than that of the larger carrier.

Best Family Plan: Cricket Basic

For a family that doesn’t use that much data, Cricket’s price is a head-turner—especially when you consider that it includes taxes and fees. The carrier’s use of AT&T’s cell towers gives it greater reach than many providers in this price range.

Glitch: Unlike the majority of family options, you cannot add tablets or other devices to this plan.

Best for Typical Users

Do you use your phone to post on social media, browse the web, and get directions when you’re on the move? Chances are you still only need 2GB or 3GB a month. These plans will offer you the best value.

Individual Plan:
Straight Talk Unlimited
Family Plan:
T-Mobile Simple Choice 3 GB
Monthly bill $45 $140
Two-year cost with phones $1,730 $5,952
Can you bring a phone? Yes Yes
Minutes Unlimited Unlimited
Texts Unlimited Unlimited
Data 3GB 3GB per person
Data overage? Speed slows Speed slows
Network Multiple 4G LTE T-Mobile 4G LTE
Comment Sold at Wal-Mart and online Will pay your termination fee
if you switch carriers

Best Individual Plan: Straight Talk Unlimited

This plan is just $41.25 a month if you pay for a year upfront. Straight Talk uses all four big carriers; the network you’ll use depends on your phone and area, says Dennis Bournique of PrepaidPhoneNews.com.

Glitch: Like most low-cost carriers, Straight Talk may not allow you to tap into another provider’s network if you venture out of its service area.

Best Family Plan: T-Mobile Simple Choice 3GB

At this price point, it’s a duel between Cricket and T-Mobile, and for those who seek faster data speeds, T-Mobile wins out. Does someone in your clan have a tablet? You can add it, and 1.2 GB of data to use with the device, free through 2014.

Glitch: This network is fast in many metro areas, but it isn’t as broad as those of Verizon and AT&T.

Best for Bargain Hunters

Users who want a ton of data at the lowest possible price should check out these options.

Individual Plan:
Metro PCS Unlimited
Family Plan:
T-Mobile Simple Choice 5G
Monthly bill $60* $180
Two-year cost with phones $2,089** $6,912
Can you bring a phone? Yes Yes
Minutes Unlimited Unlimited
Texts Unlimited Unlimited
Data Unlimited 5GB per person
Data overage? None Speed slows
Network T-Mobile 4G LTE T-Mobile 4G LTE
Comment Top customer service marks from J.D. Power T-Mobile’s network speed has improved recently

Best Individual Plan: Metro PCS Unlimited

This affordable offering from T-Mobile-owned Metro PCS is one of the few true unlimited plans still available today. “Their data isn’t throttled at all, and it is fast,” says Bournique.

Glitch: The carrier doesn’t sell iPhones, but does offer the popular Samsung Galaxy S 5.

Best Family Plan: T-Mobile Simple Choice 5GB

Finding a competitively priced plan that combines a boatload of data with a fast network isn’t easy. Simple Choice, however, is a good pick, particularly in cities, where T-Mobile is at its fastest. The plan also includes a perk for international travelers: free data when abroad.

Glitch: T-Mobile can be patchy in rural areas.

Best for Power Users

If you’re willing to pay more for the most reliable networks, buy one of these plans.

Individual Plan:
Verizon More Everything
Family Plan:
AT&T Mobile Value Share
Monthly bill $120 $210
Two-year cost with phones $3,080 $7,640
Can you bring a phone? No Yes
Minutes Unlimited Unlimited
Texts Unlimited Unlimited
Data 6GB 20GB shared
Data overage? $15 per GB $15 per GB
Network Verizon 4G LTE AT&T 4G LTE
Comment iPhone 5s is $200 Option to pay off phones
over two years vs. upfront

Best Individual Plan: Verizon More Everything

The only contract plan in our guide, this More Everything option costs the same as AT&T’s competitive plan (and less than other high-end Verizon options). Given the choice, we recommend the speed and reliability of Verizon’s widespread 4G LTE coverage for heavy phone users.

Glitch: Watch those hefty overage fees.

Best Family Plan: AT&T Mobile Share Value

Though similar in price and features to Verizon’s noncontract plan, AT&T noses ahead because more phones are compatible with its network. Also, note that AT&T bested its big rival in J.D. Power’s wireless customer care survey.

Glitch: Yes, it’s $40 more than you’d pay with T-Mobile, but AT&T has wider coverage.

Best for Frequent Upgraders

Always want the latest phone? Go with AT&T.

AT&T Next 12
Monthly bill $98
Two-year cost with phones $2,340
Can you bring a phone? No
Minutes Unlimited
Texts Unlimited
Data 2 GB
Data overage? $15 per GB
Network AT&T 4G LTE
Comment Only AT&T has the Amazon phone

Best Plan: AT&T Next 12

Insist on having the latest phone? Try AT&T. Next costs the same as a similar Verizon plan, but AT&T wins, since it’s “the leader in getting the hottest devices,” says CNET writer Maggie Reardon. On this plan you lease your phone over 20 months and must return it if you upgrade sooner.

Glitch: If you haven’t yet paid 60% of the old phone’s value, you must pony up the remainder to trade up to a new model. Still, that’s cheaper than buying two phones at retail price.

Best Basic for Couples

If you and your spouse don’t use your phones a lot, Consumer Cellular has the best plan for you.

Consumer Cellular
1,200 minutes/1 GB
Monthly bill $60
Two-year cost with phones $2,740
Can you bring a phone? Yes
Minutes 1,200 shared
Texts 5,000
Data 1 GB shared
Data overage? 25 cents per MB
Network AT&T 4G LTE
Comment Sold at Sears and online

Best Plan: Consumer Cellular 1,200 Minutes/1GB

This Consumer Cellular option is dramatically cheaper than competitive plans, making it a great pick for couples who don’t spend a ton of time on their phones. The carrier also has a reputation for good customer service. A bonus: Consumer Cellular recently added new phones, including the iPhone, to its device lineup.

Glitch: This is one of the few plans that still caps talk minutes and text messages, though you can pay to add more.

Find a great plan that requires you to switch carriers? Read more about how to break up with your current provider here.

MONEY Tech

Want to Dump Your Cell Service Provider? Do These 4 Things First

Smartphone in the dirt
khoa vu—Getty Images/Flickr

Switching to a new carrier is getting easier. Thinking about a swap? Take these steps before you make the move.

1. Make sure you won’t regret ditching your current plan.

If you are one of the lucky ones who still has a true unlimited data plan, you may want to hold onto it. AT&T and Verizon no longer offer unlimited plans, and users who run over their allotted gigabytes can rack up big charges. Sprint still has a plan it refers to as “unlimited,” but the carrier has started slowing data speeds for its heaviest users. Many smaller carriers will also slow your data speed if you go over your plan’s monthly allotment. T-Mobile still offers an unlimited plan, but at a starting rate of $80 a month, it’s not cheap.

Of course, you may not actually need all that data. Before you make a decision, look back over your monthly bills to get a sense of how many gigabytes you actually use. It may not be as much as you think. “Most of the time people don’t use gobs of data,” says Kirk Parsons, senior director of telecom services at J.D. Power. “Between 1 and 2GB, that’s the sweet spot.”

For light or average users, a new, data-limited plan may meet your needs and cost less than what you pay today. In that case, make a move. On the other hand, you could discover that getting a new plan with a large enough data package would actually increase your monthly bill. If so, sit tight.

2. Find out what a switch will cost you.

Watch out for the dreaded early termination fee. If you’ve signed a two-year contract with one of the big four carriers, you could be on the hook for between $100 and $350, says Jon Colgan, founder of Cellbreaker, a startup company that helps people break their cellphone contracts.

Fortunately, there are a few ways out. A few carriers have started offering early termination fee “buyouts” to encourage customers to dump their old carriers. For example, T-Mobile promises to rebate your fee if you switch. The catch? You have to turn in your old phone and buy a new one from the carrier.

You may be able claim that the carrier breached the terms of the contract, which could allow you to switch without paying an early termination fee. Some examples: your carrier increases your bill or changes the terms of your service, or your phone constantly drops calls. For a price, Cellbreaker will help you through the process.

Now that noncontract plans are offered by most carriers, you no longer need lock yourself into another two-year contract if you’d prefer to have more flexibility in the future.

3. Determine whether your current phone is compatible with the new carrier’s network.

Until recently, if you wanted to jump to a new carrier you often had to buy a new phone. That usually meant paying the full price upfront (an iPhone runs about $650 ) or signing a new two-year contract and paying off the phone over time.

Now there’s another option. Sort of. Assuming your current device still works, you may be able to continue using it, since many providers now allow you to set up other phones on their network. But there’s one big caveat: not all phones will work on every carrier’s network. Today’s big providers (and thus the smaller carriers that buy into their networks) use different technology. So an iPhone you buy from Sprint is wired slightly differently than one purchased from AT&T, says Roger Cheng, the executive editor of technology news site CNET.

Before you make a move, even if you’ve read that you can bring your old phone to the new carrier, call or visit the carrier’s retail store to confirm that your device is good to go. Typically, phones that run on AT&T and T-Mobile’s networks use the same GSM technology and can be used on either provider, says Cheng. However, Verizon and Sprint phones often cannot be used elsewhere. But nuances exist, so it is always worth double checking.

4. See how well the new carrier’s network works in your area.

Obviously, you don’t want to switch only to find yourself dealing with dropped calls or limited web access. But don’t just rely on what you’ve heard from friends about a carrier’s service (or lack of it). This is a rapidly changing area.

Nationwide, Verizon and AT&T still offer the broadest and fastest coverage. But T-Mobile is gaining ground in many cities, where it is at its fastest. You likely care less about the national network, though, than how well the carrier performs where you live. Your best source of local data is RootMetrics. The firm tests call, text, and data coverage, analyzing both reliability and speed, from smartphones across 125 urban areas. For the rest of the country, RootMetrics relies on crowdsourced reports. You can type in any address at rootmetics.com to see the results.

Travel a lot? Or live in a rural area with spotty service? Before signing up with a smaller carrier, find out if the firm offers domestic roaming, which allows you to access another provider’s network when your carrier doesn’t have coverage. Many do not, which could leave you in the lurch.

Considering switching to T-Mobile? The carrier recently announced a program allowing would-be customers to test drive their network with an iPhone 5s for a week for free. Learn more here. Just be sure to return the phone undamaged.

Got through the checklist and ready to make a move? See our list of the best cellphone plans to find one that’s perfect for you.

TIME T-Mobile

T-Mobile’s CEO: AT&T and Verizon Are ‘Raping You’

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Presented By T-Mobile
CEO of T-Mobile John Legere attends Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Ari Perilstein—Getty Images

Just the latest in John Legere's history of madcap soundbites

T-Mobile CEO John Legere is hardly known for speaking delicately, but his most recent outburst, at a Wednesday press event, might take the proverbial profanity cake.

Business Insider reports that Legere had harsh words for competitors AT&T and Verizon. “These high and mighty duopolists that are raping you for every penny you have,” he said. “The f—ers hate you.”

According to The Verge, Legere was particularly perturbed about news of Amazon’s reported decision to make its smartphone AT&T exclusive. “Amazon doesn’t know what they just signed up for,” Legere said. “Remember the Facebook phone?

This isn’t Legere’s first tirade against other carriers. In March, he said that AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint’s subsidy model was “the biggest crock of sh-t I’ve ever heard in my entire life.” He also called AT&T “cr-p” at CES in January.

TIME apps

AT&T’s BabyFirst Interactive Service Called ‘Worst Baby App Ever’

To a ringing, upbeat soundtrack overlaid by the seductive phrase “Baby Geniuses,” a cheerful narrator in the promotional video below introduces a new interactive AT&T app for babies that grabs imagery from a tablet and pipes it in real time to a U-Verse-equipped TV.

Instead of tracking just one screen, in other words, the app encourages babies to juggle two.

There’s Mom, smiling and holding her baby, who in turn clutches an iPad and hammers away at coloring-book-style pictures that then appear on the big screen. The babies on the TV screen laugh and clap as cartoonish dogs, raccoons and kittens fill their view. The child watching seems delighted and engaged as Mom co-pilots.

“I would tell other moms to give it a try,” says the ardent mom. “I think you’ll really see that your kids will enjoy it.”

The hook is that AT&T’s app ties into something called BabyFirst, a satellite network launched in 2003 that describes its free-to-all programming as “specifically tailored for babies three years and younger.” Note the circumspect language used in that phrase — there’s no cutoff starting age, and the word “baby” can refer to anything from a young child in the throes of up-and-about toddlerhood, to a swaddled, barely interactive newborn.

If that’s setting off warning bells, it’s probably because you’ve heard somewhere along the line about the American Academy of Pediatrics, which makes it clear, based on the research to date, that children under two years of age should avoid exposure to “television and other entertainment media.” That, says the AAP, is because “a child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.”

The latter’s a generalization, to be fair, and one that hinges on nascent, unsettled research, but it references neuroscience’s conceptualization of early brain development wherein the brain is still physically changing for years after birth. How that development plays out, according to researchers, is impacted by the nature of the input the brain receives.

One of those researchers, Susan Linn, a Harvard Medical School instructor who directs the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood advocacy group, has been writing about the effects of media on children for years. She’s probably best known for leading the charge against Baby Einstein, the once Disney-owned company that produced popular videos like “Baby Mozart” and “Baby Shakespeare” back when the videos were being marketed to the parents of very young children as educational.

The CCFC on Wednesday launched a campaign to protest AT&T’s BabyFirst interactive app, demanding that the company end its partnership with BabyFirstTV, referencing infant learning and development researchers who the CCFC says believe adding a second screen to a baby’s learning environment is “a worrisome escalation.”

I had a chance to ask Dr. Linn a few questions by email Tuesday night. Here’s what she told me.

The question of one screen aside, is there a presumption being made, absent research, that two screens must be additively worse than one? Can you clarify what the research tells us about this?

There’s a great deal of research about what babies need for healthy brain development. They need to explore their world with all of their senses, hands-on play, active play, and to be talked to, played with, read to and cuddled by the adults who love them. There’s no evidence that watching television is beneficial for babies, and some evidence that, for infants and toddlers, it’s linked to delayed language development, sleep disturbance, obesity, and poor school performance when they’re older.

We also know that the experiences babies have and don’t have profoundly affect brain development and can create biologically compelled habits. There is evidence that early screen time is habit forming—the more children under three watch, the harder time they have turning screens off when they’re older and the more time they spend with screens.

There’s also evidence that multi-tasking results in doing whatever the tasks are less well. While the phenomenon of multi-tasking babies is too new to have been researched, given the plasticity of their brains, the impact of infant experiences on brain development, and what we already know about the problems associated with multi-tasking, it’s fair to assume that it’s not a good idea for babies.

The AAP’s recommendation aside, is there a way for a child under two to use an interactive screen that research indicates might be appropriate? Research in this area (and sufficient amounts of longitudinal data and controls) is still in its infancy, isn’t it?

Touchscreens are so new that we don’t have information about their impact on babies. Given what we do know about how babies learn and what they need for healthy development, and given growing concerns about the habit-forming nature of new technologies, it seems prudent to postpone screen time for infants and toddlers until they’re older. There’s no evidence that introducing babies to touchscreens will make them any better at using new technologies later in life.

Does any of the research indicate that use of a (supervised) interactive screen is fundamentally different, say, from reading a picture book, playing with a musical toy or drawing on paper?

There’s research showing that reading to babies is important for literacy and that talking to babies is important for language development. There is also research showing that the bells and whistles associated with ebooks interfere with the kind of parent/child discussions that are important for literacy and that babies can’t learn language from a machine. The difference between drawing on paper or playing with a non-electronic musical toy has to do with the sensory experience, the manipulative skills necessary, and the amount of effort needed to produce a particular result. There’s no research about this yet, but, again, given what we know about how babies learn and the importance of varied, multi-sensory experiences, there is reason to proceed with caution.

When we say “screen time,” do we mean all screen time, or just certain kinds of screen time? Do we know that reading the tablet version of a picture book (which after all is a 3D, physical object in its own right) is any more harmful (or helpful) than engaging with the paper version?

I expect that, except for the physical act of turning pages, there’s not much difference between just reading a book on a tablet and reading a physical book. The problem is that ebooks are often not just reproductions of picture books—they include a lot of distractions that interfere with comprehension of the story and with the kind of conversation between adults and children that’s important for literacy.

Does the research indicate the problem is with screen time, or with screens used in lieu of parental interaction? Might we eventually see scenarios in which screens become complementary to healthy parental engagement (assuming parents never use the screens as mere distraction tools)?

Given what we know about how babies learn, it’s hard to see how screen time of any kind could be more beneficial than hands-on play, active play, and exploring the world with all of their senses—even with parental involvement.

MONEY Amazon

WATCH: Amazon Smartphone Will Be Exclusive to AT&T

Amazon's first smartphone will launch exclusively on AT&T according to multiple reports.

TIME Tech

Comcast Turns 50,000 Homes into Wi-Fi Hotspots

Comcast Launches Xfinity Wi-Fi Hotspots
A Comcast worker installs Xfinity into a home. John Greim—© 2012 John Greim

Comcast turned 50,000 home routers in Houston into public Wi-Fi hotspots on Tuesday, the first stage in the company’s plan to launch hotspots across the country.

Customers with newer wireless routers will now host a Wi-Fi network named “xfinitywifi,” which other Comcast subscribers can join at no cost, the Houston Chronicle reported. The cable company will reach 8 million hotspots by the end of 2014, covering more than half of the U.S.’s major cities, according to a press release. The move will allow Comcast to compete with companies like AT&T, which offers WiFi hotspots through Starbucks and McDonald’s.

While customers had the opportunity to opt out of the initiative, more than 99% chose to enable their hotspots, a move that will improve Xfinity Wi-Fi accessibility among Comcast users and help them cut cellular data costs. In the past year, the number of out-of-home Xfinity WiFi sessions has increased by 700%.

According to Cisco, 88% of all U.S. data traffic from mobile devices will travel via Wi-Fi by 2018.

TIME wireless industry

Meet the Man Who Brought T-Mobile Back From the Brink

T-Mobile Holds Announcement Event In New York
Steve Sands—WireImage

If Sprint goes through with its rumored acquisition of wireless carrier T-Mobile, it will acquire about close to 50 million wireless subscribers, a company that generates $24 billion in annual revenue and a loud-mouth CEO that is said to be the leading candidate for steering the new, combined company.

John Legere was once a buttoned-up corporate suit for the international divisions of companies like AT&T and Dell, as well as the CEO of the now-defunct telecommunications company Global Crossing Limited. But he dumped the typical executive attire in favor of a blazer, jeans and a magenta T-shirt when he took over the ailing T-Mobile in the fall of 2012. The unusual attire fits his brash corporate strategy, which is basically to dismantle all the money-making fees the wireless industry has baked into cell phone plans over the years.

Through its “Uncarrier” campaign, T-Mobile has eliminated two-year contracts, gotten rid of international data charges and offered customers huge subsidies to lure them away from competitors. At first, the moves seemed like a desperate ploy from a last-place company. But T-Mobile has steadily added subscribers as it has offered more headline-grabbing deals, racking up 2.8 million additional postpaid subscribers since Legere took charge. The other carriers have tried to stop the company’s rise by lowering prices and offering some bribes of their own, but that hasn’t blunted T-Mobile’s momentum. In the first quarter of the year, T-Mobile added more new subscribers than the other three carriers combined. “T-Mobile’s results since they started this almost two years ago speak for themselves,” says Bill Menezes, principal research analyst at Gartner. “It really has changed the way all the big carriers now offer their service.”

Beyond overseeing strategy, Legere has given T-Mobile’s brand awareness a huge boost. He has almost 250,000 Twitter followers and regularly mocks his competitors by name. At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, he got kicked out of an AT&T party, generating tons of free press for his company. He issued a fake press release earlier this year in which he compared AT&T to Darth Vader. Is the rebel act all for show? Perhaps—Legere has been in the telecommunications industry for more than 30 years and at one point worked for current Sprint CEO Dan Hesse at AT&T. But Legere’s persona, authentic or not, aligns well with T-Mobile’s branding as a disruptor.

“Legere has been very successful in translating his personality style and kind of getting that across to the industry as someone that’s disruptive, someone that’s unorthodox in his presentation and his language,” says Wayne Lam, a wireless communication analyst at IHS technology. “He’s kind of personified that new T-Mobile brand.”

Legere’s marketing skills and business smarts have made him the primary candidate to lead the combined Sprint-T-Mobile, according to Bloomberg. “He’s seen as a dynamic figure who’s been successful at changign things in the cellular industry, and that’s really something that Sprint needs,” Menezes says.

Masayoshi Son, the CEO of Softbank, which owns Sprint, said last week at a tech conference that he admires Legere. Son has also indicated that he is fan of T-Mobile’s deep-discount strategy and believes it could be effective at scale. “I’m not content for Sprint to remain No. 3 because if we could grow bigger, we will offer aggressive discounts and services, just like we did in Japan,” he said earlier this year.

Still, T-Mobile is on a bit of a running clock because its effort to attract new customers is wildly unprofitable. The company posted a $151 million loss in the first quarter and missed analyst estimates for both earnings and revenue. A merger would instantly give the combined Sprint-T-Mobile about double the subscriber base, as well as the financial backing of Softbank, which generated more than $5 billion in profit in the 2013 fiscal year. The combined company would also have a more reliable network that would come closer to approaching the quality of AT&T’s and Verizon’s, Lam says.

Legere wins in a potential Sprint merger no matter the outcome. Either he becomes CEO of a larger telco that could legitimately compete with the top two carriers, or he gets a severance package of up to $42 million if he’s not hired at the merged company. Legere has said that a merger could be good for T-Mobile, but he’d like to stay in control. “I have no desire to turn T-Mobile into the son of something else,” he told Business Insider earlier this year.

Consumers hardly have such clear winning scenarios. There’s no guarantee that a larger, less desperate T-Mobile wouldn’t roll back its disruptive ambitions. The brand itself might eventually be swallowed whole by Sprint, which is what happened to former carriers such as Cingular Wireless and Alltel. And company consolidation is what created the fee-ridden industry that T-Mobile has so effectively disrupted in the first place. This four-horse race has been good for consumers, but there’s no telling how competitive dynamics may shift if the number of competitors dwindles to three.

“You’re eliminating a consumer choice,” Menezes says. “Any time you eliminate choice, I don’t believe that that’s good for consumers.”

TIME mergers

Mega-Mergers Are Killing Innovation

The latest mega-merger in the telecommunications sector, that of AT&T and DirecTV, would be the fourth largest in history, and it comes only months after the nation’s largest cable operator Comcast announced that it was buying Time Warner Cable, the second largest cable operator. Nor is telecommunications the only sector to see such acquisitiveness. Microsoft purchased the devices and services business of Nokia for $7.2 billion late last year, Google snapped up Nest for $3.2 billion in January, and Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion in February.

Such consolidation can be good for consumers as bigger companies have the resources to innovate and provide new products and services which might otherwise never materialize. However, the vertical integration of the telecommunications and technology sectors can also restrict innovation due to decreased competition and the limitation of research to specific technologies that support existing business lines.

Take, for example, the acquisition of WhatsApp. Facebook’s primary reason for acquiring the company is to utilize the chat technology on its social media platform to bolster its existing messaging application, which currently lags WhatsApp in the smartphone market. Beyond that, Facebook will no doubt try to leverage WhatsApp’s own user base, currently more than half a billion, to promote its social media offering. But either way, the integration of Facebook with WhatsApp is the main goal and driver of value instead of some trailblazing technological development in the chat space itself.

Similarly, Comcast’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable enables the company to enter complementary markets without actually having to build new infrastructure in those markets or to innovate in any way. Such plug-and-play growth engenders laziness and deprives the U.S. of necessary infrastructure improvement and development. The U.S. is currently ranked a pitiable 35th in the world in broadband capacity according to the World Economic Forum, with even smaller nations outpacing us in cutting edge telecommunications.

Even when it comes to ‘pure’ or fundamental science that can form the basis of future technology, the relentless drive for commercialization limits its destiny to whatever fuels profits in the short term and can impede future research that does not support that. True, third parties could conduct research for other applications but the ironclad patents that major corporations hold on their technology can make such efforts unprofitable. In other words, the acquisition of promising technologies by major corporations can actually limit them by forcing them along proscribed lines in the future.

Some of the greatest scientific discoveries that have fueled mankind’s advancement were made in the vacuum of human curiosity without the profit motive that has now become the norm. Today, unless the process of discovery is sponsored by some major corporation or has an obvious application to industry at the outset, there is little motive to pursue it. Even research institutions, which have historically been neutral havens for such discoveries, now require corporate money to survive and are bound by corporate rules. This is a loss for the spirit of innovation that drives human achievement.

That is not to say that all acquisitions are bad or that our biggest companies don’t move us forward technologically, but if the pace of consolidation by major players continues, it could shrink the playing field to such a degree that innovation will become the sole domain of a handful of companies who, for the most part, will only finance targeted research that promotes their own bottom line, and use patents to prevent others from advancing that technology in other directions. That may be a win for commerce but not necessarily for the type of unexpected discoveries that could improve our world in the future.

Sanjay Sanghoee is a political and business commentator. He has worked at investment banks Lazard Freres and Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, as well as at hedge fund Ramius. Sanghoee sits on the Board of Davidson Media Group, a mid-market radio station operator. He has an MBA from Columbia Business School and is also the author of two thriller novels. Follow him @sanghoee.

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