As was the case a couple of years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice still isn't interested in letting satellite television brands DISH Network (DISH 0.75%) and AT&T (T 0.90%)-owned DIRECTV merge into the sole company of its kind -- at least not yet.
The DOJ's chief concern is a potential lack of competition in rural areas, where satellite dishes are often consumers' only option for cable TV. According to the New York Post, the DOJ's antitrust arm would only be willing to reconsider the idea once additional 5G coverage is available in the country's more outlying areas.
It makes sense. While 4G wireless speeds aren't cut out for data-heavy digital video transmissions, 5G speeds are. And of course, these connections won't require physical lines stretched all the way to remote customers' homes. A nearby cell tower will do the trick.
If 5G is the only missing link for these consumers, though, once they finally get it, they won't need a satellite dish at all. They can simply buy streaming cable from the company most likely to provide their wireless at-home internet service. That may well be T-Mobile (TMUS -0.02%), which has been working on such a product for years.
TVision is ready for this future
It's called TVision. While available to certain wired broadband consumers right now, T-Mobile's broadband-delivered cable service is ultimately being developed for a "5G future where wireless broadband will replace home internet." In this vein, T-Mobile is also piloting T-Mobile Home Internet that "will lay the foundation for ... T-Mobile's plans to disrupt the home broadband market with nationwide 5G," the company explained in its marketing materials for the new service.
There's no need to read between the lines. TVision's webpage prominently points out rural households are generally underserved by the country's most prolific broadband providers. As such, its ultimate plan is covering 97% of the country with 5G service by 2023, and 99% by 2026. That should in turn cover 85% and 90% of rural America, respectively, in these timeframes. In fact, this degree of coverage was one of the chief requirements linked to the DOJ's approval of the merger of Sprint and T-Mobile last year.
If the hardware is going to be in place anyway, why not use it for more than just wireless phone service? That's exactly what T-Mobile intends to do.
Homegrown cable service isn't the only option
The mere availability of this cable TV option is, of course, no guarantee that T-Mobile will be able to sell it. Cord-cutting is adversely impacting all modes of delivering cable service. AT&T, the current owner of DIRECTV, reported the loss of another 886,000 premium/cable customers during the three-month stretch ending in June. Comcast lost 427,000 cable customers during its second quarter.
That attrition not only serves as a sampling of the cable industry's recent customer losses, but it extends a long-standing trend that isn't apt to end anytime soon. TV market research outfit The Diffusion Group estimates that 36% of the country's current pay-TV customers will cancel their service by 2025, including streaming cable services like T-Mobile's TVision. The Diffusion Group's outlook ultimately implies that less than half of the broadband customers in the U.S. will also be paying for cable within the next five years. And priced at $90 per month, TVision isn't likely to change anyone's mind about cutting the cord.
It's an outlook that doesn't necessarily have to negate T-Mobile's television ambitions. By positioning itself as the owner of the "pipe" through which any of its rural customers' video entertainment is delivered, the company is effectively a tollbooth that can sell a variety of streaming services like Netflix or even rival streaming cable services like YouTube TV, from Alphabet. In fact, then-CEO of T-Mobile Mark Legere pointed to this very prospect a couple of years ago by commenting during a quarterly conference call: " ... we think there's a more nuanced role for us to play in helping you get access to the great media brands out there that you love. And to be able to put together your own [monthly] media subscription in smaller pieces, $5, $6, $7, $8 at a time."
Connect the dots. T-Mobile is thinking holistically.
Other wireless carriers are tinkering with their own 5G-based at-home internet services, for the record. The aforementioned AT&T also offers a streaming cable option in AT&T TV Now, and Verizon not only has streaming cable plans, but also offers YouTube TV as an alternative. Placing their own 5G equipment atop towers positions each to sell whatever video services they choose.
But neither of these companies appears to be taking rural 5G broadband -- and its subsequent rural cable -- as seriously as T-Mobile is, which could end up being a surprisingly big win for the carrier, regardless of how it ends up monetizing its 5G network. Roughly 14 million rural Americans (about a fourth of all rural Americans) don't yet have access to high-speed internet, but would probably like to.
One thing seems pretty certain either way: Once these consumers gain that access to broadband, they'll need neither DIRECTV nor DISH. Melding the two still won't solve these companies' biggest problems, now or later.