With President-elect Trump promising to roll back corporate regulations (and even hiring Carl Icahn to advise him on regulatory reform), telecoms and cable operators are hopeful that the new administration will gut Obama policies on issues ranging from M&A to how they operate and and charge customers.
Even if the political and regulatory outlooks improve, however, the industry will still have to deal with the growing threat of cyber crime, competition from new sources, and the need for wireless spectrum to carry all of the traffic streaming across their networks. Here are seven big predictions for what might happen in the telecom space in 2017.
1. Sprint resumes its pursuit of T-Mobile USA.
With a Republican administration in place, Sprint (S) - Get Report Chairman Masa Son likely has T-Mobile USA (TMUS) - Get Report CEO John Legere on speed dial. Son's Softbank invested $21.6 billion in Sprint in 2013 with the goal of merging with T-Mobile USA and creating a strong competitor to AT&T (T) - Get Report and Verizon (VZ) - Get Report . Regulators under Obama pushed back against the deal. Not wasting any time, Son has already had a photo op with the President-elect in Trump Tower and pledged to invest $50 billion in the U.S. Both stocks have had big gains this year, with T-Mobile USA up nearly 48% and Sprint gaining 132% through Wednesday's close. If Legere tweets a peace offering to Trump, after having previously engaged in Twitter wars with the President-elect, you'll know talks are getting serious and the stocks could go higher.
2. Verizon closes the Yahoo! acquisition but at a discount.
After the latest breaches at Yahoo (YHOO) , the outlook for the company's $4.8 billion sale of its core assets to Verizon is about as clear as the hashed-out passwords that cyber thieves stole. Yahoo's base of 1.2 billion monthly active users was a big part of the appeal to Verizon, and an exodus of users could drive the telecom away. However, Yahoo's advertising technology assets and media properties fit with Verizon's content strategy. Publicly, Verizon has seemed unruffled by the hacks and said that the company will review the impact. Every $1 billion that Verizon lops off the price, Macquarie notes, implies a $1 drop to Yahoo shares, which traded at around $39 as of Wednesday's close.
3. Comcast's wireless offering gets off to a slow start.
Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts said in December that Comcast (CMCSA) - Get Report plans to launch its virtual wireless service by mid-2017. The cable operator will resell Verizon service as a mobile virtual network operator, through a deal the companies brokered in 2011. MVNOs have had a tough existence. Sprint wireless joint ventures Virgin Mobile and Boost Mobile struggled, and the wireless carrier bought them out.
T-Mobile USA Chief Operating Officer Mike Sievert suggested at a September conference that Comcast and Charter (CHTR) - Get Report , which also plans a service, "might roll in here and find it's harder than they thought." Verizon is a "notoriously a tough negotiator," Sievert noted, and the cable companies negotiated their deal when data "was sold by the megabyte, not the gigabyte," indicating how much the operations and economics have changed. While Verizon and AT&T are formidable competitors at the top of the market, T-Mobile USA and Sprint are aggressively pursuing share.
4. The FCC's incentive auction closes in early 2017 at or below the low range of estimates.
The government's sale of broadcast TV spectrum licenses to wireless carriers is the first ever auction of its kind. The FCC offers to buy broadcast spectrum from TV station owners through a reverse auction, starting with a high bid and then lowering its offer to ensure it does not overpay. The government then takes offers from wireless carriers through a conventional auction with ascending bids. So far, the TV station owners have shown up to bid but the wireless carriers have had a diminished appetite. Many forecasts called for a final sale tally of $25 billion to $40 billion. It looks like the finally tally will be towards the low end of the range, if not beneath it.
5. As the incentive auction concludes, the value of Dish Network's wireless spectrum becomes clearer.
Dish (DISH) - Get Report Chairman Charlie Ergen saw the decline of satellite TV coming years ago, because the service lacked the capability to provide broadband service that cable and telecom networks offer. Grasping the importance of wireless broadband networks to the future of telecom, Ergen has been an aggressive buyer of wireless spectrum in government auctions and bankruptcy sales. What he will do with it remains unclear, however.
Building out a wireless network would be incredibly difficult. (See prediction number three.) Dish owns some appealing spectrum but the question is who would buy it? AT&T is busy with its Time Warner (TWX) acquisition and already bought DirecTV. At a December analyst meeting, Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam indicated that the telecom is not interested in buying Dish, BTIG's Walt Piecyk noted, but could take an interest in Charter. Dish could still form a joint venture that would allow a carrier like Verizon to use its spectrum while providing Dish with economic benefits and perhaps the ability to offer its own service. T-Mobile USA would be an interesting partner for Dish.
6. Congress proposes legislation to scale back net neutrality.
The Trump administration is no friend to net neutrality, the policy stating that broadband providers should treat all content equally online. With Republican control of both houses of Congress, legislation could pass, rolling back the rules. Some of the core principles of net neutrality may survive, such as provisions against blocking or discriminating against some content, or throttling service. And the Trump transition team at the FCC clearly favors zero rating, by which a carrier provides its content without counting it against data caps. Obama's FCC has opposed the practice, to the annoyance of AT&T and Verizon.
Telecoms and cable operators would be particularly eager to see Congress pass legislation that does away with the FCC's classification of broadband under Title II of the Communications Act, which essentially treats broadband as a utility service and opens the door for government regulation of prices, among other matters. Even though the Obama FCC has sworn off such regulation, telecoms have argued that the threat that the government could impose tight controls provides a disincentive to invest in networks.
7. Amazon dials up a communications service.
Building on its inroads into corporations through its cloud computing service, Amazon could delve into the market for unified communications, which incorporates voice, messaging and video conferencing. Oppenheimer projects that the market for unified communications and related services will hit $103 billion by 2020, and calls for Amazon to launch a service. Amazon has built or bought tools that could contribute to a unified communications service. The company developed a notification service that allows companies to send messages to Apple (AAPL) - Get Report , Alphabet (GOOGL) - Get Report Google, Microsoft (MSFT) - Get Report Windows and other devices. Amazon also purchased companies like online conferencing and video company Biba, video software developer Elemental Technologies and streaming company Twitch.