If the AT&T acquisition of T-Mobile is approved, does this lead to fiercer regional competition? There are plenty of small regional cellular firms that provide islands of access in specific metropolitan markets, some of them in several. Those, too, have been bought up by the big four in the last few years, but there are still plucky upstarts remaining, like Cricket.
Cricket has incredibly cheap service in its markets; you only pay through the nose when you travel. While many people travel far from home on a regular basis, there's a hefty number that don't need nationwide roaming. There's also Leap, MetroPCS, and US Cellular, to name a few. An AT&T spokesperson wants this conversation to happen, pointing out that 18 of 20 metropolitan markets have five or more cellular options. These aren't MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) who resell network access, but rather competitive network operators who operate their own infrastructure or lease infrastructure from third parties.
The most significant difference between regional and national carriers lies in 3G networks and 4G plans. MetroPCS launched a 4G LTE service early, and the regional firms all have 3G data services and reasonable plans. Cricket's mobile broadband plan is $40, $50, and $60 per month for 2.5 GB, 5 GB, and 7.5 GB of usage, respectively. US Cellular includes 5 GB with its Data Plus offering for smartphones (including Android models). One calling plan is 450 minutes, unlimited texts, GPS navigation, and Data Plus for $70/mo. No national carrier has such a sweet deal.
I wonder if the availability of small and often cheaper competitors will spark more an interest among customers as they find themselves navigating plans from what would be the three remaining national providers. I expect the iPhone, iPad, and specific models of Android and Windows phones drive the national market more than smaller carriers would like.