With AT&T's announcement Sunday that it plans to buy T-Mobile USA for $39 billion, customers will have to get ready for some changes, although the deal isn't set to close for about a year and likely will face tough regulatory scrutiny. Here's what a completed deal could mean for customers:
• Some time after the deal is completed, T-Mobile phones with "3G" wireless broadband won't get 3G service anymore, and will need to be replaced. AT&T will be offering new phones with access to AT&T's 3G network to these customers, but it's not clear what the deals will be. It could take a year for AT&T to turn off T-Mobile 3G, so there will be time to adjust. AT&T will use T-Mobile's 3G frequencies for 4G instead, for faster data speeds.
• T-Mobile subscribers will have more phone choices. T-Mobile, as a much smaller carrier than AT&T, doesn't get as many exclusives on top-line phones, and it doesn't have the iPhone. This won't be a big benefit to T-Mobile subscribers who don't have contracts — if they want the iPhone today, they can sign up with AT&T or Verizon Wireless. But subscribers under contract would find it easier to upgrade to an iPhone.
• Wider rural broadband coverage. AT&T is pledging to increase spending on the construction of a new ultrafast broadband network by $8 billion, to cover rural areas.
• Fewer pricing plans. T-Mobile and AT&T have different offerings, some of which might disappear from the market.
• Better network coverage. Combining the networks will improve performance in some areas, because there will be more towers. But today's AT&T phones can't use T-Mobile's 3G wireless data network, and vice versa, because they run on different frequencies.
• No more unlimited data plans. AT&T stopped offering unlimited data plans in favor of plans with monthly data usage caps and overage fees. T-Mobile offers "unlimited" data for smart phones for $30 a month. If the deal closes, "unlimited" subscribers could be grandfathered in, but AT&T would likely not offer the plan to new subscribers.
• The big question is whether the merger would let AT&T, Verizon and Sprint raise prices on wireless service once competition from T-Mobile disappears. AT&T points out that prices have fallen through a decade of mergers in the industry, but public-interest groups are raising concerns.