SoftBank's Masa Son on why Sprint needs T-Mobile

The Internet is run by a cable monopoly in Comcast and a wireless duopoly in Verizon and AT&T, Son says. He wants to shake things up.

Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son
Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Even SoftBank CEO and Sprint Chairman Masayoshi Son is a fan of T-Mobile CEO John Legere.

"I highly admire John Legere," he said at Recode's Code Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., on Wednesday, eliciting applause and laughter.

Legere, in an email to CNET, responded in kind: "That's amazing because I was just saying how much I admire him too."

T-Mobile CEO John Legere CNET

Son (often referred to as Masa Son) has been leading a not-so-quiet campaign to convince regulators and the public that Sprint and T-Mobile should merge to form a stronger competitor in the wireless industry. He criticized the low speeds both on the home broadband and wireless side, and attributed that to the monopoly Comcast has on cable and Verizon Wireless and AT&T have in wireless. He's hoping to break that hold -- at least on the wireless side -- and increase speeds while lowering prices.

Son attempted to make his case for the merger without actually naming any specific company names -- a task that made for a surprisingly lively and entertaining conversation.

At this point, the arguments are well known. A merger between Sprint and T-Mobile would allow the two companies to share their considerable spectrum position, as well as reduce prices by eliminating redundant information systems and other costs. The two companies also would be able to raise the necessary capital expenditures to invest in a network better able to compete against AT&T and Verizon.

Regulators, however, have expressed their reluctance to approve such a deal, preferring to keep four nationwide competitors in the market. They point to T-Mobile, the fourth-largest wireless carrier by subscribers, which has surged back in recent months with renewed customer growth, as an example of why a merger with Sprint shouldn't happen.

But the concentration of power up top is why the speeds are inferior to other countries and prices are so high, Son said.

"We're going to provide better speed and lower prices," he vowed.

He made the comparison to someone living in Beijing not noticing the terrible quality of the air, arguing that US consumers don't know how badly they have it when it comes to Internet access.

"At my home in Silicon Valley I say, oh my god," he said. "How can America live like this?"

In Japan, there was a similar situation with NTT Docomo dominating the market. That's why he created SoftBank: to introduce high broadband speeds at low prices. He said he would do it again in the US, but on the wireless side. He also said he would honor the concept of wireless Net neutrality, or the idea that all traffic on the Internet is treated equally, something no other wireless carrier has pledged.

Sprint, however, provided a statement that walked back that comment.

"Both Masa and Sprint support the concept of an open internet in order to drive innovation in the US," the company said. "Masa was not, however, suggesting hypothetical commitments to a merger that doesn't even exist and his comments should not be interpreted as such."

AT&T and Verizon have quietly disputed Son's claims, noting that the speeds achieved by their LTE networks are among the fastest in the world. There's also the difficulty of building a nationwide network across a country as large as the US, with Son's experience limited to building a wireless network throughout the much smaller Japan.

SoftBank's Sprint, meanwhile, brings up the rear in terms of wireless speeds, something Son acknowledged.

"I've only owned the company for six months," he said. "It takes a few years to build. We have to design the network."

Updated at 2:20 pm and 4:54 pm PT: To include a comment from Legere and to add a statement from Sprint.