John Legere Takes the Freewheeling CEO Act Into the Unfunny Rape Zone

John Legere is the chief executive officer of T-Mobile, a wireless telecommunications company. But he’s not like those other telecom CEOs. John Legere is way, way cool. He wears T-Mobile pink T-shirts, usually under a black leather jacket. He launched the company’s new strategy early last year by describing both the wireless industry and the way the press covers it as “bulls-‍-‍-.” Earlier this year he gate-crashed an AT&T event, claiming he “just wanted to hear Macklemore.” He regularly offers up tweets like the one above. Because infidelity is funny.

Last night, Legere announced that T-Mobile would allow prospective customers to use an iPhone on its network for a week with no obligations. And he returned to his abuse of all the carriers that aren’t his carrier, telling the audience, “These high and mighty duopolists that are raping you for every penny you have … the f-‍-‍-ers hate you.” Then Macklemore performed. John Legere is way cool.

There is method in this. Over the past year and a half, T-Mobile has won new subscribers by doing something so radical, something that all carriers had avoided for a decade: He abandoned contracts, simplified billing, and lowered prices. This has forced other companies to follow, driving down “average revenue per user”—prices—for the entire industry.

He describes T-Mobile as the “un-carrier.” As Scott Moritz and I wrote in a profile last year, an un-carrier needs an un-CEO, and voilà: pink shirts and profanity. And there’s a great deal of truth in what he says. It’s hard to describe anything about telecommunications in this country without resorting to profanity. Carriers shamelessly overcharge for data, which likely costs them $3 a gigabyte to provide, then refer to their best customers as “data hogs.” They make promises to the Federal Communications Commission to get mergers approved, then fail to keep them. They lobby state governments to pass laws preventing cities from investing in their own fiber. If you don’t care for profanity, there’s enough here to merit regular, sputtering rage.

But there are two things wrong with what Legere said last night. First: “rape.” Legere is playing a game here. Every time he makes a public appearance, he needs to be just offensive enough to get our attention. That means he has to be slightly more offensive than the last time he got our attention. This is a machine with a ratchet, and it has now produced the deeply unfunny word “rape.” Perhaps no word is sacred, but that’s a defense for an act of art—not a corporate communications strategy. John Legere sells phone plans for a living. He’s not Sarah Silverman or Lenny Bruce.

Second, all of the problems with the industry, both wired and wireless, come from one central feature of the U.S. telecommunications market: There’s not enough competition. In an interview a couple of weeks ago, Craig Moffett of research firm MoffettNathanson pointed out that he had started hearing T-Mobile executives use the phrase “predatory duopoly.” Nestled right there next to the casual rape metaphor was a dog whistle for the FCC. T-Mobile has a possible merger of its own coming up, with Sprint.

This would reduce the number of major national wireless carriers from four to three, something the FCC has said it would like to avoid. By calling AT&T and Verizon Wireless “duopolists,” Legere is making a sly argument that, by reducing competition and letting T-Mobile merge with Sprint, the FCC would actually be helping competition by creating a new, large company to compete with the “high and mighty duopolists,” the f-‍-‍-ers that hate you.

John Legere is way cool for a telecom executive. You know, if you’re into Macklemore and big mergers and stuff.

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