Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai framed approval of the proposed merger of Sprint and T-Mobile US as a “critical” part of the agency’s efforts to promote 5G deployment in mid-band spectrum and that he hopes a recently filed lawsuit fails to block the merger.
“When it comes to mid-band 5G, one of the most critical steps that the FCC can take is to approve the T-Mobile/Sprint transaction,” Pai said in prepared remarks before the New York State Wireless Association. He said that although Sprint has tremendous mid-band spectrum resources, “the record before the FCC makes clear that the company standing alone does not have the capacity to deploy 5G in this spectrum throughout large parts of rural America. On the other hand, if the T-Mobile/Sprint transaction is approved, the combined company will have the capacity to do just that. Indeed, they have committed to the FCC that they will deploy mid-band 5G to 88% of our nation’s population, including two-third of rural Americans. And there would be significant financial penalties if these commitments were not met. We should seize this opportunity to provide 5G to rural America and close the digital divide.”
Pai and FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr have both publicly indicated their support for the merger; the three remaining FCC commissioners have kept mum this far. While final decisions have not yet been handed down from the FCC and the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division on whether to allow the merger to proceed, fourteen state attorneys general have gone ahead with a recently filed lawsuit that seeks to block the merger on the grounds that it harms competition and consumers. The trial in the federal court in the Southern District of New York is slated to begin October 7.
Pai accused the state AGs who filed suit of trying to keep rural Americans from getting access to faster mobile broadband.
“Make no mistake about it, government officials trying to block this transaction are working to stop many upstate New Yorkers and other rural Americans from getting access to fast mobile broadband and all of the benefits that come with it,” Pai said. “As former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn recently put it, ‘Particularly for those on the wrong side of the digital divide, this lawsuit by a small number of state attorneys general would reinforce an unacceptable status quo.’
“I hope that these misguided efforts fail,” Pai added.
Clyburn, formerly an FCC commissioner, is now acting as an advisor to T-Mobile US on the merger.
While Pai held up the merger as a way to expand mobile broadband access for rural America, the Rural Wireless Association this week praised the judge who is handling the states’ case against the merger for recent remarks in a pre-trial hearing that reflected concerns about the merger’s potential impact on rural areas. RAW represents a number of rural wireless operators who have fewer than 100,000 subscribers each.
“Judge Victor Marrero voiced a series of concerns with the merger’s impact on rural consumers, focusing heavily on the potential detrimental impact on rural areas. Specifically, with T-Mobile’s plan to decommission some of Sprint’s cell sites in rural areas and the loss of affordable roaming for rural consumers, he queried whether there would be a loss of service in rural America. He also questioned T-Mobile’s proposed build out plan which has not been very specific. Additionally, Judge Marrero appeared interested in whether AT&T and Verizon would step in to build out to rural areas if Sprint is eliminated,” the trade association said.
“RWA is pleased that Judge Marrero is looking after rural Americans and those traveling in rural America. His comments today during the pre-trial hearing are of great comfort to our members and the customers they serve,” said Carri Bennet, general counsel for RWA. “T-Mobile has not been interested in rural America until it became apparent that it cannot get its merger through without working on its coverage issues in rural America or its treatment of its customers trying to reach those living and working in rural America,” she added. “RWA continues to appreciate the good work that the attorneys in both the New York and California AG’s offices are doing to protect consumers from loss of service and increases in prices.”
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