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Rural Wireless Carriers Are Challenging T-Mobile And Sprint Merger

Jul 27, 2019
Originally published on July 27, 2019 12:53 pm
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The U.S. Justice Department will allow T-Mobile and Sprint to merge. Both companies agreed to some concessions five years after they first proposed the idea. But a group of states and rural wireless carriers still challenge the merger, as NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Among the four nationwide carriers, Sprint has historically had a good reputation with companies that provide cellphone service in rural areas.

CARRI BENNET: So that's been a very nice relationship between Sprint and the rural carriers. With T-Mobile, that relationship has not been so nice.

SELYUKH: Carri Bennet is a lawyer who represents the Rural Wireless Association. She says when customers of smaller rural carriers travel out of their area, they rely on bigger companies, like Sprint, to cover them. These rural carriers also need bigger providers for access to high-quality airwaves, so-called spectrum, that carry your data and calls.

And now that T-Mobile is buying Sprint, close to 80 rural carriers worry about what that means for them.

BENNET: If they don't have access to that spectrum, they don't have access to those roaming agreements, folks that live in rural America will not have affordable service.

SELYUKH: This is a big concern for the regulators. But in the end, the Justice Department struck a deal to approve T-Mobile's purchase of Sprint for $26 billion. Much of this deal has to do with the government's goal of speeding up the rollout of 5G wireless service, the new generation of data connections. T-Mobile and Sprint argue that together, they would be a stronger 5G challenger to Verizon and AT&T.

On Friday's earnings call, T-Mobile CEO John Legere also said the prices won't go up.

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JOHN LEGERE: We are going to create a bigger and bolder competitor with a transformative 5G network.

SELYUKH: Another key element of the deal - the government is pushing one more company to become the new fourth wireless provider, Dish Network. Dish will buy Sprint's prepaid phone businesses Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile, and it promises to also start building a 5G network.

But Bennet and other critics point out Dish has long had spectrum and has not built a wireless network. Plus, for the first few years, Dish will rely on T-Mobile's network to operate. Here's New York Attorney General Letitia James.

LETITIA JAMES: Dish has never shown any inclination or ability to build a nationwide mobile network on its own.

SELYUKH: James is one of 14 attorneys general suing to block the merger. Bennet's Rural Wireless Association is also challenging the deal. Meanwhile, T-Mobile says the merger is expected to be complete later this year.

Alina Selyukh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DECEPTIKON'S "NARCISSUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.