T-Mobile pays ex-FCC commissioner to lobby for Sprint merger

Readers of on Monday were treated to an op-ed titled “I’m a Former FCC Commissioner, and I Think the T-Mobile-Sprint Merger Is Great for America.”

The author is Robert McDowell, a Republican who served on the Federal Communications Commission from 2006 to 2013. McDowell’s position on T-Mobile’s $26 billion purchase of Sprint is no surprise because T-Mobile is paying him to help secure government approval of the merger.

“I currently serve as an advisor to T-Mobile,” McDowell disclosed in his op-ed.

McDowell, an attorney, is a partner at law firm Cooley LLP. A public relations representative for the law firm emailed Ars last week to tell us that “a Cooley LLP team led by Robert McDowell is serving as regulatory and public affairs counsel to T-Mobile” for its pending merger with Sprint. In response, we asked for an interview with McDowell but didn’t hear back.

McDowell’s role as a merger advisor to T-Mobile was also mentioned in a article.

McDowell opposed net neutrality and merger conditions

As an FCC commissioner, McDowell voted against net neutrality rules and opposed conditions imposed on the Comcast/NBCUniversal merger.

McDowell’s op-ed repeated T-Mobile’s primary justification for the merger, that it will let the third- and fourth-biggest US carriers create a better 5G network than they’d be able to build separately.

“By bringing these two wireless carriers under one roof, each company’s already-present 5G expertise and network assets will be combined and accelerated, benefiting the American people and our country’s global leadership,” McDowell wrote.

McDowell also repeated a common wireless-industry talking point that the US is in danger of falling behind other countries on 5G unless further mergers and deregulation are allowed.

“US companies are in a race against their Asian and European counterparts to be the global leaders in 5G technology,” McDowell wrote. “The countries that implement 5G first will set global standards and reap the economic benefits of winning the race.”

The argument that the US might fall behind in 5G has been pushed by the wireless industry’s biggest lobby group, CTIA, which is led by former FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker, also a Republican.

McDowell concluded his op-ed with this:

From a farmer in Nebraska using 5G technology to better track crop conditions, to a small business owner in New Hampshire looking to sell products in the global marketplace, to a smart city with autonomous vehicles, all of us will depend on 5G. We can’t afford to lose the global race to develop this remarkable technology.

Flaw in 5G argument

One problem for the 5G argument is that T-Mobile and Sprint each previously promised to build the country’s best 5G network on its own. McDowell’s piece did not explain why the companies’ pre-merger promises should be disregarded.

When AT&T tried to buy T-Mobile in 2011, it claimed that T-Mobile would not be able to make the jump from 3G to 4G by itself. US regulators prevented the AT&T/T-Mobile merger, and now T-Mobile has 4G LTE coverage available to more than 322 million Americans and claims that its network is the fastest in the US.

McDowell’s hands-off regulatory philosophy is shared by FCC chairman Ajit Pai, boding well for the merger’s chances of approval. The T-Mobile and Sprint CEOs met with Pai to discuss the deal yesterday.

The Justice Department could try to block the merger, and it has been skeptical of telecom industry consolidation during the Trump administration. In October 2017, when T-Mobile and Sprint discussed a merger but failed to strike a deal, Reuters reported that “the career staff who do the bulk of the probe into whether the deal will hurt customers will likely recommend that it be stopped.”

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