T-Mobile has tapped the FCC’s most recently departed commissioner, Democrat Mignon Clyburn, as a paid adviser to its $26 billion deal with Sprint, pitting her against public interest groups that oppose the deal and typically see Clyburn as a reliable ally.
Clyburn advocated for marginalized communities during her eight-year tenure on the commission and opposed AT&T’s failed 2011 bid for T-Mobile because she didn’t believe it would serve the public interest. She argues this merger, however, will help close the digital divide and bring service to underserved areas.
“I’m advising T-Mobile and Sprint as it seeks to accelerate the creation of an inclusive nationwide 5G network on how to best build a bridge across the digital divide,” Clyburn said in an interview.
Critics of the T-Mobile-Sprint deal have said it will harm low-income communities and communities of color. They argue it’ll drive job losses, in part as a result of store closures in urban areas. They also argue the combined company will likely shift focus to competing against AT&T and Verizon for higher-income subscribers. T-Mobile and Sprint have long fiercely competed for low-income customers.
But Clyburn maintains concern for those consumers is part of why she’s advising the companies. She said T-Mobile and Sprint have already shown their commitment to serving low-income and minority communities and will continue to do so after merging.
T-Mobile declined to comment on Clyburn’s role. The position represents her most high-profile move since announcing her departure from the FCC last April. She received a year-long fellowship with the Open Society Foundations in June to work on prison phone rate reform and started a consulting firm, MLC Strategies, a few weeks ago. She will not register as a lobbyist or appear at the FCC.
Clyburn is the latest among a number of current and former public officials boosting the deal, now under review at the Federal Communications Commission and Justice Department. Former Republican FCC Commissioner Rob McDowell is also advising T-Mobile and penned an op-ed in support of the merger soon after it was announced.
And Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo, (Calif.) joined several other lawmakers in a letter backing the deal. She told POLITICO she believes the deal will “inject even more competition” into the marketplace.
Clyburn could be a “formidable opponent” to the public interest groups working to sink the merger, given that she usually found herself aligned with those groups during her days on the commission, said Jeff Hauser, founder and director of the Revolving Door Project.
“Clyburn has thorough insight into the practices of merger review at the FCC as well as the ways in which public interest groups seek to prevent anti-competitive mergers, which means her expert advice will be enormously valuable to T-Mobile,” Hauser said in an email. “Public interest groups which have worked so constructively with her in the past will, sadly, find her a formidable opponent in the present. It’s sad.”
Matt Wood, vice president of policy and general counsel at Free Press, which opposes the merger, questioned the arguments behind Clyburn’s support. He said the deal will hurt consumers and competition and that the companies will keep building out their networks, including forthcoming 5G networks, with or without merging.
“It’s hard to see how this deal’s impacts — decreasing choices and raising prices, all to build networks that the companies are already building — would do anything but widen the digital divide rather than close it,” Wood said.
For their parts, T-Mobile and Sprint have promised broad consumer benefits stemming from the merger. They say combining will let them more quickly build higher-quality networks, including in rural areas. And they contend that by being better positioned to compete directly with AT&T and Verizon, they can drive a price war that will lower prices for wireless consumers across the board.
The companies separately promised the FCC Monday that T-Mobile and Sprint subscribers will get the same or better rates on their phone plans after the merger.
Clyburn said she believes the merger can indeed help put wireless service in reach for more rural and low-income Americans, and her work with T-Mobile can help ensure that remains a priority.
“The people and the entities that need 5G opportunities are those in rural and low net-worth communities, and the only way for them to be realized is to have a commitment to serve those communities,” she said. “I am advising on this particular transaction to better ensure that that is a reality for all of those in those communities … I believe it’s important for those like me who care about those communities to do whatever we can to ensure the opportunities abound.”