Reporters on a conference call hosted by the AT&T-backed Internet Innovation Alliance on Thursday got an earful about how rural America could benefit from more access to high-speed Internet.
But representatives from some of the featured groups needed a little help remembering to promote AT&T's proposed merger with T-Mobile as the best way to provide more broadband.
Leaders from diverse groups like the Alabama Rural Health Association and the Center for Business, Education and Arts in Kanab, Utah, described at length how the Internet can improve life in the backwoods of America. But at the end of at least two speeches, IIA's honorary chair, former Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., had to jump in and remind the speakers to put in a plug for the controversial merger.
"Wireless access is a must for farmers because if they can't compete they're going to lose in the global marketplace," said Chris Studer, communications and marketing director for the South Dakota Farmers Union. He said increased access to wireless services could help keep the next generation of farmers and ranchers interested in working the land.
But while there is little dispute over the benefits of wireless technology, especially in rural areas, there is far less agreement on whether the AT&T/T-Mobile merger is needed to expand coverage.
"If AT&T wants to bring service to rural areas, it is free to do so now without any constraint," Public Knowledge president Gigi Sohn told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights in May. "There are no spectrum shortages in rural America. AT&T is planning to spend $39 billion on this merger -- money that could instead be spent investing in its network and bringing better service to more Americans."
Boucher countered that view on Thursday, arguing that it's common sense to assume that AT&T's acquisition of T-Mobile will help expand coverage.
In his former congressional district in Virginia, he said, there are "many small communities with no broadband access... and it's simply too expensive to deploy. It's much more economical to serve those areas with wireless broadband." Combining T-Mobile and AT&T will free up more spectrum to build in underserved areas, Boucher said.