True to his reputation as the Federal Communications Commission’s lone gadfly, Commissioner Michael Copps says that AT&T will be hard-pressed to prove that its proposed merger with T-Mobile will benefit the public.
Speaking to a receptive crowd at the National Conference for Media Reform in Boston over the weekend, Copps said he will need to see “a hell of a lot more” conditions and information from AT&T for the plan to receive his vote. “At some point, we’ve got to stand up and say, ‘What about competition?’ ” he said.
Copps, one of the FCC's three Democratic members, was the only commissioner to reject Comcast’s acquisition of NBC-Universal in January, and he told National Journal that AT&T’s proposed merger will be an “even steeper climb.”
“I always want to see the public-interest benefits that will flow from any particular transaction, and I think it’s going to be exceedingly hard to find sufficient public-interest benefits that are going to flow from this to think that it will be winning my approval,” he said in the interview. He added that he has told executives from AT&T and T-Mobile as much.
Copps said he has yet to get a “data-driven” response from the companies about how the merger might affect jobs, and he expressed concerns about whether the deal could funnel resources overseas. “There are a whole lot of ramifications to this transaction that I find disturbing,” he said. Copps promised that the FCC would conduct a “laborious and intensive examination” of the merger proposal.
AT&T announced the $39 billion deal on March 21, and the company asserts that the merger--which would create the largest wireless carrier in the United States--will be a boon to consumers and increase next-generation wireless service. “This will improve network quality; it will give more customers access to more services,” AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said at the time.
A source close to the process said that AT&T could file with the FCC as soon as April 21. AT&T officials have said they expect the process to take about a year, while other analysts have speculated that it could drag on longer. But Copps said he hopes that the merger will be considered sooner, and he sees no reason it should take a year.
Fellow Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn was more circumspect, saying she will review the merger on its merits when the process officially begins.
“Each transaction is different … and we will review each transaction individually,” she told National Journal. “That, to me, is the only fair way to be a responsible regulator.”
Copps is often a vocal voice of dissent on the commission, a trait that earned him standing ovations at the conference in Boston. It also has drawn criticism from some conservatives who dislike what they consider his activist view of the government’s role in telecommunications regulation.
But the 10-year veteran of the FCC may not be around to vote on the AT&T/T-Mobile merger: Copps has said he plans to retire when his second term ends later this year. If he does, he said, he is not concerned about the possibility of a divided commission should the merger be considered after he leaves.
This article appears in the April 11, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.