The U.S. District Court assigned to hear the case against AT&T’s merger was inundated this week with filings as the major players sparred over how one of the biggest antitrust suits of the decade will go down.
The Justice Department sued in August to block AT&T’s proposed $39 billion acquisition of T-Mobile on the grounds that it is anticompetitive. The trial will start on Feb. 13 if the sides don’t settle out of court before that as AT&T hopes.
In the meantime, the court is hearing arguments on whether Sprint and C Spire (formerly Cellular South) can join the lawsuit, adding resources to the Justice Department case but also slowing the proceedings.
In a Thursday filing to the court, AT&T is scheduled to repeat its arguments that the competitors do not have standing to sue because they cannot prove the merger will harm them. That's the high hurdle that companies must clear before bringing an antitrust suit, usually the job of government regulators.
The competitors say that the merger will hurt their ability to access handsets, roaming contracts, and backhaul -- a landline-service crucial to connecting cellular calls.
Judge Ellen Huvelle could decide on the Sprint/C Spire question during Oct. 24 oral arguments on this issue, but she has discretion to make the decision when she chooses.
Because the standing question remains undecided, there is now a heated debate over the extent to which Sprint and C Spire can participate in pretrial processes.
The competitors and the Justice Department filed with the court on Wednesday to argue that Sprint and C Spire should be allowed to participate in discovery, a pretrial period in which parties exchange documents. They said the competitors provide industry expertise that could help rebut AT&T’s arguments.
Sprint and C Spire “are likely to have the ability and interest to provide informed technological and business responses to [AT&T and T-Mobile’s] assertions and, given the short time available for fact and expert discovery in this case, it makes sense to provide an efficient and expedited process for the review of the parties’ factual claims and expert conclusions,” the Justice Department told the court.
Huvelle announced that she will hear debate on the discovery question on Oct. 24, when all the parties return to the court for oral arguments on the standing question. She has so far barred the competitors from jumping into the discovery round.
Another uncertainty looms over the case: the Google question. The Internet-search giant filed with the court last month to request that it is informed when Justice Department lawyers share confidential data that the government collected from the company while reviewing the deal.
AT&T and the Justice Department both objected to that in court filings on Tuesday, arguing that it is unnecessary and would slow things down.
Google had told the court that it was worried confidential infromation “such as Google’s business plans related to Android” could fall into "the hands of competitors.”
AT&T's proposed purchase of T-Mobile merger would reduce the number of national wireless companies from four to three. It would also concentrate 80 percent of the market in the hands of Verizon and AT&T and crown AT&T the new market leader.
The Justice Department is afraid that would damage competition and hurt consumers. But the company argues that fierce competition from regional wireless companies means the wireless market is more competitive than ever and woud remain so after the merger.