Sprint’s Lifeline debacle prompts more calls for pause in merger review

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Nine public interest, rural and labor organizations are calling on the FCC to pause its review of the proposed T-Mobile/Sprint merger while issues related to Sprint’s alleged Lifeline fraud are investigated. (Fierce Wireless)

Just a week after Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel described the T-Mobile/Sprint merger review process as “bonkers,” a group of nine organizations filed a supplemental petition with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) calling for it to pause the review process.

Citing Sprint’s alleged Lifeline fraud and calling the merger review process “highly unusual,” the petition (PDF) urges the commission to seek public comment on “fundamental changes in this transaction” that have taken place since the conclusion of the formal comment period, such as Dish Network's waiver requests, Dish’s July 26 commitments to the commission and related developments, including the Department of Justice (DOJ) Consent Decree.

The joint petition warns that failure to seek public comment would be a violation of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA).

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RELATED: Rosenworcel calls T-Mobile/Sprint merger review process ‘bonkers’

The petition was filed by the Communications Workers Of America (CWA); Consumer Reports; Institute For Local Self-Reliance; New America’s Open Technology Institute; NTCA - The Rural Broadband Association; Open Markets Institute; Public Knowledge; Rural Wireless Association (RWA); and The Greenlining Institute.

Expounding on the unusual nature of the merger review process, the petitioners noted that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and two other commissioners announced their support for the merger before the completion of the legal, engineering, and economic analysis by the commission staff and before the completion of the DoJ’s antitrust review.  

RELATED: T-Mobile/Sprint merger changes prompt calls for public comment period

The petition cites public records indicating that since the announcement of the draft T-Mobile/Sprint merger order on August 14, 2019, T-Mobile held 15 meetings with FCC commissioners and staff, but it asserts that T-Mobile’s ex parte filings on the meetings did not comply with the FCC’s ex parte rules.

“They are very brief cursory notices that do not provide sufficient detail under the ex parte rules to allow the public to understand exactly what T-Mobile communicated in these meetings. The FCC should require T-Mobile to supplement its ex parte filings with additional information sufficient to bring it into compliance with the ex parte rules,” the filing states.

RELATED: Starks: FCC must pause T-Mobile/Sprint review in light of Lifeline investigation

The supplemental petition comes at the same time Bloomberg reported that the proposed merger received a third “yes” vote at the FCC, moving the deal toward a formal agency approval in coming days. The report cited people familiar with the matter who did not want to be identified because the voting is done behind closed doors. The third vote reportedly came from Commissioner Brendan Carr, who previously stated his approval of the transaction.  

According to Bloomberg, the third vote sets into motion procedures that would require agency action by Oct. 9, or Oct. 16 if an extension is requested by a commissioner. FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks last month called on the agency to put the review on hold until an investigation into Sprint’s alleged misuse of millions in Lifeline subsidies is resolved.

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