Merger gains advocate in former congressman

AT&T has pledged to expand mobile broadband to 97 percent of the population if the merger is approved. That tips the scales in favor of the deal, in Boucher's view. 

"The primary issue is access to broadband. I think the secondary issue is the effect on competition," he said. "The effect on competition is minimal enough that we should not sacrifice the chance to bring broadband to virtually everyone who wants it."

Boucher would not predict whether the deal would decrease competition "since new carriers are cropping up all the time." He noted that most major cities have five or more wireless carriers. 

A former rural lawmaker, Boucher emphasized the benefits for the countryside if AT&T were to expand broadband to hard-to-reach areas, as its pledge says it will. 

"Broadband is the bridge that links our rural communities to the economic mainstream," Boucher said.

He also cited benefits for the tech industry, and said companies like Amazon and eBay will be beneficiaries since customers with fast connections will be better equipped to use their services. 

Boucher cited challenges that face public policy solutions to achieving universal broadband. 

On the question of reforming the Universal Service program, he reiterated his view that legislation is needed to overhaul the $8 billion fund, which subsidizes telecom costs. He and Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) had introduced a reform bill in the last Congress. 

"To really have a comprehensive reform, Congress needs to act," he said, pointing to the revenue side of the equation, in which firms pay into the fund, as a component where the FCC does not have sufficient legal authority to make all the necessary changes. 

A congressional effort could face major obstacles. "There may be a challenge in terms of the political will to pass the reform," Boucher said. 

Boucher also pointed to budgetary efforts to zero out Rural Utilities Service funding for broadband loans as a sign of the challenges government faces in bridging the broadband gap. 

Consumer advocates and midsize cellphone companies strongly oppose the merger, arguing that a decrease in competition will hurt innovation across the tech and wireless industries and that prices will rise as a result of consolidation. 

The merger faces its second test on Capitol Hill on Thursday in a hearing before a House Judiciary subcommittee. The CEOs of AT&T and Deutsche Telekom will testify.