Broad coalition taking shape to battle AT&T, T-Mobile merger

AT&T officials might be "confident" that they can usher their merger with T-Mobile past federal regulators, but that doesn't mean a formidable set of opponents won't do everything in their power to stop it.

A diverse group of industry and public-interest figures is lining up to campaign against the proposed deal, which would create the nation’s largest wireless carrier. 

Advocacy sources predict a wall-to-wall lobbying campaign over the merger, featuring aggressive ad buys, events on Capitol Hill and the formation of a new coalition to try and scuttle it. 

AT&T's chief executive, Randall Stephenson, has said he is "confident" the deal will go through, based on the public-interest benefit of expanding wireless access and against the backdrop of what he sees as strong competition in the mobile market. 

Analysts, however, say the deal has a very real shot of being rejected or excessively conditioned by federal regulators. 

Sprint is expected to lead the way in the pending lobbying blitz, flanked by midsized and small carriers who fear the merger will cast them into irrelevance. The deal would leave Sprint a distant third in the U.S. wireless market, behind AT&T and Verizon. 

Sprint has already begun articulating an argument against the deal.

"I have concerns that it would stifle innovation and put too much power in the hands of two," chief executive Dan Hesse said to applause at the CTIA conference Tuesday in Orlando, Fla. 

Sprint can’t match AT&T when it comes to lobbying in Washington, but the company has a sizable presence.

Sprint spent $2.5 million on lobbying last year, funding more than 30 lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Its in-house lobbying team is led by Bill Barloon, a company veteran who first joined in 1984 as one of the first employees in Sprint's cellular subsidiary.

The company is also active in campaigns, shelling out $258,000 in PAC spending last year. Though less than a tenth of what AT&T spent, the cadre of officials who won Sprint's generosity diverged starkly from those AT&T favored.

Top Sprint recipients include some of the Democrats' most influential telecom voices, including Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Communications subcommittee, and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.). AT&T shelled out nearly $3.2 million last year, but didn't find a a dime to spend on these Dems. 

Even Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), one of the most powerful Democrats in the caucus and the top member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, collected more from Sprint than AT&T. 

Long story short: the companies may have different doors open to them as they fight their way through the regulatory process. 

What's more, Sprint has close allies in Washington's consumer advocacy community — no stranger to war with AT&T. Sprint has worked with public interest groups on a range of issues, including special access, data roaming and the proposed D Block spectrum auction. 

Public Knowledge, Consumers Union, Free Press and the Media Access Project have already come out against the AT&T merger on the grounds that it is anticompetitive and could hurt consumers. The groups have sway with Democrats at the Federal Communications Commission and on Capitol Hill. Free Press and Public Knowledge have already begun email campaigns against the acquisition. 

Powerful Internet companies might also look askance at the deal, since it leaves them with fewer partners they can negotiate with regarding the delivery of their content and applications to users. The merger would leave them critically dependent on just two companies.

The Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), which includes Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and eBay, has already come out swinging.

"A deal like this, if not blocked on antitrust grounds, is of deep concern to all the innovative businesses that build everything from apps to handsets. It would be hypocritical for our nation to talk about unleashing innovation on one hand and then stand by as threats to innovation like this are proposed," said Ed Black, president and CEO of CCIA.

Broadcasters could also have reason to fight AT&T’s plans.

Analysts at Stifel Nicolaus wrote in a note to clients that the deal could "alter the current spectrum debate in Washington. If these two companies can satisfy much of their spectrum needs by joining forces, it would reduce some of the demand for new spectrum and possibly lower auction revenue estimates."

Telecom industry sources agreed that lowered spectrum demand is a likely outcome of the merger. One source noted that the development could also reduce the amount of money the U.S. Treasury gains from spectrum auctions, which have been pitched as a cash cow for the government.

Rural and mid-sized carriers are also gearing up to take on the merger, arguing it's bad for connecting the countryside. 

"This announcement is not a good development for competitive carriers," said Steven Berry, president and CEO of the Rural Cellular Association. "Rural America stands to be the most negatively affected by approval of such a ‘mega-merger’ without significant conditions to ensure competitive forces are not eliminated as a result."

The anti-merger coalition could gain a very powerful opponent is if the cable lobby opposes the deal, according to observers. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association has some smaller members that offer wireless services of their own.

One voice is likely to be absent from the vigorous debate over the merger: Verizon. 

It's tough for the nation's largest wireless carrier to make an anticompetitive argument, especially as the opposition effort will likely hinge on a big guy vs. little guy argument. Plus, analysts are saying Verizon might eye acquisitions in the wake of the deal. 

"We've been through a series of great acquisitions and great integration into our company," Verizon Wireless head Dan Mead said at CTIA on Monday, adding that he does not agree with assessments that the deal is bad for consumers.