AT&T Wants to Monopolize Everything

Megan Tady

If you’re one of AT&T’s 96 mil­lion cus­tomers, no doubt you’ve expe­ri­enced the frus­tra­tions of dropped calls or weak sig­nals, even in the mid­dle of a metrop­o­lis. The sleek­est apps and Luke Wilson’s charm can’t hide the fact that AT&T’s net­work is some­times akin to pay­ing for a four-star meal, but get­ting a frozen dinner.

If you've managed to avoid AT&T's shoddy cellular service, I'd like to extend my congratulations—and then my condolences.

I’d go even fur­ther: iPhone users stuck on AT&T’s net­work have been vic­tim­ized by one of the great­est cons in recent years. The com­pa­ny has con­vinced mil­lions of peo­ple to shell out big bucks for a ser­vice that it doesn’t have the wire­less capac­i­ty to prop­er­ly offer. 

If you’ve man­aged to avoid AT&T’s shod­dy cel­lu­lar ser­vice – most like­ly by sign­ing a con­tract with T‑Mobile, Ver­i­zon or Sprint – I’d like to extend my con­grat­u­la­tions, and then my con­do­lences. In March, AT&T announced plans to acquire T‑Mobile’s 34 mil­lion cus­tomers in a $39 bil­lion merg­er deal, fur­ther secur­ing both AT&T’s empire and its suck­i­ness – and mak­ing it hard­er to avoid them. With a com­bined 130 mil­lion cus­tomers, AT&T/T‑Mobile would con­trol the mobile com­mu­ni­ca­tions of two-fifths of all Amer­i­cans. Not all cell phone users in Amer­i­ca – all Amer­i­cans. (There are 302.9 mil­lion wire­less sub­scriber accounts in the Unit­ed States – ‑just 8 mil­lion less than the country’s population.)

But before AT&T sets out to con­quer the coun­try, it should com­mit to serv­ing the cus­tomers it already has. The com­pa­ny has sig­nif­i­cant­ly under­in­vest­ed in its own infra­struc­ture, but still wants to grow its cus­tomer base – all while telling us things will actu­al­ly improve. On April 29, one week after AT&T began the offi­cial merg­er review process con­duct­ed by the Fed­er­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion, the com­pa­ny filed a 400-page doc­u­ment with the agency out­lin­ing the pub­lic ben­e­fits for this merg­er and argu­ing it will stim­u­late the econ­o­my and pro­mote innovation. 

Those claims are rot­ten. In real­i­ty, this deal is sim­ply about elim­i­nat­ing a com­peti­tor and entrench­ing AT&T’s mar­ket dom­i­nance. AT&T is using the slo­gan Mobi­lize Every­thing” to sell the deal, but it’s real goal is to Monop­o­lize Every­thing,” as Free Press Research Direc­tor S. Derek Turn­er has said. Wel­come back, Ma Bell. The pro­posed merg­er would fur­ther con­sol­i­date the nation­al wire­less mar­ket, leav­ing just three nation­al car­ri­ers and giv­ing Ver­i­zon and AT&T con­trol of near­ly 80 per­cent of the mar­ket – and fur­ther dis­ad­van­tag­ing small­er region­al car­ri­ers and Sprint, calls that sce­nario an entrenched duopoly.”

In a speech on the Sen­ate floor last week, Sen. Al Franken (D‑Minn.) said the merg­er would raise prices for con­sumers and decrease con­sumer choice in the mar­ket­place. I agree: The pub­lic shouldn’t have to endure more bad behav­ior from AT&T as a result of an unnec­es­sary and harm­ful merg­er. As Turn­er argues:

AT&T is falling back on its tired claim that this merg­er would give it the oppor­tu­ni­ty to improve ser­vice and deploy­ment of its wire­less net­work, but the fact is, AT&T doesn’t need to merge with any­one to rem­e­dy the prob­lems it cre­at­ed for itself by chron­i­cal­ly under-invest­ing in its net­work. It’s already sit­ting on plen­ty of unused spec­trum, and it con­tin­ues to earn record prof­its. It’s sim­ply a false choice to ask Amer­i­cans to pay high­er prices, endure poor cus­tomer ser­vice and sac­ri­fice inno­va­tion in exchange for ful­fill­ing deploy­ment promis­es that AT&T has already made. 

AT&T is lob­by­ing hard to pass this merg­er, and spend­ing mil­lions to make sure Con­gress sways its way. To get a sense of its lob­by­ing prowess, check out this num­ber: AT&T, the sec­ond high­est donor to mem­bers of Con­gress between 1989 through 2010, spent more than $46 mil­lion woo­ing law­mak­ers dur­ing that peri­od, includ­ing $4 mil­lion just dur­ing the last elec­tion cycle, accord­ing to the Cen­ter for Respon­sive Politics.

Con­gress, the FCC and the Depart­ment of Jus­tice – the Wash­ing­ton head­quar­ters of which, inci­den­tal­ly, gets ter­ri­ble AT&T cov­er­age–are eval­u­at­ing the merg­er. AT&T will appear before the Sen­ate Antitrust Sub­com­mit­tee on Wednes­day, May 11, to plead its case. The FCC and the Depart­ment of Jus­tice should reject this bid and see it for what it real­ly is: AT&T’s attempt to Monop­o­lize Every­thing and restore Ma Bell. 

Megan Tady works for Free Press, an advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion that oppos­es the pro­posed merger.

Megan Tady is a blog­ger and video pro­duc­er for Free Press, the nation­al non­prof­it media reform orga­ni­za­tion. She writes a month­ly InThe​se​Times​.com col­umn on media issues. Fol­low her on Twit­ter: @MegTady.
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