You’ve probably seen the TV commercials with “Paul,” the cellphone carrier pitchman who used to work for Verizon but now touts Sprint.
He used to ask, “Can you hear me now?” on Verizon’s commercials but, since 2016, has been boasting to consumers that “Sprint’s reliability is now within 1 percent of Verizon” and its cell service costs less.
Sprint paints a similar picture for consumers on its website, which shows a U.S. coverage map blanketed in yellow to show Sprint customers can get cellphone service almost anywhere.
But now that Sprint, the nation’s No. 4 cellphone carrier, is pushing for government approval to merge with its bigger rival, No. 3 T-Mobile, it’s told the Federal Communication Commission a different story.
In a filing with the FCC, which is one of the regulatory agencies that would need to approve the merger, Sprint provided three maps showing how poorly its service compares to Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile. And it wrote: “Sprint’s network perception lags far behind the other carriers, making it very difficult to sell our network.”
Sprint and T-Mobile say they need to merge to be able to build out a next-generation 5G network, providing greater access to speedy broadband coverage, in a timely fashion and be able to keep pace with competitors. If they can’t, they say they’ll never catch up with No. 1 Verizon and No. 2 AT&T.
“ ‘We’re such a poor company, we can barely survive on our own,’ ” says Edgar Dworsky, a former assistant attorney general and consumer protection official in Massachusetts, mocking the company’s FCC filing.
“They’ve been advertising forever that their network availability is within 1 percent,” says Dworsky, who writes the Consumer World blog and unearthed the coverage map discrepancy.
The discrepancy is “nothing new in the sense of filing one thing with the FCC and telling the customers something else,” says Yosef Getachew of the watchdog group Common Cause, which is among advocacy groups that are fighting to block the merger.
In the past, big mobile carriers complained to the FCC that “net neutrality” —guaranteeing equal access to the Internet — made it harder for them to be able to invest more in their networks. At the same time, Getachew says, they boasted to consumers about all of the improvements they were making.
A Sprint executive says the robust coverage map on its website differs from what was submitted to the FCC because it includes roaming that Sprint customers can access on other carriers.
“There’s no secret that our footprint is not as big” as the other three national wireless carriers, the executive says, adding that the company is “very proud of our coverage” when roaming is included.
The proposed merger of T-Mobile and Sprint would require the approval of the FCC and the Justice Department.
In 2011, under the Obama administration, the Justice Department blocked AT&T’s proposed takeover of T-Mobile, saying it would hinder competition and harm consumers.
Now, under President Donald Trump, the FCC is chaired by Republican Ajit Pai, a deregulation proponent who has leaned to the side of the big telecommunications companies on key issues before his agency.
The Sprint/T-Mobile plan has run into potential roadblocks. On Sept. 11, the FCC announced it needs more time to review the proposed deal.
Two and a half weeks later, the California Public Utilities Commission ordered a hearing, to be held in February, to look into whether the merger would be in the public interest.
The proposed $26.5 billion merger would give the combined company about 126 million customers. That compares with about 150 million for Verizon and 141 million for AT&T.
Sprint says the merger would be good for consumers because it would allow the bigger company to “keep up the disruption that Sprint and T-Mobile are known for” while also offering lower prices than Verizon or AT&T.
Consumer groups opposed to the merger say the further consolidation of the wireless industry would hurt competition. They’ve told the FCC it especially would hurt lower-income customers of Sprint and T-Mobile, often using prepaid plans from Sprint’s Boost Mobile and T-Mobile’s former Metro PCS, now Metro.
And the Communications Workers of America, a union for telecommunication workers, predicts the merger would result in a loss of 28,000 jobs or more and mean higher prices for consumers.
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