Pai: T-Mobile/Sprint Meld Is Key to 5G Race

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told a New York State Wireless Association audience Tuesday that closing the digital divide is his top priority, that rolling out 5G is a key element, and that when it comes to the midband spectrum that is the sweet spot for next gen wireless, "one of the most critical steps that the FCC can take is to approve the T-Mobile/Sprint transaction." 

Pai has publicly declared himself in favor of the deal, and has been seconded by the two other Republican members of the commission, meaning he has the votes to approve. The Justice Department has not similarly weighed in on the deal and there are reports of a divide at DOJ over whether the deal would create a stronger number three wireless competitor to AT&T and Verizon or anticompetitively reduce the major carriers from four to three. 

Related: Answering the Call for Rural Broadband 

"Right now, Sprint has tremendous mid-band spectrum resources," he said. "But the record before the FCC makes clear that the company standing alone does not have the capacity to deploy 5G in this spectrum throughout large parts of rural America. On the other hand, if the T-Mobile/Sprint transaction is approved, the combined company will have the capacity to do just that. Indeed, they have committed to the FCC that they will deploy mid-band 5G to 88% of our nation’s population, including two-third of rural Americans. And there would be significant financial penalties if these commitments were not met." 

He did not mention, perhaps becuase it was not to the 5G buildout point, but the companies have also agreed to spin off low cost, prepaid operation, Boost Mobile, after the FCC registered competitive concerns, Pai has said previously. 

Pai said he would be circulating an order approving the deal to the other commissioners, but has yet to do so according to the FCC Web site list of items on circulation. 

Critics of Pai's announced support for the deal, which was somewhat unusual given that no order had yet been circulated, are concerned the White House might share the view that the deal helps win the 5G race, so pressured that outcome. Pai has said the White House did not contact him about the deal. But the chairman has also made no secret of the White House's interest in 5G, something he also talked about in his speech. 

Last fall, the White House hosted a summit on 5G that attracted senior leaders from across industry and multiple federal agencies." he said. "And just a couple months ago, to make sure 5G gets that attention that it deserves, the President personally invited me to the White House, where I announced the FCC’s latest actions to promote U.S. leadership in 5G." Those did not include his support of the T-Mobile/Sprint deal, which was not announced until after that. 

The chairman also defended his support of the deal in letters--released June 25--to concerned Democrats on the Hill., calling the deal a "unique opportunity to speed up the deployment of 5G throughout the United States and bring much faster mobile broadband to rural Americans. We should seize this opportunity."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.