EDITORIALS

AT&T and Broadband Growth

Posted Aug. 10, 2011, at 10:17 p.m.

The announcement, earlier this year, that AT&T plans to acquire T-Mobile USA rightly has raised concerns. The most common question is whether the acquisition will reduce competition in the wireless market and, therefore, raise prices. In Maine, there are specific concerns about the future of the T-Mobile call center in Oakland.

These are the right questions to ask, and the Federal Communications Commission and Department of Justice must continue to focus on them.

As for competition, Maine currently has five major wireless providers in addition to a couple prepaid carriers. The acquisition is about ensuring consumers have access to the technology they need and want.

The growth in the wireless market is less about cellphone use for talking and more about the explosive demand for data. As more people use smartphones, tablet computers and increasingly sophisticated gaming systems, the demand for mobile broadband spectrum has exploded. Nearly half of AT&T’s customers have smartphones, which allow users to access the Internet, requiring more spectrum than phone conversations or texting.

AT&T’s mobile data traffic grew by 8,000 percent in the last four years. That growth is expected to continue.

T-Mobile owns a lot of spectrum, making it attractive to AT&T. Further, T-Mobile’s parent company, Deutsche Telekom, has said it wants to focus on building its capacity in Europe rather than in the United States. That’s why it put its American assets up for sale.

So, when concerns about decreased competition are raised, it must be remembered that T-Mobile won’t remain a separate company for long.

According to AT&T officials in Maine, the merger will allow the company to expand its reach in the state, with its coverage area growing to include Hancock, Washington and Waldo counties. This brings new competition to these areas.

“By combining their networks, the merged wireless companies have stated that they will be better able to provide high-speed broadband wireless capacity in rural states, including my home state of Maine,” Gov. Paul LePage wrote in a May letter to the chairman of the FCC supporting the merger. “This is an important issue to our business and citizens as they will benefit significantly from an expansion in access to the latest in wireless technology.”

Gov. LePage noted that expansions in telemedicine, educational opportunities through distance learning and business access to high-speed broadband will increase with the merger, which will speed the transition to faster wireless technology called 4G.

He also stressed the importance of the 800 jobs in Oakland and the call center’s central role in the business park there.

Owen Smith, regional vice president for AT&T Maine, said the company has no plans to close the Oakland call center. The nearest center is in Arkansas, making the Maine facility a needed East Coast presence, he said.

Concerns must be eased, but this deal appears a good one for Maine.

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