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AT&T Works the Refs to Gin Up Support for Its T-Mobile Deal

You know that AT&T (T) really wants to buy T-Mobile. And senators pressed hard on AT&T during hearings to prove that the acquisition wouldn't hurt competition in the market and seemed skeptical. Although Congress doesn't have a direct say on the deal, political opposition could influence regulators.

And so AT&T is pulling out the stops and seems to be indirectly approaching the press in search of some positive stories to help influence the legislature. (Maybe it's in the air, given Facebook's attempt to plant a story with the press about Google.) BNET received a PR agency pitch titled "Benefits of Highspeed Wireless -- Thanks to the AT&T merger."

According to Bill Murphy with Vice and Victory, a "digital consulting firm specializing in political media," AT&T was not the client. Instead, the firm says it's working on behalf of the Internet Innovation Alliance, which it characterized as a "broad-based coalition that supports universal broadband access for all Americans."

Birds of a feather?
According to Common Cause, the IIA promotes broadband Internet policies and claims to include consumer advocate groups in its membership, but "no true consumer groups can be found anywhere in its membership list." The organization lists the IIA as a telecom front group."

The classification isn't exactly accurate. The IIA membership list shows a number of special interest groups that supposedly come out on both sides of the net neutrality issue, according to The Hill. Some, such as Americans for Tax Reform and Citizens Against Government Waste, are conservative political partisans, but are clearly not front groups for the telecom industry. Neither is the United States Cattlemen's Association.

That said, there's no shortage of organizations associated with the IIA that have actively argued for deregulation of the telecom industry. For instance, there's the Hispanic Technology & Telecommunications Partnership (it took the side of carriers in net neutrality debates) and the National Puerto Rican Coalition (AT&T is a sponsor of the group).

A number of wireless technology companies do belong to the organization, but only one carrier: AT&T. It seems unlikely that IIA would promote the interests of a single member like AT&T without a direct or indirect blessing from the company.

Not so fast
Here's the pitch as sent to BNET:

Expanding access to wireless broadband is a priority for the Internet Innovation Alliance. It will spur innovation in important industries like healthcare and education, change the way we go to work each morning and lead to hundreds of billions in economic growth. The AT&T merger with T-Mobile will bring high speed wireless to 97% of America -â€" making the innovation and economic growth possible ANYWHERE.

With the Congressional committee hearings in the news, can I make one of our experts available for interview or submit guest commentary on these issues?

It's hard to know where to begin cataloging the weirdness of this pitch. Anyone who's lived in rural America knows that wireless connectivity of any kind, let alone 4G cellular service, is often spotty if not non-existent. The merger of two companies doesn't change that. So depending on wireless to deliver broadband seems an oddly slanted approach.

AT&T has already claimed to bring fast wireless data service to 97 percent of the population in this country, so why would combining the two change things? Here's the answer from the PR firm:

AT&T will extend its 4G LTE deployment to more than 97% of U.S. population -- 45 million more than originally planned -- helping to achieve policymaker goals of deploying broadband to smaller, rural communities.
Again, smaller rural communities often lack any wireless service. Why would combining the two companies let AT&T extend its 4G LTE deployment to 45 million more than originally planned? Here's T-Mobile's statement about its 4G network:
Currently, our 4G network is offered in 100 metropolitan areas, covering 200 million people across the U.S. -- that's more than any other wireless company. Every day we are building new towers in cities from coast to coast, so more and more people will be able to use the power of our network.
T-Mobile has also said that, by the middle of 2011, its 4G network would cover 140 million people at up to 42 Mbps speeds. In other words, adding T-Mobile would likely let AT&T reach more of its customers at higher speeds without additional investment, hence the "45 million more than originally planned" statement.

As far as spurring innovation, I noted to the PR rep that wireless has been a hotbed of innovation, so talking of the industry as being short of innovation, invention, and business development was hard to take seriously. The answer:

To clarify my comments, the industry is not short on innovation but this expanded network will help bring the new technology and benefits to more people throughout the country.
In other words, it's all about AT&T getting an instant infrastructure fix. It has nothing to do with rural or under-served communities, and this is an attempt to plant stories to help bring pressure on Congress as it considers the acquisition.


Image: morgueFile user deegolden, site standard license.
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