Another petition appears to delay T-Mobile/Sprint merger

Nine organizations have come together to petition the FCC to delay any permissions to approve the T-Mobile US and Sprint merger until a fraud investigation has been completed.

The petition is focused on a Sprint probe, relating to alleged Lifeline fraud. The under-fire telco has been accused of collecting subsidies from the FCC even though many of the subscribers through the initiative were inactive and not using the service.

“Specifically, the public interest, rural wireless, and labor organizations ask the Commission to pause its review of the merger while important issues related to Sprint’s apparent Lifeline fraud are more fully investigated by the Commission, and also urge the Commission to seek public comment on the DISH waiver requests, the July 26 Dish commitments to the Commission, and related developments, including the DOJ Consent Decree,” the petition states.

The petition has been filed by the Rural Wireless Association, the Communications Workers of America union, Consumer Reports, The Greenlining Institute, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, New America’s Open-technology Institute, The Rural Broadband Association, the Open Markets Institute and Public Knowledge.

Should the FCC agree with the petitioners, the completion of the merger would be paused until the end of the investigation.

Although T-Mobile US and Sprint have been making progress towards completing the merger, there are still numerous hurdles which will have to be negotiated. The FCC and Department of Justice have green-lit the deal, with concessions to be fulfilled, though that does not mean the law suits will disappear.

Aside from this petition, 16 State-level Attorney Generals have banded together to file a lawsuit against the merger. Led by the ambitious New York Attorney General Letitia James, the lawsuit questions the validity of the merger on the ground of competition. James has argued that with the presence of four MNOs, tariffs are becoming less expensive and coverage is improving; connectivity is getting better for the consumer with the status quo, so why should this be changed?

The nine organizations filing this petition to the FCC are demanding the merger be delaying which the fraud investigation into Sprint is on-going.

The Lifeline Program is designed to offer subsidies to telcos to enable free tariffs for low-income consumers across the country. Participants receive $9.25 a month on average, though Sprint is accused of collecting the pay-out for 885,000 inactive Lifeline customers. This number represents 30% of the Lifeline subscribers Sprint supports.

“It’s outrageous that a company would claim millions of taxpayer dollars for doing nothing,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said at the time. “This shows a careless disregard for program rules and American taxpayers. I have asked our Enforcement Bureau to investigate this matter to determine the full extent of the problem and to propose an appropriate remedy.”

Under the rules of the programme, providers of the service may only be reimbursed for a Lifeline subscriber if that subscriber has used the service at least once in the past 30 days. The onus is placed on the telcos to de-enroll inactive subscribers, though it does appear something went very wrong at Sprint.

Considering the investigation is being powered by the FCC, the petitioners might find some joy with this latest effort to de-rail the merger. It might be nothing more than a pause on developments, but it does afford more opportunity for other opponents to gather momentum.