My phone and I have an “it’s complicated” relationship. I take it to bed with me at night, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one in town who checks the phone in the morning before I get up. I love having a device that can do so much and still fit in the palm of my hand — providing carefree multitasking opportunity throughout day.
However, I’m picky about my cell phone service provider, so much so that I’ve been jailbreaking my iPhone since generation one just so I could stay with T-Mobile. And I don’t have a phone because I have money to burn — such devices are no longer a luxury — I have a phone because we now live in a world that demands it.
For the average consumer, having reliable access to the internet is just as important as having access to running water, electricity, and other public services. Whereas only wealthier people could afford computers at one time, it has become clear that getting online is necessary for even the most basic of services.
Those loyal to T-Mobile (believed to be the only major tele-com that didn’t roll over when the Bush Administration started doing warrantless wiretapping of Americans) now have to consider a major new development. Former hometown hero AT&T, one of the nation’s largest service providers, has decided to buy T-Mobile. Consumer Reports magazine surveyed over 56,000 readers who rated AT&T as the worst wireless provider in the nation, ranking them dead last in every category — from dropped calls to poor voice quality, inconsistent data service to overall crappy customer service. Last week I caught up briefly with Ben Lennett of the Open Technology Initiative who said about the sale: “It is the utmost irony that the company with the worst-ranking customer service will suddenly have nearly 50 percent more customers than Verizon and more than twice as many customers as Sprint.” If AT&T is unable to offer quality service to its existing customers, how will they perform when they have more customers to take care of?
To be clear, this merger has little to do with your basic cell phone service, and more to do with internet access. AT&T says the T-Mobile takeover “strengthens and expands U.S. mobile broadband infrastructure,” which in turn will help them provide “broadband to 95 percent of the country, including smaller, rural communities.” Another reality may be in store for us when the merger takes place: Anxious watchdogs predict that AT&T will decommission up to 50,000 wireless towers. Fewer towers equals poorer service, no?
How will the potential AT&T/T-Mobile merger impact us locally? The merger would give AT&T, historically known for blocking other services, power to control your transmissions over the web. Certain applications and services could be restricted or blocked altogether, as when AT&T forced its users to access Skype via wi-fi only, not 3G. AT&T and Verizon could end up controlling up to 80 percent of our wireless market. This is an especially important issue given that 41 percent of Latinos, according to a Pew Center report, access the internet exclusively via their mobile devices.
If the AT&T/T-Mobile merger is destined to hurt everyone, it’ll hurt the poor the most.
“It is critical to look at the effect this merger would have on consumers’ pocketbooks, choice and service and, ultimately, it does not appear to be in their favor,” said Parul P. Desai, policy counsel for Consumers Union. “AT&T wireless plans typically cost consumers up to $50 more per month than comparable plans from T-Mobile, and consumers are consistently less satisfied with the service they get.
“We are concerned that T-Mobile’s departure from the wireless market would eliminate a relatively low-cost carrier as an option that many consumers need access to in order to afford quality wireless service.”
The Clayton Antitrust Act was established to prevent anticompetitive practices that could be fostered by mergers like this one. On May 11, the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights will hold a hearing entitled "The AT&T/T-Mobile Merger: Is Humpty Dumpty Being Put Back Together Again?"
San Antonio residents and media justice activists DeAnne Cuellar and Leticia Medina blog throughout the week at blogs.sacurrent.com. They welcome your questions and feedback and can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Tech Tease on Twitter at @thetechtease.