FCC formally approves merger between Sprint, T-Mobile. But the deal isn’t done yet

The Federal Communications Commission has formally signed off on the proposed $26.5 billion merger between T-Mobile and Sprint.

The agency released a final order Tuesday, about three weeks after commissioners approved the deal in a 3-2 vote along party lines. In a news release, the FCC said it determined that moving from four major wireless carriers to three would not harm competition.

“Specifically, the Commission found that the transaction would enhance competition in rural America and among quality-conscious consumers along with strengthening competition in the home broadband and enterprise markets,” the agency said.

With the U.S. Department of Justice approving the merger in July, the FCC’s formal order this week leaves only one remaining hurdle for the deal: an antitrust lawsuit filed by multiple state attorneys general. That case is set for trial in New York in early December.

As a condition of its approval, the FCC says it will require the combined company to meet its pledge of expanding mobile service to rural America. Within six years, the company says two-thirds of rural Americans will have access to mobile service with speeds of at least 100 Mbps, and 90% will have access to speeds of at least 50 Mbps.

The FCC also said the merger will help the combined company more quickly roll out an ultra-fast 5G network.

“The deployment of 5G networks is a critical national priority,” the agency said in a news release, “that will bring meaningful benefits to American consumers by delivering faster speeds and lower latency and by supporting the development of advanced applications and services.”

But FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, a native of Kansas City, said those promises did not outweigh the negative consequences of the deal. He said a merger could result in the loss of thousands of jobs, will reduce competition, harm consumers and only exacerbate the nation’s digital divide.

“The vague promise of 5G does not change what was true when this deal was first proposed and what remains true today — the benefits of this merger, if any, simply do not outweigh the harms,” Starks wrote in his dissent.

In September, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai blasted Sprint for improperly claiming millions in federal subsidies from a program aimed at helping low-income Americans pay their phone bills.

Though Pai said the actions of the Overland Park-based company showed a “careless disregard” for American taxpayers, the agency would not say if the issue would affect its review of the merger.

Related stories from Kansas City Star

Kevin Hardy covers business for The Kansas City Star. He previously covered business and politics at The Des Moines Register. He also has worked at newspapers in Kansas and Tennessee. He is a graduate of the University of Kansas