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T-Mobile US Inc. and Sprint Corp. jumped as Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said he'll recommend his agency approve the companies' $26.5 billion merger, turning attention to whether the deal also will win a needed clearance from antitrust regulators.

Approval from the Justice Department antitrust division "seems likely" since it never has diverged from the FCC on a merger, said Paul Gallant, a Washington-based analyst for Cowen & Co. It's now "almost assured" the deal will win FCC approval, Gallant said in a note.

The deal announced last year, which would combine the third- and fourth-largest U.S. wireless service providers, needs approval from both authorities to succeed. The companies told the FCC they would sell Sprint's Boost prepaid brand, build an advanced 5G network over three years, and pledge not to raise prices while the network is being constructed.

"Two of the FCC's top priorities are closing the digital divide in rural America and advancing United States leadership in 5G, the next generation of wireless connectivity," Pai said in a statement Monday. "The commitments made today by T-Mobile and Sprint would substantially advance each of these critical objectives."

The deal needs votes from at least three commissioners on the five-member FCC, where Pai leads the Republican majority. He said he would prepare an order "in coming weeks."

Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr offered support, saying "Americans across the country will see more competition and an accelerated buildout of fast, 5G services" in an emailed statement. Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly didn't immediately issue a statement.

Jessica Rosenworcel, the agency's senior Democrat, in a tweet said she has "serious doubts" about further consolidation in the wireless industry.

By securing Pai's recommendation, the companies cleared a key hurdle toward creating a potentially strong challenger to the top two wireless providers in the United States, Verizon and AT&T.

The deal stoked concerns of reduced competition in the wireless industry because the number of major players would fall from four to three.

The Justice Department's antitrust division, which is also examining the deal, hasn't indicated whether the concessions will be enough to pass muster. The department declined to comment. State attorneys general are also investigating.

Selling off part of the prepaid business -- where wireless customers pay as they go rather than taking out subscriptions -- might help soothe concerns raised by the state attorneys general. They fear that a consolidated, three-carrier market would harm low-income customers by curbing choices and raising prices. People familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News last week that the companies were considering the separation and potential sale of the prepaid business.

Under the newly agreed plan, the companies would spin off Sprint's Boost brand while keeping their Virgin Mobile and T-Mobile's Metro labels. The three together make up the largest segment of the U.S. pay-as-you-go market, with about a 42% share. These services are popular among people with little or no access to credit.

The companies have said their wireless in-home broadband service will better serve rural customers. They will deliver speeds of more than 100 megabits per second for wireless broadband to 90% of the population and in-home service to over half the country's households by 2024.

If regulators find that the company missed its commitments, the companies agreed to pay penalties ranging from $10 million to $250 million, according to the filing.

FCC staff had "frank discussions" with the companies, which listened to agency concerns, one senior official said in a conference call with reporters. The official emphasized the potential to spread fast 5G networks, and price guarantees offered by the providers.

The senior FCC official declined to discuss the status of the deal before antitrust regulators at the Justice Department.

"These concessions and Pai's announcement is based on a lot of behind the scenes work to get this deal done," Kevin Roe, an analyst with Roe Equity Research LLC, said in an telephone interview. "The FCC chairman wouldn't stick his neck out if he wasn't confident that his antitrust counterpart wasn't onboard."

T-Mobile Chief Executive John Legere in a tweet said that Pai's support was "a very important step" and that "I couldn't be more optimistic."

President Barack Obama's administration rebuffed the companies' earlier effort to merge, as well as an attempted deal between AT&T and T-Mobile, on concerns that such deals would hurt competition in the wireless industry.

For T-Mobile owner Deutsche Telekom, the takeover would add scale to the German carrier's fastest-growing unit, giving it more clout to challenge AT&T and Verizon. Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Hoettges has argued that T-Mobile would still be well positioned if the deal is rejected.

"We view this as a significant positive for the prospects of the deal," Wells Fargo analyst Jennifer Fritzsche wrote in a research note Monday. "While the state attorneys generals could still object to the deal, the divestiture of Boost Mobile should help with any AG objection, as the concentration of New T-Mobile's combined prepaid business was a major hot-button issue for them."

Information for this article was contributed by Todd Shields, Scott Moritz, Nabila Ahmed and Liana Baker of Bloomberg News; by Michael J. de la Merced of The New York Times; and by staff members of The Associated Press.

Business on 05/21/2019

Print Headline: FCC chief endorses cell-firm merger

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