The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

T-Mobile hired a former FCC commissioner to ‘advise’ on its Sprint merger. Here’s why she’ll be a powerful ally.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn listens as Ajit Pai, FCC chairman, speaks during a Senate hearing on June 20, 2017. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

At a time of dysfunction in Washington, there’s at least one thing in this town that still runs like butter: The revolving door.

Barely eight months after stepping down from the Federal Communications Commission, Mignon Clyburn has announced T-Mobile is paying her for advice on the company’s $26 billion merger with Sprint.

The former Democratic commissioner won’t be lobbying for the deal, nor will she be visiting her old colleagues at the FCC, according to Politico, which first reported the relationship. But having served for nearly a decade on the commission, Clyburn knows all the ins and outs of the agency and how it approaches merger reviews, making her experience invaluable to T-Mobile as it tries to persuade the FCC and the Justice Department to bless its acquisition.

Clyburn’s hiring underscores the lengths to which T-Mobile has gone to ensure its deal sails through; earlier this week, the company submitted filings to the FCC promising not to raise prices on its cellphone plans for at least three years after the deal closes. It’s also promised to create customer support jobs in places like Rochester, N.Y. The company last year said it had also hired a lobbying firm linked to Corey Lewandowski, President Trump’s former campaign manager. And top T-Mobile execs, including chief executive John Legere, have spent significant time staying at the Trump hotel in Washington, though Legere has said he hopes regulators will “make their decision based on the benefits it will bring to the U.S., not based on hotel choices.”

But Clyburn brings more to the table than just knowledge and expertise. Her record as a fighter for low-income Americans and minorities gives T-Mobile a shot of additional credibility as it argues that the deal will be beneficial for disadvantaged populations.

Clyburn has argued passionately for lowering the prices of prison phone calls and extending broadband access to the poor. She also argued against the FCC’s repeal of its Obama-era net neutrality rules, accusing FCC Chairman Ajit Pai of advocating “no-touch regulation” and of abandoning the agency’s mission to serve the public interest.

Net neutrality: Federal judges had tough questions for the FCC

In her interview with Politico, Clyburn explained that she hopes her efforts can help “build a bridge across the digital divide.”

But from another perspective, Clyburn’s involvement with T-Mobile serves to inoculate the company from critics who argue the deal will be largely bad for consumers because it will mean the elimination of a competitor from the U.S. wireless market.

Whether Sprint and T-Mobile, together, could act as a stronger bulwark against AT&T and Verizon than they could separately is a key point of debate. The companies have said that only by merging can they build the kind of next-generation 5G wireless networks that the more dominant carriers are currently pushing to market.

What the T-Mobile and Sprint merger means for you

Some analysts say the fact that T-Mobile felt compelled to offer a price freeze is evidence that ordinary market pressures would encourage the combined company to raise prices.

“Generally when it comes to mergers, the first side to offer concessions is likely to be the side that is losing,” said Blair Levin, a former FCC chief of staff and an industry analyst for New Street Research. “That is not always the case, but implicitly conceding that market forces alone are not sufficient to constrain prices is not a sign that the economic arguments ... are working."

Opponents of the deal include consumer groups, digital rights organizations, labor unions and smaller telecom companies, who have historically worked closely with Clyburn on a range of issues.

But the fact that Clyburn is now working for the other side could make it a tad harder to argue against the merger.