Returning recently from a six-month leave to battle cancer, AT&T's top executive in North Carolina is leading a "full-court press" to generate public support in this state for AT&T's $39 billion acquisition of competitor T-Mobile.
Cynthia Marshall vows the corporate merger, which would create a telecom giant with more than 130 million customers nationwide, would alleviate the nagging problem of dropped calls and sluggish traffic that has overwhelmed AT&T's wireless network.
In North Carolina, as in many other states, regulators have no say over the merger.
Still, Marshall said support from North Carolina lawmakers, advocacy groups and others carries much weight in persuading federal regulators to bless the merger as being in the public interest.
"The voice coming out of North Carolina is powerful," Marshall said Wednesday during a meeting with reporters at The (Raleigh) News & Observer. "It's very important. We want this to happen."
Return from treatment
She estimates she is spending up to 40 percent of her time focused on touting the benefits of the T-Mobile deal. It will be the seventh merger during her 30-year career in telecommunications.
The deal was announced in March, as Marshall was consumed by chemotherapy treatments and her fight against colon cancer. Even during that time, she worked from home to promote the deal's merits. Now in remission, she returned to work full time this month.
Disparate groups - including labor unions, the NAACP, Gov. Bev Perdue and even the N.C. Sweet Potato Commission - have written to urge the Federal Communications Commission at AT&T's urging to approve the controversial merger as the best way to boost wireless coverage and expand broadband service, especially in rural areas.
"We all have experienced dropped calls, slow speeds and all that," Marshall said. "This merger is pretty much going to make this a thing of the past."
The FCC and the Justice Department aren't expected to rule on the deal until next year.
Foes cite costs
Opponents, including Sprint Nextel and some consumer groups, are urging regulators to block the deal or to require tough restrictions. U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat, wrote in a letter to federal regulators this week that the deal should be blocked because it will lead to higher prices and fewer choices for consumers.
Marshall said that's not true and that the acquisition is crucial because it would give AT&T access to T-Mobile's underused wireless spectrum. That would ease the data crush on AT&T's network, which is clogged with video and other downloads from smartphones and tablets. And that would allow it to expand its high-speed wireless network into rural areas and to add services.
Ken Rehbehn, an analyst with the Yankee Group, said in the nation's biggest metro areas, AT&T would expand its spectrum capacity by about 40 percent. T-Mobile's network is not nearly as congested as AT&T's. The deal would bring much-needed, albeit temporary, relief to AT&T and its customers.
"The work to get all this support just shows how vital this acquisition is to AT&T," Rehbehn said. "If they fail in this effort, I don't see an obvious Plan B to remain competitive."
T-Mobile's presence in North Carolina was negligible until its 2007 acquisition of regional provider SunCom Wireless. Neither T-Mobile nor AT&T will disclose T-Mobile's customer numbers in this state. T-Mobile's customers are mostly clustered in the New Jersey-New York corridor as well as other urban centers.
Marshall expects the deal, which also has support from a large telecom labor union, won't result in widespread job cuts. AT&T employs about 7,500 people in North Carolina and would continue hiring as it invests billions to expand the reach of its broadband networks.
She didn't provide specific hiring projections.