Business

Communications Workers of America says T-Mobile deal hurts rural customers

T-Mobile bought iWireless in 2018

A T-Mobile sign can be seen on top of a T-Mobile retail store. (Reuters)
A T-Mobile sign can be seen on top of a T-Mobile retail store. (Reuters)

A new report by the Communications Workers of America claims that T-Mobile’s now one-year-old acquisition of iWireless has hurt Iowa’s small businesses and wireless customers — especially those in rural areas.

During a Monday conference call, officials with the CWA, which represents about 700,000 members in communications and media labor, the Rural Wireless Association and National Wireless Independent Dealers Association all spoke to a new CWA report titled “Disrupting Rural Wireless.”

The report researched the state’s wireless market before and after T-Mobile’s early 2018 acquisition of iWireless.

“The acquisition was most detrimental to Iowa’s rural communities, prepaid customers and former authorized dealers,” said Debbie Goldman, research and telecommunications policy director with CWA.

Bellevue, Wash.-based T-Mobile acquired Iowa Wireless Services in January 2018. Before the acquisition, iWireless — which served about 75,000 customers in Iowa, western Illinois and eastern Nebraska — had one of the largest retail footprints of any wireless carrier in Iowa with 129 corporate and authorized dealer locations, according to the CWA report.

However, in October T-Mobile retired the iWireless brand, discontinued the network and closed 86 percent of the provider’s retail locations and its two customer service call centers.

“Despite T-Mobile’s claims of rural expansion, since the acquisition the company has yet to open a T-Mobile-branded store outside of urban areas,” Goldman said. “The handling of the iWireless acquisition had the opposite effect as the company gutted a carrier that previously provided convenience and choice to thousands of rural customers.”

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Shelia Hall was an iWireless authorized dealer in Iowa Falls until T-Mobile closed her location following the acquisition.

“T-Mobile left iWireless authorized dealers and our customers out in the cold. In reading the new report, it’s clear I was not the only iWireless dealer that felt the transition to T-Mobile was done poorly,” Hall said.

What’s more, officials on the call predicted T-Mobile’s proposed merger with Sprint could result in similar effects nationwide.

T-Mobile and Sprint last year proposed a merger between the two communications giants. The merger requires approval from multiple agencies.

Officials with both companies have said the proposed merger will benefit rural communities.

In joint comments made by T-Mobile and Sprint in documents filed with State of New York Public Service Commission, company officials say T-Mobile intends to “substantially increase its domestic customer care workforce.”

In addition, New T-Mobile would open at least 600 new stores nationwide to serve small towns and rural areas — resulting in new retail jobs by 2021, according to the document.

“New T-Mobile also anticipates creating approximately 1,800 new jobs nationally by 2021 that are dedicated to transitioning the T-Mobile and Sprint networks in rural areas and expanding rural coverage,” according to the document.

Adam Wolf, president of the National Wireless Independent Dealers Association, said his concern is for the more than 40,000 independent wireless dealers in the United States.

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“We fear a repeat of this story on a large scale without an approved plan from T-Mobile,” Wolf said.

Carri Bennet, general counsel with the Rural Wireless Association, said the Sprint-T-Mobile merger also could harm rural customers.

Following iWireless closures after the acquisition by T-Mobile, many rural customers were forced to drive several miles to the nearest store for customer support. The transition also forced iWireless customers, accustomed to flexible prepay options on their bills, to a minimum 30-day prepaid plan, according to the report.

“We’re very concerned with how they behaved in the iWireless case,” Bennet said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8309; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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