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AT&T Merger Plan Touches On User Loyalty

John Taylor, a Sprint spokesman, said there are three items he never leaves home without wallet, keys and cellphone.

Americans' attachment to their mobile phones, and by extension their service providers, may be the key to whether Sprint can muster sufficient opposition to halt AT&T's increasing dominance of the cellphone market with its proposed purchase of T-Mobile.

The chief executives for AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint are scheduled to appear Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights. It is the first of what are expected to be several Congressional hearings on the deal that must be approved by the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department.

But while lawmakers and administrators debate the legalities of the transaction with the help of an army of professional lobbyists, consumers are already weighing in with more personal sentiments about their cellphone options.

Tmonews.com, which bills itself as the "unofficial T-Mobile blog," ran a poll this week in which 77 percent of its participants opposed the sale. That is up from 50 percent in a survey taken by the blog just after the sale was announced,

David Beren, a 31-year-old Boca Raton, Fla., resident who edits the blog, characterized the attitude of his readers as "the AT&T Death Star coming to take our company." Beren said that his blog followers prefer the "smaller feel you get with T-Mobile."

"T-Mobile goes the extra mile to help customers," he said. "AT&T has bottom-of-the-barrel customer service."

Since the proposed sale was announced in March the Federal Communications Commission has received more than 4,800 comments, many from T-Mobile customers critical of the deal that they complain will result in higher prices and inferior service.

"So far T-Mobile rates are the only ones I can afford," wrote Kathleen Heilgeist. "If these mergers continue, the only people able to afford their products will be the rich."

"I thought we already broke up the telecom monopoly years ago," wrote Chris Reiter. "I believe the AT&T and T-Mobile merger is bad for consumers, bad for business and irresponsible."

And Rosanne Connally described how she had "time and money wasted on trying to meet up with a friend who had an AT&T phone," which didn't receive her calls and texts.

However, in his testimony before the Senate panel, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson is expected to argue that his company's purchase of T-Mobile from Deutsche Telekom will improve quality of service as well as expand network capacity, and keep prices competitive.

"It's about giving consumers what they expect fewer dropped calls, faster speeds and access to state-of-the art mobile broadband Internet service whether they live in a large city, a small town or out in rural areas," Stephenson will testify, according to a copy of his written statement provided by the company.

AT&T officials note that other cases before the FCC, notably the recent Comcast/NBC merger, have also drawn a high volume of public comments.

AT&T is counting on allies with their own grass-roots networks, including the Communications Workers of America, to support the merger.

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