AT&T introduced Vonya McCann to the cellphone three decades ago.
A group of men came to her office at the Commerce Department to demonstrate how a plastic push-button phone cradled in a hard Samsonite briefcase could place calls without wires.
Now, as the head of Sprint Nextel’s Washington lobbying office, she’s emerged as a leading figure fighting to stop AT&T’s march to dominate the cellphone industry.
Today, there are 302 million mobile phones in the United States, and AT&T is trying to become by far the biggest carrier of those devices with its bid to buy T-Mobile.
But not if McCann can help it. Much is on the line. Some say Sprint is doomed if the merger goes through. But she’s up against the formidable lobbying army of the country’s original phone monopoly, AT&T.
So the 56-year-old telecom veteran, who happens to be married to U.S. District Court Judge Richard Roberts, is on overdrive as she tries to convince regulators at the Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department that the $39 billion deal is a bad one for her company and consumers.
Her talking points: The merger would make AT&T the biggest U.S. wireless carrier, with about 130 million users, and reduce the number of national carriers to three. With less competition, consumers can expect higher prices and fewer options among service providers for smartphones and tablets.
“Everyone should care about this merger,” McCann said in a recent interview. “It can have direct effects on the pocketbooks of consumers.”
Consumer advocacy groups have sided with Sprint against the deal. Consumers Union said the typical T-Mobile customer paid $50 less per month than an AT&T customer and was happier with the customer service. About 4,000 public comments have poured into the FCC — the majority from consumers asking that the merger be blocked.
In their defense, AT&T and T-Mobile have argued that, combined, they will more quickly spread high-speed mobile access to rural areas. AT&T promises that T-Mobile customers can fulfill their existing contract terms after the merger. But it’s unclear what a new AT&T contract would look like for those customers.
Merger reviews will probably take more than a year. In that time, Sprint will need all the help it can get. From the top down, employees are blasting the merger.
Sprint chief executive Dan Hesse, the guy featured in Sprint’s black-and-white TV commercials, publicly decries the merger, saying it will create a “duopoly,” with AT&T and Verizon Wireless controlling 80 percent of the wireless market. He will testify alongside AT&T and T-Mobile chief executives Wednesday before the Senate antitrust subcommittee.
Behind the scenes, McCann is the quiet operator, working her decades-in-the-making network of telecom industry connections to spread the idea that the deal is bad for consumers.
“I’ve got plans up my sleeve,” she said, “but I’m not ready to reveal them yet.”
McCann is little known outside the telecom circles of Washington but has held several positions of influence in government and the private sector. She is thoughtful in her choice of words. Her office is sparsely decorated except for two sinewy orchid plants near her desk. McCann is described as an amiable but tough-as-nails negotiator.
She was the State Department’s ambassador for communications and technology from 1994 to 1999. In that role, she worked for the Clinton administration and with the Federal Communications Commission to persuade governments to privatize their telecom networks. She succeeded in getting European nations to give up satellite airwaves and turn companies held by their governments into public firms.
“Vonya was going up against world governments. Talk about a tough crowd,” said Ambassador William Kennard, who was FCC chairman at the time. “This merger between AT&T and T-Mobile appears like a small fight in contrast.”
Her style is to use humor and charm, friends and former colleagues said. And then she makes big demands before eventually landing at a compromise.
That approach served her well in her early days in the telecom industry.
In the early 1980s, there were few women, let alone African American women, at the FCC or Commerce Department or in the top levels of business.
“She had to command respect from bureau chiefs, officials and so many others down the chain,” said Tyrone Brown, a former FCC commissioner who hired McCann out of law school in the early 1980s. “And she did.”
The FCC and Justice haven’t blocked any significant deals during the Obama administration. It just blessed Comcast’s joint venture with NBC Universal, creating a cable, Internet service and media behemoth.