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Merger could hasten closing of wireless gaps

Gaps in wireless coverage across the Inland Northwest – especially for the kinds of service people expect from smartphones – will be filled faster if AT&T’s planned merger with T-Mobile is approved, a Washington executive for the wireless company said Thursday.

“Both customers who now don’t receive good basic wireless coverage, as well as customers looking for the next generation of wireless services, will see benefits from this merger,” said Daniel Youmans, president for external affairs for AT&T in Washington state.

Both Verizon and AT&T are investing heavily to expand network capacity to handle the growing volumes of data customers are consuming with devices such as the iPhone.

By acquiring T-Mobile’s wireless airwave spectrum, AT&T would have the capacity for a faster rollout of 4G service in Washington and nationwide, Youmans said. Also known as LTE (for long-term evolution), 4G is the latest-generation mobile-phone network technology and one that will allow much faster downloads of video, books and other huge files to cellphones or tablet computers, like Apple’s iPad.

AT&T is the nation’s second largest wireless company, behind Verizon. Its plan to acquire the fourth-largest, T-Mobile, was the focus of a Senate hearing in Washington D.C., this week.

At the hearing, Daniel Hesse, CEO of the No. 3 U.S. wireless company, Sprint Nextel, said the deal might force his company to be sold to either of the two big operators if it could not compete with them.

Youmans said AT&T doesn’t disclose the number of customers it has by state. He said the deal with T-Mobile is not just about new customers, but more about the advantages it would give AT&T to roll out more 4G across the Northwest.

In the past few years AT&T has spent $1.3 billion in Washington state, improving cell towers and other parts of its network to be ready for added consumer demand, once it offers 4G service in the region.

Verizon introduced 4G service in the Seattle area last year. It announced it expects to provide 4G to Spokane in late 2011.

AT&T is enjoying the same growth in wireless business other carriers are seeing. While Youmans won’t disclose the state’s customer base, he noted the number of wireless customers in Washington grew from 5.6 million in June 2009 to almost 6 million in June 2010. Idaho’s wireless customers went from 1.2 million to 1.3 million from 2009 to 2010, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

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