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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

A split may be forming between federal regulators on whether to approve T-Mobile's $26.5 billion purchase of Sprint.

Why it matters: Despite a host of concessions offered by the companies that won over FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the fate of the deal hinges on the competition questions that reportedly continue to dog the deal at the DOJ.

Details: In order to get the deal approved: T-Mobile has pledged not to raise prices for three years after the merger, cover 85% of rural Americans with its 5G network within three years, and sell off Sprint's Boost Mobile prepaid wireless service.

  • T-Mobile has also argued that its deal will help the U.S. compete with China, appealing to the Trump administration's American First platform and the FCC's 5G FAST plan.
  • The other side: Critics of the deal say moving from four national carriers to three will raise prices for consumers and result in job loss, no matter what the companies promise. Critics are also skeptical of T-Mobile's pledge to build 5G in rural areas.

Catch up quick: On Monday morning, it seemed that the package of conditions had worked: FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said that the deal was in the "public interest" and that he would recommend that his four fellow commissioners approve it.

  • Less than an hour later, Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr said he agreed and would support the deal.
  • That left T-Mobile only one vote shy of approval — and the two stocks soared.
  • A senior FCC official said that the divestiture of Boost Mobile would address concerns about the deal's affect on competition, which the official said were focused on the low-cost market.

Yes, but: Then came a Monday afternoon Bloomberg report that the Department of Justice was leaning towards killing the merger due to concerns that consolidation would hurt competition.

  • Both stocks ended the day below the high that followed Pai's announcement.

How it works: The DOJ's antitrust division and FCC use different legal standards to gauge competitive effects of mergers.

  • At the DOJ, deals are approved if they won't hurt competition, which is usually determined by potential impact on consumer prices.
  • At the FCC, deals are approved based on whether they are in the public interest — a squishier standard that in recent years has been used to encourage wider deployment of broadband by merging companies.

The intrigue: Discord between the FCC and DOJ is unusual, as the agencies usually collaborate and share information during merger reviews. In past telecom deals involving reviews by both the FCC and DOJ, the agencies often announce their decisions in quick succession.

  • For example, when Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks got the green light to merge 3 years ago, the DOJ and FCC announced in tandem their intent to approve the deal, with conditions. The full FCC voted to approve the decision about 10 days later.
  • In 2015, the FCC and DOJ on the same day announced approval for AT&T’s takeover of DirecTV. (The DOJ said it wouldn’t challenge it, and the FCC chairman circulated a conditional approval order to the other commissioners for a vote.)
  • They also work together when killing a deal. The agencies announced their reservations with the Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal — which the companies later dropped — at the same time in 2015.

Flashback: If the DOJ does end up scuttling the deal, it wouldn't the first time for the agency to take issue with a major merger involving T-Mobile.

Be smart: The FCC's approval means little if the DOJ decides to challenge the T-Mobile-Sprint deal. If the DOJ sues to block the merger, it could go to court — or the two companies could give up on their plans. State attorneys general are also still reviewing the deal.

Go deeper

Advocates fret Roe v. Wade's 49th anniversary could be its last

Photo: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Women's March Inc

As Saturday marks the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's landmark decision that legalized abortion access in the U.S., advocates warn the ruling is "more at risk now than ever."

The big picture: The Supreme Court in December heard a challenge to a Mississippi 15-week abortion ban that could throw Roe's survival into question, or at least narrow its scope.

Updated 11 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."

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