T-Mobile’s Sale to AT&T: What They’re Saying, What it Means for the Northwest

The sale of Bellevue, WA-based T-Mobile USA to AT&T for $39 billion shook up the mobile world this weekend, both nationally and in the Seattle area. It’s unclear what the practical effects will be for T-Mobile employees in the Puget Sound region, and we might not know for some time: The companies say the acquisition process could take about a year.

T-Mobile’s sale does, however, clearly mark the end of another major era in the region’s longstanding leadership in the wireless field. Check out this really interesting interview that Xconomy’s Greg Huang did with venture capitalist Tom Huseby in 2008 for a sense of the history at play. Basically: AT&T’s wireless business came of age with the 1994 acquisition of Seattle’s pioneering McCaw Cellular. And McCaw veteran John Stanton started VoiceStream, which was purchased by T-Mobile in 2001.

As Huseby noted in that Xconomy interview, “Every time someone was bought, they actually didn’t move people out of Seattle. People would move here, and it just kept growing … We have more concentration of carrier presence here than anywhere else in the country. It’s unbelievable.”

That’s not the situation today. AT&T’s headquarters are in Dallas and will undoubtedly stay there. In Sunday’s press release, AT&T did say that “the combined company will continue to have a strong employee and operations base in the Seattle area.” An AT&T spokesman told The Seattle Times’ Brier Dudley that “any reduction we anticipate will come through natural attrition.” GeekWire also got ahold of the memo sent to T-Mobile employees, in which CEO and President Philipp Humm said that “AT&T’s leadership has said keeping [T-Mobile’s] talented people through this transition is one of their top priorities.”

Meanwhile, AT&T President Ralph De La Vega tells Mobilized that the tie-up will improve the network, won’t be a distraction for customers, and should have a good chance at getting federal approval. Washington, D.C.’s The Hill interviewed AT&T policy executive Jim Cicconi, who indicated that one element of the regulatory case will be that consolidation in mobile was inevitable.

And finally, The Seattle Times’ Jon Talton saw no positives for the Seattle area in the T-Mobile news. I found particularly compelling Talton’s emphasis on the effect that losing a major standalone tech company will have on the entrepreneurship landscape in the region. Therefore, his take gets the last word:

“I believe there’s nothing like a major headquarters for well-paying jobs, civic stewardship, attracting talent and capital, and fostering executive talent that leaves the mother ship to start new enterprises. Back-office towns always languish.”

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