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For Johnson County native and new FCC commissioner, jobs factor into Sprint merger

Johnson County native Geoffrey Starks was sworn in as a member of the Federal Communications Commission January 30, 2019.
Johnson County native Geoffrey Starks was sworn in as a member of the Federal Communications Commission January 30, 2019. Courtesy photo, FCC

Growing up in Johnson County, Geoffrey Starks could walk from his Leawood home to the Sprint campus in Overland Park. He even ran a Thanksgiving “turkey trot” there.

Starks, 39, sworn in earlier this year as the newest commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, offers this piece of personal history to say that the FCC’s upcoming vote on T-Mobile’s $26 billion merger with Sprint is more than just his first big decision.

It hits close to home, where Sprint employs 6,000 people.

“I know what Sprint means to Kansas City,” he said, in an interview in his Washington office this week.

Starks, who holds one of the two Democratic seats on the commission, said all proposed mergers have to be assessed across a broad range of potential impacts, including jobs.

“I believe in a muscular public interest standard in evaluating mergers and that is not only whether consumers will be harmed by mergers,” he said. “Our public interest standard actually looks at whether consumers and competition will be enhanced. That includes pricing. That includes service. And that does include jobs as well,” Starks said, speaking broadly about all mergers reviewed by the commission.

“I don’t think it is improper for me to consider the impact on jobs, jobs gained and jobs lost.”

Starks and the entire five-member commission, including Republican chairman Ajit Pai, who also grew up in Kansas, met with Sprint CEO Michel Combes for a series of individual meetings at the FCC.

“We had an open dialogue on the business and how they’re thinking about it. And I got to ask him some questions that are important to me,” said Starks, who declined to reveal details of the discussion. A spokeswoman for Sprint said she had no comment on the meetings beyond confirming the list of attendees.

Sprint and T-Mobile executives testified to Congress last month that the merger would create thousands of jobs. But the Communications Workers of America, a union which opposes the merger, has predicted a merger of the two cellular giants could endanger 28,000 jobs nationwide.

The competing claims have come under scrutiny from lawmakers, including the former pastor of the church where a young Starks attended Bible camp for multiple summers: Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of St. James United Methodist Church on Kansas City’s east side.

Cleaver said he trusts his former camper to sort out the discrepancies.

“I can guarantee you he will know this issue backwards, forwards and sideways and make an intelligent decision,” Cleaver said.

Both companies said that a merger is necessary to compete with AT&T and Verizon in building a 5G network, which will increase download speeds and capacity.

Starks said he wants to use his position to bring broadband to underserved communities. He said that 61 percent of Missouri’s geographic area lacks a high speed internet connection, but he’s also interested in the gap within urban areas.

“I’m very aware that there are folks who are still living with no G’s or 1G where it’s very slow, so what I don’t want is for 5G to expand the digital divide,” he said.

Starks joined Cleaver in the Kansas City area this month for a series of events focused on increasing broadband access in rural and urban communities.

“I think the big takeaway was that he came to our meeting in the first place,” said Carrie Coogan, president of the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion, a group that that was founded to advocate for closing the digital divide after Google Fiber came to Kansas City.

“He really took the questions and took everything to heart,” Coogan said.

Starks graduated Rockhurst High School in 1998, the same year as Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, attended Harvard and worked for the Illinois State Senate when Barack Obama was a member.

Following Yale Law School, where he reconnected with Hawley, he clerked for federal appeals Judge William Duane Benton in Kansas City. He moved on to the Department of Justice in 2013 and then as an attorney for the FCC in 2015 prior to his appointment as a commissioner.

Starks said he first became interested in digital equity a decade ago, after an argument in a Kansas City barber shop about the Chiefs.

“I said why don’t we all go home, look it up on the internet, and next time I come back we’ll figure out who was right and who was wrong. And everyone in the barbershop is a little quizzical and it quickly becomes very real that I was the only person with internet to my home,” Starks said.

“Even today less than 50 percent of black and brown homes have the internet… And what does that mean? Your phone does a lot. But if you’re trying to build a resume, if you’re trying to help your kids do their homework, it’s pretty hard.”

Cleaver, who has known the Starks family for years, said he is genuine about serious about his interest overlooked communities.

“He didn’t grow up in the slums or public housing or even the urban core, but I think his parents did what they could do to make sure he had the issues facing people in the urban core in his heart and his mind.”

Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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