By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Telecommunications provider CenturyLink Inc <CTL.N> on Monday won anti-trust approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission for its purchase of Level 3 Communications Inc <LVLT.N>, the agency said.
With the $24 billion deal, CenturyLink said it is seeking to expand its reach in the business communications market and compete with AT&T Inc <T.N> and Verizon Communications Inc <VZ.N>. CenturyLink said in a statement it had received all needed approvals and planned to close the deal on Wednesday.
The U.S. Justice Department approved the tie-up this month with some conditions, including some divestitures. The FCC extended the same conditions in its approval order, the first major telecom merger approved under President Donald Trump.
In addition to approving the CenturyLink deal, the FCC outlined a new standard by which the agency will review future mergers -- a shift that could make it easier for other large media and telecommunications mergers to win approval.
The FCC is currently considering whether to approve Sinclair Broadcast Group’s <SBGI.O> proposed $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media Co <TRCO.N> that has drawn fire from across the political spectrum. Critics say the FCC has taken a number of regulatory actions to boost Sinclair.
"It has reached a point where all our media policy decisions seem to be custom built for this one company," FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said of the Sinclair deal at a congressional hearing last week.
The FCC has traditionally employed a balancing test weighing potential public interest harms against any potential public interest benefits and applicants bear the burden of proof.
The FCC approval of CenturyLink's Level 3 deal offered a more limited standard of review that would use "narrowly tailored transaction-specific conditions to remedy" harms, according to the order.
FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat, dissented and said the Republican majority "radically alters the commission’s long-standing merger review standards," her office said.
Rosenworcel said "instead of using the agency's decades-old merger review standard, (the FCC) arbitrarily introduces a new one."
Commission Republicans have pushed to halt the practice of demanding conditions or concessions from companies seeking to merge that are not directly related to a transaction.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who has been critical of the FCC review process under former President Barack Obama, denied the FCC was changing the standard of review in issuing the decision.
“But we do make clear what had become increasingly hazy in recent years. This clarity will help the public to see that transactional review is an occasion to carefully consider how the transaction itself impacts the public interest, not an opportunity to extract a range of concessions, tangentially-related at best,” Pai said Monday.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Susan Thomas and Lisa Shumaker)