WASHINGTON — T-Mobile and Sprint executives faced a grilling Wednesday on Capitol Hill as they defended their proposed merger from allegations that the deal would hurt competition, raise prices, and harm economically struggling Americans.
The $26 billion deal, which would combine the nation’s third- and fourth-largest wireless carriers, will improve competition despite eliminating a competitor from the wireless market, said T-Mobile chief executive John Legere. He argued that the merger would make T-Mobile big enough to challenge not only AT&T and Verizon, but also the ‘‘stranglehold’’ of high cable Internet prices.
But opponents of the deal charged that regulators did not find those same arguments credible in 2011, when T-Mobile and AT&T were seeking to merge, and that lawmakers should not be persuaded by them now.
‘‘Don’t buy it. We’ve heard this before,’’ Phillip Berenbroick, a policy attorney at the consumer group Public Knowledge, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday.
Sprint executive chairman Marcelo Claure argued that without the merger, his company would need to add billions to its existing debt to fund expansions of its network, which would likely lead to higher prices for Sprint customers.
The hearings come as high-profile Democrats have expressed rising skepticism over the power of large corporations. On Tuesday, eight Democratic senators sent letters to the FCC and Justice Department urging them to block the T-Mobile deal.
‘‘A T-Mobile-Sprint merger would produce unacceptably high levels of concentration in an already consolidated wireless industry,’’ wrote the group of Democratic senators, which includes presidential hopefuls Cory Booker of New Jersey, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
In his written testimony, Legere cited letters of support from Representatives Anna Eshoo, Democrat of California, Billy Long, Republican of Missouri, and state officials, including Utah attorney general Sean Reyes.
Eshoo warned Wednesday that Sprint’s debt is already ‘‘unsustainable’’ and argued that the country would be worse off if the company eventually went out of business and left T-Mobile as a smaller budget carrier without the resources to compete with AT&T and Verizon.
T-Mobile and Sprint have promised that a merger would create thousands of customer service jobs nationwide and that it will enable the companies to build a next-generation wireless data network rivaling those at AT&T and Verizon.
T-Mobile and Sprint have said that only by joining forces can the two companies mount an effective challenge to the larger wireless carriers. Though the deal would eliminate the nation’s fourth-largest wireless competitor, the tie-up would in fact benefit competition, Legere has argued.
Ahead of the hearings, some in Congress vowed to press T-Mobile and Sprint on those promised benefits, especially the proposed 5G, or fifth-generation, network.
‘‘I plan to be particularly focused on this deal in the context of the race to 5G and beyond,’’ said Representative Doris Matsui, Democrat of California, who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Other lawmakers vowed to keep an open mind ahead of the hearings.
‘‘While I have not made up my mind about the merger, it would certainly result in a remarkable amount of consolidation in an already very consolidated industry,’’ said Representative Mike Doyle, Democrat of Pennsylvania, who chairs the House subcommittee on communications and technology.