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CNBC: Justice Dept. Gives T-Mobile/Sprint Merger One Week to Settle Issues

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Justice Department would sue to block the merger of T-Mobile US Inc and Sprint Corp if the parties do not settle next week, CNBC reported on Thursday, citing sources.

T-Mobile and Sprint did not immediately respond to Reuters requests for comment. The Justice Department declined to comment.

In June, a group of U.S. state attorneys general filed suit to block the merger, arguing that the deal would cost consumers more than $4.5 billion annually.

To win over the Justice Department, which is not involved in the lawsuit, T-Mobile and Sprint have agreed to a series of deal concessions, including selling the prepaid brand Boost.

The companies have been in talks for weeks to sell Boost to Dish Network Corp but are haggling over issues such as restrictions over who can buy the divested assets if they are sold in the future, with T-Mobile and Deutsche Telekom seeking to prevent them from going to a cable or technology company.

T-Mobile is about 63% owned by Deutsche Telekom and Sprint is controlled by Softbank Group Corp.

The companies told the court in late June that they were willing to refrain from closing the deal until after the state attorneys general case is completed.

The two companies have a July 29 deadline to complete the deal but are expected to extend it.

Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai has given his blessing to the merger in principle and is expected to circulate a formal order within weeks.

Reporting by David Shepardson and Diane Bartz in Washington and Akanksha Rana in Bengaluru; Editing by Sonya

CNBC’s David Faber reports the biggest stumbling block in the merger is a fear Dish might sell its wireless service to a cable company. T-Mobile wants contract language restricting that possibility. (5:13)

 

FCC Opens Probe Into Sinclair Disclosures on Failed Tribune Deal; Questions Sinclair’s Candor

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Federal Communications Commission has opened a new investigation into whether Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc engaged in misrepresentations or a lack of candor in its failed effort to win approval for a $3.9 billion bid to purchase Tribune Media Co.

In a June 25 letter to Sinclair posted Wednesday on the FCC’s website, the government agency directed Sinclair to answer a series of questions and provide documents by July 9, warning that “failing to respond accurately and completely to this (letter) constitutes a violation of the act and our rules.”

Sinclair did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

An administrative judge in March dropped a hearing into allegations that Sinclair, the largest U.S. broadcast station owner, may have misled regulators. Judge Jane Halprin added however that the allegations “are extremely serious charges that reasonably warrant a thorough examination.”

Tribune terminated the sale of 42 TV stations in 33 markets to Sinclair, which has 192 stations, in August. A month earlier the FCC referred the deal for a hearing, questioning Sinclair’s candor over the planned sale of some stations and suggesting Sinclair would effectively retain control over them.

The collapse of the deal, which was backed by U.S. President Donald Trump, potentially ended Sinclair’s hopes of building a national conservative-leaning TV powerhouse that might have rivaled Twenty-First Century Fox Inc’s Fox News.

Sinclair in March said it continues “to maintain that we were completely candid, transparent and honest with the FCC during its review of our proposed acquisition of Tribune Media.”

Andrew Schwartzman, a law professor at Georgetown University, said the FCC could have waited to address the issues when Sinclair’s licenses were up for renewal, but said the inquiry was “inevitable” given the FCC’s prior findings.

After the deal collapsed, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau said it did not oppose dismissal of the hearing proceeding.

Part of a letter sent by the FCC to Sinclair Broadcasting.

Nexstar Media Group Inc said in December it will buy Tribune in a $4.1 billion deal that would make it the largest regional U.S. TV station operator. The deal is still under review by the Justice Department and the FCC.

Democrats accused Sinclair of slanting news coverage in favor of Republicans. Trump last year criticized the Republican-led FCC for not approving the Tribune deal, saying on Twitter it “would have been a great and much needed Conservative voice for and of the People.”

In 2017, the FCC said it was fining Sinclair $13.38 million after it failed to properly disclose that paid programming that aired on local TV stations was sponsored by a cancer institute.

In the latest inquiry, Sinclair could face new fines.

In May, Walt Disney Co said it would sell its interests in 21 regional sports networks and Fox College Sports to Sinclair for $9.6 billion.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Stephen Coates

T-Mobile Prepares for Boost Auction if Dish Network Talks Stall

(Reuters) – T-Mobile US Inc is preparing an alternative plan if a deal to sell wireless assets to Dish Network Corp falls through, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs Group Inc., which is advising T-Mobile, the third largest U.S. wireless carrier, on selling prepaid brand Boost Mobile as part of the company’s concession to gain regulatory approval to buy Sprint Corp, is expected to send out books to prospective buyers in two weeks, one source familiar with the matter said.

While satellite television provider Dish Network remains the front-runner to acquire the Boost assets, Goldman has told prospective buyers as late as Tuesday that it is preparing for an upcoming auction of Boost.

Another source characterized the process being run by Goldman as moving slowly. Among the details holding up an auction is that Goldman is not yet clear what exactly is up for sale from the merger, one source said.

T-Mobile and Sprint did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Goldman Sachs declined to comment.

T-Mobile and Sprint have agreed to a series of deal concessions, including to sell Boost, to gain regulatory approval for the $26.5 billion merger with Sprint, but still needs the green light from the U.S. Department of Justice antitrust chief, though his staff have recommended the agency block the deal.

A source close to the discussions said T-Mobile was hopeful it would reach an agreement with the Justice Department by early next week.

The Boost assets have stirred up interest from a variety of parties, including Amazon.com and cable companies Comcast, Charter Communications, and Altice USA, according to sources.

T-Mobile and Sprint are still negotiating possible additional concessions with the Department of Justice, and Goldman Sachs is waiting for the details of the agreement before working on the terms that will be sent out to bidders, one source said.

Two potential bidders told Reuters on the condition of anonymity that they are still in the dark about critical information related to the Boost sale, such as how the Boost wireless deal with T-Mobile will be structured, or financial details about the Boost customers, which the bidders will use to determine the prepaid brand’s valuation.

Dish is also speaking with other parties on potential partnerships with Boost, sources said.

T-Mobile has agreed to negotiate a contract with Boost’s buyer that will allow the spun-off company to run on the combined T-Mobile and Sprint network, according to a regulatory filing that outlined the merger concessions. But the carriers are currently debating whether to provide the buyer an infrastructure-based mobile virtual network operator deal, which would allow the buyer more control over the wireless plans, including control of the user’s SIM card, one source said.

That could help convince the Department of Justice to approve the merger, which has held discussions on how to preserve competition in the wireless industry.

Cable provider Altice is one of the few so-called MVNO partners to have this type of wireless agreement, which it currently has with Sprint. An infrastructure-based MVNO is generally seen as more favorable than a standard deal that allows wireless providers that do not own and operate their own network to piggyback off of one of the four major wireless carriers for wholesale prices.

Other concessions being discussed include whether T-Mobile and Sprint will divest wireless spectrum, or the airwaves that carry data, and the possibility of giving up more retail customers or retail shops from either T-Mobile or Sprint’s prepaid brands, according to one source familiar with the matter.

Reporting by Sheila Dang and Angela Moon in New York and Diane Bartz in Washington; Editing by Kenneth Li and Lisa Shumaker

Supreme Court Will Hear Comcast Appeal Over Accusations Its Channel Lineup is Racially Biased

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear cable television operator Comcast Corp’s bid to throw out comedian and producer Byron Allen’s racial bias lawsuit accusing the company of discriminating against black-owned channels.

The justices will review a decision by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that cleared the way for a $20 billion civil rights lawsuit against Comcast to proceed. At issue in the litigation is the refusal by Comcast to carry channels operated by Entertainment Studios Networks, owned by Byron Allen, who is black.

The justices did not act on a similar appeal by Charter Communications involving claims by Allen after the company also declined to carry his channels. That case likely will be guided by the outcome in Comcast’s appeal.

Comcast and Charter have said their business decisions were based on capacity constraints, not race, and that Allen’s channels, including JusticeCentral.TV, Cars.TV, Pets.TV and Comedy.TV, did not show sufficient promise or customer demand to merit distribution. Other television distributors, including Verizon, AT&T and DirecTV, carry some of Allen’s programming, court papers said.

“Comcast has an outstanding record of supporting and fostering diverse programming, including programming from African-American owned channels, two more of which we launched earlier this year,” the company said in a statement, adding that it hopes the Supreme Court will bring the case to an end.

Allen

Allen disputed the statement, saying the channels Comcast mentioned are not wholly owned by African Americans. Comcast, Allen said, “will continue to lose this case, and the American people who stand against racial discrimination will win.”

Entertainment Studios Networks sued in Los Angeles federal court, accusing the cable companies of violating the Civil Rights Act of 1866, a post-Civil War law that forbids racial discrimination in business contracts.

The suits brought by Allen pinned the rejections primarily on racial discrimination, accusing cable executives of giving insincere or invalid excuses and granting contracts to carry white-owned networks during the same period.

The lawsuits also alleged that the companies’ commitments to diversity are a sham and that they have used outside civil rights groups, such as Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, to provide cover for empty promises. Comcast called those accusations “outlandish.”

Both Comcast and Charter called the lawsuits a “scam” and sought to have the cases dismissed. But the 9th Circuit last year allowed the litigation to proceed.

At the heart of the case is the question of whether individuals who are refused a business contract can sue under the civil rights law without ruling out reasons other than discrimination for the denial. The 9th Circuit said lawsuits can proceed to trial if plaintiffs can show that discriminatory intent was one factor among others in the denial of a contract.

Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham

Reuters Exclusive: T-Mobile, Sprint Could Sell Boost Prepaid for Up to $3 Billion, Potential Bidders Say

(Reuters) – A group of potential buyers are preparing bids for prepaid wireless brand Boost Mobile in an upcoming sale valuing the offshoot of U.S. wireless carriers T-Mobile US Inc and Sprint Corp at up to $3 billion, interested buyers told Reuters.

The $26 billion deal between T-Mobile and Sprint won approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission last week after the two carriers offered concessions. It included the sale of Boost to reduce the combined company’s market share in the prepaid wireless business, where customers pay for phone service at the beginning of the month and are not required to pass a credit check.

While the deal awaits a ruling from the U.S. Department of Justice, interested parties are already preparing bids. The sale process is expected to begin after the Justice Department’s review.

Q Link Wireless, a prepaid brand and the third-largest provider of federally assisted wireless plans, is putting together a package to bid for Boost with private equity backing and could pay between $1.8 billion to $3 billion, founder and Chief Executive Issa Asad told Reuters.

The price will depend on the quality of Boost’s customers, such as their level of churn, or the rate of customer cancellations, the devices they are using, and what type of phone plan they are on, none of which the companies have disclosed, he said.

This month, analysts at Cowen estimated Boost has 7 million to 8 million customers and a transaction could be valued at $4.5 billion if the deal included wireless spectrum, or the airwaves that carry data, and facilities. Sprint has not disclosed the number of Boost customers.

Stephen Stokols, chief executive officer of prepaid wireless company FreedomPop, said an undisclosed private equity group he is speaking with have placed Boost’s future value at about $4 billion, such as in an initial public offering.

While FreedomPop is not a bidder, Stokols said he is advising a private equity group preparing a bid. If that bid succeeds, he believes the group would combine their acquisition with FreedomPop and have him lead a combined company with the Boost assets.

Peter Adderton, founder of Boost Mobile who sold the U.S. business to Nextel in 2004, which was then acquired by Sprint, has also said he is interested in buying back Boost. He declined to comment on his valuation for the business.

Adderton said he and his lawyers have urged regulators to require T-Mobile and Sprint to also divest wireless spectrum to ensure Boost will be a viable competitor in the market.

Adderton added that regulators must also ensure the new T-Mobile does not employ anticompetitive practices to harm Boost, and the contract between the companies should be non-exclusive, which would allow Boost to buy network access from other carriers.

The current sale agreement is devoid of details, but with the right terms, “we can create a dynamic player that will compete in the market,” Adderton said of Boost.

T-Mobile and Sprint did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Reporting by Sheila Dang; Editing by Kenneth Li and Lisa Shumaker

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