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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

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Gives Support for T-Mobile/Sprint Merger

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – T-Mobile US Inc’s $26 billion acquisition of rival Sprint Corp won the support of the head of the Federal Communications Commission on Monday, in a big step toward the deal’s approval.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican, came out in favor of the combination after the companies offered concessions including selling Sprint’s Boost Mobile prepaid cell service.

Sprint shares surged 23.2% while T-Mobile shares rose 5.1%. If okayed by the FCC, the deal would still need approval from the U.S. Justice Department’s antitrust division.

If the deal is completed, the number of U.S. wireless carriers would drop to three from four, with Verizon Communications Inc and AT&T Inc leading the pack.

Some telecommunications experts have predicted that prices for cell phone service would rise as a result, and U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal agreed.

“The FCC’s seeming abdication makes it even more important for the Department of Justice to step up to the plate to block this merger,” the Democratic senator said in a statement.

Pai will recommend that the other four FCC commissioners vote to approve the merger. Commissioner Brendan Carr, a Republican, said on Monday he will vote in favor.

The third Republican, Mike O’Rielly, did not reply to a request for comment. The Commission is made up of three Republicans and two Democrats.

Pai

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, tweeted her disapproval.

“We’ve seen this kind of consolidation in airlines and with drug companies,” she said. “It hasn’t worked out well for consumers. But now the @FCC wants to bless the same kind of consolidation for wireless carriers. I have serious doubts.”

The FCC will not formally vote on the merger on Monday but will first draft an order, two people briefed on the matter said.

The FCC move boded well for the Justice Department to also approve the deal, Citi analysts said in a note.

“While the two federal agencies have different standards of review that could lead to different outcomes, we believe the likelihood for some coordination between the agencies is encouraging for the approval prospects by the (Justice Department),” the note said.

Reviews by state attorneys general and public utility commissions could push full approval back to the third quarter of this year, the Citi note said.

CONCESSIONS

In a filing with the FCC on Monday, the companies pledged to sell prepaid wireless provider Boost Mobile.

The sale will include the brand name, any active accounts and dedicated Boost assets and staff but no wireless spectrum. The new Boost could buy network access from T-Mobile for at least six years.

One critic of the deal called the concession weak.

“I don’t understand how the mere spinning off of one of three prepaid services would satisfy (Pai), given all the evidence in the record that post-paid (wireless) prices will go up,” said Gigi Sohn, who held a senior FCC position during the Obama administration. “I just think this is very weak tea.”

The Boost sale is aimed at resolving concerns that the deal would give the combined company 54% of the prepaid market, which generally includes those with poor credit who cannot pay with a credit card.

T-Mobile, which is about 63 percent owned by Deutsche Telekom AG, also promised the new company would build a “world-leading” 5G network, which is supposed to be the next generation of wireless service. It promises to give rural Americans robust 5G broadband and enhance home broadband.

The FCC and Justice Department had been expected to make a decision in early June. They have been weighing potential a loss of competition and higher prices for consumers against the prospect of a more powerful No. 3 wireless carrier that can build a faster, better 5G network.

T-Mobile has about 80 million customers and Sprint has about 55 million customers.

Reporting by David Shepardson and Diane Bartz, additional reporting by Douglas Busvine in Frankfurt; Editing by Susan Heavey, Paul Simao and Jeffrey Benkoe

Justice Dept. Staffers Warn T-Mobile/Sprint Merger Unlikely to Win Approval as Structured

Justice Department staffers have told T-Mobile and Sprint that their $26 billion merger is unlikely to win approval as presently structured, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

Unnamed sources familiar with the deal told the newspaper the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division is among the most skeptical of those reviewing the deal, questioning claims from the companies that the merger will create synergy and increased efficiency that could free up resources to dramatically expand the combined company’s wireless business.

At the core of the concern is the impact of combining the nation’s third and fourth largest wireless carriers, reducing competition to just three national postpaid companies — AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile. That could present an unacceptable threat to competition.

The Justice Department is not alone expressing concern over the merger deal. Multiple state attorneys general are still reviewing the deal and several have announced they are prepared to sue the companies involved to stop the merger if it manages to win approval on the federal level. The Federal Communications Commission is also said to be questioning some of the claims of the company about the merits of its promised 5G home broadband service and exactly how much consumers could save should they subscribe.

The Financial Times also published a story this afternoon essentially confirming the Journal story.

John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile USA, denied the premise of the Journal’s story in a tweet late this afternoon, calling it “simply untrue,” but refused further comment.

Any decision about the merger is not expected for several weeks, and any recommendations from the staff report on the deal can be overruled by the political appointees that run the Justice Department. The Times reports that the final decision will likely rest with Makan Delrahim, President Trump’s pick as chief of the antitrust division. With staff objections now leaked to the press, Delrahim could be in a politically difficult situation overruling his staff’s recommendations. In the meantime, company officials can offer concessions, such as selling off certain assets to overcome regulator objections.

Many Wall Street analysts feel the chances of the merger winning approval are reduced the longer the merger review remains underway in Washington. Many have placed the odds at less than 50% that the deal will ultimately be approved. If it is rejected, T-Mobile is expected to continue its business without any significant financial hurdles. Sprint may be a different matter, as its Japanese backer SoftBank has soured on the merits of pouring additional money into Sprint’s wireless business.

House Democrats Lead Charge in 232-190 Vote to Restore Net Neutrality; GOP Senate Leader Promises Bill is “DOA”

Phillip Dampier April 10, 2019 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

The House on Wednesday approved a bill on a 232 to 190 vote along party lines to restore net neutrality protections first adopted in 2015, but repealed in 2018 by the Republican majority serving the Trump Administration’s Federal Communications Commission under the leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai.

All 231 voting Democrats voted in favor of the net neutrality measure while all but one Republican (Rep. Bill Posey of Florida) opposed it.

While the measure would never have passed a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Democrats still face an uphill battle to get the measure through the Republican-controlled Senate and on to the White House.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday the bill would be “dead on arrival” in the Senate, and McConnell was unlikely to even consent to bring the bill to the floor for a debate and vote. Separately, aides to the president strongly urged him to veto the measure should it ever reach his desk for a signature.

Republicans have defended the nation’s largest internet service providers and policies which have largely deregulated their business practices and rates, claiming it has stimulated investment and expansion by ISPs willing to spend money in a favorable business climate. Critics contend spending policies at the nation’s largest providers are based on business priorities, not government policy on internet openness.

Pai

Minutes after the House vote ended, Pai attacked the results: “This legislation is a big-government solution in search of a problem. The internet is free and open, while faster broadband is being deployed across America. This bill should not and will not become law.”

Under the current rules, ISPs are allowed to block, throttle, or charge extra for content accessed over their broadband pipes, as long as a company informs its customers it is doing so. Democrats like Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, one of the chief proponents for net neutrality restoration, compared the FCC’s repeal with firing a police force in a high crime area.

“Today, nobody is enforcing any rules. There’s no cop on the beat,” Doyle said. “You need a cop on the beat. These rules wouldn’t have been put into place if there was never this kind of behavior on the part of ISPs. We didn’t just dream all this up.”

Rep. Doyle

Three years into the Trump Administration, Doyle complains, the FCC has still done little to protect consumers from abusive ISPs.

“They’ve done nothing, nada, zip, crickets. They did nothing,” Doyle said. “It’s the wild, wild west. Let the ISPs do anything they want and consumers be damned.”

Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr disagrees.

“The U.S. has turned the page on the failed broadband policies of the Obama Administration,” Carr said in a statement criticizing the net neutrality measure as threatening to turn back the clock on the telecom industry’s progress.

Many Republicans claimed they supported measures that would prohibit ISPs from interfering with content, but were opposed to Democrats tying regulatory authority to redefining ISPs as telecommunications providers. Republicans claim that could lead to a government power grab by officials seeking rate controls and service quality regulations. Some Republicans also claim the measure would expose the internet to new taxes.

Democrats are now lobbying to get Senate Leader McConnell to schedule a Senate vote for the measure.

Democrats Unveil New Net Neutrality Bill Restoring 2015 Openness Rules

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with fellow Senate Democrats and FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel (upper left corner), speaks at the announcement of a new bill that would codify net neutrality as federal law.

Democrats in Congress this morning unveiled a new bill that would effectively reinstate the 2015 Open Internet rules repealed under the Trump Administration’s Republican-dominated Federal Communications Commission.

The new bill, “Save the Internet Act of 2019,” was hailed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as a “pillar of economic opportunity” for the digital 21st century information economy and a bill that will stop internet service providers from raising broadband prices even higher.

“A full 86% of Americans oppose the Trump assault on net neutrality including 82% of Republicans,” Pelosi said at an announcement ceremony held in Washington this morning. “With the Save the Internet Act, Democrats are honoring the will of the people and restore the protections that do this — stop unjust discriminatory practices by ISPs that try to throttle the public’s browsing speed, block your internet access, and increase your costs. This is about freedom, this is about cost.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced his intention to repeal net neutrality in 2017, and despite tens of millions of letters protesting that decision, Pai began rolling back net neutrality rules last year.

The three-page bill was co-sponsored by 46 Democrats in the U.S. Senate. It codifies the language from the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet rules as a standalone federal law, no longer subject to reinterpretation or dismissal by the FCC. A companion bill is expected to be introduced in the House on Friday.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) implored Senate Republicans to get on board with Democrats to support the re-establishment of a level playing field on the internet, criticizing their lack of support during last year’s effort to resurrect net neutrality.

“Unfortunately, all but three Senate Republicans voted on behalf of the special interests,” Schumer said, noting the measure still passed the Senate in 2018 but ultimately was shelved by the then-Republican controlled House. “So now we have a Democratic House, and Republicans will have a second chance — there are second chances — to right the Trump Administration’s wrong.”

Net neutrality has faced multiple legal challenges and intense lobbying by the telecommunications industry, especially by large cable and phone companies that generally oppose the concept, claiming it would impede management of their networks and block the creation of new innovative services that could deliver extra bandwidth on demand. Telecom companies also complain content providers like Netflix unfairly utilize their networks without fair compensation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Senate Democrats introduce the Save the Internet Act of 2019, a bill re-establishing net neutrality as federal law. (31:35)

 

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  • Ian Littman: The spectrum Starry has won't really work for rural broadband; service only covers a couple miles from the access point. You need something < 6 GHz...
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