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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

Dish Nears Deal to Acquire Boost Mobile, Clearing Path for T-Mobile/Sprint Merger

Dish Network Corporation is in the final stages of talks to acquire assets that include valuable wireless spectrum and Sprint’s Boost Mobile brand for an estimated $6 billion, according to a report quoting anonymous sources published by Bloomberg News, clearing the way for the Department of Justice to approve the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint.

Dish could announce a deal as soon as this week, but sources caution the talks are still ongoing and a deal might still fall apart. A spinoff of Boost is reportedly essential for the Antitrust Division at the DoJ to approve the merger, because the regulator reportedly wants to preserve four national wireless carriers to protect wireless competition in the United States.

Dish has already warehoused extensive wireless spectrum, much of it potentially valuable for the future deployment of 5G wireless networks, but Dish has historically held its spectrum without launching any significant wireless operations. If Dish does acquire Boost, the deal will come with a pre-existing contract allowing the prepaid Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) to continue to use Sprint’s network to service its customers. Dish would also receive a portion of spectrum held by T-Mobile and/or Sprint with which it could build its own wireless network, but that would require billions in new investments from a satellite TV provider already under financial stress from the impact of cord-cutting.

At worst, the transaction could allow Dish to increase its spectrum holdings while running Boost’s existing prepaid wireless operation as-is, dependent entirely on Sprint for connectivity. If the merger is successful, T-Mobile plans to mothball a significant portion of Sprint’s CDMA wireless network, which could eventually force Boost to find a new host for its wireless services.

Wall Street analyst MoffettNathanson remains skeptical about the T-Mobile/Sprint merger and is even more puzzled by Dish’s reported involvement. The analyst firm released a research note to its clients warning the future of Boost may be bleak:

We’re not sure why that deal is sensible for anyone involved. Dish, remember, already has more spectrum than they know what to do with; what they lack is money and ground facilities, and the deal described on Friday wouldn’t deliver either one. Instead, it would make both problems worse. And while Boost would help provide a baseline revenue stream in return for an upfront purchase price, the fit between Boost and Dish is, at best, superficial. Yes Boost serves a budget conscious consumer, as does Dish Network’s satellite business, but Boost is a mostly urban brand and Dish’s satellite business is an increasingly rural one.

And, more urgently, Boost’s distribution poses a huge problem. Historically, Boost was heavily dependent on Walmart for retail gross additions, but they’ve since lost that distribution channel. They would also, presumably, lose distribution through Sprint-branded stores (and even if, as a condition of the deal, they didn’t, does anyone think that Sprint/T-Mobile store employees would direct any volume to a spun off Boost brand?) That would leave Dish with the brand that has a churn rate as high as 5% per month to be spun off with an inadequate distribution front end, and with no realistic path to replace that front end before the subscriber base was, well, gone.

BTIG’s Walter Piecyk appeared on CNBC Monday to warn investors they are being too optimistic about the T-Mobile/Sprint merger’s chances of being approved. He puts those chances at “less than 50-50.” (5:38)

In contrast, Dade Hayes, contributing editor at Deadline, believes the deal will ultimately win approval from the Department of Justice. He talks to Cheddar about what T-Mobile and Sprint are doing to win over regulators. (8:14)

N.Y. and California Head 10-State Lawsuit to Block T-Mobile/Sprint Merger

 James

New York Attorney General Letitia James and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra today filed an unusual multi-state lawsuit, along with eight other State Attorneys General to halt the proposed merger of telecom giants T-Mobile and Sprint, deciding not to wait for a decision from the Department of Justice, which is also reviewing the merger. The complaint, filed in the federal Southern District of New York court in coordination with Colorado, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Virginia, and Wisconsin alleges that the merger of two of the four largest national mobile network operators would deprive consumers of the benefits of competition and drive up prices for cellphone services.

“When it comes to corporate power, bigger isn’t always better,” said Attorney General Letitia James. “The T-Mobile and Sprint merger would not only cause irreparable harm to mobile subscribers nationwide by cutting access to affordable, reliable wireless service for millions of Americans, but would particularly affect lower-income and minority communities here in New York and in urban areas across the country. That’s why we are going to court to stop this merger and protect our consumers, because this is exactly the sort of consumer-harming, job-killing megamerger our antitrust laws were designed to prevent.”

“Although T-Mobile and Sprint may be promising faster, better, and cheaper service with this merger, the evidence weighs against it,” said Attorney General Xavier Becerra. “This merger would hurt the most vulnerable Californians and result in a compressed market with fewer choices and higher prices. Today, along with New York and eight other partner states, we’ve filed a lawsuit to block this merger and protect the residents of our state.”

The states departed from traditional courtesies in the case, deciding to launch a pre-emptive legal challenge to the transaction without providing Justice Department officials advance notice of their decision to sue. That decision may have come after FCC Chairman Ajit Pai gave his full support for the merger, with indications the Republican majority on the FCC would also vote in favor of approving the deal. Staffers in the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department object to the merger, and are recommending it be rejected. But the Justice Department’s unpredictability, and its poor track record trying to block the AT&T-Time Warner (Entertainment) merger in court may have pushed the state attorneys general to also act on their own.

T-Mobile USA and Sprint are the third and fourth largest mobile wireless networks in the U.S., and are the lower-cost carriers among the “Big Four” — with market leaders Verizon Wireless and AT&T controlling the larest share of the wireless market. Intense competition, spurred in particular by T-Mobile and Sprint, has delivered declining prices, increased coverage, and better quality for all mobile phone subscribers. According to the Labor Department, the average cost of mobile service has fallen by roughly 28 percent over the last decade, while mobile data consumption has grown rapidly. The merger, however, would put an end to that fierce competition, argue the attorneys general, which has delivered a great number of benefits to consumers.

States with large urban poor communities are particularly sensitive to the merger, because both T-Mobile and Sprint focus their coverage on urban areas. With the average U.S. household spending $1,100 annually on wireless phone service, even small rate increases can dramatically increase service suspensions or disconnections due to late or non-payment.

“Low-and moderate-income (LMI) New Yorkers put a greater share of their household income toward their phone bill, and when you are looking at a budget that is already stretched thin, every dollar counts,” said Mae Grote, CEO of the Financial Clinic. “Cellphones now not only give us the ability to communicate with friends and family, here and abroad, but are increasingly the way we engage with many critical services. Our customers use cellphone apps to access public information, send and receive money, manage their SNAP benefits, look for a job, and even communicate with their doctors, and maintaining competition in the market for this critical service ensures LMI consumers have the same access to quality, affordable service as the more financially secure. The Clinic is proud to advocate on behalf of the communities we serve to protect their inclusion in the modern economy.”

The attorneys general investigation laid bare many of the alleged merger benefits offered by T-Mobile and Sprint to win approval of the merger. The group found many of the claimed benefits were completely unverifiable and were likely to be delivered years into the future, if ever. But within weeks of approving such a merger, the companies would have an immediate incentive to raise prices and reduce service quality. Sprint’s network, in particular, was scheduled to be largely mothballed as a result of the merger, even though Sprint provides coverage in some areas that T-Mobile does not. Although the two companies could identify several self-serving deal efficiencies that would reduce their costs and staffing needs, there is no evidence the merger would deliver consumers lower prices and were outweighed by the merger’s immediate harm to competition and consumers.

Additionally, the merger would harm thousands of hard-working mobile wireless independent dealers in New York and across the nation. The ten states are concerned that further consolidation at the carrier level would lead to a substantial loss of retail jobs, as well as lower pay for these workers in the near future.

Becerra

“CWA applauds the Attorneys General and especially General Letitia James’ leadership in taking decisive action today to prevent T-Mobile and Sprint from gaining anti-competitive power at the expense of workers, customers, and communities,” added Chris Shelton, president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA). “Reducing the number of national wireless carriers from four to three would mean higher prices for consumers, job loss for retail wireless workers, and downward pressure on all wireless workers’ wages. The states’ action today is a welcome development for American workers and consumers, and a reminder that regulators must take labor market concerns seriously when evaluating mergers.”

Before filing suit, the states gave significant consideration to T-Mobile and Sprint’s claims of increased coverage in rural areas. However, T-Mobile has yet to provide plans to build any new cell sites in areas that would not otherwise be served by either T-Mobile or Sprint. As stated in the complaint, the U.S. previously won the “race to LTE” as a direct result of vigorous competition among wireless carriers. Finally, continued competition, not concentration, is most likely to spur rapid development of a nationwide 5G network and other innovations.

“This merger is bad for competition, and it is bad for consumers, especially those living in or traveling through rural areas, who will experience fewer choices, price increases, and substandard service,” stated Carri Bennet, general counsel for the Rural Wireless Association. “We are pleased that the New York Attorney General, along with nine states have filed their lawsuit to block the merger. The process at the FCC has not been transparent and the FCC appears to be blindly accepting New T-Mobile’s words as truth.”

The complaint was filed under seal, because it contains unredacted confidential information, in United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.  A redacted copy of the lawsuit is likely to be made available later.

T-Mobile currently has more than 79 million subscribers, and is a majority-owned subsidiary of Germany’s Deutsche Telekom AG. Sprint Corp. currently has more than 54 million subscribers, and is a majority-owned subsidiary of Japan’s SoftBank Group Corp.

Charter Refuses to Cooperate in Audit of Its Merger Commitments in California

Charter Communications has refused to cooperate in a review to determine if the company is meeting its merger obligations to customers in California.

The Public Advocates Office of the California Public Utilities Commission reports that Spectrum was required to offer at least 300 Mbps internet service to all households in its California service area by December 31, 2019. It was a key condition required of the cable company to win approval of its 2016 merger with Time Warner Cable. But after getting its merger, Charter officials have stopped cooperating with the Public Advocates Office, which is required to submit annual progress reports on Charter’s compliance.

“Charter’s reports thus far have consisted only of bald assertions, without any supporting household data, that it is providing download speeds of up to 300 Mbps to a certain percentage of households and, as stated in its 2017 report, 400 Mbps to a certain percentage of households,” the Public Advocates Office wrote in a Notice of Ex Parte Communication.

“Charter has refused to provide all data requested by the Public Advocates Office, making it impossible for the Public Advocates Office and the Commission to verify whether Charter is, in fact, in compliance with [its merger obligations},” the Office stated. “[I]f Charter fails to comply with merger conditions, the Commission may pursue appropriate enforcement remedies, including the imposition of fines.”

The Public Advocates Office won the granting of a motion to compel Charter Communications to provide the information, signed by Administrative Law Judge Karl J. Bemesderfer.

Department of Justice Wants T-Mobile and Sprint to Create a New 4th National Wireless Carrier

Officials in the Justice Department are asking T-Mobile and Sprint to spin off a portion of their networks to lay the foundation to create a new national wireless carrier, with its own network, as a deal condition for approving their $26.5 billion merger.

Bloomberg News reports the launch of a new “fourth largest” U.S. wireless company would help win Justice Department approval for the merger deal, according to unnamed sources. Such a network could be created with the spinoff of Sprint’s Boost Mobile, a prepaid MVNO dependent on Sprint’s wireless network. Since a considerable percentage of Sprint’s existing network was expected to be scrapped after the merger won approval, Sprint could theoretically give up part of its network that would have been deemed redundant anyway to appease regulators. But Wall Street is unlikely to approve of the prospect of creating a new competitor, especially in a transaction designed to reduce the number of wireless competitors in the United States.

Boost Mobile, according to Reuters, could be worth $3 billion in a sale — potentially more if an already-built wireless network is included in the deal.

Critics wonder why the Justice Department would approve a deal merging T-Mobile and Sprint at all if officials were worried about reducing the number of wireless options for consumers. Industry observers suspect T-Mobile and Sprint would be unlikely to support such a network spinoff plan, and the resulting emergence of a new carrier likely to be even smaller than Sprint would leave it in a difficult position in a marketplace that would be dominated by three much larger national carriers planning to spend billions to develop 5G networks.

A source told Bloomberg News Justice Department antitrust chief Makan Delrahim “still wants four carriers” and remains unmoved by T-Mobile and Sprint’s arguments that combining operations would lead to more competition and lower prices for consumers. 

Many state attorneys general remain opposed to the merger, fearing that it will lead to less competition and higher prices.  They are waiting for the Justice Department to make its decision before contemplating lawsuits to block the merger if the deal wins approval in Washington.

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