Speculation that Sprint will merge with T-Mobile USA or another competitor has ramped up since the inauguration of President Donald Trump. That continued Friday when a report from The New York Times suggested that Sprint could combined with either T-Mobile or Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company.
Masayoshi Son, founder and CEO of Sprint owner SoftBank, “and his financial advisers are weighing several major possible deals for Sprint,” the Times wrote. “Be it a tie-up with T-Mobile US, Sprint’s closest competitor, or a more ambitious marriage with the cable colossus Comcast, a transaction would allow Mr. Son to fulfill a long-held ambition to invest aggressively in wireless networks in the United States and enable next-generation mobile technology.”
Titled “The World’s Top Tech Investor Is Betting Big on Trump,” the Times report says that “the Trump administration’s push for lighter regulation and lower taxes has been a powerful lure for cash-rich investors the world over.” SoftBank, which is based in Japan, had several of its executives “spen[d] a day in Washington talking to senior members of Mr. Trump’s economic team” last month, according to bankers who were briefed on the meetings, the Times report said.
US regulators opposed wireless consolidation during the Obama administration, preventing potential mergers between AT&T and T-Mobile and later between Sprint and T-Mobile. With four major nationwide carriers, US wireless competition recently led to an expansion of unlimited data plans.
“The Federal Communications Commission looks very smart for blocking the AT&T/T-Mobile deal,” telecom analyst Philip Cusick of JPMorgan Chase told The New York Times. “Five years ago, Sprint and T-Mobile were irrelevant. Now we are seeing them drive down prices. Why would you want to change that?”
Trump and Son have been friendly since the election, with Trump taking credit for SoftBank’s planned investments in the US.
T-Mobile USA CEO John Legere was asked about the potential for wireless industry consolidation in an earnings call last month. Legere said there are no ongoing merger talks because “we’re in an anti-collusion period during the low-band spectrum auction,” but said that T-Mobile will have numerous options after that quiet period ends. “I couldn’t be more excited about the period that’s going to come up when this auction is over, while we continue to do what we just announced and then engage in understanding what the future of this industry is going to be, which is fascinating,” Legere said, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript.
Sprint has struggled while T-Mobile solidifies its position as the third-place US carrier after Verizon and AT&T. SoftBank is willing to give up control of Sprint to T-Mobile owner Deutsche Telekom AG in order to finish a merger deal, Reuters reported last month. That’s a turnabout from 2014, when SoftBank wanted to buy T-Mobile and retain control.
Comcast has mobile plans, with or without Sprint
A Sprint merger with Comcast wouldn’t reduce the number of major wireless carriers, but it would expand the power of the country’s biggest home Internet service provider. When Comcast’s attempt to buy Time Warner Cable was blocked in 2015, US regulators explained that giving Comcast more Internet subscribers would pose a threat to online video streaming services that compete against Comcast’s TV business.
Buying Sprint would quickly give Comcast a major presence in the mobile Internet market, but Comcast has at least one other compelling option. Comcast is planning to offer mobile phone service this year through a reseller agreement with Verizon Wireless. By reselling Verizon data, Comcast can offer mobile Internet service without buying a wireless carrier and without building its own cell towers.
We’ve asked SoftBank and Comcast for comment on the New York Times report today but haven’t heard back yet.