Sprint Corp. was thrown another curveball Thursday in charting its future — a potential merger between rival wireless carrier T-Mobile US Inc. and satellite television provider Dish Network Corp.
Analysts said they saw significant potential impact on Sprint if the talks between the country’s fourth-largest wireless carrier and second-largest satellite TV operator — first reported in The Wall Street Journal — led to a deal that finds government approval.
For starters, Dish could help T-Mobile offer a strong video portfolio — sports, entertainment and other programming — as they combine forces to battle Sprint for wireless subscribers. T-Mobile already has been adding millions of customers and all but caught No. 3 carrier Sprint, as each has about 57 million subscribers.
Adding T-Mobile’s wireless subscribers also would help Dish fend off gains in video streaming customers by Netflix, Hulu and Amazon.com. A merger would further help Dish because it doesn’t own a wireless network but has about $50 billion worth of the wireless airwaves licenses that networks need to operate.
However, protracted merger efforts could work in Sprint’s favor should T-Mobile management became distracted from the competition for subscribers. T-Mobile struggled when it was working unsuccessfully to win regulatory approval to merge with AT&T in 2011.
T-Mobile and Dish declined to comment but, late Thursday, Sprint chief executive Marcelo Claure said he saw the report as just the latest speculation about Dish and its chairman Charlie Ergen.
“There has been so much speculation about what Charlie does at Dish. We’re going to wait and see,” Claure said.
Claure also noted that Sprint’s attention is focused on itself after weighing but abandoning a previous effort to merge with T-Mobile.
“We heard very loud and clear from the government that they wouldn’t like to see T-Mobile and ourselves together. We believe we have a great company in the making so we’re going to continue doing what we do,” Claure said.
Despite a lack of crucial details, including a possible purchase price, the report of talks sent Dish and T-Mobile stocks higher. Dish’s stock climbed $3.44, or 5 percent, to $74.25, while T-Mobile’s surged $1.01, or 3 percent, to $39.34.
Shares in Sprint fell 6.1 percent, or 29 cents, Thursday, closing at $4.46.
A Dish and T-Mobile merger also might start Sprint’s owners thinking about the company’s place in the increasingly tangled U.S. communications world.
The Overland Park-based carrier already is watching AT&T try to gobble up Dish’s rival DirecTV, while Verizon has an agreement to buy AOL. Mobile video is behind the combinations. Verizon’s interest in AOL, for example, focuses on the latter’s technology to sell advertising on video.
“If this deal goes through, it appears (T-Mobile) will be the one that got away as we thought a (T-Mobile) merger was part of Sprint’s longer-term plan,” analyst Jennifer Fritzsche said in a note to clients at Wells Fargo Securities.
Sprint’s owner, Tokyo-based SoftBank, publicly pitched a merger with T-Mobile last year but dropped those plans as federal regulators made their disapproval clear. The hope was that a combination of the two smaller wireless carriers would create one with almost the same number of wireless subscribers as the two big players, Verizon and AT&T.
Instead of pressing its merger plans, SoftBank deferred them, and Fritzsche said many believe Sprint would renew its pursuit once the Obama administration left office in 2017. News of a Dish deal makes that seem unlikely.
Analyst Paul de Sa at Bernstein Research said he’s not so sure a Dish merger with T-Mobile would preclude a Sprint run at a subsequent merger, if that’s where SoftBank wants to go.
He also said Sprint and SoftBank would face relatively little disadvantage in the content wars if Dish and T-Mobile merged. Dish has relationships with content providers, but anyone can seek agreements to provide video to customers.
“You don’t need a secret password to talk to the content guys. You just need money,” de Sa said.
The talks reported by the Journal would be between Ergen, Dish’s largest shareholder, and Deutsche Telekom, the German company that owns about two thirds of T-Mobile US. The Journal said Ergen got in touch with Deutsche Telekom in September about a deal.
The Journal also reported that John Legere, T-Mobile US’ president and chief executive officer, would take the top role at the combined company, and Ergen would be chairman.
Odds of a Dish-T-Mobile merger remain mixed as both have seen several previous merger attempts fail. Dish, for example, sought to buy Sprint when it was talking with SoftBank about a deal. Dish then tried to buy Clearwire, a company that Sprint partly owned and subsequently bought with funding from SoftBank.
Sprint’s aborted bid for T-Mobile was followed by an unsuccessful bid by France-based Iliad to buy T-Mobile. This reported deal could trigger more bidding.
“If the article proves to be correct and the companies really are in serious talks, we suspect it will flush out competing bidders, perhaps for both T-Mobile and Dish,” Jonathan Chaplin, an analyst at New Street Research, said in a note to clients.
Others said SoftBank and Sprint strategists may consider looking for new partners in their U.S. operations.
Kevin Smithen, an analyst at Macquarie Capital, told clients that SoftBank may want to hook up with cable providers Comcast or Charter Communications, or perhaps Google or Amazon, who could make use of its wireless network.
“We think that Sprint will have value as the last remaining wireless independent assets in the U.S. and that (SoftBank chief executive Masayoshi) Son-sen would be amenable to having a smaller piece of a stronger, bigger converged networks pie,” Smithen wrote.