Sprint’s race to become a stronger wireless phone company is turning into a steeplechase.
The Overland Park-based company encountered a new hurdle Thursday in its bid to buy control of longtime network partner Clearwire Corp.
For the second time this month, Clearwire canceled a planned shareholder vote on Sprint’s bid, this time because rival bidder Dish Network Corp. topped Sprint’s offer by $1 a share.
Clearwire also said it would start negotiations with Colorado-based Dish, a satellite television company, over its bid of $4.40 a share.
Gaining control of Clearwire is a key step in Sprint’s plan to merge with Tokyo-based SoftBank Corp., which has offered $20.1 billion for 70 percent of Sprint.
Dish has been trying to disrupt the SoftBank deal, having made its own bid for Sprint, a $25 billion offer for the entire company.
SoftBank and Dish both see Clearwire’s valuable wireless spectrum as a way to bolster Sprint’s efforts to compete against AT, Verizon and T-Mobile.
If Dish could take Clearwire out from under Sprint, SoftBank could see Sprint as a less-attractive partner.
One analyst said that Dish’s higher bid for Clearwire could unravel the SoftBank deal.
“We now think there is a chance that SoftBank walks away from the Sprint deal,” analyst Amy Yong wrote in a note to clients of Macquarie Research Equities.
Analysts say Dish’s boosted Clearwire bid at least means Sprint will have to raise its price if it wants to buy the 49 percent of Clearwire it doesn’t already own.
A Sprint spokesman issued a statement Wednesday, “We are reviewing Dish’s actions both as to our interest in Clearwire and Dish’s proposal to acquire Sprint.”
SoftBank officials could not be reached.
In January, Dish made a complex $3.30 a share offer to buy Clearwire, but talks over that bid had stalled. Clearwire’s board had recommended its owners accept Sprint’s $3.40 a share offer.
But on Thursday, a Clearwire statement said “the most recent Dish proposal raises issues that need to be discussed” but also “appears to be more actionable than Dish’s previous proposal.”
Clearwire reset the shareholder vote for June 13 but did not change its recommendation on the Sprint offer. It urged shareholders to wait while it evaluates the new Dish proposal.
Sprint’s shareholders will vote on the SoftBank offer June 12.
On Wednesday, SoftBank resolved national security issues arising from its deal to gain control with America’s No. 3 wireless company.
In a statement, Dish chairman Charlie Ergen said Clearwire’s wireless spectrum also is key to Dish being able to offer wireless phone service itself one day. Dish, which already owns significant wireless spectrum, needs a network to put the spectrum to use.
Dish’s bid is especially disruptive because it offered to buy shares directly from investors in addition to seeking to buy the company as a whole.
Dish said its direct offer to shareholders stands even if it gains no more than 25 percent of Clearwire’s stock. Dish has asked to fill three of the 13 director seats on Clearwire’s board if it gains 25 percent of Clearwire’s stock, and more board seats if it gains more shares.
Telecommunications consultant Berge Ayvazian, with HeavyReading.com, said Dish’s aim may be to use that position at Clearwire to disrupt or at least influence Sprint’s pending sale to SoftBank.
“The purpose of it is to disrupt,” Ayvazian said of Dish’s offer for Clearwire. “The offer will never be accepted by a majority of the Clearwire shares.”
Sprint won’t readily sell its shares of Clearwire, which amount to a bit more than half of the total shares.
The new buyout offer from Dish also included immediate funding of $80 million a month, essentially to replace funding now coming from Sprint. Clearwire said it would forgo Sprint’s funding for June, which Dish had asked it to do. Clearwire did not say whether it would accept money from Dish.
Dish’s bid won cheers from some Clearwire shareholders that have opposed Sprint’s bid for their stock. They’ve argued that it undervalues Clearwire and its assets.
Crest Financial Ltd., a Houston-based investor, called the offer “clearly actionable” but continued to push Clearwire’s board to scrap its current plans and open a new bidding for control of the company.
The winning bid may have to top even Dish’s $4.40 a share offer.
Prices of Clearwire stock closed Thursday at $4.50 a share, up 29 percent on the day. Sprint shares also gained, up 6 cents to $7.34, as did Dish’s stock, up 27 cents to $39.52.
SoftBank investors were the losers on the day, with their shares falling 62 cents in U.S. markets to $51.28.
Yong, the analyst at Macquarie, said the rising price of Clearwire effectively drives up the cost of SoftBank’s deal to buy control of Sprint. SoftBank is funding Sprint’s bids, which means that money won’t be available for other needs.
“As SoftBank will likely re-evaluate its bid for Sprint as the purchase price (including Clearwire) likely just went up by another $800 million, SoftBank will have to fund Sprint to bid $4.50 on Clearwire or potentially walk away,” Yong wrote.
The Associated Press contributed.