Bloomberg reported today that Sprint is in talks to buy T-Mobile, the U.S. wireless division of Deutsche Telekom, according to the usual unnamed sources. As a result, shares of both companies are moving, tongues are wagging, as are the fingers of technical analysts saying such a tie-up might not be a very good idea given the technical differences between the two networks. After all, look what happened the last time Sprint tried to absorb a foreign network, Nextel, back in 2005. That wasn’t pretty for Sprint or its shareholders. But Wall Street loves news, whether it is true or not, and I am fairly certain this news isn’t true.
Not that Bloomberg would let that get in the way of a good story.
Here’s the real news as I understand it: T-Mobile has put its 7,000 U.S. cell towers up for sale, following a similar sale last year of its European towers. They’ll sell the towers then lease them back or rent capacity from the new owner so T-Mobile customers will never be able to tell the difference.
It’s not about phone service at all, just money. D-T wants a one-time gain probably to shore-up earnings or reduce debt.
Looking at the deal from this angle, the technical differences between networks become close to meaningless, since it is about real estate more than electrons.
AT&T and Verizon are locked in a death struggle based on who has the best network. As the biggest wholesale mobile carrier, Sprint can always use more capacity and this move might even give them an edge up on AT&T and Verizon in that network pissing match. Meanwhile, T-Mobile can still tout its “4G” network because for its customers nothing will have changed.
That’s where this process started a few weeks ago, I swear it. I almost wrote about it back on January 29th. Now if Sprint took a look in January then decided to make a bid for all of T-Mobile, I suppose that’s within the bounds of possibility: companies do stupid things every day.
But I think it’s just about the towers.