Despite considerable efforts by Charlie Ergen, it looks like the Softbank deal may now have enabled Sprint to escape from the box of constrained capital, limited spectrum and a second rate network that Sprint could have been confined to, if it had failed to gain access to either usable H block spectrum or Clearwire’s network on economically advantageous terms. Many thought that Sprint would move to purchase Clearwire immediately after the Softbank investment, but today sources are denying that is the intention, stating that Sprint has no intention of taking part in mergers or acquisitions until the Softbank deal is finalized in mid-2013. This timeline also implies that Sprint will not move to disrupt the T-Mobile/MetroPCS merger, which is expected to close in 2013Q2.
So the obvious question is why did Sprint need to issue a $3B convertible bond to Softbank right now? I think that can only be intended to warn off others from doing a deal with Clearwire in the interim, by offering John Stanton the carrot of improved economics and/or further investment from Sprint. Of course there are not many options for Clearwire to sell spectrum, now that T-Mobile and MetroPCS, the two operators most frequently rumored to have designs on Clearwire’s spectrum, are getting together.
As a result, I think Sprint’s actions appear to confirm that Clearwire was about to pull the trigger on a deal with Ergen, as I suggested last month, involving an asset sale and/or WiMAX customer transfer, in exchange for a combination of cash and debt. Notably, receipts from a sale of network assets (as opposed to a spectrum sale) would not have to be used to repurchase Clearwire’s first lien debt, suggesting that this could be a preferred way for Clearwire to raise funds. In addition, I’m told Ergen now holds in excess of $900M of Clearwire’s debt (not all first lien), and some of that could potentially have been traded for Clearwire spectrum.
Reports on the Sprint/Softbank deal have also suggested that both Carlos Slim and SK Telecom have considered investments in Sprint, and it is worth noting that SK Telecom invested $60M in LightSquared back in 2010, while Slim is rumored to be buying LightSquared debt. In fact I’m told that further significant purchases of LightSquared debt have taken place in recent weeks. If one or both of those two players therefore continue to maintain their interest in US telecom assets (which has obviously included MSS-ATC spectrum similar to that held by DISH), then Ergen may be the last, best potential partner available.
So has Sprint now prevented Ergen from achieving a deal with Clearwire? I’m told that (at least with the current ownership situation) Sprint would have no ability to veto such a transaction, so presumably Stanton will now be trying to extract vastly improved economics from the existing capacity agreement with Sprint in order to forego a DISH deal. What concessions will Sprint be prepared to make, and if it does give ground, where does that leave DISH? After all, it doesn’t seem that AT&T is prepared to pay Ergen’s asking price (perhaps as high as $80-$90 per share?) to purchase the whole of DISH anytime soon. Ergen must certainly be fuming at how FCC delays have prevented him from moving forward, while potential partners seem to be rapidly exiting the dance floor. At least he appears to have made a profit on his investment in Clearwire, but that may be little consolation if it now proves more difficult to find a way to monetize DISH’s other, much larger, spectrum investments.