In Charter, Verizon is facing a potentially much bigger competitor, because the No. 2 cable operator may be angling to buy one of Verizon’s wireless rivals. John Malone, whose Liberty Media owns a stake in Charter, recently suggested that the cable industry could team up to buy T-Mobile. “Maybe the three major cable companies get together and buy T-Mobile,” the billionaire mogul said, speaking at a Lionsgate investor event earlier this month.
At the same time, Verizon has a deal with Comcast for the cable giant to resell wireless services to its subscriber base. On Comcast’s fourth-quarter earnings call Thursday, CEO Brian Roberts said the Verizon-powered service will begin to roll out in the first half of 2017, without providing additional details. But if Comcast teamed up with Charter to buy a wireless operator — or if it bought Charter, a possibility Malone also floated, citing a more permissive regulatory environment under President Trump — Verizon might find itself outflanked.
“The only scenario under which Verizon has to move first [to acquire Charter] is if it considers the risk of Charter either being taken out by someone else or Charter acquiring T-Mobile or Sprint being high,” Barclays analyst Kannan Venkateshwar wrote in a research note.
The idea that Verizon wants to buy Charter before it becomes a wireless rival is certainly plausible, said Macquarie Securities analyst Amy Yong. “Malone has spoken about the strategic merits of having cable team up to buy T-Mobile,” she noted, but added that “more parties involved obviously complicates matters.”
Analyst Craig Moffett also weighed in on the take-out strategy: “Acquiring Charter would prevent Charter, and perhaps Comcast as well, from entering the wireless market themselves, either by building their own facilities or by acquiring an existing operator,” he wrote in a note. But that would be “an added bonus,” as according to Moffett the main impetus for Verizon buying Charter would be to tap into the cable operator’s extensive fiber network for wireless-data backhaul.
In any case it’s unclear that a Verizon-Charter deal is feasible, according to Moffett. He cited a hypothetical transaction’s high cost and the problem Verizon would have raising the equity necessary to fund it (because issuing equity would mean a larger dividend obligation for the telco), as well as regulatory hurdles.
Verizon’s reported interest in Charter had some on Wall Street scratching their heads. “It is almost paradoxical that after years of shedding wireline assets, the company would do an about-face and acquire roughly 17 million residential video subs and 21 million wired broadband subs, and a footprint that covers almost 50 million homes,” Jefferies analyst Mike McCormack opined in a note to clients.
At the end of the day, the telco’s motive may be simply boosting the top line, as the company sees wireless revenue continues to shrink. “We can’t help but consider Verizon’s desire to improve the company’s growth profile,” McCormack wrote.
On the regulatory front, Verizon-Charter — if it comes to fruition — would still undergo a challenging anti-trust review. But with Donald Trump in the White House the view among many observers is that it’s going to be open season for M&A. “Verizon [exploring a deal] for Charter is just the first,” predicted Moffett. “Over the next few months, we suspect that every conceivable combination will get its 15 minutes of fame.”