Sprint has reportedly entered an exclusive two-month negotiation period with Comcast and Charter that could result in the cable companies either mounting a joint acquisition or taking separate ownership stakes, though analysts deem those scenarios unlikely.
The likeliest scenario is the kind of mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) agreement Comcast and Charter currently have with Verizon, which would allow the cable companies to offer wireless service using Sprint’s network.
But The Wall Street Journal, which broke the story Monday, suggested that John Malone, Charter’s largest investor through Liberty Broadband Corp., is particularly keen on the acquisition scenario, while Comcast CEO Brian Roberts prefers they strike a better MVNO deal than the one they have with Verizon.
Regardless of how this plays out, there are implications for a broad range of companies including T-Mobile, which will see its own merger bid with Sprint sidelined as a result of the exclusive negotiation period, and Dish, which is mulling its own options with its massive stockpile of wireless spectrum.
“We didn’t give a Sprint/cable deal high odds,” wrote Jonathan Chaplin of New Street Research. “However, the deal corroborates our view that Sprint isn’t as desperate as many thought and T-Mobile didn’t have the leverage that most seemed to assume.”
“An equity stake or outright acquisition is less likely in our view, but not out of the realm of possibility,” said Mike McCormack of Jefferies. “In our view, this likely suggests major hurdles in any Sprint/T-Mobile discussions and could renew speculation of T-Mobile and Dish should Sprint talks falter.”
On Wall Street, Sprint closed Tuesday up just over 2% at $8.18; T-Mobile was down 3.4% to $61.01. Both Comcast and Charter were down just slightly.
However, Chaplin doesn’t see ownership vs. MVNO as simply as an either-or proposition; the MVNO may be just a prelude to eventually taking an ownership position. “A new MVNO deal with an equity stake in Sprint and a path to network sharing or an eventual merger would be a very sensible “second step” (following on from a straight MVNO),” he said.
Marci Ryvicker of Wells Fargo believes Comcast will be “the ultimate decision maker” as to which path will be taken. If they choose to move beyond MVNO status, both cable companies have track records when it comes to absorbing huge entities.
“We note Comcast has a strong history of successfully turning around assets and could contribute meaningfully to Sprint; NBCU is the clearest example,” wrote Amy Yong of Macquarie Research . “Meanwhile, Charter is continuing to integrate Time Warner, but has made meaningful progress.”
Comcast already dipped a toe in the wireless market in April with the launch of Xfinity Mobile through its MVNO with Verizon. Charter has indicated its intent to follow Comcast into that market next year. In May, the companies formalized their partnership to develop infrastructure for wireless operations.