Everyone wants a piece of T-Mobile. First, AT&T came knocking in 2011. Three years later, Softbank's Masayoshi Son, the Japanese owner of Sprint, expressed interest. Now, bolstered by a growing number of subscribers and CEO John Legere's somewhat crazed antics, a French Telecom company called Iliad is making its play.
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier today that Iliad made an offer for T-Mobile "less than a week ago," and that "it is unclear what, if any, the response to the bid has been." We've reached out to T-Mo for comment and will update when the company raises its self-imposed gag order.
Despite the surprise offer, it wouldn't be the weirdest union. The two companies certainly share a penchant for mobile disruption. T-Mobile's aggressive and intentionally antagonistic—towards its competitors, anyway—Uncarrier program and Iliad's own price war in its home country share a similar goal of shaking up carrier conventions. And just like Legere has his own swear-happy eccentricities, Iliad CEO Xavier Niel has a few of his own; some of his wealth can be attributed to a collection of sex-chat lines, and also he co-owns the rights to Frank Sinatra's "My Way."
So why are international telecoms tripping over themselves to get their hands on T-Mobile? Turns out there are a few reasons.
A Matter of Timing
In 2011, AT&T made a bid to purchase T-Mobile subsidiary for $39 billion. At the time, the Deutsche Telekom subsidiary was spiraling into oblivion. AT&T had an iron-grip exclusive on the iPhone; even when that loosened, T-Mobile was left out of the loop. The company was bleeding contracts to the competition. A New York Times article from 2011 describes Deutsche Telekom's collective sigh of relief on receiving AT&T's offer, as the company also had to face the looming costs of upgrading its U.S. networks to LTE.
For AT&T, T-Mobile was the easiest and most cost-effective way to cement a lead over Sprint and Verizon. Besides, T-Mobile's real weakness was that it didn't have the iPhone, something AT&T could remedy at little to no cost. Not to mention that Verizon also began carrying the iPhone in February of that year, and AT&T needed a way to continue growing despite losing exclusivity.
Of course, that deal ended up not working out, thanks to intervention by the Department of Justice. Three years later, though, timing is still the issue—but for the complete opposite reasons.
Far from the strugglebucket of three years ago, today T-Mobile posted impressive profits. It's more crown jewel than damsel in distress. And since the heavily reported Sprint/T-Mobile talks have been silent as of late, Iliad has an opportunity to sneak in a deal of its own.
The U.S. wireless market is lucrative but also highly combative, with the likelihood of a new player trying to make leeway from scratch almost impossible. T-Mobile would basically be Iliad's Trojan horse, a way to enter the coveted wireless business with significantly less effort. If Sprint were to beat Iliad to a deal, it would be come much, much harder for the company to make headway stateside.
Networking and Spectrum
While AT&T's goal was to assimilate a U.S. competitor, grab the lion's share of the U.S. market, and sure, improve its wireless coverage along the way, Sprint needs something else entirely. Sprint needs T-Mobile to stay competitive in the first place.
Sprint finds itself in a similar situation to T-Mobile circa 2011. The company is losing contracts, and its network reliability is a constant frustration. It's arguable still recovering from its decision to go with WiMax instead of the LTE as the next generation of 4G. T-Mobile would get it caught up in a hurry.
That's partly because T-Mo poured a huge amount of its $4 billion "sorry, not sorry" failed acquisition money from AT&T into improving its network, boosting its capability, and turning itself a real contender. In April, OpenSignal—a database dedicated to measuring LTE speeds—gave T-Mobile top marks, with average speeds at 11.5Mbps. Sprint had the lowest worldwide speeds, at 4.3Mbps. Though to be honest, compared with other international LTE markets, even T-Mobile sucks massively.
However! OpenSignal also says that overall access to LTE on Sprint and T-Mobile were worse than on AT&T and Verizon, so a possible merger could open up wireless spectrum between the two and be mutually beneficial.
The Antitrust Division
The Justice Department plays a huge factor in deciding the eventual fate of T-Mobile; it's what scuttled AT&Tmo, and it could do the same for any other potential acquisition. We could soon be seeing déjà vu with Sprint as well, though Son thinks that combining the third and fourth place positions might see less scrutiny.
Iliad, meanwhile, has no foothold in the U.S. wireless market, meaning a potential merger would unlikely raise any antitrust ire.
Not to mention that getting 50 million new subscribers wouldn't be a bad thing.
But with T-Mobile's apparent upward swing, does it even need to consider a merger? Not even Legere seems to know. Speaking with CNBC, the T-Mobile CEO believes that the company would still need help—primarily in spectrum and money—to be a real threat to AT&T and Verizon, but that there "there are many different ways to to this." His tone during this morning's conference call to discuss earnings was also leaning toward future commercial independence.
T-Mobile's undeniably a shortcut for any company who wants to establish themselves in the U.S. wireless market—or not to fade from it. None of which matters nearly as much as what T-Mobile wants to be. And that's still very much to be determined.