While it’s not clear if T-Mobile’s owner Deutsche Telekom is taking seriously a $15 billion bid from French telecommunications firm Iliad, one thing is certain: The deal would be a lot easier to get approved than any merger with Sprint.
The difficulty in getting a deal approved for Iliad over Sprint is akin to the difference between heating a Hot Pocket and making a soufflé.
Antitrust regulators wouldn’t likely have many issues with an Iliad deal since the French company doesn’t have any U.S. telecom assets and its purchase of T-Mobile wouldn’t consolidate the industry by lowering the number of large wireless carriers from four to three.
The Federal Communications Commission would consider whether the deal is in the public interest as well as ensuring it falls within foreign ownership limits.
The foreign ownership issue likely wouldn’t really be much of an sticking point, however, since T-Mobile’s current majority owner is German telecommunications giant Deutsche Telekom. Transferring ownership to a French company wouldn’t really be a big deal — unlike, say, an acquisition by a Chinese or Russian company with government ties.
“Unless we’re worried about an invasion from France I don’t think this would be held up on foreign ownership issues,” said Paul Gallant, a telecommunications analyst at Guggenheim Securities.
“Sprint/T-Mobile raises classic antitrust red flags,” he continued. “Iliad raises none and their history of disruption in France would probably be viewed positively by regulators.”
Regulators have been unusually public about their concerns of Sprint buying T-Mobile and further consolidating the U.S. wireless market. Three years ago, the Justice Department and FCC effectively killed AT&T’s attempt to acquire T-Mobile over worries that the deal would decrease wireless competition.
The widespread belief that a Sprint/T-Mobile merger would be a hard sell in Washington is reportedly why it’s taking so long for Sprint’s owner SoftBank to nail down a deal. The company needs to come up with enough incentives for regulators to see the deal as more positive than negative and it’s not clear yet whether SoftBank can clear that hurdle.
“We still believe a [Sprint/T-Mobile] merger is overwhelmingly likely to be blocked,” telecom analyst Craig Moffett said this week in a research note.
One analyst predicted that the longer T-Mobile awaits to strike a deal, the more likely it is to attract other potential suitors (and perhaps a richer price than the $40 a share Sprint reportedly is talking).
“While the delays in announcing a Sprint-T-Mobile deal are often explained away as preparing for regulators, we question whether Deutsche Telekom is on board with the deal — and frankly Sprint is somewhat to blame for this,” wrote BTIG research analyst Walter Piecyk in a note Friday.