Sprint 'obituary' premature even without T-Mobile: Wells Fargo

Sprint's COO Ottendorfer and CTO Saw
Sprint COO of Operations Gunther Ottendorfer (left) and CTO John Saw (right) pose with a Nokia massive MIMO antenna at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Speculation of a tie-up between Sprint and T-Mobile continues to ramp up, but the nation’s fourth-largest carrier might be just fine on its own, according to Wells Fargo Securities.

SoftBank spent more than $20 billion to acquire Sprint in 2012 and had hoped to pick up T-Mobile as well, merging the carriers to take on Verizon and AT&T. That plan was dropped after U.S. regulators indicated they opposed the deal, but rumors of some kind of deal between the two American operators have heated up again with the election of Donald Trump, whose administration is widely expected to demonstrate a far lighter regulatory touch than Barack Obama’s administration.

Whether such a deal may eventually occur is far from clear: T-Mobile has become much more valuable in the last few years as its business has thrived, and Sprint’s precarious financial position may forestall any deal. Meanwhile, much of Sprint’s value lies in its spectrum holdings rather than its actual wireless business, further complicating any tie-up scenario. And regulatory concerns remain.

But Sprint’s future appears bright regardless, Jennifer Fritzsche of Wells Fargo Securities said this morning.

“While we do believe Sprint likely will strike toward T-Mobile while a Republican administration is in the majority, in many ways, predicting moves of the next few months (especially the weeks after the broadcast auction results are disclosed) is a bit like trying to predict moves in a chess game,” Fritzsche wrote. “That said, if Sprint and T-Mobile does not happen, we believe it would be very premature to write the obituary for Sprint. And we say this even knowing that (in) February and early March things did get harder for Sprint’s momentum – given the change in the competitive environment.”

Indeed, Sprint may be struggling to grow its subscriber base amid the sudden price wars at the center of new unlimited data plans. But Sprint’s spectrum portfolio enables the carrier to upgrade its network more frugally than its rivals can, Fritzsche wrote, which will help it continue to close the network gap without going broke.

“While the short interest of Sprint has declined, our sense is the Street still believes Sprint has dramatically underspent on its network and therefore will have to dramatically ramp up capex if a T-Mobile merger does not happen,” Fritzsche wrote. “We do not agree…. In our view, the depth of Sprint’s spectrum position as well as the simplicity of the spectrum portfolio, should give it unique advantage in terms of capital efficiency vs. the three other national competitors…. Because of its spectrum advantage and technology advancements, we believe even in the absence of a merger with another player, Sprint has more than enough in terms of spectrum and network capabilities to stand on its own two feet.”