Sprint's undervalued 2.5 GHz key to a T-Mobile deal: Wells Fargo

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Sprint's portfolio of high-band spectrum remains undervalued, according to Wells Fargo.

Sprint’s undervalued spectrum could be the key to a tie-up with T-Mobile, according to Wells Fargo Securities.

A merger of the nation’s two smallest tier-one operators has long been rumored—indeed, Sprint parent SoftBank tried to combine the two U.S. operators a few years ago before facing regulatory challenges—and Wells Fargo made headlines last week when it predicted T-Mobile and its parent company Deutsche Telekom would acquire Sprint rather than the opposite. That prediction has raised eyebrows, but Wells Fargo said Monday that Sprint’s airwaves could pave the way for a deal.

“In our view, the equity market seems to be pricing in the fact Sprint/SoftBank is the buyer (and SoftBank would have to put in equity) or a take under follows,” Jennifer Fritzsche of Wells Fargo wrote. “We do not see this scenario playing out. In our view, Sprint is standing on much stronger financial legs than in the past and the value of its 2.5 GHz spectrum holdings are not reflected in the current $8.49/share stock price.”

Sprint owns more high-band spectrum than any other U.S. carrier, according to fresh data from Allnet Insights & Analytics, and the value of those airwaves has increased in recent years as operators prepare to roll out 5G services. High-band airwaves don’t carry as far as lower-band spectrum, nor do they penetrate building walls as effectively, but they generally support faster speeds and increased capacity, which have become top priorities for carriers.

The looming question regarding Sprint, though, is how effectively it can leverage that spectrum given its precarious financial position.

“Sprint is extremely well-positioned with respect to theoretical capacity, given their rich 2.5 GHz holdings, and the increases they have enjoyed and will enjoy in spectral efficiency gains from refarming to LTE, and also spectrum re-use and further efficiency gains through MIMO—something particularly conducive to the smaller wavelengths of 2.5 GHz, as well as HPUE,” Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson wrote several weeks ago. “That said, we remain concerned about the usability of Sprint’s 2.5 GHz network, notwithstanding improvements in spectrum efficiency in this band. More significantly, we have ongoing concerns regarding the company’s liquidity and therefore their ability to meaningfully invest in their network and appropriately realize the theoretical potential of their 2.5 GHz spectrum trove, as it would be very expensive to do so.”

T-Mobile’s deep pockets coupled with Sprint’s spectrum assets could prove formidable in a market that—while increasingly competitive—is still largely dominated by Verizon and AT&T.

“According to our high-yield team, the composition of the balance sheet post-deal is top-of-mind given Sprint’s heavy debt load. That said, we believe T-Mobile/Deutsche Telekom has levers to pull, such as Deutsche Telekom potentially equitizing some of its inter-company debt with T-Mobile,” Fritzsche wrote. “If approved, we believe a combined Sprint/T-Mobile would be a powerful wireless competitor with a deep spectrum position.”