Editor's Corner—Analysts see a flurry of M&A on the horizon: Here's why and what it means

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Wireless could see a flurry of activity under the Trump administration after the incentive auction of 600 MHz wraps up.
Colin Gibbs Editor's Corner

The U.S. wireless industry has heated up in recent months with an unexpected war over unlimited data plans and an accelerated race to 5G. But things are likely to get even more eventful in the second half of 2017 and beyond due to a potential flurry of mergers and acquisitions on the horizon.

The FCC’s ongoing incentive auction of 600 MHz has dampened M&A activity due to its anti-collusion rules, which prevent the discussion of deals by wireless companies and broadcasters that could influence bidding in the auction. Those rules will be lifted in the next several weeks, though, enabling carriers to reengage in talks among themselves and with companies looking to break into the mobile market.

Even more important, though, was the election of Donald Trump in the midst of the auction. While it’s too early to know exactly how regulatory agencies might react to any specific deal, analysts and executives generally agree that they’ll demonstrate a far lighter regulatory touch under Trump than they did under Barack Obama.

That’s important, of course, because it was the feds that essentially blocked SoftBank’s effort to acquire T-Mobile a few years ago. The Japanese behemoth 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. But the plan was dropped after U.S. regulators indicated they opposed the deal.

Shares of both T-Mobile and Sprint climbed late last year on renewed speculation that a tie-up between the carriers could still be in the offing. And they continued to rise after Trump announced earlier this week that SoftBank will invest $50 billion in the U.S. in an effort to create 50,000 jobs.

‘The possibilities appear endless’

A marriage of T-Mobile and Sprint still faces significant challenges, however: 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.

But there’s no shortage of other potential deals in the coming months, according to Matthew Niknam, a research analyst with Deutsche Bank.

“M&A: The possibilities appear endless,” Niknam wrote recently in a research note analyzing the firm’s recent media and technology conference. “We expect anti-collusion rules associated with the broadcast spectrum auctions to be lifted by mid-April. Ahead of this, and given potential for a more business-friendly tilt at the DOJ and FCC, the topic of M&A was front and center in our sessions and investor discussions. Regarding potential intra-wireless M&A, Sprint noted it competes with 14-15 ‘platforms’ (framing cable/wireline/other peers as competitors), and implying less concentration risk in an intra-industry deal where four players consolidate to three.”

Indeed, while anti-competition concerns spiked SoftBank’s pursuit of T-Mobile—and AT&T’s attempt to acquire T-Mobile before that—those hurdles may be easier to surmount as newcomers enter the space. Comcast and Charter have made no secret of their plans to move into wireless, while Dish Network and Ligado Networks are looking to put their spectrum to use by building IoT-focused networks. And a small handful of potentially disruptive startups like Starry hope to deliver wireless services directly to users’ homes. “Convergence was another key theme,” Niknam wrote, “with companies (i.e.: Sprint, T-Mobile) and many investors discussing the potential for this (Verizon/Charter, for example) on the road to 5G.”

Consolidation may not lead to decreased competition

So while consolidation of the U.S. wireless market from four to three major players could theoretically lead to lessened competition—and perhaps higher prices for services—the industry is likely to grow more competitive in the next few years. Similarly, increased M&A activity could actually benefit tower companies that have expanded beyond traditional towers.

Investors have been fearful that a merger of wireless carriers could result in less demand for the macrocells that serve as the underpinning of cellular networks.

“While the four wireless carriers have seen Trump-related strength, the towers have been hit by concerns over rising interest rates and even more so by concerns over the potential merger of Sprint/T-Mobile,” analysts at Cowen and Company wrote in January. “At the same time the sector also continues to be dogged by concerns regarding ongoing carrier pushback on pricing, historically low domestic leasing, and company-specific situations (ex: acquired network churn at SBA Communications).”

Tower companies may be able to counter any consolidation by pursuing other kinds of infrastructure, though. Fiber assets and small cells paid big dividends in the fourth quarter for Crown Castle, for instance, as the company grew its revenue 9% year over year to $10.3 billion. The small cell market will continue to get legs as the industry continues to address problems regarding siting and deployment processes, and commercial deployments of fixed wireless services over the next two years may also provide new opportunities for tower companies and other vendors.

The recent price wars over unlimited data plans provide evidence that the U.S. wireless industry is more competitive than ever. Even if the market consolidates, though, the emergence of new players, technologies and services is likely to help preserve that competitive environment. That would be good news for consumers, of course, but it also could buoy a shaky tower market in advance of full-on 5G rollouts.—Colin | @colin_gibbs