A year in the courtship of T-Mobile: Who wants to merge with the Uncarrier, and why

Now that Sprint (NYSE: S) has reportedly discontinued attempts to merge with T-Mobile (NYSE:TMUS), it's worth taking a look at the reasons behind Sprint's desire to form a deal with the nation's No. 4 carrier--and, more importantly, who else may wish to ink a deal with T-Mobile now that Sprint is out of the picture.

T-Mobile's story really starts on September 19, 2012, when T-Mobile tapped John Legere to become its next CEO, an appointment geared toward setting T-Mobile on its own path after AT&T's (NYSE: T) failed acquisition of the carrier. Although Legere's appointment seemed relatively innocuous at the time, Legere during his tenure at T-Mobile has helped to revitalize the overall U.S. wireless industry with moves including the elimination of device subsidies, the removal of global roaming fees, an offer to pay up to $650 in customers' early termination fees, an iPhone Test Drive promotion, and more.

T-Mobile's moves are clearly paying off; the carrier has added 2.23 million additional branded postpaid customers so far this year and is within striking distance of overtaking Sprint in terms of overall subscribers.

It's that momentum that has helped make T-Mobile an attractive acquisition target while also making it virtually impossible for some companies--namely Sprint--to actually ink a transaction.

Look below for a timeline of the key events from the past year for a clearer insight into which companies are interested in T-Mobile and why.

September 26, 2013: Before Sprint and SoftBank reportedly began their attempts to merge with T-Mobile, it was actually T-Mobile CFO Braxton Carter who first really addressed the possibility that Sprint and T-Mobile should join forces against their larger rivals AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ). T-Mobile merging with Sprint "is the logical ultimate combination," he told Reuters at the time, foreshadowing later events.

November 5, 2013: T-Mobile posted another solid quarter of subscriber growth, an indication that its "uncarrier" moves were sticking in the marketplace. Although at the time analysts wondered whether T-Mobile's advancements would be sustainable, Legere was proving that his work was making a dent.

December 13, 2013: The Wall Street Journal reported that Sprint was considering a bid for T-Mobile, the first real indication that SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son was serious about creating a real third carrier to rival to the dominance of AT&T and Verizon. At the time, the WSJ reported that Sprint might make an official offer in the first half of 2014--a timeline that seems ironic now, considering Sprint never made an official bid for T-Mobile.

The WSJ reported that Sprint's bid could be worth more than $20 billion, depending on how large a stake in T-Mobile that Sprint tried to buy.

December 19, 2013: Reuters reported that Charlie Ergen's Dish Network was also considering a potential bid for T-Mobile in 2014. The report said Dish had been looking at T-Mobile as a potential takeover target since Dish abandoned its pursuit of Sprint and Clearwire earlier in 2013, losing them both to SoftBank. The quote from Reuters was that Dish "does not intend to sit on the sidelines" if Sprint makes a bid for T-Mobile--another ironic position considering Ergen continues to voice the possibility that Dish could make some kind of play for T-Mobile.

January 21, 2014: Bloomberg reported that Sprint parent SoftBank had engaged in direct talks with T-Mobile's parent Deutsche Telekom to try to iron out a deal between Sprint and T-Mobile, a further indication of the seriousness of Son's plans to merge Sprint and T-Mobile.

February 4, 2014: As reports continued to swirl of SoftBank's and Sprint's intentions toward T-Mobile, regulators began to actively move against the transaction--and it would be that regulatory opposition that ultimately scuttled the deal. First officials at the Department of Justice voiced concerns about a transaction between Sprint and T-Mobile, and then FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler himself expressed skepticism about a deal. Their concerns centered mainly on the possibility that reducing the number of nationwide carriers from four to three would ultimately reduce the amount of competition in the marketplace.

February 10, 2014: Indeed, the pushback from officials at the FCC and DoJ was enough to reportedly give executives at Sprint and SoftBank pause--the WSJ reported Sprint's Dan Hesse and SoftBank's Son were reconsidering their plans to attempt a merger between T-Mobile and Sprint. The WSJ said the two executives would use the next few weeks to regroup and re-evaluate their options.

February 25, 2014: In the midst of the back-and-forth, T-Mobile reported another staggering quarter, adding another 1.6 million new customers during the fourth quarter of 2013. And the carrier predicted the good times would continue: It said it would garner an additional 2 million to 3 million new customers during 2014 (figures that the carrier has since revised upwards). T-Mobile's continued successes are a major reason that regulators pushed back so hard against a transaction between Sprint and T-Mobile--they saw Legere's successes taking hold.

February 26, 2014: Dish's Ergen said he wouldn't interfere in a Sprint bid for T-Mobile.

March 11, 2014: Despite the opposition from the FCC and DoJ, SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son decided to take his campaign to merge Sprint and T-Mobile public. During a TV interview he explicitly called for a deal between Sprint and T-Mobile, arguing that the combination would ignite a "massive price war" and more competition in the U.S. market.

May 1, 2014: T-Mobile again undermined Son's arguments by reporting another solid quarter of subscriber gains. On the same day as T-Mobile's earnings, Bloomberg reported that Sprint executives were meeting with banks to secure debt arrangements for the purchase of T-Mobile. The outlet reported that Sprint would make a formal bid in June or July.

May 8, 2014: Although Dish's Ergen reiterated his reluctance to enter into a bidding war for T-Mobile, he did say that he might be interested in T-Mobile if Sprint were to fail in its efforts to merge with the "uncarrier." If regulators at the FCC and Department of Justice were to block a deal between Sprint and T-Mobile, "then T-Mobile would have strategic interest to us, yes," Ergen said.

May 12, 2014: Possibly sensing the gathering storm clouds, T-Mobile parent Deutsche Telekom reportedly said it wanted at least a $1 billion breakup fee in the event that regulators blocked a merger between Sprint and T-Mobile.

June 4, 2014: Multiple outlets reported that Sprint was nearing an agreement to pay $32 billion, or around $40 per share, for T-Mobile in a transaction that would combine the No. 3 and No. 4 U.S. wireless carriers. According to Bloomberg, Sprint would offer about 50 percent stock and 50 percent cash for T-Mobile, leaving T-Mobile parent Deutsche Telekom with about a 15 percent stake in the combined company.

June 6, 2014: To the surprise of just about no one, T-Mobile CEO John Legere was tipped as likely lead a combined company if Sprint and T-Mobile were to merge.

July 14, 2014: According to Japanese business publication Nikkei, Sprint parent SoftBank and T-Mobile parent Deutsche Telekom reportedly reached a "basic agreement" for Sprint to merge with T-Mobile.

July 15, 2014: But what of the upcoming FCC spectrum auctions? How would Sprint and T-Mobile participate in that event? Sprint and SoftBank reportedly planned to create a joint venture to bid for spectrum in next year's planned incentive auction of 600 MHz broadcast TV spectrum. According to the Wall Street Journal, the JV would seek to raise $10 billion for bidding.

Just a few weeks later, officials at the FCC moved to create rules that would explicitly prohibit exactly that kind of JV, a further indication of regulatory opposition.

July 31, 2014: T-Mobile added another 1.47 million total net new subscribers in the second quarter. And Legere also sought to sooth investors worried about the carrier's long-term position with or without Sprint. Legere said T-Mobile's management had always been clear that in the long term the wireless industry is a "scale game" and that Verizon and AT&T are "hugely more powerful from a standpoint of scale and capital." Legere also said that T-Mobile sees "a path forward to be highly successful as a stand-alone company" but that T-Mobile knows it could accelerate that growth through a deal.

Legere concluded: "The company is not in need of doing something [in terms of a deal] to be successful in the short to medium term."  

July 31, 2014: In a stunning move, French mobile and Internet company Iliad confirmed it made a $15 billion bid to purchase a majority stake in T-Mobile, although T-Mobile and parent Deutsche Telekom quickly dismissed the bid as insufficient, according to reports.

August 5, 2014: Multiple media outlets reported that SoftBank's Son decided to discontinue his efforts to merge Sprint with T-Mobile in the face of regulatory opposition. Son decided that, rather than go public with a bid and risk having to pay a breakup fee, he would instead drop his push altogether. As a result, he replaced longtime Sprint CEO Hesse with Brightstar's chief executive Marcelo Claure, who promised to "continue the buildout of Sprint's network by leveraging its strong spectrum holdings as well as ensuring that Sprint always maintains truly competitive offers in the marketplace."

Regulators were unabashedly pleased: "Four national wireless providers is good for American consumers," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement in response to the news. "Sprint now has an opportunity to focus their efforts on robust competition."

But the chase for T-Mobile continues: Reuters reported that Iliad was working with Dish, Cox Communications, Charter Communications and others to improve its offer for T-Mobile. And Dish's Ergen subsequently hinted that he might be open to working with Iliad or another company in order to improve his position for a potential bid for T-Mobile. However, according to other reports, Iliad won't raise its bid for T-Mobile.

A year in the courtship of T-Mobile: Who wants to merge with the Uncarrier, and why
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