Sprint parent SoftBank dives into U.S. tower market ahead of expected T-Mobile tie-up

SoftBank Masayoshi Son at Mobile World Congress 2017
SoftBank CEO and Sprint Chairman Masayoshi Son

Sprint parent SoftBank and the Australian firm Lendlease Group said they will partner on a joint venture to buy or manage roughly 8,000 towers in the United States. And the move may signal how Sprint and T-Mobile could position itself as a combined carrier if the companies eventually merge.

The joint venture, which will be branded “Lendlease Towers,” will look to partner with major American wireless operators as it deploys infrastructure to meet growing demand for mobile data. Each company has committed an initial $200 million to the initiative, and Lendlease Towers aims to garner $5 billion of telecom infrastructure assets over the medium term.

“I am pleased to announce the establishment of an infrastructure vehicle focused on the U.S. telco sector, which continues to experience unprecedented growth in data usage as the world moves to becoming more connected,” Denis Hickey, CEO of Americas for Lendlease, said in a release. “Consistent with our strategy of focusing on growing demand for infrastructure, we’ve identified the telco infrastructure sector as an opportunity to deploy our integrated business model.”

The Wall Street Journal was among the first to report the move.

The announcement comes as T-Mobile and Sprint are widely reported to be finalizing a proposed merger that could be unveiled by the end of the month. The two developments could spell bad news for established tower companies, Jennifer Fritzsche of Wells Fargo Securities said.

“What does this mean? Much too early to tell. But our reaction is we may have a new tower company on the come and we are somewhat surprised the tower companies didn’t react to this news,” Fritztsche wrote in a research note. “Yes it will take a long time and a lot of money (but SoftBank has MUCH capital behind it). But if we get a merger announcement between T-Mobile and Sprint soon, this could be a big-time clue in the message they come with. Think of it as the 3 “I” approach … Investment (job create), infrastructure (a big-time focus of this administration) and innovation (5G).”

Indeed, having a sister company in the tower segment could help the combined carrier to leverage Sprint’s valuable 2.5 GHz spectrum, which is viewed as a key component of any potential deal. Significant budget cuts have prevented Sprint from deploying those airwaves as aggressively as it otherwise could, but SoftBank’s hefty bankroll coupled with the Lendlease effort could pave the way for an accelerated rollout.

“We had thought if (when?) this deal is announced then the towers could take a hit if (T-Mobile CTO) Neville Ray gets the pulpit and talks about network savings that could drive the synergies,” Fritzsche concluded. “He may have been given a much bigger arrow here in that quiver. While we remain positive on the towers (especially on those with more than macro capabilities) we think this under-the-radar announcement is something on which to do more work.”

Analysts continue to harbor doubts about whether a merger between T-Mobile and Sprint would pass regulatory muster, however. SunTrust Robinson Humphrey this week issued a research note saying the firm is “highly skeptical” about a deal being approved, as Barron’s reported this week.