T-Mobile/Sprint deal could be the first attempted M&A domino to fall, UBS says

Increasing competition in the wireless market highlights the need for consolidation among operators, UBS Analyst John Hodulik said this morning. And an attempt at a deal between T-Mobile and Sprint may be the first domino to fall as M&A activity heats up.

The U.S. wireless industry has seen an unexpected war over unlimited data plans and an accelerated race to 5G in recent months. Meanwhile, the FCC’s ongoing incentive auction of 600 MHz spectrum has straightjacketed any significant mergers and acquisitions due to its anti-collusion rules, which prevent the discussion of deals by wireless companies and broadcasters that could influence bidding in the event.

Analysts said we may see a flurry of activity in the coming weeks, though, after the auction ends and as Donald Trump’s administration settles in. And an attempted merger between the nation’s third- and fourth-largest carriers may be in the offing, Hodulik said.

“We continue to believe a Sprint/T-Mo announcement is likely given the benefits of moving from four wireless players to three and the significant synergies it would create,” Hodulik wrote in a research note. “In addition, we believe the timing is appropriate: (Sprint’s parent) SoftBank has already recovered its cost basis, turned the asset around operationally and financially, and moreover a deal would allow SoftBank to deconsolidate $30B+ in debt. SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son has already laid the political groundwork, promising to invest and create jobs in the U.S. We also note that the company has focused on strategic value rather than valuation in past acquisitions; we believe a premium here would make sense given asset scarcity and also valuation support and synergies.”

A tie-up between T-Mobile and Sprint makes sense on multiple levels: It would enable the two smaller carriers to better compete with Verizon and AT&T, which claim much larger customer bases, and it would enable T-Mobile—which is thriving financially—to tap Sprint’s significant high-band spectrum assets.

Such a deal would still face major hurdles, 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 potential marriage.

That possible merger isn’t the only possible tie-up that could alter the wireless landscape in coming months, of course. Comcast and Charter have made no secret of their plans to move into wireless and may be looking to partner with an existing carrier to do so. And Dish Network and Ligado Networks are aiming to put their spectrum to use by building IoT-focused networks that could be complementary to current cellular networks.

T-Mobile is particularly well-positioned to take advantage of any M&A activity on the horizon, Hodulik said.

“With the incentive auction wrapping up, carriers will be free to start talks for the first time in a year,” he wrote. “Over this time period, a new deregulatory administration has entered the White House and wireless competition has become extremely aggressive, setting the stage for potential M&A. While many scenarios are possible, we believe T-Mobile stands to benefit given its strong fundamentals and strategic value.”