Some industry watchers say it might as reports circulate tonight that the No. 3 and 4 mobile carriers have settled on basic terms of a $32B deal. They still have to iron out details, and that could postpone an announcement by several weeks, according to The New York Times (here) and the Wall Street Journal (here). But they appear to have agreed that Sprint‘s parent, Japan’s Softbank, would pay $40 a share in cash and stock for T-Mobile, which closed today at $34.28. T-Mobile’s parent, Deutsche Telecom, would keep as much as 20% stake in the combined company. It also would receive $1B in cash and assets if the deal collapses, including from objections by federal regulators. That’s a real risk: Remember that in 2011 AT&T abandoned its plan to buy T-Mobile after the Justice Department sued to block the deal, saying that consumer prices could rise if competition in wireless was reduced to three carriers from four.
The D.C. angle is what interests many in media most about a Sprint/T-Mobile plan. They wonder whether regulators might choke at the thought of approving three mega-deals, adding the telecom one to Comcast’s $45B acquisition of Time Warner Cable, and AT&T’s $49B merger with DirecTV. Softbank’s Masayoshi Son has been making the case that the two media deals help to justify a merger of Sprint and T-Mobile: By uniting their wireless assets, they could compete more effectively with cable’s broadband service, as well as with AT&T and Verizon, he says: “If anyone says four is better than three, I agree with that. We should be the No. 4.”
Outsiders say that regulators likely won’t agree. “It’s not easy to fight City Hall,” Guggenheim Partners’ Paul Gallant says. He adds, though, that there is “a path to victory” if the companies can persuade the courts to reject a possible Justice Department suit to block the deal. And Bernstein Research’s Paul de Sa says that DOJ lawyers might be especially reluctant to allow Sprint and T-Mobile to merge if confidential data shows that the companies — which both appeal to budget minded buyers — are “closer substitutes for each other than for AT&T and Verizon.”