Feature Article

December 17, 2012

Sprint Buys Clearwire

Sprint Nextel Corp. has acquired the remainder of Clearwire Corp. it did not currently own for $2.97 a share.

Clearwire's board of directors has approved the deal, and Sprint has gotten commitments from Comcast, Intel Corp. and Bright House Networks in support of the deal, as well.

The $2.2 billion purchase values Clearwire at $10 billion, including net debt and spectrum lease obligations of $5.5 billion.

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The deal removes one national mobile service provider from the U.S. market, and gives Sprint the full management control of Clearwire it will need if, as expected, Sprint launches some sort of new attack on industry pricing and packaging, something Softbank has indicated it will do in the U.S. market, as it has done in the Japanese market.

Data services are likely to be the focal point for any such effort, for obvious reasons. Voice and messaging services are a declining source of revenue for most providers, and Softbank attacked the Japanese market by disrupting data service plans. Softbank Japan already earns perhaps 66 percent of its revenue from data services.

Softbank does not view the U.S. market as saturated, in that respect. Aside from rapidly growing data service revenue, there is the possibility of enticing consumers to buy subscriptions for tablets and other devices.

That is the thinking behind claims that mobile data penetration of 300 to 500 percent is conceivable, a claim Verizon Wireless itself made years ago, referring to machine-to-machine services as an example.

In 2006, when Softbank decided to buy Vodafone KK assets, it likewise was criticized in some quarters for undertaking a risky gambit.

Some will argue Softbank is taking another huge risk by entering a country where it has no previous operating experience, and by assuming a huge new debt load, after only recently shedding a similar debt load.

Softbank argues it is a reasonable risk, and that its prior experience taking on NTT Docomo and KDDI show it can compete in a market dominated by larger service providers.

Softbank, many believe, will use the same strategy it used in Japan, which some would describe as providing a large number of complementary features or services to create a “sticky” relationship with the end user.

Others will point to the pricing strategy. In Japan, Softbank’s 2006 acquisition of the Vodafone unit was not universally considered wise.

But in just one year, Softbank managed to boost its subscriber base from 700,000 in fiscal 2006 to 2.7 million. By the beginning of 2008, Softbank grabbed 44 percent of Japan’s new mobile subscribers, well ahead of KDDI’s 35 percent and NTT-DoCoMo’s 11 percent.

Some think Softbank will be willing to launch a price war, as well.

In Japan, Softbank was willing to sacrifice voice average revenue per unit to make market share gains. Back in the 2006 to 2008 period, Softbank was willing to accept a $13 a month ARPU decline to build market share.

Spectrum will be one of the assets Softbank will be able to leverage. Hence, the presumed need for full control of Clearwire.

It already is clear that Softbank has vaulted into the top ranks of global mobile service providers, measured either by subscribers or revenue.

Edited by Brooke Neuman

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