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Sprint Nextel Corp. CEO Dan Hesse has told Congress the third-largest U.S. wireless operator may end up being acquired if AT&T Inc. purchases T-Mobile USA Inc. The most likely buyer would be CenturyLink, the biggest company in telecommunications without a wireless unit, analysts said.
AT&T's proposed deal would create the largest U.S. mobile-phone company, combining the second- and fourth-largest carriers to surpass Verizon Wireless. Hesse said in a recent congressional hearing the merger would pressure his much smaller company to sell, and analysts point to CenturyLink as the most logical acquirer at some point down the road because it has the financial resources, it has shown an appetite for big deals and it needs a wireless business.
Although there are other potential buyers, such as Verizon Wireless or cable companies, they're less likely because of regulatory hurdles or integration risks.
CenturyLink has become the third-largest U.S. landline company through several recent deals. The company bought Embarq Corp. in 2009 for about $12 billion and completed the purchase of Qwest Communications International Inc. this year for more than $20 billion. It cut a $2.5 billion deal for Savvis Inc. last month to expand its cloud-computing services.
"CenturyLink is a company with a really good balance sheet and looking for areas to invest its capital, its free cash flow in growth," said Chris Larsen of Piper Jaffray Cos., who is based in New York. "If Sprint can stabilize and then begin to grow its customer base, it becomes a growth vehicle for them."
Debra Peterson, a spokeswoman for Monroe, La.-based CenturyLink, declined to comment.
AT&T's $39 billion deal to buy T-Mobile USA Inc. from the Deutsche Telekom AG faces regulatory hurdles and is subject to approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department. It would give the company 137 million customers. Verizon Wireless has about 104 million, leaving Sprint a distant third with 51 million.
Regulators and Congress are being pressed to block the deal, which would allow the two companies to control about three-quarters of the market. The former probably wouldn't let Verizon or AT&T buy Sprint, which would result in almost all the market in the hands of two companies, said Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.'s Craig Moffett.
CenturyLink could use a mobile service to boost sales as customers abandon home-phone lines and growth in demand for Internet services tapers off.
"If CenturyLink imagines itself as a long-term player in the enterprise segment, they may need to add wireless," Moffett said.
CenturyLink's market value is about $25 billion, compared with about $15 billion for Sprint. The company bought Embarq and Qwest with stock. A deal for Sprint would reunite the wireless company with Embarq, a landline operator that spun off from Sprint in 2006 and was run by Hesse at the time.
CenturyLink completed the Qwest deal in April and may want to wait several quarters to finish absorbing the new customers and assets before taking on another large merger, Larsen said.
Cable companies such as Comcast Corp. might also explore buying Sprint to add wireless to their service bundles, said Sergey Dluzhevskiy, vice president at Gamco Investors Inc., which owned about 13 million shares of Sprint at the end of last year, according to regulatory filings.
Comcast and its peers are increasingly competing with phone companies, such as Verizon Communications, which can offer discounted packages of TV, Web, home-phone and wireless service. Sprint, which has resold air time to cable companies in the past, would provide a nationwide wireless network.
Sprint's Hesse could decide to bulk up rather than wait to be acquired, said Gamco's Dluzhevskiy. Two possible targets are Leap Wireless International Inc. or MetroPCS Communications Inc., which use the same technology as Sprint, he said. The carriers offer prepaid mobile-phone service, which is seeing a surge in demand as consumers seek lower-priced monthly plans.