telecommunications

AT&T said to plan proposing bigger asset sales to save takeover

Posted 11/28/11

NEW YORK - AT&T Inc., with its T-Mobile USA takeover facing regulatory opposition, is preparing the biggest remedy proposal yet to the Justice Department to salvage the $39 billion deal, according to a person familiar with the plan.

The company is considering an offer to divest a significantly larger portion of assets than it had initially expected, said the person, who declined to be identified because the plan isn’t public. Though the exact size of the disposals hasn’t been determined, they could be as much as 40 percent of T-Mobile USA’s assets, the person said.

The asset sale is an attempt to address the concerns of the Justice Department, which sued to block the takeover on Aug. 31, saying the deal would “substantially lessen competition” in the wireless market. The acquisition was dealt another blow on Nov. 22, with the Federal Communications Commission signaling an attempt to block it.

“It’s going to be problematic for AT&T to find a successful divestiture solution,” said Kevin Smithen, an analyst with Macquarie Securities USA Inc. in New York. The pool of potential buyers isn’t very big and those that might be interested probably wouldn’t have a chance, Smithen said. “It’s unlikely that the DOJ would allow a big competitor like Verizon to purchase the assets,” Smithen said.

Customers Versus Spectrum

ATT’s proposal is likely to include the divestiture of a higher share of customers and lower percentage of spectrum, said the person familiar with the matter. The company needs more capacity to serve users as it adds customers and more of them adopt data-intensive smartphones.

AT&T, based in Dallas, fell 0.5 percent to $27.41 Friday in New York and has lost 6.7 percent this year. T-Mobile owner Deutsche Telekom AG added 1.6 percent to 8.83 euros in Frankfurt and has declined 8.6 percent this year.

Brad Burns, an AT&T spokesman, and Andreas Fuchs, a Deutsche Telekom spokesman, declined to comment.

The asset-sale proposal, which could come as early as the next Justice Department hearing on Nov. 30, might be the only remaining option if the second-largest U.S. wireless operator wants to avoid a lengthy court battle in its bid to become the country’s top mobile carrier. The purchase may vault it past Verizon Wireless, depending on the size of the divestitures.

On Nov. 24, AT&T and Deutsche Telekom asked to pull their deal applications to the FCC so the companies could better focus on the Justice Department lawsuit. AT&T also said it would take a one-time charge of $4 billion to cover the breakup fee it will need to pay to Deutsche Telekom if the deal fails.

‘All or Nothing’

One approach is to propose a remedy that would lessen the market impact of losing the fourth-largest wireless service provider. AT&T has been in discussions with MetroPCS Communications Inc. and Leap Wireless International Inc. to sell spectrum and customers as a way of propping up competition in the absence of T-Mobile.

The second approach is to fight the court case, which is scheduled to begin Feb. 13.

“If there were a last, best offer to be made, they would have made it a long time ago,” said Craig Moffett, a Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst in New York, who has a “market perform” rating on AT&T shares. “It’s very hard to envision a solution that would satisfy the problems the DOJ found with the deal. Realistically, AT&T is going to take its chances in court in February. It’s all or nothing.”

According to a term in the agreement, AT&T would be able to pay less than the deal’s original $39 billion value if regulators demand asset sales that surpass 20 percent of that figure, or about $7.8 billion, three people with direct knowledge of the situation said Sept. 7.

AT&T could walk away from the deal and pay Deutsche Telekom a breakup fee if the concessions requested top 40 percent of that value, the people said. If the deal doesn’t happen there’s no way AT&T can avoid paying the breakup fee, the people said.

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