AT&T ties data to content with AppNexus buy

Days after refashioning itself as a media company with the close of its Time Warner acquisition, AT&T has inked a deal to help connect its new business with its old. The telecom giant has purchased AppNexus, one of the largest independent ad-tech vendors, as it seeks to use its data-rich telecom networks to bolster ad prices for the richly funded content produced by Time Warner.

AT&T’s legacy business and its newly acquired content arm are menaced by the increasing reach of online video services and the consolidation of digital advertising among a handful of tech providers. As audiences flow online, AT&T’s wireless and satellite TV services face subscriber churn. Meanwhile, its Time Warner business must fend off Google and Facebook, which continue to syphon advertiser budgets through data-driven offerings. The acquisition of AppNexus could make AT&T competitive with those firms through ad sales tools that enable it to develop new, data-driven advertising products.

Although terms of the transaction weren’t disclosed, the target likely fetched north of $1bn. In addition to media reports of a $1.6bn price tag, AppNexus has raised venture capital above that level since 2014. And although ad-tech vendors haven’t been the most richly valued assets of late, AppNexus is a unique company in that the business is larger than most, if not all, independent ad-tech providers and it has a suite of tech products that cater to both advertisers and media companies.

As a wireless carrier and TV service provider, AT&T has an immense stock of data about media consumption habits, location and customer demographics, but few paths to monetize those assets. By owning AppNexus, AT&T can use its data to improve the value of the ads it sells via additional audience data, slice up its ad sales into more nuanced segments, and extend audience-based ad sales across AppNexus’ ad exchange.

We’ll have a more detailed report on this deal in tomorrow’s 451 Market Insight.

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Is DISH desperate for spectrum?

Contact: Ben Kolada

Eager to enter the cellular market, DISH Network has announced that it is interested in acquiring Clearwire for $3.30 per share, or about $4.8bn. The deal is actually a ‘take two’ for DISH, and shows the company’s desire (desperation?) to enter the wireless market. However, the market for wireless spectrum is so tight that those with such assets aren’t likely to sell them.

With mobile bandwidth consumption exploding, wireless spectrum is among the most coveted assets by wireless carriers. Over the past two years, there have been a handful of high-priced spectrum acquisitions announced by AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. The DISH proposal values Clearwire’s spectrum at $2.2bn.

DISH’s desperation to enter the wireless market is apparent in the fact that it previously tried to acquire some of Clearwire’s spectrum assets before Sprint announced that it would buy the remainder of Clearwire it didn’t already own. Obviously, the DISH-Clearwire deal never came to fruition, and the new transaction is likely to fail as well for the same reason.

This time around, spectrum is again at the top of the list of concerns. In responding to the offer, Clearwire issued a press release summarizing a list of Sprint’s objections. First and foremost, Sprint argues that its pending agreement with Clearwire prohibits the company from selling spectrum assets without Sprint’s consent.

For more real-time information on tech M&A, follow us on Twitter @MAKnowledgebase.

Will SoftBank-backed Sprint look to M&A?

Contact: Ben Kolada, Thejeswi Venkatesh

After churning through the rumor mill for the past half-week, official word came Monday that Japanese telco SoftBank is making a significant investment in Sprint, the third-largest mobile carrier in the US. SoftBank is acquiring 70% of Sprint in exchange for approximately $20bn, of which $12bn will be distributed to shareholders in exchange for 55% of the existing company. The remaining $8bn will be used for network expansion, primarily related to deploying 4G LTE. Beyond those efforts, the new Sprint could look to use some of its newfound cash to expand via M&A.

In announcing the deal, Sprint noted that this investment comes at a prime time. The company is continuing to execute on a multiyear turnaround. After Dan Hesse took the helm in December 2007, he spent the next three years focused on reversing Sprint’s customer attrition and improving its beleaguered brand. (Of course, some of those difficulties stemmed from its acquisition of Nextel in 2004. However, regarding customer service, those issues have largely been resolved, as the table below shows.) SoftBank’s move comes during Sprint’s investment phase, where it is now focused on building out its network and improving operational efficiency.

Now, with a stronger balance sheet, we wonder if SoftBank-backed Sprint will look to M&A for accelerated expansion. SoftBank has already shown a willingness to consolidate telecom assets in its home Japanese market. Earlier this month, it announced that it would buy Japanese wholesale broadband provider eAccess for $1.84bn. And in 2006, it picked up Vodafone K.K., the Japanese mobile unit of Vodafone Group, for about $16bn.

Although Sprint has struggled with M&A in the past, it could be spurred to move once more, as there are only a finite amount of targets left in the US and one was recently removed from reach. Earlier this month, T-Mobile announced that it was acquiring MetroPCS, which had long been rumored as a Sprint acquisition target. After MetroPCS, the next most likely candidate for Sprint to buy is Leap Wireless, which, including its cash and debt, is valued at about $3.2bn.

Wireless service provider satisfaction rating by company – ranking of customers who say they are very satisfied with their current wireless provider

Rank October 2006 September 2012
1 Verizon – 45% Verizon – 48%
2 T-Mobile – 33% Sprint – 32%
3 Cingular (now known as AT&T) – 30% T-Mobile – 28%
4 Sprint – 25% AT&T – 21%

Source: ChangeWave Research

For more real-time information on tech M&A, follow us on Twitter @MAKnowledgebase.

After failed sale, T-Mobile returns as buyer

Contact: Ben Kolada, Thejeswi Venkatesh

After failing to sell its T-Mobile USA subsidiary last year to AT&T for $39bn, Deutsche Telekom has pivoted from trying to exit the T-Mobile business to pushing it even deeper into the US market. The company announced on Wednesday that T-Mobile USA has reached a merger agreement with low-cost competitor MetroPCS in an intricately structured deal.

MetroPCS’s shareholders will receive $1.5bn in cash and 26% of the combined company. While that looks straightforward at first glance, the deal is structured as a reverse acquisition.

MetroPCS will pay its shareholders $1.5bn in cash (it ended the second quarter with $2.3bn in its treasury) and halve the number of shares outstanding by performing a 1-2 reverse stock split. MetroPCS will then acquire all of T-Mobile’s stock in exchange for a 74% stake in the combined company, leaving MetroPCS’s shareholders with a 26% holding. Though MetroPCS is technically the surviving entity, it will assume the T-Mobile name and will continue to trade publicly in the US.

The combined company is projecting 2012 pro forma combined revenue of just shy of $25bn. For comparison, the US’s third-largest cellular provider, Sprint, is expected to put up about $35bn in sales this year.

A bit of irony here is that analysts expected that the previously planned AT&T-T-Mobile merger would reduce competition and increase prices. However, in announcing their merger, T-Mobile and MetroPCS repeatedly claimed that the combined company would be a ‘value-focused’ provider – a pretty way of saying that it would be a low-cost carrier.

For more real-time information on tech M&A, follow us on Twitter @MAKnowledgebase.

AT&T’s loss is Verizon’s gain

Contact: Ben Kolada

In the land of multibillion-dollar telco mergers, sometimes the piecemeal approach is more effective than a one-and-done deal. AT&T attempted to leap over the competition with its proposed $39bn acquisition of T-Mobile USA; however, the world’s largest telecom company fell flat on its face. In failing to secure the T-Mobile takeover, AT&T is on the hook for a hefty $3bn cash breakup fee and must share spectrum in 128 cellular markets with its still-independent competitor. The spectrum loss is of particular irony, considering the primary driver for the T-Mobile purchase in the first place was the target’s spectrum assets.

Rather than pursue another long-shot acquisition, AT&T should focus on smaller spectrum purchases. That’s precisely what its competition has done. While AT&T spent months attempting to persuade politicians and federal regulators to approve the T-Mobile deal, which would have combined the second- and fourth-largest wireless carriers in the US, Verizon was dutifully seeking out smaller spectrum buys. Just this month, the company announced a pair of spectrum transactions worth a combined total of nearly $4 billion – the same price as the pretax charge AT&T will take in the fourth quarter (that charge includes the $1bn book value for the spectrum agreement with T-Mobile). Meanwhile, AT&T still hasn’t received FCC approval for its $1.9bn acquisition of certain Qualcomm spectrum licenses, which was announced back in December 2010.

A potentially expensive missed call

Contact: Brenon Daly

With AT&T’s planned purchase of T-Mobile USA now looking increasingly unlikely to close, we may have to take an eraser to our deal totals for 2011 – a very big eraser. Like most other M&A databases, The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase tallies transactions by their date of announcement rather than close. (However, we do note when the transaction is officially complete in our deal records, where relevant.) And recent regulatory developments in AT&T’s proposed consolidation of T-Mobile, which was announced eight months ago, appear to indicate the $39bn pairing may not get consummated.

If that happens, the total M&A spending for 2011 will decline by a full 17%. The planned purchase, which is the largest telco transaction in a half-decade, is three times the size of the next-largest deal announced so far this year, Google’s $12.5bn proposed purchase of Motorola Mobility.

Another way to look at it: AT&T’s $39bn cash-and-stock purchase of T-Mobile roughly equals the average monthly M&A spending around the globe for two full months so far this year. Without the big telco deal, the total value of all 2011 transactions is likely to come in just slightly below the $226bn we recorded in 2004. If that’s where spending does indeed land this year, it would represent an uptick of about 28% compared to 2010 full-year total of $172bn.

Survey: Consumers may hang up on combined AT&T-T-Mobile

Contact: Brenon Daly

As the largest telco deal announced in a half-decade, AT&T’s proposed purchase of T-Mobile USA has had an outsized impact on the still-nascent mobile market. To get a sense of some of the implications, our subsidiary ChangeWave Research surveyed more than 4,100 consumers at the end of September on a number of questions, including a few that touched on the transformative transaction. The takeaway: customers give the thumbs down to AT&T’s planned consolidation move, largely because of network performance problems.

On questions about wireless service providers, the ChangeWave survey found that T-Mobile and AT&T each have the lowest percentage of subscribers who say they are ‘very satisfied’ with their service. Only one-quarter of T-Mobile subscribers said that (half the level of industry leader Verizon Wireless), with only one out of five AT&T subscribers saying that. The combination of AT&T and T-Mobile would create the largest US wireless carrier, with roughly 130 million subscribers.

Perhaps more of an indictment of AT&T’s service, however, came when ChangeWave asked existing T-Mobile subscribers whether they were planning to continue with the combined company, assuming the acquisition clears regulatory review. One of five current subscribers said they planned to change wireless providers, with another 38% saying they didn’t know what they would do. Just one-third of current T-Mobile subscribers indicated they will continue subscribing if AT&T takes over.

If you are interested in finding out more about the consumer smartphone market and trends, be sure to join ChangeWave for a special Webinar on Thursday at 1:00pm EST. The presentation will cover overall market demand, as well as look specifically at the recently launched Apple iPhone 4S and the all-important holiday season forecasts by consumers. To join the Webinar tomorrow, simply register here.

Tech M&A spending hits post-recession high

Contact: Brenon Daly

Lifted by AT&T’s massive consolidation play, tech M&A spending in the just-closed first quarter hit a post-recession record of $84bn – one-third more than the previous high-water mark of $62bn set in Q2 2010. Additionally, the number of transactions in the just-completed first quarter (881) also set a new record. (See our full report on the first-quarter activity.)

And yet even without the landmark telecom deal, Q1 deal flow was surprisingly strong, particularly in March. Excluding AT&T’s planned purchase of T-Mobile USA, the quarterly spending total was higher than both the preceding Q4 2010 and the year-earlier Q1 2010. Most of that, however, was due to a flurry of activity in March, which saw spending at more than twice the monthly rate of the previous half-year and the highest level since last summer. (Again, that’s backing out the $39bn that AT&T is set to spend on T-Mobile USA, a deal that was announced on March 21.)

As the gigantic telecom transaction illustrates, M&A is an inherently lumpy business. So projecting annual totals from a single quarter’s activity doesn’t necessarily make for a reliable forecast. Nonetheless, we would note that the frenetic start to 2011 puts it on track for nearly $340bn in spending for the year. If it comes in at roughly that level, it would mark the highest annual spending total in four years and would not be too far from the level in 2005, just before tech M&A set off on a two-year record run.

Recent quarterly deal flow

Period Deal volume Deal value
Q1 2011 881 $84bn
Q4 2010 775 $37bn
Q3 2010 768 $46bn
Q2 2010 773 $62bn
Q1 2010 847 $30bn

Source: The 451 M&A KnowledgeBase

AT&T does Sprint a favor

Contact: Ben Kolada

If the rumors that Sprint was eyeing T-Mobile USA were actually true, then AT&T did its competitor a big favor by taking in the divested business. From our view, T-Mobile would have been a bigger bite, both financially and operationally, than Sprint could have swallowed. The transaction would likely have introduced a whole new set of tricky integration problems just at a time when Sprint is (finally) emerging from the set of problems it took on when it did its last big deal, the $39bn purchase of Nextel in late 2004. (Sprint shares have lost 80% of their value since that ill-fated acquisition.)

Sprint is already the only national carrier managing three different networks (CDMA, iDEN and WiMax), and the addition of T-Mobile would have added a fourth, bringing additional cost and complexity to the carrier’s operations. And while Sprint is moving back into the black, T-Mobile’s financial performance wouldn’t necessarily have helped that effort. (Don’t forget that the Deutsche Telekom subsidiary has long been a laggard, in terms of margins and subscriber growth, and is being divested for less than it was acquired.) While Sprint is adding subscribers and is finally growing revenue (2010 marked the first time in four years that it grew its top line), subscriber and revenue growth at T-Mobile have been flat.

Instead of T-Mobile, several of the remaining cellular properties in the US would fit better, both technologically and financially, with Sprint. While Sprint’s share price plummeted on AT&T’s news, stocks of regional cellular carriers such as MetroPCS and Leap Wireless soared on buyout speculation. Like Sprint, both are CDMA network operators, and both would provide Sprint with growing revenue and subscriber bases. And both companies are still within Sprint’s price range.

Even with M&A speculation inflating their valuations, MetroPCS and Leap currently sport $5.5bn and $1.1bn market caps, respectively. A cash-and-stock deal similar to AT&T’s T-Mobile acquisition could actually put both under Sprint’s ownership, since Sprint is sitting on $5.5bn in cash and short-term investments. And Sprint actually seems the most likely acquirer for these companies, even though Verizon is widely speculated to react to AT&T’s announcement with a deal of its own. Given the scrutiny that AT&T’s pending purchase of T-Mobile is expected to receive, we doubt that Verizon, currently the nation’s largest cellular carrier, could make a deal without regulators saying they’ve had enough.

Ma Bell’s mobile move

Contact: Brenon Daly

In the largest US telco deal in a half-decade, AT&T will hand over $39bn in cash and stock for T-Mobile USA. Assuming it goes through, the combination would create the country’s largest wireless provider, with some 130 million subscribers. The consolidation move, which has been a hallmark of AT&T over the past decade, would give the carrier one-third more wireless subscribers than second-place Verizon and more than twice the number of Sprint.

Clearly conscious of its increased market share, AT&T took a number of steps – both in language and in terms – to blunt criticism and concerns over the concentration. For instance, in its release AT&T tosses a sop to regulators by portraying this move as a step to connecting ‘every part of America to the digital age’ – a quote borrowed from President Obama and backed by the Federal Communications Commission. (The FCC and the US Department of Justice will likely cast a sharp eye on the planned deal, which AT&T hopes to close in a year or so.) And, in an effort to shore up populist support, AT&T highlights in its release that it is the only major wireless carrier to be a union shop. We can’t remember the last time a major acquirer trumpeted its union status in an M&A release.

Aside from the spin in the official release, the terms of the proposed transaction also appear to us to be structured with an eye toward knocking down as much uncertainty as possible. For instance, AT&T collared the $14bn in stock that it is set to give to T-Mobile USA’s parent Deutsche Telekom. (Although, at least based on Wall Street’s initial reaction, that wasn’t necessary as investors actually nudged the Dow component 1% higher.) But what really caught our eye was the stiff breakup fee: if AT&T has to walk away from the deal, it will be on the hook for a $3bn payment, as well as have to transfer an undefined chuck of spectrum to its would-be partner. That’s a lot of incentive to get it closed.