Softbank to buy 70 percent of Sprint for $20B

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TOKYO (AP) - Japan’s Softbank has agreed to buy 70 percent of Sprint for $20.1 billion, giving the struggling U.S. cellphone company an infusion of cash and confidence.

The deal, announced Monday in Tokyo, positions Overland Park, Kan.-based Sprint Nextel Corp. as a stronger competitor to market leaders Verizon Wireless and AT&T.

Softbank Corp. is the No. 3 cellphone company in Japan, but has a better track record. Originally a holding company with investments in Internet and telecom businesses, it bought Vodafone Japan in 2005 and turned it around. Softbank President Masayoshi Son said he is confident he can help improve Sprint’s profits.

Sprint CEO Dan Hesse has laid the groundwork for a turnaround _ the company’s reputation for customer service has improved during his tenure. But his efforts haven’t had an immediate impact on profitability. Sprint has lost money for five years straight, and isn’t likely to reverse that trend in the next few years. On its own, the company would have a hard road ahead, as it pays for both a network revamp and $15.5 billion in iPhones from Apple.

Under the deal, Sprint shareholders can turn in 55 percent of their shares to Softbank in exchange for $7.30 per share. Sprint shares were flat at $5.73 in morning trading Monday, suggesting that investors had accurately pegged the value of the transaction last week, when they sent the stock up 14 percent based on reports of talks between Softbank and Sprint.

Softbank’s outlay for the 55-percent stake will be $12.1 billion. It’s buying an additional $8 billion worth of shares from the company, for a total stake of 70 percent.

“This is a transformative transaction for Sprint that creates immediate value for our stockholders, while providing an opportunity to participate in the future growth of a stronger, better capitalized Sprint going forward,” Hesse said.

Softbank shares moved in the opposite direction, as Japanese investors worried that the company is making a huge gamble. The shares fell 5.3 percent in Monday trading, for a total loss of about a third over the week. Standard & Poor’s had placed Softbank on “credit watch negative,” meaning its credit rating could be downgraded.

The deal has been approved by the boards of both companies. It still needs approval from Sprint shareholders and U.S. regulators. Softbank said the transaction is expected to be completed by the middle of next year.

Analysts say buying a foreign cellphone company makes little sense in terms of operational synergies. There’s little opportunity to improve service by combining networks or saving money by combining operations.

But Son said the U.S. and Japanese markets have much in common now that smartphones are all-important in both countries, and the two companies could benefit and learn from each other. By joining forces, Sprint and Softbank will become one of the world’s top smartphone carriers, gaining greater bargaining power with the manufacturers of the gadgets and network equipment suppliers.

Softbank was the first carrier to offer the iPhone in Japan. The iPhone has been such a hit in there that it has shaped Softbank’s brand image and helped it lure customers away from its two bigger rivals.

Son said Sprint and Softbank can also work together on faster speed “4G” mobile networks called LTE. Softbank recently bought smaller Japanese rival eAccess, largely to gain LTE networks.

Son is an unusually risk-tolerant and innovative executive in a corporate culture that tends to favor a staid conservative approach. A graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, he was only 16 when he ventured alone to the U.S.

“I am happy to be able to tell you today of my big comeback to the U.S.,” he said. “This is going to be an even bigger challenge.”

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