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Is Sprint a Takeover Target? Research Suggests Comcast Will Go Shopping for a Wireless Business.

November 11, 2006

By Jason Gertzen

Fifteen months after one major merger created Sprint Nextel Corp., Wall Street investment banks are playing mix and match over the prospects of another megadeal.

This time, however, Sprint is more likely to be the seller than the buyer.

In a 44-page report titled “Deal or No Deal?” released Friday, Citigroup analysts speculated that Comcast Corp., the nation’s largest cable company, was likely to go shopping soon for a wireless business. Moreover, Citigroup considers Sprint a prime target.

“While Comcast has several options to sell wireless services, we assess a 40 percent probability that it will acquire a wireless company within the next 12 months, with Sprint as the most likely option within this context,” wrote Citigroup analysts Jason Bazinet, Michael Rollins and Michael Williams.

The report said T-Mobile was another possibility. It also suggested that Sprint could benefit, and discourage a Comcast bid, by acquiring Alltel Corp., a wireless carrier based in Little Rock, Ark., with more than 11 million customers.

Sprint officials declined to offer reaction Friday.

“We do not comment on rumors or speculation,” said James Fisher, a Sprint spokesman.

The possibility of a Comcast-Sprint combination or other acquisition of Sprint has percolated behind the scenes among Wall Street analysts for weeks. Recent days, however, marked a turning point as a flurry of research reports addressed the topic head-on.

Notably, a Banc of America Securities analyst and another for Pali Research who closely follows Sprint downplayed the prospects.

The communications industry has consolidated and shifted to the point where major cable carriers and large phone companies such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. are largely the remaining contenders for the bulk of a consumer’s spending on video, Internet and calling services.

Phone companies, which already sell wireless and landline services, are also beginning to sell video services. Cable companies such as Comcast are countering with their own landline phone service and view wireless as a critically important addition to offer a competitive bundle of services.

Sprint is already working with Comcast and other top cable carriers in a joint venture that includes new bundles of wireless and television service packages, along with the development of innovative technologies.

Sprint is helping cable companies provide a version of Internet-based telephone service to more than 1.3 million subscribers. That business generates about $275 million for Sprint and is expected to grow to at least $1 billion by the end of 2009, said Jim Patterson, a Sprint executive overseeing his company’s cable initiative.

“It is critical to our overall strategy at Sprint,” Patterson said in an interview this week as Sprint announced a five-year agreement to work with Suddenlink Communications, a St. Louis cable operator.

The cable relationships — which are thriving even as Sprint struggles to digest the Nextel merger and keep up with larger rivals — have fueled much of the speculation.

Another scenario that at least one analyst dismissed involved Tim Donahue, Sprint’s chairman — who is retiring at the end of the year –leading an investment group that would buy the company.

“Several investors have also voiced to us their belief that Tim Donahue could return to the company as part of a leveraged buyout of the company,” Pali Research’s Walter Piecyk wrote.

“We have found little or no merit in these theories, and our opinion is that there is no intention by either of the parties to execute such a plan.”

A spokeswoman for Comcast, based in Philadelphia, declined to comment Friday about the Wall Street reports.

In September, though, John Alchin, Comcast’s chief financial officer, said during a Merrill Lynch conference that his company was not pursuing potential acquisitions.

“There is nothing out there,” Alchin said. “There is nothing in the pipeline. Nothing contemplated.”

In a September interview with The Kansas City Star, Gary Forsee, Sprint’s president and chief executive officer, acknowledged that his company needed to improve its performance. But he rejected talk of Sprint as a takeover target.

“Our assets will match up with anybody in the industry,” Forsee said. “We are a very strong, large company by a lot of measures.”

The Citigroup analysts acknowledged that they were not certain that any deal was in the offing.

They stated, however, that speculation was growing about Comcast’s intent to acquire a wireless carrier.

“Comcast will enter the wireless market,” the analysts wrote. “It’s now a matter of ‘how’ not ‘if.’â“š”

Comcast, in a consortium of other cable companies and Sprint, spent billions recently to acquire radio wave spectrum in a federal auction. Sprint’s share price has tumbled, and Sprint did not replace Len Lauer when the former chief operating officer recently left the company.

“All this raises the possibility, however slight, that something major may be in the works,” the Citigroup analysts wrote.

The analysts calculated that Comcast could harvest $9 billion in savings and other benefits by joining with Sprint. Considering Sprint’s current difficulties, however, a deal would not be without risks. Comcast would have to run Sprint better than it now is being run.

“Sure, Sprint is inexpensive, but it’s inexpensive for a reason,” wrote Rollins and the other Citigroup analysts, estimating that Comcast might have to pay between $22.50 and $25 a share for Sprint.

“Paying a premium would push Sprint’s value to a level not seen since the post-merger unraveling began,” according to the report. “That is, Comcast would be paying a turned-around price for a broken asset.”

Sprint shares closed Friday at $20.37, up 23 cents. Comcast shares closed at $40.31, down 36 cents.

To reach Jason Gertzen, call (816) 234-4899 or send e-mail to jgertzen@kcstar.com.




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