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You might wonder why Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son wants to buy America's third-largest wireless network. The Softbank CEO is spending $20 billion on Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S ) , which lags far behind market leaders Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) and AT&T (NYSE: T ) in every metric that matters. Yet Son hates the very idea of running third-best to anyone else. He explained the buy to CNBC's Jim Cramer like this: "I am a man, and every man wants to be No. 1, not No. 2 or No. 3."
So what's the big idea? Softbank's money will help Sprint compete, but it doesn't change the network's third-place market position.
Changing the game
An interview with Bloomberg this week gave us some new clues. Or perhaps Son simply shrouded his motivations in a whole new layer of mystery.
For one, Son thinks that data networking is the most important feature of any mobile service. Softbank derives two-thirds of its revenue from data plans, which is about twice as much as American networks. Voice and texting plans simply don't matter much to him.
This is a fairly revolutionary idea in the American market, where data is seen as just another service to sell alongside equally important voice and text plans. If Son can mold Sprint in Softbank's image, we'll have a genuinely new option on the local market.
And it makes sense in a long-term perspective. You can already use 3G or 4G data connections to send free text messages or make voice calls. In fact, apps like Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) Facetime and Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT ) Skype let you make video calls in real time, for free. If you have the right data pipe, you can push any traditional communications service you like right through it. The core commodity for a forward-thinking mobile network, then, must be the data service. Users will simply find ways to work around whatever other paywalls you set up.
"I can't share all my secrets, dude!"
But Son stopped short of sharing his entire vision for Sprint, and here's why (emphasis mine):
Actually, I already had Steve Jobs say he would give me the iPhone, before it was announced. The iPhone was not announced; Steve and I were very deeply discussing it. I never talked about that in public. So if I didn't have any interesting strategy [for Sprint], I wouldn't bet $20 billion.
See what Son did there? He's rubbing his visionary nature in our faces, and then he tells us to wait and see what he's got up his sleeve next.
It's easy to shrug at claims like that, assuming that the guy is out of his mind. But Softbank was in fact the first Japanese network to sell Apple's iPhones, so the Jobs connection is no fairy tale. And Sprint may lag behind the dynamic duo at the top, but it does own a solid nationwide network with deep connections to another one from (now majority-owned) Clearwire (Nasdaq: CLWR ) . The company is in position to do something very interesting here, and Masayoshi Son might just be the right man for the job.
Finally, nobody ever became a self-made billionaire and owner of Japan's fastest-growing cell service by placing wild bets on imaginary opportunities. If I knew what he's planning, I should be running my own billion-dollar business (which I don't). But whatever it is, I'm guessing we'll see rock-bottom pricing on a data-based service bundle that enables his top-secret sauce.
The American wireless market is about to get a well-deserved kick in the pants. Maybe this is the wake-up call you never knew we needed.