AT&T Is Making Too Big of a Leap

AT&T (NYSE: T  ) is now looking to acquire Leap Wireless (NASDAQ: LEAP  ) in a move that's very plainly a bid for more spectrum. While the headline cost is $1.2 billion, or $15 per share, AT&T is actually on the hook for a lot more.

After factoring in Leap's net debt of $2.8 billion along with other contractual obligations, the total bill will easily climb to over $5 billion. That's quite a price tag, and the overall package that AT&T is getting in return is rather questionable. In comparison, Verizon paid just $3.6 billion to a consortium of cable companies last year for a ton of spectrum in a much better deal.

First off, Leap's 3G network is built using CDMA, an entirely different and incompatible technology from AT&T's GSM and HSPA network. Ma Bell will now be tasked with integrating Leap's customer base and slowly migrating them to its own network before it can fully repurpose the spectrum it's acquiring, which in itself will take some time.

More importantly, AT&T currently operates in all of Leap's major regional markets. The areas where Leap has the strongest spectrum holdings (at least 26 MHz of certain bands) are cities like San Antonio, Houston, Denver, Phoenix, and Portland, to name a few. AT&T already has sizable spectrum licenses in all of these markets.

Much of Leap's spectrum is also in the advanced wireless services, or AWS, band. AT&T doesn't have as much AWS band, especially after it handed over AWS licenses to T-Mobile (NYSE: TMUS  ) as part of its breakup fee in 2011. In most markets, Leap's spectrum isn't contiguous with AT&T's, which may imply that AT&T is banking on upcoming technologies like carrier aggregation that can utilize non-contiguous spectrum bands.

It's also conceivable that AT&T was buying Leap's spectrum so that other rivals couldn't. BMO Capital Markets thinks Ma Bell was just trying to shut out T-Mobile from making a move. This is actually something regulators have taken note of, with the Department of Justice recently encouraging the Federal Communications Commision to structure an upcoming auction in a way that prevents "leading carriers from foreclosing their rivals from access to low-frequency spectrum."

Buying more spectrum licenses to build up capacity isn't necessarily a bad thing, unless you don't really need it and you're overpaying... like AT&T is.

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  • Report this Comment On July 17, 2013, at 8:17 PM, jhf678 wrote:

    AT&T will probably walks away if it turn out that much and 3G are incompatible. Another reason, that FCC will step in like last time with T-Mobile. At&T plans are too expensive. Leap offers $55/month for iPhone plan. AT&T is not less than $100. We need competitons to get phone plans cheaper for consumers.

  • Report this Comment On July 18, 2013, at 3:45 AM, DAG1996MF wrote:

    It doesn't need to be AT&T vs. Verizon ... which is "better"? ... who got the "better" deal on which individual properties that they all obviously want/need? The reality is that it doesn't matter ... neither is going anywhere any time soon and they both pay well to wait for the likely bonus of principal appreciation. So, the only remaining question is who will be the third major provider of the next decade, as there will inevitably be at some point. But, that call is only necessary for beginning investors. For those who don't need to bet the farm on Clearwire or the like, the odds are pretty good for both AT&T and Verizon to do quite well going forward (even with a third player ... hyperbole ... I realize CLWR won't be the next ma bell). I expect that maintaining the top two positions in world telecom would require strategic big-picture moves by people much smarter than me. So, I'm not quite ready to call this LEAP deal a dumb idea just yet. I think I might just hold onto my T shares for a while longer.

  • Report this Comment On July 18, 2013, at 6:02 PM, ccbarry wrote:

    ATT is too inward focused with reinforcing "yes boss" management. Its cash hoard belongs to the shareholders. The management team needs to distribute gains to the owners of the company instead of miss-guided M&A activity.

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