Flush With Cash, T-Mobile’s Future Still Very Much Up in the Air

AT&T’s $4 billion breakup package may be of little consolation to T-Mobile USA and its German parent company, Deutsche Telekom.

While the carrier gets valuable spectrum, a roaming agreement and $3 billion in cash, the future of the No. 4 U.S. carrier is cloudier than ever, now that AT&T has called off its planned purchase.

T-Mobile has been operating as something of a lame duck since AT&T first proposed its $39 billion acquisition in March. Consumers, employees and potential partners have all been writing the carrier off, assuming that it would soon be swallowed up by its far-larger rival.

The abrupt turn of events will send T-Mobile and its parent company back to the drawing board, which will include soliciting new buyers, figuring out a strategy for its next-generation network and coming up with some inducements to avoid losing even more customers.

The blow of the breakup is only softened by the fact that the Bellevue, Wash.-based carrier will be handed a huge chunk of spending money to ride out the near-term bumps.

As T-Mobile looks to come up with Plan B, here are some potential options:

Spectrum sharing: As part of the breakup, AT&T has entered a mutually beneficial roaming agreement with Deutsche Telekom. Terms of the agreement have not yet been shared, but there could be some pretty compelling outcomes.

In Europe, it is common for carriers to share spectrum and even the cost of maintaining the network and towers. From the consumer’s perspective, it’s two different networks and two different brands. The carriers only end up competing on handset offerings, price and features — not coverage.

Another merger: T-Mobile will entertain any and all offers. Most recently, Dish said it was interested in partnering with T-Mobile if its merger with AT&T fell apart. Other candidates could include Sprint, or other companies from the media industry that are always sniffing around wireless, such as cable operators.

A bid from a company like Google or Microsoft would definitely make things interesting. While both are less likely candidates, they could use the network to push their agenda, including handsets and applications.

A total overhaul: The $4 billion breakup fee could give Deutsche Telekom the confidence to take another shot at the U.S. market. Probably not, but there’s always a chance. The company’s roots have been entrepreneurial and scrappy, but it’s been awhile since it has been able to make an impact on the market.

Worst-case scenario: Deutsche Telekom passes out the cash as a dividend to stockholders. It has always leaned on the U.S. as a moneymaker, and this could be no exception.

The 4G conundrum: Regardless, T-Mobile still does not have enough spectrum to update its network to the next generation. It may gain access to AT&T’s 4G network as part of the roaming agreement with AT&T, but both companies will arguably need more spectrum to keep up with demand.

The only two options will be to partner with Clearwire or LightSquared, or to wait until the next government auction. Both Clearwire and LightSquared are always in need of more cash, and have their difficulties. A deal with Clearwire would be additionally complicated by the fact that Sprint owns nearly half of the company.

AllThingsD’s Ina Fried contributed to this report.


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