For Once, Clearwire's in the Driver's Seat


With all the hullaballoo over DISH Network's recent offer to buy Sprint Nextel , one has to ask where does that now leave Clearwire , which is being wooed by Sprint?

The answer: In a pretty good position, actually. Thank you for asking.

DISH still wants Clearwire -- lock, stock, and spectrum -- only now instead of trying to do so through a bidding war with Sprint, it thinks the odds are better if it just goes ahead and buys Sprint, which happens to own a majority of Clearwire's shares.

But DISH isn't the only suitor for Sprint. Late last year, the Japanese telecom SoftBank agreed to buy 70% of Sprint for $20 billion, and it was the cash portion of that deal -- $8 billion -- that gave Sprint the wherewithal to make the offer to buy the outstanding shares of Clearwire it did not already own.

However, SoftBank, a $50 billion company, may be able to outgun DISH, an $18 billion company, in a bidding war. But if SoftBank's deeper pockets can produce more than the $25.5 billion DISH has offered for Sprint, DISH chairman (and former professional gambler) Charlie Ergen thinks he has an ace up his sleeve.

Playing the foreign card
Because SoftBank is a foreign company, Ergen feels the Department of Justice will not look favorably toward it acquiring a major U.S. telecom. Ergen also has asked the Federal Communications Commission whether it is "in the public interest for a foreign company to control more spectrum below 3 GHz than any one other company in the United States," as it would by acquiring Sprint and Clearwire.

Enter the Big Red dragon
And another suitor for Clearwire (or at least for some of its spectrum) has entered the picture. On April 8, Verizon made an unsolicited, non-binding proposal to acquire some Clearwire spectrum leases for $1 billion to $1.5 billion. However, the terms of the Sprint-Clearwire merger agreement prohibit Clearwire from selling spectrum leases without Sprint's consent.

Clearwire has come a long way from December of 2011 when it threatened to default on paying the $237 million of interest on its $4 billion in debt just to get Sprint to make a commitment. At the last minute, Clearwire's game of chicken worked, and Sprint ended up giving Clearwire a deal with funding worth $1.6 billion.

The vote on whether Clearwire will go ahead with Sprint's proposal will occur on May 21 at a shareholders' meeting. It looks like Sprint will be looking for Clearwire to give it a little love for a change.

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