THE LATEST MONSTROSITY: Sprint buying Charter?

Will the madness ever end? It’s been over four years since the horrific train wreck that kept us on our toes here at The Solid Signal Blog. I’m talking of course about the dizzying tango between DISH, Sprint, Clearwire, Softbank, and a few other minor players. The on-again, off-again angst of who would buy whom and what would happen with the world’s yellowest cellular provider seemed never to end, and finally when it was all done, Softbank bought Sprint.

The absurdity never did quite subside, and it seems like rumors keep popping up every few months of some weird combination of purchases and mergers that would prop up Sprint, one of the nation’s leading cell companies but never in the top 3. Sprint has continually gambled on off-the-wall technologies to try to get bragging rights as the fastest or widest or whatever, and the only thing that truly has happened is that Sprint goes its own way with phones that are utterly incompatible with everyone else, don’t roam if you go overseas, and which are immune to cellular signal boosters.

The latest suitor in this death-defying spiral of mergers and acquisitions? Charter. According to BGR, telco giant Softbank is gathering together money to buy Charter, making it and Sprint siblings. Charter, of course, absorbed Time Warner Cable and Bright House last year. In the process their customer service rating went from “toilet” to “sewer” and the company continues to shed cable TV subscribers faster than a sunburn victim loses skin cells. Charter in itself is a largely losing proposition thanks to its acquisition of Time Warner Cable, once called “the worst company in America” and routinely near the bottom of the already-low cable industry.

I’ll call this information credible, since Softbank and its ebullient leader Masayoshi Son clearly showed interest (and in my opinion, poor judgment) in absorbing Sprint when Sprint was similarly low-valued in customers’ eyes. I wouldn’t put it past them to want another floundering company in its portfolio.

However, it’s far from a done deal. There would be intense scrutiny here, since Softbank is a Japanese company. It’s one thing to buy a cell provider when people can just switch to another company like AT&T. It’s another thing to buy an internet service provider like Charter when many Americans only have one choice for home internet. No matter what the FCC says or doesn’t say, home internet is an essential part of people’s lives and it seems unlikely that the current US government would allow a foreign company to control that much of people’s lives (doesn’t it?) by controlling their only source of internet service.

A particularly interesting part of this rumor suggests that Softbank will try to buy T-Mobile at the same time. I have quite a bit more respect for T-Mobile but I have to believe any attempt to merge the technologies of T-Mobile and Sprint will prove disastrous. I also believe that attaching any sort of corporate supervision to T-Mobile’s currently freewheeling spirit would kill them, since people seem most attracted to the company precisely because it’s willing to break the rules.

If this does turn out to be a fact, look for a lot of scrutiny and a lot of pushback from other companies like Verizon and AT&T who would view Softbank/Sprint/T-Mobile as somewhat of a threat, since in theory at least that merged monstrosity could offer TV, internet and cell service as a bundle, just as Verizon and AT&T do.

I would just go on record as saying that any attempt by Softbank to buy T-Mobile or Sprint would be the polar opposite of the AT&T deal to buy DIRECTV. AT&T, an American company with strong ties to the telecommunications infrastructure, bought the most successful television provider in history and the two companies have continued to grow even in tough times. On the other hand, Softbank’s infrastructure in other countries has been considered a security risk and any attempt to meld Sprint with T-Mobile and Charter would simply be a recipe for more lost customers.

Details forthcoming, I suppose – one of these days I swear we’ll be done with the Sprint drama. Will it be before I retire? That’s the real question.