BERLIN -- Ron Sommer, the chairman of
, has long wanted to feast in the U.S. market. Rather than ordering
, however, Sommer may be assembling his banquet
a la carte
Wired About Wireless
Despite VoiceStream Talk, Sprint's Still No. 1 for DT
VoiceStream-DT Talk Sets Up a Bidding War
According to both
The Financial Times
The Wall Street Journal
, Deutsche Telekom has made an offer in the neighborhood of $30 billion to take over the Washington-based mobile phone operator
, which operates a nationwide network. The news comes after months of reports that Europe's biggest telecommunications company was flirting with larger U.S. players like
, which was left partnerless in the wake of its scuttled merger with
wide-ranging pursuit of an American partner underscores the company's desire to become a global telecommunications player. Some have suggested that by going after Sprint, Sommer may be playing a
high-stakes game of chicken. Approaching the smaller company might force Sprint -- his true target -- to accept a lower price. That is a shrewd, but dangerous tactic. Without a sizable presence in the U.S., Sommer can forget joining the big leagues of the world telco market and Telekom would likely be consigned to remaining a second-tier regional operator, or could eventually become a takeover target itself.
DT's head office declined to comment on the reports, but the company's shares dropped 1.56 euros, or 2.5%, to 59.79 ($57.11) in Frankfurt amid concerns about the potential cost. New York-traded shares fell 2, or 3.4%, to 56 7/16.
Telekom's desire to be a player in the U.S. is widely known and it has amassed a $100 billion war chest for the purpose of courting overseas telecommunications firms. DT's motives regarding VoiceStream can be generally separated into two possible objectives. Sommer could cynically be hoping to bring down the cost of a Sprint acquisition by expressing interest elsewhere. Or Telekom could be shopping for legitimate alternatives to Sprint, should that deal run into political interference or simply not pan out.
The first possibility certainly wouldn't be a new tactic for Deutsche Telekom, according to industry observers. Telekom may be floating in cash, but that firepower allows it to toy with the share price of potential targets. Many analysts believe DT is doing exactly that with U.K. Internet service provider
After largely being seen on the verge of snapping up the British ISP, Telekom said it would be cheaper to build U.K. Internet operations from scratch, promptly knocking off a huge chunk of the ISP's valuation. With no other buyer immediately surfacing, DT can now take its time weighing a more economical bid for Freeserve. Sommer could likely afford Sprint at a cost near $115 billion, but he may be hoping to knock down the price a bit before swooping in.
"Some believe DT is practicing some 'game theory' by floating this bid idea to the press with the intention of putting price pressure on Sprint and forcing a better deal," writes
Kevin Roe in a research note. ABN Amro has an investment banking relationship with Deutsche Telekom and makes a market in VoiceStream.
The other possibility is Sommer is simply looking for alternatives in the wake of objections by U.S. senators to a DT-Sprint deal. Shortly after WorldCom's bid for Sprint was consigned to the dustbin, the politicians raised a stink about the transfer of
Federal Communication Commission
licenses to a company which is nearly 60% still held by the German government.
At first look Sprint would offer more of what Telekom is looking for in the U.S. with both wireless and Internet operations, but VoiceStream does have its attractions. It has nationwide reach and uses a standard similar to the European wireless technology, known as the global system for mobile communications (GSM). Not to mention that DT could swallow the $30-billion price tag without choking. "With Sprint, they'd get everything at once, but piecing smaller firms together might actually end up being cheaper for them," says one analyst from a large German asset management house.
The lower cost could permit the possible solution of pairing a VoiceStream bid with another acquisition. Two previous DT targets could fit the bill. Both Qwest, with its fiber optic network, and the U.K.'s
Cable & Wireless
could complement VoiceStream's wireless operations with Internet and data networks. If Telekom bids for VoiceStream, "Qwest becomes more attractive to DT
as fiber assets will be needed to complement a wireless network," according to ABN Amro's Roe.
However, at the moment there's no reason to believe a VoiceStream deal wouldn't receive the same unwanted political scrutiny that Telekom's interest in Sprint has awakened. And whatever Sommer is up to in America, he is likely to be cautious following the debacle of DT's failed merger attempt with
last year. He knows Telekom can ill afford another botched megadeal.
At the end of the day, it's impossible to know what the squirrelly Sommer is up to. But with the burning desire to be a major player in the U.S. and with all that cash on hand, the only thing for sure is that Deutsche Telekom is bound to be ordering something else from the menu before too long.