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Softbank Breathes Life Into Sprint

Sprint gains some much-needed capital and LTE tech know-how in exchange for relinquishing 70% of the company to Japan's Softbank.

Sprint and Softbank officially tied the knot Monday, announcing plans for Softbank to acquire a 70% stake in the third-largest wireless network operator in the United States. The deal is a boon for Sprint, which lands some much-needed capital, though Softbank's shares in its home market of Japan plummeted Monday.

The companies revealed details of the transaction, which has Softbank contributing $8 billion in cash and another $12.1 billion to be distributed to Sprint's current stockholders for a total of $20.1 billion. Once completed, Sprint's stockholders will retain 30% ownership of the company.

Dan Hesse, Sprint's CEO since 2007, will remain as the company's leader. He and other Sprint board members will be added to the board of the operating company (New Sprint) that will eventually be set up by Softbank to control Sprint.

According to Sprint, the deal is beneficial mostly because it gives the third-largest carrier a huge wad of cash to spend on its ongoing network deployments and improvements. The company has issued billions of dollars in notes in the last year seeking extra capital. Combined, those note sales don't add up to as much extra cash as this deal did.

[ Sprint is moving ahead in the NFC mobile payments race. MobileCON 2012: Sprint Gets A 4G Tablet, More NFC. ]

The deal does not make any changes to Sprint's existing relationship with Clearwire. Sprint owns 54% of Clearwire, which is also in the middle of killing off WiMax in favor of LTE.

Sprint needs the money to finish building its LTE 4G network. The company is well on its way to getting the network off the ground, but it is far behind larger rivals AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Sprint offers LTE in about 30 markets right now, though it is on target to reach 100 by the end of the year. It launched its first LTE market in July, and is scrambling to catch up to the competition.

AT&T, the country's second-largest network operator, has about 65 LTE markets now, and is also on target to reach 100 by the end of the year. In areas where AT&T doesn't offer LTE 4G, it offers HSPA+ at what it markets as "4G" speeds.

Verizon Wireless already has 400 LTE markets up and running around the country. It launched its first LTE markets in December 2010, and will continue to add to its massive 4G footprint in the coming months and on into 2013.

By June or July of next year, the wireless network operator landscape will have changed significantly, though the companies will retain their current rankings with respect to size (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, etc.)

The deal between Softbank and Sprint follows on the heels of Deutsche Telekom's proposed plans to merge its T-Mobile USA subsidiary with MetroPCS. Both the Sprint/Softbank and T-Mobile/MetroPCS transactions are expected to close by the middle of 2013.

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