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SoftBank slams Dish's Sprint bid, rules out sweeteners

A woman walks past a Sprint store in New York's financial district, October 15, 2012. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
A woman walks past a Sprint store in New York's financial district, October 15, 2012. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By Mari Saito and Sinead Carew

TOKYO/NEW YORK (Reuters) - SoftBank Corp President Masayoshi Son came out swinging on Tuesday against Dish Network Corp's rival bid for Sprint Nextel Corp, saying the satellite TV company would cripple Sprint with debt and was ill-prepared to run a wireless service.

Billionaire Son said there would be no need for SoftBank to sweeten its bid and he dismissed Dish's $25.5 billion offer as "incomplete and illusory." He argued his $20.1 billion offer would ultimately be better value for Sprint shareholders.

Son, who plans to make a U.S. trip to plead his case with Sprint shareholders, calculated that SoftBank's bid is worth 21 percent more than the Dish offer after items, including synergies, debt, break-up fees and the timing for a deal close are taken into account.

"Our price offer is better than theirs. Our timing is one year quicker at least. Our leverage is much more healthy," Son told a packed news conference in Tokyo. "(Their) financing is uncommitted. We are committed."

The two sides differ substantially on what their offers are actually worth. Son calculated his bid is worth $7.65 per share, against what he said was a Dish offer value of $6.31 per share. Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen has calculated the value of his deal is $7 per share, in comparison with what Dish says is a $6.22 per share deal from SoftBank.

Two big Sprint shareholders, Paulson & Co and Omega Advisors, have publicly said that the Dish offer looks better than SoftBank's.

Dish, which is aiming to tap Sprint's wireless network to offer mobile video services and to combine their spectrum holdings, made its offer earlier this month. SoftBank placed its bid last October.

UNDER CONSIDERATION

A special committee of Sprint's board is currently reviewing the Dish offer and has asked for more information.

Dish responded to SoftBank's attack on Tuesday with the argument that its offer provided a higher upfront price, as well as the possibility for better savings and growth opportunities because it is a U.S.-based company.

"We remain confident that the Sprint Board will share our view that the Dish proposal is superior by offering Sprint shareholders greater value with a higher price and more cash," Dish said.

But Son argued that Dish would be a weaker partner for Sprint because it has no history in wireless. He also dismissed Dish's plan to provide video to Sprint customers, as the operator urgently needs to beef up its network first.

"Charlie has no expertise in the mobile industry," the executive told Reuters in a telephone interview in which he described the U.S. media veteran as an "amateur" in mobile.

Son said SoftBank was preparing a secret weapon of sorts to help change Sprint, "a very innovative product, innovative service that no other carriers in the world are preparing." He declined to elaborate on what that might be.

Son also told Reuters that a combined Sprint and Dish would "suffer for quite some time" from a heavy debt load that would arise from Dish's need to raise more than $9 billion in capital markets to fund its bid.

REGULATORY REVIEW

Neil Juggins, a Hong Kong-based regional telecommunications analyst at Societe Generale affiliate JI Asia, said Son raised important points, such as the regulatory checks that would be required due to the combined spectrum held by Dish and Sprint.

"He has given a rebuttal that now will be pitched to shareholders," Juggins said.

While SoftBank has said it could close its deal on July 1, analysts say a Dish deal would likely drag into 2014 because of the regulatory review process.

In a dig at Dish's Ergen, Son said SoftBank had built up strong partnerships with leading U.S. technology companies such as Google Inc and Intel Corp, contrasting that with what he said were Dish's "ugly" litigation battles.

SoftBank secured support for the deal from Intel Chief Executive Paul Otellini, who wrote in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission that Son's vision of building a high-speed U.S. network was compelling.

Son also played down U.S. national security concerns over SoftBank's use of Chinese telecoms equipment, which could be the biggest potential regulatory hurdle facing the deal. In regulatory filings, Dish has portrayed those relationships as something that should seriously concern U.S. officials.

But Son said he had made commitments not to use equipment from China's Huawei Technologies Co Ltd and ZTE Corp in the United States and that U.S. regulatory approval was proceeding smoothly.

JOINT VENTURE

He made his case as SoftBank reported a record 745 billion yen ($7.59 billion) operating profit for the year to March 31, up 10 percent from the previous year. He forecast a further rise this year to between 800 billion and 900 billion yen.

SoftBank's shares closed 1.2 percent higher on Tuesday, before Son's comments, compared with a 0.2 percent dip in Tokyo's benchmark Nikkei average. They are up 67 percent since the Sprint bid, in line with the Nikkei's surge.

Son dismissed the possibility of a joint purchase of Sprint by Dish and SoftBank, saying it was not necessary and that it might be difficult to work together.

But if SoftBank closes its deal, Son said he would be open to discussing a spectrum hosting agreement with Ergen, where Dish would pay to use Sprint's network to offer its own service using its own spectrum as well.

"I'm open to any potential business, but first we have to own Sprint," he said.

Son also dismissed concerns that shareholders of Sprint's majority owned venture, Clearwire Corp, might vote against Sprint's agreement to buy the rest of Clearwire for $2.97 per share at a special meeting on May 21.

If that deal is voted down by minority shareholders, Sprint might not need to buy their shares anyway as it would already have roughly 68 percent ownership and board approval because of support from strategic investors.

Sprint has set June 12 as the tentative date for a special meeting for shareholders to vote on the proposed deal with SoftBank. Sprint shares were down 1 percent at $7.06 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

($1 = 98.1500 Japanese yen)

(Additional reporting by Reiji Murai; Editing by Edmund Klamann and Andre Grenon)

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