By Benzinga staff
Hailed as the deal to reshape the wireless communications industry back in March, the proposed T-Mobile USA acquisition by AT&T Inc. (T) appears to be approaching a point of no return as another hurdle got piled on its way to a September 20, 2012 consummation deadline.
The Federal Communication Commission is the latest agency to throw its hat into the ring on Tuesday, after the Department of Justice stepped in with antitrust concerns back in August.
Seeing as the FCC has a dog in the fight in terms of the licenses over public airwaves that are expected to be reshuffled as part of the would-be merger, the agency stepped in after a staff study. The study showed that the deal would result in public interest harm in terms of lost jobs and increased cost to the consumer on an industry that would be overly concentrated.
Based on this, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is expected to refer the matter to an administrative law judge for review. The referral, to be voted on by the other three commissioners of the FCC in the next couple of weeks, would result in a trial-like hearing where AT&T will need to argue that the merger's consequences would provide more benefit than harm.
The development comes amid disappointment, understandably, on the part of AT&T. The company had been so confident on the deal approval upon its announcement back in March that AT&T put itself on the hook not only for a $3 billion cash payment to T-mobile as a sign-on bonus, but an additional $4 billion in assets in (the then unlikely) case of the deal falling through.
AT&T has until September 20, 2012 to make the merger happen. This may be an increasingly difficult date to achieve since this proposed hearing would have to take place only after the antitrust trial, brought on by the Department of Justice back in August, commences. That particular trial is scheduled to start no earlier than February of 2012.
Where does this latest development leave things? Apart from AT&T, which stands to be a few billion dollars lighter should matters come to a head, T-Mobile's viewpoint may be more pragmatic.
Although T-Mobile is publicly in support of the continued merger attempts, it has engaged in aggressive pricing of its products and services so as to be a better competitor on its own. In light of the merger-derived limelight, it may even shape up to be a better target for future potential transactions in its future. And almost certainly, Verizon (VZ) stands to benefit significantly, as any stop in the merger will mean it gets to hang on to the number one spot for a while longer.
Therefore, depending on where keen investors fall on the bullish/bearish demarcation on the AT&T/T-Mobile merger, there may several market moves to take part in. The larger players, such as VZ and Sprint (S), may see market moves to reflect mood as barriers to the merger continue to materialize. More significantly, smaller and regional carriers may see opportunities created by regulatory reforms. Stocks to watch are Alaska Communications Systems (ALSK) and Otelco (OTT).
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