The viability of SoftBank's majority acquisition of Sprint is a big question as the deal progresses through various regulatory bodies in the coming months, but AT&T may be signaling today that it could take issue in a statement released by vice president Brad Burns:
Softbank's acquisition of Sprint and the control it gains over Clearwire will give one of Japan's largest wireless companies control of significantly more U.S. wireless spectrum than any other company. We expect that fact and others will be fully explored in the regulatory review process. This is one more example of a very dynamic and competitive U.S. wireless marketplace, which is an important fact for U.S. regulators to recognize.
Notably, it's not an outright statement of objection — AT&T appears to be setting itself up to use the deal's approval process in one of two ways: one, it can object to it over concerns that a foreign company would own a tremendous amount of cellular spectrum. Two, it can sit quietly and use an approval as precedent to advance its own causes over the coming years, either through acquisitions or spectrum purchases: "This is one more example of a very dynamic and competitive U.S. wireless marketplace, which is an important fact for US regulators to recognize" is a signal that AT&T is cautioning the FCC to take a hands-off approach, suggesting the market is working just fine without heavy intervention. It's unclear whether AT&T hasn't decided which way to proceed or if it's simply not ready to tip its hand, but regardless, the company seems eager to start the Sprint-SoftBank regulatory debates right now.
AT&T chose its words carefully
AT&T has had its fair share of run-ins with the FCC and US Department of Justice in recent history, most notably the rejection of its deal to acquire T-Mobile USA from Deutsche Telekom. DT's ownership of T-Mobile is an interesting parallel to the SoftBank deal: it relies on loopholes in Section 310 of the Communications Act of 1934 — which generally prohibits foreign entities from owning US spectrum — to establish a domestic holding company capable of holding the licenses in DT's stead.
Thanks largely to their similar subscriber counts, Verizon and AT&T tend to take the same views on major wireless regulatory issues; Verizon hasn't yet commented on SoftBank's move, but it wouldn't be surprising to see the company take a similarly measured approach in the short term.