T-Mobile to buy US Cellular's wireless ops, plus slice of spectrum for $4.4B

You keep the towers, we'll bag the customer list, says T-Mo

T-Mobile US says it will buy US Cellular's wireless business and 30 percent of its spectrum assets for $4.4 billion.

The deal means the so-called un-carrier telecoms company will take possession of US Cellular stores and will handle US Cellular customers' phone plans from now on. US Cellular customers will apparently not see too much of an impact financially (yet), as they can continue with their current plans or swap to an unlimited T-Mob plan without charge.

T-Mobile US naturally says switching is the right move since it could come with some extra savings and will grant access to free international roaming.

However, the acquisition does not include US Cellular in its entirety, which might seem strange at first considering the company is mostly known for its phones and phone plans. The company has hardware assets, and the deal will leave US Cellular with its phone towers, 2,015 of which will now host T-Mobile users through a new long-term agreement. US Cellular also says that T-Mobile extended its lease at 600 towers that it was already using.

T-Mobile also acquired about 30 percent of US Cellular's spectrum band assets, which it says will increase its coverage in rural areas, which can have especially poor and uneven reception.

The transaction will be settled with both hard cash as well as transferring up to $2 billion of US Cellular debt to T-Mobile. The expected cost to integrate US Cellular customers into the T-Mobile network is between $2.2 billion and $2.6 billion, against the $1 billion annual revenue the deal is supposed to generate for T-Mobile. That means the total cost to make the acquisition happen is up to $7 billion, which would take as many years to make itself pay off per T-Mobile's projections.

Meanwhile, US Cellular will be left a much smaller company, but since its phone plans were focused on value, it might not be losing too much in the end and now only needs to look after its phone towers.

Both firms say the deal is a win for consumers and brings more competition against AT&T and Verizon, the top two cell networks in the US. While the actual number of choices has been brought down by one, T-Mobile and US Cellular argue that consolidating phone plans under the former and tower operations under the latter will mean "customers from both companies will get more coverage and more capacity."

The transaction is expected to close in the middle of 2025, assuming regulators approve the deal, which won't always be a guarantee for T-Mobile. Its 2020 acquisition of Sprint was somewhat troubled by regulatory inquiry from both the federal government and California. Since then, T-Mobile has purchased Mint Mobile, and while that deal went through fine, snapping up yet another budget phone business might raise some eyebrows.

In this case, however, T-Mobile isn't buying all of US Cellular, and that might make the difference. ®

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