Can AT&T Really Close the Deal for Leap Wireless?

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Last Friday’s announcement that AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) would acquire Leap Wireless International Inc. (NASDAQ: LEAP) for a total of $1.2 billion in cash ($15 a share) is not a done deal yet, and it may never get done. The offer has put into play 23 MHz of wireless spectrum that is underutilized by Leap and that AT&T is getting for a song.

There is no doubt that consolidation among wireless carriers is the current trend in the industry. SoftBank’s acquisition of a controlling interest in Sprint Nextel Corp. (NYSE: S) and the recent tie-up between T-Mobile and MetroPCS to form T-Mobile US Inc. (NYSE: TMUS) are the most recent examples.

Leap’s spectrum holdings cover areas where 137 million people live, yet the company only offers service to less than one-third of these people. And while AT&T says it will retain Leap’s Cricket brand, that is pointless and in a few years that promise will be forgotten.

When AT&T tried to acquire T-Mobile in 2011 from Deutsche Telekom for $39 billion, the U.S. Justice Department stepped in with an antitrust complaint that eventually killed the merger. The 23 MHz of spectrum involved in the AT&T-Leap deal is not quite half the spectrum that T-Mobile owned at the time of Ma Bell’s offer.

Still, the U.S. Department of Justice may want to put an end to the continuing land rush for spectrum by AT&T and rival Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ). Allowing the two largest wireless carriers to hoard spectrum is not in the public interest, no matter what the two giants say.

And then there’s the price AT&T is paying for Leap. Even including Leap’s $2.8 billion debt, AT&T gets half the spectrum quantity for about a tenth the price. It is more than a bargain, it’s a steal.

The most likely contender for Leap is Dish Network Corp. (NASDAQ: DISH), which lost out in a recent effort to acquire Sprint or Clearwire Corp. (NASDAQ: CLWR). Others may surface, and Leap’s premarket share price this morning indicates that there are plenty of investors who believe more offers are out there.

Leap’s shares are up 110% in premarket trading, at $17.30, well above the top of the stock’s 52-week range of $4.28 to $8.16.

AT&T’s shares are inactive at $35.81, in a 52-week range of $32.71 to $39.00.