AT&T to acquire prepaid mobile carrier Leap Wireless

The company's Cricket service has 5 million subscribers

AT&T plans to acquire Leap Wireless, operator of the Cricket prepaid mobile service, in what would be the latest consolidation of the U.S. mobile industry.

AT&T announced late Friday it has agreed to acquire Leap for US$15 per share, nearly double the company's closing stock price Friday. Multiplied by Leap's 79 million shares, that comes out to approximately US$1.185 billion. AT&T would also assume Leap's $2.8 billion of net debt. The deal needs to be approved by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and Department of Justice, among other conditions, and AT&T expects it to close in six to nine months.

Leap was widely expected to be the next domino to fall after SoftBank bought No. 3 carrier Sprint for $21.6 billion, a deal that also allowed Sprint to absorb Clearwire. Earlier this year, No. 4 T-Mobile US acquired MetroPCS, another regional budget carrier.

Leap has about 5 million subscribers, a relatively small addition to AT&T's stated 107.3 million wireless customers. But the acquisition will also give AT&T more spectrum licenses, a key asset to have as operators look toward growing demand for mobile capacity over the coming years. Leap holds licenses covering 137 million U.S. residents, and these are largely complementary to AT&T's own spectrum, the companies said. AT&T said Leap has unutilized spectrum covering 41 million people, which AT&T will immediately use to further its LTE deployment.

Both carriers operate 4G LTE networks, and they said Leap subscribers will get access to AT&T's LTE network, though with no details on when that might take place. Leap uses CDMA for its 3G network, different from AT&T's GSM-based system, and AT&T plans eventually to replace the CDMA system.

AT&T said it would keep the Cricket brand and offer a better mobile Internet experience to consumers seeking low-cost prepaid plans.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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