By Mayumi Negishi and Phred Dvorak
TOKYO — Just five months ago, SoftBank Group Corp. chief Masayoshi Son said it was “key” for him to keep U.S. mobile carrier Sprint Corp. in his empire and he would “really regret” it in 10 years if he ever lost control.
Now Son is ready to put that prediction to the test after Sprint reached a merger deal with T-Mobile US Inc. /zigman2/quotes/204659678/composite TMUS -0.41% that leaves T-Mobile parent Deutsche Telekom AG /zigman2/quotes/205973137/delayed DE:DTE -0.34% with majority voting control. If the merger were completed, it would accelerate the Japanese billionaire’s turn away from what was once his core business, selling mobile-phone service. He has focused more recently on internet investments in companies such as ride-hailing leader Uber Technologies Inc. and a $100 billion investment fund he started last year with backing from Saudi Arabia.
Son has long held that a merger between T-Mobile and Sprint, the No. 3 and No. 4 carriers in the U.S., was needed to compete with the two market leaders, Verizon Communications Inc. /zigman2/quotes/204980236/composite VZ -1.51% and AT&T Inc. /zigman2/quotes/203165245/composite T -1.34% . The year after he bought control of Sprint for $22 billion in 2013, the pair came close to announcing a deal, but they gave up in the face of opposition from Obama administration regulators worried about excessive concentration in the industry. Last year, Sprint and T-Mobile came close again. Then Son scotched a deal at the last second, saying Sprint was too important to SoftBank’s /zigman2/quotes/207303954/delayed JP:9984 -0.38% vision of a world where communication between machines, known as the Internet of Things or IoT, would drive new services.
What changed? One person close to Son said the pressure on Sprint to roll out next-generation technology needed to support IoT devices — called fifth-generation wireless — made him more amenable to relinquishing control over the debt-laden U.S. wireless carrier.
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