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Originally published October 3, 2012 at 7:14 PM | Page modified October 4, 2012 at 11:28 AM

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T-Mobile deal an economic boost for Puget Sound area

The merger with Dallas-based MetroPCS will speed T-Mobile's rollout of a high-speed 4G LTE network and strengthen the bargain section of the wireless market.

Seattle Times senior technology reporter

Puget Sound's elite

WHERE A combined T-Mobile MetroPCS would fit in among the Puget Sound area's largest companies (by 2011 sales):

Costco: $88.9 billion

Microsoft: $69.9 billion

Amazon.com: $48.1 billion

T-Mobile USA: $24.8 billion

Paccar: $16.4 billion

Starbucks: $11.7 billion

Nordstrom: $10.9 billion

Source: Seattle Times Top Northwest Companies of 2011

Top wireless carriers

RANKED by number of subscribers:

AT&T: 100.7 million

Verizon Wireless: 94.2 million

Sprint: 56.4 million

T-Mobile USA: 33.1 million

MetroPCS: 9.3 million

Source: Company websites

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T-Mobile USA finally found a dance partner.

The Bellevue wireless company confirmed Wednesday that it's merging with Dallas-based MetroPCS in a deal that will speed T-Mobile's rollout of a high-speed 4G LTE network and strengthen the bargain section of the wireless market.

It will take a few years to see whether the merged company's subscriber count overtakes Sprint and poses a major challenge to AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

T-Mobile customers won't be affected much, other than quicker access to a wider LTE network after the deal closes sometime next year. MetroPCS customers will be encouraged to migrate to T-Mobile's network by the end of 2015, which will enable the merged company to use the same underlying network technology.

But in the meantime a tremendous change will take place in the Puget Sound region, where there's suddenly another giant public company. The merged company, with combined sales of $24.8 billion, will be headquartered in Bellevue and be publicly traded.

To put that in perspective, the company would be more than twice the size of Starbucks or Nordstrom by sales. It would be the state's fourth- largest public company behind Costco, Microsoft and Amazon.com.

"There's nothing about this deal that could possibly lead to us being other than a more prominent and significant employer and presence in the community," said T-Mobile Chief Executive John Legere, a telecom veteran who took the job last month. "Frankly, my desire is to raise the prominence of T-Mobile in Bellevue and Seattle. I think we're one of the best-kept secrets."

This won't replace the loss of Washington Mutual or Safeco, but it will help, especially since the deal solidifies the concentration of wireless employment in the region at a time when the industry's surging and — with LTE technology — building a new foundation for the technology industry.

The deal makes T-Mobile, a subsidiary of Germany's Deutsche Telekom (DT), a more autonomous, U.S.-based company traded on the New York Stock Exchange. That's a long-term enterprise and ends the uncertainty that hung over T-Mobile in recent years as DT shopped it around.

From this angle, the MetroPCS merger is a far better deal than last year's attempt to sell T-Mobile to AT&T, which would have shifted the corporate headquarters to Texas.

That's not to say there won't be some pain. T-Mobile is saying it expects to find $6 billion to $7 billion in cost savings through the merger with MetroPCS, which means there will be job cuts across the companies.

At the same time, the new T-Mobile believes it's positioned to grow and win a larger share of the U.S. wireless market, which would lead to continued expansion in Bellevue.

"This combination of T-Mobile USA and MetroPCS means we are here to compete," Deutsche Telekom Chief Executive Rene Obermann said on a conference call Wednesday morning. "We are here to unlock value and we are here to win. This deal has the potential to be a game changer."

Legere acknowledged there will be some job reductions, but the merger's cost savings will mostly be in lower network and capital expenses.

T-Mobile will be growing "very aggressively" over the next five years, he said, adding that "our philosophy is to retain as many people as we can and provide new career and growth opportunities."

Regulatory approval

The deal was announced Wednesday after it was approved by the boards of DT and MetroPCS. It still needs regulatory approval, but the companies believe it could be finalized in the first half of 2013. It's not likely to raise the same competition concerns as AT&T's attempt to acquire T-Mobile, which was scuttled after drawing antitrust scrutiny.

T-Mobile is the fourth-largest wireless carrier and MetroPCS is the fifth. Together they'll still trail third-place Sprint, but it's a much closer race.

The deal is structured as a recapitalization of MetroPCS, which is splitting its stock and paying its shareholders a one-time dividend of $1.5 billion, or about $4.09 per share. DT is getting 74 percent of MetroPCS common stock, rolling in $15 billion in debt and providing $500 million in revolving credit to the combined company. It's also providing a $5.5 billion backstop for previous deals made by MetroPCS.

Combined, the companies are expected to have 42.5 million subscribers this year and $6.3 billion of earnings before interest, taxes and depreciation. It's expecting to spend $4.2 billion on capital expenditures — mainly to build and extend its network — and have $2.1 billion in free cash flow.

Potential stock grants

T-Mobile's 36,000 employees, including 4,800 in the Puget Sound region, now may benefit from stock grants.

Legere said being public will enable the company to offer more competitive compensation programs to attract and retain employees. A plan for stock awards hasn't yet been formulated, but he favors the approach.

"We can use ownership in our company to motivate employees," he said in an interview.

Legere will lead the combined company, which will be called T-Mobile. J. Braxton Carter, vice chairman and chief financial officer of MetroPCS, will become CFO of T-Mobile.

T-Mobile and MetroPCS customers will be served separately, at least until MetroPCS customers are upgraded to T-Mobile's network by the end of 2015. Jim Alling, a Starbucks veteran and current chief operating officer of T-Mobile, will lead T-Mobile's customer unit while Thomas Keys, MetroPCS president, will lead MetroPCS's customer unit.

Bellevue headquarters

Although it will be headquartered in Bellevue, the combined company will "retain a significant presence" in Dallas, its release said.

In Wednesday's conference call, Legere said the merger will enhance T-Mobile's LTE development and provide particularly dense coverage in major metro areas such as New York and Los Angeles.

Addressing concerns about the different network technologies used by MetroPCS and T-Mobile, Legere said they will not attempt to mash the older, legacy networks together. Instead, they'll move MetroPCS customers using its older CDMA network onto T-Mobile's network as they renew and upgrade.

The networks' incompatibility would soon be moot anyway. Both companies were already shifting their networks and, eventually, customers to the same LTE technology that's becoming the new industry standard.

Legere said they expect "a rapid migration" to LTE "as part of the normal upgrade cycle."

Emphasis on value

As for its pricing strategy, the new T-Mobile plans to continue emphasizing value, with unlimited 4G plans. It also would be the largest provider of noncontract wireless phone services.

"We'll be able to deliver the best value across the board and that means in both contract and no-contract offerings," he said.

It's natural for this to happen here. The modern wireless industry was born in the area, with McCaw Cellular establishing the first national, roaming network in 1990. Two years later McCaw began selling the company to AT&T, beginning decades of megadeals involving the region's wireless companies.

That generated wealth and insight that led to the founding of Western Wireless in 1994. It spawned VoiceStream Wireless, which was sold to Deutsche Telekom in 2001.

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

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