It's been an interesting week in the wireless arena. First Verizon Wireless promised to tear down
some of its walled garden, then it announced plans to use LTE
as its next generation wireless technology... and now the news comes out that Sprint has turned down an offer of a $5 billion offer from SK Telecom and Providence Equity Partners
. There were some strings attached, including bringing back Tim Donahue to run Sprint. Donahue was the head of Nextel when Sprint and Nextel merged, but left soon after the merger was done. Personality-wise, people have often noted how Donahue was different than the folks at Sprint, so perhaps it's no surprise that Sprint isn't interested, even as the company is desperately seeking a CEO following the ouster
of Gary Forsee.
What's more interesting than the CEO job or the money, however, is the question of what SK Telecom is playing at here. The company has invested heavily in its US MVNO joint venture Helio, which was announced
nearly three years ago to great fanfare, but hasn't lived up to the hype (though, it has managed to survive where many MVNOs have collapsed
). SK Telecom, like Japan's NTT DoCoMo before it, keeps looking for investment opportunities outside their home countries, but never seem to be able to repeat the successes they've had back home. DoCoMo, you may recall, had a deal with AT&T Wireless that turned into something of a disaster for everyone, so having SK Telecom assisting Sprint is hardly a slam dunk, despite its success back in Korea. SK Telecom seemed to pitch part of the benefit of working with Sprint being its experience with WiMax in South Korea, but so far, that experience is anything but encouraging
. It's also worth wondering if such an investment would eventually lead to Sprint taking over Helio to consolidate SK Telecom's focus (alternatively, some might point out that since Helio uses Sprint's network, SK Telecom's investment offer could even be seen as a way to protect Helio's network).
What is clear is that Sprint needs some leadership and some direction, and it needs it quickly. With Verizon Wireless' LTE announcement, the race for next generation wireless technologies got a lot more interesting. While Sprint may have had a pretty big head start, the more it staggers around trying to find a CEO and a plan, the more it cedes to the other players who at least have the appearance of having a comprehensive strategy in place (the reality may not match the PR spin, of course). The SK Telecom deal may have provided both a leader and some direction, but clearly the company's current board didn't appear thrilled with either. Don't expect this to end here, though. There may be additional attempts by SKT, and it may cause others to wake up and pay attention as well. Sprint may end up with a leader and a strategy thrust upon it, whether it wants it or not.