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T-Mobile USA in $2.4 billion tower deal with Crown Castle

By Sinead Carew

NEW YORK (Reuters) - T-Mobile USA is selling the rights to operate 7,200 of its wireless broadcast towers for $2.4 billion to Crown Castle International Corp to help fund a network upgrade and reduce debt at its parent Deutsche Telekom.

Crown Castle has the option to pay another $2.4 billion to buy the towers outright from T-Mobile USA at the end of the lease term for each tower - between 2025 and 2048 - under the deal announced on Friday.

Analysts said it was a good deal for T-Mobile USA, which is spending $4 billion on a network upgrade. They noted that the company has also been looking to become more financially independent from its parent, which had tried to exit the U.S. market the year before.

However, several analysts said that Crown Castle had over-paid, likely because another bidder had pushed up the price.

Evercore Partners analyst Jonathan Schildkraut said the company paid about $400 million more than he would have liked.

"As people start to pull apart the numbers, it doesn't look that great," Schildkraut said, but he added that Crown Castle "needed to do it for growth."

Deutsche Telekom said the deal would reduce its debt by about $2.4 billion or roughly 1.9 billion euros.

T-Mobile USA, the No. 4 U.S. mobile provider, has been struggling to stem customer losses as it has a tough time competing with bigger and smaller rivals.

It had been trying to raise money from a tower sale since its proposed purchase by AT&T Inc failed late last year because of regulatory opposition. It had also looked into selling the towers in early 2011 before it started the AT&T process.

The deal is expected to close in the fourth quarter, according to the companies.

ROOM TO GROW

Crown Castle said it expects the towers to generate about $125 million to $130 million in adjusted funds from operations before financing costs in 2013.

JPMorgan analyst Phil Cusick said that while the price tag was at the high end of his expectations, it was mitigated by Crown Castle's strong growth outlook for the assets.

Crown Castle said the towers will have enough space to accommodate at least one additional wireless service provider customer on each tower, which would increase the leasing revenue it would receive without significant incremental capital.

As part of the deal, T-Mobile USA committed to maintaining its facilities on the towers for at least 10 years with annual rent increase provisions tied to the consumer price index. T-Mobile USA's rent includes the rights to complete its network upgrade on these sites.

"The deal is well structured to account for the inherent risks of purchasing a tower portfolio highly weighted to one carrier," Piper Jaffray analyst Christopher Larsen said.

Deutsche Telekom said the company had multiple bidders for the assets, but declined to name them.

Analysts have said other companies that considered the towers included American Tower Corp and SBA Communications Corp.

Crown Castle shares fell 23 cents to $64.68 on the New York Stock Exchange after the news, while Deutsche Telekom shares closed down 1.6 percent in Frankfurt.

(Reporting By Sinead Carew; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Jan Paschal)

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