The Sprint logo outside one of the company's stores in Atlanta. (Erik S. Lesser / EPA )
Japanese telecom giant SoftBank Corp. got shareholder approval for its mammoth takeover of Sprint Nextel Corp., giving America's No. 3 wireless carrier ammunition to take on industry leaders Verizon Wireless and AT&T.
The $21.6-billion deal for a majority stake in Sprint is expected to enable the company to speed up the rollout of its high-speed 4G LTE service in new markets around the country. That should help it attract new customers, analysts said.
"This is exactly what Sprint needs," said Jeff Kagan, a technology industry analyst. "Sprint is far behind AT&T and Verizon, and we knew something had to happen. This is going to allow SoftBank to invest and allow Sprint to more rapidly catch up."
During a special meeting Tuesday, Sprint shareholders overwhelmingly approved the SoftBank deal, ending a lengthy fight over the Overland Park, Kan., wireless carrier with Dish Network Corp.
About 98% of the votes cast during the meeting were in favor of the deal, Sprint said. SoftBank will own about 78% of the company.
"The transaction with SoftBank should enhance Sprint's long-term value and competitive position by creating a company with greater financial flexibility," Sprint Chief Executive Dan Hesse said in a statement.
Shares of Sprint rose 2 cents to $6.88 on Tuesday. The stock has risen 21.3% this year.
Roger Entner, a telecom analyst and founder of Recon Analytics, said the deal was a big win for Sprint, which has had trouble growing its business without deep pockets.
"It didn't give them a lot of strategic options of what they could pursue," Entner said. "Sprint has a lot of good plans, but it always needed other people's money to do them, and now they have other people's money. The SoftBank acquisition is heaven-sent."
SoftBank, meanwhile, sees the deal as a good investment and a way to have a significant presence in the U.S. market, which "comes with a lot of bragging rights," Entner said.
Although customers shouldn't expect any significant changes in pricing or wireless plans in the near future, Tokyo-based SoftBank is said to have ambitious plans for Sprint. Already a telecommunications giant in Japan, the company has expressed interest in shaking up the U.S. cellphone market.
"SoftBank wants to come and change the economic model of the industry. What that means, we'll have to wait and see, but it's interesting how the industry could change dramatically over the new few years," Kagan said. "Sprint going forward will hopefully be a very different company from the Sprint we've grown to know."
It's been a months-long takeover process for SoftBank, which last fall made a $20.1-billion bid for 70% of Sprint.
Then in April, Dish made an unsolicited $25.5-billion bid for Sprint in an attempt to marry one of the nation's biggest pay-TV providers with the third-largest U.S. wireless carrier. A merger would have given Dish the ability to package Internet and phone service with its satellite offerings.
Faced with the rival offer, SoftBank this month sweetened its bid by $1.5 billion. The amended offer increased the amount of cash that Sprint shareholders would receive by $4.5 billion.
After receiving the new SoftBank offer, Sprint said a special committee and its board of directors had determined that Dish was unlikely to top the amended bid and recommended that stockholders vote for the SoftBank transaction.
Under the terms of the deal, Sprint shareholders will have the option to receive $7.65 in cash per share or one share of Sprint's new common stock for each share of Sprint common stock they already own.
The total cash available to Sprint stockholders is $16.64 billion.
The Sprint-SoftBank transaction still needs to be approved by the Federal Communications Commission. The companies said they expected the deal to be completed early next month.
Meanwhile, in a separate messy fight that also involves Dish, Sprint is in the process of acquiring the roughly 50% of Clearwire Corp. that it does not currently own.
Sprint and Dish had jostled over the wireless network operator for months, leading Sprint to file a complaint in a Delaware court last week seeking to prevent a Dish-Clearwire deal from being completed.
Sprint also increased its bid for Clearwire to $5 a share and received commitments from a group of prominent Clearwire stockholders to vote in favor of the deal.
Sprint's latest bid valued Clearwire at about $14 billion and represented a 47% premium over its previous offer of $3.40 a share announced in May and a 14% premium over Dish's offer of $4.40 a share.