NEW YORK (AP) — Japanese cellphone company Softbank Corp. was in talks Thursday about taking a substantial ownership stake in struggling U.S. carrier Sprint Nextel Corp.
Sprint, the third-largest cellphone company in the U.S., said the deal could be big enough to involve a "change of control" of the company. It didn't provide any other details.
The news sent Sprint shares as high as $6.04, the highest level since 2008. Sprint shares rose 72 cents, or 14.3 percent, to close at $5.76 Thursday.
The Wall Street Journal, citing an unidentified person with knowledge of the talks, had reported earlier that the potential deal would help Softbank expand outside of Japan. It put the value of the transaction at more than $12.8 billion.
Sprint, which is based in Overland Park, Kan., is in a difficult competitive position. It has 56 million wireless subscribers, making it about half the size of market leader Verizon Wireless, and it keeps losing high-paying subscribers to Verizon and AT&T, the industry's No. 2 player.
Sprint has $21 billion in long-term debt, and has embarked on a costly network restructuring and signed a long-term contract to buy $15.5 billion worth of iPhones from Apple over four years. Investor concerns over Sprint's financial health have eased this year, however, and the stock has more than doubled since January.
The company had a market capitalization of $15 billion at Wednesday's close, implying that Softbank's reported $12.8 billion bid won't be enough to buy the entire company.
Analysts expressed surprise at news of the talks. The U.S. wireless industry is rife with speculation about mergers, as smaller players find themselves struggling to compete, but the injection of a possible foreign investor clouds the picture. Sprint has been in talks to buy various smaller rivals, but an acquisition or major investment by a Japanese company wouldn't do much to help its competitive position in the U.S.
"We would expect to see very little synergies created with such a transaction," said Stifel Nicolaus analyst Christopher King.
A takeover by Softbank would reward Sprint's shareholders and shore up its financials, however.