So who’s the company that might steal T-Mobile away from Sprint? It’s called Iliad and its pursuit of the U.S.’s fourth-largest wireless operator might prove just as epic as Homer’s classic.
From boasting a CEO who used to run a sex-chat service to shaking up the Gallic mobile market the way T-Mobile’s has gone big and bold in America, Iliad is a name you should know.
That’s because, on Thursday, news broke that France-based Iliad has made a $15 billion cash bid for 57 percent control of Deutsche Telekom-owned T-Mobile. That’s significant because SoftBank-owned Sprint is expected to try to buy T-Mobile for $32 billion – and face intense regulatory scrutiny. And the news is significant because it seems there’s a good chance Iliad could get its way.
But first things first. Who is Iliad? It’s a landline and wireless provider that is giving the incumbents in France a run for their money, just as T-Mobile is doing to Verizon and AT&T, and even Sprint, its potential new owner.
Iliad goes by the consumer name “Free" (or, should we say, “Libre?") and is France’s fourth-largest mobile carrier – just as T-Mobile is the fourth-largest in the United States. It also offers some impressive deals. For example, its €20 plan, which equals about $27, provides unlimited calling, texting and 20GB of data. T-Mobile charges about $80 for a similar setup.
Iliad is led by Xavier Niel, who’s described as a self-made billionaire, largely thanks to his start with a sex-chat service on Minitel. Minitel was a precursor to the World Wide Web in France and offered everything from online banking and travel reservations to porn; it finally bit the dust in 2012.
Over the years, Niel made a name for himself – in addition to Minitel, of course – by pioneering triple-play packages. (Bloomberg Businessweek also recalls Niel’s jail time – he was arrested when a chain of sex shops in which he had invested was investigated for prostitution. Niel was not charged and, as Businessweek noted, later joked that being behind bars let him catch up on sleep.) Niel now is in charge of a company known for disrupting its peers and he wants to add T-Mobile to that activity.