July 14, 2017 / 11:42 PM / 2 years ago

Exclusive: Crown Castle in bid to buy Lightower Fiber Networks - sources

(Reuters) - U.S. telecommunications tower operator Crown Castle International Corp (CCI.N) made an offer this week to acquire Lightower Fiber Networks for more than $7 billion, including debt, according to people familiar with the matter.

The deal would mark Crown Castle’s biggest acquisition to date, giving it ownership of a broadband infrastructure provider with significant fiber assets, which would allow it to further diversify away from its traditional tower business.

Private equity firm Berkshire Partners LLC, the majority owner of Lightower, will spend the next few days analyzing Crown Castle’s bid before agreeing to a sale, the sources said on Friday. A deal could come as early as this month, the sources added.

Lightower attracted interest from other telecommunications infrastructure companies, including Uniti Group Inc (UNIT.O), which do not have Crown Castle’s deep pockets, the sources added.

Crown Castle, which is organized as a real estate investment trust, has a market capitalization of $37 billion, while Uniti’s market capitalization is $4.5 billion.

The sources asked not to be identified because the negotiations are confidential.

Berkshire Partners declined to comment, while Lightower, Crown Castle and Uniti did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A sale of Lightower would be the latest example of consolidation in the telecommunications infrastructure sector, as companies seek scale to cope with heavier mobile phone and internet traffic. CenturyLink Inc (CTL.N) agreed to buy Level 3 Communications LVLT.N for $34 billion last year, including debt, adding 200,000 miles of fiber to its network.

Based in Houston, Crown Castle’s portfolio includes 40,000 towers and 29,000 miles of fiber-supporting small-cell towers.

Small-cell towers are increasingly in demand by wireless carriers, as they try to boost coverage and increase capacity, especially in urban areas.

Crown Castle has embarked on an acquisition spree for fiber assets, buying Wilcon Holdings LLC for $600 million last month. It bought FPL FiberNet Holdings LLC in January from Nextera Energy Inc (NEE.N) for $1.5 billion.

Formed by Berkshire Partners, Lightower’s network spans 3,000 fiber route miles and serves the financial services industry, as well as government clients over its network in the Northeastern United States.

Berkshire Partners led an acquisition and merger of Lightower and another enterprise telecommunications service provider, Sidera Networks, in 2013, in a deal valued at more than $2 billion. Pamlico Capital, an investor in Lightower, and ABRY Partners LLC, an investor in Sidera, took minority stakes in the combined companies.

Reporting by Liana B. Baker and Carl O'Donnell; Editing by Leslie Adler

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