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Fixing Wireless Broadband: The Debt Sprint's Son Says He Owes America

Son, often reduced to "Japanese billionaire," used his first U.S. speech to paint himself as a once-poor Korean with a "debt in his heart" to America.

Masayoshi Son, the CEO of Softbank and now chairman of Sprint's board of directors, gave his first speech in the United States before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce March 11. Son is working on a deal to merge Sprint—of which Softbank owns a 78 percent share—with T-Mobile, while aware of how unpopular such a prospect is.

The Wall Street Journal reported Feb. 10 that both Son and Sprint CEO Dan Hesse were taken aback by the very public level of opposition to the deal, and had decided to take a few weeks to reconsider their strategy.

What they seem to have decided on was to put Son in the spotlight. That is a strategy that could have legs.

Son came across well on Charlie Rose, and as I wrote in a longer article on Son's March 11 speech, he did a great job of positioning his desires, talking not about T-Mobile—he never said the word once—but about the need for the United States to lead the world in mobile broadband speeds and accessibility, since this is the next world-changing technology.

"I love America," Son said at least three times, making the issue one of national importance and pride—instead of about the in-fighting between a few super-rich companies that most Americans view as necessary evils in their lives.

The speech was also successful in humanizing Son. As I also wrote in my article, Son was introduced by the former U.S. ambassador to Japan, who offered very flattering remarks about Son's personal generosity, doing much to humanize him.

That may be no small part of how Son's ambitions for Sprint play out. Since the carrier began its negotiations with Softbank, Son has been characterized in the media (eWEEK included) as a "Japanese billionaire," a figure—a reduction—that it's difficult to feel compassion for.

Concluding his speech March 11 (which coincidentally or not was on the third anniversary of Japan's horrible earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters), Son offered a picture of himself as a far more sympathetic figure—a boy "born into the bottom of society," to Korean immigrant parents.

"Japan is homogenous country, all of the Japanese people are one race. It's difficult, as you can imagine," Son said.

"I once even considered committing suicide when I was a kid, when I was a student, because I'm different from the rest of my classmates," he continued. "I pretend I was Japanese. I was using Japanese family name, not Korean family name. It was a tough life. I say, 'Oh, my God, even if I get education, get graduated from number-one college in Japan, what kind of job can I get, as soon as I give them my resume with my real family name, which I cannot forge?' I though all my life was horrible. My future is in darkness."

His father soon became ill ("threw up blood, and very sick in hospital"), and his 17-year-old brother quit high school to support the family. After three months of high school, Son also decided to quit. Somehow, he found an opportunity to study in the United States, which he said he thought would offer a long-term solution following his brother's short-term one.

Son continued:

"I studied so hard. I studied so hard. But my eyes got wide open. In this country there are so many … different people, but they're treated very fairly, very equally. I saw a sky so blue—sky's the limit. So I got my American dream saying, 'Okay, some day I graduate from the college here in the States, and some day I will become a meaningful person using my Korean name, not hiding anymore, using my original Korean name so that the other kids who suffered psychologically don't have to commit suicide.' Those people can have a small light, a small hope in their lives.

"… Now is the time that I would like to pay back. … I am so thankful for the education that I got in the States. The American dream, the entrepreneurship, the passion—all of those things. The hope that I got. I'd like to pay back. It is a debt in my heart that I have to pay back."