NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- After antitrust regulators blocked its $39 billion merger with AT&T (T) in 2011, T-Mobile has continued to pin its hopes on a strategic acquirer instead of committing to Apple (AAPL) iPhone-fueled growth.
T-Mobile's dilemma exists in a carrier landscape where some like AT&T and Verizon (VZ) see glimmers of Apple-based profit margin growth, and second tier players like Sprint (S), Leap Wireless (LEAP) and MetroPCS (PCS) continue to struggle to profit from the smartphone boom.
In fact, T-Mobile would not be wrong to decide that its best bet at finding a strategic partner hinges on remaining free of Apple and the money it would have to pay to carry iPhones, like the much hyped iPhone 5, due in the fall, according to industry analysts.
The problem -- as Sprint, Leap and MetroPCS have recently found -- is that the iPhone has been an earnings-drain. Even if offering heavily subsidized phones or unlimited smartphone data plans are among the few ways to grow subscribers, industry giants AT&T and Verizon continue to take share as the rest of the pack scurries for a growth proposition.How much of an earnings drain could the iPhone be for T-Mobile? Guggenheim Securities analyst Shing Yin estimates that T-Mobile's earnings could fall by 20%, and that earnings drain could hinder attempts to court a strategic acquirer. If so, the rationale would run counter to Sprint and Leap Wireless, who recently decided to carry the smartphone and are often mentioned as properties that will factor in any telecom industry consolidation. In second quarter earnings released on August 6, Leap Wireless reported nearly 300,000 subscriber losses and a net loss, causing shares to tumble nearly 20%. Still, the company's CFO Jerry Elliott noted that Leap could look at selling its spectrum assets or the company outright, as it struggles under a $3 billion-plus debt burden. Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported on Friday that both Sprint and T-Mobile are the subject of so-far unsuccessful private equity buyout efforts. T-Mobile's decision to put the iPhone on hold as its parent Deutsche Telekom looks for suitors could be a positive for recovering industry third Sprint. Without T-Mobile competition, Sprint will remain the sole "value" carrier to offer postpaid iPhone plans, notes Yin. This leads the analyst to conclude that a potential partnership between T-Mobile and Sprint might make the most sense, as Overland, Kansas-based Sprint has billions in iPhones left to sell, which it could market to T-Mobile customers.
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