The Bells are rushing to swap their backwater businesses and offshore assets for some waterfront properties on the urban gold coast.

A sweeping industry makeover is under way as the big old-line telephone companies put slow-growth rural facilities and international ventures on the block. In turn, they plan to use the cash they raise in those sales to push further into fast-growing areas such as wireless and data services.

BellSouth ( BLS) is selling Latin American wireless units. Meanwhile, SBC ( SBC) and Verizon ( VZ) are looking for buyers to relieve them of about one million customer access lines out in the boonies, with additional rural systems targeted for sale.

The strategy seems sound. Dumping cash-cow rural assets, in particular, to focus on a growth-boosting strategy clearly makes sense, analysts say. But the big telcos have yet to nail down a nagging detail: Who's going to buy all this stuff?

"I've never seen this many lines on the market," says Legg Mason rural telco analyst Mike Balhoff. "There are 6.25 million lines for sale right now. Before this, the most I had seen was two million in 2001."

For now, the trade-in trend clearly runs in the Bells' favor. The average rural line fetches slightly more than $3,000, Balhoff estimates. And judging by the $41 billion price tag on Cingular's purchase of AT&T Wireless ( AWE), the average cell-phone subscriber is worth just less than $2,000 each. By crude math, a telco can effectively swap two rural customers for three wireless subscribers.

But the glut of rural lines on the market easily could weaken prices. If so, that's not going to be good news for outfits like Verizon, which has earmarked more than 10% of its 60 million lines for future sale, say analysts.

BellSouth is the latest local phone giant to join the cash-out parade to help finance its U.S. wireless ambitions. The Atlanta phone giant said Thursday it was taking bids on its Latin American wireless holdings to help pay its 40% share of Cingular's AT&T Wireless acquisition. (BellSouth and SBC jointly own Cingular, the nation's No. 2 cell-phone service provider.)

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