It's Friday, time to turn the skeptical filter up a few degrees. Speculation among money managers has heated up regarding Qwest ( Q) and its effort to find a buyer for its massive coast-to-coast fiber optic network. Injected into the chatter was the notion that Sprint ( S) could be a possible deal partner. As The Wall Street Journal first reported this month, Qwest was exploring the possibility of selling its so-called long-haul unit to free itself of the heavy costs of running the network and to use the cash to pay down debts. TheStreet has learned that Qwest hired Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank to help put together a deal, according to people who have seen the bankers' proposal. Initially, it was thought that telco giants AT&T ( T) or Verizon ( VZ) would be interested, but AT&T hasn't pricked up its ears, and Verizon apparently suggested a very low price, according to one source. Just as an aside, people who have seen the books being shopped around by bankers are not inclined to speak in glowing terms about the opportunity. If anything, the lower the perceived value of the assets, the less a buyer would have to pay to snatch up the business. Anyway, tongues started wagging Friday when it appeared that Qwest and Sprint executives were not attending a Barclays Capital investors' conference May 27 and 28. Qwest, however, says CFO Joe Euteneuer is "tentatively scheduled" and that the plan is for him to speak at the show. Sprint says it has six shows on its schedule and that the Barclay's event was never one of them.
Executive no-shows, or in this case even a tentative status, can have a way of setting off fireworks of chatter on Wall Street, especially if a deal is on the block. But according to one former Wall Street conference moderator, it's not uncommon for there to be a lot of shuffling ahead of a conference as hosts try to nail down final commitments. Yet under all the smoke there remains a flicker of deal potential. Qwest is a regional phone powerhouse being dragged down by an expensive national network. And Sprint's wireless turnaround plan would certainly be made more nimble without the long-haul business, say telecom analysts and investors. The logic, presumably, would involve a combination of Qwest and Sprint's long distance networks in a separate venture. Qwest declined to comment on speculation around its long-haul assets. The Rocky Mountain telco reports earnings Wednesday and is likely to field questions about what options its seeing for its long-haul operations. Maybe Wednesday will bring clarity to the noise generated on Friday.