Telecoms Fight for Global Dominance

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Telephony has always had an international character.

From the time I began covering the field in the early 1980s there was a race to seize international markets with undersea cables and satellites.

As the Internet expanded, both AT&T ( T) (then a long-distance company, now part of the former Southwestern Bell) and MCI (now part of Verizon Communications ( VZ)) owned the key core Internet Service Providers, or ISPs -- their digital lines defined the international Internet market.

All this has changed radically in the 21st century.

The old landline cash cow was tapped dry. Enterprises from IBM ( IBM) to Google ( GOOG), which could fill lines with corporate and branded Internet traffic, picked up unused dark fiber to dominate the international backbones. The cash cows became wireless, serving the thin Internet clients known as smartphones with firehoses of bandwidth.

But since these devices tend to move around, and the best customers are those whose phones move around the most, 2012 has also seen the industry make the first moves toward a grand global consolidation.

Where the last decade was a story of local oligopolies, this decade will be about efforts to build global oligopolies that might take on the Internet core companies, like Google, on an even basis.

It may have been U.S. regulators who set this off.

After AT&T's effort to take over Deutsche Telekom's ( DT) T-Mobile, America's fourth-largest carrier, for $39 billion, was rejected on anti-trust grounds, it became obvious that the only way to scale was geographically.

Thus the Germans turned around and bought America's number-five carrier, MetroPCS, as The Huffington Post reported in early October, even though the two companies used different technologies.

In retrospect, the T-Mobile move was the Fort Sumter in the new global telecom war.

Masayoshi Son, CEO of Softbank, who got into the mobile market through his 2007 takeover of Vodafone Japan, now that country's leading provider, as BGR notes, then launched his audacious $20 billion move to buy most of Sprint ( S), a deal for which Reuters reports he's borrowing $23 billion.

By adding Clearwire ( CLWR) to the mix -- Sprint owns a majority stake in Clearwire -- Son figures he has enough spectrum to compete head to head with Verizon Wireless, still 45%-owned by Vodafone ( VOD), and Verizon. Softbank won a similar market competition in Japan.

But more important than the spectrum for Son is the idea that he will have a bigger global footprint, with operations spanning two continents.

AT&T is now looking to buy carriers in Europe, Bloomberg reports, starting with the Dutch carrier KPN, which is part-owned by Carlos Slim, the world's richest man. Slim moved into Europe because of that continent's economic crisis, figuring assets would be cheap and could be re-sold at a profit.

Once a feeding frenzy like this begins, it's hard to stop. It's easy now to see Vodafone, which got Son into the business by selling its Japanese unit, being moved to combine with Verizon Wireless in a defensive move. The two companies are roughly the same size, but Verizon also owns a landline business that would likely be ditched, plus the old MCI long-distance and Internet core business, whose future would have to be evaluated. Figure Vodafone as the surviving entity.

Ideas like this would have sounded ridiculous even a year ago. But when the parts start moving, they tend to keep moving. The game for global telecommunications dominance is now afoot.

At the time of publication the author had positions in IBM and GOOG.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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