Suddenly, it seems every wireless shop is dialing for a deal.
Here's the scorecard:
is ready to announce a merger with
is reportedly interested in Sprint. There's even some talk that the partners behind Verizon Wireless,
, are considering going their separate ways.
It's not clear how the U.S. cell-phone industry will look after all the wheeling and dealing settles down. But it's looking like all the big players -- save leader
, which just got done with its $41 billion acquisition of AT&T Wireless -- could be involved in the latest round of consolidation.
In fact, the M&A bug has caught on to the point that some wireless fans are speculating that Vodafone could end up acquiring the No. 4 player in the U.S., the
Though this frenzy got started with the Nextel-Sprint talk, the central player seems to be Verizon Wireless. As Verizon and Vodafone ponder the industry's future, it's not clear that they will agree on a path for Verizon Wireless.
Vodafone has agreed to support a Verizon Wireless bid for Sprint, according to
The Wall Street Journal
. But a potential deal with Sprint could drive a wedge between the partners, whose interests in telecom industry evolution are starting to diverge.
New York telco Verizon could easily weave Sprint's local, wireless and business services into its operations. But Vodafone, one of the world's largest wireless telcos, has shown no interest in conventional land-line and business phone service anywhere. Moreover, Vodafone has shown it wants to build its global wireless brand wherever possible -- a goal that isn't necessarily furthered by being a partner in Verizon Wireless.
Observers have long discussed the prospect that the European wireless phone giant would choose to sell its stake in Verizon Wireless back to Verizon. Indeed, the
story Tuesday noted that Verizon in recent days has urged Vodafone to exit Verizon Wireless. Of course, Vodafone pursued an exit of its own last winter by considering a bid for AT&T Wireless, before those assets were eventually won by Cingular.
Even if Vodafone does choose to leave Verizon Wireless, there are a number of obstacles in the way of a T-Mobile linkup. But analysts emphasize that the arrangement could bring benefits for both companies.
"At the right price," says RHK analyst Brett Azuma, "I think you could see Vodafone and T-Mobile."
Vodafone and Verizon Wireless declined to comment. Vodafone CEO Arun Sarin recently told investors that his company was not interested in any U.S. transactions. T-Mobile wasn't available for immediate comment.
For T-Mobile, a merger would bring the strength of one of the world's largest wireless telcos, as well as a presumably more ambitious U.S. strategy. For Vodafone, buying T-Mobile would give it full control of a vibrant brand in the still-growing U.S. market. Vodafone has shown a desire to push its own brand, but the company has had little stateside visibility owing to its behind-the-scenes role in Verizon Wireless.
A Vodafone-T-Mobile deal would also offer technological advantages, since both companies prefer the global standard for mobile, or GSM, system. This would be huge for Vodafone's globetrotting customers and increase the telco's price and brand leverage over handset makers.
But both companies are otherwise involved. T-Mobile parent Deutsche Telekom has said that it is happy with its U.S. cell-phone and Wi-Fi service unit. And though Vodafone would probably prefer to run its own wireless business, it hasn't exactly been unhappy with the Verizon Wireless joint venture.
"T-Mobile would give Vodafone a true global brand and the same technology," says inCode strategist Rene Link. "But remember, they also enjoy a very lucrative cash-flow position from their partnership with Verizon."
Vodafone holds a 45% stake in Verizon Wireless, with Verizon controlling the rest of the No. 2 player. Both companies are looking to position themselves for the future, says ABI Research analyst Lance Wilson.
"There's not much friction between Verizon and Vodafone, but they have to continually examine the relationship to see if it makes sense," says Wilson.
Verizon has long said that the decision to end the partnership was Vodafone's to make. But meanwhile, Verizon has been reducing its $40 billion debt and trying to sell assets to gain some financial flexibility should Vodafone opt out, say analysts.
The prospect of a big trans-Atlantic split has been an
item of speculation for a few years.
If Vodafone wanted out, Verizon would have to settle a tab greater than $20 billion, say analysts. Verizon holds a stake in another Vodafone joint venture -- Italy's
. So observers say Verizon could use some combination of Omnitel stock and cash to buy out Vodafone.
It's hard to see how the Verizon Wireless joint venture "serves both interests," says Azuma. "It doesn't seem like a permanent arrangement."