As consolidation winnows the cell-phone business, a big-name outsider is hoping to make some hay.

Looking to capitalize on its ties to big companies,


(T) - Get Report

is planning a new wireless approach. The giant telco expects to outline its plans early next year, perhaps at its February analyst meeting.

Though the company has already hinted at its approach and pieced together a few of the parts, AT&T executives haven't fully articulated their plan for selling wireless service to business customers. Notably, though, the company will have to do so without actually owning a wireless network.

AT&T is planning to buy wholesale wireless minutes from rival wireless carriers and then resell them under its own name to business customers. AT&T is already the leading provider of wireline phone service for businesses, and the Basking Ridge, N.J., company is hoping it can use that status to get in on the rapid growth of the U.S. cell-phone industry.

The strategy, known as mobile virtual network operator, or MVNO, is pretty rare among corporate customers. But AT&T has already laid the groundwork for just such a service. In May, AT&T struck a nonexclusive five-year deal to resell



wireless service.

Of course, AT&T's plans come as the wireless industry is sorting itself out at a ferocious clip. Sprint and



are poised for a $30 billion union that will narrow the U.S. wireless field to just four big service providers. The deal would be the second wireless megamerger this year, following the $41 billion linkup of industry leader


and also-ran

AT&T Wireless


AT&T's planned re-entry could help remake the wireless market for big businesses. Not only would AT&T give business users another carrier to chose from, but it also gives corporate customers the ability to dramatically alter their buying patterns. For example, most office workers pick their own cell-phone service contracts, buy their own phones and then submit the bill with their monthly expenses.

AT&T's idea is to get companies to consider wireless as one more communications service that may be better managed through a sort of central administrator -- the same way data and conventional phone service are handled. And of course AT&T would like to solidify its role as the key communications manager for corporations.

This one-company, one-bill approach isn't exactly new. In fact, Sprint has been one of the biggest proponents of the one-stop business services shop. But few companies offer all the services and the scale necessary to pull it off.

"We see this as an opportunity that has not been addressed yet," said an AT&T representative.

While the appeal of seeing wireless added to the service bundle may not be great among small and midsize companies, analysts say the real demand is among large organizations.

"This is a big deal if you are a big spender," says Forrester analyst Lisa Pierce. "Reducing administrative costs is important, and the ability to buy more stuff from one provider also gives you greater aggregate discounts," says Pierce, who works with all the large phone companies.

To date,


(VZ) - Get Report

has yet to wrap its Verizon Wireless services into a combined business service offering. But both BellSouth and SBC have plans to bundle services from the wireless joint venture Cingular into a business offering, according to analysts.

The MVNO route gives AT&T a couple of advantages. For one, wireless service tends to be spotty, so by using multiple carriers AT&T could conceivably offer customers service from the telco with the best network coverage in a given area.

AT&T also has a strong brand, though its name was somewhat tarnished over the past year on the wireless side.

In 2000, AT&T spun off a portion of AT&T Wireless to shareholders. In 2001, it distributed the remaining shares to shareholders, making the wireless outfit an independent business with no formal ties to AT&T. In October, after AT&T Wireless sputtered and misfired on the customer service front, Cingular bought out the company to become the nation's largest wireless telco.

After the Cingular deal was announced, AT&T negotiated to reclaim the AT&T wireless name. If it chooses, AT&T can start selling wireless services under the AT&T Wireless brand as early as April.

For Sprint, wireless wholesale was a good opportunity to bring in more sales without a lot of effort. Wholesale revenue from resellers like

Virgin Mobile




represent about a quarter of all wireless sales. And the MVNO deal with AT&T makes sense from a network-capacity sense: Business-hour calling traffic fills a gap left by Sprint's largely consumer-oriented traffic, the bulk of which tends to fall outside business hours.

Now that Sprint appears to be closing in on a merger with Nextel, though, AT&T's presence could be a nuisance. Sprint and AT&T will likely be trying to sell the same bundle of services to the same group of customers.

The AT&T rep declined to speculate on Sprint-Nextel merger implications, but added that the company was happy with its MVNO arrangement with Sprint.

"CIOs want to buy wireless from their big vendors," says Marty Hyman an independent telecom strategist. The net effect, says Hyman, will be to bring down costs and possibly create a "wireless price war."