It's nothing more than a symphony of speculation right now. But observers agree that the high note in 2004's wireless consolidation drama could be the hookup of British titan
with the No. 4 player in the U.S., the
Obviously there are a number of obstacles in the way of such a deal, first and foremost Vodafone's role in its lucrative U.S. wireless partnership with
. Even so, analysts emphasize that a Vodafone-T-Mobile 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, the No. 2 U.S. cell-phone service provider.
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
in 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."
Analysts and industry consultants say nearly every player has explored, on some level, the merger-and-acquisition route. And though Vodafone says it is happily ensconced in Verizon Wireless, that didn't stop the wireless giant from making an 11th-hour bid for
back in February, before
cinched the deal.
Just as speculation about Sprint's merger with Nextel includes a list of various conflicts and synergies, the prospective pairing of T-Mobile and Vodafone has its own roster of benefits and challenges.
Vodafone holds a 45% stake in Verizon Wireless, with Verizon controlling the remainder. 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."