Suddenly,

WorldCom

(WCOM)

can live without a wireless network of its own. Or at least that's what it's telling Wall Street as prospects for the

Sprint

(FON)

merger recede.

Putting its spin on the apparent demise of the $115 billion deal, WorldCom now claims that it may be better off without Sprint, analysts and money managers say. Marking an abrupt turnaround from its longtime stance, WorldCom now insists that owning a wireless network isn't the only way to sell wireless service, and that reselling other companies' services under the WorldCom name is, for the moment, a viable option.

But Wall Streeters don't buy the seeming transformation, pointing out that WorldCom has long said any telecom company with global ambitions needs to be a player in wireless. They suggest that in addition to saving face by putting a positive spin on the merger's widely expected dissolution, WorldCom is trying to deflect investors' attention from its true intent to buy a domestic wireless player, thus keeping those shares from being bid higher. Thursday saw WorldCom shares continue their recent slump, as they slipped 1 5/16, or 3.3%, to 39.

Missing Piece

WorldCom has made it quite clear, in word and deed, that it saw wireless as the missing piece of its telecommunications empire. The on-again, off-again talks with

Nextel

(NXTL)

last spring, and subsequently the dilutive, unpopular Sprint deal, showed that WorldCom was fixated on acquiring a wireless property.

But that fixation hasn't paid off for shareholders: Since the flirtation with Nextel in June 1999, WorldCom has seen its shares slump some 40%, while Nextel shares have nearly tripled. So now, in the wake of what appears to be a failed deal with Sprint, WorldCom's changing its tack.

"They say they need it, now they say they don't," says Brian Hayward, who runs

Invesco's Worldwide Communications

fund and holds a position in Sprint but none in WorldCom, referring to the company's changing view of the wireless world.

Rob Gensler,

T. Rowe Price's

telecommunications analyst, adds that "hearing the party line, the conclusion is that WorldCom is emotionally preparing Wall Street if the deal doesn't go through."

Indeed, WorldCom's position represents a return to a time long ago, before WorldCom was openly shopping for a wireless company. In effect, the new stance negates more than a year's worth of wireless merger logic. In fact, the company's new boast is that WorldCom is the nation's largest wireless reseller, with about 1.2 million customers.

Packaged Goods

That's not to say WorldCom couldn't go the repackaging route, for instance, as an alternative to setting up another big merger. Analysts including Gensler say WorldCom could indeed set up a huge contract with, say,

Verizon

, as the combined

Bell Atlantic

(BEL)

and

GTE

(GTE) - Get Report

will be known, or

Sprint PCS

(PCS)

. Under such a deal, WorldCom could repackage service under the WorldCom brand name, creating an instant plan B should the merger die.

"It's not perfect, but it's a respectable answer to the problem," says Gensler. And it's an answer that doesn't require another immediate acquisition. After all, speculation that WorldCom would go

back into the market for another wireless company paints WorldCom into a bit of a corner.

But will Wall Street buy it? Indications are that it won't. "They have egg on their face and they have to figure out a wireless strategy," says

Donaldson Lufkin & Jenrette

analyst Richard Klugman, who gives WorldCom his highest rating and has a buy on Sprint. "I'm not so sure I'd want to bet the ranch on a wireless resale strategy." DLJ has no banking ties to Sprint or WorldCom.

"The day this deal doesn't happen, what else are they going to say?" asks Klugman. "All you people are right, we are going to go out to buy Nextel or

VoiceStream

(VSTR)

-- please bid them up?"