Now that AT&T is buying T-Mobile for $39 billion, something is probably going to have to happen with Sprint, the no. 3 carrier that has had a pretty rough time since closing its merger with Nextel half a decade ago.If Sprint has a tough time competing today, imagine how it’s going to be when its biggest competitor grows one-third bigger. At the end of 2010, AT&T had 96 million wireless subscribers and T-Mobile had 34 million, for a combined total of roughly 130 million. Verizon had 94 million. Sprint Nextel, meanwhile, finished the year with 50 million.
So what can Sprint do?
In the short term, it’s going to raise a stink about how the merger is bad news for the wireless industry. (Though AT&T has already put on a lengthy show about why the deal is actually good news for consumers and, obviously, for AT&T itself.)
In the medium to long term, Sprint is probably going to have to be involved in consolidation. It can either be the buyer — as it was considering with T-Mobile before AT&T won that deal, and can now look at U.S. Cellular, MetroPCS, and/or Leap Wireless — or it can be rolled up. These days, it’s looking more like Sprint is going to be absorbed.
So who might be the buyer?
Verizon Wireless is the most likely buyer, just because it’s already in the same business as Sprint.
Combining Verizon and Sprint would make it the biggest U.S. wireless carrier, with 144 million subscribers as of the end of 2010. Verizon and Sprint both use the same 3G network technology — CDMA — so that would be a relatively easy combination, as opposed to either of them trying to combine with GSM-based T-Mobile. They currently have different 4G networks — Sprint’s through its stake in Clearwire — and Sprint has that whole Nextel walkie-talkie network to deal with. But those problems could be figured out. (Maybe a crazy sign-and-trade deal with Motorola for the Nextel/iDEN network?)
This, like the AT&T-Mobile deal, would face extreme regulatory scrutiny. But it’s one reason for Verizon to let the T-Mobile deal pass without creating a stink.
Comcast has supposedly been eyeing Sprint for years, and now that the NBC deal is done, might be able to pounce.
Comcast is the biggest cable provider in the U.S., and theoretically, would want to offer some sort of wireless service in the future. This could be useful for data “roaming” away from your home cable modem, watching TV on the go, combining your mobile and home phones, etc. It would also give Comcast, which only serves cable in some areas, a national footprint.
But so far, Comcast boss Brian Roberts hasn’t really cared that much about wireless. Early integration attempts with Sprint — “Pivot” — failed. Comcast has invested in Clearwire alongside Sprint, Time Warner Cable, and others. But that’s about it.
Roberts could make a big splash here, or he could ignore the opportunity, focusing instead on integrating NBC. We’ll see.
Google buying Sprint would be a stretch, but anything’s possible.
Google’s best interest in the wireless industry is to remain a neutral partner, hoping that as many carriers in the world promote Android phones (and Google search/ads) as possible.
But don’t you think the geniuses at Google are a little fed up with how the carriers have taken Android, filled it up with crapware, and haven’t done anything innovative with it? The main reason carriers even care at all about Android now is that it’s a decent competitor to the iPhone, which most of them can’t sell yet.
How about some drastically creative services and pricing? How about something radically new that will change the way we communicate?
By having control over the software layer and the network layer, Google might be able to create that. And that could really show AT&T and Verizon — which both suck at software — some real competition. This could be a really cool deal for consumers.
But this would be an uncharacteristically big bet for Google, and it would involve a lot of things that Google isn’t good at, like retail and customer service.
Perhaps it’s better off just investing in wireless companies like Clearwire, making phone software as good as it can, and hoping for more deals like the one it announced with Sprint today, to integrate Google Voice service into the network’s offerings.
Either way, Sprint is probably now in play. Other potential suitors could include private equity, maybe Cisco, or maybe even an international player.