10 years of consolidation in wireless: The rise of Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint

By Mike Dano

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The long, strange trip of consolidation in the wireless industry has produced four major, nationwide carriers--and very few other players of note. Today, Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile US and Sprint stand as the nation's Tier 1 wireless carriers, and combined they control roughly 90 percent of the U.S. wireless market.

But that has not always been the case.

During the past 10 years, these four carriers have consumed a wide range of smaller, regional carriers, including major players like Alltel, Leap Wireless, MetroPCS and others. Of course, this merger-and-acquisition activity isn't unique to wireless; virtually every other industry in the United States has evolved in a similar fashion.

Nonetheless, it's worth taking a look back at the past 10 years to see exactly how we have arrived at this point in time--a time when there are only two regional wireless carriers remaining that count more than 1 million subscribers (U.S. Cellular with 4.8 million customers and C Spire Wireless with around 1 million customers). Today's wireless industry looks much different than the one from 10 years ago, when Nextel, Alltel and others commanded significant positions in the wireless market.

So let's take a step back in time. Let's looks at a time when Bell Atlantic, GTE and Vodafone AirTouch had recently created Verizon Wireless. A time when Cingular Wireless hadn't yet become AT&T. A time when T-Mobile was still shedding the vestiges of its previous VoiceStream brand. A time when cell phones were carried by just one out of every two Americans, and smartphones hadn't yet hit the scene.

The below chart was created by Quexor Group for FierceWireless. It depicts the major wireless acquisitions and mergers consummated by today's four major wireless carriers during the past 10 years. It is not a comprehensive list of all of the purchases made by the nation's top wireless carriers, but instead covers only their major transactions and the amount, when available. It also does not cover acquisitions that did not come to pass, such as AT&T's failed acquisition of T-Mobile, and Sprint's failed attempt to merge with T-Mobile. It also only covers deals that are directly applicable to the wireless side of the telecommunications market. For details on the carriers' current subscriber totals, click here.

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10 years of consolidation in wireless: The rise of Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint