Wireless carrier M&A: What are the top 5 most likely operator hookups to happen next?

By Mike Dano

Regulators have finally approved Verizon Wireless' (NYSE:VZ) blockbuster $3.9 billion acquisition of AWS spectrum from a group of cable companies. Meantime, AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) has inked agreements to purchase most of the nation's WCS spectrum in a bid to use it for AT&T's LTE network buildout.

So now the question becomes: What's next?

The wireless industry is no stranger to major mergers and acquisitions. For every failed transaction (think AT&T's unsuccessful attempt to purchase T-Mobile USA) there are a number of deals that have been consummated. In fact, here are some notable deals that occurred over the past five or six years:

  • Sprint purchased Nextel, Northern PCS, iPCS and Virgin Mobile USA;
  • Verizon purchase Rural Cellular Corp. and Alltel;
  • T-Mobile USA purchased SunCom Wireless;
  • and AT&T purchased Centennial Communications, Wayport and 700 MHz spectrum from Qualcomm.

And these are only the major transactions. Wireless carriers have also been busy buying up smaller players and spectrum licenses. For example, AT&T Mobility in recent months has purchased 700 MHz spectrum licenses from the likes of Cox Communications, Peoples Telephone Cooperative, 700 MHz L.L.C., and others.

But the impetus for mergers and acquisitions in wireless is more powerful today than at any other time. According to Strategy Analytics, the U.S. mobile penetration rate will hit 111 percent by the end of 2012 (due to some people owning more than one phone). The firm said the "unique user penetration," or the percentage of people owning at least one cell phone, will reach almost 80 percent by year-end.

"It would probably be a better time to do it [a merger or acquisition] now than any other time you can think of in the recent past," acknowledged MetroPCS (NYSE:PCS) COO Tom Keys in a recent interview with FierceWireless

"We are going to see some deal activity in the next six months," agreed Mark Lowenstein, managing director of Mobile Ecosystem and a FierceWireless contributor.

For those in the industry, guessing which operator mash up is the most likely to happen next remains a popular trade show parlor game. Will AT&T purchase Leap Wireless (NASDAQ:LEAP)? Will Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) ink a network-sharing agreement with Dish Network? Will MetroPCS and Leap finally consummate the merger that analysts have been predicting for years?

What follows are the top five most likely matchups among the nation's wireless operators. This list is compiled from discussions with a number of the industry's leading business and financial analysts. The list is ranked in order of likelihood, from the least likely to the most likely.

To be clear, this report is pure speculation. We have no inside knowledge of potential wireless carrier mergers and acquisitions. (In fact, of the analysts we polled, there was very little consensus on each of these possible combinations.) Moreover, such transactions are notoriously hard to predict: Virtually everyone in the wireless industry was shocked by AT&T's announcement on Sunday, March 20, 2011, that it planned to acquire T-Mobile. (Few were surprised the deal didn't pass regulators' muster, however.)

Nonetheless, there are arguments to be made for each of these combinations. If you don't agree, or feel that we've missed something, please let us know in the comments.

Wireless carrier M&A: What are the top 5 most likely operator hookups to happen next?