Year in review 2011: Big deals with even bigger consequences mark 2011

Phil GoldsteinIt's hard to remember a year more filled with earth-shaking news. 2011 was characterized by mega-deals with even larger potential consequences than all of the zeros attached to them.

2011 was also a year that marked the end of one era with the death of Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) co-founder Steve Jobs at the age of 56, and potentially the beginning of many others with Nokia (NYSE:NOK) and Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) alliance on Windows Phone and Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) decision to pay $12.5 billion for Motorola Mobility (NYSE:MMI).   

Above all though, this was the year of the deal. AT&T's (NYSE:T) decision to acquire T-Mobile USA for $39 billion, which AT&T abandoned this week amid fierce opposition from regulators and its competitors, would have reshaped the U.S. wireless industry. The combination would have given AT&T mammoth scale, greater spectrum depth and the ability to use T-Mobile's AWS spectrum for LTE services, giving it a leg up on Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ). To the deal's critics--most notably Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S)--all of those aspects had negative connotations: AT&T would have too much spectrum, wield too much power over handset and network vendors and would crowd out smaller competitors.

Ultimately, AT&T did not prevail, making Verizon Wireless' $3.9 billion worth of deals to get AWS spectrum from Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks' SpectrumCo venture as well as from Cox Communications seem that much savvier.      

What was the biggest wireless story of 2011?Another major deal that didn't involve the merger of two companies--at least not formally--but will have potentially huge ramifications into next year and beyond is Sprint and Clearwire (NASDAQ:CLWR) inking $1.6 billion worth of conditional funding agreements. The agreement will bind the two companies together, allow Clearwire to get its planned TDD-LTE network off the ground and provide Sprint with access to Clearwire's LTE network in "hotspots" around the country. Unlike Verizon, which now covers 200 million POPs with LTE, neither Sprint nor Clearwire have a single LTE customer and Clearwire will almost certainly need more funds to build a competitive nationwide LTE network. However, Sprint and Clearwire finally seem to have gotten their houses in order this year and are laying the foundation to serve as LTE competitors to AT&T and Verizon.

Beyond these mega-deals, there were several smaller ones that are no less significant. Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC) confirmed that Sony will buy its 50 percent stake in their decade-old handset joint venture Sony Ericsson for around $1.47 billion, giving the Japanese electronics maker control over the company. If Sony plays its cards right, the deal could allow it to offer a true "four-screen" media experience. Also not to be forgotten is Microsoft's $8.5 billion purchase of Skype. Skype potentially gives Microsoft an answer to Apple's FaceTime and Google Voice, so it will be interesting to see how Skype is integrated into Microsoft's products and services--especially Windows Phone--in 2012.     

Like I said, it's been the year of the deal: deals that fell apart, deals that came out of the blue, deals that might still get blocked, deals that might not pan out and deals that could change the industry for years to come. We'll keep following all of these deals, big and small, and the ones still to come, as we move into a new year. --Phil

P.S. FierceWireless will be on a publishing break for the holidays. We will be updating the website with any breaking news, but will be back in your inbox Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012. Enjoy the holidays and have a Happy New Year!