For years, analysts and industry execs have warned it was only a matter of time before the glut of U.S. telephone operators caused a market collapse. There simply weren't enough people, homes and offices to keep every existing phone company in business. Now SBC's proposed $16 billion acquisition of AT&T is forcing its fellow Baby Bells to look harder at merger options.
"When you have a bunch of companies all trying to get into each others' businesses, and increasing competition from new players, consolidation becomes a necessity," said Brad Wilson, an analyst with Legg Mason. "But I think it's happening a lot quicker than we had expected."
The mergers began about six months ago in the wireless market. Top-tier cell phone operators AT&T Wireless and Cingular Wireless merged. Then in December, local, long distance and cell phone giant Sprint made a $31 billion bid for wireless operator Nextel Communications. Additionally, a number of failing rural cell phone operators have been devoured by second-tier wireless operators.
Cingular-AT&T Wireless, then SBC-AT&T, now maybe Qwest-MCI. In the mad rush to create the few multifaceted providers meant to dominate the new century, who's next on the auction block?
Someone's getting MCI. And maybe Sprint. Qwest is the only one to make a move so far, but you know Verizon execs are taking meetings.
Last week, merger madness hit a fever pitch when local phone giant SBC announced it was buying AT&T for $16 billion. Now a game of musical chairs is underway as the three remaining Baby Bell local phone providers--Verizon Communications, Qwest Communications and BellSouth--scramble to find partners and position themselves in the changing telephony market.
"Right now there's definitely a battle shaping up over MCI," Wilson said. "After that, it's hard to say what will happen."
Word leaked out last week that Qwest offered toMCI, the No. 2 U.S. long-distance company, for $6.3 billion. But MCI seems to be holding out for a better offer. Verizon and Bellsouth could still make a play for the company, experts say. Verizon is reportedly already looking into an acquisition. All three local providers would get a boost from MCI's enterprise customers.
Qwest could benefit from MCI's small debt load and $5.6 billion in cash, which it could use to help pay down its own $17 billion debt load. But analysts say it's the least attractive potential suitor. The company's traditional phone business has been declining at a rate of roughly 4 percent a year. Its 14-state region is thinly populated, so it has far fewer broadband and long-distance customers than the other three Bell companies. It also doesn't own its own wireless business.
Whoever ends up with MCI, one thing is certain--there will still be two Baby Bells left without nationwide partners. And then what? If struggling Qwest loses MCI to a better bid from Verizon, it might end up with fellow local carrier, Bellsouth, say some analysts. There's also talk that Verizon might be eying Sprint to get its hands on the carrier's wireless business.
And of course there's always the prospect that nothing happens at all.
Your 21st century telco
In some ways, the idea of the regional Bell companies buying up long-distance players seems like a bad one. All three long-distance carriers--AT&T, MCI and Sprint--have seen revenue in their traditional voice business decline rapidly over the past few years. The very fact that these companies are up for sale is a result of a business model in decline.