AT&T eyes divested Alltel assets

AT&T is reportedly the strongest contender for the wireless assets from Alltel that Verizon must divest as part of its acquisition. What's that mean for consumers?

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

AT&T could end up with the lion's share of the wireless assets that Verizon Wireless must get rid of as part of its acquisition of Alltel, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

The newspaper cites sources who said that AT&T is among several bidders hoping to get their hands on the Alltel subscribers and network. The private-equity firms Carlyle Group and Kohlberg Kravis & Roberts & Co., supposedly are bidding on the assets together as is Providence Equity Partners on its own. At least one cable provider also has expressed interest, the Journal says.

In order to close its $28.1 billion acquisition of Alltel, Verizon Wireless agreed to sell off assets in 22 states to appease regulators. Included in these assets are 2.1 million wireless subscribers and wireless spectrum and equipment valued at around $3 billion.

AT&T is considered to be in the strongest position to bid on the assets, but consumer advocates and rural phone companies say that allowing AT&T to purchase these assets is bad for consumers.

Verizon Wireless and AT&T are the No. 1 and No. 2 wireless operators in the U.S., respectively. Together, they have over 160 million subscribers and account for nearly 60 percent of all cell phone service in the country. Critics, such as Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge, told the Journal that Alltel's assets should end up with a smaller wireless player to spur more competition, rather than allowing the second largest operator to gobble up more customers and spectrum.

Rural trade groups believe that AT&T could charge expensive roaming rates to other smaller carriers in these regions, which could affect competitive pricing for consumers.

Even if AT&T ends up as the highest bidder for the assets, the deal still has to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice. But because the deal will likely be evaluated market by market, AT&T could still end up with a significant amount of the assets if it is bidding for assets where it doesn't have a strong presence already.

Some people, such as Dan Meyer at RCR Wireless, argue that AT&T buying the divested Alltel assets might not be such a bad thing for consumers. Alltel primarily operates in rural markets, where national carriers don't offer service. And some of these consumers might be happy to have another national operator, such as AT&T, he said.

But the biggest benefit for rural consumers is that they could finally be able to get the Apple iPhone. AT&T is the exclusive carrier for the iPhone and many people in rural markets have complained that this exclusivity agreement has prohibited them from having access to the latest and greatest technology. While the real policy issue here centers around exclusivity deals, the fact remains that a big group of people want the iPhone and can't get it because AT&T isn't offered in their market.

So even though allowing AT&T to gobble up more spectrum and assets may hurt smaller wireless operators and could ultimately drive up wireless prices, I'm sure there are plenty of people living in rural areas where AT&T doesn't offer service today who would be more than happy for the chance to have an iPhone.

What do you think?