Optical/IP Networks

The Mobile Duopoly

Is there any operator that, in the foreseeable future, can crack the hegenomy of AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Wireless as the top two wireless carriers in the U.S.?

If there is, I haven't figured out which one it is yet.

AT&T and Verizon's subscriber additions even tend to track each other closely in recent quarters. For instance, Verizon Wireless added 1.3 million retail wireless customers in the first quarter this year, just beating AT&T's 1.2 million net adds in the same period.

Verizon had a total subscriber base of 86.6 million at the end of the first quarter, while AT&T had racked up 78.2 million wireless subscribers by then. The big two's nearest rival, Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S), has been losing subs recently and ended 2009 with 49.3 million on its books, while fourth-place T-Mobile US Inc. added just 415,000 subscribers in the first quarter.

3:00 PM -- So, it seems unlikely that any of AT&T and Verizon's traditional rivals have a way of adding enough new customers to surpass the big two right now. It is possible, in these recessionary times, that we could see more savage price cuts to wireless services, but smaller rivals such as MetroPCS Inc. (NYSE: PCS) and Leap Wireless International Inc. (Nasdaq: LEAP) seem to have been making the most of the early running in the low-cost market so far.

An upstart like Clearwire LLC (Nasdaq: CLWR), meanwhile, needs years to build up customers, services, and a network to present a viable challenge to the big two. The mobile WiMax challenger may never actually get that far.

There is always the possibility of outside carriers becoming more of a factor in the U.S. market. SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM) has been rumored to be sniffing around Sprint in the past, for instance.

Nontheless, in the short-term, I don't see what other operator could be the downfall of this mobile duopoly. In fact, barring antitrust worries, AT&T and Verizon seem better placed to pick off more small carriers to try and extend their customer bases.

Of course, it won't be this way forever. That would be as foolish as suggesting, say, that a run-up on housing prices would continue indefinitely. Still, in the next three to five years -- and likely longer -- AT&T and Verizon seem destined to remain the top dogs of cellular America.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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