With the AT&T merger with T-Mobile now in the works, Sprint’s stock is down 15% and seems ripe for a pick up in the rapidly-consolidating wireless/mobile space.  But who should pick up Sprint?

Is Apple, with its monster war chest, finally ready to rid itself of the carriers in the US?

First of all the deal would also likely include the assets of Clearwire and its WiMAX 4G network which is now valued at just over $1B.  The total market cap for the two companies would be just south of $15B. That would make a buyout in the $20B range, still only about half of the T-Mobile deal.

Verizon is one obvious candidate.  One reason to make a move would be to force the FTC/FCC into action on their competition.  If AT&T–T-Mobile isn’t enough to get the regulators off their backsides, a perspective duopoly could be.  And how could you deny Verizon-Sprint while OK-ing AT&T -T-Mobile?  Block!

IF the deal somehow went through, Verizon would also benefit from the added subscribers, compatible networks and added spectrum in the same way AT&T is from T-Mobile and could use the very same arguments to justify a purchase.  Verizon would have spent half of AT&T on T-Mobile, gotten more customers and a bigger network.

But Verizon isn’t the only potential suitor.

Comcast, fresh off their NBC pickup and subsequent year dealing with anti-trust regulators might be willing to keep its anti-trust team busy with the pick up.  The move would allow the cable operator to offer a full spectrum of services from home internet/telephone/CableTV and now wireless.  Wireless cable on mobile devices would also be a reality, especially over 4G WiMAX without any messy partnerships to set up.

Two of Comcast’s biggest competitors are Verizon and AT&T – which have something (wireless) Comcast obviously doesn’t.  A deal there makes a lot of sense if the cable operator can pull it off.  Another competitor, Cox, is already a Sprint MVNO.

Cablevision (Optimum) is also working on phones.  Now all they need is a network to put them on.  They currently use,,,wait for it…Sprint as an MVNO.

Google is also a possible suitor.  Google and Sprint announced a pretty significant Google Voice integration plan today which would make just about every Sprint phone a Google phone.  Google has previously been seen bidding on wireless spectrum before and has a lot of ISP ambitions.  The move would alienate AT&T and Verizon, however, from using Android devices – devices from their wireless competitor.

Apple really doesn’t have a horse in this race, at least yet.  Although a CDMA iPhone 4 is now out, it has no formal relationship with Sprint.  Apple, too, would alienate Verizon and AT&T by becoming a carrier – though I think Apple would be more wiling to do so than Google, for instance.

Apple does like to own the whole experience and just about every bad thing written about the iPhone and iPad is related to their carrier integration.  Apple obviously has the money and customer base to do something like this and the war chest is obviously on hand.  Steve Jobs and Tim Cook have both said Apple was holding onto its cash in order to make a game-changing purchase. This would be exactly such a purchase.  In fact, thinking about it that way, it is hard to imagine any other such purchase, at least right now.

Still, it is hard to imagine Apple getting into Sprint’s mess of 50 million users (most of which aren’t going to be iPhone candidates), billing systems, in-house MVNOs like Virgin and Boost, etc.  It all seems too complex for a company that craves simplicity.

Things could change, however, if Google got involved in the bidding – and Google under Larry Page is even wackier than under Eric Schmidt.

There are also companies like Microsoft, RIM, Nokia,and various other domestic and imported private and public entities that could bid for Sprint.

The smaller T-Mobile just went for about three times Sprint’s market cap so it seems like whoever picks up the company will have gotten a bargain.

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