What's next for BellSouth?

BellSouth needs to make a move - but which one?

It's been an eventful year: Last December, Sprint and Nextel announced plans to join forces in a deal expected to close this fall. After a nasty bidding war with Qwest, Verizon announced its intention to purchase MCI for $8.4 billion this spring. And at press time, approval was pending from AT&T's board to sell the firm to SBC for $16 billion in a deal expected to close next spring.

But in the recent round of telecom musical chairs, one name is notably absent: BellSouth . Despite a market capitalization of just less than $50 billion, serving upwards of 20 million business and residential customers in its southeastern region, and owning 40% of Cingular, the second-largest wireless provider, BellSouth seems to have stayed notably behind the scenes in recent years. (SBC owns the other 60% of Cingular, more about which in a minute.)

Some background: BellSouth is - at the moment - the third-largest of the seven remaining traditional telcos, following Verizon ($95 billion) and SBC ($78 billion). It's larger than Sprint ($37 billion), AT&T ($15 billion), MCI ($8 billion) and Qwest ($6 billion).

But that's all changing. When the dust settles, the most likely outcome is that BellSouth will place fourth in an industry dominated by the Big Three: Verizon (soon to be $103 billion when the MCI merger closes), SBC/AT&T (soon to be $93 billion), and Sprint/Nextel at $73 billion. That leaves BellSouth ahead of just one traditional player, Qwest, which is clearly the runt of the litter. In other words, BellSouth goes from being a relatively large fish in a large pond to a much smaller fish in a much smaller pond.

So what's the next step?

BellSouth could continue to compete head-to-head with the Big Three, pitting its relatively strong customer loyalty and improving financials against three bigger players. That's possible but unlikely in the long run.

Alternatively, it could get acquired. SBC/AT&T is the obvious choice, given that SBC currently owns the other 60% of Cingular, and the companies have synergistic regions and services. Personalities play a key role, though. The relationship between BellSouth's CEO Duane Ackerman and SBC's Edward Whitacre is reportedly contentious after failed merger talks last year. But Whitacre has said publicly he plans to step down not long after the SBC/AT&T merger completes. With no heir apparent at SBC, AT&T CEO David Dorman may step up to the role - and he's had previous negotiations with Ackerman (AT&T and BellSouth reportedly came close to inking a deal as recently as 18 months ago). With Dorman in the buyer's seat, the outcome could be different this time.

BellSouth also has the option of selling its share in Cingular to SBC/AT&T (or another purchaser) and using the proceeds for a merger of its own - perhaps snapping up Qwest, or potentially a cable company or other wild card. That path's riskier and less in line with BellSouth's historically conservative strategy.

Bottom line: BellSouth can only resist the winds of change for so long.

Johna Till Johnson is president and chief research officer at Nemertes Research, an independent technology research firm. She can be reached at johna@nemertes.com.

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