For all the talk about how Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) purchase of Motorola Mobility (NYSE:MMI) would get it vertical integration, there's still a missing piece: the carrier. What cellphone company is going to provide the service for all these new Google-Motorola phones?
There are arguments for Google to stay out of that business. The company already has antitrust hassles in search and advertising; why add them in the phone department? It can be convenient to have the cellphone carrier there to blame for the dropped calls and the unexpectedly high monthly bills. Let that anger be deflected to the carrier, and keep Google's reputation with its customers user-friendly and not "evil." Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) has succeeded in the mobile phone business without owning AT&T (NYSE:T).
On the other hand, there are arguments for Google to get into that business. If it really wants to provide the best customer experience, it needs to control the network, customer service, and billing, this argument goes. And if Google doesn't own a carrier, the carriers are going to have a lot of negotiating power with Google. Having just spent $12.5 billion for Motorola Mobility, does Google really want to be at the mercy of either AT&T/T-Mobile (a big and close Apple partner) or Verizon (NYSE:VZ) (which is also an Apple partner)?
Some of the arguments against buying a carrier are arguments that also would have applied against buying Motorola Mobility, among them the risk of alienating other partners, like HTC and Samsung (OTC:SSNLF).
Verizon, with a market cap of $100 billion, owns half of Verizon Wireless. But it's too big for Google to swallow, only offers half of a wireless company (the other half of Verizon Wireless is owned by Vodaphone (NASDAQ:VOD)) and is saddled with a lot of plain-old-telephone service copper line accounts that aren't a growth business.
AT&T is Apple's partner and has already chosen its strategy of trying to buy T-Mobile. Google could try for T-Mobile if the AT&T deal is blocked by the government, but at $39 billion it's also pretty expensive, and if the government won't let AT&T buy T-Mobile, it's hard to imagine they'd let Google do it.
That leaves Sprint Nextel Corp. (NYSE:S), which, per Yahoo! Finance, has a market capitalization of about $11 billion, revenue of $33 billion a year, and is trading at a price to book ratio of 0.81, which is below book value. It's under some financial pressure. I bought a new Sprint Android phone last week and am posting this article using its wireless broadband hotspot, which even at 3G speeds is pretty nifty. Sprint owns Boost and Virgin Mobile.
There are also some smaller players. Leap (LEAP) has a market cap of about $760 million and revenue of about $2.89 billion. Google could buy it and just use it as a lever to get better deals out of Verizon and AT&T/T-Mobile: give us what we want or we'll build our own network using LEAP as a base. MetroPCS (PCS) is trading at around $11 a share, down from its May high of around $18 a share. Its market capitalization and revenue are both in the $4 billion range and it has invested in a Verizon-style LTE 4G network.
Maybe such a deal won't happen. Google stock has sunk some following the announcement of the Motorola Mobility deal. The carrier business, unlike the software and hardware business, is highly territorial, so Google may decide it wants to sell global phones rather than buy an American cellular provider. But if the Google guys haven't at least toyed around with a deal for Sprint or PCS or some other wireless provider that's escaping me, they're not as smart and creative as I think they are.
These are business decisions, but they also involve government regulation — not only in terms of antitrust approvals, but also in terms of spectrum, which the FCC can decide to auction off more of, or limit because of interference with GPS, or otherwise tinker with in ways that affect the value of these carriers.
Disclosure: I own some PCS.