If federal regulators deny AT&T the chance to acquire T-Mobile, the possibility exists it could leave the latter as the only carrier to not offer Apple's iPhone in the United States.
In August, the Wall Street Journal reported that Sprint would offer Apple's next-generation iPhone, popularly dubbed the "iPhone 5." In doing so, the carrier would join Verizon and AT&T. Until now, Sprint had relied on a portfolio of high-end Android smartphones built to leverage its 4G network.
Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster estimated that giving Sprint the iPhone would boost the device's overall sales by 6 million units. For months, rumors have circulated that Apple will release the next iPhone in either September or October, and that its hardware will include a faster processor and wider screen.
T-Mobile has likewise never carried the iPhone in the United States (although it does in Germany), something the $39 billion acquisition by AT&T might have changed. However, that deal might have hit a major snag: on Aug. 31, the Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit against AT&T.
"The combination of AT&T and T-Mobile would result in tens of millions of consumers all across the United States facing higher prices, fewer choices and lower quality products for mobile wireless services," Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote in a prepared statement.
Sprint, which had been fighting the proposed acquisition since its announcement earlier in 2010, released an upbeat statement: "The DOJ today delivered a decisive victory for consumers, competition and our country. By filing suit to block AT&T's proposed takeover of T-Mobile, the DOJ has put consumers' interests first."
If AT&T is blocked from acquiring T-Mobile, and if Sprint starts offering the next-generation iPhone, it would represent a significant competitive shift in the smartphone wars. T-Mobile would be the only U.S. carrier not offering the iPhone, which could affect its revenues and competitive prospects.
In March, when news of the AT&T deal first emerged, T-Mobile posted a flat-out denial of the iPhone on its Website. "T-Mobile USA remains an independent company," the statement read. "The acquisition is expected to be completed in approximately 12 months. We do not offer the iPhone. We offer cutting-edge devices like the Samsung Galaxy S 4G and, coming soon, our new sidekick Sidekick 4G."
Of course, if the AT&T deal doesn't go through, there's also the question of whether T-Mobile will strike a deal with Apple to offer the iPhone.