Sprint Wins in Disney Deal

The Mickey Mouse Club is taking its classic act on the road. Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) announced Wednesday that it will team up with Sprint (NYSE: FON  ) to enter the mobile phone business. The new Disney Mobile is being billed as a wireless service for families. Naturally, a fair amount of Disney-inspired entertainment content will also be a part of the deal.

Today's mainstream mouthpieces are touting the arrangement because kids are major consumers of wireless services. The research firm NOP World Technology reports 40% of kids in the 12-14 age range owned cell phones at the end of last year. That's up from 13% in 2002.

OK, I get it. There's a ripe market out there. But why isn't anyone talking about what this signals for Sprint and its competitors? They stand to gain at least as much, and maybe a whole lot more. That's because Disney's foray is just the latest MVNO. That's short for mobile virtual network operator, a company that sells wireless service without actually owning a network.

MVNOs are hot. Rapper P. Diddy actually declared himself one at a recent confab of the wireless industry. The thinking goes that anyone with content can extend his or her brand into the wireless realm by piggybacking on carriers who've got bandwidth to sell. The content providers get to license their stuff and carriers collect voice and data fees. Everyone's happy, right?

Right. But I still like Sprint's end of the bargain better. There's almost zero risk. All it needs to do is open its network and collect fees. Indeed, that's how it has gone thus far. Sprint added 1.3 million new customers during its fiscal first quarter from MVNO customers like Virgin Mobile. That was a 34% increase over last year.

I'm happy for Disney, but I'm downright gleeful that the mainstream press is ignoring the economics of what underlies this deal. MVNOs may be the catalysts that finally unlock earnings growth for telcos by filling unused capacity. And that makes now as good a time as any to go bargain-shopping in the sector.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers wonders when The Disney Channel is coming to his smartphone. What's your take? Share your thoughts with other Fools at the Fool's Disney discussion board. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication, but he occasionally does contract work for Openwave (Nasdaq: OPWV  ) , which supplies services to MVNOs such as Virgin Mobile. You can find out what's in his portfolio by checking Tim's Fool profile, which is here. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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