Investors were thrilled that AT&T Wireless (NYSE:AWE) didn't waste any time accepting a $15-per-share ($41 billion in cash) takeover bid from rival Cingular Wireless (a joint venture between SBC (NYSE:SBC) and BellSouth (NYSE:BLS)) this morning.

It's now official -- the nation's No. 2 and No. 3 wireless service providers will combine operations to overtake the No. 1 seat from Verizon Wireless (a subsidiary of Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ)). Thick-skinned investors waiting through periods of turmoil with AT&T Wireless's billing and number portability problems have been rewarded with a 70% share-price increase since the beginning of the year.

Apparently, the only serious bidding competition came from Vodafone (NYSE:VOD), which finally chose to bow out rather than divest its 45% stake in Verizon Wireless to pick up AT&T Wireless. Vodafone shareholders had been voicing their displeasure with the possibility of the deal by dropping the stock on the London exchange Monday by 2.6%; maybe CEO Arun Sarin took the cue to pass on an expensive opportunity.

Regardless of exactly how the bidding went down, the focus is now on what's ahead: a consolidated wireless market. After years of speculation, the "big six" of wireless are now down to five.

Company Customers (approx.)
Cingular/AT&T Wireless 46 million
Verizon Wireless 37.5 million
Sprint PCS (NYSE:PCS) 20 million
Nextel (NASDAQ:NXTL) 13 million
T-Mobile (NYSE:DT) 13 million

Regulatory approval remains, of course, but most industry experts believe that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will give the green light to the deal. With all the complaints surrounding wireless service in the U.S., consolidation is seen as one method to limit those annoying dropped calls due to holes in coverage maps. The FCC has also indicated on several occasions that competition in the U.S. is robust and could withstand fewer competitors.

The mega-deal -- supposedly the largest all-cash transaction in U.S. history -- has also opened up even more speculation about further consolidation in the industry. While Sprint PCS has indicated it's not interested in the merger game, other players are looking at options to build customer bases and reduce costs.

As usual, merger aftershocks are now permeating the market, with speculation rampant about how this first deal will influence other companies. Shares of Nextel, Sprint PCS, and Deutsche Telekom AG all jumped more than 5% higher mid-day on news of the merger.

Motley Fool contributor Dave Mock wonders just what $41 billion in cash looks like. He owns shares of Nextel. Dave is co-author of Tapping into Wireless.