Just when you thought it was safe to go and shop for a wireless phone plan, the competitive landscape has once again shifted. This comes as no surprise as cutthroat industries with numerous players are bound to undergo consolidation. The FCC's master plan (see the 1996 Telecom Act) is apparently working, and consumers have been the beneficiaries of an improved pricing environment.

Last month's acquisition of AT&T Wireless' assets by Cingular Wireless, which is the joint venture of former Baby Bell's SBC Communications (NYSE:SBC) and BellSouth (NYSE:BLS), vaulted Cingular to the top spot in the U.S. wireless market. As part of the $41 billion AT&T Wireless deal, Cingular agreed to divest assets in 11 overlapping states. On Friday, Cingular decided to sell those wireless assets to Alltel (NYSE:AT) for $170 million in cash.

The following is a look at the leading U.S. wireless companies in terms of subscribers:

  1. Cingular Wireless (46+ million).
  2. Verizon (NYSE:VZ) Wireless (42+ million) -- a joint venture with British carrier Vodafone (NYSE:VOD).
  3. Sprint (NYSE:FON) PCS (23+ million).
  4. T-Mobile, which is owned by German telecom giant Deutsche Telekom (NYSE:DT), (16+ million).
  5. Nextel (NASDAQ:NXTL) (15+ million).
  6. Alltel (about 8 million).

A few months ago, the top three wireless phone companies were Verizon, Cingular, and AT&T Wireless. This is one of those rare cases when 2+3=1. I guess that must be some of that "new math" they are teaching in school nowadays.

Even though the telecom services industry has been as disappointing as a dropped call over the past few years, there are still many investment opportunities to be found. The industry's best "pure play" is Nextel, which provides a very unique, sophisticated "walkie-talkie" service. The next best in-house wireless providers are Deutsche Telekom's T-Mobile and Sprint PCS, which branched off as a tracking stock for a few years before returning to the "mother ship".

If income investing is your thing, then choose from these mouth-watering yielders:

  • AT&T's asset base might not be as attractive as it used to be but its dividend yield is 5.18%.
  • SBC Communications has both a solid asset base and a 4.93% yield.
  • BellSouth is more than just a Southeastern Baby Bell and is yielding 3.99%.
  • Verizon is a solid company with a 3.77% dividend yield.
  • ALLTEL (2.70% yield) and Vodafone (2.62% yield) are also very solid companies.

As much as wireless telecom services industry has evolved recently, look for the top six companies to be consolidated into three or four wireless giants over the next few years. If recent activity is any indication, then Cingular should be one of the companies that will shape the future of the wireless market.

Feel free to roam with these other takes:

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Fool contributor Phil Wohl spent more than 12 years on Wall Street and does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned above.