How we got here: a visual history of US mobile companies


And then there were four. Many of today’s wireless companies started as offshoots from R&D labs in the 1980s, as landline companies were starting to take notice of the emerging technology. Over the years though, the wireless playing field has slowly been whittled down as acquisitions folded most wireless players into four major companies: Verizon(s vz), AT&T(s t), Sprint(s s) and T-Mobile(s tmus).

We followed the history of those companies to their early days, highlighting some major events as they become full-fledged companies in their own right. Had the T-Mobile and Sprint merger gone through, we would have been left with only three, each controlling more than 100 million mobile connections.

tangled web of wireless final



is it possible to buy a poster size version of the graphic in this article?

Neal Gompa (ニール・ゴンパ)

There’s so much missing on this history…

I’ll just tackle the T-Mobile side, since I know that one well…

Starting with VoiceStream history:

Western Wireless, after spinning off the majority (but weirdly, not all!) of its GSM operators into VoiceStream in 1999, went on to acquire Omnipoint (which itself was formerly Sprint Spectrum PCS GSM operations before Sprint decided that it should use CDMA and spun off its GSM network like it did its analog network several years earlier) and Aerial (the company that controlled all PCS GSM operations for TDS, but not the Cellular 850 GSM operations that TDS has under US Cellular in Maine) in 2000.

PowerTel history:

InterCel was founded to launch cellular operations in Alabama and Georgia. It acquired Unicel (back then an operator in Maine). InterCel created PowerTel PCS in 1994 to bid and win licenses for a PCS network. It won PCS A/B licenses throughout the Southeast and launched GSM along with Ericsson. It acquires GTE Mobilnet Atlanta’s PCS B license for the MTA in 1996. InterCel later sold off its cellular operations to focus on PowerTel PCS. PowerTel receives an investment by Finnish operator Sonera (after purchasing 49.9% of Eliska Ventures Wireless, a US subsidiary of Sonera) and acquires DigiPH PCS (a smaller PCS GSM operator owning PCS C licenses for Mississippi and Alabama and operated in all of its licensed BTAs except Columbus-Starkville, MS and Meridian, MS) in 2000.

SunCom history:
Starting as Triton PCS in 1999, it renamed itself SunCom a few years later. SunCom started with D-AMPS (commonly known as TDMA) in 1999 and started GSM deployment in 2003 to replace it. While SunCom didn’t really participate in M&A quite like InterCel and Western Wireless did, it did do quite a bit of asset trading. It traded back and forth with Cingular/AT&T. SunCom extended itself into Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, but never officially sold service in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

MetroPCS history:
Starting out as General Wireless, Inc in 1994, it focused on PCS operations in major metros and offered prepaid services. It later renamed itself to MetroPCS and participated in AWS auctions to expand its footprint. Of all of the component companies, MetroPCS is the only one to have started on the CDMA path.

T-Mobile history:
T-Mobile USA, Inc was created in 2001 when Deutsche Telekom acquired VoiceStream and PowerTel together. Deutsche Telekom bought out all stakeholders in both companies, some notable ones being Sonera and TDS, to take T-Mobile USA private. Originally organized under T-Mobile International AG, it has been shifted out of that organization and is directly held by DT Holding organizations (that is, Deutsche Telekom has more direct influence on T-Mobile USA).

In 2007, T-Mobile announced it would acquire SunCom, and completed that the next year. In 2012, it announced an acquisition of MetroPCS and completed it the next year. Coinciding with the Un-carrier launch, the new partially publicly traded entity “T-Mobile US, Inc” was formed to control subsidiaries T-Mobile USA, Inc and MetroPCS Wireless, Inc (previously controlled by MetroPCS Communications, Inc).

Of course, during T-Mobile’s time, there were lots of spectrum swaps and buys, etc. Unlike Verizon and AT&T, T-Mobile didn’t do a whole lot of organizational M&A.

JK Boan

Nice, but nowhere near complete. You left out the whole Cellular 1 marketing group.

Peter Walker

Clearly the colors are wrong, based on today’s brand identifiers.

Biz Carson

Hi Peter — We use Gigaom brand colors on the graphics, which unfortunately don’t align with the company colors that they use today. There was a legend at the top of the graphic which I hope you were able to follow!


You’re missing Ominipoint which later became Voicestream and then T-Mobile

Timothy W Murray

What? Where is Omnipoint which somehow got gobbled up or changed name into Voicestream?

Biz Carson

Hi Timothy, We weren’t able to fit every merger into the graphic, but both Omnipoint and Aerial were bought by Voicestream in 2000, shortly before it was bought by Deutsche Telekom

Anthony Clauser

Somehow it made sense to make Verizon purple despite the fact you had red as a usable color and you don’t use purple for T-Mobile?

Anyways. Here is a more logical color choice for the companies using the same graph –


I was thinking the same thing as your graph. Well maybe AT&T could have stayed blue. But the orange is find from Cingular.

Anthony Clauser

In hindsight I would have stuck with blue, but the AT&T site is dominated by orange as an accent color. That combined with the fact orange is my favorite color, I’m predisposed to using it when possible :)

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