With faster 4G networks powering mobile devices, wireless carriers are seeking new ways to leverage their ability to deliver video with new content deals.

Verizon Wireless has been the most active dealmaker,” said Aapo Markkanen, senior analyst, consumer mobility, for ABI Research, pointing out recent deals with videogame publisher Electronic Arts for “Rock Band,” user-generated content site Ustream, and music sites Rhapsody and MOG. “That’s been a natural piece to their strategy given that they’re ahead of others in rolling out 4G infrastructure,” first introduced at CES in 2011.

What telcos seek, continues Markkanen, is “selling points for new, pricier 4G handsets and more extensive data bundles.” “In general, providing subscribers with popular content bundles can be a handy way to increase customer retention,” he said. “They act as incentives for users to stick to the same carrier even as their contract expires.”

As part of its four-year sponsorship agreement with the NFL, valued at $720 million, Verizon will make history by streaming Super Bowl XLVI live to mobile devices equipped with Verizon’s exclusive NFL Mobile application on Feb. 5.

Not to be outdone, Sprint recently signed a multi-year deal with the National Basketball Association to be its official wireless service partner, including the Sprint NBA Mobile Android app for in-game and postgame video highlights, news, scores, and other features. The parties did not disclose the terms of the deal.

Besides the bright spot of sports, however, telcos are losing ground. For content owners, making an exclusive deal with a single mobile carrier no longer makes sense when they can make deals with mobile video retailers and streamers, or simply make the event available themselves.

“A few years ago, we used to talk about the mobile content ecosystem as on-deck, meaning content preloaded by the carrier, and off-deck, which was mostly ringtones and wallpaper,” said Fierce Mobile Content executive editor Jay Ankeny. “Now that seems prehistoric. I don’t see a return to an era where the carriers control what people see.”

What happened to completely change that dynamic?

“Apple redefined the mobile market space,” said Juniper Research research director Windsor Holden. “It took someone like Apple to make the experience of accessing content interesting and user friendly. Carriers are excellent at delivering voice and data, but they’re not the best source to sell content.”

Can the carriers even compete in this new environment?

“The telcos are keen not to be dumb pipes but I’m not sure they’re the best people to market content,” Holden said. “Their key assets are the network and the billing relationship. My suspicion is that they’d generate far more revenue that way than trying to sell the content themselves.”

Content deals are also complicated by the fact that Verizon and AT&T both offer Internet and TV services like FiOS and U-Verse. MetroPCS also announced a deal with Mobile Content Venture, the mobile TV effort by broadcasters including Cox Media Group, Fox, and NBC, to preload their mobile TV service on its upcoming Samsung Android devices.

“These are still quite early days to see what strategies the carriers will eventually adopt,” Markkanen said. “But, ideally, consumers want to access their content regardless of time, place and device.”