As the dust settles after SoftBank's $21.6 billion acquisition of Sprint, losing bidder Dish Network may be just getting started at stirring up the U.S. mobile industry.
The satellite TV and Internet provider tried to buy Sprint and Clearwire but failed in both efforts when SoftBank closed its own deal to become the third-biggest mobile operator in the U.S. But led by an aggressive chairman and facing a lackluster satellite TV industry, Dish still has incentives to break into mobile and may do it through a new type of partnership or network, analysts say.
Mobile services and apps are growing a lot faster than TV or relatively slow, expensive satellite Internet. That's partly why Dish has amassed two chunks of land-based mobile spectrum and may be trying to scoop up more. Spectrum is the lifeblood of mobile, and Dish seems intent on becoming a player one way or another.
"If they don't have some form of a wireless play, then it's very hard for them to survive longer term," said Chetan Sharma, founder of Chetan Sharma Consulting. That's because consumers are increasingly watching video online rather than over broadcast, cable or satellite TV. In fact, the U.S. consumer satellite industry may soon shrink, with Dish possibly acquiring DirecTV, analysts say.
Dish has two kinds of spectrum that are approved for commercial mobile use: a block of frequencies it bought in the FCC's 700MHz auction in 2008, and the so-called AWS-4 frequencies it acquired by buying two bankrupt satellite companies in 2011. If Dish succeeds in buying another bankrupt satellite company, LightSquared, it would have yet another set of frequencies it might be able to use for cellular services. Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen reportedly has already bought a large part of LightSquared's debt, and Dish is now offering $2.2 billion for the company.
But in the cellular world, Dish isn't likely to build its own network, a project that would cost billions and might take years. Instead, the company will probably keep trying to buy or partner with an existing operator, analysts say. That would be a quicker and cheaper way to put its frequencies to work, which the company will have to do in order to keep its spectrum licenses.
An existing carrier could add equipment for Dish's spectrum to its cell sites and then offer new devices to its customers to take advantage of those bands. Dish's video business could also be a plus, with opportunities to bundle or cross-promote it with mobile services.
"The logical next step for Dish would be to partner with a service provider like T-Mobile to build out in their spectrum," said Phil Marshall of Tolaga Research. Though AT&T is also considered a candidate to work with Dish, analysts say fourth-place T-Mobile is the most likely candidate because it has the most to gain.
However, if it's looking to make a deal, Dish doesn't hold all the cards. Sprint is now bigger and richer than it used to be, but it still has only about half as many customers as its bigger rivals. Some analysts expect Sprint to make a grab for T-Mobile, finally making Sprint a powerhouse to truly rival AT&T and Verizon Wireless. A behemoth like that wouldn't need Dish's spectrum.
To head off that possibility, Dish is likely to bid for T-Mobile itself, and soon, according to Sharma.
"If Dish is really serious about the wireless market it has to make a move in the next six months. Otherwise, as time goes on, SoftBank's positioning to acquire T-Mobile becomes stronger," Sharma said. He thinks Dish knows this and sparked bidding wars for Sprint and Clearwire just to make SoftBank pay more for its entry into the U.S.
Having put together a $25.5 billion bid for Sprint, Dish could probably afford to buy the smaller T-Mobile. But even if it did, Sharma thinks the buyouts wouldn't end there. Most countries' mobile industries consolidate down to three main players, and the U.S. is likely to follow suit, he said. In time, Sprint might turn the tables on its former suitor and buy out the combined Dish and T-Mobile.
Dish also has another asset that might come into play in a partnership or acquisition, according to analyst Tim Farrar of TMF Associates. That's the satellite dishes on top of current Dish subscribers' homes.
Here's how those might come into play, according to Farrar:
Dish's AWS-4 spectrum would be hard to use for service directly to cellphones because other carriers don't use it, he said. "Dish doesn't want to have to go and pay Apple to put AWS-4 on the next iPhone," Farrar said.
Instead, Dish could use that spectrum for a fixed wireless broadband service to the homes of its current subscribers, which they would receive on a modified version of the satellite dishes they already have on their roofs. Equipped with an added antenna for the new service, those dishes could receive signals from large AWS-4 cell towers placed five to eight miles apart, Farrar said.
Clearwire tried a similar approach with its WiMax network and an earlier, pre-standard system, but it needed more towers because it had to penetrate walls to reach indoor modems, he said. Dish's outdoor gear is perfectly positioned, he said. "The main gain you've got is that you're outside and on the roof," Farrar said. The dishes already have coaxial cable going into the homes, so there's no need to rewire, he said.
Meanwhile, the modified dishes could also serve as small cell towers providing cellular service in the areas around homes, with the longer-range network serving as backhaul, he said. That network of small cells could either use spectrum that Dish acquired by buying a mobile operator or host the spectrum of a partner carrier. AT&T or T-Mobile might pay good money to get access to all those dishes, Farrar said.
"Even without owning a mobile company, Dish could effectively be a tower company," he said. If just 10 percent of its customers agreed to have the service operate from their roofs, Dish could offer a carrier 1.4 million new cell sites for better coverage and capacity. "It's purely an issue of finding the right partner and the right commercial deal to make this happen."
Even if none of these schemes works out, today's red-hot mobile market will probably be a winner for Dish, which bought its desirable 700MHz spectrum five years ago and persuaded the government to let it use former satellite bands for terrestrial mobile.
"If everything fails, they might just sell the spectrum," Recon's Entner said.