Over the last 36 hours there has been a constant stream of stories about DISH Network’s negotiations with various players to launch its proposed wireless network, in what appears to be a last ditch attempt to deflect the FCC from its declared intention to impose strict interference conditions on DISH’s spectrum in order to make the H block auctionable.
First we saw reports of DISH’s “exploratory stage” talks with Google, which unsurprisingly led to massive speculation about Google’s desire to get into the wireless business, largely omitting any mention of Google’s previous (financially disastrous) investment in Clearwire, which was motivated solely by a desire to create more competition and cheaper wireless service and had nothing whatsoever to do with enabling Google to become a wireless operator.
Now we’ve seen reports about DISH’s unsuccessful bid over the summer for MetroPCS, as revealed in MetroPCS’s preliminary proxy statement filed last night. We also saw DISH highlighting that 3GPP standardization work has been completed, with the implication that DISH could move forward very quickly if the FCC approved the network without new interference conditions.
However, it seems clear that the FCC is having none of it, with officials briefing that they are close to a decision, which is expected to confirm that the H block will be auctioned for high power use and therefore the lower part of DISH’s uplink band will face significant powwer restrictions. In other words, the FCC is placing a higher priority on ensuring Sprint has sufficient LTE spectrum (i.e. can extend its 5x5MHz G block LTE network to a 10x10MHz network) and moving forward with an auction of the H block to raise $1B+ than they are on trusting DISH to become a new entrant in the wireless market.
In light of the Sprint-Softbank and TMobile-MetroPCS deals, the FCC has achieved its goal of having four viable players in the US wireless market, and so presumably does not see as much need to encourage a new entrant. Indeed I would expect the FCC would be relatively content to see the DISH spectrum go to AT&T, if it could then “encourage” AT&T to sell some of its PCS spectrum to Sprint (along the lines of Verizon’s AWS spectrum deal with TMobile). We might even see a similar “swap” in the PCS band between TMobile and Sprint (with Sprint getting more of the spectrum and paying some cash to TMobile) as an alternative to a potential rival Sprint bid for MetroPCS. After all, TMobile has far more spectrum per subscriber than any of the other three major players (if Clearwire’s holdings are excluded).
Does DISH have many other options left to build out a new network of its own, as opposed to selling the spectrum to AT&T and pursuing a merger with DirecTV? There still appears to be uncertainty about the status of a potential deal with Clearwire, though DISH’s 10-Q confirmed (as I suggested previously) that it has raised its stake in Clearwire’s debt by $400M during the third quarter to a total investment of $745M (note that Clearwire is not named in the 10-Q, but the amount invested is too large for the investment to be in LightSquared, given other declared holdings).
DISH has undoubtedly talked to almost everyone in the wireless industry, but apparently these talks are currently only at the exploratory stage, which is quite surprising given how much time has elapsed. Of course what the MetroPCS proxy statement reveals is that everyone else has been talking as well, and as set out below, the proxy provides some very interesting nuggets about what’s happened over the last 18 months, once you decode the references to Companies A through H.
Company A: DBSD. MetroPCS determined that DBSD’s spectrum was more attractive than TerreStar’s spectrum and MetroPCS made a binding offer for the spectrum in March 2011, but lost out to DISH.
Company B: TerreStar. MetroPCS ultimately decided not to pursue TerreStar, leaving Harbinger out in the cold in June 2011, but then negotiated unsuccessfully with DISH during the summer of 2011 over a potential sale of spectrum, joint venture or contribution of the spectrum in exchange for equity in MetroPCS.
Company C: DISH subsequential expressed interest in buying MetroPCS, starting in March 2012 when it became clear DISH would not receive its hoped-for ATC waiver, and ultimately made a bid of $11 per share in August 2012, which was rejected by MetroPCS because it was less than the value offered by TMobile. DISH then indicated that it was unwilling to pay a higher price.
Company D: Clearwire. MetroPCS offered to buy spectrum from Clearwire in late 2011 (and earlier had even considered buying the whole company), but was unable to agree on terms. These discussions were revived in June 2012 when Clearwire again suggested a sale of spectrum and a “substantial investor” (Sprint or perhaps DISH???) proposed splitting the company between themselves and MetroPCS. Those “occasional” discussions continued up until the TMobile deal was announced.
Company E: Leap. Leap offered to sell “excess” spectrum to MetroPCS in the first half of 2011, but as early as June 2011 had decided to sell the spectrum to another wireless company (Verizon). This implies both that Verizon sat on the Leap deal until it had completed its negotiations with SpectrumCo in December 2011, and that the transfer of the Chicago 700MHz A block spectrum to Leap was presumably only included so the deal could be portrayed to the FCC as a “swap”. (Of course Leap’s presumed follow-up deal of a sale to US Cellular has now been derailed by US Cellular’s exit from the Chicago market and sale of its spectrum to Sprint). In May 2012, Leap asked MetroPCS to consider a combination of the two companies, but MetroPCS decided such discussions would not be productive. Then in July 2012, Deutsche Telekom also raised the prospect of combining Leap with TMobile and MetroPCS, as part of a single transaction, but MetroPCS declined, presumably because of the added complications it would entail.
Company F: AT&T. As was widely reported at the time, MetroPCS was in discusssions with AT&T in 2011 about potential asset sales as a condition of the TMobile acquisition. However, this did not come to fruition because the acquisition was blocked by the DoJ and FCC. Later, in August 2012, MetroPCS discussed approaching AT&T, but the consensus opinion was that AT&T would not be interested in buying MetroPCS.
Company G: Sprint approached MetroPCS about a potential acquisition in September 2011, and this led to the abortive bid in February 2012, which was vetoed by the Sprint board. Even after this time discussions continued with Sprint, and Sprint indicated in August and September 2012 that it was still interested in an acquisition of MetroPCS.
Company H: Verizon. MetroPCS held discussions with Verizon in the spring of 2012 about potentially buying some of the AWS and 700MHz spectrum that Verizon would need to divest to get approval of the SpectrumCo transaction. However, Verizon was not particularly interested in selling the AWS spectrum to MetroPCS (and entered into a deal with TMobile instead).
What all this appears to show is that DISH has looked at a number of transactions which involve further investment in the sector, but the main reason these have not come to fruition is that DISH is trying to pay as little as possible for any acquired assets. Alternatively, if DISH was to be a seller, then it was looking for too rich a price (at least for MetroPCS). In this context, it is likely that only Clearwire would be prepared to do a deal to sell assets to DISH on such terms, as I’ve speculated previously. It also seems pretty clear that the potential network sharing deal mentioned in the WSJ article about the discussions with Google would most likely be with Clearwire rather than Sprint, because the benchmark terms set by Sprint’s deal with LightSquared would be unattractive to DISH. As a result, it seems we are back to where we started – could DISH still pull off a deal with Clearwire (and does it want to in the current circumstances?), or will DISH end up selling its spectrum to AT&T and pursuing a merger with DirecTV instead?