This year, next year, sometime, never…

Posted in Clearwire, DISH, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, Sprint at 9:51 am by timfarrar

The question on everyone’s mind after DISH’s results call on Wednesday is of course “when will Charlie Ergen find a partner” to fulfill his wireless ambitions. Ergen was pretty clear that if DISH’s offer to buy spectrum from Clearwire succeeds then Sprint would be backed so far into a corner that it would be forced to partner with DISH (on Ergen’s terms). Conversely, if Sprint won its takeover bid for Clearwire then there is no way that DISH would accept Sprint’s terms for a partnership. The difference between DISH and Sprint’s positions appears to be that Sprint wants a LightSquared-like deal: a large cash payment for the network buildout, and Sprint having the option (but not the obligation) to buy capacity, whereas DISH wants Sprint to take its payment for a network sharing agreement solely in capacity, not in cash.

As an aside, its interesting to note that the relationship between Ergen and Hesse is obviously pretty poor: Sprint’s proxy for the Softbank deal notes that it was Keith Cowan who dealt with Ergen (Company Z) last summer, not Hesse. As a result, if Sprint did lose Clearwire’s spectrum to DISH, I wouldn’t be at all suprised to see the blame placed on Hesse, resulting in him leaving Sprint, and Masayoshi Son and Charlie Ergen could then work out a partnership between themselves.

If DISH’s bid for Clearwire fails, then DISH will at least have made an impressive profit on the deal: according to DISH’s 10-K, its holdings of Clearwire debt are now worth $951M, compared to an adjusted cost as of September 2012 of $745M. That is a profit of over $200M excluding the interest payment made in December 2012, which would have been at least another $50M (assuming the June interest payment is already included in the adjusted cost basis).

However, and more importantly, what is Ergen’s backup plan, if he simply takes his profits in Clearwire? If DISH wants to achieve a partnership this year, then the only realistic offer is to mount a counterbid for MetroPCS. Recall that DISH offered $11 per share for MetroPCS last summer (in parallel with DISH’s bid to buy spectrum from Clearwire) which was rejected as undervaluing the company. Given MetroPCS is now trading at only $10 per share, what does DISH have to lose by making a similar offer? At the very least that would force T-Mobile to the bargaining table, and DISH might be persuaded to withdraw its offer if T-Mobile offered an attractive network sharing deal. Indeed, if Clearwire’s special committee makes a decision next week to draw on the Sprint funding, I would expect DISH to potentially move on MetroPCS immediately thereafter.

If DISH doesn’t succeed with that gambit, then the timeline for a deal moves back at least until the end of this year or sometime next. LightSquared’s exclusivity in its bankruptcy case has been extended to July 15, but alternative offers can be made after that time, with a view to a resolution of the case before the end of this year. As I’ve noted before, if DISH takes a slightly longer time horizon, then a bid for LightSquared, and conversion of the 2GHz spectrum to downlink use would be an obvious value-enhancing maneuver. In addition, it would put DISH in a much better position to challenge Sprint in the auction for the H-block spectrum, which Sprint has admitted it needs to buy.

Finally, DISH’s ultimate fallback option may be to try and sell the spectrum to another company. However, AT&T appears well set for the next several years, having apparently decided not to pursue DISH when Ergen’s waiver request was denied by the FCC last spring. Verizon has also ruled itself out as a buyer and T-Mobile will be tied up integrating MetroPCS for some time (and after that acquisition will own more spectrum per subscriber than either AT&T or Verizon).

As a result, the timeline for that sale (at least if Ergen is to get an attractive price) may be pretty long, probably beyond the resolution of the broadcast incentive auction (scheduled for 2014) and perhaps even extending until after the 2016 Presidential election, if AT&T and Verizon are to be regarded as serious bidders, given the desire of the FCC to let Sprint and T-Mobile catch-up with their bigger rivals. That is even more likely to be the case if the recent slowdown in the growth of wireless data traffic prompts a reassessment of operators’ future spectrum needs and finally buries the supposed “spectrum crunch”.

1 Comment »

  1. TMF Associates MSS blog » What’s Charlie’s deal? said,

    March 21, 2013 at 5:20 pm

    [...] suggested last month that if Clearwire drew down the funding line from Sprint at the end of February, then DISH might [...]

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