What’s Charlie’s deal?

Posted in Clearwire, DISH, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum at 5:20 pm by timfarrar

For the last week, since DirecTV’s bid for GVT fell through, rumors have been circulating about a potential merger between DirecTV and DISH. However, to me that seems rather implausible in the near term: while a merger might well be feasible from a regulatory perspective, there would almost certainly be months of jockeying for position in Brazil and elsewhere, before it became clear which of the two companies would be in the stronger position to dictate the terms of a merger.

Instead, if DISH isn’t to be left holding its spectrum assets for many years (with no potential buyer on the horizon, after AT&T and Verizon both declared they would not be buying any more spectrum outside of FCC auctions in the next few years), DISH now has to focus on trying to bring its spectrum plans to fruition in the immediate future. This means seeking either to block the Sprint-Clearwire deal (to gain leverage for a network sharing agreement with Sprint) or to do the same in the T-Mobile-MetroPCS deal, which is now set to close in the next few weeks, unless MetroPCS shareholders vote it down.

I suggested last month that if Clearwire drew down the funding line from Sprint at the end of February, then DISH might “potentially move on MetroPCS immediately thereafter”. While no public offer has emerged, in recent days DISH has sounded noticeably less enthusiastic about its prospects of blocking the Sprint-Clearwire merger (and note that DISH is likely to make a $250M-$300M profit on its investment in Clearwire simply by allowing Sprint’s deal to go through). It therefore seems to me that if DISH does emerge with a deal in the near future (which perhaps might have prompted the 5% rise in DISH’s stock price on Wednesday), then the only plausible possibility is that T-Mobile got worried that its MetroPCS merger would be voted down, and negotiated a network sharing deal behind the scenes with Charlie Ergen.

That would be a great move for T-Mobile, at one stroke removing both potential alternative merger partners for MetroPCS (by taking DISH off the table and ensuring that Sprint is tied up with its Clearwire merger) and also cementing its position as the wireless operator best able to offer large, low cost data packages for the foreseeable future. Of course it would also be disastrous for those hedge funds betting that they can force T-Mobile and Sprint to increase the financial consideration being offered for MetroPCS and Clearwire respectively.

What would such a deal look like? I would guess very much like DISH’s desired deal with Sprint, namely that T-Mobile hosts the DISH spectrum on its LTE network, while taking most if not all of the financial consideration in the form of capacity, providing DISH with a roaming deal plus up to half of the AWS-4 capacity to launch its own wireless services. A deal like that, with no spectrum actually changing hands, would provide no basis for further FCC review of the T-Mobile/MetroPCS transaction, so the perfect time to announce it would be in the next couple of days (now all approvals have been received), giving MetroPCS investors time to contemplate their fate ahead of the April 12 vote.


  1. supert0nes said,

    March 21, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    T-Mobile has nowhere near enough customers to need to buy any more capacity. This would be a lot more interesting if Dish’s 700 “E block” was paired spectrum, so they could deploy HSPA/VoLTE voice coverage and increase T-Mobile’s coverage.

    As it is, T-Mobile needs to find ways to increase coverage through <1GHz spectrum, even if that means parting with some of their excess PCS spectrum to generate revenue.

  2. TMF Associates MSS blog » FCC budget shreds LightSquared’s spectrum swap proposal… said,

    April 12, 2013 at 11:44 am

    [...] now emerging that DISH approached DT about a potential merger with T-Mobile a few weeks ago, likely in late March when I reported rumors of a possible deal after DISH’s stock price surged. However, DT reportedly wants to wait until after the [...]

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