As others have noted, in order to get a 700MHz interoperability deal, which will largely benefit Verizon and AT&T (as AT&T are now the only plausible national user of the A block spectrum and are likely to acquire both Verizon and Leap’s spectrum holdings in this band), DISH has secured a pretty good deal in Washington from interim FCC Chairman Clyburn: in exchange for DISH agreeing to low power use of the 700MHz E block (and bidding $0.50 per MHzPOP in the H block auction), DISH appears set to obtain an option to reband its AWS-4 uplinks to downlinks and an extension of the AWS-4 buildout milestones.
UPDATE (11/13): T-Mobile is raising $2B for spectrum purchases and is now rumored to be contemplating a bid for Verizon’s 700MHz A block spectrum. This would only give T-Mobile a 5x5MHz LTE network, which would not add much capacity in urban areas, but if T-Mobile is seeking to improve its rural coverage then it would have to buy other A block licenses as well.
This gives DISH a significant advantage both in the upcoming LightSquared bankruptcy auction, where no-one really expects any alternative bidder to emerge for the L-band spectrum, because the FCC has all but guaranteed it will not propose the so-called spectrum “swap” that LightSquared has asked for: it’s understood that Ergen will simply drop the request when he buys LightSquared’s satellite assets, so there is no point in the FCC annoying those in Congress who would want to see the 1675-80MHz spectrum band auctioned instead.
More importantly, if DISH is given an option but not an obligation to reband the AWS-4 uplinks (DISH has asked for 30 months to decide, but I would expect the FCC to only allow 12-18 months at most), then it also has a huge advantage in the H-block auction, because if Sprint were to win the spectrum then DISH could hold up standardization of the band (and delay any ability for Sprint to use the H block to relieve capacity constraints in its PCS G block LTE network). After years of experience in being held hostage by Ergen, its therefore hardly surprising that the smart move for Sprint will be to let DISH have the H block at the reserve price. That will force DISH to drive the standardization efforts, and potentially even allow Sprint to put roadblocks in DISH’s way instead of vice versa.
UPDATE (11/13): Both T-Mobile and Sprint have now ruled out bidding for the H-block spectrum. So it seems that both have made the smart move by leaving Ergen to contemplate what to do with ~80MHz of spectrum and no partners.
Moreover, it will establish a low benchmark price for the rest of DISH’s spectrum holdings, well below the $1.00 per MHzPOP that many analysts have been touting recently, and Ergen will then have doubled his bets on spectrum to roughly $8B, when taking into account both the LightSquared and H-block spectrum, without any clear route to monetization. With AT&T focused on European expansion and Verizon encumbered by the debt from buying out Vodafone’s stake, Sprint could then hope to hold the whiphand in any partnership negotiations with DISH.
Indeed next year’s auctions of 70MHz of additional spectrum (AWS-3, 1695-1710MHz and J block) may further impact perceptions of spectrum value: a $0.50 per MHzPOP valuation will again be ample to cover the costs of clearance plus the $7B needed to fund FirstNet. That is the FCC’s key objective in the upcoming spectrum auctions, so it can limit AT&T and Verizon’s participation in the 2015 broadcast TV incentive auction and ensure that Sprint and T-Mobile gain sufficient low frequency spectrum to preserve a four player market after the next presidential election. Once no net revenues need to be raised from the incentive auction, then it won’t matter if AT&T and Verizon refuse to participate, as that would simply keep the price low for Sprint and T-Mobile (or ensure that not as much broadcast spectrum is cleared).
However, rather than negotiating with Sprint on their terms, I expect that Ergen will instead pursue a merger with DirecTV, as an alternative to any wireless partnership, and I still expect a commitment to build out a fixed wireless broadband network with rural coverage to be key to getting regulatory approval for such a deal. Nevertheless, if DirecTV doesn’t put as much value on DISH’s spectrum holdings as Ergen does, it may be difficult to reach agreement on the respective value of the two companies. As a result, while Ergen builds his tower of spectrum cards ever higher, it will be interesting to see whether investors stay confident that he can ultimately create substantial value from these holdings.