05.18.14

Buying dishes not DISH?

Posted in AT&T, DISH, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, Sprint at 8:01 pm by timfarrar

So now AT&T has finally announced that it has agreed to acquire DirecTV for $95 per share, and has indicated that “AT&T will use the merger synergies to expand its plans to build and enhance high-speed broadband service to 15M customer locations, mostly in rural areas where AT&T does not provide high-speed broadband service today, utilizing a combination of technologies including fiber to the premises and fixed wireless local loop capabilities.”

That sounds a lot like AT&T intends to steal DISH’s concept of a fixed wireless broadband connection to rooftop antennas collocated on a satellite TV dish. Indeed, its hard to think of any other way for AT&T to advance an out-of-region TV+broadband strategy, in places where it isn’t the incumbent telco. Of course, the obvious rejoinder is “so why didn’t AT&T buy DISH instead and get hold of its spectrum”.

However, its important to remember that AT&T has already turned down the opportunity to buy DISH twice in the last few years, in 2007/8 and 2012, both times apparently because it refused to pay Charlie Ergen’s asking price. And it seems the same is still true: my understanding is that Ergen has advertised his price to AT&T (and presumably Verizon as well) and indicated it was take it or leave it. Once again AT&T chose to leave it and this time moved on to negotiate with DirecTV instead (just like AT&T jumped to NextWave back in spring 2012).

DISH’s price is pretty clear: in DISH’s Q1 conference call Ergen indicated that his spectrum should be valued at twice the amount that the AWS-3 spectrum is sold for in the upcoming auction, and that he expected the AWS-3 price to be higher than the $5B-$10B range cited by analysts. That implies a price of $20B+, in line with the value ascribed to spectrum in DISH’s current stock price, although perhaps not quite as high as the $26B cited by some reports.

I’ve been skeptical of such high valuations, and think that the value of DISH to an acquirer should include value for both its spectrum and its 14M rooftops, which are potential sites for future small cell network deployments. I would go as far as to say the $20B of value could be attributed half to the spectrum and half to the sites, since 1M small cells generating $100/month in small cell hosting fees would certainly be worth $10B.

If AT&T is thinking likewise, and expects future spectrum auction values to be rather lower than Ergen’s purported $1.33+/MHzPOP ($20B for 50MHz), then even if AT&T was prepared to pay $20B for DISH’s assets (excluding the satellite TV business itself) it would make more sense to buy DirecTV, which can provide the rooftop sites, and for AT&T to acquire the spectrum later. AT&T can look forward to a fairly clear run in the auctions, due to the amount of spectrum on offer over the next year, especially if Sprint and T-Mobile are consumed with trying to get regulatory approval for a merger during that period.

Indeed AT&T has indicated that it plans to buy spectrum in the incentive auction next year and will bid at least $9B for 20MHz of spectrum. That is only $1.50/MHzPOP, little more than Ergen is valuing his spectrum at, for spectrum that should offer rather better deployment economics for rural wireless broadband. It hardly seems to be a coincidence that the DirecTV deal was secured just a few days after the FCC came out with revised incentive auction rules that were acceptable to AT&T.

Ergen has justified placing a higher value on DISH’s spectrum because the AWS-4 band can all be converted to downlink, which should be much more valuable than uplink, as the majority of traffic is directed to the user. Even if that is true (and AT&T doesn’t seem to agree, because it appears to have foregone the option to convert the WCS A and B blocks to all downlink), it is partially offset by the lower efficiency (bps/Hz) of uplink traffic. More importantly, if DISH (or a buyer) actually deployed a fixed wireless broadband network using DISH’s spectrum, it would need to use uplink as well as downlink, so AWS-4 could not simply be all converted to downlink. Only if DISH’s spectrum were to be used in mobile networks, as supplementary downlink for the PCS and AWS bands, could it be used in an all-downlink configuration, and then AT&T or Verizon would have to buy the spectrum and put the effort into standardizing these new bands.

So it would be entirely logical for AT&T to conclude that for fixed wireless broadband and small cell hosting, its simply not worth paying Ergen’s asking price. Instead, by buying DirecTV, AT&T gets the sites it needs thrown in for free with DirecTV’s satellite TV business, and the FCC has now created the right conditions for AT&T to buy the spectrum it needs in the upcoming auctions.

This of course leaves DISH in a difficult position, because Verizon has indicated that it doesn’t believe that deploying wireless connections to rooftop satellite TV antennas makes sense (both DirecTV and Verizon were skeptical after their previous joint trial), so it wouldn’t attribute much value to DISH’s rooftop sites. In any case, after buying Vodafone’s stake in Verizon Wireless, Verizon’s balance sheet would be unlikely to accommodate a near-term purchase of DISH.

So perhaps Ergen’s last option for a near-term deal is a partnership with Sprint, to facilitate a fixed wireless deployment and allow Masa Son to fulfill his promise of competing in fixed broadband if Sprint is allowed to purchase T-Mobile. Even for mobile users, Sprint certainly needs tens if not hundreds of thousands of new cellsites if it is going to deploy its 2.5GHz spectrum beyond urban cores, and DISH’s rooftops would be the best way to get that at reasonable cost.

If not, and Sprint bids for T-Mobile anyway, then DISH will have to go all out to block that deal. Of course, the most likely way to resolve the difference in expectations about the size of the break fee (Sprint has offered $1B, but DT wants nearer $3B) would be to offer T-Mobile some of Sprint’s 2.5GHz spectrum instead of more cash. However, that would provide DISH with an even bigger incentive to block Sprint’s bid, as giving DISH the opportunity to acquire some 2.5GHz spectrum is precisely what Ergen wanted Softbank to concede when they battled over Clearwire last year. If DISH does succeed in blocking a Sprint bid for T-Mobile, and T-Mobile is left with 20-40MHz of 2.5GHz spectrum, then there would be every reason for DISH to look at buying T-Mobile next year, as the only remaining way to make use of DISH’s spectrum assets.

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