05.26.15

Heads we win, tails you lose…

Posted in AT&T, DISH, Financials, Operators, Regulatory, Spectrum, Verizon at 12:06 pm by timfarrar

Its been interesting to note that AT&T and Verizon did not file any petitions to deny the AWS-3 license applications of DISH’s two Designated Entities, NorthStar and SNR, despite Verizon and AT&T both having earlier been vocal in denigrating DISH’s bidding strategy in their comments in the FCC’s bidding procedures docket 14-170.

Instead the opposition was left to a couple of small bidders plus a collection of ‘public interest’ organizations, who followed the path set out by Verizon, and alleged violations of antitrust laws by DISH and its DEs. DISH’s response argued that there was no antitrust violation and that the joint bidding arrangements (including realtime coordination of bids during each round, which most people including myself thought was not allowed) were fully disclosed.

While the eventual FCC decision on DISH’s $3.3B discount remains uncertain (and according to FCC Chairman Wheeler would not in any case involve denial of the licenses or reauctioning of the spectrum), it is far from a slam dunk (as some argued originally) that DISH will keep the discount. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Verizon and AT&T could even be better off if DISH kept the DE discount, and that might provide one reason why they held back from challenging DISH’s licenses directly.

Of course DISH would lose $3.3B if the DE discount was rejected, but in that case, DISH would acquire NorthStar and SNR under the terms of its agreements with the DEs, and would be free to consolidate and restructure its AWS-3 and AWS-4 spectrum holdings. After that, in my view, the most likely end game would be to spin-off all of DISH’s spectrum (AWS-3, AWS-4, 700MHz E-block, PCS H-block) into a holding company, which could lease individual licenses to any wireless operator, and raise perhaps $20B-$30B of debt at the spinco level, flowing that cash back up to DISH (and perhaps allowing Ergen to take some chips off the table).

Any repricing of the AWS-3 spectrum would presumably increase Ergen’s asking price for his leases, meaning that Verizon and AT&T might ultimately be the ones to suffer from the removal of the discount. In fact Verizon might even decide it had to pay up and pre-empt the spinoff because of the prospect that this arrangement would make more spectrum available in key markets for both T-Mobile and Sprint.

However, in order to execute these spinoff plans and enter into meaningful leases of AWS-4 spectrum, it is critical that DISH secures interoperability for its AWS-4 downlinks (2180-2200MHz) with the AWS-3 blocks. T-Mobile and Sprint know all too well that building out networks in bands without an ecosystem (such as T-Mobile’s deployment of WCDMA/HSPA in the AWS-1 band, which was ultimately abandoned, and Sprint’s PCS G-block LTE network) makes it much more difficult and expensive to secure handsets (hence there was no WCDMA iPhone operating in AWS-1 and Sprint had to guarantee billions of dollars of purchases to secure a G-block iPhone). As a result, they are unlikely to want to get into bed with DISH and make use of AWS-4 unless and until there is some guarantee of a handset ecosystem.

While DISH can pursue a band class designation for AWS-4 supplementary downlinks through 3GPP, we only need to look at the story of Band Classes 12 and 17 (in the lower 700MHz band) to see that a band class designation on its own, without any regulatory mandate for interoperability, is insufficient to ensure a handset ecosystem is created. And at the end of the day, the FCC was forced to intervene and broker a deal to ensure interoperability in the lower 700MHz band, before T-Mobile moved to buy 700MHz A block licenses for its low band coverage buildout.

Its therefore hardly surprising that AWS-3/4 interoperability was a key request of DISH in March 2014 before the auction, and fiercely opposed by Verizon and AT&T. At the time, the FCC decided not to impose a mandate, but strongly suggested that cooperative efforts should be made to ensure interoperability with AWS-4:

In the absence of technical impediments to interoperability, if the Commission determines that progress on interoperability has stalled in the standards process, future AWS-3 licensees are hereby on notice that the Commission will consider initiating a rulemaking regarding the extension of an interoperability mandate that includes AWS-4 (2180-2200 MHz) at that time. Should we undertake such a rulemaking, relevant considerations may include considerations of harmful interference, technical cost and difficulty of implementation, and the extent to which licensees are common to both the AWS-3 and AWS-4 bands.

Given the likelihood that AT&T and Verizon will engage in delaying tactics (not least due to the relatively short period in which DISH needs to start moving ahead on deployment), DISH will very probably need help from the FCC to push AWS-3/4 interoperability forward. However, if DISH is seen to have gamed the auction rules and secured an unwarranted multi-billion dollar discount, it will be far more difficult for the FCC to help out DISH on interoperability over AT&T and Verizon’s objections.

That might in fact be AT&T and Verizon’s ultimate goal: box DISH in with no possibility of a deal with T-Mobile or Sprint to put its AWS-4 spectrum to use, and wait for Charlie to cry uncle when he runs up against his AWS-4 buildout deadlines. Note that it is pretty much a foregone conclusion that the 4 year interim deadline to cover 40% of the population in each Economic Area by March 2017 will be missed, which will bring forward the final 70% coverage deadline to March 2020 (the timeline was extended to 8 years as part of the H-block deal in December 2013, but one year will be deducted if the interim deadline is not met).

Thus if DISH is unable to reach lease agreements with T-Mobile and/or Sprint for an AWS-4 buildout by the first half of 2017 at the latest (which will require interoperability to be secured in the next 18 months or so), Ergen will be under considerable pressure to moderate his price demands for a sale to Verizon or AT&T. As a result, AT&T and Verizon may win even more if DISH keeps the DE discount, than the $3.3B that DISH loses if the discount is rejected.

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