It’s not official, but it feels real. After months of speculation, Bloomberg Asia is reporting that Dish Network has agreed to buy wireless assets from T-Mobile and Sprint in a $5 billion deal creating a fourth carrier designed to convince the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) to bless the merger of the mobile phone carriers.
It’s not the final step before the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint becomes a reality, but it would appear to be a big one. The DoJ must still okay the merger and the states would have to withdraw their lawsuit. Then we can go back to the full-time task of wondering what Charlie Ergen will do next.
Dish would pay $1.5 billion to receive several prepaid mobile businesses and $3.5 billion for spectrum. In return, according to Bloomberg, the satellite TV provider would receive a seven-year wholesale agreement allowing it to sell T-Mobile wireless service under its brand and a three-year service agreement from T-Mobile to provide operational support.
Solving one of the final reported sticking points, Dish will not be allowed to sell the assets or hand over control of the agreement to a third party for three years, Bloomberg reported.
One of the reasons this year-plus roller coaster of negotiations feels like it is coming to an end stems from reports last week that the DoJ said it would oppose the merger, if T-Mobile and Sprint had did not finalize their deal with Dish within a week. A deadline! Who knew that would work?
New Street Research summarized what Dish will receive: 9 million prepaid subs, mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) status for 7 years, 14 megahertz of 800 MHz band spectrum and eSIM support. The firm also reported that there would be two payments: $1.4 billion now for prepaid subs and then $3.6 billion in three years for spectrum when it has been cleared.
What about Charter?
Adding another wrinkle to the story, Reuters reported that the Justice Department did not reply to Charter Communications’ proposal to buy the carriers’ telecom assets.
“The Justice Department’s lack of response to Charter could raise concerns among critics of the $26.5 billion merger of wireless carriers T-Mobile and Sprint that officials did not weigh all divestiture offers before deciding on a deal with Dish,” Reuters wrote.
And don’t forget about the lawsuit from several state attorneys general, which is attempting to block the T-Mobile/Sprint merger.
“The merger of T-Mobile and Sprint would stifle competition, cut jobs and harm vulnerable consumers from across the country, so unity among the states will be key in defending our citizens against this power-hungry corporate union,” said New York Attorney General Letitia James. It is not known whether the Dish deal would pacify the state attorney general.
Can Dish Make It as a National Carrier?
New Street Research has published analysis that shows Dish would be a disruptor in the wireless business.
“Dish has a path to an attractive wireless business on their own; one that would result in a value well above where the stock is trading today,” the analysis reads. “If they can secure a network hosting deal with T-Mobile, the business would be more valuable still. We worked with network engineers to determine what it would cost Dish to build and operate a new 5G network. We show that, once fully loaded, Dish would have a lower cost per unit of capacity than any of the four national carriers today. This gives Dish the ability to price aggressively, to fill the network swiftly, and to create tremendous value for themselves at the expense of the existing carriers.”
The news of the breakthrough that may advance the merger was welcome for the wireless industry, but unfortunately, it raises more questions than it answers. Will Dish continue to build out its license-saving internet-of-things network? The DoJ most likely will give it an extension to keep the millions of dollars of spectrum it has accrued.
“The broader question is what will they build and when will they build it?” asked Alex Gellman, CEO and cofounder of Vertical Bridge. “Will they build a 5G network and start transitioning the MVNO customers over? It makes sense if they have the freedom to figure out where most of the traffic is and can start picking off the hottest spots with their own proprietary infrastructure.” Comcast and Charter do not have the right to build their own cores as part of their MVNO deals with Verizon.
Perhaps the biggest questions that need to be answered, according to Gellman, is who does Dish partner with and when? “How quickly does Dish partner with someone to build the new network?” he asked. “Does that partner bring customers, capital or the ability to build? That is the wild card.”
But don’t hold your breath. Gellman said he believes Dish will take its time finding a partner and developing a build strategy. “They will take a measured approach,” he said. “They will get to know the Boost customers and they have seven years to use T-Mobile’s network. One thing is for sure, this deal cements the existence of a fourth carrier. Dish can no longer sell its spectrum to AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile.