Dish Network May Set Sights on T-Mobile as Next Acquisition Target

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2013-07-02

Dish Network May Set Sights on T-Mobile as Next Acquisition Target

Late in the final week of June 2013, the long-running soap opera of the Sprint-SoftBank merger was finally over. Dish Networks finally caved and withdrew from its attempt to buy Clearwire out from under Sprint in a June 26 announcement. This Dish disclosure followed a previous move terminating Dish's attempt to buy Sprint itself.

In the wake of these Dish announcements, there are indications that the Federal Communication Commission is about to approve the transfer of the Clearwire spectrum to Sprint in its entirety. That transfer will be the final part of the Sprint-Clearwire merger, and likely will happen shortly before Spring and SoftBank merge. Now that Dish has left the picture, there doesn't seem to be anything standing in the way of closing that deal.

But that leaves Dish without a wireless company, something that Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen has said is a corporate priority. Could it be that Ergen has already started eyeing T-Mobile? Chances are pretty good that Ergen cast his eyes on T-Mobile as soon as Sprint spurned Dish's offer. In fact, Ergen approached Deutsche Telekom about buying T-Mobile in April, but was sent packing.

Now that the T-Mobile merger with MetroPCS is in place, it's possible that DT might be interested again. According to Bloomberg News, Deutsche Telekom is saying that it can sell its share in T-Mobile US to a third party if it sells the whole thing. But wait—wasn't there an 18-month share lockup in place to keep just this sort of thing from happening? That was what DT promised MetroPCS when it was negotiating the merger, after all.

But as is sometimes the case when gazillionaires are involved, promises can be flexible. If there's enough money at stake, the interpretation of what DT promised can change. DT CFO Timotheus Hoettges was quoted in the Bloomberg story as saying that such a sale could take place. So will DT decide to sell if asked by Dish's Ergen?

There are plenty of rumors that a major press announcement by T-Mobile set for July 10 in New York could be news of a merger agreement between Dish and T-Mobile. But the reality is that even if T-Mobile and Dish decide to merge, the announcement won't be at that press event.

T-Mobile is billing the New York event as T-Mobile's next bold move. The last time T-Mobile did an event like this, it was to announce the change to a European sales model, a new less-expensive rate plan without contracts and to announce the iPhone 5.

The timing of the announcement and the hint that it's something major in T-Mobile's evolution mean that it's more likely to be T-Mobile's heavily rumored announcement of Long-Term Evolution (LTE) - Advanced and the availability of the Samsung Galaxy S 4 with LTE-A.

Dish Network May Set Sights on T-Mobile as Next Acquisition Target

T-Mobile is also planning to start selling the Sony Xperia Z and the Nokia 925 around the same time, but those products have already been announced. A T-Mobile branded Android phone is also expected to be announced around this time.

Meanwhile, T-Mobile and MetroPCS are consolidating their operations. MetroPCS customers get GSM phones with Evolved High-Speed Packet Access (HSPA+) and LTE as they upgrade their devices. T-Mobile is reporting net subscriber growth for the first time in a couple of years and a decline in overall subscribers as a result of the aborted merger with AT&T.

It also appears as if the new T-Mobile subscriber plans are changing the way the mobile industry charges for wireless service with lower and even non-contract rate plans starting to show up at other carriers.

With all of this going on, would Deutsche Telekom actually consider selling its T-Mobile stock to Dish? The obvious turnaround of T-Mobile’s fortunes mean that the company is almost certainly worth more than the $16 billion in estimated value at the time of the initial approach by Dish. AT&T offered $39 billion a few years ago. And even though they're in the minority, those MetroPCS shareholders that got TMUS in the deal will have a say, even if it's to try to enforce the DT promise.

But shareholder or management opposition may not be enough to stop Dish from attempting to push through a purchase of T-Mobile, any more than it discouraged Dish from trying to force through a merger with Sprint. But it does raise one significant concern, and that’s the damage that such an attempt could cause to T-Mobile. The failed merger with AT&T kept T-Mobile from growing for nearly four years. Another hostile merger battle, this time with Dish, could be worse.

During the time that T-Mobile was involved with AT&T and its regulatory issues, not only did T-Mobile's growth stall, but the turmoil also stymied the company's ability to expand its network, its device selection and its growth in the business marketplace. It's only now beginning to recover. But another prolonged hostile buyout battle could not only halt that new growth yet again; it could ultimately be a fatal blow.

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