Dish looks to FCC for cues on its spectrum strategy

Dish is open to options including the sale of its spectrum or a potential partnership if it doesn't get a conditional waiver to use its spectrum, CNET has learned.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
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Dish Network's spectrum, and what the company plans to do with it, could have ramifications on the rest of the wireless industry. Josh Long/CNET

Dish Network, sitting on an increasingly valuable stash of spectrum vital to powering wireless data traffic, is waiting on a key waiver from the Federal Communications Commission before deciding on its next move.

The waiver, similar to one that the FCC yanked from LightSquared earlier this week, would allow Dish to use its spectrum to build its own high-speed wireless network. If the FCC doesn't grant the conditional waiver to Dish, it would explore several options including the sale of the spectrum or a partnership with another carrier, CNET has learned.

The moves that Dish could make have broader implications for the wireless industry and how the various players deal with the looming spectrum crunch. Depending on what side the FCC falls on, the industry could see another wireless provider in Dish, a potential partnership with T-Mobile, or AT&T with a strengthened spectrum position.

Dish's spectrum recently jumped in value after the FCC essentially killed LightSquared's plans of building its own 4G network by pulling its conditional waiver, which would have allowed the company to use spectrum initially designated for satellite use to build its own terrestrial cellular network. LightSquared was undone by concerns that its spectrum would interfere with critical GPS equipment, which operate on a nearby frequency.

The spectrum that Dish owns has the same satellite designation as LightSquared's spectrum. As a result, it requires the same conditional waiver that would allow products running on that spectrum to be built without costly satellite capabilities. The spectrum was acquired last year from two bankrupt companies, DBSD North America and TerreStar Networks, which both had satellite-based ventures, for $2.8 billion. Unlike LightSquared's spectrum, it doesn't interfere with GPS equipment, making it valuable to anyone looking to build a wireless network, or augment an existing one.

As The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, Dish's preference would be to build its own wireless network. The company has long coveted a broadband service of some kind to pair with its satellite TV offering. It had partnered with landline Internet providers to offer video-on-demand content. It was also an early supporter of the Clearwire and LightSquared initiatives, although little materialized out of those partnerships.

Dish has had discussions with vendors to get a feel for how much investment is necessary to build out the network, according to a person familiar with the company's planning. The company is actually ready to move quickly on the rollout if a waiver is granted. The company, however, has yet to commit to any contract.

Dish is actually looking for a one-off waiver that would allow it to immediately use the spectrum. If the FCC, however, could seek a broader waiver that would cover all spectrum with the same kind of satellite properties. If it does, it could go through a lengthy approval process that would require public review, and likely draw opposition from the GPS industry.

It's unclear what the FCC will do. On one hand, the embarrassment of the LightSquared implosion may leave the agency reluctant to grant a similar conditional waiver. But the loss of a potential competitor and source of spectrum in LightSquared may fire the FCC up to get moving on getting an alternate option.

If the FCC seeks a broader waiver, Dish would explore its options, the person said. Dish, of course, could sit on the spectrum and watch its value appreciate.

The spectrum would attract a lot of parties. AT&T is eager to get its hands on the spectrum, the Journal reported yesterday. AT&T had originally eyed T-Mobile's spectrum as the solution to its pending shortage. But with the deal squashed, the company has been looking at other options, including prepaid retailers MetroPCS and Leap Wireless.

While T-Mobile USA owner Deutsche Telekom isn't inclined to make any major deals in the U.S., it could seek a partner to shore up its spectrum needs. Dish CEO Joseph Clayton told Bloomberg in December--prior to the AT&T-T/Mobile deal falling apart--that he would be interested in a partnership with T-Mobile.

A Dish representative declined to comment on whether the company is in talks with AT&T or T-Mobile.

Dish, however, will likely remain in a holding pattern until the FCC makes its decision. The timing of such a waiver is unclear, but with LightSquared behind it and spectrum scarcity still an issue, the agency will be pressed to move sooner than later.