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Dish Network to FCC: Pause the Sprint-Softbank merger review

While the FCC is mulling over the Sprint-Softbank deal that would see Sprint able to buy the remaining shares in Clearwire, rival bidder Dish Network wants the regulator to slam on the brakes.

Marguerite Reardon/CNET

Dish Network has asked the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to pause its review of Softbank's proposed $20.1 billion acquisition of Sprint.

When Japanese carrier Softbank acquired a 70 percent stake in Sprint in October, it provided Sprint with the cash to acquire the Clearwire shares it didn't already own. Sprint has been floundering in the cellular market for some time, and made the Clearwire bid to acquire greater spectrum and more customers.

Sprint offered to buy remaining Clearwire shares for $2.90 apiece. Softbank then capped the bid at $2.97 per share and wouldn't budge any further.

Dish Network countered with an unsolicited bid of $3.30 a share, trouncing Sprint's meager bid by comparison, despite the fact that Clearwire wasn't fielding offers from other companies. However, Clearwire said in a statement at the time that while it would consider Dish's bid, it was "severely limited by its current contractual arrangements" with Sprint, which still owns more than 50 percent of Clearwire although it doesn't have control of the board.

It would be difficult for Clearwire to consider the Dish offer because of those contractual obligations, and a deal would only work if Sprint were to waive multiple commercial agreements and free itself of a complicated tie-up including debt, equity, and spectrum deals. Sprint has already said it would not waive its contractual rights.

"Sprint believes its agreement to acquire Clearwire is superior, given Sprint is offering Clearwire shareholders a more certain price and path to close," said a Sprint representative.

Now that Dish Network has made a bid for Clearwire, the satellite company is asking the FCC to hold off on its Sprint-Softbank review. Its reasoning: should the Sprint-Softbank fall through, Sprint won't have the cash to acquire the rest of the shares of Clearwire, leaving Dish Network to pick up the pieces.

In a regulatory filing with the FCC, Dish said that because Sprint's bid for Clearwire depends on the Sprint-Softbank deal going ahead, these "contingencies make SoftBank’s and Sprint’s applications unripe for consideration."

Clearwire hasn't made any decisions on Sprint's bid, and it said the company plans to talk to Dish and will keep its options open, Bloomberg reports.

Dish said: "...the 'shot clock' in this proceeding [should] be paused until the resolution of significant unresolved contingencies concerning Sprint's offer to acquire all of Clearwire," because the firm argues that in the judicial context, "a claim is not ripe, and thus cannot proceed, if it rests upon 'contingent future events that may not occur as anticipated, or indeed may not occur at all'."

Though Dish's bid was unsolicited, it's far higher than Sprint's, and the offer doesn't rely on a cash injection from an acquiring company like Softbank.

Updated at 1:58 p.m. PT: to include Sprint's response.