How Dish figures into the T-Mobile-Sprint megamerger

If the deal survives, it may well be because of Dish. We break down how things might play out.

Eli Blumenthal Senior Editor
Eli Blumenthal is a senior editor at CNET with a particular focus on covering the latest in the ever-changing worlds of telecom, streaming and sports. He previously worked as a technology reporter at USA Today.
Expertise 5G, mobile networks, wireless carriers, phones, tablets, streaming devices, streaming platforms, mobile and console gaming,
Eli Blumenthal
6 min read

Of the four major carrier, only T-Mobile and Sprint support the service.

Josh Miller/CNET

The pending merger between T-Mobile and Sprint has been filled with twists and turns worthy of any summer blockbuster. From the years-long "will they, won't they" dance between the two, to the recent scramble to win regulatory approval for the $26.5 billion deal, things have been anything but simple.

The Federal Communications Commission has endorsed the deal, praising its potential for helping get 5G off the ground. But 13 state attorneys general, plus the District of Columbia, have filed a multistate lawsuit to block it, arguing that competition will suffer if the US market shrinks from four major carriers to three. The fate of the merger now rests with Department of Justice antitrust chief Makan Delrahim, whose staff has reportedly been pushing to stop it.

Enter Dish.

The satellite TV provider has always been on the periphery of wireless deals. For years, it has stockpiled spectrum -- the wireless airwaves that networks use to ferry data -- and has until March to make use of it.

As the DOJ and T-Mobile look for a possible fourth carrier to allay those antitrust concerns, Dish is a logical fit to gobble up some of the assets divested from T-Mobile and Sprint and become a player in its own right.

The question, however, is whether Dish has the stomach to invest in building out a full-fledged network that can realistically compete against Verizon , AT&T and T-Mobile for your business. With no clear details on what Dish is interested in or what T-Mobile is willing to give up to make the deal work, here are a few scenarios on what a Dish network might look like.

Scenario 1: Dish builds a 5G network, buys the Boost Mobile brand and assets

Dish has accumulated tens of billions of dollars' worth of wireless spectrum over the years and has a deadline of March 7, 2020, to have a network ready that satisfies the FCC's deployment requirements. If it fails to build that network, it will lose its licenses.

Charlie Ergen, a Dish co-founder, has expressed interest in building a 5G network. A recent Bloomberg report suggested that Ergen would buy Sprint's Boost Mobile brand and wireless spectrum from Sprint for $6 billion.

Sprint is deploying a 5G network in nine cities across the country, but it's likely that network, and the spectrum it utilizes, will stay with T-Mobile. Dish's network would be separate.

The 5G network could help Dish diversify from its traditional nationwide satellite TV offering, which like the rest of the television industry, has suffered since the advent of cord-cutters. By building this network, the TV provider would become an internet provider and gain a new outlet for growth.

Under this scenario, Dish becomes a wireless carrier, though it's unclear if it does decide to go down this route when such a network would be ready. It is also unknown if a deal with T-Mobile would allow Dish to utilize some of T-Mobile and Sprint's existing network infrastructure, thereby giving Dish a way to jumpstart this process as it builds out a network.

In a recent research note, MoffettNathanson telecom analyst Craig Moffett described Dish entering the space as a "terrible idea."

"When push comes to shove, neither we nor anyone else we can find, save Charlie Ergen himself, seems really to believe that entering the wireless industry from a standing start in 2019 or 2020, as a fourth or even fifth competitor, would be anything other than a terrible idea," Moffett wrote.

Dish declined to comment. T-Mobile and Sprint did not respond to a request for comment. 

Scenario 2: Dish builds an internet network, but not for mobile phones

Dish TV movie selection screen

Dish is best known for its satellite TV offering. 

Dish Network

Another option in play is that Dish builds a new network, but it's not a traditional wireless network that phones and tablets could connect to.

Last November, Dish announced that it had selected Ericsson to provide radio access and the core network for a nationwide narrowband network designed to be used with "internet of things" devices such as smart thermostats, energy meters, traffic lights and security systems.

Dish has already been building out this network, with a goal to be done by the March deadline. Ergen has previously said that this IoT network would be the first step toward an eventual 5G network.

"If Dish is buying spectrum, I think they are better served looking at a slice of the market and not going after the whole market," Will Townsend, senior analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy, told CNET. "It wouldn't be prudent to spread themselves really then and go after everything."

"I think they would be better served by looking at some aspect of IoT."

it's not clear whether such a network would appease the FCC's requirements for Dish or the DOJ's concerns that the lack of a strong fourth carrier means less competition.

Fixed wireless, or a network designed to rival home broadband, is another option. "They could get quite clever and they could ... bundle consumer applications with the content," Townsend said, adding "there's value there" if Dish builds out a fixed wireless network and bundles in TV service,

"You're offering more for less to the consumers," he said. "That certainly would satisfy the DOJ's concerns on anti-competitiveness."

Boost Mobile logo on a light switch

Boost Mobile is up for a sale as part of the T-Mobile-Sprint merger. 

Boost Mobile

Scenario 3: Dish leaves, Goldman Sachs sells the assets at auction

Although Dish has plenty of reasons to be interested, the company's behavior around wireless has always been erratic, leading T-Mobile to reportedly prepare for alternatives.

Adding credence, a New York Post report late Friday suggested Ergen might try to work out a deal with both T-Mobile and the DOJ in an attempt to get better terms from the former and negotiate a possible extension through the latter.  

A new scenario appeared last week when Reuters reported that T-Mobile had brought on Goldman Sachs to auction the Boost brand and other Sprint assets the US government is forcing the company to divest.

It's unclear who would want to buy Boost or even what they'd be buying in such a deal. Amazon has been one of the names mentioned in connection with Boost, with Google being thrown out by some in the past as another option.

What exactly a buyer would be getting, however, remains just as much a mystery. Reuters reported the investment bank is "not yet clear what exactly is up for sale from the merger."

Scenario 4: Enter Amazon?

Amazon Fire Phone

In June 2014, Amazon introduced its first smartphone, the Fire Phone. It was a bust from the start and was soon gone from the market.

David Ryder / Getty Images

Could Amazon, which very briefly had its own smartphone on the market five years ago, be the knight in shining armor for both Dish and T-Mobile? Possibly.

"Amazon has been sniffing around the wireless industry in various forms for years," BTIG analyst Walter Piecyk wrote in a recent report discussing potential ramifications of the deal and what T-Mobile might have to do to get it approved.

"The spectrum that T-Mobile is likely willing to offer as part of this transaction is probably not enough to interest Amazon on its own. But if combined with Dish's spectrum and a deal to cost effectively use the New T-Mobile's tower assets, it could become much more attractive and could move Amazon from its role as spectator to a wireless participant."

Amazon declined to comment. 

Of course, with the retail giant already under increased regulatory scrutiny and growing calls that the company needs to be broken up, becoming a telecom provider may not be the best move, even as a partner.

"I think people would be more comfortable with a company like Dish coming in... as opposed to an Amazon or Google," Townsend says, referencing concerns users might have of those giants getting even larger.  "I think consumers would be more willing to give Dish a try than Amazon and Google."