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Don’t Count Dish Out Yet

It’s hard to keep up with – or care about – the on-again, off-again status of the T-Mobile-Sprint merger. As a rule, isn’t it best when our carriers are invisible?

For now, the T-Mobile-Sprint merger is on (read related No Jitter post). U.S. regulators approved the $26.5 billion combination, with a key stipulation – creation of a new fourth cellular provider. The need for a fourth carrier is questionable, as wireless expert Michael Finneran pointed out in his No Jitter post on the news. But, for whatever reason, the regulators insisted. The question of the need was lost after the focus shifted to the nominee: Dish Networks.

As currently agreed, the new T-Mobile will allow Dish to acquire Sprint’s prepaid brand Boost. However, Boost is a brand and not a network, so T-Mobile also agreed to provide Dish with wholesale service on the newly combined T-Mobile/Sprint network for the next seven years. There’s a series of other transactions between the three companies, but in the end, Dish becomes an mobile virtual network operator near term and a 5G mobile network operator long term. 

It seems like a longshot. Dish has no experience in cellular service, no cellular network, and its planned acquisition of the Boost service only gives it nine million (prepaid) subscribers. In comparison, Verizon has about 120 million subscribers, while AT&T has about 90 million subscribers, as will the combined T-Mobile-Sprint.

Most of the cellular experts believe that Dish will either fail or not even try. Either way, the result will be three U.S. 5G carriers. Regulators were concerned enough to have T-Mobile agree to a no-fourth-competitor penalty of up to $2.2 billion if/when Dish fails.

Having casually followed the satellite company since the ‘90s, I’m not so quick to write-off Dish. I’ve outlined several reasons why Dish could emerge as a successful cellular provider below. 

Founder-power

Charlie Ergen, Dish founder and executive chairman, is a fighter, survivor, and self-made billionaire. When selling giant satellite dishes at a Denver retail store, he understood the disruptive potential of the next wave of tech. The dish antennas were going to get much smaller, and picture quality was going to improve. He created satellite communications solutions provider EchoStar in 1980, which then created and eventually spun out the Dish brand in 2008. He has nearly lost these companies several times yet survives. He bets big and somehow wins despite failed mergers, failed satellites, and other failures. 

Ergen used the new digital technology to disrupt the cable television industry. He had regular fights with competitors and suppliers. Most of these battles took place behind the scenes, but some were visible. For example, it wasn’t uncommon for Dish to black out channels during content negotiations. Ergen even survived a very public failed deal with media mogul Rupert Murdoch.  

Here’s a story that shows how Dish survives. The company introduced the Dish Hopper in 2012 -- a commercial-skipping, whole-home DVR and satellite receiver. In 2002, ReplayTV introduced a commercial-skipping DVR and then filed for bankruptcy in 2003 after the networks filed lawsuits. The major networks also sued Dish for skipping commercials, yet the Hopper and Dish continue. The Hopper even won the Best of Show at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show, following a controversy where CNET's parent company CBS initially pulled the device for consideration due to on-going litigation with the company — Dish won the award and CNET lost its contract with CES.