How DISH Could Push a Merger of Sprint and T-Mobile

Late last week, the financial news sites buzzed with rumors that Sprint (NYSE: S  ) and T-Mobile (NYSE: TMUS  ) were considering a merger sometime in the first half of next year. Now, consolidation isn't a rare theme in the telecommunications industry, but this one has some interesting implications beyond the two parties involved. DISH Network (NASDAQ: DISH  ) , for one, has been in active M&A discussions with both companies at various points, and could use either's resources in DISH's quest to launch a wireless business. At the same time, DISH could serve as a clincher in Sprint and T-Mobile's potential regulatory hurdles.

An ongoing story
Last summer, the industry was glued to Charlie Ergen's DISH and its ambitious, investment-banker-feeding efforts to cozy up with a spectrum-laden telecom. While the company had initially fought tooth and nail for Clearwire, the battle at one point turned to Sprint when DISH unexpectedly made an offer to buy the company -- in direct competition with Japanese mobile giant Softbank. That deal never happened, but both companies appear to remain interested in a spectrum-sharing deal in which DISH could essentially piggyback on Sprint's assets.

For DISH and T-Mobile, a merger deal (via DISH buying T-Mobile) has been on the discussion table for some time, too.

The bottom line for the satellite-TV provider is that the pay-TV business in North America is undeniably mature and that the future lies in broadband and wireless. Chairman Charlie Ergen is well-aware of this and willing to do whatever it takes on the M&A front to leverage the spectrum DISH has already acquired, as well as the pre-approval from the FCC to use it.

Back to the future
The Sprint and T-Mobile speculation is, well, speculation. Both management teams have, however, expressed interest during their respective investor conference calls. If a deal were to emerge, the biggest question mark would be in dealing with federal regulators. The FCC and the Department of Justice have not been shy in their hesitance to approve consolidation, especially in the telecom industry.

This is where DISH may have its best edge yet.

DISH could potentially find a way to wedge itself in between the FCC and the two telecom companies. As part of the approval to merge the two companies, the new entity could be asked to share its massive spectrum portfolio with DISH, allowing DISH to launch its own wireless network. This way, the DISH would be a new competitor in the industry (favorable for consumers), while Sprint and T-Mobile could still enjoy the benefits of their consolidation. More over, DISH already has a positive relationship with regulators, which suggests Washington likes the idea of a new power player emerging in an industry that holds incredibly high barriers to entry.

Though DISH would be a much smaller player than any of the existing telecom juggernauts, it opens the door for more competition. Ergen is one of the more forward-thinking leaders of any media company, and his company's presence in the industry will no doubt be felt.

This, of course, is as speculative an idea as the rest. But one thing is for sure: 2014 is shaping up to be an even more active year for mergers and acquisitions among highly competitive industries. 

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