Will Dish Network Get Its Way in 2014?

Dish Network (NASDAQ: DISH  ) had a challenging if ultimately disappointing 2013. The company has relentlessly pursued various mergers and acquisitions in hopes of leveraging its significant portfolio of airwaves to create a national broadband network. In the first couple months of 2014, the situation has only become more difficult. Luckily, Dish Network's operating business remains strong, with average revenue per user, or ARPU, rising healthily and generating needed cash flow for the nation's third largest pay-TV provider. Investors and analysts are not ultimately interested in Dish's core satellite TV business -- they want to know if and how the company will make its leap into head-on competition with the major telecoms. Is Dish any closer to its ambitious goal today?

Hurdles
With preliminary approval to use its spectrum in launching a broadband network, Dish is theoretically in a strong position to achieve its goal. The last big step remaining is to find a partner. In 2013, that partner could have been Sprint, LightSquared, T-Mobile, or others, but nearly every battle that Dish has waged on the M&A front has ended in defeat. This leaves the company in a difficult place and with fewer and fewer options.

In the meantime, the satellite TV business is improving (a trend unseen by cable competitors), with 8,000 net new subscribers and a 5% gain in ARPU for the just-ended quarter. Top-line sales increased 7% to $3.54 billion, with the bottom line up to an impressive $288 million from $209 million.

Management has a different tone than it did one year ago, saying that it will focus on its existing partnerships rather than seeking new ones. When asked if the company would counter any Softbank bid for T-Mobile, Chairman Charlie Ergen said Dish has had enough of trying to match the Japanese banking giant's bids for U.S. telecoms (the two duked it out over Sprint last year, with Softbank coming out the winner).

So where does that leave Dish today?

An organic marriage
Just because Dish may not join forces with a mainstay U.S. telecom does not mean its ambitions for a broadband network are muted. In recent management comments, the company reiterated that it holds the second largest portfolio of spectrum behind Sprint. Investors can be sure that this asset will be put to use at some point in the future.

At the same time, there is renewed interest in a possible merger between Dish and DIRECTV (NASDAQ: DTV  ) . With Comcast and Time Warner Cable attempting to tie the knot, industry consolidation appears inevitable. If federal regulators accept one deal, they will have to deeply consider a corresponding merger between the two leading satellite providers.

The joint entity would create a more attractive business for investors (and perhaps trouble consumers, but that's a different discussion), as Dish and DIRECTV together would hold a tremendous subscriber portfolio here and abroad, as well as strengthened pricing power with content owners and broadcasters. With such a comprehensive business, Dish would have greater probability than ever of launching its proposed network and taking on the telecom and media giants.

How this will play out is unknown. Investors should not bet on either side of the M&A table, as that remains pure speculation. While the operating business remains strong, Dish's stock appears valued for the future of its spectrum. With no evidence yet of how that will happen, investors could take the more conservative approach and look at DIRECTV for their satellite TV investing needs.

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