Since the start of the FCC's AWS-3 spectrum auction in mid-November, Dish Network (NASDAQ:DISH) shares have increased rapidly. When shares were at their recent highs in late November, the company had added $7 billion to its enterprise value from where it stood on Nov. 1.
The increasing amount being bid in the FCC's current auction of AWS-3 wireless spectrum -- more than $44 billion in the most recent round -- is helping push Dish's stock price. Dish owns a similar swath of spectrum that is getting reevaluated by investors as the auction raises more and more money.
Let's take a look at how Dish's participation in the spectrum auction is impacting its stock price, and what it might do with its current licenses in the future.
How Dish is increasing the value of its assets
As of the end of bidding on Wednesday, the FCC raised more than $44 billion in commitments for the AWS-3 spectrum on the auction block. Before bidding began, the FCC set the reserve price at just less than $10.6 billion. To say the least, the results are far beyond most people's expectations.
Bids are anonymous and the winners won't be known until after the auction is concluded. Dish is not on the list of qualified bidders for the auction under its own name, but is in the auction as American AWS-3 Wireless I LLC and has joint bidding arrangements with two other bidders, Reuters reported.
While it's not certain why the price is so much higher than expected, I have a strong feeling Dish CEO Charlie Ergen has something to do with it. Dish wants to ensure T-Mobile (NASDAQ:TMUS), AT&T (NYSE:T), and Verizon (NYSE:VZ) pay up for the spectrum they want.
Dish currently holds 40 MHz of AWS-4 spectrum between 2180 MHz and 2220 MHz, which is actually more attractive for buyers than the AWS-3 spectrum up for auction. As the price of the spectrum blocks currently at auction continues to rise, so does the value of Dish's portfolio.
Dish's move to bid up spectrum prices is a risky one, however. AT&T and Verizon may decide to let Dish have the spectrum if the price gets to a point neither are willing to pay. If Dish gets stuck with some AWS-3 spectrum, it will need to move to get a mandate to ensure AWS-3 will interoperate with AWS-4. Of course, owning some of both increases the chances of getting the mandate.
That risk is mitigated by the fact that both AT&T and Verizon are desperate for spectrum as they compete with each other to build out their networks. T-Mobile is interested in a piece of the spectrum, as well, but has its sights set on the low-band spectrum auction in 2016.
A problem with Dish holding spectrum
Dish's current AWS-4 spectrum licenses require the spectrum to be used for mobile devices. More importantly, the FCC put a clock on the licenses, with DirecTV needing to use 40% by 2017, and 70% by 2021. This puts Dish in a position where it either needs to use the spectrum by acquiring, getting acquired, or merging with a carrier, or to sell it to someone who can use it.
Selling the spectrum is unattractive for Dish, as it would leave it as a stand-alone pay-TV provider competing against the (pending) combined AT&T-DirecTV and Comcast-Time Warner, which are able to bundle Internet, TV, and phone services together. But finding a way to use the spectrum through a merger of its own or building out a network may be more difficult.
The strongest potential acquisition or merger target for Dish Network looks to be T-Mobile. It doesn't have enough money to buy AT&T or Verizon, and neither has enough money to acquire Dish. T-Mobile, with an enterprise value around $32 billion, would have to agree to a merger considering Dish's $10 billion in cash and short-term investments.
As the price of spectrum continues to rise, T-Mobile may be interested in at least partnering with Dish Network to use its spectrum. That would provide Dish with another potential revenue stream while boosting the attractiveness of its pay-TV service through bundling.
While the current spectrum auction has effectively increased the value of Dish's spectrum holdings, the clock is working against the company. If it can't come to a solution on how to use its spectrum soon, it will have to sell its licenses to someone who can take advantage of them. And while that may boost the company's cash holdings, it would put it in a poor strategic position.
Adam Levy owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Google (A shares), Google (C shares), Netflix, and Verizon Communications, Inc.. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google (A shares), Google (C shares), and Netflix. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.