DISH Network (DISH) has so far decided to go it alone.

In an era of consolidation when its biggest rival, DirecTV, recently sold out to AT&T (T -0.57%) and pay-television providers have been hit by merger mania, the satellite company has decided to go it alone. That's a risky play, but one that makes sense given the company's maverick streak.

DISH in recent years has not just been a satellite provider; it has also been an agitator and innovator under CEO Charlie Ergen. The company has been ahead of the curve when it comes to offering skinny bundles, and it seems to understand that the pay-television industry has to change or disappear.

This makes DISH, unlike many of its pay-TV rivals, a growth proposition. Even if cord-cutting caused the market to shrink, DISH could still gain customers from its rivals through its Sling TV streaming service or with low-cost satellite. That's by no means a sure thing, but of all the pay-television providers, DISH may be the safest bet, for three reasons.

Sling TV is where the industry is headed
Ergen and his company were ahead of the curve in realizing that cord cutters are not rejecting cable; they are rejecting its high prices. The movement to drop pay-TV subscriptions is about dropping $100-plus bills in favor of streaming services. In creating Sling, which streams some of cable's most popular channels starting at $20 for about 20 channels, DISH lets subscribers narrow the cord without cutting it completely.

And, while if a major pay-TV player like AT&T offered a similar service it might cannibalize its own user base, DISH with its about 13 million customers has less to fear. Satellite is in general cheaper than cable in the first place, giving users less of a reason to downgrade.  

Sling will face some problems going forward, as the company does have negotiated subscription maximums with some of its content partners, but those issues will be solved as skinny bundles become part of every company's arsenal. DISH was first to the streaming skinny bundle party, and it has created an elegant, easy-to-use product that should appeal to both cord-cutters and cord-nevers. (I have a Sling subscription provided to the media for review purposes but pay for cable in two homes and an office.)

The Sling interface is relatively easy to use. Source: screen shot.

It owns a lot of spectrum
While the company ran afoul of the Federal Communications Commission when it denied a $3.3 billion credit DISH tried to use by buying spectrum using two shell companies, the satellite provider still owns a fair amount on unused spectrum. That property could be sold at a premium, or it could be used to enter the wireless space to compete with the major carriers, including AT&T and Verizon

During the company's Q2 earnings call, Ergen expressed frustration with the FCC and suggested that denying the discounts amounted to sending mixed signals. He said that the federal agency said it wants wireless competition, but its moves do not back that up.

"In my heart, the best long-term thing is to compete with the big guys," he said, CNET reported. "But we won't get there without government support. If the big guys can get Congress to write letters and the FCC to make decisions, we can't compete."

Whether DISH launches a wireless service or simply auctions off its spectrum holdings to the highest bidder the company is sitting on an appreciating asset. Any decision on what to do with it could send the stock higher. 

A merger could still happen
DISH remains one of the few big prizes left as an independent company. There have long been rumors and actually discussions between the satellite company and T-Mobile (TMUS 0.21%). That deal, at least on the surface, makes a lot of sense, because in many ways both companies take an industry outsider approach. 
It would be interesting to see if T-Mobile CEO John Legere and Ergen could work together, but there are clear marketing synergies between the two brands. Of course, DISH's spectrum holdings would be of huge value to T-Mobile, and both could market the opposite service to their users.
But while T-Mobile may be the most logical buyer/merger partner for DISH, there are lots of others, and it doesn't take an actual deal to cause stock to rise. Even a strong rumor or a market feeling that DISH was in play or that a big player was considering taking a run at it would be enough to send the stock up.