Estimates for DISH Network's (DISH -0.85%) spectrum license holdings reached as high as $1.73 per MHz/POP. That's the value T-Mobile (TMUS 0.25%) got from Verizon (VZ -0.43%) when it transferred some AWS and PCS spectrum in exchange for some 700 MHz spectrum in January of 2014. With Verizon long rumored as a potential buyer for DISH's spectrum, analysts believed the satellite TV provider could fetch a similar price.
But as we near the start of the 600 MHz spectrum incentive auction, DISH hasn't made any deals with Verizon or any other carriers to sell its spectrum. With the major carriers strapped for cash and few bidders taking a paddle, the average estimate for the price per MHz/POP in the auction has declined considerably since last summer. As such, the value of DISH's dormant spectrum has declined as well.
$0.80 a pop
One research firm has lowered its estimated value of DISH's holdings by 32% in just the last few months. New Street Research released a note saying DISH's portfolio of mid-band spectrum is being valued at just $0.80 per MHz/POP, down from $1.18 at the end of the third quarter.
The firm's estimate stems from the actual drop in value of DISH Network's stock in that period. Over the last three months, DISH's stock price has declined about 25%. The company now has a market cap around $22 billion and an enterprise value of around $34 billion.
With nearly 14 million television subscribers, it's hard to say DISH's television business is worthless. At $0.80 per MHz/POP DISH's spectrum holdings are worth approximately $18.5 billion, which values DISH's main business at about $15 billion. Even at $0.80 per MHz/POP, New Street may be overstating the current value the market is putting on DISH's spectrum holdings.
The intrinsic value is much higher
It's not that DISH's spectrum licenses are no good. In fact, Verizon has said that it values DISH's holdings more than the 600 MHz spectrum coming up for auction in the next month or so.
Wells Fargo analyst Jennifer Fritzsche estimates bidders will spend about $33 billion in the upcoming incentive auction, which will include somewhere between 70 MHz and 100 MHz of spectrum. That comes to $1.08 to $1.54 per MHz/POP.
Even at the top end, that's nearly half of what Verizon paid for its AWS-3 spectrum last year. DISH's spectrum holdings are more similar to the mid-band AWS-3 spectrum than the low-band spectrum up for auction this year. Considering Verizon's network already runs on mid-band spectrum, it would be less expensive for Verizon to build out DISH's spectrum holdings. Thus, the higher value it puts on them.
But no one wants to buy it
The problem is no one wants to buy DISH's spectrum. "The next step for DISH isn't likely to be an outright sale or lease of spectrum," said analyst Craig Moffett. "It's likely to be a separation or spin-off of DISH's spectrum holdings from its core business."
DISH doesn't currently have any plans to build out a wireless network of its own. "I don't personally see a fifth operator in the United States unless there was something like neutral hosting where the existing carriers could use it." CEO Charlie Ergen said on DISH's fourth-quarter earnings call. "The competitive balance is pretty good." Not to mention building out a network is capital intensive and would destroy a lot of the value of the company.
Other analysts speculate that DISH may look to merge with T-Mobile, providing an avenue to deploy its spectrum holdings. But Moffett believes even an acquisition strategy could result in "substantial direct financial losses as well as a radical de-rating of the stock as the company's spectrum holdings are negatively revalued by investors."
DISH is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Its best course of action may be to wait out the upcoming incentive auction and see how the landscape unfolds. Investors will have much more clarity after the auction to assess the potential of another company actually purchasing DISH's spectrum.