Dish’s hefty purchase of wireless airwaves in a recently concluded auction jolted investors and bedeviled analysts. The company already sits on one of the largest troves of spectrum in the industry — and still doesn’t actually provide a wireless service.
Dish Network spent a surprising $6.2 billion on wireless airwaves in a recently concluded government auction, a big splurge that did little to address questions about the endgame for billionaire Charlie Ergen’s satellite company.
Only Bellevue-based T-Mobile US bid more in the auction, spending $8 billion out of the $19.8 billion in total proceeds.
Dish’s hefty purchase jolted investors and bedeviled analysts, as the company already sits on one of the largest troves of spectrum in the industry — and still doesn’t actually provide a wireless service.
It’s anyone’s guess what Ergen will do next: Sell Dish? Become a phone company? Sit and wait?
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Dish now controls a much more diverse spectrum portfolio that gives Ergen plenty of options. The Englewood, Colorado-based company has airwaves that are ideal for streaming movies as well as maintaining a cellular signal over long distances. It could decide to package the licenses together for a sale to wireless carriers or cable companies — or use the frequencies to launch a network focused on enabling devices to exchange information.
“The big surprise to us was the amount of spectrum that Dish won — $6.2 billion versus our estimate of nothing,” said Marci Ryvicker, an analyst at Wells Fargo & Co., in a note last week. “Maybe we shouldn’t be that surprised given the attractive pricing and Charlie’s penchant for purchasing spectrum, especially when it’s a deal.”
Prices for this auction were significantly lower than a U.S. airwaves sale that ended in 2015 and drew $44.9 billion in bids. The average price per megahertz per U.S. resident was about 90 cents, compared with $2.72 in that sale, said Kevin Roe, of Roe Equity Research. Comcast and AT&T were among the other significant bidders.
For years, Dish has been buying spectrum opportunistically, bidding on airwaves at auction and acquiring licenses on the cheap from bankrupt satellite companies. Yet the company has never fully articulated a plan for putting those airwaves to use, suggesting Ergen may be interested only in selling the assets for a profit down the road.
As the top bidder in the auction, T-Mobile gained ground on AT&T and Verizon in holdings of spectrum in lower frequency bands, which is prized for its ability to penetrate walls and cover wide areas. With the purchase, T-Mobile now owns 41.1 megahertz of spectrum below the 1-gigahertz frequency, compared with 46.2 megahertz for Verizon and 70.5 megahertz for AT&T, according to Bloomberg Intelligence.
Comcast, which plans to unveil a new wireless service that uses Wi-Fi hot spots and Verizon’s cellular network, bid $1.7 billion on airwaves, much less than expected, according to Macquarie analyst Amy Yong. About a quarter of the investors Yong surveyed thought the cable giant would spend as much as $6 billion.
Verizon, the largest wireless carrier in the U.S., and Sprint didn’t bid at all.
Verizon may have steered clear from the auction in part because it’s thinking of buying Dish’s spectrum later, Roe said. “Verizon’s need for more urban capacity makes Dish’s spectrum a natural fit,” he said. Verizon declined to comment.