Dish Network Ready to Go All-In for Sprint

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When Dish Network Corp. (NASDAQ: DISH) put in its bid of $25.5 billion for Sprint Nextel Corp. (NYSE: S), there could be little question that the satellite TV provider was serious about its long-term plan to remake itself. At yesterday’s annual shareholders meeting, Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen made his strongest statement yet on the importance of winning the fight against Japan’s Softbank for Sprint.

Ergen said, “We’re not going to lose because we’ve got a better offer on the table.” Dish’s offer for Sprint is $7.10 in cash per share, along with a 32% ownership stake for Sprint shareholders in the combined company, tops Softbank’s cash offer of $6.38 a share and a 30% stake in Sprint.

Softbank has said that it will not improve its offer, but that was then. Ergen appears to expect a sweetened offer for Sprint from Softbank, and indicated yesterday that Dish would have to seek a private equity partner if Softbank put in a bid of $7.50 or $8.00 a share.

Ergen also made it very clear about what is important to Dish: the spectrum owned by Clearwire Corp. (NASDAQ: CLWR), a company controlled by Sprint and for which the wireless carrier already has offered to buy the rest of the company. Dish has tried before to acquire spectrum from Clearwire, only to be rebuffed. Now the gloves are off.

Ergen’s strategy — if he can acquire Sprint/Clearwire — is to leverage Dish’s satellite network with a terrestrial wireless network that would allow subscribers to get mobile wireless service as part of a single package. Verizon Wireless — still a joint venture between Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) and Vodafone Group PLC (NASDAQ: VOD) — and AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) both seek the same thing, but neither has the content licenses that Dish already has in place with the media companies.

That is a huge part of Ergen’s play here. Dish would be transformed virtually overnight into the only U.S. provider of a single, all-inclusive wireless-pay TV package that would allow customers seamless access to media content both inside and outside their homes.

Suddenly, Dish is a threat to what is essentially a duopoly at the top of the wireless industry in the United States. The FCC would be hard-pressed to deny a merger that promises to increase competition for consumers.

It is still early days, but the fight for Sprint/Clearwire has all the earmarks of being a good one for Sprint shareholders. Shares are trading now at $7.12, slightly above Dish’s cash offer of $7.10. If Softbank makes a higher bid, shares will shoot up on the expectation that Dish will top the offer.

Ergen has as much as said that Dish Network’s future depends on its acquisition of Sprint/Clearwire. Certainly Dish’s growth prospects are dim without a transformative deal like this, and there are no other deals out there like this one. For Dish, it is grow or die.

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