And They Keep on Coming

After initial claims that there was “no grand strategy” behind Dish Network’s acquisition of Terrestar’s 20 MHz of S-Band MSS spectrum out of bankruptcy, Dish has proven sceptics wrong.

This week the company filed its FCC application seeking approval of the purchase. Dish requested that it be allowed to combine its purchase of Terrestar’s 20 MHz with its purchase of DBSB’s 20 MHz of MSS. The company also asked for a waiver of the FCC restrictions on using MSS spectrum primarily for terrestrial service. If the FCC grants Dish’s applications, the company will have a 40 MHz contiguous block of unencumbered S-band MSS spectrum which the company says it will use to offer mobile and fixed wireless broadband services on a retail basis. Because the S-band MSS spectrum does not present the GPS interference issues that Lightsquared’s L-band spectrum does, Dish is an even stronger new entrant into the US wireless industry. In fact, Dish Network, the country’s third largest pay-TV provider with more than 14 million customers, will be positioned as a formidable provider of a complete telecom offer — internet, TV and mobile – with greater geographic and population reach than AT&T, CenturyLink, Comcast, Cox, or Verizon.

Dish’s bold move proves that new entrants into the wireless market are more common than what popular wisdom may want you to believe. For example, many have derided MVNOs as not being “real” competition because they purchase minutes from other carriers rather than build a network. This perspective completely ignores the massive success of Tracfone, the country’s fifth largest service provider with more than 18.7 million subscribers at the end of Q2 2011. This reality should lead to at least a reassessment of the theory that MVNOs are not real competitors to facilities based mobile providers. Mobile virtual operators and facilities-based operators look and feel the same to consumers.

But back to Dish’s plans. The proposed wireless network would work well in conjunction with Dish Network’s Blockbuster acquisition, which has streaming movie rights just like Netflix and Dish Network’s Satellite TV service. Dish could offer a total communication and entertainment bundle. Satellite TV at home, 4G internet connection at home and on the go, with all the streaming video on top of it. Dish has 14 million customers it can use as a starting point for cross-selling. In addition, Blockbuster’s 500 stores could serve as Dish’ sales and customer service backbone. Think of Apple-like experience stores – a physical place where consumers can see and feel how it all connects and fits together. Some may think that 1,500 stores is insufficient to make an impact, but when you look at what a huge impact Apple’s 241 retail stores have, one could conclude that 1,500 stores done right could be a force to be reckoned with.

A question many are asking is where Dish will find the money to build the network. As we learned from Lightsquared, vendor financing has made a revival. There are many vendors that could view a Dish network build as an opportunity to gain a bigger foothold in the US market. Another question is whether Dish will mobilize a consortium of small and mid-size mobile wireless providers and partner with them to build out and/or offer service. And there is of course the question of timing for build. Will the FCC put Dish on a fast track similar to Lightsquared’s buildout schedule? No one knows for sure what Charlie Ergen’s plans are other than Charlie, but what we do know is that there is nothing about the US wireless industry structure that prevents him from becoming the country’s newest facilities based wireless broadband competitor. In fact, if Dish succeeds at the FCC and raises the money it needs for the network build, Dish would become the industry’s second, brand new facilities-based wireless entrant in less than two years. Calling this industry anything other than competitive is simply ignoring reality.