U.S. Mobile Market Structure Will be Shaped by Dish Decisions

As competitive as the U.S. mobile market has become--despite frequent protests that the market essentially is a duopoly--it almost certainly is going to become more competitive.

Strategically, Comcast is expected to enter the market, at some point. Cablevision Systems Corp. already has done so, though as a niche provider with greatest potential impact in its limtied home operating area. Comcast almost certainly will have to enter as a national provider.

Dish Network either must enter the market as an operator, or forfeit the rights to spectrum that presently accounts for as much as 80 percent of its total market value.

And then there are the other contenders, including Google, which it is believed soon will be entering the mobile market, and Apple, a perennial potential actor in the market as well.

But the biggest current question mark is what Dish Network will do.

Since nobody believes Dish will allow scores of billions in equity value to evaporate, Dish’s Long Term Evolution spectrum has to be put into service. That might consist of partnering with an existing carrier (normally assumed to be Sprint, T-Mobile US or Verizon) to create a wholesale-only operation, or a branded retail offering, or selling the whole spectrum portfolio or the whole company.

So the shape of competition--and the structure of the U.S. mobile market--rests on which alternative Dish ultimately pursues. Both Comcast and Google are expected to enter the market as retail providers, though each might pursue something of a niche approach.

If Dish decides to partner with one of the existing leading national operators, and become a wholesale provider, it will enable third parties, but not directly increase or decrease the number of national providers.

Should Dish decide to become a full branded retail provider, it might take a niche approach, heavy on video entertainment. But the manner of entry matters.

Some speculate Dish will try and buy T-Mobile US. In that case the U.S. market structure is not changed. Others believe Dish will partner with a network owner, but become a retail service provider, in which case the number of potential leading contenders in the market increases from four to five.

But Dish might also simply sell itself, in whole or in part, monetizing its spectrum holdings, but leaving the market structure unaffected. Some will argue the odds of a buyout that large, by either AT&T or Verizon, is extremely unlikely, given the debt loads both leading carriers now carry.

At some later point, such a purchase by Verizon--not AT&T--is possible, but not at the present time.

AT&T presumably already would have acquired DirecTV, which makes additional video assets superfluous. Nor does AT&T appear especially interested in investing much more capital in the U.S. market, given its Mexico market expansion or other potential growth moves outside the U.S. market.

Verizon must wait to get its debt burden reduced significantly before it can afford to consider an acquisition of all of Dish. A more limited buy of some significant spectrum assets is more feasible, but Sprint might be a seller of spectrum assets as well.

Complicating the analysis is the nature of potential Sprint and Dish Network spectrum assets. Some of Dish Network’s spectrum is in the 700-MHz band, while much is in higher bands near 2 GHz.

Some of the potential partners--especially Sprint and T-Mobile US--have plenty of spectrum in the 2-GHz range, so either have little need for additional spectrum in those bands themselves, but might be happy to earn revenue supporting Dish Network network operations.

Verizon, historically not a big player in the mobile wholesale market, does have some potential obligations to support wholesale operations by Comcast and other cable operators from which it purchased AWS spectrum.

Should that happen, Verizon might want the additional Dish spectrum to support its wholesale partners, in addition to its own retail requirements, in the future.

Complicating matters further is growing ability to use unlicensed spectrum to support and augment LTE, plus additional communications spectrum that will be added, at some point, on a shared basis.

More competition is coming. It just is hard to predict precisely what form that competition will take.
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