Dish's Bid Bodes Shootout At The Wireless Corral

As part of a sprawling package that neatly rounds up the whys, wherefores and from-whence-they-cames of the two at-odds bids for Sprint Nextel Corp., the Wall Street Journal’s lede story this morning characterizes the action as a “an old-fashioned merger brawl that puts two maverick billionaires with designs on the U.S. wireless industry on a collision course.” 

Yee-haw. Let’s pull up a seat.

The latest cowboy to the rodeo, we learn, is Dish chairman Charles Ergen, a tight-fisted, peanut-butter-for-lunch and keep-your-cards-close-to-the-vest type who has a vision of bringing all of your cybermarketing access charges together on one monthly statement.

Ergen got his start as a financial analyst at Frito-Lay, we are informed by Anton Troianovski, Shalini Ramachandran and Sharon Terlep, became a professional gambler (and purported card counter, a blackjack site alleges) for a couple of years and then “founded Dish with his wife, Cantey, and a poker buddy in 1980. He and his wife still own a majority stake, and Dish is now the third-biggest pay-TV operator with more than 14 million subscribers.”



An Ad Ageheadline on a profile by Jeanine Poggi last December dubs Ergen “The TV Disrupter” -- the most recent example being “Dish's AutoHop technology, which allows viewers to remove commercials during recording.”

Already at the table, as we re-reported in October, is SoftBank’s founder, chairman and CEO, Masayoshi Son, 55, a Japanese businessman of Korean heritage who invented a voice-operated, multilingual translator and parlayed the stake he received for selling it to Sharp into one of the world’s largest fortunes and the SoftBank juggernaut, which he sees as a 300-year enterprise-in-the-making. 

“‘You have to have a lot of respect for that,’ Mr. Ergen said of Mr. Son's bootstrap background. ‘I think we probably think a lot alike.’”

But not in concert, for sure.

Dish is offering Sprint shareholders $25.5 billion -- $17.3 billion in cash and $8.2 billion in stock, Roger Yu reports in USA Today. SoftBank’s offer was $20 billion for a 70% stake. In a short statement, Sprint acknowledged receiving the unsolicited bid and said that its board would evaluate it “carefully and consistent with its fiduciary and legal duties.”

“The Dish proposal clearly presents Sprint shareholders with a superior alternative to the pending SoftBank proposal,” Ergen says in a statement, maintaining that “a transformative Dish/Sprint merger will create the only company that can offer customers a convenient, fully integrated, nationwide bundle of in- and out-of-home video, broadband and voice services. Additionally, the combined national footprints and scale will allow Dish/Sprint to bring improved broadband services to millions of homes with inferior or no access to competitive broadband services.”

Son is not likely to back down from the showdown on Main Street, analysts say -- “even though he could walk away with more than $3.5 billion in gains from currency hedging, a convertible bond and break-up fee,” as Reuters’ Mari Saito and Tim Kelly report.

“Son, a rare risk-taker in Japan's conservative corporate culture, is likely to put his ambition to create a global company, with Sprint giving SoftBank a toehold in the United States, ahead of quick financial gains,” they write. 

So what is the larger competitive perspective?

Susan P. Crawford, a law professor at Cardozo School of Law, tells the New York Times’ Brian X. Chen and Mark Scott that “a combination with Dish Networks would pose more of a threat to AT&T and Verizon, which account for two-thirds of American wireless subscribers, than a partnership with SoftBank.” On the other hand, however, it “would weaken T-Mobile USA, the No. 4 carrier, which has been offering cheaper phone plans to consumers, like its latest contract-free phone plans.”

“Right now, we have two giants and two also-rans, and now you’re getting potentially three giants dividing up the American marketplace, with T-Mobile lagging far behind,” according to Crawford.

Forbes contributor Larry Downes writes that the market is “moving faster than the regulators—and accelerating.” He points to the Justice Department last week filing comments with the Federal Communications Commission “urging the agency to set ‘pre-announced rules’ for upcoming spectrum auctions that would ‘ensure the smaller nationwide networks…have the opportunity to acquire’ new spectrum below the 1 GHz. band.” Downes concludes that Washington’s “strangely limited view of competition” doesn’t match “the reality of the mobile market.”

But Ergen’s visions of sending on unified bill to your email box may not match the reality of the consumer mindset, as Alex Sherman proffers on Bloomberg Businessweek. Time Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt, he writes, is one industry insider who “has questioned whether customers want wireless and TV services on the same bill.”

“‘We’ve had this idea, we’ve had it for some time, that bundling wireless broadband in with our other products to create a so-called quadruple play might be interesting,’” Britt said in July 2011. “’We’re not sure, and the marketing evidence is mixed.’”

One thing that’s for sure. The plot just got juicier.

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