Dish missing out on mobile deals while waiting for rulings, Ergen says

The satellite TV company wants a partner and needs more spectrum to succeed in mobile, Chairman Charlie Ergen said

While T-Mobile USA announced a deal to merge with MetroPCS Wireless on Wednesday, Dish Network Chairman Charlie Ergen said regulatory delays have prevented his company from securing partners and spectrum it will need to build a viable mobile broadband business.

Dish is seeking approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to use a spectrum band that has been dedicated to satellites, called AWS-4, for a land-based LTE network. That network would offer high-speed services, increasing competition in the U.S. mobile market, according to Dish.

In a keynote address at the PCIA Wireless Infrastructure Show in Orlando on Wednesday, Ergen praised the FCC's hard work on the issue but said waiting for answers has cost Dish the chance to make important deals. The T-Mobile deal is just the latest consolidation move in the industry, he said, citing Verizon's recent purchase of a large amount of spectrum from cable operators, Ergen said.

"We had hoped that we'd have our license before the consolidation started to happen, because that allows us to participate in that," Ergen said. "You certainly have more options when there's a lot more people on the table that you could potentially partner with, so that is disappointing that we haven't been in the game yet."

Dish's entire mobile strategy may hinge on finding a partner, according to Ergen. He declined to say when he thought the venture would bring a return on the company's investment, which has totaled US$4 billion so far, though he said Dish plans five years ahead.

"If you partner with somebody, that return can be faster, as long as they have a profitable business," Ergen said. "If you build it from scratch, that would take much longer. It might be impossible."

Asked what he thought about speculation that a Republican administration might allow Dish to drop its competitive plans and sell its spectrum to a major carrier, Ergen said the company would prefer to get into the mobile business but has a responsibility to its shareholders.

"We may end up having to sell the spectrum ... we're not suicidal," Ergen said.

Ergen also said he hopes the FCC won't shift Dish's band by 5MHz to clear spectrum that might be auctioned to pay for a national public-safety network. That change would force Dish to get a new band certified for LTE by the 3GPP, which oversees that technology. That process could take an additional year or two, he said.

In any case, the 40MHz of spectrum that Dish would get in AWS-4, around 2GHz, would not be enough to build its business, Ergen said. Dish wants some lower frequencies with longer range, such as in the 700MHz band where AT&T and Verizon operate, to better serve rural areas. T-Mobile, MetroPCS, Sprint Nextel, Clearwire and other carriers also need more or different spectrum, he said. Meanwhile, AT&T and Verizon, everyone's biggest competitors, have 100MHz or more.

"There's only two guys that don't need more spectrum," Ergen said. "But they say they do, but they don't."

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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