Tales of the Sausage Factory

DISH DE Debacle Part 3: What Happens Now?

In Part 1, I explained at considerable length what happened with the whole DISH DE Debacle and Why DISH owes the FCC $3.3 billion despite not having actually violated any rules. In Part 2, I explained how the FCC came to the conclusions it came to in the Order denying SNR and Northstar their DE credits but granting them their licenses.

 

Here, I will explain why (as readers have no doubt noticed) I have sympathy for DISH and why I would have done things differently – although I can’t say Wheeler was wrong. Heck, as I’ve noted many times before, I have the luxury of being neither a Commissioner nor a party with skin in the game. So take my Monday morning quarterbacking for what it’s worth.

 

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

So What’s This “Designated Entity” Thing, and Why Does DISH Owe The FCC $3 bn When They Didn’t Break The Rules?

Generally, I loath the cliche “be careful what you wish for.” But I can think of no better way to describe the vast consternation in the spectrum world over the licenses won by SNR and Northstar in the AWS-3 Auction. If you don’t recognize the names off-hand, that’s because most of the time people just refer to them as the “DISH Designated Entities” or the “DISH DEs.” As detailed in many articles and petitions to deny SNR and Northstar their DE credits (totaling $3.3 billion), most people regard SNR and Northstar as “sham” or “fake” DEs, owned and controlled by DISH.

But here’s the funny thing. As far as anyone can tell from the filings, DISH, SNR and Northstar followed the precise letter of the law. And, what’s even more surprising, if you look at the results, this was the most successful auction ever for DEs. Both SNR and Northstar are minority owned (as defined by the FCC’s rules). All the “loopholes” DISH used with regard to ownership interest and bidding coordination were designed to make it easier for DE’s to get capital, win licenses, and benefit from partnering with a larger telecommunications company — which SNR and Northstar certainly did.

As a result, as noted by my usual frenemies at Phoenix Center, as measured by every traditional metric, the AWS-3 auction was the single most successful auction in awarding licenses not merely to small businesses, but to minority owned firms specifically. By every past criteria ever used, the AWS-3 auction results ought to be celebrated as a ginormous success for the DE program. Every aspect worked exactly as intended, and the result was exactly what people claimed to want. Indeed, as noted by Phoenix Center, even the $3.3 bn in bidding credits was in line with other spectrum auctions as a percentage of revenue.

Except, in classic “be careful what you wish for” fashion, when you scaled these results up to their logical outcome, no one was really happy with the result (except for DISH). Which has now prompted FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to circulate an order denying SNR and Northstar their designated entity credits. As a result, SNR and Northstar (meaning their financial backer DISH) must cough up $3.3 bn within 30 days of issuance of the Order or — unless granted a stay or extension — the licenses will revert back to the FCC. Oh yes, and the FCC might need to deduct an additional $10 bn from the auction revenue. And there might be default charges (the FCC charges a penalty for defaulting on payments so people don’t bid and hope they find the money later). Or it might get more complicated, since there has never been a clawback of this magnitude before.

 

In Part 1, I will explain what exactly happened, why DISH did not violate the rules as written and why SNR and Northstar are technically “minority owned.” Along the way, we will consider some delightful ironies about the whole business.

In Part 2, I’ll tackle why the FCC decided that it could yank the DE discount anyway, and try to figure out what happens next.

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Tales of the Sausage Factory

Ergen Makes Bid For CLWR After All, What’s Up With That?

Last Sunday, I noted that while Ergen was a potential bidder on Clearwire’s (CLWR) 2.5 GHz spectrum, it seemed unlikely given the fact that Sprint would still own a majority stake in CLWR and that governance issues would make this a very messy fight that would potentially tie up DISH assets when they are needed for its own network deployment and for a potential H Block Auction bid. I also noted a lot of other issues that make a purchase by anyone other than Sprint less attractive — such as the cost of network buildout — that cast serious doubt on Crest’s valuation of CLWR’s spectrum at $30 billion.

48 hours later, Ergen makes a bid for CLWR valuing CLWR at at $3.30 a share (a reasonable enough premium over Sprint’s offer to require serious consideration). Mind you, nothing in the bid (what details there are can be found here) contradicts anything I said previously. As noted by CLWR in it’s press release, the proposed deal comes with a bunch of conditions and caveats that reflect Sprint’s ownership and the cost of building out a network that would integrate with Ergen’s AWS-4 spectrum. Which naturally raises the question of why Ergen decided it was worth it to make the bid anyway. Making a serious tender offer — even if you think it will ultimately be rejected — is a non-trivial process that incurs expense. Before dismissing this as mere payback for Sprint’s (successful) push to amend the AWS-4 rules to protect H Block (creating delay in the approval and potential issues for deployment), it is worth considering what the potential upsides are to DISH that justify the cost.

Oh yeah, I should also talk about some consumer stuff and broader stuff as well. Horse race is all well and good, but there are a lot of industry folks that do that better than I do.

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